CONTINUITY NOTE - PLEASE READ! This chapter of the story was developed long before chapter 397 of the manga was released, and this is the first point in the story thus far where I significantly deviate from canon. Although I made a few minor modifications to the story after 398 and the following chapters, I have retained the bones of my original storyline, which ignores one of Kubo-sensei's larger revelations. Therefore, those of you who are up to date on the manga, please refrain from reviewing with 'But Ichigo knew that!' Those of you who are not up to date, I recommend either BleachExile or OneManga for rectifying that.
A/N: And here is where the beginning draws to an end... this has been an amazing ride, and I want to thank you all for being with me through it. You will never know how much it has meant to me - thank you all so much!
Translator's Notes: Wabisuke - Kira's Zanpakutou. The name translates as 'penitent/apologizing man'.
RED DUTY, BLACK HONOR
Chapter 24: All Good Things...
The letter was written on heavy parchment, the calligraphic strokes bold and precise, and even on the other side of the room, looking through the back of the paper, Ise Minori could see the seal of the First Division stamped on the page. It had been sitting on the Captain's desk when they entered the office that morning; Renji had read it immediately, his face expressionless. Then he had reread it three more times, his eyes narrowing and his mouth tightening with every repetition, until he finally set the letter face-down on his desk.
"Minori." His voice was level, carefully blank, and she jerked her head up from her paperwork, startled by the uncharacteristic tone.
"Get the Squad together. I have to make an announcement," he said simply.
"Sir?" she repeated, eyebrows raising in concern. 'Reticent' was not a word that could often be associated with Abarai Renji; he was a man who had always seemed to wear his heart on his sleeve and his troubles on his shoulders, so to see him so silent about the contents of the letter was worrisome.
Silently, Renji lifted his head just enough to shoot Minori a sharp look.
Without another word, she saluted and hurried out of the office to gather the Fifth.
"You have got to be fucking kidding me," Ichigo growled, arms folded tightly across his chest as he glowered at the screen before him.
"My sense of humor's not this elaborate." Shinji answered, his tone just as sour. "Ichimaru's fuckin' disappeared, again, and you seem to be the only one who can find him."
"This is the fourth time in a month! And you said he keeps coming back on his own -"
"He's usually gone for one hour, not four," Shinji interrupted, shaking his head.
"If you'd just go to the damned apartment building -"
"We do go to the building," Shinji snapped back. "Every time. He's never there when we show up."
"Well, that's funny, because he's always there when I do!" Ichigo countered, pausing momentarily to step backwards, allowing Urahara clear space to glide across the floor in a rolling office chair, mumbling absently under his breath about reiatsu cloaking and shield devices.
Turning his attention back to the irritated Visored on the screen, Ichigo sighed and shook his head. "Look, I'll be there in a few minutes, all right? I'm supposed to be coming to Karakura today anyway, I just have to let my Squad know I'm leaving earlier than anticipated."
"Kira not back yet?" Shinji asked, a faint note of sympathy replacing his annoyance. "Working without a Lieutenant is the shits. Just be glad you're still off the active patrol rosters."
The Third, Fifth and Ninth had all been removed from active duty immediately after Aizen defection; once the War ended, Shuuhei had dragged himself and his Squad up by their heels and demanded they be returned to active duty. Against the better judgement of the Captains, they were, and the Ninth had regained itself the most quickly of any of the three betrayed Divisions. The Third and Fifth, however, had not been returned to the patrol lists.
"Of course he's not back yet, it's barely been two weeks -"
"It's been seventeen days," Urahara interjected from the side of the room, and Ichigo threw his hands up in frustration.
"Your Squad will be notified of your departure, Kurosaki-taichou," Nemu offered, her tone expressionless as ever but her eyes gleaming with amusement. The reprograming Urahara had done with her really had worked wonders - she was able to laugh at people now, rather than want to dissect them. "Please proceed to the Senkaimon whenever you are ready."
"Thanks," he answered tightly, glancing back at Shinji's annoyed face on the screen. "Try not to lose anybody else before I get there, all right?"
"Screw you too, Kurosaki," Shinji shot back, and broke the connection as Ichigo flipped him off.
Sighing, Ichigo spun on his heel and marched to the Senkaimon, aiming once again to cage the rabid fox that roamed his hometown.
Ichigo wasn't surprised to find Gin sitting on the dust-choked roof of the crumbling apartment, knees drawn to his chest and arms folded across them, pale-blue eyes fixed steadily on the brown-haired woman pacing her living room in the building opposite.
Gin didn't shift as Ichigo alighted on the rooftop; it wasn't until Ichigo stood beside him and asked flatly "Why can't the Visoreds see you?" that he looked up at all.
"Watcha' mean, Ichi-kun?"
"Just what I said," Ichigo replied levelly, staring down at the silver-haired former Captain, arms folded tightly across his chest. "The Visoreds come here to look for you every time you escape, but Shinji says they can't see you. How are you hiding yourself?"
"They can' see me?" Looking genuinely bewildered, Gin frowned and scratched his head. "I dunno, Ichi-kun. 'm not doin' anythin' t' shield m'self... I jus' though' they were lettin' me alone here."
"So I'm just supposed to believe you're mysteriously invisible for no reason," Ichigo retorted flatly, scowling harder when Gin only shrugged in response.
"Ya b'lieve wha' ya wan' to anyways, right, Ichi-kun?" Gin replied, then sat up abruptly, his gaze once more fixed on the apartment across the street.
"What?" Ichigo said sharply, turning to follow Gin's line of sight. The brown-haired woman had suddenly doubled over, clutching at her stomach, face contorting with pain as she stumbled across the room, seizing a telephone from the small table next to her rocking chair and punching numbers with a trembling hand.
"She's going into labor," Ichigo realized, and Gin nodded silently, his eyes half-closed once again.
