Here, my anti-Bleach-686-ending fic that tries to answer questions Kubo left unanswered, incorporates the fandom Dance with Snow White meme and proposes an ending IchiRuki deserved. I worked hard on this fic, fact-checked, rewrote sections several times, and tried to balance plot elements. That said, the story is a loooooong one-shot. I couldn’t include everything, and people are bound to disagree with parts. I welcome feedback from honest, civil readers willing to engage with this story; anyone attempting to poke a fandom dead horse will be ignored. Homey don’t play with dead horse pokers. I had a blast writing this; I hope you have fun reading it.
Blessings to my faithful editor Nehalenia without whom not only my writing but my life would be less complete. Thanks to Alex for the first beta. Post Bleach 686 fic. Quite literally, 686 goes up in smoke. Main pairing is IchiRuki. Many characters. IshiHime, Shunsui/Nanao, UraYoru, HitsuHina, implied AiGin and Ikkaku/Yumichika.
Warnings: Some adult situations, foul language, and violence but nothing NSFW. NO genuine, unequivocal adultery, but pearl-clutchers will be answered by Emma Watson.
Plot and plotting because, naturally, Aizen. Section titles are taken from Kubo’s own words in poems, color pages, chapter titles, etc.
“It is better to be unhappy and know the worst than to be happy in a fool's paradise.”
―from The Idiot by Dostoevsky
- May These Moments Never End
“Are you drunk or something?” Karin was tearing open a bag of paper bowls. “Gah, Somebody turn down the commercial. Why do commercials have play so loud?”
This commercial was freakily loud, Keigo noticed as he lay on his stomach in the Kurosaki house. The music was becoming dissonant. Like someone plucking a hipster ukulele at the same time Phantom of the Opera organ was booming. Right before his eyes, there was a hole in the wall, a freaky hole. A liquid darkness that was spinning, a hypnotizing drain into some kind of Hell.
“Sado-kun is doing great,” said a female voice. Was that Rukia? Yes. And that other voice was Yuzu-chan fretting about not enough popcorn being popped before the World Championships returned after commercial.
“We’re fine!” Ichigo’s voice.
The walls were wavering, and things were definitely not fine.
“You guys feel that?” Renji’s voice.
“What?” Ichigo asked.
“It’s Kazui.” That was Orihime’s cheery tone. Then her voice changed. It sounded puzzled. “His reiatsu's a little different?”
“I just realized something,” Mizuiro said, his mouth full of popcorn—or was his voice was muffled because the world was disappearing? “It’s Ichigo’s birthday today? Why isn’t there a cake or something?”
“That’s strange,” said Rukia. “It’s the first day of Obon. I forgot all about it. July 15th.”
Someone was leaning over Keigo. Tiny feet with girlish shoes, white ankle socks with strawberries on them. “You ok, Keigo?”
“Something’s really wrong,” said Keigo. He didn’t want to stand up. He was looking at the spinning black drain in front of him, unable to say more.
“Something’s really wrong,” Karin echoed. “Look at the television—the commercial isn’t ending.”
“It is,” Orihime murmured. “It’s been a long one, and it’s about to end.” At her words, parts of the room vanished; the television itself, a wall in Keigo’s peripheral vision, a chair, and a piece of ceiling went up in smoke. There was a soft roaring nothingness where parts of reality had been.
“No, not this.” Orihime’s voice was full of tears. “Why is this happening? Why did we forget … Ichigo’s birthday?”
Keigo forced himself to rise to his knees, put his palms on his thighs and looked around. Everyone seemed frozen, aware that weirdness was going down and not at all leaping to fix the issue with their super-powers. Ichigo—what about Ichigo? Wouldn’t Ichigo be on top of all this?
Ichigo was sitting on the sofa, remote in his hand. “It’s not right,” he said mournfully. “We should’ve gone to see Chad fight in person instead of watching him on television.”
Renji’s arm was around Rukia. “The television just disappeared, man.”
“Why didn’t I visit for ten whole years?” Rukia’s voice was in awe. “It’s not right.”
“Where’s Ishida?” Ichigo asked. “He could’ve used his Quincy flash-step to be right over in two seconds.”
Orihime put her face in her hands and sobbed; Yuzu dropped her bag of popcorn; Mizuiro reached to touch the space where the wall had been, and his hand and arm vanished into the nothingness up to his elbow.
Then Mizuiro was gone, and then the part of the sofa where Renji had been sitting wafted away. Rukia gasped. Orihime did not look up. “I can’t… I can’t…. stop it,” she stammered between sobs. “I don’t have any power at all. It’s been … I can’t … it’s gone.”
Rukia threw her arms around Orihime. The white roaring noise was louder; everything was disappearing, and for a moment Keigo had a feeling they were all being vacuumed into another space, but then Orihime ruined that hope.
“Kazui,” she wept in most pitiful way. “Kazui, you’re not real anymore.”
- Heroes Can Save You
As he felt the last of Yhwach’s reiatsu vanish, Aizen spun a lecture: “The world that you desired to create may indeed have been devoid of fear. However, in a world without the fear of death, men could not face that fear and seek out hope.”
Yhwach couldn’t hear him, of course. The Quincy king had lost to a true and immortal god, for whom fear was inessential.
