It's finally here! I know you've waited for ages, and I'm sure it'll infuriate you to know that I've written it in about three days. I hope you like it! Many apologies for having made you wait.
Memories in the rain
Almost six months had passed since his fainting fit.
Time had moved slowly, the days following one another relentlessly, every one almost identical to the next. What had been habit quickly became routine, with more than half his day occupied by training or conversing with Aizen. The man held a powerful influence over Ichigo. At times, it seemed to him that he had been put under some sort of spell – he always pushed himself further, exerting himself to the maximum of his capabilities whenever he trained with the older man, as if starving for praise. This behavior, particularly, almost disgusted him. But thanks to the man, in the past six months he'd become stronger, faster, he had managed to control his reiatsu and mastered kido. But the most significant advancement, at least in his opinion, was all he had learned of Soul Society and the spirit world. It seemed to him that he had been blind until that moment, when the wool was pulled off his eyes. But, even now, he didn't know if he could trust Aizen. He had already tricked, lied to and hoodwinked countless people – a teenage boy would represent no difficulty. At any rate, it had become impossible to deny, both to himself and to Shirosaki, that the man's sway over him was more than it should be. He avoided thinking of it and talking about it to his hollow, but always failed miserably at the former. With much time to think, interrupted only by more time with the subject in question, had given him more occasions to ponder than he could have ever wished for. He was determined to not let his hormones (and feelings) control his actions or influence his decisions, at least in this matter. After all, what was the use of wishful thinking, if a similar idea had probably never even occurred to Aizen? He was quite sick of being hurt. But every action of the other seemed to contradict him – the way he'd press a bit closer than necessary when adjusting his grip on the sword, or when he told him to visualize more clearly a kido spell; the languid, almost sensual tone of voice he used when talking to him. He tried to think of it as casual, maybe even as deception, but it just seemed too realistic, too natural.
Nonetheless, it seemed to him that he had attained some sort of calm. Aizen had never mentioned the deal since the last time, now months ago. The only things that seemed to perturb the calm that pervaded him and the rest of Las Noches were the thoughts of revenge and the threat of the imminent war, looming menacingly over them like a cloud that promised storm. Most of the arrancar seemed not to notice it, like Grimmjow, who insisted on reminding Ichigo in every possible way not only that he was, at least in his eyes, persona non grata, but also that he and Ulquiorra didn't care who saw them, and doing what.
To evince the boredom that constantly assailed him or the thoughts that always occupied his head – often joined by Shirosaki's taunts and leers – he'd asked for some books. To his infinite surprise, he'd been led to a wing of Las Noches completely unknown to him, outside the dome. A room of the size of a few cathedrals, with red walls, barely visible behind the millions of shelves and books that nearly covered it entirely, the floor covered by thick carpeting, in which the feet sank, was presented to him as the library. In the centre of the room, completely surrounded by bookshelves, was positioned a long cushion-covered sofa, made of dark wood and upholstered in red velvet. In front of it had been put a low coffee table, of the same polished ebony, and two armchairs, made in the same way as the sofa, had been arranged around the table. Various footstools, made like the rest of the furniture, and ottomans upholstered with the finest fabrics were near. The entire roof was made of a single sheet of glass, letting the pale rays of Hueco Mundo's moon always in. A lamp had been set near the couch and armchairs, and pale globes of light floated midair, illuminating the books. These were all different, bound in leather, cloth or paper, of a seemingly infinite variety of colors. Quite a few of them seemed to be about to fall apart. There were also some paperbacks here and there, and several scrolls stored in various parts of the room. In some places, the books had been crammed into every available space on the shelves, while in others they had been neatly, almost perfectly, stored.
Aizen chuckled at his face, his mouth gaping at the sheer amount of books in the room. The sound echoed softly among the shelves.
"As you might have noticed, I greatly enjoy reading. Unluckily, I couldn't get all the books I searched for, so some are stored in the spiritual library, like the one at Soul Society." His mouth twisted in dislike. "I hate those. It's completely different from actually holding the book. Don't you agree, Ichigo-kun?"
"You can take books from their shelves using reiatsu. You simply have to think about what you need and it will appear on the table. Do you already know what to get out?"
"Um – no. I was wondering if you could suggest me something" mumbled Ichigo, eyes downcast.
Liquid chocolate eyes bored onto him, as Aizen's mouth curled into its customary smirk.
"I'm afraid I didn't catch that, Ichigo."
"Could you… suggest me something to read?"
Aizen stared at him for a few moments longer, then turned away slightly. A dozen books materialized on the table.
"I will be in my apartments, should you need me."
Trying desperately to slow down his wildly beating heart, he approached the table and lifted up a red copy of Eugenie Grandet, by Balzac. Underneath it there was Notre-Dame de Paris by Hugo, The talisman, Beowulf, Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers, Oliver Twist, Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque by Edgar Allan Poe and about other ten books. Ichigo looked at each in turn, reading the description on the back cover when there was one, or reading the biography of the author inside the book.
Underneath a rather battered and worn The complete works of Shakespeare there was a nondescript, brown tome, also this slightly used. Ichigo opened it, and saw, printed in bold letters, The Kamasutra. He'd already heard the name, but couldn't remember what it was. Turning the page, he saw a more than explanatory picture. Ichigo's face became bright red and he shut the book quickly, shoving it back at the bottom of the pile. However, he put it – somewhat reluctantly – on a cart so he could bring it to his rooms. Outside the doors of the library, a servant arrancar took the cart and brought it to his bedroom.
Covered in dust and sweat, all his muscles complaining at the small effort of walking, Ichigo managed to drag himself to the bath tub, and after having undressed, entered the water with a sigh of relief, inhaling deeply the exotic fragrance of the bathwater. After a few moments of blissful, thoughtless relaxation, the memory of the book Aizen had left him resurfaced, tinting Ichigo's cheeks cherry red.
Why would Aizen leave him the Kamasutra? It had probably been to tease him. Or maybe he had noticed. He must have noticed. Had he really been that obvious? He'd always tried to repress his emotions, or at the very least to hide them. Was he really so easy to read?
Sometimes your stupidity surprises me. Never thought he might like ya, King?
Don't be an idiot.
Are ya really talkin' bout me now?
Try ter open yer eyes for once, will ya?
