”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.

”Of course, Ichigo-kun. ” Ukitake smiled as his kind eyes turned to the boy. ”Do you want to live in Seireitei? ”

Ichigo shook his head. ”I want to stay here. Can you visit me here sometimes? ”

”But… ” Kaien looked a little worried for a while, and Ichigo was sure the concern was not for him, but for the Captain.

”My health is a little problematic, Ichigo-kun. ” Ukitake started but when he saw Ichigos quietly alarmed look, he added, ”But I will still try to visit you when I feel well, just like right now. Is that alright? Shiba-kun will take care of you in my place when I can make it. ”

Ichigo looked down. A man as strong as this person was sick? ”Juushirou, will you be alright if you keep on visiting me here despite your health? ” Kaiens eyebrow twitched at the boys insolence. Not even he would dare call his Taichou by name and name alone. But it seemed this boy could get away with it, what with all the warmth that Ukitakes kind smile evoked.

”Of course, Im not that weak, really. My body is just a little weaker than most Shinigami, but Im fine. So, will you be alright for a while? Or do you want us to stay here with you? ” Ukitake asked as he held both of Ichigos shoulders.

Ichigo looked at him from behind his fringe before he nodded. ”Ill be fine. You still have some work to do right now, right? About the hollows? ”

”So you know about them too. ” Kaien asked.

”Not really, just a little. ” Ichigo gestured it with his thumb and forefinger. His expression turned grimmer and Ukitake couldn help but feel that it would be a long time before the boy could accept everything.

The two Shinigamis stayed for a while with Ichigo until the boys pale face had color again. They said goodbye for now and Kaien promised that hed be back even if Ukitake couldn because of busy schedule.

When they left, it was already dusk. Ichigo used Zangetsu to dig the soil beside the house and put a cross there even though there would be no body to bury. He marked it as her tomb, a remembrance of the life, or the afterlife, that she had in the outskirts of District 32. He didn weep anymore. He didn even sob.

”I promise I won cry over every single thing anymore, Baa-chan. So you don have to worry that I will drown myself in my own tears and die beside you. ” He let the corner of his lips twitch a little, a ghost of a smile that he used to have when he was little. ”I will become stronger, stronger, and stronger until I can protect those who are important to me. ”

You better get stronger, King. Or Ill devour you from the inside out.

I suggest you don scare our master. The familiar voice of Zangetsu spoke.

”Zangetsu? Who is the other one? ” Ichigos eyes widened when he heard a different voice from the one that saved him earlier. It seemed there was another person inside his mind.

Tch, you don even know the other part of your soul? How pathetic. What would your mother tell you. Ichigo tensed. She has someone like me too, you know. Inside her.

”What do you mean? ” Ichigo asked, a little dubious about believing the creepy voice.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

”Ichigo-kun is a very special child. ” Ukitake said as he and his Fukutaichou shunpod towards the other 13th Squad officers. They weren in a hurry because they knew that their officers were well-capable of protecting themselves and annihilating the two ordinary hollows.

”Youve become quite fond of him, Taichou. ” Kaien grinned and Ukitake chuckled. ”But yeah, for him to actually be able to produce such a strong reiatsu at such a young age… ”

”Strong enough to actually attract three hollows at the same time. ” Ukitake nodded in assent.

”But Taichou, wouldn it be dangerous to leave him there? I mean… ” Kaien was trying to find the right words. ”What if..? ”

”Youve become quite fond of him, Shiba-kun. ” Ukitake used his Fukutaichous words against him and Kaien scowled. Ukitake just chuckled. ”Itll be alright. That kid is strong. All we have to do is visit him from time to time and probably, train him to control his massive reiatsu too. ”

”And you
e expecting me to do the task. ” It wasn a question and Ukitake nodded.

”I believe that youll be able to do the task with much satisfactory result than if I would. ” Ukitake voiced with a smile. Kaien couldn help but agree silently. Ukitake was much too soft to be able to train the kid hard.

”Very well then, Ill be his mentor! ” He sounded and looked really excited that Ukitake knew his decision was right. If it all went well, Ichigo could be a Captain despite being young, if his enormous reiatsu, and not to mention his zanpakutou, was any indication.

