On the grassy hill where Ichigo originally left to go rescue his child, a Garganta opened up and the group stepped out, with a few new friends they'd picked up along the way.
Everyone was weary and exhausted, especially Ichigo and Halibel, their transformations spent and were now back to normal. Asahi asleep in her arms, Halibel turned to the last remaining Espada, Starrk. He'd been the one who'd offered to open the Garganta for them and escort them back to the World of the Living. "What will you do now, Starrk? Are you going to rebuild Las Noches?"
Scratching the back of his head, Starrk sighed and looked up at the sky. "Honestly? I've no clue. I only joined Lord Aizen because he offered me strong companions. But once again I'm the last man standing…" He turned back to Halibel. "You sure you won't stay in Hueco Mundo? You did kill Barragan. By rights, that makes you Queen of Hueco Mundo."
Looking down at her precious bundle of joy, Halibel shook her head. "No. My place is here, with my family. Besides, Hueco Mundo is no place to raise a child." Looking back up, she gave her comrade a small smile. "I guess I'm going to have to abdicate the throne. That means you're the king now."
Everyone giggled when Starrk groaned. "Ughhhh, me? King?" Starrk slumped forward. "I think I'll just pass it off to Lilynette then-YOW!"
The tiny Arrancar next to him stomped his foot. "Don't think you can pass the buck onto me! You're going to have to suck it up and actually put in some legwork, you lazy king!" While everyone laughed, Lilynette gave Halibel a wide smile. "Don't worry, Halibel. I'll keep him in line. Before you know it, we'll have Las Noches up and rebuilt in no time. Besides," the girl gestured over to Nel, Pesche and Dondochaka. "We aren't going at this alone."
Nodding, Halibel handed Asahi over to Ichigo and walked over to Nel, throwing her arms around her and drawing her into a big hug. "Nelliel, from the bottom of my heart, thank you. Ichigo and I owe you a debt we can never repay. If you need us for anything, you need only ask."
Giggling, Nel hugged Halibel back. "What are friends for? Mind if we drop by to see you and Ichigo?"
Pulling back, Halibel nodded, giving her friend a warm smile. "We'd be honor to have you over. Just…" She glanced over at Pesche and Dondochaka. "…Make sure those two behave themselves."
Nel grinned before going over to the others one at a time and giving them all a bone-breaking hug, save for Ichigo since he was holding the little girl. "See you later, Ichigo!" She gave him a quick kiss on the cheek before joining the other Arrancars.
Everyone waved goodbye and watched as the Garganta closed behind Nel and the others. Sighing, Uryu looked around, half expecting more Soul Reapers to show up. "So what now?"
"Clothes…" Orihime said bluntly, her outfit little more than rags covering up her naughty bits. "I really need clothes."
Rukia looked over at Toshiro, who gave a somber nod. "Captain Hitsugaya and I…we should return to the Soul Society and report back what happened."
Orihime took hold of Rukia's hand in protest. "Rukia, no! If you go back there…"
Toshiro walked over and put a hand on Rukia's shoulder. "She's right, Orihime. We defied orders. Even if we both considered it morally right, we have to face the consequences for our actions. I don't like it as much as you do but we chose this when we both made the decision to help Ichigo and Halibel."
Halibel frowned. "What do you think your Head-Captain will do?"
Silently Toshiro hung his head low. "I don't know…I've no doubt I'll be stripped of my captaincy. I'll probably be arrested and charged with insubordination and treason for going against Yamamoto's orders. Byakuya will probably do what he can to keep Rukia safe but…" He and Rukia both looked at each other. Both of them knew that the consequences for helping Ichigo and Halibel rescue their daughter would be severe.
"You don't have to go back." Ichigo understood the dilemma both Soul Reapers were in and didn't want either of them to return to the Soul Society if it meant certain death awaited them. He couldn't live with himself if they died for the crime of helping him, especially Rukia (again).
Halibel took back Asahi and gestured in the direction of Ichigo's house. "Might I suggest we return home and rest? We can decide on what to do next after we've all had some time to recover…and after I change Asahi." She glanced over at Yoruichi. "We'll need to figure out what to do about you as well."
