- No World Exists Without Sacrifice
And before she knew it, Orihime was walking through a Seireitei gate. She didn’t really have to ask for permission; she had the power to cross the border into the Living World at any time. She was beloved in Soul Society and greeted right away by Shinigami from the 2nd division who agreed to flash-step her to Captain Ukitake’s barracks where the people she wanted to see most were stationed.
It was dawn, not even time for morning exercises or breakfast, and Rukia and Ichigo were lying in the bed they shared, Rukia’s long hair spread across Ichigo’s chest and her small hand resting on his heart. He lay with both hands under his neck on the pillow; he looked thoughtful, more awake than his partner. For some time now, their intimacy had felt as natural as the sun rising and setting, as inevitable as the moon drifting through its phases.
“I don’t like the idea of being a Royal Guard,” Ichigo said. “Ichibe is cool, but the other guys creep me out a little.”
“The other ones?” Rukia yawned. “How about Aizen?”
Ichigo sat up, sliding Rukia off his body. His eyes looked wild. “Holy shit,” he whispered. “Feel that?”
“Inoue! She’s right outside the door!”
Rukia reached for her robe. “She’ll knock first, idiot. She has to get by the night guards. You have plenty time to get dressed.”
When Orihime met with her friends, it was agreed that they would share breakfast by Captain Ukitake’s lake. Ukitake served wrapped taiyaki of all different fillings—chocolate, red bean, sweet potato. And wrapped candy of course. “Look at my new fish,” he said. “Ancient koi, a gift from the Kuchiki clan. Very noble and precious fish. Each one is priceless.” He laughed. “One white koi would keep Abarai Renji in sunglasses for a thousand years.”
It was then that Orihime decided to try something. Fish in Soul Society had a peculiar immaterial reiatsu, did they not? Maybe not unlike a Shinigami’s reiatsu. They were ghost fish, after all. She multiplied the three white koi in Ukitake’s lake to six. Done. Not hard at all.
“That’s a lovely ring you’re wearing,” Ukitake observed while Orihime’s left hand was waving in the direction of the koi. “Suits you. A little pink stone in a silver setting. Delightful.”
Orihime blushed. “It’s a promise ring.”
“What’s that?” Ukitake asked.
“A new custom among young people.” Orihime held up her hand to display the ring. “Uryuu made the ring himself. It’s pink topaz and Quincy silver. He has promised….” She blushed so hard the fingers she was holding up blotched pink as the ring stone. “The ring is his promise to marry me when he is finished with medical school and takes the exam to be a doctor.”
“Wow,” said Ichigo in a low voice. He turned to look at Rukia. “I didn’t know about these promise ring things.”
Aizen materialized by the lake. The early morning light reflected a soft white aura off his robes.
“What I’d really like to know,” said the Soul King in a grand tone. He continued sotto voce: “although of course I already know, given that I can see the future right now, but I wonder which timeline will be chosen and how the announcement will be made….”
Rukia was rolling her eyes.
“What I’d like to know is when the union between the House of Byakuya and the House of Shiba will take place. That’s the next big Seireitei event, if I’m not mistaken.” Aizen padded forward and unwrapped a candy. “I’m never mistaken.”
Ukitake turned to Ichigo and Rukia. “Ohhhh? Another wedding?”
Ichigo looked nervous. Rukia spoke up, “Please, we haven’t planned anything. We don’t want people to talk.”
“Of course!” Ukitake smiled. “I won’t say a thing.”
Orihime got up, threw her arms around Rukia and said she was so happy for her. She was smiling when she stood to face Ichigo, tears in her eyes. “I’m so happy for you too, Kurosaki-kun. I don’t know why, but here, today, this beautiful morning, it feels like one of the happiest days of my life.”
“You are certainly growing into such a fine lady,” Aizen observed. “If you had to choose a Shinigami division to serve in, which would it be?”
No one thought it a peculiar question, and Orihime after much deliberation decided on the 11th because they had the fewest rules and the most parties. Aizen left before breakfast was over; Orihime stayed for a few more hours, and it was not until later that evening when it was time to feed the fish that Ukitake noticed he had three new friends in the water.
Aizen, strolling in his invisible form across the sparkling lake, had seen the fish multiply under his feet.
That evening was Saturday in the Living World, Orihime’s day off, but Uryuu was in the library studying, and she was alone in her apartment with a jar of peanut butter, nothing of particular interest on television, and only the memories of her day in Soul Society to entertain her. She felt full of hope. She would hold her spoon full of peanut butter in her mouth ever once in a while and take off her promise ring, inspect it, and put it back on. Uryuu was a prodigy. He would be done with exams in a few months.
“Hello, Inoue-san,” said Aizen.
The spoon fell out of Orihime’s mouth. Luckily, the ring was back on her finger or she would have dropped it too.
“Your powers have evolved faster than I expected,” said Aizen. “Don’t be afraid. I saw what you did with the captain’s koi. This is a good thing. My concern is that other aspects of the universe are moving faster than your own powers can grow, so I want to help you. It really is in your best interests to move permanently to the Spirit World.”
Orihime put her jar of peanut butter on the floor where she sat, the television in front of her jangling a commercial about tasty, tasty spinach flakes. “What?”
“I mean I need you to die.”
At those words, Orihime fell to the floor, the television remote in her limp hand.
Aizen looked at her for a moment, not to reassure himself that she was truly dead but because she was lovely lying there, and padded away, disappearing through the apartment walls.
Because he had absorbed Yhwach’s powers, he had also assumed Yhwach’s blind spot and that was the inability to sense one particular Quincy, in this timeline or any other. Aizen did not sense Ishida Uryuu, who on the stairs with boxes of take-out to surprise Orihime, had felt her reiatsu plunge and had dropped the food and flashed to her door, knocking it down.
