Disclaimer - I do not own anything from Bleach
Warnings: AU, Time Travel, Ichigo-centric, violence, language
Authors note: Hey everyone, if you decide to read this before jumping into my first fic then I just want to say welcome to my story. I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it. Like I said this is my first fic, and while I have been on FF for a long time now I will admit that it took a long time for me to muster up the courage to actually write one of my own. As this is a fic, and as all of you know it is impossible to make money off of, this is really a labor of love for me. With that in mind, I hope you all can respect that. I do not mind flames, but constructive criticism is definitely preferred on any given day.
You guys can skip this next part if you want, it's just my thanks to some important people.
Firstly, I'd like to thank cywscross for being the bad mofo that she is, and being the one to inspire me in the first place to write. Everyone should take a look at her work. Secondly, I'd like to thank my beta-reader Isaac, Geta-boshi, Garrus Vakarian what have you for doing such a wonderful job with helping to spot my mistakes, and keep me in check when I was being a loon with my writing. He really is my best friend. Finally, and probably most importantly, thanks mom. You got the short end of the stick when you had me, and you have put up with me the longest. I don't think I would have made it this far without ya.
Anyway, here it is folks. Enjoy!
Chapter 1: Into the Breach
Somewhere along the way, something went wrong. They took a wrong turn. The point they went wrong couldn't be discerned, but the results were plain as day. Ten years of blood given, tears shed, lives lost, and the decisions made that sacrificed thousands in the place of millions. The way they stubbornly pressed on, following one man to hopefully see the end, even as their entire world crumbled and fell apart around them. Despite all the camaraderie, despite the losses, and despite the desperate way they banded together to save the world.
It hadn't been enough.
They had lost.
The war was over.
The new self-proclaimed spirit king Aizen Sosuke ruled, and though that rule rested upon a throne of corpses, an army of hollows, and a broken afterlife, it mattered not to him.
The rain came down heavily on the dried soil, soaking the dust, and seeping into the cracked earth. It did little good. Nothing green remained, no trees, no grass. Only dust. What remained of the rukongai stretched on, broken and barren of life. Water fell to it despite this, attempting to breathe life back into a world that would never feel its touch again. Where once ramshackle housing stood, now only broken beams and charred framework remained. Hollows stalked the shadows, mad with hunger and unchecked in their fruitless hunt. Off in the distance, almost beyond the horizon, the once shining city of the Seireitei loomed. Seki seki stone walls crumbling despite their nature, division barracks reduced to blasted out craters, and embers still glowing from the fires that hadn't quite died out, yet soon to be put out by the rain.
The droplets pinged off of the metal cover that led down to Kisuke's secret labs. Labs sequestered deep beneath the 78th district of the northern rukongai that had been in his possession long before his exile, and the last place that could be considered safe for either of them.
"Ichigo, I just-"
"No, Kisuke," Ichigo cut him off, voice cold as ice. His expression firmly shuttered, not giving even a hint of what he was truly feeling away.
Kisuke's face fell, and he tried his best to suppress the shudder that racked his body. 'Why did it have to turn out like this?' he asked himself for the thousandth time.
He knew why though. He could never forget why. It was because he'd failed. Just like all the times before. He'd let them all down one way or another.
Kisuke knew that he had always had skewed morals, that he'd do what others would see as unethical or wrong if it suited his needs or the situation demanded it. Despite all this, no matter how much of a manipulative man he knew himself to be, he always tried to take responsibilities for his failings.
Like right now.
No matter what happened from here on, no matter what came of the world, and no matter how many times he'd failed in the past several hundred years of his life. He'd never be able to fail anyone more than he had failed Ichigo.
Especially after what he was about to do, Ichigo's request or not.
He cringed at the thought of it.
He felt so tired. He felt old.
It wasn't just the type of weariness that came from long nights guarding those closest to him, or a desperate one spent elbow deep in one of his inventions meant to help salvage the broken world they lived in. It was a weariness that he doubted he'd ever shake off. His face twisted minutely into a grimace. One he couldn't hide behind his signature fan. He'd lost that thing years ago, along with his precious hat.
He supposed he'd lost a lot of things far more precious to him over the years.
A cuff to his head made him stumble forward a step, and he dragged his attention back to Ichigo.
Ichigo was looking at him now, no doubt aware of Kisuke's self-loathing, and the measure of understanding and slight warmth on Ichigo's face and in his eyes made him well up with shame. He didn't deserve that warmth.
"Stop it Kisuke," he reprimanded quietly, and there was a hint of resignation in his voice that Kisuke was able to pick up on, "You know there isn't any other way."
Oh, he knew. He wished he didn't, that maybe he could come up with some other alternative, but they didn't have the time. Part of him still wished that this was some fucked up dream that he couldn't wake up from. There was nothing for it though. Aizen was still searching for them, and it was only a matter of time before he found these labs as well.
Just because there was no other way didn't make it right. Well, morality didn't make a difference to him really. Being right or wrong had never stopped him before.
Just because there wasn't any other way didn't mean he could do it to Ichigo. That was what gave him pause.
It wasn't fair he thought as Ichigo turned away to stalk across the dimly lit room they occupied, graceful lethality in every step, Kisuke's final invention looming over the both of them in the darkness.
It wasn't fair for Ichigo.
He huffed a dry laugh in the privacy of his own mind. No real humor in it. His expression threatening to break again into that familiar shadowed helpless dismay.
When had it ever been fair for Ichigo?
The damp air clung to them both like a cloak as they walked, Kisuke trailing a little behind Ichigo. They came to a stop before the arched device that rested against the wall, both gazing at it, knowing what it meant for them.
When it came to science or his inventions, for Kisuke the sky had always been the limit. He tried many things, tinkered away in his labs for years, and built marvels that no one had ever understood long before the threat of Aizen had reared its ugly head. He pushed the boundaries of knowledge, and advanced in directions that none of them had expected. Yet, even he could never have anticipated doing this.
Time travel was a stretch, but he'd done it in the end.
Kisuke had thrown everything he had into this. Every ounce of his scientific knowledge, every strip of known kido theory, and he even took into account several of the theories that the human's had managed to come up with. It was the only hope either of them had now that they stood at the end together, and over the course of the journey Ichigo had become the closest friend he'd ever really had. Different from Yoruichi in many respects, she was the woman he'd grown up with and would always be his best friend, but Ichigo had become his one true companion over the past eleven years he'd had him around. Ichigo knew him. Ichigo knew Kisuke just like Kisuke knew Ichigo. Ichigo, amazingly enough, was the only one that could see straight through any façade he put up aside from Yoruichi herself.
