Disclaimer: I don't own Bleach, or any of its characters; Tite Kubo does. I do, however, own the OCs that have appeared in this story, be they dead or alive. So please don't use them without first asking me for permission, thank you kindly.
A/N: A little something before we start, because I can't help it: I totally called Stark being the First Espada! I mixed up Halibel and Barragan, so this story will be a bit off-cannon with regards to her, but hey, 1 out of 3 ain't bad.
Love Conquers All
Ten Years Later
Ichigo cracked his eyes open and groaned; another late night doing an unholy amount of paperwork had passed into morning all-too-soon. Even with Rukia around as his Lieutenant to lighten the load, the orange-haired Soul Reaper was still stunned by the number of trees that had been sacrificed for the sole purpose of making his life difficult. Still half-asleep, Kurosaki noticed that the other half of the bed was cold, and had been for quite some time. Ichigo couldn't help but grin at that: Rukia was as much of a workaholic as her brother, even though she would deny it from sunup to sundown.
Rising to his feet and stretching languorously, the brown-eyed Soul Reaper trudged over to his dresser and opened to top drawer, revealing a pristine white haori with a note on top of it, written in Rukia's elegant hand:
I had this cleaned for you, carrot-top. The next time you and Renji decide to have a duel, though, deal with the fallout yourself, you jerk!
Below the name was a doodle of a Chappy head that stood in stark contrast to the writing above it; where her penmanship was without peer in its grace, Rukia's drawing skills had always been the exact opposite. Chuckling, Ichigo put aside the note on top of the dresser and threw on the haori, still marveling at how comfortable it felt even after so many years of wearing it. The other Captains had seen no problem with awarding Ichigo the Captaincy of Fifth Division, especially seeing as how he had killed the previous Captain not once, but twice. Rukia had respectfully requested a transfer from her Captain, and Jushiro had been more than happy to comply.
As Kurosaki slid open the door to his quarters and braced himself for another day on the job, he was met with a greeting he had not received in quite some time:
A foot right to the face.
"Good Moooorning, Ichigoo!"
The Captain of Fifth Division flew backwards into the wall, stunned for a moment before he sprang to his feet and pointed a wrathful finger at his father.
"Damn it, old man!" he shouted. "What the hell was that for!?"
Isshin laughed, absentmindedly scratching his beard.
"I just wanted to check in on you and make sure you hadn't gone soft, my son! Really, though, you couldn't dodge that simple kick!? They must be giving those haori away nowadays!"
"I hate you…" Ichigo grumbled, before walking over to his father, smiling, and giving him a hug.
"I'm so proud of you, Ichigo," Isshin said seriously as they broke apart, keeping his hands on his son's shoulders. "And I know that wherever she is, your mother's proud of you, too."
"Thanks, dad," the younger Kurosaki said sincerely, before the moment was interrupted by a messenger.
"Captain Kurosaki, sir!" the man knelt respectfully in the doorway, head facing down. Ichigo sighed.
"How many times do I have to tell you guys not to worry about the formalities with me?" he said half-to-himself, before addressing the messenger formally.
"Yeah, what is it?" he asked, dreading the most likely outcome.
"I have your paperwork agenda for the day, signed by Head Captains Kyoraku and Ukitake, sir."
And there it was.
"Thank you very much," Ichigo answered as cordially as he could manage, with completely forced gratitude as he took the report from the messenger like he was handling a bundle of snakes. As soon as the messenger was gone, the Captain growled.
"I hate that guy," he said, and Isshin laughed.
"Oh, come on, it's not his fault," the former Kenpachi said. "Besides, it's just paperwork. I'd take that over fighting any day."
Ichigo was incredulous at that, to say the least.
"What?!" he half-hollered. "How can you say that? Weren't you the Kenpachi? And how much paperwork did your division even have, anyway!?"
"A ton, trust me," his father replied ruefully, rubbing his forehead as if the mere memories were giving him a headache. "You try filling out collateral damage reports for a division full of berserkers and battle-hungry lunatics for a few weeks, and then I might take your moaning about paperwork seriously."
Ichigo considered those words for a moment, and realized that maybe his life wasn't as bad as it could be. The Fifth Division was still a few dozen Soul Reapers short of full strength, as the reorganization of the ranks was still finishing up following the aftermath of the war. Almost all of the people under Ichigo's command were good men and women, though; strong and hard-working, unlike the motley crew that comprised the Eleventh Division. That, and every hour he spent in the office was an hour he spent with Rukia, and that time was never wasted.
"Fair enough," the brown-eyed Soul Reaper replied, about to say something else when a gleeful shout cut him off.
