- The Heart Burns Even Though the Rain Falls
Isshin would take the whole basket without inviting Orihime inside, and Orihime was despondent. She had felt for a long time that a grief in her heart would never stop begging for relief, that the distance between sky and earth was farther than ever, and that her loneliness was without measure. Ishida-kun was in medical school in Tokyo all day and so busy; Tatsuki was in university across the country studying to be a physical education teacher. Sado-kun slept in the day and played in a band all night. Orihime had won a partial scholarship to a nearby university but turned it down, unsure of what career to pursue, too sad to consider studying, amazed at how her sense of loss kept deepening—How can this be? I want Kurosaki-kun to be happy. Isn’t he happy? Why am I sad?
Then the dreams began, the dreams that felt like authentic memories of a large-eyed child she had taught to hold a cup, of sitting with Kurosaki-kun at a table and his saying, clear as day, “Porridge turned out good, Orihime.” Orihime was convinced that this time she wasn’t fantasizing; the dreams interrupted other dreams without the fuzzy delight of something wished for. They were cold and frightening memories. There was only one man who might know something about this—Urahara-san.
Before Orihime could walk through the door, a little girl she had never met ran out, a beautiful child with black braids and a pink dress. “Hello, my name is Eri! Welcome to the Urahara Shouten! How may I be of assistance to you today?”
“I’ve come to see Urahara-san?” Was this the baby the shopkeeper had adopted? She’d grown up so fast! She looked at least three or four years old.
“It’s peculiar,” the shopkeeper said later, as Tessai poured tea and served Orihime her favorite bean paste on toast. “By my calculations all existing remnants of Yhwach’s previous state have vanished and this was not something Kurosaki-san could do alone. Aizen managed to absorb Yhwach somehow, but …”
Orihime felt that she didn’t want to face the truth, whatever it might be.
“Aizen didn’t do that in this timeline. I’ve detected disturbances in the time-space responses of some of my experiments on a molecular level, nothing extraordinary but enough to make me suspect that an unnatural event occurred around the time Yhwach was defeated. Your own sensitivity to barriers between worlds must be perceiving the peculiarity, I imagine.”
“Are you saying that Aizen made up another timeline in order to defeat Yhwach?”
“Perhaps.” Urahara-san bowed his head so that most of his face, not only his eyes, were shaded by his hat. How many hats like that did he own? “Perhaps only someone like you can remember parts of that timeline.”
Orihime felt tears bloom in her eyes. “But it’s gone.”
“Yes.” The shopkeeper sipped his tea. “It’s very likely that Aizen’s timeline was a warped projection. Imagine the way a hologram imitates reality but doesn’t embody it—not quite like that but as imperfect.”
“Are you saying the timeline wasn’t real?”
“Oh no, I’m saying it was very real. Only the reality was not up to snuff with what we recognize as reality. It was imperfect. Otherwise, there would be no traces of the timeline having been erased. The fact that you can remember something means there’s a stubborn stain of something unreal sticking to our present reality … ah, like something that dripped off a pan onto the grill and didn’t burn away. Messy, messy.”
Tears had begun to run down Orihime’s face.
“Don’t mourn it. When one set of possibilities is gone, there are oceans more to explore. Kurosaki-san is fine. And I expect that Aizen will be no problem for him. With Kuchiki-san at Kurosaki-san’s side, there will be less of a struggle against any unforeseen danger than if she were not there. Now that I think of it, Aizen may have had some reason to keep those two apart in some timeline. Or not—I may be wrong. Aizen’s powers are still a mystery to me.”
Orihime had to excuse herself.
“Yoruichi-san has chided me many times for not taking you seriously,” the shopkeeper said as Orihime was half-way out the door. “I should apologize— “
Orihime was already running home.
She came home to letters, the weekly ones from Tatsuki and Ishida-kun. Tatsuki’s were always short, covered with heart doodles and asked if Orihime would take at least an evening class while continuing to work at the bakery. Art? Robotics? “You always liked school!” Tatsuki wrote. Ishida-kun’s letters were always long, written on fine paper in small print, asked after her well-being and expressed concern for her sadness. He said that he would return for this holiday or that one and would like her to join him at his father’s house for dinner and to please be patient for news of Kurosaki-kun because training in the Royal Realm was a unique honor, like university. Ishida-kun added that he knew Orihime didn’t have to go to uni because she was already smarter than people who had graduated and more talented, but it was a good place to meet friends, so he recommended it. Included with his letter was a picture cut out of a magazine of a giant cake frosted with every imaginable color and topped with pears, raspberries, candies, figs, at least a dozen more treats. The scribbled note on the advertisement read “This cake made me think of you.”
It was November, Orihime noticed from the letter dates. She hadn’t been much aware of the months changing, only time passing so slowly. Outside her window, the rain was turning into sleet. She slapped her forehead. “Oh no, I’m an idiot! I forgot Ishida-kun’s birthday!”
- It is Still Too Early to Believe
“Too much pink,” Yumichika observed when the couple had left and there was a trail of petals and confetti on the snow. “I should have brought more green feathers.”
Byakuya, who had restrained himself from any display of senbonzakura, passed by Yumichika’s shoulder without comment.
Ichigo and Rukia were dwelling temporarily at Byakuya’s mansion while the Seireitei was under reconstruction. The mansion, located far from where most of the fighting had taken place, had received little damage. Ichigo’s role in the Gotei had yet to be determined as most positions were being re-assigned. The current captain positions of the seventh and eighth divisions were currently vacant, with Iba Tetsuzaemon and Yadoumaru Lisa filling in as temporary heads. Ukitake’s failing health was on the line, and he was considering resigning his post to serve as advisor to his division; he no longer had reiatsu to activate ban kai and claimed that disqualified him from a leadership role. With the Gotei in such disarray, Aizen himself decided to pay Soul Society a visit, and at that very time, Ichigo requested leave to visit the Living World.
