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The Tides of a Vast Ocean

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The ocean had been with him since the very beginning. 

 

It lingered in the edges of Kisuke’s vision, washing into the cracks and broken places of Soul Society. It pressed at his bones while he ate, protective and gentle as the first breeze of spring. It was curled around him through the halls of the academy, across the quiet steps of the Shihōin compound, and into the bone white walls of the Seireitei. 

 

There was an ocean licking at Kisuke’s skin, and it was warm as fire. 

 

⊱ ━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━ ⊰

 

Kisuke remembered his life with the crystal clarity of a scientist. 

 

He remembered the first day he’d noticed the ocean, after he stumbled across the ground. He’d been young, freshly off the streets of Rukongai and tucked into the Shihōin compound as a potential recruit. He’d been wary of all the quiet steps and endless training. He’d been desperate to keep his place too, where the food was warm and the future opened to a thousand possibilities. 

 

He had been young, but he still remembered. 

 

He’d fallen, on a quiet winter day. The ground was covered in a thin layer of snow, enough to chill him but not enough to soften his fall. 

 

The ground had been hard, and Kisuke had slid and broken his leg. It hurt, in the way that the sharp crack of bone always hurt. He’d broken a hundred bones since that day, and set them into place with ruthless fingers and quick kidō. 

 

But none had hurt quite like that first one. None had been soothed in the same way, not when the ocean swirled up like a protective tide. It had curled endless power over his skin, until Kisuke’s wound didn’t sting and his hands were steady. It had been warm. 

 

It was that warmth that he remembered more than anything else, when the winter had been cold. Kisuke regretted many things, but that memory was not one of them. 

 

After that, he never lost the ocean. He never forgot it either, not when it swirled over his skin through the years of Omnitsukidō training and kept him angry company. It stayed with him in the academy too, through the challenges of new people and new skills. 

 

It had opinions on those skills, in ways an ocean of power shouldn’t have been able to. It warmed when he fought well, and cooled into flames when he was hurt. It thought, in a way an ocean couldn’t. But Kisuke had always welcomed the unexpected, and now was no different. 

 

So this endless emotion, swirling through his skin but not his own, only made him pause for a moment. 

 

Then it made him think.

 

It was in the zanpakutō courses that the ocean felt strongest. Kisuke’s asauchi was steady but never smooth, not when his sword hadn’t spoken to him. He was a genius in many things, but zanjutsu took long years to hone into muscle memory. 

 

Swords were not exactly the Shinhōin specialty, and to Kisuke’s chagrin, that showed. He had been trained in stealth and senbon, not swords. 

 

So he moved through the basic forms endlessly, felt his body adjust to the weight of an asauchi. New callouses were burning across his hands, but Kisuke couldn’t mind. It was the middle of the day, and the sun was hot on his skin, but Kisuke didn’t stop. He wasn’t sure he’d picked apart the motions yet, not in the way he picked apart all new skills. That wouldn’t do. 

 

He raised his blade again, swung from shoulder to waist. It felt wrong. The ocean thought so too.  It licked at his skin, hot and dissatisfied. Waves caught him, vast in a way Kisuke could never hope to describe. It was a force of nature, swirling over his soul and strong as steel. 

 

It was warm. 

 

And yet, it felt impatient. It had never felt impatient before. It had never felt like anything but heat and protectiveness before, like anything but the swirl of power he couldn’t control.

 

Kisuke was intrigued. He wanted to pick apart what he’d walked with his whole life and discover the creature that lurked in its depths. He wanted to understand it, as it understood him. 

 

He shifted under the sun, let his hands slide down the handle of the asauchi slow and methodical. The ocean felt calmer, when his fingers reached the middle, like it was satisfied. It felt hot again as he slid farther down, hints of fire threading through cool water to stain it annoyed. 

 

How interesting, he thought, staring down at where sunlight cast shadows on his fingers. He moved his hand up again, until the ocean was calm and his stance felt more balanced. The swing of his sword was faster this time, solid and quick. The instructor a few feet away nodded, a hint of approval showing in tired eyes. 

 

The ocean pressed against his skin and seemed to gleam after that swing, bright with a strength that was unknowable. Kisuke flexed his fingers, and felt the power guide him forward, hands curling around his arms and warmth holding him steady. 

 

How very interesting, he thought. 

 

For all the ocean’s strength, it rarely swirled into life in the other classes. No subject held its interest like zanjutsu, not even the delicate art of kidō. Kisuke tested this, shifting the patterns of his kidō to feel for changes. But no matter how badly he cast bakudo, the waves never lapped at his skin.

 

Only once did it swirl to life in the academy outside of zanjutsu, on another sunny afternoon filled with sparring. Kisuke stood across from a woman with a quick sword and quicker kidō, feeling the emptiness of his hands and the weight of a sheathed blade at his side. 

 

He wasn’t going to draw it, for this match. 

 

The odds were not in his favor at first glance. His opponent was close to graduation, and Kisuke was two months into training. His blade was unnamed, his kidō freshly learned, and for all his genius this was not a fair match. 

 

Kisuke didn’t want a fair match. Life wasn’t fair, and neither was battle. He let himself be pushed back, hair ruffling in the wind and a hint of sand catching on his fingers from a fall. He dodged a blow, let kidō form beneath his fingers, weak and fluttering. The red edges scraped the edge of her zanpakutō and fell away to scatter in the dust of the training ground. It was a pathetic excuse for a spell, and his opponent smirked at weak blast. 

 

It was exactly as Kisuke wanted it. 

 

“Better luck next time,” the woman said, blade snapping out to bite into his skin. It never made contact. 

 

Red burst from the ground beneath her feet like a tide, blood splashing with reiatsu to dot the sand around them.

 

She stumbled, caught off guard as he had planned. It was a delayed explosion, timed out to the second. Malleable too, in a way Kisuke would have to work to develop into something deadlier. There was a surge of power across his skin in response, waves curving across his mind. Lapping at his bones, the ocean swirled against him, a tide to keep him company. 

 

It felt as impressed as it did surly. 

 

The woman glared from the ground as his victory was called, but her eyes were wary. This opponent wouldn’t underestimate him again. That was a shame, Kisuke thought, hands molding the next kidō into being. 

 

Battles were so much easier when the world looked past him. 

 

⊱ ━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━ ⊰

 

It took Kisuke two years to graduate the academy, and a single moment to walk into the Shihōin compound again. The doors of the Onmitsukidō slammed shut behind him, sealing him in and giving him something like security. But he only took silent steps forward, for all the shadows around him. Kisuke had chosen this path, when he’d given his loyalty to Yoruichi all those years ago. The ocean didn’t seem to like it, not when he left for missions and returned drenched in blood. 

 

The ocean swirled hotter and furious, on those days. 

 

Yoruichi had asked him what he looked at, once, when he stared into the swirling waters of the Shihōin compound and wondered at their depth. He had smiled then, careful and quiet. He had knelt too, a poor boy knowing how to not get killed by the whims of the rich. 

 

“Ah its just the water, Shihōin-sama. It’s very still. I think it might be alive,” he said, mild and a little too truthful. It was nothing like the ocean, he thought, even though he couldn’t remember having stepped into an ocean in all the short years of his dead life. 

 

“For the last time, call me Yoruichi,” she had said, with a pause that crackled like lightning. “And don’t go mad on me Kisuke. I need a good right hand, and I can’t have you going mad on me.”