Isshin was almost knocked off of his feet as an orange-haired blur launched into his arms, hugging him tightly. The elder Kurosaki was taken aback for a moment before his trademark goofy grin appeared once again and he laughed joyously, ruffling the young one's hair as he did so.
"And how's my little Masaki doing?" he asked, and the girl in his arms looked up at him with bright violet eyes and smiled.
"Great! Mommy taught me a new kido yesterday, and it was so awesome! Look, I made a drawing of it for you!"
The little Kurosaki procured a small notebook from within the folds of her robes and held it out to Isshin, beaming with pride. The former Kenpachi had the good grace not to chuckle as he saw the crude depiction of a bolt of lightning arcing through a dummy, but Ichigo wasn't as skilled as his father in the arts of tact.
"Like mother, like daughter," he muttered, thinking that Masaki wouldn't hear him but swiftly being proven wrong as the notebook smacked into his face with surprising force.
"I'd like to see you do better, daddy!" a fiery voice shot back, and it was Isshin's turn to laugh then.
"Like mother, like daughter, indeed," he mused, a wry smile on his face as he observed the scene, before straightening up, clearing his throat and putting Masaki down on the ground.
"Well, as much as I'd love to stay, I really must be off," he said, steeling himself against his granddaughter's whine and oh-so-persuasive puppy-dog eyes. "Yuzu's college graduation is today, and I can't miss it. My girl got done with that early, just like I knew she would. Stay sharp, Ichigo," he said before he flashed away, leaving the orange-haired Soul Reaper alone with his daughter.
"So, what do you have on your plate for today, kiddo?" he asked, and Masaki's brow furrowed in concentration.
"Well, first I have History with Kyoraku-sensei. Then, Kido Lessons with Schiffer-sensei. After that, there's just Combat Practice with Yoruichi-sensei," she finished, and Ichigo arched an eyebrow at the lack of enthusiasm his daughter seemed to have for the final class.
"What's wrong with Combat Practice?" Ichigo asked, and Masaki got the same look in her eyes his wife did when she was about to go on a rant.
"It's Kaien!" she fumed, referring to the dark-haired, grey-eyed scion of the re-established Kuchiki Clan.
"He just swaggers around like he's the best there is, when we all know Suzaku could wipe the floor with him if he really wanted to. And he's just so tall, and stupid, and…" Masaki paused her tirade, catching her breath before plunging on to the finale, "and he's a jerk!"
The young Kurosaki finished her speech with a gleam in her eyes, as if she dared anyone to prove her wrong. This time Ichigo did manage to keep from laughing, but he had to bite his tongue until it was almost bleeding to do it: the similarities between the two younglings' friendship were eerily similar to how he and Rukia had gotten along at first. The orange-haired Captain knew that deep down the two of them were good friends, but both of them would rather face Senbonsakura than admit it. Of course, friends or no, if Kaien ever did anything to really upset his little angel, Ichigo was going to make sure he regretted it.
"Well," he said affably, hiding his sudden mood-swing with a smile, "you had better get going to class; Captain Kyoraku might seem like a happy-go-lucky guy, but it makes him sad when people are late to his lesson."
Masaki's eyes widened briefly as she thought of such a thing occurring; to her, Kyoraku being sad would be like the sun falling out of the sky. If it happened, the laws of nature might just up and quit altogether, and she wouldn't have that on her shoulders. Giving her father a quick peck on the cheek, the orange-haired girl dashed off as fast as her legs could carry her. Ichigo chuckled and walked out into the hallway as well, winding his way around to his office. On the way there, he glanced in through an open door and saw Grimmjow drilling a group of raw recruits.
"Are you maggots fucking kidding me?" he snarled. "My daughter could flash-step better than you, and she's eight! Do it again, and do it right this time or I'll really get pissed!"
Ichigo shook his head and sighed; now was not a good time to be a raw recruit in the SMC. As he continued to walk down the hallway, something small slammed into his leg and fell over, groaning. Looking down, Kurosaki saw a boy with messy blond hair, sharp golden eyes and an oil-and-grease-stained robe getting to his feet. The Captain smiled.
"Where are you running off to, Kikazaru?"
The boy looked up hazily, trying to figure out who or what he had just bumped in to. When his vision cleared, his eyes widened in shock.
"Captain Kurosaki!" he half-yelped. "I'm so sorry I bumped into you, sir! I was just on my way to get some supplies for the lab, and…" he was about to continue, but Ichigo cut him off with a wave.
"Don't worry about it. What does your dad have you cooking up now, just out of curiosity?"