"Yeah, gotta admit, this is going to take some getting used to." She poked the cat-ear headband on her head that served as her mask fragment. "Especially since I need to figure out what all Szayelapporo did to me."
"Don't worry. Now that I have the Hogyoku, I'm sure I can figure something out," promised Kisuke. "But we should probably go and check on Isshin and the twins to make sure they're okay."
Nodding, the group Flashstepped and Sonidoed away, with Rukia bringing Orihime along for the ride. Reaching the Kurosaki house, Ichigo reached for the door and found it unlocked. Cautiously he opened it and walked into his home. "Dad! Yuzu! Karin!" he called out.
Silence was his answer.
Anxiety started to fill Ichigo. After what Toshiro had told him regarding the Thirteen Court Guard Squad's decision about his family, he feared for what might have happened to them. "Dad? Dad!" he called out once again, heading into his living room before stopping dead in his tracks.
There, sitting on his couch waiting for him, was Head-Captain Yamamoto.
"So, Ichigo Kurosaki. You've returned."
The group filed into the room, all shocked that the man who led the Soul Society was here in Ichigo's house. Toshiro and Rukia bristled as the ancient Soul Reaper's eyes fell upon them, both of them suddenly gripped with terror.
Anger swelled up inside Ichigo. Balling his fists, he glared at the old man. "Get…off…of my couch…" he growled.
Yamamoto ignored the demand, instead asking, "I take it that if you are here with your child that Sosuke Aizen is dead?"
Still holding Asahi, Halibel nodded. "He is dead. As are Kaname Tosen and Gin Ichimaru. Aside from myself and one other, all of the Espadas are dead as well. It is over, old man."
"Is it? I think not," Yamamoto bluntly said, keeping a tight grip on his cane.
"Where is my father? Where are Yuzu and Karin?" Ichigo stepped further. "If you've hurt then I swear I'll-"
"Calm yourself, Ichigo Kurosaki. Your home was empty by the time I dispatched the Punishment force to arrest your family. Isshin fled with your sisters well before we arrived. No doubt he was warned of our coming…" His scathing gaze turned to Toshiro, who glared back. "I hope you are prepared to face the consequences of your actions, Captain Hitsugaya."
Staring back at his commanding officer, Toshiro scowled. "I will accept the consequences of what I've done, Head-Captain. But I do not regret anything. I traveled to Hueco Mundo to help rescue the human, Asahi Kurosaki, as well as to help put down Aizen and those who threatened the security of the Soul Society. My actions are in line with my duty, unlike you, who chose to betray and punish the innocent."
Everyone looked at Toshiro incredulously. Rukia especially didn't think Toshiro had the gall to insult the Head-Captain openly to his face. Yamamoto glared daggers at Toshiro but stayed his tongue and his hand, not moving from where he sat. His eyes scanned the room until they found Yoruichi, or at least what had become of Yoruichi. "I am sorry to see the state you are in, Yoruichi Shihoin. What on earth has the enemy done to you?"
"Things which I can never say out loud, especially with children present in the room," admitted Yoruichi, glancing over at Ichigo, Uryu and Orihime. "Kisuke retrieved the Hogyoku from Aizen. We're going to try to use it to undo my Hollowfication. Or at least try to remove some metal bits from me." She gestured to her glowing red eye. "I think I'm more machine than Hollow actually."
"You are aware of the laws of the Soul Society regarding those who undergo Hollowfication…" threatened Yamamoto.
Brushing her hair back with her claw, Yoruichi shrugged. "I'm a fugitive anyway, remember? Why should I care about your laws?"
"Impudent as always…"
Halibel, who'd briefly went upstairs to change Asahi, came down with her daughter and promptly sat down in a chair opposite of the Head-Captain. "In case you haven't noticed, we've had a very long day. So if you're here to pick a fight, do it sometime later. Nobody here is in the mood to deal with you, old man."
