The King's Law
Chapter 1: The Hollow and the Oathbreaker
The sun rode high above the Seireitei, shining brightly in the cloudless blue sky. A group of pale breezes played through the streets and between the structures, providing a cooling contrast with the fierce heat of the summer sunlight. If one was only counting the weather, it was a perfect day. The Seireitei itself, however, was too silent for it to be normal. Weather like this demanded to be appreciated, practically required unoccupied shinigami to stand together in groups with friends, chatting and laughing and making plans with each other for dinner that evening, a day off exploring some old haunt in the mountains or in Rukongai, sake this weekend. Instead, the streets were crowded with quiet shinigami, wanderers with grim faces. Loud voices were quickly shushed. The ignorant or apathetic bowed to the pressure of those who knew and cared about what was happening that day, until all shinigami maintained that sad, almost respectful silence. Those unoccupied with business searched for occupation rather than the other way around. Many even cursed the cheerful sunlight, wishing for rain.
Not Ichigo. He didn't have much reason to be happy at the moment, but he supposed that some small part of him was, just to feel the warmth of the sun on his face. Had it been raining, even that tiny bit of pleasure would have been denied him in the end.
The Winter War was long over, and Aizen dead at last. Whether it was from the wounds Kurosaki Isshin had inflicted on the self-made god or from Ichigo's own final strike didn't matter; the King's throne was safe. Aizen would hurt nobody more. The Kurosakis returned gladly to life in Karakura, though Ichigo never gave up patrolling the town for hollows despite being under both physical recuperation and an imposed remedial program at school to make up for his missed classes. Days passed, and life returned much to normal. Weeks passed, and Rukia was recalled to Soul Society for a long-overdue promotion (fourth seat of squad thirteen now – Ukitake had wanted her as his vice captain, but thought that an ever-so-slightly more gradual increase of rank and duties would be better for everyone involved) and to help with the final cleanup after the war. Months passed, and Ichigo managed to pass into the next level of classes with halfway-decent grades despite everything, Rukia and Renji alike stayed in contact with him, and Soul Society was almost finished rebuilding itself, still lacking three captains in the Gotei 13 but once again with a fully-functioning Central 46.
And that's where it all went downhill.
Someone – Ichigo didn't know just who – had apparently thought it a good idea to review all of the King's Law, Soul Society's most ancient rulebook and its most strictly followed guide to crime and punishment, good deed and reward. Possibly they did it to help in the rebuilding effort; they did have to try Gin on it, after all. To the best of Ichigo's knowledge, the fox-faced traitor had been forcibly stripped of all his reiatsu, every power of his locked away too deeply to be unburied again, and was now cooling off in a high-security cell deep within a secret location in the Seireitei, to remain there for one thousand years…or until he died, as it was unlikely that a soul without any significant reiatsu could last so long.
In one part, Ichigo had to wonder how the traitor got so lucky. In another part, he realized both the answer (because the Law – the oldest Law – prescribed that particular punishment as an option for Captain-level traitors) and another question: how was that fate 'luck?' Wasn't a quick death better?
Facing what he was at the moment, Ichigo wasn't so sure.
Something scraped softly across the back of Ichigo's white kosode, and a low, mirthless chuckle rose from behind him. He didn't bother turning his head, instead continuing to stare straight onward, watching white-robed and masked members of the kido corps mill around the oddly-shaped miniature kido cannon mounted just over twenty-five feet away. He couldn't tell exactly what they were doing, only that it involved a lot of strange gestures and a steady stream of murmuring he couldn't make out across the distance and the muffling scarves over their faces.
"Well, Ichigo, I'd've been a fool to think this never could've happened..."
The cannon's sharp tip was starting to steam. Thin loops of orange reiatsu rose slowly from the long, narrow barrel. The spellcasters continued to mumble, though they had stopped moving so much and had instead adopted a fixed gesture, each one identical to the other. Ichigo felt himself trembling again, unable to stop it this time.
"…but I honestly never expected it would."
The orange loops were growing larger and brighter, and with his own reiatsu dampened as it was, Ichigo could distinctly feel the energy growing before him – and behind him. It was hot, almost as stifling as the released Soukyoku had been, and Ichigo was far more aware of it than he had been of that flaming bird-blade. For one thing, his sword and his reiatsu weren't there to shield him from the waves of energy. For another, this time, it wasn't just pointed at a good friend, someone he could protect, someone he could risk his life for. It was pointed at him.
The back of his kosode shifted again, minutely. Ichigo's mouth was dry. He couldn't tear his eyes away from the cannon.
"I'm sorry about this, son," Isshin said quietly, his back not quite touching Ichigo's.
The orange-haired substitute shinigami managed to unstick his tongue from the roof of his mouth long enough to reply, shortly,
"Not your fault."
Then the cannons were ready to fire across the width of the Soukyoku hill, and for the man and the boy standing between them, there was no more time to say anything.
The house had been fairly quiet that night; Yuzu and Karin were at a friend's house with a small group of classmates for a sleepover. Ichigo and Isshin ate the dinner Yuzu had made and packed into the refrigerator for them, fought over who would do the dishes (Isshin ended up washing after Ichigo pinned him down and forced him to cry uncle), fought again because Isshin wanted his revenge, and eventually limped off to their respective bedrooms to fall asleep there.
Years of Isshin's wake-up calls had trained Ichigo to be a light sleeper, provided he wasn't badly injured or already exhausted. Midnight hollow attacks had only enhanced this trait. As a result, he was awake the very instant someone appeared in his room, approached his side with steps too light to be his father – too silent to even be Rukia or one of his sisters, and reached out for his shoulder. Ichigo waited until the outstretched fingers were centimeters from the fabric of his T-shirt, until he could sense the heat of them. Then, faster than thought, one leg whipped out from under the sheets and caught the stranger very solidly across his chest – the heavy grunt that resulted could only have come from a man – and Ichigo tumbled out of his bed, raced across the floor, and hit his light switch.
He didn't know what he would find; he certainly never expected what he saw. Leaping up from the floor was a black-masked man in close-fitting clothes. In an instant, Ichigo saw the katana sheathed across his back and recognized the appearance of a member of Soul Society's stealth force.
