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The passage between districts was harrowing and disturbing. It made the outskirts seem warm and welcoming. But the place on the other side of that murky, undulating passage was so different from the one Ichigo had awoken in, it was hard to believe that they existed in the same realm.
He stepped out on the heels of Byakuya, Mikio and Byakuya's officers into a world kissed by early morning light. Precious, wonderful light and a sky vast and beautiful and pale blue. Clouds - - actual white, fluffy clouds - - drifted by high overhead. The air was sweet here, devoid of the smells of human waste and garbage.
The gate behind them fizzled out of existence, those lattice work doors disappearing, leaving nothing in their wake but a large and finely crafted stone arch that sat at the end of a long courtyard. The ground was paved with smooth stone and white walls rose on either side of the yard. The courtyard crested a small hill, and from the vantage of it, a vast city sprawled below. No modern city to be sure, there were few buildings that topped two stories, and all of them were roofed with red clay tiles, all of them quaint and elegantly simple in their designs, like something out of some feudal era samurai movie. And it was vast. From where he stood, he could see the distant curve of a wall, the buildings laid out inside a concentric ring bordered by that wall, that could have been miles wide. And beyond that, hazed by the magnitude of sheer distance, another, wider ring of buildings, patches of green park, even the glimmer of a winding river with a wall beyond that. And perhaps even another beyond that. There was no telling, he couldn't see that far. It was hard to wrap his mind around the size of it, vaster in scope than any living human city.
And that was only one direction. When he turned, there were levels above the one in which they'd exited the gate. And at the center of them all, stood a cliff, jutting up like a fist from the surrounding city. And towering taller than even that, were a collection of white towers that stood next to it, connected by a bridge that he could only just make out from where he stood.
Byakuya was moving, the white of his haori fluttering behind him. He said without turning. "Officer Mikio Daisai, report to medical and see to your injuries. I'll expect a full report after."
"Yes sir," The wounded soul reaper bowed, face red, to his captain's back. He cast a dark look at Ichigo, before turning and limping off in a different direction. One of the officers had disappeared when Ichigo hadn't been paying attention. The other one urged him into motion with a light touch at his shoulder.
He moved, catching up with Byakuya.
"What is this place?"
Byakuya said nothing. The officer at his side answered. "The Seireitei."
He'd heard that spoken of in Dead End. Some whispered about it as if it were some fantasy, some unattainable dream. Others spat out the name, bitterly hating it and the privileged elite who dwelled within its boundaries.
"Oh. Its big, huh?" An understatement if ever there was one.
The officer said nothing.
The gate at the end of the courtyard opened as they approached, two young soul reapers bowing in respect as Byakuya headed through. He didn't acknowledge them.
"So Byakuya, where are we going?" Ichigo had to ask. Being led about blindly was beginning to wear on his already frayed nerves.
That got a half look from Byakuya, a narrowing of grey eyes. "Captain Kuchiki."
"We're going to see Captain Kuchiki?"
Actual annoyance flickered across Byakuya's face. It cracked the mask of utter perfection and made him seem a little more human.
"He's Captain Kuchiki," the officer said tightly, maybe a little offended on his captain's behalf, maybe a little bit worried on Ichigo's. "Use respect when you address him."
"Oh. Sorry, dude. My bad."
If Byakuya had an issue with that, he didn't turn around and allow Ichigo to witness it.
Beyond the gates was a street right out of some quaint country town. Like something on a postcard, with spotless paved streets and well maintained storefronts. The people who moved along the street, seemed healthy and happy, and well to do. There was no aura of desperation or misery here. There was prosperity and purpose.
There was a commotion up the street, a patter of running feet as a group of soul reapers approached, pushing their way through the morning foot traffic.
"Is it true? Brother, is it true?" A girl pushed her way to the forefront, a long sleeved white Haori over the black of her uniform.
She stopped short, huge dark eyes staring past Byakuya at Ichigo.
