A/N: Hey guys! Just a few things I wanted to say up-front before we go any further. This story is VERY AU. While I will try to keep most of the major canon plot-points intact, there are going to be some major changes revolving largely around the cycle of reincarnation (as some of you might have already noticed, Ichigo can't simple be 'born twice'), that said I would also like to point out that some of the characters may not be exactly the same, and they might not have exactly the same role as before. This is all down to the butterfly effect, but if you bare with me this story will likely (LIKELY) come to at least a satisfying conclusion. Also, just some clarification here: Ichigo has been sent just shy of two-thousand (2000, 2K, etc) years into the past, after the founding of the Gotei but before the opening of the academy. That said, he will likely not be the same person in the sense of personality, temperament, appearance, and wisdom by the time we arrive at the events of Canon Bleach.

If you guys have any more questions feel free to either review or drop me a PM and I'll flush it out a little further.

That's enough from me! On with the story!

Disclaimer: I don't own Bleach.

Rise of the Slaying Moon

Chapter one: Of Ends and Old Beginnings

Kurosaki Ichigo had accepted some time ago that he was going to die. He had never quite been able pin-point when he had come to accept this, or what he had been doing at the time that was so dangerous that he had come to accept this it as fact. Perhaps it had been when he first met Urahara Kisuke and started training with him, or when he was thrown into the shattered shaft with his chain of fate cut. His favourite hypothesis was that he had simply thrown any thoughts of survival out the window when he had entered the Seireitei to stop Rukia's execution, and the acceptance of death simply came with that.

Regardless, Ichigo had known and accepted for a long while that death was poised to snatch him away, but he had always been of the conviction that he would face it on his terms. He would die heroically in battle, protecting his loved ones with a final Getsuga Tenshō, going out in a literal blaze of glory. Perhaps he would die of age with whatever remained of his family and friends crowded around, reminiscing about the good old days and laughing his last few moments away, a last confirmation that he had achieved, at least in part, what he had set out to achieve and had protected those who remained from everything sans time itself. Either way, he would pass on with a smile on his face, ready to greet whatever soul-reaper arrived first to pave his way to soul-society.

However, it seemed that the living world had wanted to kick him to the curb one last time, to humiliate him even in the last moments of this life by forcing upon him one of the greatest insults a warrior could suffer. A bad death.

He had been walking home from high-school, his last day of high-school to be precise, fully prepared to finally leave behind the monotony of classes, this particular mind-numbing grind that he had been forced to endure daily for the past six years of his life. Contrary to his good mood at the time, at least partially due to the aforementioned nature of that day, it had been raining heavily. Thick swirling clouds hung overhead, dumping gallons of water down onto the streets of Karakura town, making the ground slippery underfoot and creating puddles of standing water here and there. He had been walking past the river, as per usual, casting his eyes up to the sky as he often did during odd turns in the weather, when suddenly he had tripped, or slipped, or perhaps missed the pavement entirely. Perhaps he had been pushed by one of the hollows he could no-longer see, or by a vengeful spirit, perhaps Aizen himself had escaped from wherever it was they had locked him away and had simply wanted his death to appear an accident…

It didn't really matter, because the end result was not up for debate.

He had tumbled head-over-heels down the short embankment, whacking his head on first the soft earth, then on the harsh concrete of the river-bank itself, the impact had caused his semi-conscious self to bounce, and he ended up a good way out into the swollen, fast flowing river. Having had most of his wits knocked out of him by hard concrete, then having the harsh shock of freezing water overload his senses, his reaction time was reduced so drastically that he was dead, for all intents and purposes, before he realized what was actually happening. Before he realized that he was going to drown. It had been too late to do anything. Thus, just like that, he drowned.

Just like that.

Kurosaki Ichigo, Shinigami-Daikō, hero of the Winter War, slayer of more hollows then anyone could be bothered to count, had drowned in a river in the rain. Alone. Nobody had been about to help him, nobody could have hoped to overcome the current in order to save him, and he could no longer just slip into his Shinigami form to Shunpō away. Soul Society had stopped all contact with him since he'd lost his powers, so there was no Rukia, no Renji, no anyone in the area that would leap to his aid when they sensed his spiritual pressure slipping away. Chad wasn't quick enough and neither was Inoue, Ishida was on the wrong side of town, Tatsuki had practice, he had recalled all of this before the end. So the next thing that came to him, just before death by a mere split second, was acceptance. Then death itself, ever poised above him, swooped down and carried his soul off…and that was it.

Just like that.

Unbeknownst to him, they had found his body some days later a few miles downstream. Kurosaki Isshin, real tears streaming down his face for once, had made a short speech at a small funeral ceremony as they lowered an Ichigo sized casket into the still saturated ground next to one Kurosaki Masaki. His few remaining friends and family crowded around and said goodbye, Yuzu cried whilst Karin tried to keep her promise and remain strong, Chad and Ishida had remained silent, lost with their own thoughts through the entire thing, then only saying a few words of respect before they parted company. Inoue had wept throughout, with Tatsuki stubbornly holding onto her and not letting go until she had been able to take the distraught girl home. Urahara had shown up, briefly, along with Yoruichi and his gang, but they stayed for only a short time before leaving again, because they knew and had long-since accepted death was not the end, and that they would likely see Ichigo again at some stage. It just wasn't that simple for the rest of them.

Meanwhile, Ichigo took some solace in the fact that he knew vaguely what would happen after death, and that Rukia and the rest would likely come for him in the Rukongai. He would become a proper Shinigami, and would finally learn how to seal his sword. Then work his way up to captaincy, proving himself so he could aim for Yama-jii's spot at the top when the old codger eventually stepped down. He would almost certainly retain his memories, so he'd know to visit the world of the living when he got the chance to see his folks and say 'hey' to his friends and mentors, likely slaying some hollows before he came back. That was the hope he'd had in both his head and his heart when he'd closed his eyes for the last time, had been the price of his acceptance. But it appeared that Soul Society too wanted to kick him down.

