It's still 2011, right? ... 2012? ... Guh. Okay. I don't know how many of you are still following this (winces), but finally finally FINALLY I've got this chapter done. I don't know how many of you are still following this, but... thank you for your continued support, PMs, reviews, and pokes to get me to this point.
Ichigo gets sent to the past by a contraption he stumbles across in Urahara's basement, landing him thirty years in the past. He stumbles across Renji and Rukia, and he decides to enroll in the Shinigami Academy with them. Somewhere in the craziness of adjusting to his classes, visiting captains (Aizen and Ukitake - by extension, Kaien), nosy teachers (Hokkaido), and annoying inner hollows-turned-Arrancar (Shiro), he gains the animosity of Sentaro, who gets Kiyone to help him stalk Ichigo on his day off. They and a couple of others get caught in a Gillian attack orchestrated by Aizen and Ichigo saves them, earning the respect and friendship of Ukitake and Kyoraku. Since hollows appear in two areas, Kaede gets put into a coma. Time passes. At six months, Ichigo and the rest of the advanced class prepare for an exercise in the world of the living.
In the present time, the Vizards are working on and have finished a device of some sort. Orihime was attacked by Arrancar and saved by Toshiro, Shinji, and Rosé; all three go back to the Vizards' warehouse, where Toshiro meets the Vizards and lends Shinji his Soul Pager. Shinji gives Ukitake and Kyoraku a detailed description of Aizen's experiment on them.
Chapter 30 – Vanish Again
As Ichigo stiffly passed through the Senkaimon, his eyes darted around warily. Though he knew that he was being guided by a hell butterfly and thus would not have to pass through the Dangai, his previous experiences with even the stabilized Senkaimon were not pleasant. It was hard to forget emerging from the gate a few hundred feet above Karakura Town.
Ichigo released an inaudible sigh of relief when he emerged in the world of the living safely on solid ground. Since he'd stuck to the edge of the group of freshmen because of his paranoia, he was able to examine his surroundings closely. The exercise would take place in an abandoned industrial district. The shapes of buildings stood out in the light provided by the full moon. Looking out farther, he could see the moonlight reflecting off of the waters of the sea, broken only by dilapidated docks.
Ichigo then looked up and stared at the bright moon, wondering when he'd be able to get back to the future. Sure, it had been nice for a few weeks to relax and simply train to prepare for the war, but keeping heavy secrets and juggling multiple sets of lies had become burdensome. The stress grated on his nerves, and, occasionally, he'd morbidly think that he'd already caused some sort of paradox and would be erased from existence in a heartbeat. Or that, when he finally did travel back, it would be too late for him to stop Aizen. Or that he wouldn't travel back at all and would have to wait for decades before he'd get a chance to kill the madman without being on the run from the Soul Society.
He'd already had to deal with the unpleasantness of that when he'd rescued Rukia. Somehow, he had a feeling he wouldn't survive very long without Hanataro or some other healer. High-speed regeneration could only do so much.
/Focus on the here and now, Ichigo./ Zangetsu gently chided. /We can deal with things as they come./
Right, right. Ichigo softly laid a hand over the front of his uniform, tracing the outline of a small lump in the fabric. The stone – the tiny, insignificant rock in Urahara's basement that had started this whole mess.
Safe within the confines of his dorm, Ichigo was free to fiddle with the stone and talk with his inner avatars without fear of interruption from annoyed teachers or worried friends.
We've tried everything and then some, Shiro grumbled. Any other bright ideas?
Well, it responded to some outside force a few months ago, Ichigo replied, referring to the incident by the riverside before they'd entered the Academy. What happened that night?
/Perhaps certain times or places affect it,/ Zangetsu mused, closing his eyes to better picture the waterfront as he'd seen it through Ichigo's eyes. /We were by a riverside, during a full moon, around midnight, I believe… The reishi present didn't feel like anything besides the Soul Society standard…/
You remember all that?
/No; I had to poke around a bit in the buildings that house all your memories. Think of it like I retrieved data from your memory banks, in computer terms./
Deciding that it was mildly creepy that his zanpakuto could retrieve his memories like data from a hard drive before realizing that there was absolutely nothing Ichigo could do to stop him, Ichigo concluded, We could visit the riverside on our next day off. Hopefully it will react somehow…
The stone had remained inert by the riverside, so Ichigo had taken to carrying it around with him, wary of any sign it would activate within the range of anyone else. It hadn't done anything except release a nearly nonexistent pulse of reiatsu on the nights of the full moon, however. He still carried it with him wherever he went, though, and was extremely careful to avoid losing it.
Zangetsu suddenly gave him a sharp mental swat, which snapped Ichigo's attention back to the real world. Hisagi's voice floated over the crowd, informing the students which sector each group had been assigned to, instructing them on how to activate the dummy hollows (which had been set up in each sector beforehand by the sixth years maintaining the barrier), and laying out some ground rules that had to be followed (such as not venturing outside the barrier and returning immediately to the rendezvous point once the dummy hollow had been defeated).
Ichigo fidgeted impatiently throughout the whole oration, eager to start the exercise. He knew that a dummy hollow would fight nothing like the real thing, but it had been months since he'd battled something that he'd been able to kill without repercussion. (The last time he'd done that to Shiro, the Arrancar had stabbed him the instant he'd found his way from the depths of Ichigo's soul and had been sulky, insufferable, irritable, and ruthless during sparring for weeks afterwards.) The Academy drills may have been helpful, but most of them had tended to be sleep-inducing in all but kido, reiatsu control, and healing.
Ichigo came to a screeching halt at his last fight-happy thoughts. Damn, Shiro was rubbing off on him more than he'd like to admit.
Kenpachi would be quite pleased once he'd returned.
The sound of someone clearing his throat caught his attention, and Ichigo met the unfriendly gaze of Asukai – when in the world did things get so frosty between us, anyway? I thought we were on relatively good terms! – who motioned for Ichigo to follow him. Asukai led their group away from the docks, in the exact opposite direction as Renji's group. They stopped near the edge of the barrier in an area that looked like it had been overrun with rusted piping. An inactivated dummy was perched on the roof of a nearby building.
The dummy hollow Ichigo's group would be facing looked somewhat like a lizard. Once it was activated, it scurried agilely along the walls and around the pipes, nimbly dodging the group's attacks and instead allowing them to collide with the network of pipes.
Ichigo mostly let Asukai and the black-haired boy deal with the dummy, since he knew that any attack he threw at the dummy would destroy it. Ichigo had been holding back for months in his classes, and it was more than wearing on his nerves. Sure, he'd gotten used to keeping a huge secret from his family, but a good number of the Shinigami-in-training were more alert and paranoid than his father and sisters. The constant stress was tiresome.
Besides, the other two needed the experience of the exercise, and they weren't really in any danger. The dummy hollow couldn't attack back; the whole purpose of the exercise was to get used to attacking an agile enemy in the low-energy environment of the world of the living.
Ichigo felt Zangetsu's approval of his decision. His wielder had grown less hotheaded over the months – understandably, since Ichigo had had so much pressure from—
Ichigo, in annoyance, gave his zanpakuto a mental whack for the brief distraction.
A red Shakkaho flew past Ichigo's ear, colliding with the pipes ahead as the dummy hollow scuttled away unharmed. "Hey! Watch it!" Ichigo yelled at Asukai, who had nearly hit him with the hado.
The noble griped in return, "You're supposed to be helping us, Kurosaki, not standing to the side and twiddling your thumbs!"
Less hotheaded he might be normally, but he would not take a challenge like that lying down. "You want my help?" Ichigo snapped. "Fine!" He unsheathed his asauchi and easily wound his way through the maze of pipes toward the dummy. It was nimble, but Ichigo was even more so; and besides, its movements were predictable and simple to keep up with. Compared to the normal hollows he faced, destroying the dummy was child's play.