Ishida Uryuu discovered his betrothed lying dead on the ground.
He made the decision in a millisecond, before he even knew what was within the realm of his power.
Yesterday at the hospital, he had sat at the bedside of a terminal patient, an eighty-three-year old woman in horrible pain despite all analgesics. He reversed the woman’s pain with Orihime’s death. Haschwalth had taught him this ethical lesson, but even if Haschwalth had not made him weigh the issue, Uryuu would still have done it; he would have done anything for Orihime.
“Orihime, Orihime.” He didn’t hear the sob in his own voice, but he did realize that it was difficult for him to speak because his throat was full of something. He swallowed his tears. “Can you hear me?”
She moaned, and Uryuu’s world came back to life.
“You have cancer in your pancreas, liver and possibly other areas. I don’t have any pain medication on me, I’m so sorry. Heal yourself right now. Right now.”
She didn’t open her eyes, but she and Uryuu were encased in her golden orb right away. Uryuu lay his head on her chest and felt her breaths; at first they were unsteady from suffering and in less than half a minute they were even.
The gold light vanished, and Orihime sat up. “I was dead,” she said in awe. “Aizen made me dead.”
“We have to figure something out,” Uryuu said, “because he’s going to come back and do it again.”
At that moment, a broad stream of light crossed the floor as if someone had opened a door, but no door had opened. Uryuu had broken down the only door to the apartment. The light wavered then grew taller then turned into Aizen. “Hello, I’m back. I was half-way to Soul Society when I caught a glimpse of Orihime’s future and your amazing rescue, Quincy.”
Orihime and Uryuu both rose to their feet. Both looked terrified but stood firm, their eyes intent on showing Aizen that they would fight him.
“How brave,” Aizen remarked. “There’s no need for theatrics now. I’m not in the mood for a tedious back and forth with this Quincy’s reversal power. It seems to have slipped my mind how useful Yhwach claimed Ishida Uryuu was. There was more to him than that silver arrowhead trick of course.”
“Leave Inoue-san alone,” Uryuu said. “I’m the one you’re looking for.”
“No,” Aizen said. “I think I need you both. Although killing you to make you permanent spirits is … overkill, shall we say? I’ll take you both to the Royal Realm as my guests now. I do hate to make a noticeable fuss among the living though.”
And in a flash, Inoue Orihime’s apartment was empty. Police later found no money or items missing, saw the ticket in the take-out bag on the stairs had been paid with Ishida Uryuu’s credit card, and both he and Orihime were reported as missing persons. The mystery case made national headlines.
- The True Will
“He has a huge exam in just a few months,” Orihime said. “He has to go back home.”
“You simply can’t take people away from their lives and force them to do your bidding,” Uryuu attempted an ethical stance, knowing he stood no chance. “Do you want to be known as a despot? Everyone’s heard about how you’ve been restructuring Soul Society so that life for the poor in the Rukongai is better. Why are you killing and kidnapping humans now?”
“My ways are unknowable to lesser beings such yourselves.” Aizen sat at his table and poured steaming tea. “Inoue-san, would you make another orchard of young white dogwoods like the one here? Fully pruned, please. Put it past the largest statue. Make them rooted deep in the ground without any soil tossed around as if they’ve been recently planted. I dislike mess.”
Orihime set her jaw. “No.”
Uryuu fell sideways to the ground as if pushed.
“He’ll suffer If you don’t,” Aizen said. Blood rose in wet blotches on Uryuu’s white shirt; the red circle on his chest grew bigger and darker, and blood seeped through the fabric on his upper arms. One visible wound, a thin scratch, showed on his forehead; it bled a thin river past his brow and dripped on the ground.
“Don’t do anything he says.” Uryuu shook his head, scattering blood drops from his face. “We’re the ones who are immortal. He can’t win. We die; we go to Soul Society; we die there, and we go back to the Living World. That is how the cycle of reincarnation works, and he can’t disrupt that. Whatever he wants you to do is wrong. Don’t do it.”
Orihime looked horrified. “It’s just an orchard of trees, Uryuu.”
“She wants to do it,” Aizen said.
“She doesn’t,” Uryuu insisted.
“Oh yes she does.” Aizen steepled his fingers. “When she was in Soul Society, we had a little conversation about her wanting to be in one of the Gotei divisions—isn’t that right, Inoue-san? Near her beloved Kurosaki-kun. Why did you save her? She has no problem with dying and serving my greater purpose.”
“You’re a liar!” Uryuu yelled the words.
“Leave him alone,” said Orihime. “I’ll move the trees.” She raised her palms and did just that. The new orchard appeared, no fresh soil around the roots, grass growing there as if the trees had stood in the garden for years.
Orihime then directed her rikka to heal Uryuu, but her orb was stopped in mid-formation. It was a frozen hemisphere a few feet from where Uryuu lay.
“I could, if I wanted to torment you,” Aizen went on, “cut off the young man’s head.” A small knife appeared in Aizen’s hand. “Watching you heal a decapitated person would be boring; I know you can fix him easily.”
Orihime was holding herself by the shoulders now, shaking.
Aizen sliced off his own thumb. “Here, that is my own godly reiatsu. Make another thumb just like it. Do it or I will cut the Quincy up part by part, and I won’t allow you to heal him.”
Orihime looked at the thumb—it wasn’t bleeding. It looked like an ordinary man’s thumb with a slender shape, a pronounced knuckle and a long pale fingernail. She thought of it as just that, the thumb of a man, and right away, an identical thumb appeared next to it.
When she looked up, Aizen had already healed his own hand. “Excellent,” he said. “Persuading your Quincy to train his abilities may not be difficult at all. He may tear up my garden a bit with his reversal powers, but after I burn you alive a few times, he’ll behave, I’m quite sure.”