Surprisingly, Ichigo’s request was granted. Aizen and the Captain Commander were both sitting in Byakuya’s drawing room with tea and wagashi (Ichigo didn’t like tea or too-sweet sweets) when the decision was made.
“It’s been a long time since you’ve seen your human friends,” Aizen remarked.
“I see no reason why we can’t call upon you if we need you.” The Captain Commander lifted his teacup high. “Aizen, I don’t see why you like this stuff so much. Ichigo is of age to be a Gotei captain now, and he certainly of age to drink sake with us.”
“Your god decides the menu,” said Aizen.
“Very well,” conceded the Commander. “The captains have much to discuss about you, Ichigo. You may leave when you wish.”
After a polite bite and a couple sips of that terrible preferred beverage of middle-aged men, Ichigo excused himself and found himself at Rukia’s door, knocking gently.
She was in a silk robe, her hair pulled out of her face with a ribbon. She was the most beautiful woman in all the worlds.
“What did they say?”
“I can go home.”
“For how long?”
“They didn’t say. For as long as I need to, I imagine. They’re deciding my position in the Gotei.”
Rukia’s expression betrayed her anxiety. “You are sure this is what you want?”
How could he tell her? He put his hand on her cheek. “There are so many things I’m not sure of, but I’m going to find out what I’m worthy of and what I need to do.” Her eyes were searching his. “This past year, I’ve only been sure of one thing.”
Surely, thought Ichigo, she had to know what that was. His face drew closer to hers. He had grown accustomed over the years to saying goodbye to her under many circumstances, as a boy who didn’t know what he wanted, who had no clue who he was. This time he wanted to let her know that their bond crossed worlds and was irrevocable.
“I am sure,” he whispered, “that I want to be with you.” He kissed her on the lips. It was a kiss like fingers brushing the surface of a pond to see if the moon reflected on the surface was real. He had never kissed a woman before, but this was Rukia. She erased his timidity when she kissed back. Her hand at the small of his back was firm; it pressed into his body at the same time her lips did. Ichigo was aware of the warmth of her breath, the coolness of her silk robe, her reiatsu spilling into his where her breasts grazed against his clothes. She opened her lips the slightest bit, and he tasted the sweetest longing he had ever known.
He pulled his face away and hugged her for a long time. He wanted to be near her always, to protect her, but he understood her own strength and that he needed to leave for a while. He kissed her bowed head.
When they looked at one another again, it was with new eyes.
“Did you ever think we’d do that?” Ichigo heard himself say.
“Yes.” She was smiling, not a trace of pink on her cheeks. She looked happy, and there was something about the way she held her shoulders—so erect and brave—that reminded Ichigo of a warrior about to undertake a mighty challenge. That was fine. He was up for anything.
He had seen the way she had watched the Captain Commander’s wedding to Ise Nanao and wondered if Rukia wanted to be married on a snowy day. If he could only look into the future and reassure himself of the happiness that had been lost to him ever since his mother died. Men like Yhwach and Aizen warned against such happiness; maybe it didn’t matter if he was happy or not, as long as he was bound forever to Rukia.
- That’s Right, Nothing Else Can Change My World
Ichigo was in spirit form and shihakushou. Karin, Yuzu, and Isshin made no dramatic exclamations when they noticed him standing there, but Yuzu dropped her bag of roasted chestnuts. Isshin’s smile was wider that the upturned temple roof. “Beer?” he asked, holding out a paper cup.
“No thanks.” Ichigo said. “How’s everyone been?”
“Waiting to hear about your secret missions!” whispered Yuzu. She picked up her bag of chestnuts and looked around to see if anyone noticed that she was talking to herself.
Ichigo dawdled at the shrine with his family for a while and when he returned home, Kon in plushie form leapt into his arms.
“Tell me you haven’t been wreaking havoc in my body.” Ichigo plucked the plushie off his chest and threw him to the floor. Kon took cover behind Yuzu’s yukata.
“Not for months and months,” confessed Kon.
“Urahara has your body in a special gigai right now—it looks totally dead,” Kon said. “I was a far more handsome you, but….”
“What did you do?” Ichigo didn’t really want to know, but he had to ask. His reputation in Karakura seemed to matter less now than it did when he was a schoolboy.
“You flunked out of high school and were sent abroad to get over your juvenile delinquent tendencies?”
Kon backed into the folds of Yuzu’s clothes. “Rumor has it that you’ve joined some skinheads in America… or the police force there.”
“Whatever.” Ichigo couldn’t be bothered with rumors. He marched upstairs to his old room which was as he left it, but his whole world had been changed. Every man has to grow up and leave his childhood behind him; Ichigo felt like he had lived and died and been reborn so many times already and yet he could never truly leave his family. Like his mother, they would always be with him. He lay on the quilt covering his bed and stared at the ceiling. What is my purpose here?
Ichigo spent the most of the next day eating and catching up with his sisters because his father was in bed with a hangover, and in the late afternoon he arranged to meet his old friends at the Urahara Shouten where Yoruichi-san’s birthday was always celebrated with the reading of haiku. Ichigo considered for a moment bringing one.
A special black cat
Who will leap to your rescue.
Blessings and thank you.
He crumpled up the paper but then imagined that the poems read at the event wouldn’t be much better.