"Yeah," came the low murmur, and Ichigo jumped back a step as Gin rose to his feet, his face expressionless and his eyes narrowed to slits. "Le's go, Ichi-kun," he said softly, and walked with slumped shoulders to the top of the fire escape.
Bewildered, Ichigo swung his gaze back and forth between the vanishing silver head of the man and the tear-streaked face of the woman, then swore out loud and leapt after Gin. The former Shinigami was already on the ground when Ichigo landed, hands shoved in the pockets of his jeans and head hanging as he walked back towards the Shoten.
Scowling, Ichigo took a short Shunpo step to catch up to the taller man, seized one still-thin shoulder and spun Gin around, biting back the urge to slam him into the brick wall behind them. "Give it up, Ichimaru. Who is she? Why are you so obsessed with that woman?"
Ice-colored eyes opened again, wide with surprise, and blinked at Ichigo for a long minute before the reply finally came.
" 's got nothin' t' do wi' her, yanno. An' if ya can' tell wa's so interestin', how d' ya expect me ta feel anythin'?" Raising one hand, Gin knocked Ichigo's gripping hand aside, then reached down and untied the sash holding his pale-blue yukata top closed.
"Ichimaru, what the hell are you -"
A sharp tug pulled the front of his yukata open, baring a painfully thin, white-skinned torso raked with dozens of pale-silver scars, and Ichigo immediately fell silent.
Bone-thin hands raised, spidery fingers tracing over the line of the most vicious scar adorning that abused body; the still-raw wounds that had severed his Saketsu and Hakusui - the centers of his spirit-energy - and utterly destroyed the paths of his reiatsu. Ichigo stared wordlessly, torn between horror and pity at the sight.
A frown twitching over his face, Gin quietly let his short yukata fall back into place, hiding the wounds from view as he quickly retied his sash.
" 'm no' a Shinigami anymore, Ichi-kun," he said softly, eyes downcast, and walked away without another word.
Ichigo could only stare after him, too shocked by the sight of those scars - not all of them battle-marks, he knew - to respond.
It wasn't until an ambulance shrieked past him, heading for the brown-haired woman's apartment, that he snapped from his reverie and quietly set off after Gin, who was already halfway back to the Shoten.
Shinji and Kensei met them at the door.
"Right where I said he was," Ichigo snapped, shoving his way past the two. "And I asked. He's not taking any measures to shield himself from detection."
"You honestly believe him when he says that?" Kensei snapped, incredulous. "Ichigo, this is Ichimaru Gin you're dealing with. He's probably lying through his fucking teeth."
"Ri' here, yanno..."
"He doesn't have an honest bone in his body!"
"...says the man who perpetually cheats at cards," Shinji interjected, a broad smirk on his face.
"Ya both cheat a' cards," Gin pointed out, leaning against the doorframe and folding his arms across his chest, staring dully at the floor.
"He obviously has one honest bone in his body, then, because I know that's the truth," Ichigo snapped at the two, both of whom fell silent. "Besides, he showed me his neutralization scar. It's still raw - there's no way he's using any kind of reiatsu-based ability."
"No offense, Ichigo, but your ability to detect reiatsu is still shit," Shinji pointed out, earning himself one of Ichigo's nastier scowls. Gin, meanwhile, pushed himself up from the doorframe and strolled out of the room, heading for the kitchen. Kensei was leaning against the edge hallway door, and Gin was forced to slip around him, barely brushing against Kensei as he went.
"This isn't about my ability to detect reiatsu," Ichigo snapped. "Since if he did have any left to speak of, I'm sure you would have sensed it?"
That silenced both of them, Kensei's scowl deepening as a faint tinge of red crept its way across Shinji's cheekbones.
"You have been reading him for reiatsu, right?" Ichigo pressed, a sense of disbelief overtaking him when neither man answered.
Shinji opened his mouth, frowned sheepishly, and closed it again. "I hadn't really thought to check. Aside from constantly slipping his collar, he's been fairly well-behaved, so we've pretty much just let him be."
"We've been complacent morons," Kensei summarized flatly as Gin returned from the kitchen, carrying a tray of drinks. Without really looking, Kensei reached for one of the cans, pausing with his hand half-extended when he saw Shinji's wide eyes fixed on the tray. Frowning, Kensei turned to look at the tray, then stopped short in astonishment.
Tachikaze, Kensei's Zanpakutou, was lying innocently on the tray beside the beer he had been reaching for.
"What the fuck, Ichimaru?"
"Plucked 'im outta yer pocket when I wen' past ya," Gin answered, slipping around Kensei to set the tray down on the table. His movements easy and slow, he picked the trench-knife up by the hilt, studying it for a moment before giving it a casual flip into the air. Faint light glittered off the lethally-sharp blade as it spun, but Gin calmly raised one hand, palm-down, and caught the point of the blade expertly between two fingers as the knife spun back down.
Kensei's eyes went wider than Shinji had ever seen them. "There's no way in hell - if I tried that, even I'd be missing fingers," Kensei hissed, fists clenching as he stepped forward. "What the hell have you done to him?"
"Nothin'," Gin answered calmly, giving the blade another flip and catching the flat of the blade easily in his hand before extending it, hilt-first, to Kensei. Pale eyes opened fully, meeting the furious amber gaze without hesitation. "He jus' trusts me, s'all."
Kensei froze, his hand half-extended towards his blade, and stared at Gin for a long moment. When the taller man remained silent and still, Kensei slowly wrapped his own hand around the hilt of his blade, never taking his eyes from Gin's.
"All right," he said finally, tucking Tachikaze back into his pocket and leaning past Gin to retrieve one of the beers on the tray.