 

He had laughed, meek and obedient. He didn’t speak about the ocean again, or how still all water looked. The waves beat against his skin, but they weren’t angry when Yoruichi was around. 

 

He couldn’t be mad, when he knew it was real. 

 

It took Kisuke three years, to rise through the ranks of assassins and spies to become Yoruichi’s right hand in truth. He was good at his job, as he was good at most things. For loyalty, he let those skills grow even stronger. 

 

He didn’t know it then, but it would take him six years to talk to the ocean that had always pressed against his skin.  

 

⊱ ━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━ ⊰

 

 

For a long time, he thought everyone had an ocean to burn into them. Surely, no brat with thin wrists and a starved smile could be special, not when Kisuke had wandered from the depths of the Soul Society with no name but his own.

 

But then he proved smarter than the others, and Kisuke knew he wasn’t any brat. Then he proved faster than all but Yoruichi, and he knew he wasn’t a brat but a warrior. Then he proved brilliant and destructive and too soft, and Kisuke knew he wasn’t really like anyone at all. 

 

Kisuke’s skill was all his own, but no one else felt the ocean. 

 

“No one else felt it because I was only possessing you, dumbass. Why ocean, anyway?”

 

The question came years later, when there was no fiery power licking at Kisuke’s skin but happiness, and no confusion but understanding. 

 

Kisuke had always been a man who tried to understand, but had never really been understood. The world came apart under his fingers, and was sewn back together by the strands of Benihime, new and whole and without mystery. No one could pick apart Kisuke, not even Yoruichi— she had understood his heart but not his whole, the pattern but not the threads.  

 

Ichigo didn’t understand him at all, Kisuke thought, but the man still knew him in a way no one else did.

 

“Hmm?”

 

“Answer the question, Kisuke. Why did you call me ocean?”

 

“Well, you are quite salty my dear Ichigo, and that was clearly why.”

 

“Kisuke.”

 

“You felt expansive. Do you know what it was like, Ichigo, to have a soul as bright as yours clinging to my skin? It’s hard to describe your sheer power, but ocean felt appropriate.”

 

 

⊱ ━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━ ⊰

 

The first mission where Kisuke had to kill, the ocean almost killed him. It was routine, for all that it was his first hit. Yoruichi handed him the order with steady hands, and Kisuke felt the weight of expensive paper under his fingers and the seal that was keyed to only two reiryoku signatures. 

 

He knew, then. He didn’t hesitate, for all that his heart felt heavy. 

 

The ocean didn’t know until Kisuke’s senbon was buried in his target’s neck. Kisuke stood from the body, and his hands shook. So much of him was shaking, but he did not fall down. There was no blood to splatter across his face, and nothing to mark what he’d done. Orders were orders, and the paper had been so expensive. Kisuke had done what needed to be done, as he always would. 

 

His hands were shaking, but the ocean was still. The ocean was never still. Each moment brought waves and the press of water against his skin, every heartbeat was a tide of power that Kisuke had learned to read as scowls and words. 

 

The ocean was still, until it raged.

 

Kisuke stumbled under the rage, falling to his knees for a long heartbeat. He stood again, against the press of a power that had never turned on him before. 

 

His hands were shaking.

 

“I know,” he said, after the target was long gone behind him and quiet woods surrounded him. There were no pursuers chasing his shadows, and there would not be. For all the ocean’s anger, Kisuke was still too good to be caught. 

 

“I know, I—“

 

I didn’t want to, lingered on his tongue like a curse, but it didn’t matter. He had been given orders to follow, and all the time in the world to refuse and die for that betrayal. Kisuke had chosen his own life over the target’s. He’d chosen Yoruichi’s wishes, and the wishes of Soul Society, above a life. 

 

That’s what it meant to be in the Onmitsukidō. It was not an agency for soft hearts, and so Kisuke would have to burn his out. 

 

The ocean didn’t seem to understand that. It raged against his skin, waves crashing over his bones with a power he couldn’t control. 

 

It felt furious.

 

“I chose to,” he told it at last, hands shaking on the ground before him. It was cold with the chill of morning, sunlight just dawning over the horizon. It wasn’t cold enough. When had he knelt? When had he fallen down at all? How heavy was the ocean, that it drove him to his knees?

 

“I did it for my friends,” he said, and remembered the sad glint to Yoruichi’s eyes when she’d handed him the order. The paper had been so expensive. He didn’t know if he could have turned it down. He thought she might have let him. 

 

He thought he might have liked to. 

 

The ocean’s fury paused for long enough that Kisuke’s hands could stop shaking, and that was enough to take him home. 

 

He wanted to be home. 

 

⊱ ━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━ ⊰

 

He never quite managed to cut out his heart, for all his quiet loyalty. With each mission, it bled a little harder, and with each target, Kisuke’s chest ached a little deeper. The ocean never stopped raging at him, the fury cold and protective as much as it was judging. 

 

Kisuke learned to ignore the ocean as he ignored his heart. He kept taking the expensive paper, kept meeting Yoruichi’s eyes with a bow and a quiet smile. 

 

He kept bleeding. 

 

The order to become warden of the Maggot’s Nest was a relief, in the end. Wrestling prisoners to submission was easier than feeling expensive paper beneath his fingers, and the ocean did not rage when he only disciplined and protected.

 

The occasional order still came in, but for the most part Kisuke was content to act as guard and not as executioner. 

 

For the first time in years, the ocean lapped against him with forgiveness to match the worry. For the first time in his life, Kisuke wondered if he’d imagined the ocean and was as mad as Yoruichi had feared. No one could forgive what an agent of the Onmitsukidō did in the shadows. 

 

No one could forgive him, least of all himself. But if no one could forgive him, then Kisuke could at least invent his own penance. He turned to the labs, even as expensive orders touched his fingers. There was a freedom in creation that Kisuke couldn’t explain, the drive to push past boundaries and knowledge lingering deep in his blood. He created gifts for Yoruichi and Tessai, playful toys for powerful souls. He made a sensor for reading unusual power signals, and watched it glow as he stood close with something like relief. He’d had plans for madness too, but he hadn’t wanted to deal with his own insanity. Reality was an easier obstacle to plan for. 

 

He invented, simply because he could. 

 

He created a fast path to bankai too, and tested it on himself in three long days of hard fighting. Those days were brutal and bloody, and at the end of each one Yoruichi’s bright eyes looked worried.

 

Kisuke wasn’t worried at all. Really, he should have known his spirit would be as brutal as he was. She was the part of him that was as ruthless as Yoruichi, he thought, dodging another lethal blow. 

 

She didn’t feel the guilt that clung to his bones, but she knew the unstoppable power of his invention.

 

“You haven’t spoken to him yet, Kisuke,” the sword said, eyes vicious and kimono made of a thousand shifting layers of fabric. Needles and thread lingered in the air behind her, ready to rip into him again. All of her glittered red, to match the stinging cuts across his skin. 

 

Kisuke laughed, soft and quiet. The sound was everything his sword wasn’t, everything Benihime didn’t stand for. A shard of his soul stood before him, and it was the piece that could cut ruthless and quick in the darkness. 

 

It was the piece that took expensive paper and didn’t flinch. 

 

“I don’t know who you mean, I’m afraid.”

 

There was a wound running down his arm where he hadn’t sewn his skin together quickly enough. It matched the one on his back that he couldn’t quite reach, and the teasing marks under his jaw. It was the second day of battle, and Benihime was as fierce as he was. 