Ichigo turned to his teammates after the dummy had exploded to find them gaping at him in shock and consternation. "You asked for help," he shrugged, grabbing their uniforms and dragging them with him. "Let's go back."
"But— You—" Asukai spluttered before jerking away from Ichigo. "Don't touch me!"
Ichigo scowled. "What's your problem?" His response was a glare and an insulted snort. The trio headed to the rendezvous point in stony silence. Asukai was at the head of the group, and he was so tense Ichigo almost expected him to freeze up from a full-body affliction of cramps.
Jeez, why in the world has Asukai gotten so cold? Maybe it was because I forgot his name, Ichigo mused. He was civil in class until a few weeks ago…
Meanwhile, the noble striding in front of the time-traveler was silently brooding about his classmate's skills. He'd made an offhand comment about Kurosaki to his family one day, and after a few weeks, they'd started hounding him to outperform the other freshman. As a member of a noble family – even a minor one – it was an embarrassment for a commoner to outdo him. His expression darkened as he thought back to some of the cutting remarks he'd received from his family members:
Why do you let trash from the Rukongai show you up, Ryota?
You dishonor your clan with your failures.
You'll never be able to restore glory to our clan with that kind of skill!
I don't care how much more powerful this Kurosaki is than everyone else! You're currently the only noble in his class – he shouldn't be that hard to outdo!
Asukai glanced back at the one who'd recently become his goal unknowingly. He was dragging his heels, slouching slightly, and basically acting like any ignorant commoner would. Asukai suddenly felt insulted by the other's nonchalance. He turned ahead again to prevent himself from doing anything stupid, like provoking Kurosaki physically or verbally. He had to keep his decorum up to standard, no matter how infuriated he became.
While Asukai was stewing, a small pulse of reiatsu floated to Ichigo's senses. He paid no attention to it until identical pulses reached him, increasing steadily in frequency and power. It didn't take him long to find the source: the reiatsu was coming from within his shihakusho—the stone.
Kurosaki's posture suddenly went rigid, and Asukai, who was surreptitiously observing him again, had to wonder what had caused the other freshman's reaction. He could neither see nor sense what Kurosaki was reacting to.
Meanwhile, Ichigo reached into his shihakusho and drew the stone to where he could see it but was still concealed from anyone else's eyes by the fabric. The precaution soon wouldn't matter, as the stone was glowing ever so slightly, and with each passing moment, its reiatsu became more noticeable.
Shit, he swore. I need to get out of here. He glanced at his team members. It wouldn't be long before they noticed the stone's reiatsu.
Ichigo was never one for subtlety, so he grabbed Asukai's shoulder and, ignoring the noble's flinch and disgusted glare, said, "I'll be back; tell the 6th years I'll return soon, alright?"
"Kurosaki, where could you possibly be going?" Asukai snapped, but Ichigo darted away from him before he'd finished, far too fast for the other freshman to follow. Once he was out of their sight, he switched from running to shunpo to put distance between himself and the rest of the freshmen (some of whom were still spread in their groups, and it was difficult to evade them all to obtain solitude).
Finally, he hid away in a niche on the roof of one of the buildings, reasonably far from any other Academy students but still within the barrier. Those holding the barrier would notice it being breached, after all. Hopefully. He didn't want anything to go wrong with the exercise and ruin it for the rest of the students.
Ichigo brought the stone out from his shihakusho and examined it. It was flashing in time with the waves of reiatsu it was emitting and had gotten warmer than what could be passed off as body heat. Ichigo could feel his inner spirits watching it silently and intently through his eyes.
Suddenly, the stone sparked, causing Ichigo to almost drop it. Its reiatsu strengthened and the flashes of light increased in intensity until the stone was constantly emitting a soft golden glow. The stone threw off more sparks, which hung in the air instead of dissipating, glittering like miniature fireworks.
Ichigo watched the stone with trepidation. He had no idea what had caused it to react so suddenly, nor did he know what was happening with it, but he wasn't about to drop it. There was a possibility that it was preparing to transport him back to his own time, but his cynical side pointed out that something else was probably happening, as there hadn't been nearly as much fanfare when he'd been dropped decades into the past.
The stone pulsated once more, and the small motes of light coalesced into a shining whirlpool. It condensed to the size of a ping pong ball and hovered motionlessly for a moment before it expanded again. Part of the glowing mass dripped down to the stone in Ichigo's palm to form a tether, while the rest of the light molded into a recognizable shape. The tones of gold changed, sharpened, and shifted so that Ichigo was staring at a humanoid figure with its feet planted firmly on the stone.
Static suddenly hissed at Ichigo, though he couldn't tell if it was from the stone or the light above it. He almost wasn't surprised—the stone had done some rather strange things (notably, the time travel) by his standard (which had plummeted very low over the course of everything that had happened to him since he'd gained his Shinigami powers months ago). However, he couldn't help but gape when he caught a few discernible words through the static.
Ichigo stared dumbly at the stone. He was almost positive he'd heard the beginning of his name through the white noise. "Okay, this thing is creeping me out," he muttered to himself.
You and me both, King. I wish it would do something, Shiro agreed.
"Aha!" Ichigo jumped; that word had been a lot clearer with almost no distortion. "Got it!"
The figure shifted again, its features sharpening into focus. Ichigo felt his jaw drop. He vaguely heard similarly shocked exclamations and curses from Shiro.
"Hello there, Kurosaki-san! It's been awhile. I'm kinda surprised you're still in one piece!"
Ichigo struggled to respond. His jaw flapped uselessly for a few moments before he managed, "Urahara?!"
Asukai stalked back to the rendezvous point, seething at the absent Kurosaki. Why did the commoner feel the need to order a noble such as himself around? Why would he…
Asukai tried to think more negative thoughts about Kurosaki, but he found it somewhat difficult. Kurosaki was the reason why he was catching heat from his family—the most important thing in the world to him—but he was also the only one who treated him like a normal person, neither pressuring him like his family nor watching him with reverence. Kurosaki had never shown him any more respect than he'd earned, the same as everyone else he interacted with. It was a refreshing change.
Asukai mentally slapped himself. His family mattered above all else, he reminded himself. Camaraderie with a commoner was unacceptable.
As Asukai reached the rendezvous point, his dislike of the plebian grew. All it took was a few reminders to quash his momentary weakness.
Now, where is he…? Asukai wondered, closing his eyes and slipping into a semi-meditative state. He wasn't the greatest reiatsu sensor, but he'd worked hard to improve. Nobles were required to be well-rounded in all aspects of the Shinigami world.
Asukai felt the crowd around him—most everyone had returned and there were only a few stragglers, he noted—but Kurosaki wasn't in the immediate area. He stretched his senses and felt the last group to finish approaching. Asukai was pretty sure they were Kurosaki's closest friends, but the distance made it hard to tell. He forced his senses further, up to his limit, but he only caught vague snatches of Kurosaki's lingering reiatsu. The commoner himself was nowhere to be found. He was too far away.
Asukai sighed. Kurosaki, where in the world did you run off to?
As Ichigo continued to stare at the shopkeeper in shock, Urahara flipped open his perpetually-present fan and said cheerily, "Yep!" He maintained his casual, lighthearted disposure for a moment before sobering, his posture straightening and his expression turning serious. Before he could say anything more, though, he was rather loudly interrupted.
In all the months Ichigo had been a Substitute Shinigami, he'd learned to take the weird and unexplainable in stride. However, the half-year spent with immature versions of his friends with the burden of a huge secret on his shoulders had somewhat weakened his emotional control around those he implicitly trusted.
"What the hell?!" Ichigo spluttered. "How – why—?!"
"Kurosaki." Ichigo knew that tone of voice. It was Urahara's "shut up and listen to me otherwise we'll be in a heap of trouble" voice. Wisely, Ichigo found the rusty reins on his emotions and forced himself to calm down and focus.
"As you've undoubtedly noticed, you're sometime in the past. A few decades, by my calculations. You've been there for about half a year, correct?"