"What're you –" Ichigo started in shock, but he never got to finish his question. A sudden shock of pain raced through him, starting at his neck and ending with a white flash across his vision. The floor tilted toward him, darkening all the while, and Ichigo realized far too late that he hadn't even thought to guard his own back.
He woke up slowly, his head and left shoulder throbbing, with no sense of how much time might have passed. When he finally managed to blink his eyes open, nothing greeted him but grey stone surrounding him in a small cube-shaped room, with a single grey door with no handle set in the wall just before him. A black, reflective window was set high in that door, and a white light too pure and bright to be anything electric hovered at the center of the ceiling. Ichigo's head hurt because of the blow he had taken; his shoulder hurt because he was laying on it, and the stone floor was bare and hard.
Ichigo rolled onto his back and sat up, and that was when he noticed several other important changes to his situation. For one thing, he was no longer wearing his sleep pants and T-shirt – he didn't even seem to be wearing his body any more, actually. His shinigami uniform was nowhere in sight, however, nor was Zangetsu. Someone had dressed him in white, narrow pants and a kosode tied shut with a simple belt, all of it of a rough, unknown fabric. His feet were bare, and his hands were bound close together at the wrists by a set of metal cuffs.
As Ichigo stared down at his new attire in shocked confusion, he realized just what seemed so familiar about it. An image flashed through his mind, one of Rukia standing on that bridge, of her hovering under the crossbeam of the execution stand, in bare feet and white robe and red collar…
His right hand flew up to his neck, dragging the left with it, and he felt the smooth, bulky strap there, recognizing the draining sensation of a reiatsu-consuming and containing device as soon as he touched it.
"Wh-what's going on here?"
His voice sounded weak. Confused, angry, and at least a little afraid, Ichigo scrambled to his feet, using the wall behind him as support.
"Oi!" he bellowed at the door. "OI! Someone there? What's going on? Where am I? Let me out of here!"
The door didn't open; wherever it led lay silent. Ichigo crossed the little room in two steps and kicked at the grey metal desperately.
"Oi!" he shouted one last time, pressing his forehead to the cool metal. Again, there was no answer. Ichigo turned around and regarded the room, his breath hissing through his clenched teeth.
He had never been claustrophobic, but for once he thought he might be able to relate. This place was too small, too closed. The light was too bright, but without it, he had little doubt that the room would instead be too dark; there were no windows or torches or other sources of illumination. He could cross from any wall in the room to its opposite in just three steps – two if they were long – and if he jumped hard enough he could just about hit his head on the ceiling, even without any shinigami powers to help.
If not for the light above him and the door behind him, he could easily have been in a tomb.
Ichigo whirled around and pounded both fists against the unyielding metal. The thin chain between them clattered against the door in an odd beat.
"Let me go!"
He stopped and looked up at the dark square in the door, a window he was sure, but could see nothing but his own darkened reflection. The owner of the deep, emotionless voice could not be seen.
"Step away from the door."
Ichigo paused, his rebellious nature only briefly at odds with the possibility of getting out of the room and maybe even escaping entirely from wherever he was. He quickly stepped back once, twice, standing slightly closer to the far wall than not, and waited for the door to swing open, planning to attack the moment the gap was wide enough for him to see his target and charge through.
Instead, the entire door vanished entirely.
The orange-haired young man blinked as he found himself suddenly faced by five white-robed guards, four of them carrying long fork-topped staffs. The fifth stood in their midst, gazing at him evenly over the top of his long white cloth mask.
"You will come."
From his voice, he was the one who spoke earlier.
"You sure about that?" Ichigo muttered, full of teenage rebellion and the slight fear of a cornered animal and the calm of a warrior as he glanced over the men, thinking of how and where and how fast to hit them to make good his escape. Without any powers and with his hands tied, it wouldn't be easy. With luck, instinct, and planning, maybe it could still be done.
"We have orders to take you before the Council of 46 now, without further delay. We were also instructed to do whatever we must to follow those orders, be it carry you unconscious to the Chamber, drag you in as a dumb animal, or simply guide you as a man. You will come to the judging, and how is your only choice." the man clarified calmly.
"I haven't done anything," Ichigo countered, thinking furiously back to make sure this was true. It was. Short of invading Seireitei to rescue Rukia from her execution – which he had surely been forgiven for – and defying Yamamoto to rescue Inoue from Hueco Mundo – which had never been mentioned, and the order really shouldn't have any bearing on him anyhow – he'd done absolutely nothing against their laws as far as he knew.
"The Council does not appreciate being made to wait."
Ichigo took a deep breath and one calm, centered step forward. Then he lowered his head and charged. One staff-holding man was knocked back into the wall of the narrow hallway outside the room by the force of the attack; Ichigo spun a powerful side kick into another an instant later. A blur of white and black caught the corner of his eye. He ducked, and the staff whistled over his head; he straightened, and faster than he could even see it, the fourth staff lashed forward, catching his neck between its pronged end and the wall. Ichigo choked against the pressure, sparks flying across his vision from the impact of his head against stone. Both of his hands came up to grip the shaft of the strange weapon, but they slipped across its polished head, unable to gain purchase enough to push it away.
The speaker of the group, who had ducked aside the moment Ichigo rushed them, stepped up again, the others picking themselves up with far less difficulty than the shinigami might have liked.
The Chamber where the Council of 46 sat was magnificently intimidating – a quality heightened only by the fact that most people only saw the inside of it when they were in deep trouble and knew it. Much taller than it was wide and perfectly symmetrical in length and depth, the room was designed with the sole intention of cowing the accused into submission, surrounding him with unseen eyes and voices on all sides and high above his head, making the criminal standing in the center of the floor feel as small as a pebble at the bottom of the ocean, insignificant as an ant in a land of giants. The dark reds, browns and blacks of the walls and paneling created a closed-in effect, one that warned of danger and heightened fear. It was as useful an interrogation room as a hall of judgment.
The genius of the architecture was lost on Kurosaki Ichigo, however. He was, at first, too busy seething at the humiliation of his forced march through twisting corridors, prodded at the back by a pronged staff if he ever dropped a step behind his two main escorts, tugged back by the two cords that ran from reiatsu collar to stafftops whenever he managed to tread slightly ahead. They hadn't met anyone else in those drab halls, but Ichigo hated even the thought of being so controlled by others.
