A/N: Hey folks, second chapter here for you all. I know I said Sunday but I actually had to rewrite this chapter as my computer crapped out on me when I was oh so nearly done. Also, I know I got some reviews after the last chapter (Thank you all!) and I am also aware that I haven't replied to them yet. That's because I feel that I should let everyone know the answers to them, so I'll answer them in the authors note.

Therman111, Tahaku, sir636, and guest: There will be a pairing and no it won't be either Rukia or Orihime, simply because that just won't work. He'll be a different man by the time they meet, and also a couple thousand years older. I'm not sure who the pairing will be, though I will likely have one. Maybe Retsu? Maybe one of the Kotetsus? Might be an OC, if I can think of a good one.

jcampbellohten: Thanks for the feedback! He will be regaining his memories at some point yes, though it won't be for a little while yet...a couple of thousand years to be vaguely exact. Of Course it was Jūshirō! Who else? Everybody's favorite Taicho! As to the cycle of souls, there will have to be some changes yes. Kaien, for example, would be difficult to explain, as would another Ichigo. As to the latter, Ichigo simply will not be born a second time, as he is still alive, and it will likely be Karin or Yuzu (possibly Tatsuki if I feel like it) that will receive shinigami powers. As for Kaien, I'm not sure. Maybe Kukaku in his place, we know she was a shinigami at some point.

sir636, MerryKitten: Shunsui will be appearing very soon! Next chapter? Who knows...as for Ichigo's Zanpakuto spirit, I have something special planned for that. More on this to come...

Tahaku: I'm thinking more along the lines of friends and comrades, Ichigo will be a Taicho in his own right (in all likelyhood) so they'll be equals in all but social status, and I never thought Juu was one to care about that too much.

Accursius: Interesting idea, I was thinking either a cycle of souls mess up or Urahara being...Urahara. That might make more canonical sense, however. Will consider.

Sadistic Avacado: My thinking was that, as Jūshirō has spent all of his life around powerful souls, he wouldn't know any different. It will be addressed later on.

Harem-monger sama (amazing name dude), and all the guests that reviewed: Thanks so much guys! I'm glad you all liked it!

Just to warn you all before I let you guys get on with ya reading, I struggled a little with the pacing on this chapter so please bear with it. The next chapter will be easier to write because Ichigo's life will be a touch more interesting from here on in.

But yes, I'll shut up now. Thank you all for the follows, favs, and reviews!

Disclaimer: I really don't own Bleach. Honestly.

Rise of the Slaying Moon

Chapter Two: Oddities

Ichigo awoke the next morning feeling…different. He couldn't quite place a finger upon what it was, but he felt distinctly as if something had changed. Standing up, he confirmed that all of his limbs were present, and he was still in his shed. It was hot out, as it generally was in the summertime, and it didn't appear as if any freak rain had occurred in the night. So the weather wasn't to blame for this strange change, and it certainly wasn't anything physical; Ichigo having checked for the latter numerous times already.

What it certainly was, was strange.

He had no memory of waking up in the night, and he was sure that he would have noticed if someone had come in and done something to him, or at least he would have noticed the result in the morning. So it wasn't that. Ichigo strained his mind, trying to find something that might indicate what this change was. After some minutes of this he decided that the answer wasn't going to simply reveal itself, and went to get breakfast instead. Upon exiting the shed Ichigo found that it was hot. Not your normal, everyday summer sun kind of heat either. No, this was the kind of heat that left blisters and reddened skin and made the elderly and sick feel even more so. It pressed down on him like a very thick, very heavy blanket and robbed him of some of his ability to breathe, leaving just enough for him to plod along towards town.

Whilst walking, he noticed that he was surrounded by waves in the air. At a first glance one might not see them, but on a further inspection or with the suspicious narrowing of the eyes the observer would notice them. The easiest way to visually describe them would be 'distortions', as they seemed to make everything on the side opposite to the observer incredibly blurred and out-of-focus; as if on the other side of a very smudged window. For someone seeing these for the first time it would probably be quite disconcerting, the way that solid walls began to flex and move around as if they were made of cloth that was getting tossed about in a strong wind. For Ichigo, it was simply the cause of a quizzically raised brow and the unasked question: 'Where did this heat come from, all of a sudden?' It hadn't been this hot the previous day, nor the day before that. Indeed, Ichigo struggled to think of any time at which the temperature had been so brutal.

His view of the waves was then rudely obscured by the houses, and Ichigo was forced to break his observation off. As he trundled through town though, Ichigo noticed something else. His stride. It was longer. Ichigo observed this for a time, then shrugged and continued to walk; reasoning that he had perhaps had a growth spurt at some point and had just now noticed it. Instead, he turned his attention to the day at hand. There had been no revelation concerning his ease with a sword during the night, but Ichigo couldn't help but feel some kind of anticipation towards it, perhaps even excitement. Whatever the feeling was, it span around in the pit of his stomach like a hyper child at a birthday party, bringing his mood dangerously close to 'good'. Perhaps that was what this feeling of distinct change was, Ichigo had never been excited about anything in his…well…his life, he guessed. He had never had any reason to be, for what was there to be excited about in the life of a petty thief? He had felt at ease, had felt relaxed, angry, frustrated, desperate, cold, hungry, tired, numb, hot, thirsty, light-headed, satisfied, humorous, and a whole host of other little emotions…but never once had he been excited. Ichigo frowned as he walked. It was nice that something was starting to happen. Since Jūshirō had first appeared not much had changed, the routine remained largely the same and adapted only slightly to allow for one variable. Asides from that nothing had changed since the moment he'd arrived here.

Perhaps, he mused, it was Jūshirō's offer that was to blame for this sudden outburst of emotion. It had given him a goal, he supposed, a purpose to fulfill. In fact, he realized that he had never really had one of those either; not any that meant anything anyway. He thought about this for a moment. Having a goal, something to aim for, was good, he decided. A goal meant that he was working for something, and working for something meant that he was up and about, planning how he was going to get to that goal and then putting that plan into action. He liked plans as well. A plan meant a structured approach, deciding whether that approach was head on or from the side, whether to move slowly and cautiously or charge in screaming bloody murder. Having a plan meant he could have contingencies, back up plans to put into action when the main plan failed, or hit a snag that was not workable-roundable.

A goal and a plan on how to achieve it. Ichigo decided that he liked these things immensely.

