”Don move! ” An old woman was putting some bandages and disinfectants on a boys left cheek.

”But oba-chan, it hurts. ” A boy of about twelve countered. Its been eight years since the boy came to the slums of Rukongai and even now he was still bullied by other kids of his age because of his strikingly orange hair. Though he was basically nine when he died, it was already eight years in the human world before he looked like he was twelve in Rukongai, for time passed slower here in the afterlife.

The old woman sighed as she finished. ”This is for you to see that fighting isn pleasurable. ” She scolded. ”You always, always come back here scathed or together with some unknown people who have complaints! ”

”But they
e the ones who keep on trying to fight against me. ” Ichigo mumbled. ”Just because my hair is a little different than theirs… ”

”I know, Ichigo. ” She patted his head with her fragile hand. ”But that doesn mean you can just show up here after knocking out some teens and sporting a swollen cheek! ” Ichigo scowled. ”Anyway, you better eat. ” His expression brightened and she knew she just couldn resist this little strawberry of hers.

Ichigo moved onto the table and started digging in without waiting for his grandmother, or at least thats how he saw her. She had no reiatsu and thus didn need to consume any kind of food. Ichigo was the only reason she was working – to buy food for him. The twelve-year-old boy had grown up so much since then.

She remembered how she found him on the road one morning beside her house, lying on his side and clearly dying of hunger. It seemed the boy was far too innocent to actually think of stealing anything. She realized that the boy must be a well-bred child before he died. But if he wouldn leave his innocence behind, the place called Rukongai would eat him alive and without any remorse. And thus, she gave a piece of bread that she had, though she didn need it. It was only because she was used to eating during the time when she was alive and the habit didn die together with her. She, like almost everyone, had their memories vanished when they died. But somehow, she just felt that she used to eat bread as main dish when she was alive.

The boy looked at her with scared eyes and she smiled as he eyed the bread with longing. She said that he could have it and he was very surprised, like it was impossible for anyone in Rukongai to actually give food to someone they didn know. Maybe he came from the higher district, the poorest and most slum part of Soul Society, where people thought of no one but themselves.

Afterwards, Ichigo became attached to her and though she was annoyed of his clingy attitude at first, she now wished he was still like that, innocent and sweet. Now, Ichigo was having fights everywhere and always wore a scowl that made other people wary of him. Only she understood that behind that scowl, behind that mask of strength and brusque attitude, Ichigo was a lovely and sweet child who missed his family so much. He tried to hide it from her, but she could see it surfacing every time the boy looked at mother and child walking in the streets of Rukongai. He would unconsciously grab her clothes, as if trying to borrow her strength. He was such a sweet young boy… even though he didn show it.

”Baa-chan, I hear that there will be a celebration in the 8th district today. ” Ichigo voiced as he finished his meal. The old woman knew he had no interest in such occasions, but he still told her because she liked watching noble families parading in the streets of Rukongai. She liked to watch and admire these higher class souls who had another pair of hands that held their spoons, who didn need to wake up very early and go to work just to earn something. She knew Ichigo despised them but she didn . The boy still didn know that hierarchy would always be present as long as there were people.

”Do you want to watch it together with me, Ichigo? ” She asked kindly, already anticipating the answer. Every time she would ask, the boy would snort and roll his eyes, as if to say that such petty things were of no concern to him.

”Nah, I want to play with the others. ” Ichigo answered as he scrunched up his nose. She chuckled as she patted his head.

”You better not go home with bruises again! ” She said. Ichigo looked at her and he knew that she was excited, though only subtly, at the thought of watching some noble marriage. He didn have any interest in such things. Hes already dead and theres no need to make himself gawk at things he knew he couldn attain, even if he could attain them while living.

His family was rich, his parents were both doctors and owned the Kurosaki Hospital and he was dreaming of following their footsteps someday, inheriting their positions by studying hard and finishing school, though his dreams were ripped off of him that rainy afternoon, and whether he was thinking of the rainy afternoon when her mother died or when he died, he didn know. He didn remember those memories at the beginning. But somehow, during these past eight years, he was able to surmise what his parents work was and how he lived his life.

After some hours, the two of them parted by the main street of District 32 and he watched as she walked away. It was a sudden urge, but he couldn help but run towards her and hug her from behind. The old woman was surprised when someone suddenly hugged her but when she turned around and saw bright orange locks, she smiled kindly.

e being clingy today. ” She teased. ”Are you sure you won get in any fight? ”

He looked up and grinned. ”Nope, probably. ” He hugged her again. Somehow, he couldn help but hug her tighter.

