He doesn’t even feel the impact. There’s a shriek of metal-on-metal, a scream, a car suddenly jumping the curb in front of him.
Then there’s only darkness.
The sky is still blue.
Ichigo blinks, and wonders why that surprises him. Surely, a blue sky exists everywhere, even—
Which is not where he had been before.
It’s somewhere different.
Carefully, Ichigo sits up and takes in the sight of a familiar field, with trees in the distance. He’s been here once, right after the first trip to Soul Society, when Inoue had come to tell him that Rukia was missing, and he had known where to look. The house that’s just as odd as he remembers still stands in the distance—and, squatting a few feet from him in the grass, is a familiar face that he hasn’t seen since that day.
Shiba Kukaku stares at him for a long moment, an unreadable expression on her face. Ichigo stares back, wondering why the fireworks expert—who he remembers as being loud, violent, and having a strong enough left hook to put Yammy to shame—looks almost… unsettled. He doesn’t say anything, though, keeping his peace as she surveys him. For some reason, he’s tired, more than he’s ever been, and can’t help but suspect that being in Soul Society like this—when he had been in his human form, without using a Senkaimon, and knowing without a doubt that the car accident had killed him—is the cause.
And then Kukaku sighs and straightens, rising to her feet and offering him a hand up. “From the lack of company I take it this isn’t another one of Yoruichi’s harebrained schemes. Did something happen?”
Ichigo hesitates for a moment before accepting the proffered hand. “I…died.” It feels odd to say it out loud, but he knows it’s true. Unlike what the majority of the Gotei 13 seems to think, he isn’t stupid. He can certainly be reckless sometimes, when someone he cares about is in danger, but he isn’t dumb. Drawing connections is simple enough. The only surprise is that now, here, he feels the stirrings of power around him that he’s missed for so long, and the comforting weight of Zangetsu on his back. Dying, it seems, had been enough to return his powers. Even the Hollow is back, simmering in his mind just below the surface. And for the life—or death—of him, Ichigo can’t bring himself to find it anything but comforting.
Kukaku sighs again, pulling him to his feet, and nods. “I thought it was something like that.” Then she pauses again and scrutinizes his face for a moment, something in her expression turning wistful. “You…really do look like him.”
Ichigo blinks at that, not understanding, and shoots her a look. He had noticed a similar reaction in others, particularly Ukitake and Byakuya, when he faced them, but he’s never pressed them for an answer. But Kukaku notices, and gives him a small, weary smile. “My older brother, Kaien. The one the Kuchiki girl killed.”
There’s no malice in her voice, no bitterness, and Ichigo wonders at how strong she is to push all of that aside. He had never managed it, and even now, he blames himself for his mother’s death.
Maybe someday, he thinks a touch ironically, he can be as strong as her.
“Is there a relation?” he asks after a second, half dryly and half curiously. His father’s death at Aizen’s hand meant that the old man had never had gotten around to explaining his connection to Soul Society, so for all Ichigo knows, Kukaku could be his aunt. He just barely holds back a shudder. As if there aren’t enough violent women around him already.
Seeming to guess his thoughts, Kukaku grins at him, squeezing his hand just a little tighter than she needs to. “Heh. That scares you, little boy? Shouldn’t, though. We Shibas are a good bunch—mostly. And widespread! Or we used to be.” She turns, not letting go of his hand, and drags him back towards her crazy house. “You might be a cousin, for all I know. Never did keep a good enough track of the branch families, while they existed. Oh, well.” Throwing open the door, she yanks him down the stairs, calling, “Oi, Ganju! We’ve got a guest!”
Her brother leans around a door, and his eyes widened at the sight of Ichigo there, dressed not in shinigami robes, but a simple autumn-brown yukata, Zangetsu across his back. He takes one step forward, looking confused. “Kurosaki? What are you…?” Then he pauses, frowns, and opens his mouth again—
—Only to be cut off by his sister’s foot slamming into his face.
Despite himself, Ichigo winces. Yeah, he can see the family resemblance there, if she and his father are related.
“Move it, dumbass!” Kukaku bellows, hauling Ichigo past the sprawled form of her sibling and into the room he’d just left. “He’s a guest, and he just died! He needs comforting! Now get your ass to the kitchen and make some food! I’m hungry!” With that, she slides the shoji door shut, tosses Ichigo in front of the table, and drops on the other side to face him. Planting her left arm on the table, she glares at him and demands, “Well? What happened? If you’re gonna cry, do it now, while I’m feeling charitable!”