Orihime and Uryuu looked at one another with desperate eyes. There was only one option: go along with Aizen, buy time. Or at the very least, imagine that time was something that could work to their advantage, even against a god who sought perfect control of it.
- Take One Step in and Never Return
“My friend,” said Isshin, appearing in full Shinigami garb. “Should we follow them? They may have eloped, you know, and want some privacy.”
“You don’t understand.” Ryuuken lit another cigarette. “Uryuu is meticulous about routine. He was going to finish his studies. And he would not involve the girl in some madcap adventure right now. Everything points to their having gone with Aizen.”
“They’re smart kids. They’ll handle him.”
Ryuuken sat down. “Aizen hasn’t done anything since becoming Soul King to indicate he means any harm to humans, but ….”
“So Uryuu takes the doctor test a little later—no big deal, hmm? Look at me, fake diploma, private clinic, and your own hospital is considering me for a managerial position at the pediatric ward. It will all work out.”
Ryuuken formed a o with his lips, exhaled three circles of smoke and watched them dissolve into one another. “I don’t trust Aizen, and I don’t trust the Shinigami to do anything about him.”
“To be honest,” Isshin said, “neither do I.”
Soon after Inoue Orihime and Ishida Uryuu were brought to the Royal Realm, Ichibe relayed a message to the Captain Commander via a scroll that fell from the heavens through a bright tunnel of violet light. The beam shot through the 1st division headquarters, making a small hole in the ceiling, and retracted as quickly as it had come. Nanao picked up the scroll left on the ground.
The calligraphy was unequivocally Ichibe’s and disappeared from the paper as her husband read silently over her shoulder: Aizen is training the humans Inoue Orihime and Ishida Uryuu in the art of time manipulation. The humans are there against their will. They are bait for Ichigo and Rukia, both of whom Aizen is plotting to destroy. It is only a matter of time before Ichigo and Rukia face Aizen; they may be capable of destroying him, but it is in the best interests of all the worlds if Aizen is kept alive. If Rukia and Ichigo aren’t sent here, Aizen will likely come with the young humans to Soul Society.
“What do I do, Nanao? It looks like our little time of peace is over.”
“Don’t call a meeting. That will delay everything,” Nanao said. “Talk to the lieutenants personally. Make a unilateral decision.”
“Ah, but Nanao, that sounds so unofficial.” He tipped his broad-brimmed hat at his wife. “You’re right, of course.”
Within the hour, Ichigo and Rukia were at the 1st division standing before the Captain Commander.
“The only option is for the two of you to go to the Royal Realm as soon as possible,” their commander told them. “The fighting here would vanquish the Seireitei and if that is what Aizen plans to do eventually, there is no stopping him unless the two of you stop him first.”
“Are Ishida and Inoue hurt?” Rukia asked.
“That I don’t know.”
Ichigo clenched his fists. “I’m still not sure he wants us to die. I think he wants to fight us. The way Kenpachi always wants to fight me. For entertainment.”
“You know him best,” the Captain Commander said, “but I don’t think he’d have any problem whatsoever killing your friends towards that purpose—or killing you in the end for his own entertainment as you call it.”
Ichigo looked at the ground, his face full of battle. “You want us to kill Aizen? He’s the Soul King.”
“Ichibe said it was best for the worlds if he could be taken alive,” the commander continued, “but I’ll see what I can arrange in the event of the worlds collapsing. Soul Society has temporary plans for this sort of thing. You two are the strongest fighters we have among us when you fight in unison, stronger than Captain Kenpachi, stronger than me. You will go together, no one else. I’ll arrange the transport to the Royal Realm right away.”
When the commander walked out of the room with Nanao, Ichigo turned to Rukia and said, “We didn’t plan for this—to take down Aizen. Ichibe didn’t train us for this.”
“I think,” Rukia said softly, “he was training us for this all along while Aizen watched. We’ll know what to do when we get there. Trust me, Ichigo.”
And how could he not?
- Hide Away from the Sun
He punched Inoue-san in the face, would not allow her to heal herself and told Ishida-san to step into a future and reverse the damage. He refused to do it. He beat the young woman with his reiatsu until she was unconscious; a dogwood tree plummeted to the ground in the garden, its limbs snapping, and Inoue-san arose, unharmed, but there was no evidence that the Quincy could time-travel at all. The event could well have been a reversal in current time.
Humans had been time-travelling for millennia. The untalented human Fullbringer could do it, with minor effects on current events. Aizen saw no reason why these talented children couldn’t do it. Their resistance was idiotic, but he thought he might adopt them as his royal family. Yhwach had appointed the young man as a prince, and the young woman even looked the part of beautiful princess.
He would make white robes for them. He would make them help in the killing of Ichigo and his dancing bride.
The timeline in which that was possible opened before his eyes: Inoue-san and Ishida-san standing by Aizen’s side, all the Royal Guard slain, and the offspring of the new royal family indoctrinated into the ways of the Soul King—little ones, use whatever means necessary to justice, show no mercy, and have fun, do have fun, the only enemy is existential loneliness, be creative and build your dreams around you. Aizen smiled at the sight: a small boy with Inoue-san’s bright hair, a smaller girl with Ishida-san’s dark straight locks, sitting side by side in the royal throne. They would carry out missions with lethal intelligence near Aizen’s own—when he had been human.
At that vision, the two Shinigami he’d been waiting for appeared before him.
“Ishida!” yelled Ichigo.
Orihime was sitting up on the ground, none the worse for the wear, but Uryuu, because Aizen hadn’t allowed the rejection of his wounds, sat next to her with his shirt bright red, his brow dripping with sweat and blood.
“He’s fine,” Aizen said. “I’ve been training them both. They’re going to be my royal allies.”
“We’ve been sent to destroy you,” Rukia said.
