Disclaimer for the entire series:
Bleach does not belong to me. Tite Kubo has that honor. I am merely borrowing without permission. I am making no money from the writing of this fic.
Also, all of the characters depicted in sexual situations within this fic are of legal age. In the case that I erroneously state otherwise, please consider it an error that I will work to find and correct.
Therefore, in most cases, this will make the fanfiction presented AU.
Title: The Nightmare Begins
Characters: Gin, Ichigo, Aizen, random Espada and/or Arrancar
Warning: Spoilers, AU to Chapter 295 and beyond, much like its prequels
Description: Partner to The Darkest Reflection and Falling Inside the Black. Starts the Minutes to Midnight series. This was supposed to be his new home. But Ichigo doubted he'd be able to find his way around even with a map.
"These will be your quarters."
Ichigo's eyes swept throughout the room as he stepped inside, taking in the stark, pristine nature of the design. Everything was white and clean. Crisp almost. It was fully furnished, a couch shoved against the wall and what looked like a bedroom through a side door. A window opened up to the desert, the black sky and pale moon visible just beyond. It wasn't exactly the most interesting of views.
"You knew I was coming?" Ichigo asked as he surveyed what was to be his new home. He supposed in time he could used to it, could make himself comfortable. But for the moment, he sorely missed his bedroom in Karakura.
He turned to look at the man he would now be serving, depending on whichever way he decided to regard the situation.
Aizen inclined his head, his voice a smooth tenor just behind him. "Let's just say it was intuition," he answered in his usual obscure tone. "Gin?"
Seemingly melding from the shadows, Ichimaru stepped into view, pausing beside his former captain. They were both framed by the doorway, the sight of them still surreal to Ichigo.
Aizen smiled, though it could have been construed as a smirk. "I have other business I must pursue. Take care of Kurosaki-kun."
Ichigo could have sworn, that like before, hearts fluttered around Ichimaru's chirped response. It reminded him of the first time he had seen the man, standing thin and proud on the other side of the gate, as if a mere breath of wind would whisk him away. Ichimaru had been the first captain he had encountered in Soul Society, giving him his first taste of the true power of Gotei 13. For that reason alone, he hadn't ever been able to forget the man.
Turning back towards his new associate, Aizen tipped his head. "I will see the both of you at dinner. Do try to get along."
With that enigmatic statement, he departed, steps a bare sound against the floor. Ichimaru and Ichigo watched him go with interest until he was out of hearing. The boy turned towards the former captain.
"So, you're my tour guide?"
Ichimaru's smile deepened. "If that's what ya want."
The Vizard snorted and turned his back on the unfamiliar room that was going to be his home. "Is it some special skill that lets you pop out of the shadows?" Ichigo asked as he crossed the floor and stood before his companion.
He shook his head, sounding pleased by the question. "No. But I can teach ya, if ya would like."
"I don't really plan to go sneaking around."
"Too bad. It's alotta fun," Ichimaru chirped, stepping out into the hallway.
Ichigo moved to follow, pulling the door to shut behind him. The silence of the corridor greeted them, still and pale light gleaming from above. He knew it was going to be a long while before he grew used to Aizen's austere way of decorating.
"So what do ya do fer fun other than destroyin' Hollows and invadin' places," Ichimaru asked cheerfully as they started down the hallway, Ichigo following the man's lead.
A smirk curled Ichigo's lips. "What do you do for fun other than making plots and popping out of the shadows?"
Ichimaru's grin widened. "I smile a lot. Helps ta pass the time." He tilted his head, giving the impression of watching his younger companion searchingly. "Ichigo-kun scowls, doesn't he?"
Predictably, Ichigo found himself glowering, eyes thunderous. "You're quick, aren't you?"
Tucking his hands into his voluminous sleeves, Ichimaru gave a noncommittal hum. "Ya know, there's this question I've been meanin' ta ask ya."
Though wary, Ichigo prompted him, "What?"
"Is that yer natural hair color?"
The Vizard blinked. That wasn't what he had been expecting at all. Maybe something to do with Rukia. Or his Hollow. Or Soul Society's plans. Or his own choices. But an almost normal query into his hair color completely threw him.
He bristled. "Is that yours?"
"Yes. I can prove it, if ya want."
The blush that took over his face was brighter than Renji's hair. "No, I believe you," Ichigo hastily amended.