Perhaps this was responsible for the strange feeling he had felt that morning. Something in the back of his mind agreed with him, and so he added that to the list of strange things, along with 'excitement'. He was also beginning to notice changes in the world around him as well, not physical changes mind you. What Ichigo was seeing were changes in his own perspective, as if life had suddenly been injected into everything, a needle straight to the vein of the world. The edges had become sharper and the colours were bolder, the sounds were distinguishable and varied in pitch and timbre, fighting for the attention of his suddenly sensitive ears. He realized that he could smell the market place before he saw it, all the spices and meats, fresh picked fruit mixing with the smell of merchant's sweaty armpits. Imagine an artist adding colour to an already there outline of the world, but sped up a hundred times. That was the kind of experience Ichigo had just had. His blinkers had been removed, the cotton taken out of his ears and retrieved with tweezers from his nose; his senses had come alive.

And all it took was the realization of a goal and the formulation of a plan, mixed with just a pinch of anticipation.

Crazy, you say? Over-the-top exaggeration?


Or maybe that was all it took for Ichigo to finally feel alive. To emerge blinking into his own body from the deepest corner of his mind. To feel in control.

And what was this plan? This coveted idea that had lifted his spirits so?

Well, that was simple. He was going to become a guard, and to do that he was going to train. A goal, and a plan on how to achieve it. Kurosaki Ichigo had also decided that he really liked simple, as a concept.

So Ichigo took this goal and this plan, applied his ample drive and determination to it, fuelled it with his desire to not be a thief any longer, and the result was not something that this world was yet ready for. That morning, he stole his breakfast of sweet bread and fruit (ignoring the armpits) in under thirty seconds; a personal record. He was gone before the merchant manning the store had even fully removed his goods from their crates, the poor sod. He then used his newly found long stride to vacate the area before anyone was any the wiser, navigating the backstreets with attentiveness this time rather than absentmindedness. He avoided the path that led behind the tavern, not wanting to soil his feet with bodily fluids (or trip over the inebriated), and actually watched where he was walking to the ends of avoiding the hapless child he usually barrelled into around a certain corner that led between the general store and the butchery. Said child was actually so stunned he fell over on his own steam, much to Ichigo's confusion.

After picking the child up and ascertaining his mental state, Ichigo continued onwards towards his eventual destination: the hill. It was hot on the hill that day, making Ichigo briefly wish for the shade of the houses before realizing that people generally accompanied them and retracted the though so quickly his brain received mild whiplash. There was no breeze, and so the air was still and heavy making it difficult to breathe in, such was its thickness. Even the grass was warmer underfoot than it really had any right to be, taking away from the usually pleasant experience that accompanied walking barefoot upon it. Ichigo observed the way that all the individual blades seemed to lightly reflect the beating sun, as if they were consciously angling themselves to take in the heat. The result was a dazzling display of shining green that almost seemed to glow like a fire, the individual blades forming the tongues that licked at his calloused soles and heated them even further to the point at which moisture started to emerge from the pours. About halfway up the hill he stopped, remembering the waves from earlier, and turned around to look out the valley.

From up there it was difficult to make out much of anything. The waves trailed lazily across the sky, moving up and down and shimmering in such a way that one might mistake the sight of them for the beginnings of a mirage. In fact it was almost like staring across the ghost of the sea that must have once been there, the waves being the ripples of the water dancing upon the surface whist the tops of the distant hills were the opposite shore. At its lowest depth the other towns, clumps of trees, and even the river were so out of focus they appeared to be nothing more than smudges; like a child's first painting. The towns were dark greyish-brown smudges dotted about on the light green smear that was the grass, with occasional patches of darker green likely signifying the clumps of trees, and draped across the middle was a long, thin blueish smear that was likely the river. Ichigo thought the combined effect was almost comical, it was certainly a far cry from his usual view.

However, any humour to be found in this situation was short lived when Ichigo remembered the tiniest detail about Jūshirō. Some time ago, Ichigo had asked about the rather odd combination of white hair and black eyebrows his friend possessed, as it had been an item of curiosity for his often idle brain. What he received in response, however, was not something he had expected. In the place of an explanation about noble style, or a hair bleaching gone wrong, Ichigo was regaled in the tale of a sickly infant on the brink of death. Jūshirō's parents had been at their wit's end when they had delivered him to a shrine deep into the districts to be saved, hoping against hope that their eldest child would live to see another morning, let alone the next summer. The spirit of that shrine had answered. Jūshirō had been snatched back from death's door, but at some price.

His health, Ichigo had come to realize, was never a certain thing. Some days he would be fine, almost the picture of health if not for how perpetually frail he was, but the very next day he might be unable to move for violent coughing fits and the complete agony raking his body. Those were the days Jūshirō didn't emerge from the house. At first it had made Ichigo angry. Angry that he couldn't do anything to help, angry that anyone had to live with such a thing, angry that Jūshirō would continue to come out of the house for his benefit until he could not physically move. He had felt more than a little selfish for accepting the daily food parcel that Jūshirō offered him, the clothes he gave to him with a casual 'I have more than enough clothes, Ichigo'.

After a while though, the anger had faded. Jūshirō had assured him that he had been alive for thirty years since then and was more than capable of dealing with it, and that he had people around him that cared and looked after him. He no longer had his mother for that, she had been taken by the same illness that had almost claimed him, but his father lived on as did his sisters; all of which he referred to as Nee-chan. Ichigo's anger had subsided to mere frustration after that, and he vowed to better look out for his friend. At present, it was this vow that was causing him concern. Such heat would surely be bad for Jūshirō, and if he was any judge of character his friend would emerge anyway. He wouldn't baby him though, he would simply keep an eye on him, and would send him back off to the house faster than you could blink if the noble so much as swayed. Ichigo gave himself a firm nod, resolved, and slumped back onto the grass to watch the sky.

He promptly fell asleep.

Ichigo had been dozing for some time, in the realm between waking and sleeping, when he was unceremoniously awakened by a very hard object landing on his stomach. Now firmly awake, he bolted upright faster than a startled deer and frantically scanned his surroundings for a threat. To his right, there was nothing but hills and farmland, the occasional hut perched precariously on flat pieces of ground too small to effectively hold them. To his front was the town and the valley beyond it, still smudgy and blurred like melting cake icing. The last place Ichigo had left to look was his left hand side, and when he turned his gaze that way he was greeted by the sight of a grinning Jūshirō, who was, quite literally, left holding the bag. On his lap, Ichigo found, upon inspection, the same sheathed katana he had been using the day before and deduced it was that which had caused him to awaken so suddenly.