Pushing himself upright, Ichigo casts her a half-wary, half-bemused look, and then settles himself correctly. “Cry? What the h—why would I cry?”
She raises an eyebrow at him. “You just died.”
He raises one in return, wondering what it is she wants him to say. “I know. I’m not an idiot. But it’s not like everything ended, right? I’m here. My family’s already here, too. And…”
And what? He suddenly can’t think of anything. Isn’t he supposed to be fighting someone? Rescuing someone? Doing something? But instead of a driving urge to move, he feels relaxed. Peaceful. At ease, even, without the fate of Soul Society and the world of the living riding on his back, without the grief that’s been tearing at him for over two years now. And, as much as he loves combat, and fighting, he doesn’t want to go back to that pressure. Even with his powers back, he doesn’t want to immediately plunge back into conflict. And somehow, he can guess that conflict is what would occur, if he walked up to the gates of the Seireitei and informed them that he was no longer a resident of the living world.
He has to bite back a groan, because it’s just occurring to him that it had not been the insane, power-obsessed, would-be god who had taken him out. It had been a car. Renji is going to laugh his ass off.
Yet another reason not to immediately present himself in Seireitei.
Kukaku, with a perceptiveness that belies her usual loud personality, seems to guess what he’s thinking again. She leans over and flicks him on the forehead, then brings her fist down hard on the top of his head. While he tries to clear the ringing from his ears, she snorts and comments, “You know, there’s nothing holding you back now, boy. You’re dead. That means no more responsibilities. Sure, you have the power to be a shinigami, and you want to protect people—”
Ichigo doesn’t question how, again, she knows exactly what he’s thinking. It’s more than likely he’ll regret knowing, should he ask.
“—but you don’t have to march right up the Gotei 13 and let them take you in. You’re different than you were before the war; they probably wouldn’t even know what to do with you. So why don’t you stay here for a bit? Ground yourself, think about your options? I’ll even help you get that pig-sticker down to a normal sealed-size.” She nods towards Zangetsu, which is settled awkwardly across Ichigo’s shoulders and nearly digging into the bamboo floor. “You don’t have to be yourself, either, if you don’t want to. There are enough bastard sons floating around, and you look enough like a Shiba that I can claim you as a cousin and adopt you into the family. Might make for a nice change of pace, huh?”
Ichigo looks at her in surprise for a second, then shifts his gaze past her left shoulder as he considers. Go to Seireitei, and back to being a hero of a war he had never wanted to fight? Or stay here amidst the peaceful insanity that is the Shiba house, as a Shiba himself, and take his time learning something, not for the sake of saving the world, but for himself?
It isn’t much of a choice, really.
“Thank you,” he tells Kukaku with a quick bow. “I’d be honored.”
And Kukaku smiles, satisfied, and bellows at Ganju to hurry up with the food.
Ichigo quickly comes to the realization that training with Kukaku is akin to throwing oneself headfirst at a jet engine and hoping to come out on the other side with the ability to fly.
Not that it isn’t effective—within the first two weeks of lessons, he’s able to suppress and contain his reiatsu enough to seal Zangetsu into a normal shikai state (though it fails if he loses his temper), and to hide a few feet from a shinigami patrol without being detected (so long as he’s careful and almost completely focused on hiding his power, which is inconvenient, as it leaves him struggling in a real fight).
It is even, at times, enjoyable. Ichigo has always been the older brother in his family, and Kukaku is like the older sister he’s never had, gruffly affectionate, tauntingly supportive, and with a core—somewhere deep, deep, deep inside—of kindness and caring that’s unlike anything he’s experienced before. She pushes him hard, harder than even Urahara or old man Zangetsu, but for no other reason than because she can do it and he can survive it. There’s no world to save, no friend to rescue, and Ichigo can focus solely on becoming strong for himself, instead of someone else.