”Alright, little Strawberry, you better let go now or your peers might think you
e a grandmas boy. ” She smiled and he scowled. She knew he hated being called little Strawberry, but she always called him that as an endearment. He knew that too so the scowl was just a normal reaction and not a grudging one.

”Will you be home when I get back? ” Ichigo asked.

”Of course, little Strawberry. ” She chuckled. ”Ill bring food later. ” He grinned again before he kissed her on the cheek and dashed gracefully away.

She stared at his leaving figure for a while with fond eyes. She liked it when Ichigo moved like that, like he was dancing every time he ran. There was so much grace and elegance in the child and she thought Ichigo was a child from a rich family, at least when he was alive. Souls lose their riches when they die and the only thing differentiating Ichigo from the other kids in Rukongai was his demeanor.

She started walking away to the district where she would watch the lovely noble couple exchange their vows in front of the multitude of crowds.

Ichigos favorite place was the forested area in the 78th District in Rukongai. He would train there physically to improve his strength and to be able to protect what was important to him. He couldn protect his mother because he was too young and too weak to do so. He couldn protect his father from shedding tears for him because he was too weak, too fragile, and too human. But now, he swore he would protect Riku-baa-chan, the sole person in the whole Rukongai who took care of him, who gave him shelter and clothes, who fed him everyday. She was the only one who didn find his hair annoying, and the only family he had in this **ed up afterlife.

He was still training when he heard some rustles of leaves not so far away from where he was. He stared at the bushes, and when he couldn take his curiosity anymore, he decided to walk and see what it was for himself.

The two of them were startled as they came face to face with one another, one with a striking orange hair and one with flaming red hair.

”Wha–, What are you doing here? ” The redhead asked, clearly annoyed that he was interrupted from doing whatever he was doing.

Ichigo blinked at him. The boy looked familiar somehow. He had long spiky red hair ponytailed at the back of his head. His eyes were dark and his skin was more tanned than Ichigos. He knew that he lost many little memories that he had when he was still alive, but somehow he knew that he didn meet the kid in the human world. And he surely didn see him in Rukongai… He scowled. It was a pain in the ass thinking of something that might have happened so long ago. After all, eight years was a long amount of time for a kid like him.

Ichigo wanted to tell him that he was just curious about the rustle of leaves, but by now he knew that it would be useless to be polite with the people in Rukongai. ”I could ask you the same thing. The last time I checked, this forest is not owned by anyone. ”

The redhead growled, and Ichigo waited for the attack to come, but it didn . And then he remembered his promise with Riku-baa-chan not to get into any fight. Damn…

”Anyway, you don look like you
e from around here. ” The redhead squinted his eyes, obviously scrutinizing Ichigo. The orange-haired boy surely had an air of elegance in him, even if he wore tattered clothing. His spiky orange hair glistening under the sun and his tanned skin and chocolate eyes were mostly appealing. ”Are you from the lower district, no, from the stuck up **ed up district? ”

This time it was Ichigos turn to growl. He glared at the redhead but he didn answer. He knew the redhead was saying the truth anyway. Its just that his language was pretty much antagonizing.

The redhead smirked. ”So– ”

”Renji! ” The two of them turned as they saw a petite and beautiful raven-haired girl with gentle blue eyes. She waved at them and Renji immediately blushed just as he grinned.

”What is it, Kuchiki-sama? ” Renji asked in a teasing tone, and Ichigo couldn relate.

Rukias eyes narrowed before she exclaimed. ”Don make fun of my family name! ” Renji just smirked and her eyes fell on Ichigo. ”And who might you be?�� She looked at him from head to toe, clearly impressed at the incredible reiatsu that he held. Renji might not be too keen on these things but a noble like her, even as a child, was keen enough to actually know that Ichigo was no ordinary kid.

”… Ichigo. ” He answered, looking at the redhead with new understanding. It seemed the kid was growing up a little bit earlier than the rest of them.

”Ichigo? ” She smiled. ”Nice to meet you, Ichigo. I am Rukia Kuchiki, from the– ”

”Yeah, yeah. ” Renji interrupted her before she could start the introduction of the history of the Kuchiki clan. He then looked at Ichigo before he smirked. ”So you
e Strawberry? ”

Ichigos eyes widened for a while before he scowled, his cheeks coloring up a little in embarrassment. ”Not strawberry, the best guardian, you Pineapple head! ”

”What did you say, you Strawberry head!! ” Renji was about to jump at Ichigo when Rukia cleared her throat.

