Stand in the Rain
Shadow of an Echo
Lost in the Echo
Ichigo was in a now familiar examining room at the Fourth Division. Both Retsu and Kurotsuchi were in the room making sure his healing was progressing well.
"I still say I should be allowed to run more invasive tests, he is an untapped research potential," The lion masked clown mumbled under his breath as the female healer overlooked his work like a hawk.
Her eyes narrowed at the barely heard comment, "No. I don't care what you think, this man has been through too much already. I will not let you subject him to Kami knows how many painful and invasive tests that you no doubt have planned out for him."
"I don't want to be his Guinea pig either." Ichigo felt he should speak up, they were talking about him after all.
Junichi chimed in, "Keep that creep far away from us."
"It would be best to avoid him as much as possible," Even Zangetsu disliked Mayuri.
Oh well, the man seriously weirded Ichigo out, and he had just spent six months as a captive watching many different forms of Arrancar come and go. That Mayuri could still make his skin crawl was enough of a warning to avoid the Captain of the Twelfth.
Kurotsuchi scowled at the Fourth squad Captain, ignoring Ichigo's protest entirely. "It would be for the good of others. How am I supposed to know how to defeat, or heal for that matter, another of his type if I do not research him?" The words might have been noble, but the tone left no doubt that if Ichigo were to submit to this, it would not be pleasant.
"You are not coming near me without plenty of witnesses if I have any say in the matter." Ichigo broke in again, before Retsu could answer.
"If you don't think you can heal a Visored than you shouldn't be here, I can care for him myself." Retsu challenged quietly, knowing Mayuri would back down, he would not miss this opportunity for any reason.
He seemed torn before finally grounding out, "That won't be necessary. Let's just finish this already."
Retsu nodded and turned back to Ichigo to complete her scan of his Spirit Pressure. "Well Ichigo, it looks like your power has stabilized, I don't feel any spikes or dips, and that is a very good sign. I can tell you have been practicing your Kido, your Spirit Pressure is much smoother than it was, excellent work. Your muscles have recovered well from the strain they were put under. I am going to clear you to begin training with the Officers in Squad 13 for now, but I suggest waiting to challenge Captain Zaraki or anyone above Third seat for a little while longer. Give yourself time to work back up to fighting on that level. Captain Kurotsuchi, what are your findings on the remaining presence of Seki Seki?"
Still smarting from his earlier chastisement, he replied a bit grudgingly, "There is very little presence left. What is there should be able to be worked out of his system by training. There is still a potential for blackouts if he pushes too hard, but if the Officers overseeing his training are aware of the problem they can keep an eye on him." With that said he didn't bother to excuse himself, he just left the healing room, his agitation still obvious.
"With people as crazy as him wandering around it's no wonder Aizen went under the radar for so long." Ichigo finally said after a few moments of silence had passed following the Captain's exit.
Retsu shook her head slightly, "He is useful, and has made dozens of advancements in technology since he was made Captain. He was originally part of the Maggot's Nest, if it weren't for Captain Urahara he would probably still be there."
Ichigo knew what the Maggot's Nest was, Aizen had mentioned it, and it was the Soul Reaper's prison, the difference between here and the Living World was you did not need a conviction. The potential to do wrong could put you in there as quickly as actually committing a crime. "Was Kurotsuchi ever convicted of anything?" He asked quietly, not sure if he would be answered, but he had to try.
"No, he was placed there due to his highly dangerous Zanpakuto and his unstable psychological evaluation. The combination of factors prompted his imprisoning in a private cell, fortunately for him his odd brand of genius was discovered and he was released." Retsu explained, in no rush to kick the Visored out of her barracks. She had cleared him physically, it was his mental stability she was still trying to assess.
Ichigo thought about it for a few moments, "When do you get evaluated like that?"
"At several points through the training process," She patiently informed, "The first is when you enter the Academy, the next is when you reach Shikai and can call on a higher level of power, after that is when you progress to Lieutenant, and again before you receive your Captain haori. At any time a Captain or other high ranking Officer can request evaluations for squad members that concern them."
His eyes narrowed, "Why wasn't this ever done to me?" It wasn't like he wanted to be a lab rat, but it seemed they gave him the Substitute position without following the steps normally taken.
"We did watch over you during your first excursion here, and the battles that followed, but we never sat down and gave you a formal evaluation because we didn't believe it necessary. Do you remember the badge you were given? That was both identification, and a tracking device, we could follow your movements and make sure you were staying out of trouble. It was how we discovered you had been taken to Heuco Mundo against your will." She explained.