Ganju, too, quickly becomes like family—although Ichigo is certain he’s more the idiot cousin kept locked in the attic than anyone really close. They spar together when Kukaku is busy with whatever it is she really does (another thing Ichigo is certain he’ll regret knowing), and as he had when Ichigo was struggling with the spirit orb on his first trip to the Seireitei, the boar-rider often steps in to help Ichigo with some of the finer points of control and reiatsu manipulation. Ganju even helps him master the beginning steps towards kido, much more quickly than Kukaku had expected.
For the first time in a very long while, Ichigo is learning, and training, and advancing just because he can, and he can’t remember being so content at any time since his mother’s death. He pushes aside everything that he had been before—all the anger, all the surliness, all thoughts of weakness and strength and power and death—and Shiba Kei becomes the newly accepted youngest son of the Shiba Clan. And it’s a change that he welcomes, shedding his old being like a set of worn clothes, and donning a new personal to go with his new life. Kei—the name chosen by Kukaku, who had wistfully remarked that it was what Kaien had been planning to name his son, and left Ichigo with the distinct feeling that he had been played—is polite, and respectful, and likes to play jokes. He smiles and laughs, and does not worry about worlds or gods or anything but surviving his sister’s training.
And Ichigo is, for the first time in years, really, truly happy.
It’s seven months to the day since he first came to live with them when Kukaku storms through the doorway of the dojo, interrupting Ichigo and Ganju’s sparring session. They both turn to look at her—
—Only to be smacked in the head with the bottle and scrub brush, respectively, that she hurls at them.
This is hardly the first time that kind of thing has happened. Indeed, it’s almost a daily occurrence, so Ichigo grabs the bottled before it can hit the floor and Ganju peels the brush off his face, and they only grumble a little bit as they glare at her with all the wounded male pride they can muster.
Kukaku just smirks at them—and, specifically, at Ichigo. “There ya go, carrot-top! One dousing with that and your hair will look all-natural again! You’ll fit right in with the rest of us!”
Ichigo transfers his glare from her to the bottle of black hair dye he holds, and then scowls at her even more deeply.
“What the hell! Why the hell would I want to dye my hair?”
The woman looks supremely unimpressed. “‘Cause you’re going to enroll in the Spiritual Arts Academy. I’ve got nothing left to teach you, since you’ve got all the basics down, and the teachers at the school can help you go further than I ever could. I’m not a shinigami, halfwit! And with your hair dyed, you’ll look just like Kaien. No one will doubt you’re a Shiba. I’ll get the paperwork out of the way, and you’ll be free to go through the Academy just like every other shinigami admitted to the Gotei 13. No special favors, no war hero, just you.” She grins. “So get dyeing.”
It would take a much stronger—or less sane—man to argue with Shiba Kukaku. So, with the obligatory grumbling and cursing, Ichigo gets dyeing, and realizes about halfway through that the whole idea doesn’t really sound so bad.
“You’ve got your sword?”
“And your uniforms?”
“And your kido books?”
“And enough yukatas? I can always bring you more if—”
The one armed woman smacks the dark-haired boy who stands with her in the head. “Shut up, brat! If this is what I get for worrying, I’ll make sure not to in the future!”
Several of the families standing with them before the Academy gates stifle snorts. Ichigo narrows his eyes at the vicious female monster posing as his sister and rubs the back of his much-abused head. She’s been “worrying,” as she calls it—though, in truth, it’s far closer to nagging—ever since they left the house that morning. Ichigo still isn’t certain why he couldn’t just go alone—after all, he isn’t a kid, and he’s already passed the entrance exam with ease. But Kukaku had said that family seeing him off was expected, especially since he was coming from a noble house—even if it is fallen, which she never seems to give a damn about.
Seeing the near-scowl that crosses his face, Kukaku leans in with frightening good cheer, her grin one hair shy of terrifying. “Come on, Kei-chan, smile! You’ll do the Shiba Clan proud, won’t you? Hmm? Kei-chan?”
Under the circumstances, Ichigo feels that it is quite acceptable to stage a tactical retreat. Taking several steps away from the madwoman to whom he’s claiming blood ties—and oh, how he’s starting to wish that he had just enrolled as a nameless spirit from Rukongai—he moves safely out of reach. That had been Kukaku’s way of subtly reminding him not to scowl in order to keep from being recognized, which is something they’ve been working on for weeks now—mostly her leaping on him whenever he lets his expression slip into something Ichigo would have worn, instead of what Kei would wear, and stretching his cheeks or doing some equally demeaning and emasculating thing until he can force a neutral expression.