"Oh, it's really exciting!" the kid said, his father's enthusiasm for tinkering shining in his eyes. "We're working on a way to extend the length of a tenshintai from three days to five! I think we almost have it, but it might take a few more days to get right."
The eight-year-old clearly got his loquaciousness from his father, there was no doubt about that.
"Best of luck, kid," Ichigo said as Kikazaru dashed off, supplies bundled under his arms. Remembering that he had something he needed to ask the young Shihoin, the Captain called out to him.
"Where's your brother?"
The blond-haired grease-monkey skidded to a halt, shrugging his shoulders.
"I can't say for sure, but I'd check the dojo if I were you, sir!"
Kurosaki nodded his thanks and walked on, pondering the question of the oldest Shihoin child in his head. There was no question that Suzaku was powerful, and his potential to be a great Soul Reaper one day was unquestioned, but there was still one lingering concern that hung over everyone's heads.
Although Sosuke Aizen had been unable to fully subvert the embryo that had grown into Suzaku for his own needs, he had still embedded traces of himself in the nine-year old. The child was a brilliant tactician, but in combat he had the tendency to become almost sociopathic in his methods, exploiting weaknesses without hesitation and showing little mercy when someone made the mistake of pissing him off. Suzaku's zanpakuto was entirely his own, showing no traces of Kyoka Suigetsu, but the same couldn't be said for his memories. As a final parting gift, Aizen had left his memories buried within the orange-eyed child. They emerged over time and at random moments, striking with hallucinogen-level strength. The young prince had turned to Ichigo for help in controlling the outbursts and keeping his own identity separate from that of the former Fifth Division Captain, and Kurosaki had been happy to lend a hand.
Snapping out of his thoughts, Ichigo found himself standing in front of the door to the dojo. Opening it, he stepped in and saw a lean, strong boy with dark skin, purple hair and bright orange eyes practicing kendo exercises with a wooden sword. He stopped as he saw the Captain enter, and bowed.
"Captain Kurosaki, sir," he said, putting the wooden sword aside. He was wearing loose-fitting pants and an orange vest over a standard SMC shirt, and sweat was beading along his brow.
"Hey, Suzaku," Ichigo greeted back, frowning to himself at the formality he always seemed to be greeted with; it just didn't seem right. Brushing those thoughts aside, he walked over closer to the boy and sat down, with Suzaku following suit shortly after.
"How's it going, kid?" the Captain began, his tone solicitous. The Shihoin prince just sighed.
"As well as could be hoped for, I guess," he replied wearily. "The memories keep barging in, but at least they've stopped showing up in my dreams."
Ichigo smiled. "Well, that's a start, isn't it?" he asked cheerfully. Suzaku gave a half-hearted version of his mother's feline grin in return.
"Better than nothing," he agreed. "Still, it's a pain every time I have to remind myself not to call Captain Ichimaru by his first name."
"If that's the least of your worries, kid," he said, "you're going to be fine. Just keep working on separating the memories, and you'll have nothing to worry about."
"I hope you're right, Captain," Suzaku spoke as he got up, stretching one of his tired shoulders.
"If you'll excuse me, sir, Captain Soi Fon wants to see me, and I don't want to make her wait," the boy finished, barely repressing a small shudder before bowing and flashing away. Ichigo smiled; he knew that Soi Fon absolutely adored the young Shihoin, and was personally overseeing his training as a member of the Second Division. But she didn't cut him any slack just because of who he was, and neither did her Lieutenant, for that matter; Jaegerjaques seemed to enjoy training the kid as much as his Captain did, if not more. He claimed it was because he needed a break from drilling screw-ups all day long and enjoyed tutoring someone with talent for a change, but Ichigo couldn't help but wonder if having a kid of his own had made Grimmjow more paternal than he let on.
As he was walking out of the dojo, Ichigo's eyes fell on a girl with shoulder-length light green hair and dark, searching green eyes.
"Captain Kurosaki," she greeted calmly, executing a perfect salute. "Have you seen Suzaku anywhere? I was under the impression that he would be here, but it seems as though he is not."
Sirena Schiffer had her father's outward coldness, but anyone who knew her well enough, few though those people might be, knew that she hid her mother's kindness and openness under the calm, stoic exterior.
"He actually left to go to a meeting with Captain Soi Fon; you just missed him," Ichigo said, seeing a look of disappointment cross the girl's face for the briefest of moments before it sunk back down beneath her now-placid expression.
"Very well," she said, turning on her heels with impeccable poise before walking away. "Thank you for your help, sir."
Not wanting to risk setting his timetable back by running into any more of the youngins, Ichigo flash-stepped the distance between him and his office. Opening the door and walking in, the Captain was met with a surprising, but not completely unexpected face.