Ichigo didn't seem shocked, "With all I have seen, I would be more surprised if you didn't have a way of following me. I was powerful, and wasn't trained by the Seireitei, of course you were going to keep an eye on me. You were just protecting what was yours. The only thing I can't understand is, if you knew I didn't go willingly, why was I left to rot there?" Junichi and Zangetsu were interested in that answer too.
"You won't like this," Retsu admitted, "Do you really want to know?"
"I wouldn't have asked if I didn't, I know information can hurt, so I only ask questions when it matters." He insisted.
"One person is not enough to force the actions of the Soul Society. The Head Captain will not approve a mission that incredibly dangerous for a Substitute Soul Reaper. The reason you weren't searched for is because you were taken alone, and Aizen knew it." She confided in him. She hoped anger would help the fire come back, since time and thinking hadn't seemed to help much.
"I was collateral damage," Ichigo realized, "Yamamoto knew I was putting myself in danger to fight against Aizen and when that danger brought me into harm's way it was better to leave me there than to risk more important people."
"Stop that Ichigo. It wasn't that you weren't important, you have one of the strongest Spiritual cores I have ever sensed, and I am the second oldest Shinigami in the Soul Society. Even if it had been one of our Captains, like Kyouraku or Soi Fon, we still wouldn't have been allowed to follow. The needs of the many outweigh the few when you are in command of the military. You have no idea just how many of us were relieved when you were found alive. Many of us owe you some kind of debt, and a rare few count themselves as your friend, we didn't want to lose that." His mode of thought was dangerous and self-destructive. He did need to know the truth, but she wouldn't let his inner demons get the best of him, she would force him to see reason if she had to.
Ignoring the admittance of her age, Ichigo struck the core of her statement, "I wasn't just thrown away?"
"No, of course not," She impressed sharply. "You have seen things no one else should have, survived more than anyone could expect, and you are healing faster than even I thought you would. Think about it as logically as you can. You were held in the heart of Las Noches, in Aizen's meeting hall to be exact, we would have needed all the squads to break you out, and we would have lost many lives doing it. We were not, and we still are not, prepared for a direct assault on Aizen and his Espada. It just wasn't possible, especially when we had no way of knowing if you were alive or dead once the badge was removed."
"So my Hollow had nothing to do with the decision to leave me behind?" It was the last question he could stand hearing the answer to for now, his two companions were bolstering his strength as it was.
"No, you were different than the first Visoreds, you were controlled, and wanted nothing more than to protect others. The decision to execute the original ones was met with much opposition, and was made out of fear and misunderstanding. You proved us wrong, and if the originals attempted to return, they would probably have a place here again. We are missing a few Captains and Lieutenants right now." Retsu wanted to plant the idea in his head, Ichigo would likely be back in the Living World at some point, if anyone could bridge the gap to the lost ones, it was him.
He considered it, before a thought came to him, "You know, it isn't just the Visoreds that may need a place. There are several Espada working against Aizen, that's how I was able to get free. If they came of their own free will to fight with us, do you think they would be protected?"
That certainly wasn't a question she was expecting, and she wasn't sure how to answer it. "There would be a lot of conditions, it would depend on which Espada, and if they have killed any Soul Reapers since joining Aizen. If they have a clean record, and are willing to submit to a power limiter like we put on high level Shinigami in the Living World, it might be worth a try."
"I only know two by name, Grimmjow and Szayel, Grimmjow has caused trouble under Aizen's orders but hasn't killed anyone as far as I know. He hurt Rukia pretty badly, but she killed one of his Fraccion first. Szayel has never been sent on a mission in the Living World to come against a Soul Reaper, he is their researcher, and if we were able to entice him to our side we would have a lot of information Aizen probably doesn't want us to have. There are others, Grimmjow did mention that, but he didn't say who it was." Ichigo hadn't been completely out of it in Las Noches, especially the early weeks when he still fought with everything he had. He had come up against all the Espada at least once in the training yard under Aizen's orders, some fought him harder than others, and he hadn't seen the resurrection of the top four, but he had a general idea of their skill and rank.
She seemed uncertain for a few moments before making a decision, "I can take this idea to the Head Captain, he might listen to me, or he might not. The final decision is up to him. The more you can find out about the Espada that might be willing to fight with us the better. In your down time try to write down everything you can remember about each of them, I know you have to make a full report, but make a separate listing for this too. Whether we end up fighting with them or against them, knowing as much as we can will only help."