An hour later, Ichigo vaulted through the window of his bedroom, effectively scaring the daylights out of Kon. Much to Ichigo's surprise, the modsoul, still firmly ensconced in Ichigo's body, was hunched over his desk, busily working at a pile of homework. Even given how his last few weeks had gone, the fact that Kon - slacker, ladies' man, and escapist extraordinaire - was willingly suffering through what appeared to be precalculus homework was weird enough to register in Ichigo's weary mind.
"It's not like I have a choice," the modsoul whined when Ichigo questioned him. "That damned Quincy and your father have been threatening me about my grades slipping a half a point."
"You mean my grades," Ichigo pointed out, rubbing the back of his neck and reflecting that his life was truly bizarre when the fact he was arguing with his own body over ownership of grades didn't register as bizarre.
Kon glowered in response, the haughty undertone of the expression looking odd on Ichigo's face. "No, I mean my grades. I've been in your body for over four months, Ichigo - trust me, none of your work is on the board anymore."
"Well, you can take a break," Ichigo sighed, looking around for his badge. "I stopped in to say hi to my family, and it'll probably work better if I'm physical for that."
Any reply Kon might have made, however, was cut off by a suddenly-present echo of two familiar spiritual pressures. Even suppressed by the limiters, they were still strong enough for even Ichigo to detect, and coming rapidly closer.
"What the hell -" Ichigo began, half-turning back towards the window as the two pressures alighted just outside the house, then stopping short as he heard the doorbell chime. Without bothering to return to his body, Ichigo spun around and was out the door of his bedroom before Kon could speak, thundering down the stairs to the front of the house. Much to his surprise, he was forced to back-pedal at the bottom of the stairs to avoid colliding with his father, who had apparently slipped in from the Clinic to grab lunch. Isshin didn't even blink as he walked past his son's spiritual form, and Ichigo exhaled a slow sigh of relief. Obviously his father was about as sensitive as a brick, to souls as well as his children's embarrassment.
Which did not help the fact that Isshin was about to open the door to a pair of incredibly powerful souls that were no doubt here seeking Ichigo.
"I was really quite surprised, I never would have guessed he had it in him."
"Certainly you're not complaining?" The rejoinder came with an arched eyebrow, and was answered with a cheerful laugh and a fast shake of the head.
"Oh, of course not! I'm very pleased to see him finally learning his own strength. He spent far too long under Ichimaru's thumb. We were obviously right about Ichigo; his influence was clearly for the best."
"Given that Kira managed to -"
The door of the Kurosaki household opened quickly, and both men glanced up from their conversation. Instead of looking meeting Ichigo's fire-shaded gaze, though, serious, dark-brown eyes gazed levelly at the pair as Isshin Kurosaki opened the door.
"Ukitake, Kyouraku," he said calmly, as Ichigo went still on the staircase behind him. "Please, come in."
All of the breath in Ukitake's body escaped him in a single, disbelieving gasp, his eyes flying wide as one hand shot to cover his mouth. "I - Isshin?" he gasped, the broken whisper escaping between his fingers, even as an equally stunned Kyouraku set a hand in the small of Ukitake's back to keep him from falling. "Isshin? You're -"
"It's me, Jyuushiro," Isshin sighed, raking a hand over his hair. It was a nervous gesture that looked habitual, but Ichigo had never seen it. "If you're here for my son, he's -"
"Ichigo... oh, gods," Ukitake murmured, burying his head in his hands. "I knew he resembled Kaien, but I never thought..."
Smiling weakly, Isshin leaned forward, clasping Ukitake's shoulder with one hand. "Come in, Jyuushiro, and sit down. We can talk inside."
Standing on the veranda outside his office, Renji gazed over his assembled Division. They were over two hundred now; a rush of transfers, more than a handful of those from the Sixth, had swelled their numbers back to those of a healthy Squad, and Renji was proud of every single one of his officers. Trying to keep his face steady, he ran his hand over the letter from the First Division once again, crinkling the paper tucked in the sash of his hakama.
"Got an announcement," he began without preamble, and every face was immediately fixed on him. Even Minori, standing behind him on the veranda, was staring so hard he could feel her gaze on the back of his head.
"There was a letter on my desk from the First Division this morning," he continued, pulling the folded paper out and holding it up, the seal clearly visible, before turning it back to himself and unfolding it. "I won't bother ya with the polite babble part of it, but I do wanna read one section off to ya." Clearing his throat uneasily, he straightened the letter before him and began.
" 'The significant improvement in the officers of the Fifth Division, following Abarai Renji's ascension to Captaincy, has been noted by the reviews of the Captain's Council. It has therefore been recommended and approved that the Fifth Division be removed from probation and henceforth returned to fully operational status.' "
Stunned silence swept the crowd for a second, before disbelieving grins began to flicker across faces.
Folding up the letter again, Renji finally allowed the grin he had been suppressing all morning to break across his face. "An' that means that as of next week, the Fifth is an active Squad again. Congratulations, guys," he added softly, but nobody heard the last words - they were drowned out completely by the cheers of his officers.
Still stunned, Ichigo sat silently at the kitchen table, staring at his father from across the familiar distance. It could have been any other family meal, if he ignored the fact that rather than his sisters sitting to either side of him, two of the eldest and most powerful Captains of the Seireitei occupied the seats, both tucked into gigai in an attempt at normalcy. Ukitake, wearing grey slacks and a simple blue button-down shirt, his white hair mostly restrained in a thick braid, had succeeded, but Kyouraku - wearing jeans, a white sleeveless shirt, and a pink Hawaiian shirt painfully reminiscent of his favorite kimono - was eye-catching.
And both of them knew his father.
His father, who was spiritually sensitive enough to have detected Ichigo the moment he stepped through the Senkaimon, which was why he hadn't batted an eye at seeing his son's Shinigami form at the bottom of the stairs. His father, who had known since Rukia's appearance the night that that damned Hollow first attacked and Ichigo wound up with Sode no Shirayuki through his gut, Rukia's powers exploding through his body, exactly what his son was.