Of course it took him awhile to get there, but in the eyes of souls to be able to see through Kisuke's machinations after only a few years was an astounding accomplishment.
An accomplishment that Kisuke would always appreciate, for if Ichigo hadn't, than Kisuke probably would have been stuck puppet mastering his way through everything, and would have never come to know and understand what true friendship was like.
That was why Kisuke had thrown everything he had into getting this right. It wasn't just to save the world, or to fix all his own mistakes, or even to get revenge against Aizen
It was for Ichigo.
No matter how wrong it felt, or how Ichigo would essentially be exiling himself from everything he'd ever known, or how Kisuke would lose the only person he had left.
It was because he knew that Ichigo would gladly trade all the friendships he'd made, all the memories he had, and give up on the world he knew today just to save those dear to him.
In Ichigo's mind it was better to have them all alive and ignorant of this horrible future, than dead in a world ruled by a madman. While that would obviously be the better choice by far, that didn't make it hurt any less.
For as long as Kisuke had known him, Ichigo always had a penchant for self-sacrifice, and now was no different even when there was only him around to know and witness it.
He glanced to the side, and looked at the 26 year old next to him. So mind-bogglingly young, and yet looking so heartbreakingly old it made him want to cry.
Ichigo had really grown into himself over the years. He was so different now compared to the brash, loud mouthed, rush-in-sword-swinging child he'd first met years ago. He'd used to share exasperated yet fond conversations with Yoruichi over Ichigo back when they'd first started his training. Over how he'd hadn't the slightest clue what the concept of control was, or how he couldn't strategize his way out of a paper bag. The bullheaded youth had given both him and Yoruichi an equal share of headaches with his ridiculous tendencies.
At least, back when she'd still been alive.
He shut his eyes and clamped down hard on that train of thought before it could go any further. Now wasn't the time to take a trip down memory lane.
He looked over at Ichigo once more. He'd filled out, now standing near 6' 5" and with the muscle mass to match. He was built for speed though as he'd always been, so he still maintained that lean figure. Too lean in Kisuke's opinion, as if he wasn't getting enough to eat. His hair had grown out as well. The spiky mass of orange locks were longer and tamer now than they had been years ago, with the tips reaching down past the nape of his neck and slightly shadowing his eyes. With his now controlled reiatsu he'd managed to seal his zanpakuto too. A black hilted katana and a wakizashi both in equally black sheaths now rested on either side of his waist, instead of the hulking khyber knife and accompanying smaller blade he'd carried when perpetually stuck in shikai.
He carried himself differently too. His gait was more fluid now, nothing about him wasting movement. It was graceful in a way completely different from a dancer. Every step looked to be carefully placed, every move, and every action carrying an air of exact purpose to it. He looked like an assassin garbed in black, or a panther hunting its prey. It was masculine grace not born from nobility or breeding, but 10 bloody years of combat and instincts honed to a razor's edge.
Yet, despite that grace he had an entirely different edge to him as well. An edge that made Kisuke stay up late at night privately lamenting. War had hardened Ichigo. Hardened him the same way it did many, but to an understandably worse extent. Losing everyone you knew and cared about, and watching the very world burn down to its roots did that to a person, and it showed in the way he carried himself. He looked like the weight of the world itself rested upon his shoulders.
Well, in a way it did.
He knew that after coming this far there was almost no chance of him succeeding in persuading Ichigo to stop now. However, even with his failed attempt earlier, that didn't mean he wouldn't give it at least one more try. He really couldn't help it, he'd lost his ability to be or even act insouciant when it came to Ichigo.
"Ichigo listen to me," he said, and his tone held an uncharacteristically pleading edge to it, "You know what this will do. This is madness, and you know it. I know you want them back just as much as I do, but the people you'll be getting back won't be your people. Besides, they wouldn't want you to go through with this, and if they were here now they certainly wouldn't let you!"
His volume had risen as he spoke, trying his best to covey what his heart was screaming at him, and he paused to rein himself back in.
"I'm begging you, just give me more time," he said in a much quieter tone, "I can think of another less insane way. Just because this is all we have now doesn't mean you have to go through with it. Aizen will fall, I promise, but this isn't the way it needs to be done. You don't have to go through with this."
Ichigo's shoulders rose the more Kisuke spoke, slowly inching upward with each word, and by the end he was completely tense. Kisuke watched as countless emotions warred in Ichigo's eyes, and his expression became darker with each. For a fraction of a second he thought he might have gotten through to Ichigo, but in an instant that dreaded hope shattered when Ichigo's jaw firmed and the resolve he was known for surfaced once again.
"Yes I do Kisuke," Ichigo countered sharply, voice cold steel, "I have to. I'd never forgive myself if I'd known the option was there and I didn't take it."
A few moments passed until Ichigo spoke up once more, voice dark, and haunting shadows dancing across his eyes, "I let them down Kisuke, I failed all of them, and I'll be damned if I don't make it right."
Oh hell. Kisuke knew that look.
'So this is it then' Kisuke thought. He knew that no matter what he said there was no stopping Ichigo now.
Sending Ichigo back was a crime. A crime that Ichigo himself insisted Kisuke commit. Ichigo had been dragged through a war he had no business fighting in, he had been a human teenager for crying out loud, and now Kisuke was going to send him back. Back ten years to the very beginning to do it all over again.
He got to work despite this. Busying his mind with calibrations so as not to think on it, even though he knew he wouldn't be able to.
He was torn in so many directions. He didn't want to send Ichigo back, didn't want to lose the only friend he had left. Call it selfish, but there wasn't anything left for him to hold onto. At the same time he wanted to go back with him, but he didn't think his heart could stand the sight of a sea of familiar faces on unfamiliar people. They'd both made bonds throughout the war with everyone who was now dead, and just because they were dead now didn't mean those bonds didn't still exist. To go back and face all those people, knowing all of them as intimately as they did now only to have none of them reciprocate that….
He hated himself for this. He hated himself for a lot of things, but he truly hated himself above all for pushing it all onto Ichigo, but Ichigo had insisted that not only he go back but he that go back alone. Effectively making the choice for Kisuke.