Aizen tossed back his head and laughed, a gentle laugh. “You will kill your friends in the process and do no damage to me.”
“Inoue, throw up your shield,” said Ichigo.
Orihime gave Ichigo the most pitiful look, threw up her shield and it split down the middle.
“Oh never mind that,” Aizen said. “I’ll protect them. They’re mine.”
“What?” Rukia had her hand on her zanpakutou.
“Everyone does my bidding,” Aizen said. “I am the Soul King. Or haven’t you noticed? You may transform now. What are you waiting for?”
And they did, as they had hundreds of times, Ichigo roared into the living embodiment of a black catastrophe, and Rukia became the stillness of cold death. Their powers spun around one another within a small area, like a warning torch.
Uryuu and Orihime were encased in a crystal bubble. “What are they doing?” Uryuu said. “Kisuke didn’t tell us anything about this.”
Aizen watched the transformation with a vague smile. “It’s old school to even need to change form. I am my own ultimate form. Try to destroy the immortal god and there is nothing but failure before you. I see it because I have Yhwach’s gift of foresight. This display before me expanding and putting on an elaborate show and dissipating into the sky like a firework—mere entertainment.”
“He’s lying,” Uryuu said. “The future can be rewritten.”
“It’s a barrier I can’t cross,” Orihime said. “I can’t even see it. But I know Kurosaki-kun and Kuchiki-san won’t lose. I believe in them.”
Rukia’s energy was leaving her body into another dimension. At the threshold, Sode no Shirayuki stood, her long violet hair streaming in the furious wind. “I need to go there this time,” she told Rukia. “You will remember things; you will see things. Ichigo may not be able to help you balance your ban kai at times. I will return.”
Ichigo’s flames soared and the blast of black reiatsu hit Aizen in the face. Rukia’s power froze Aizen’s torso and spread to his lower body. Ichigo picked up Rukia and spun her around, her reiatsu replenishing his. When they both dropped to their feet, still in ultimate form, they saw that Aizen was fully restored to his former self.
“Again,” Rukia said. “I’m running on empty. Sode no Shirayuki isn’t completely here. Trust me.”
When Ichigo’s black reiatsu started to flame into the atmosphere this time, the fire lapped with more hunger, the area was wider, but Rukia’s death moon was smaller. The pocket of time that took her energy was reversing and memories were rushing into her, the pain of it all was simultaneous: Kaien’s death, her brother’s long silence, forty years of Renji rejecting her. The lethal circle grew slightly, and Rukia gasped. Ichigo, she said to him with her mind. In a timeline Aizen created I had a daughter with Renji. She was a bright, funny girl and a proud Shinigami. Aizen destroyed the timeline in order to absorb the last part of Yhwach’s power. The memories burned like lava even as her body temperature continued to drop. I remember why I was so mad with you. You wouldn’t join the Gotei. You said… you said it was corrupt. Korutsuchi was there, there was no justice for Ishida you said, and we argued. You said everything about Soul Society, everything I fought for, was a pretend world. I didn’t visit you for ten years. I didn’t visit you for ten years. I missed you in my heart … for ten years.
Because Rukia was in his soul, her own memories were hitting Ichigo too. They were igniting his own. He remembered his mother lying dead over his own body. He remembered Inoue sobbing next to him in their bed and not understanding why she was unhappy, never understanding her. How he felt his marriage was a pretense, but there was Kazui. The child he loved, the tiny zanpakutou the boy held that was identical to his own. How often he told himself life was fine, just fine, just fiiiiiine. The world when it started to go up in smoke and he realized that he was on the sofa, watching television, a remote in his hand, protecting no-one, least of all his own beautiful child, who had ceased to exist.
Ichigo’s reiatsu shot past the sky of heaven, the black combustion setting him off balance. He didn’t quite reach Rukia’s waist in time. He managed to lift her but when she put her palms on his shoulders, her arms were slit with small, ice-encrusted breaks from her bare shoulders to her elbows.
No. She wasn’t going to crack. He spun her around once, twice, and felt his power fading.
Then silence. He and Rukia were caught like statues, frozen mid-spin.
“Jikantenishi,” Aizen explained. “A forbidden kidou technique that halts time within a specific area. Very useful, so I don’t understand why Soul Society demanded a death sentence of anyone caught using it. Of course I’m God so I do what I please.”
Uryuu and Orihime’s crystal prison disappeared.
“It appears that the Shinigami were never going be a reiatsu threat at all,” Aizen said. “Ishida-san, you see this troublesome pair before you. Behold their attempt at some yin-yang phenomenon to shatter the Soul King who truly knows what is best for all the universe. If I disappear, so does the universe. They did not succeed, but it is treason of the highest order that the Gotei sent them to try. Perhaps I should punish the Gotei.”
“They’re alive,” Orihime whispered to Uryuu. “Do you feel their reiatsu?”
“Of course they’re alive,” Aizen continued. “Ishida-san, what I need for you to do is take out your little bow and arrow and destroy them while they are this vulnerable. Do this and you will be my royal right hand. Fail to do this, and I will kill Inoue-san.”
Orihime put her hand on Uryuu’s upper arm, her hand reddening with his blood. “Do what’s right. You said it yourself. He can’t defeat us. Even if… “Her voice was steady. “Even if we die.”
Uryuu turned to her and searched her eyes. He kissed her mouth lightly, and turning back without another word to Orihime, faced Aizen.
“I refuse,” he told Aizen. “I refuse to shoot my arrow at my friends.”
“Very well,” sighed Aizen. “Your principles are interesting and I would like to see if— “
“Hahahaha,” came a booming voice. “You really are a motherfucking sonofabitch, and look at Soul Society not sending anyone to help. Cheap bastards.”