His father, who was a Shinigami.
"A Shinigami Captain, in fact," Kyouraku added thoughtfully, swirling one finger through the condensation on his glass of lemonade - sweet Yuzu would never allow alcohol in the house, particularly since, as Karin said, Isshin was quite bad enough without it.
Ichigo took a deep breath, trying not to let his anger make his body tremble. The feeling of betrayal that had washed over him when his father had so-calmly greeted his former fellows at the door was overwhelming. For over two years, his father had known everything that his son was suffering through - and never once said a thing. Not when Ichigo had first risked his life, chasing after Rukia to save her from a death sentence in the Seireitei. Not when Ichigo's inner Hollow had threatened to eat his soul, forcing him to turn to the Visoreds for help. Not when Ichigo had returned from Hueco Mundo and the War, so tortured by nightmares of his friend's blood and cold green eyes that he could barely sleep at nights.
To Ichigo's right, Ukitake was trembling as well, faint little twitches that ran across his shoulders and hands and had nothing to do with anger and everything to do with shock. He was reacting, Ichigo thought with bitter humor, the way a normal human would upon seeing a ghost.
Slowly, Isshin nodded, his gaze not leaving the tabletop. "About a hundred years ago, I took over the position of Tenth Squad Captain. The previous one had been killed in a Hollow attack, and I was apparently getting too big for my britches as a Lieutenant." Shrugging slightly, he downed the contents of his glass, and Kon, lingering sheepishly nearby in Ichigo's body, silently brought the pitcher to refill it.
"I took over the Tenth, and everything was great until about... ho, what was it, forty, forty-five years ago, now? I came out here on assignment and was chatting with Urahara when this woman walked into the shop... I'd never seen anyone as beautiful as she was. I'd never believed in love at first sight until that moment," he added wistfully, gaze and attention drifting off into the distance, and Ichigo cleared his throat, bringing his glass down on the table with a bang.
Jumping slightly, Isshin returned to his story. "It probably wouldn't have amounted to much. She'd just run away from her father, and if I reported anything about it back to the Seireitei, they'd have forced her to return. She was at the Shoten because she knew about Kisuke, and wanted him to build her a reiatsu-blocking gigai, so that she couldn't be detected. He was going ahead with it while I monitored the area, trying to protect them both from her father's agents. Everything was going fine until a Hollow attacked.
"We know now that it was probably one of Aizen's experiments, probably out of the same batch that had attacked Shuuhei's training group the next year. I managed to destroy that one, but the injuries I sustained in the fight were enough that I lost my powers. I dragged myself back to Urahara's, and he and Masaki -"
"Wait," Ichigo interrupted sharply. "How does Mom factor into this?"
"I didn't tell you?" Isshin replied, startled. "Masaki was the woman I met at Urahara's."
"But she -"
"Let me finish, Ichigo," Isshin ordered, and the young man fell silent. "Masaki and Kisuke patched me back together and stuffed me into a gigai as well, but I knew at that point I wouldn't be able to return to the Seireitei. So I just..."
"Disappeared," Ukitake finished softly, and the other three turned their gazes to the pale man. Ukitake was still staring down into his untouched glass of lemonade, but even with his bangs shielding his face, Ichigo could see that his eyes were damp.
"I can't say much in my defense, Jyuushiro," Isshin admitted. "I was worthless to the Seireitei at that point - as good as dead without my powers. I had no idea whether they would ever return, and I didn't want to leave Masaki to the mercy of her father's agents, if they ever found her. So I stayed."
"And you never bothered to contact us, to let us know you were safe," Kyouraku shot back. Although his voice was level, Ichigo could see the tension in the big man's shoulders, see the low spark of heat in his grey eyes. It was the first time Ichigo had really seen the laid-back Captain display signs of a temper, but he knew instinctively that if the man was ever roused to full fury, it would be best to be somewhere very far away.
Isshin shook his head, anger and guilt twisting his own face. "At the time, I was too ashamed of myself to even consider that. I'd just gotten the reiatsu beaten out of me by a damned Hollow, Shunsui! How was I supposed to face you, or Jyuushiro, or the other Captains and tell them that? And in the end, I thought it would be less painful for you and Jyuushiro if you simply thought I'd died on the mission, rather than knowing I was as good as dead to you here in the Living World!"
Kyouraku hung his head, silent, and Ukitake had his face buried in his hands, his breathing harsh between his fingers.
"Urahara made sure the gigai I was in would keep my soul stable, despite the damage I had suffered, and age like a normal human would. He got us both identities. I changed my name, married Masaki, put myself through medical school while I was recovering. I became a surgeon, established my own clinic, had three wonderful children," Isshin continued, nodding across the table to Ichigo. "Given Masaki's and my history, I suppose it was inevitable that they would all have some form of spiritual power -"
"What do you mean, Mom's history? She was a normal human!" Ichigo burst out, unable to contain himself, and Isshin slammed a hand down on the tabletop.
"No, she wasn't, now shut up and let me finish!" When Ichigo stared at him, wide-eyed and silent, Isshin leaned back in his seat and blew out a sigh. "I didn't expect Kuchiki Rukia, of all people, to land on our doorstep and drag Ichigo headlong into the Gotei," he confessed wearily, some of his anger fading into a tired chuckle. "But I've known all along what Ichigo was going through, even if I couldn't admit to it." Locking eyes with his son over the table, he added quietly, "The first thing I did upon regaining my powers was destroy Grand Fisher. I've avenged Masaki's death, Ichigo."