He turned slowly back to the source of the katana, face down and covered with malicious shadow. "Oi…" said he, voice shaking and dangerously soft. What followed was the silence before a volcano erupted. The pause before the final crescendo at the opera. A silence so full of tension that thunderclouds formed overhead…

Then, the storm broke.

"…WHAT THE HELL, JŪSHIRŌ!?" Yelled Ichigo at such a volume that living souls were bound to hear. In parallel dimensions dolphins beached and dogs barked, avalanches were caused upon the highest snow-capped mountains, atoms were split, and wolves howled at the moon in response to the most confusing call they had ever heard.

Meanwhile, on the hill, Jūshirō had crumbled into a hysterical heap on the grass partially, but not entirely, due to the fact that Ichigo was now glancing around the valley with confusion as his own voice echoed back at him. Mostly it was due to Ichigo going completely strawberry red from head to toe in a comical rage, and Jūshirō only managed to refrain from calling Ichigo by his nickname for the sake of his personal safety. Ichigo looked back at Jūshirō, and waited not-so-patiently for his friend to calm down. By this point he was scowling from every inch of his being, and tried to think of a fitting revenge.

"G-gomen…" Jūshirō eventually managed to force out, falling into another fit of laughter shortly after and not able to stop for quite some time. Gathering himself with a deep breath, he finally managed to speak properly. "I did try calling."

Ichigo fumed, "Well try harder next time! That could have killed me!"

"It was a sheathed katana, Ichigo."

"What if the sheath came off!?"

"It was tied to the guard…"

Ichigo folded his arms with a fiery huff. "The knot could have come loose."

"But did it?"

He pouted and turned to face the valley/three-year-old's art attempt. "No…" he spun back around, "But why'd ya have to do that!?"

By this point Jūshirō had managed to obtain a tentative hold of his composure, and managed to respond without falling into another laughing fit. "As I said, I tried calling. I even poked you with my foot a few times" he held his sandaled foot up for emphasis. "To be honest, it reminded me of a friend of mine, so I decided to try a similar level of shock on you to what I have to use to wake him up."

Ichigo, by now slightly less irate, huffed again. "Whatever. Just poke me in the eye or something next time. I'd rather keep my stomach inside, thanks."

Jūshirō raised his hands in surrender, "Hai, Hai."

Shortly afterwards Jūshirō set Ichigo off on the next set of movements. He demonstrated the kata much like he had done the day before, slowing it down so Ichigo to could take proper note of the specific movements and positions. Jūshirō ran it through a few times to make sure his friend understood, then stood off to the side to observe. Soon, he found his brow furrowing. Much like the day prior, Ichigo moved through the kata like it was his birth-right. He held himself with confidence, he made no real errors, the sword sat comfortably in his hands all the way through, and his posture was spot-on. The kata was still, admittedly, an easier one, but it usually took beginner students a good few weeks of practice to attain the level of perfection Ichigo completed them at. Besides, there was just something about the way he moved. Jūshirō had noticed it yesterday as well, this flowing movement. It bore no awkwardness, not like a beginner at all in that regard, and was done with such ease that if Ichigo's face wasn't so definitely that of concentration he might have looked bored. Quite peculiar indeed.

Rather than have Ichigo continue doing a movement set obviously below his ability, Jūshirō moved him on to the next within half-an-hour. Yet again, Ichigo took to the kata like a fish to water. Moving onto the next produced the same result, as well as with the next, and the next…and the next…

'What is this?' Jūshirō thought to himself, watching as yet another kata was mastered in mere minutes.

In the end, he called for Ichigo to stop for a lunch break far earlier than he might have done otherwise. He needed time to think about how to proceed, though he had to admit he'd had a feeling something like this would happen when he'd noticed Ichigo's seemingly natural talent the day before. He hadn't thought it would be as…strange as this. More to the point, where was it coming from, this ability of his? It couldn't be natural talent, Jūshirō got the feeling that would be an insult to…whatever it actually was. He also knew that Ichigo didn't remember anything of his past life, and it was far too late for memories to be returning; just over a year after he'd arrived. He trusted that Ichigo hadn't lied, and he believed that he was just as confused about this as he was; if the contemplative face his friend was making were any indication. Some sort of spiritual anomaly, perhaps? Some sort of filter slowly giving this ability back to him?

Jūshirō shook his head. No, that was far-fetched at best. It was more likely to be some kind of muscle memory left over from his previous life, though he had no idea how the cycle of souls had come to make this mistake. Surely if he remembered one thing he would remember everything. That was how it worked. He glanced at Ichigo, who was now glaring at the heat wave. He knew he wasn't being lied to, Ichigo was the type of person who just couldn't lie even if his life depended on it. So what was this?

Jūshirō sighed, perhaps he was making too much out of it. Perhaps it would be better to just go with it and see where it went, it certainly made the job of training him easier; he could switch straight to sparing without worry. After all, who was he to kick the gift horse?

He took one last swig from his water skin, then stood up. "Alright" said he, prompting Ichigo to turn his way, "We're going to try something different." He picked up his sword and walked ten paces before turning around, coming to face a confused looking Ichigo. "I'm going to attack you, and I want you to defend against it. You don't need to worry about counter-attacking just yet, just try not to get pushed back too far or let me land a hit. I won't go all out just yet" he reassured when Ichigo looked at him sceptically, "but that doesn't mean you can let your guard down." With that, he drew his sword and dropped the sheath on the grass behind him, out of the way.

Ichigo, meanwhile, was stumped for only a moment more by the sudden change in pace before he shook himself and did the same. He dropped into a ready stance, sword held before him in both hands, and watched his friend carefully. He knew Jūshirō was good, it was written all over him when he held a sword, but he wasn't sure just how good he was. Even with him holding back there was still a possibility that twenty years of training was going to be too much for him to handle.

He mentally slapped himself.

In theory, it was simple. Just don't get hit and don't fall over backwards; that's all there was too it. He took a deep breath in and closed his eyes, centring himself. Then he opened them again, and sent Jūshirō a nod, which was returned.

