A/N (story): For those of you who missed it, I'm doing a Q&A for the Duty and Honor Series! This encompasses RDBH, BoH, the Director's Cut, and all tie-in pieces. If you've ever had a question or a point you wanted clarified in any of those stories, check it out! If you don't find the answer you're looking for, review or PM, and I'll add it to the Q&A! And don't be afraid of bothering me with the questions; I'm having more fun than is probably advisable with the Q&A, and it helps keep my mind on Bleach and the Duty and Honor series!
A/N 2 (personal): After four months of unemployment, having lost my job to staff cuts in January, I finally found a new position at the beginning of May! The next chapters might still be a little slow in coming simply due to the necessary hours, but hopefully Bonds of Honor will find a semi-regular schedule again for the remainder of the story. Positive reviews help to speed along the process, ;-).
WARNINGS - PLEASE HEED: NUMEROUS character deaths/implied character deaths, disturbing imagery, mind games, violence, blood, and implications of suicide/suicidal intentions. This is NOT a nice chapter. This is the Bleach a la Schrodinger's Cat chapter. Aizen is back and worse than ever, and Masa's vengence is unfolding. People die, appear to die, or sustain injuries that mean they will die. And yes, it's written that way for a reason, but it's still horrible. (Several of the scenes in this chapter are actually why I had to leave this story for so long - I couldn't face writing them.) You have been more than adequately warned. Thank you and enjoy!
BONDS OF HONOR
CHAPTER 31: Hope Falls
"So, Kurosaki Ichigo," said Aizen, flicking a few drops of blood off the katana in his right hand, even as he leveled a pistol at Ichigo's head with his left, "we meet again."
Slowly, his body and mind numb with shock, Ichigo lowered Grimmjow's body to the cement beneath them. The former Espada's face hadn't lost the expression of fury in death, and Ichigo carefully closed the unseeing blue eyes, smearing bloody fingerprints across Grimmjow's eyelids.
Only when his one-time enemy lay in that mockery of peace did Ichigo rise, turning as he did so to face the first and only man he had ever intentionally killed.
"Aizen," he said simply, taking in the dark straight-leg jeans, the dark purple tee-shirt, and the neat black jacket. If you ignored the gun and sword, the would-be god looked like any young man that he might have passed on the street today and never spared a second glance. He had no reiatsu that Ichigo could feel, not even the cold emptiness of a Hollow's taint.
Within his soul, Ichigo could feel Zangetsu and his Hollow both, their anger thrumming through him. Zangetsu did not hate easily, but Aizen had taken Ichigo from him, however briefly, and that was enough to incite the sword-spirit's loathing. Shirosaki bared his teeth, an animal challenge against an interloper, a threat.
Ignoring them both for a moment, Ichigo forced the numb, horror-stricken panic down with the practice of decades, blanking his face and wrapping his reiatsu around himself, pulling it tight into his body until his energy would be invisible to anyone less skilled than Byakuya or Uryuu, and looked the would-be god dead in the eye. "You've diminished, Aizen."
The pleasantly blank smile slipped somewhat, a twist of raw fury flashing through the young man's eyes, his lips curling into a snarl for the briefest of moments. "I have diminished, Kurosaki? I? You are the one slipping into decline! You are aging, Kurosaki, on the downward side of humanity's slope, falling towards old age and oblivion!"
"And you called yourself a Shinigami," Ichigo scoffed, straightening a little more and folding his arms across his chest. The blood on his hands smeared against his shirt as he moved, tacky and thick. "You couldn't defeat me at your strongest, Aizen, and I've had twenty-five years to train since then. I haven't wasted them." Tipping his head up to emphasize the height he had over the other man, Ichigo forced a smirk onto his face. "What makes you think you're even worthy of standing in my presence now?"
For an instant, the rage on Aizen's face deepened, until Ichigo saw the dark shadows of the madness and the monster that he had fought so many years ago. But the clenching of the pale hands around the grips of his weapons grounded Aizen, far more than Ichigo would have thought, and the young man steadied again, his breath slowing as his face relaxed back into polite neutrality.
