Illusion – Chap. 32
(Originally posted 10/29/12.)
Orihime shook her head, her large gray eyes sorrowful. "Kurosaki-kun, I'm so sorry, but I need to have at least part of the body to work on. Here there is nothing for me to reject the damage on."
Ichigo stared at her, his fists clenching and unclenching. "You're not saying there's nothing you can do!" he demanded.
Her lips tightened. "I'm sorry," she said very gently, "but that's exactly what I'm saying." Her eyes filled with tears. "I don't want him to be dead either, Kurosaki-kun."
Ichigo held her eyes with his, the scowl on his face deepening as he searched her face. She quailed under his glare. "I'm sorry," she repeated.
He bowed his head. "Sorry, Inoue." He sighed. "I'm just kind of on the ragged edge."
She smiled at him through her tears. "It's okay, Kurosaki-kun," she reassured him. "I understand."
But as he turned away, he shook his head. He didn't want to hurt her feelings, but no, she couldn't understand. What good was being the heir to the Spirit Throne if he couldn't have the one person who would make his life meaningful by his side? If he had the power of a god but not the one thing that really mattered to him?
Glancing over the corridor, now full of bustling shinigami and Royal Guards, he stopped at the place where he had once held Aizen in his arms, where Toshiro had dealt him that final, fatal blow. An irregular dark bloodstain marked the spot and he turned his eyes away. His eye was caught by a small, round object in the corner. With a sharp intake of breath, he bent to pick it up. To his utter shock, the object was familiar. He had seen the glowing blue jewel several times before. But this time, he was surprised that he could feel almost nothing of its once overwhelming power. Why had Toshiro released it? He reached out with his senses and felt a faint echo of Toshiro's reiatsu overlaid by Aizen's familiar, unique reiatsu signature—only vastly reduced in magnitude.
He hefted the jewel in his hand, puzzled. Looking around the corridor, he saw that nobody had noticed the object that so many had fought for so long over. Apparently its power signature was so low that it could no longer be detected. With a quick glance up and down the hall to make sure he was unobserved, he slipped the object into his pocket. Whatever was to happen with it, it should not be left where anybody could just pick it up.
Idly, he wondered what had happened to the other hougyokus inside him and his nakama. Probing himself internally, he realized that now that the connections to the AI had been shattered, that all of them had faded away even more than this one had. He wondered if the one that had been inside his own soul was now in the same state as this one. Sitting in a dark corner of the spirit palace gathering dust, merely an ordinary jewel once more, no longer imbued with the dense reiatsu of primal spirit matter. The thought made him shiver—that something so powerful was now gone just somehow didn't seem right.
Besides—his fingers clenched unconsciously over the small object—it was the last memento he had of Aizen. Suddenly, his head came up. This thing had been embedded in the man. Could Inoue perhaps use it to restore him? Even as he cursed himself for raising his own false hopes, his feet were already taking him to where Orihime had disappeared around the corner.
He skidded to a stop in front of the auburn-haired girl, who was already raising her healing shield over another wounded soldier.
"Inoue!" he cried, causing her head to turn in surprise toward him. "Inoue, what if…?" He hesitated as she finished her healing. He took a deep breath and then pulled the jewel out of his pocket, holding it out to her. "I know he poured a lot of himself into this thing." He cringed mentally at the look of pity in her eyes, but forged ahead. "Do you think… is there any chance that you could restore him from it?" He held out a dirty handkerchief streaked with rust colored stains. "I – I wiped up some of his blood, too," he muttered.
Orihime looked at him, and then took the hougyoku and the handkerchief in her hands. Turning the jewel around and around, she paused, and for a moment Ichigo thought she was going to ask him something. But then her eyes flicked to him and he heard her soft voice say, "Souten Kisshun! I reject!" and the light of her shield was glimmering over the two objects in her hands.
Ichigo held his breath, unable to dare to hope as his heart hammered in his chest. The shield glowed, increasing in brilliance as he felt Orihime focus her powers.
He waited, eyes glued to the objects in Orihime's hands, anticipating the now-familiar slow rebuilding of muscle, flash, and skin that he had seen so many times. He began to feel lightheaded, and realized that he was still holding his breath.
