A/N: I apologize for the annoyingly long wait. Had I known how '08 would turn out, I never would have posted any of my fics.
Soi Fon coughed up blood and fell to her knees. Her hands latched around her upper torso and she felt like crying. Never had anyone ever bested her in hand-to-hand combat albeit Yoruichi-sama and for obvious reasons. She gurgled on the damage done inside of her.
All of her training, what did it prove? That she was weak to this Espada? An Espada that was taking revenge?
"Get up, Captain Soi Fon," Ichigo ordered.
She wiped the her mouth with the back of her hand and gazed up at the Espada who had not even a scratch on him. Every move she thrust at him was blocked, parried, and returned in full and the bad part about it?
He wasn't using his full power. She could hear the crowds of Arrancar call out, booing and cooing demanding that she get up and fight.
"I will not strike you while you're down. Get your ass up and fight me," Ichigo commanded icily.
Her pride forced her to her feet and she attacked using all that she had left knowing it wasn't enough. She spun and dodged but Ichigo was faster and somehow he flipped his frame over her head and pressed his knee right into the middle of her spine. A deep crack was heard as the pain blinded Soi Fon, she wheezed as her breath disappeared and she fell face first to the ground.
They'd only been fighting hand-to-hand for less than ten minutes but it had felt like an age. The tears leaked out of her eyes as she realized how badly she had failed Yoruichi-sama.
"On second thought perhaps I don't wanna fight her, she sucks," Nnoitra said aloud.
"It's not that she's a bad fighter, Nnoitra," Aizen addressed observing his Ichigo. "Remember Ichigo's words, I trained him and he is the Cero Espada for a reason. Soi Fon was one of the best for a very long time, she was expected to exceed Shihoin Yoruichi as a female warrior but her sins and mistakes are going to cost her everything she worked for."
Ichigo nudged her over onto her back and she stared up at him like she were a ragdoll with sown on eyes. "Four months, Captain Soi Fon. Aizen Sousuke's results." He knelt down to her gripped her chin. "No one ever touches my family. I don't care who you are. You hurt my family and I will hurt you." He squeezed her jaw causing her to scream out in pain. "Until you repent for all of your sins, you will remain alive and live on in the turmoil of your head until you've wasted away to nothing and soon Yoruichi will join you."
Ichigo let go of her face and stood. "I'm done, someone should keep her from choking on her own blood. Perhaps next time I'll let her use her Zanpakuto."
"What a boring fight," Nnoitra taunted jumping up. "Yo, Cero fight me! I'll give you fun, see if ya can cut me."
"You sound like Zaraki," Ichigo muttered as a few Arrancar Healers placed Soi Fon onto a stretcher. "Maybe later Nnoitra."
"Tch, you better!" Nnoitra growled. "You've sparred with Sexta over there and totally ignored me."
"That's cause he likes me," Grimmjow said coming up behind Ichigo and grinning widely. "Dontchya Cero?"
Ichigo rolled his eyes but said nothing to that. He personally couldn't stand Nnoitra for his cruelty toward Nel but he kept his mouth shut. Sousuke needed his Espada alive not dead because of Ichigo's fury.
"Ichi-nii! You're mine." Karin tugged her brother's wrist. "This way." she demanded and Ichigo smirked and let her lead him.
"See ya guys." He waved a hand over his head at the Espada. "Alright, I did promise."
"You're going to teach me what you just did to her!" Karin declared.
"Am I?" Ichigo asked glancing over his shoulder at Sousuke who had been watching his retreating back. "I guess I can't argue with that too much."
Karin grinned. Her Ichi-nii was the best.
"What did you do to Captain Soi Fon?" Rukia asked uneasily.
Ichigo had been inspecting Akane, balancing him on the palm of his hand as Karin explained one of her new moves to him.
"I gave her a fair shot," Ichigo answered.
"What's that mean?"
"They fought," Karin said and then grinned smugly. "Or rather she tried to fight. They used hand-to-hand combat and Ichi-nii beat her silly!"
Rukia gaped. "Y- you beat C- Captain Soi Fon at hand combat?"
Ichigo shrugged. "She is useless," he said plainly. "In fact, I wouldn't have even made her Captain of Gotei 13 with the skills she has."