Ichigo had been wandering in the corridors, his footsteps echoing in the empty passageways. He'd been lost for a while, meandering along with an easy pace, completely absorbed in his own thoughts. Even if he got seriously lost, he could probably find somebody's reiatsu easily, or be found by a harried-looking arrancar maid, worried about his whereabouts.
Other footsteps echoed in the corridor, behind a turn. As soon as he turned around the corner, Nnoitra's zanpakutou careened down on him, but was swiftly blocked by Ichigo's arm. It retraced, lightning-quick, but Ichigo could predict it. He managed to plant a kick onto Nnoitra's chest, sending him crashing into the wall. Despite the heavy blow, though, Nnoitra managed to emerge from the mass of dust and debris without a scratch, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.
"You've sure become one tough piece of shit! But don't think it'll be enough. I'll turn ya into a smudge on the walls!"
"Ha! As if you could!"
Ichigo shunpoed behind him, activating Shunko and delivering a karate chop to the back of the Espada's neck. Nnoitra barely managed to move aside, and some of his hair was singed off.
Ichigo shunpoed again, this time hitting his opponent squarely in the chest, sending the Espada flying backwards.
"Pray, Santa –"
Ulquiorra appeared next to Nnoitra, his hand gripping hard the Cuinta's shoulder as he stared at him with his expressionless eyes.
"Stop. If you insist, I will have to kill you. It is Aizen-sama's wish to leave him unharmed."
Reluctantly, Nnoitra lowered his zanpakutou and turned around, heading back into the direction he'd come from.
"Tch. Should've remembered he's Aizen's little boytoy."
"You should not listen to him. He is simply spiteful. I suggest you go to your rooms. I can't be here to save you all the time." said Ulquiorra in his usual deadpan voice as he went away, the echo of his footsteps slowly fading in the distance.
"Like I needed saving!" he yelled back at the Cuarta's form, disappearing in the distance.
Dusting himself off, he decided to go back to his rooms anyways.
But had Nnoitra actually meant it? Also Ulquiorra's slightly dismissing tone had seemed to confirm what the other Espada had said. But at any rate, nothing had yet happened to confirm the statement.
'Yet', huh, King? Ya know, ya could always jump him. Don't think he'd mind too much.
Well, not this time! It's high time ya get yer ass in gear and start doing something! It's been raining all the damn time in here, an' if I get more wetter than this I will personally drown you!
Start by speaking proper English, idiot.
Shut it, idiot! Still, get a move on and become his boytoy or whatever it is ya wanna become. I'm not getting' soaked fer an indecisive brat.
I don't want to be his boytoy. Shut up, stop whining and leave me alone.
Somewhat on the defensive, huh? What, wanna be his boyfriend or something?
Ooooh! Sousuke and Ichigo, sittin' on a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G! First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes… well, you're a bloke, so no kids. Too bad though. I would've loved to see who they looked more like. Maybe they'd have Sousuke-chan's hair and yer scrawny body, or maybe-
And with a last giggle, Shirosaki did.
Aizen found that lately he seemed to be in the control room much too often (this was something he'd noticed concerning the shower, too). He wasn't particularly worried about it, though. Being holed up in the room for hours on end in near-complete darkness, illuminated only by the white glow of the screens was a small price to pay, compared to what he saw. He was sure Ichigo wouldn't mind too much, should he ever know. Which he wouldn't. Because, after all, it was best to keep certain things from him, at least until the right moment. The knowledge of his friends' souls being taken had not been planned, at least not quite so early, but had proved to be completely harmless, as everything had ended smoothly, almost better than what he'd hoped for.
Still, the fascination the boy provoked in him was almost on the verge of unhealthy. During his life, he'd often flirted, courted, and seduced, but not once had he felt so powerfully attracted – and this time, it seemed to him that it wasn't purely physical. It was a novel feeling. All his other conquests, whether male or female, had been made out of boredom or for personal gain. Even with Ichigo there was, up to some point, a second end – he needed his trust. In the beginning, he'd thought to be more like a father-figure, a mentor, not a lover. He did not want to risk emotional involvement. But seeing the ascendancy he held over the boy – the knowledge that this teen, so powerful and yet unconscious of his strength, not only respected him and needed him for his revenge, but that he wanted him was enough to make him hard. Urahara despised and criticized his lust for power, but Aizen always failed to understand how he could fail to desire that supreme aphrodisiac. Especially when it came alongside Ichigo Kurosaki.
Sitting cross-legged on the floor with his eyes closed, Ichigo tried for the umpteenth time to clear his mind. He made a point of meditating as often as he could, but this time it seemed that he couldn't concentrate at all. He tried remembering what Aizen had taught him – close your eyes. Take deep breaths, clear your thoughts… – Aizen's hands, gently straightening his back… concentrate! – let them go away like clouds swept away by the wind. Now, visualize a light, that slowly goes higher and higher. Aizen's voice, low and melodious, seductive, almost; directing him towards nirvana while dragging him deeper into the abyss of temptation. He could imagine that voice speaking to him by a bed, slowly inducing him closer… his eyes shot open, his breath now coming in quick short pants. Sweat ran down his back and clung to his hair. Heat seared through him and he felt a painful hard-on tenting his hakama.
He tried, for a few moments, to will it away, but it almost seemed to mock him. He'd had similar experiences in the past – it wasn't uncommon for him to wake up with an erection and find himself forced to deal with it – but it had never happened when he was conscious, or while thinking of someone in particular. Seeing no other way out of it, he sat on the bed and took his hakama off, reaching under the waistband of his boxers and slowly tugging his hard-on, base to tip as his arousal fully hardened. For a moment, he imagined that it was Aizen's hand, not his, slowly stroking him, and he moaned loudly, increasing the pace.
He came a few strokes after, bucking wildly into his hand – Aizen's – come spraying over the inside of his boxers. Vision hazy and thoughts completely muddled, Ichigo lay on the bed, panting as he savored the post-coital bliss. Aizen's face seemed to be floating in midair over him, and he felt decidedly groggy, yet giddy at the same time. Any other times he'd masturbated he hadn't felt half as satisfied as he did now. But after all, Aizen was… well, exceptionally attractive, so why shouldn't he feel so much better after having thought of him while masturbating?
Ya've completely lost it, King. What sort of crap is that? Didn't think ya were so far gone.
He immediately sobered up.
Neither did I. Since you're in my head, is there any obvious sign of insanity?