"Hmmm…" Yamamoto glared at Halibel, not sure of what to make of the Arrancar or the child in her arms. "So, you are the Hollow that has caused all of this."
"The Hollow has a name: Tier Halibel," she curtly replied. "Are you here to fight us? Because that's…not going to go the way you expect. Especially if you didn't bring your peanut gallery with you."
The group watched as Yamamoto remained where he was, unsure of what the man was here for if he didn't come to fight them. Sitting down next to Halibel, Ichigo decided for once to try to talk his way out of a fight. He didn't want Yamamoto to go for his hellfire zanpakuto with Asahi still in the house. "Old man, we have no intention of picking a fight with you. All I want is to protect my friends and family. That's all I've ever wanted." His expression hardened. "I fought Aizen. And I won. Considering none of you could scratch him, how do you think a fight with me is going to go? Especially after all you've put me through?"
Sitting back on the couch, Yamamoto weighed his options. On the one hand, Ichigo was exhausted and weary from his constant battling. He would not be able to bring the same force he brought down on Aizen's head. However, Yamamoto was vastly outnumbered and with Kisuke and Yoruichi on Ichigo's side, it would not be an easy fight even if he did call for the other captains from the Soul Society. Further, a fight would no doubt level what was left of Karakura Town. And as much as he debated the issue with Toshiro, he had no intention of causing anymore collateral damage. He knew his duty too.
"I came alone, because I was curious to know your intentions," confessed Yamamoto. He pointed a finger at the combat pass dangling from Ichigo's sash. "That pass Ukitake gave you. It also doubles as a monitoring device. We're aware of most of what happened in Hueco Mundo."
"What? You were spying on me?!"
"Have you forgotten the Thirteen Court Guard Squads is a military organization? You are by definition a military asset. And an unstable one at that. Of course we'd need to keep an eye on you. For slaying Sosuke Aizen I am willing to give you and…Halibel," he begrudgingly acknowledged, "the benefit of the doubt. You are a force to be reckoned with. So I am willing to offer a truce."
"A truce?" Orihime repeated. Both Toshiro and Rukia were shocked. Yamamoto was rarely that charitable.
"The Soul Society will take no action against you, your family or those who allied with you. In return you will keep your activities strictly in the World of the Living and you will stay out of the Soul Society."
"What about my dad?"
"Hmph! He may stay here. For now. But one day he will be held accountable for abandoning his post. That I promise you."
The offer was tempting, but both Ichigo and Halibel had their reservations. "What about Toshiro and Rukia? Are they going to be in trouble for helping us?" Ichigo asked, knowing the question was killing his two friends.
Yamamoto's head turned to his defiant subordinates, who both gulped in fright. "They will be punished. Disobedience is not something I can look the other way for. One cannot defy their superiors without consequence. But…" his expression softened, "their actions did help in the defeat of Sosuke Aizen. They will be reprimanded for their recklessness but you have my word, no harm will come to either of them."
Ichigo sighed, grateful that Yamamoto was finally seeing reason. He looked over at Halibel. The Arrancar stared at Yamamoto dubiously. While Ichigo was grateful that Yamamoto wasn't looking to pick a fight, Halibel had her doubts. "You say you don't wish a war between you and Ichigo? How do we know that you will not use the Punishment Force to try to murder us in our sleep?"
"Central 46 will be outraged I'm making this offer but we are not in the Soul Society. And even if I did order Captain Soi-Fon to deploy the Punishment Force, all of you would be more than a match for an assassin. I am the Head-Captain of the Thirteen Court Guard Squads. They will have no choice but to honor our agreement."
Everyone felt the air shift in the room when Yamamoto's eyes stared down at the baby in Halibel's arms. "I have but one stipulation: I must confirm with my own eyes that Asahi Kurosaki is a Human. Captain Hitsugaya, you are still in possession of a Soul-Removing Glove?"
Ichigo tensed, his hand itching to grab Zangetsu. "And what will you do if she's anything but Human?"
When Yamamoto looked up and stared at Ichigo, a dark fire burned in his eyes. "I will do my duty as a Soul Reaper. And you will do your duty as her mother and father."
