Author: Sariniste PM
What is the truth behind Aizen's illusions? Why is he interested in Ichigo? An alternate version of Bleach after Ichigo's defeat of Aizen in manga chapter 420. Can Aizen be trusted? And what is the secret of Ichigo's future and the nature of the Spirit Realm? Primarily an adventure story centered on Ichigo with a slow-building romance between Aizen & Ichigo, rated T. COMPLETE.Rated: Fiction T - English - Adventure/Fantasy - Ichigo K. & S. Aizen - Chapters: 32 - Words: 131,982 - Reviews: 1,126 - Favs: 254 - Follows: 244 - Updated: 10-29-12 - Published: 09-19-10 - Status: Complete - id: 6336596
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Illusion – Chap. 22
(Originally posted 5/12/12.)
Ichigo lay full-length in the mud, in heavy undergrowth, peering out at the darkened city spread beneath him, fires dotting the buildings here and there. A sudden breeze parted his hair, and with it the acrid scent of burning seared his lungs. Faint screams and calls drifted on the breeze and Ichigo shuddered. He wondered again at how his life had changed in less than twelve hours. Only a few hours before, there had been calm and measured discussions of strategy and plans of attack from inside the elegant, massive Kuchiki fortress… and now, before the sun had even risen over Soul Society, they were besieging the central district of Seireitei itself. There was a roar below and renewed flames burst out from one of the buildings. Ichigo felt his heart clench at the sight, and questioned again if he was doing the right thing.
When he had seen the plans and diagrams outlined on the boards in the meetings earlier, it had all seemed so simple and clear… but now he wondered if he was just having another bad dream like the one he had had earlier this afternoon.
The room shook, once, as though from a heavy impact. There was a rumbling in the corridor outside his room, and then a frantic pounding on his door. "Ichigo! Ichigo, wake up!"
Ichigo opened his eyes abruptly. The loud knocking on his door continued. At the same time, he heard Aizen's voice in his mind. —Ichigo. You need to wake up. The next meeting is starting.
Ichigo sat up, the room swimming around him. His eyes felt like they had been dipped in sand. At the renewed knocking, he forced himself to throw the covers off. Still groggy, he swung his legs out of bed and pushed himself upright. One of his legs buckled underneath him and he almost fell. He caught himself against a table and called out, "Coming!" to the person at the door. His leg was cramping and he rubbed his calf as he tried to bring himself to full consciousness. —What's going on? What happened? he asked Aizen.
—What happened? Aizen's voice was unperturbed. —Nothing really. Simply more discussions where your input is needed.
—What about that … impact to the castle? I felt another attack…
He felt Aizen's headshake. —Ichigo, nothing has happened. Were you asleep and dreaming?
Ichigo put a hand to his head. —Yeah, I guess so, he mumbled. He forced his eyes open. He felt like he was moving through molasses. Why was it so hard to wake up? He felt like he was drugged or something. He needed to get downstairs and maybe have a cup of coffee. He rubbed his eyes and tried standing up one more time. This time his legs held him. He opened the door to see one of the castle servants eying him.
"Yeah," he said, forestalling the other's words. "I know. There's another meeting."
Soon afterward, Ichigo found himself once again sitting through a long meeting in the vast dining hall. Standing at the front of the hall, Byakuya nodded crisply. "Thank you for that excellent tactical analysis, Abarai-fukutaichou."
Renji sat down again at the long table, radiating satisfaction at the praise from his captain, and there were snatches of conversation around the table. Ichigo sighed. He was less tired after catching an hour of sleep and grabbing a large mug of coffee, but he was still having a hard time keeping himself awake as the meeting stretched out into the late afternoon.
Byakuya continued, "For the next item on the agenda, Aizen-taichou, could you please explain to us how we can use the King's Key that you have in your possession."
At the mention of Aizen's name, Ichigo sat up, wide awake, a jolt of electricity going through him. It secretly thrilled him to have an excuse to look at the handsome, brown-haired shinigami as he stood with the grace of a panther and moved to the front of the room.
Aizen directed a charming smile at the entire group and ran a hand through his casually tousled hair. "Thank you, Kuchiki-taichou. As you all know, entry into the spirit realm is not governed by the same physical laws as passage between Soul Society and the human world, nor those of Hueco Mundo. In fact, entrance to that dimension is highly restricted." His gaze traveled around the faces of those sitting around the table. All eyes were trained on his. Ichigo could feel the attention quivering in the audience. They all were, it seemed, quite intrigued by the mystery of the King's Key.