Ichimaru looked at him, clearly thinking the younger man was absolutely adorable. "Yer cute when ya blush like tha'."
It only prompted Ichigo's face to darken further, and he furiously wished he could scrub the crimson from his face. It was like being in the same room as a naked Yoruichi all over again. Gah, cat!
"I'll bet yer girlfriend finds it cute, too," Ichimaru continued.
Ichigo nearly choked on his next breath, narrowly escaping from tripping on his own feet in surprise. "Girlfriend?" he spluttered. "Who?"
Genuine surprised registered on Ichimaru's face, his brow rising. "Hime-chan."
"What makes you say that?" Brown eyes widened in confusion.
"We used ta talk some when she was visitin'," Ichimaru answered cheerfully. "We'd get ta chattin', and she'd always talk 'bout ya. Like how ya've known each other fer a long time. So I just figured."
Ichigo shook his head. "She's not my girlfriend," he answered, though the entire conversation was beginning to seem very surreal.
He had just been here, in this very place, rescuing the topic of the conversation. Not only that, it was like he was discussing his sex life or something. It was weird yet strangely comfortable. He wasn't sure what to make of it.
"I don't see her that way," he felt compelled to add, clarifying his point.
They came to a stop, the hall branching into two corridors in front of them, one to either side. Ichimaru gestured to his right, and Ichigo followed his finger.
"That's where the Espada rooms are."
Ichigo hastily moved away. "Yeah. Let's not go that way," he suggested, already stepping towards the left hall. He had no desire to counter any Espada at the moment. Especially not blue-haired idiots or cold-eyed bastards, who didn't have any expressions but still somehow managed to mock everything he did.
The former captain fell into step beside him, clothes swishing as he walked. "Don't ya want ta visit, Grimm-chan? I think he misses ya."
Ichigo snorted. "Not likely." He corrected, "But I might go see Nell later."
"If she doesn't find ya first," Ichimaru inserted knowingly, reminding Ichigo that the two of them appeared to be friends in some fashion.
Ichigo had a sudden vision of Nell claiming his shoulder like his own personal Yachiru. The next he'd knew, he would be going the completely wrong direction and letting a little girl boss him around. Then again, Rukia did it anyway. The only difference would be his new shoulder ornament.
The thought was slightly terrifying. But mostly, it was annoying.
Next to him, Ichimaru chuckled. "That's a scary face," he commented, tilting his expression towards Ichigo. "Didn't ya got a body? Ya didn't leave it layin' around, did ya?"
"I have more sense than that," Ichigo retorted. "I gave it to Kon—err, my mod soul. And then, I sent him with my family."
"Ya have a mod soul?" Ichimaru sounded surprised. "Soul Society said they're supposed ta be destroyed."
Ichigo snorted. "They said the same damn thing about me, and you see how much I agreed with that."
The other man's smile widened, becoming a touch more amused. "So true."
They turned a corner and hit a longer corridor, lined with several large, double doors on either side. They were as plain as the rest of the design with a few black line patterns in elegant swirls the only decoration.
Ichigo's eyes were starting to hurt, wondering if there was ever going to be any relief from all the white. Honestly, there were other colors. And it all looked so sterile.
"These two doors lead ta the dining room and the kitchens." Ichimaru indicated the left side. "And these're all entrances ta the communal baths. Fer us ta bond, says Aizen-taichou."
Ichimaru's hand returned to his sleeves. "Well, Aizen-taichou wants us all ta get along, ne?" he answered, continuing the tour.
Their steps barely echoed in the stillness.
"Does that include me?" Ichigo asked, half-wary and still uncertain about his choice.
He had known he couldn't remain in Soul Society, but he could have also stayed away from the fighting. He had come to Aizen because he couldn't stand idly by. Not when the Gotei 13 deserved to face his ire, fear his anger.
"If ya want," Ichimaru tilted his head to the side, watching him. "Yer one of us now."
Ichigo wasn't quite sure how to respond to that. He was supposed to be one of the Shinigami as well, though they had only gone so far as to accept him as a substitute. And in the end, he had been nothing but a means to an end. To be quickly thrown away and destroyed once he had served his purpose.
"That's easy to say," Ichigo retorted bitterly, feeling Zangetsu thrum against his back in agreement; Shirosaki cackled as well. "But Soul Society said I was one of them, too."
"I think by now ya can tell we're not like them," Ichimaru countered, a touch of softness to his voice.