Ichigo stared across the table, his eyes hard, and Isshin sighed softly. "You want to know about your mother, I'm sure. The truth is this; your mother was a very powerful individual. I had hoped we managed to hide her origins, but they might have been the reason for Aizen's interest in you. When she fled from her father, she abdicated her position and surrendered most of her powers, but what she still retained was enough to put most Captains to shame. She was a simple, kind woman at heart, though, and she wanted nothing to do with the politics and power that went with her position as her father's heir. That's why she ran, and why she came to Kisuke, who had no obligation or desire to report her back to the Seireitei, where her father would inevitably hear of it. She was his only child, and there's no knowing the lengths he would have gone to in order to get her back."
"Stop beating around the goddamned bush, Dad," Ichigo growled, cutting Isshin off. "Who the hell was Mom's father?"
Looking his son straight in the eye, Isshin answered simply, "The King of the Soul Society."
As Ichigo reeled in his seat, Isshin added steadily, "Masaki was his only offspring. And as her most powerful child, that puts you in the position of Heir."
"Why didn't you ever tell him?" Shunsui asked softly, his head tilted back and his eyes closed as he felt for Ichigo's reiatsu, vanishing through the Shoten's Senkaimon and back to the Seireitei.
Sighing again, Isshin could only shake his head. "How could I? When is the right time to drop a bombshell like that on a boy that young? Of course," he added philosophically, "he's had to bear up under unimaginable piles of crap all along, so he's really not that young after all, is he?" Miserably, he threw back the contents of his glass again, clearly wishing they were alcoholic
"He's engaged," Kyouraku chuckled, and had to rock back from the table when Isshin spit lemonade across the entire surface.
"Engaged?" Isshin choked, accepting the handkerchief that Ukitake offered him and sheepishly wiping his mouth. "To whom, exactly?"
Kyouraku's eyes glittered in faintly malicious delight. "Kuchiki Rukia, of course," he replied, and Isshin coughed again. Kon, sitting in the corner of the kitchen, gave a wail of anguish and ran from the room.
"I don't suppose I should be surprised," Isshin confessed, once he'd caught his breath back. "How's Byakuya taking things, though? Must be an incredible insult to him."
"He's been surprisingly supportive," Ukitake answered, taking the damp handkerchief back and wiping the table with it. "Not happy, I'll grant you, but supportive."
"Best we could ask for, I suppose," Isshin muttered, retrieving the pitcher of lemonade himself and refilling his glass.
"And you don't have any objections?" Kyouraku added, leaning back and holding out his own glass. Isshin shook his head as he obliged with a refill.
"Not particularly, why?"
Shunsui narrowed his eyes slightly. "She is the one who cut down Kaien," he answered, and Isshin shook his head again.
"No. The Hollow had already killed him - Rukia was simply kind enough to put him out of his misery. And truthfully," he added, taking his seat again, "even though Kaien was my son, I'd have done the same."
Ichigo had stormed five steps into his office before he realized he was not alone.
Blue eyes wide, Kira blinked at him from behind his desk. "Taichou? I'm sorry, I hope you didn't cut your time off short because I returned early."
"No," Ichigo answered, anger momentarily dissipating in the wake of his surprise. "I didn't even know you were back."
"Oh," Kira answered, confusion pinching his eyebrows. "Did something happen in the Living World, sir?"
"Oh, something happened, all right," Ichigo growled, a flicker of anger burning back through his chest. "Kyouraku and Ukitake showed up on my doorstep earlier - probably to tell me you were back, come to think of it - and they recognized my Dad when he opened the door."
"Recognized?" Kira echoed, the confusion on his face deepening, and Ichigo elaborated. And then, while Kira's mouth was still gaping in astonishment, Ichigo told him about his mother's side of the family.
Kira somehow managed to stagger whilst sitting down, but finally managed to recover himself enough to stammer "Ichigo - I mean, Your High-"
"Kira, if you even think of treating me like royalty, I'm going to hit you," Ichigo growled. "As far as I'm concerned, the fucking Spirit King can live forever, because I want nothing to do with being his heir!"
Half-staggering the few steps across the office, Ichigo collapsed against his desk, clutching the carved side with violently shaking hands. "Fuck," he exhaled softly. "How does this all happen? Three years ago, I was... nobody. Just some kid with weird hair. And then all of the sudden I'm a Shinigami, and a Hollow, and a Visored, and the savior of the fucking Soul Society, I get a Captaincy dumped in my lap, and now I find out that I'm the fucking royal heir? Dammit, I didn't ask for this!"
The little clay cup that held Ichigo's pens was the closest handy target when Ichigo's temper snapped; it shattered against the doorframe only inches from a familiar, shaggy blond head.
"I'm assuming," Urahara said, gazing steadily at Ichigo and ignoring the spray of ceramic shards that had caught him when the cup shattered, "that your father enlightened you as to your origins."
"He enlightened me as to the fact you've known all along," Ichigo snarled back, his anger overwhelming any sympathy he might have felt for the thin lines of blood appearing on Urahara's face where the shards had cut him. "Why the hell didn't you ever tell me?"
"Your father asked me not to," came the level reply, and Ichigo snorted harshly in response.
"And? Since when have you cared what other people want, Kisuke?"
Kira winced at the cutting statement, and Urahara looked vaguely hurt. The expression was gone a moment later, though, covered by the opening snap of his fan, a steel-ribbed tessen that he wafted as casually as his old paper one. Over the edge of the black fan, playful grey eyes hardened into frozen steel, and Urahara shed his lighthearted demeanor in the blink of an eye.