 

Kisuke almost wished she wasn’t. He was glad she was. 

 

His plans hadn’t accounted for his own soul, but that was alright. He’d planned for the unpredictable as well, and even if he hadn’t, he’d always been good at thinking on his feet. 

 

It was a talent. 

 

“A fool,” she deemed at last, eyes cutting into his skin with judgement that was too real for comfort. The ocean swirled around him, pressing across his bones like a hand pressing into his back and holding him strong. 

 

Fight on, that hand seemed to say, in licking fire and relentless waves. Kisuke could do nothing else, before that power. He shifted his weight, thread heavy under his fingers. He hadn’t been able to reach the cut on his back with hands and needle alone, but maybe, if he was delicate enough, a kidō could do it. 

 

How much of his skin would he sear off if he wasn’t careful, he wondered, with steady hands and careful calculation.  

 

“You’ve felt his call every day of your life, and you can’t even speak to him. You would be much stronger, if you weren’t such a fool.”

 

Kisuke smiled, and knew it was a pointless defense. She could see through that too, he was sure. She could see through everything he did, with the clarity that he used to see himself. 

 

He had to raise the stakes to win her game. Steady, he raised his fingers again, thread and needles at the ready for her challenge. Benihime slashed forward, red blade moving faster than he could dodge. 

 

But it wasn’t faster than he could plan. Kisuke rolled out of the way before the edge could gut him, earning a single cut across his arm instead of red steel into his chest. 

 

He sewed the wound shut quickly, with a wry smile and steady fingers, even as he leapt away from another strike. He’d finish her challenge soon, he could tell. Victory was close enough to taste, and the shape of his bankai was forming in his mind with each stitch. 

 

He would win this, and have more threads to spin. But the endless turning thoughts he could never turn off— they were spinning out a thousand possibilities of their own, and each was dyed white with sea foam. 

 

Who was he, and why hadn’t Kisuke listened?

 

It was only later, when bankai thrummed under his fingers and the ocean roared approval, that Kisuke understood. It had been with him since the beginning, and he hadn’t noticed. 

 

Kisuke hadn’t even spoken to him, hmm? 

 

Kisuke was a scientist to the core, and he could fix that mistake, given time and space. He would fix that, he thought, as he spoke out to the ocean in an empty room with only a blinking sensor for company. 

 

“My, you’ve been with me my whole life haven’t you? You should really have introduced yourself sooner.”

 

Waves rumbled beneath his skin, fiery and fierce. They licked across him in a tempo that told him it understood. It felt more active than it had in the academy, brighter somehow. Bankai hadnhelped him understand it, even though Kisuke had scars hidden away to show for that battle. 

 

Somehow, Kisuke thought it was scowling at him. Somehow, Kisuke thought it felt fond. 

 

He smiled into the silence, and planned an experiment. It was time to speak to his guest, as soon as he could. He didn’t know that would take longer than a genius could ever want.  

 

⊱ ━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━ ⊰

 

It was a year after he’d achieved bankai, and ten after the ocean had swirled like fire under his skin, that Yoruichi called him in for an order. The Shihōin compound was quiet and still, polished wood floors silent and heartbeats quiet as they always were. The souls that walked these halls were assassins and spies, skilled and stealthy. 

 

Loud steps got people killed, in the Shihōin compound. 

 

Yoruichi waited for him in the same place they had always met, before they were commander-and-soldier, when the only barrier between them was Kisuke’s birth. 

 

The cultivated pond was as still as he remembered. The water did not swirl, not when there was no wind to catch at the surface and make it dance. 

 

The ocean under Kisuke’s skin felt like fire, when he looked at still water. 

 

“Here,” Yoruichi said, a glint in gold eyes that Kisuke knew to be wary of. She held an order out to him, white and plain in the sunlight. He took it with steady fingers and a sinking heart. 

 

The paper was expensive. 

 

“Ah, I’ll have it done by tomorrow,” he said, taking the order as he had taken every order she had ever given him. The ocean boiled over his skin, a protective rage that Kisuke had never been able to understand. 

 

Why did an ocean hurt with each order? 

 

But Yoruichi stopped him with a clap to the back of the head, soft and familiar. Her fingers brushed through his hair, slow enough to be intentional. She was warm as the ocean was. She was the closest thing to family he’d ever known, in a society where souls forged their own bonds. He took the orders for her. 

 

“No, you idiot. Read it now.”

 

He blinked, as still as the water that lingered beside him. It was against every protocol, to open an order out in the open. It was against every protocol to call his commander by name too, but Yoruichi had never let him get away with anything else. 

 

He read the order, and his hands didn’t shake. 

 

He should have expected it, in the end. Yoruichi had always known his heart better than anyone, and she had always had a soft spot for him. She had always wanted to give him a different life. 

 

The captaincy trials were over quickly, with bankai under his fingers and all his terrible genius bent to succeeding as Yoruichi had ordered. The Captain-General looked him over with hard eyes and a sharp interest, so Kisuke could only cough quietly and bow. 

 

He was approved in mere hours. 

 

And if a single sheet of expensive paper was tucked against the skin over his chest? If he walked with a lighter step than he had in years of service in the Onmitsukidō? If he felt the beginnings of a fear he never wanted claw at his skin like loneliness?

 

That was for Kisuke alone to know.

 

The walls of the Seireitei gleamed around him broad and tall as nothing he had seen before he came from Rukongai. They looked unstoppable, undefeatable as a the sun in the sky. 

 

But something told him they would break, before the ocean. 

 

Kisuke thought the fallout would be spectacular to watch. He didn’t want to see it. He wanted to help build the walls stronger instead, grow roots to weather any tide. 

 

He would build a better fortress, in the depths of the twelfth division. It would be made from vials and careful experiments, the stones of science holding his division strong as a foundation for the rest. 

 

It wouldn’t be enough to fix the walls, but in the end that would be okay. In the end, Kisuke would be glad the ocean could wash everything away. 

 

In the end, Kisuke would be glad for the ocean. 

 

⊱ ━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━ ⊰

 

The lab bench was cold beneath his fingers, icy with an artificial chill that he’d built in. The components of this sensor had to be kept cool, or Kisuke wouldn’t have a lab to work in at all. 

 

The explosion wouldn’t hurt him, but he thought it would set a bad example to the squad he’d only just begun to lead. Lab explosions should only happen after the third week of command, he’d said that morning, with a laugh and a smile that was mostly honest. Hiyori had looked ready to burn his quarters to the ground. 

 

She had looked ready to burn him too, and that was a distrust Kisuke hadn’t earned. He pressed his hands into the cool surface, desperate for comfort and the grounding chill of the reiatsu draining metal. 

 

He wasn’t ready for this. 

 

There were normal soul reapers relying on him now, for leadership and guidance. It was outside the structure of the Onmitsukidō, and when the hierarchy fell away all that was left was a trust he had to earn. 

 

Kisuke, for all his skills, wasn’t good at people. Oh, he could kill them. He could guard them too, and face off with the worst and best souls and walk away without a scratch. 

 

But he’d been trained as an assassin first, soul reaper second, and loyal subordinate third. The kindhearted ocean beneath his skin couldn’t change that, and neither could Kisuke. It had gone quiet since he put on the captain’s haori, pressure building over his bones but not breaking.