Ichigo opened his eyes to see a nearly cloudless blue sky, the only clouds present being almost laughably small and dotted around at irregular intervals. It was pleasantly warm, not too hot, and with a nice breeze adding some appreciated coolant to the air. All in all, it was a perfect day. Ichigo allowed himself to bask in this for a time, lying in the soft grass and staring up at the sky, so perfect was the weather that he had no desire to move and had certainly couldn't remember anything that required him to do so. He watched the tiny intermittent clouds drift lazily across his equally lazy vision, helped along slightly by the ever-present breeze, almost as if they would simply stop and hang where they were, were the wind not present. Overall, the sight was calming, and added to Ichigo's unexplained but not unwelcome mood. He was unsure as to how long he continued to doze there, his arms behind his head and his legs stretched out, drifting off to sleep on a few occasions only to wake up undisturbed some time later. By the time he reluctantly decided that it might be time to sit up, it was dusk.

A frown made its way slowly across his face as he took in his surroundings. He was sitting upon a reasonably sized hill overlooking a vast expanse of grassy flatland, upon which there were dotted what appeared to be settlements of some sort. Upon further inspection, Ichigo noticed that there were more reasonably sized hills far off into the distance, obscuring the setting sun; this was a valley. He tried to judge the distance between the side he was on and its opposite, but found that it was far too great a distance to measure in the dark. He settled on the conclusion that it was a very wide valley, and left it at that, though he did wonder absently at how a river could possibly come to be so wide.

Almost immediately to his front was a large looking house with a wall surrounding it, both made of lightly coloured stone. The numerous windows all had lights in them, and the soft yet warm glow of the candles in the hallways left trails over the walls and onto the grass beyond. Slightly further away, down the hill a little, sat a notable settlement with numerous, noticeably smaller, houses, a large number of which sported a smoking chimney which puffed smoke into the clear evening sky. Further out onto the plains he noticed small and occasionally large groups of trees, with a river creating a curving a line between them, sometimes through them, and then stretching off too far into the distance for Ichigo to track. He noted that the settlements situated themselves close to the river, but curiously they seemed to be as far away as they could possibly be from the trees while remaining within reasonable distance to the flowing water, it was a small thing to make note of, but from this vantage point Ichigo couldn't help but notice the rather large gap between the settlements and any notable woodland.

With this curious development, Ichigo decided his observation of the landscape was complete, and he slumped backwards again to gaze up at the sky. While on his back he ran a mental picture of the valley through his mind a few times, frowning when his mind came up blank whilst trying to find something familiar about it, a landmark perhaps, or a recognizable cluster of houses; he certainly didn't recognize those buildings that were closest to him. To his increasing frustration he could find no recollection of anything within the valley, and certainly he could not remember the hill he was currently laid on, despite having been there all day, it seemed. He came to conclusion that he was lost shortly after that, however he had no memory of how he came to be upon this hill in the first place, all he could remember was opening his eyes to see the semi-clear blue sky and everything since that moment. So he was lost, but he could not remember where he had come from, or…anything for that matter. He knew his name, Kurosaki Ichigo, but that was just about it.

Now, some may have become scared or frantic at this realization, the only visible change that came over Ichigo was the deepening of his scowl and the narrowing of his eyes. Internally, he mourned the loss of his good mood as frustration crawled a sour trail up from his stomach, settling finally in his rapidly narrowing eyes and darkening features. He continued to lay on the hill with his eyes turned inward until the sky became noticeably dark and the air became just a little too cold to be comfortable. Indeed, it was a shiver that brought him out of his mind and back into the world, at which point he groaned and stood up. After stretching his arms above his head and shaking his legs to rid himself of the pins and needles, he began to walk. He didn't know to where he was walking, only that it was in a down kind of direction, down into the valley. He wasn't sure as to why he was walking either, he simply felt that he needed to do something other than sit on the hill, feeling sorry for himself and tracking the frustration as it crept through him.

About halfway between where he had been on the hill and the closest large white wall of the large white house, Ichigo's stomach decided that not enough attention had been paid to it and made itself known, grumbling loud enough to make him stop and scowl down at it as if it had done him some mortal offense. He put a hand on it as it grumbled again, louder this time, realizing for the first time that he hadn't eaten since...well since he'd woken up. Had it been empty then? Or had it been full? Half full perhaps? Regardless of this, he was certainly running on empty now, and he had no food. With this realization he also realized that he had no money with which to buy food, no place in which to store any food he might come into the possession of, no house in which to put himself during the night, and no clothes other than the ones he had on at that very moment. He glanced down at them and sighed, they may as well have been rags, almost paper thin Hakama and a thin, brown, sack-like shirt.

After scowling at his garments for some time, he returned his gaze to the sky again as he tried to come up with a plan of action that might result in him not sleeping outside. He figured he could try and find someone willing to put him up for the night in the town down the hill slightly, then he could try and find some work in the morning. However, the more immediate issue of feeding himself would only be solved if the one who agreed to put him up for the night had both the food to spare and the willingness to give it to him. Which would probably be quite a big ask, he realized with a sigh. He didn't want to take something from someone if they couldn't afford to give it to him, especially if those people were bad off enough for that to be the case. Some people were just too kind, he hoped the people in the town had the sense to turn him away if they couldn't feasibly help him.

This train of thought eventually caused his eyes to land on the large house that he had observed earlier, now no more than thirty feet from where he stood. Taking a minute to weigh his options, he decided it worth at least trying before he started pestering the people in town, and began to make his way around the walls to what he assumed to be the front of the house. Predictably enough, there was a large, wooden gate on the side of the wall facing towards the settlement below. Flanking it on either side were two guards carrying what appeared to be nothing more than glorified sticks. Ichigo was more than a little sceptical about the stopping power of these items, by the looks of them they might have snapped if one of the guards were to lean on them too hard.

Ichigo approached them carefully from the side, trying to get the measure of them as he did so. From a distance they didn't appear to be anything special, but the closer he got the more Ichigo realized that this might have been, at least slightly, down the loose clothing they wore. When he got close enough, he realized that the both of them were actually fairly well built, and might be able to do a lot of damage even with the still flimsy looking sticks. So intent was he on getting the measure of them he didn't realize until he got rather too close for it to be considered coincidence that they had also spotted him, and were now in the act of quickly sizing him up. Evidently, as Ichigo continued to close the gap the two of them, they both decided he wasn't really worth much trouble and that only one of them was necessary to kick Ichigo back down the hill. They shared a brief glance, almost as if to decide which one of them had to go and deal with him, then seemed to have a telepathic debate as to who's turn it was.