They weren’t. Urahara-san began, and his haiku were borderline naughty but also genuinely reverent. He was a tough act to follow, but Tessai presented his poem wrapped in a red ribbon on a plate with a quart of milk and a bowl of sardines. It was a bad poem, but Yoruichi went crazy for the sardines. Chad’s poem was the best.
Do not be deceived
By small, hungry, pitch-black cats.
Gods hide their true forms.
Everyone was truly happy to see Ichigo, and even the little girl named Eri climbed into his lap. “I’m not good at poetry yet,” she said. “Do you want to box? I can beat up Jinta and Ururu already.”
Ishida and Inoue showed up late. It surprised Ichigo the way they came in together without noticing him right away, and the way Ishida took Inoue’s coat struck Ichigo as the way a couple who were dating might act—then again, Ishida was always gentlemanly. Tessai showed them to their places and brought out Inoue’s favorite toast.
“Any news about those clowns from the Gotei for my birthday?” asked Yoruichi. “Something to make me laugh?”
“Not anything particularly funny.” Ichigo thought for a while. “There was a big wedding, and the 11th division caused a lot of drunken ruckus and broke stuff. No one really minded, though. The Captain Commander got married to his lieutenant.”
“How lovely,” exclaimed Inoue, clasping her hands. “I’m so happy for Nanao.” In the next moment she looked as if she were about to weep from sadness, though. Ichigo could never understand that girl.
“Marriage is so boring,” Yoruichi said. “No idea why people ever invented the custom.”
“Oh, Urahara-san,” Ichigo said, “Renji mentioned that he keeps forgetting to ask you something.”
The shopkeeper put down his glass of champagne. “Of course he keeps forgetting. Are you about to ask in his place?”
“Renji said,” Ichigo continued, “that Rukia can’t remember a trip she made to the Living World a long time ago. Aizen mentioned this trip when I was in the Royal Realm. I honestly don’t have any idea what he was talking about. What I’d like to know, what Renji would like to know …. “Ichigo leaned forward and pushed his plate away. “Is what do you know about this? Did something happen to Rukia when she was here?”
Inoue was looking at Ishida. It did not escape Ichigo that Ishida covered her hand with his as if to comfort her. At the very least, that was one heart he didn’t have to feel guilty over or sad about anymore; Inoue was with the right person.
“The Soul King seems to be a little concerned about what happened with Rukia too,” Urahara-san said.
“He was interrogating me about the whole incident when bringing me to be healed.”
“The world makes no sense with Aizen walking around unbound,” Yoruichi said. She put down her carton of milk and picked up her champagne glass. “Kisuke always had a few different plans for the hougyoku. He was never able to get the damn thing to conform to his will.” She looked at the shopkeeper fondly, downed her champagne and took another glass off the tray. “The hougyoku didn’t take to him? He’s not … administrative enough for it, probably. Aizen is the ruler type. Kisuke is lazy.”
“What happened with Rukia?” Ichigo asked again.
“She’s doing well now, isn’t she?” the shopkeeper took a tiny sip of champagne. “She’s mastered her ban kai, looks lovelier than ever I presume?”
“What do you know?” Ichigo smashed his fist on the table, and Inoue let out a little squeak.
“You’re not going to hit me, are you?” asked Urahara.
“Just tell us.”
“Maybe it’s a matter of global security,” Urahara took off his hat to reveal the sincerity in his face that everyone around him knew wouldn’t work with Ichigo.
“Talk,” said Ichigo.
“Kuchiki-san was said to be a girl from the Rukongai, no one of any particular importance, and in those days… well, let’s say I was less likely to consider side-effects on the subjects of my experiments because of my youthful confidence.”
Ichigo’s eyes were narrowing.
“I didn’t harm her,” Urahara was quick to add. “I needed to infuse the hougyoku with genuine Shinigami reiatsu that had not been exposed to external elements in the process of being extracted. I was also curious as to what the hougyoku was capable of … evoking from a soul. Kuchiki-san has a very beautiful soul—this is now well-known.”
Ichigo had unclenched the muscles in his body somewhat. “I don’t understand what you’re getting at. What happened to Rukia?”
”Aizen,” Ishida piped up, “previously stated that when the hougyoku was in Rukia—which means that when it was in her in Karakura town, that it was somehow responsible for the powers of your friends manifesting. Yet Orihime’s fairies told her that they were born because of your own powers.”
Urahara was looking at Ishida with a slight smile. Everyone else seemed to be wondering why Ishida was speaking. “I’ve always suspected,” Ishida went on, “that it was a combination of the two forces—the hougyoku’s ability to bring peoples’ true desires into reality and whatever crazy power it is you have, Kurosaki, that causes crazy things around you to happen.”
“I still don’t understand,” Ichigo went on. “Rukia. What happened to Rukia?”
“I wiped her memories and she went back to serve in her capacity in Soul Society,” Urahara said. “It would be years before I would further my understanding of the hougyoku. Yoruichi-san here,” he nodded to the woman at his side who was on her third plate of sardines and who knows how many glasses of champagne. “She gathered information that Aizen had been attempting similar experiments with his version of the hougyoku on Rukongai citizens in Soul Society itself. Eventually, as you know, Aizen combined his version of the hougyoku with mine, and now it’s sealed in his body. I don’t believe Aizen’s chest is the hougyoku’s final resting place.”
Inoue looked bewildered; Ishida seemed to know exactly what was going on; Tessai was stone-faced; Yoruichi and Chad were eating; Eri, Jinta and Ururu had wandered outside already.