"Rukia - -wait - -" Byakuya said softly, maybe something of warning in his voice, but she ignored him, one hand going to her mouth, those big eyes of hers glistening with gathering wetness.
"Ichigo - -" she whispered, before she was on him. This tiny little wisp of a girl, her head barely reaching his shoulder, but her arms when they went around him were like bands of iron. Clutching him with a strength that almost hurt. That did hurt, but she was pressing her face against his chest and she was warm, and she was crying just a little and the simple fact that someone would weep for him - - made the hurt inconsequential.
He stood there, caught in her grasp, swallowing the lump in his throat, staring helplessly over her head at Byakuya's frowning disapproval. At the faces of a gathering crowd. All of them in black. All of them staring with varying degrees of shock at him. All of them strangers.
"Where have you been?" she hit him with her small fist, a good solid blow to the shoulder. The same question Byakuya had asked. She'd called Byakuya brother, but they looked nothing alike, save for the black of their hair. She was short and delicate, with a pixie-like face and large expressive eyes. Like a fragile waif with a sword at her hip and punch that he felt all the way to his bones.
He didn't know how to answer her any more than he had Byakuya.
A woman stepped forward, this one tall and honey haired and so well endowed she was barely contained by the folds of her kosode. "Ichigo, it's been so long. We thought you'd died and been lost in the transition and ended up who knows where."
Others moved forward, questions thrown at him like stones tossed. The girl's small fist was wrapped tight in the edge of his kosode, her eyes fixed on his face with an almost desperate need. "Ichigo? Say something."
"He doesn't know." Byakuya, surprisingly enough came to his rescue. One long fingered hand raised and he stopped the surge of them, stopped the tidal wave of questions, but it was to the girl that he spoke. "Rukia, he doesn't know."
She looked back towards her brother, a faint furrow between her brows. When she swung her gaze back to Ichigo there was dawning dismay in her eyes.
"But he's - - how - - ? Ichigo - -" she whispered.
"All of you have duties to attend," Byakuya said coolly, flicking his sword-sharp gaze across the crowd. "See to them."
Then to the girl, more softly. "Captain Kuchiki, the Captain Commander has requested the immediate presence of Ichigo Kurosaki."
She nodded, unclenching her fingers almost unwillingly from his lapel.
"Captain Kuchiki and Captain Kuchiki. That gets confusing, doesn't it?"
Byakuya cast him an under the lashes look of annoyance. Rukia took a breath and muttered. "Shut up. Just shut up. I'm coming."
Byakuya inclined his head.
She shoved Ichigo into motion, walking next to him while her brother strode ahead. She kept looking up at him, staring at him like she was trying to memorize his face.
"You came back young," she said finally.
"Yeah?" That's what Grimmjow had said, but then, he took nothing Grimmjow had said at face value. "So I died - -old?"
"No." She looked away, some old pain crossing her face. "Not old at all. Not even for a human. Just - - older than this body you wear now."
"Oh. We were - - friends?" Were soul reapers friends with living human beings? It seemed unlikely.
"Rukia," Byakuya said warningly, not turning.
Ichigo glowered at his back. "What the hell, Byakuya? Why don't you guys want to explain things to me?"
"There are rules governing reborn souls," Rukia said quietly. "Rules made to protect the souls of the reborn, as well as to protect the living."
"What does that mean? And if you're all so hot to protect the reborn, maybe you should pay a little more attention to what's happening out side of your nice big, walled city. Nobody's protecting anyone in the outskirts."
She frowned, glancing at her brother's back, before she looked back up at Ichigo. "The outskirts? That's where you were reborn?"
"I guess. If just waking up stark naked on a hill a few days ago, is being 'reborn'."
"A few days - -? But - -"
"Captain Kuchiki." This time when Byakuya said her name, there was nothing gentle about it. It was a sharp warning and she snapped her mouth shut, eyes narrowing.