With a resigned looking huff, the guard on the left of the gate seemed to concede defeat, and closed the remaining distance between him and Ichigo. He had his stick propped against his shoulder, and seemed to be completely at ease, though Ichigo didn't believe that to be entirely the case. The guard moved to stand directly between Ichigo and the gate, his free hand resting on his hip, and set his feet at about shoulder width apart, looking every bit the unmoveable man-mountain. Ichigo stopped walking, the guard's presence clearly radiated a 'don't come any closer' kind of vibe, and he considered simply turning around and walking away right then and there. However, his stomach had other plans, and kicked his brain into gear, he raised a hand.


"Beat it, kid" the guard cut him off before he could get a second word out. His accent was gruff, and his face bore a scar from the right brow to the bottom left most corner of his nose, Ichigo had a feeling that messing with this guy might result in a few broken bones.

His hunger overrode him, however, and he pressed on. "I was just gonna ask if you had any food" said he, a hint of reproach that entered his tone, born of frustration. The guard seemed unimpressed by this and shifted his stance, allowing the stick to fall into his other hand to better level it at Ichigo.

"I said beat it" said the guard, his voice becoming firmer. Then it took on more than a hint of contempt when he continued, "Even if I did have any food, what makes you think I'd waste it on the likes of you?"

Ichigo bristled, some dormant part of him flaring to life at the sheer unfairness of that statement, "Oi! What's that supposed to mean!? We're both human!"

"Ha!" the guard barked, turning back to his fellow and gestured back at Ichigo "Get a load of this kid! Thinks he's some kind of philosopher." The other guard snickered along with his fellow, who then turned back around "Tell you what kid, seeing as you've made me chuckle, and made my night a little more entertaining, I'll let you scamper off to whichever hole you crawled out of without giving you the beating of a life-time." As he said this he walked a little closer to Ichigo, then he jabbed at him with his stick, laughing when Ichigo jumped back to avoid what he now recognized to be a wicked looking point. He felt more than a little stupid when the stick glinted in the rapidly disappearing sun, revealing its metal nature.

For a moment, Ichigo foolishly considered trying to fight back, but quickly decided against it. He was outnumbered two to one, and the spears gave them more reach than he could hope to overcome without some kind of weapon of his own. So, internally fuming with indignation, he took the guard up on his offer and walked away quickly whilst trying to block out the sounds of mocking laughter from entering his ears. He decided that he might have better luck in the town slightly further down the hill and made his way towards it, not looking back towards the large house he had just left behind.

If he had looked he might have noticed the boy in the window, watching his retreating back with a small frown.

From his position on the spread blanket, Ichigo scowled without holding back. The town had been a complete bust, with apparently not one person within the entire population who was willing to either give him either a place to stay, or any food to satisfy his grumbling stomach. He had marched around the town from top to bottom, calling at every single house without exception and asking the very same question when the door opened.

"Can you spare any food?"

It had made him feel pathetic, weak, and very, very angry. Eventually it became evident that this was having an effect on his quest as well, as after a while the doors would open and then shut before he could even get a word in edgeways. By the time he had made his way through the town and then walked the distance back up again it was pitch black, he was cold, and he still had no food nor a place to stay. He had completely failed on all counts. He had felt like screaming. He couldn't understand it, the buildings in the town hadn't looked all that ramshackle, in fact most of them appeared to be quite pleasant. All of them had a fire for warmth, he could smell the aroma of food coming from within, so it couldn't have been that these people were that bad off, and yet not one person had allowed him in.

In the end, Ichigo had made do with an abandoned shed in the middle of a field –thankfully still with a roof and operable door- and went the night cold, hungry, and angry that he could feel the beginnings of desperation beginning to creep slowly into his thought process. His only solace had been that he'd located a small stream from which to drink. He awoke the next morning with a crick in his neck and sore back, hunger pangs, and the beginnings of a headache. All in all, he was not happy. His scowl was pulled down so low that any children he happened to encounter on his walk through town fled and the townsfolk generally gave him a wide berth. Not that it mattered to him particularly by that point. They could burn for all he cared.

Still, he tried his luck and asked around for work, and yet again anybody he asked turned him down instantly, then usually walked away very quickly, likely to flee from his darkening expression. Ichigo was inclined to believe that the reasons for his rejection this morning and the night before were the same, whatever those reasons were; he didn't really care. He simply wished that the people of the town could have had more heart. It seemed as if compassion no longer existed, or had it existed in the first instance? Ichigo had shaken his head vigorously at that point, those were not thoughts he needed at precisely that moment.

Eventually, he ran out of outlets to ask for work from, and he found himself fuming on the same side of town he had come in from the previous night. By this time it was getting on in the afternoon, and he still hadn't eaten, and so the hunger was continuing to increase steadily. He knew from some base instinct that it would soon reach a level that he couldn't tolerate, such was the rate of its development, and that if he didn't eat soon he was going to be in trouble. With the only fruit of his labour being a thin, worn out blanket he'd picked up from a side-street and kept with him in anticipation of another night in the shed, he started to think of alternative methods. His mind constantly returning to one particular thought, but at that moment he refused to go there, knowing that it would be hard to come back from it.

So that left him in the position he was now in, sitting on his blanket under a tree back near the centre of town, the biggest scowl the world has ever seen plastered on every inch of his face, begging for food, or money, or anything really. It was disheartening, to say the least, even with his frame of mind in a worse position it had been in the night before, every rejection still stung, every time he was ignored: another kick to his already beaten pride. It was almost like he was invisible, people passed him by completely unaffected by his pleas, nobody even spared him a glance, let alone any food or water. It was as if he didn't exist.

Eventually just gave up.

Whilst he was in the centre of town he took note of the market stalls that sat about with various merchants selling wares, as well as how open the stalls were both at the front and at the side. If the merchants were to be distracted by something, a customer say, it would be more than easy to simply sneak a few items off the side and make oneself scarce before anyone was any the wiser. By this point Ichigo was unbearably hungry, and the only option he felt was left open to him was the unpleasant one he had been trying to avoid for going on two days now. In the end, one particular pang that rid him of some of air in his lungs helped him make up his mind, and in the moment that followed he knew what he needed to do. It was no longer a matter of right and wrong. It was a matter of survival, honour be damned.

And so he hatched a plan.

An hour later he was skulking in an alley behind one of the stalls, concealing himself in the shadows but still peaking out enough to see the back of the merchant. His face was blank, expressionless. He had bottled up all his reservations and all his latent anger and frustration because this had to work, otherwise he was out of options.