“In regards to Kuchiki-san herself? Having been a vessel for such a powerful object for long periods---who knows what powers Kuchiki-san may have acquired? I imagine that the Royal Guard may have glimpsed a clue. Her ban kai is literally impossible; it violates the simplest laws of thermodynamics and creates an alternate dimension for her body heat to disperse. It’s as if she requires a dance partner to recreate reality, and this possibility itself may be what Aizen is aware of.”
“A new reality?” The question came in a shy voice from Inoue.
“Yes, yes,” Urahara said. “What your powers do is reject reality or transverse the borders between existing current realities. Kuchiki-san, when in ban-kai, not unlike many super-powered fighters, invents her own destructive power, but she does something that is quite particular—she creates a time pocket into which her own body heat must be displaced in order for absolute zero to be achieved. It’s a dangerous ban kai, much like my own; I don’t see how it can be trained regularly without severe consequences to the soul.”
“But we have been training,” Ichigo said.
“I figured as much,” Urahara said. “Let me guess. You’re her dance partner?”
Ichigo hadn’t thought of the training as a dance, but now that Urahara-san put it that way ….
“Aizen said he wasn’t afraid,” Ichigo murmured. “But he is, isn’t he?”
“No idea.” Urahara raised his glass. “A toast to the birthday kitty! She is the magnificent lady of the Urahara Shouten and allows wayward children to play with empty milk cartons under the kotatsu and never complains if my hat falls in her bathwater— “
“I do too complain. Shut up, Kisuke. You’re drunk.”
Rukia. A new reality. What Urahara-san had said didn’t make that much sense to Ichigo, and yet when he was with Rukia, he understood. Rukia changed his world.
- All Gods Are Imitations of Humans
“What?” Ichigo didn’t understand. “You have to know that I’m going to be spending most of my time in the spirit realms. It’s like that’s my career. You can still come see me. It’s not like I want Kon messing around with my body anymore and getting me locked into a mental institution.”
“Damn it, Ichigo,” Keigo began to get dramatic. “I’m not ready to buy a suit and weep at your funeral.”
“You’ve always been leaving,” Tatsuki wiped her eyes with the sleeves of her over-sized sweater. “Fuck, this is sad music. Whose fucking idea was it to attend this depressing concert?”
“Free beer for the price of admission,” said Mizuiro, “and look around, lots of attractive young people.”
“Something about this new gigai,” Ichigo said. “It might preserve my real body longer when I’m not in it, but it’s ugly. I think it makes my face look saggy.”
He had no sooner spoken those words than a handsome man in a long white coat wearing a long white scarf and immaculate white shoes walked in front of them. The brown lock of hair blowing in the winter breeze identified him as Aizen Sousuke.
“Holy shit,” Keigo said in a low voice. “What do we do? Run? Ichigo, are you going to clear the city? What?”
“It’s fine,” said Ichigo, crushing his paper cup. He didn’t like beer or any beverage sold at these festivals. He wanted to get home to Yuzu and her fresh-squeezed mandarin juice. He loved his friends, but Tatsuki was right—the traditional zithers and flutes were melancholy at the moment. “Aizen seems to be in a good mood since he helped defeat Yhwach. Don’t ask me how I know, but he’s fine. He’s not going to hurt anyone.”
Within eyesight, Inoue and Ishida were buying cotton candy.
“Maybe it’s my imagination, but they’re starting to act like a couple,” Keigo said.
“I think they did it,” Mizuiro said. “Used special Quincy condoms or something.”
Tatsuki pushed Mizuiro so hard he fell down. “Orihime’s not that kind of a girl. They’re friends. He is kind to her. She needs him right now.”
“Good,” said Ichigo. “They always seemed like they understood one another.”
Inoue caught sight of the gang first and waved. Then she and Ishida were blocked by the tall man in white. He was standing, hands in pockets, speaking to them. Ichigo didn’t like the looks of that at all, walked on over, and his friends followed.
“Show me how your powers have grown,” Aizen was saying. “You’re such a kind woman. I have no Living world money, you see. Perhaps you can make another cotton candy materialize for me?”
“Maybe she chooses not to do you the favor?” Ishida said. “Is a god such as yourself really in need of human food right now?”
“Indulge me,” Aizen said.
“I---I---can’t do that,” Orihime admitted.
The blue and white confection in Ishida’s hand flew of its own accord to Aizen’s hand, and Aizen ate the whole fluffy cloud in four or five bites. “Too sweet,” he said. “Like the both of you.” He smiled. “But I would like the gentleman to have back what he paid for. Bring back his cotton candy, Inoue Orihime.”
“Don’t listen to him,” Ishida commanded.
Ichigo was there now. “He’s just messing with you. You don’t have to do what he says.”
“Do it or the next thing I take a bite out of…” Aizen licked the last bit of the cotton candy from a corner of his mouth. “Will be the head of one of your friends.”
Tatsuki gasped. “Ichigo—you said!”
“He’s bluffing, Inoue,” Ichigo said.
Inoue produced another blue and white cloudy concoction, no different from the first, in a millisecond.
“Give it to your boyfriend,” Aizen said, and Inoue, without a blush but fear rising in her wide eyes, handed the treat to Ishida.
“I wonder,” said Aizen, “if you could fully understand your powers and if you could only grasp the bare essentials of mine… what a lovely addition you would make to my royal entourage. Perhaps in due time. You did fail to resurrect the previous Soul King. His reiatsu overwhelmed you, so I can only imagine what mine would do to you. Still, I wonder if after this lifetime or maybe the next, you will be of use to me.”