"Worthy?" Aizen echoed, a small, disbelieving laugh following the word. "Ichigo, I am the only one in the Three Worlds worthy to stand at all. I am the only one to have conquered every state of being; Human, Shinigami, Hollow - and Quincy."
Still smiling, Aizen gave the revolver in his hand a tiny flick, calling attention to the sleek silver weapon. "Lovely, isn't it? I admit it lacks the elegance of a katana, but it is much easier to carry. And so remarkably useful."
Tucking the katana into his belt to free his hand, Aizen unlocked the cylinder and carefully plucked one of the bullets free of the gun, holding it up for Ichigo's inspection. "I had to modify the design, of course, but the Quincy's gintou proved an excellent base for the cartridges. They can contain more than enough energy to dematerialize a few Hollow."
Sliding the bullet back with a flick of his thumb, Aizen snapped the cylinder back into place and drew the hammer back, leveling the gun at Ichigo's chest. "You and your friends know the results of my early tests," Aizen continued, and Ichigo's fingers bit into the muscles of his arms as he remembered landing in a rain-soaked field to find a Hollow gone and Uryuu soaked and furious, the remnants of Quincy energy still in the air.
"I did expand my experimental parameters," Aizen added, smirking. "It also proves a remarkably effective weapon against those with Hollow-tainted reiatsu like yourself, Kurosaki."
Another stab of fear almost drove the breath from Ichigo's lungs. Suddenly, unnoticed moments from the past days snapped into brilliant focus in his mind; Shinji, hunched in a corner, staring blankly at the cellphone in his hand; Kensei, his own hand almost constantly resting against his pocket, fingers brushing either his phone or his Zanpakutou. Both of them waiting for calls - calls from the other Visoreds.
Their phones had never rung.
"Ah," Aizen smiled, as Ichigo's eyes widened in horror. "Yes. I understand the dematerialization process is extremely painful. It will be very interesting for me to witness your ultimate destruction, Kurosaki Ichigo. I've never used this weapon against an enemy with reiatsu levels as high as yours, but the correlation of power to pain has so far seemed quite clear. You will die in agony... human."
Keeping his arms folded tight across his chest, Ichigo bared his teeth in an expression even his Hollow wouldn't have called a smile. "I'm not as human as I used to think."
The blast of reiatsu he unleashed was enough to knock Aizen backwards a clear body-length to land hard on the unforgiving concrete, even as Ichigo doubled over in pain, the arms he had folded across his chest clutching tight as though it would help lessen the agony of his reiatsu channels burning. It was a dangerous trick to channel reiatsu through his human body, one that Urahara had taught him has a last resort. Blood roaring in his ears and hands shaking from the pain, he grabbed for the Soul Candy dispenser he was carrying. With Zangetsu in his grasp, he might just stand a chance -
He had the dispenser out of his pocket, but it was nowhere near his mouth when Aizen sat up again, one side of his face bloodied and raw from the impact with the concrete, raised the gun that he'd somehow kept in his hand, and fired.
There was a flash of white, and then all Ichigo knew was pain.
"Shit," Renji whispered, drawing Zabimaru and releasing the blade with a thought. "Fall back," he roared to his team, half of whom were still looking around in bewilderment, not understanding what the sickly-feeling reiatsu meant. "FALL BACK! Get back to Seireitei!" ... The words disappeared under the screams of his squad as the first Garganta opened, spilling a cloud of Hollows into the night.
The Hollows descended like a storm, so many Gillians that they formed a solid wave, a tsunami of darkness white-capped with bone masks, too numerous to count. In front of them, flying and falling like so many insects, miniscule before the enormous Menos but two, three, ten times the size of a man up close, the other Hollows descended, making their way towards the Seireitei.
One of his people was screaming, a panicked, terror-stricken sound that never seemed to end, and Renji didn't dare glance back to see who it was, see which one of his people would be gone from him by morning, either under Unohana's care with his mind broken or dead, from the battle or the fear or the shame. Instead, he ran a few steps forward, putting distance between himself and his team, raising Zabimaru in preparation to call his Bankai. If nothing else, he could give his team a chance to make it back to the city, fight with the walls at their back and allies at their side, where they might stand a chance. Because out here, open on all sides and alone, they were nothing more than casualties in waiting.