Everyone braced themselves, realizing that the old man wasn't going to back down from this ultimatum. To everyone's surprise, Halibel stood up and gestured for Toshiro to come forward with the glove. "Be gentle," she told the boy.
"Are you sure?"
"We both know the answer. But he won't be satisfied until he sees it for himself."
Toshiro hesitantly put on the glove. He remembered Isshin telling him that Asahi's soul was that of a normal Human's. But Soi-Fon's words reminded him that there was a chance Isshin could have been lying. And if he had, all hell was going to break loose.
Ichigo, Orihime, Uryu and Rukia all held their breaths while Toshiro's hand slowly touched the baby, gently pushing her soul out of her and taking hold of it while Halibel held her body. Everyone stared at the little baby soul wriggling in Toshiro's grasp, her face devoid of any Hollow mask and a Chain of Fate connecting Asahi to her Human body.
Toshiro quickly put Asahi back into her body. "There. Satisfied?" asked Halibel, clutching Asahi close.
"Indeed. I have seen Asahi Kurosaki and she is Human. We have a deal." Yamamoto finally stood up. "I will take my leave."
Standing up, Ichigo tossed him the combat pass. "Here. Take this. I don't want you guys spying on me."
"As you wish." Yamamoto pocketed the pass and walked away. "Captain Hitsugaya. Rukia Kuchiki. You will return with me."
Rukia solemnly nodded. She quickly hugged Orihime and gave her a quick kiss. "I'll try to contact you soon," she whispered.
"Be safe, Rukia…" Orihime hugged her back, wishing she didn't have to go.
Toshiro passed by Ichigo and gave the young man a smile. "Ichigo? When you see your father again…tell him that I'm sorry. For everything."
"My dad wouldn't blame you for anything. And neither do I."
Nodding, Toshiro followed Yamamtoo and Rukia out the door. The Head-Captain opened a Senkaimon and the trio entered, leaving the Karakura Town. "I hope they'll be okay…" murmured Orihime.
Yoruichi put an arm around her shoulders. "Don't worry. I'm sure she'll be alright."
"Um…I should get home. Can I borrow a change of clothes, Halibel?"
"Of course. I could hardly let you walk down the street looking like that." Halibel went up stairs with Orihime and Asahi, leaving Ichigo with Uryu, Kisuke and Yoruichi.
Sighing, Uryu pushed his glasses up. "I'm going to head home too. We all need a break after what happened."
"Okay. Um…thanks for helping Uryu."
Uryu frowned. "Are you sure the Head-Captain was telling the truth? Do you really think this truce can last?"
"Dunno." Ichigo shrugged. "But if they ever want to start a fight, we'll make them regret it." He looked around, the emptiness of his home haunting to the boy. "I need to figure out where my dad went so I can let him know there's no danger."
No sooner did he say that, however, the door opened up and Isshin walked through the door. Upon seeing his son, Isshin pushed Kisuke and Uryu aside to hug Ichigo, holding his son so tightly Ichigo thought he could hear his bones pop. "Thank goodness! I was worried!"
"Dad?!" Ichigo choked, trying to wiggle out of his father's embrace. "What…happened? Where's Yuzu and Karin?"
Setting his son down, Isshin walked over and sat down on the couch. "Relax, Ichigo. Yuzu and Karin are fine. I got them away from here as soon as Toshiro came knocking on my door. Chad and Halibel's girls are watching over them. When I felt you guys return I decided to come back in case the old man wanted to pick a fight."
"Where are they now?
"We put them to sleep and we all hid in Kisuke's underground basement."
"That's…not exactly hiding, Dad," Ichigo pointed out.
Isshin shrugged. "Not the one you're thinking of. Kisuke had some old friends willing to help us out. I'm sure he'll tell you about it all one day." He turned to Kisuke and Yoruichi and like everyone else he was shocked at what'd become of the Flash Goddess. "Yoruichi?!"
"I know, Isshin. Soi-Fon is gonna have a field day when Yamamoto tells her."