"B- but she's one of the best!"
"She's the top hand-to-hand combative of the Gotei 13," Renji said wild eyed.
"Not good enough," Ichigo rebutted flatly.
Ishida smirked. "Show off."
Ichigo raised his eyes. "No, I'll only show off the day I see Yoruichi," he said coolly. "Soi Fon was nothing more than a fly on the wall. I gave the bitch a fair chance."
"How do you call that fair?" Rukia demanded.
"Why do you care?" Ichigo retorted. "That bitch nearly destroyed my family without so much as a heart doing it! Do you really think, I'm ever going to have any sympathy for her after that?" he sneered when she rocked back on her heels as though she'd been slapped. "Let me remind you Rukia – that no one, nowhere, and no how will they ever touch my family without me getting involved. I will never forgive a person who harmed so much as a hair on any of their heads."
"That's the way it should be," Ishida said pulling his sewing kit toward him and flipping the lid. "Do you really think you shinigami can take lives without consequences? Especially human lives?"
"What's that supposed to mean?" Renji demanded.
"Your shinigami took the life of my grandfather for your own means of research and you expect no consequences of your actions. You think you are all Gods well you're not and you never will be."
"But you believe Aizen is a God?" Rukia asked jadedly.
"Closer to one than those of Soul Society," Ichigo responded with. "Yamamoto has a fear, Aizen doesn't. Let's pit the two together and see who becomes the victor?"
Rukia sagged down into an armchair and Karin stared at the girl speculatively before sliding onto the end of Ichigo's knee.
He handed her the sword back.
Ichigo knew she would have a hard time accepting all of this, Renji seemed to take it better than her and that was surprising. The redhead seemed almost at home, he found a sparring partner in Grimmjow and Ishida had been taken by Gin for a little extra training. Everyone seemed to find their place in Hueco Mundo except for Rukia.
She was most probably thinking of her brother and those that she was betraying. Ichigo surveyed her. "You can still get out now," he said softly.
Rukia frowned. "And be killed?"
"No," Ichigo said sharply. "Only thing that would happen is your memory of all events that transpired since the moment you entered the Garganta would be erased."
"But then I'd be forced to fight you."
Ichigo tilted his head. "Not me, but someone else, yes," he said emotionlessly.
"I need to think about it," Rukia confessed. "I don't know what to do, I want to stay but – I don't want to face my Nii-sama or Ukitake-taichou. I'm not sure if I can agree with everything going on here, Ichigo. How do you take it so easily? You too Renji!"
Renji shrugged. "I never had much of a place anyway, Rukia. Kuchiki-taichou did nothing but look down at me like I was nothing more than a bug and besides you, Kira, and perhaps Hinamori there is nothing there that can truly hold me or keep me loyal. There can't be, not with everything Soul Society has done. They almost killed you Rukia."
"So did Aizen," Rukia snapped back. "They were going through with Aizen's orders."
"But if Soul Society even for one second cared about you, Rukia, Yamamoto would have put a stop to it. But did he so much as lift a finger to help? No, he didn't. He was even willing to take out his two favorites all because they saved you!" Renji pointed out.
Rukia ducked her head. "It's just Nii-sama," she whispered.
"Your Nii-sama, will live or die depending on how cooperative he is," Ichigo said getting everyone's attention. "It is his choice whether to submit to a new order or to die a martyr with the old."
Rukia had nothing to say to that and Ichigo could see the messed up confusion brushed across her face.
Ichigo nudged Karin off him and stood up. "I'll see you guys later."
"Where you going?" Rukia asked suddenly.
Ichigo paused and turned his head. "Dinner with Sousuke," he said and almost laughed at the incredulous stares he received from Rukia and Renji.
Ishida didn't seem shocked as he raised a hand. "Have fun, Kurosaki."
"Next time, speak Chad!" Ichigo teased as he squeezed the Mexican's shoulder.
"You voiced all my opinions, Ichigo. There was no need."
The second he left the room, he could hear.
"WHAT!!" From Rukia and Renji simultaneously and actually did laugh.
He found Sousuke in the dining room and sauntered through.