"Ichigo Kurosaki," Byakuya greeted with just a hint of warmth in his voice. "I trust you are well?"
The orange-haired Soul Reaper smirked and gave a curt nod; there was a tacit understanding between the men that if Ichigo wasn't going to address Byakuya by his title, then the Kuchiki noble wasn't going to address Kurosaki formally either, now that that Ichigo actually had a title the Sixth Division Captain could neglect to mention.
"Yeah, I'm fine. What brings you here, Byakuya?"
"I was merely stopping in to check on Rukia. Which reminds me," he added, his grey eyes flashing with barely-concealed amusement, "my guards found your daughter snooping around on my property the other day. If Masaki wants to visit, all she has to do is ask."
Ichigo fought back the urge to smack his forehead.
"She was probably just trying to prank Kaien, if I had to guess. I'll talk to her about that."
"Very well," Byakuya said, nodding slightly before flashing away. Rukia entered the main room of the office soon after from one of the side-rooms, filling the void left by her brother's departure.
"There you are," she said, exasperated. "Honestly, sometimes I wonder why I'm not wearing that haori, Ichigo. Gods know I do enough of the paperwork around here."
"And you have my undying gratitude for that, midget," Kurosaki said affectionately, sweeping her up into a kiss. As they broke apart, a sly smirk crossed the brown-eyed Soul Reaper's face.
"Besides, there's one reason you'd never take his haori away from me," he said smugly.
"Oh?" Rukia retored, raising an elegant eyebrow. "And what would that be, Captain Kurosaki?"
"I look too damn good in it," Ichigo breathed, an almost predatory undercurrent to his voice that made the violet-eyed Kuchiki's knees unexpectedly weak as her blood decided to warm up by a few degrees.
"Ichigo…" she protested as he moved in for another, more heated kiss, "not here. I thought we'd talked about this. If someone comes in…"
"They won't," he insisted, the warm tone of his voice melting away her misgivings inch by inch.
And then the Captain well and truly closed off any further protests by pressing his lips gently and lovingly to those of his wife, and was about to take this pleasing extracurricular elsewhere when…
"Ichigo Kurosaki," the disembodied voice of a Hell Butterfly rang out, "Head Captain Kyoraku has requested your presence!"
"God damn it," Ichigo growled breaking away reluctantly from his loved one, who seemed as full of regret as he was.
"All right, I'll just make this meeting quick," the Captain fumed. "Geez, you think Captain Kyoraku of all people would know never to give another guy blue-balls," the brown-eyed Soul Reaper muttered under his breath, and Kuchiki chuckled.
"Shut up, midget."
Ichigo flashed from his office to the Central Headquarters in a single step, all but ripping the massive doors from their hinges.
"You wanted to se—" the Fifth Division Captain began, before finding that Shunsui was nowhere to be seen; Captain Ukitake was holding down court on his own at the moment, and looked up confusedly.
"Can I help you, Ichigo?"
An awkward moment passed before Kurosaki's eyes widened in realization.
"… That bastard!" Kurosaki growled, flashing back to his office with rage in his eyes.
In the main room of Kuchiki Manor, Bykakuya's lips twitched up into a smug smirk: the boy really was too easy to mess with.
Back in the halls of the Soul Reaper Headquarters, Kikazaru Shihoin was making a run for some more supplies when his gaze strayed to the interior of a small dojo and he froze, rooted to the ground more firmly than a redwood. His wide golden eyes were riveted on the training form of the most beautiful girl he had ever seen:
Long blue hair flowed down past her shoulders and stopped right above the middle of her back, and her midnight-black eyes were more intense than a cero blast from Captain Kurosaki. She was a goddess in the young Shihoin boy's eyes; flawless, fierce, magnetic, an indecipherable enigma…
And utterly unattainable.
It was well-known that Tomoe had inherited her mother's propensity for hero-worship, but rather than target Kikazaru's mother, her gaze had fallen on Kenpachi Zaraki, the Captain of her squad. For now it was innocent, but the young Shihoin knew that some day that infatuation would change into unadulterated adoration, and if Kikazaru hadn't tried to make his move by then he would never have a chance. Sure, Lieutenant Jaegerjaques had been able to win the stoic Soi Fon's affections, but the story went that that had only been accomplished through a display of raw strength in a duel. Instead of giving Kikazaru hope, the possibility of repeating Grimmjow's success only made his heart sink further; he was a scientist, not a fighter, and Tomoe had inherited her mother's tenacity and her father's desire to be the strongest fighter around. There was no way he could win her eye that way, that was for sure…
The blonde-haired Shihoin snapped out of his thoughts in an instant, shocked to see the very face that had just been occupying his thoughts now right in front of him, those onyx orbs boring holes through his eyes and down into his soul. For a moment Kikazaru completely forgot that he despised being called by that nickname, his normally smooth way with words evaporating along with most of the moisture in his mouth.