Yhwach, someone who had dared reach for the status of god of all worlds, had fallen short in understanding How Things Can Be. Even with such foresight, the ability to see (almost) all possible futures, he had lacked Aizen’s own forethought and intellect, the ability to sense why things happen.
How Things Will Be, amazing prescience, had proved no match against the hougyoku, kyouka suigetsu, and the apprehension of How Things Can Be.
Aizen shifted in his throne, still bound in the Royal Realm. Ten years ago to the day, he had been caught by the former captain of the kidou corps with a simple rikujoukourou, but the hougyoku had already activated Yhwach’s deepest desires through Aizen’s power like a prism: a future was dispersed that was part Yhwach’s vow to slay his foes in their happiest moment, part a plot by Aizen to fully absorb the not-fully-slain king. Before Ichigo’s blade swung down, cut the king in half, and the raging god turned into a black wet stain, Aizen had begun to meld with Yhwach’s power.
Aizen’s plan? The hougyoku’s plan? They were of one soul now, immortal and omnipotent. Aizen had never in his few hundred years of life needed to utter the words “ban kai,” for his power to toy with others’ perceptions made such an achievement obsolete. His power evolved, naturally, not because he had been divinely gifted in ways like Yhwach. Aizen had earned his power through patience and the manipulation of other’s fatal flaws. He had earned the hougyoku; it loved him. It had given him the power to create a temporary timeline.
That timeline was dissolving now; the mission had been accomplished. Ichigo would drop to his knees before two black puddles in the air, the halves of a body that once had been the declared ruler of worlds, Tessai would try to catch Aizen off-guard with a binding spell, Ichigo’s friends would soon come staggering onto the scene.
That Aizen would be the new Soul King was the inevitable outcome of his life. Left alone, yet not alone because the hougyoku entertained him with visions of the inept characters in his imperfect reality. They were so bright and counterfeit at times, like people trying to sell you a product in a commercial. Aizen had known the Shinigami to be far a more cunning, less optimistic bunch; through Yhwach’s filter, they were outright buffoons.
And Aizen, being possessed of Yhwach ability to see other future timelines in all their richness, saw the jagged flaws of this reality—Ichigo’s sister’s hair and eyes, for one thing, were all wrong, but did anyone care? Whole buildings in Karakura were gone, not to mention integral parts of peoples’ personalities, but did it matter? Ichigo may have been immune to kyouka suigetsu, but he wandered in this reality as if he’d forgotten his own name. A necessary amnesia, perhaps—only idiots believe they are truly happy, and Yhwach was a monster incapable of understanding even the shadow of what struggling beings defined as happiness: this bright projection lured him into Aizen’s trap.
The Kazui child had touched the fatal flaw of the Quincy king’s vengeance, but really, it would have made no difference who had touched it. There was a special poetry to the child being Ichigo’s, but the reality was Aizen’s master program and had been in waiting for the remnants of Yhwach’s power to appear. Yhwach was absorbed by Aizen, and the reality began to collapse, simple as that.
“Soul King,” they had pronounced him after leaving him ten years ago. What would they call him now? He was still fond of the name Aizen, the allusion to esoteric love, a personal history soaked in blood and betrayal. His Holy Majesty, Aizen? Aizen the Divine Unknown?
Annulment. The time was here.
The bindings dropped from Aizen’s arms, and he stood up. The throne was gone, and the Soul King was free to walk among his subjects, free to reign over his worlds as he pleased.
He would design a new throne later; a ruler required one.
- I am Merely Practicing Saying Goodbye to You
His zanpakutou staked the earth, and Ichigo held onto it with both hands, not sure if he could stand alone yet awed by his own power, not understanding it.
His next thought was of his mother. He thought he smelled her, her fragrant hair, and sensed her warmth, the way she used to hug him when he was small and needed reassurance that no, he didn’t suck at martial arts or was dumb at math. He was weak at the moment, had always been dim at sensing reiatsu but … was she really there?
Others were. He didn’t look up to see them, but hundreds of thousands of spirits had been cleansed by his blade and were fleeing the scene in a tremendous spiral like a tornado. Ichigo’s hair blew in the ghost winds, the sleeves of his shihakushou fluttered, and his heart felt flung this way and that too.
When the winds stopped, there was a sense of having lost more than just the burden of despair, but the grim purpose that had driven him for so long. There is nothing celebratory about winning a terrible war, and in his exhaustion, Ichigo felt younger, more vulnerable than ever before, even in the wake of what he had accomplished. He felt confused, reset to a kid who needed someone to tell him things were going to be ok.
“Amazing,” came a familiar voice out of nowhere. Ichigo looked up and saw Aizen standing a few feet away, his severed arm restored, the eyepatch gone. “You saved the universe, Ichigo.”
“You’re alive,” said Ichigo, still not sure he could rise to his feet.
“Sometimes one needs to state the obvious to sustain a sense of reality.” Aizen lifted his arms slightly, his palms showing in the universal gesture of displaying that one held no weapon. “It’s me, your ally. Can you believe such a thing?”
Ichigo felt arms around him, helping him to his feet. Ishida. Ichigo clung to Ishida for support, and the sword that had slain Yhwach remained planted in the ground. “It’s ok,” Ishida said, “Inoue-san is on her way.”
“Where’s Renji?” asked Ichigo.