Eventually one of the townsfolk came over, browsing the merchant's stock of bread and picked fruits and asking of the origin of the latter. Once Ichigo was sure the man was adequately distracted he made his move. Staying low, he padded his way over to the unmonitored side of the stall, making sure to stay inside the merchant's blind-spot, and quickly hid himself in the shadow of the stall itself, using it as cover. Once he'd double checked the man was still engaged, he very slowly reached a hand around the front of the stall, eyes watching the nearby crowds for anyone who might turn and catch him the act. Carefully, he snatched two small bread roles, quickly retracting his hand again and praying he hadn't been spotted. For once, it seemed, his prayers were answered.

Ever-so-slowly, he crept out from behind the stall, making sure to pad as quietly as he had done on the way in, and slunk his way back over to the alley he had emerged from. Without even a backwards glance he began to run, disappearing off into the rapidly approaching dusk. He kept running all the way back through town, not stopping until he reached the path that lead to his shed, only then did he allow himself to hope that he had pulled it off, only then did he allow himself to look back; expecting to see glinting swords and angry faces but seeing nothing but the back walls of the houses he had come to despise so much.

Once back at the shed, Ichigo allowed himself to devour the roles. Not a single crumb was wasted, nor was a second taken to consider exactly what he had done to obtain these rolls, and when he was done the nagging from his stomach ebbed slightly. Sweet relief.

It was dark outside now, and so Ichigo unfolded his salvaged blanket and wrapped himself inside it, taking whatever warmth the worn out item had left to offer. Before he fell into another very uncomfortable sleep, Ichigo came to the realization that he had now started down a road he could not get off of short of a miracle. This was his future. Stealing bread from merchants in a town he didn't know the name of in a land of which he had no recollection. Strangely, he didn't find this distressing, though it wasn't exciting either, he simply accepted this as reality, and decided to keep moving forward. That felt like the right thing to do.

Once the morning rolled around, Ichigo roused himself again and walked into the town to scout out the merchant stalls for whatever took his fancy, having had nothing specific in mind when he awoke. Then, having made a choice, he repeated the same steps he had taken the afternoon prior and made off with a selection of fruit and sweet bread, quickly vacating the area before any of the merchants were any the wiser. Once clear of any potential retribution, Ichigo took his spoils and began to walk, wanting a change of scenery from the inside of the shed. So he made his way back to the hill he had awoken on, carefully avoiding the large house, and ate there.

Once he had finished eating, and having decided he had eaten his fill, he slumped backwards on the grass and gazed at the sky. There were a few more clouds today, he noted vaguely, and the breeze had picked up slightly; though not enough to become uncomfortable. It was another comfortable day, almost perfect but not quite, and he was more than content to just bask in it, soaking the sun and seeing if there were any shapes to be seen in the clouds. He remained there all day, not caring if it passed as slowly as the clouds. He slowly allowed his mind to become blank, closing his eyes and relaxing into the soft grass, revelling in the sweet nothing that was now his thoughts. He allowed all the worry and stress of the previous days to leave him, all of the disgusted or wary faces that plagued his mind's eye fading to black. After some time in this meditative state he simply fell asleep, not waking from this dreamless slumber until most of the day was passed, at which point he wandered back into town, pilfering some dried meat as he passed through, and retreated back to his shed. He fell asleep again sometime later, huddled under his not-so-warm blanket. Not batting an eyelid at the act he had committed.

Thus his routine was established, he would wake in the morning and steal something to eat, then he would retreat up to the hill and scarf whatever it was that he'd pinched, not caring a jot about how he had gotten it. Once he had eaten he would usually lie and watch the sky for a while, fall asleep, or simply sit and observe the scenery of the valley for a time before heading back towards the town in the evening to steal something for dinner. Even after some weeks of this he was not caught, indeed it was as if the merchants didn't even notice that some of their wares were missing, even though he knew they did, greedy sods. Perhaps it more the case that they simply didn't care, maybe they were too well off to care. It was easy for Ichigo to take from them, regardless; and so he didn't care.

So he kept at it, altering his tactics only when necessary, taking what he wanted and retreating before anyone thought to look twice. He made no friends, he didn't need any. He didn't need enemies either, and so he kept clear of people as much as he could. That's not to say he never had any confrontations, usually it was a drunkard in the evening too sloshed to walk a straight line; those he usually tripped and allowed their momentum to knock them out. On a few rare occasions he ran afoul of someone spoiling for a fight, or simply looking for someone to beat up so that they could impress their friends. However, they led a soft life, and Ichigo lead a hard one. He had to be strong to survive, and so the pretty boys in the nice clothes all ended up on the ground, either with a broken nose or occasionally out cold. Kurosaki Ichigo aimed for the head.

As the weeks turned into months and the nights began to draw out, Ichigo realized that he would need to do something about the poor state of insulation in his shed. To put it mildly, it was starting to get cold in there at night, rather than simply chilly. So, in order to resolve the issue, he stole a thicker blanket. A strange course of action?

Not to Ichigo.

Very early on he had made a vow that he would not steal what wasn't necessary, not because of morals, but because it raised the chances of him being caught to a level he was more than a little uncomfortable with. So he made do with his shed and his blanket, eating whatever he could steal and whiling away the hours atop his hill.

Until, one day, something changed.

He was walking up his hill, munching absently on a bread roll whilst pondering whether or not it was time to cover the large hole in the wall of his shed. He considered stealing yet another blanket and some nails, if he could secure a thick enough something over the hole from the inside it would likely keep the worst of the weather out. It was almost worth doing, and would have been if he wasn't so sure the merchant with said blankets had caught sight of him pinching some meat the other evening, he was sure to be alert if he did. Perhaps it would be best to wait until he forgot, he looked old enough to have a decreased memory span.

Suddenly Ichigo stopped. There was something behind him, he was sure he heard it. He paused, straining his ears, the breeze was up slightly today and the noise was getting swept back down the hill. After listening for a moment more to make sure it wasn't coming from right behind him, he turned around to use his eyes instead, and there running up the hill towards him, was a boy.