Apart from the fact that it's rainin' all the damn time and that last night ya had dreams so dirty that I'm surprised he didn't even hear you scream –
Well, I'd say that since you're talking to yourself, basically, ya are pretty much off yer rocker. Tootles.
Now feeling rather disgruntled with Shirosaki and too sticky for his liking, he drew yet another bath and plopped in, his limbs feeling like jelly. Unbidden, thoughts of Aizen resurfaced again. Why did he have to be haunted by him even when he was taking a bath? The thought of simply thinking of Aizen irked him. Why did he have to be so infatuated with a man that probably didn't give a damn about him except if he was important for his plots? And yet, Aizen's behavior always seemed to contradict what Ichigo expected him to do. The tone of voice he used, all his actions, the way he touched him, even in the most casual of gestures, as if he were seducing him, were the complete antithesis of what Ichigo had expected when he freed him. He had steeled himself to be treated like a subordinate, not really wanted but necessary, or at the very least cold, but forced, cooperation. But once again, he had underestimated Sousuke Aizen's charm, charisma and persuasion. He had wanted to simply collaborate to destroy Soul Society, help him get to the Rei-O and then continue life as it had always been, without even looking back.
Instead, he had gotten himself too tangled up in this whole affair. Everything had been further complicated when he discovered that his friends' souls had been collected by Soul Society. And that Aizen knew it. What else could he be hiding from him? He couldn't trust him, but he still did so, if at least partially. Yet the way he treated him, as an equal, illustrating clearly all his plans, explaining everything in detail and ensuring that he fully comprehended, coupled with his looks and charms, made him want to entrust his life to him. But his conscience told him not to.
The bathwater had grown cold. Realizing that he hadn't washed himself yet, he grabbed the soap and washed his hair and body. Tatsuki would've killed him for idling.
He'd almost completely forgotten about her, Keigo and Mizuiro, wrapped up as he was in revenge and Aizen. Were they worried? After all, he had been gone more than five months. Had they searched for him? Maybe they had gone to Urahara. He hoped the shopkeeper had told them something decent, or that wouldn't make them worry, at least. He hated to have his friends be anxious for him: he simply didn't want to be an encumbrance to anyone.
But suddenly a thought occurred to him. It had been almost a year. Almost a year had passed since that night. And also the anniversary of his mother's death was growing near. It seemed wrong to not visit her grave, especially without his father and sisters. But they had had to go into hiding. They couldn't simply stroll up to Karakura's cemetery without expecting to be killed or captured by about a thousand or so Onmitsukidou or Goteijuusantai. He thought his father might make it alone, but with Yuzu and Karin defenceless to protect, it simply wouldn't be possible – and anyways, he was sure that his father, like him, didn't want to involve them more than necessary. He hadn't told Ichigo where they were going, but he had the idea that it was a rather remote place, where it would be harder to be found by Soul Society.
How could he have been so selfish? Up to now, he had probably made each and every one of his loved ones suffer and worry. It was his fault Chad, Orihime and Ishida had been killed, and before that they had been injured and put into countless dangers, only because he had interfered with their lives.
The next few days seemed to slip by all too slowly. He'd holed himself up into his room, allowing no one to enter. After a few hours, though, he reluctantly admitted in Stark when he came at the door with a platter full of food. Unluckily for Ichigo, though, whenever he came in, instead of commandeering the couch and napping for a few hours, he would prate about him not going to training. Although he professed himself extremely deluded with him for not training harder, he only did so in an extremely bored and sleepy voice, so Ichigo had some difficulty believing his sincerity on the matter. The fact that he had droned on about it for the following four days, occasionally without even being answered, did not help with Ichigo's temper. If it hadn't been for the food that he brought him every few hours or so, and for the company he was desperate for, he would probably have kicked him out.
"Why aren't you training? Aizen-sama's probably getting annoyed with waiting for you every day at the arena."
"I…I just need some time. I'm not sure it's the best thing."
Stark's scowl deepened. "What do you mean? I thought you wanted to destroy Soul Society. Sitting on your bum day after day isn't the way to do it. Get training, so then you can do whatever you want, no?"
"What-what if they're not the problem? What if it's me? If I hadn't involved them, then –"
The Primera put a gloved hand on his shoulder. He had a scowl on his face, but his tone was gentle. "There's no need to blame yourself. It would have happened anyways, probably. And they wouldn't have wanted you to think like this, no? But remember: it wasn't you who brandished the sword. It was them."
"They wouldn't have wanted revenge, though."
"Yes, revenge is useless. But only when you do it for the dead. You need this, but not to alleviate their sufferings – you need to do this for your sake, to let yourself get on with life. You know you will never rest if you don't. Think of all they took from you. Your life has been completely altered, your friends are dead and your family has to hide. Isn't this enough to want to kill them? Besides," Stark's face twisted into a wry smile, "I don't think Aizen-sama would be too happy if you reneged on your pact, wouldn't he?"
Ichigo smiled a bit, and wiped his eye with the back of his hand.
"No, I don't think he would."
"Well then!" said Stark, trying unsuccessfully to repress a yawn, "you'd better get your ass to the training area, or you'll be beaten by a third seat!"
"In your dreams!"
The training arena was completely empty, the white sand gleaming in the rays of the dome's sun. Letting their reiatsu free rein, both drew their swords. After a moment of complete stillness, both shunpoed – or sonidoed – forward, their katanas colliding loudly, the sound echoing in the silence. They traded a sequence of similar blows, shunpoing and trying unsuccessfully to get under the other's guard, while the sand around them arced in the air before hitting the ground again.
"It's been a long time since we fought, hasn't it?" Shifting aside to dodge another lunge of Tensa Zangetsu, Stark's sleeve ripped, the blade nearly grazing his arm. "You've gotten faster!"
"And your guard is slack!" yelled Ichigo back as he planted a kick into Stark's chest that sent him flying towards the other side of the room.
Taking advantage of a moment of pause during which Stark was sonidoing towards him, Ichigo dropped his sword.
"Bakudou no nanajukyuu! Kuyo shibari!"
Stark struggled, immobilized by the nine globes of black reiatsu, as Ichigo shunpoed to his other side, sword now in hand.
A black crescent moon, outlined in red, appeared beneath Stark's feet. Seconds later, a column of the same reiatsu rose into the air, the very sand disintegrating around it. A few seconds later, Stark emerged, his uniform rather battered, but except for a few scratches completely unharmed.