 

He’d never been trained for this. He’d never trained to speak to souls and make them listen, because all the people he spoke to knew the chain of command. Kisuke was the Warden of the Maggot’s Nest, and so the guards listened. Kisuke was Yoruichi’s third in command, and so the Onmitsukidō bent to his orders as if they came from the gilded leader herself.

 

Kisuke has never had to earn respect before, because that wasn’t what mattered in the ranks of spies and assassins. 

 

Now he stood among a new company, with a lieutenant who knew enough to know Kisuke had blood on his hands, but not enough to understand why. 

 

And she didn’t trust him. 

 

He didn’t know what to do, but he’d made the decision to try as soon as expensive paper brushed his skin. 

 

The table was cold under his fingers. 

 

“Your heart is too soft for the Onmitsukidō, Kisuke,” Yoruichi had said, after the captaincy trials were over. Gold eyes had stared at him, bright and harder than Kisuke’s had ever been. It sounded like quiet rebuke, but Kisuke knew it was concern. 

 

He sighed. It echoed strangely, when the ocean had gone quiet beneath his skin. 

 

Did Yoruichi know he was too soft to be a captain too?

 

She almost surely did, but that was alright. Kisuke would pick apart the threads of this challenge too, given time. He’d pushed aside his soft heart to do what needed to be done before. He could do it again. 

 

The first thing Kisuke did, after stepping into the division the next morning, was smile. It was a laughing thing, sheepish and bashful. It was a smile he had always used as a weapon, to throw off opponents and expectations alike. 

 

It was a smile Kisuke had honed, and he had used it for so long that he almost couldn’t tell it was a lie. Almost. Kisuke always knew his own lies, and the ones he told himself he knew even better. But this wasn’t really a lie, not when he wanted so dearly to belong. It had been a long time since Kisuke had craved that. 

 

He was of the twelfth division now, and there would be no more expensive orders. 

 

The second thing he did was take the division and forge it into something new, with all the genius lingering at his fingertips. 

 

He wanted to belong, and he wanted to protect. But he wanted to understand too, and change the world for the better. Kisuke was a scientist, and now, away from bloody orders and the weight of guilt, he could use that to help people. 

 

The third thing he did was throw himself into experiments, and finally finish creating a sensor that could measure the ocean. He had lived with the ocean for all his life, but he wanted to know what it was. He wanted to understand it. 

 

He wanted to greet it, with a smile to match the scowl he always thought he felt. 

 

Long fingers played across the lab bench before him, pressing over steel and the fine wires he had laid out in a grid too complicated to be traced by anyone else. There was a world under his hands, and he moved with careful precision to forge it into the beginnings of a new invention. 

 

This was his fifth attempt at a sensor. Of course, he had tried before, and failed spectacularly. Nothing could truly measure the ocean, not when it swirled under his skin but never stepped out. 

 

If Kisuke were anyone else, he might have thought the ocean a sign of madness. It was a phantom only he could feel, after all, a power that swirled to match his moods. But he had seen enough insanity to recognize it, even lingering in his own mind. 

 

The waves against his soul were not fake. Madness couldn’t know zanpakutō techniques. Madness couldn’t admire his kidō, or feel hot and furious when innocent lieutenants that Kisuke didn’t know got too close. Madness couldn’t be this strong, so Kisuke studied the ocean like it was a living thing. 

 

So he tried again, with all the time in the world and the weight of bankai making his hands steady. This time, Kisuke would succeed. 

 

The ocean seemed interested enough at first, the slow motions of waves lapping at his skin and growing more aware. Kisuke thought he could feel a hint of weighty disapproval in the power when he stayed too late in the lab, like angry fingers were pressing against his back and a scowl lingered next to his neck.

 

After the quiet ocean of captaincy, it felt so warm.

 

It took two years, to develop the first sensor that could measure the ocean. It should have taken decades to find something only he could feel, but Kisuke had always been a genius. He had been a genius, even when it was painful. 

 

All that genius felt unimportant, when he looked down at the sensor. 

 

A different plane, he thought, staring at the spikes and readings of the ocean’s reiryoku. The ocean was strong enough to be on a different plane of power altogether. It was strong enough to destroy everything, if only it wanted to. 

 

Somehow, that was comforting. He stared down at his hands and spoke to an empty room that was filled to the brim with power. 

 

“Ah, I don’t know why you’d follow me, when you could crush all of Soul Society. You must get bored staying with little old me everyday.” 

 

The ocean seemed to flick across his skin, as if annoyed. It swirled to the ends of his fingers too, where they sat on the sensor and made it shake and beep. 

 

It was prompting him, Kisuke realized. 

 

“You can understand me, can’t you?”

 

Another shake, firmer this time. The waves against his skin felt warm and protective, an armor Kisuke had worn his whole life but never quite noticed was armor. 

 

Kisuke hadn’t had someone protect him since he had first stood at Yoruichi’s side beside still water, years ago. 

 

He’d missed it. 

 

He laughed, quiet and more honest than he’d been in years. It echoed through the space of his lab and across a thousand vials, over every piece of equipment he’d honed in the long nights spent bending over different projects.

 

“I kept you waiting, didn’t I? How rude of me.”

 

He turned back to the readings, and felt the ocean lick over his skin like it was impatient. Well, Kisuke couldn’t leave it alone now. It was time to achieve the impossible again, with clever fingers and too much concentration. 

 

It would be faster this time, Kisuke thought, staring down at his sensor. He knew how to feel the ocean’s power, how to trace it across the world. It lingered around Kisuke mostly, fitting close to his skin and licking across his fingers. 

 

But he could trace it, and that was what mattered. 

 

“Yes dear,” Kisuke said, placidly, playfully, with a smile that was too truthful. “I’ll get right to it.”

 

The ocean felt warmer after that. 

 

⊱ ━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━ ⊰

 

It took Kisuke a month, to adapt the body he’d been toying with to hold the ocean’s power. It was a fake, modeled after the shell-bodies he’d created in these labs. Those models would give soul reapers physical bodies in the living world, and let them walk among humans like they were human too. 

 

This body would let them become human. Or force them, he supposed. It wouldn’t be hard to kill someone, using this body, and for all his good intentions Kisuke couldn’t turn off the corner of his mind that planned out that kind of use for a model like this. He’d taken far too many expensive orders for that.

 

Kisuke had decided to call the other models gigai, but he wasn’t sure what to call this version of a fake body. The lack of reishi gave it a power all it’s own, and most soul reapers wouldn’t care for that power. 

 

He lifted the shell, laid it out across the cold metal of his lab bench. It looked strange and lifeless, lying across the table. It didn’t even look like the man Kisuke had modeled it after, not without a gentle smile and glasses. 

 

Kisuke didn’t mind. The modified gigai was a tool like any other, just more immediately useful. It might be able to hold the ocean, after all. 

 

That was the most important thing. 

 

Of course, the calculations weren’t great for this gigai lasting more than a few minutes. Kisuke didn’t even know if it would work at all. The gigai might not be able to drain enough reiryoku to walk without combusting under the weight of the ocean’s power. It would be strange if any body could hold the power Kisuke knew swam beneath his skin. 

 

Any body except his, Kisuke thought, and wondered how he’d survived this long at all.  

 

But that was a question for later, and this was a theory for now. He smiled down at the gigai, felt a wry humor rise up in his throat. 

 

Nothing like an explosion or two to wake the squad up early. 

