Thanks go to Slyfer101 for pre-reading and editing, as well as for the title.
A Bleach one-shot.
"To really touch the sky."
Ichigo heaved, feeling the blood splattering down his chest. He wiped his mouth absently, not even noticing the red stains left on his sleeve.
Aizen's kido was scarily powerful. That last one almost broke him.
Ichigo heard a loud, hissing sound, only partially recognizing it at his own ragged breathing. There was steam rising form his back, smoke coiling around him, spiritual force in visible spectrum. Unfocused. Weak. But still there.
He was still. Standing.
The hollow mask was broken, even if the power still pulsed faintly. He'd bet his eyes were yellow still. Yellow and black. The pieces of the mask were still clinging to his cheeks, but he didn't feel that inner bastard howling. Or laughing. Or even speaking.
The blond wavered, stabbing Zangetsu to the floor of the ruined chamber.
Their fight started here, raged across Hueco Mundo... Only to end back here.
Ichigo gritted his teeth, drawing himself up to look at the corner of the chamber.
"...still... breathing...?" The shinigami spat the blood that lingered in his mouth form one of rogue captain's strikes.
The prone form didn't respond, but Ichigo saw the eyes focus on him dazedly and the right arm twitch towards the cracked zanpakuto.
"Don't.. even think about it... bastard..." Ichigo heaved, taking a step towards Aizen, Zangetsu leaving sparks as he dragged it.
Aizen somehow found the strength to raise his face and Ichigo would wince, had he the strength.
The Getsuga Tenshou he used on the renegade was unlike anything he ever did before. It wasn't blue, like the usual. it wasn't black. It was white. Like the moonlight. And Ichigo felt it... twisting. Moving. Ripping.
It was pure instinct. beyond rage, beyond anger, beyond ideals or any conscious thought.
It cut through Aizen's kido, cut through his zanpakuto and all but flayed the man himself.
"See where.. your madness got you... bastard?" Ichigo hobbled to the fallen shinigami.
Aizen's broken, bleeding lips opened, a loud gurgle escaping, along with a line of blood. A cough shook his broken body, splattering the blood over his chest. And impossibly, died red with his escaping life, Aizen's lips twitched. And twisted, letting out a faint sound, between a hiss and a gurgle.
Ichigo looked at the man for a moment. There was something...
'...what is he...?'
The blond's yellow eyes widened.
Aizen was... smiling. And laughing. With blood splattering, cough wreaking the broken body, Aizen Sosuke's was laughing, that damnable, self assured yet amiable smile on his face that pissed Ichigo so fucking much. The bastard was dying, bleeding his life's blood, bleeding leftover reiatsu by the second with each raspy chuckle.
And he was laughing.
"...Gran... de... Cero..." Aizen whispered through his hacking laugh. "...mag...nificent... Ichigo...kun..." A gurgling cough wrecked his body and Aizen tensed in pain, yet didn't stop laughing. "Everything... Everything... is as it should be... now."
Ichigo's hands tensed on Zangetsu's hilt.
"What are you blathering about... You lost!" He spat. "You have nothing! NOTHING!"
Aizen looked at Ichigo, that damnable smile never leaving his lips. If anything, it got even wider as a chuckle escaped his lips.
A broken, bleeding hand twitched, moving to the side and Ichigo raised Zangetsu as Aizen's palm rose, shaking.
'...kido...?' The blond thought, getting ready for the last ditch effort. 'Is he...' Ichigo blinked owlishly.
There was no reiatsu, no action. Nothing. Just...
'He is... pointing at somet-' Ichigo's eyes followed the direction, only to widen.
"...Hogyoku..." He whispered, looking at the small, black orb on the pedestal. It looked exactly the way Urahara described.. Only it was... cracked?
'No... Not cracked it is... broken.' Ichigo realized.
There were cracks, chips and breaks all over the surface. The orb looked to be ready to fall apart at the barest gust of wind. And it was breaking before his eyes, the black shell falling off with each second, flaking away as if... burned...
Ichigo's head snapped to Aizen faster than he believed himself possible.
"You bastard... What are you-!"
"I have...not...thing?" Aizen let his palm fall. "Ichigo...kun..." a genuine smile bloomed on Aizen Sosuke's face. A true, warm and friendly smile, not just the bland facade of an amiable shinigami or the amused ruler. It was just a smile. A true smile without reservation or any lingering hatred, one shared between best friends. "Ichigo...kun..." Aizen closed his eyes. "I... have... everything."