Ishida’s expression was one of blatant fear.
“Ah, no worries. For the time-being. The Royal Realm has no interest in you, and neither do I.” Aizen turned around to face Ichigo. “It was you I followed to earth. You still have sentimental attachments here? Any … special memories? I don’t mean the usual recollections of school days and friendships—I mean peculiar dreams of things you may not be sure really happened.”
“What are you talking about, Aizen?” Ichigo had little patience for the slanted way Aizen had at getting to a point.
“Never mind. It’s no matter. Happy New Year, Ichigo. It’s a very new year indeed.” And at that, Aizen disappeared.
- Back from Blind
Urahara’s little slip about how maybe Aizen wanted Ichigo and Kuchiki-san apart—that had to be on purpose. Aizen had wanted no such thing; he was curious about the opposite in fact now. The only other reveal had been that Isshin’s gigai was not turning him human; Isshin felt confident enough to protect not only Ichigo’s sisters and Karakura town, but the whole Living World, thanks to new upgrades from the shopkeeper.
Shinigami, arrogant as always.
Why had Aizen even come to this world? Isshin had told Ichigo that he had knocked up Masaki a few months before the wedding, that “hoochie-koochie” was the strongest test of fate, that a man knew he was with the right one when he didn’t want to share a bed with anyone else. Ichigo had covered his ears.
The one who had cleaved in two the Quincy king. A child.
Aizen had tried to skim over Inoue Orihime’s weeping, but the sounds of her sobs had been difficult to ignore—the woman was so loud. She told Ishida Uryuu of her memories where she’d had a son with Ichigo. The Quincy had no recollection of this timeline. “I remember seconds, mere seconds,” the young woman had sobbed, “but I feel a love for this child. Is that possible? A person who never was?”
“Sousuke Aizen is a cruel man,” Ishida Uryuu had said. “I don’t know what the former Soul King was like, but there had to be a reason he was bound. It can’t be safe—Aizen free to do what he wants.”
The comprehension of gnats, whatever their superpowers.
Aizen sped back to Soul Society with the knowledge that Ukitake would soon relinquish his position to Kuchiki Rukia and that Ichigo would be appointed captain of another squad. That would keep the two apart for most of the working hours of a day.
Captain Ukitake Juushirou was in his wheelchair by the lake throwing food to the carp. Kuchiki-san, holding the bag of bread crumbs, was by his side. When Aizen materialized, both seemed unsurprised and returned their attention to the gaping mouths of the bright orange fish.
“How are you feeling, Captain?” Aizen asked.
“Fine, but my death is approaching,” Ukitake said simply. “Orihime-chan restored my lungs, but my reiatsu will soon be completely gone. It was inevitable.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Aizen intoned in his godliest voice. “You don’t appear to be in pain.”
“No,” said Ukitake, tossing bread across the sun-speckled water with some vigor. “I have a month left, maybe a little more than that.”
“The Minihagi is part of me now,” Aizen said. “I absorbed all of the Soul King and Yhwach’s powers.”
Ukitake turned to look at Aizen with smiling green eyes. “All rivers lead to the same ocean of forgetfulness. Even a god can die.”
“Some platitudes don’t apply to me,” Aizen said, “but I wanted to let you know that Minihagi remembers a vow.” He put his hand on the top of Ukitake’s white head. Kuchiki-san flinched, but Ukitake himself made no gesture of moving away.
“You don’t want to die, do you?” Aizen whispered. “You, who are so beloved by all. Did you think I would allow such a thing? For your spirit particles to blow across the lake when you could continue to serve for a thousand more years?”
Ukitake expression jolted; his eyes widened and his mouth parted.
“Get up and walk,” Aizen said, removing his hand and raising it in a dramatic gesture of divine authority. “You learned to walk when you were a year old, and two years later your illness struck you. Do you remember how it feels to walk without fear of pain?”
Ukitake rose. “Aizen,” he said with a grin. “I have always walked without fear.” He walked closer to the lake, crouched down and beckoned to Kuchiki-san. “Bring me the bag.” He continued to feed the fish.
“You fellows are going to be stuck with me for a bit longer.” His back was to Aizen. “Thank you, Aizen Sousuke.”
Kuchiki-san had tears in her eyes. She turned to look at Aizen with her hand at her chest. “Thank you.’ She bowed slightly at the waist as if she couldn’t help herself. “Thank you, thank you.”
The next time Aizen saw Kuchiki-san with tears in her eyes was when Ichigo returned, sooner than anyone expected, but around the end of the New Year holiday. Ichigo’s Senkaimon opened outside the Kuchiki mansion where Renji was wading, waist-deep, in a lake for some reason, and Kuchiki-san was calling “Not that one! The white one! The white one!” With his bare hands, Renji caught a giant silvery koi with whiskers like an ancient old man and right away dropped it when Ichigo materialized.
“Ichigo!” cried Renji and Kuchiki in unison.
“Why the hell are you all wet, Renji?” Ichigo asked.
“Rukia was making me get new fish for her captain’s home. He only has orange carp, she says.” Renji was waving his hands as if he really didn’t want to explain any of this. “She wanted a white koi that looked like Captain Ukitake. He’s all healed now. Aizen healed him.”
Kuchiki-san looked so full of emotion, and her eyes moistened when they met Ichigo’s smiling ones. Ichigo’s chest heaved. Aizen was certain they were going to kiss right there in front of the dripping wet koi-catcher, but they didn’t.
Hours later, in one of Byakuya’s many drawing rooms, while Kuchiki and Ichigo shared mandarins and nuts, Aizen made himself invisible and listened. Ichigo told Kuchiki all about Urahara’s so-called experiment, recounted what friends had said and done and eaten.