Ichigo had a split second to observe his friend tense before Jūshirō pushed off towards him. Even then it was clear he was holding back something fierce, it was in his stride. Like he was forcibly slowing himself down. It looked a little awkward for the first few steps, in fact. He wouldn't say it out loud yet, but when the first swing –an overhead chop aimed at his shoulder- came down Ichigo felt as if he could have followed the movement in his sleep. He knew Jūshirō was better than that. He raised his sword to meet Jūshirō's horizontally and the two blades met with a resounding clang, both of them with two hands on their swords and fighting for the upper hand. Even with his initial confidence still intact, Ichigo had to admit that Jūshirō hit hard for someone as frail as he looked to be, that was something he hadn't been expecting at all. He had a feeling that this was the one element Jūshirō wasn't holding back on, probably because he still wanted to test Ichigo. Jūshirō still won the pushing battle after a few seconds though, and Ichigo was forced to jump away; or risk getting hit.

The next attack was a long-armed thrust, Jūshirō using the ground Ichigo had put between them to his own advantage. Ichigo instinctively deflected the incoming sword to his left, moving right to allow his opponent to stumble after his blade. Before he had much time to settle, however, Jūshirō decided to up the speed a little and directed a wide arcing slash in towards Ichigo's knees. Ichigo jumped the sword, and was immediately forced to bring his sword up to block the following diagonal slash that would have rent him from his shoulder down to his waist if he hadn't blocked it. Instead of holding his blade Jūshirō immediately pulled back and struck again, swinging in towards Ichigo's right arm and forcing his opponent to move his whole body to block the blade head-on. It left Ichigo vulnerable with his side now exposed to Jūshirō, who drew his sword back with a rasp as it slid off Ichigo's own sword and struck quickly at Ichigo's head with a high chop. Again Ichigo met the blade with his own, and Jūshirō disengaged only to dance back in a moment later with a backhand slash. For a moment, it looked as if the blade was going to strike home.

But then Ichigo's sword appeared in the gap, angled with the tip towards the ground as he held the weapon one-handed almost over his shoulder. Jūshirō had to admit, it was an impressive block. He pressed against Ichigo's sword a few times to test the strength of the defence before pulling back, holding up a hand to indicate he was done before walking around Ichigo to his sheath. He wasn't going to say it out loud, but the heat was starting to get to him. He had known that it was a risk to exert himself, and that if he had one of his episodes out here it would be up to Ichigo to either make sure he didn't choke on his own lungs or that he made it back to the house. Either way, it would make his position at home particularly tricky. He picked up his sheath and slid his sword home, typing the small rope around the guard through the loop at the top of the sheath to make sure it didn't come out. He then slid it back into the bag, his hand emerging a moment later with Ichigo's food parcel.

When he handed it to his friend a look of understanding passed onto his features. Ichigo knew of the condition, Jūshirō had known it would be unfair not to tell him; just in case. So now that the sun was becoming a little too uncomfortable Ichigo knew why Jūshirō was calling it a day earlier than usual, he was grateful for the knowledge that Ichigo wasn't going to call him out on it, or ask him if he was alright. He just knew. That was all that was needed.

Ichigo made to hand the sword back to Jūshirō, pointedly presenting it hilt-first. He was surprised when Jūshirō simply shook his head, pushing it back towards him. "Keep it. You'll need it to practice."

Ichigo raised an eyebrow. "You're just giving me a sword? Damn, you nobles really have no grasp of money" said he, mildly exasperated by his tone. Jūshirō laughed, slightly strained sounding due to the heat.

"It's not a big deal, Ichigo. That's a low quality sword" said he, sighing when Ichigo's jaw slackened comically. "Have you noticed how it's hilt-heavy? It's not very well balanced, and the metal is weak for a sword. It's nowhere close to the quality of a guard's sword, let alone one of my father's ceremonial katana" he groaned when Ichigo still looked stricken. "It's a spare sword. In a spare sheath. I found them in the back of a storage cupboard and neither of them have been used in years, I'm sure. It's not a problem."

That seemed to mollify Ichigo somewhat, at least to the point where his jaw elevated from the floor. He placed the sword over his shoulders, holding it there with two hands either-side of his head and lent his head back against the hard leather sheath. The sky was still the same blue, he noted. It was like looking at a well-painted wall.

When he next spoke it was quiet, so quiet that Jūshirō had to strain to hear what it was he said.

"Thanks, Jū." It was for more than the sword. Jūshirō didn't know what had brought it on, but he put it down to his illness bringing his friend down. So he smiled.

"Not a problem" said he. "I should get back to the house. This heat isn't doing me any good" he began to walk down the hill as he said this, throwing a wave over his shoulder. "I'll see you tomorrow, Ichigo."

"Aa" Ichigo replied, still quiet and looking at the sky.

"See you tomorrow"

The routine changed again after that. Ichigo didn't mind at all, if anything it was a good change. However, the fact remained that something changed that afternoon on the hill, not simply the routine; something more. His new-found feeling remained, driving him out of bed every day and so forth, keeping the world in focus, and with it everything become easier, lighter almost. No longer was stealing something he did, but was unable to talk about. He still didn't enjoy doing it, but it no longer made him grit his teeth and force the thought away. Instead, it became a means to an end; those ends being his successful acquisition of a solid job. He could live with it now, and that was enough.

With this change within himself, there came another one. It seemed that after their third day of training, Jūshirō had realized that there was something different about his friend. He hadn't said anything out loud, hadn't called him up on it or demanded to know the answers to questions even Ichigo didn't know the answers to. Instead he had simply got on with it, though Ichigo noticed that the other boy began acting slightly more freely around him. He wondered if Jūshirō had been afraid of showing too much emotion to Ichigo, not because he was bad at self-expression, but because Ichigo was. Whatever the reason, a wall seemed to crumble, and Ichigo found himself far more at ease than he had been before; even if he was adamant he had been 'at ease' before.

After that particular afternoon, the weather cooled down again and fell to a far more comfortable level. Jūshirō could manage sparing for longer periods of time, and they often went for a few hours at a time with Jūshirō slowly starting to hold back less and less as the days progressed. Ichigo's abilities were coming on steadily, if accelerated, and he was able to hold his own against his friend going at almost full-speed. Jūshirō had stopped questioning his friend's rapid development after their first spar, having concluded that just running with it was by far the best option. It was still baffling, of course, but if he treated Ichigo like any other opponent he found that the sparing sessions were actually quite enjoyable. Ichigo wasn't as fast as he was, not by some margin, but he made up for this with raw strength that was often turned to forcing Jūshirō to block heavy strikes that made him wince.