He’s become nearly as good at neutral as Byakuya, he suspects—though with Kukaku’s form of motivation, he expects that anyone would.
“Damn it, you crazy woman! Don’t call me that!” he snaps, though he does rearrange his face into something that doesn’t resemble a glower quite so much.
Kukaku just grins at him, as she often does. “Oh, the little one’s all grown up, eh? Well, Kei, I hope you’re ready to leave the nest and all that. Got any last words before I push you out and let you fly?”
“More like push me out and drop a stone around my neck,” Ichigo mutters, but straightens his shoulders and offers her a brief, challenging smile. “Why bother? You’ll be back in a year to see me graduate anyway, and I’ll come visit once in a while, to make sure you haven’t drowned Ganju in the bath.”
She waves her hand at that, wrinkling her nose. “Hell no! It’d be too smelly.” Then her expression softens, and she reaches out and drags Ichigo into a gruff, one-armed hug. “Take care, otouto,” she murmurs in his ear. “Even if you aren’t a Shiba, you’re still my little brother. Make us proud, got that?” Releasing him, she takes a step back, then waves and turns away. “And make sure you come back home once in a while! You’re already a twig, and cafeteria food won’t help! We’ll have to stuff you every chance we get, so you don’t blow away in the wind!”
Ichigo rolls his eyes at her retreating back, but it’s fond. Kukaku may just be posing as his sibling, but in reality, she’s his sister in every way that matters. And now he has three sisters to look out for, even if the newest one would kick his ass for thinking that she needs “looking after.”
It feels good, feels right to don the shinigami black once more, after a year and some-odd weeks in a student’s white and blue. Ichigo spends a long moment staring into the mirror in his dormitory room, wondering at the changes. He’s gotten used to seeing black hair in place of orange, a calm expression where a scowl used to be, but sometimes it still jars him to remember that he’s not Kurosaki Ichigo anymore, not in the ways that count. He’s Shiba Kei, branch member adopted into the main Shiba family by virtue of Kukaku’s kindness to an orphaned bastard child.
Ichigo never used to lie, even to himself. Now the lies have become his entire life, quite literally.
He slings Zangetsu across his back, a normal long sword rather than a huge cleaver—if nothing else, this whole charade has taught him the control he never managed while he was alive—because old habits die hard, and he’s more comfortable with the blade there than in the more normal position at his side. Enough shinigami wear their zanpakuto the same way that it shouldn’t raise too many eyebrows, even in a formal situation like this.
Which, of course, brings his thoughts right back to what he’s been trying to avoid thinking about. This is going to be a circus, regardless of the assurances he’s gotten from his instructors and—
“You like you’re about face your execution, Kei. Lighten up, or the audience might get the wrong impression.”
Kuchiki Eiji, part-time therapist and full-time Jiminy Cricket. Of course.
Ichigo bites back the sharp comment he wants to make and instead growls, “I don’t understand why they have to have the captains choose their recruits right then in front of a damned crowd. It’s—”
“An acknowledgement of the skills and capabilities of the new graduates to have captains present their bids for service before the graduation audience, even before the entrance test for the Gotei 13 proper. Also for the most part a complete formality, because such decisions are generally made between the captain and the recruit well ahead of time, and only the very lowest-ranking students—which you are not, Mr. Prodigy—leave it up to chance. Now calm down before I start getting nervous by proxy, okay?” The young noble rolls over on his futon to give Ichigo a long, assessing stare that reminds Ichigo just who his cousin is, Eiji’s usual demeanor aside.
Nevertheless, Ichigo—never one to be cowed, and certainly not after living with Shiba Kukaku for more than two years—grouches softly, “Why? It’s not like you’re going to be doing anything except sitting there.”
Eiji gives him a cheeky grin. “Yeah, because I’m smart and graduating normally, next winter, with a large class. You’re the supernaturally talented and powerful idiot who had to go and beat even your older brother’s record. Of course people are going to be interested, Kei. What did you think would happen?”
Not this, Ichigo wants to say, but he keeps it to himself and carefully pulls his black hair back into a tail. He’s kept it long, if only to keep his instructors from having a heart attack when he walks into their classes looking exactly like Shiba Kaien.