"You look amused?" The Leader of Hueco Mundo was curious, it wasn't often that Ichigo came through the room with a real smile. It lit up his features and made him glow like a diamond.
"Yeah, well, before I left I said your first name and Rukia and Renji didn't react until I left," he said plopping down ungracefully.
Sousuke chortled. "Oh, really? They didn't take it well I don't think."
Ichigo shrugged. "I don't really care, their reactions was funny enough for me. Rukia's having doubts and I told her how it was. She could still go but I told her that while I wouldn't raise my sword to her, I'm the only one who would give her special treatment. She's worried about Byakuya."
"As she should be," Sousuke said when Yylfordt and a servant came out with their meals.
Once Yylfordt disappeared with his slow charismatic smile, the couple ate in a comfortable silence before Sousuke decided to broach a tender subject.
"I want to talk about your friend, Inoue."
"What about her? Is she okay?" Ichigo asked concerned.
Sousuke smiled. "She is fine, under the watch of Ulquiorra we've had some testing done on her and find that her powers are her own because of the different source of reiatsu inside of her. It is a specific type that is mirrored to Hachigen's abilities. Her hairpins are merely a cell in which the sprites appear due to her emotional tie to the objects. In anyone else's hands the hairpins are useless."
Ichigo took this information in and absorbed it quickly and he knew exactly what Sousuke wanted. "You want to her to fight for you."
"And heal," Sousuke said with a slight smile. "She is extremely valuable, Ichigo. I can't pass this opportunity up. But I would like your permission and I would…"
Ichigo interrupted him. "You want me to show myself to Inoue and tell her what happened?"
Sousuke chortled. "You didn't miss a beat did you? According to Ulquiorra, you are all that she ever talks about. She is seeing crying late at night in her room when she believes no one is listening, she prays for you and your supposedly dead family. She wishes to avenge you but doesn't know how."
Ichigo thought about it while pushing the silver along his plate. Along with trying new things, Ichigo had to use a fork for a lot of the food, chopsticks just didn't do the work on certain dishes. He sighed, knowing that he would agree and he was only prolonging what Sousuke wanted to do.
Ichigo's features hardened and his voice turned to ice. "If any of your Arrancar so much as a lay a finger on Inoue-"
"I will deal with them in the harshest of ways myself," Sousuke promised. He reached over and laid a hand on top of Ichigo. "I know what your friends mean to you, Ichigo. I am not so cold of a leader to deny something so simple as the safety of those you hold dear so long as they don't rise against me."
Ichigo's heart warmed up at the words, he placed his fork down and smiled slightly. "Alright, I just wanted to keep her safe and out of harm's way."
"The more skilled she becomes the safer she will be, just like your little sister."
Ichigo accepted that.
"I believe you have your own very unique Fraccion without ever having me assign anyone to you."
Ichigo laughed. "I guess a Cero has to have a unique batch."
Twelve hours later, Ichigo found himself next to Ulquiorra trekking the halls and staircase to the far end of Las Noches. They used Sonido most of the way before moving into a slow graceful pace.
They got to the end of a long vast corridor. Ulquiorra tapped his knuckles against the frame of the door. "Inoue-san, I am coming in." He unlocked the door and Ichigo stepped into the large white room to see Inoue sitting cross-legged on the floor with her back to the door. She was staring up at the never changing moon strung in the Hueco Mundo sky.
Ichigo looked to Ulquiorra who was frowning at Inoue.
"What do you ask of me, Ulquiorra-san?" Inoue's voice was soft and it sounded sad and hopeless.
It made Ichigo feel an ache deep in his soul. He stepped forward. "Inoue, turn around."
Inoue gasped and jerked her head around along with her body and she screamed out when she gazed into his eyes.
"K- K – Kur- Kurosaki-kun!" In a flash, she jumped him, her arms circling around his thin waist and she began to cry with her face buried into his chest.
Ulquiorra stood off to the side watching emotionlessly while Ichigo hugged her shoulders and patted her head.
"There, there Inoue, enough crying," Ichigo chided gently.
This only made her cry harder. "I tried to stay strong, I did, I am so sorry, Kurosaki-kun!" He waited until she was all cried out before prying her gently away and staring down at her.
"That is enough," Ichigo insisted and maneuvered the stunned girl to the white couch. He sat next to her.