On the morning three days before the interview they had sparred for roughly thirty minutes, before Jūshirō had conceded that Ichigo was almost certainly going to pass the demonstration aspect of the test. However, there was more to it than that. Along with a physical demonstration, which Jūshirō knew involved fighting a senior member of the guard, there was a spoken interview as well. This second portion involved the candidate meeting with the head of the household, Jūshirō's father, and during this period of time it was imperative that Ichigo had some idea of how to properly address nobility. Ichigo could play twenty questions all day, so that wasn't a problem. What the problem was that he had never, in his life, addressed anyone formally; not even Jūshirō. He hadn't had any reason to. For Ichigo, respectful address was for the stuffy nobles that lived in the Seireitei and had never lived a properly hard day in their lives. He would treat as an equal those whom he felt deserved it, not someone who would look down their nose at him without even deigning to speak with him first; i.e. a stuffy noble from the Seireitei.

So, after their spar, Jūshirō began the process of teaching Ichigo proper address. Most of it was fairly easy to pick up, he wasn't dense after all. The issue was his principals and the fact that he would have to compromise them by addressing people he held little respect for as if they were his lord and saviour. Which they likely thought they were. Jūshirō had assured Ichigo that his father was a good man, one of similar principals as well, and that he shouldn't be worried about himself being 'kicked to the curb', so to speak. Ukitake Sabūrō was, apparently, kind hearted and gentle if a little stiff when it came to protocol and etiquette, though this last trait was only truly taxing for the guards during formal visits. To put Ichigo at ease somewhat, and give his father a more human appearance, Jūshirō regaled his friend in some of his father's better known exploits, along with some of the mischief they had gotten into when he himself was very young. Ichigo had admit that the man sounded cool enough. Besides, Jūshirō must have been (at least partially) his father's son. The man did raise him after his mother died after all, and so it was likely that Jūshirō's and Sabūrō's principals and thought processes were similar. Seeing as Jūshirō was the only person Ichigo had ever met that would give a poor person food and clothing for no gain on his own part whatsoever, as well as his only friend, he felt it safe to assume that Sabūrō was a decent enough guy. Perhaps worthy of his respect.


At present, Ichigo was making his way back to the shed. The night had drawn in and the air was cool, refreshing him after the warmth of the day. The moon was full, illuminating his surroundings and casting long shadows of the buildings against the fields that surrounded them. For the first time in a few weeks, Ichigo's mind was blank. He navigated the streets with a kind of ease only time and experience could bring, his sword resting absently across his shoulders so that he could better lean his head back to gaze up at the sky. He hadn't ever been one for night-time strolls, preferring to spend the precious hours of darkness sleeping and regaining his energy for the next day. Tonight, however, he was at ease. The interview wasn't for another three days, and Jūshirō had assured him that he would have all the formalities down to an art long before that, if he kept his current pace. So really, he had no worries; seeing as the practical element didn't bother him at all. Taking his new found 'at-ease-ness' he decided that lingering about was a good change up on his usual evening plan –i.e. sleep- and had slowed his pace upon entering the town.

So he wandered the streets, not really paying attention to where he was going; just kind of knowing it was the right direction. He paid his surroundings little heed, so caught up in the stars was he, and walked as if he had no purpose at all, even though he did. However, his absentmindedness was kicked in the shin slightly when he rounded the corner that would take him past the back of the tavern. Now, Ichigo would usually avoid the tavern, he had found in the past couple of weeks that fighting drunkards for an insignificant adrenalin rush didn't appeal; so he would take a different route. Regretfully he was not paying attention this evening, and so he had ended up here to find a small crowd gathering. He furrowed his brows slightly, puzzled. Usually the drunks would be on their lonesome, having either been thrown out or kicked out, depending on the guard. This time they seemed to be somewhat…organized?

Ichigo blinked. It was impossible, surely?

No…no those did appear to be ranks…kind of…maybe…from a distance.

There were ten of them that Ichigo could see, and they were standing in a kind of arrow shape with a man that Ichigo might have recognized at the front. He was short, round, and a very comical shade of red. Ichigo wondered absently if he came from someone's garden, and as to where his little red hat was, before then trailing off and wondering why that image was so familiar. Regardless, the little round being at the front was clearly in a seething rage. It was quite amusing, actually; Ichigo could not think of any circumstance in which he could take the poor sod seriously. Also clear was the fact that this group was waiting for Ichigo, and it was either horrible luck on his part or Kami-given luck on theirs that they just so happened to gather on the night Ichigo decided to day-dream. Night dream…

Surely that was just regular dreaming?


Ichigo and the group stood and stared at each other for some time, the gathering slowly building their fiery rages further and creating smoke columns into the dark sky as the embers of their anger heated up. Ichigo, meanwhile, was nonplussed. They were all clearly drunk, and their formation appeared to be more of a coincidence than a plan; though he guessed it might have been at some stage of the evening. He reckoned he could take the ten of them easy if they moved in as disorganized a fashion as he expected they might, and would probably be able to do it without killing any of them either. Good.

He felt far too sorry for them to kill any of them.

The stand off continued for some minutes before Ichigo got bored of following the angry smoke columns as they trailed into the sky, and decided the best course of action was to antagonize them.

"Yo" he greeted, raising one hand off of the sword upon his shoulders, palm-out, as if to greet them like personal friends. The little man at the front of the arrow clenched his fists and stamped his foot, going a rather incredible shade of red from head to toe.

"That's all you've got to say!?" He exclaimed, red face burning in Ichigo's direction.

He shrugged lazily and lowered his hand back to his sword, "What were you expecting?"

"What!?" The little man stamped his foot again, giving the impression of an angry toddler. "That's not important! What's important is the fact that we're gonna beat the shit out of you for messing with us!"

"Oh?" Ichigo raised his head slightly to better survey the assembled townsfolk. "Six on one? That's hardly fair…" the little man barked a harsh laugh.

"Baka! You can't even count can you!?" he yelled, pointing a pudgy finger at Ichigo. "It's ten on one, retard!"

Ichigo waved a hand lamely, then began to point out the four of their number who appeared to be too drunk to even breathe correctly. "The four who can barely stand up don't count. They probably can't take a single step without tripping over thin-air, let alone throw a straight punch."

"Shut up!" One of them shouted, having been identified by Ichigo's pointed finger. He promptly fell flat on his face, eyes rolling back in their sockets on the way down. The leader glanced backwards, and somehow managed to get even angrier at the state of his force.