“Relatively unharmed.” Aizen gestured across the horizon. Ichigo could make out a fallen figure. “He’ll require assistance from your extraordinary young woman who rejects wounds,” Aizen added in his mild voice.
“Don’t—don’t worry.” Ichigo told Ishida. “Aizen fought against Yhwach. I get the feeling he’s not going to do anything bad.”
Ishida was staring at their former enemy like he didn’t buy that. There was a fierceness in those blue eyes Ichigo had seen before, also the grief the guy could never really hide. It was scary how tired Ishida looked.
“Don’t talk, Kurosaki. You’re in worse shape than you realize. Just wait for Inoue-san.”
There wasn’t a drop of sweat or a mark of battle on Ishida’s clothes—why? Ichigo had felt his friend’s reiatsu fighting in the palace, the terrible conflict he’d blocked out with confidence that Ishida would have to win—but what the hell had happened that the Quincy uniform looked neat and spotless, like it had just been picked up at the dry cleaner’s, and yet Ishida’s eyes looked like they’d seen the worst of the worst? What had this war taken from all of them?
“Aizen Sousuke.” Ishida glared. “What are you doing fighting with the Shinigami?”
“I’m not, young man,” Aizen went on calmly. “I’m not fighting for them or against them. I am who I am, and the Shinigami can’t defeat me now.”
“Is that a threat?” Ishida seemed to understand what Aizen was going on about.
“I won’t say nothing to fear because fear me they will, but it will be a mutually beneficial relationship. I had such a relationship with a dear companion once; Gin taught me that love and fear coexist for a reason.”
Before Aizen could explain himself further, as both Ichigo and Ishida knew was his way, Rukia came running over the horizon, Inoue behind her.
“Ichigo!” Rukia shouted first, and then in a gasp, “Aizen!” Her hand reached for her zanpakutou.
“Don’t worry about Aizen,” Ichigo relaxed at the sight of his friends and was more than ready to feel better and get his physical wounds fixed up. Ishida, sensing Ichigo go limp, started to gently lower him back to the ground. “Go get Renji,” Ichigo said to him, “and bring him here quickly so Inoue can— “
“I’ll go as fast as I can, but I can’t use hirenkyaku here.” Ishida still held onto Ichigo’s upper arm as Ichigo lay down, spent but still alert. “The reiatsu is too dense.”
“There’s no need,” Inoue said. At her words, a gigantic golden orb covered everyone within sight except Rukia.
Aizen walked forward, stepping out of the glowing light to face the young woman who still held her palms forward, rolling them as if adjusting the position of her orb. “Your powers have grown,” Aizen observed.
Inoue ignored him. “Ishida-kun, you’re all right?” she asked as Ishida was walking towards her. He stepped with no problem out of the golden light. Since when was such a thing possible? Ishida could walk through Inoue’s barriers now? Aizen, understandable—he could do amazing things---but who was Ishida now?
“I felt you let me pass,” Ishida explained as he spoke to Inoue. “I know you sensed I was injured before, but Yhwach’s highest ranked Sternritter … allowed that I would be healed and told me to save my friends before he died. Without his help, we would not have been able to defeat Yhwach.”
“Renji is ok?” Rukia was looking at the unconscious body yards away.
“He will be,” Inoue nodded.
“Such confidence,” observed Aizen. “Do you still believe you are capable of rejecting the hougyoku?”
Inoue shot Aizen a look, similar to the one Ishida had given him earlier. Ichigo still didn’t sense that Aizen meant harm—he knew it. Why was Aizen talking shit to his friends?
“Your powers are indeed impressive,” Aizen continued to Inoue, “even given their limitations due to your human emotions and how your ability seems to lag within reiatsu-heavy spiritual environments. I understand you better now; as time passes, you will understand your own powers better too.”
Rukia and Inoue exchanged suspicious glances.
“Speaking of time,” Aizen said, “it will be just about now that the former captain of the kidou corps attempts his feeble spell.”
Aizen turned around, lifted his palm and with one tiny shove of his massive reiatsu slid back the figure of Tessai, who had been standing there for who knows long in his Urahara Shouten apron, poised to throw a kidou at the unbound enemy of the Shinigami. The second shove from Aizen turned Tessai upside down and sent his body rolling down a slope.
“He’ll be in need of your help next,” Aizen told Inoue. “So will many others coming soon. Please let them know that they need not try to capture or restrain me. Not only are they not capable of doing that, I am their new king.”
Ishida grasped it right away. “The Soul King. The reason the worlds haven’t collapsed. When did that happen?”
Ichigo made a running charge to escape Inoue’s orb and ran smack into a golden bumper that knocked him back on his ass.
“You’re not fully healed, Ichigo. What were you possibly going to attempt to do?” Aizen asked. “You can’t fight me. I told you. No one can. And you understand that it’s as I told you, ours is a mutually beneficial relationship. Gin lived happily with me for years while desiring to kill me. I needed the fear of death then to grow, no longer. Although Kisuke will entertain me for some time—I should go meet him. It will be too long before his party washes ashore here to be fully healed, and Kisuke is an old friend.”
With that, Aizen walked away.
His back was to everyone as he spoke. “Interesting how this timeline will already be so different for you because I walk away, and it is Kuchiki-san who instead of helping a shopkeeper’s assistant restrain a god, will remain to hear to your tales of woe instead of the woman who tirelessly heals all the war’s fallen. The river of destiny isn’t that at all, Ichigo; Kisuke and I have always known that the one who outsmarts the rest gets to choose which river to set sail across. A safe and pleasant journey!” Did he laugh? “All rivers lead to the ocean of forgetfulness.”