He wished he'd managed to break a bone in that first attack. It had been far weaker than he expected without his spiritual power to back up the strikes; almost another humiliation in its own right. If there was something he hated as much as another person's control over him, it was his own powerlessness.
He was so busy brooding, in fact, that not only did he miss the details of the Chamber when he was marched in, but he also initially missed the presence of another figure in white, standing on the floor beside him. The other did not miss him, however.
The sound of his name, even in a weak whisper, caught his ears and he turned his head toward it automatically, leaning forward to peer around one of his guards.
There, wearing much the same thing Ichigo was, his black hair as spiky and his chin as stubbled as Ichigo had last seen on that night at home, stood Kurosaki Isshin. His eyes were wide with shock and another emotion Ichigo couldn't immediately name and didn't want to – it honestly scared him a little.
"Dad? Dad, what's going o—"
Isshin shushed Ichigo at the same instant as the spokesperson of the guards stepped forward and bowed deeply to the room in general.
"Kurosaki Ichigo. We apologize for our tardiness – as the Council can surely see, there was a complication."
"It was expected," replied a smooth, feminine voice from behind one of the painted screens somewhere on Ichigo's right. He looked briefly around, but couldn't begin to guess which of the seated people spoke; he couldn't even see enough of each person to guess at genders.
"Guards, dismissed," said a man's voice from somewhere higher, closer to the center of the circling levels of seats. The guards bowed as one, unclipped the cords from Ichigo, and vanished away with a quiet swish of cloth.
Now, alone on the floor except for Isshin, both of them dressed in shining white which could never blend in with the dark red, towering room, blocked from his powers and still without his full range of movement available, the technique of the Chamber's appearance began to work on Ichigo. His heart hammered harder in his chest as he took in his location – surrounded, the only escape the door through which he had entered – and froze with his eyes on Isshin's.
He was afraid. Kurosaki Isshin, Ichigo's crazy, off-the-wall father, was afraid.
Ichigo opened his mouth. Isshin shook his head. The Council either hadn't noticed the brief exchange or didn't care, because they began to speak in turns almost immediately afterward.
"Do you know why you are here?"
This already from three different directions. Ichigo realized then that trying to keep track of the speaker was only going to result in a sore neck from constant swiveling and scanning; perhaps it was better to gaze directly ahead, as Isshin had begun to do, and let the ever-changing voices wash over him from every side.
They had fallen silent; apparently it had not been a rhetorical question. Ichigo shook his head in reply; he had no clue. Whatever it was, it was apparently something bad enough to warrant what felt like some sort of trial, though certainly not one anything like the modern kinds he had seen glimpses of now and again on the television.
"I think I have an idea for myself," Isshin said aloud, "but if you want to explain, go ahead."
"Kurosaki Isshin, former member of the King's Guard. Is that right?"
"That's right," Isshin replied.
"Missing in the human world over twenty years ago, gone without a trace, presumed dead for about as long."
"Recently re-emerged, alive and well, having married a human woman and fathered three half-blooded children."
"Mind if we leave the kids out of this?" Isshin asked, a tiny hint of affected cheer struggling into his tone. "It's not like they asked to be born or anything."
The Council murmured, but passed the question by a moment later without further comment.
"Do you recall the oaths you took as a Guardsman?"
"Do you recall the King's Law, which you swore to uphold?"
"Do you recall the list of a Guardsman's greatest possible crimes?"
"Do you still doubt why you're here?"
"Ah. So it is that. No, in that case, I know why," Isshin replied, grave again. "Go ahead, then."
"Desertion of a shinigami up to the rank of vice captain is punishable by up to fifty years in prison and possible stripping of rank," said one of the Council members, her old voice rising and falling in the sing-song litany of one reciting a memorized passage. "Desertion of a captain or vice-captain is punishable by complete stripping of rank, possible stripping of powers, and possible imprisonment or civilized exile up to a century."
"Desertion of a captain-commander or member of the King's Guard," continued another voice, older and stronger than the last, "is punishable only by death, either by stripping the soul of all power and exiling it to wilderness forever, or by immediate execution."
It took Ichigo's brain a moment to catch up with the meaning of this last statement.
"Wait, what?" he burst out suddenly. There was a sound around him like the rising wind as Council members shifted in their seats and spoke softly with one another, their overall tone something like surprise. "You're going to…are you joking? Ichimaru Gin tries to help overthrow all of Soul Society, and you pack him away in a cell somewhere, but Dad gets married, and you're talking death?"
"Ichigo…" Isshin tried, to no avail.
"What kind of whacked-out system is this?"
"Impudent," one voice said, too clearly for the mutter in the tone to be meant as concealment.
"Just an ignorant child."
"No wonder nobody thought it was fishy when the last bunch of you appeared to be making all those stupid orders about Rukia, if this is the sort of stuff you do normally!"
"How dare you bring up—"
"No, Dad, they can't get away with this sort of—"
"Former Guardsman, can you not control your offspring?"
Instinct took over. He froze instantly, and the half-outraged words of the Council gradually died down as well. Isshin hadn't used that tone in his name in years and years. It was the sort of tone he used just before a young Ichigo ran out onto the street, heedless of an approaching car, the sort where he had walked into the kitchen to find Ichigo perched precariously on the edge of the counter, so intent on the cookie jar he was tugging forward that he missed the fact that it was starting to tip the knife rack over. Rash and active as he had always been, Ichigo had learned the intuitive meaning of that tone very early, the same way young animals can interpret the varied warning cries of their parents. Stop what you're doing, follow my instructions exactly and immediately; you're in danger. That's what it meant, more or less, and in spite of the fact that he was no longer a child, he couldn't help the knee-jerk reaction of immediate obedience.
That was enough. Isshin strode forward, grabbed Ichigo's shoulder lightly in his two hands, and nodded politely to the council.
Without waiting for them to grant it, Isshin pulled Ichigo slightly off to one side and leaned close to his ear, whispering to keep their conversation as private as possible given the circumstances.
"Ichigo, you have to stop that."