"Yes, Urahara. Get to the point."
"Alright." Urahara cringed. "My device was somewhat incomplete when you stumbled across it—"
"Incomplete?!" Ichigo repeated in disbelief. "You must be joking. If you're telling me you can't get me back—"
"I'm not saying that. Just listen. Currently, my device can traverse time, but it can't be activated unless certain environmental conditions are met—reishi in the atmosphere, gravity, and so on. I tinkered with it right before you left, so it was able to perform its function by relying heavily on your ridiculous reiatsu without some of the other conditions, but something happened to it mid-transit. Something got knocked out or a loose end tried to affect something it shouldn't have. I'd tell you exactly what happened, but that's about all I can get from reading its dock here."
It took Ichigo a moment to process all the new information. Urahara's explanation left more questions than answers. "Dock…?"
"Of course. Did you think I'd create a time-travelling device without having something to ground it in this time in case something went wrong?"
Ichigo saw the projection twitch, but brushed it off as interference. Even Urahara probably wouldn't be that reckless. "I suppose not… So, how can you get me back?"
"Well, since all the primary connections have been established between the dock and the vessel, we can trigger the process to bring you back. The whole point of this chat was to prepare the vessel for a time leap."
Ichigo blinked in surprise. "Really?"
"Yep! Half of the work was finding the right frequency of reishi that could connect with the vessel in your time – it probably took a while for my image to appear from the vessel's reishi, right? Besides that, Tessai's been making minute adjustments to the kido for greater precision while your friends have been providing the necessary reiatsu. All you need to do at this point is channel your reiatsu into the stone. So… ready to come home, Kurosaki?"
Ichigo blinked. "Just like that?" It seemed rather anticlimactic. "Wait… won't there be any paradoxes?" He'd been here for months, after all; he'd undoubtedly changed a lot.
Urahara waved his fan. "Indeed, just like that! And don't worry about the paradoxes; I've got them covered." Somehow, Ichigo didn't find that reassuring. "But we have to start up the process now, otherwise we'll have to wait another month for us – six months for you – for the conditions to be right again."
"Six months? I am not staying here that long! Just get this thing started, then!"
"Alright, you should—"
Urahara suddenly looked alarmed, which was the only warning Ichigo got before Urahara's image jerked and the golden reishi composing his figure swirled chaotically. His proportions distorted, alternately shriveling and ballooning. "Kuro—inter—bilize—"
"Urahara? Urahara! Dammit, don't disappear on me now!" Ichigo shouted at the stone, not caring if anyone heard him. "I need to get home, dammit!"
The golden reishi broke apart, and Ichigo feared that it would disappear along with his chances for getting home for another six months, when the reishi drew itself back together and reformed back into a distinct human figure.
A figure that was most certainly not Urahara.
Ichigo gave up trying to figure out what was happening. "Hi, Shinji. How are you doing?"
Kurosaki's friends had almost gotten back to the rendezvous point, but the commoner himself was still conspicuously absent from both sight and sense. He'll be left here if he takes too long doing whatever he ran off to do, Asukai thought, torn between vindictive gratification and grudging worry. Wrapped as he was within his own thoughts, he didn't notice a slight commotion among the upperclassmen overseeing the exercise.
He did, however, notice the loud, strangled scream. He glanced around, annoyed at whoever felt the need to make such a horribly distracting noise—
Asukai blanched, all irritation forgotten. A huge monster (hollow, his subconscious helpfully supplied) towered over the group. It was easily comparable to a demon even from a glance: bulging muscles, sinister horns atop a grotesque head, pointy wings—
And complete with a sixth year impaled upon the spike that topped the hollow's arm.
Asukai froze. He couldn't feel the monster's reiatsu, but the hollow nonetheless exuded a palpable menace that locked all movement and thought. He was nothing more than a tiny deer caught in the headlights of a demonic truck.
The hollow carelessly swung its gigantic limb, dislodging the obviously dead form of the upperclassman. One of the surviving sixth years charged with a furious scream but met the same fate as his classmate. Asukai was so numb that the shock of the second death didn't register.
The sole remaining sixth year shouted, "Freshmen, get out of here! Run as far as you can!" The younger students hardly needed to be told twice, peeling away as soon as they mustered the strength to flee, despite the horror they'd just witnessed. Asukai only unfroze when one of his classmates crashed into him. He registered the presence of Kurosaki's friends simply because they hadn't yet turned and run, making themselves into obstacles everyone else, including Asukai, had to dodge.
As he distanced himself from the danger, Asukai's panic receded from overwhelmingly prominent to peripheral. His mind whirled through many half-formed thoughts: the dead upperclassmen, the terrifying hollow, the running students, Kurosaki's disappearance. He's probably been eaten; no wonder he didn't come back, Asukai conjectured miserably, too frazzled to search for the other freshman's reiatsu.
He couldn't run any longer; his strength had left, despite the adrenaline. He hid inside one of the buildings in a tangle of dilapidated machinery for shelter and was joined by a group of other exhausted freshmen. He didn't really care; now that he could think clearly, he could only think of how much more real this was than anything he'd been exposed to at the Academy.
People hadn't died in the classrooms, for one.
And until all the scattered freshmen were rounded up by the fully-fledged Shinigami backups, Asukai grimly reflected upon the risks of being a Shinigami (in the real world, only strength mattered; his lineage meant nothing) and mourned the death of the upperclassmen and Kurosaki.
Shinji gave Ichigo his best toothy grin, its unsettling nature enhanced by the golden tones the stone employed to fabricate the image. "Hey, you're not dead!"
Ichigo rolled his eyes. "Nice to see you too. Where did Urahara go?"
The number of Shinji's teeth showing decreased. "Urahara?" he repeated. "Crap. Hang on a sec." He leaned over, consulting with someone Ichigo couldn't see. His voice was low and fuzzed with interference, as if he were talking on a phone held a foot away from his mouth with a TV making white noise in the background.
Ichigo waited patiently for about a minute before Shinji returned his attention to the time traveler. "Well, seems we've got ourselves something of a problem – hey, wait a—!"
The reishi figure once again disintegrated, and the disjointed particles swirled chaotically before reforming into Urahara's frame. This time, his form wasn't nearly as detailed, and Ichigo only caught a distorted, "Interference—need more reiatsu—" before the golden reishi melted altogether, forming a glowing coat around the stone. Ichigo stared at it numbly for a few moments, waiting for something to happen. When nothing did, he took a deep breath to calm his nerves – he had to try something; he wasn't staying here for another six months, and Shiro and Zangetsu loudly agreed – before focusing his reiatsu—
There was a large shadow looming over him.
Ichigo leaped into the sky on instinct, and not a moment too soon: a massive hand slammed down where he'd been standing, connected to a gargantuan hollow. The hollow was efficiently dealt with by a Shakkaho that was stronger and more unstable than strictly necessary and shot from the palm of the hand that wasn't clutching the stone tightly.
He landed on the roof of a nearby building and frowned. Even though his ability to sense reiatsu was crude by most standards (despite the fact that he'd been working on it for the past six months), he should have been able to feel the hollow approaching, especially given its size. He closed his eyes, stretched his senses… but felt nothing remotely similar to hollow reiatsu.
He did hear a loud roar, though, that was unmistakably a hollow's.
Something's definitely wrong, he thought as he hurried in the direction of the noise by means of the rooftops, feeling his inner spirits shift at the promise of a battle. His worry spiked as he noted other freshmen fleeing in a chaotic manner beneath him. Shit, the rendezvous point! He sped from running to shunpo and adjusted his course accordingly. In a matter of seconds, he reached his destination and did a quick survey of the area, flinching at the couple of obviously dead bodies and at the conspicuous lack of the offending hollow.
He shut his eyes and focused again, this time searching for the strongest source of reiatsu apart from himself; hollows were attracted to sources with high reiatsu. Even for him, it was east to identify Renji's, Momo's, and Izuru's signatures not far from his location, along with a fourth, stronger signature. Their group and Ichigo himself would stand out like beacons to the hollow, shouting, "We're right here; come eat us and absorb our energy!"