Ichigo ground his teeth, frustrated. Grimmjow had plainly stated he was an enemy, even before he proved it in the most physical manner possible. But these people, who obviously knew him, Ichigo didn't know what they were or what they had been to him. If they had been on friendly terms, why were they so stubbornly insisting on keeping him ignorant of a few basic facts? And if they weren't friends, then what the hell was he walking into?
Byakuya was impossible to read, but Rukia - -he didn't get anything but concern for him from her. Those looks she kept passing his way. The hand that sometimes drifted up to touch his arm as they walked, as if she had to keep convincing herself he was real - - there was no malice there.
It was a long walk, up a lot of stairs and a lot of sloping streets towards the building Rukia finally admitted they were heading towards. The huge collection of towers next to the cliff that she told him was called S?kyoku hill. The tallest white tower next to it she said was the Senzaiky?. The collection of buildings surrounding it was the domain of the 1st division.
"Your Zanpakuto." When they finally reached the gates leading into the towering Senzaikyu complex, the guards standing watch moved to block passage, unflinching even in the face of Byakuya, and demanded Ichigo's weapon.
The notion of parting with it was almost painful. He stood there, staring back at them stubbornly, seriously considering a flat refusal. If they didn't want to let him in armed, then he could just as well turn around and walk away. Allowing himself to be at the mercy of anyone else again - -when he had the power to defend himself - - was abhorrent. It wouldn't happen again. Ever.
"Ichigo," Rukia moved in front of him, between him and frowning guards, looking up at him with eyes that were clear and steady. "It's okay. Give them your sword. You can't see the head captain armed. You'll get it back."
And for a second, it hit him, this wash of déjà vu, as if he'd seen her a hundred times looking up at him with those large eyes of hers, irritated, angry, amused, concerned.
It flickered away when he tried to grasp the fleeting images, leaving nothing but the unshakable feeling that if push came to shove, she'd have his back. And it was either trust her or possibly fight her, and Byakuya and the rest of them - - and he didn't want to be entirely at odds with this world he found himself. He needed a refuge in which to gather his wits.
He took a breath and handed over Zangetsu. It was vaguely satisfying when the guard who took it, expelled an 'ooff' of surprise at the weight.
A young, dark haired female soul reaper met them just inside the complex. A pretty, if not serious face beneath wire rimmed glasses. She cast a cool look at Ichigo, before inclining her head at the captains Kuchiki.
"Lieutenant Ise." Rukia greeted her.
"This way. He'll see you in the garden."
And after they had followed her through the sprawling complex, she paused outside a set of intricately painted sliding doors and said. "Head Captain Kyoraku will speak with Captain Byakuya Kuchiki privately, before he receives - - our visitor. Please wait here, captain Kuchiki, Ichigo Kurosaki."
She waved a hand indicating a long wooden bench, before opening one of the sliding doors and waiting for Byakuya to proceed her, before following him inside, sliding the door closed behind her.
Rukia nodded, shifting the sword she had been allowed to wear inside, before she sat down. Ichigo stood there a moment, in no frame of mind to sit when pacing seemed so much better suited to his mood.
"So she knows me, too? Was I like - - Mr. Popularity or something?"
Rukia snorted. "Hardly."
"Yeah? What was I, then?"
"Sit down, Ichigo. You're making me tense."
"And you're annoying me."
"You would know annoying." She shot back.
He flopped down, slouching. It hurt his shoulder a little, the pressure of the wall. He lifted a hand to see if the wound were still seeping blood. If so he'd leave a nice red smear on the pristine white of the wall here.
"Are you wounded?" Rukia asked, twisting to get a look.
He waved her hand away when she tried to pull him forward to see.
"Do you care?"
"Don't be an ass, Ichigo." She sat back, leaving him be. "I'll heal that for you after we finish here."
She'd heal it for him. As if it were nothing. "You can do that?"
She crossed her arms, looking up at him from under her lashes. "I can do that."
He twisted the dangling ends of his belt, looked at her sidelong and asked. "What - - are you fifteen and a captain?"
