(AUTHOR'S NOTE: Aright, sorry for my former outburst (and delay in updating) XD I deleted the warning-chapter just as I said I would, since ALC's "reviews" were removed finally. On with the goodness!)
It was never an honorable gesture to interrupt a Shinigami's battle with a formidable opponant. As it had been asked about in the past, the fact remained that there would only be one warrior per enemy, and no more...therefore, Byakuya Kuchiki waited and watched for the moment where Kenpachi might fall in combat. Having Gin taken back to Soul Society was already a victory for them, and his formal execution would usher a wave of relief over all those who had been involved in that fight since he, Aizen and Tousen defected from the Thirteen Protection Squads. Byakuya was anxious, however, wanting a crack at the betrayer himself and give him a taste of what it's like to be at the receiving end of a horrible nightmare. He was determined to show Aizen was it was like to feel fear and helplessness, an expression he'd lacked to such a degree that all the Hollow of Hueco Mundo bowed before him for it.
He watched from the top of a small restaurant, Kenpachi and Aizen's battle taking place high above. Both appeared to be fairly stoked about it, neither having landed a single blow against the other, but each feeling confidant that the other was still hiding the bulk of their strength.
"Come on, come on!" Zaraki taunted, "Stop with the act, I know you've got more to show than this." Yachiru was still tucked under his left arm; he refused to set her down for fear she might be used against him again. He was dubious even of having her alone in Soul Society. No telling what Gin might try there.
"I don't need to show you my true strength in order to defeat you." Aizen mocked, looking cool and casual as he always did.
"Seems you couldn't even get outta Hell with it, can't be that great...prove me wrong!" Zaraki laughed, charging forward again, his trademark yellow sphere glowing around him.
Aizen held that jagged blade at arm's length with ease, leaning in close to sneer at the Captain, "There are powers in this existence you couldn't possibly comprehend." He flung Kenpachi backwards as easily as one might discard a small doll, replacing his blade by his side and watching with cool eyes as the man impacted the earth far below. He hardly seemed interested in finishing the fight, instead turning his attention to Byakuya. "Captain Kuchiki, how very nice to see you again."
The nobleman stood as relaxed as he had before, showing no sign of wariness that might make Aizen overconfident. "You've given us quite a bit of trouble. Unfortunate for you that it will come to an end soon."
Senbonzakura exploded into a flurry of shimmering blades, swirling in a merciless torrent straight for the brown-haired man.
Soul Society was in full alert, squadrons of the best fighters being assembled to head out to the living world. Shinigami's honor or not, Aizen's power was too unpredictable and there had to be an air of certainty that they could still win. They were aware that the Hougyoku required the strength twice that of an average Captain to be activated, but that was fifteen years ago and there was no way of knowing whether Aizen had gained strength since then. There was no way of knowing how the Hougyoku had been used, other than in the creation of Arrancar. They could only hope their worst fears would never manifest.
Gin was already placed in reiatsu restraints and was being relocated to the Shrine of Penitence; there was no question as to why, nor any need to get permission from Central 46. They would only be notified of the actions taken. Rukia still held firmly bitter at Matsumoto for stopping her, and watched angrilly as his slimy self was removed from her sight. It gave her the creeps, even now, that he smiled as he was taken away...like he knew something that no one else did, or that the whole charade was appealing to him even in the face of his own doom. She sheathed her sword finally and gave chase to the Fourth Squad members who were carting Ichigo away.
Hitsugaya was busy gathering his usual brigade, sending swift orders through his squad's ranks. It wasn't long before he felt organized enough to take a moment away from it all and search for his Lieutenant. Shinigami were rushing all around him, all but a scarce few looming overhead by several feet, making it difficult to see anything beyond them; he continued his search from the ledge of a short wall, perched like a small white-haired bird. There, he spotted her in the distance, looking towards the high tower at the top of Seireitei.
"Captain.." She sounded sullen, unlike her normal self.