"How? What-? I don't understand, I thought you were killed! I tried not to believe it, you know, you're so strong, and I can't believe that normal people would just – do – something like that. Oh Kurosaki-kun!"
Ichigo grimaced as her arms gripped him again. "There's a lot I need to tell you, can you calm down so I can explain?"
Inoue hiccupped and gave a frantic nod. "S- sorry," she whispered ducking her head.
"It's alright," and from there Ichigo told her everything. At first she looked devastated and then her hands clenched into fists at her side and her face became red with anger.
She stood up and began to pace. "They lied, they hurt you, and your family! They tried to destroy good people all because of a little power? What is Soul Society? Why would Yoruichi-san do something like that? I can't believe it! But I do believe," she said swiftly.
Ichigo listened to her ramble on and he chuckled roughly as he realized that this was the same Inoue that he'd always knew.
"Inoue, you should know that I'm one hundred percent loyal to Aizen Sousuke and that I'm going to fight for him and work with him. I am more than a Hollow. I am a combination of Vizard and Arrancar but typically I am the same Ichigo you always knew, I don't let anyone mess with my friends and family. I just have a new side, the right side."
Inoue came back over to sit next to him. "What do you want me to do? I don't want to be locked up anymore! I want to fight, Kurosaki-kun, I want to help you. I don't – want to lose you again!"
Ichigo smiled slightly. "You won't lose me and you were only locked up for your safety. Some Arrancar aren't pleased with humans residing in Las Noches and can easily turn jealousy into violence."
Inoue bowed her head. "Y- you're the same Kurosaki-kun, even though you look different… I'm – I'm so happy!" Once again she threw herself into his arms and he sighed quietly as he rubbed her back.
"You'll no longer be locked up," he assured her. "You will be moved to my family's corridor. Renji, Rukia, Ishida, and Chad are all there."
She gasped and looked up. "Are they? Oh, Kurosaki-kun! What can I do? What do you need me to do? I want to help you! I mean, I – I don't know Aizen and they've not been mean to me here…"
"I wouldn't let them be," Ichigo told her. "You're my friend, Inoue, I would never allow one of my closest friends to be treated badly. Aizen is not a monster, he has a God complex but he's a much better man for it and he has the power to back it up in spades."
Inoue sniffed. "O- okay, I- I've met with Aizen-sama and h- he is nice to me. I just don't want to be alone anymore."
"You won't be, I'm sorry I didn't tell you sooner, I only thought of your safety. I didn't want Soul Society to get wind that you knew too much."
She nodded furiously. "I understand Kurosaki-kun. Oh, I'm so happy right now!" she cheered.
Ichigo chuckled. "Good, now, promise me you won't cry anymore?" he asked wiping her tears.
"I- I promise, I have no reason to cry now, Kurosaki-kun."
It didn't take much to move Inoue's rooms, Rukia's eyes went massively wide when she saw Inoue and they embraced, while Chad and Ishida stood on either side of her. They had completely forgotten, Ichigo's usage of Aizen's given name. It was funny how things could distract them so easily.
Isshin beamed at the pretty girl and gripped her shoulders. "I have another daughter! The heavens must be shining down on me!" he cooed happily.
Inoue blushed. "Kurosaki-san," she said with a bow.
"No formalities Inoue-chan! It's Isshin, otherwise you'll be confused. Or you could call me dad!"
Inoue laughed and shrugged her shoulders with a nod.
Nel was perched on Ichigo's hip, staring at the girl before looking at Ichigo. "Who is she, Itsygo?" she whispered.
"My friend, Inoue," he answered.
"Oh," she said placing a finger to her mouth.
During the commotion, Ichigo almost forgot that he had to see Sousuke soon to go over a few things. "I gotta get going guys," he said suddenly causing everyone to turn.
"Why? Where are you going, Ichigo?" Rukia asked.
"I have work to do."
"Itsygo! Don't leave me," Nel pleaded. "Can I come wiff you? I be quiet!" she clung desperately to him.
"Alright, I don't think Sousuke will mind," he said shrugging and adjusting her causing all of Ichigo's friends to flinch.