"Y—Yeah?" he sputtered out, followed by feeling an intense desire to slam his head into a wall for how weak that had sounded. A blue eyebrow arched up in concern.
"Are you all right? You look a little out of it."
"Oh no, no," the young scientist insisted, shaking his head emphatically. "I'm fine, really. I just have to, uh… supplies, that's right! I have to get these supplies down to my dad's lab!"
Tomoe shot the Shihoin boy a sidelong glance.
"Um, Zaru?" she said, "You're not carrying any supplies."
The golden-eyed boy blinked twice and looked down to find that his arms were, indeed, empty. Scrambling to think of a way to cover his slip, Kikazaru thanked the stars that he had inherited his father's brains as he thought of something to say right before things got too awkward.
"Well, what I meant to say was that I need to go get the supplies, and then run them down to my dad's lab!" he replied hastily, before scratching the back of his neck lightly in embarrassment. Tomoe, far from being put off by the Shihoin boy, just shrugged.
"Sounds like fun, I guess," she said, turning back around and walking back into the training room.
"I'm gonna work on putting the finishing touches on this move of mine I'm developing," she called out. "The Captain's coming by later, and I want to have to ready by then. It'll blow his mind, Zaru; I just know it!"
Kikazaru's heart fell like a stone, his shoulders sagging as he trudged away to go fetch the supplies his father needed, all of the spring in his step gone.
"Ran-chan, it's three in the afternoon."
"What's your point, Cap~tain?" the strawberry-blonde Lieutenant replied provocatively, almost, almost breaking through the iron restraint of her silver-haired Captain.
"My point is that you shouldn't be drinking right now, and especially not here! If Inari comes running in here and sees you taking shots, what kinda message d'you think that sends?" Normally Gin kept a veil of mist around his emotions at all times, but whenever his son was brought into the picture it was like Ichimaru became a whole different person. Matsumoto just rolled her eyes at her Captain.
"Oh, come on, Gin," she said, slipping back into the tone they had used when they were kids, a sign that she was at least two sheets to the wind, if not three. "That's not gonna happen; he has class right now!"
As if on some perverse cue, the patter of energetic feet was soon heard racing down the hallway, and Shinso made short work of the sake jug just as the silver-haired, grayish-blue-eyed whirlwind touched down in front of them. Looking askance at his mother for a moment, the boy turned his perceptive gaze on his father.
"Has mommy been drinking again?" he asked pointedly, and the Captain shot his Lieutenant a glance so scathing it made Zangetsu seem dull. Matsumoto had the humility to at least cringe a little, but then just shrugged it off and finished the cup she had been holding before her husband had destroyed the jug. If their son had already put it together in his head, after all, there was no point in denying it.
"Can I have some?"
The question caught both of Inari's parents off-guard, and they stared at him.
"Sure, why not?"
"No, of course not!"
Gin and Rangiku looked at each other awkwardly after their simultaneous responses, and the boy before them just laughed.
"Just kidding! Man," he said, the glint in his eye telling his father that the master manipulator had just been manipulated, "you should have seen the looks on your faces! Well," Inari finished, turning around and walking out of the office, "that one class got out early, but I have another one right now that I'm already late for. See ya!"
Not only had their son apparently inherited his father's knack for playing with people's heads and his raw talent, he also had his mother's lack of regard for procedure and more-than-slight lazy streak. In short, Inari Ichimaru was a precocious, capricious and manipulative prodigy who was too lazy to push himself but smart enough to know that he didn't really have to.
"Ran-chan," the garnet-eyed Soul Reaper spoke slowly after their son had left the room, "what have we done?"
"Sometimes, Gin," his loved one replied, taking another shot from a reserve bottle of sake, "I ask myself that same question. But I wouldn't trade him for the world, I'll tell you that much."
"Yeah," the Captain said softly, a smile creeping across his face, "neither would I."
As it turned out, an actual Captain's Meeting was called later in the day, giving Ichigo ample opportunity to glare daggers at the Sixth Division Captain across from him, while Byakuya was trying valiantly not to let any glimmer of mischievous glee show on his face.