His words, growing fainter as he walked quickly away, were mostly lost to Ichigo. All Ichigo knew as he sat in Inoue’s bubble was that as he grew physically stronger, his mind felt more exhausted and confused. His eyes pleaded with Inoue to let him out. She shook her head. He looked to Rukia. She was staring at him with the most tender expression, her violet eyes full of pain, and at that moment, Ichigo forgot his own anxieties and wanted right away to relieve hers.
He could be patient to be healed. What was a little time?
- The Ceased Clock Will Awake and Start to Tick Again
“Why is Ichigo taking so long to heal?” Rukia had been waiting, arms crossed, growing increasingly impatient.
“Reiatsu interference in his wounds,” Inoue tried to explain. ‘It’s something peculiar I don’t understand at all. Must have something to do with Yhwach’s setting the traps in the future. The wounds themselves aren’t that serious, but they’re hard to get to.”
“Yeah, it’s the ones in my feet,” Ichigo said, and he stood up. “You did it, Inoue. They’re fine now. Let me out.”
He started to take slow determined steps to test his feet. He walked faster. He started a brisk jog. He tore right out the golden orb and ran straight into Rukia’s arms.
There’s was an audible, sharp intake of breath from Inoue.
The war was all over, and yet it wasn’t all over, but there was time to be with Rukia.
“Ichigo,” she spoke into his chest, the word so close to his body it entered him, a plea for his well-being, his own name a reminder in his heart of why he fought. She had been so worried. If holding her could only make it better, if he could only hold her until all the world was a better place…
He had been close to her before, when she rode on his back, when he carried her to safety, but this time there was a reciprocal affection made dizzy with other feelings like sadness and relief. Ichigo was bent over far to hold her and her small hands were pressing hard against his back.
“Don’t blame yourself,” he heard her say. “It was a hard war. We knew it would be a hard war.”
He could only hold onto her tighter. Don’t cry.
She let go first. Her face seemed calmer, and for that he was glad. She had a small smile on her lips. The distance between them seemed like miles and centuries now, even though they were only standing a foot or so apart.
“Ichigo, you felt the souls released? All of them?”
She looked at him expectantly. It was time. Ichigo felt the gear move, and the moment announce itself in silence.
“I felt my mom.”
“Do you want to talk about it?”
They began to walk, in a slow synchronized pace, away from Inoue’s orb, in the opposite direction Aizen had walked. Ichigo told Rukia about his heritage as a Quincy. He found out that Rukia had already known he was a Shiba, that Byakuya had informed his sister of the fact.
“I’m not sure who I am now,” he said. He thought about his zanpakutou still stuck in the ground in the domain of Inoue’s healing orb. “I’m trying to figure it out. When my ban-kai was restored, it was like the weapon itself was brought back but my soul’s powers didn’t completely match up with it. Yhwach had stolen my Quincy powers and my Hollow powers and Inoue couldn’t really restore those completely. So my ban kai cracked. And then Yhwach broke all ban kai in the future, and I only had my original Shinigami powers, which I’d never truly used, not really … because I’d borrowed yours and then … well, the Hollow power had started to take over by the time I learned ban kai. I’m new now, but am I a new Shinigami? It feels like starting over. “Ichigo let out a long breath. “And yet I feel like I’ve been through too much to start over.”
“You are so strong now,” Rukia said.
Ichigo didn’t feel strong; he felt tired.
“You did it,” Rukia went on. “You protected mountains of people.”
“With help,” Ichigo added.
“Do you realize what a sign of maturity that is? You let people help you. The Ichigo I first met ran into situations like….” She stopped and smiled. “like the one who tried to get out of Inoue’s orb a while ago to chase after Aizen.” She laughed. “You know what Renji did today? Renji ran after you and Yhwach with no plan. But I guess you two did ok together.”
“Actually, I fought pretty good with Inoue,” Ichigo said. “Ishida and Aizen showing up was more like an accident.”
“We all trained together with the monk,” Rukia said. “I know you’re capable of teamwork.”
Ichigo frowned. “Are the Royal Guard alive? I can’t sense their reiatsu from here.”
Rukia waved a hand. “It’s going to be ok. When Inoue was healing me, she was considering going to them, but she sensed that Ichibe was up and doing some healing work of his own. It was difficult to sense anything past Yhwach’s power, but Ichibe has a very strong reiatsu.”
“How can you…?” Ichigo didn’t know how to put the question exactly. There was something about Rukia that gave him hope. How did she give herself hope? “Why do you think things are going to be ok?”
Her face became serious. “I don’t know that they are,” she said. “But I believe in you. You want to protect. It’s the same with me. I have an obligation as a Shinigami. There have been times I’ve doubted myself. When I was in held in the Senzaikyu, I had time to think about things I regretted.”
It was at this point, after so many years, that Rukia told Ichigo about her own memories in the rain, about killing Kaien, Ichigo’s own uncle, and about her battle with the ninth Espada, who had held Kaien’s soul and had been able to impersonate him in the same way Grand Fisher had been able to taunt Ichigo with his mother’s form.