"Idiots! I told you not to drink so much!" he span back around again and growled, "It doesn't matter. Like you said, it's six on one!"

Ichigo raised an eyebrow and smirked. "Nah, that's not what I meant…" Slowly, he lifted the sword off his shoulders and slid the blade from the sheath. "Six to one isn't fair on you guys."

The leader of the pack bristled when he saw the sword, seemingly wondering whether it was still worth it. Then he started forward, some of the braver (or drunker) men following him. "Bastard. I'm gonna make you pay for what you did to my face!"

At that moment, the little man properly entered the moonlight, and Ichigo saw several ugly scars adorning his round face. If he strained his memory, he could just remember pounding the guy into a wall after he picked a fight with Ichigo in this very alley. Even after he'd been thrown to the floor three times and getting several broken fingers for his trouble he had still gotten up, the wall had been an act out of boredom more than anything else. Whatever vendetta the man had against Ichigo then had apparently gotten worse with time, and he now had friends to back him up.

Ichigo switched the sword and sheath around his hands so that the sword was in his offhand, and his sheath was leading. Despite the sorry state of the rabble, he remained firm in the commitment to not killing any of them unless he was left with no other choice; meaning that his sword would have to stay very-much out the way.

The rabble was upon him now, their leader at the head of the charge with his fist raised high so that it was roughly level with Ichigo's head. Time seemed to slow down for Ichigo as the fist swung towards him, leaving it to move through the air almost as if it were a thick substance. Ichigo moved forwards, stepping to the side of the fist and sending his sheath slashing downwards viciously against the leader's temple. His adversary crumpled sideways, the hard leather having made a resounding thwack sound upon impact, and fell straight into the path of another who'd been charging behind him. Unable to react in his drunken state the man tripped over his leader, cracking his head upon the hard cobble floor and not moving another muscle. Ichigo, meanwhile, stepped underneath a swing aimed at him from the right and allowed the man to stagger through under his own momentum. It gave him the room he needed to bring his sheath around from the right in a wide arc. The hard leather impacted at the side of his attacker's head, sending him to the floor next to comrades, unmoving.

With only three more capable attackers remaining, Ichigo had far more room to manoeuvre. He stepped back from the next attack, allowing it to fall short, and thrust forwards with his sheath to strike the man in the centre of his forehead, leaving only two remaining. Ichigo went on the attack then, pushing one's Adam's-Apple in to leave him gasping for breath and striking the other hard in the back of the head, having ducked under his swing. With the last two capable fighters on the floor, Ichigo turned to the three remaining drunks; the fourth still passed out further up the street. Ichigo surveyed them, one had wet himself and looked more scared the angry, whist the other two still looked fairly pissed. Both kinds of pissed.

One of them made to swing at Ichigo, though the move was slower still than his more capable fellows. Ichigo struck forward with his sheath, embedding it into the man's gut only to withdraw it quickly to evade the inevitable spew that erupted from his mouth. The second, meanwhile, had been trying to flank Ichigo despite never actually leaving his line of sight. So when the attack came, Ichigo calmly put his sheath up and tapped the man on the forehead without looking, the effect was rather like watching a tall tree fall. The third, now terrified, leaking, and disenchanted with whatever tripe had been put into his poor malleable brain decided that the best option for him at the point was to leave. Very quickly.

It was a shame he booked it straight into a wall.

Ichigo watched with interest as his last opponent slid down the thick, wooden wall; his face grinding against the surface all the way down. It was fascinating to see how his nose remained unbroken despite the obvious friction it was enduring, and despite the speed at which it had made contact with the wall. The drunk came to rest at the bottom, his face still pressed against the wall even though his body was sprawled out on the ground, and Ichigo felt his curiosity wain.

He sheathed his sword and returned it to its prior position across his shoulders so that he could lean his head against it, then walked calmly on towards his shed as if nothing had just happened. The encounter had been over within seconds after-all, ten seconds in-fact; Ichigo knew this because he had been able to count during the fight. So insignificant was the amount of time spent dealing with the posse that it was barely worth acknowledging, and Ichigo couldn't be bothered to anyway. So he simply didn't. In short order he was back in his shed, under his thin summer blanket and falling into a comfortable sleep.

Tomorrow he would continue to learn etiquette from Jūshirō, and in three day's-time he would be at the interview itself. He was confident he would succeed, and was determined to do so. He wasn't about to throw away the chance that had been presented to him just because he had swear loyalty to his best friend's father, he was stubborn not stupid. So he slept with resolve that night, ready to tackle the pains of formality come the next day. Jūshirō had mentioned something along the lines of bowing, or something similar.

How hard could bowing be?

"No, Ichigo! You have to bow lower!" Yelled Jūshirō for what felt to him like the millionth time. "Stopping there would be seen as a slight to my father's status, and he surely would not appreciate that; much less grant you a job afterwards. You must get lower, fold in the middle like I showed you so that you're facing the ground."

Ichigo groaned and tried again, bowing as low as he could before his back began to hurt and then stopping. He was sure it was lower than the last time, he was sure all of the bows he had performed were lower than their predecessors, but Jūshirō had yet to call any of them adequate. He couldn't figure out why this of all things was so difficult, he had mastered everything else quickly enough, and in theory this was just as easy. For some reason he just couldn't do it.

Perhaps some vestige of his pride was holding him up?

Jūshirō sighed audibly, and Ichigo could imagine his friend rubbing his face again. If he kept it up, surely it would be worn down to the bone. "This isn't working" Jūshirō declared, coming over and standing beside Ichigo. He pushed down on the back of Ichigo's head with his hand until his friend was at the proper height, then let go. "There. That wasn't so hard."

Ichigo scowled at the floor. "I can't do this on demand!" he yelled, then winced at the agony in his back.

Jūshirō wasn't sympathetic, "People have been bowing like that for hundreds of years, Ichigo. If it didn't hurt them then it can't be hurting you."

"It is hurting me!"

"Then you're being overdramatic…"

Ichigo seethed, "You're saying it like I'm overdramatic all the time!"

A large droplet of sweat made its merry way down the back of Jūshirō's head. "That's because you are, Ichigo."