The Vizard frowned, wanting to believe but decidedly more cautious this time. "I don't know. I don't know you at all."
"Now's a good time ta ask. What do ya want ta know?"
Ichigo was silent for a moment, musing. "Why did you do it?" he questioned suddenly, fixing his gaze on the other man. "Not Aizen or that other guy. But why did you want to leave?"
The way that Ichimaru inclined his head at him, Ichigo could tell that he was considering. Perhaps the man was debating honesty or falsehood. From the way he had been treated, the only thing Ichigo wanted to hear was the truth. No more lies.
After several long moments, Ichimaru finally conceded to speak. "I know that Soul Society's corrupt, but it's more than that," he began. "I believe in Aizen-taichou. He's never been anythin' but honest ta me."
His face tilted towards the floor, silvery strands sliding forward into his face. "Aizen-taichou never treated me differently cause I was from Rukongai. Unlike the others." Ichimaru paused as though remembering. "Even those from Rukongai didn't want anythin' to do with me. I guess my smilin' made 'em think I was some psycho killer or somethin'."
His words had the distinct ring of truth, too filled with some nameless emotion for Ichigo to think them false. Unlike what he had heard from his so-called friends. Soul Society's words rarely sounded genuine, always echoing hollow and empty. Their empty promises. Their hollow truths.
Ichigo inclined his head, turning over Ichimaru's explanation in his mind. He honestly didn't know what else to say since it seemed like such a personal confession.
Silence fell between them, heavy yet somehow managing not to be uncomfortable. It was a musing sort of quiet, as if Ichimaru didn't speak just to give him time to think.
They rounded another corner, coming face to face with a door before the hall continued on, jutting harshly to the left.
"That's the library," Ichimaru explained as Ichigo studied his surroundings. "Ulquiorra's in there a lot."
His initial interest in the room waned when he heard of its constant visitor. But then, Ulquiorra was not Grimmjow. He was not the type to spontaneously attack Ichigo, not unless his dear Aizen-sama commanded it. They would probably be able to share the space without any hostility.
They continued on their tour as Ichigo made a mental note of the location. Not that he felt he would be able to find it on his own. Every hall looked the same, every door. How was he supposed to navigate in a place with few windows and no signs? At least in Soul Society, he could jump to the nearest roof to get his bearings.
Or maybe that was Aizen's intention.
It wasn't as if he could stop and ask for directions. Most of the Arrancar they passed gave him strange looks, skittering to avoid he and Ichimaru as though they felt they were going to be attacked at any moment. Admittedly, he was a lot stronger than they were, and his reiatsu still had a tendency to leak. But that didn't explain the complete fear in their eyes.
Beside him, Ichimaru continued to chat, pointing out a few more doors that held little interest to Ichigo. At some point, he stopped trying to remember where he was going, figuring he would never be able to keep track anyway.
Instead, he watched as they were given a wide berth. Eyes followed Ichigo's movements, flickering from his clothes to Zangetsu and to his face. There were quiet whispers that were hardly loud but echoed for some reason. He couldn't make out what they said, but the fear in them was pretty easy to discern.
Zangetsu thrummed uneasily on his back.
"And that hall leads to the labs," Ichimaru announced brightly, gesturing down a long length of hallway where strange Arrancar skittered back and forth. "Aizen-taichou and Szayel-chan have the biggest ones, but there're a few empty spots. Ya can have one, too, if ya want."
Ichigo furrowed his brow in confusion. "What the hell would I do with it?"
"That's up ta ya," his guide responded with a chuckle.
Snorting, Ichigo glanced around pointedly. He watched as a female Arrancar pressed herself against the wall and slid along it as she passed by before hurrying down the hallway.
"I'm being watched," he commented, frowning.
"Well, yer still a Shinigami," Ichimaru replied, one hand snaking out and tugging on the sleeve of his shihakushou in a flitting motion. "At least, fer now."
Technically, I'm a Vizard," Ichigo reminded him.
It was so ironic. He had always argued with Shinji about not being a Shinigami, and now, he readily called himself a Vizard.
Ichimaru's smile widened in amusement. "How true, Ichigo-kun. I am, too. I'll show ya my mask, if ya show me yers."
Ichigo looked around them. "Here?" he asked.
They were in the middle of the hallway! Not that it had stopped Dordo-what's-his-name from attacking him way back then.
"There's a training area just ahead."