Kisuke smiled. "You should go and get Yuzu and Karin. Ichigo and Halibel were able to broker a truce with the Head-Captain. It's over."
Sighing in relief, Isshin smiled. "That's good to hear. I'll be back in a bit. I'm sure Chad and the Tres Bestia are chomping at the bit to see you and Halibel." He gave his son another big hug and was out the door to go get his daughters.
Yoruichi turned and was the next to hug Ichigo, being careful not to jab him with her glowing claw. "Go and rest, Ichigo. You've earned it."
"Okay. What about you guys? Are you going to undo her Hollowfication, Kisuke?"
The scientist pulled the Hogyoku out of his pocket and nodded. "Now that I have this back, I'm going to give it a shot. But…" He looked over at Yoruichi and his smile faded. "…It's not going to be easy. Especially with all the spare parts sticking out of her. I was able to grab a few blueprints from Szayelapporo's lab that weren't shredded so hopefully it'll give me a base to work from. If nothing else I'll try to create a Gigai to contain her so she doesn't have to eat Souls to survive."
"As long as you don't make my condition worse. Remember, I've a new toy to claw your eyes out."
"I'll keep that in mind. Be seeing you, Ichigo. We need to check to make sure Tessai and the kids are alright too."
The Flash Goddess and shopkeeper promptly left, followed by Uryu. Alone in the living room, Ichigo shambled up the stairs. Every step seemed to sap his strength, the weight of his journey heavy on his shoulders. He heard the shower going off, figuring that Orihime was washing off the grime and dirt on her body. "Oh right…need to get my Human body back from Tatsuki," he mumbled as he reached his room. Opening the door, he walked inside and the joy what he saw almost brought him to tears.
Halibel sat on the bed, feeding Asahi with a bottle. She looked up at Ichigo with tired eyes, smiling behind her mask. Ichigo sat down next to his mentor and put his head on her shoulder. "Wow…I can't believe we made it through all that…"
"Was there any doubt?" Halibel teased. "We sure have come a long way since that first night."
"You mean where you knocked my sword out of my hands with just a few swings?"
Chuckling, Halibel finishing feeding Asahi and set the bottle down, watching the baby in her arms fall asleep. "I think you've improved a little bit since that night. You might actually make a half-decent challenge now."
"Oh really?" Ichigo smirked, raising an eyebrow. "How about tomorrow we go back to the training grounds and have another spar?"
"I'd like that. What does the winner get?"
"Hmm…" Ichigo tilted his head up, lost in thought for a moment before he turned his head back to Halibel and smiled. "How about this, if I win: I'll ask you to marry me."
Shocked by the declaration, Halibel's cheeks blushed. So much had happened between the two that she'd never even thought of actually tying the knot with her student, even after she got knocked up. Smiling behind her mask, Halibel nodded. "I accept. And if I win…" Her emerald eyes flashed with seduction. "I'll ask for you to make me more children."
"Are you sure you can handle more?"
"I have had a lot of time to think about what I am. I am a Hollow that does not devour other Hollows or Souls. I'm an Arrancar that trained a Soul Reaper. I have a hole in my womb and yet I can bear children. I am ruled by Sacrifice, yet in my final hour I realized there are some things I could never give up. I am a contradiction. So I think I'll contradict my own nature." She looked down at her beautiful baby girl and a tear ran down her cheek. "I am the Aspect of Life: Birth."
Looking at his lover and secret trainer with loving eyes, Ichigo unzipped her jacket and kissed her mask. "Deal." Looking back down at Asahi, he had a thought. "I wonder what Asahi's heart's desire was when Aizen dropped the Hogyoku into her lap?"
"Hmm…" Halibel thought about it and knew the answer. "I think…it was for the most childish desire of all."
"What?" Ichigo asked before Asahi woke up and started reaching for her father. Halibel handed his baby over to him. And as the parents fawned over their precious daughter, Halibel whispered the answer into his ear.
"She wished for a happy ending."
To be concluded
A.N.: Lemon coming next chapter!