"This Meeting is hereby called to order," Thirteenth Division Captain and co-Head Captain Jushiro Ukitake's voice rang out. "Head Captain Kyoraku, do you have anything to say before we… damn it, Shunsui," he said with a tired sigh as he glanced over and saw that his friend had fallen asleep standing up, "not again. OI!"
Kyoraku shot awake at the sudden shout, looking around frantically before he realized what had happened and exhaled heavily, readjusting his hat.
"Man, you don't have to shout so loud," he grumbled. "I can hear your inside voice just fine."
"Considering all of the times you've purposefully ignored my advice," he said almost acidly, "I find that hard to believe."
"Hey," Ichigo's voice broke in, "I don't mean to be disrespectful or anything, but can we get this thing started?"
"Why the hurry, Ichigo Kurosaki?" Byakuya asked smugly. "Unfinished business to attend to?"
"You son of a—"
The argument that was sure to erupt was cut off abruptly by the sound of the doors to the meeting hall being thrown open. One of the Twelfth Division scientists stood there, panting for a tense moment or two until he raised his head and spoke.
"Garganta…" he gasped, completely winded from his sprint. "Arrancar, two miles out! It's a big one!"
Captain Unohana rushed to the man's side as he passed out from fatigue, and Ichigo stepped forward.
"I'll go check it out," he said. "You guys stay here; if I need backup, I'll let you know."
"No," Kido Corps Captain Ulquiorra Schiffer said in a firm voice that brooked no argument, "I will go with you. If it is a low-ranking arrancar, I may be able to force it into submission without even entering into direct combat."
The Fifth Division Captain flashed a sly smile at that statement that the other Captains found rather curious, but it faded after a moment and he nodded.
"All right, since there doesn't seem to be any dissuading you, let's go."
The pair of them vanished in a flash-step, leaving the other Captains anxiously awaiting their return, and wondering what this odd turn of events could possibly mean.
Ichigo and Ulquiorra touched down right next to the Arrancar's energy signature, and the former Fourth Espada's eyes widened as he saw who was standing there. He instinctively reached for this zanpakuto, only to have the Arrancar's tired voice cut him off.
"Sheathe your sword, Ulquiorra-kun," he said almost lazily. "I'm not in the mood for shedding blood, and I would hate to have to kill you."
Schiffer seemed wracked with indecision for a moment, before Ichigo moved forward and addressed the new arrival.
"You're late, Stark."
The former First Espada gave a small smirk, raising his left arm up. A single shackle was dangling from it, and the number 1 on his hand had been supplanted by a burn scar, like Grimmjow's 6 had once been.
"My deepest apologies, Kurosaki-sama," he replied, his voice dripping with sarcasm, "but as I hope you can see, I've been otherwise occupied. Congratulations on the promotion, by the way."
"Kurosaki," Ulquiorra broke back in, "would you mind telling me what the hell is going on?"
"We don't have time for pleasantries," Stark spoke seriously,
"You Soul Reapers are in deep, deep shit."
"I don't understand why you think this is a good idea, Ulysses," a slender, dark-haired Arrancar said sharply, her voice trembling on the edge of anger as her brown eyes narrowed with conviction. "Their forces are still woefully depleted, and the majority of what soldiers they have are still raw recruits. If we strike now, their end is assured. Isn't that what we've been striving so hard to achieve?"
"While your points may carry some weight, Medea," Ulysses replied, an Arrancar with shocking red hair and a regal build befitting his name, "they are ultimately irrelevant. If we do not strike down the Soul Reapers at their full strength, our dominance will inevitably be questioned. As long as a shred of hope remains in their hearts, those scum will never stop challenging us.
"As you should know, Medea," the Arrancar at the head of the table continued, spreading his hand out and motioning at the other Arrancar that sat at the table, "as should the rest of the Dekatimori, the reason why we have come this far is to do nothing less than upset the order of the universe as it has stood for countless millennia. We Hollows have always been looked down upon as beasts, wild animals scavenging on those pathetic humans to fatten ourselves up for the slaughter.
"We can allow this trend to continue no longer! Our empire grows by the day as more and more of our brethren flock to our banner. We will soon stand united as a race, a force powerful enough to rip down everything those pompous, prideful maggots called Soul Reapers hold dear. We cannot allow our people to be brought to heel ever again; not by someone like Sosuke Aizen, and not those bastard, toadying Arrancar who called themselves the Espada. From this day forward we, the ten Dekatimori, will lead our people into a future free from mindless butchery and persecution. We will establish Hollows as an independent power to be reckoned with, not just as beasts roaming endlessly through a desert plain.