Part of him was immensely grateful to Ichigo for that, and also amazed that Ichigo knew him so well even now.
The open portal roiled behind Ichigo casting his silhouette in its light.
Kisuke eyed him critically from a few feet away, "Don't attack Aizen the first chance you get Ichigo. You'll only have one shot at a surprise attack. We both know how much stronger than Aizen you will be now with him not being fused with the Hogyoku, but you must stay your hand until the right moment. It never hurts to take any advantage you can."
Kisuke paused for a moment, and Ichigo didn't doubt that his mind was tearing through countless scenarios trying to give Ichigo the best parting advice he could give.
"Also, make sure that Aizen shows his hand first. He needs to openly betray the Gotei 13 before you make your move. I know from personal experience that Aizen has failsafe after failsafe in place to protect him from any backlash should his work be discovered. If you kill him before he acts then you'll just be seen as a rogue who killed one of soul society's most "charismatic" captains. One random shinigami madly babbling about betrayal and the world ending with the blood of a captain on his hands isn't likely to gain you any friends Ichigo."
Ichigo scoffed internally, but didn't attempt to stop Kisuke. He knew all of this already, they'd gone over it dozens of times before, and he'd already resigned himself to all of these facts. Aizen living a little longer than he would have liked wasn't that big of a price to pay in return for peace along with the lives of his family and friends.
Ichigo knew what Kisuke was doing though. Kisuke needed to do this. He needed to know that if Ichigo was going to go it alone then he'd done everything he could to make sure he was ready. Ichigo was content to let it drag on for as long as Kisuke needed.
They stood in silence for a while, Kisuke's rant having ended about ten minutes ago.
"You don't have to worry anymore, alright?" Ichigo said, voice quiet with the accompanying hum of the machine, "I know you and Aizen were pretty close. In the way only worst enemies can be, (Kisuke snorted audibly at that) but I know him well enough too. I know how the mad-man thinks, or at least I can guess what he'll do for the time being. You and I both know he didn't fall completely off the deep end until later in the war. Ten years ago, he was still following a logical pattern of thinking. I can work with that, so don't worry."
'Not worry huh?' Kisuke thought idly, well that was going to be hard to do.
Ichigo must have seen it in his eyes, because he spoke up once more.
"I'll handle it," Ichigo said, resolve thrumming through his words this time, and carrying a weight that assured Kisuke more than the words themselves.
"I know you will Ichigo," Kisuke replied.
Oh he knew alright. Aizen didn't stand a chance. He'd pity the guy if he didn't hate him so much.
They didn't say goodbye. They didn't need to really, or particularly want to. The only thing Ichigo said before he walked through the portal was with a quick glance over his shoulder. He leveled Kisuke with one last look. A look that spoke volumes between the two.
"Get some rest Kisuke."
Then he was gone.
Kisuke turned off the machine, and let his hands fall to his sides wearily.
That overwhelming exhaustion from earlier hit him again tenfold.
In the distance, down the shaft that led to the ladder up to the surface, he could hear the screams and roars making their way to him.
He had always known that the energy needed to power the machine would be what gave their location away. Ichigo hadn't, but that wasn't the point.
'Oh well,' he thought with one last grin, grasping Benihime in his hand as she turned from cane to Zanpakuto. She woke with an indignant flare of power, no doubt in a snit at being woken up again, but she quieted soon after. She knew what lay ahead of them.
Thinking back on Ichigo's parting words, he couldn't help but agree. He was tired after all, and it was about time he got some rest. He'd said once upon a time that he would 'sleep when he was dead' so the situation really fit. Living was a chore and a half.
The world Ichigo knew shattered as soon as he stepped through the gate. What he once knew wasn't even present in this place. Upon reflection, Ichigo would one day muse that it was a dimension of contradictions. A place so distinctly different from the precipice world, or the unending oblivion of a garganta, that they couldn't even be compared. At the time though, he didn't really have a chance to think about it.
Ichigo yelled for all he was worth.
Up was down, and right was left, flames froze and crumpled like snowflakes and water burned like hellfire upon the tongue. Where the tiniest whisper shattered hearing, and Ichigo's incessant cries were but tiny fractions of their true volume. Where his shadow glowed like the sun, and where the stars hid away between the blackness in the seams of the sky. A dimension that showed only the truth of existence for this was what came before the beginning, and what would resume after the end.
This was a place that Ichigo did not belong in.
He crumpled where he stood, but lost any sense of direction on his way to the ground. His sense of direction had been obliterated in this world he realized in the back of his consciousness. Even that thought was soon lost in the void, as he struggled to keep some semblance of himself intact from the searing, crushing, blinding, never-ending end.
He dropped all pretense of containing his reiatsu and forced it out of his body in waves, keeping it from rising into transcendence, but still shaking the world around him. He was trying, and failing, to create a buffer between him and the force attempting to erase him from whatever world this was.
Then abruptly, it was over.
A blink. Two blinks.
The sun was shining overhead, positioned a little later than mid-day, and the subtle sounds of a world that made sense drifted through his ears. The grass tickled his neck, and he gaped for a moment at seeing something green and living once more.
The higher functions of his mind were scattered to the four winds for a few moments, but once he regained his sense of self the first thing he did was clamp down on his cataclysmic reiatsu that poured from him into the world like a broken faucet. He looked around from his position on his back, and saw that the majority of the clearing that he was in was crushed beneath the weight of his spiritual pressure, and that black tendrils of his power still clung to some of the surfaces. Without conscious thought he had cleared a stretch of land for several hundred meters all around, tearing deep gashes into the ground in the process.
He sighed internally. If people weren't aware of his presence when he'd first landed here, then they sure were now.
He could feel Zangetsu's presence in his mind even though he didn't speak. Deigning to instead send a wave of concern to Ichigo. He faintly smiled at that, or more like lessened his scowl for a few moments. It always felt good to know that someone had his back, especially now.
He moved to sit up, and then cursed silently when he gave out at the waist and collapsed back down again onto the grass. His hands instinctively fell to his black tachi after that, one hand on his katana and the other on his wakizashi, just for something to ground him to reality for a moment as vertigo roughly slapped him in the face.
'Easy aibou,' his hollow, Shiro, jeered, 'We just got here, don't ya die on us just yet.'