"Fall back," Renji repeated, not yelling the words this time, but pitching his voice to carry nonetheless. There was a dull crack from somewhere behind him and finally, mercifully, the screaming stopped. "Return to Seireitei and guard the city walls."
"Renji-taichou!" There was a scuffling behind him, and Renji blinked, turning enough to glance over his shoulder at the sound of the familiar voice.
Rikichi was pushing his way through the muddled ranks of Shinigami, Zanpakutou bared in his hand and green Medic's armband askew. His eyes were fierce, his expression harder than Renji had ever seen it. In all the worry over the outcome of the night, he'd forgotten the boy was even with his group. "You can't be serious, Taichou! We have to protect the Districts!"
A Hollow screamed, too close, and the sound shook some of the fear-frozen Shinigami out of their stupor. Soulsteel rang as blades were drawn and Shikai released, the air of the field electrifying with new energies.
Renji, for his part, snapped Zabimaru out, not quite looking, and the end of the blade smashed through the Hollow's mask as though it was nothing more than paper. The Hollow - an Adjuchas the size of a horse - dissolved into twisting motes of light that threw brief, wild shadows over Rikichi's determined face.
"We're the Thirteen Court Guard Squads, Rikichi. Our duty is to defend the Seireitei." The words were ugly, and cold, and heartless, and Renji hated the bitterness of them as they fell off his tongue, but it didn't stop their truth. "The people of Rukongai have to fend for themselves."
"How can you say that?" Rikichi snapped, jabbing his Zanpakutou towards Renji, his voice breaking in agitation. "You came from Rukongai!"
"I did, and the Shinigami sure as Hell never protected me!" Another scream, another Hollow, closer than it should have been, but before Renji could move his blade, two shuriken, each the size of his spread hand, shot around him, one to either side of his head, close enough that they nearly grazed his ears, and sliced through the mask of the newest Hollow, one after the other.
"Thanks, Yahi," Renji called, even as the blades shot back over his head, and glanced back to Rikichi again. "What's out here, Rikichi?"
The boy held his stare for a second more, fiercely defiant, before dropping his gaze away. "Hanatarou's family," came the answer, so quiet that Renji could barely hear it over the extension of Zabimaru's blade. "They're my family now too, Renji, I can't leave them undefended."
Sinking his teeth into his cheek, Renji cut down another three Hollow before he could answer, even as the team behind him all joined against opponents of their own. The screams of the other Hollows were getting louder now, the bulk of the enemy growing closer. Their time to fall back was escaping them.
Zabimaru snapped back into place, the jolt running up the length of Renji's arm, and he glanced back over his shoulder at Rikichi. "Going AWOL during a battle is a court-martial offense," Renji reminded the boy. It was only the blanket pardon issued following Aizen's betrayal that had saved Renji that fate, and such a thing would not be offered again. "And there's nobody to back you up or come to your rescue. You either save them alone, or die trying."
A Hollow, lion-like and with all the speed and silence of a big cat, burst from the trees ringing their clearing, but before Renji could bring his blade to bear, Rikichi's own Zanpakutou swung down, and the Hollow fell back, screaming, as it was suddenly wreathed in flames.
"I know," Rikichi answered, turning to look back at Renji over the dancing blue fire that covered the blade of his Zanpakutou. "Please, Renji-taichou, I need -"
The distorted sound of a charging Cero came almost too late for a warning, and Renji only just tumbled aside as the red light struck, calling out to Zabimaru even as he moved. When he came back up, Bankai roaring, there was no sign of Rikichi.
Setting his jaw, Renji thought the briefest of well-wishes after the boy and bellowed again for his team to fall back. There was no time left for prayers of hope.
The pain was almost unbearable. Even for Ichigo, the searing agony of Aizen's bullet was enough to leave him crumpled on the ground, all his senses blanked white with pain.
He wasn't sure how long it took him - seconds, minutes, eternities - to realize that the pained gasps he was hearing weren't his own. But close on the heels of that realization came the awareness of more sounds - the dull flesh-on-flesh thuds of people fighting hand-to-hand.