"Why?" Ichigo didn't bother to whisper. The old childhood reaction to hearing his name shouted that way had already worn off, leaving Ichigo an indignant teenager once again.
"Listen to me. For your sisters' sake if nothing else. Ichigo, I can't do anything here. I'm gone. Just stay quiet and I'll get you out – your birth was more my fault than yours, and I knew what I was risking, so it's got nothing to do with you."
"What are you babbling about?" Ichigo asked, lowering his tone slightly. Cold disbelief crept up on him. "You aren't seriously…"
Isshin squeezed his shoulder lightly, both a reassurance and a warning.
"Just don't give them any more reason to dislike you. Please, Ichigo."
Before he could reply, Isshin was back at the center of the room, bowing to the Council with as much pride as a man in his position could muster.
"Sorry about that. You know how hot-headed teenagers can be."
Ichigo clenched his teeth and his fists. He did not need his old man making excuses for him, not when these lunatics…
"Very well," said the voice of a serene old man. "I think we may overlook it this once."
"But another break in proper decorum…"
They left the threatened punishment unsaid; the blank in the air could be filled with anything, and that made it all the weightier. Isshin threw Ichigo a serious look over his shoulder.
"You were discussing…" he said, turning back to the council with the air of a tired man just wanting a tedious meeting to be done with.
"The King's Law."
"Could I ask one thing?"
The sound of wind passed around the room as the council murmured and whispered in quick debate.
"Ask," one clear voice said at last.
"You know of my children; you just mentioned them a bit ago. My decision was not their fault – don't let them be punished for my action. Also, their mother is dead, and with this…well, if possible, I'd like to be able to set something up to take care of them for a few years – just until they can handle it themselves. Preferably something through people I can trust, not just the human government or another big group."
The Council whispered again, longer this time. At long last, the rounds of speech began again, each one trading off smoothly with the next.
"We will not make them suffer for you."
"You will have a grace period in Soul Society, as is customary. You may oversee any arrangements then through shinigami liaisons."
"We will order that any shinigami assigned to Karakura town keep especial watch over your daughters."
Ichigo was so surprised by this sudden act of almost-kindness – the shinigami probably didn't need to make any sort of special arrangement like that; his dad hadn't even asked for it – that he missed the significance of a particular word in the last sentence.
"Watch over my daughters?" Isshin said suddenly, a little sternly. "I appreciate your offer of protection, but Ichigo can take care of any hollows himself. They won't need a guard; he'll be there for them."
The silence in the room made more sense than any words.
"Wait," Isshin said, still stern-serious. "No, you just said you wouldn't make them suffer – any of them."
"They will not suffer on your behalf, for your crime," said an elderly man, just as stern. "And your daughters have done nothing against us themselves. Your son is another matter."
"He was never part of you," Isshin insisted. "He never swore any oaths to break! The King's Law can't bind him."
"You are wrong."
"One part can."
Ichigo forced his feet to move, to carry him to the center of the floor again. Once he stood beside his father, he glared up into the shadowed heights of the room.
"What are you talking about?"
There was silence, then, like the intonation of a spell, the Council murmured almost as one:
"Hollows are the shinigami's mortal enemy," said the woman with the sing-song reciting voice. "No hollow may be suffered to live, except briefly as a means of study or training."
"No matter the circumstance, any hollow in the presence of a shinigami must be purified immediately."
"The King's Law is absolute on the matter of hollows."
"We must follow it."
"A Vaizard is as much hollow as shinigami."
"No matter what…"
"A hollowed soul must be cleansed and laid to rest, either by a shinigami's sword or by a shinigami's reiatsu."
"Even if the hollowed soul shares a body with an entire soul."
"The other Vaizard will share your fate as they are found. There can be no exceptions, else the Law itself stands to fail."
The entire room fell silent. Ichigo's scowl deepened.
"So, what? That's it? Dad gets married, and he has to die. I have a hollow in my soul, and I have to die. Never mind any sort of good that came of anything – the King's Law says it, so you follow? We saved your precious King! We stopped Aizen before the King's Realm and killed him for you, and this is the thanks we get?"
At least five voices shouted it at once.
"We have given you our thanks!"
"We have already bent much of the law simply by allowing you to hear judgment."
"The Law tells us to kill a hollow immediately…"
"…and leave its spiritual form to rot, however long it might take."
"We show you as much respect as we can find it in the Law to allow by giving you a shinigami's fate, a shinigami's death –"
"Rather than slaughtering you like a beast!"
"You complain of our thanks?" continued another voice, more wearily than most before him. "Boy, understand the means the giver must live with before you scorn his admittedly small gift. It may be the last coins or crumbs he can part with while avoiding starvation himself."
"The King speaks through his Law."
"We must obey."
"We are all sworn to obey."
"And that is all we can do."
"Do you understand?"
Ichigo shook his head furiously. No, he did not understand, and he never would. In his eyes, sometimes laws were wrong. He stood by what he told Byakuya: he would fight the law if it threatened a friend – Rukia – or, in this case, a family member – Isshin. As for himself…it simply didn't seem fair. In fact, it was feeling more and more like a dream to him, a nightmare. He wanted to wake up, but at the same time, he knew with utter certainty that what was happening to him was real. There could be no waking up from this.
"Kurosaki Isshin, Kurosaki Ichigo…"
"You were called here to hear your crimes-"
Ichigo laughed shortly, not bothering to mask the mocking sound. He was ignored.
"—and the punishment they called for."
"We have discussed your cases long before you entered."
"Our decision is final and, once stated, may not be changed except in the small details."
"Kurosaki Isshin, for the crime of desertion of the King's Guard…"
"Kurosaki Ichigo, for the purification of your hollowed soul…"
"You will be executed together, twenty-one days from now, on the Soukyoku hill."
"Since that blade was broken this year past and cannot now be used…"
"The means shall be powerful kido, chosen by the shinigami and kido corps specifically for quick, painless death."
They were silent for a moment, allowing it to sink in. It still didn't feel real to Ichigo.
"The guards will escort you now to new holding cells, where you will remain for the first fourteen days of the grace period."
"We apologize for the shortening of said period, but we cannot, in good conscience with the Law, allow certain parties time to possibly engineer your escape."
