Illusion - Chap. 1

by Sariniste

A/N: What has Aizen been hinting at to Ichigo all this time? Could there be some truth hidden behind his lies? Or is it all another trick meant to deceive Ichigo into giving up his advantage? An alternative ending to the battle between Ichigo and Aizen in chapter 420 of the manga.

This is primarily an adventure story, with a slow-building relationship developed over the course of the story. The rating will stay at T throughout. It does contain a romantic relationship between two men, including the occasional kiss, but nothing explicit.

Disclaimer: I do not own Bleach.

Ichigo gasped for breath as the roar of the final Getsuga Tenshou died away. Suddenly all was quiet. In front of him was a vast, billowing cloud of dust where the monster that once was Aizen Sousuke had been. Had he defeated him?

Ichigo felt for his reiatsu. There was nothing. It was as if all his powers had been snuffed out in an instant, as Isshin had warned him. That was the price of the final Getsuga Tenshou – the complete loss of shinigami powers – but a fair trade, in Ichigo's opinion, to enable him to defeat the evil monster that had threatened to destroy his home town and kill all its citizens, to tear down Soul Society and establish himself as a god and ruler over the world. Still, had the attack worked? Had it been worth the price? There was only silence before him, as the dust slowly started to settle to the earth.

Ichigo blinked. There, on the ground in front of him, lay a man. Hesitantly, Ichigo stepped forward. The man lay with eyes closed, his face battered and scratched. His once-white robes were torn and dirty. His short brown hair fell in a tangled mass over his still-handsome face.

Ichigo sucked in his breath. Aizen had returned to his human form, no longer the huge, threatening monster with hollow tentacles that had screamed at Ichigo only minutes before. But was he dead? Ichigo bent cautiously to examine the still figure, only to jump back in alarm as the man's eyes opened.

He could still use his sword. He swung it to point at the man, who only sighed in response.

"Ichigo, you have nothing to fear from me now," Aizen said quietly, then coughed. Blood dribbled from his lips.

"I don't trust you for an instant, you bastard," shouted Ichigo. "How come you're still alive?"

The man's bleeding lips drew back in a slight smile. "You… have defeated me, Ichigo. The Hougyoku is destroyed. It's all over."

Ichigo hesitated, wondering if Aizen was still tricking him somehow, if perhaps he had released his shikai without Ichigo's knowledge, and this was all an illusion.

"It is no illusion, Ichigo," murmured Aizen, as if in response to his thoughts. "I am truly lying here before you, dying, my powers gone."

"Then why are you so calm about it?" cried Ichigo. "You had completely lost it a few minutes ago, screaming at me. I can't believe you would take this so calmly without some trick up your sleeve."

"I am pleased with this outcome, seeing you here before me." Aizen smiled again. "You see, this… all went according to plan."

"What are you talking about, you crazy liar? Don't expect me to believe you planned your own defeat! That's too outlandish even for you." Ichigo shook his head in disgust.

"So hot-headed, as always," the injured man replied softly. "You simply aren't in possession of the facts, Ichigo. Listen, and I'll tell you the truth, in my last few minutes in this world."

"All right, but I'm keeping my sword ready," said Ichigo with a renewed scowl. He took up a ready stance a few feet from Aizen. "I'm listening."

"First, is it so hard to believe that I have been sustaining an illusion for the past few months – I, who successfully deceived all of Soul Society for 110 years?" The man's voice held shreds of pride. "You see, this was all planned… for your benefit, Ichigo. All the events, and battles you have faced, were carefully orchestrated for one purpose - in order to increase your strength. To bring you to the point where you are now."

Ichigo shook his head in disbelief. "This is insane. You claimed this before, and I didn't believe you then. I don't believe you now. I don't even have my powers anymore!"

"Ah, but they will return very soon. And they will be the strongest the royal family has ever seen." Aizen's deep brown eyes traveled up and down Ichigo's body with satisfaction. "I am very proud of you, Ichigo. You are everything I hoped you'd be. You will truly be a credit to your bloodline."

"What are you talking about?"

"Haven't you figured it out yet? You, Kurosaki Ichigo, are the heir to the throne. Your mother, Masaki, was a royal princess of the spirit dimension."

"What?" Ichigo gaped.

"The throne has been vacant for many years, while a horrific battle rages in the spirit dimension. Hasn't it surprised you that there has been so little contact with that dimension for so many decades? Masaki's father was assassinated over a century ago, and the princess had to flee for her life. She hid in the human world with the help of a few loyal members of the royal guard." His face twisted in disgust. "While a usurper clings to the spirit throne and issues dictatorial and arbitrary commands via the Central 46." His expression cleared and was replaced by a slight smirk. "Or, I should say, the former Central 46."