 

He pressed his fingers to the fake skin, felt it begin to suck his energy away. It tugged at the ocean too, but it couldn’t pull it free without permission, the waves too monolithic to move. He hadn’t known how to take the ocean from his skin. He hadn’t been sure he wanted to know, for all that he wanted to understand everything. 

 

It was so warm, when the ocean burned across his bones, and losing that would be as painful as a sword to the gut.

 

But Kisuke had always been a scientist, and so he’d found a way. 

 

“This body should hold you, but not for long. You’ll have ten minutes, to speak, once you enter it. I’ve built in back up systems to reroute the energy to me after it collapses, so you’ll be able to return.”

 

He didn’t bother to mention just how dangerous that was, or how many of Benihime’s threads he’d had to use to make that possible. 

 

It was, at this moment, unimportant. 

 

The ocean swirled, hotter and faster, until it stormed to the very edge of Kisuke’s fingertips. It didn’t feel hesitant at all, for all that this was a risk no one should want to take. It was strong, even here. Power burned across the thin barrier of his skin, hot and painful. Then it leapt free, and the gigai took a breath it didn’t have to take. 

 

“Damn it Kisuke, why did you wait so long?”

 

Kisuke couldn’t help it— he laughed, bright and surprised. 

 

The ocean had lived with him, through everything. He shouldn’t be surprised it knew his name, or could call it so casually. It probably knew more than Kisuke had ever told anyone else— more than even it had asked for— but that didn’t matter. 

 

It’s scowl looked just like he’d imagined, in the long years of feeling warmth lap at his bones. 

 

“So ungrateful, Ocean-san. And after I put all that work into making your gigai appropriate.”

 

There was a twitch, a glare that Kisuke had never seen on the model’s face. It looked strange, but Kisuke couldn’t mind. The annoyance was interesting to see in person, when he’d felt it against his skin for decades. He hadn’t expected the ocean to be so expressive, but then, he’d hardly expected it to speak at all. 

 

But this test confirmed that it was a soul. A soul that knew Kisuke better than anyone else. A soul that had pressed a had against his back and supported him, a soul that had forgiven him for taking expensive paper, and warmed his skin against loneliness. 

 

What a soul it was, truly. 

 

“Kisuke. You modeled this after Aizen.”

 

Kisuke hummed, quiet and thoughtful. There was a quiet danger in the way the soul spoke Aizen’s name, and it was darker than Kisuke had expected. It wasn’t hatred, Kisuke thought, but an angry pity. That was stranger still. 

 

Making the gigai look like Aizen had been the right decision after all. 

 

He took a step back, watched the ocean stand from the table. The body was already showing signs of strain, hints of gold gleaming out of the corner of bright eyes. 

 

It wouldn’t last more than ten minutes. 

 

“Well, he is conventionally attractive. I really would have thought you’d enjoy that, with how excited you got every time he was near. Though you are an amorphous entity that speaks in reiryoku fluctuations, so I suppose I could have misread the situation.” 

 

“Shut up. Like you didn’t know exactly what you were doing,” the ocean said, reaching out to smack Kisuke’s shoulder. The pressure was enough to rock Kisuke back on his heels, not from the force of the blow but from the bite of reiatsu. 

 

He had felt the ocean and thousand times, and knew all that endless power. But the reiatsu felt different, when it wasn’t coating his skin and holding him steady. 

 

It felt dangerous. 

 

“I should have expected this,” the ocean muttered, fingers sliding away and the pressure falling with them. Kisuke’s skin felt cold, without the ocean. He didn’t care for it. “Next time don’t make me look like Aizen.”

 

“Well, if you don’t like my choices, I’m happy to change it, Ocean-san! Any requests on your next body, then?” 

 

“Shiba,” the ocean muttered after a moment. More reiatsu was leaking from the cracks of bright eyes, coloring them an eerie gold. Kisuke wanted to study that shine, catalogue it in a thousand ways. “Make me look like a Shiba, a man is fine. And don’t call me Ocean. Call me Ichigo.”

 

Ichigo. Kisuke rolled the name across his tongue, tucked it away in the spiderweb of his mind. His ocean was called Ichigo. The name felt like reality had shifted and formed in his hands. It felt familiar too, as every word he spoke to this man did. 

 

The ocean had been with him for so long. 

 

“My, giving me your name already, Ichigo? So forward, for such a powerful soul. Though I suppose you have seen me naked many times, over the years. Should I be worried for my virtue?”

 

“Damn it, shut up,” Ichigo said, and there was a flush blooming across the pale skin of the gigai. Kisuke felt his breath catch in his throat for a heartbeat, for all that his skin felt cold and lonely. 

 

Delightful. Kisuke had never thought a flush could look quite so fetching before, especially not on Aizen’s face. But it wasn’t the fine cheekbones or elegant lips that made it beautiful.

 

The soul mattered more. 

 

He watched the gold shine out of the skin, leak out stronger with each moment that passed. They didn’t have much time. 

 

Kisuke didn’t let that thought linger. 

 

“So, Ichigo. How about you tell me why you were living in my body?”

 

The man blinked, as if surprised by the question, as if surprised it could ever be a question. Kisuke didn’t know what to make of that. “Because it’s you, of course. Who else would I guard?”

 

“That answers none of my questions, I’m afraid.”

 

Ichigo shrugged, and a rush of dust fell off his shoulders to scatter across Kisuke’s floor. Cold metal glinted with gold snowfall, and Kisuke couldn’t think it was beautiful. 

 

The gigai was already dissolving. 

 

“Don’t say that like you couldn’t guess the answers already. I’m here to help you, and to protect you. I won’t let anything happen while you build me a body. Don’t pretend to be surprised, I know you will. And Kisuke—” 

 

There was a pause, caught on the shadow of falling dust and eyes that were far too bright. Kisuke could get lost in that determined stare, he thought, smile going wry and damned. 

 

“Make sure to stay away from Aizen until you’ve made me a permanent body,” Ichigo said, a hand coming to grip Kisuke’s wrist. The touch was familiar, like all the days the ocean had licked across his skin and warmed him. “I know you’re strong, but he’s dangerous.”

 

Kisuke hadn’t been touched in a while, he realized. He didn’t initiate touch often, not when he’d lived among the stealth corps for so long. It wasn’t good practice, to get close to assassins. 

 

But Ichigo’s fingers were strong and supportive, and Kisuke almost swayed into the feeling.

 

Had he ever felt alone, when the ocean had kept him company for so long? Kisuke didn’t know. Kisuke would find out, with quiet experimentation. Kisuke had many mysteries to solve, as gold washed over the metal of his lab bench. 

 

The body dissolved quickly after that. Kisuke tried not to mourn it, even as the ocean— Ichigo, the soul’s name was Ichigo, and he had the brightest eyes Kisuke had ever seen— hummed across his skin again. 

 

He’d build another gigai, and make it better. He’d get to speak to Ichigo again, and until then, well. The man never left his side, and Kisuke had a thousand new pieces of data to play with. 

 

It was too risky to give Ichigo a gigai often, not when even Kisuke’s models cracked and broke under the pressure of oceanic power. The aftershocks of reiatsu shook the entire division, after all, and that was hardly subtle. It was too much, especially when Kisuke thought over what Ichigo had said. 

 

Discretion was probably important, when a power like Ichigo warned him away from his fellow soul reapers. 