Somehow, Ichigo opened his eyes.
The first thing he saw was white - the same flash of silver-white he'd seen at the instant Aizen fired - fallen between him and the would-be god.
Ichimaru Gin was gasping for breath, a thin, pained sound, one hand over the wound that was pouring blood from his chest. He was on his knees, his other hand braced against the concrete, struggling to hold his body off the unforgiving ground.
Ichigo drew in a breath, half-frantic, fighting to ignore the pain, and pushed himself up with both hands. The movement sent a stab of agony through his right shoulder that hurt worse than any death he'd experienced, and he realized then that the bullet Aizen had been aiming at the center of his chest, at his reiatsu centers, had struck well off-target, just under his collarbone by his shoulder.
Aizen hadn't been planning on someone coming between Ichigo and his gun.
"Why?" Ichigo managed, even that single word an effort through the pain, as he stared down at the bullet hole in Gin's back. The shot had torn through the former Shinigami's body when he'd shoved Ichigo out of the way, in the right side of his back and out the left side of his chest, and if the blood in Gin's mouth when he raised his head was any indication, it had pierced a lung on the way.
Despite all that, Ichimaru was smiling.
"I tol' ya, 's personal," Gin answered, flashing crimson teeth when he grinned. " 'm not gonna let Sousuke win."
A derisive sound answered from somewhere beyond Ichigo's sight, and he forced himself up onto his knees to see beyond Gin.
Karin's motorcycle was dumped carelessly on the ground, wheels still spinning, not far from where Grimmjow's body lay, two helmets discarded beside it. In the space just beyond it, Aizen was fighting, katana still sheathed in his belt, struggling to raise the pistol against his opponent and failing every time as a fist or foot rose against him.
Wide-eyed, Ichigo watched in astonishment as Sado drove Aizen back.
He had never seen his son fight like this. He'd attended tournaments and training classes, witnessed his son's black-belt test, but he'd never, ever seen an expression like this in Sado's quiet, peaceful eyes. It was a burning expression, one that flared brighter with every landed blow, every pained sound Aizen made.
It was an expression of pure hatred.
The would-be god cursed, swinging the pistol butt-first in an attempt to strike at Sado's temple, but a spinning kick against his wrist finally sent the gun clattering to the concrete, vanishing into the shadows of the alleyway beyond Grimmjow's body.
Triumphant, Sado dropped to a ready position, weight balanced and hands raised, eyes locked with Aizen's as the former Shinigami backed away, his left hand hanging uselessly from a clearly broken wrist, defeated...
Ichigo blinked -
...and Sado was stumbling backwards, both hands rising to clutch at his throat as though he was choking, but even hands as large as Sado's couldn't stop the blood that was pouring out of him, out of the wound that opened his throat nearly from ear to ear -
Somehow, Ichigo found the breath to scream a denial, even as his son dropped to his knees, then the ground, blood already pooling around him.
"You should have stayed dead, child," Aizen said, tone bland and level, the katana held casually in his uninjured right hand. There was bright, fresh blood dripping from the tip of it, from where he'd used the blade to slit open Sado's throat.
Shirosaki was screaming inside of Ichigo, battering the walls of Ichigo's soul with curses and blows, but even reaching for him, Ichigo couldn't touch him, couldn't release his other half's fury against the man who deserved everything he could throw at him, couldn't even bring his physical body to move -
Turning his back on the bodies of Grimmjow and Sado, Aizen walked the few steps forward to reach Ichigo and Gin, staring contemptuously down at them.
"Gin. Another pointless act of rebellion," Aizen sighed, prodding the bloody point of the katana against the bullet wound in Gin's back, ignoring Gin's broken hiss of pain. "You never learn, do you? Every moment, every thought of defiance you entertain, only strengthens me in the end. Every time you seek to use my secrets against me only shields me further from their power."
The kick he delivered to Gin's side was merciless - even from feet away, Ichigo thought he heard the sound of ribs cracking as Gin rolled across the concrete, choking on the blood in his throat. Furious, Ichigo fought for enough breath to curse at Aizen, draw his attention away from Ichimaru, but it earned him nothing more than a disparaging glance.