"Not bad. I didn't think you'd master it this fast. You have no idea what I looked like before high-speed regeneration kicked in."He yawned loudly. "Now, if you don't mind, I'm going to take a nap." And plopping onto the ground, Stark promptly fell asleep.
"What the – OI! Stark! Stark, you bastard! Wake up!" but the Espada kept on sleeping, scowl still in place, even when Ichigo kicked him repeatedly, but in vain.
"Ah! Whatever." Giving up, the vizard sheathed his katana and was about to stomp off in the direction of his rooms, but instead decided that it was high time he and Aizen had a little chat. He had come to a decision, and was resolved upon carrying out his plan, whether the lord of Las Noches was willing or not.
When he was about to knock on Aizen's majestic double doors – not too far away from his own rooms – Ichigo couldn't help but feel a certain sense of trepidation. He could feel Aizen's reiatsu, just behind the wall, slowly pulsing, and he was almost about to abort the whole mission, when the doors opened and Aizen, standing slightly more than a hair's breadth away with a smirk on his face, invited him in.
"Do come in, Ichigo-kun. By the way, I find it rather rude to stand in front of someone's door until they are painfully aware of your presence."
Gulping, Ichigo stepped forward, with the distinct feeling of going into the lion's den.
Gripping his staff in his only hand, Yamamoto-soutaicho cleared his throat, instantly silencing the low buzz of whispered conversation in the hall. A few bold people continued their whispering, but a quick, withering look from the commander in chief put an end to all other source of distraction.
"You have been summoned here, as you know, to discuss the second upcoming war against Aizen Sousuke, his arrancar, and Kurosaki Ichigo." Everybody's countenance, at this, turned grave. The boy had been a promise, but now the only possible prospect for him, if they won this war, was either execution or lifetime imprisonment. "We have fought against him once, and we have won. Surely, we can do it a second time."
"But," said Hitsugaya, whose face had become stormier than usual at the first mention of Aizen, "last time, if Kurosaki hadn't fought against him, we would have lost. And there is no one strong enough here in the Seireitei who hasn't seen his Shikai."
A low murmur of assent was heard among the captains, but was quickly silenced by the Soutaicho's staff hitting the floor.
"Soutaicho-dono, the reports of our spy say that Aizen intends to attack the Seireitei directly, employing all his available arrancar."
"Ahh, that would be troublesome, no, Ojii-chan?" interjected Kyoraku, straw hat pulled low over his face and a leer curving his mouth.
"Indeed." Yamamoto's lips grew thin, almost completely hidden by his beard. As he closed his eyes in reflection for a moment, the conversations that had been interrupted were quickly continued. Having made his decision, Yamamoto rose. Silence suddenly permeated the room.
"Without Kurosaki Ichigo, our chances of winning this war are decidedly slim. Therefore, a small contingent of captains, lieutenants and lower seats will go to Hueco Mundo. They will either persuade the substitute shinigami in question to return to the Seireitei or to the human world, or they will bring him back by force. I nominate in the rescuing committee the captain of the sixth division, Kuchiki Byakuya; his lieutenant, Abarai Renji; the captain of the tenth division, Hitsugaya Toshiro; the third seat of the eleventh division, Madarame Ikkaku; the captain of the thirteenth division, Ukitake Juushiro, should his health permit it, and Kuchiki Rukia, of the thirteenth division. Kurotsuchi Mayuri, captain of the twelfth division, will arrange for a Garganta and any other thing that might be necessary for the mission." Yamamoto's expression, if possible, grew even more severe. "This is a mission of the utmost importance. Should you fail, Soul Society will be attacked, and possibly destroyed. Do not risk your life uselessly; try to appear undetected and avoid discovery until you are close to the target. Should you encounter the traitor Aizen Sousuke, flee. Remember that not only your life is on the line here. Do not fail. That is all."
After the Soutaicho had retired, all the other captains exited quickly the meeting room, some followed by their lieutenants, others preceded by them. All were enwrapped in their thoughts. Hitsugaya, who seemed particularly moody, was approached by Kyoraku and Ukitake, both with pensive expressions. Kyoraku's, however, transformed into a smile, while Ukitake tried to assume his normal peaceful expression.
"What's the long face for, eh, Hitsugaya-taichou?"
"I don't like this whole business." Matsumoto had already left to attend to her lieutenant duties, so he was walking alone back to the barracks, his scowl discouraging anyone from approaching him. "First, the order for the assassination of Kurosaki's comrades, issued by the new Central 46. They were no harm to us, so what was the use of it? Then, of course, Kurosaki turns coat. But he frees Aizen and escapes to Hueco Mundo."
"Well, it isn't completely devoid of logic. I'm surprised he hasn't attacked us yet." interjected Kyoraku.
"But why did he have to go to Aizen, after all that happened in Karakura? Personally, I can't see why he's siding with him."
"Ah, but you aren't Ichigo-kun, are you?"
"Well," answered Ukitake, his tone gentle, a sad smile on his face "he probably preferred siding with someone who had tried – and failed – to destroy his hometown, rather than forgiving those who had his friends assassinated. Also, he knows how powerful he is, and what a threat he was – and is – to us. He sees his hometown attempted to be destroyed as better than having his friends killed. Zaraki opposed himself, obviously, but look at what happened to him… locked up in prison and evaded…had to run for his life, or he'd have been killed by the Soutaicho in person. Should someone object to it again, Yamamoto probably won't wait to have the prisoner put in jail and tried." All were silent for a few moments, pondering on the recent events. Ukitake decided to try breaking the ice.
"Anyways, Toshiro, would you like some candy?"
Hitsugaya's tone was frigid. "No thank you."
"Not even some chocolate?"
"No, Ukitake." Toshiro sighed tiredly. "Still, there's something strange about this. It's almost as suspicious as the whole Aizen affair again. For the past few weeks, Kurotsuchi's been locked into his laboratory, not coming out for meetings, even when Zaraki evaded prison. And when he emerges, three new captains are appointed, and if they expect me to believe they're their long lost twins –"
Kyoraku silenced him with a gesture, his typical lazy smile stretched on his features, but he appeared worried as well. "Hitsugaya-taicho, it's not wise to speak of such things, at least not here."
Spotting the Onmitsukidou agents perched on the surrounding roofs, Hitsugaya nodded in silent thanks. Nowadays, saying the wrong thing in the wrong place could prove fatal.