 

So, no more failed gigai. That didn’t mean Kisuke wouldn’t find a way to give Ichigo a body that could bear the strain. And in the meantime, well, Kisuke learned to read the moods of the waves lapping at his skin. 

 

He laughed, when it grew hotter during long baths. 

 

He left the next gigai in the back of his lab after it was built, and didn’t look at the box that held it. It was a well-crafted thing, made from the best material Kisuke could find. It was tall and lanky, shaped after Shiba Kaien’s build but without the scars of battle. 

 

It had red hair. Somehow, Kisuke hadn’t been able to think of another color to match Ichigo’s soul as it lapped at the edges of his skin. 

 

The waves swirled in agreement. 

 

If Ichigo was going to walk the world, Kisuke would need a way to find a way to stabilize both the power and the gigai at once. He needed to break the barriers between soul and body, between shell and powerful void. 

 

It was time for a new experiment. 

 

Kisuke devoted himself to research, when the duties from the squad didn’t call him away. The long nights in the lab seemed to make Ichigo restless. The soul swirled over his skin as if each wave on his bones was a harsh word, and each tide was a scowl. 

 

He smiled at the concern and pushed on. There were discoveries to be made, and inventions to create. Kisuke had never been a man to sit back and let the world spin by. 

 

He tried talking to the ocean, sometimes, when the lab was lonely and he could sit and murmur over his experiments. That didn’t seem to please it either, though Kisuke couldn’t quite tell different feelings from each wave pattern. 

 

Kisuke wondered what Ichigo’s scowl would look like, on the new face. 

 

⊱ ━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━ ⊰

 

The days after that passed in quiet wariness, but his smile was honest. Suspicion against Aizen was new, but Kisuke had already learned to be suspicious. He hadn’t had to use this type of skill in years, not when the Twelfth had grown to trust him. Even if Hiyori still shot him the occasional cold look, he knew she was warming up to him. Her kicks had grown more playful recently, loose and friendly. Kisuke would take the threat of kicks to the head if it meant his lieutenant didn’t think he was a merciless assassin. 

 

His heart had been too soft for it, after all. 

 

So he didn’t want to use what he’d learned in the long years in the Onmitsukidō. He hadn’t wanted to need those skills, but Ichigo’s warning was too pressing to ignore. 

 

So Kisuke watched, and smiled, and noticed that Hirako-taichō didn’t seem to care for his lieutenant. He hummed, and experimented, and when he passed Aizen in the hall Kisuke brushed a hand across dark robes. 

 

The reiatsu signature would be interesting to trace, he thought, with a sample straight from the source. It would be easy to pass on to Yoruichi for some discrete surveillance too, when he was too busy. 

 

He followed it himself only once. His footsteps took him to the edges of a district in Rukongai, following Aizen’s trail only for it to vanish from his senses. Kisuke paused, protected beneath a cloak that didn’t let out a hint of his reiatsu. 

 

Aizen shouldn’t have been able to vanish. He shouldn’t have been able to leave no trace, not in an area so sparsely populated. The village was small, with quiet buildings and few people stepping between them. 

 

There was nothing to wash away a thread like Aizen’s. 

 

How curious. Kisuke stayed to watch the area for a few minutes, taking in every detail of his surroundings. The souls around him looked wane, beyond what the dangers of Rukongai brought. Kisuke had lived in a district like this before the Shihōin had taken him in, and he knew its perils. This was a mid ranked part of the mass of Soul Society, filled with people who could afford food but not anyone strong enough to really need it. 

 

There was no reason to be afraid, and yet every eye he saw looked wary. 

 

Even more curious, and even more suspicious. Ichigo swirled bright and furious at that, a power like fire licking at Kisuke’s bones. The waves felt sharp with the anger of a protector. If a power like Ichigo was on guard, well. That meant Kisuke should be careful, and come armed with plans. 

 

It didn’t mean he would stop. 

 

⊱ ━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━ ⊰ 

 

It took Kisuke five years to adapt one of his inventions to stabilize Ichigo’s power. The waves under his skin grew hotter with each day, until Kisuke could feel them raging against him.

 

They felt worried. He thought he might know why— this was a relatively dangerous experiment, after all, and Kisuke couldn’t guarantee the results. He was putting himself at risk creating this, and well, the device under his fingers was not one to fiddle with lightly. That was doubly true, with what he had learned about it in the last few months. 

 

He picked up the Hōgyoku, watched it shift and catch the light. It was beautiful, in the way new science was always beautiful. It had a power he’d never meant to give it too, but Kisuke couldn’t mind that.

 

Given a chance like this, there was only one thing he would wish for. And oh, what a wish it would be. 

 

It would be a risk, but a calculated one. Kisuke was a scientist, and he knew the dangers of pursuing the unknown as well as anyone. He was worried too, but the numbers spoke for themselves. Kisuke wanted to give the ocean a voice again, wanted to discover Ichigo’s secrets and soul. He wanted the companion that had walked beside him for his entire life to have a body to move through the world. 

 

He did this for Ichigo. Kisuke had done worse things out of loyalty than adapt a weapon into a glass heart, he thought, remembering the feel of expensive paper. The Hōgyoku hummed beneath his fingers, the sound growing louder as pieces vibrated into place. The restructuring was almost done, and Kisuke could see a thousand threads slide together to match the device. 

 

He had done so much worse than give Ichigo a voice. 

 

⊱ ━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━ ⊰

 

There were reports of soul disappearances a day before he slotted the last piece into place, worried messages pouring in from two different squads. They were concerning, the kind of disappearances that couldn’t be explained by mere murder or the movement of people. 

 

They made Kisuke as curious as he was nervous. They made him take a second look at his data too, and watch for any abnormalities. But the lines were clean, and Yoruichi’s spies had seen nothing out of the ordinary. 

 

Aizen was behaving as a model citizen, shadowing the steps of Hirako-taichō. There was little to be suspicious of, even with Ichigo’s warning. Kisuke should still investigate, because knowledge was the currency of power and he had no plans to die young. He’d threaded together a defense against revolution and murder and everything in between, over the last five years. He’d anticipated a dozen futures, and prepared for ten more. Kisuke could handle this, knowing there was a snake in the white walls of the Seireitei.

 

But he was so close to finishing. Ichigo’s body was hours from being complete, and all of Kisuke’s mind was turned to that single task, and that task alone. There was power burning like fire beneath his skin, and Kisuke wanted to give it voice again. 

 

He couldn’t afford to stop, even when Ichigo’s waves felt sharper than usual. 

 

But the hollow disappearances had come from the district where he’d felt Aizen’s reiatsu vanish. For all his plans, Kisuke couldn’t ignore that, and he couldn’t leave it to Hiyori alone, no matter what the others said. The kanji across his back marked him as a protector, and for all that he’d never wanted it, Kisuke wasn’t going to let anyone in his squad die. 

 

He was part of the Twelfth, now.

 

He was half way out of the white walls when a fluttering kimono washed across his vision, a bright smile and sharp eyes stepping up to follow it. Kyōraku-taichō never made a subtle entrance, not even when it was a meeting between two captains. 

 

“Trust your lieutenant, Captain. Sometimes we just have to trust, and let them stand alone.” 

 

The words hit hard, echoing through his bones and the swirling waves of the ocean. Kisuke knew himself, better than he knew anyone else. 