“I can’t remember a single thing about being on that trip to the Living World with Isane,” Kuchiki-san said. “But you know what strange memories I get sometimes?”
“It only happens when we’re training together. When my ban kai is almost at its limit and even though I know you’re about to replenish the time, there’s … this ….” Her eyes looked distant. “A break, I don’t know what else to call it, but for a second I can remember being so mad with you that I never wanted to see you again.”
“Why would something like that feel like a memory?” Ichigo wanted to know.
She shrugged. “Another life maybe. I come back wanting to make it up to you.”
“There’s nothing to make up!” His arms were around her, fruit peels falling on the fancy carpet, and Aizen was about to walk away, not in the mood for voyeurism, when he heard Kuchiki-san mention that the Captain Commander didn’t know what to do with Ichigo, that he was considering giving him the 7th division captain-hood but had reservations. “What do I have to prove?” Ichigo was kissing the 13th division lieutenant’s neck, and Aizen was sure the conversation was going to venture from work talk to all play before the next mandarin orange hit the floor.
Take it to a bedroom. This is why neither of you are captain material yet. Anyone could walk in.
In the next moment Aizen was kneeling by a sleeping gray wolf, a being that had once been Captain Komamura and whose form Inoue Orihime had been unable to reject. The young woman herself had vaguely understood that the reason was because there was nothing to reject: Komamura’s reiatsu was intact, only re-arranged into a more holy, indestructible being. The wolf slept at the foot of his previous lieutenant’s bed, dreamed a Shinigami captain’s dreams at night and in his waking hours had no deeper sentience than that of a dog, albeit that the spirit of any canine is profound. Aizen changed the wolf into a man with one touch. Not a man with a wolf’s head, but Komamura in his human soul form.
“A beast fears no future,” whispered Aizen. “Welcome back to the world of regrets and futile plans.”
The captain of the 7th division continued to sleep curled on the floor until the next morning.
- This Entire World Exists for the Purpose of Cornering You
Akon was the natural choice, having displayed leadership abilities of outstanding merit during the last war, to replace Kurotsuchi as the head of the Shinigami Research and Development Institute. He was without ban kai, but an exception was granted to make him 12th division captain for his exceptional scientific knowledge. A direct plea was made by Captain Hirako Shinji to his friend Hiyori to resume her previous position as lieutenant in the 12th division, and after many shouting matches over the phone that could be heard halfway across the entire Seireitei, Hiyori agreed “because that gold-toothed bastard is gone so maybe things will be different.”
No one was surprised when Isane Kotetsu assumed the 4th division leadership, but all were stunned when she requested that her sister, Kiyone, a well-known healer, be transferred from the 13th division to become her lieutenant. Kiyone’s devotion to Ukitake was legendary, but when her sister called, she came. The plans had been discussed with the Captain Commander himself. The 13th division had long held a tradition of a vacant lieutenant spot in honor of Kaien until Rukia’s induction not long ago, but now the Captain Commander thought that the lieutenant position should be filled by two people whose powers he had observed in the Royal Realm as being exceptionally well-matched.
Kurosaki Ichigo was inducted a vice-captain of the 13th division on the same day as many other ceremonies, without much glamour, presented a lieutenant’s badge, and told by Ukitake that he was a shining symbol of honor and righteousness in the division, the Gotei and all the worlds and that his career had only begun.
Hiyori scratched herself under her arm. She wasn’t used to being in uniform again. “He’s stronger than all of us,” she said to Shinji. “Why wasn’t he made a captain?”
“Politics,” replied Shinji.
“I hate this place,” said Hiyori.
The rebuilding of Soul Society went more quickly than anyone expected. Aizen’s constant presence allowed for the sudden appearance of new buildings, constructed in a sleek modern design that complimented the Edo style of the remaining structures. Roads were reported appearing in the Rukongai were none had been before, and that spring, orchards full of fruit and creeks full of fish came into existence one after the other in valleys of desolation and poverty, like blossoms opening on a rotting tree.
“He can will things into being like that little Sternritter child Gremmy,” the Captain Commander observed. “He could sneeze and the planets would fly out of orbit and crash into one another—why do you suppose he doesn’t do that?”
“Not his aesthetic?” Shinji was chewing a piece of straw in his long teeth. “I think he’s having fun.”
The other captains and lieutenants assembled at the meeting wore worried expressions. No one at the table had not suffered a betrayal from Aizen when he was a Shinigami Captain, and Hinamori Momo had the most reason to mistrust the new Soul King. “Maybe,” she offered meekly, “he’s changed.”
“Oh he’s changed all right,” Shinji said. “He’s capable of screwing everyone over in bigger and more dramatic ways.”
“He seems to be instituting radical changes in the outer districts,” Komamura said. “None of which he discussed with the Captain Commander. Do you suppose he wants less division and stratification among the existing worlds eventually?”
“The Shiba mansion was restored,” said Byakuya. He didn’t seem to mind. His family’s feud with the Shiba clan had been forgiven with Ichigo. “Aizen doesn’t appear to be interested in redistributing the wealth or lifting the Rukongai poor to the same class as those in the Seireitei; he seems to be going around adjusting random inconsistencies to his … unfathomable sense of justice.”
“There’s been a surge of applicants to the academy,” Hitsugaya announced. “I can barely keep up with the paperwork. “The talent appears to be unprecedented. Whether or not these people were gifted with reiatsu from Aizen remains to be seen, but my guess….” Everyone was staring at the captain because even after all this time it was peculiar to see him his adult form; they had been accustomed to a boy captain for so long. Hitsugaya’s demeanor was different too; he was less grumpy, more patient. “Aizen is invested,” he went on, “in the growth and prosperity of Soul Society.”