"We don't have a whole lot of time." Tourshiro said quietly, looking away from the orange-haired woman, "We have to be ready for the invasion. We can't given Aizen time to escape or gather reinforcements. With the Hougyoku, he can still create Arranc--"
"...I know." She said sharply, quickly, "I...I know. We have to go."
He couldn't comprehend why Rangiku felt any sort of remorse for Ichimaru, but her quiet lament was still obvious. He knew little of her history and it made it difficult to rationalize things about her, but he knew to trust her with her thoughts and that even in the face of this situation, she would still do what was right. The pair turned and headed for the Gates, gathering at the forefront of their squadron, which was still small, but growing.
"We'll be ready to move out in a few minutes. Hopefully, Kuchiki and Kenpachi can hold Aizen still until then." Hitsugaya said, crossing his arms tightly over his chest. He looked over the faces of his soldiers; men and women alike, ready to fight for their lives to destroy that ultimate enemy.
"Do you think we can win?" Matsumoto asked, looking down to her Captain.
He closed his eyes and shook his head indifferently, "We either win, or we all die. Whatever the outcome, I don't think anyone would be willing to live on in his twisted world."
"I suppose you're right.." She answered.
"Yeah." Came a voice, one familiar to them, "If there's no hope of victory against him, then the most mercy we can ask for is to be the first ones to die."
"Ikkaku..?" Matsumoto asked, seeing the bald fighter not far off, gathering up his own squad in Kenpachi's place. Presently, as 3rd-seat, he was the highest ranked member of his squad. Yumichika was close by, but didn't have anything to say at the moment, nervous like the rest and anxious at the same time.
"I think we can win though."
"We don't have any idea what Aizen's capable of." Rangiku said pessimistically, "Gin was only easy to catch because he lost the will to fight. Aizen thinks this is all a game."
"Don't worry, Rangiku." Ikkaku said, smiling all cocky-like as he usually did in the face of battle, "So do I."
Orihime was quick to set-up shop in the 4th Squad dojo, keeping away from the busy infirmary where actual injuries were to be treated. Renji, Rukia, Lieutenant Isane and Captain Unohana were there with her, keeping a watchful eye on the downed Shinigami's vital signs while that orange light pulsed all around him. His breathing was weak, but at least he was alive.
"Idiot, you shouldn't have gone in there like that." Renji muttered, "Trying to be all heroic and crap. When will you learn?"
"He needs time, like I said." Orihime said quietly, the dojo peaceful and silent aside from them, "I can tell he's not good at controlling his reiatsu...so this will take longer than it would otherwise, since he's letting a lot of spirit energy go as I infuse it back into him. It's like trying to fill a bucket with holes in it."
"But he'll be okay eventually." Rukia repeated.
"How come he can't contain his spirit energy?" Orihime asked, not in the slightest feeling like she was being too upfront. "Did he flunk out of the Acade--.."
"No." Rukia said sternly, not moving her eyes from where they were locked on Ichigo's face, "It's nothing like that."
"Tsh...gotta explain everything again," Renji grumbled, watching from a few feet away, leaning against the dojo wall. No one seemed to want to take the reigns on that matter and he sighed and looked at the ceiling, "Aright aright, I'll explain it..." Orihime's ears were at attention, "A really long time ago, this moron tried fighting off a Hollow. At the time, he wasn't a departed soul, he wasn't even a Shinigami...he was a normal living human, who just happened to be able to see spirits. Rukia was on a mission to escort a pesky Plus to this side and wound up getting caught up with this kid and his Hollow. He got her badly hurt, and he too--..."
"I gave him my power." Rukia finished, "...I gave it to him."
"Wha-!? All this time!?" Renji was at arms in surprise, "They always said he stole it from you!"
"How would he have known how, huh? He didn't even believe in Shinigami back then, I was the first he'd probably ever seen."