Ichigo's eyes widened as the fallen captain grasped his zanpakuto with amazing swiftness.
Aizen's voice was barely above a strained whisper now.
"Shatter... Kyouka Suigetsu."
The sword shattered.
The world with it.
Ichigo cursed, jumping up.
A loud crack resounded and Ichigo's hand instinctively gripped Zangetsu to...
The blond blinked, looking at his palms.
His empty palms. His non-bleeding, clean and Zangetsu-less palms.
"...what the...?" He muttered, scowling, turning around quickly at the swishing sound, only to freeze. "...this is... absurd." He muttered numbly.
The trees swayed gently in the lazily, afternoon breeze, the air blowing through the open window and ruffling the covering of the table.
Ichigo's eyes widened, taking in a spacious, yet oddly cozy room filled with traditional wooden furniture. Every bit of wood was obviously cared for and clean, yet worn it that warm, dignified way only homes could be.
It was warm, comfortable, cozy and...
...and there was even a freshly made, steaming cup of tea in front of him.
"What the fuck?" The blond muttered, eyeing his surroundings warily. 'An illusion? is he-?'
"Ah, Ichigo-kun, give me a second, I will be right with you." Came the cheerful voice form the side. "I just need to bring some snacks."
Ichigo cursed, turning to the side, only to see doors sliding open.
"...YOU!" The blond snarled as Aizen, clad in a simple kimono, the oh-so-familiar smile on his face walked in carrying... cookies?
Ichigo blinked owlishly.
"Please, help yourself." The man said cheerfully. "I might not be the best cook, but I had a long itme to learn. If I might be immodest, I think they are quite good." He slid one of the trays toward Ichigo. "Try the salty ones. They go surprisingly good with tea." Aizen said cheerfully.
"...Fuck you and your cookies, bastard!" Ichigo snarled, shaking off his momentary stupor. "What the hell did you do now?!"
Aizen raised an eyebrow.
"Now, Ichigo-kun... No need to shout. I have normal cookies too." He pointed at the tray. "Though given your penchant for spicier food, I thought you'd like the salty ones better."
"I don't giv a-" Ichigo trailed off, his eyes narrowing. "...how did you.."
"Know?" Aizen smiled. "Ichigo-kun... You might say it is my duty... no, my right to know. My... privilege, even."
"This is... this thing is one of your illusions, isn't it?" Ichigo scowled.
"A part of my bankai, yes." The former captain nodded, sipping the tea. "Nice, isn't it? I spent a lot time on the details here. Though to call it an illusion..." Aizen frowned thoughtfully. "It is closer to my core." he looked at Ichigo's confused expression. "I believe you refer to it as Inner World."
"...This..." Ichigo's eyes widened. "You can do something like-?"
"Closer. Not completely there." Aizen corrected the blond. "It is the basis of Kyouka Suigetsu's power, really. To show others that I want them to see, I must use a part of myself. Like an actor on the stage. If I don't believe it, at least a little, it can't work." The older man smiled. "Such a troublesome power it is, don't you think?"
Ichigo was silent for a moment, gritting his teeth, eyes boring into the smiling visage.
"What are you planning now?" He gritted out finally. "What are you scheming, you bastard? Another of your plots? I won't fall for it!"
Aizen laughed, an oddly merry, carefree sound.
"Plots? Ichigo-kun... I don't plan anything." He said with amusement. "Time for plots and schemes is over. Or rather, I should say it is over, because there is no need for it anymore. Not at this point." Aizen bowed his head to Ichigo, smiling earnestly. "From the bottom of my heart... Thank you, Ichigo-kun."
"I smashed your plans to pieces, ripped through your arrancar and killed you-" Ichigo muttered, looking at former shinigami with confusion.
"Indeed, you did." Aizen nodded. "Well, almost." He added with a thoughtful frown. "Dealt mortal amounts of damage would be more appropriate, I believe. Dealt out splendidly, with a magnificent show of Vaizard power, I must point out." He said cheerfully.
"...the hell you...?"
"I imagine you must be confused right now." Aizen chuckled. "I'm sorry. I'm getting ahead of myself."
"You... you are scheming something..." Ichigo growled, fists clenching. "You bastard, what have you-?!"