He looked a little embarrassed with that, "Ah, about that, I meant to ask you, how detailed does the report need to be? I know I need to say how I got out but can I just say Grimmjow assisted and leave it at that?"
"I'm sorry Ichigo, but if you left it at that, conclusions would be drawn. They know the means of your escape, they just don't know if it was forced or not. You might want to go into more detail if you want to keep yourself out of trouble." Retsu advised.
A little more embarrassment, "So you're saying I should lie?"
"I didn't say that exactly," She hedged; she couldn't be caught telling him something that direct. "I'm saying use your judgment."
He caught on to what she meant, "I'll take that into consideration. Now do you inform Jyuushiro that I'm cleared, or can I do that myself?"
"I will submit a formal report to him, but you can go to him directly if you want to start training quicker, he can spot a lie a mile away he will know you are telling him the truth." She explained.
"Thank you," He responded sincerely, getting off the examining table and pulling Zangetsu back into place across his back.
That reminded Retsu of a question she had, "Oh, I meant to ask you, how does your Zanpakuto react to your Hollow? You said you can both use him, but is it the same amount of control?"
"Honestly? Junichi can use Zangetsu better than I can, we have the same amount of control, but they have been locked together in my mind so long they don't have much to do but learn about each other. Zangetsu is much more serious than Junichi, but they get along most of the time." Ichigo informed her. Junichi was slowly showing him the things Zangetsu had taught him, but they had been constrained with his lack of practice time, that could change now.
"So it is equal control, I thought so," She admitted, "I'm not surprised he has the greater knowledge though, you were thrown into battle before you got much of a chance to train, you will probably progress quickly now that you have more time."
"I was thinking the same thing," He confessed.
"All right, that was all for today, go talk to Jyuushiro, I know you are itching to get on the practice field." Retsu dismissed him with a small smile.
He nodded in goodbye and left her alone, knowing she would have a patient again in a few moments; the Fourth division was always busy. He walked the familiar path back to the Thirteenth barracks quickly, he was beyond ready to get back into shape. Now he had even more motivation.
They had left him there. He had believed maybe they couldn't find him, but no, they knew exactly where he was. Retsu's explanation of why he was left made sense. Ichigo was a protector, he didn't want anyone to die on his account, but it pushed him further. He knew it wasn't a fluke, if he was captured again he would be left again, he needed to be strong enough to break himself out.
His thoughts swirled around until he made it back to his temporary home, and he found Jyuushiro observing the progress of the newer squad members as they practiced in the arena. He looked healthier today than he had been, and Ichigo felt his restless energy drain away at his peaceful expression.
"Welcome back Ichigo, did you get good news?" Jyuushiro asked as the Visored drew near, taking a spot next to him at the railing.
"Yes, Retsu has cleared me to begin training with the Officers, I am not supposed to challenge anyone over Third seat for awhile, and she specifically warned against Kenpachi. At least until I work back up to that level." Ichigo dutifully informed, remembering Retsu warning that he could easily spot a lie.
He laughed softly, unintentionally making Ichigo's knees go a bit weak, "Yes, she wouldn't want you to waste all the effort she put in to heal you. Captain Zaraki is a good fighter, and a surprisingly good Captain, but his methods are a bit harsh for someone recovering from a trauma."
"It's the Eleventh, isn't someone always recovering from a trauma?" Ichigo teased.
"You have a point," Jyuushiro admitted, "But his squad members don't mind. He knows exactly how to motivate those kinds of fighters. There is a reason each Captain is a little different from the others, it's because there are many types of Shinigami. To have as many reach their full potential as possible, we need a variety of teaching methods."
"I noticed that, and I have heard from Renji and a few others that a lot of the older Soul Reapers have spent time in a couple different squads." Ichigo observed.
The Captain nodded, "Yes, it is recommended that anyone aiming for an Officers position join a few different squads. In addition, if a Seated Officer notices a Squad member that doesn't quite fit they can recommend a transfer to a Squad better suited to that person. We do try to keep people happy here, there is no resigning, when you join the Gotei Thirteen it's for life."
"That seems a lot to push on somebody, once you join you can never get out? What happens if you don't want to do it anymore?" He was almost morbidly curious about that, Soul Society had odd rules and they were enforced harshly, he was a tad frightened of what punishment could come from wanting to quit.