"For that reason, your allies in the human world have been cut off from passing into the Soul Society for the time being…"
"And your closest allies in the Soul Society will be put under probationary house arrest for the duration. You may not see them; they may not visit you."
"If you so wish, you may write farewell letters to be delivered after your deaths."
"That is all."
"You may go now."
Without any visible or auditory command, the door behind Ichigo opened and ten of the identically-clothed guards entered. Five of them arrayed themselves around Isshin, who turned around silently and walked out between them as heavily as though the entire world had just been dropped onto his back. The other five guards moved to surround Ichigo. He looked up and met the eyes of one, recognizing their leader and spokesman on a hunch. The man raised his eyebrows in question. Ichigo glanced around at the tall staffs, the kido-enchanted cords wrapped around them, and shook his head mutely.
Though he was still walking through a nightmare, Ichigo left the Chamber with control over his own footsteps, at least.
Chad knew something was off when he woke up that morning. He felt oddly drained and tired, despite his deep sleep the previous night, and there was a sore spot on his left forearm which showed no signs of a bruise, wound, or bug bite, though it felt as though it might have been sporting all three at once.
It was, at first, easy enough to dismiss: perhaps he had dreamed restlessly the night before, but forgotten the dreams by the time he awoke. That had happened before. Perhaps the ache just under his skin's surface was brought on by hitting his arm against something rather harder than he thought or could recall, and the bruise simply hadn't shown yet…that, he was pretty sure, had happened before as well.
But something else was wrong. Something big.
Chad didn't know reiatsu the way most of his friends did. He could feel things sometimes, but he often couldn't put a name to them. His sense of reiatsu usually manifested as slight annoyance, like the nagging feeling of having forgotten something. Chad knew better than to pressure his memory – or in this case, this sense of his – to give up its secrets. Instead of worrying over what he felt – or didn't feel, as it seemed more like an absence than a presence – he went on with his morning as normally as possible, trusting that the cause of this curious sensation would make itself known soon enough.
It did, in the form of his old, second-hand land line ringing. He picked up but wasn't even given the chance to say hello.
"Sado-kun – oh, good, you're awake, I was so worried since it's a Saturday morning and I don't know if you sleep in or not, and I've only just finished my rice-and-red-bean-cake breakfast myself…"
"Inoue," Chad greeted. Even if he didn't recognize her voice, the chatter would have been unmistakable. "Is something wrong?"
People rarely called Chad, after all. He was as quiet on the telephone as he was in person. He supposed the silence might be slightly unnerving when the other person couldn't even see him.
"I don't know, I'm probably being silly again, but…do you know where Kurosaki-kun is?"
Suddenly, the absence that Chad felt made too much sense. He wondered how he could have missed the vanishing of his best and closest friend, because now that he thought about it, that's what it was: a vanishing. It was not just the fading of distance. There was a black hole there, similar to the one Chad felt when Ichigo went to train with the vaizard.
He had a gut feeling that this had nothing to do with them. Weren't they supposed to be in the middle of moving again anyhow?
"Sado-kun? Are you still there?"
Chad made a quick decision. It might be nothing important, but then again, it might not. There was one person he could think of who would definitely know.
"I'll meet you at Urahara's. Bring Ishida."
Without waiting for an answer, he hung up. Inoue was probably used to his way of ending a conversation by now anyhow. Pausing at the door only long enough to stuff his feet into shoes large enough for children to use them as toy boats, Chad left his small apartment and loped to the Urahara shop.
Maybe it was nothing.
Something in his gut told him not to get his hopes up.
He arrived at Urahara's shop just before Ishida, and they waited in the dirt yard for Inoue. When she also finally arrived, panting after her run, the three of them turned and entered the dim shop together.
"Why, hello, everyone!" Urahara proclaimed cheerfully from his cross-legged position at the front of the store. He flapped his fan up and down in a short wave. "What brings you to my humble shop this fine day?"
"Um…Urahara-san," Inoue began, "have you seen Kurosaki-kun lately? Only it felt like he'd gone away last night, like to Soul Society, and now none of us can feel him at all. Did he use your gate?"
The smile on Urahara's face slid away like wet paint under driving rain. The fan flicked shut, then open again across the lower half of his face.
"So you've noticed, then?"
"Noticed what?" Ishida demanded.
"May I see your left arms? One of you or all, it doesn't matter."
They eyed Urahara in slight confusion. It was Chad who stepped forward at last, thrusting his left arm out for inspection. He rotated it automatically so the underside of his forearm faced the sandy-haired former shinigami; he had a feeling that the vague, minor sore spot he had noticed was what the man was after. Sure enough, Urahara went straight for that location, prodding it lightly with the tip of his fan. He sighed heavily.
"They thought of everything, didn't they?"
"What? What is it?" Ishida demanded again. He really was like Ichigo sometimes, Chad reflected oddly.
"Last night, several shinigami came to visit me. Actually, 'visit' isn't quite right; they rather broke in, entered my storage areas and stole – confiscated, they called it when I confronted them – the equipment I use to make temporary senkaimon into Soul Society. I didn't manage to get back what they took, but I did get some information. By the time I got enough of the story out of them, though, it was too late to stop anything. You three—"
Urahara swept his closed fan in a quick semi-circle, indicating the three of them at once.
"—were also visited last night, though I suppose your shinigami managed to be somewhat stealthier. They seem to have taken reiatsu samples, and I'm afraid that can only mean one thing: you're being locked out of the Soul Society."
"What?" Ishida half-shouted.
"Why?" Inoue cried.
"Ichigo," Chad stated. "It has something to do with Ichigo." What the connection was, he couldn't begin to guess, only that the connection was there. Why else would Urahara have explained all of this when all they wanted to know was where their friend had gone?
"Yes," Urahara said, the fan up again. "Kurosaki-san…and his father, Isshin. It seems that while I was dealing with my thieves and you were unaware, sleeping, the Kurosaki household also received a few shinigami guests…"
"They were kidnapped?" Inoue squealed. She began to wave her arms around frantically. "Oh my goodness, we have to do something before they're turned into frogs, or experimented on, or sent into outer space on a robot alien spaceship, or…or…"
"Inoue, calm down," Ishida said, reaching for her shoulder but never really touching it. "Think of what you're saying!"