"Ichigo, your father is one of my oldest friends. At one point, he, Tessai, and Yoroichi were the only people I knew I could trust. They were once the only ones who always believed in me, and I would have given anything to defend them - a philosophy I'm sure you can understand," he said flatly, and Ichigo flushed a dull red. "I did everything I could to help your parents when they were in need and respect your father's wishes. I do not," he added pointedly, "regret my actions in doing so. I do wish I could have done more to help you both, and to help Masaki, but I am not all-powerful." Quietly, he folded the fan again and gazed down at it, smiling faintly even as blood trickled down his cheek. "You should know, though... your father is very proud of you, Ichigo," he said softly.
Ichigo opened his mouth to reply, but Urahara had already gone, leaving behind nothing more than a few drops of blood mixed with broken ceramic shards.
After Kisuke's departure, Ichigo had wordlessly cleaned up the debris of his temper, then returned to his desk, shuffling through what little paperwork Hitsugaya had left him with. It took him almost a half an hour of mindlessly reading and signing reports before he stopped short and looked up at his Lieutenant, who had his head bowed over his own paperwork.
"Didn't I tell you I didn't want to see you back in the office until you'd reached Bankai?" The tone of the question was bewildered rather than accusatory, and Kira laughed softly in response.
"You did, sir."
One fine blond eyebrow raised. "Have you had lunch yet, sir?"
It seemed like a complete non-sequitur, but Ichigo had learned over the past three months that there was very little Kira said that did not have a great deal of forethought behind it, regardless of whether or not it seemed to follow the conversation at hand. "I haven't, no."
The smile was faint and slightly sympathetic. "Go and grab some lunch, sir," Kira ordered gently, and Ichigo found a flicker of a grateful smile crossing his features as he slid from his chair.
"You need me to bring you back anything?"
"I've already eaten," Kira answered, shaking his head, and Ichigo nodded slightly as he slipped out the door.
A few minutes after Ichigo left, three Hell Butterflies fluttered back out the window of the Third Division's office, each bound for their own destination. Leaning against the windowsill, Kira silently watched them go.
It only took Ichigo twenty minutes to return from lunch. When he reentered the office, he found Kira sitting quietly at his desk, eyes closed, an unsheathed Wabisuke on the desk before him. Kira's thin, scarred hands were resting on the Zanpakutou; one hand over the hilt, one on the tip of the blade. It was not quite the standard position for formally communing with one's Zanpakutou, but it was no doubt just as effective for Kira - Ichigo could feel the low, steady thrum of his Lieutenant's reiatsu permeating the office, easily as strong and sure as that of Hisagi.
Sensing Ichigo's presence, Kira slowly opened his eyes, blinking a few times as he pulled himself out of his meditations. "You're back already?"
"I eat fast," Ichigo answered, shrugging. "You ready?"
Rising from his seat, Kira calmly lifted his Zanpakutou from his desk and sheathed it in one smoothly practiced movement. "Yes," he replied steadily. "I'm ready."
Ichigo nodded, feeling a low coil of nervous anticipation twist his stomach. He had sparred with Kira more than a few times; actual practice sessions with bokken, the one, heartwrenching time he'd been forced to take the man on hand-to-hand. But they had never before fought with Zanpakutou.
Within him, Zangetsu raised his head, and Ichigo could feel the spirit's own anticipation. "Be cautious in this battle, Ichigo. Wabisuke is not merciful, and his bearer is still fragile, easily broken."
"And you think I'm gonna break him?" Ichigo countered, incredulous, as he quietly followed Kira out the door of the office. They wouldn't head for the regular training grounds; releasing Bankai within the walls of Seireitei was, if not currently forbidden, at least firmly advised against.
"No. But should this fight go poorly for you, he may break himself. You do not understand what this battle is costing him; when Ichimaru forced him to fight Hinamori and Matsumoto, two of his oldest friends, he swore he would never again raise his blade to a fellow Shinigami. That he has elected to challenge you to ascension by combat -"
"I get it, ossan," Ichigo interrupted, staring at the back of the blond head in front of him. "But I'm not going to hold back when I fight him."
"I was not telling you to hold back," Zangetsu answered, sounding darkly amused. "I was telling you not to die."
An easy silence had settled between Kira and Ichigo as they walked - not Shunpo, neither of them had any desire to race into the battle coming between them - to the outer edges of the Seireitei, and Kira paused, glancing upwards to where the wall hung, as they crossed the barrier.
"What will you go, when you leave?" he asked softly, and Ichigo frowned a little. It was a good question, one he'd been asking himself a lot over the past few weeks.
"Back to Karakura, I suppose," he answered, shrugging. "I'm not ready to marry Rukia yet, so the engagement will have to keep for a while." Frown deepening, Ichigo kicked at a stray pebble in the path. "I got to speak to Karin, my sister, a little while ago," he said absently, watching the pale stone bounce off into the grass verge. "She said that with me gone, she and the other humans with spiritual powers were the ones who wound up taking care of the Hollows that were popping up back home."
"That's not right," Kira muttered, frowning as well. "You are the Shinigami of record for that area, but a replacement should have been assigned after your promotion. There's no reason for your family to be involved in it... well, beyond the obvious," he added sheepishly, when Ichigo shot a sarcastic look at him.
Ichigo snorted in response, shaking his head. "Well, that's where my idea comes from. When I return to Karakura, I want to start training the other spiritually-aware humans that I find there. I know that some of my friends, classmates, they have potential. And if they can see Hollows and present good bait, I want them to be able to defend themselves when I'm not around."
"The Soutaichou probably won't think kindly of that idea," Kira warned, veering a sharp right off the path, and Ichigo snorted again as he followed the other man without missing a beat.
"Kira, if you've become powerful enough to match me, the Soutaichou can kiss my ass for all I care. You'll be a Captain, and I won't be one of his direct agents anymore."
Biting back a smile, Kira could only shake his head. For all the control and maturity he'd gained since coming to the Soul Society, Ichigo was still the hot-tempered, defiant teenager who had first drawn his blade against Abarai Renji, those few long years ago.