“Ichigo’s father.” Aizen folded his arms. “You realize I saw you coming in all your ineptitude.”
Isshin pulled out his zanpakutou. “Ban-kai.”
Isshin put his finger in his ear and wiggled it, as if something itched there. Then he stuck it in his nose, as if about to tug a booger out. In the next second, blood was flowing from his ears and nostrils and not pouring in a natural direction but flying of its own accord to cover the blade of his sword. In the next moment, blood was running down his face like tears. “Flare, Wave of the Sun.”
The motion from his zanpakutou was in the form of a Getsuga and it cut a canyon in Aizen’s direction that was narrow but seemed to go deeper than the eye could measure, black and smoldering for miles. Sparks of red shone in blackness like rubies. Then the canyon filled with bubbling blood; steam rose from the dark redness.
“No one go near it,” warned Isshin. “It’s a million degrees.”
Aizen had been shot back miles by the bloody attack. There was no sign of Aizen.
Until there was.
Aizen walked over the gaping hole in the earth as if he were stepping on an invisible bridge of glass that covered the canyon. “I knew that your ban kai depleted your body somehow. Too bad that it’s the last time you’ll use it. It’s a decent ban kai.” Aizen held up his fingers and wiggled them. “This is too easy.”
Isshin dropped dead where he stood.
“And as for you, my principled Quincy, your principles have consequences.”
Orihime fell, first against Uryuu’s shoulder then onto his lap. He looked at her then up at Aizen; Uryuu’s expression was one of blank shock, and his chest was heaving.
“Two dead, and then there will be three.” Uryuu’s bow materialized in Aizen’s right hand. “I’ve never shot one of these,” he said, “but I contain the Quincy king, and unlike you, Ishida-san, I will know how to fire these with the proper arm. How will it feel like to be slain by your own weapon? Is that justice enough for your insubordination?”
“You think you can rule with fear,” Ishida Uryuu said. His voice did not waver. “You are not a true ruler. I’m not afraid of you.”
“Is that so?” Aizen drew back the bow.
Uryuu stared at Aizen with steely blue eyes.
The arrow flew, in real time, taking the arc of its natural course over the garden and towards Ishida Uryuu’s heart.
- Tug Your God Out
“Ishida Ryuuken,” said the Quincy. “Uryuu is not your only blind spot. How do you guess Yhwach did not know of my existence either?”
Aizen looked the man over. “I’ve seen you before. I’ve heard stories. I’m surprised, to be honest, by this display of sentiment towards your son.” Aizen rubbed his chin. “I rather like you.”
“I don’t care,” said Ishida Ryuuken.
“I’d prefer you as my Royal companion in this world over your son. You’re more mature and sensible and not burdened with such nonsense as Quincy principles.”
Isshin sat up and stretched his arms. Orihime sat up and put her arms around Uryuu.
“I killed them in all future timelines,” Aizen was staring at Uryuu. “What did you do?”
“My timelines.” Uryuu responded. “You can’t see them so you target them imperfectly. You left a space for my shrift to reach two others in in one timeline who moments ago were ravaged with fatal disease and on the brink of death. Two people I know from my hospital. They’re dead now. Orihime and Kurosaki’s father revived there.”
“I admit I was testing you.” Aizen shrugged. “You have a curious ability, but it would have been of no consequence to me if you failed. And it’s been mere entertainment to me that you’ve prolonged the lives of your friends.”
There was a sudden roaring sound from the statue of Ichigo and Rukia, two shapes in black and white, arrested in mid-spin.
Aizen looked at Uryuu who was holding Orihime close to his chest. “You?” he asked with doubt in his voice.
Uryuu shook his head.
Sode no Shirayuki went to a future where the hougyoku was displeased with Aizen, Rukia told Ichigo with her mind. The hougyoku remembers her. They went skipping across rivers, one after another, so fast I couldn’t see them but I know what we have to do.
All Ichigo knew was that his reiatsu was replenishing and the kidou was broken; the spell on time had fractured, and the present was active again. He and Rukia completed a spin and landed on their feet.
“You can create as many futures as you want,” Aizen said. “You can’t defeat me.”
Everyone—Isshin still on the floor and rubbing his head in bewilderment, Uryuu and Orihime clinging to one another as the reiatsu from Ichigo’s flames started to rise and fan gusts of wind, Ryuuken holding his crossbow by his side and on guard for any moment he could take advantage of, and Aizen, his expression a little less bemused and more confused now—stared at Ichigo and Rukia as they began their dance again. It was a dance older than Time, now infused with the future.
Rukia’s deadly ice sphere rolled like a planet in the waves of Ichigo’s hellish reiatsu. It looked like no more than a display of power for the moment, but the immense beauty of the contrasting shapes, the vibrant dark and light hypnotized those who witnessed it. Even Aizen, familiar with all the tricks of mesmerism, could not look away, fascinated with the spinning forms. He sensed the timelines that were being created because of the evolving power of this dance, but he could not hear the consciousness inside.
You can’t stop the future, Rukia said, but here, outside this window, fling an arm of your reiatsu around a few of these timelines and lasso them, catch them and tie them up as if they were ribbons. They are not really living rivers. They’re possibilities. Catch them, Ichigo. Hold them so Aizen can’t access them, if only for now.
Ichigo’s black flames shot heavenward with a great exploding noise. His soul ached. It’s done, Rukia.
Now, catch me! Rukia leapt into Ichigo’s arms, and he twirled her around, while in her wake the one ball of white power at absolute zero became separate and distinct from her body; it doubled itself, then tripled, then became twelve spheres of brightness that orbited the two Shinigami as they spun.
Aizen put up his palm and pushed the pair a mile away.