Ichigo didn't even grace that with a reply. He had long since gotten used to his inner-hollow's incessant taunts from the back of his mind. They never had any real fire to them anymore, not since they'd come to their agreement. Besides, he had much more important things to do, like finding out just where the hell Kisuke ended up dumping his ass.
Once more he attempted to lever himself to his feet, and this time he made it. That didn't last long however.
Darkness crept into his sight as he lost feeling in his legs. They shook under his weight, and his knees abruptly gave out. The ground rushed up to meet him once more as he succumbed to the numbing feeling in his mind. The last thing he remembered were Shiro's frantic calls of his name, and Zangetsu rushing to the front of his consciousness desperately attempting to revive him.
His grip on his reiatsu broke once more, this time involuntarily, and his output tore straight up to the heavens and clean into the stratosphere. Transcendence came several seconds later, his signature disappearing without a trace.
He was lost to them within seconds.
Soutaichou Genryusai Shigekuni Yamamoto drank his tea slowly. He didn't rush himself, for when it came to things such as his tea at mid-day there was little else more important. Life was not meant to be wasted worrying over the little things as some of his younger captains were apt at doing.
The work would always be there.
However, that is not to say that the work should not be done. Something he doubted Shunsui would ever learn. It would be completed without fail, but other things took precedence sometimes.
Such as excellent tea.
Chojiro had outdone himself today he mused. His fukutaichou Chojiro Sasakibe, ever faithful friend and steadfast disciple, always did his best to assist Genryusai in whatever capacity was deemed necessary.
Such as making excellent tea.
He sipped from his cup once more, its aroma wafting up to his nose, and then settled further into his seat. The sun streamed in, and off in the distance the sight of the sokyoku hill loomed. A gentle breeze wafted in through the open window, and he contemplated once more how truly quiet soul society was now-a-days.
He did this often, for after living for thousands of years and guarding the souls of the afterlife for so long, he was prone to introspection when he found himself alone. Nothing really changed anymore, and the years did indeed blur together. The Quincy War was from a time lost to many now.
Of course, if he were to leave his office to walk amongst his subordinates, he'd see a much different picture. He knew that down amongst the other divisions the youngsters were probably running amok. Rushing this way and that all unable to appreciate the here and now. He sighed quietly, something he also only did when he was alone.
'Silly children,' he thought, perhaps they'd understand one day.
The thought held no real malice, only exasperation gained from personal experience with the hot headed young shinigami he commanded.
He was happy though, despite all this. All was right with the world, hollow attacks were down within the outer districts, and missions to the living world were running smoothly. Although, from what he had heard, a war was being waged within the human world.
That news did little to ruffle him. The humans were always at war with their own people. It seemed every time he turned around they were slaughtering each other, which of course meant another mass surge of souls entering the afterlife. More possible recruits for Shin'o Academy?
A soft knock at the door heralded a few of his captains, causing him to sit up straight, put down his tea, and fold his hands.
"Enter," his called in his gruff tenor.
As with every Saturday, he called several of his most senior captains to meet with him privately and review the past week. Unohana Retsu, 4th division taichou and head of the medical division, stepped though his door first. A gentle smile adorned her face, something quite at odds with the picture she painted years ago.
"Good afternoon Soutaichou," she greeted kindly.
She moved forward into the room, and made room for his other two most senior taichou to enter.
"Maa yama-jii, can we get this show on the road? The bar district is already getting crowded."
If the captain-commander was anyone else he would have rolled his eyes.
Instead, Yamamoto cracked open an eye and pinned his 8th division captain Kyoraku Shunsui with a look.
Shunsui deflated visibly, his expression souring. Jushirou Ukitake, his 13th division captain, watched on with a familiar indulgent amusement as Shunsui, his best friend, show cased his idiocy for all the world to see.
Sometimes he wondered why he kept Shunsui around.
His horrendous laziness, terrible drinking habits, and his desire to wear that ridiculous pink kimono over his captain's haori may have been one of the many causes for Genryusai's baldness. It was vexing.
Despite that, every time he questioned his choice in captain, he always remembers why.
Despite his childishness, Shunsui is and always has been an extremely powerful shinigami in his own right, a good leader, and the closest thing Genryusai has to a son. The both of them, Shunsui and Jushirou, are sons to him really. Though whether they were aware of that remained to be seen, and he certainly wouldn't be the one to tell them, not yet at least.
With Shunsui sufficiently cowed he turned back to the matter at hand.
"Unohana-taichou," he began, his voice rumbling and filling his office to the corners, sparking the beginning of the meeting.
The meeting droned on well past mid-day, and he had to wake Shunsui several times with his targeted spiritual pressure. Every time he'd wake with a start, prompting his sakkat to fall from its perch, and the meeting to be halted in order to bring the fool up to speed.
Exasperation couldn't even begin to describe Yamamoto.
At least he had a steady supply of tea to keep his nerves from fraying.
Very little could truly startle the Soutaichou, and even less could upset him. He couldn't remember the last time he'd actually been surprised. Soul King aside, he was the rock that had kept the afterlife from falling to pieces after all these years, and if anyone needed to maintain a calm composure at all times then it was him.
That didn't stop him from opening an eye, and raising an eyebrow when his lieutenant Chojiro came stumbling through his door interrupting Jushirou mid-report. Chojiro was out of breath, wide eyes locked on him, and looking highly alarmed.
Well, this was unlike Chojiro. His lieutenant was composed on the worst of days. For him to be riled up over anything it had to be with good reason.
He waited without speaking for Chojiro to regain his lost composure. The other taichous stared avidly, but did not speak either. Shunsui even raised his head, and peered over from beneath his sakkat. When Chojiro finally spoke, it was when Yamamoto's tea cup was halfway to his mouth.
"Soutaichou, the 12th division taichou Kirio Hikifune has just reported an unknown energy signature from somewhere beyond the outer districts. Some type of-"
Chojiro didn't get the chance to finish.
Nothing could prepare them for the wave of spiritual pressure that hit them simultaneously.
Chojiro fell to his knees as they buckled beneath him, and he was soon joined by a wide eyed Retsu who had also unfortunately been standing. Shunsui Kyoraku was wide awake now.
Soutaichou Genryusai Shigekuni Yamamoto opened both of his eyes wide.