"I'm not fifteen, moron," she scowled at him. "You're closer to fifteen than I am and I'm counting all the years you were alive and all the ones you were - -"
She trailed off, snapping her mouth shut and snapping her eyes forward.
"All the years I was what?"
"Don't you know anything? The people who are reborn in the soul society age slower than they do in the human world. And the more reiatsu a person possesses, the slower that happens." she changed the subject adeptly. "A hundred years here and a child is barely old enough to leave the nursery."
"No shit? Like reverse dog years?"
Her glower got a little more sullen. "Yeah - - I guess you could say that. Idiot."
"Ha. We were friends, weren't we?" He liked her, even though she was hiding things from him. He liked her short temper and the way she bristled when he annoyed her.
Her eyes widened, the irritation draining out.
The sliding doors opened and lieutenant Ise beckoned them.
Beyond the partition was a small hall, a second set of sliding doors which were partially open and beyond that a garden veranda. A shaded wooden porch led out to a tranquil rooftop landscape complete with a koi pond, meticulously raked sand and intricately trained potted trees. The best view was of the city though. From this height you could see forever, all the way to the hazy end where the Seireitei met the horizon. It was nothing short of breathtaking.
"Beautiful day, huh?"
Ichigo turned at the question, having stepped out off the shaded porch and onto the garden path to better take in the view. There was man sitting cross-legged in the shade, pillows at his back, a decidedly feminine pink kimono draped across his broad shoulders. A big man, with long wavy hair caught in a tail at the nape of his neck, who wore a black patch covering his right eye. He looked as if he hadn't seen the sharp end of a razor for some while.
"Uh - - yeah. Sure." There was no use denying it. Any day where the sun actually came out was a pretty damned beautiful day.
"Either of you want a drink. He never accepts my offers." The man jerked his stubbled chin towards the deeper shadows of the porch where Byakuya leaned against the inside wall, eyes invisible behind half lowered lashes, face entirely unreadable.
"No thank you, head captain Kyoraku."
"Ah, that's right. You can't hold your liquor, can you Rukia?"
Her cheeks colored just a little, but she didn't deny it.
"How about you, Ichigo?"
"I'm good," Ichigo declined warily. He wasn't sure if it was nervousness or simply baffled that this guy made him feel.
"Your loss. It's good stuff. The sake from district 17 is the best in all of Rukongai." He tossed back what was in the cup and sat it down empty on the small trey next to him.
"So, its good to see you, Ichigo. We thought you were gone for good. One of those souls that slipped through the cracks and ended up - - well - - places less pleasant than the worst the Rukongai has to offer."
"Yeah? I find that hard to believe. You ever vacationed in the outskirts, Kyoraku?
"Address him as head captain," Lieutenant Ise's rebuke came simultaneously with Byakuya's. The both of them obviously being way too hung up on honorifics.
"Now, now," The head captain waved a hand, amused. "We're all friends here. Call me Shunsui, I don't mind."
Lieutenant Ise frowned. Byakuya just closed his eyes, looking like he was done with all of their nonsense.
"All right, Shunsui, since you're in charge here - - why don't you tell me what the hell is going on? You people obviously know me. I obviously have something to do with you soul reapers - - because - - this - -" he waved a hand at the black uniform he wore. "And nobody will tell me a damn thing. Because of some rule? I just want to know - - something - -anything - - because I'm floundering here."
"Fair enough," Shunsui nodded. "You were a soul reaper and you were human and that's a rare combination."
"I was - -?" He stopped, drawing a deep breath. "How?" Ichigo took a step closer, wide eyed and exhilarated that someone was actually talking to him.
"Well, because of her," Shunsui jerked his chin in Rukia's direction. "But that's a whole other story. What you want to know is how you got right here, right now, wearing your old body, with memories you shouldn't have of the human world, but with none of the personal ones pertaining to your life."
Ichigo swallowed, nodding slowly. "Yeah. I'd like to know that."