By mid-summer, there was another Gotei wedding. Captain Hitsugaya of the 10th division and Vice-Captain Hinamori of the 5th division took their vows at the 13th division barracks and were pronounced married by a beaming Ukitake who presented bride and groom with bouquets of flowers and candies.
“If this keeps up, I’m going to have to marry you myself,” Zaraki said to his lieutenant Ikkaku.
“No one better rub my head for luck today,” Ikkaku looked around warily. “It’s not even a custom to rub a bald head for luck at weddings. I don’t know why people were doing that at Kyouraku’s wedding.”
“Ikkaku is spoken for, Captain,” Yumichika informed Zaraki. “Doesn’t Momo make the most fetching bride? She has a look of eternal radiant youth about her. Of course, we always expected that of Shiro-chan, but look what happened to him.”
Hitsugaya’s vice captain kissed Momo on both cheeks. “Your sweetness is the perfect match for his bossiness,” Matsumoto said. She looked at her captain in the eye. “Since you’ve grown up, I can’t coddle your head between my loving breasts anymore. I guess you’ll have to settle for my smooshing them against your tall, mature chest!” And she hugged him tightly while he made a grumpy face.
Renji walked from his captain’s side after the processional to talk to Rukia. “There’s nothing but candy here,” he noted. “Does your division serve anything else?”
“Who doesn’t like candy?” Rukia responded.
Renji grabbed a handful of konpeito from a bowl. “I like candy.” He looked around the room. “I guess you and Ichigo will be next.”
Rukia fingers began to have sudden difficulty unwrapping a piece of taffy. “Renji… we haven’t… the subject hasn’t even come up.”
“My captain has mentioned it,” Renji said. “It’s ok. You don’t have to be so embarrassed. Your brother is proud of Ichigo. He’s from a good family, he’s proved himself to be the strongest among us all, it’s plain he cares for you.” Rukia thought she was imagining that Renji’s eyes were moist, and then he cleared his throat. “This stuff is so sweet,” he said. “What’s there to wash down the candy with?”
“Watermelon slushies.” Rukia smiled. “White peach slushies too. All non-alcoholic, I’m afraid. My captain doesn’t like guests getting rowdy.”
In a far corner, Hitsugaya sat with a drink and observed the guests getting a sugar-high. “We train and train, and there’s no conflict. I’m grateful for the peace-time, but it still makes me a little nervous. It seems all we are doing is eating and drinking and celebrating these days.”
“You’re prone to worrying,” Momo told him. “It’s in your nature.” But she too was looking around the room, grateful that Aizen hadn’t shown himself, wondering if he was there somehow, allowing her this happiness. She wanted to feel in control of her own destiny, but how could she when that man roamed the worlds?
“When’s the last time anything bad happened?” Shinji asked Hiyori.
“When’s the last time I kicked you in the nuts?” Hiyori said. “Last week.”
“Nah,” Shinji said. “This ain’t peace-time. With you and Aizen running around, it’s like the olden days. You can be sitting around enjoying the sunshine, but you know that your balls are going to get slammed sooner or later. That’s just the way it goes.”
One late July, not long after a visit from Ichigo, Uryuu asked Orihime: “What are your feelings for him now?”
“Fond,” she said. “Grateful. There’s so much to love, you understand, and there’s still sadness.” She waved her pink cotton candy. “I’m petty, still. I can make a chocolate cake that’s as good as Yuzu-chan’s, and I felt a little sorry that I wasn’t able to show my skills off at his birthday party. I’m not sure if that was more about the cake or wanting attention from Kurosaki-kun. I’m sorry—does this make you think less of me?”
“You know it doesn’t.”
“I cherish you with all my heart,” she said. “I don’t understand why you listen to all my ramblings. Tell me, what else have you been doing besides working and studying? If there are other young women around you, I will try not to be… jealous.”
He smiled an uncharacteristic broad smile at her last remark. “No other young women,” he said. “I have been experimenting with my antithesis power. Kurosaki told us of all the improvements Aizen has been making to Soul Society so I was wondering why the Soul King was leaving the earth alone, not bothering to fix pollution or cure diseases, so….”
“There was a drought this summer in the Kanto region.”
“You’re the one who made it rain there?” Orihime gasped.
“Reversed the record drops in reservoirs around the Watarase River with torrential rains elsewhere. It wasn’t difficult. Now I have to see what else I can do without upsetting ecosystems.”
“Oh that reminds me.” Orihime giggled. “You know what I can do now?” She put her pink cotton candy behind her back along with her other hand. Then she pulled out two sticks of cotton candy—the old one, pink and chewed in damp spots—and a new one, fluffy and blue. She handed the blue one to Uryuu. “I can make objects appear out of thin air now.”
Uryuu sat there a moment, stunned, not saying a word.
“Not a big deal, not like fixing a drought, just a trifle,” she said.
“This is what Aizen was afraid of,” Ishida murmured. “I don’t understand how you can do this with your powers.”
A few hours later, while Orihime was polishing off the last of her complimentary snacks at the Urahara Shouten, the shopkeeper explained that her new trick had to do with rejecting the material presence of an object and bringing it back in a re-arranged form so that the original object appeared to be cloned but was of a slightly shifted and replicated molecular structure. “The one cotton candy came back as two,” Urahara said. “There was no creation of a new cotton candy.”