There was no way Ichigo would risk his friends' lives for the sake of taking down a hollow solo, so he shunpoed to their position. The final member of the group, the sixth year—Hisagi—looked at him in disbelief.
"Are you crazy? What are you doing here? Why did you come back?" he demanded harshly, echoed by Renji's slightly hysterical "You stupid idiot!" and Momo's frantic "Do you have any self-preservation instincts, Ichigo?!"
Ichigo stubbornly replied, "You need all the backup you can get. Don't complain!"
The others quieted, though he did see Hisagi shoot him a disbelieving glance, probably because of the calm, almost nonchalant, tone he'd used. He noted that the right side of the sixth year's face was coated in blood. He couldn't quite make out the facial injuries, but if he had to guess, they were the source of the scars Ichigo was familiar with in the future.
The five turned into a larger area in the maze, but they quickly stopped, as the air in front of them shimmered as if they were in the middle of a heat wave.
"Hey… what the hell? Why is everything getting blurry?" Hisagi wondered aloud in worried confusion, his tone wavering.
Great, Ichigo mentally groaned as small Gargantas opened in the air all around the group and spit out a ring of menacingly large hollows, all of which had the almost nonexistent reiatsu signature of a spiritual being concealing its power. The Academy students formed in a tight circle in response, Hisagi tightly gripping his sword in a traditional kendo style; Ichigo preferring the style he'd part learned, part developed during his training; and Renji, Momo, and Izuru laxly holding their swords at their sides.
We can't wait any longer for backup, Ichigo mentally snarled as Izuru started loudly panicking next to him.
Assuming any has been called, Shiro added grimly.
They'll all die if I don't do something, then.
Zangetsu whispered a suggestion in his ear.
And Ichigo trusted his zanpakuto with his life.
He darted out of formation, shouting, "Rend the heavens, Zangetsu!"
There was a blinding flash of white light, followed by a shout of "Getsuga Tensho!" and an explosion. Shuhei couldn't help but freeze when his currently limited vision recovered and he could survey the battlefield, despite that he thought he'd trained enough to avoid such crippling hesitation during battle.
Almost all of the hollows in front of him had been wiped out. The source of the devastation stood a few feet in front of him, hefting a stupidly large sword and oozing enough reiatsu to make breathing difficult.
There is no way this is happening, Shuhei thought distantly. The practical tactician in him happily whispered about increased chances of survival while the overwhelmingly dominant part in denial swamped him with incoherent splutters of shikai, reiatsu, hollows, freshman, what the fuck?!
He had shikai—he was the only student at the Academy that currently had a shikai—but he hadn't released it, in part because his increased reiatsu would draw more hollows (a useless precaution now, a fragment of him snarked), in part because he couldn't use it all that well yet (despite that he'd had it for months), and in part because it and its potential terrified him.
To find that a freshman both had a shikai and was wielding it with more mastery than he could at the moment was both an unpleasant shock and a metaphorical kick in the ass to get over his fear and learn to use me already!
Even though part of the thought came from Kazeshini, Shuhei couldn't agree more, for once.
In the few seconds all this information had taken to process, the freshman (Ichigo, Shuhei remembered from his friend snapping at him earlier) had wiped out a few more hollows, moving faster than he could follow.
"Did you know about this?" he demanded of the other freshmen while keeping his eyes on the remaining hollows, which now seemed less interested in the four still stationary on the ground.
"N-no," the girl stuttered, while the blond who had been screaming earlier let out a concurring squeak.
A hollow, deducing that its chances of getting a meal were larger by attacking the four stationary students in formation instead of the blur that was easily taking down its comrades, slashed at the group with a talon. Shuhei readied a defense, but instead of being hit with a jarring impact, he and the others were sprayed by hollow blood from the now-detached limb sailing over their heads.
Shuhei wasn't sure how much longer the incredibly one-sided battle lasted. When Ichigo stilled for the final time and all of the hollows taken care of, it was a struggle to wipe the look of awe and shock from his face and replace it with something a bit more stern and appropriate of a superior officer. Shuhei wasn't quite sure if he'd succeeded or not.
It was a good thing the clapping began. Otherwise, Shuhei wasn't sure what he would have done, even though, given Ichigo's sheepish expression, the powerful freshman was obviously approachable.
"Impressive," someone complimented before stepping into view, followed by the source of the clapping. "That was quite the display."
Shuhei couldn't help but gasp, "Captain Aizen… and Lieutenant Ichimaru!"
Ichigo couldn't believe it. After all of his caution these past few months (okay, his attempts at secret-keeping had been clumsy at the beginning, but he'd learned from his mistakes with Hokkaido and Kaede and hadn't really had any slip-ups since), Aizen of all people showed up to clean up the disastrous exercise. His treacherous lieutenant was still applauding, raising Ichigo's suspicions that they'd been there the whole time and hadn't bothered to interfere with the show. Though Aizen wore a genial expression and his eyes roamed comfortingly over all the students, Ichigo would have sworn the man's voice held a hint of predatory glee in the compliment. Both Shiro and Zangetsu tensed for a confrontation in Ichigo's inner world, the Arrancar a bit more vocally than the zanpakuto.
Ichigo could have cared less how "impressive" the man found his "display." As Aizen approached the frozen group, the sound of his sandals on concrete reminded Ichigo to move. He held Zangetsu in a defensive position and retreated backward as Aizen stepped forward.
Aizen seemed unperturbed by his reaction, moving to comfort the other students and excuse Ichigo's behavior. "People can act strangely on the post-battle adrenaline rush," he reassured, patting Momo on the head comfortingly.
Ichigo just tightened his grip on his sword.
Aizen outwardly turned his attention to Ichigo, though Ichigo was certain that his focus had been on him the entire time. The captain murmured something to his lieutenant, who remained by the other students as he approached a twitchy Ichigo.
"I won't bite, you know," the murderer called reassuringly. "Far from it, in fact. Saving your comrades is nothing to be ashamed of."
Ichigo sorely wished to cut the man to pieces, but he knew he was unprepared for a fight against both the powerful traitor and his right-hand man, even with his training. Plus, Aizen had hostages. Unwitting hostages – the average person would see the decision to leave Ichimaru with the traumatized students to be a reassurance and a balm. Ichigo saw his friends within arm's reach of a manipulative serpent who could kill the four hapless students in under a second should he deem fit (in other words, if Ichigo made any threatening moves).
He couldn't attack; he couldn't flee – he didn't trust Aizen unsupervised with his friends at all – he could just dance in a circle. He was going to do something rash and stupid if this kept up much longer—
"Hey, I didn't know Squad Five had gotten here already to clean up this mess!"
—but fortunately, he didn't get to that point.
Aizen was apparently the only one not shocked into speechlessness. "Squad Thirteen's Captain Ukitake and Lieutenant Shiba. What a surprise."
Ukitake rubbed the back of his head, the very picture of apologetic. "Sorry; we heard the distress call and came running. We didn't know another squad had already come to answer the call for backup." His act would have been perfect had his lieutenant looked the least bit repentant. As it was, a hint of defiance and smugness flashed across Kaien's face before it was replaced by a neutral expression that only fooled the Academy freshmen who hadn't time traveled.
"We actually didn't really need to do anything. Ichigo here had it all under control," Gin clarified. Ichigo wasn't sure which was worse: the fact that the silver-haired traitor had known his name or the mocking way he'd purred the statement.
Ukitake's gaze landed on Zangetsu, no doubt remembering the incident with the Gillian. "I'm sure," he agreed easily. "Since it looks like things have been handled here and since this is officially your mission, why don't you go round up the other students? I'm sure they're all terrified and waiting for someone to pick them up," he suggested. "We can watch the students here."