Ichigo and Rukia were seated on the ground by now. Low clouds hung in the sky, whispers of white against a sullen blue. The heavy reiatsu of the atmosphere oppressed both of them, but not as much as what they had heard one other say. Guilt has its own presence when talked about; it sits like an uneasy guest, wearing outdated clothes, like a prisoner let out of a room after a long sentence.
“Why are we talking about this now?” Ichigo let out a sigh. He could breathe a little easier even though his heart felt heavy with sadness. He could endure that sadness with more strength because Rukia was here.
“It seems like the time,” Rukia said. “I don’t know why. I know we’re past blaming ourselves for what happened, but talking about the deaths of people we cared for—that will always be hard, I think.”
“I’m glad we talked,” Ichigo said. “It’s like finding out about a connection I always knew was there, but…”
“I know,” she said.
“We should head back.”
- Even If You Fail to be Born, It’s Only Natural to Die
“You mean besides destroying Yhwach--a task all of you seemed incapable of accomplishing without my help?”
Yoruichi made a gagging sound. Her brother, lying on the ground, holding his stomach, said in a weak voice: “You did that on purpose, sis. I told you to stop making noises like that or I was going get really, really sick. And ever since the little green girl threw up on us, I’ve been about to puke myself.”
“You know who I am now,” Aizen said to Urahara.
“I know who you’ve been, and what you’re capable of,” Urahara said. “Time will tell who you really are.”
Aizen waved his hand over the war-ravaged party. “Simple healing kidou. It will hold you until we get to where the woman can un-do the worst damage—this nasty poison, and oh Kisuke, you’re a mess. In the meantime,” Here, Aizen put his put his arms under the shopkeeper’s legs and shoulders and lifted him off the ground. “I need to talk to you about a few things.”
Yoruichi gagged again. “Get— “ She choked. “Get your— “ Drool spilled out of the corners of her mouth. “Aizen, don’t touch him with your filthy paws!”
“Let’s get going!” Aizen walked very fast, so the rest had no choice but to follow.
“I know why you put the hougyoku in Kuchiki Rukia,” Aizen said to the man he carried.
“You do?” A feigned innocence. “Why, I thought everyone knew that. It was to hide it from you.”
“I mean years ago when she was at the academy and made a training mission to the World of the Living and you wiped her memory.”
“Ohhh.” There was a long silence. The shopkeeper was still in obvious pain, his slashed fingers held together by the faintest invisible reiatsu and trembling.
“Don’t pretend you never had aspirations like mine. You wanted to change the world too. You hated Soul Society as much as I did. You had long term plans to master the hougyoku, and you didn’t bother about lying and manipulating other people towards serving your needs; you’re a creator of your own so-called destiny, Kisuke. I know who you are now. I suspected as much before but now I know.”
“Let’s just say that being Soul King, especially a Soul King who now has the powers of the previous Soul King, the hougyoku and the Quincy King combined, my omniscience is more than special. Did you think Yhwach’s foresight was something to behold? I have clear and vivid hindsight of past timelines when in proximity of an individual. For example, I see you giving candy to a girl in your shop and then putting a foreign object right into her very soul. How could you do such a thing, Urahara Kisuke?”
“Caught me. I guess I’m quite the pervert.”
Ever the wary scientist, even in this condition, still not sure if Aizen could sense motive even though he could watch the past as if it were on television. Aizen had to commend the half-dead man in his arms.
Kisuke would prove to be marvelous entertainment. As Gin had been. Never a true threat. And this time there was no fear of death for Aizen was immortal, but would Kisuke ever reveal his true motives? Would any of his plans ever come into play? Ichigo had proved to be a powerful distraction; Rukia would be the same? Or in combination with Ichigo, would the two attempt a coup? It was so unnecessary. Aizen searched the future for such a mutiny and saw the two training in the Royal Realm, the ribbons of time frayed and intangible beyond that. Amusing that anyone might challenge the Soul King. They were all his friends now—friends who feared their ruler, as all lesser beings should fear what is most powerful and supreme.
“You are still quite a mastermind, Kisuke,” Aizen said, aware that the remark was out of character for his previous self but befitting a generous and observant king of kings.
“Ah well, I’m not always right,” the shopkeeper said. “I was certain that today I was a goner.”
Everyone was amazed when Sousuke Aizen came over the horizon, carrying the shopkeeper, followed by Neliel who held a half-conscious, coughing Yoruichi under one arm and a tinier version of Yoruichi in the other. This tinier Yoruichi said he was her brother named Youshiro. Also accompanying the crew was a limping panther who transformed into Grimmjow. Neliel told the tale of how she had gone into Resurrección and with her double-sided lance had slashed at the Grimmjow-punch opening in Askin’s sphere of Death, making the hole large enough so her centaur form could pass through. The poison had weakened her right away, but she had somehow managed to lift Urahara, Yoruichi, Youshiro and Grimmjow onto her back and escape. Then she had reverted to child form and thrown up her healing vomit over everyone, but the worst effects of the poison didn’t diminish. She said Aizen had saved them.
Grimmjow, lying on the ground, tried to shout but his voice was too raspy; the gist of his rambling was that he going to kick Neliel’s ass someday because he was conscious when she was gathering up everyone in the sphere and he had been the last one she lifted onto her back—a fellow Espada, damn Nel.