"In that case," Kira answered, stepping quietly onto the field, "let us see how powerful I have become."
'Let us see how powerful I have become.'
The words were spoken softly, but beneath them, unmistakable, was the battle-tempered strength of ringing steel. Ichigo - his attention forcibly pulled from its inward focus - lifted his head sharply and took a moment to truly survey his surroundings.
He and Kira were standing at the edge of a wide, roughly-maintained field, patchy with dust where the grass had died. At the far side, the ruins of an old stone building lay sullen and moldy under the bright sun.
And in front of it, the Third Division had assembled.
Although the typical rules for Captaincy Trial by Combat required at least two hundred members of the Division to witness the battle, the Third had not yet returned to a full quota of officers. One hundred and seventy-eight Shinigami, the full complement of the Third, had gathered before that pile of ruined stone.
Three white haori were visible amongst the sea of black - Ichigo narrowed his eyes slightly, seeking out with his other senses to catch the sharp flame of Renji's reiatsu, the quiet pulse of Shuuhei's, and, oddly, the subdued burn of Urahara's.
"They come to bear witness, in place of the absent numbers," Zangetsu rumbled, and Ichigo nodded slightly.
"They're also Kira's friends," he answered silently as he drew the blade from his back, turning to find Kira had already done the same. Bowing to the other man, he raised Zangetsu to a ready position. "It's right that they should be here for him."
"Raise your head, Wabisuke!"
Ichigo cursed sharply, leaping backwards across the dusty ground as the explosion of Kira's reiatsu licked over his skin. They had warmed up for a few minutes, exchanging only light blows, Wabisuke's graceful katana form looking absurdly delicate against Zangetsu's wide blade.
But then Kira had narrowed his eyes, and Ichigo hadn't quite dodged the blow that left first blood seeping from a narrow wound across his chest. And now that Kira had released -
"Shit!" Ichigo exploded, using Shunpo to put some space between himself and Wabisuke's hook-like blade. He had no idea how severely the Zanpakutou's weight-doubling powers would affect him; nor did he particularly care to find out. Pivoting in midair, he swung Zangetsu in a high arc and released a Getsuga Tenshou - only partial-strength, he wasn't trying to kill Kira, after all - but the blast of energy stuck almost directly at Kira's feet, and the blond vanished behind a spray of shattered earth.
Horror gripped Ichigo's stomach for a bare second before Zangetsu's snap of "He's fine, look out!" spun Ichigo away again, a split-second from having his sword arm cleaved off at the shoulder. The inner edge of Wabisuke's blade clinked against the flat of Zangetsu - barely a touch, and it would have gone unnoticed by both men if Zangetsu's weight hadn't suddenly doubled in Ichigo's hand.
Gritting his teeth, Ichigo swung again to release another blast. The ground ripped itself apart beneath the power of the strike, but Kira was -
"Behind you, Ichigo!"
"Fuck!" The hooked blade whistled bare inches under his feet as Ichigo leapt upward, his breath already coming faster than he cared to admit.
A few minutes later, Ichigo knew he was in trouble. Even discounting the fact that Kira was his officer and friend, Ichigo had no desire to get into full blade combat with the other man - already he could feel the faint strain beginning in his arms from wielding his double-weighted Zanpakutou, and Kira's Shunpo was far better than he'd realized. They couldn't fight on equal terms; Ichigo wasn't willing to unleash a full Getsuga Tenshou against him, couldn't get in close to fight, and couldn't land a blow from behind when Kira's Shunpo was at least a match for his. His only real chances at winning would be to either catch Kira off-guard or increase his speed, and the first was not likely.
Extending Zangetsu before him, Ichigo bowed his head and called his Bankai.
The sheer, overwhelming force of Ichigo's reiatsu, released at such close range, was enough to knock Kira backwards almost twice his own body-length, feet digging furrows in the dusty, grass-choked soil.
When the roaring wave of energy dissipated, Kira raised his head, turning automatically towards the faint music of Tensa Zangetsu's broken chain. He had never had the chance to see Ichigo's Bankai at such a close distance, and his eyes traced the elegant curve of the black blade with something a little akin to awe.
Hitsugaya, Renji, Shuuhei. All three of them had done what the Seireitei had always claimed impossible - gaining their Bankai within mere decades of discovering their powers. And of course, Ichigo, who had never bowed to the constraints of possibility, and had gained his within months. Theirs were the names whispered by young students now, in tones of near-worship; work hard and train hard and maybe you'll become a Captain in fifty years like Hisagi or Abarai!
And now, as he spun Wabisuke so that the flat of the blade lay along the side of his arm, Kira let the whisper escape his lips that would put his name among their ranks.
Once, Ishida had said to him, "Of course I can find you. You're the only person I know whose reiatsu tastes like flame." Ichigo had never truly understood what the Quincy meant by that; Ichigo himself could feel reiatsu, and occasionally smell them, but not until now had he encountered one that truly had a taste.
Wabisuke's power was metallic, almost bitter at the back of Ichigo's tongue.
"Ever has Wabisuke's strength been other's grief," Zangetsu whispered. "You taste tears and blood within his power."
Breathing hard, Ichigo tightened his grip on Zangetsu's hilt, hearing the chain ring as he did so. Kira was standing silently, fifty feet away, his unchanged blade held in a steady grasp.
To the naked eye, it looked as though Kira's release had failed. Wabisuke obviously did not change forms with its Bankai release, but the thought was not reassuring to Ichigo. It simply meant that the blade's power would be focused elsewhere.
Drawing a slow breath, Ichigo eyed his opponent, weighing his options. Kira's shikai was limited to direct-contact strikes, but there was no guarantee that his Bankai had the same constraints.
Kira raised his blade.
Cursing mentally, Ichigo leapt for the air.