”I just wish that hell be able to move on. ” Ukitake sighed. ”His eyes look so tired… Its like hes always been seeing people dying in front of him. Its not good for a child to have eyes like that… ”

”In time, hell open up to us… ” Kaien voiced. Ukitake wished for that as well.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Renji immediately knew that something had changed since the last time he saw the boy. Ichigo promised that he would play with them the day after but he never showed up. It had been two weeks since then and now, Ichigo stood in front of them with those warm and yet pained eyes of his. Those eyes weren like that two weeks ago… Now he wondered what happened.

”Yo, Renji. ” Ichigo voiced the moment he saw the redhead. The other kid was meditating, or it seemed like it, in the clearing. He actually had no intention of ever coming to this place, but it would seem like he was abandoning his promise if he didn .

”It took you so long to find your way back here. ” Renji answered with a hint of bitterness. ”What, you got lost around Rukongai for two weeks? ”

Ichigo smiled a tad just as he scratched the back of his head. ”A lot happened. ” Renji made a noncommittal groan and Ichigo sat beside him. ”Wheres Rukia? ”

Renji glanced at him sideways. ”You know that shes a noble. She can be here every time. She just sneaked out from the guards that one time. She rarely comes here, you know. ” He then stood up and stretched. ”And she made it sure to come back the next day after we met you, just to be forgotten. ” He was still irked that Ichigo stood up Rukia on their supposed promise. And the fact was, Rukia was grounded after that. She couldn be here for a long time now. He glanced at Ichigo again to know if the other boy was at least feeling remorse, but the only expression he could see from Ichigos eyes was loneliness. ”Ill forgive you if you tell me what happened. ”

Ichigo looked up at him, weighing the redheads words. Its not that he didn want to tell Renji. Its just a little too painful for him still to talk about it. But Renji and Rukia deserved the truth… ”My… baa-chan died… She was killed by a Hollow. When I went back home from here, she was already dead… My new guardian doesn want me to go to far places… ”

Renji gulped. He immediately felt guilty for blaming Ichigo about Rukias absence when the kid actually experienced hell that day. Of course, it would be too much for him to actually play the day just after his grandmothers death. It would be too much to feel at ease and not cry when he saw the other kids having fun and hes not. ”Sorry… ” He mumbled.

Ichigo scowled. ”Idiot, thats not your fault. If only I was a lot stronger… ”

”And whos the idiot now, Strawberry? ” He smirked and Ichigos scowl deepened. ”You know thats not your fault either. The fault is the Hollows who had the audacity to come here in the first place. ”

”Oh, are you trying to make me feel better, Pineapple head? ” Ichigo stood up as he smirked. Renji growled at the nickname and in a second the two of them were rolling on the grass fighting. Ichigo had the advantage because for the past two weeks now, Kaien had been with him, trying to train his Shinigami powers against his wishes. He didn want to be a Shinigami… He didn want to ever see that brunette man again…

”Stop it, you two! ” A voice so familiar and yet not heard for so long stopped them in their tracks. Renji was biting Ichigos left arm while the latter was pulling Renjis hair tightly with both hands. Rukia stood not far from them with a frown on her young Kuchiki face. ”How immature. ”

Ichigo pulled out his tongue in Renjis direction before he stood up. Renji snorted as he brushed his clothes off some dirt. Rukia noticed immediately that something had changed in Ichigo since the first and the last time she saw him.

Back then, she knew that the boy came from a well-lived family, even if he wore tattered clothes. But now, it seemed Ichigos clothing was something else entirely. It had the air of elegance and grace, just like the boy himself. Renji, on the other hand, was the total opposite. He was muscular, though not that much, and Ichigo was slender. Renji was taller and also dirtier-looking, not that she minded it. Rukongai was not an ideal place where children learned what cleanliness was. It was a place where they learned to survive without relying on someone else. It was a place where poor children, especially those with reiatsus, were suffering because of hunger and threat that Hollows caused.

Ichigo gave her a friendly nod and Renji grinned as he put his arms over his head in a lazy manner. ”Say, shall we hunt our foods for the day? ” Rukia grinned and Ichigo looked at them both, clearly confused as to what they meant. Renji noticed this and snickered. ”Well, it seems Strawberry-chan here doesn know how to hunt down his own food. ”

Ichigo growled. ”Stop calling me that! Its enough that Kaien uses that name on me every time! You don feed me so you have no right! ”

”Kaien? ” Rukias eyes slightly widened. ”Do you mean Kaien-dono from the Shiba Clan? ” At the mention of the clans name, Renjis eyes also widened.