He was still a little way off, having just reached the foot of the hill, and at the pace he was going Ichigo gave him a good minute before he caught up. Ichigo used that time to size the stranger up. He appeared to be a similar height to Ichigo, though he was a little on the skinnier side, and from what he could see was dressed fairly well for someone from the area. Those in the town generally wore simple clothes similar to what Ichigo had been wearing when he woke up, though to compare them now was possibly a tad generous. His clothes were now extremely dirty to the point of unrecognizable; despite his numerous attempts to wash them in the same nearby river as he frequently drank from. The clothes this boy had looked to be a touch more refined, they looked of a higher quality, perhaps even glowing a little in the sun. It made Ichigo frown a little.

It was then that Ichigo noted that the kid's hair was white. Not subtly so either. As the boy ran up the hill, getting ever closer, it caught the midday sun and Ichigo could have sworn he was blinded for a moment by the trailing strands. He noted also, once the boy was close enough, that he seemed fairly…clean. Most of the people in the town were at least a little raggedy in appearance, some more so than others (namely, Ichigo), but this kid was practically spotless asides from the fresh grass stains on his blue clothes. Which, Ichigo noted as the boy drew to a halt before him, were of an even higher quality than he had first thought.

"Wait…" the boy panted, now bent double before him with his hands on his knees, trying to reclaim his lost breath. Ichigo, now that his interest had been peaked, did so; continuing to munch on his breakfast in the meantime. As he did so he took a moment to ponder at the…strange way this boy carried himself. He wasn't swaggering, that much was for certain, and he had allowed Ichigo ample chance to inflict some sort of blow to the back of his head when he had folder over to catch his breath. Therefore he was either stupid, arrogant, or supremely confident that Ichigo wouldn't hurt him.

Noting after a while that the boy was still panting, Ichigo decided to break the ice; having had enough of wonder the boy's intentions. "Yo" said he casually, aiming for nonchalance. As if prompted, or as if he just remembered Ichigo was there, the boy increased his efforts for composure, taking multiple deep breaths through the nose with closed eyes, and after a few moments more he straightened up and smiled broadly.

"Hello there, Stranger-san. I hope I'm not intruding?"

Confused, Ichigo stared at him for a moment, then glanced about himself, at his breakfast, and back up to the boy with a raised eyebrow. "Why'd you be intruding?" he asked, incredulous.

The kid seemed taken aback, looking at Ichigo as if he had missed the obvious. "It looked like you were thinking about something" he explained, slowly, "Otou-sama told me that people deep in thought tend not to appreciate being interrupted." He laughed nervously, rubbing the back of his neck. Ichigo's eyebrow rose a little more, this guy's behaviour seemed strange to him somehow. He couldn't quite put a finger on it. Most interaction he'd had with other human beings over the past few months had been aggressive and involved decisive words and occasionally offensive limbs. This boy seemed thoughtful, now that Ichigo had gotten a chance to look him in the eye he noticed that they were kind, not even a trace of arrogance, even though he carried at least some confidence. It was a surprising change of pace for Ichigo, to say the least.

He eventually shook his head slowly, "Nah, you're good. Though I kinda want to know why you ran all the way up that hill" he said, gesturing with the hand not occupied by a bread roll.

The boy offered up another small laugh, and Ichigo decided that the kid was a touch shyer than he had perhaps assumed. "I had a reason, I assure you" he said, reaching for the small bag tied around his shoulders and fumbling a touch with the string which tied it. "I happened to catch you walking up here a few weeks ago" he explained as his fingers continuing to work at the string, "And, well excuse me for saying, Stranger-san, but every time I have observed you since, you always appear to be alone. You never seem to have very much to eat either and it appears as if you sleep…" he paused and looked up for a moment, pondering "…rough" he finished.

By this point, both of Ichigo's eyebrows had gone up, "Uhuh…" he prompted, waving a hand in a 'continue' kind of gesture. The boy laughed again, some of the previous nerves appearing to dissipate.

"Well I felt as though I should help. You see, there aren't any people around here that I've seen who have it as bad you seem to, and those in the town tend to look out only for themselves. So I highly doubt you've received any help from them" said the boy, grinning at Ichigo who scowled deeper at the still sour memories. The boy picked up the pace slightly, possibly sensing that he'd struck a nerve, "So I brought you some food" the boy opened the pack to reveal a wrapped bundle, underneath which sat some fabric different from the cloth of the bag, "Ah, yes, and I brought you some clothes as well. I think we're both about the same measurements, what you have won't serve you too well in the winter and I had plenty to spare."

Ichigo grunted appreciatively, parting the top of the bag slightly to get a better look, not quite sure whether to believe the act of kindness for what it was yet. He noted that the bundle was fairly large, and that the clothes within did indeed look to be thicker than those he was wearing, they were also of good quality. They would last longer than what he had before for sure, he took a moment to consider the potential cost of such garments, surely as much as his winter blanket might have cost, if not more. He took the bag from the boy tentatively, as if it might turn into some sick gag when he touched it, as if the kindness would simply disappear. It wouldn't be the first time, but Ichigo had a feeling about this guy, he seemed to radiate an aura of trust. Perhaps it was the sincerity that he got when Ichigo's eyes snapped up to make sure there was no malicious intent in them.

"I'm Jūshirō, by the way" the boy said, causing Ichigo to glance up again. Was it simply him being a fool, or did this kid, Jūshirō, actually give a damn? He nodded back, almost dumbly.

"Ichigo" he replied, looking back into the bag and picking out the bundle. He frowned when suddenly Jūshirō snorted, then began to laugh. "What? What's so funny?" he asked, frown deepening when the white-haired boy spluttered a little as he tried to force answer out. Ichigo bristled a little, wondering if this was perhaps the start of the punchline, perhaps the bundle was full of excrement and Jūshirō had finally given in and started to laugh when he picked it up.

He squeezed the package experimentally. It was hard.

Frozen excrement, perhaps?

"As in 'Strawberry'?" Jūshirō said suddenly, having managed to force out some coherent words. His eyes shining with mirth, but there was still no malice. It wasn't a look that warranted caution, simply one that indicated he found something genuinely amusing. It was then that Ichigo properly registered the question.

"No!" he exclaimed, waving the package above his head in his indignation, "As in-" Ichigo cut himself off with a scowl, he couldn't remember what it meant, "It doesn't matter! But it's not Strawberry! Oi!" he grew even more irate when Jūshirō dissolved into laughter once again, little did he know that this was due to his face becoming a particular shade of red.