"Hmph. There's the ban too, I'd nearly forgotten of that. Just makes the entire thing more suspicious."
Having reached the point on the street after which they separated ways, Kyoraku tried to convince the youngest to join them for some sake, scandalizing Ukitake in the process.
"I can't, Kyoraku-taicho. I have paperwork to do."
"Not even for a few minutes?"
"No, I'm too busy. If I don't get back now, Matsumoto will start slacking off again."
Ukitake's face, although, remained beaming.
"Well, Shiro-chan, have some candy to help you work then!"
And depositing a humongous pile of sweets seemingly sprouting out of nowhere, the two older captains sauntered away, not giving Hitsugaya neither the time, nor the opportunity, to refuse the sweets, or at the very least emerge from them.
Sitting on the white sofa, closely scrutinized by Aizen, Ichigo was feeling steadily more nervous. The man's gaze seemed to be burning against his skin.
"Would you like some tea?"
Nodding, Ichigo took a mug from the table, holding it up as Aizen poured the golden-coloured, boiling hot liquid in. He took a tentative sip, and then managed to gather up his courage.
"I want to go to Karakura. It's almost… you know, the anniversary."
Aizen's eyes didn't lift from his mug for a few moments, but then he looked at him.
"Actually, Ichigo-kun, only about two months and a half have passed since you came to Hueco Mundo."
"Time here moves differently. You have spent nearly six months here, but in the human world or in Soul Society, we've only been gone for slightly more than two months."
"I still want to go."
Aizen nodded in acquiescence. "Understandable. I presume you want to visit Arisawa-san, Asano-san and Kojima-san, though I probably shouldn't meet them, though. I gave them quite a scare during the invasion…" Aizen smiled wryly. "That is, before you came along, of course."
"Can we leave today?"
"Provided that Szayel has two ready gigais… Your body was left in the human world, wasn't it?"
"Yes. Kon is using it. He went into hiding. With my family." Suddenly, he could feel tears welling up in his eyes, but suppressed them. He wouldn't let himself cry.
In the meantime, Aizen had tactfully ignored his tears, and had busied himself with contacting Szayel. Having given Ichigo the time necessary to compose himself, he turned around.
"We can leave as soon as you're ready, Ichigo-kun." He said softly.
"Let's go, then."
Ichigo followed the older man to the meeting room, where Szayel had brought two gigais. With their blank faces and white skin, they almost seemed half-finished dolls. They were already dressed, one in black and white clothes he couldn't quite make out in the shadows, and the other in a pair of Ichigo's jeans and one of his t-shirts. Even the shoes were his.
"Where'd he get the clothes?"
Szayel stepped out of the shadows, pushing his glasses further up the bridge of his nose.
"I simply recreated something you were seen wearing in the human world. It was easy."
After they'd slipped into the gigais, Aizen opened up the Garganta. In the dim light of the meeting room, Ichigo could barely discern him from the other shadows, but he followed him into the black hole across the worlds. Inside, Aizen had created a path of reishi large enough for two to walk side to side. The air was cold, and the way forward was only illuminated by the milky glow of the pathway. Aizen looked somewhat odd dressed in a two-piece suit with a white shirt and tie, but he appeared, if possible, even more attractive. He had gotten used to see him always wearing hakama and some sort of loose top over that with a haori. The suit, instead, though not skin-tight, highlighted Aizen's slim but toned figure. Ichigo's eyes snapped ahead, realizing he had been staring, but he didn't miss the smirk on Aizen's lips, and his heart rate accelerated ever so slightly.
The Garganta opened up in a deserted park. The sky overhead was overcast with great black clouds that promised storm. In the distance, thunder rumbled. Ichigo closed his eyes for a moment, breathing the air that already smelled like damp. He was home.
"Your friends are at Urahara's shoten. Maybe it would be best if I waited here."
"I don't think they'd mind."
Walking at a slow pace, trying to blend in and not be noticed, Ichigo looked around, a thousand memories resurfacing painfully. He had missed his hometown and everybody in it, but being there without Ishida complaining and Orihime cheerfully chatting about the most random subjects to a silent Chad made him feel almost incomplete. Aizen walked silently next to him, as if not wanting to disturb his thoughts. Ichigo would have given anything for a distraction of any kind, but he seemed incapable of speaking at the moment.
After what had seemed an interminable amount of time, they found themselves in front of the shoten. Going in past the rows of age-old candy and barely concealed boxes of merchandise from Soul Society that hadn't fit in the storing room, they approached the sliding door, behind which voices could be heard. Aizen was looking around bemusedly.
"I never thought it would be quite… like this. I expected something flashier. Urahara always had a flair for excesses."
The door in front of them slid open, revealing Urahara sitting at a low round table with Tatsuki, Keigo and Mizuiro.
"I still do."
Keigo jumped at him, sending him sprawling on the floor with a hug and a scream of "BERRYYYY!" Mizuiro seemed to lose his typical apathy, stepping forward to greet him. He tried to appear nonplussed, but was clearly relieved. Tatsuki finally rose, moving towards him as if sleepwalking, her eyes opened wide, as if not believing what she saw. Ichigo smiled, trying to bat off Keigo, who was hugging him with a vice-like grip.
Tatsuki's stupor evaporated instantly, and she ran towards him, punching him in the gut and sending him tumbling back down on the ground.
"OW! What the hell, Tatsuki?"
"You complete idiot!" (kick) "What the hell do you think you're doing!" (punch) "You disappear out of the blue, don't show your face for TWO FUCKING MONTHS and now you turn up and say 'I'm back!'?" she continued hitting him, Ichigo not even putting up resistance. It was best not to try reasoning with her right now. Keigo, horrified at so much violence, tried to object, but was kicked under the belt and lay insensible on the ground for a few moments. Mizuiro sagely returned to texting.
"Try not to get blood on the floor, Arisawa-san, or you'll have to clean up!" added Urahara amusedly, a wide smile hidden by his paper fan. Aizen chuckled.
"Really, Ichigo-kun, I never thought you'd let yourself be beaten up like this."
Immediately, Tatsuki stopped hitting the redhead, completely astounded at seeing the man who had invaded Karakura almost a year ago. Keigo was suddenly conscious again, and Mizuiro stopped texting and snapped his phone shut.
"What the hell is he doing here? Why did you let him in, Urahara-san?"