The silence was terrible; the roaring of Ichigo’s reiatsu had been that loud; everyone waited for the inevitable
In the next moment, the pair was back again, at what appeared to be a cautious distance from non-combatants, no longer spinning, but the moons still circling within their candle of power and Ichigo’s black reiatsu now a single flame, higher than ever, its single point barely flickering. Ichigo and Rukia stood there, a monument of life and death, all forces and all anti-forces, and cast no weapon against Aizen.
Aizen’s chest split apart with a splat.
There was no blood, but the flesh continued to rip like a straight seam unraveling from the top of his thorax to his bellybutton. The hougyoku, larger now, the size of a kid’s volleyball but as iridescent and lovely as ever, flew out of Aizen and hovered in front of him, spinning slowing, as if taking in its surroundings, as if hesitant to fly further.
“Reject it now!” Aizen ordered Orihime. He took a step back, not defeated, clutching his chest, his eyes insistent that the future he saw held victory. “Reject it now, Inoue-san, and I will give you back your lost child, Kazui, the boy you loved so dearly. I will give you back a future with the only man you ever loved, your Kurosaki-kun.”
Orihime’s mouth was open in horror.
“Look, I’ll show you the future,” Aizen waved his hand.
Orihime gasped and covered her eyes. She doubled over in sobs.
The right hand Aizen had raised to initiate his theatrics was missing. It had detached from his body in a split second and was nowhere to be seen. When he looked again he saw the rest of his arm travelling in the direction of Ichigo and Rukia. The arm was wafting in the breeze like a lost handkerchief on a spring day. It was caught in the spiral of Ichigo’s black reiatsu and gone.
“Your future, Inoue-san,” Aizen said in a panicky voice. “Your child.”
“Aizen is being absorbed by the Shinigami,” Ryuuken observed. “It’s only a matter of time.” He shot his son a look of concern, though, as if he expected Uryuu to do something reckless.
“Woman!” Aizen shouted. “You can replace me. You can have your heart’s desire because you …”
Aizen’s only answer was Orihime’s crying in Uryuu’s lap while Uryuu stroked her hair.
Aizen’s voice became calm again. “Look how the hougyoku wants to see you happy. See, I’ve made the bad movie stop. Now, if your insane friends want to topple the worlds and get everyone killed, all you have to do is summon all your power and will me back. The way you did with my thumb. You can do it, my sweet, innocent princess. The reward for such an act would be heaven itself.”
Isshin was getting to his feet. “Will you listen to this bullshit, Ryuuken? You think that’s why Soul Society didn’t send reinforcements? Because everyone knew about this guy’s— “
“Nooo!” Aizen reached with the one arm he had left as the hougyoku flew away from him and directly into one of the white moons of death riding Ichigo’s undulating blackness.
“Is it destroyed?” asked Orihime in a voice that was shaky with tears.
“I think it became part of them,” Uryuu said.
Aizen dropped to his knees. “I am the chosen one, not them. They are children.”
“Bakudou 61,” came a low voice. “Rikujoukourou.” Tessai was standing next to Ryuuken, and Aizen was caught at the chest by six broad silver rods. The pressure of the rods squished shut the gaping hole in Aizen’s torso. There was no expression of pain or defeat on the Soul King’s face, not even resignation.
“Soul Society did send someone.” Ryuuken withdrew his bow. It disappeared with a whoosh into his sleeve.
“Not legally,” said Tessai. “The Captain Commander contacted my boss.”
“It’s really a whole new world,” said Ryuuken. “At least Kisuke didn’t come himself. His antics would have only prolonged this spectacle.”
Tessai pulled out what looked like a simple roll of masking tape from his shop apron and snapped it like a whip to unwind it. The long black tape spun of its own accord around Aizen’s remaining limbs and carried the man backwards, a few dozen feet, to his royal throne. There, still held by rikujoukourou, Aizen was easily bound. The black strips wrapped around his body, securing him from his neck to the ankles to the royal throne.
“The orders were to take you alive,” Tessai said. “To bring you back to Muken. There is no reason, so I was told, that the Soul King cannot serve his purpose from the Central Great Underground Prison instead of the Royal Realm, but it’s up to the administrative people to decide your sentence.”
“I’ve done nothing wrong,” Aizen said.
Orihime’s orb had healed Uryuu while Aizen was being captured. The monument of power that was Ichigo and Rukia had not moved and neither had the others who were standing around, but Uryuu walked to the throne and stood close enough to the bound figure to look Aizen directly in the eye.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re found guilty or innocent,” Uryuu said, blue eyes ablaze. “It doesn’t matter if you are guilty or innocent. Like the Soul King before you, you’re not immortal. You no longer possess the hougyoku.”
Aizen looked at the young man and his own brown eyes softened, his expression approaching tenderness. “Yes, I know,” he said. “You would have made a good prince in the Royal Realm. I see a future for you in which you advance health and prosperity in the Living World.”
“And you see your own death? In Muken?”
“Interesting. Did you see it, Ishida-san?”
“No, I don’t have the gift of foresight or the ability to travel into the future—my shrift can extend to a future event if I deduce it from a current one but my own consciousness can’t go there. I was merely presuming that dying in prison would be your fate.”
“It is.” Aizen still did not look defeated. “Tell your friends, Ichigo and Kuchiki-san, to finish absorbing me. I won’t spend the rest of my days in this chair.”
Uryuu understood. There was no pity in him for the man for made the request, but he would honor the request nonetheless.
Uryuu walked to Orihime and took her hand. It was long walk back to where Ichigo and Rukia stood, their own bodies barely perceptible as he held her high by the waist, their energy still fueling their spectacular candle of black and white, the atmosphere around them crackling with danger. Uryuu walked with Orihime, not wanting to be far from her, but at some point he realized they were walking towards divine devastation; the power became suffocating, and he felt they might faint from the reiatsu if they got too close. He stood in front of Orihime, told her to stay where she was, and stepped only a few yards closer, the reiatsu from the black flames lifting his hair over his ears and filling his shirtsleeves as if he stood in typhoon winds. He heard his father shouting at him “Uryuu, what the hell are you doing? Get away from there. It’s over!”