"Gomen, Gomen!" Jūshirō made a placating gesture with his hands when he realized Ichigo was attracting ominous looking thunder clouds with his aura. He straightened up and schooled his face a little to rid it of the worst of his mirth, though it was still there, and extended a hand. "Pleased to make your acquaintance…" he waited for Ichigo to grasp his hand before adding "Strawberry-san" to the end. He laughed once again when Ichigo spluttered, a little more restrained this time.

"Aa" Ichigo muttered, once he had calmed down, "Thanks for the food, Jūshirō." He meant it as well, a genuine act of kindness was not something he had come into contact with since he had arrived.

Jūshirō continued to smile as they retrieved their hands, "Please, call me Jū. It's what my friends call me" Ichigo raised an eyebrow, "Jūshirō is a bit of mouthful" he clarified. It wasn't what Ichigo had meant, but he let it drop. He wasn't about to kick a gift-horse, neither was he about to turn down a friend, even if they had just met. Was that the extent of his loneliness? The loneliness that, until mere minutes ago, he had refused to even acknowledge the existence of.

Perhaps. Regardless, it was a welcome change.

"Well, call me whatever you want, I guess" he said, waving a hand dismissively. Now it was Jūshirō's turn to raise an eyebrow, "Not Strawberry!"

"Hai, hai. Ichi then?"

Ichigo scowled, making Jūshirō snort, "Yeah, sure. Whatever." At this point he turned and walked up the hill, making his way towards his spot. He listened to Jūshirō following him and decided not to stop him, the guy had gone to the trouble of getting this stuff out to him so the least he could do was not send him away. Besides, some company might be alright. Having been doing the same thing for so many weeks now, Ichigo hadn't realized that it was rather…dull. He enjoyed the peace and quiet, sure, but something in the back of his mind told him that he was not a natural introvert.

In the end, they sat up on the hill in silence for a few minutes and watched the sky. The quiet wasn't a bad one, Ichigo noticed after a time, he would call it companionable if had to assign a name to it. Companionable was not something he could even remotely associate with anything he had done, more welcome change he supposed. What was more, he felt at ease around this guy, ease which he hadn't felt since those first few hours on this very same hill. Sure, he had come back every day since, but it had never been quite the same as those first few hours. Maybe it was something about the way that Jūshirō treated Ichigo like an equal, and had gone to the lengths that he had to help him out. Or perhaps it was simply the fact that they had held a conversation that had been, for one party at least, fairly humorous, but not really at the expense of the other. It was friendly teasing, not intended to hurt.

These things were new to Ichigo, alien almost. He wasn't sure what to do with them.

"So" said Jūshirō, breaking the lingering silence, "Where exactly are you sleeping?"

"A shed" Ichigo answered bluntly, slumping backwards and resting his arms behind his head. This way he missed the startled look Jūshirō sent his way.

"A shed?"

"Yep" he waved a hand in the vague direction of his shed, "Didn't look like anyone was using it, I needed something to keep the wind away…" he shrugged "…better than nothing." A silence followed this statement, Ichigo glanced sideways to see a thoughtful expression on the other boy's face.

"So you steal people's wears and live in a shed?" said Jūshirō at length, his voice carrying the slightest bit of humour, telling Ichigo that he wasn't being accused. However, this wasn't what made him sit up and cast the other boy a look. "What? You had to eat somehow, and you're up here all hours of the day so you can't possibly be working. Logical conclusion: you stole it."

Ichigo scowled and flopped back down, "Aa…it's a living, I guess."

Jūshirō laughed, "Not much of one though. Seems awfully empty" he almost sounded contemplative, "I would probably go mad" he said, his voice was thoughtful, not quiet as such, but certainly a little further away. As if he were trying to think himself into Ichigo's metaphorical shoes, perhaps?

Ichigo shrugged, a little bitterly. "I guess you've got a lot to keep you occupied in that mansion of yours" it wasn't a question. Despite living the life of a petty thief, Ichigo liked to think he wasn't that dense. The only house in the area with people in it that could possibly afford clothes like that was the big, walled house that sat slightly down the hill. Asides from that, if Ichigo squinted he could see a window on the near-side which looked out onto the hill, he assumed that was how Jūshirō had known where to find him.

Next to him, Jūshirō stiffened slightly. "Aa…I apologize for the guards" said he quietly, "I don't understand why Otou-sama keeps them around. If we must have guards at least hire more understanding ones…" he trailed off with a sigh.

Ichigo waved a hand at him, "Nah, it's not your fault so don't have to apologize. Besides" he gestured to the now empty parcel, "You brought me that, makes up for it."

He caught the tension leave Jūshirō's posture, though all he replied with was a quiet "Mm."

After this the silence returned, though it remained comfortable. After a span of what might have been minutes, possibly hours, Jūshirō stood up. "I must return to the house before the evening meal" he explained, brushing himself down, "If I'm late Otou-sama would become suspicious, and I would prefer if he didn't follow me about all hours of the day" he turned then, and began to walk back down the hill. "Will you continue to come here?" Jūshirō asked over his shoulder.

"Aa" Ichigo replied simply, sitting up in time to catch the sideways grin that Jūshirō back at him.

"Then I'll see you soon" and with that, he departed properly. Ichigo watched his retreating back for a moment, then slumped down onto the grass for a quick nap. Hopefully he could sleep away the rest of the daylight before having to return to the shed, the food Jūshirō had given him having erased the need for him to steal anything else today. That night, once he had returned to his shed and crawled under his thicker blanket, he got the distinct feeling that life might become a little more interesting with this rich kid about. Strangely, though, all that thought did was make him grin.

In the months that followed Ichigo saw Jūshirō nearly every day, and the two struck up a steady friendship. Using the clothes his new friend had lent him, Ichigo survived the winter (though it wasn't as bad as it could have been) out in his shed with his warm blanket, and managed to continue his usual routine of stealing breakfast and making his way up to the hill. Then, either straight away or after an hour or two, Jūshirō would emerge from his home and would join him; usually carrying a modest amount of food from his family's kitchens to save Ichigo from having to steal something for his dinner. They would then sit up on the hill and while away the hours either gazing at the sky or discussing trivial matters, usually revolving around what life was like as a minor nobleman, tales of various escapades the two of them had undertaken, and other such unimportant things. Ichigo personally had little to discuss, he had not been on this plain of existence for nearly as long as Jūshirō had, and as such had fewer tales to tell.