Ichigo and Rukia arrived on the scene to see the Captain Commander wake up. “Good morning, Sousuke, I’m feeling better, passed on the healing,” and “oh my, Captain Urahara, it seems you are totally blind. I’m only blind in one eye.”
“I’d like my eyes back, please,” the shopkeeper said, and Aizen tossed him into Orihime’s golden orb, which now contained a variety of war casualties.
As Urahara’s wounds took longer and longer to get better, Yoruichi, fully recovered, circled Aizen like prey. “What did you to do to him?” Her hair was starting to rise at the bangs and flare outwards. Yoruichi wasn’t in any threatening transformation, but the snap and crackle of her reiatsu was audible. Orihime said that there was none of Aizen’s reiatsu inside the shopkeeper’s wounds, only Urahara’s own reiatsu was making the process difficult. Rukia and Ichigo arrived on the scene in time to witness Aizen shrugging and insisting on his own benevolence. “Kisuke is my friend.”
Neliel tackled Ichigo to the ground she was so happy to see him, and Grimmjow walked far from the scene in utter disgust.
Tskukishima (who had returned when Ginjou sensed Ichigo having extreme technical ban kai difficulties) offered to repair everyone’s broken ban kai in the future but found that the first one he tried to fix—Renji’s—was fine. Aizen, arms folded, merely smiled. “Less tedious work for you,” he said.
Then Urahara’s eyes grew back, but not so the slashes on his arms and fingers. “Ah well, you see, I did those myself with my ban-kai,” he explained with a smile. He had lost his hat along the way, and his eyes were exposed and yet still unreadable. My ban-kai has consequences. I’d imagine that the results of its power are difficult to reverse.”
Perhaps no one who was alive who had ever witnessed Urahara’s ban kai—Yoruichi’s expression was solemn--and only Aizen was capable of reviewing what had happened, so there was a reverent silence following those words.
The silence made an appropriate prelude to Captain Kurotsuchi’s entrance. Kurotsuchi was wearing a simple kimono; he was barefoot and wearing none of his usual make-up, headdress and accessories, and few recognized him right away. In his arms he carried what appeared to be an infant in a white blanket.
Then the blue-haired, rather handsome man whose face was still wet as if he’d recently stepped out of a steam-bath, spoke, and there was no mistaking the eerie voice. “I have more healing chambers available now. You will find them as effective as this young woman’s powers if not faster-acting.”
His gaze turned to Inoue Orihime who was kneeling, her palms up, her expression tired, a Quincy jacket over her shoulders. She was next to Ishida Uryuu. “That jacket you’re wearing,” said Kurotsuchi to Inoue. “It’s a curious uniform. It’s too large to belong to the boy next to you. It’s— “
Before Kurotsuchi could finish his sentence a beam of light shot in his direction and split him in half. When the blinding light was gone and the smoke cleared, Kurosaki Isshin was kneeling between the two bloody parts of the 12th division captain, holding the infant in his large hands. “Heh,” he said. “So at least I came here for something.”
The two parts of Kurotsuchi Mayuri were turning to green slime.
Ishida Uryuu stood up. “This is how he escapes.”
Ishida Ryuuken walked forward, still holding his crossbow. “This is how he dies.”
The green slime fizzled, made squeaky noises as it bubbled and evaporated into a green gas that was blown away with the wind.
The Captain Commander looked over his shoulder. “Quincy, that is a war crime.”
“I’m not part of your world, Shinigami,” said Ryuuken, and his weapon vanished. “My son shot the arrow into your enemy’s heart that allowed Ichigo to kill Yhwach. The man I killed was a war criminal by every law in your world, and yet you allowed him to live. “
“He’s right,” Isshin added. He was cradling the baby close now, reflexively rocking his torso back and forth. “Today is a day of justice. Quincy and Shinigami worked together. You know the things Kurotsuchi did.”
“I know the things you did,” the Captain Commander said. “You’re supposed to be dead and exiled… and also disappeared? But…. “He heaved a sigh. “You’re Ichigo’s father. The Quincy—I take it that ill-tempered man is Ishida Uryuu’s father. I’m tired. Let’s call it even, ne?”
“Not a difficult job, this governing business, is it?” remarked Aizen.
“And who is this little one?” Isshin was playing with the baby now, making faces, rocking with a deliberate bounce, high and low. “Pretty little thing, such black eyes.”
“That would be the newest incarnation of Kurotsuchi Nemu,” Aizen said. “The eighth, I believe. The seventh perished in battle disobeying her father’s orders and giving her life to protect him.”
Ishida Uryuu gasped. Inoue Orihime shot him a troubled look.
“Kurotsuchi grew back the new version from her brain, which survived the battle. He was a magnificent scientist.” Aizen turned to Ishida Ryuuken who had snapped his silver lighter and was standing under a small cloud of cigarette smoke, a half-smile on his lips. “You look smug, Quincy, but anyone can catch even the most prepared man off-guard. Call it luck if you must … or extremely good timing.”
- The Future, Pitch Black and Completely Backwards
Ichibe had flown to the scene of Inoue’s healing before the darkness, drawn a peculiar circle with thick calligraphy in the air, and attempted to restrain Aizen with a binding spell but no use—Aizen, to everyone’s amazement, had flown around Ichibe in circles. “The rules of the game have turned around,” the new Soul King taunted. “I don’t need you to protect me, but I see no problem in allowing you to carry on as before … for now.”