Ichigo could do nothing other than stare in angry disbelief. "I don't believe a word of what you're saying, Aizen! You've made up this entire story to justify your crimes. Though I don't know why you're telling me all this."

The other man sighed. "Then ask Isshin, when you get a chance. He was the other member of the royal guard charged with protecting Masaki."

"The other-?" asked Ichigo after a pause.

"Yes. I too was a member of the royal guard, exiled to the shinigami realm on the previous king's death, and left to carry out the plan I devised to protect the royal line from extinction. Masaki, although she carried royal blood, did not possess the strength necessary to retake the throne. We knew that any hope of restoring a rightful ruler to the throne would rely on her offspring."

Ichigo shook his head. "But why, if I was the heir, why didn't you and Isshin tell me?"

"Because it is the nature of shinigami or hollow powers that they only increase under life-threatening situations. That was the problem with both Masaki and her father. They had been raised in comfort, and had never had to fight for their lives – until it was too late. Isshin and I knew that we had to raise the next heir to the throne to be a fighter from the moment of his birth. We had to set up a situation where you were constantly at risk, so that your power would be nurtured to its maximum. Otherwise – you would not have a chance against the usurper, who is a powerful shinigami/hollow hybrid." Aizen began to cough again, turning his head to one side to let the blood run from his lips and nose.

Ichigo watched him in silence, his mind whirling. Could Aizen possibly be telling the truth?

"You see," Aizen continued after catching his breath, "now you understand Isshin's behavior towards you all these years. And why he set up the neighborhood bullies to jump you at every opportunity."

Ichigo glared at Aizen. "You're telling me that was all staged – all of it – my whole life in Karakura Town?" he exclaimed.

Aizen nodded and continued, "And why, when Rukia came to Karakura Town, her arrival precipitated the series of events of which you are aware. You see, the usurper had many agents in Soul Society. We were never sure exactly who they were, so we had to carry out our plans in secrecy. I played the part of a villain, using threats to your friends and innocents to inspire you to greater heights." He smirked at Ichigo. "I fooled everyone, didn't I? I've always been an excellent actor," he said, an expression of deep satisfaction overlaying the lines of pain on his face.

Ichigo scowled more fervently. "But what about my mother? Did you plan for Masaki to be murdered in front of my eyes?"

Aizen's face fell. "Ah. No. That was a failure on our part," he said softly. "The usurper somehow obtained intelligence on her location, and sent hollows to kill her. I'm sorry she died, and sorry that you had to witness it directly."

"Wait a minute," said Ichigo. "You set up all these plans, killed so many people… are you trying to say this was somehow a good thing, that it was all for my benefit?"

Aizen narrowed his eyes. "I have never told you I was good. I acted in the way I did for your benefit and the benefit of the royal family, not according to any system of ethics or morals. This is a war, and people must die in war. I am a warrior, and my job is to kill the enemy." He watched Ichigo's expression. "Nevertheless, didn't it seem strange to you that I did not kill any shinigami during our battle, that somehow Momo and Rukia survived my apparent attacks? Indeed, the only lives I took were those of hollows or Arrancar." He smiled again. "I threatened many lives – one hundred thousand to make the King's Key, I believe was the number – but I actually took very few. Of course the Central 46 were in the pay of the usurper. They had themselves committed many atrocities in his name. Destroying them was merely justice," he said coldly.

Ichigo frowned. "But what about the Hougyoku –" he began. Then he saw that the man in front of him had closed his eyes.

"Ask Isshin…" Aizen whispered. "He'll tell you the rest… Remember, you still need to defeat the usurper, now, and take your rightful place on the throne…" His voice trailed off and his head fell to one side.

Ichigo rubbed a hand over his face, feeling exhausted and drained. He still wasn't sure if this wasn't one of Aizen's elaborate lies, perhaps a final one of his many backup plans, a desperate attempt to avoid death at Ichigo's sword at the end of the battle. He looked at the unconscious man on the ground in front of him, and sighed. He would have to find a way back to the others, find Isshin and confirm the truth of Aizen's words, find Orihime or another healer, somehow decide what to do next. The royal heir? Whatever did that mean? And here he had thought that the battle would be over one way or another by the end of this day. Now everything was complicated again.

He looked back at the man he had thought was his enemy. What was the truth behind the illusion? Despite having never seen Aizen's shikai, he realized that the man's persuasive voice still had an almost-hypnotic hold on his soul. He grinned suddenly.

"Whatever. It was a hell of a magnificent story, Aizen. I'll let you live just for that." He bent down, lifted the man up onto his back, then turned and began the long walk back to Karakura Town.