Clever fingers steal the ribbon before he can attempt to tie it up, and Eiji mutters, “Oh, give it here, you’re hopeless.”
After a year and change of dealing with Eiji’s hovering, Ichigo knows this fight is already a lost cause, so he surrenders gracefully and lets Eiji fiddle. As he does, the young noble asks carefully, “You accepted Byakuya-sama’s offer, didn’t you? Lieutenant of the Sixth?”
Ah, yes. That crowning moment of stupidity. Ichigo fights back a grimace and makes a sound that’s vaguely affirmative. Byakuya is probably the only person in the Gotei 13 who knows both who Ichigo is and who he was. Kukaku and Ganju know, by virtue of finding him when he first arrived after his death and then providing him with a cover story, but the Sixth’s captain guessed.
And if Byakuya, who never actually knew Ichigo all that well except as an opponent, was able to see through his façade as Shiba Kei with a glance, Ichigo doesn’t even want to contemplate what will happen with people like Rukia, Renji, and his damned father.
A hand closing over his shoulder brings his attention back to the boy behind him, and Ichigo glances up to meet his gaze in the mirror. Eiji’s eyes are a green-grey, rather than Byakuya’s steel-grey, but there’s a resolve and a certainty in them that makes their relation all the more obvious.
“Kei?” Eiji asks, and it’s soft, but there’s a world’s worth of meaning in that single word.
It’s a single, lonely syllable, a name that Ichigo was never born to wear, but a name he’s chosen nevertheless. To Ichigo, it’s a symbol of the choice he made in that green field with Kukaku standing over him. He’d turned his back on the past, left it behind in favor of an unknown future without the taint of grief and failure that had dragged Kurosaki Ichigo down for so long before his death. Shiba Kei was born in that moment, even though he remained nameless for several months afterwards. It’s with Kei’s soul, Kei’s eyes that Ichigo looks at himself in the pane of silvered glass.
It’s Shiba Kei who meets Eiji’s gaze and, with a resolve forged from grief and pain and loss, tempered with the happiness of this new life as a new man, it’s Shiba Kei who says “Yes. I accepted.”
And really, that’s all there is to say.
Renji was a lieutenant for a long time, and he knows that each of the eleven other sub-commanders has their own style of fighting. Kira holds back and lets the enemy hang themselves. Matsumoto pouts and flounces and then goes in for the kill while her opponent is distracted. Hisagi bides his time, using psychological attacks just as much as his ruthless physical ones. Yachiru, Omeada, Sasakibe, Nanao—they’ve all got their own way of fighting and winning.
But with all of them, every single one, he’s at least seen their shikai. Even Hisagi, who hates to use his, still brings it out sometimes in practice or in battle. Only the newest lieutenant, one Shiba Kei, who so easily took Renji’s former position in the Sixth, has never even drawn his damned sword.
It’s taken this long for Renji to even get the man to agree to a spar, and that was by sheer chance alone—Renji managed to corner Shiba while Captain Kuchiki was within hearing distance, and Byakuya had encouraged his new lieutenant to try his hand against his old one. Renji had felt fairly secure in his ability to wipe the training ground with Shiba’s face, given that Shiba was a green graduate and only a lieutenant, whereas Renji was the new captain of the Ninth.
Technically, it’s his own fault for forgetting that Shiba Kei managed to graduate the Academy in a year and five weeks, breaking his older brother’s record in the process. And granted, Shiba went from Academy student straight to lieutenant without a single step in between, handpicked by Kuchiki Byakuya himself for his abilities. Still, Renji had expected to face an inexperienced boy without many actual combat skills and an excess of book learning.
What he’s gotten is something quite different.
The arena is filled with choking red smoke, thick and obscuring, and although the day’s brisk breeze is already dispersing it, it’s enough to throw Renji off. He’s the type to dive right in to a fight, to strike the first blow and keep on hitting before his opponent can do more than block, but with this, he’s been effectively stymied. It’s incredibly difficult to hit what he can’t see, and he’s not good enough at kido to disperse the smoke without entirely diverting his attention from his opponent.
Then the soft scuff of a footstep, nearly inaudible, comes from behind him, and a low, calm voice intones, “Carriage of thunder. Bridge of a spinning wheel. With light, divide into six. Bakudo 61: Rikujōkōrō.”