How long had he been waiting? Orihime's power was still flowing, but nothing was happening. The hougyoku stayed inert, and the bloody handkerchief was still a handkerchief.
Slowly, the shield faded, and Orihime bowed her head. "I'm so sorry, Kurosaki-kun," she whispered.
Ichigo let out a long, long breath. "It's – it's okay, Inoue," he mumbled. "Thank you for trying." He put his hand on her shoulder. "I really appreciate it."
He got to his feet slowly. Then he returned the objects to his pocket and walked away.
Byakuya was standing at one side of the Great Hall, issuing orders in a rapid fire but serene tone. Prisoners had been taken from cells and an informal tribunal had been set up. Ichigo had just checked with him to make sure that Urahara, Yoruichi, and Hitsugaya were still imprisoned.
As he said Hitsugaya's name, his fists clenched involuntarily. Byakuya's dark eyes flickered over his face, but he said nothing.
"I'm going to the prison level," he informed Byakuya in a brusque voice. The noble raised one eyebrow. "Don't try to talk me out of it," he growled through gritted teeth. Ichigo spun on his heel, refusing to meet Byakuya's eyes, and began walking briskly down one of the corridors.
Turning the corner to a stairway that led to the prison level, he came face to face with Gin. He scowled. He did not want to deal with the perpetually grinning former captain.
But Gin took one look at his face and his smile faded. Gently taking Ichigo's sleeve in his hand, he drew the teen off to one side. They faced each other in a small alcove off the main hall.
"What is it?" grunted Ichigo.
"Ne, Ichigo, don't take this so hard," the man murmured.
Ichigo glared at the slitted eyes of the other. "What would you know about it?" he said, belligerence edging his tone.
Gin tilted his head. "I was only by his side for over a hundred years," he reminded him. "Do ya think that was easy?"
Ichigo's breathing was harsh. He held himself back from making an angry comment. "At least you had him for a hundred years," he retorted, blinking angrily.
Gin looked straight at him and opened his eyes. Even through his own blurred vision, Ichigo was astonished at how blue they were. "Ichigo, he set this up."
"What?" asked the youth. "What are you talking about?"
Gin sighed. "Aizen-taichou has been settin' up Toshiro for this ever since the beginning. Didn't ya ever wonder why he kept provoking him into such irrational hatred? There was a reason behind that, as there was a reason behind everythin' he did. The boy is a genius, and even more powerful than Aizen was at his age. He knew Toshiro was probably the only one who could become strong enough to defeat him, even at half power."
"What?" Ichigo stared in incomprehension at Gin.
"Jus' think about it, Ichigo. Do ya really think anyone would have accepted you on the spirit throne with Aizen by your side? As an advisor, that's one thing, but as a consort?" The silver-haired shinigami shook his head slowly.
"You're saying Aizen planned his own death? That he wanted to die? That's ridiculous!" burst out Ichigo.
Gin shrugged. "Think about it," he urged again.
Ichigo stared. Then he flushed with anger and turned on Gin. "Did you know about this?" he demanded.
The inscrutable smile was back on Gin's face. "He never told me, if that's what ya mean." He straightened and began to walk away. "But I'd think on it more before I skewered Captain Hitsugaya."
Sousuke Aizen received a hero's funeral in the Spirit Palace, attended by thousands of shinigami, humans, hollows, dwellers of the Spirit Realm, and souls the likes of which Ichigo had never seen before. There were no incidents between races, although Grimmjow did manage to get drunk (Ichigo hadn't even known it was possible for Hollows to be affected by alcohol) and caused quite a disturbance before Ulquiorra knocked him out and had him placed in a holding cell to sober up.
Everyone listened respectfully while Ichigo delivered an hour-long eulogy to his one-time enemy turned mentor and lover, and whether it was out of genuine respect for Aizen and his accomplishments or merely an attempt to curry favor with the new King, Ichigo didn't care. He managed to get through it all without breaking down, and afterwards, as they buried an elaborate coffin in the beautiful royal cemetery, in a place of honor beside past royalty and nobility, Ichigo at last felt his heart ease, that the man he loved, despite his murky past, would in the end be remembered as a hero and not a villain.