His tea cup fell from his hand to shatter on the wooden floor.
Shadows danced at the corner of his vision despite the inky blackness of the room. They crept closer whenever he looked away. His mind screamed at the water to stop. His neck ached from the constant swivel as he desperately tried to see all the room's corners at once. He didn't have to try very hard. Being chained to a wall strung up by his wrists made it so that two corners were always in his sight. Yet the shadows still danced, and that incessant dripping never stopped. Like footsteps approaching from nowhere. His instincts were telling him lies. He'd always trusted his instincts. They were lying. Why were they lying? His head whipped around so fast he probably gave himself whiplash. He had seen it. The water dripped, footsteps slow and steady. Footsteps that meant that he was coming back.
Ichigo woke with a start, eyes wild and a strangled cry dying in his throat. He attempted to spring to his feet out reflex, and instantly regretted it.
He fell back down again, but managed to remain sitting upright this time. He jammed his fingers into his mane of orange hair, and busied himself with growling every curse in the book plus a few that weren't.
Zangetsu's steady presence crowded at the front of his mind helped to slow his erratic heart rate. His hand shakily wiped the sweat from his brow, and he drew in a fortifying breath before he let himself collapse back to the soft grass beneath him.
Even when blacking out for who knows how long, and a passing awareness noted that it was nighttime, he still couldn't get a good night's rest. He wasn't surprised really. He hadn't slept well in years.
His head felt like a dead weight after…whatever that trip was.
Unbidden, a memory crawled up of Ikkaku and Renji, and the first time they'd managed to drag him out drinking with them. He sobered at the memory of the two lieutenants instantly, but his mind didn't start working faster because of it.
"Ichigo," Zangetsu's calm tenor called, drawing him away from his slow thoughts, "We must leave this place. No doubt someone will have sensed you, and we should be as far away from here as possible. You had been unconscious for 2 days."
He sat up again immediately, and to his relief he didn't keel over straight away. He agreed with his Zanpakuto, he needed to leave. He could see straight, relatively speaking, his eyes were still having trouble keeping up, but it would do.
Without conscious thought he made to reel his reiatsu back down, and he shook his head when his reiatsu once again began crushing everything around him before fading down to obscurity.
A few seconds later he realized just how bad an idea that had been.
"Indeed," Zangetsu's almost exasperated voice said, "That will have sent out another flare giving our position away. We must go Ichigo."
He nodded slowly, and decided then and there to let Zangetsu call the shots for a little while. His head wasn't really screwed on straight even after being dead to the world for a few days. It still felt like his brain wasn't going to start up anytime soon.
He slowly clambered to his feet, and scowled harshly down at his still weak legs.
This really wasn't the time for this. Two whole days lost, and who knew how close a shinigami patrol could be. He needed to get the out of there before Aizen caught wind of him, and his whole assassination plot to kill the madman went out the window. He picked his head up and brushed his bangs out of his eyes to scan the clearing. His senses, despite their muddled state, were still sharp enough to tell him exactly where he was.
He snorted minutely at that. He could be blind and deaf and he'd know where he was in a heartbeat. He knew this place well.
It appeared that Kisuke's machine decided to dump him right into the clearing above the labs he had just been occupying. The 78th district held that air about it that would give it away any day. That air of looming death, discarded waste, and violence. He turned toward where he knew civilization lay, and then paused. A stray thought catching him mid-step.
Where was the cover for the entrance to the labs?
"Hurry Ichigo, I can sense several reiatsu signatures approaching. They will be here within the hour."
With the state it was in, Ichigo's brain didn't have enough time to connect the pieces. With the ushering of his Zanpakuto, and the howls of his hollow promising pain if he messed up their shot at Aizen, he reached up and grabbed his hood to pull up over his mess of orange locks. He executed a staggering shunpo that gradually picked up speed away from the clearing.
The 27th head of the Kuchiki Clan and current captain of the 6th division Ginrei Kuchiki darted after the Soutaichou as they shunpoed together towards the outer rukongai. Several of the other taichou followed after, Unohana, Kyoraku, and Ukitake all maintaining pace as they approached the end of their trek.
They had all felt the disturbance from two days ago. In fact, Ginrei wouldn't be surprised if all of soul society had felt the pulse of spiritual energy from the northern outer rim.
At the time, his son and lieutenant Sojun had just walked into his office at their division when it hit them. His son collapsed at the door. He would have rushed to his son's side had he not been pinned in his chair.
It had been an eye opening experience. Never before in all his life as Clan head, or even as a shinigami had he ever felt reiatsu of that magnitude, and judging by the strength he had instantly assumed it was close. Not even the captain commander had ever released so much at one time. Though he rationalized that away with the Soutaichou just never needing to use so much. In the several hundred years Ginrei had worked for him he had never seen the Soutaichou fight without holding back. He doubted that the Soutaichou would ever release his full strength unless the impossible happened, like if several Vasto-lorde suddenly decided to appear in the Rukongai.
Though the thought that something out there existed that could wield such strength did give him pause. He trusted the Soutaichou unflinchingly, but for something else besides him to have such power was definitely worrisome.
The Soutaichou had summoned him with a hell butterfly almost as soon as the signature had faded away completely, which was swiftly followed by a second pulse which also faded away. Well, not faded away. It had abruptly and curiously vanished without a trace, leaving him to wonder for half a second if it had really existed at all. That thought of course was immediately dismissed. Though he had checked to ensure his son was alright beforehand, he left within seconds of that. Duty always came first in the life of a Kuchiki.
The brief had been swift and succinct, but Ginrei had been floored by the news he was given. He didn't show it, but he had to school his features to hide just how astounded he was.
Apparently, the pulses were coming from the Northern 78th district.
He had assumed that they were close because of their strength, but for them to come from…that should have been impossible.
Though the Captain Commander gave no outward sign of being troubled there were clues to the contrary that Ginrei picked up on.
He had always prided himself on being perceptive in most situations, but this situation didn't take much deduction to see the truth of the matter. The fact that the Soutaichou was bringing with him not only himself and Kyoraku-taichou, but Ukitake-taichou and even Unohana-taichou showed the severity of the situation. In fact, for the Soutaichou to go at all was a sign in itself.
It was a sign of a threat. Ginrei knew that the Soutaichou trusted his subordinates like a leader should, and for him to come himself in place of those subordinates meant that there was something out there that couldn't be handled by anyone but him.