”I believe you two are in the presence of a noble. Please behave yourselves. ” Her eyes turned darker as she tried to make her demeanor more imposing. But Renji merely arched an eyebrow in her direction and Ichigo didn look threatened at all. She blushed in defeat and sighed. ”Why can I be like nii-sama? ”

”Simply because you
e not him. ” Ichigo answered and they both looked at him. ”What? ”

Rukias mood brightened instantly when she remembered something. ”Are you going to play with us in the next few days? ”

Ichigo pointed at himself. ”Me? ” She nodded. ”Uh… I don know… ”

”Well, if the stuck up Strawberry is too noble to even play with the Kuchikis young daughter, then maybe he– ”

”Fine, fine! ” Ichigo shouted at him. ”But I have to go now. Baa-chan might already be home. ”

”Tomorrow, lets play! ” Rukia beamed and his expression softened. Renji scowled at him, clearly jealous of the exchange. ”Ill have to leave now too. Nii-sama might scold me again, though it will be good if hell actually do that… ” Ichigo looked at her but she was already dashing away. Renji followed her but he waved a hand to Ichigo without turning back.

That was enough for Ichigo. Maybe, just maybe, there were people aside from Riku-baa-chan who didn mind that he had a strange color for a hair. He went home after that, to the outskirts of District 32, and found the house very quiet.

”Baa-chan, are you already here? ” He called from the front door. He then shrugged when nobody answered. Maybe she was still at the festival. He was about to step inside the house, or rather, hut when an overflow of reiatsu suddenly filled the air. Oh, God… this reiatsu… the same as the time with his mother… He felt himself panicking and he couldn help but tremble at the immense reiatsu in the air. ”Baa-chan!? Are you here? ”

He searched the living room and the kitchen for her, and then he turned to her bedroom. His mind suddenly stopped working the moment he stepped inside the old womans bedroom. His eyes widened when he saw pools and splatters of blood on the bed, on the wooden floor, the cabinets. And he almost looked relieved when he saw his Riku-baa-chan standing not far from him, her back facing him and the door. ”Baa…chan..? ”

Ichigo… call my name. He looked around when he heard the voice. But when he saw nobody else aside from his baa-chan, he immediately shook his head at the imagined voice before he took a step forward.

”Baa-chan..? Are you okay? Why is there so much blood here? ” He asked, silently panicking at the lack of response from her.

Ichigo, you need to call my name. You need to call it.

”S-Shut up… ” He whispered before he turned his attention to her grandma again. And when she turned around, the blood immediately drained from his face.

Thats not your baa-chan. You need to kill it. That creature is a Hollow, a being that devours souls with strong reiatsu, a being that brings havoc in both the human world and Soul Society.

Ichigo clutched his head as he looked at the figure in front of him with fear. He knew that this person couldn be his baa-chan. He knew that much… But still… Its hard to believe it when she had her face. But not her eyes. The eyes of this person, or whatever creature this was, were crimson. They were bloodthirsty and cold.

This Hollow killed your baa-chan, Ichigo. You better kill it if you want to live. Use me to bring salvation to this pitiful hollow, Ichigo.

”Baa-chan..? ” He called again, trying his best to ignore the annoying males voice that was speaking to him from somewhere. He focused his attention on his baa-chan instead. She might still be inside the body, waiting to be saved. He didn want to just run away and leave her here. He promised he would protect her… He promised hed be stronger… And yet… Whats this?

She smiled creepily before she roared. A roar that was definitely not human, a roar that was so like the roar that he heard before his mother died, the roar that he heard before his own death, the roar that was so… so Hollow…

And she leapt forward to him.

Ichigo, call me!

Ichigo closed his eyes in fright and he thought for sure that hed die, that hed get eaten by his own baa-chan. But when he opened his eyes, he choked at the sight before him. He felt his tears ran down his cheeks and the quiet sobs that echoed throughout the room were definitely his. His hands trembled. His hands, which were holding a very enormous sword, a very enormous sword that had just stabbed her through the chest. His hands were trembling. He saw the blood leaking from her body and soaking the sword that he held with so much crimson. His hands had so much crimson…

”Baa..chan..? ” He choked. She roared again, she was probably in pain, and this time he pulled out the sword, just before he slashed her again. And she became distorted and the real appearance of the impostor showed up, an ugly green monster-like creature, before it disintegrated. After a while, he felt several strong reiatsus coming his way.

After a few seconds, about four or five men with black shihakusho arrived, the Shinigamis, just in time to see the slowly disintegrating Hollow and the shocked child who held a very enormous sword, a zanpakutou that was taller than he was and probably weighed the same as him.