"Simply, Ichigo-kun and I joined forces. Beating Soul Society on his own would have been a bit… difficult."
Mizuiro had an angry look on his face. "Soul Society? You mean the organization that had Ishida, Chad and Inoue killed?"
Recovering the use of his jaw, Ichigo added: "We're attacking soon."
Tatsuki gripped his shirt, her eyes fiery, an almost manic expression on her face. "Let me come."
"No. You'd get hurt."
"IF YOU DON'T LET ME COME, I SWEAR I WILL – "
One of the tatami in the room lifted, and Isshin Kurosaki, wearing a pink frilly apron, a net on his hair and soapy rubber gloves, appeared.
"What's all the noise up here, Urahara? Yuzu and Karin are taking a nap, and if someone wakes them up again I'll kill –" his eyes landed on his son, bruised and battered from all of Tatsuki's blows. "Ichigo?"
A messenger landed in front of the Onmitsukidou captain in the Second Division's barracks.
"Taichou, we have reports that Kurosaki Ichigo and Aizen Sousuke have been sighted in Karakura-cho."
"Send out the squads, then, and ask the Soutaicho if one or two of the captains or lieutenants can assist us in the mission. Last time, they were underestimated by Soi Fon-taicho. We will not commit any mistakes this time."
At the same time, Byakuya and Renji were doing paperwork – or rather, Byakuya did his job, while Renji stared alternately at the wall, at the window, at his taicho and at the door, having long since given up on getting it done.
"Renji, start doing your paperwork, or I will demote you."
Startled out of his reverie by his captain's steely tone of voice, Renji managed to say a hasty "Hai!" before attacking his work with renewed vigour – which quickly evaporated a few minutes afterwards.
"Yes, Renji?" answered the captain, his eyes not lifting from his paperwork.
"Why do you think Ichigo betrayed us?"
Byakuya stopped writing for a moment, pen still poised in hand.
"He'll have had his… reasons."
He continued writing.
"But, Taicho, they told us lieutenants that he'd freed Aizen and escaped to Hueco Mundo… that's no reason at all!"
Byakuya looked up at his fukutaicho. "If you insist, I must tell you that we were ordered not to divulge this information. Continue your paperwork, Renji."
Renji looked down glumly down at the pile of papers on his desk.
The fukutaicho was about to begin another gruelling paperwork session when he was interrupted.
"Renji," added Byakuya, "should the Onmitsukidou discover that you know that the Central 46 has ordered Kurosaki's friends' assassination, you wouldn't live through the night." He looked significantly at the redhead. "So do not say anything. I'm putting my life and position on the line now to explain to you and I am prepared to have to take care of you personally if something should slip. Am I clear?"
Renji's face was now horrified at the thought of what happened to Ichigo's friends – and of Senbonzakura getting too cosy with his neck. "Hai, Taicho. But why – "
A knock sounded at the door. Both the captain's and Renji's hands gripped their katanas, expecting an irruption of the Onmitsukidou.
"Yes, enter." Byakuya's voice, even though his considerable agitation, was firm.
"Excuse me. I have an order by the Soutaicho-dono. Abarai-fukutaicho-dono is to go to the human world to retrieve or bring back by force Kurosaki Ichigo. Fukutaicho-dono, you must be at the senkaimon in fifteen minutes."
A frown formed on Renji's features. "Am I going alone?"
"No, fukutaicho-dono. You will be accompanied by a few platoons of the Onmitsukidou and of the Kidousha."
Renji and Byakuya exchanged a significant gaze. If the Kidou division, which usually did not appear in public and kept to the shadows, was acting so openly it was probably a mission of the maximum importance.
"Why me, if the Special Ops and the Kidousha are handling the bulk of the mission?"
"Soutaicho-dono did not tell me. You may ask him at the Senkaimon. Excuse me."
Still puzzled about why he was asked to participate in a joint mission of the Onmitsukidou and the Kidousha, Renji straightened his papers and took leave.
"See you later, Taicho."
"Renji," he was about to exit the door, when Byakuya spoke. "be cautious. And about what I said" – his gaze became steely – "do not tell anybody. Not even Rukia. You may go now." They stared at each other for a moment, but then Renji said "Hai, Taichou" and went out, sliding the door closed.
At the senkaimon, dozens of Kidousha and Onmitsukidou agents were assembled. The Soutaicho was not present, despite what the messenger had said. He was approached by an Onmitsukidou squad captain, his features completely hidden. He was only distinguishable by the different uniform used by the squad captains.
"Abarai-fukutaicho, I am the captain of Squad 5. When we arrive in the human world, you shall approach the target first. You must try to convince him to come back to Soul Society. If you fail, we and the Kidousha will take him away by force. That is all. Do you understand?"
"Very well then. They have opened the senkaimon. There is no time to lose."
Stepping into the Dangai, Renji felt disgust coiling in his stomach. How could he have even agreed to this? Ichigo was his friend, and yet he was betraying him. And when the moment came, could he really do it, knowing why Ichigo had turned against them?
"Why don't we leave father and son alone for a while, eh? I'll get you a cup of tea, Aizen-san." Urahara left the room hurriedly, closely followed by Aizen, seeing Isshin's face. As soon as the door closed, Isshin glared at his son.
"What the hell were you thinking, Ichigo?"
"What?" he asked, confused at his father's sudden outburst.
"Don't 'What?' me! Why'd you side with Aizen? Are you out of your mind?"
Ichigo glared at him. "No, I'm not. At least, I don't think so. And I'd like to know why you're treating me as if I made the biggest mistake of my life."
"Ichigo, he tried to destroy Karakura!"
"Do you think I don't know it? Right now, he's the only one I can trust!"
"How can you? Look at what he did! He tricks, blackmails and lies! That's all he's ever done in his existence, from the very first day!" Isshin's hand banged on the table, punctuating each of the last three words.
"He's been straight with me from the beginning. He knows what I want and he'll help me. I agreed to do the same."
"Has he really told you everything? No secrets?"
Ichigo remained silent, averting his gaze.
"I thought so. Do you know why Urahara, Yoruichi and the Vizards were exiled? Huh?"
"Yes, Urahara told me."
"He destroyed their lives, Ichigo, just because he wanted to make an experiment on hollowification and test the Hogyoku's powers! If you put your trust in people like him, you're out of your mind."
