Not all truths set one free.
There are truths that remain despite their unpleasant nature. Truths that make the world seem a little uglier, a little more hopeless. And no matter how much one wants to cringe and protest against their existence, truth does not change.
Not all truths should be shared.
In this Aizen taught them all—every hand you hold out can be slapped away. Every trust you give away can be betrayed. Everyone can be used, manipulated, discarded.
This is truth.
This was the truth of Rukia's body, of Orihime's power, of Ichigo's invasion, and Urahara's meddling. Aizen made them pawns in a game they weren't aware of; used their attachments and loyalties to goad them into his schemes. They ran headlong from goal to goal, made promises and changed the world—and in the end they were puppets tangling from a string.
Momo Hinamori knows seven different routes to get to Aizen's old office. She has never dared walk more than a few steps down each of them.
This is Aizen's truth—it exists in the smiling face of a captain who's gentle voice polluted minds and twisted realities. It lives in the knowledge that a man who called himself comrade can spend centuries plotting the destruction of everything they knew. It is a truth that settles heavy and bitter; a bruise on the soul.
Sajin Komamura never thought there would be something that could hurt him as deep as being born a beast with a soul. Then he had faith in a blind man.
He was still betrayed.
A decade passes and then another. The land heals and lives continue. Time moves and duties bind.
Truth is a cutting thing and conviction a sharper blade. Between might and right they have learned to live a little more cautiously.
Shigekuni Yamamoto-Genryūsai is old. In his lifetime he has seen the rise of modern Soul Society and the near destruction of everything he has ever known. He is powerful and wise and a ruler in everyway one can be a ruler.
But he is already so very tired.
He does not think he can survive another of his children turning on their brothers and sisters.
Rukongai transforms the closer one gets to central Seireitei. It's not that the buildings become something grander or that the Marketplace gains a level of opulence not seen in the edges of Rukongai. In fact, many of the same trinkets can be found in Rukongai District 3 and District 73, give or take a little bit more bloodshed.
It's the people that change. There is something less or more in the people. They lose a tightness in their eyes, a hunched tilt of their shoulders. Most would say the people gain more humanity; act a little more like their fellow man is not measured in how much blood will coat a knife's edge.
But those that have lived on that knife's edge see a little differently. They see everyone else a little more faded. A little more blind. Deaf to the utter conscious of one's self that is experienced in the second before a fatal blow.
If Ichigo was honest he'd admit he'd been more than a little deaf most of his adult life, long after the adventure of his youth was sealed away. But there is no regret.
He knows he was happier as the jiji of a hoard of children; some his, many not. He knows he became a man not in the blind rage and pride that consumed him when defending everything that he claimed, but in the first cry of his daughter's birth, in the soft sigh of his sister on her wedding day, in the skilled hands of a doctor that saved life in a very different way.
Except…in waking once again, in what might be his third, fourth, or even tenth life, he finds himself, for the first time, aware of the strange tapestry of his life. There was a reason he chose to forget a lifetime of battles.
He doesn't know how he hasn't broken, but he knows he might very well have if he'd chosen to remember the color of Yuzu's blood spilled on her favorite flowers. A lifetime later and he recognizes both his rage and stupidity and knows that he wouldn't have lived long after losing Yuzu the way he had. And all the justification he needs lies in the memories of Karin: Her first day of university, her flushed face the first time she brought a boy home to meet him, the reluctantly sweet smile anytime she talked about her children.
Except…many things are still broken within him. He still sees Rengi falling, Rukia bleeding, Ishida defeated, Orihime screaming her despair, Chad broken even after giving everything he was. Still sees his father…his father…still sees Yuzu…
Morosely, Ichigo realizes a war's worth of post-traumatic stress has just been shoved in his head along with the knowledge of his existence's strange duality. He knows if he stops to mope a second too long, the fragile threats of his existence might very well fray.
So he doesn't.
He's a man—boy—on a mission.
Seireitei regretted meeting him as a stupid overpowered boy on a mission to save a condemned Shinigami. They'll need more than the afterlife's grace to survive him after several lifetimes' worth of patience and cunning has been forcibly shoved into his skull.
He might very well be breaking at the seams, but even at the height of his stupidity he'd known life spent brooding was life wasted.
And this time he has seen enough grief and despair—counseled a host of people lost to it—to know he is suffering in his own way. For him, memories of the war live too closely to his heart. Time has lost its linearity. A century-old battlefield smelling of bitter dust and steel is just as clear as the scent of heavy wine toasted the day of his wedding. His father's eyes were bright both in the face of his old man and his grandson Murai.