”Kid, are you alright? ” A man with dark spiky hair asked gently, and when the said kid still didn answer, or even acknowledge anothers presence, he shouted. ”Oi, do you hear me!? ”

”Shiba-kun, I believe the kid is shocked and traumatized. ” Ukitake appeared from the crowd just as the others left the house to take care of two more Hollows that were wrecking havoc in the outskirts of the district.

He knelt in front of the boy and gently pried the zanpakutou off his trembling hands. His eyes widened when he felt the weight of the said sword. Just how was this little boy able to beat the hollow when not even he, a Taichou, would want to carry a sword as heavy as that?

”It seemed his Shinigami powers awakened early because of self-preservation. ” Ukitake looked at the young man when the latter spoke. Kaien Shiba, his Fukutaichou, was speaking as if it didn concern him, though Ukitake could see past the indifference and see how concerned Kaien was.

”Hey… kid. My name is Juushirou Ukitake, the Taichou of the Thirteenth Squad of Gotei 13. Can you tell us a little of what happened, if its alright..? ” Ukitake called gently as he rubbed the tousled hair of the boy, which was surprisingly soft despite appearing like it wasn . The act must have registered to the childs brain and he slowly looked up at the gentle feature of Ukitake.

”I… ” The child mumbled. ”I… killed her… I killed… baa-chan… ”

Kaien looked at the boy with discernable concern now. He was just a boy. How could they explain to him that what he did was the right thing? How could they say that his baa-chan was already dead long before he stabbed the body?

Ukitake took the childs hand and squeezed it gently. ”Its not her that you killed. That creature is called a Hollow. They are beings that kill and devour souls to satiate their hunger. And that particular Hollow has the power to copy the appearance of the person it has eaten. The one you killed is the Hollow, not your baa-chan. ”

”Zangetsu… ” The boy suddenly mumbled.

Ukitake and Kaien exchanged glances. ”Is that the name of your baa-chan? ”

Ichigo looked at them, totally exhausted from the emptiness that he felt and the exhaustion that was caused by him wielding a sword that he was still too young to call out. ”The sword… ”

Ukitakes eyes widened in understanding. For the boy to know the name of his zanpakutou at such an early stage was just superb. ”So your zanpakutous name is Zangetsu. How… magnificent, the name. ” Ichigo simply nodded, still a little too out of it to actually think any straighter.

”You should thank him, kid. If it weren for your zanpakutou, youd be dead by now. ” Kaien said in nonchalance and Ukitake gave him a look, which only made him grin.

”But normally, zanpakutous will only come out when the body is already mature enough to handle its power, or if the mind is mature enough to wield it. ” Ukitake took a glance at Ichigo again. ”Hes still too young to wield a zanpakutou. ”

”Hmm… Anyway, Im Kaien Shiba. Whats your name, kid? ” Kaien clearly disagreed with Ukitakes observation even if he didn say it. He believed that a person, no matter how young, could use the zanpakutou as long as the person had enough resolve and perseverance. Ukitake smiled. His Fukutaichou disagreed with him. It meant that Kaien was clearly amused at the child.

”Ichigo. ” He answered. He could understand what they were saying, could comprehend a little of what just happened. He knew that the one he killed wasn his baa-chan, Zangetsu said that much. But it still didn change the fact that his baa-chan was already dead, despite the fact that he promised he would protect her. In the end, he was still too weak to protect anyone…

You dare bury yourself in the pit of guilt and self-pity again and Ill make sure to get this body from you once and for all, King.

The voice woke him up from his daze. It was inside his head too but it was clearly not Zangetsu. Zangetsus voice was low and husky, but this one had a very… irritating voice, for lack of a better term.


”Are you alright, Ichigo-kun? ” The long-haired Captain asked him again. This time he was ready.

”Im alright. I don need any help. ” He simply answered. He knew he was being impolite, but these people were evil. Starting from that man who killed a subordinate just to secure a secret, then there were rumors about these Shinigamis who were apparently too full of themselves. Rukongai wasn a place that Shinigami was generally liked. It was far from that, actually. The thing that made people follow Shinigami rules wasn because they were respected, but because they were feared. Shinigamis were feared by people in Rukongai just as much as they feared the occasional attacks of Hollows.

Ukitake sighed. It seemed the kid had clammed up. ”Do you mind if we are to take care of you for a while? I know you just said that you don like any help, but… ”

Ichigo looked at him with narrow eyes, suspicious of the motive of the older man. However, he could see nothing but silent concern in them. Those dark orbs were far too open and far too kind. Its like he was imploring Ichigo to let him help, instead of the other way around. He looked at the other one, the one who kept on making rude comments ever since earlier. Kaien, right?