"You freely gave up your Shinigami power?" Orihime asked, still focused on healing, "That's against th-"
"I know, I know...it's against Soul Society's laws. I'm well aware." Rukia felt hounded and irritable, "But it's also a Shinigami's duty to protect people...living and dead alike. I was too hurt, I could barely stand...I told him if he wanted to save his family, much less ourselves, he'd have to become a Shinigami himself. He agreed, and I gave him this power..."
"She had too much taken away and got stranded in the living world." Renji added, "She spent a good few weeks there before folks here started getting suspicious. Captain Kuchiki and I were sent to bring her back, and when we found this twit in a Shinigami uniform and Rukia without one, we knew something bad had happened. Unfortunately...it seems everyone instantly presumed Kurosaki stole Rukia's power. Either way, the fact that her power was in another soul now was brought to Central 46's attention. They decided her act was punishable by death, and she was put into the Shrine of Penitence. It all just gets complicated after that, I'm sure you already know the big Aizen story by now."
"I've heard things." Inoue answered stiffly, "But the study of traitors isn't a regular part of the Academy's training...so what I know is only by what I've been told by others."
"Then it's probably all messed up." Renji grunted, "It's a pretty damn long story. No way you'd know it all."
"So then tell me."
"Tsh..I already said too much."
Rukia relaxed a little bit, sitting cross-legged rather than on her knees, folding her hands together and looking down at them, "It was over fifteen years ago when it started. Captain Sousuke Aizen, formerly of 5th Squad, had long had a plan in mind to obtain the Orb of Distortion and use it to gain immense power, eventually leading him to desire the King's Key. To his advantage, his zanpakuto had the shikai ability to create a near-perfect hallucination."
"I sensed something was wrong when Captain Aizen had been supposedly murdered." Unohana interjected, "Something wasn't right with his body."
"That's right...Aizen staged his own murder in order to put the hierarchy of Soul Society into chaos. Ichigo, at the same time, was infiltrating Soul Society with a few of his friends in order to try and prevent my execution." Rukia paused a moment, unsure whether she should mention that Inoue was one of those friends. She shook her head and continued without it, "He was determined to pay me back for saving his family, by in turn saving me...and so all of these Captains and other Shinigami were trying to keep him and the others from accomplishing their goals. With them and Aizen causing a commotion, no one was able to tell that even more sinister things were taking place."
"The destruction of Central 46, you mean?" Inoue asked.
"That's right. Aizen and Ichimaru Gin had slaughtered the 46 and were issuing orders in their stead, constantly shortening my sentence date."
"Because Aizen was somehow aware that the gigai I had been given while stranded in the living world had been fused with the Hougyoku. Former Captain Urahara had been exiled from Soul Society because of that Orb. I suppose it's logical to believe Aizen knew what would happen to me once word got out that I'd lost my Shinigami powers to a human. It only made sense for the Orb to be buried inside my gigai, since there was no other way to destroy it other than by the Executioner's blade...and since that's where I would inevitably end up..." She tensed her hands, bunching fabric between her fingers, "I was in the Shrine for a short while, and I did get put before that Phoenix-like blade."
"At the same time, Captain Hitsugaya and I became aware of Central 46's fate." Isane added. "It was chaos there towards the end."
"Yeah..." Renji muttered, rubbing the back of his head.
"Ichigo saved me from the blade right as it was about to strike, but its proximity made the Hougyoku obvious..." Rukia continued, "Aizen showed his true colors moments later by reaching right inside my soul to pull the thing out. Despite Ichigo's strength, Aizen cast him off like he was nothing but a fly, and when he had the orb in his possession, he ordered Ichimaru to kill me. My big brother got to me in time, but Aizen, Gin, and their ally Captain Tousen all got pulled into Hueco Mundo before anyone could do anything about it."
"And the Winter War?"