Luckily Jūshirō didn't seem to mind this at all, and was more than happy to regale Ichigo with stories of his near thirty years of existence. Various mishaps with rebellious noble friends, entertaining recollections of some of his father's servants mincing their words in his presence and so forth; despite the tame nature of these stories, Ichigo found them entertaining enough. It was also through Jūshiro that Ichigo began to learn more about this world that he now inhabited. For instance, he now knew that this world was called 'Soul-Society' and was where the souls of the departed from the living world came to after death. He also learned that the valley they were in currently was a part of the Rukongai, specifically the First District of Northern Rukongai, and that there were eighty of these districts in Northern Rukangai alone, with eighty more to the south, east, and west. To their direct south was a large, walled area known as the Seireitei in which the five great noble houses, the central fourty-six, and a rather odd sounding military organization known as the Gotei Thirteen made their home.

When asked about the Gotei, Jūshirō merely shrugged. "Otou-sama tells me they're simply glorified thugs. He says they exist on the pretence of protecting the Seireitei, but in reality they're battle-craving madmen that bring death and chaos wherever they go." He hadn't said much more on the subject. Ichigo did manage to glean from his friend that the Gotei, or Shinigami (as he preferred to call them), exterminated hollows; tortured souls that had something from either this life, or their previous life that prevented them from moving on to re-join the cycle of reincarnation. By exterminating them, a Shinigami purifies them, washing away the sins of the Hollow and leaving only the deeds of the human soul behind to be judged. Beyond that, Jūshirō was unsure as to the function of the Shinigami, and said that if Ichigo was still curious he would ask his father for more information. Ichigo had simply shrugged.

On the subject of his own family, Jūshirō had explained that he was of a lesser noble house that had, at some point long in the past, been a part of the Kuchiki clan; one of the five great noble houses. His house had a tiny slither of the political clout the Kuchiki's had, as their status was that much lower, and as such they had a fraction of the land and less than a fraction of the prestige; Ichigo found most of the explanation for this odd, and didn't press further. He did learn, however, that Jūshirō was the named heir of the Ukitake clan and would inherit the responsibilities of his father upon his death, "But that won't be for a very long time!" Jūshirō had exclaimed, waving his hands nervously, "Otou-sama will be alive for hundreds of years yet, I'm sure!" As it turned out, souls in Soul Society were nigh on immortal, or as close to it as one might get without unreasonable amounts of what Jūshirō referred to as 'Kidō', and thus could live for thousands of years without aging as much as one might expect.

Ichigo decided that if he was to live for thousands of years as a petty thief, he might actually end up insane.

They covered all of this and more over the course of months, the conversations that they had being slow and ponderous with serious talks being few and far between (dependant largely on Ichigo's mood), but by the time the summer rolled around once more Ichigo finally felt as if he had a grasp on this place. It no longer felt as if he were floundering about in the dark, trying desperately to find some kind of hand hold to grasp on to in a desperate attempt to stay centred. With the revelation on life-spans, Ichigo had also realized that he couldn't simply live as he was for ever, he had to find something to fill his time with properly, some kind of purpose. Otherwise the grip that he had found would slowly erode away, and he would once again become lost at sea, he was sure that Jūshirō would not be able to hang around with a thief such as himself for ever, so Ichigo was either going to have to find new friends, or he was going to have to get his act together.

He voiced as much to Jūshirō, with some careful omissions, one day towards the end of June a year after he'd first found himself in Soul Society. His friend adopted a thoughtful look, a finger tapping his nose as he gazed up to the sky with a slight frown. Then he glanced back at Ichigo, as if analysing him, sizing him up as if he were an opponent. Then, with a smile, he said "I have an idea" and had promptly run off towards his house, ignoring Ichigo's startled 'Oi!' and disappearing from view shortly after. He didn't come back that evening. Ichigo had even stayed up there later than usual to make sure he wasn't going to return. Eventually had just gone back to his shed feeling strangely nervous.

The next day, however, brought a surprise.

Jūshirō joined him on the hill late on in the morning, as per usual, but this time there was something different about the pack he had slung over his shoulders. It was very much longer. Ichigo raised a sceptical brow as his friend reached him, dumping the bag on the floor with decisively less grace than Ichigo was used to seeing. His eyebrow rose further when the bag hit the floor, emitting a sharp clack sound. Jūshirō himself lowered to the ground in a more usual fashion, crossing his legs and fixing Ichigo with his usual grin as he began to open up the bag.

"Sorry for running off like that yesterday" he began, sincere even if the grin never faltered. "But I got detained by Otou-sama before I could sneak back out again" Ichigo nodded, watching as Jūshirō started to pull something out the bag. Then his eyes widened in surprise as his friend handed him, hilt first, what was decisively a sheathed Katana. The scabbard was a deep purple, and had a simple pattern up both sides that Ichigo guessed was a depiction of the wind blowing autumn leaves, at the top there were two pieces of golden string, wrapped around and knotted neatly. Reverently, and not without an encouraging nod from Jūshirō, Ichigo gripped the hilt and slowly drew the blade. It was a simple, singled edged affair, but to Ichigo something about it felt right, the way the hilt sat in his hand was familiar; like and old friend. The hilt was coloured purple and white, and the guard was a small depiction of the decoration on the scabbard, from a small loop at the base there was tied a single purple ribbon that fluttered about slightly in the wind.

Ichigo stared at the sword for a while, then on a strange whim he experimentally adjusted his grip so that both hands were wrapped around the hilt and, standing up, swung it over his head and down in a slow chopping motion. Jūshirō watched him, his expression holding a kind of closed curiosity, as Ichigo performed a number of these swings before falling back into a loose stance. "Have you held a sword before?" he asked suddenly, his curiosity growing all the more when Ichigo jumped and met his gaze, almost as if he had forgotten Jūshirō was there.

At length, he lowered the sword, switching it so that it lay in his outstretched palms again. No, he could not remember ever holding a sword before, and yet…and yet it felt distinctly as if he had. There was something so achingly familiar about holding the sword, his hands finding comfortable positions on the hilt and his feet moving to a stance almost instinctively, the overhead swing feeling not at all awkward or new, but as if he had done it before; numerous times in fact.

He looked up at Jūshirō, who now wore his curiosity more openly now. "…No" he said slowly, and that was the truth of the matter. Wasn't it?