Aizen shook his head with exasperated amusement.
"I told you, Ichigo-kun. Time for scheming or plotting has come to an end." The ex-captain smiled. "You saw to that. Quite literally and thoroughly, if I might add." He sighed. "A shame, I'd have liked to see it to the end but... Well, what can you do?" The older man shrugged, smiling. "I wasn't so arrogant to believe this wouldn't happen." He took a sip form his cup. "Success has its price, as anything in this world."
"Success...?" Ichigo scowled. "Even if I didn't smash your arrancar - and you - Hogyoku's broken. I've seen the sorry state it is in." The blond smirked. "Inoue told me, you know. Now that we saved her, you have no way to repair it. It's broken for good."
"Broken? Oh my, is that what you think?" Aizen said with amusement.
"And what's so funny, bastard?" Ichigo growled. "I'm the one who should be laughing now. No more arrancar for you. Try to become god NOW." He said smugly.
"...Becoming a god?" Aizen shook his head. "And who said I want to become god?"
"Don't play games with me, bastard!" The blond scoffed. "Yamamoto told us all about it. The Ou Ken, Spirit King... Everything! And you said it yourself, didn't you?"
Aizen nodded thoughtfully.
"I guess it might be seen that way." He admitted. "Though becoming god... Ah, not exactly. What I wanted was to surpass god. That was my intention. Quite a bit of difference there, Ichigo-kun."
"How is it any..." Ichigo blinked. "...Was?
"One speaks of successes in past tense, does he not?" Aizen said cheerfully, taking one of the cookies and chewing with obvious relish.
Ichigo glared at his nemesis suspiciously.
"I'm sorry, I imagine, from your point of view, I am not making much sense, do I?" Aizen said taking another cookie.
Ichigo gritted his teeth.
"Sorry, sorry." The ex-captain chuckled. "Sometimes I just... Forgive me. As I said, this must be really confusing for you. Though I fear that my explanations won't make it any easier." He gazed at the salty treat thoughtfully, before biting into it. "Quite the contrary, I think. though I owe you the explanation none the less."
"If you want to explain, then explain already!" Ichigo snapped, slamming his fist at the table.
"Now, now... Ichigo-kun." Aizen frowned with disapproval. "Since it is the finale, allowing me a grace of a proper final exposition would be only proper, no?" He smiled. "A privilege of the villain, I believe. Like in those American comic books... You liked them quite a bit, didn't you?"
"...how do you know that?"
"Ichigo-kun, really..." Aizen shook his head. "I've put too much effort and attention into you not to know."
"...what?" He said after a long moment.
Aizen swirled his tea gently, looking into the cup, a thoughtful look on his face, before he looked at Ichigo.
"Have you noticed something interesting about your friends, Ichigo-kun?" he said finally.
"About their power, I mean." The ex-captain took a sip of his tea. "Shinigami can spend centuries climbing the ranks and exploring their power - decades at the least, in case of exceptional talents. Even hollows, eating souls as fast as they can, gain power slowly, gradually as they age and devour spiritual energy. Yet it took... what, a year? Less even, for your friend Sado to go from mildly spiritually average face in the crowd into a person who can crush arrancar barehanded. A feat a bankai-possessing shinigami of exceptional power would be hard pressed to equal. The Quincy boy - a teenager, already as powerful as any shinigami. Or your friend, Orihime. Her powers, deceptively weak looking and yet such terrifying power when you start looking deeper. Even that Tatsuki girl, and your two friends..." Aizen smiled faintly. "Oh yes, give them a right push and I believe they would prove every bit as capable as your comrades." He looked at Ichigo. "Have you ever wondered how was that possible, Ichigo-kun? How could something like this happen?"
"If you know so much, shouldn't you know already?" Ichigo scowled. "They got a dose of my reiatsu for years."
"Your powers acted just as a catalyst, Ichigo." Aizen shook his head. "Really, you didn't GIVE them power - they always had it. You just uncovered it. Rest was purely their own."
"So?" Ichigo shrugged.
"So?" Aizen raised an eyebrow. "Isn't it fascinating? The diversity, the rapid power boost, the sheer, unbridled POTENTIAL of a human being?"
"...what are you talking about?"