His thoughts returned to the task at hand.
He shunpoed onward, all of them going at a pace well beyond the abilities of any lieutenant or seated officer. He steeled his nerves. He would do his duty, no matter what the case. He was a noble of the Kuchiki House, and upholding the law was a must in any given situation. If whatever they found was a threat in any way to the souls of the afterlife than he would not hesitate to do whatever was necessary.
Before he could continue that train of thought however he was interrupted.
Mid-shunpo he slammed into the grassy floor without warning.
It came abruptly and without even a chance to brace. The unknown reiatsu signature roared back to life, much, much closer than before.
His tekko clad fingers dug into the earth as he struggled to rise to a standing position. With a grunt he pushed out his own spiritual energy to create a buffer, and his scarf whipped around behind him in the resulting wind. Unohana and Ukitake were doing the same, and Kyoraku was already standing once more. The Soutaichou was the only one amongst them that appeared to be unfatigued, his own reiatsu whipping around him to shield him from the unknown weight pressing down on them all.
The unknown pressure let up shortly thereafter, and instead of disappearing like before, it just slowly diminished down to nothing. A minute ticked by in silence before they walked forward this time.
Whatever was out there was close.
He dropped his hand down to his Zanpakuto. He would never show it, and he would definitely never admit it, but Ginrei Kuchiki was…apprehensive of what was to come.
The further out into the Rukongai you went then the more spaced out the districts became. Forests and other natural features began appearing in the late 50's and out here in the 78th the forests made excellent hiding places not only for hollows, but also bands of criminals.
He lamented that. It had been that way for years sadly. The afterlife was always changing and he, with near 6000 shinigami within the Gotei 13, already lacked the man power needed to police all of the living world's spiritually potent locations for hollows. The afterlife was meant to be a place to rest, and despite there being no other options, he still deplored the way the outer districts had fallen into ruin.
Within half an hour later the Soutaichou came to a stop, a tree line appearing in a deep forest. They had left behind the squalor several minutes ago, but moving at the speed of shunpo meant that they were very far away from civilization in that time frame. For some reason a clearing was here, and it looked like it had been made intentionally. The circle of trees stretched far, and left a wide open space at least 200 meters in diameter. Deep gouges scored the earth and stretched out from a central point at the middle of the clearing. Soil had been forced away into banks, and rocks appeared to have been lifted and overturned in their places. Even larger boulders had been moved. The trees that once stood here had either been blasted away or obliterated.
The clearing was empty though.
He grunted in dissatisfaction and slowly walked toward the center, his zanpakuto, whilst still a cane, ready in his hand. His captains followed after him, Ginrei bringing up the rear, eyes sweeping the shadows beyond the clearing, and Retsu quickening her pace so as to walk beside him. She didn't speak, though he was sure she had questions.
He came to a stop once more at the center of the clearing, and scrutinized what he had slowly become more aware of as he approached.
The foreign reiatsu still permeated the air all around. Whoever had been here was long gone, of that he had no doubt, and from the looks of it they hadn't done anything more than tearing up the earth around them.
That didn't mean that they weren't still a threat. He didn't know why, and he didn't know how, but there was someone out there with so much reiryoku it rivaled, and might even surpass his own.
That alone was unprecedented.
He knew that no other shinigami had come after him that came even close to his level of power. That was why he had remained the Soutaichou for all these thousands of years, because he had yet to find someone capable of taking his place. If ever there was to be someone to take over the seat of captain commander he wouldn't settle for anyone less than someone capable of defending the Soul society single handedly if need be.
For someone to show up now with this level of power, and him not know of them and count them amongst his subordinates or allies…
Something had to be done.
He took his time in studying the reiatsu still in the air that was slowly diminishing by the minute. It wasn't nearly as heavy as before, but now that he was here at the source of the pulses he could study it more easily. Curiously enough, he noted, the reiatsu was heavy, but instead of being oppressive it seemed to wrap around and envelop others. However, at the same time it was dark in nature, and had an almost lingering trace of…..hollow.
His eyebrow twitched at that. That couldn't be possible. This spiritual energy was most definitely that of a shinigami. So then how?
He turned his eye on Retsu who was no doubt doing the same thing as him. Her expression told him that she had felt it as well.
"I don't understand what I am feeling Soutaichou," she commented softly, her usual serene voice carrying a waver of uncertainty to it to accompany her confused look, "This reiatsu signature doesn't make sense."
He didn't understand it either, and that was what worried him.
He glanced around sharply. Ginrei stood a few meters away from them, eyes closed and a serene expression on his face. No doubt communicating with his zanpakuto then, perhaps his spirit could shed some light on the situation. Ukitake was kneeling next to one of the boulders some distance away, a puzzled look on his face, and appeared to be studying the gouge marks left behind by whatever had transpired here. Shunsui was perched atop the same rock, conversing quietly with Jushirou.
Ginrei opened his eyes, and with the grace born from years of nobility walked across the mud and thrown earth as if it were a ball room. Ukitake straightened shortly thereafter, still bearing that puzzled look on his face. Both he and Shunsui walked over as well, ending their conversation as they came within earshot.
They all looked like they had questions.
He closed his eyes and sighed internally. Sometimes it was a pain to be in a position where everyone came to him for answers when he desired answers himself.
Ginrei spoke first, and surprisingly didn't ask what was bothering all of them, "It would appear that whoever did this is long gone, and that no lasting damage has been done."
His tone gave away hints of relief. Yamamoto couldn't help but agree with that relief. From the strength they had felt, whoever it belonged to could have done serious damage to the surrounding districts before they could have arrived to stop it.
"Indeed," Yamamoto agreed, his ancient tones carrying somewhat in the clearing, "but the 'Who' in this still remains to be seen."
They were silent for a few moments, all of them pausing to consider the question none of them had an answer to, until Jushirou spoke up with a quietly intrigued tone.
"Soutaichou, I noted something odd about the marks left behind," his voice trailed off, and he turned and walked toward the bolder he had been near before. He beckoned at them to follow, and soon they were all peering down at what had puzzled Jushirou earlier.
Upon closer examination, they all could see why Jushirou was so interested.