“So Mayuri is really dead,” Shutara had intoned with unexpected sadness. “I thought the bastard would live forever. History loves his type of madman.”
Hiyori was preparing to board Yukio’s transport back to Soul Society and then back to the Living World, when she caught a glimpse of Hikifune, and ran, sandals slapping, into the beautiful purple-haired Royal Guard’s arms. “Look at you, you adorable brat,” Hikifune squealed as she lifted Hiyori up into the air and down again like a small child. “Civilian clothes!”
“Not a Shinigami anymore! Kisuke either!”
“Ah, don’t blame you one bit!” Hikifune blew a raspberry against Hiyori’s neck. “The Gotei are a bunch of tedious administrators. Was never so glad to leave them. Were you at now?”
“Living World. Big fancy aluminum place. It’s good there. Shinji was there for a while but he’s a captain again. You know how much he likes to control things.”
“Yes, he’s bossy, not at all like you, haha. Saw him too earlier—nice haircut.”
“Transport about to leave.” Hiyori had tears in her eyes. “I have to go.”
“This was surely a gift of timing. Be well, my honeybunch.” Another raspberry, and Hiyori ran to the transport.
The transport was loaded with the Fullbringers, most of the Shinigami, and all the humans. Ishida Uryuu, his arm around a very cold Inoue Orihime who was hugging Ishida Ryuuken’s jacket close to her body, was among the last to board. She was exhausted and doleful, and he looked drained as well. Isshin asked if the pair didn’t want to go with him and Ryuuken through the secret Quincy keyhole to the shadow realm, and the pair looked at one another as if wondering if they were up for another adventure … or any more time spent with these two peculiar men. “We’ll take the transport, thank you,” Uryuu said and hurried Orihime forward.
Shutara had been on the verge of adopting the eighth Mayuri child “because she looks like me,” but Isshin wouldn’t hear of it and said that the girl needed to be brought up by a proper family. He was going to claim her, but then Urahara informed him that the child was a mod-soul and a dangerous experiment with which he had expertise and best left in his own care.
“Trust him on this one,” Ryuuken said. “The man is untrustworthy in general, but give him the child. It’s not human.”
“Love her,” Isshin cooed, passing the sleeping child to Urahara who looked delighted to be the apparent prizewinner.
“Do you think we have room for just one more,” the shopkeeper asked Yoruichi.
The Shihouin princess rolled her eyes. “You’re a natural-born father, Kisuke. You don’t have to ask me.”
“Here, Tessai, you hold her,” the shopkeeper passed the baby along to his family friend. “Put a binding spell on her if she does anything suspicious.”
“A baby?” exclaimed Isshin.
Urahara shrugged, boarding the transport. “Mayuri’s baby girl. So who knows how strong she is. I think she needs another name other than what he always gave his mod-souls. I’m sure her memories will be gone, and so her future will be her own.”
Then Captain Commander Kyouraku Shunsui insisted on staying behind along with those Shinigami whose presence had again been requested in the Royal Realm: Abarai Renji, Kuchiki Byakuya, Kuchiki Rukia, and Kurosaki Ichigo.
“So sad to be separated from my Nanao-chan at a time like this, but this is Gotei business and I’m in charge.”
He asked Ichibe why the war potentials as identified by Yhwach were not to be bestowed with special training by the Royal Guard … and was answered by Aizen.
“Zaraki doesn’t train. He is his own power. He learns by instinct. Kisuke, ha, he would not take a position in the Gotei if you offered, Kyouraku. That’s why you didn’t offer, even though Kurotsuchi’s position is now vacant. That man makes his own rules. As for the other war potential, that was me, and I am your god now.”
Ichibe looked at Aizen as one might look at a child who had spoken out of turn. “Aizen speaks the truth,” he conceded. “The Shinigami we’ve summoned are invested with our training already and are committed soldiers. They may replace us someday here; they will eventually return to serve Kyouraku better in Soul Society— “
“I’m not going back home?” Ichigo asked.
“Your decision,” Ichibe said. “Who you are and what you want to do, always your decision.”
“Ichigo,” said the Captain Commander, and here he lay down, right on the ground again. He did not look very disheveled from war and his hairpins were in place. His presence was striking, even as he posed in a lazy way, one elbow propping himself up. “Do you want to be stronger, Ichigo?”
“What do you want to protect, Ichigo?”
Ichigo looked to Rukia. “Everyone.”
Rukia beamed. Ichigo held her gaze, as if he were looking for answers to other questions there.
Aizen knew it then. The future that Yhwach had invaded had been as easy to melt as vanilla ice cream. That world had been devoid of the essential stubborn consciousness of people, their own dark awareness of lies they told all the time. Aizen understood that Ichigo wanted to protect everyone, but that this truth left out a more essential truth; the stronger truth was that Ichigo wanted to be where Kuchiki Rukia was, that she was the single person he wanted to protect the most right now. Ichigo, knowing this, had lied to the Captain Commander. Lied like a fool with tunnel vision. That’s just how Aizen liked his adversaries. A little less than honorable. Because Aizen could not see motives the way he could see events of the future or the past, a liar was easier to read than a perfectly honest man.
“Then let’s begin training tomorrow, after a good night’s rest,” said Kyouraku Shunsui. “You’ll see, Ichigo. Your destiny will fall into place.”
