Title: Falling Inside the Black
Pairings/Characters: Ichigo, Gin, Aizen, Espada, Nel Tu
Rating: T
Words: 2,844
Warning: AU after chapter 295, Spoilers
Description: Companion to The Darkest Reflection. Ichigo appears in Hueco Mundo, but he is not entirely unexpected.

His first step into Hueco Mundo was nothing if not slightly nostalgic. If by nostalgic he meant a reminder of all the blood he had spilled and the pain he had suffered in his successful attempt to save Inoue. His friend, abandoned by Soul Society even then and now marked for death. It was only one of the reasons Ichigo was back in this place, wondering if Aizen had bothered to move Las Noches or if he could rely on his uncertain memory to find the fortress again. It wasn't as if there were a lot of landmarks to go by either. Just sand, sand, a tree, and sand.

The substitute Shinigami paused, one hand on the hilt of his zanpakutou as he scanned the immense, blank landscape for signs of Arrancar. They were usually pretty perceptive to the appearance of intruders, and he expected to be accosted at any moment. He didn't plan on killing any of them, but he wasn't about to let them tear him to pieces either. He had the feeling simply waving a white flag of truce wouldn't work, considering how many of their brethren had fallen by his hand alone.

No, Ichigo had to speak to Aizen personally.

He walked for a few minutes, cursing under his breath at the annoying feeling of the sand beneath his feet, the tiny grains somehow managing to find their way into his socks. He hated the sensation of the grit between his toes. It seemed a trivial thing to bitch about at the moment, but for the sake of his sanity, he had to concentrate on the little things.

The slight tremble through the ground was all the warning he received before sand exploded in front of him, bodies forming beneath the spray of dirt and grit. Ichigo's fingers tightened on the hilt of Zangetsu, but he didn't draw, preferring to wait for their first move. And he found himself staring into the eyes of two huge Arrancar, easily the size of the one Chad had defeated way back then.

Ichigo crouched, ready to draw at a moment's notice as the cloud of dust slowly settled around them. They were only staring, not making a move to attack or even speak. He was reminded in that moment of what had happened the last time he had been here. When he had run directly into Aizen Sousuke and the man had simply let him go, though not without a parting word.

"I will be here," Aizen had said ambiguously, not clarifying before he seemed to shimmer and disappear.

At the time, Ichigo hadn't bothered to figure it out, too preoccupied with escaping with his life and the lives of his friends. But now, he thought about it because, for all intents and purposes, the Arrancar should not have just been staring at him. So he watched them carefully, internally debating on whether he should simply ignore them and keep going or wait even longer.

A wind stirred, bringing with it a flash of sand that brushed across his hakama. The half-dead trees swayed in the breeze, branches creaking. And still the Arrancar stared.

Ichigo decided to take a risk.

He took a step towards them, uncertain about what it was he actually planned to do. Instead of attacking, however, the Arrancar simply stepped aside, parting for him. They half-turned, facing a certain direction, and left a wide path between them. It was an obvious signal for him to accept their guidance.

Ichigo began to walk forward, his eyes locked warily on the two. They flanked him, standing easily within his view and not directly behind him. The pair remained silent, effortlessly guiding him across the sand. But it was kind of creepy, their quiet, and Ichigo didn't allow himself to relax. He wasn't taking any chances.

In the distance, he could make out the spires of Las Noches, rising over the white sands like some Arabian castle, domineering Hueco Mundo. It never ceased to amaze him how large the compound actually was.

It reminded him of the first time he had come to here. They had run for what seemed like hours, but the fortress had always seemed so far away. And when they had finally made it to Las Noches, he and his friends had split up, promptly encountering the Espada and doing well to get their asses fully ground into the dirt. Well, everyone save himself of course. Ichigo had been the only one who had been capable of walking away in the end.

It was strange, however, to see the child-like Arrancar who had attached herself to him suddenly transform into a grown woman and obliterate the fifth Espada before abruptly becoming a toddler once more. At the time, he hadn't been able to fully appreciate it, barely conscious after such a sound beating and recently defeating Grimmjow. Afterwards, Orihime had healed both he and Nel, and Ichigo had been uncertain what to do with the defeated sixth Espada.

In the end, unable to justify simply leaving him to die, he had asked Orihime to heal Grimmjow enough that he would live but wouldn't regain consciousness. Halibel had chosen that moment to appear, flitting down to inform him that they had the others in custody. It had been ironic; the moment Orihime was saved, he had to turn around and retrieve her rescuers. Halibel had vanished after that, and with half-dead Grimmjow on his back and one classmate and a toddler at his side, Ichigo had invaded deeper into Las Noches, miraculously not encountering any other Espada.

It was in that moment he first began to think that perhaps it hadn't been about Orihime or her powers after all.