Ichigo's coronation was the grandest and largest celebration he had ever been forced to sit through. Byakuya and Rukia, between them, managed to get him past it without mishap or major embarrassment, one with faintly superior sneering and cajoling, and the other with a few well-placed blows and yells.
At last Ichigo ascended to the throne with a set of white robes that were not too odious to wear. As the ceremony finally finished and he sat down on the large, uncomfortable throne, trying hard to keep a scowl from his face, he saw Isshin grinning like an idiot in the front row, and both Rukia and Orihime beaming proudly at him. Yuzu was jumping up and down and even Karin looked pleased. All the Gotei 13 captains and lieutenants were lined up, saluting him. Seeing all of their support and trust in him was daunting but somehow reassuring. Ichigo finally felt himself relax and he grinned back at his family and friends.
As his first royal act, he formally pardoned Urahara, Yoruichi, and Toshiro. Several people had counseled against this action, but Ichigo, although he was still angry, especially at Toshiro, had remembered Aizen's words and explanation of the link between the Spirit King's thoughts and actions and the nature of the universe around him. He had spent several hours talking to each of the three individually, especially Urahara, to make sure he would not continue building doomsday devices and that he truly understood his mistake. Yoruichi had apologized and had admitted that the experience with the AI controlling her and then discarding her had humbled her beyond anything else she had ever experienced. Even Toshiro had unbent enough to admit he realized the danger of succumbing to blind hatred, and that he was going to be leaving the Gotei 13 for a while to take up a quiet life of meditation and reflection. This was possible now that Ichigo had relaxed the rules requiring lifetime membership in the Gotei 13 and had opened up unrestricted travel between the Spirit Realm and the other worlds.
He also pardoned several dozen other individuals accused of various lesser crimes. After some thought, Ichigo had realized all too clearly what it would mean for the world if he started his reign bent on revenge. Rukia had given him a covert thumbs up after his decision and his heart had felt inexplicably lighter. He had a great deal of responsibility now, but he had, as always, had confidence in his own instincts; plus, he was surrounded by a group of the best family and friends a King could ask for. He was certain he would always have plenty of help in dealing with whatever intractable problems the world had to offer.
After the coronation, though, came the politics, the least pleasant part of his new job. There were lengthy receptions, where he was introduced to a huge number of functionaries of the Royal Realm, and it appeared that everybody had a pet cause for which they wanted a piece of him. His scowl grew deeper and deeper until finally Byakuya managed to get him away from all of them and back into his personal quarters.
Tired of all the crowds and seeking solitude, he decided to explore the King's meditation chamber, which Aizen had told him about long before. It was a vast, spherical chamber with walls of mother-of-pearl that apparently only the King could access.
Getting directions from one of the Guard, Ichigo pushed open the heavy, pearlescent doors and walked into the chamber. He stopped short, gaping in surprise. He was standing on a narrow platform jutting out into nothingness. The walls of the chamber appeared to have receded into infinity. As he stood there, mouth hanging open like an idiot, he suddenly felt himself drop into the underlayer of the universe again. With his other vision, he could sense an energy node in the exact center of the room.
Before he could even think or make a movement, he was suspended in the center of the node, sighing as it cupped him in a warm, soft hammock of energy. He relaxed and closed his eyes as he felt a million tendrils of energy from his body and mind connecting to the energy net within the room.
Aizen had told him that the room enabled the King to sense what was going on in the world around him. It was a means of amplifying his senses and powers so that he could focus on anything in the universe and see it in clear detail. He tested it out by looking for his sisters.
With amazing clarity, he found he could zoom in on the two of them, still standing in the large reception area, eating canapés and arguing with their father. He realized that if he wished, he could hear whatever they were saying.
Somewhat embarrassed at the thought of eavesdropping on his family, he turned his mind away from them and focused on Karakura Town. In no time at all, his mental vision was hovering over the city, sensing not only the physical buildings, but all the humans moving through the town below him, striding over the sidewalks, driving their cars, packed into trains, and as individual sparks of energy in each of their homes. Off to one side, in a park near the outskirts of town, he felt the energy of a feeble, weak hollow. As soon he sensed it, he detected the shinigami on duty beginning to move toward the creature.