”Are you two strong? ” He asked quietly. If he wanted someone to get close to, he wanted those people to be really strong. He didn want to see anyone dying anymore…

Ukitake blushed, and Ichigo blinked at him. ”Ah, well… just a little, maybe… ”

”Of course, we
e strong! ” Kaien answered confidently as he grinned. ”If you think you
e weak, then youll be weak for the rest of your existence. But if you persevere and maintain a strong resolve, then you will definitely become strong. ”

Ichigo scowled. ”You
e cocky, Kaien. ”

Kaiens eyes widened and Ukitake bit his lip. ”Why, you little brat!! ” He immediately ruffled up Ichigos hair, making it stand on all ends. But he was grinning.

”Hey! ” Ichigo immediately squirmed away from the touch and found himself being patted by Ukitake.

”Im sorry about your grandmother. ” Ukitake voiced solemnly. ”I take responsibility for not arriving here much earlier. I will also take responsibility of you and be your guardian, but only if you want. ”

Ichigo looked at his dark orbs for a while. Ukitake didn know if it was just his own observation, but those mournful chocolate eyes looked like they were really crying even if there were no tears coming out. The sorrow that this child had experienced was beyond his capability of adapting… He felt that the kid was trying to hide his emotion in a place where no one could ever reach it, not even him. Just like a certain raven-haired nobleman that he knew…

He hugged Ichigo, who immediately tensed up. ”Its okay. Its okay to cry, Ichigo-kun… You don have to feel responsible for everything that happens in your surrounding. You
e still a child, and being a child is not that bad. ” Ichigo felt like his father was talking to him again. Those times, he did not heed his fathers wish. Isshin wanted Ichigo to mourn for his mothers loss and not wait for her to come back anymore. He wanted Ichigo to rely on him even at least a little, but Ichigo felt like blaming himself more and more every time his father approached him with that sad expression. He couldn take it. And this man was saying the same thing… Maybe, just maybe, relying on others might not be that bad… But only if they didn die on him…

”If I say Ill let you take care of me, ” Ichigo announced as he hugged Ukitake back, still boiling his emotion inside, not letting it out. Kaien arched an eyebrow at the insolence of the kids voice, but he looked amused. ”Will you promise not to… ” Ukitake leaned closer because the last statement had turned into a whisper and the last part was lost. He waited until after Ichigo composed himself. ”Will you promise not to die? ”

Kaien straightened just as Ukitake cleared his throat. ”Ichigo-kun, ” he pulled from the hug to make Ichigo look at him. ”As long as we retain our humanity, we will die sooner or later. ” Ichigo tensed and he had to soothe the boy by tracing circles on his back. ”But the fleetingness of human life is what makes it precious. Its what makes us value the things that are important to us. ”

Ichigo could understand what he was saying. His mind was not that innocent anymore and he knew what the man was trying to say. But that didn mean it wasn hard when someone close to him dies.

Ukitake smiled at him, the smile that Ichigo was beginning to like. ”I promise to try my best to live, and to live to the fullest. ” Ichigos eyes brightened a bit and Ukitake couldn help but smile more. The kid might think that he was mature enough, but he was still a kid inside.

”You too, Kaien. ” Ichigo voiced after a while.

”Huh? Oy, brat! Im not going to take care of you! ” Kaien crossed his arms and snickered when Ichigo scowled. ”All you have to do is promise us that youll be good, Berry-chan. ”

Ichigos eyes widened just as he tried to make his demeanor imposing, much to Ukitake and Kaiens amusement. Its because no matter how much Ichigo tried, he still only reached up to Kaiens upper abdomen. ”Don call me that! ”

”But you call me by my first name, you insolent little brat. How come I can call you by yours? ” Kaien said, getting more and more amused. Ichigo was the type of kid who was silent if you let him be, and who would immediately change character when you try to talk to him.

”Shiba-kun, ” Ukitake arched an eyebrow. ”I believe that the child here is supposed to be Ichigo-kun. ” Ichigo looked pompous and Kaien wanted to mess with the kids hair once again.

”Alright, alright. ” Kaien. ”I won die, okay? At least not any time soon. ” He grinned. And that was enough for Ichigo. If they would keep their promise, then hed…

”Can you be my guardian..? ” Ichigo asked directly at Ukitake, a little shy now that he was the one asking for it. Kaien was about to snicker until Ukitake gave him a look, again.

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