"Not only does it require the use of a singularly powerful object," Aizen continued, "but the entry ritual must take place at a particular location." He paused, glancing around the room again. "I do not know how much you all are aware of the lore of the Ouken. Calling it a 'key' is something of a misnomer. In actuality, it is a piece of primal spirit matter that came into existence when the worlds were first created. You are no doubt cognizant that all matter in the universe has souls. The Ouken has an exceptionally dense and powerful soul for such a small object. Indeed," he said, glancing briefly at Ichigo, "its soul energy is equivalent to roughly one hundred thousand human souls."
Aizen's lips curled in a smile that held a hint of darkness. "There is a book in Central 46's library that contains the mistranslation that to create the Ouken requires one hundred thousand lives." He shook his head. "A complete fabrication. I do not even believe the Ouken can be duplicated with the technology we have today. Handling raw spirit matter is an extraordinarily difficult task. The creation of the Hougyoku, the other object we know of made of primal spirit matter, looks like child's play in comparison."
"But you read that book in the library before your— departure from Soul Society," challenged Rukia. Ichigo looked at her frowning face and sighed. Rukia had been going to great lengths to point out to him anything she could think of to remind him of Aizen's dubious behavior, ever since she had realized there was something going on between the two of them. It was distressing to have his dear friend be so opposed to his… choice of companions, and he was concerned that she was about to "do something" about his relationship with Aizen. Rukia could be like a force of nature and he really didn't want to be her target. Not when he had so many other things going on.
Aizen smiled calmly at the petite black-haired shinigami. "Indeed. I wanted my reiatsu traces to be left on that particular text." His smile deepened. "Merely another piece of misdirection."
"Why would you do that?" demanded Rukia.
Aizen raised his eyebrows at her insistence. "As I have previously explained, it was part of the setup to distract the usurper and his spies in Soul Society."
"But did you have to set it up so that Nii-sama took Gin's blade in his side?" she grumbled.
Byakuya stirred and frowned at Rukia quellingly. "That's enough. I am healed and there is no longer any need for animosity on anyone's part." She subsided with a stormy look on her face as Byakuya turned back to Aizen and asked, "Where is the King's Key now?"
The brown-haired shinigami showed no hint of distress or guilt at the direction the questions had taken. "It must be held within an inter-dimensional shield, to keep it from interacting with and destroying the fabric of the world around it. There is a complicated process to access and control it, which I was taught as a member of the Royal Guard."
Ichigo noticed that Aizen had failed to answer Byakuya's question. He glanced at the noble, wondering if he would push Aizen on that point.
But before he could say anything, Aizen continued smoothly. "At this time, the Ouken is outside this dimension, so it has no physical location. But rest assured, I can access it from any point in Soul Society and draw it to me. However, it makes most sense to delay that procedure until we are at the specific location where we can enter the spirit dimension."
Aizen paused, and Byakuya frowned. "Where is that location?"
The brown-haired shinigami turned and regarded Byakuya calmly. "The true secret of the spirit palace is that it can only be breached from one particular location within Soul Society. That location lies within the headquarters of squad one; indeed, from within a specific chamber in the captain-commander's suite."
Byakuya's eyes widened.
"You see," Aizen continued, "Seireitei and its defenses are largely placed to protect the spirit palace, as it is the source of energy and existence for all of our worlds. It must be protected heavily because destroying the spirit palace would demolish Soul Society, Hueco Mundo, and the world of the living. Thus, we need to take down Seireitei's defenses, then overwhelm the particular defenses at squad one, before we can even use the spirit key." He leaned back and his gaze passed over the people sitting at the table. "In other words, we need to take possession of Seireitei in order to send our army through to brace the usurper in the spirit domain."
As he closed the door of his small room with a click, Ichigo grimaced with exhaustion. The strategy meeting had gone on a long time, but they had finally come to a decision on their plan of attack, and Byakuya had assigned everybody to their positions in the upcoming battle. Now, at last, Ichigo could catch some sleep before their midnight departure. He was about to turn down the covers of his bed and slip underneath the blankets fully clothed when there was a knock at the door.
Sighing, Ichigo opened it to see Shinji standing there, twirling his cap around his finger, a jaunty grin beneath his pageboy cut.
"Hey. Can I come in, Ichigo? It's been a while since we had a talk."
Resigned, Ichigo nodded politely, standing to one side so Shinji could enter his small room.