”Kaien Shiba. Yes, thats him. ” Ichigo scowled. ”That idiot thinks that– ”

”You idiot!! ” Rukia hit him on the head even before he could finish his sentence. ”Don use such vulgar words when talking about a noble!! Do you want to be punished!? ”

Ichigo caressed his head, clearly in pain from the hit. ”Kaien always, always punishes me, but not because of that reason. He punishes me if I slacken in my training. He punishes me if I don finish the food. He punishes if I got into street fights. But not when I call him Kaien, or any other names for that matter. ”

”Are you close to him then? ” Renji asked. From Ichigos testimony, it seemed Kaien was Ichigos guardian. No wonder the boy looked elegant, in his own way. ”No, let me rephrase that. Is he your guardian? ”

Ichigo looked thoughtful for a while, and his newfound friends waited for his answer quietly. ”No, Kaien is… uh, a mentor, or something like that. My guardian is Juushirou-san, ” his two friends eyes widened as they let out a gasp. ”Though he only visits me twice a week. Kaien visits me at least every other day. ” He refrained from calling Ukitake by name alone, courtesy of the punishments he received from Kaien – running five laps all around 32nd District, washing all the clothes that they wore, or worse, planting ornamental plants encircling his house. He never really liked flowers, any kind of them. But he refused to call Kaien with any honorifics, even if he was made to carry pails of water from a river that was too far for him, making him kneel in a meditating form for hours and hours without moving, and for ruffling his hair over and over until it was stuck all over the place. No, he refused to call Kaien by any name other than Kaien!

”Cool. ” Renji smirked.

”How did you meet such powerful Shinigamis? ” Rukia wondered in amazement. ”Kaien-dono is the Fukutaichou of the 13th Squad, and Ukitake-san is his Taichou. Such powerful Shinigamis don just wander around Rukongai. Are you related to any of them, or in any of the other Shinigamis for that matter? ”

”No, I met them only two weeks ago. ” Ichigos eyes darkened a bit though he tried to hide it after a second too late. Renji immediately understood because the orange-haired kid explained it to him earlier. So those two were the new guardians he talked about…

Rukia noticed Icigos change in reiatsu and knew that it would be better not to ask anything, and so she changed the topic. ”Will you be playing with us? We
e about to explore the market in the 78th District again. ”

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

At first, Ichigo didn know what explore meant. But as he and the other kids, at least six of them, were running for their lives, away from the vendors that they robbed from, he immediately knew that it was a very, very bad term. Rukia did not join the robbing part because his older brother would kill her if he found out, not to mention that the reputation of their whole Clan would go into ruins. So she always settled on watching from the sidelines or cheering from afar.

”What the hell!��� Ichigo exclaimed as they ran. The other kids were running behind them and he was in front, beside Renji. Both of them were slightly panting and dribbles of sweat were running down their foreheads.

Renji laughed despite being exhausted. ”Its fun, Ichigo! Its how weve lived until now, stealing from the vendors at the market! ”

”Really? ” Ichigo panted. He didn know these people were much poorer than he was. Up until this time, he was fed by his baa-chan, and now by Kaien and Juushirou. The foods Kaien made for him weren as good as his baa-chans, because it seemed the guy wasn used to cooking much, but it didn mean that he wasn eager to eat it. He always liked homemade food, as long as its edible.

He had joined their group for some months now. He had gotten used to what they were doing, much to his surprise, and was now in league with Renji, though stealing was still something he didn do much. He would help them in their escape, beat some of the people who weren the vendor that they stole from, and sometimes acting as a lookout. There were times when he would watch them from the sidelines, just like Rukia did. He didn want to really steal directly, because Kaien and Juushirou would not really get mad. They would be upset, or worse, disappointed in him.

He wasn always with them though, only during the times when Kaien or Juushirou weren with him, especially not when Juushirou was in his house. Its not that he feared being seen by them. He just felt that Juushirous visits were seldom so he shouldn just disappear when he knew the older man would visit. Kaien was always, always there so it was hard to escape him. And Ichigo knew better than to try.