He needed…He just needed to see. Needed to see a point in time, a reference, that would settle all the muddled thoughts in his head. He needed to know the war was over, his soldiers at peace, and their home safe.
He most definitely did not need to see his little sister caught up in some old man's paranoia.
The world flashed bellow him, hills and houses there and gone as he traveled as only he could travel. Though many a shinigami had thought the form of his zanpakuto a mockery of their own (who the hell got a simple black katana as bankai?) it had known what even Ichigo hadn't.
He was built for speed.
A flutter in the wind, a howl through the heavens—he lived in the moment.
He knew better than to walk up to Seireitei's gatekeeper and arm-wrestle the right to enter from him. Honestly, what sort of secrecy did that provide for his clandestine mission? Because this time he fought alone and distractions were not running alongside him.
Besides, as the sort of man that nearly gave his life countless times for a woman who saved his family, there was little question of what he would give for his family itself.
This time nothing could be left to chance. At least nothing he could help. Truthfully, while not everything was in his control, he would assure as much as he could.
In the outer districts, with distinct hair bound by an un-dyed cloth, he purchased an herbal mix meant to dye his hair. Under a strange moon next to a river, his bright hair softened to a muted brown. It is a nostalgic color and the most natural on his face because he recognized it as the same shade belonging to Yuzu and his Mother. Away from the bright hair of his youth, his face was less harsh and sharp. Softer and more like the child he was pretending to be.
But no one could mistake him for a Rukongai newly arrived spirit, even if he was. His eyes were too aware for that. And that was one thing he would not be able to hide.
Fingers trailing across his always startling youthful face, Ichigo decided he would have to be a rough and tumble street child. It was about time Renji was an inspiration to anyone.
It took eight days to find who he needed and four more to move into place. Infiltration was never a skill practiced on a battlefield. He'd always been more of a blown-them-up-and-be-done-with-it sort of Living Shinigami.
But in the end he found what he wanted. Tenzou—the only name a local group of street kids knew—was young, loud, and, most of all, a Shinigami applicant form District 15. By the time Ichigo arranged to run into him, Tenzou had been joined by one other child—a girl named Suzuki.
Tenzou was a wonderful mix of stubbornness and pride. He made it no secret he was going to knock on the very gates of Seireitei to be a Shinigami and it remained inconceivable he wouldn't be chosen. Despite the disgruntled cringe on dubbing him as such, Tenzou became his "Ichigo". The flashy ticket needed to pave his way into the Academy and through that into Seireitei itself.
On the final day of Ichigo's reconnaissance, Tenzou and Suzuki stopped for the night at an empty lot. Scavenging for what little firewood they found, they lit a small fire. By the time Ichigo walked up to them they were more than half-asleep.
Suzuki blinked up at him. A very real part of him wanted to flame her ass—what the hell kinda instincts were those? Any half decent hollow would have tasted flesh before she'd even known there was danger.
Kids. (Ichigo had always been good at ignoring unfavorable comparisons to himself.)
Tenzou—half-decent as he was—showed a great deal more promise. The gangly boy nearly stumbled as he tried to get up but instead of wasting time correcting his stance he sprang back, giving himself more room to see the threat and plan a follow-up move.
"Yo." Ichigo cheerfully repeated. "You Tenzou?"
The boy narrowed grey eyes. "Yeah. What of it?"
Some part of him cringed at his "Ichigo". To be as blunt and straightforward as that again. But luckily he knew exactly how to deal with Tenzou. Ichigo kept his hands free, body relaxed, and eyes focused solely on Tenzou (nothing could quite raise his hackles like an enemy targeting a companion).
"I heard you're traveling to Seireitei. Can I come?" Simple and clear, give no reason to doubt. And if Tenzou was anything like Ichigo, he would appreciate straightforward questions. Even after a lifetime he'd never had any patience for the type of people who played with words.
Tenzou blinked at him, expression slightly dumbfounded. Scowling at the inconvenience that forced him to make a decision, Tenzou frowned back at him, "Why?"
Easily slouched with teenage insolence, Ichigo didn't pause as he truthfully answered. "My sister went away to be Shinigami. I'm gonna be one too." Hunching a bit defensively he added, "Besides, everyone else already headed off."
"Course they have, kid." Tenzou scoffed at the physically younger Ichigo. "This year's Shinigami classes will begin in less than a week. If we miss opening day, it means another year of waiting. You sure about this kid? Shinigami is not all about spells and techniques—you'll probably be the smallest kid in there."
Ichigo didn't even have to pretend to scowl. "I can do it. Probably a lot better than either of you!"