He sighed and relaxed. It appeared that all was well. The chamber had the scent of disuse; probably the AI had been unable to make the connections that he felt like fine filaments of power extending out from his body. He wondered if that had been partly why so much had gone wrong in the world recently.
– That's not the only reason, a voice spoke in his mind.
Ichigo sat bolt upright. Had he imagined that deep, faintly amused voice? There was silence all around him, and he shook his head, frowning. He settled back into the energy webbing, chastising himself for wishful thinking.
But he could not help himself. Closing his eyes once again, he sent out the mental search. – Aizen? he asked silently, not daring to allow himself to hope. The tendrils of power around him rippled as the room responded to his query. He could feel his attention skimming over Soul Society, the human world, and beyond, reaching through the universe in an attempt to match the soul signature he was seeking.
But there was only silence and nothingness in response to his search.
Keeping his eyes closed and letting his breathing slow further, Ichigo went deeper into himself. He placed one hand on the jewel still in his pocket and felt it warm and pulsing in his hand.
He was standing in a grove of venerable and huge redwood trees, taking in deep lungfuls of the rich loamy air. A long shaft of sunlight, thick with dust, arrowed down from the leafy canopy high above to touch the stone altar before him. He realized he was holding a sword high in the air, his arm steady. He was dressed in soft white robes of a much simpler cut then he had worn for the coronation. He looked around. Standing in a circle all around him were many people he did not recognize. Their eyes were all focused on the sword he held above his head.
Then one man and one woman stepped forward from the circle. Ichigo's eyes swung to them, and his heart leaped with joy. The man's brown hair was tousled and his deep brown eyes bore a slight tinge of amusement. The woman had orange-golden hair and a brilliant smile. They locked eyes with Ichigo and began pacing forward, never looking away. Ichigo breathed in, his heart pounding rapidly as the mother he had longed for and the man he had loved drew nearer and nearer.
Finally, they stood in front of him, only two feet away. The woman bowed to the man and gave him a welcoming smile. Then the man reached up and touched Ichigo's sword, sliding his palm along the blade. He turned his hand palm upward, and Ichigo saw the deep red blood welling from a cut in his hand. It pooled in his hand and then began to drip over the side. As each drop struck the soft dirt under their feet, it sank into the earth and disappeared. The crowd around them began a low, rhythmic chanting. Ichigo could not understand the words, but somehow he knew what to do next.
Ichigo lowered the sword, turned it, and touched the flat of the blade to Aizen's hand. He held it there for a moment, feeling the power flow. Then as he watched, the deep cut healed itself.
Taking a deep breath, he spread both arms and approached the altar. Then he spoke in a language he did not know, a series of long, lilting syllables that rose and fell with his breath. When he had finished, the brown-eyed man smiled, took one of his hands and raised it to his lips. Ichigo felt the warm touch of his mouth on the back of his hand.
Then he released Ichigo's hand and walked to the altar. With one final glance at the youth, he stepped onto the center of the stone structure, directly into the ray of light.
His mother made a small gesture and Ichigo again knew what to do. He lifted the sword one more time and then turned and plunged it straight into the stone immediately before Aizen. It penetrated and stuck, quivering, hilt upwards.
There was a low crooning from the circle of people all around them. And then Aizen slowly began to rise up into the sky, in the path of the sunbeam. His white robes fluttering around him, he ascended higher and higher. As he passed the lowest of the branches, he looked down at Ichigo and mouthed three words, and Ichigo's heart flooded with joy. Beside him, his mother's hand crept into his, and the two of them watched until the man had vanished beyond the treetops, floating up toward the sun.
Ichigo opened his eyes. The jewel was warm in his hand, and something had changed. He now felt a sense of presence coming from the object. He gazed out over the world that he was now responsible for, and something odd tugged at his lips: a smile.
All around him, the filaments of power connecting him to the universe hummed and settled into a glowing pattern. He extended his senses once more. On the streets of the city, two men paused in their fistfight, looked at one another, puzzled, and shook hands. A child held out a hand to another who had fallen. In a high tower, three men signed a peace accord. In a shabby apartment on the other side of town, an exhausted mother stooped to comfort her crying child.
To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
—Auguries of Innocence, William Blake