Long experience in dueling Rukia, who’s absolutely infatuated with kido in all its forms, is the only thing that lets Renji avoid the bolts of golden light. He whirls to the other side of the ring, as fast as he’s capable of moving, and sends Zabimaru streaking towards the source of the spell. It’s instinct to expect the clash of metal on metal, because that’s how fights generally go with kido-focused opponents—opening kido, physical attack, hand to hand combat until someone gains an edge.
Instead, that same calm voice commands, “Bakudo 39: Enkosen.” There’s an arc of bright reiatsu from the midst of the fading smoke, and Zabimaru rebounds with a clang.
Renji’s beginning to understand just why Shiba went from graduate right to lieutenant. Calling up a kido is mental as much as it’s physical; that’s one of the reasons preforming it without an incantation takes more strength and skill. The chant gives time for the mind to build up the necessary reiatsu, to prepare. It makes consecutive kido attacks far harder, as the user has to mentally switch tracks and start all over again.
To be able to fire off two kido in the upper range, even if they are of the same type, one after another—and one without an incantation—means that Shiba Kei has a rather frightening grasp of the subject.
A sudden breeze sweeps away the last of the smoke even as Shiba’s barrier fades. He’s still entirely at ease, his expression in the same politely attentive lines that it has been since Renji met him, and he hasn’t so much as reached for the zanpakuto strapped across his back yet. Renji grits his teeth and sets his feet. He’s a captain now; no way in hell is he going to let a rookie lieutenant—his replacement rookie lieutenant—beat him.
A flicker of shunpo, too fast to track, and Shiba is gone. But Renji’s fought Kurosaki Ichigo in his bankai, knows what to expect when an opponent’s faster, and spins halfway to catch a sandaled foot against Zabimaru’s flat side. Shiba uses the zanpakuto like a springboard, even as Renji tries to knock him off balance, and tumbles neatly over in the air to land in a crouch. He’s up again in a second, foot lashing out, and Renji can see the barest hint of the basic academy hoho forms within each movement, but Shiba has streamlined them, tweaked them, turned them into something far closer to Shihoin Yoruichi’s deadly style. They’re not at quite that level yet, but there’s potential.
Shiba has potential, in just about everything Renji’s seen him do so far, and it really fucking grates. Shiba’s the perfect lieutenant, quiet and calm and forever composed, staying two steps behind his captain at all times, paperwork done and squads seen to and tea prepared, and it makes Renji feel like the brash, coarse Rukongai brat he’s tried so hard to leave behind.
Damn it, Renji snarls to himself, just barely blocking a kick to the knee because Shiba’s just too damned fast for him to hit. Like fighting freaking Ichigo all over again.
Except that Ichigo is gone, dead and lost somewhere in the vastness of Soul Society, very likely without any of his memories, and the last spar Renji had with him before the war ended was the last spar anyone ever had with him. And now some noble brat comes swaggering in, just as fast as Seireitei’s vanished hero, better at kido and entirely subservient where Ichigo never was, and Renji can’t figure out whether he’s more outraged for himself and his former position or for his lost friend.
He grits his teeth, turns as Shiba lands again, and lets Zabimaru strike. The force behind it is very close to deadly, hardly something to be used in a friendly spar, but Shiba dodges it nevertheless. He ducks the second strike, leaps over the third, and then darts is as Zabimaru withdraws, taking advantage of the opening it affords.
But Renji learned long ago not to leave himself open in such a stupid way, and if Kurosaki Ichigo couldn’t manage to hit him like this, there’s no possibility of a green recruit managing it. Renji whirls around, Zabimaru flying again, and catches Shiba right across the chest in what would be a killing blow, were this not a practice match. Shiba cries out as he goes down, tumbling through the dust and then smoothly back to his feet, skidding slightly as he comes to a full stop. He stays half-crouched for a moment, breathing hard, and then pushes himself upright once more.
“Match, I believe,” he says, entirely unruffled by the loss. Yet another glaring difference from Kurosaki Ichigo. “Thank you, Captain Abarai.” With a quick bow, he steps away, then turns and strides back to his waiting captain. Byakuya walks away without waiting for Shiba to catch up, and the lieutenant falls into step behind him. They disappear into the winding streets, silent as ghosts, and leave Renji in the middle of the training ground.