"Watch it boy, else we'll leave you here." Tenzou scowled back. And though it was clear Tenzou had misgivings about the whole thing, in the end Ichigo had approached Tenzou because he reminded him of himself. Despite his concern, Tenzou, like Ichigo, would not stand in his way.
"Whatever kid. But you're on your own if you don't pass the Academy Entrance Exam."
"Right!" Ichigo paused. "What entrance exam?"
The older boy could only eye him. "You sure about this Shinigami thing, kid?"
Neither of those watching could quite explain what set of the young brown-haired, brown-eyed boy in their midst laughing. They could only wonder why he couldn't seem to stop.
But Ichigo could tell them (if only he could stop laughing), some things just weren't funny (even when they hopelessly were).
There's a reason behind the most innocuous of things. That is a truer sentiment no where else but in a society like that of the Shinigami. The long memories of its inhabitants create habits that become traditions that are made into doctrine.
That is how it begins.
So by the time Ichigo comes tumbling into tradition set in stone (but breakable still) there is some doctrine even he has never thought to break.
He says nothing as a seamstress and her assistant fit him into pre-made shihakushō, the Shinigami's black uniform. But inwardly it is the first time (much to his chagrin) that he has stopped to consider why Shinigami (and even Arrancar) dress as they do when Vizards have always been insolently casual in their attire.
"Woven and stitched with protection against small kudo spells and made for durability," the seamstress murmured as she collected various articles into a neat pile.
A nearby off-duty Shinigami, arm in a sling and bandages disappearing into his chest, snorted.
("We are their enemy!" Ichigo remembers a veteran Shinigami telling a young rookie, solemn back stiff as they sent off the victims of a Hollow's attack. "Before they go after another, they know the moment they see us, they'd better pay attention to us before we tear them apart!")
(Hirako Shinji ruffled his dirty blond hair, his tan cap coated in a fine layer of dust and sneer not quite hidden beneath his ever-present Cheshire grin. "They're too afraid of what we became to ever accept us as one of them.")
(Blind eyes stared straight ahead even as the world burned, white uniform reduced to rags on a bleeding body, "AIZEN-SAMA!")
(Mizuiro beamed even as Keigo and Tatsuki scuffled a bit. "Hold still for the picture!"
"I'm so happy Kurosaki-kun." Orihime whispered as she straightened his school uniform. He didn't say anything, merely smiling back. On his other side, Ishida stood stiffly and only Ichigo would ever know when the other boy bumped his own agreement.
"Yeah. Me too."
They were graduating.)
Ichigo lets his lips curl at the seamstress. He thinks he knows the true reason behind her first-year Academy explanation. And it has little to do with its durability.
"There you go, dear, that should be enough uniforms for the time being. You'll be responsible for making your own repairs with your own reiatsu."
"Thank you, ma'am"
Ichigo moves from his place in line. As he walks toward his new room assignment, his eyes land on Tenzou. The boy's hands are full with his own uniform and it's clear Tenzou is lost from the way his eyes keep shifting around looking for a clue.
Scowling at the reminder, Ichigo jogs up to him and is not very careful as he jabs his shoulder into the middle of Tensor's unprotected back.
"HEY! What the hell was that for?"
Ichigo glared back. "'Academy Entrance Exam'? Could you have been any more unhelpful? The most we had to do was flare our reiatsu!"
Miffed, Tenzou straightened. "I thought you knew!"
Ichigo merely rolled his eyes. "I do now! No thanks—...Hey, hold up! This is our dormitory!"
Distracted, both boys pushed a plain door open. For a moment neither moved. Six bunk beds lined the wall and medium-sized bureaus separated the beds alongside one wall. On the other side a long row of desks lay bare.
Already more than half the beds were occupied, the chatter of boys giving the room life. But it was not enough to disguise the bare and colorless furnishing. Flinging his newly issued uniform and the bag that had accompanied him since his awakening onto one of the empty top bunks, Ichigo climbed up.
A half-laugh and sigh later, he buried his head into a newly starched pillow.
Dear Kami, he'd just joined the military.
Worse yet, he was considering toppling the very same institution.
Ghostly cracking touched his senses. His Other's presence rose in his mind. 'It's damn well time you stopped sacrificing yourself for the shit Shinigami.'
'Take her back.' Zangetsu agreed.
Hidden as he was, Ichigo felt his lips curl into a wild grin. For a moment his face was fierce and bright with too many teeth.
He was in Seireitei.
26 June 2009
AN1: Guess who's back? Thanks to all who've appreciated and loved this story while I angsted about my writer's bloc. Currently (and very unexpectedly) I'm in the middle of a writer's splurge. These past few days I've been finishing up all the forgotten chapters' on my computer.
Thanks Shadow Rebirth for going over my rough draft.