"I am," she insisted, "it's so awful!"
"But unlikely." Ishida paused. "Most of it, anyway…"
"If it's the 'experimented' part you're worried about, don't be," Urahara said grimly. "Kurotsuchi won't be getting his hands on them – aside from the whole 'going to be executed' thing, death row prisoners are kept pretty safe from any outside harm."
There were several beats of silence. Chad could feel his heartbeat and his pulse keenly in every part of his body, though it felt oddly detached, like the body – and the heart – wasn't really his anymore.
"Executed?" Ishida croaked.
Urahara bowed his head. None of them could see his eyes.
"I demanded the shinigami tell me exactly what was happening. They sent notice just half an hour ago.
"In twenty-one days, Isshin and Ichigo will be killed."
The new holding cells were spacious…comparatively speaking, at least. They were composed mostly of a dark, smooth wood, only the back wall being made of stone, and the tall bars that made up the entire front wall and the divisions between the cells themselves made the entire area appear deceptively open. The fact that the cuffs had been removed – dissolved by some kido of a type Ichigo had never seen before – the moment the door had been shut behind him also helped.
Once he got over the temporary pleasure of his usual range of motion being returned, however, Ichigo found that there was very little to like about his situation. The dreamlike sensation was slowly fading, taking with it the vague, childish hope that he would wake up safe at home and find it was all just a pointless nightmare. Reality was setting in, and Ichigo found himself missing the numbness that had carried him from the sentencing through countless underground tunnels to the second division cells.
He was also rather missing the silence that had come with it. Tucking himself just a little further into the corner he had claimed half an hour ago, he pressed his hands against his ears and grimaced slightly.
One cell over, perhaps fifteen feet away from him - not nearly far away enough - Isshin stood leaning against the bars at the front of his own space, giving loud instruction to the confused-looking shinigami facing him. The poor fourth squad underling was scribbling frantically in a hand-held notepad, having long since given up any hope of committing all of Isshin's words to memory.
"…and remember to check first with the Arisawas, then ask my colleagues in the medical business, and only approach Urahara Kisuke if nobody else takes them in. But why wouldn't they? Nobody could resist my little angels!"
The shinigami nodded frantically, probably trying to be polite, and flexed his writing hand behind his notebook. He could afford to take the break; Isshin had already given this particular instruction - three times now, by Ichigo's count.
"Make sure they know that their bedtime is at nine o'clock, nine-thirty at the latest on weekends and during school holidays! Karin should bathe every night she has soccer practice, though sometimes she's too tired to remember, so they'll have to keep it in mind for her. Oh! And to keep their underpants straight, they always got different colors. Yuzu likes yellows, pinks, and polka-dot patterns. Karin gets blue and red, mostly, and Ichigo always got—"
"SHUT UP!" Ichigo roared, feeling his face flame red. "IDIOT! YOU DON'T TALK ABOUT THAT STUFF!"
He caught a glimpse of the shinigami's face – his eyes were screaming pity for Ichigo even underneath the film of terror that had settled over them a scant five minutes into the instruction-giving – before burying his own back in the space between his up-drawn knees.
"I'm seeing to your sisters' future!" Isshin shouted back. "It's my responsibility as a father to make sure these sorts of things are dealt with ahead of time so that my little darlings don't have to worry about them themselves! And if you hadn't gotten into trouble as well, you wouldn't be here listening to this, would you?"
If he hadn't gotten into trouble as well, Ichigo thought bitterly, embarrassing details and childhood stories about him would have ended up floating around the Seireitei, thanks to his idiot father. If there was one good thing – one single spot of light – in this whole problem, it was that Ichigo was at least present to shout Isshin down whenever he started saying too much about something. He wished they were in the same cell at least, though; the urge to kick his father to the floor had been building steadily throughout the last half hour.
"Right!" Isshin half-shouted, clapping his hands and turning his attention back to the shinigami outside his cell. "Quiz time: for finances, I need…?"
The dark-haired young man flipped frantically through pages of notes.
"…um, transfer paperwork from bank, contact Urahara Kisuke but make sure the name it's put under is Shihoin Yoruichi."
"Something about a last will…?"
"Oh, yeah, I'll need that as well, make a few updates – I've not changed it in years."
The shinigami made a note.
"Um…Arisawas first, medical second, Urahara last, and…sir, I have nineteen pages of caretaking notes. Do I have to read out all of them?"
Isshin sighed dramatically.
"No, I suppose not, then…but you realize I'm trusting you! If one thing is wrong or out of place…!"
"I'm sure I have everything," the shinigami squeaked, flipping through the aforementioned pages and scanning them quickly, as though any errors were bound to be outlined in red and begging for his attention.
"All right, fine…and my son?"
The shinigami looked blankly at Isshin before raising a hand to point at Ichigo, still huddled in his corner as though wishing that the walls or ground could open up and swallow him.
"…over there, sir."
Isshin managed to look comically confused.
"That's right, I forgot. You're not usually this quiet, my delinquent hollow son."
Ichigo didn't bother raising his head. His answer was somewhat muffled, though no less biting.
"You should show more love for your father in his last days of life," Isshin chided Ichigo cheerfully.
"Um, sir? A-am I done now? Only I'm supposed to be cleaning…"
"They're my last days, too, goat-chin!"
"True," Isshin acknowledged, just before twisting his face into one of exaggerated horror and sorrow. "THAT MEANS YOU'LL NEVER GIVE ME ANY GRANDBABIES!"
Ichigo gripped his head hard and bit back a scream.
"I might've been able to bear it if I knew you would survive and find a nice girl and fulfill all my fatherly dreams even though I was beyond the grave, but now!" Isshin wailed loudly, "Oh, Masaki! Our son has failed us!"
"S-sir? Are you…can I…?"
"Perhaps if I begged and pleaded, they'd allow you to visit Rukia-chan a few times…"
"What the hell?" Ichigo jumped up, turning red and nearly screeching with indignant rage. "What's the midget got to do with any of this?"
"Did I have it wrong?"