Thin, pale fingers wrapped around his arm. "Yep!" Ichimaru chirped. "Come on, Ichigo-kun."
Before he could even register what the man was doing, Ichigo was being dragged down the hall with a grip that seemed too strong for such a frail frame. Though Ichimaru masked it well with the heavy, voluminous robes. He could only assume they were heading towards the training grounds and practice arena.
"Shouldn't we be going to dinner?" Ichigo protested, his grumbling stomach in complete agreement. Though he was slightly afraid of what might be served.
"It's not time yet," Ichimaru called back to him. "Besides, Aizen-taichou wants me ta show ya a good time."
Ichigo stumbled along after him. "I'd rather not."
His guide ground to an abrupt halt, releasing his arm, which Ichigo was all to willing to take back. "Shy, Ichigo-kun?" Ichimaru questioned, that grin widening.
Ichigo stood his ground. "I just don't want to call him out right now." He cleared his throat, suggesting, "We could finish the tour."
Brightening, Ichimaru nodded. "I still haven't shown ya Aizen's playroom."
Fearing that he was blushing again, Ichigo choked on his next breath. Playroom?
"Um..." he began, hesitating as Ichimaru abruptly changed directions, forcing them down another hall. "Should I see it?"
The next direction change had Ichigo hopelessly and completely lost. If someone asked him to return to his room at this point, he would have to tell them he was planning on sleeping in the hallway. His mind was spinning. And unless he had a full-blown map with little "You are here" dots and helpful, pointing arrows, he wouldn't be able to find anything.
It wasn't long before Ichimaru led him to a huge set of double doors, rising almost completely to the already high ceiling. Ichigo was reluctant to enter, not wanting to see anything that might construe a playroom. His guide either didn't care or didn't notice because he was immediately dragged inside. The door slammed shut behind him; he was trapped.
Though he didn't want to, Ichigo looked, only to find it was nothing like he had expected. It was merely Aizen's throne room, though why Ichimaru had called it a playroom he wasn't certain.
It was white; everything was white. Even the wide, flat floor was a grayish sort of white that made his eyes ache. Ichigo stepped further inside, his waraji tapping against the tiles. On one end of the room, nearest to where he stood, Aizen's throne stretched above him, the back of it surrounded by shadows.
"It's really... high," he commented rather lamely. "How does he get up there?"
It was an honest question. There was no evident ladder or stairs, just a large throne.
Ichimaru simply laughed. "It's a secret. Ya'll just have ta wait and see."
A noise floated to Ichigo's ears in that moment. It reverberated lowly, a faint sound almost like a chime announcing the hour.
"Aizen-taichou's clock," Ichimaru chirped. "It's time fer dinner."
He supposed that made sense. There was no sun in Hueco Mundo. How else would they tell the time but a giant, loud clock?
Ichimaru gestured towards a door on the other side, small and rather unassuming. "We can go that way ta get ta the dining room."
"I'll never find my way around," Ichigo put in with a sigh, saying it more to himself than to his guide.
"Ichigo-kun'll get used ta it," Ichimaru responded. "It's not so hard."
Ichigo snorted disbelievingly. But he supposed he did sort of owe Ichimaru something for the tour. Even if Aizen had commanded it. The former captain didn't have to be friendly or even answer his questions honestly. But he had, and that meant something to Ichigo.
At the door, Ichimaru was waiting patiently for him.
Ichigo fidgeted. "Thanks, Ichimaru."
The man positively beamed. "We're friends now, Ichigo-kun. Ya can call me by my given name."
Ichigo rubbed the back of his head, a sheepish expression burning his cheeks. "I don't know what it is." He never had been good at such things. And it's not like any of the Shinigami had ever told him.
"Ya don't really know any of us."
Ichimaru herded him out the door ahead of him. "Well, it's easy!" he chirped. "There's Kana-chan. And Aizen-taichou. But ya can probably call him Sousuke. And then, there's me."
The former captain smiled, the curve of his lips somehow suddenly that much more genuine. Ichigo felt brightened by it, glad that he hadn't offended his guide.
"Ya can call me Gin."
Yes, this is a series. In conjunction with the aforementioned one-shots posted separately, Minutes to Midnight is the continuation. There will be ficlets and one-shots, all in this universe, along with a fic actually being told, woven in the ficlets. I hope you enjoy! So alert this if you want to know the next pieces!
Thanks for reading! I'd love some feedback!