"That happened a while later...for a time, Aizen just sent his newly created super-Hollows to the living world to screw with everyone. I'm still not really sure what he was trying to do for a while, but I know that one time, they sent Arrancar there for the very purpose of distracting us from keeping an eye on one of our own allies. Aizen had taken interest in her power and was determined to take advantage of it for himself. He kidnapped her while the Arrancar fought us. That ally happened to also be one of the people Ichigo had brought to Soul Society to try and save me. Like you said...he leaks reiatsu like a leaky bucket...and that power awakened the strength in some of his closest friends. When that one was taken away, Ichigo once again took up arms to try and save her, just like he'd saved me. He, the Quincy Ishida Uryuu, their friend Chad Yasutora, and later myself and Renji, all went to Hueco Mundo to get her back, even though Soul Society had ordered us not to."
"You all must be very good friends if you'd go all the way to Hueco Mundo to save one of them."
Rukia nodded, "Ichigo fought his way to the bowels of Los Noches in his bid to save her. Consequently, back in the beginning, when Renji and my brother had come to bring my back to Soul Society, Ichigo was stripped of his Shinigami powers. Urahara, the same man who'd given me my gigai, was there to help him, guide him, even train him. Part of the training he used to get Ichigo his power back...also had a side effect."
"I think I've heard this part...about a Shinigami who had Hollow powers without the Hougyoku's involvement?"
"Yes, that's right...that's Ichigo. For a long time, Ichigo couldn't control his Hollow...it would manifest at the worst times. After the first Arrancar invasion, Ichigo finally relented to the fact that he couldn't control his Hollow anymore and sought help."
"Yeah, I remember when that happened..." Renji nodded, "He'd gotten his ass handed to him pretty hardcore by that blue-haired guy. Grimmjow? I think that was his name. I'd been fighting someone else not far away and when all the Arrancar suddenly retreated, I ran up to see if Ichigo's stupid self was okay. I told him that he'd won solely because he was still alive...but he was pissed. He was on the verge of losing it, saying he lost, that he couldn'y protect anyone...I think that was the moment he knew he needed to find a way to control that Hollow of his. It was getting in his way."
"How did you know all that, Renji?" Rukia leered back at him.
Renji shrugged, "Just cuz I don't have sentimental moments with the moron doesn't mean I'm not aware of what's going on. I could sense it. Heck I could see his eye changing right there in the street. Any idiot could see that." He whacked Rukia over the head comically as punishment for doubting him.
She winced, one eye closed as she rubbed the bump, grumbling. Turning back to Inoue, she sighed, "But...yes...his Hollow. You've probably heard about the Vizard...well, Ichigo sought them out. He used their knowledge to get control of that Hollow and then used its power at will in Hueco Mundo in his attempts to save his friend. The problem arose during his last battle there...he was cut down by an incredibly powerful Arrancar and left for dead." She could see Isane cringing at the memory of what was about to be said. "When 4th Squad arrived to help heal everyone's injuries, going against Soul Society themselves, Lieutenant Isane approached Ichigo's body to bring it back to Soul Society for aid. Instead...he started moving against his will. His Hollow had managed to take over and was ignoring Ichigo's injuries. We were forced to retreat and left him behind..."
Renji finally moved in to sit with the group, plopping down unceremoniously, "Aizen took advantage of Ichigo's weakness and let his Hollow gain power in Hueco Mundo. Like other Hollows, it too craved spiritual energy and looked all over for other Hollows to devour. It grew stronger...changing its shape like powerful Hollow do...somehow, after a while, Aizen managed to get it to become a Vasto Lorde. When it did, Aizen took it back to Los Noches and made it into one of his most powerful Espada." Rukia moved her hands to Ichigo's haori and underkimono, parting them slightly to expose the raised, scar-like mark on his abdomen. "While Aizen made the King's Key in the living world, he had Ichigo's inner Hollow destroying Soul Society. It was actually about to kill Rukia..."