Uryuu cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted, “Kurosaki! Kuchiki-san! Can you hear me? Aizen told me to tell you he wants you to absorb the rest of him. He says….” The black flames from Ichigo’s reiatsu were throwing sparks in the wind and Uryuu dodged them. “He doesn’t want to die in prison.”
Ichigo, can we do this?
Rukia, I don’t see another way. He’s a terrible Soul King. We have to take over the job.
Will we still be ourselves?
I think yes and no. Aizen will be gone but look at us now; we already have some of his powers. Rukia, it will be ok.
You said he doesn’t want to be lonely, and the hougyoku knows he doesn’t want to be lonely.
If he dies now, it’s the end of loneliness.
The roaring noise started again, and Uryuu and Orihime started to run away. They didn’t need to do that—no attack from the giant candle, no specific threat emanated, but back at Aizen’s throne, parts of the Soul King’s body were breaking off and blowing away again—a piece of shoulder, a foot, an ear.
“It’s better like this,” Isshin said to Tessai. “Less work for everyone. He could’ve escaped again.”
“None of you understand,” Aizen whispered to no one. “I’m escaping right now.” His legs flew away and were spun into the reiatsu of the new king and queen. “I am becoming immortal again.” The bonds on his torso loosened and his upper body rose out of the throne.
Aizen, unbound once more.
He floated in the air, still speaking as he flew to his end. “I don’t mind. It was a good show after all. All rivers lead to the same ocean of forgetfulness.”
His body entered the very top of the high flame sideways and caused it to bend for a moment; as Aizen burned, a compression of blackness caused a thin line of smoke to escape, and then the flame stood erect again, unwavering, as if nothing had happened.
Then the roar from the black flames stopped, and the silence throughout the Royal Realm was profound. The blackness and whiteness, the lapping flames and spinning moons slowed, disappearing without any drama, and before anyone could say anything, Ichigo and Rukia were standing side by side in their Shinigami clothes looking like two ordinary people. As if nothing had happened.
From the distance, the expressions of the new Soul King and Queen were unreadable. They were merely standing there.
“Time to head back soon,” Isshin said to Ryuuken. “We might get our names in a Soul Society report and have to go testify in some stupid— “
“No rush,” came the reply, and Ryuuken pulled out a cigarette. “The Royal Guard know we’re here. But I don’t think your son the Soul King will bother involving you in unnecessary judicial nonsense.” The flame from his lighter was floundering wildly in the wind. It took him two tries to get a proper light. He inhaled deeply, and noticed that his own fingers were trembling slightly. “I’m getting too old for this shit, Uryuu,” he muttered, knowing his son was out of earshot. “Two years, tops, you take over the hospital. Two years.”
- King and Queen
Soul Society was at a loss on how to deal with their new Soul King and Queen at first; examinations at the 12th division showed that the hougyoku had split into two separate spheres, one lodged in Rukia’s chest and the other lodged in Ichigo’s. “I have all of my former captain’s data on the hougyoku,” Akon said, “but I may have to consult with the captain before him, Urahara Kisuke, in the Living World, on this matter.”
“There’s no need for that,” Rukia had said. “We understand what’s inside us better than anyone else. There’s no seal on our power. The hougyoku allows for us to do what we need to do, and it understands that gradual change in the external worlds makes for the best kind of change.”
Meetings were called, one after another. Despite all their omniscience and strength, the new Soul King and Queen were, in the words of Captain Ukitake, very young spirits and uneducated in the ways of all worlds. He suggested that they not only needed to review history but learn about current events and cultures of the worlds they ruled. Their ability to watch the past through close proximity with individuals required interaction with as many beings as possible in order to gain information. In fact, Ukitake insisted, Ichigo and Rukia needed to interact with as many Soul Society inhabitants, Living World humans and other world beings as possible. “I would like to keep them as serving lieutenants,” Ukitake said, “and add that they act as ambassadors to all worlds—to Hueco Mundo and beyond when necessary, because unlike previous Soul Kings, they appear to have the will and capacity to initiate substantial reforms.”
Ichibe wanted to continue their training in the Royal Realm every three months.
Every July 15th Ichigo said he and Rukia would visit the Living World for his birthday and the Obon and explore other parts of the earth. Certain months could be designated for travel to other realms.
And so it was decreed.
Ichigo and Rukia’s barracks in the 13th division remained modest for rulers of the universe, and the two were expected to join in routine military exercises and take turns cleaning the floors or cutting up bread for Ukitake’s lake friends.
For their first nights back at their usual home, Ichigo and Rukia desired (as any young couple who had been through an exceptional experience that had bonded their souls together for eternity and granted them new super-powers) to have non-stop sex.
Their previous times had been overwhelmingly romantic, as if they were wooing one another’s inexperience and bestowing respect for their broken pasts. Now, their kisses were fervent, and Ichigo was unafraid of tossing Rukia around the way he did when they were in their ultimate forms because he sensed her strength and desire. He loved the way her body bucked against his. He would moan; she would grab his hair and cry out.
Ukitake always slept deeply, but other 13th division soldiers were frightened, not aroused, by the sounds of the love-making of the Gods Most High.
After a year had passed, the wedding was held in the wintertime, in the very courtyard of the Royal Realm where Aizen had been destroyed. The memories of that event added a solemnity that balanced the joy. Duality in all things, everyone understood. The brightness of the early morning light fell over the snow and the empty, sleeping garden.