There’s a long moment of thoughtful silence from the peanut gallery, and then Kira offers, “He’s good, for a new recruit.”
Renji gives a non-committal grunt in answer.
“Of course,” Hisagi chips in, entirely too amused, “you knew that before you challenged him. All of Seireitei knew that before you challenged him. We saw his record. What was this really about?”
“Hmm.” Kira hums softly, propping his chin up on his fist where he’s seated on top of the wall. “Shiba Kei does look remarkably like—”
“Shiba Kaien, the first to steal Rukia’s heart?”
“I was going to say Kurosaki Ichigo, the one to save her life, but I think they both fit here.”
“It must be.”
Renji glares at the two men. “I hate you both,” he mutters petulantly, sliding Zabimaru away, and pretends he can’t hear it when Kira and Shuuhei both chuckle.
It took a very, very long time—and a great many practice sessions with Kukaku—before Kurosaki Ichigo was able to fight as Shiba Kei, and not like Ichigo pretending to be a different person. They’re exact opposites on the battlefield, or at least as opposite as Ichigo can make them. Rather than rushing in headlong, sword drawn and massive spiritual power brought to bear, Kei hangs back and uses kido, focuses on conserving strength wherever possible, and tries his best not to engage directly. Few people outside of his swordsmanship classes have ever even seen him draw his sword. And if they did, “Kurotsuki” would be far different from the Zangetsu they recall Ichigo wielding.
Ichigo leans his zanpakuto against the corner of his desk, tracing lightly over the white-wrapped hilt that’s all that remains to link this sealed state with the massive cleaver it can become. Zangetsu accepts the nickname well enough, even chose it himself, but it’s not his name. Nevertheless, for Ichigo’s sake, he’s willing to pretend. When Ichigo calls on him for shikai, he’s able to choke off enough of his massive reiatsu to leave Zangetsu a long, slim, black nodachi, similar to its bankai form. Even that Ichigo uses sparingly. It’s one of the reasons he’s forced himself to study kido tirelessly, memorizing spells and chants and theories.
Shiba Kei fights at a distance, or not at all.
There’s a stack of personnel reviews that Renji’s challenge dragged him away from, and they still need to be looked over, initialed, stamped, and sent on to Byakuya if they’re either outstanding or reporting a problem. Ichigo looks at them and strangles a sigh, rubbing his hands over his face. Sometimes, he really wonders why he didn’t stay some nameless Rukongai spirit for the rest of his afterlife. There sure as hell wouldn’t have been as much paperwork.
Then Byakuya steps through the door from the main building into Ichigo’s office, sliding the door shut behind him. Ichigo glances up, ready to offer a quick smile as his captain strides past into his own office, but instead, Byakuya pauses beside him.
“Your spar was…enlightening, Lieutenant Shiba,” he offers after a moment, coolly, but still more than he’s usually inclined to give up. “It is far different than what you were before.”
Ichigo gives in and really does sigh, raking a hand through the shoulder-length black hair, just a touch longer than Byakuya’s, that he hasn’t quite gotten around to putting back in a ponytail after his tumble through the dirt. “Yeah,” he says, a little wryly. “That’s the whole point of fighting that way.”
Byakuya accepts that with a faint incline of his head, grey eyes thoughtful. “You have become well-versed in kido. I had believed you had no talent for it.”
That’s the problem with being thought of as a rash, hotheaded idiot, Ichigo reflects, and that’s wry too. He knows himself, knows how he was even before Shiba Kei came into the picture, but he also knows that a lot of time people blew his character flaws way out of proportion, just because he acted oddly and had weird hair. “No one ever taught me before,” is all he says, though. “Rukia had to focus on the most basic stuff, like what a Hollow was, and then Urahara-san and Yoruichi-san both had specific things they were training me in. Learning under Kukaku and then going to the Academy was probably the best thing for me.”
There’s a long pause, careful and considering, and then Byakuya murmurs, “You have raw talent. It has always been so. Now…perhaps it can be refined.”
Without another word, he sweeps into his office and closes the door, signaling that he doesn’t wish to be disturbed. But Ichigo is frozen in shock, far too startled to do anything, because that…
That was a compliment, and not even a backhanded one, from Kuchiki Byakuya, the one captain Ichigo always thought would despise him unconditionally.