"Hold your tongue, Kurosaki. Be silent and witness the end of your hopes," Aizen murmured, a hint of laughter riding on the words, as he turned back to Gin and lifted the katana again.
Zabimaru's roar echoed, both inside Renji's head and outside of it, as his Bankai surged, meeting the red blaze of a Hollow's Cero with the mirror of a Hikotsu Taihou. Ahead of Renji, his search team, minus only Rikichi, was still running, racing their own deaths to the walls of the Seireitei.
Renji had hoped that the moment the trees finally parted ahead of them and the city finally became visible in the distance would be one of relief.
The walls of the city were already lowered, a response to the oncoming threat, and the pale stone was already marked in a hundred places with gouges and scorch-marks. There were not many Hollows left around the city, but there was a fire blazing on Soukyoku Hill, and Renji had a moment of overwhelming panic before he felt the sheer, ungodly power behind that blaze - Ryuujinjakka. Yamamoto-Soutaichou was arming himself for this battle.
Clenching his teeth, Renji planted his feet and spun to face the forest, Zabimaru coiling and hissing in defiance. There wasn't much he could do alone, but if he could hold the Hollows off long enough for his team to make it to the city safely -
A handful of Shinigami - his own Shinigami, he realized, somewhat belatedly - were barreling out of the woods, faces grimly determined and their Zanpakutou bared in their hands. They each gave him a nod of acknowledgement as they shot past, heading as one for the city. Minori was a second behind them, Kurotora in full Shikai, a copper-and-black striped gauntlet that reached nearly to her shoulder, each of the fingers tipped with lethally sharp claws. The left side of her face was coated in blood, eye swollen half-shut, and her shihakusho was ripped down her left arm, her shoulder bruised and torn, but she still moved with her usual hard grace.
Even with only one eye open, Minori was perceptive as always. Glancing once between Renji and the woods, she shook her head and smacked his fur-wrapped shoulder roughly with the back of her armored hand. "Don't be an idiot, Taichou. Komamura's there. He'll keep them off."
Even as she spoke, Renji felt the ground beneath his feet tremble, and looked upwards to see the massive form of Kokujou Tengen Myo'o blocking out the cloud-covered sky. Nodding once, he aimed a last blast from his Bankai into the forest and the wall of Hollows approaching them before sealing his Zanpakutou again and Flashstepping for the city walls.
It wasn't hard to find Byakuya, once they grew closer to Seireitei; the noble was standing virtually atop the West Gate, Senbonzakura's Bankai a storm of light around him. Jidanbou, the Guardian of the Gate, was standing a short distance away from the walls, the armor plates over his shoulder cracked and his axes notched, but the Guardian himself was unbloodied and his expression one of fierce triumph.
Renji raised a hand to the enormous Guardian as he Flashstepped to the top of the wall, Senbonzakura's blades parting around him in welcome. Minori remained on the ground below, metal sparking against metal when she tightened her gauntleted hand.
"Byakuya," Renji called, drawing Zabimaru again as he stepped closer to his partner. Byakuya didn't look injured, but there was a paleness to him, a haunted expression in his eyes that worried Renji.
And then he heard Senbonzakura's murmurs, barely a whisper in the blade's distress, and glanced into the city. Although it was barely visible through the distance and the darkness, he saw the smoke rising.
The Kuchiki Compound was in flames.
Heart clenching, Renji spun back to face his partner, but the questions on his lips died with Jidanbou's roar of 'Look out!', and within a heartbeat they were fighting for their lives, the wave of Hollows upon them. Looking back along the path he had taken, he realized that he couldn't see Komamura's Bankai among the trees, and bit down on his tongue to contain his fear and despair, power surging into his Bankai as he fought to take down as many of the goddamned monsters as he could.
Amidst the chaos, it was hard to feel for individual reiatsu, but those of the other Captains stood out like beacons in a storm. Shuuhei and Kira were close enough to see, between the West and South Gates, and he could feel the lightning-crackle of Soifon, her Shunko in full flare, beyond them at the South Gate itself. Kyouraku and Ukitake defended the wall between South and East, already in the thick of battle - how many more Hollows had come from that way?