The Vizard looked around at the tiny room crowded with two narrow beds. "Ya know, being the future king an' all, they really shoulda given ya a better room."
Ichigo scowled as he sat on the bed. "You know I don't give a shit about that kind of thing. I'm happy to leave the bigger rooms to the families."
Shinji slid him a sideways glance. "Of course, not all of those grand rooms have gone to families. There are a few noble—or not so noble— bastards who've taken them for themselves." He gave Ichigo a pointed stare as he took a seat on the unoccupied bed that had been Ishida's.
To his chagrin, Ichigo found himself blushing again as he thought of Aizen claiming that huge suite… and the vast bed inside. Dammit, why did he always have to react that way? He scowled more fiercely and crossed his arms. "Yeah? I wouldn't know."
Shinji narrowed his eyes. "I think you do, Ichigo, and as a matter of fact, that's what I'm here to talk to you about."
"Oh yeah?" Ichigo asked warily. Was Shinji going to tell him to order Aizen out of that room? It seemed like a petty thing, now that they were all supposed to be allies.
"Yeah." Shinji folded his cap between his hands and set it on the blankets beside him. "Ichigo, I couldn't help but notice that you and Aizen seem to be spending a lot of time together. Even though I've only been here two days, the two of you are always together, or looking at each other, or—" He broke off, not wanting to mention the times he'd seen Ichigo entering Aizen's suite.
The blush was almost reaching the youth's eyes now. Ichigo could feel his face burning red. "So?" He glowered at the blond. "He's the royal tutor. He's the only one who can teach me what I need to know now." Why was Shinji always so goddamn perceptive, Ichigo groused to himself. He really didn't need this now.
Shinji shook his head slowly. "Ichigo, that's not what I mean and you know it. Listen, I don't want to tell you how to live your personal life, but…" He gave a long exhale. "I just think you should be careful."
Ichigo folded his arms and scowled. "I am careful… or as careful as I can be in the middle of a war to save the world from destruction."
"No… I mean, hasn't it occurred to you that it's possible that Aizen is trying to get close to you from other than the purest of motives?"
Ichigo's brows drew together over his eyes. "What do you mean?"
Shinji picked up his cap and spun it idly on his finger as his gaze shifted up to a corner of the room. "Look." He hesitated, then dropped the cap on his knees and turned back to face Ichigo, all traces of a smile gone from his face. "He claimed he wanted to kill the spirit king and rule the worlds. In other words, he tried to take the position that's rightfully yours. But he failed. Now he's reappeared, claiming he's been on your side all along. But now, instead of fighting the king, he's wriggling his way into your heart."
Ichigo glared, speechless for a moment. Then he opened his mouth for a retort. Shinji held up a hand to stop him. "Just hear me out for a moment, okay?" Ichigo fumed as the Vizard continued. "Just as a hypothetical idea. Suppose you were Aizen, and you wanted to rule everything, but your first try failed. Don't you think you'd plot your way to power again? You know he makes up elaborate plots practically in his sleep. Why wouldn't he think to himself, if the direct attack failed, let's try the sneak attack. He's charming and attractive as all get-out, and he knows how to use it. So. He seduces his way into your good graces. Once you're sitting on the spirit throne, he takes his place as your con—" Staring at the darkening clouds on Ichigo's face, Shinji changed his tack mid-word. "…counselor and advisor. From there, he's as good as the ruler himself."
Ichigo could bear it no longer. He stood up, jabbing his finger into Shinji's face. "No, you listen to me for a change! You claim you've sworn loyalty to me as your king, but you still don't trust my judgment! Don't you think I still have a conscience, even if Aizen doesn't, and that I'm not such a weakling that I'll end up as his puppet? If you don't trust me in my choice of advisors, then you might as well not be my ally," he added bitterly.
Shinji spread his hands, attempting to placate, as Ichigo growled, "I'm sick of everyone questioning everybody else. All this petty bickering among all my so-called allies! You should know better of all people, Shinji! Soul Society cast you out for no good reason."
"And Urahara brought us back," Shinji reminded him. "And he's on the other side in this war."
"Yeah! So why are you even bothering to follow me if you don't trust my decisions?" Ichigo demanded.
Shinji stood up and faced Ichigo, his voice raised in frustration. "It's not that I don't trust your decisions. I don't trust Aizen, and I don't trust the influence he has over you! Don't you see you're not being rational? You're furious and you're jumping to his defense without thinking, even though what I'm saying is kinda logical. Come on! You know the man has no morals whatsoever. Regardless of what happened or not on that night a hundred years ago, Aizen himself admitted that he doesn't care about ethics. Why would a man like that choose to become close to the future king?"