"Shikai. Bankai. That's it." Aizen said, looking at Ichigo. "Oh, one might get stronger or weaker, when it comes to reserves and power used, but that is pretty much it. Without kido, that is the extent of shinigami's innate power. At first, I thought hollows were the key. But hollows... Hollows also have their limits." He sighed. "I understood that pretty early on. The first conclusion was to somehow merge both, creating a being who'd have both the power and versatility but..." Aizen shrugged. "For my goals, that would not be enough. It took me centuries to understand that both shinigami and hollows had the same problem - despite the innate power, their path was set. Their growth was limited. Any merger would bring a boost in power, yes. But it still would be there, that damnable limitation. Vaizards, as rare as they were, were a proof."
"So you went after Hogyoku." Ichigo's eyes narrowed.
"...And what gave you that idea?" He asked curiously.
"Well, you said that..."
"I was already past my experiments with hollows then." Aizen shook his head. "Oh, I never had such a... spectacular sucess like Urahara did with Hogyoku, but it was hardly needed. I could see where the path would eventually lead from my experiments and the Vaizard I managed to study. So... Not hollow, not shinigami, not a hybrid... What was left?"
Ichigo's eyes widened.
"...you're kidding me..." He whispered, blanching.
"Human." Aizen smiled faintly. "Human, not a dead soul, nor a broken predatory one, but a human. A living human, who had all the potential for diversity to mold... But none of the power. Human being was the catalyst." He took a sip of his tea. "Of course, human lives are short and time is needed to get the power. Time and proper... conditions. Conditions human beings are unable to meet... Not unless one uses some improvements." The ex-captain smiled faintly. "Like a power of a fully matured shinigami who explored the limits of his powers, attaining his bankai. In other words, a captain. Of course, the temporary loss of the reiatsu reserve would be a side effect, but..." Aizen shrugged.
"You were born with a shard of his power already, the so called 'true blood'. I just... enhanced the process a little."
"You... I... my parents..." Ichigo hissed. "You bastard, you used that fucking zanpakuto on my father and mom?! You...!"
"Actually, no." Aizen said calmly. "Your father was a fortunate accident. I simply used the opportunity that presented itself. Isshin was always unpredictable. Imagine my surprise when fate simply handed me the solution to my problems."
"And I'm supposed to believe you?!" Ichigo snarled.
"Believe what you will." Aizen shrugged. "But it won't change the truth. After I expire, so will the effects of Kyouka Suigetsu, you can ask him then." The ex-shinigami shook his head. "I must say your birth didn't just live up to me expectations. It exceeded them on every level. Even then I could feel the pulse of power welling in you." He smiled. "I was there, watching you, you know. I felt as ridiculously proud of your first steps and words as Isshin did." He sighed sadly. "I couldn't keep my eye on you regularly at first, even with my underlings. Which was such a shame. I liked your mother, you know. I even talked with her quite a few times. She was a good person. I was genuinely sad to learn of her fate."
"This is bullshit!" Ichigo snapped. "I don't believe you! If you really kept tabs on me, then you'd have known I became a shinigami, knew about Rukia... You'd have stopped Byakuya from skewering me!" He pointed at Aizen accusingly. "So fuck you, and your fucking bullshit story!"
"Stopped it?" Aizen said with amusement. "Ichigo-kun... Why should I stop something I took so much effort to arrange?"
Ichigo glared at the older man.
"I made sure Byakuya didn't kill you, but that he'd cut the center of your 'borrowed' power. There was only one way for you, a living human but a true blood, to regain shinigami abilities... and something extra." Aizen smiled.
Ichigo's eyes widened.
"It was a gamble, I admit." Aizen nodded. "But I believed in your power, just as I believed in Urahara's talents." He put away the empty cup. "I must say, you have mastered your Vaizard abilities far faster than I expected, Ichigo-kun. I underestimated that willpower of yours. Or your growth. And your friends are an excellent addition." Aizen shook his head with obvious wonder. "That young man is amazing enough, but the girl... Closest to god, indeed. Fascinating array of powers, really. And so much yet untapped potential."
Ichigo's hands clenched.
"...Even if I believe you...you lost." he spat. "Whatever you wanted, it just blew the FUCK up in your face, bastard. I won't help you!"
"Ichigo-kun... You already did." Aizen smiled.
"I'm not your goddamn puppet! I'm not like that freaky bastard Gin either! I am not some pawn to be manipulated by your freaky games!" The blond snarled.