Deep in the trenches left behind, lining the bottom, were burn marks. Not only that, but they were composed entirely of pitch black reiatsu, the same reiatsu that permeated the air all around them. They were already fading, and were hard to distinguish at nighttime, but they looked like burn marks left behind from kido spells or explosions. The difference here being that these were made solely of reiatsu instead of simple friction or impact, and the reiatsu itself was flailing gently like black flame.
"Never in mine nor Shunsui's years as captains have we ever seen anything like this."
This only gave rise to more questions. Ginrei's face remained much the same, but both Ukitake and Retsu exchanged a look of puzzlement. Kyoraku said nothing, and tugged his sakkat down to hide his expression.
Genryusai scowled behind his beard, and turned away, speaking over his shoulder.
"Neither have I."
Several startled sounds carried after him. He knew why. For him, the Soutaichou himself, to have lived for thousands of years, and to also not know was unexpected.
He didn't know what to make of any of this. He had absolutely no answers. He was presented with a mysterious shinigami, a torn up clearing, and an impossible reiatsu signature. One that had almost completely faded by now. That didn't matter anymore he supposed, as he stalked away, his captains following after a few moments. He'd speak to Shihouin-taichou, and have him send out feelers to try and get to the bottom of this.
The signature might be gone from here, and it might have disappeared from his senses.
That didn't mean that any of them would forget it.
After a few minutes of haphazard shunpo his legs decided to start working properly again, and not too much later his brain followed suit. Now, several hours later he'd managed to tear through the districts, and ended up somewhere near the lower 60's if his internal compass was right. It was one of the more mountainous regions of the Rukongai with larger gatherings of homes and businesses clinging to the roots of the mountains.
He shunpoed to a stop past a larger town, outside of a cave at the base of one of the mountains. He threw off his hood, and peered into the inky blackness of the cave.
During the war they'd holed up in caves like this. They dotted the mountains, and the resistance often used them for retreats as part of their guerilla tactics towards the last years.
He reached up and scratched behind his ears, brushing the hair out of his eyes on the way. He needed to get a haircut he mused, as he stepped forward into the cave. During the war, with the near constant fighting first in Hueco Mundo, and then here in Soul Society, he hardly ever had the chance to get it cut.
He looked around the cave, the moon his only source of light. He wasn't tired, he'd been out for days as it was, but it was around midnight at the least and he wanted a place to sit and gather his thoughts. He shrugged mentally, and settled himself down on his back.
He'd had worse.
A cave out in the middle of the Rukongai was a relief as opposed to curling up in a single blanket in the shadow of a dune in Hueco Mundo. Only two or three hours of rest possible before you had to throw yourself into the fight once more. Hollows breathing down your neck no matter how exhausted you were, having to sleep with one eye open, a twitch away from fully alert just to keep your own life intact. Freezing cold wind biting into your skin, sleeping in weather that was always 30 or below. Waking up to find that some of your younger troops weren't even alive anymore, freezing to death in their sleep.
He didn't sleep well anymore for a lot of reasons.
Zangetsu cut in without fanfare, "Stop Ichigo. Remember why we are here and take heart."
He closed his eyes for a minute to clear his thoughts. Zangetsu was right. He was here to fix everything. He was here to stop a future from happening, a future that only he knew of. Besides, he was probably making it rain within his inner world, or at least making it rain harder. He wouldn't lie to himself about that. It hadn't stopped raining in there for years. His hollow didn't give a damn, but Zangetsu used to chide him for it. He didn't do that anymore. He still tried to help Ichigo in any way he could, like right now, but Zangetsu himself knew that probably nothing would stop the rain ever again. Not with what they had seen, and with what they had done.
His mind returned to what Zangetsu had said, about why he was here. He knew the answer to that. Knew it so well just the thought made his want to storm off right then and there, and murder Sosuke Aizen right in front of the entire Gotei 13.
He couldn't do that though, at least he couldn't do it yet. Anticipation of the moment he'd be able to tear Aizen's head off welled up inside of him, and his hollow took note.
"Hell yeah King! Now you're talking! We're gonna put that son-of-a-bitch's head on a spike!"
He shook his head in exasperation, his hollow was an honest to God maniac. He couldn't help but agree though. Aizen's days were numbered, and the bastard didn't even have a clue.
What was he going to do though? He needed a plan.
It was just like Kisuke had said, he knew that he couldn't make a move yet. So when would he?
He stopped to ponder for a moment. If he was here out in the rukongai, then was there another Ichigo out there? Another one of him ten years younger, and still blissfully unaware of the shit storm he was about to fall into? Or had he taken that Ichigo's place? In either case would the execution attempt on Rukia still happen?
If it did then that would be his chance. It had been at that moment in his own timeline that Aizen had shown his cards to the world, and gotten himself branded a traitor. He could stop the execution from happening, and slay Aizen the moment he betrayed everyone all in one go.
However, if he had taken that Ichigo's place then would Rukia end up giving her powers to anyone? The original reason that the hollow fishbone-D had gotten the drop on them, wounding Rukia and inadvertently ending with her giving Ichigo her powers, had been because Ichigo's own obtrusive reiatsu had been clogging up her senses. Besides, he knew from not only Kisuke's, but also Aizen's own words that he had been a big part of both their plans ever since he'd been born (which was a little creepy to him, just saying). If he wasn't there anymore then would that change things exponentially this time around?
He sat up and growled quietly in frustration.
He had never been good at this. Kisuke had attempted (key word attempted) to teach him the finer arts of puppet mastering the world. He tried to teach him how to whip up plans and manipulate what happened around him through subtlety, but it just wasn't his thing. He was more of a come-up-with-a-loose-plan-on-the-go kind of guy, and he was really good at just improvising on the way. He knew from experience that in battle no plan survives first contact with the enemy. He'd always tackled situations by, as Kisuke always claimed, "Charging in head on, and hacking away at anything that moved."
Ichigo liked to think he'd gotten better over the years at breaking that habit. He was definitely a lot more level headed than his teenaged self. Not nearly as quick to anger as before. Actually no, he still got angry, but instead of yelling and waving his sword at who ever had pissed him off he hid it within instead. He used his anger like a blade now. Getting angry was good when fighting, but only if you used it right. If you couldn't then anger only made you reckless, sloppier and more prone to getting yourself impaled. If you used your anger correctly, channeled it through your sword arm with cold, ruthless accuracy then it became a tool. A tool he had learned to use.