Aizen's genial mask was firmly in place as he agreed. "Come along, Gin," he motioned, patting Momo consolingly on the head one last time before shunpoing away with his creepy lieutenant in tow.
The moment they were gone, Ukitake dropped the innocent act and strode over to Ichigo, heedless of the giant cleaver. "Ichigo," he chided. "You have to be more careful! We're lucky that Captain Aizen was the one to come and not someone else. He is really very nice; he'll not mention your involvement in the report if we ask him not to."
Ichigo, still shaken from Aizen's appearance, took a moment to respond after lowering his blade. "Uh, what?"
Kaien, who'd herded Renji, Momo, Izuru, and Shuhei to Ichigo's side, rolled his eyes. "We're covering for you, stupid. The captain's decided that you're coming straight to our squad after you graduate. We take care of our own, yeah?" He lowered his voice. "Especially one of our own who saves complete strangers. And besides, you're a protector, right? You can't do that if you're locked up in the 12th Squad's labs."
Ichigo blinked. He hadn't met the two high-ranking officers more than a handful of times between them both, and they still showed this much desire to shield him? Was this what people felt when he saved them, despite him not knowing a thing about them beforehand? "Thank you," he said sincerely, deeming the gratitude appropriate.
Kaien replied with a warm, friendly grin. "Don't mention it!" A second later, though, the smile faded, replaced with confusion. "What's that in your shihakusho?" he frowned, poking at Ichigo's chest.
The stone! Shit! Ichigo scrambled to withdraw the rock from his shihakusho. It was glowing brightly and radiating reiatsu. How had he have missed it?
/You're horrible at sensing reiatsu when your focus is on something else,/ Zangetsu offered.
Rhetorical question! Distraction! Not helping! Ichigo hissed back as golden particles spilled from the stone again, more in a rushing torrent than the fireworks the display had been last time.
"What is that?" Momo murmured. Her question was echoed by Izuru, who hadn't quite gotten over the shell-shock of the hollow attack yet. Renji stared at it with fascination and Shuhei with caution.
"It's a relevant question," Kaien prodded, watching the flowing spirit particles with suspicion.
"It's… complicated," Ichigo managed, knowing that either Urahara or Shinji would pop up in the next few moments and shoot everything straight to hell. "Really, really complicated."
"It's not that bad! Just a little kido and…" came a voice from the stone. Ichigo recognized it as Urahara's and mentally prepared for an onslaught of questions (or an attack from the 13th Squad's officers). "Hang on a sec; the visuals on this are touchy. Time's a tricky thing, Kurosaki-san!"
Renji looked at the stone as if it were about to eat him. "Ichigo, there's a rock talking to you."
The golden torrent, which had formed into a humanoid figure and was defining details by that point, slowed. "Kurosaki-san, there's someone with you." A pause. "Was that Abarai-san?"
Renji took several steps back, thoroughly creeped out.
"Hollow attack," Ichigo began at the same time Kaien announced, "This is Kaien Shiba, lieutenant of the 13th squad. State your name and purpose!"
The torrent almost oozed to a stop, though only halfway finished refining the details. Ichigo could clearly make out that Urahara had his hat pulled solemnly over his face. "My apologies, Shiba-san. To explain everything would take more time than I can allow for, so I'll just do my business with Kurosaki-san and leave you in peace, hm?"
"No," Ukitake interjected more roughly than Ichigo had thought the kind man capable of. "It may have been almost seventy years, but I do remember your voice well enough, Kisuke!"
There was a pause from the person controlling the stone. "Well, darn. Can't pull one over your eyes, can I, Ukitake-san?" The details on the figure finally finalized, and Urahara stared back from the stone. He turned to face Ukitake and waved. Ichigo was glad everyone's attention was on the eccentric shopkeeper and not him; he had an awful feeling that if they were looking at him, they'd be doing so with hurt, anger, confusion, or betrayal. Even though it wasn't entirely Ichigo's fault that he was involved with this whole time travel fiasco, he still felt terrible for lying to his friends. Zangetsu mentally put a hand on his shoulder, offering him silent support. Shiro skulked behind the zanpakuto, not caring to hide anymore.
"Um, who's that?" Izuru spoke up hesitantly.
"Kisuke Urahara, exile. He's a traitor to the Soul Society," Kaien answered darkly, shooting Ichigo an angry glare. Though Ichigo had been expecting it, he still flinched.
"Unfortunately so, but now I can safely say I was rather thoroughly framed!" Urahara grinned, hiding his unhappiness with a grin and a wave of his fan. "Like I said before, I'd explain, but I'm on a rather tight schedule. You wouldn't remember any of what I'd say, anyway!"
Ukitake and Kaien gripped their zanpakuto at the perceived threat. "Is that so?" the Shiba ground out.
"Yep! Now, I'm sorry, but I have to take Kurosaki-san back now!"
Everyone's attention was back on Ichigo. Kaien and Ukitake glowered at him with betrayal (he'd known enough of his situation to answer about the stone earlier, after all, and actively consorting with a convicted criminal made him one too), and Shuhei seemed to catch on that he was something of an enemy. On the other hand, Izuru, Momo, and Renji seemed to be realizing with horror that one of their best friends would be leaving, possibly forever.
"Wait!" Renji choked, shoving past his superior officers to grab Ichigo's shihakusho, heedless of Shuhei trying to hold him back. "Are you leaving?" Renji searched his friend's face and found his answer. Ichigo was horrible at hiding his emotions, after all. "Why?"
Ichigo couldn't bring himself to look Renji in the face anymore. "I can't stay. I don't belong here." And he abruptly found himself torn, because he wanted to stay here; he'd made a comfortable life for himself here and gained (or regained) some amazing friends. But then he remembered what he'd be leaving behind if he did so: his life (he'd occasionally almost forgotten in this time that he still had a living body and high school to return to), all of his friends (where was Orihime when he needed cheering up, Ishida when he needed someone to argue with, Chad when he needed someone to watch his back?), his family (he'd never abandon them for the world), his responsibility to protect (Aizen was gunning for Karakura Town, and Ichigo would never forgive himself if he weren't there to protect everyone).
"Yeah, you do! And if you think—"
Kaien covered Renji's mouth before he could finish, effectively telling him to shut up and stay silent because a superior officer is telling you to. "Why?" the lieutenant asked, his voice hard, and Ichigo knew he was asking why he was here in the first place, not why he was abandoning them.
"Accident. I wasn't here to spy on you or do something nefarious otherwise." Ichigo forced himself to meet Kaien's accusatory gaze, hoping that the lieutenant would see the truth of his words in his eyes.
"And because Urahara-san can't store his equipment properly!" someone who was definitely not Urahara yelled from the stone. He couldn't tell who it was; the voice was too distorted.
More particles from the stone formed a hand that gripped Urahara's coat. The person attached to the hand pulled his head into view and roared in a voice that was now clearly undistorted, "Get your ass back here, Ichigo!" Though his words weren't easily discerned because Urahara shouted, "Please get back into your position!" at the same time, his face was easily recognizable.
"Renji?!" Momo choked, whirling between Renji and the image from the stone, even though Urahara had pried present Renji's fingers from his coat and he'd been pulled out of sight.
"W-was that me?!" Renji looked close to fainting.
"What is going on?" Izuru voiced the question everyone was thinking. The entire group had their eyes on Ichigo again, though the Academy students kept glancing at Renji.
"Kurosaki, please inject your reiatsu into the stone now!" Urahara urged.
That's right – Urahara had said no one would remember this, didn't he? "Time travel really sucks. I don't recommend it," Ichigo deadpanned to the people staring at him expectantly before pouring all the reiatsu into the stone that he could. Zangetsu and Shiro aided, no longer concerned with concealing their strength.
"Wait just a damn second—" Kaien lunged forward, eyes wide, but his fingers closed on empty air as Ichigo vanished in a flash of light.
There was a tiny oval in Kurosaki's place, and before Kaien could react, it impacted with the middle of his forehead. He didn't care; he had to know what the deal was with Ichigo—
Who was Ichigo?