"Uh," Renji began looking a little horrified. "What exactly is going on with you and… Aizen, Ichigo?"
"That's what I want to know!" Rukia said placing her hands on her hips.
Isshin snickered as Ishida crossed his arms over his chest.
Karin arched an eyebrow. "What do you think is going on?" she said saving her Ichi-nii the trouble. "Ichi-nii and Aizen-sama are together."
"Uhm, a while, I can't really recall how long considering the time around here," Ichigo said shrugging.
Rukia goggled. "Ichigo… what are you doing?" she asked in horror.
Inoue looked a little crestfallen at the revelation.
Ichigo shrugged. "Whatever I want to do. See you guys." He ignored their calls to come back and took out the door as he heard his father's voice.
"Ichigo does Aizen-san a lot of good, keeps him level."
Ichigo stood by the closed door in shock.
"But, Isshin-san, is this really wise? Aizen is dangerous!" Rukia insisted.
"No more dangerous than Ichigo," Isshin answered.
"Besides!" Karin jumped in. "Aizen-sama is the only one powerful enough to keep up with my Ichi-nii. I approve! Ichi-nii actually smiles now."
"How weird…" Renji murmured.
"I suspected it," Ishida admitted. "But I wasn't sure. I know Kurosaki was never the type to 'bow' to anyone. So I'm guessing that Aizen and Kurosaki are more or less equals. They match each other."
"Hm," Chad agreed.
"I guess... if Aizen-sama makes Kurosaki-kun happy, I'm happy. He does seem nice," Inoue added causing Rukia and Renji to clear their throats as if unsure of what to say.
Ichigo sighed, glad that his family is dealing with Rukia and Renji. It was better than him, considering his temperament. He wouldn't have been surprised if he had to send Rukia back to the living world because of it.
They headed down the hall toward his corridors, the little girl perched on his hip.
"Itsygo, is it twue?" Nel asked wide-eyed.
"Hm?" Ichigo glanced at her and nodded. "It is."
"Oh, okay," Nel said trying to understand. "But you is always mine, Itsygo, right?"
"Of course," Ichigo said patting her on the head. "Why wouldn't I be?"
Ichigo found Sousuke in his office, the man looked up not surprised that he had Nel with him. "How did it go?"
"Good," he said placing a frightened Nel down onto her feet. "It's okay, Nel."
"But Itsygo, I don't want to be in twouble." She clung to him frantically.
Aizen smiled and placed his work aside. "Now, why would you be in trouble, Nel-chibi?" he asked causing the little girl to squeak at being addressed.
"Cus, I luffs Itsygo and I know you luffs Itsygo and I gets in twouble for it."
Ichigo chuckled silently as Aizen's smile seemed to get brighter. "That's fine, Nel-chibi. You can love Ichigo all you want. I don't mind," he assured.
Her eyes brightened and she squealed. "Yay!"
"She didn't want me to leave her, I didn't think it'd be a problem to bring her by."
"It's not," Aizen assured.
"I be good," she said hopping over to a chair and crawling into it. "I just wants to stay wiff Itsygo."
"When do you want to start on Inoue's training?"
"I was thinking immediately."
"Who could train her though? I don't know anyone else with her skills." He slid on the end of Aizen's desk and Nel watched silently at the interaction.
"Hachigen," Aizen answered. "You see, his powers are much like hers. They're based on Kidou, except hers are much more potent and powerful. I was thinking with enough training she might be willing to turn the Hougyoku back to its original state."
"Hm, well, give it a shot. I suppose it couldn't hurt. How much longer do we have?"
"Exactly two weeks, I'll tell you what I'll be telling my Espada in the meeting in a few hours. Kisuke has been charged with the task of creating a perimeter with four columns that allow Karakura Town to be moved into Soul Society. They will also strengthen the air giving Fake Karakura the ability to hold all of the Captains plus us should a blood bath get out of hand." He looked up at Ichigo. "At the meeting, I will be requesting a piece of everyone's mask as an added incentive."
"In case something were to happen to one of my children, I will have your Orihime Inoue repair the damage along with Hachigen."
Ichigo saw now why he needed Inoue and he nodded. "I see."
"I will not underestimate the Gotei 13 but I know my Espada are likely to become cocky and arrogant."