"There is but one obstacle standing in our way, and that is the Soul Reaper. But if we crush them now, if we bring our full might down upon the chrysalis before it has had a chance to bloom, then we are no better than they are. We must allow them time to reclaim their full power, and only then, once our victory comes, will it be beyond qualification. Our rule must be utterly secure and totally absolute, or every single Hollow that sacrificed itself to create the ten of us that stand here today will have given their lives in vain, and I for one will not allow that to happen!"
A hearty cheer erupted around the table, and only two of the ten, Medea and one other, did not join the chorus.
"I believe that going to war at all is foolish," the other one who had stayed silent broached, a red eye flashing while the other, which was grey but could still see, remained as hard as flint. One of the other Arrancar grinned widely, his dark eyes gleaming with barely-subdued madness.
"And why would that be, Jason, hmm?" he asked liltingly, his smile widening even further as he began to look like a wolf eyeing a fresh corpse.
"We all know you're a coward," he continued spitefully, "but there must be some other reason."
The red- and grey-eyed Arrancar looked like he was about to lunge across the table for a moment, but restrained himself.
"Consider for a moment what those so-called 'maggots' were able to do even with their forces so grievously emaciated by the war with Aizen," he said. "Not only did they repulse wave after wave of hellspawn, they managed to survive having the entire Seireitei razed to the ground, not to mention the death of their Captain Commander, and still have the strength to destroy Aizen once and for all. If we let them marshal the full strength of their forces before we strike, do you honestly think we have a chance in Hell of succeeding?"
"There is nothing being left to chance here, Jason," Ulysses said calmly, his voice diffusing the tension between the two Arrancar with ease.
"If you do not feel that your views are those of the Dekatimori, however, you are more than welcome to leave this chamber right now and not one of us will not think poorly of you."
"I will, fucking pansy," the one who had started the argument growled, until a tightly-controlled beam of cero lanced right in front of his face, barely missing his nose.
"Janus," Ulysses continued, his calm voice taking on a subtle edge, "please try to refrain from provoking any more quarrels in the future, or I will be forced to ensure that you will never be able to fight again. If there is one thing we cannot afford to do, it is set the example for the rest of our kind that such petty squabbling and backstabbing is acceptable. Is that in any way unclear?"
The grinning Arrancar's mouth flattened into a thin, grim line, but in the end he caved and nodded.
The red-haired Arrancar nodded in turn, giving a small smile.
"Good. Now, before we adjourn this gathering, is there anything else anyone would like to add?"
Medea cleared her throat and swept her dark hair out of her face before speaking, her eyes remaining has narrow as they had been before.
"I still object to the example you made of that poor girl. It was cruel and, in my humble opinion, absolutely inexcusable. Now that Stark has escaped from us, there is no reason why he would not side with the Soul Reapers and concentrate all of his strength on obtaining his vengeance."
"First and foremost," Ulysses countered, his voice never faltering, "that bastard 'Espada' Stark is of no concern to us. His power was determined by the charlatan Sosuke Aizen, and not by the unwritten laws that govern Hueco Mundo. He may have been a Vasto Lorde, like each and every one of us sitting here, but he was a disgrace to the title, a fake propped up by a false God. Second, as far as his fraccion is concerned, I do not believe that her sentence overstepped any bounds laid down by our people."
"What?!" The brown-eyed Arrancar half-shouted, the mask fragment running along her arm glinting in the light as her fist slammed down into the table.
"How can you say that? You publicly tortured her for days on end! And then you crucified her! You gave her no chance to defend herself by rite of combat! You butchered—"
The calm voice became thunderous, silencing the impassioned argument in an instant.
"While I will agree that her judgment was harsh," Ulysses began once he had calmed down, "an example had to be made. Nevertheless, the fact remains that if Stark acts against us, he will act as a lone, rabid wolf; nothing more. There is no way the Soul Reapers would accept his assistance, and we have the perfect hostage to assure his docility."
"Bullshit," Jason scoffed, picking up where his comrade had left off. "They already took in Jaegerjaques and Schiffer; why not one more if it will give them an edge? And you seem to forget that Stark broke out of his confinement, despite our so-called 'best' guards watching him. Who's to say he won't come back and break out Halibel as well?"
"Because Stark is no fool, unlike you," Janus spat, his feral grin replaced by dead seriousness. "He knows that if we even so much as smell him re-entering Hueco Mundo, the blond-haired bitch meets the same fate as his fraccion."
"I believe this meeting has run its course, my friends," the red-haired Arrancar at the head of the table said once the tension had abated.
"I move that we give the Soul Reapers ten years to replenish their strength, and then we move to destroy them utterly. What say you?"
The rest of the ten, apart from Medea and Jason, raucously voiced their approval of Ulysses' plan.