Even across the miles of the city, Renji could feel the heat of Yamamoto's power like a hearth-fire at his back; the Soutaichou had released his Zanpakutou in defense of the East Gate, and Zaraki's wildfire energy covering the walls between the East and North. Unohana was holding the North Gate, and Hitsugaya's sharp wintergreen power was riding the winds between North and West, close enough for reflections of light on the ice to catch Renji's eye.
From atop the wall, he could see the battle surrounding them; the Third and Ninth to his far left, halfway to the South Gate, fighting side-by-side as though they'd been doing so for centuries. With so much of the battle on the ground, it was easy to pick out Kira's blond hair atop the wall, and saw his friend swing Wabisuke and Gillians a quarter-mile away crumpled beneath the weight of his Bankai.
A roar of wind answered the scream of a charging Cero, and Renji glanced up in time to see Shuuhei, airborne on the power of his own Zanpakutou's second release, his hands gripping the hilts of the two black scythes, their blades transformed into twin tornadoes that were even now tearing through the Hollow's ranks.
But even with all this power set against their enemy, they were losing ground. Renji clenched his teeth, firing another Hikotsu Taihou into the swarm of descending Hollows, the crimson light slamming into a near-identical Cero and dispersing it, but he could hear Senbonzakura's cry of pain in the back of his mind as three more Cero slammed into the defensive wall of blades Byakuya's Bankai had constructed. A glance to his right showed Hitsugaya's Ryuusenka in full force, the towers of icy blossoms glittering in the light of the fires, but there was only one ice-flower left at Hitsugaya's back.
Far away to his left, there was a blaze of energy and light like a lightning strike, and Soifon's energy disappeared from his senses.
Renji bit down on his tongue to fight down the nausea he felt welling up from his stomach. He hadn't liked Soifon, but he respected her enough that he had never wished her harm.
Out of his sight at the North Gate, Unohana's energy faltered, and Renji felt another sickening lurch in his stomach. Unohana was one of the strongest and deadliest Captains of the Gotei. If she was struggling -
Zaraki's power flared in response, a blaze of energy so intense that it burned like sunlight, illuminating miles of shadow-choked ground.
In that blaze of light, the next wave of Hollows became visible.
There were so many of them that you couldn't even see the ground beneath their feet, an unbroken mass of dull-colored armor and white bone faces, the red gleam of their eyes uncountable pinpricks of light.
In the distance, Zaraki's energy slowed, then guttered like a candle in a draft, leaving the darkness to collapse back onto them with an oppressive weight.
The red blaze of Ceros tore through the darkness while Renji's eyes were fighting to adjust, a dozen of them at once, and he couldn't move fast enough to block them before they slammed into Senbonzakura's Gokei wall, blasting through the sphere of blades.
As the blades were blown aside, he saw Byakuya, nothing more than a brilliant silhouette within the blaze of red light. And when the light vanished, Byakuya was falling -
The scream that tore through Renji's throat was echoed within his soul; he could feel both the blade-spirits, their cries the sound of pure agony.
Byakuya seemed to fall forever, a ghostly flicker of white down the height of the wall. Minori was running to him before he'd even struck the ground, but a Hollow slipped from the shadows and she fell in a wave of blood -
There were tears in his eyes, Renji realized, as he called his reiatsu to the surface. If he put every last bit of energy he could draw up into a single strike, he'd take out half a legion of those Hollow bastards in one last blow before he followed Byakuya, and then nobody would say he hadn't put duty before love.
He thought the last time he'd cried might have been Byakuya's fault, too.
Dimly, he wondered for a moment if Nanao was still safe in the First Division, and if she could feel the reiatsu of the warriors on the field. He wondered if she'd felt her half-sister and half-brother fall.
Clenching both hands around the hilt of his Bankai, Renji took a second to offer the briefest of prayers that Minori would survive. Nanao didn't deserve to lose her entire family in one night.
A/N: "I am the only one to have conquered every state of being. Human, Shinigami, Hollow - and Quincy." Yes, I do know. No, I did not in fact modify my plot to highlight that - the Quincy gun was always the plan. Aizen, I am sure, will not appreciate the irony.