It had been strangely easy to find his friends, especially considering all the trouble they had encountered before. All of them had been kept in a rather large room in various states of health and awareness, Renji and Rukia the only ones actually unconscious. Chad and Ishida had been perfectly capable of walking out, though they were in no condition to fight. Ichigo had dumped Grimmjow inside before gathering up his injured and barely alive friends and making a run for it in the vague direction of what he had believed to be the exit.

They would have made it without distraction were it not for the fact that Ulquiorra chose to appear right in front of the door. Foisting an unconscious Rukia off on Ishida, Ichigo had drawn Zangetsu, determined to buy them all time to escape. Nel had refused to leave his side though, clinging to his hakama and staring strangely at the fourth Espada.

Despite everything, however, Ulquiorra never made moves towards them. He had just studied Ichigo with that impassive, empty gaze, while his friends vanished into the distance and hopefully to safety. Ichigo's grip on Zangetsu had been on the verge of growing sweaty before there was any sort of movement from the fourth Espada. Strangely enough, it had only been to step aside, blending into the shadows.

That was when Aizen had appeared.

Ichigo had known then that the traitor had fully meant for them to escape, especially after his enigmatic words and prompt vanishing act. The only question that had remained was why.

Ichigo had the feeling he was about to find out.

A ridiculously short walk later, far shorter than he expected it to be, Ichigo found himself standing outside the massive gates of Las Noches, where none other than Ichimaru Gin was standing… as if waiting for him. The man had the same grin on his face as always, and he didn't seem at all surprised to find Ichigo before him. His Arrancar escorts vanished then, leaving him alone with the silver-haired man.


"Ichigo-kun," the former captain greeted with a wave of his hand. "Hiya."

The substitute Shinigami frowned in confusion. "You knew I was coming?" he asked, still poised to defend himself at a moment's notice.

But Ichimaru's grin only remained the same. "You'll have ta ask Aizen-taichou 'bout that." He gestured inwards to Las Noches. "Follow me."

Ichigo watched him warily for a moment before deciding to follow, stepping past the gates and into the main hall. It was certainly easier to find his way when he seemed to be a guest and not an uninvited intruder.

And this time, he actually could look at his surroundings rather than race madly through them. Not that there was much to see. Just a lot of white. Everywhere he looked, almost like Aizen were intentionally trying to prove he was the antithesis of the Shinigami. Or maybe he just hadn't had a time to decorate. Ichigo wasn't about to ask.

He snuck a glance at his escort. "You still call him that?"

Ichimaru looked at him from the corner of his eye, a small slit of crimson gleaming through. "That's who he is," he replied, his smirk widening. "He'll always be my captain."

Ichigo wasn't quite sure what to think about that. He groped his mind for something else to say, a part of him irrationally curious.

"So how've ya been Ichigo-kun?" Ichimaru put in before the boy could say anything else. "Been awhile since I saw ya last. Ya were kinda outta it at the time."

Ichigo couldn't help himself; he snorted. "Yeah, I was half-dead."

The former Shinigami tilted his head to the side. "Ya were also half-alive."

He had a point. Ichigo couldn't argue that. Aizen must have been practicing his mercy that day because there was no way he and Renji should have survived those attacks. In fact, Aizen must have held back against everyone. It made Ichigo wonder if he had truly intended for Rukia to be killed after all.

They passed several empty hallways before Ichimaru spoke again.

"Still, ya've come so far since then, haven't ya?" the man asked, face an unreadable smile.

Ichigo furrowed his brow, his gaze sliding to the constantly grinning man. He opened his mouth to question Ichimaru about what he meant when suddenly the traitorous captain stopped in front of a door.

"Here we are!" Ichimaru stated grandly, pushing open the door and gesturing for Ichigo to precede him.

The substitute Shinigami, thoroughly thwarted from his question, followed Ichimaru's lead. The moment he stepped into the conference room, he felt several sets of eyes fall on him, finding himself standing at the end of a long, rectangular table. All of the Espada were seated stoically. Aizen himself was at the head with that blind-dude standing just behind him at his left. The chair to Aizen's right was empty, which he assumed to belong to Ichimaru, but he didn't know why the one at his left was as well. Strangely, Ichimaru didn't take his seat, instead quietly remaining just behind Ichigo.

The substitute Shinigami took the opportunity to count Espada as they sat in a vague mirror of the captains of Seireitei. Ulquiorra was watching him with that same empty, impassive gaze, while he couldn't identify the expression on Grimmjow's face. As for the others... well, the ninth was suitably missing, and number five was--

"Nel!?!" Ichigo exclaimed in surprise, eyes widening.

"Itsygo!" Nel chirped. She waved wildly and beamed at him, looking as if she was going to launch herself across the table at him, but before she could, a sleepy-eyed Espada calmly put a hand on her head and held her down. She wiggled under the pressure, but the grin never faded, looking much like a puppy whose master had just come home.

Ichigo blinked. "Uhh, hi, Nel," he responded, completely flabbergasted. Seeing the child-like Arrancar was the last thing he had suspected.