"Sou ka…" Jūshirō seemed unconvinced, he stepped closer to Ichigo, "Take your guard" he instructed suddenly, and Ichigo instantly adjusted his grip and fell into a ready stance. Jūshirō made a noise that sounded vaguely like surprise, at which point Ichigo realized what he had just done, he found this whole situation decisively weird. He wasn't a fan of weird. He got over his shock quickly when his friend started to walk a circle around him, inspecting every aspect of his stance and occasionally correcting something. His right elbow went a little closer to his body, his knees became slightly more bent, his back straighter, and his front foot moved slightly further forwards before Jūshirō was satisfied.

"This" he explained "Is your basic stance. When you take your guard this is the stance you should be in, from there it is easy to adapt to almost any attack an opponent might send at you. Be sure to memorize it, it's very important that you can fall into that stance quickly in order to better respond to attacks. Now", he tilted Ichigo's sword upwards slightly with the scabbard of his own, "I'll walk you through the first Kata."

Jūshirō drew his own sword, falling into his stance with practiced ease. "Watch me carefully" said he, and with that he brought his sword up above his head and took a step forward, then he quickly took a step back, as if avoiding an attack, before striking downwards with his sword while at the same time stepping forwards again. He held his position for two seconds, with the blade pointing up at an angle, then drew his sword back up again to the position it had started in. He proceeded to repeat the movement once before falling back into the ready stance, after a second he straightened up and sheathed his sword. "Now repeat what I just did, if you feel you need to do it slowly do so", he then took a step back and watched Ichigo expectantly.

Realizing that this had been his cue, Ichigo took a breath, closing his eyes and recalling what he'd just seen in his mind's eye. He remained stock still for a moment more, then he launched into an almost exact copy of what Jūshirō had just done, falling back into a ready stance once he'd completed the set twice. Beside him, Jūshirō nodded approvingly, "Good. Remember to keep your back straight" said he, then made a 'continue' gesture with one hand, "Go ahead and keep going, bearing what I said in mind. Keeping your posture allows for faster movement with your arms, making your strikes more decisive."

He watched Ichigo as he continued with the Kata, a slight frown appearing on his face as his friend continued to show something more than simple beginner's confidence with the sword. His posture was just a little off perfect, but that wasn't the issue. What caught Jūshirō's attention was how relaxed his friend appeared, there was no tension and he didn't appear to be afraid of his sword at all like some beginners could be. On the contrary, he appeared confident, his movements were decisive and steadily increasing in speed; it was quite peculiar.

"Ne, Jū?" Ichigo called, still running the movements, "Why exactly am I doing this?"

Jūshirō grinned, "Well, you said yesterday that you felt as if you needed something to do. Luckily for you, it happens Otou-sama is looking for a new gate guard" Ichigo paused in his movements to fix Jūshirō with his full attention, "I believe the old guard fell afoul of Nee-chan, and as such he was quickly told to leave." Ichigo nodded, not quite comprehending what it was his friend was saying at first. Then, it hit him. It was as if all the wind had left, such was the weight of what his was saying.

His jaw had dropped comically, he managed to get a quiet "Jūshirō…" before he fell silent again.

"I've informed Otou-sama that I know someone who might be adequate for the position" Jūshirō continued, "You have an interview in two weeks."

Ichigo was almost literally flawed. Words failed him, was he not destined to be a thief forever? Was this the miracle that would take him off that road? It had never really occurred to him that he was capable of any different, a dead end future seemed assured. Now this?

"Well?" Jūshirō questioned, snatching his attention back from his thoughts, "You'll get accommodation and two meals a day as payment, in exchange you pledge yourself to Otou-sama and my family in service." Ichigo noted how serious Jūshirō's expression became at the last part, trying to convey the gravity of the commitment, how he couldn't simply back out once he accepted. However, it was not an opportunity he could afford to ignore, it was the opportunity for a fresh start, a clean slate, and here was Jūshirō simply handing it to him; no questions asked. It was also a decision he couldn't rush, Jūshirō had given him the two weeks as an out, he realized; if he decided against it before the interview there would be no hard feelings.

"Aa. I'll definitely think about it" he said eventually, fixing his friend with what he hoped conveyed his sincerity, "I mean it, Jū, Domo arigato."

Jūshirō simply smiled in response, looking a little relieved. Ichigo continued to go through the motions until dusk, now with more effort. When he realized that the sun was rapidly setting, he sheathed his sword and handed it back.

"Your old man might get suspicious if you don't go back soon" he explained when Jūshirō looked at him questioningly.

Jūshirō glanced about him, noting the fading light. "Ah, thank you for reminding me" said he, sliding the swords back into the bag and tying it at the top, though not before he handed Ichigo the food he'd brought with him. His friend sent him the usual nod of thanks that Jūshirō had long since come to expect in place of any verbal communication, and with that he began to make his way down the hill. Calling "We'll carry on tomorrow!" over his shoulder as he went.

Ichigo watched him go with a frown, he hadn't said it out loud because he was unsure of it himself, but when he had been going through the Kata it had felt…easy. He knew he had been doing it right because Jūshirō had said very little all the while, only occasionally telling him to straighten his back again or not to bring his sword down too far. Even with these few mistakes, Ichigo could not shake the feeling that he had done this before. The sensations felt all too natural to be beginner's luck, and the notion that he was simply a natural swordsman didn't quite feel right to him. Even as he retreated back to his shed that night his thoughts were moving quickly, he was certain he had never been anywhere near a sword before, he had only been in Soul Society for a year and his memory wasn't that bad. Perhaps he had retained some sort of instinct from his past life? He assumed that he must have had one, seeing as he wasn't technically 'born' in this world. If that was indeed the case, he would never know. Jūshirō had told him on a few occasions that people in Soul Society rarely ever remembered their past lives, and if he didn't remember it when he woke up he certainly wasn't going to remember it a year down the line.

Luckily, Ichigo had something to work towards now, something to look forwards to. He wasn't sure if he was going to accept yet, but he was fairly certain that he would, and even if not he was going to give the sword training is all until he decided for sure. He smiled a touch, Jūshirō certainly had gone the extra mile for him since they'd met, and he was truly grateful for it. Although he was fairly sure that was just the type of person his friend was.

So when he huddled in his blanket that night, the thin summer one this time, it was with a sort of excitement that was totally new to him. Perhaps this place wasn't so bad after all, he thought.

Next Chapter will be posted on the 31st of January

Edited: 25/01/2016