 

He hadn’t ignored the protective impulses towards his squad and Hiyori— he’d cultivated them. Wasn’t that what he should do? He was a captain, outside of the merciless ranks of the Onmitsukidō. Wasn’t it a captain’s job, to stand and protect his squad? Kyoraku’s eyes said no, even as his smile said let her grow. 

 

Maybe Kisuke’s heart was too soft for this too. 

 

So he stepped back, into the depths of squad barracks that felt quiet without Hiyori. He buried himself in the final adjustments to the gigai, until, at last, everything was done. 

 

Kisuke had finished the most important creation he’d ever made.  

 

His fingers were steady, when they laid out the gigai he’d built years before. They were steady as they lifted the modified Hōgyoku to glint in the light, steady as they laid it across the skin above where a heart should be.

 

It was ready, he thought. It was ready for him to try. 

 

The device sunk into the gigai quickly, humming slightly as it vanished. Kisuke thought it felt strangely cold, for all that it was endlessly powerful. 

 

It wasn’t nearly as warm as the ocean. The waves felt furious now, boiling in a way Ichigo rarely did. He’d be able to say why soon enough, Kisuke thought, with a smile that was a thread too brittle. 

 

The strands of his bankai lingered around him, and for the first time in years, Kisuke looked into the darkness of empty eyes and ripped a soul from his skin. 

 

He felt so cold, without the ocean. He felt colder still, where his fingers pressed against the glass heart that had once been the Hōgyoku. It seemed to drain him, hungry teeth reaching for his skin. But Kisuke had spent years learning its abilities and studying the swirls of its powers. He knew what it had been, before he’d broken it and made it anew. He knew how to use it.

 

He wished for Ichigo to live, and so the man did. 

 

The body under Kisuke’s fingers took a breath, harsh and broken. Then it took another, light and fluttering. Then it stumbled from the table, and suddenly bright eyes were burning into Kisuke’s skin. 

 

Ichigo’s scowl looked just like he had imagined, on the new face. It was too worried, with a sharp annoyance that Kisuke had never seen before but recognized.

 

The ocean had been with him for so long.  

 

“Kisuke,” Ichigo said, and strong fingers came up to hold Kisuke’s wrist steady. They were warm, as his skin wasn’t anymore with waves gone from his bones. “Damn it, Kisuke you used the Hōgyoku for this. Don’t you know how dangerous that thing is?”

 

“Oh, I know precisely how dangerous it is, and accounted for all the risks. The chance of destroying the entirety of Soul Society was less than 4%! But,” he said, pausing carefully. “I don’t recall ever calling it the Hōgyoku, Ichigo.”

 

He had never told anyone its name. He hadn’t even spoken the thought aloud, let alone written it down where Ichigo could see. The theory that had lingering in the background for years, out of sight but never out of mind, was finally pulled into the open. 

 

Ichigo’s words proved him correct. The sharp look the man gave him proved him correct too, and Kisuke watched that scowl grow exasperated with a smile. 

 

He hadn’t been wrong after all. 

 

“Clever bastard,” Ichigo sighed, fingers rubbing across Kisuke’s wrist. It was an idle motion, like Ichigo had done it a thousand times before. And hadn’t he? Hadn’t the ocean always pressed against his skin? 

 

Kisuke had never been alone, had he?

 

“It’s always like this with you,” Ichigo said at last, with a look that was annoyed but far too fond. 

 

Kisuke’s smiled in reply, bright and cheerful. He felt cold. “You know me too well.“

 

“Alright, you can pick apart the details later, Kisuke. Aizen’s already on the move. I have people to save.” Ichigo’s hand fell away as he spoke, and the scowl faded into a glare of a protector. The man looked fierce, in a way that Kisuke recognized from long days in the Onmitsukidō. 

 

That was the expression Kisuke had felt pressing into his back, after every painful mission. Seeing it on a face was strange, and seeing it look so deadly was stranger still.

 

Kisuke liked it.  

 

Ichigo was gone before Kisuke could blink again, moving faster than anything he’d seen before but not outside the realm of his calculations. Ichigo had a power like nothing else, and Kisuke knew that intimately. And he’d left, because Aizen was on the move.

 

What had Aizen done?  Hiyori, Kisuke thought with something like panic, and wondered if his heart was still too soft to be a captain. 

 

In the silence left, he could only ever follow. 

 

⊱ ━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━ ⊰

 

Kisuke knelt on the ground, and watched six people be eaten alive by the white foam of hollow’s masks. It spread from their mouths to consume them, a poison that Kisuke had studied too much and not nearly enough. He knelt on the ground, and could not reach out for the edge of Benihime or the cloak left beside him. There was weight catching across his throat, pressing through his bones and crushing his ribs against the harsh beats of his soft heart. 

 

He knelt, because under Ichigo’s reiatsu he could not stand. 

 

“I won’t let you hurt them again,” Ichigo said, words strong and painfully resolute. Kisuke had felt that certainty press through his skin a thousand times, had felt it support him before he could fall. 

 

Now he felt it crush his lungs, as Ichigo crushed three soul reapers into nothingness. 

 

He choked on air, felt it pull out of his lungs and leave him leaning towards the ground. He wondered, idly, if he was going to fall. Kisuke had measured the power of the ocean a hundred times over the years, with different sensors and in different ways. He’d constructed data and trends, measured the fluctuations more carefully than anything else. He had understood the sheer scope of Ichigo’s power, he’d thought. 

 

It appeared his estimates had been low. It appeared they had been very low, and it wasn’t a mistake Kisuke would make again. The sensors had struggled to pick up the marks of stronger reiatsu, and well, even Kisuke hadn’t thought the soul possessing him had bankai. It appeared that Ichigo was not only powerful, but experienced; his sword cut into Tōsen faster than Kisuke could see, and the crush of power didn’t even waver. 

 

It appeared that Kisuke might die under the pressure, too. 

 

“Oh shit, Kisuke. Hey, wake up, come on, I’m not going to let you die now.”

 

If Ichigo wanted him to live, Kisuke thought, fingers digging into the ground, the man should really control that pressure.

 

Then the last of his air left him, and Kisuke didn’t think at all. 

 

⊱ ━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━ ⊰

The sun woke him first. 

 

It spread out across his skin slow and steady, reaching warm fingers for his eyes and forcing him awake. That was strange, as many things about this morning were strange. Kisuke hadn’t woken to the sun in years, always up earlier and deep in research or work. He hadn’t woken up in this place in decades either, with the gentle sound of the fourth division trickling through the window. 

 

The sun woke Kisuke first, but it was the loneliness that had him moving. There was no ocean beneath his skin, and no waves beating a tempo across his heart. The stillness of the air was filled only with the creaking steps of soul reapers outside, and the gentle sunlight was unbroken by seafoam-reiryoku. 

 

He was, for the first time in his life, completely alone. 

 

“Finally awake, Kisuke.” 

 

The voice was warm and familiar, touched by the sun and left unbroken. It was a voice Kisuke had heard for his whole life, and trusted with everything. 

 

It was good to hear, when many things were strange. He opened his eyes and sat up, took in the quiet healing room around him and his old captain leaning against the plain walls. She was dressed for battle, with bare shoulders and a thousand weapons tucked away across her clothes. 

 

Kisuke was wearing only a yukata, thin fabric shifting across his shoulders. He felt bare and defenseless, for all that Benihime crooned from her sheath beside him. 