“I couldn’t do this when I tried to bring back the captain doggie,” Orihime said.
“Ah, the reiatsu of a Shinigami may be too difficult for you to rearrange yet.” Urahara was still examining the cotton candy sticks Uryuu had given him for evidence. He took a bite of the blue one. “12 atoms of carbon, 22 atoms of hydrogen and 11 atoms of oxygen—this is just sugar. Oh, paper cone and some dye too.”
Uryuu looked worried.
Urahara gave him his most serious expression in return. “He has no need for her. When he does, IF he does, we’ll have to be prepared, won’t we? Inoue-san, don’t tell anyone about your new ability. Not in a letter, not over the phone. Don’t speak of it with Ishida-san anymore, do you understand?”
- Dance with Snow White
Aizen chose to wear white robes most of the time now, the neckline open to the center of his chest where the hougyoku dwelled. He padded around in unornate white slippers, and if the mood struck him, he would tuck a flower behind his ear. Shutara didn’t care for his taste in clothes, especially the bold white suits and scarves he wore for his infrequent visits to the Living World, but Aizen brushed her off, saying he had no need for her secret-power hoodies, nor her penchant for busy patterns.
Aizen’s throne existed within an open-air garden of fountains and abstract statues. Why would a being who needs neither food or sleep and who can make himself invisible pretend that he required a private home? He had no need for Royal Guards either but he tolerated them, and not far from his throne, there was a wide field where Ichigo and Rukia came to train every three months as Ichibe’s most honored guests and favorite pupils.
Aizen sat with steaming tea at a garden table to watch the training. Trainer and trainees ignored him for the most part.
One morning, Aizen realized that the two Shinigami had achieved a flawless balance of their combined strengths and liabilities over a ridiculously short practice period.
Ichigo’s final form was the one in which the Shinigami became his Getsuga itself, his hair flowing black to his waist, his torso sheathed in cloth wrappings like his original blade, his reiatsu emanating like dark fire. It was in this deadly transformation that Ichigo used Mugetsu, a power Aizen now understood that Quincy nor Hollow had no reign over, even when used to defeat Aizen years ago. A pure Shinigami power. Yet back then, using Mugetsu had drained Ichigo of all his powers, all of them.
Mugetsu, moonless sky. Aizen watched in fascination as another Shinigami, a tiny one, stood in perfect stillness as her ban kai formed a lethal area that was absolutely round; the giant sphere bounced like a balloon within Ichigo’s black flames. Here is your full moon. Both powers were enough to destroy the entire Royal Realm. Both powers were enough to engulf their wielders and kill them.
And yet, at some point, before the cold could break Kuchiki-san’s body into a million pieces or escape beyond the limited circumference she had assigned it, before Ichigo’s black reiatsu could take flight across the atmosphere and scorch a spot beyond the training area or leave his own soul depleted, Ichigo stepped forward, lifted the tiny Shinigami by the waist and held her high over his shoulders.
The white queen put her tiny palms on the broad shoulders of the king of black fire, and Aizen understood he was witnessing the universe’s most elemental spiral: her reiatsu fed his as it dissipated, and his filled a space she had created in time. She dropped into his arms, and he swung her by the waist to his left; in the one moment the two Shinigami spun clockwise, Aizen heard a reverberation from the birth of All There Is. Then Ichigo and Kuchiki-san dropped to their feet, black-garbed lieutenants again, eyes excited from the rush of they’d done—did they know they were playing at being royal gods?
“Next time, two spirals,” Ichibe said as the pair walked off the training field. “I’ll need to find something for you to blow up.” He passed by Aizen’s garden table. “Maybe you, Soul King.”
“I’m immortal,” Aizen reminded him.
“Still,” Ichibe said. “It might be a nice explosion. Like fireworks.”
“Ichigo,” Aizen called back the Shinigami who was walking away, rubbing sweat out of his mussed-up orange hair with a towel. “I know it’s become somewhat of a joke how many have stepped up and claimed to be your parent now. That pretender of a king, Yhwach, did go on and on about how you were his dark son, but it’s clear now that he only hid his power inside you and never shaped who you are.”
“My mother was a Quincy,” Ichigo said.
“There’s that,” Aizen said, “and I have to confess that my attempts to make you a Hollow-Quincy-Shinigami hybrid superstar failed the ultimate test.”
Ichigo blinked. “What did you say?” He tilted his head. “You don’t sound that sorry, though.”
“Kuchiki-san,” Aizen turned his attention to the smaller Shinigami who was wearing her longer hair in single braid down her left shoulder these days. “I thought it was I who sent you to Kurosaki Ichigo’s side, but I understand that Urahara Kisuke arranged for you and the hougyoku to meet much earlier. It all looks like the blessings of serendipity, but trust me, you two have always had scheming scientists as matchmakers and not destiny behind you.”
“You really like to hear yourself talk,” the tiny Shinigami said. She never liked him. “Must get lonely up here with just your trees and your statues and your… tea.”
“No need for such impoliteness,” Aizen called as the pair walked away. “You may live here with me one day. You’re certainly worthy of being Royal Guards.”
Ichibe and the pair walked on, no respect at all. “Beautiful couple,” Aizen continued, even as everyone was out of ear-shot. “Amazing to watch. Their timelines are starting to change every time they dance, creating new realities.”
He bent over. The creeping white cup flowers were growing in-between tiles of garden path. He plucked the tiniest bloom and twirled it between his thumb and forefinger. “I’m going to have to kill those two sooner than I thought I would. Too bad. They were so entertaining.”
TO BE CONTINUED IN PART THREE