"Maybe I am." answered Ichigo frostily, his temper rising quickly.
Isshin's tone softened. "Look, Ichigo, I know that you want revenge for your friends. But it's not the right thing to do. Violence always brings more violence. Once it starts, it never ends. And Aizen is just using you for his plans. Trusting him is not the right thing."
"But if I don't avenge them, I'll never rest easily! Don't you understand?" a sob erupted from his chest. "They killed them, and I couldn't do anything. I was there, and they died because I wasn't strong enough. I need revenge."
Isshin swallowed, deeply shaken by Ichigo's words and the desperation behind them. He'd never mentioned the events of that night, so he had no idea what had really happened – except that his friends had been killed and that his son had been destroyed by it. He took his hand.
"I'm sorry. Do what you want. But remember: do you really have the right to take human lives?"
Ichigo didn't answer, looking at the floor.
"Beware of Aizen, Ichigo. Don't let yourself be hoodwinked."
Ichigo sniffed, wiping away a stray tear. "Thanks, Dad."
Isshin's smile was teary. "Whatever happens, I'll still love you. Don't forget it."
"I love you too."
Isshin hugged him, simultaneously crashing into the table.
"Oh, my son! If only Masaki could see you!"
"Okay, okay! Geroff!" he said as he tried to avoid getting strangulated.
"I'm going to speak to Aizen. He needs to know what he's up against if he harms you." And with that, he yanked open the sliding door, hollering : "Oi! AIZEN! GET IN HERE! Ichigo, go talk with your friends. Us adults" he said, puffing his chest, "are going to discuss some stuff."
Ichigo snorted and hit him on the head. "Like you qualify as an adult, Goat-beard."
He barely heard the "Just like the old times…" his father said, before Aizen arrived, inquiring what Isshin wanted.
Keigo was sitting on the step right outside, his face in his hands and a strangely pensive expression on his face. Mizuiro was in a corner, trying to appear nonplussed as he texted non-stop. Tatsuki was nowhere in sight.
Seeing him, Keigo's expression became hopeful. "Are you staying, Ichigo?"
"No. I just wanted to see you guys, and I've got to do something important. I'll leave after I'm done."
"Can't you –"
"No. I'll just be gone for another while, and then I'll be back – for good, I hope. But what's happened to Tatsuki? I've never seen her like this."
Keigo's face clouded, and Mizuiro snapped his phone shut.
"Well, you saw her after their deaths, no? She was so shocked she could hardly speak. She would do like you, closing herself up in her room… she didn't want to see anybody. And after you left, well… she got worse. She stopped coming to school altogether. Her parents tried to console her, but one day, she disappeared." Keigo's voice broke, and he seemed about to cry, but he went on. "We searched for her everywhere. We found her in Inoue's apartment. It was – it was horrible! She was lying in a puddle of blood and was almost dead. Mizuiro and I barely got her to the hospital. She's been staying here with Urahara ever since." Unable to hold his tears anymore, Keigo sobbed uncontrollably, burying his face in his hands as if it would make him forget what he'd seen. Except for his sobbing, the room was deathly quiet, and no sound came from the other rooms. When Mizuiro spoke, his voice was slightly strained, but he kept his emotions in control as always.
"She wants revenge like you, Ichigo. Urahara's been training her until now, and she's strong, but I don't think she can handle it. She'd get herself killed because she's too angry."
Tatsuki appeared at the door, her face set in an expression of annoyance, like when everything had still been simple.
"As if I would, Kojima. And if I die, I'll make sure to bring with me as many as I can, whether they saved Karakura or not."
Ichigo's smile was sad. "They're not all like that, you know? Remember Rukia?"
Tatsuki's expression turned ugly. "If she was such a nice person, why didn't she do anything? Why did she let them die, when they risked their lives with you to save her?"
"I don't know, Tatsuki. I don't know. Nothing seems to make sense anymore."
The senkaimon opened in a street near the shoten. The special ops squads spread out, moving soundlessly in the shadows with the Kidousha. Renji, instead, walked straight up to the door, sliding it open. Urahara was sprawled on the floor, hat pulled low over his eyes, throwing them into shadow, and paper fan in hand. His geta had been carelessly put down near his feet.
"Abarai-kun! What a pleasant surprise!"
"Hello, Urahara-san. Is he here? I'd like to speak to him."
Urahara's smile vanished. "I don't know who you're talking about."
"Come on, Urahara-san. I just wanna talk to him."
"I'm sure the Onmitsukidou and the Kidousha out there also want to have a chat."
"Look, I came here to warn him. He'll never survive, there's too many –"
Aizen leaned against the doorway. "I think we can handle them easily, Abarai." he said coldly.
Renji gritted his teeth. He hadn't imagined that Aizen might be there too, and nobody had prepared him to this. The memories of how easily he'd been defeated on the Sokyoku came rushing back.
"You have to get away. They're determined not to lose this time. They sent me in to convince Ichigo to come back to Soul Society. You've got to open the Garganta and go now!"
Ichigo's head appeared in the doorframe, his face creased in worry. "Who's out here? Did they find us?"
Nobody answered him, and then he saw Renji.
"Ichigo! Listen to me, you have to get out –" "What are you doing here Renji?"
"Look, there's no time now to argue. There are a dozen Special Ops squads and people from the Kidousha outside" – "I noticed." – "and you've got to go now. They sent me in to convince you to come back to Soul Society, but if I fail, they'll take you back by force. Go now while you can."
Ichigo was silent for a few moments, torn between trusting his friend or hating him because he hadn't done anything to prevent his friends from being killed. Hate won.
"Why did you let them die, Renji? WHY DIDN'T YOU DO ANYTHING TO STOP THEM?" now shouting, Ichigo grabbed the redhead by the gi, looking at him straight in the eyes.
"We didn't know anything. Kuchiki-taicho told me before I left, but before that I thought they were still alive. They've issued a ban against speaking of the subject." Renji smiled sadly. "I'm sorry. They were all great people."
Ichigo glared at him. "And you expect me to believe this bullshit? I should kill you right now."
Urahara, looking nonplussed, put a hand on his shoulder. "Kurosaki-san, it's true. I got the news recently myself. And I might remind you that I don't want any responsibility, whatever happens. If you have to kill him then, Kurosaki-san, please do so outside. A candy shop owner can't get in trouble with the police, eh, it simply wouldn't do! Especially if you get the floor dirty, as there's nobody but me and Tessai these days that do any actual work."