 

“Yoruichi,” he said, feeling the sun press across his skin like fire. It wasn’t warm enough. He wasn’t sure anything would be warm enough, but he’d test his options. 

 

Kisuke had always been a scientist, after all. 

 

“You didn’t tell me you had a god tucked away as a weapon,” she said, gold eyes amused but flinty. There was an edge Kisuke could almost taste in the air, sharp and bright as senbon. It filtered between them, poison come to the fourth division. 

 

Yoruichi thought he’d been keeping secrets from her. She was right. He hadn’t told anyone about the ocean, for all that it had always been with him. 

 

Not that he’d known Ichigo was quite that powerful, but well. Kisuke could have guessed, if he hadn’t been preoccupied. He had guessed, probably, in the endless calculations he could never stop. 

 

But the gigai had been more important, and so had the Hōgyoku. 

 

“Ah, I didn’t know I did,” he said, and watched her relax by a hair. “It’s hard to know something’s a god before you give it a body, I’m afraid.”

 

His skin felt empty and cold, for all the sunlight. 

 

“Only you,” she shook her head, stood up from the wall. The sun caught her skin and painted it in shades of fondness, even as she moved like a captain. Kisuke missed serving under her, even if he never missed the orders on expensive paper. 

 

There was still one order he did miss, tucked into his haori and treasured. He wished he knew where that was. He wished the ocean was beneath his skin. 

 

“Get some rest, and keep your god from breaking the entire Seireitei just because he can. He’s already jailed a lieutenant and exposed a conspiracy. That’s enough for one day.”

 

Kisuke thought of the waves in the ocean, of Ichigo’s power and protective rage. He thought of the warm glare that had burned him, of hands that had supported him for his entire life even if they’d only had fingers in the last day. 

 

Kisuke had stared up at the walls of the Seireitei once, and wondered if the ocean could destroy them. Now, with his skin cold and the memory of Ichigo’s reiatsu floating in his mind, he knew it could. 

 

Ichigo could destroy them all, and Kisuke wasn’t even sure he’d mind. 

 

“Ah, I’m sure it’s not that bad, Yoruichi. What’s a little property damage between friends?”

 

“Expensive, and coming out of your paycheck.” There was a pause, as she leapt cat-quick to crouch on the window. The sun filtered over her skin, and didn’t touch Kisuke. 

 

“I’m glad you’re alright, Kisuke,” she said, with too much honesty. Then she was gone, out the window in a flash of shunpo.

 

Kisuke didn’t have time to watch her go, not when Ichigo swung through the window in the moment after she left. 

 

Ichigo looked like everything Kisuke had ever wanted. 

 

His skin was brighter than the gigai Kisuke had crafted, alive in a way Kisuke hadn’t built in but had wished for. The Hōgyoku was working as it should then, a glass heart beating in a living chest. There was a scowl clear across Ichigo’s face, a fire in warm eyes that burned like the waves Kisuke had felt against his skin. His hair had grown longer too, stretching down to shade Kisuke from the sun. 

 

But it was the stare that caught Kisuke and trapped him. 

 

His skin felt cold, until Ichigo’s hands found him and kept him warm. One fell across his forehead, as if to settle Kisuke back against the pillows and press him down into rest. The other held his wrist, warm fingers steady and strong. 

 

Kisuke wasn’t cold, suddenly. He had forgotten what it was like to not be cold, had forgotten the overwhelming wash of Ichigo’s strength. 

 

It burned, and Kisuke couldn’t help but sway towards it. 

 

“Kisuke, you’re alright,” the man said, as he slid through the window and sat beside him. The force of Ichigo’s reiatsu was strong, even muted and muffled as it was. It seemed Ichigo could control it, when he wasn’t ready to rage. Or maybe it was always there, hovering above Kisuke’s ability to sense even now. He didn’t know, but he’d find out. 

 

Later, though, when that stare didn’t hold him. 

 

“Ah, Ichigo. You really are quite impressive. I didn’t know you could fight like that.”

 

Kisuke smiled, wry and curious. There was a strange playfullness bubbling up in him, bright in a way he could afford to be. Ichigo had given him that chance, for all the Kisuke had almost died for it. 

 

“Knock off the leading questions, Kisuke. I’ll tell you whatever you want to know.” Bright eyes caught his, even as the fingers across his wrist brushed over his skin. It was an idle motion, like Ichigo couldn’t help but trace the bones of Kisuke’s hand, couldn’t help but feel his pulse. 

 

Maybe Kisuke wasn’t the only one who missed their shared body. Maybe Kisuke wasn’t the only one who missed feeling their souls mix and twine. 

 

Maybe Kisuke wouldn’t have to be alone. 

 

“Sorry about the reiatsu, but I had to take them out fast. I took care of it, there won’t be any problems from them now. And Retsu says you’ll be okay after a few days.”

 

Kisuke hummed in response, felt warmth leech in from his wrist. Ichigo’s hands were distractingly strong, and Kisuke wanted to sink into the feeling and understand it. 

 

It was a problem, being a man of science. 

 

The look Ichigo gave him at the quiet was wary, but not guarded. It didn’t seem like Ichigo had a guarded bone in his body, for all that the man was strong and unstoppable and brightly annoyed.

 

 “You aren’t going to ask why?” 

 

“I’m sure you had your reasons, Ichigo, and it is far more fun to guess, don’t you think?” Kisuke said, with a smile that felt honest. It was a small thing, wry and full of the theories he’d spent his whole life spinning out. 

 

Kisuke was sure the man had reasons because he could guess at them. For decades, the ocean beneath his skin had burned whenever Aizen walked near. It had always known Aizen, even when Kisuke hadn’t known Aizen, even when Kisuke hadn’t known his ocean was called Ichigo. There were few ways for a spirit to have that knowledge, and fewer still when Ichigo had never left Kisuke’s skin. 

 

He could rule out a few possibilities, but the ones that remained were fascinating. Kisuke wanted to spend years discovering which were real, and which were impossible. 

 

He wondered if Ichigo would give him years. 

 

There was a snort from beside him as Ichigo shifted closer, the lean bulk of the new body impossible to escape. Kisuke didn’t even want to escape it, not when he was cold in the sunlight. 

 

The fingers on his wrist were so warm. 

 

“You already know,” Ichigo said at last, with a scowl that was far too fond. “You never change, Kisuke.”

 

“If you’ve spent this long with me, I’d like to think you don’t want me to,” Kisuke admitted, feeling his pulse beat against Ichigo’s touch. Warm hands pulled him closer, and Kisuke felt like the ocean stood with him again. 

 

“You are stuck with me now, Kisuke, and if you try to pull something I’ll smack you.”

 

Kisuke felt a smile grow across his face, like still water that shook and trembled under cherry blossoms. It felt real. 

 

“Ah, I think I can live with that, if you can live with me.”

 

⊱ ━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━ ⊰

 

 

Ichigo had been with him since the very beginning, but Kisuke hadn’t known it. 

 

The man had stood beside him in the quiet moments, had held him close when expensive paper brushed his fingers. When still water did not ripple, the strength of Ichigo’s soul had held him steady. When his heart had been too soft, Ichigo had stood as protector and guardian over it. 

 

Ichigo had always been with him. 

 

They had fought together, in the years before Ichigo had a body and the long centuries after. Ichigo, brash and beautiful as the sun, had been with him since the beginning. 

 

There was love licking at Kisuke’s heart, and it was warm as fire.