With a flash of teeth too feral to be called a smile, Kira swung Wabisuke down.
The ground around him shattered.
The circle was two hundred feet across, the edges perfectly defined. Beyond the circle, the ground was perfectly unharmed. Within it, however, the massive increase in gravity had crushed the ground down under its own weight, sinking the floor of the circle into the ground until the walls of it were higher than Kira's head.
In the epicenter of that circle, unaffected by the crushing weight, Kira stood calmly, his blue eyes gazing down at the crumpled black form.
Pressed into the ground by the suddenly-unbearable weight of his own body, Ichigo gasped for breath, the very molecules of air too heavy to draw into lungs that felt crushed by their own weight. He could not move, could not breath, could barely even think for the crushing pain of the weight on him.
Silent feet crossed the grass - already crushed to a pulp beneath its own weight - pausing when they came within Ichigo's line of sight.
"This," came Kira's voice from above him, "is the power of my Bankai - Overwhelming Sorrow of the Penitent Man. A single strike will affect everything within a hundred-foot radius of me - on the ground, or in the air. I alone am immune to the effect of his power, leaving me free..." a shifting scrape of metal, and Ichigo could suddenly feel the cold line of steel moving against his throat, "to kill..." cold on three sides, now - Kira had settled the hook of Wabisuke's blade around Ichigo's neck, the inside of the blade settled against Ichigo's throat, "my opponents."
"ICHIGO!" Zangetsu screamed within his mind, as the blade moved against his throat -
- and suddenly the overwhelming pressure was gone, and Kira, crouched next to him, tapped the outside edge of Wabisuke's hook lightly against Ichigo's forehead. "Yield, Ichigo," the blond said, smiling faintly, and Ichigo drew a gasping breath back into his screaming lungs.
"I yield," he gasped, as soon as he had enough breath to speak again. "Gods, I yield." Pushing himself up onto his hands and knees, Ichigo let his head hang as he continued to draw in struggling breaths. "Kira," he managed after a moment, "your Bankai is fucking scary."
"Thank you," came the amused response, and a pale hand appeared in Ichigo's line of vision. Taking it, Ichigo allowed the blond to pull him to his feet.
"It's still limited by distance, but Yoroichi-san believes that with more practice, I will be able to expand and even direct the area of effect," Kira continued, as he and Ichigo moved to the edge of the sunken area and leapt out.
"It's effective," Ichigo answered, still getting his breath back.
Seeing the battle over, the spectating Third Division - with Shuuhei, Renji, and Urahara in the lead - came across the field to surround the pair, offering their congratulations to Kira and their gratitude to Ichigo, as Ichigo unashamedly slipped off the Captain's haori he wore. Although he'd enjoyed leading the Third and seeing the improvement they made, he had taken the position with the stipulation that Kira would step up when he was ready.
As he turned to extend the white haori to Kira, though, Ichigo felt a hand settle on his shoulder. Turning, he caught the pale-blue gaze of the man behind him and stared in shock.
It took a moment to register Gin's identity - his hair was black, and he was wearing a black yukata and hakama that looked enough like shihakusho at first glance to avoid causing a lot of questions. Urahara, standing within arm's reach of the man, was watching him with steady eyes.
Behind him, Ichigo felt Shuuhei and Renji's energies shift as the two men realized the identity of the visitor. Kira's energy, though, remained steady and unaffected, and Ichigo turned to glance at him, thinking that he hadn't yet noticed Ichimaru's presence.
He was mistaken, though. Kira, with Shuuhei's hand on his shoulder and Renji standing at his back, was gazing, utterly calm, at the man who had broken him so badly, meeting those pale-blue eyes without hesitation or fear. Very gently reaching up, Kira pulled Shuuhei's hand from his shoulder, giving it a gentle squeeze before releasing it, and stepped forward.
"Gin," he said steadily, when he came within a few feet of his one-time Captain.
" 'Zuru," the man smiled back. "Ya done good, yanno."
Smiling faintly, Kira nodded. "I know."
His smile uneasy, Gin gestured vaguely between Kira and the haori in Ichigo's arms. "Can I...?"
Startled, Ichigo raised an eyebrow at Kira. The blond met his gaze and nodded once, utterly steady.
Pale, thin hands gently lifted the heavy fabric from Ichigo's arms, carefully shaking it out to let the fabric unfold. Silently, Kira turned around, giving his back to Gin so that Ichimaru could settle the haori on his former Lieutenant's shoulders.
" 'm proud a' ya, Izuru," Gin whispered, leaning forward to brush a chaste kiss over Kira's temple before stepping away. Glancing up, he met Hisagi's eyes with a steady gaze. "Take good care a' him, Shuu-kun."
Shuuhei nodded back, utterly serious. "I will."
Gin nodded slightly, then walked away, Urahara following steadily in his path.
Turning back to his friends, Kira couldn't help the smile that crossed his face. There was Renji, once a Rukon dog, now standing straight and tall with the symbol of a Noble House at his throat and confidence on his face. And Hisagi, beside him, rested one hand comfortably on the hilt of the Zanpakutou he had once hated, finally at peace with himself.
And as for Kira... It was inevitable, he realized, as he settled the white haori across his shoulders. Time progressed, change happened, and life went on. But hopefully, if they always stood together, those changes would always be for the best.
In a hospital in Karakura town, a brown-haired newborn opened his eyes.
~ And here is where Red Duty, Black Honor draws to a close. I wish to extend my thanks to each and every person who has reviewed, faved, watched, and read this story - every one of you has been a driving force behind this. You do not realize how much your words and support have meant to me over the past eight months that this story has been going, and I owe you all so much.
The sequel to RDBH - Bonds of Honor - will begin posting within a week or two, and will take over RDBH's regular Wednesday posting schedule. I hope to see you all there.