Some hours after the run, Ichigo and the other kids would encircle a bonfire that Renji made. It usually ended like this, peaceful and comfortable.

Rukia was eating happily but elegantly, just like the noble that she was. Renji was eating some toasted potatoes voraciously and Ichigo, who was not really that hungry, chose to let most of his food be given to the other kids. He was not underfed in any way and it would be cruel if he would eat the foods that other kids sweated on getting. After several more minutes, most of the kids were happily snoring in their quarters even though it was still dusk. Renji, Ichigo, and Rukia were the only ones left outside.

”I have to tell you something. ” Rukia suddenly interrupted the silence. Both Ichigo and Renji looked at her serious expression with unease. ”I don think I will be able to join your group most of the time now. Nii-sama said that I will have regular home lessons about different things starting tomorrow and it will not be good if the mentor tells nii-sama that I wasn around. ”

Renjis face looked pained for a while before he tried to quickly dispel it. ”But isn that great, Rukia? I mean, youll be closer to your nii-samas knowledge once you start your lessons. ” Rukia looked at him before she smiled.

e right. ” She answered as she sighed.

”Its not like we won be seeing one another anyway, right? ” Ichigo added. ”Youll still be here once in a while. And youll still be as welcome here as always. ” She brightened up at those words and the tenseness of her shoulder relaxed.

Renji knew more than to be jealous by now. In the first few months, he really was always jealous by the sudden closeness of Ichigo and Rukia, but now he could see that Ichigo was far too naïve and innocent to think of such things and Rukia only saw him as a close friend and a brother. Renji also saw Ichigo as such and thus the feelings of jealousy were always neutralized.

”Anyway, do you think that the seldom times that youll be here is anywhere near the future? ” Renji asked, trying to hide the fact that he didn want to not see Rukia for a long period of time. Ichigo could see through him though, and Rukia too.

She stood up and crossed her arms over her chest. ”Idiot Renji! Of course! ” And they all knew that it wasn true.

Rukias first priority had always been her brother and everything that her brother said. If he wanted her to study all her life without stopping, she would gladly do it just to please him. These months made Ichigo learn many things about his friends: namely, Renjis first and only crush had been Rukia, ever since they met accidentally in this very forest some years ago when she got lost, and Rukia had always wanted to prove herself to her nii-sama. But it seemed the guy was as cold as ice and didn even recognize the efforts in her works. He always ignored her, even her very existence. He was a very stoic and stern man who valued nothing but rules and honor and dignity of the Kuchiki Clan. And even though Ichigo had not yet seen him, he knew that he would not like that person at all. He, whose loved ones had always been stolen from him, wouldn understand a man who didn give any care about the precious people in his life.

”Just make sure to still remember us, okay? ” Renji was not a very emotional person, at least not outside. But he wanted nothing but to pout and beg her not to leave.

”Of course, Renji. ” She smiled again, though it was strained. It was dark now and she knew she would have to come back to the Kuchiki manor soon. Renji and Ichigo noticed this and stood up as well, each offering their goodbyes. Rukia hugged them both tightly before she looked at their warm eyes. ”Ill see you two next time then. ”

”Sure… ” Ichigo answered just as Renjui answered, ”Of course. ”

And Rukia never showed up in their little hideout again. At least not any time soon.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

It had been eight years, and yet the idiot still wouldn budge. Kaien sighed. ”Are you sure you don want to be a Shinigami, Berry-chan? ” He was seated at the slope of a grassy training ground, watching as Ichigo lazily trained with his sword. He wasn taking his training seriously again.

”Like I said,�� Ichigo swung his sword in front for the nth time now. ”I have no intention of ever becoming a Shinigami. ” He now looked like he was eighteen, and it seemed his aging had stopped, at least for now. He now measured just a mere foot below Kaien but the guy never got over his nickname or the annoying habit of ruffling his hair whenever Ichigo was off-guard.

For four years, he and Renji had grown considerably close, or at least as close they would get with all the quarrelling and sparring. Rukia showed up about three times a year but her visits were always not more than four hours. And her bright demeanor when she was small was replaced with such seriousness and determination that Ichigo knew was etched through her lessons. She had grown up…

That incident four years ago, however, made both Rukia and Renji leave Rukongai and live in Seireitei to train and become a Shinigami.

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