A scream of terror from outside the cave tore him from his thoughts, shattering the peaceful night air. He jumped to his feet instantly on high alert, throwing his hood on in the process, and shunpoed to the mouth of the cave.
He peered out into the inky, midnight darkness, and swept the tree line a couple dozen meters away with his eyes. The moon shone down onto the forest in front of him, making the shadows within dance as the leaves rustled in the gentle wind. He simultaneously reached out with his senses, trying to feel where the scream might have come from. He'd gotten much better at sensing reiatsu over the years, comparable to a captain's skill now what with his own reiatsu finally under control and out of the way.
He locked onto several reiatsu signatures at least half a mile away. He instantly recognized one of them to be a hollow, and he tensed at the thought. Two of the others were very weak signatures, no doubt ordinary souls out here in the forest that must have been ambushed, but there was another final one there that drew his attention. He could tell that whoever was there with them was stronger than the others. He'd bet it was a shinigami, but they weren't that strong, and probably an unseated officer if that was the case.
He sprang into action immediately, flash stepping towards them at a fast pace. If it had been a seated officer he would have just let it go, best not to risk his identity being discovered when it was a situation a more seasoned shinigami could easily handle. However, this wasn't a seated officer out there, and this was a somewhat stronger hollow. He'd get in, and get out quick. He knew who ever it was would attempt to question him, but if he ran then there was no chance of them catching him.
He shunpoed on, a mere blur through the trees, faster than the naked eye could track. He was there within a minute, and he came upon a sight that instantly made him glad he decided to come.
From up in his perch standing atop a tree branch he could see the hollow. It was at least half a dozen meters tall and very muscular. It had an apelike appearance to it, with huge arms that were firmly planted in the soil beneath its knuckles. Its mask was plain to see, the moon's light highlighting its stark white color. It's prey were three people, two young children hiding in the bushes below the trees across from him, and the other person he'd sensed.
The other person standing a few meters from the hollow, sword in hand, was a young kid. He looked to be in his mid-to-late teens, but with souls there was no telling how old the kid actually was. He looked tall, but was slouching from exhaustion with his fight. Ichigo couldn't see his face in the light, but he could make out the tousled mop of black hair on his head, and his garb which was cut up and torn as well.
Garb that wasn't a shinigami's shihakusho.
That made Ichigo start slightly in surprise. So the kid wasn't a shinigami despite his reiatsu level. That meant that the sword in his hands wasn't a zanpakuto, and he sensed immediately after that that there was indeed no reiatsu coming from the blade. The kid hadn't been to the academy, meaning that he hadn't had an asauchi imprinting yet.
Ichigo was impressed. For the kid to be able to fend off a hollow of this size and strength without being a shinigami was definitely an achievement.
The hollow roared, its voice shaking the trees around them, and raised its fist to bring it down to crush the kid. The guy physically flinched at the noise and involuntarily stepped back, but to his credit raised his sword once more, and made to dodge out of the way. However, that moment he'd wasted cost him, and it was apparent to Ichigo that he wouldn't be able to get out of the way in time without at least receiving a glancing blow.
Ichigo drew one of his blades within the blink of an eye, his katana a flash of silver in the moonlight. It was done so fast that the sound of metal being drawn was the only sign it had actually happened. He lunged from his branch, shunpoing through the air at lightning speeds.
He swung, his sword a quicksilver streak in the night air.
He didn't even turn, his sword sheathed once more before his feet had even touched the ground. The hollow was dead, its body already dissolving into reishi as it hit the ground, and he tuned out Shiro's indignant grumble about how boring it had been.
It was silent for about a minute, save for the rustling in the trees and the other guy's labored breathing. Ichigo glanced over to the bushes that the kids were hiding in, and both of them were staring at him with wide eyes. They were a boy and a girl, the boy clinging to the girl and looking younger than her, but both looking no older than ten years old at the most.
He turned fully to look at the kid. The guy still had his sword in his hands he noted, no doubt not trusting Ichigo. 'Smart,' Ichigo though briefly. There was a waver in him though, one entirely different from exhaustion. It was still too dark for him to make out a lot of the guy's features but he could still see that his shoulders were tensed, and the wary stance made it clear.
The kid could tell from Ichigo's display that he had no chance of defending either himself or the kids if Ichigo turned out to be an enemy. He was afraid, and Ichigo could see it even if he hid it well behind his resolve.
Well. There was no need for that. Best if he calmed the kid's nerves before he had a heart attack. Besides, the boy looked like he needed to sit down for a couple of hours. With the kid not being a shinigami he was comfortable enough to stick around. Ichigo could stay long enough to at least make sure that the three of them were going to be alright.
Ichigo spoke up in the silence, his tone somewhat light as to better set the guy at ease, "Relax would you. I'm a shinigami. I just came to lend a hand."
He brought up his hands in the universal sign of goodwill, and stepped forward into the light. The kid visibly deflated, relief apparent in the way he instantly sagged where he stood.
He finally sheathed his sword, but eyed Ichigo for a few moments longer before relenting.
A grin came to his face instead and he answered back in an equally light tone to show he was just joking, "Thanks for the backup shinigami, even if I could have handled it myself."
Ichigo felt the tiniest sliver of humor, but that stopped immediately as he openly gape at what he saw next.
The kid stepped out of the shadows, and into the moonlight. His face now clear to see.
Ichigo was met with the sight of his own face staring right back at him.
It was like looking at a picture from his high school years. The guy looked exactly like he had back when he was a teen himself at the start of the war, and even now they still looked strikingly similar. The only differences were the black hair atop his lookalike's head, and the green eyes gazing at him.
He was glad he was still wearing his hood, or this conversation would have gotten weird real quick.
Suddenly, he was struck by a stray thought. A memory from years ago that surged to the front of his mind. He knew this face. He knew it for reasons other than it looking like him. He couldn't place it, but he knew. He knew, he knew, he knew…
"The names Kaien, Kaien Shiba. Those two over there are my little sister Kukaku and my little brother Ganju. I took them out here for some late night exploring, and we got ambushed. I'd expect something like this from further out in the districts, but for the sixty second? I thought it'd be safer. Really though, thanks for the help. I don't know what I'd do if anything happened to those two."
Ichigo stopped listening halfway through.
Kaien Shiba. Kukaku Shiba. Ganju Shiba.