Kaien stumbled back, his head feeling fuzzy, as though he'd spent a night in a cheap bar somewhere in the Rukongai. The disorientation lasted a moment before his senses sharpened again. His captain was gripping his shoulder, asking if he was alright and about something Ichi—
Captain Ukitake released Kaien when he met his eyes, shaking his head and rubbing his temples. He recovered quickly, though, and glanced around. "…Where are we?" Ukitake asked, scratching his head in confusion.
"Um, sir, you're in the world of the living," a feminine voice spoke up hesitantly. Kaien turned to the small girl next to him. The moment their eyes met, she took a half-step back, blinking rapidly.
A blond kid behind her stepped up. "Momo, are you alright?" He looked up at Kaien uncertainly before looking at his friend again. Blond froze for a moment before shaking his head.
"Sirs?" Kaien turned to an older Academy student who really needed some healing for his face. There wasn't any fresh blood, so whatever wound that had been inflicted to cause such a blood flow had to have already clotted. The kid really needed to clean up, though; the right side of his face and his right shoulder had been dyed red.
Kaien realized Bloody was waiting for permission to speak, so he gave it. "Sir, what about the time traveling that—" As soon as Bloody looked straight at him, he stopped talking and looked bewildered. "What was I saying?"
"I'm not sure," Kaien replied slowly. Bloody's words seemed to have slid from his memory, but for some reason, he didn't feel too worried about it.
"Guys!" A redhead whined, waving his arms around. "What's with you? What about Ichigo?"
"Ichigo?" Blond asked, his brow furrowing. "Who's Ichigo?"
"What do you mean, who's Ichigo?" Redhead snapped, grabbing his friend's shoulders. It looked like Redhead was about to shake Blond, but as soon as he glared into the other's eyes, his grip slackened. "Ichigo? Ichiro? Ishiro? Who was I talking about?"
The girl blinked. "I'm not sure," she admitted. "Are you feeling okay, Renji?"
"I'm fine," Redhead (no, Renji, you need to stop the nicknaming habit, Kaien) snapped.
At that moment, Captain Aizen arrived at the scene via shunpo, looking worried. "What happened? I just felt Kurosaki-san's reiatsu disappear!"
His captain approached the other, frowning. "Who are you talking about?"
Captain Aizen opened his mouth, appearing even more concerned, but then he shut it again. "I was talking about… who was I talking about?... no one." He seemed bewildered and lost for a moment before switching subjects. "What is Squad Thirteen doing here? Squad Five reported that we'd answer the distress call for this exercise."
"I'm… not sure," Captain Ukitake replied, sounding befuddled.
"Everything has been handled here," Captain Aizen replied calmly. "You can go back to the Soul Society, if you don't feel the need to stay here."
"That's fine." Captain Ukitake shook his head. "I'm sorry for butting in on this operation. I don't know what I was thinking…"
"Perhaps you should rest a bit?" Captain Aizen suggested concernedly.
His captain nodded. "Right. I'll leave you to your cleanup," he sighed. "Come on, Kaien. Let's go home."
Kaien couldn't have been happier to call the hell butterflies that would guide them back to the Soul Society. His concentration seemed to be shot to pieces and he could barely remember what he'd done five minutes ago. He just wanted to get back home and sleep.
The moment Aizen met Ukitake's gaze, he knew he was in trouble. His thoughts became fuzzy and his mind's focus disappeared; he couldn't remember why he was urgently talking to Ukitake in the first place.
A memory kido, he thought, forcing through the haze. Cleverly created, easily spread, highly effective… I know Urahara's work when I… encounter…
What was I thinking? Right, a memory kido. I've been affected.
Memory kido? Who made a memory kido?
Aizen knew that whatever the kido had been designated to erase was gone; such a high-class spell would ensure it. He only had a short time before any recollection that his memory had been tampered with was also gone. He couldn't rely on any written documentation; because of the chance, slim though it was, his plans could be stolen and his codes deciphered, he preferred to keep all his scheming solely in his head (he had more than enough brainpower to store and remember anything, after all). But this time, his precaution was backfiring on him. He hadn't thought anyone had been able to create a memory spell with enough power to spread from person to person with just eye contact; it was far beyond any of the developments he'd observed from the 12th Squad or the Kido Corps.
Need to warn Gin… he thought hazily before returning to the group of freshmen he'd organized earlier. Some of them were strong enough to meet his eyes for a moment before flinching away in response to a combination of his heavy reiatsu and the memory spell. Ever-faithful Gin appeared at his side immediately.
Aizen looked at his lieutenant's feet while he choked, "Memory spell, not my eyes, remind me…" through the effects of the spell, which had become so overpowering that they'd overtake his resistance in a few moments.
…why was he looking at the ground? Aizen immediately raised his head, but Gin wouldn't meet his gaze.
"Very well, Captain," he said loftily. "Shall I continue collecting students?" He disappeared into another part of the sector upon receiving an affirmative.
Aizen wouldn't know that the spell would spread throughout the Seireitei and eventually infect Gin. He wouldn't know that while Gin, double agent known to only himself, still retained his memories of Ichigo Kurosaki, he wouldn't deign to mention the memory spell. He wouldn't know that the spell could also be transferred via touch, a precaution specifically tailored with Tousen in mind. (He also wouldn't know that the inclusion of this method into the spell was well-justified, as Aizen himself was the one to spread the spell to Tousen via a friendly grip on the bare forearm just before the man would have queried about the status of the fourth freshman they'd decided to manipulate.)
All he would know was that he'd secured the unwavering loyalties of most of the students that night, especially Momo, by saving them from the hollows and returning them safely to the Soul Society.
Luckily for Hokkaido, Asukai had spent all his time in the world of the living after the hollow attack brooding and staring at his feet, and since he was a noble (even a minor one), people tended to give him personal space. Asukai wasn't infected with the memory kido until he left the Academy to return to his manor and made eye contact with the guards at the gates, who'd seen plenty of traumatized freshmen looking around in fear.
So when Asukai headed directly to Hokkaido after he got back to the Soul Society, his memories were unaffected.
Hokkaido didn't believe that Ichigo was dead at first, despite Asukai's adamant insistence that he'd felt Ichigo's reiatsu utterly vanish. Besides that, Asukai hadn't seen Ichigo's body, living or dead. Ergo, he'd been eaten.
Hokkaido believed it when Ikoto sleepily poked his head into the room upon hearing the raised voices.
"Dunno who Kurosaki is," he yawned. "But there are two or three confirmed fatalities. Everyone was checked at return and I looked at the list. Didn't see any Kurosaki with the survivors."
"Oh… alright," Hokkaido replied shakily. Ikoto, feeling his duty was done, continued on his journey to return to his bed.
That night, Hokkaido mourned for the most talented and powerful student he'd ever had the privilege to teach. Kurosaki had had the capability to become a captain and such a force for good. All that potential, wasted and gone in a single hollow attack.
Hokkaido couldn't understand why Kurosaki hadn't survived. He was more than powerful enough to beat a few hollows. He'd probably been forced to take an instantly fatal blow to protect his friends; otherwise, his high-speed regeneration would have saved him.
Hokkaido no longer cared that Kurosaki had had a hollow within him whose powers he could utilize. He'd been separated from the corrupt bureaucracy long enough to learn to judge a person by personality and heart, not by appearance, species, or power. He was just a simple teacher; so long as his students were proficient enough in hoho, the Central 46 left him alone.
Hokkaido was infected by the memory kido the next day by Ikoto.
Hokkaido wasn't sure why, but he grieved for the next month for something he'd lost, even without knowing what that "something" was. He also found that the name of Kensei Muguruma linked with relief instead of melancholy. For some reason, he was 100% certain his old friend was alive.