Ichigo let go of Renji's gi apologetically, a small smile on his face. "Sorry. It's just that I don't know what to believe at the moment."
"Don't worry. I'd have done the same." Lowering his voice, Renji added "So… Aizen, huh? Why'd you side with him?"
"He's the only one I could think of who could beat your ass without problems. On the other hand," Ichigo smiled "if I'd needed an idiot more baboon than human to scare them off, I would have asked you for help."
A vein pulsed on Renji's temple. "You ugly little –"
"I hate to have to interrupt you, but we have to get going, Ichigo-kun. I'd rather not have to waste time. We came for a reason, didn't we?"
Ichigo nodded. "Let's go. See you, Renji, Urahara-san. Take care of Tatsuki."
Urahara doffed his hat and opened the door.
"Take care, Ichigo." said Renji, putting a hand on his shoulder.
"Wouldn't it be suspicious if after having knocked everyone out, Abarai-kun would be still conscious?" said Urahara, his fan hiding his widest smile yet. Renji backed away cautiously, his hands in front of him. "Wait a sec, Ichigo…"
"Sorry, Renji. See you some other time."
A sharp pain in the neck, and then everything went black.
"He's coming out alone. Abarai must have failed."
"Aizen's there as well!"
"They're still in gigais. Attack anyways."
Hundreds of the Special Ops and Kidousha shunpoed into the courtyard in front of the shop, completely surrounding Aizen and Ichigo. Urahara's face was visible in one of the windows as he peered out, observing the battle.
The Onmitsukidou attacked together, moving forward at the same moment. In the meantime, the Kidousha had erected a kekkai, sealing off the area, apparently trapping the traitors. The Onmitsukidou was about to knock their opponents unconscious, predicting an easy victory; but Aizen and Ichigo struck down the shinigami while still in their gigais. Not losing their cool even in the situation, the Onmitsukidou agents continued attacking, but were all inexorably rendered unconscious. Even while in gigais, Ichigo and Aizen moved much too quick for any human being, invisible even to the shinigami as they struck them down. Seeing that the situation was desperate, the Kidousha attempted trapping them in a barrier, but Aizen and Ichigo had already broken the first barrier. They, too, were swiftly rendered unconscious, and the vizard and the shinigami walked off, as if nothing had happened.
Urahara looked at their retreating figures for another moment, and then turned around.
Now, what to do to Abarai-kun?
Lightning streaked across the sky, and thunder rumbled a moment later. Karakura's cemetery was completely silent except for the pattering of pouring rain. Only two people were present: one was a teenage boy with hair of an outrageous color, dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, staring at three graves, one next to the other. The other person was a tall, slim man, dressed in a suit and leaning against a wall and looking in another direction, as if to give the boy some privacy.
Across the boy's cheeks, mingled with the rain, were tears.
He remembered the day of the funeral. Unlike today, the sun had shined brightly, the birds sung, and flowers grew in the boxes nearby the entry. It had seemed like an offence, as if the entire world wanted to remind him that Chad, Orihime and Ishida would never live to see something as beautiful as that. The cheerfulness of the scenario, too, irked him: Nature seemed to make fun of his pain and suffering, showing him how life went on, not caring about their murders.
He hadn't heard a word of the service. They seemed all empty, useless; invented by people who knew nothing of them and could care less if they lived or died. Ichigo didn't bother making a speech. Words, in the last month, had failed him. He couldn't muster any to express properly what he felt, and what they had been to him. During the whole service, he had stared ahead, almost completely insensible, in some remote recess of his mind still not believing they were gone, not accepting it even though he'd seen them die.
He only truly realized they were gone where they couldn't come back from when he saw the coffins being lowered into the earth.
The tombstones were white marble, standing out against the gloom of the sky and of the cemetery. Their names were spelled out in large characters, with epitaphs written underneath. He never bothered reading those; they would simply be more lies. Fresh flowers covered the graves.
The reality of their deaths hit him again full force as if it had been the first time. Closeted in the white halls of Las Noches, thinking constantly of revenge, lamenting their loss, more spiritual and physical, he had had almost little time to think about what the tombstones meant, and had almost forgotten about their bodies, the materialization on earth of people he had laughed and suffered with, rotting under the earth, maimed and destroyed even more with each passing moment while the ones that had destroyed the life that had once animated these putrefacting corpses still roamed free…
He felt his knees buckle, nausea coiling in his stomach, but the earth didn't come crashing onto him; he was held by a pair of strong hands that slowly pulled him up and made him stand once again. Propped against Aizen's chest, near insensible and envelopd in a apir of strong arms, great sobs wracked his frame as he let himself go, letting out everything that he'd bottled up in the past months. When he'd exhausted his tears and composed himself, they walked slowly towards the cemetery gate, neither saying a word. He looked behind him for a moment, the tall white rectangular tombstones, covered in flowers, standing in sharp relief against the others. Another tear found its way down his cheek.
Aizen lifted his chin, turning his face towards him and delicately dried his eyes. The rain kept on falling in the cemetery, their clothes clinging tightly to their skin. His heart beat wildly in his chest. They were so close…
"The time for shedding tears is past. You have to look towards the future, Ichigo. Do you want me to be in yours?"
Aizen's voice was low and husky, his eyes staring into the redhead's. Their bodies were barely apart; their breath mingling.
Without breaking eye contact, Aizen bent forward slightly, and their lips met, chastely at first. Ichigo's eyes slowly closed as the older man coaxed his lips open, his tongue probing every inch of his mouth, as if memorizing each ridge and plane, eliciting soft moans from Ichigo. His hands, almost automatically, wrapped around Aizen's neck, bringing him closer, while the other's carded in his hair and sat on his hip, rubbing small circles on his skin and drawing him even closer, their bodies melding. Aizen's tongue moved sensuously in his mouth, and Ichigo could not keep the pace, lost in a myriad of sensations. Aizen's hand moved slowly up his back, then downwards, resting a bit lower than his hip.
Oxygen ran out fast, and they broke away gently, slightly breathless. Ichigo's heart was still beating wildly in his chest, their bodies so close he could feel Aizen's heart, too, rapidly pumping blood in his veins.
A/N: Reviews are welcome. Originally I didn't expect it to turn out like this, but it did, and it's not bad, at least in my opinion. The next chapter, don't worry, is underway.