"Kurosaki Ichigo. Welcome."

Aizen's voice dragged him back to reality, and Ichigo lifted his eyes to the former captain, finding that the man was giving him a faintly bemused look from where he sat proudly at the head of the table, looking very much the ruler of his world.

"It is a pleasure to see you again."

Ichigo paused at the unexpectedly happy greeting. "Honestly, I didn't expect I'd ever be back here," he responded in earnest.

"Oh?" Aizen lifted a brow, leaning forward and propping his chin on his palm as his smile widened. He continued to study his guest with interest.

"I'm surprised you don't already know," Ichigo admitted, a bit flustered by his current situation. Surrounded by what was supposed to be his greatest enemies, he almost felt like he was being categorized and judged. "Why I'm here, I mean."

"I would prefer to hear it from you."

Whether or not Aizen was telling the truth, Ichigo couldn't be certain, though he didn't think the man would lie to him. Still, he felt uncomfortable. The Espada were still staring at him calculatingly, though the one that had restrained Nel seemed to be asleep now. Ulquiorra appeared to be evaluating Ichigo, deciding whether or not he was worthy to even be in the same room as Aizen-sama.

It was unsettling.

"What are your plans?" Ichigo asked instead of explaining, dragging his wandering gaze back to Aizen. "What are you going to do if you defeat them?"

"Not if, but when," the blind-guy inserted testily, sounding personally offended by Ichigo's statement. And perhaps he was; the boy couldn't be certain of anything right now.

Ichigo glanced only briefly at the dark-skinned male before returning to Aizen, whose answer was the only one he really cared about.

"In truth?" Aizen mused aloud with some amusement, rubbing his chin. "A proper explanation would likely take days. However, to put it simply, I wish to remake Soul Society, Seireitei especially. After all, it has the bad habit of containing or destroying anything it doesn't understand." He paused, his eyes locking onto Ichigo. "The Shinigami have long ago lost sight of what they are truly meant to be. There must be someone to curb their actions."

His words struck a chord of truth inside of Ichigo. It was like the other man had known exactly why he had come, what exactly he needed to hear. And maybe he did; there were so many things that Ichigo just couldn't be certain of. In any case, Ichigo knew that Aizen was right. There was something wrong in Soul Society, something that had grown poisoned and rotten with time, and someone needed to fix it.

He didn't know if Aizen's plan of attack was right, or his methods, but it was better than doing what everyone else had for so many centuries. Absolutely nothing.

It was far better than letting Soul Society use him for their own purposes, only to discard him and all those who mattered to him. As if they were nothing more than garbage in the end.

"I take it that you are not entirely satisfied with Soul Society?" Aizen asked, his voice cutting through Ichigo's thoughts.

The substitute Shinigami bit his lip. "That'd be putting it lightly."

Aizen's face shifted in thought, the bemusement lost in the wake of something that might have been anger, but Ichigo wasn't certain. He just knew it was not directed towards himself. Even the blind-guy had made a disgusted face, and Ichigo assumed that Ichimaru had as well, though he couldn't exactly see out the back of his head.

He waited for Aizen's response and was mildly surprise when brown eyes shifted beyond him, directing his gaze on the Espada. "Return to your duties," Aizen ordered crisply, also rising to his feet. "Kurosaki-kun, would you walk with me?"

Watching the Espada push back their chairs and walk past him, Ichigo simply nodded. He moved to Aizen's side as the older man headed out of the room towards a different door than the others were using. Tousen remained behind, and Gin was smiling as he headed over to Nel, amazingly enough.

In the empty silence of the hall, a moment passed. Ichigo glanced at Aizen and was strangely reminded of Urahara... or possibly even his father when Isshin was having a particularly serious moment.

Suddenly, it didn't seem all that difficult for the words to come. Ichigo found himself telling Aizen what he had learned. About Orihime and Hitsugaya, about Soul Society's plans for him and his family, and about his decision to leave. It spilled out of him in a garbled mess that the former captain somehow managed to understand anyway.

When it was all said and done, he was astonished to find a strange fire flare up in Aizen's eyes for all of a brief instant before it was hidden by the his normal calm. It was almost... protective, indignant on Ichigo's behalf.

"This is not be the first time they have chosen so foolishly," the man commented, his tone faintly loathing. "Soul Society fears you, Kurosaki-kun, and for them, that is reason enough."

Aizen was absolutely right.

Which was exactly why Ichigo was going to join him.

"And this is reason enough for me, too," Ichigo responded, knowing that Aizen would understand exactly what he meant.

That look of faint bemusement returned, and Aizen leaned towards him.

"Welcome to the family, Kurosaki-kun."


a/n: Well? Still believable so far? I might continue the series, I might not. It depends on inspiration. Regardless, this is a one-shot. If I do continue the series, it will be in a separate piece.

Thanks for reading! I look forward to your comments (and speculations). Thanks!