"I can see that, especially that fat ass."
Aizen chuckled softly. "Barragan," he corrected.
Ichigo rolled his eyes. "Not what I call him. He might be your 'kid' but I don't have to like him and anyway, I only have problems with three of your Espada." He glanced over at a half asleep Nel and turned back to Aizen, relating what he meant silently.
Aizen smiled and brought his hand up to caress, Ichigo's cheek affectionately. "My dear Ichigo, I thank you."
Ichigo arched an eyebrow and leaned forward and brushed his lips across Aizen's softly. "Why would you thank me Sousuke?"
Aizen ran his hand down Ichigo's neck causing his skin to ripple at the touch. "Why not? You have so many layers Ichigo and I enjoy uncovering them all."
"You are a sap," he teased. "But, I don't mind, strangely, it makes you."
Laughing quietly. "I'm a sap? What about you? My paternal little Cero."
Ichigo's cheeks colored at that. "Speaking of, I think she needs toys."
"A speech tutor," he answered. "You really don't mind that she stays a baby?" he asked.
"Not at all," Aizen said curling his arm around Ichigo and pulling him into his lap. Ichigo didn't even scowl this time and simply pressed his shoulder into Aizen's chest. "You want her here right?"
Ichigo nodded. "Yeah, I've grown very attached," he confessed quietly. "She's just a little girl, no matter what she once was."
"She was a powerful and very beautiful Arrancar."
"Any word on her Fraccion?"
"None, I don't think they survived. They were loyal to her," he insisted. "I'm guessing they must have placed her under that tree near the castle in hopes she would be safe. She was my purest Arrancar."
Everyone but Rukia seemed to find a comfortable place in Las Noches, even Renji seemed to be hanging loose while the small Kuchiki continued to stare off, worry etched on her face and every time Ichigo mentioned Aizen, she would flinch or a dark shadow would surround her.
Ichigo was in and out a lot and Karin, Yuzu, and Nel weren't able to play as much with Lilynette like they used too.
It was a few days before the war was to start, Ichigo finally found time off to speak to his friends. Ishida was wincing as he came hobbling in, he looked a little bruised and when Ichigo asked, his only word.
"Ah," Ichigo chuckled. "What flavor lollipop did he give you?"
Ishida rolled his eyes. "Lime, I hate lime."
"Better than strawberry," Ichigo commented.
"Yo! Ichigo, haven't seen you for a while," Renji said from the armchair where he was cleaning his Zanpakuto.
"Yeah, it's been busy," he said sitting on the arm. "I'm still training."
"Who are you training under?" Renji asked. "I've been doing a lot of work with that blue haired guy. He acts like you."
Ichigo smirked. "Grimmjow, he's not so bad. But I've been working with Sousuke. I have a couple powers that I'm trying to control before the war starts. I'm running it close as it is."
"He's been training you?" Rukia asked with a grimace.
"Oh, yah, he took my training personally," Ichigo replied. "Which reminds me, Rukia, you better make a decision soon because the war is about to start. If you are uncomfortable being here then you need to go back."
"My Nii-sama won't be spared will he?"
"I can't give you an answer to that. Everyone who rises up against us in Soul Society will be taking down. I can't and I won't ask Sousuke to spare someone who will continue to fight. It's your decision."
Rukia gripped the edges of her robes and the desperate look on her face. When she had first found everything out, she was determined to help Ichigo at all costs but now, facing the reality that she would have to fight against those she actually cared about, she was haunted.
"I'll tell you this," Ichigo said softly. "I will never raise my Zanpakuto to you, Rukia. You are my best friend and it's because of you that I was able to get my powers to begin with."
Rukia gazed up, tears brimming in her eyes. "I don't want to fight, either side," she said finally. "Take me back."
Ichigo smiled at her. "I won't hold it against you," he promised.
"I'm staying," Renji insisted. "I've made up my mind a few days ago."
"I'll go inform Sousuke, you should be back to the living world in twenty-four hours."
He was sad to see her go, but she had a choice, and he wouldn't take it from her. At least she came this far. But Rukia was not the type of girl who enjoyed fighting. Just like him, she was a protector and Ichigo would never hold it against her for wanting to protect those she loved.