"...but Ichigo managed to regain control just in time to stop Ochigi from doing so." Rukia finished, "Aizen returned to Soul Society and he had former Commander-General Yamamoto killed, then used to King's Key. He, Gin, and the Hougyoku all disappeared from the city, and all the Espada he'd brought with him were falling from the sky like dying birds. They were all suffocating, like the Hougyoku's presence was the only thing that kept their bodies stable. Removing it made them weak and they started dying...and so did Ichigo. He had regained his mind but his body was still an Espada's...we wanted to spare him the fate the others were experiencing...and my brother used Konso on him."
"Konso? On a Hollow? That's different.." Inoue was intrigued, "Did it work? Normally you use the sharp part of the blade to purify Hollows.."
"In a weird way, it exorcised the Hollow from Ichigo's body, but at the same time, Ichigo disappeared like all souls do. The problem was that he was already in Soul Society when Konso was performed. You can't return to a place you're already at...and my best guess is that the spiritual particles inside him tried to cover for that and made their way to the living world instead. He was stuck there for fifteen years."
"I'm starting to wonder..." Inoue whispered, "Was I...I mean...did I die during the Winter War? I came to Soul Society fifteen years ago, that is..."
Rukia and Renji exchanged glances, but Renji looked at the healer sternly and seriously, "You probably won't believe anything I say at this point, but the truth is...we knew you when you were still alive."
"Mmm." Renji nodded and leaned back upwards again, "You were Ichigo's friend, as a matter of fact, and the very one Aizen had kidnapped. You think what you're doing now is new to us? Back then, it just wasn't a zanpakuto...your power was in your hairclip things. Ichigo's leaky ways gave you the power to distort time and space, I guess...you could reject an event from ever happening. Right now...do you understand what you're really doing to Ichigo?"
"Well, that is...I'm healing him, right?" She looked uncertain suddenly, not sure she was doing the right thing anymore.
"No...you're rejecting the fact that Ichigo ran his stupid ass into Hell. You're basically restoring him to the way he was right before that moment."
Inoue looked scared suddenly, the light fading from where it had engulfed the Shinigami laying between them. She shook her head, "No, that's not right...the Winter War was won, Aizen was gone, if what you say is true then I wouldn't be dead. I shouldn't be here as I am."
"The war didn't end without casualties." Renji explained, "I know it's hard to take in...but you gotta believe me, cuz I'm not making it up. We were all friends back then, and Rukai and I have been looking for you since.."
"Since what? Since I died? How could I have died if Ichigo won?"
"He didn't win, not by a long shot. The war ended because Aizen disappeared." Rukia said, her voice low, "Every single Soul Society casualty was caused by Ichigo's inner Hollow, before he regained control. I'm sorry, however...that you were also one of those victims.."
"You shouldn't be telling her this." Isane said, "You know better than to do that."
"I don't believe you anyway." Inoue said, "That's one heck of a story. It's nothing like what I heard before." Her sword clicked back into its scabbard and she stood up, "He'll recover on his own now. I don't need to be here anymore.." She took off rather quickly, as if humiliated, her footsteps echoing until the sliding doors at the end of the hall could be heard opening and closing.
Renji and the others sighed, "That's not what I was expecting."
"You're not supposed to tell someone about their old lives." Unohana scolded, "I know she used to be your friend...but she's nothing like that girl anymore. She's totally different, unaffected by the experiences she had in the living world. She's grown up differently here. Telling her all of that might have consequences."
"Our apologies..." Rukia said, bowing her head low, pulling Renji down as well, "It's just...difficult to explain...without telling her.."
"For now I'm going to have her believe what she wants. I wouldn't recommend trying to convince her of anything else. She won't just suddenly remember her old life just because you told her these things. It was all wiped clean when she died, just like everyone else. This just serves to confuse her." Unohana stood, Isane following close behind as she left the dojo. "Tend to your friend now. I'm going to tend to my soldier. We'll need to be ready for when Central 46 accepts the bid to invade." She was gone, the trio remaining there in the neutral darkness of the dojo.