"Pawn?" Aizen shook his head. "Ichigo... You misunderstand. You- There was a sudden shudder and the whole scenery wavered, like the air on a hot day,
The older man frowned, looking at the ceiling.
"So. Already. Faster than I expected." He said thoughtfully, before looking at Ichigo with faint smile. "Just as impatient as its master, hmm? Ah, to be expected, I guess."
"...you bastard! Another of your tricks?!" Ichigo jumped up. "I knew it!"
"Not entirely mine, I assure you." Aizen said cheerfully. "As much as I would like to claim responsibility, this honor is shared between myself, Urahara and, of course, you."
"...what?" Ichigo looked at the ex-shinigami suspiciously.
"Hogyoku is finally waking up, Ichigo." Aizen said, looking at the blond.
"But it was broken!" Ichigo protested.
"Broken?" The older man laughed. "No. It had been waking up. Now, it is finally ready to fulfill its true purpose. It has been waiting... ever since it was created, for the right being, the right master." Aizen looked at Ichigo, amusement in his eyes. "Shinigami. Hollow. Human. All of them and more than just a sum of the parts."
Ichigo felt his hair standing on his neck as a slow understanding dawned and the pieces fell into place.
"You were never a pawn, Ichigo." Aizen smiled. "You were, are and always will be the most important piece on the board."
"...you are insane...!" Ichigo screamed as the scenery slowly started to unravel, the shakes growing in intensity.
"Most propably, yes." Aizen nodded cheerfully. "But the long vacancy on the throne of heaven will end soon. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow. But it will."
"No way! This is insane, you are insane!" Ichigo snarled. "I'm not going to do it!"
"Ichigo... You don't have a choice." Aizen took one of the cookies, unperturbed by the constant shakes or the illusionary world falling apart. "Besides, Ichigo-kun... If you won't, who will?"
"Well it won't be me!"
"Think what you will." Aizen smiled, biting in the cookie. "I wish you luck in whatever path you take, Ichigo-kun." The ex-shinigami got up, walking towards the door, before halting and turning to Ichigo. "If I might trouble you a little... Please, tell Orihime-san I greatly enjoyed our little talks. She is a most amazing young woman and I wish her luck." He frowned thoughtfully. "You recruited an Espada... Nell, I believe? She should be able to access one of my old bases. Whatever data yet there you can give to Urahara. But please - give any remaining funds to Orihime-san. I am sure she can use them in an interesting way." He chuckled under his breath, before sliding the door open. "I believe this is the goodbye, Ichigo-kun. Kyouka Suigetsu won't be able to hold any longer." He smiled nodding to Ichigo. "For what it is worth... This was a good run and I have no regrets. Farewell, Ichigo." Aizen's lips twitched. "Or... should it be your majesty?"
Even as the world shattered, Aizen's chuckle resounded clearly.
It was white.
It was silver.
It was cobalt.
It didn't really have a color. But it shone, so Ichigo saw white. Or so he thought.
It was an orb. He thought.
Well, it looked like one. It... purred. There was no other word to describe it. It sang. It hovered in front of him.
He couldn't move. He was hovering as well, in the milky whiteness.
"I'm not taking you." He said after a long moment of glaring.
Hogyoku shone little brighter, its song resounding in his mind.
"And I am getting out of here." Ichigo growled.
The song turned into litlting note tha was disturbingly like laughter.
"...what the hell...?" He looked around, noticing the familiar surroundings of the ruined throne chamber.
"...I am... back?" He said out loud. "Man..." He slumped with relief. "That was so real... damn but that thing can fuck the mind up..." He looked down at Aizen's body. Or rather a mess of slowly dissolving spirit particles.
Oh, it wasn't immediate, but he knew a corpse when he saw one. And his Getsuga Tenshou already started the process. Now, with the bastard dead...
"Rest in pieces, bastard." Ichigo muttered, hobbling to the exit.
In the inner world, Zangetsu nodded, feeling his partner's satisfaction.
The sky was clear now. It didn't rain and the buildings were sturdier and more solid than ever.
The spirit looked up to the clear sky, staring at the sun that glinted merrily, basking the surrounding with its glow and chasing away any gloom that might have lingered.
For the briefest of moments, the sun wavered, changing colors, turning silver, white and gaining a cobalt like shine before turning into cheerful yellow.
Zangetsu smiled faintly.
At least it wasn't raining now.