When Ichigo only stared at him in furious silence, Shinji added, "And not just close as an advisor. Why is he trying to form…" He hesitated, then finished delicately, "an emotional bond with you?"
Ichigo's eyes were burning with rage. "So it couldn't be because he likes my company. It couldn't be because he has feelings for me. Am I such a jerk that it's hard to believe anyone could like me for myself and not for my position?"
Shinji closed his eyes and let out a long sigh. "That's not what I mean." There was a long pause. Then he opened his eyes and grinned. "Although," he said, smirking, "when you act all hostile like this it's hard to see—"
Ichigo narrowed his eyes. His hands clenched into fists. "You bastard—"
Shinji held up a hand, placating. "Okay, okay. I'm sorry. I'm just trying to get you to think with your brain and not with your hormones for a minute. Can't you admit that Aizen might have an ulterior motive? I'm not saying he does for sure. I'm just asking you to consider it, and to be careful around him. Don't just mindlessly follow everything he says."
Tight-lipped, Ichigo ground out, "I don't follow everything he says."
Shinji backed away, both hands up. "Okay. That's good. Just keep that in mind, okay? I'm just trying to look out for you. Aizen's been manipulating people for hundreds of years. Including me," he said with a rueful twist of his lips.
He stared at the furious Ichigo for a long moment, then let out a sigh and picked up his cap. "I'll stop bothering you now. But please, just think about it. I know you can take care of yourself, but just think about the kind of advantage a man who's over two centuries old can have over an eighteen-year-old." He sidled to the door, opened it, and stood in the opening. "Hey. I'm your friend. I swear, I'm looking out for your best interests. Think about what your friends have done for you, what others have done for you… and consider whether you've ever seen Aizen do anything unselfish in his life."
Then he was gone, leaving Ichigo alone in the room, staring at the empty bed as a pale shaft of moonlight fell on it from behind the clouds. The youth clenched his fists, all thought of sleep gone out of his head. He watched the square of moonlight slowly dim, its sharp edges on the blanket fading, as clouds covered the moon.
When it had been time to awaken for the midnight departure, Ichigo had slept on, unable to come to consciousness despite repeated shakings from castle servants. Finally, they had sent for Byakuya, who had called Aizen.
The brown-haired shinigami looked fresh and alert as usual. He had traded his Las Noches robes for a form-fitting black outfit. Kyouka Suigetsu hung at his waist, but he also wore a belt upon which what looked like other weapons were hung. As the servants waited outside, he entered Ichigo's room and placed one hand on his head. A pulse of kidou, and the boy was sitting up, blinking. Aizen smiled at him and handed him a cup of steaming coffee.
Gratefully, Ichigo lifted the cup to his lips and took a large gulp. Aizen turned his hand palm upwards. In the center of his palm was a small white pill. "Here. Swallow this as well."
Ichigo frowned at Aizen in suspicion. "What is it?"
The former traitor smirked. "It's a stimulant that is widely used in many military forces in the world of the living. Believe me, you need it for the battle ahead."
Ichigo scowled at the tiny pill cupped in his hand. "Is it safe?"
Aizen laughed. "Safer than getting your head chopped off because you've fallen asleep in battle."
Ichigo snorted, but he put the pill in his mouth and washed it down with another gulp of coffee. Aizen gave him a reassuring smile. "Take ten minutes to get ready, Ichigo. We're gathering in the central courtyard in fifteen."
Ichigo nodded, and the tall shinigami glided out of the room.
Lying on the ground, his senses preternaturally alert, Ichigo waited, preparing for the signal. Explosive charges had been set throughout the city by advance forces. When the next round went off, the rest of their forces would advance. Ichigo did not want to think about what was about to happen, all the deaths on both sides that were likely to be caused. He recalled again what one of the shinigami—was it Kyouraku? — had said during the battle over Fake Karakura Town.
"In war, both sides are evil."
Was all this the right thing to do? After all, he was basing his decisions on information he had gotten primarily from his father and Aizen, two people who had definitely not proven their trustworthiness in the past. Ichigo scowled into the darkness.
Below him, the city of Seireitei lit up with a brilliant series of explosions. Half a second later, his ears were assaulted by the sounds of destruction. Slowly, he got to his feet.