"Have what wrong? There's nothing to get wrong! Stop suggesting things like that; it's not right!"
"It's a natural part of life, my son! One which you have not yet realized…unless you've been a lot sneakier than I ever—"
"SHUT UP!" Ichigo shouted furiously, crossing his cell at speed and only stopping when the bars separating him from Isshin wouldn't allow him to go any further. These he struck as hard as he possibly could, but he succeeded only in sending shots of pain through his fists, not in demolishing the hardwood the way he could have with all of his reiatsu available. "YOU PERVERTED OLD GOAT, SHUT UP!"
The shinigami squeaked, his brown eyes wide and his entire frame just shy of shaking. He clutched the notebook and pen against his chest as though they were protective charms and stepped back quickly. Whether it was the sound or the motion, he finally caught Isshin's attention, even over Ichigo's continued raging.
"Ah, go on, get out of here," Isshin shouted, waving one hand at the poor fourth-squad shinigami. The fellow was out of the detention chamber almost before Isshin had finished speaking. "Oh, and Ichigo? By calling me that, you're making references about my parents that also slight you in the end, being my son and all…"
Ichigo roared in frustration, turning away from the bars to pace his cell instead, still seething.
"I give up!" he shouted, half to himself it seemed. "We're in this mess, but you can't stop being an idiot for longer than three seconds! How the hell can you be so cheerful?"
"Cheerful?" Isshin's grin gained a wry twist. He approached the bars separating them and leaned against them in a serious manner. "Who said anything about my being cheerful?"
Ichigo stopped and stared at him. Isshin's grin returned to its full manic force within a second.
"I'm positively giddy—GAH!"
Isshin fell back to the floor, clutching his nose. Ichigo stuck his fist between the bars and shook it at his father.
"There's no reason to be giddy! Our days are literally numbered!"
"You have a strange philosophy of life, my son – I find that's precisely the right reason to be joyful!"
"What? And you're calling me strange? You're insane!"
"And you're uptight. That visit with Rukia-chan may be more necessary than I thought…"
Ichigo howled in rage, and Isshin made a quick mental comparison between the bright-eyed, animated, and admittedly livid youth before him now and the lost-looking boy with the numb, deadened brown eyes who had been locked into that cell not quite an hour previous. For all that the current Ichigo was alternating between cursing and insulting him, Isshin found that he liked this one a lot better.
The sad, wry twist to his grin returned briefly, unobserved by his furious son. Ichigo could have his dignity when dignity was important, but at any other time, Isshin wanted his son to be as alive as possible…even if 'alive' simply meant 'hopping mad.'
It was better than seeing Ichigo die on the inside long before they ever faced their execution itself.
Knowing something intellectually and experiencing it yourself were two very different things. Ishida knew this well – the first time this gulf in understanding struck him in all its intensity was the first time his grandfather taught him to shoot a bow. They had started with an ordinary bow and arrow set, child-sized and thoroughly free of any reiatsu. Souken had explained many times the technique of drawing an arrow back and releasing it, how to flex the arms and the way to place your feet. He had told young Uryuu why all of it was important and how it fit together, and so the boy had thought he understood what archery was before he ever picked up the smooth, curved wood and set an arrow to the string.
He had been wrong. The moment he felt the weight of the string in his fingers and the spring of the bow in his hand, he knew he had been wrong. He hadn't understood a thing – the gap between mental knowledge and reality was too wide to truly bridge, after all.
It was the same now. Sitting in Urahara's back room before that round table of his, Inoue to his right and the imposing Chad at his left, facing the man who had sent them all on that first impossible task not quite one year ago…he had considered such a thing happening before. The Shinigami were fickle, in his belief, and focused heavily on their laws and balances and values…virtues all, but at times he hated them for it. Kurosaki Ichigo, and his father Isshin, struck Ishida as a bit of a wild spot, especially looking at it from the Shinigami's perspective. Even before the war ended, it had occurred to Ishida that if the Shinigami didn't try to pull them fully under their rule, they might have the two men killed…allowing two such powerful beings to operate freely was dangerous, even if they were loyal at the moment. His imagination had ranged from quiet assassination to full-scale ceremonial execution…anything was possible in Ishida's admittedly bitter view of the Shinigami, including himself and the other humans involved being destroyed as well. He was rather surprised that they hadn't been dragged into the situation themselves, in truth.
He had wondered about the likelihood of Ichigo's death being ordered by the Seireitei, imagined what he might be able to do about it, if anything, and pondered what he might feel if it happened – again, if anything. Nothing he could have imagined quite matched up with the reality. Once again, he had been wrong. If only he hadn't been so right, either.
"All of my equipment," Urahara was saying, the tea before him as untouched as the tea before every other person seated around the table, "for opening a senkaimon…taken. It would take me at least a week to recreate it, and even when I did manage that, who could go? You three are some of Ichigo's most powerful friends, but you're locked out."
"Is there a way around the lock?" Ishida tried, shaking off his morbid thoughts in favor of action. "The barrier just keeps us out of the senkaimon, doesn't it?"
"It keeps us out of Soul Society in entirety," Urahara corrected. "Though you wouldn't be able to even enter the gate because it is a Soul Society-linked passageway…in other words, the gateway itself could be said to be part of Soul Society."
"You were thinking of the garganta," Chad said heavily to Ishida, no question in his tone. Ishida nodded. He wasn't sure whether Chad saw it or not; the giant had his head bowed and his hair, as it often did, shadowed his eyes.
"The garganta would be a two-part trip: one to lead you into hueco mundo, and another to enter Soul Society…unfortunately, I need special equipment to open the thing, equipment which can't really go through a garganta when it's busy creating one, and I imagine it would take quite a lot of raw power to force such a portal open in the Seireitei itself. It's not particularly viable, and again, who would we send?"
"Tatsuki-chan is strong," Inoue said quietly. Her eyes were red; she had been crying quietly for quite a while now and was still struggling to keep herself under control. Ishida wished he could do something, but didn't know what.
"But human," Ishida pointed out. "Remember how hard it was for us when we went for Kuchiki-san? We had powers. Arisawa has ordinary human martial arts and enough reiatsu to see hollows and shinigami…that is all."