"Very well, then," he declared, "ten years it is."
"… Please tell me you're joking, Stark."
The former First Espada gave a bitter, almost raspy chuckle.
"Believe me, kid," he said to Ichigo, "I wish I was."
Ulquiorra was still in shock over seeing his old comrade on such good terms with Kurosaki, but something else gave him pause as well.
"Stark-sama," he began almost hesitantly, as if he didn't want to hear the answer, "did you say that they are, all ten of them, Vasto Lorde?"
"I thought you were supposed to be the sharp one, Ulquiorra-kun," Stark replied, sighing. "Are you really going to make me repeat myself?"
Schiffer's eyes widened and he became a shade paler, something that made the Fifth Division Captain incredibly uneasy.
"What's wrong, Ulquiorra?"
When the Kido Corps Captain was still too stunned to speak, Stark stepped in for him.
"In the original Espada, how many of us do you think were Vasto Lorde class, kid?"
Ichigo paused for a moment, thinking.
"Six?" he guessed. There was no way someone as tenacious as Grimmjow wasn't a Vasto Lorde, with the way he had fought so viciously during their duel…
But that train of thought was promptly and thoroughly derailed as Stark held up four slender fingers.
"Myself, Halibel, Barragan and Ulquiorra were the only four Vasto Lorde-class Arrancar among the Espada. Think about how much trouble you had fighting Ulquiorra," he finished,
"And then imagine fighting ten of those, some of whom are more powerful than he ever was."
Suddenly, Ichigo was feeling very, very sick to his stomach.
"There's still something I don't understand, Stark-sama," Ulquiorra broke back in, his old habit of using honorifics for those who had outranked him as an Espada still present.
"What exactly are you doing here, and how do you know Kurosaki?"
Stark smirked, his eyes glinting as he brushed a stray bang from his face and began to speak.
"You might be wondering how I got out of the Maggot's Nest," he said. "Truth is, I didn't escape, and I couldn't have anyway thanks to those pesky reiatsu-binding chains they had me trussed up in. Ichigo over there let me out," Stark continued, pointing over to the orange-haired Soul Reaper, "with a proviso. I took Lilnette with me and got sprung from jail, but in exchange I had to be this kid's eyes and ears in Hueco Mundo.
"I was really content to just sleep in the cell, but Lilinette wouldn't shut up, so I took him up on his offer. When we got back there with Halibel, though, those 'Dekatimori' bastards ambushed us and threw us in their own dungeons. That's why I've been out of commission for so long."
The brown-eyed Soul Reaper didn't miss the melancholy that seeped into Stark's voice at the mention of his deceased fraccion, and he frowned.
"I'm sorry for your loss, Stark," Ichigo offered. "If you hadn't gone back on my orders…"
The former First Espada just cut him off with a lazy wave of his hand.
"Don't give me that self-pity crap, kid," he shot back. "I was going to wind up there one way or the other, whether or not you'd enlisted me to do your spying."
"What about Halibel-sama?" Ulquiorra asked. "They haven't killed her, have they? We could go to Hueco Mundo and—"
"Absolutely not, Ulquiorra-kun," Stark cut him off. "If I go back in there to try and bust her out, they'll put her head on a spike before I can so much as say her name. No," he finished, yawning into the back of his hand,
"I'm gonna have to stay with you guys, until you get yourselves prepared. We have ten years to get ready for Armageddon, gentlemen," the Former First Espada said, cracking his knuckles.
"I suggest we start now."
A/N 2: Well, there you have it. This story has finally come to a close, and now I get to start working on the sequel! It's going to be titled "Empire of the Moon", and will begin nine years after the end of LCA's Epilogue, or a total of 19 years from the end of LCA proper. If you want to make sure that you don't miss out, add me to your Author Alert list. It shouldn't take too long for the first chapter to be published; it's already underway.
Thank you so very, very much to everyone who has taken the time to read and review this story as it's grown and progressed (and if you haven't reviewed yet, now's your chance!); your continued support and encouragement were really what made this possible, and I can't say that enough. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I did writing it, and I think the sequel promises to be even better than this.
Oh, and for those of you wondering about certain things that might have been missing, such as whether or not Uryu and Orihime had a kid or what happened to Saika, those questions will be answered in the sequel for sure. But here's a little something to hold you over: yes, Uryu and Orihime did have a daughter, and she's quite the handful. You'll meet her in the sequel. Also, how those ten Vasto Lorde evolved into Arrancar will be explained, fear not. Speaking of which, 'Dekatimori' is Greek (roughly) for "Ten Avengers", in case any of you were curious about that.