"So would I. It's a mystery to us, too. Sure you don't want that drink?"
Maybe he did. But he shook his head, declining it, regardless.
"You died forty years ago. From what I understand, it was a random act of human violence. And you were gone, crossed over into the afterlife like the thousands of other souls that make that crossing every day. We can account for most of them. But sometimes some slip through the cracks. And when your soul didn't pass through the registry, we assumed either that had happened or that you might have been out of your body when it died."
When his body had died. Forty years ago. Half a human lifetime. Ichigo stared, feeling sick to the center of him.
Rukia said, this quietly haunted quality to her voice. "We looked - - for a long time. But there was no trace of your spiritual energy."
"And you're hard to miss," Shunsui said.
"So - - does it normally take that long? To be reborn." His voice cracked on the last word. He thought he'd gotten used to the notion of his own death, but it hit him anew now. He sat down of a sudden on the edge of the porch, staring at the finely polished wood beneath his hand. His hands were filthy. There was blood caked under his nails.
"Sometimes," Shunsui admitted. "But that's not the abnormality. The astounding thing is, that you came back as you. One out of a million - - hell one out of a billion souls that pass over into the afterlife comes through with something of their old personality intact. Being reborn is exactly how it sounds. You don't retain your old body. You don't retain your memories, your personality, you don't remember the human world - - you come into the afterlife either a newly born babe or as a blank slate. No exceptions. The fact that you look like you, even an eighteen year old you, the fact that you've got that Zanpakuto, the fact that you are Ichigo Kurosaki in every aspect but the fine details of memory, from what Byakuya tells me, and from what I can see for myself - - now that's curious."
"It's more than curious, it's a scientific anomaly."
They all turned, as a man, who looked very much like he'd been running to get here, if the heaving breath were any indication, burst in through the sliding doors. And if ever there was a freak show on legs, it was this guy. The whole of his face was painted black with thin white lines going vertically across his face and white across his long nose. His teeth were huge and gold, and the headdress looked like something that might have been in a found in the tomb of some Aztec king, gaudy and gold.
"Ah, Captain Kurotsuchi, I wondered how long it would take for you to get here. Want a drink?" Shunsui lifted his newly filled cup.
Captain Kurotsuchi ignored him entirely, circling Ichigo with fevered eyes. His grin made Ichigo think of the sort of psychopath who might be inclined to make a suit out of someone else's skin.
"How marvelous. He's exactly how I remember him. Right down to the spiritual energy. Less of it, I think, but I sense a great deal of fluctuation in his reiatsu, so that might very well change. Oh my, this is exciting."
Ichigo eyed him warily as he circled him.
"Yes, we were just discussing the mystery of that." Shunsui said.
"Of course, but I would hardly expect your inferior minds to be anything but stumped."
"Naturally." Shunsui didn't seem offended at the sleight.
"I'll have to examine him, of course. Thoroughly."
Ichigo blinked, hair on the back of his neck standing on end.
"He's always been such a singularly unique specimen, its not surprising he astounds the laws of transition. I'll be able to tell more when I get him into the lab and start peeling back layers."
"The hell you will." Ichigo shot to his feet, backing away from the crazy asshole.
"I really must insist." Kurotsuchi wasn't addressing Ichigo at all, rather the head captain. "This is too curious not to investigate. The appearance of the unusual breaches in the outer districts coincide too closely with his reappearance not to be connected in some manner. There's no such thing as coincidence."
"I agree," Byakuya said quietly from his place in the shadows. He didn't bother to open his eyes.
"See?" Kurotsuchi seemed elated. "The security of the whole of the Rukongai is at issue."
Ichigo clenched his fists, glaring. Damned if he was going to be some rat in a lab for these guys. The fine gravel at his feet began to tremble, grains of it rising, swirling around the hem of his hakama.
"Ichigo, calm down," Rukia snapped. "No one's doing anything to you that you don't want done." She cast a glare over her shoulder at Kurotsuchi, then a more beseeching one at Shunsui. "Right, Head Captain?"