"What about the vaizard, then?"
Ishida and Urahara started to consider. Surprisingly, it was Chad who shook his head and spoke.
"We would have to find them. Two days ago…Ichigo said they were moving again. He didn't say if they said to where."
"We have a week to search them out, though," Ishida pointed out. "If we can, that is…"
"Soul Society has tried, and failed, for a century," Urahara said, his fan flicking open and shut rhythmically. "We can only hope that they somehow find out what is happening and seek us out instead."
"I found them once," Inoue pointed out. "I followed Kurosaki-kun's reiatsu to do it, but I still managed."
"It's worth a try," Ishida said.
Chad lifted his head at last.
"I haven't seen her in days," Urahara replied dismissively, "and there's a very good chance that the shinigami remembered her role in our last rescue mission and have already locked her out."
"So little faith in me, Kisuke. I'm disappointed."
Ishida looked up quickly, following Chad's line of sight to see a black feline lounging on the windowsill just above Urahara's head.
Urahara immediately brightened, craning his neck back to see his friend…and receiving a face-full of black paws as Yoruichi jumped down, using him as a springboard to reach the tabletop.
"Aaaaaaaah, Yoruichi, that hurt!"
"You should have realized I'm sneakier than that, Kisuke," Yoruichi scolded in her deep cat voice, ignoring the man's whining. "The reiatsu signature of a cat is often stronger than that of an ordinary human, and it's difficult to tell two felines apart by their reiatsu alone. Last night, the shinigami took a sample from a black cat walking the streets. That particular cat couldn't enter Soul Society now if she even knew what it was, but I am still free and clear."
"Then you can go!" Inoue abruptly threw herself forward across the table, leaning on both hands and staring Yoruichi directly in the eyes. "Please, Yoruichi-san, please say you'll go!"
"No need to ask," Yoruichi reassured Inoue. "After all, Isshin is my friend, and Ichigo, for a time, was my student. It would be negligent of me to simply leave them when there's a chance I could do something. But first, we have some other things to take care of."
"Like replacing my senkaimon equipment," Urahara said.
"Yes, there is that, but you're all forgetting something…or someone. Two someones, now that I think about it."
Ishida frowned, puzzled. There was Arisawa Tatsuki, who surely deserved to know, but he couldn't think of a second person or what they could have to do with this. His pondering was short-lived, however, for an instant later, Chad straightened again from his slouch and spoke with understanding coloring his voice – the most emotion they had heard from him since Urahara explained what was happening to their friend.
Inoue's eyes widened and Ishida himself was somewhat taken aback. He knew from a brief mention of them months ago that Kurosaki Ichigo had two younger sisters, but little else; it was no wonder they had not occurred to him when Yoruichi mentioned people they had forgotten.
"They'll be all alone!" Inoue cried. "With Kurosaki-san…and Kurosaki-kun…and their mother already…"
The auburn-haired girl jumped up abruptly, bowing quickly to Urahara and Yoruichi.
"Thank you both, but I'm going to go find them and take them to my apartment. They shouldn't be on their own."
Within moments, she was gone. Urahara tapped his closed fan against his nose a few times before unfurling it with a quick twitch of his wrist.
"Well, that leaves you two young gentlemen to help me hunt down senkaimon-building equipment, doesn't it? Shall we get started?"
Ishida looked over at Chad, who was already standing up. The giant had no sleeves to roll up, but Ishida got the impression nonetheless of someone who was preparing himself for long, hard, willing work. The young Quincy sighed and also stood.
"I swore not to work alongside Shinigami," he said coldly. As Urahara gazed up at him from under hat brim and over fan edge and Chad turned his head questioningly in his direction, he started working his sleeves up to his elbows. "I suppose I'm more working against them this way, though…the majority, at any rate. What do you need us to do?"
A/N: I just thought I might explain here and now what I'm doing here. Yes, I know that the "Soul Society tries to execute Ichigo for being a Vaizard" theme has been played upon more times in this fandom than can be easily counted. I'm hardly original in that. But the point of this story is not just a drama-fic in which everybody hates Ichigo and tries to kill him, nor is it even something meant to emphasise his power by pointing out how much it is feared. What I want to do here is a little less simple...
One of my favorite relationships in Bleach is the father-son one between Isshin and Ichigo. I think it's fairly obvious that Isshin cares about his son, and that for all Ichigo curses his father during wake-up calls and surprise attacks, if he ever lost Isshin he would find it very hard to recover. I don't want to make this an angst-fest without purpose, of course, but I do want to try exploring this relationship a bit in less-than-fair weather circumstances.
Another reason why I'm doing this might be seen above, if I succeeded in portraying the Central 46 the way I wanted to. I don't want to show them as a bunch of overgrown bullies trying to keep every little bit of wayward power under their thumb, as is extremely common in this sort of fic. Instead, I wanted to show them as loyal to the King's Laws almost to a fault...almost. Remember that promises are taken seriously in Bleach - and in a good bit of Japanese culture itself, if I'm assuming correctly - and in this story at least, they've all taken oaths to uphold the Law in its every aspect. I don't expect you to forgive them for acting against our 'good guys,' but I'd love it if I managed to make it understandable.
One last note: expect this to be short. I've got two other monster-sized fics running right now, and this doesn't need to become one as well. I have everything in this planned out and I hope to have it done in about ten chapters...I hope it fervently. Even if it isn't, however, this will never become a novel-length project. Time will pass quickly in this story. It may even seem somewhat rushed (I hope not, but I realize it's entirely likely). Updates, however, may be slow...mostly because of those two monster-size projects. This is just a heads-up.
Well, I hope you enjoyed this chapter and that you enjoy the next one, once I write it up and get it out. Thank you, and bye!
#2: Everything from the bit in the second division holding cells down to the bottom is newly-added as of 7/11/10. Originally, it was going to be in chapter two. Then I realized that these sections, in terms of chronology, really were more continuations of the first chapter than the start of a new one. Plus, there is something of a time-skip in my plotline just after these sections of writing, a time-skip which would have been very out of place in the middle of a chapter but would work quite well at the beginning of a new one. I do hope that this update was found by everybody who has already read the original chapter one. I'm sorry about any confusion!