- What is Your Fear?
When the men refused to face Rukia and turned around, Kirinji told her to uncover her eyes and behold how much these fools respected her. Blushing, she put down her hands. “So, which one has the best physique?” Kirinji asked. “We have three distinct types here—the elegant slim backside, the tall brawny backside, and the one in-between—Ichigo, wouldn’t you say, isn’t he the most bruised up but most your type? Ah no, he’s turned red as a traffic light now so he’s disqualified. Too sensitive.” Kirinji kicked hot water in Ichigo’s direction. “Grow up, boy!”
Then there was the time Shutara came to dinner not wearing a stitch of clothing. None of the Royal Guard batted an eye. Nii-sama looked, batted his long lashes once, twice, then returned to perusing his food. The Captain Commander grinned in worldly appreciation of a beautiful woman and sipped his drink. Ichigo and Renji were staring, red-faced, at Shutara, at one another, at others around the table, back at Shutara again. “Why are you naked?” They asked in unison.
“I didn’t have a thing to wear?” answered the Great Weaver. “Seriously, if you must know, I was testing Aizen.”
“Aizen?” The name caught Rukia’s attention, and she could overlook a nude goddess so gracefully eating transparent noodles from a white china bowl. Shutara seemed at ease in her body; Rukia wondered if at some level of divine power, unabashed nudity was required. Why fear one’s own true self in the presence of men?
“He’s the Soul King yes,” Shutara went on. “He has some of Yhwach’s powers and omniscience, but just like Yhwach, he needs to be within a certain proximity of people in order to see their timelines. And no matter how … exposed a person is around him, one thing is for certain.” She set down her chopsticks and nodded. “He can’t read minds.”
“As we suspected,” Ichibe said. “Souls are not glass vessels. How can the gods see the true heart of a person when there is nothing cloudier and more full of conflicted motives that a person’s soul?”
“Just what did you think you were going to accomplish walking around Aizen with your ass hanging out?” Kirinji was drinking wine—or was it really wine? It looked like blood. “We can’t see the dude’s soul or his heart or whatever, and Aizen-sama wasn’t going to give himself away just because you had your nips at attention.” A gulp of red liquid. “He liked big-hipped Arrancar girls in Hueco Mundo, not skinny asses like yours. And you know, his real weakness is a clever man--like Ichimaru Gin.”
“He’ll expose his true self to someone he considers a worthy rival,” Ichibe added. “Like young Ichigo here.”
“Me?” Ichigo choked on his food.
Renji reached towards a plate of bread. “I don’t like where this is going. You guys sound like a bunch of perverts.”
Rukia elbowed Renji so hard the bread fell out of his hand. “They’re not talking about perverted stuff with Ichigo, you idiot,” she hissed in a loud whisper. “Be quiet.”
“In your Mugetsu state,” said Ichibe, “you sensed Aizen’s true heart, didn’t you, Ichigo?”
Ichigo looked worried. “I told Urahara-san something about that. I guess word got around?”
“Oh no, we didn’t get that information from Urahara. This is true about every transcendent fighter; you can read your opponent’s heart. What did you learn about Aizen’s, Ichigo?”
Rukia listened for Ichigo’s answer with rapt attention. Was this true? She had never been able to read an opponent’s heart, had never been able to see past her own doubts and then only to celebrate in her own courage. She had sensed an opponent’s weaknesses, gauged what a next strategy might be, pitied an opponent, even felt compassion at times for a rival sinking to humiliation, but reading a heart? This was new. Kaien had said hearts were formed between friends—but rivals?
“Aizen was lonely,” Ichigo said. “From the time he was a child, he was lonely. He wanted more than anything else to have people understand and accept him.”
His intelligence? His power? What? It made no sense that a lonely man would want to rule all the worlds—that seemed the loneliest of all jobs.
“Do you believe Aizen poses a current threat, Ichigo?” Ichibe asked.
Even Nii-sama raised his eyes from his plate to look at Ichigo. All eyes were on the youngest Shinigami shifting in his seat. As Ichigo pondered the question, he looked a little uncomfortable but not burdened by the gravity of it. He scratched his head. He looked to one side. Finally, he said, “A current threat? No.”
“You know this?” Ichibe asked.
“That’s what I felt on the battlefield with Yhwach, and that’s what I feel now,” Ichigo said, “but…”
Again, no one ate a mouthful and everyone stared.
“I think he’s waiting for something, but I don’t know what that something is,” Ichigo said.
“Ah well, neither do we,” said Ichibe. “Hikifune, darling, please pass the pickles.”
Rukia’s gaze could not help itself, even though she wanted to return to casually eating her food like everyone else; she was drawn to Ichigo’s face, and he was looking right back at her. There was a mutual uneasiness and tension between them. What Aizen was waiting for was maybe in a far, far future. Whatever Rukia and Ichigo were waiting for required a more immediate answer, but their own true hearts were too blurred with a dim fear to even understand the question.
Rukia tried a half-smile to reassure herself that she and Ichigo would know what to do when the time was right; the gesture allowed them to break their locked gaze. They both started stuffing their faces with noodles.
“I really wish,” Ichigo said to Renji with his mouth full, “that there was a whole lot less nakedness around here. Why is it someone always has to get naked?”
TO BE CONTINUED IN PART TWO