Shunsui lifted a brow, staring at Ichigo as the gravel at his feet dropped back to its place in the garden. He took a sip from his cup, considering. He seemed the stubbled lay about, but his eyes were razor sharp. A dangerous man because of it.
"So what do you remember, Ichigo? The first thing that comes to mind. Quick." Shunsui ordered, leaning forward.
"A nightmare." Ichigo blurted it out, before he even fully realized the concept in his head. Even though the edges of it had frayed and faded from memory, the feel of it still lingered, a shadow at the back of his mind. He shook his head, trying to dislodge the cobwebs. "I can't remember it. Its just - - I thought I was somewhere - - else. That's all. Then I woke up in the outskirts maybe four or five days ago and that's it."
"That's it? I'm not charging you by the word, you can be a little more descriptive. I like descriptive."
Ichigo pressed his lips. There were some things he'd be damned if he'd tell anyone. Shameful things that he'd had no power to prevent. Now he had the power to at least put up a decent fight. Power.
"I didn't wake up with any power. I didn't wake up knowing my name - -" he trailed off, that little detail coming back to him. That though he recalled little else about the nightmare, he did recall the voice whispering inside him, calling out his name.
"How did you remember it?" Rukia asked.
"I heard it calling me - - Zangetsu I think - - trying to get me to let it out." He closed his eyes, trying to picture the thing he 'felt' drifting at the core of him. He pressed his closed fist to his chest. "It was all bound up in a knot - - all these layers of armor - - I think its still there - -"
"Ohhh, fascinating." Kurotsuchi steepled his fingers, talking more to himself than any of them. "If his reiryoku was contained, and if it were walled off, it would explain how none of our sensors were able to detect him. The question is - - did he do it himself out of some survival instinct when his human body died - - or was it done to him? This is so exciting, I can barely contain myself. "
"Make an effort," Ichigo growled under his breath.
"I must insist you grant me jurisdiction over him, Captain Kyoraku," Kurotsuchi said. "With so many questions, he certainly can't be allowed to roam about aimlessly.
Ichigo's knuckles popped, he clenched his fists so tightly. Rukia laid a hand on his wrist, her fingers pressing hard enough to snap him out of the panic/anger that was building.
"Head Captain - -" she started to protest.
Shunsui cut her off with a negligent wave of his hand. "I think he might react poorly to that, Kurotsuchi."
"I'll take responsibility for him," Rukia offered, eyes bright. She cast Ichigo a quick, encouraging look.
"No. You're too close to the matter, Rukia. Make no mistake, Ichigo is an ally and a friend to the soul society. Hell, he's a full-fledged denizen of the soul society now, not just a visitor. But there are still questions, and like Kurotsuchi said, he's an unique case. I think the other Captain Kuchiki is better suited to take responsibility for him. I'm putting him under division 6 jurisdiction."
Rukia glanced her brother's way. Ichigo did, not exactly pleased at the prospect of being under anyone's charge, much less Rukia's cold, stick-up-his-ass, brother.
"I think I'd prefer Rukia," Ichigo voiced his point of view. He figured he had at least that much right.
"Oh, come on," Shunsui waved away his protest. "You'll be fine. Byakuya has great digs, you'll love it. Is that okay with you Captain Kuchiki?"
There was an almost imperceptible flicker of displeasure from Byakuya, directed at Shunsui, but it disappeared almost as quickly as it had flashed across his face. He inclined his head. "As you command, Captain Commander."
"I protest," Kurotsuchi complained. "How is science to be served if you deny me access to - -"
"Calm down, Mayuri," Shunsui cut him off. "Within the next couple of days, Captain Kuchiki will see that you get a chance to examine Ichigo. A nice, non-invasive examination, all right? That suit you Ichigo? I'm sure you'd like some answers, too."
He'd like them a lot. He didn't trust captain Kurotsuchi as far as he could toss him, though. He inclined his head grudgingly. "Okay."
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