Ichigo’s human friends had been invited and fitted with special wardrobes by Shutara to withstand the overwhelming reiatsu that might have crushed them had they stood in the atmosphere for more than ten minutes. Shutara, in fact, designed outfits for everyone. Urahara Kisuke looked impossibly handsome in a modern black suit with a simple green tie and green handkerchief in his breast-pocket. Yoruichi at his side wore a sleeveless golden dress that, with a shining train behind her, looked like jewels pouring wherever she walked. Tessai was dressed in modern attire, a deep maroon suit with a green tie, and the Urahara Shouten children, Eri now an adolescent with shiny black hair past her waist and Ururu and Jinta only slightly taller, wore simple but dazzling formal wear.
“Do you like your dress?” Orihime asked Tatsuki.
“For a dress,” Tatsuki said. She was wearing a red, floor-length gown. “For Ichigo, I’ll wear a dress. For good eats after this thing, I’ll wear a dress. This gigai is a little itchy, though.”
Orihime and Uryuu’s wedding was a little delayed. Uryuu had passed the Licensing Board Examination, but had yet to choose a specialty because he excelled at everything. He was leaning towards cardiac surgery and would have to take a licensing exam for that. Meanwhile, Orihime had decided to go to chef’s school for a patisserie certificate. She was dressed in pink, and her betrothed was dressed in Quincy blue. “I want a small wedding,” she whispered to him. “We can fit a lot of people in your father’s house, and I can make a lot of cupcakes, but I think too many people would take away from … what’s just about me and you, do you know what I mean?”
Of course he did. “This wedding, on the other hand,” Uryuu said, “has to be gigantic. It’s a formal initiation of the new Soul King and Queen as well as a wedding.”
There were hundreds of people standing in rows, Shinigami in uniform, representatives from Hueco Mundo that included Grimmjow in a sleek white bodysuit with gold accents (that kept getting compared by humans to what someone named “Elvis” would wear but when told “Elvis” was a king, Grimmjow was no longer annoyed), Neliel in a skin-tight green dress that like Yoruichi’s had a train, and the Queen of Hueco Mundo herself, Harribel, wearing a long white cloak that covered her entire body except for a cut-out around her tawny breasts and an oval around her eyes through which some yellow hair showed. Her entourage, also in white, stood behind her.
The Royal Guard stood facing the hundreds as Rukia and Ichigo made their way towards them.
There was no processional music, only the whistling wind of winter, no falling snow. The trees of the garden were bare, and the plants all dormant.
Ichigo wore a groom’s traditional black kimono with pleated hakama and Rukia stepped forward in a white embroidered kimono without the traditional headdress which was said to symbolize submission. Her waist-length black hair was braided into five thin strands entwined with white ribbons. As she passed the row of participants, she saw Renji up ahead, standing next to Kotetsu Isane, Captain of the 4th Division. She caught a vision of their future and past. When she strode by Renji’s shoulder, she couldn’t help but whisper, “What, Renji? You found a woman who’s as tall as you are? That works out nicely.”
She could hear both Isane and Renji sputtering behind her. She passed Inoue and Ishida, saw them both working with their powers to make the Living World a safer place, Inoue a little too eagerly and causing murmurs in the news about space aliens interfering in major cities, and Ishida using the hospital as their secret base of operations. Rukia saw a future of cupcakes, two children who ate cupcakes daily, and oh there was still Tsubaki nestled in Inoue’s cinnamon-colored hair and Grandpa Ryuuken warned the kids never to piss their mother off, that she had the power to slice bad little children in half. Rukia and Ichigo continued to make their way to the Royal Guard.
There, Ichibe pronounced words and handed Ichigo and Rukia a single glass of sake from which to drink. Isshin’s sentimental sobs broke the ethereal quiet of the surroundings, and Shutara stepped forward and asked the couple to bow. She held two wreaths, the only live greenery in sight, with flowers that bloomed in this season and were often used in ritual ceremonies to represent divinity and beauty. She placed the wreaths, first on the bowed orange head and then on the smaller black head, and right away the camellias glowed brighter with a florescent brightness, lit like lawn ornaments. There were audible oohs and ahhs from the crowd.
“What happened?” Ichigo whispered to Rukia, head still bowed.
“I think our crowns just turned on,” Rukia said.
Ichibe explained that the flowers, their stems, and their leaves would never die; they were royal head-dresses designed by Shutara. And after the cake, the joking around with friends, after putting up their eternal white camellia wreaths on top of closet shelves in their barracks. Rukia and Ichigo realized that they too were immortal and talked about what that really meant. They would watch generations come and go, see their friends die and be reborn, learn to understand that they themselves were at the center of the cycle of reincarnation.
“I don’t know if I can get to that understanding,” Ichigo sighed. “How long will that take? I might be all divine and everything, but I’m not that smart. It feels like being trapped inside a poem sometimes; I can feel it, I can almost get it, but it doesn’t quite make sense. At least not yet.”
“Can’t you see the future?” Rukia whispered. “There’s so much time. There’s forever.”
“That’s what I mean,” Ichigo said. “I don’t understand forever.”
“You understand our love, and that is forever,” Rukia assured him, and she nestled into his arms. “Our bond will never be broken, so it will be fine.”
“Fine?” He wanted to argue. “There’s just so much— “
She closed her eyes. “Go to sleep.”
“Fine,” He conceded. The sun was going down. The moon was rising. Forever didn’t have to make sense yet. Her small head fit into a place between his upper arm and chest the way old worlds must rest with perfect wisdom before they are reborn. Maybe she knew something he didn’t. Maybe he knew something he wasn’t aware he knew yet. It had been an exciting ceremonial dress-up day. Tomorrow would be another day, not as fancy, but just as fine.
Note—I address other 686 issues, like Chad’s boxing, in my “Ishida Family in 28 Tales” fic which will be posted after Nov. 1, 2016.