Hokkaido spent the next few decades comparing his most talented students to the prodigies he'd encountered. For some reason, even the geniuses Kaien Shiba, Gin Ichimaru, and Toshiro Hitsugaya didn't measure up to some standard that he'd set years ago.
He wasn't quite sure what the standard was, but he instinctively knew that he'd figure it out someday.
He finally found the answer when the story of an orange-haired ryoka with both a high level of powerful and an outrageous growth rate trickled through the Gotei 13's hierarchy to his ears.
Kaede knew Momo was absolutely ecstatic when she woke up from her coma, only a couple of weeks after the disastrous exercise in the world of the living during which Momo had almost been killed. Kaede was well aware that her gaze was unfocused and her voice hoarse and soft, but Momo couldn't have been happier. She called for Renji, Rukia, and Izuru to come to the medical ward to welcome their friend back into the world. They were all as excited as she was; Renji almost got thrown out because he couldn't keep his voice down.
There was someone missing. Kaede interrupted, "Where's Ichigo?"
Momo looked befuddled. "Who is Ichigo? Your secret boyfriend before the Gillian attack or something?" she asked.
That got Kaede agitated enough to focus on her. "What do you mean, who's Ichigo?" Her eyes cleared just long enough to focus on Momo's, but then she couldn't keep them open any longer. "Yeah… Ichigo… who's that? Hard to think…"
Momo immediately booted everyone, including herself, from the room. "She needs to sleep!" Kaede heard her scolding in the hallway. Normally Kaede would have protested, but her mind was suddenly fuzzy for some reason. All she wanted to do was rest.
A few weeks later, Kaede and her friends were devastated by the verdict that her nerves had been too damaged and had gone too long without healing while she was transferred to the Fourth Squad for her to be a fully-fledged Shinigami. Focusing her reiatsu was difficult at times, and she couldn't walk without braces on her legs. Kaede couldn't see any future for herself except as a researcher in the Twelfth Squad, where fighting skills were optional so long as the mind was sharp. However, Captain Unohana had spoken to her about staying in the Fourth Squad. Healing techniques were advancing all the time, and who knew? Perhaps her nerves would be able to be healed some day. In the mean time, she could try experimental rehab techniques for connecting with her reiatsu more easily and be a bedside nurse who comforted the restless, bored, injured Shinigami.
Kaede immediately accepted the offer; the Fourth Squad was infinitely better than the Twelfth or Rukongai. She was specially graduated from the Academy right away to begin her duties in the Fourth.
She saw Captain Ukitake a lot; his chronic illness often landed him in the Fourth Squad's barracks. Oftentimes, his lieutenant was the one to deliver his sick captain to the healers' den. Kaede saw Captain Ukitake almost every time he had a serious relapse, and he came to expect her company during those times. Had someone told her back at the Academy that she'd be grateful for the opportunities a disability afforded her, like befriending Captain Ukitake, she'd have stabbed them.
She still could never remember to call his lieutenant by his proper name. Lieutenant Shiba had given up after what seemed the millionth time she had called him by a different name.
"Alright, fine. I can respond to Kurosaki-san," he'd grumbled.
The reasons why were unclear in her mind, but she really wanted to dye his hair orange.
When Aizen learned that the exiled Isshin Shiba had had a child in the world of the living, he immediately added "Ichigo Kurosaki" to his mental list of things to watch and keep track of. The child's name was exactly something Aizen would have expected Isshin to bestow on his child: unisex and bearing multiple meanings.
It didn't register that the name "Ichigo Kurosaki" struck a chord with him until he first laid eyes on the child's bright orange hair. And as Kurosaki grew, his face was familiar for more than just his uncanny resemblance to the deceased lieutenant of the Thirteenth Squad.
Aizen brushed off the feelings of familiarity. He'd worked with thousands of Shinigami over the years; it wasn't impossible Kurosaki reminded him of some weak, insignificant person he'd met years ago. The unimportant ones blurred together and all seemed the same after the passage of time.
Aizen didn't ever connect Kurosaki with the past again. The child was just a mere experiment, unusually interesting for a human.
Momo tightly gripped the letter from her deceased captain, failing to completely muffle her sobs. Her childhood friend was responsible for Captain Aizen's death. It made horrible sense, the way he'd explained it in his letter. Now she was being forced to choose between her brother and her father. It wasn't fair.
But Captain Aizen had counted on her to succeed where he had failed, hadn't he?
Momo mentally reviewed why she'd choose Captain Aizen over Shiro-chan. No, he has to be Hitsugaya-taicho now. Or just Hitsugaya. He's a murderer; I can't call him a familiar name… she thought before another part of her added, Won't he be so happy you're finally calling him by his title? She felt pleased for a moment because she would have made him happy before she shoved the rebellious feeling away.
Momo started with her memories at the Academy, the first time she'd seen Aizen. It had been almost perfect, save for the way she'd clumsily stumbled into the path. She also had a weird feeling that something else had gone wrong, something about students flying in the crowd or something, but she was sure that she was incorporating the insignificant detail from some other memory. No one had been airborne when Aizen had entered the Academy; what a silly notion!
Then she moved to the time Aizen saved her (and her friends) from the hollows that had brutally disrupted her first exercise in the world of the living, six months into the Academy.
She watched in a blend of confusion and horror as some guy with orange hair killed all the hollows in her mind's eye instead of Captain Aizen and the then-Lieutenant Ichimaru. Was she so upset that she couldn't even remember things accurately? She briskly shook her head like a dog, hoping to dispel the invading image.
There was the right memory! Lieutenant Ichimaru slayed the hollows easily with his Shinso and Captain Aizen tore the last one into tiny pieces with an impressive kido, no unfamiliar orange-haired guy in sight.
But she remembered the face that had so ruthlessly intruded into her memories (he occasionally showed up in a few of her other memories from the Academy before she was able to chase him out), and the first time she saw ryoka Ichigo Kurosaki she nearly fainted on the spot. He even had the same zanpakuto slung on his back that he'd used to kill the hollows in her false memory.
She would have angrily strode up to him and demanded to know why a ryoka was showing up in her memories, had she been able to move. But it was her first time being conscious since she'd almost been killed in the Central 46's living quarters, and she couldn't really do more than blink.
She never was able to shake Ichigo Kurosaki from her mind, though. From what little she'd seen when he was in her field of vision, he acted exactly like he had in the snippets he showed up in at the Academy.
Even though Momo couldn't remember much about the friend she'd made at the Academy, he'd made a more significant impact on her psyche than on anyone else's. It was subconscious and subtle, but it was enough to allow Momo to see some of her true memories of her first six months at the Academy, even though she believed them to be fake.
Aizen's psychological manipulation of her was deep and thorough, but because Ichigo had saved her instead of Aizen that night, her dependence on her Captain Aizen was infinitesimally smaller than it could have been.
After she woke up from being knocked out by Head Captain Yamamoto for her request to Shiro-chan, she understood that Captain Aizen was a traitor and had to be killed. She couldn't stand in anyone's way for that.
Her mind could start healing, instead of remaining almost irreparably broken.
Izuru almost couldn't believe the orders he'd just been given by his captain, Gin Ichimaru. If he pulled his assigned task off, he would be committing treason on so many levels that he'd be imprisoned for the rest of his rather lengthy life.
But he had to. He'd lay down his life if his sacrifice meant that he could protect Momo. A prison term wasn't nearly so daunting.
So he controlled his outrage at the slaughter of the Central 46. He coolly led two powerful Shinigami from the massacre. He suppressed his instincts to yield to a superior's demands. He carefully chose his words to coerce the captain into turning back. He decisively attacked Matsumoto, a lieutenant several years his senior, and released Wabisuke. He stood his ground when Matsumoto released Haineko in return.
He was doing all this for Momo. He was resolved to protect her.
As he fought with Matsumoto, he was reminded of a lesson he'd learned at the Academy, buried in the dusty recesses in his memory.
Haineko's ash sliced toward him in a lethal arc. When I defend, I won't be cut, he thought as he countered with a powerful bakudo that scattered the ash.