After Jūshirō had managed to calm Ichigo down, Ichigo continued to practice the bow. By the end of the day Jūshirō was at least fairly comfortable with Ichigo meeting his father, the meeting was the next day and if he hadn't been able to even enter the room without insulting his entire family Jūshirō would likely have stopped him from coming. However, he did have to concede that Ichigo had been making improvement all day, for the last three days as well, but the improvement had been agonizingly slow. After it became apparent that Ichigo was going to take some time in getting the bow right, Jūshirō had decided to keep the bowing practice spread out over the three remaining days and teach Ichigo everything else at the same time. Ichigo had picked everything else up easily, but the simple act of bowing still seemed to be beyond him, even after he had got everything else down to an art. So Jūshirō decided to dedicate the entirety of the last day to it.

After this, frankly ridiculous, amount of time doing absolutely nothing else Ichigo had, at last, shown some marked improvement. Over the course of the day he had slowly gotten lower and lower, his posture more and more at ease and without the strain he had experienced originally. It was almost to the point of not insulting his entire family and all of his ancestors now, and for that Jūshirō was very glad indeed. He couldn't be sure how his father would react to being slighted by Ichigo, a thief and a vagrant; probably quite badly.

Finally, with the light fading rapidly, Ichigo managed to execute a bow that Jūshirō was happy with. Or at least confident enough with that he could be sure it wouldn't get Ichigo executed on the spot, at this point he would take what he could get and wouldn't complain. The thief stood again, stretching his back to illicit a painful sounding crack sound and rolling his neck to make it pop. He realized, now that he was allowed to move, that he had very uncomfortable cramp all the way up his back and neck, and his legs and arms had long since gone to sleep. How was he supposed to do the practical like this!? He glowered at Jūshirō, who shrugged in a 'You brought this on yourself' kind of way, though offering a typical sympathetic smile. Shortly afterwards they bade farewell to each other, and went their separate ways; Jūshirō returning to his house whilst Ichigo skirted the town entirely to get back to his shed.

The encounter two nights ago had made him realize that he couldn't afford to get into any fights before the interview, if he did there was a possibility –however minute- that he would get injured. He wanted to be in as good a shape as he could be for this, so determined was he to succeed. Besides, this Sabūrō character didn't sound like one to waste resources on someone too injured to fight properly, especially if that person was responsible for his own safety. Ichigo couldn't begrudge him for that, the man had responsibilities after all; to his family and his clan. He would want the best guards too, if he were in Sabūrō's place. So he skipped the town entirely, watching the ground carefully for holes and keeping an eye out for anyone who'd take it upon themselves to 'teach him a lesson'. Or attempt to, rather. He doubted any of those pansies would know which end of a sword was the sharp one, even if it got rammed up their ass.

He arrived back at the shed without incident, sadly, and went to bed in short order. He liked to get the correct amount of sleep usually, but today was different: he needed the sleep today. If he turned up for this interview looking like death warmed up he'd be laughed out of soul-society. Unless he was allowed to demonstrate his skill on one of those laughing…then they'd probably have to hire him to replace whichever hapless fool he'd just obliterated. He liked to think he could send most people running with his 'mildly irritated scowl' alone, imagine what he could when he was really pissed. He'd be unstoppable. It was this thought that sent him to sleep with a smile.

The next morning found Ichigo outside the big wooden gates that led to Jūshirō's home (because that's all it was to Ichigo at that moment), scowling at the one remaining gate guard to pass the time. He was still convinced he could take over the world with his scowl, and was testing his theory by playing a little game. You see, one of the gate guards had retreated back within the walls to check whether a 'Kurosaki Ichigo' was expected that day, and whether said person was supposed to be an orange haired kid with a perma-scowl that looked suspiciously like a tramp. In the meanwhile, there was only one guard left to watch Ichigo. After some minutes of waiting for the first guard to come back, Ichigo had noticed that the remaining guard was staring at him intently, as if trying to burn a hole through him with his eyes. Ichigo had subsequently turned to scowl at him, and the guard had looked away so fast that Ichigo was almost certain the man had given himself whiplash. So now he was engaged in a game, wait until the guard started staring at him again, and then turn an ever increasing amount of scowl on the man to make him look away again. The goal of this improvised game was to see whether he could make this guard either wet himself in fear, or drown in his own sweat. The secondary goal was to give the guy permanent whiplash, but Ichigo was sure he had achieved this some time ago.

Ten minutes into the game, and Ichigo was interrupted by the gate swinging open to reveal the absent gate guard. He gave Ichigo a blank, almost bored look, before speaking. "Ukitake-dono will see you now" was all he said.

With that, he gestured for Ichigo to move past him and beyond the gates with a movement almost as lazy as his voice had been, if that were even possible. As Ichigo passed, he noticed the guard give his follow a curious glance, obviously trying to ascertain where exactly the small pool of moisture at the man's feet had come from. Ichigo was fairly sure it was sweat (note fairly sure), but didn't voice an opinion on the matter. Once the gate was shut behind him, Ichigo turned his full attention to the path before him…and then stopped.

He stopped walking, stopped breathing, his eyes had gone comically wide.

Before him was a garden, but not just any garden. It was possibly the most breath-taking thing he had ever seen, huge swathes of colour and overpowering smells assaulted his senses and drew him in. The path ran straight to the door of the house, branching off sharply to the left just before it and leading around the side. The stone paving slabs were white flecked with black, and they shone in the midday sun, sparkling and reflecting like a river without any colour. Flanking it on either side were trees with bark of a similar shade, white flecked in black, standing like sentries watching the path, whilst still providing shade for those who walked the path beneath them. Beyond the trees to the right was the garden itself, painstakingly trimmed grass as green as brightest emeralds and shining just as brightly occupied the majority of the space. At the side were boarders full of plants of every shade under the sun. Reds, oranges, and yellows. Pink, lilac, and purple. Shades of blue and green Ichigo had never seen before; it was all here. Ordered to present a complete spread of hues, almost like a floral rainbow, it presented a stunning sight and was framed by the white of the wall behind them. On the opposite side of the path there was a large pond, bordered by reeds and long-leafed plants and covered with water lilies, yet still allowing the sun to glint warmly off the surface of the water. If Ichigo looked very hard, he could have sworn he saw movement beneath the surface, but didn't have time to dwell on it.

He was broken out of his trance by the guard walking past him, ignoring his surroundings like he'd seen it a thousand times before; Ichigo reasoned that he probably had and tried not to begrudge him. He followed the guard up the path beneath the birch trees, still glancing this way and that and trying to commit what he was seeing to memory. The doors, alas, were upon them too soon for him to get it all, and the guard pushed them open without even breaking stride; thus robbing Ichigo of his view. The first thing Ichigo saw once through the door was a white wall, adorned with a tapestry with what he could only imagine was the Ukitake clan emblem on it: a lake with a very intricate, long bamboo stem with swirling patterns all along it shooting out from under the surface, framed by a pentagon. To either side of the main door was a long corridor with sliding screen doors along the wall from one end to the other, the floor was a polished wood so clean that Ichigo could make out every detail of his face looking at it. The guard went left, walking with purpose until he came to a specific sliding door and then knelt down before it; motioning to Ichigo that he should do the same. At least he cared that much.

The guard took a deep breath, then tapped the frame. "Ukitake-dono! I have brought Kurosaki Ichigo as requested!"

There was a long pause from the other side that Ichigo concluded was entirely to unsettle him, or perhaps Sabūrō had been caught with a mouthful of some sort of lunch item; it was about that time of day. Then a calm voice came from within the room, "Enter."

Without preamble, the guard slid the door open to reveal the room beyond. Within sat two figures, one of which Ichigo immediately identified as Jūshirō without even looking, the other must have been Sabūrō. The first thing Ichigo noticed about the two was the contrast, the elder Ukitake had long black hair about the same length as Jūshirō's. It completely threw Ichigo. It was almost like looking at the stone paving slabs outside; that's just how stark it was. Eventually he managed to move past the hair, and noticed that the differences pretty much stopped there. They had the same shape of face, the same colour eyes and eyebrows, their noses were both very similar, and if he had to guess Ichigo would have said they were the same height as well. He wondered briefly whether Jūshirō inherited anything from his mother.

Ichigo was jarred from his observations when the guard nudged him discreetly. He stood quickly then, grateful that he hadn't started at the contact, and made his way over to the pair until he was a respectful distance away from them. Without any delay, he bowed as low as he could manage with his arms straight at his sides, "Ukitake-dono, Jū…" he winced, "Ukitake-sama." He had been thankful that his back wasn't protesting his bow, and therefore hadn't been paying attention when he greeted the pair. It hadn't felt right to him, not using Jūshirō's given name. It didn't roll off the tongue very well for him.

"Kurosaki-san", Sabūrō motioned for him to straighten up, "Thank you for coming. Please, take a seat; we will be talking for a while."

Ichigo did as asked whilst trying not to gawp at the fact Sabūrō and his son sounded the same. The two of them were uncanny, in an almost startling kind of way. What also surprised Ichigo was the fact that Sabūrō didn't sound as uptight as he was expecting, the man had even smiled at him with an almost exact copy of Jūshirō's, sans the familiarity. Ichigo sat on the provided floor cushion, politely declining the offered pastry but accepting a cup of water, and wondered just how much of Sabūrō's principals had been bestowed to his son.

"Now" said Sabūrō, having placed the tray back on the floor between them, "I trust Jūshirō has explained the nature of this position, and what would be expected of you?" The tone indicated a question, and so Ichigo nodded with brief affirmative. "Good. So you understand how important it is?"


"Then there is not much to say on the matter. As a guard under my employ you would be expected to protect this house and all who inhabit it, including any guests, with your heart and soul. While I would prefer it if none of my guards were to die, you must understand that I place the safety of my family above all else, and I would ask that you do the same." Ichigo nodded again to show that he understood, and Sabūrō returned it was a small smile. "It is good to see that you know of the formalities, it saves myself or Jūshirō having to teach you" said he, causing Jūshirō to inhale a pasty crumb and subsequently choke on it, though he managed to wave his father off when a concerned glance was sent his way. Sabūrō sighed, "Please, excuse my son. I was about to say that the senior guard, Sautsaki, can enlighten you on any of the smaller intricacies that may otherwise trip you up, as they tend to do."

He cast another look towards Jūshirō, allowing Ichigo to do the same. He had to grit his teeth painfully to keep himself from laughing at the curious shade of purple his friend had taken, and therefore looked away again rather quickly to mask the threatening grin with a sip of water.

After that the interview continued uninterrupted. Ichigo was informed of the finer points of his duties, should he be accepted, and how many hours a day he would be on duty for. From what he could tell, the only time he would be guarding anything other than the gate or a few specific points around the garden would be when he was accompanying Sabūrō or a member of his family to whatever important function it was that required him to leave the safety of his walls. He would be on a twelve hour rotation which was either during the day or at night, and within that there were three, four-hour rotations that cycled the duty guards around the walls so that they weren't staring at the same thing for twelve straight hours. Ichigo reckoned that was a fancy way of saying 'to make sure you don't doze off', but he made no comment. It was also explained to him, once again, that he would be paid by way of two square meals a day and a private room for his own personal use, as well as a small sum of money to go towards…stuff. Sword polish? He knew the other guards likely threw it away on Sake down the tavern in town, but that wasn't really his thing. Maybe he'd just save it up, or ask Sabūrō to put it away in some safe place or another until he needed it for something.

A couple of hours later, and Sabūrō was winding down and coming to a close. It was a good thing that he was, otherwise Ichigo might not have been able to resist falling asleep. "One last question, Kurosaki-san" Sabūrō was saying, and internally Ichigo rejoiced. "For how long have you known my son?"

Ichigo paused, it was a strange question; though he supposed he had to answer it. "A year, give or take a month or two" said he, there was no point in lying. Sabūrō must have noticed as soon as he entered the room that the two of them knew each-other, add to that the near-slip with the name and it was glaringly obvious.

Sabūrō pinned Ichigo with a level gaze. "And would you protect him from harm without hesitation?"


It had fallen from his open mouth without any conscious thought. Of course he would. That's what friends did.

"I see. Even if this was at the cost of your physical health?"


Sabūrō hummed thoughtfully, then turned to his son with another small smile. "You still know how to pick your friends, Jūshirō. Much better than I, when I was your age" Jūshirō grinned across at Ichigo. He knew that Ichigo would respond with something along those lines, as that was just the type of person he was. Sabūrō turned back to Ichigo and continued. "Considering your responses, I think you would do well here. Provided you perform well in the demonstration, of course. Though I'm sure you'll do fine, considering that's one of my swords you walked in here with."

Jūshirō inhaled another pastry crumb whilst Ichigo spat the water he'd just drunk back into the cup before any of it even made contact with the back of his throat.

Sabūrō simply chuckled at the both of them.