Matsumoto sharply questioned his motives. When she didn't receive an answer, Izuru could see that she started to take the fight seriously. When I protect, I won't let that person die. He was battling for Momo, to defend her from harm.
And when Izuru found an opening in Matsumoto's defense, he did not hesitate to exploit it. When I attack, I kill. He would destroy anyone who prevented him from protecting Momo.
After the appalling truth behind the betrayal of three captains arose and Izuru learned how horribly he'd been manipulated – his actions almost got Momo killed oh why oh why oh why was he so stupid? – Izuru was ashamed. He locked himself away in his room for a week, meditating on his utter failure. He finally forced himself outside to apologize to Rangiku; he'd been so vicious during their battle that he wasn't sure if she'd ever forgive him.
But Rangiku, being Rangiku, nonchalantly waved off his apology before getting the both of them spectacularly drunk. For the next few hours, Izuru was engulfed in a pleasant haze that thoroughly distracted him from everything that had gone wrong in his life during the past week. He later realized that the temporary release from guilt was Rangiku's way of saying, apology accepted.
However, had the binge happened at any other time, Izuru would have taken all the bottles to the Twelfth and demanded to have them checked for hallucinogens, considering that all of his memories of his first sixth months at the Academy for days afterward included a fuzzy figure with bright orange hair that Izuru was positive he'd never seen before.
The one image that never left him, though, was of the same person sitting with Renji under a tree, explaining the philosophy of resolve in combat. The advice was very real – he'd used it against Rangiku – but Izuru had no idea why its source was from an imaginary person.
He decided to ignore his possible insanity in favor of supporting his squad (and himself) through their captain's betrayal. It was good advice, after all; why should he care where it came from?
Renji wasn't sure why, but after the disastrous exercise in the world of the living, he mourned. It wasn't a constant thing and he wasn't even sure why he suddenly had brief episodes of melancholy. He only knew that anything colored a certain bright shade of orange was the most consistent trigger.
Over the years, the episodes decreased in length and intensity. By the time he'd been transferred to the 11th Squad, he'd stopped experiencing them altogether.
When he first met Ichigo Kurosaki during the mission to retrieve Rukia, he was suddenly inexplicably angry. He wasn't sure why, or if his ire was even aimed at the kid who'd prevented him from finishing off the glasses guy. Then he figured out that the orange-haired Shinigami was the guy who stole Rukia's powers and his fury was definitely directed at him then.
Despite his anger, he couldn't help but aim his first strike at the shoulder. For a brief moment, Renji didn't want to kill the kid in front of him. He wasn't even sure if he'd be able to.
But then the kid's reiatsu went absolutely crazy, and Renji found himself abruptly and ridiculously overpowered. The feeling of being crushed by this particular reiatsu signature was familiar for some strange reason. Even weirder, Renji was overjoyed for a split second, like he'd just reunited with a long-lost friend or something.
He passed off the image he'd seen of the same kid wearing the Academy's uniform, wielding a gigantic cleaver of a zanpakuto, and slicing through the hollows Aizen had saved him from on a night years ago as some bizarre hallucination brought on by the pressure that literally kept him from breathing for a few seconds.
When they met for a rematch in the Soul Society, Renji shoved away similarly odd feelings and focused on killing the kid who had stolen Rukia's life and powers from her.
The feelings subsided somewhat during their joint bankai training and disappeared altogether after their failed tag-team attack on Aizen. Renji was suspicious that it was because he felt like he'd regained something precious he'd lost long ago but didn't try to explain the theory.
Rukia returned to her dorm quietly, unsuccessfully hiding her miserable tears. Renji had been absolutely ecstatic when he'd heard that the Kuchiki family wanted to adopt her, urging her to accept the offer. She thought he'd have wanted her to stay with him, for the last two members of their family to stick together.
He'd been happy enough to let her go. He was the only thing that had kept her from immediately accepting the offer, but apparently she hadn't needed to have bothered with asking for his opinion. He hadn't even really hesitated to push her away. She knew he was aware that nobles couldn't associate with commoners. She would gain a family, but she would lose her best friend and brother.
She knew without a doubt which she preferred.
And he hadn't faltered in the slightest at the prospect of losing her forever.
She wondered what he would have thought about the adoption. Would he have urged her to become a noble, like Renji? Or would he have fought for her to refuse the offer?
Rukia shook her head frantically. You're going to be a noble, she scolded herself. This is no time to think about imaginary friends with bright orange hair.
When she first met Kaien Shiba, she could have sworn that for a second, his hair wasn't black.
It was orange.
Then the illusion vanished, and Lieutenant Shiba was scolding her for spacing out on him because most of the people she'd talked with lately told her that she was to be cold, uncaring, and silent at all times. And because his hair had changed colors on her.
The phenomenon happened a few more times before she was finally able to convince her subconscious that Lieutenant Shiba's hair was black, not orange.
When she first met Ichigo Kurosaki properly, his hair switched between black and orange. Kaien-dono's hair was flashing between the two in her memories, too, because the human kid really did look ridiculously like her deceased lieutenant.
Then the Ichigo kid insulted her, and she lost control of her emotions more violently than she had for decades, binding him in a kido and drawing on his face. She hadn't done something so childish since before she'd been adopted by the Kuchiki family.
A friendship formed between them faster than she thought possible. It was as if she'd known him before or something.
(She didn't think he was Kaien-dono's reincarnation, but she'd been wrong about people before.)
And then he was lying at her feet, bleeding out from her brother's attack. It was horrible déjà vu to Kaien-dono's death, and she was losing a look-alike man for the third time—
Second. Second time. She really didn't need her weird selective insanity to crop up right now.
And then, weeks later, he was in front of her again, grinning like he hadn't almost died before her eyes and wasn't bleeding from his abdomen. (She couldn't believe he'd fought Captain Zaraki, survived, and then was uninjured enough to stand before her, his reiatsu warm and comforting and strong and still slightly tainted with the bloodthirsty captain's reiatsu from their battle.)
Ichigo had somehow become something of a rock for her, just like he'd been at the Academy.
Rukia was highly tempted to slap herself for thinking such an inane thing. Ichigo had not been in the Academy with her; he hadn't even been born yet!
Yet the notion continued to plague her. He was her anchor, even after he'd left the Soul Society to return to his semi-normal life, and he was one of her best friends aside from Renji. Apparently he'd been the same way at the Academy, according to her crazy subconscious. She asked Sode no Shirayuki why she'd been cursed with such a weird type of insanity, but the zanpakuto simply said, "You'll understand it someday. Sooner rather than later, I'd think."
"How would you know that?" Rukia shot back.
Sode no Shirayuki smiled. "Zanpakuto can preserve many things when we hide in the back of our wielders' souls. I was sheltered long enough to remember, even if you did not."
Rukia couldn't get anything more out of her after that and gave up.
Then Ichigo's reiatsu disappeared abruptly from the middle of Urahara's basement. Urahara (damn the man) explained what had happened, and Rukia had to stop herself from strangling the moron. She was absolutely unrepentant of the bruises she'd left on him, though.
And then her selective insanity suddenly made sense.
Rukia groaned. "Only Ichigo. Only he could pull off something so crazy."
Longest chapter yet, though I'm well aware it's not nearly enough for my extended absence. Real life got crazy and my Bleach muse completely and utterly died. I finally forced myself to plan it out and get it done. (By the way, this chapter is the penultimate (ie second-to-last) chapter.)
I know I got a lot of requests (read: demands) that Ichigo stay in the past. But even from the very beginning I never intended for Ichigo to stay. If he didn't travel back to his time, he'd most certainly cause a grandfather paradox (if you go back in time and kill you grandfather, do you cease to exist?) by saving his mother from Grand Fisher.
I hope the explanation for the lack of paradoxes satisfies people. I think it was the most asked question I received...
So enjoy, and my thanks to anyone out there who's still reading this.