"If the person is lucky, they can be transferred to a research or cataloging position in the Twelfth squad or the Department of Records. There is no fighting, and minimal physical requirements. This is typically what happens to Soul Reapers who have been injured or frightened on missions and still want to help, but don't want to be active in the field. If they don't want to help at all, or pose a potential risk, they are kept confined to the Maggot's Nest." Jyuushiro informed a bit sadly, he wished there was another way, but they couldn't risk such dangerous people lose in the Rukon, who knows what kind of riots they could start?
"You don't seem happy with that?" Ichigo question quietly, reading between the lines of his sadness.
A look of regret crossed his face, "I'm not, but it is for the best. The rules are harsh for a reason, we live long lives, and have powers that pose a real danger to the souls here. If someone bitter or angry towards the thirteen squads is left to roam the Rukon, they have a lot of time to stir up trouble and unrest. The more people we have to use to suppress riots is that many less we can use for our true purpose of ferrying souls from the Living World to here. If we slowed in our progress with that, the rate of Hollowfication would increase and we would have more monsters loose endangering living humans."
"Do they at least go back into the Maggot's nest every once and awhile and reevaluate the people there? Maybe they change their minds." Just because there was a reason for it didn't mean it was the right thing to do.
"Not usually, it happens sometimes if a prisoner is discovered to have some kind of useful talent, but they are watched closely after their release." No point in lying, the truth was always better than a lie.
Ichigo shook his head sharply, "All these policies, they have logical explanations, but I think they need updating. People change, situations too, why don't the rules change to reflect that? Rukia was almost killed just for lending me power to save my family. She didn't know I would drain her nearly completely, or that someone would interfere with her healing and not let her recover her powers. She made the best decision she could, and did her best to kick me into gear to take over her spot. Yet she still was set to be executed."
"We worked against that order, very few agreed with the need to execute her, but remember at the time we didn't have all the information. All we knew was she had given her power to a human, revealed who we were, and was unable to carry out her duties herself. That is a crime. However, it isn't usually punished by death, and that was the reason so many of us fought. Notice she is alive today, if the rules weren't adaptable she would still have been executed regardless of Aizen's actions." Jyuushiro pointed out.
Ichigo thought about it for a few minutes, letting his gaze fall to the practicing Soul Reapers as he did so. "If things can change with enough force, there is a vague idea I've had that Retsu has agreed to take to the Head Captain, do you think it could work?" He carefully outlined the idea of bringing the Visoreds and rogue Espada over to their side. Jyuushiro knew Yamamoto almost as well as Retsu, he would have a good idea if it would work or not.
He didn't respond immediately, weighing the pros and cons in his head. "If it was just the Head Captain, I doubt it would work, he is set in his ways because they have worked for so long. If he decided to ask the rest of the Captains though I think at least half of us would agree to give it a try, so he may allow it with severe restrictions on their abilities while here. He does tolerate your presence after all, and it isn't like you haven't caused trouble for us along the way," He reminded teasingly. "Don't get your hopes too high, but it is a solid idea that just might work. We can use all the help we can get and Retsu is right, we still are not ready for a direct attack on Aizen. Stealing some of his support, especially a researcher, might even the field."
"I don't think it will even it as much as we hope, Aizen created these Arrancar, there is nothing stopping him from creating more to take the place of the missing ones. We will at least have more information, and well trained warriors, but any new Espada will be unknowns to us unless we manage to get a spy on the inside." Ichigo pointed out, he knew there were flaws in his basic plan, but he really felt it would be worth it to try.
"I'm glad you can see it that way," Jyuushiro approved, "A lot of people your age would jump into any plan head first and not think about the consequences. Of course the missing Espada would be replaced, but they won't be as well trained or hopefully as powerful as the originals."
"Grimmjow lost his position before, when he lost his arm, he was replaced with Luppi. Orihime healed him and Grimmjow was able to kill Luppi easily to get his spot back." Ichigo remembered.
"How did you get Aizen to release her? I thought he would keep both of you when you went missing too." Jyuushiro hadn't been able to figure that out.
"I replaced her," Ichigo replied darkly, "Aizen had a purpose for her, and she had already finished it by the time I showed up to rescue her. My sword and badge were taken as soon as I was caught, but I was able to make a deal with Aizen. I would stay, if he let Orihime go, but I had to be part of the group that took her back so I knew it was done. Do you understand now? I agreed to stay with Aizen. I hated him for what he has done, but I hate myself more for making a deal with him."
"You fought him; Retsu found so much damage there could be no mistake you tried to break free. Why did you fight if you stayed willingly?" He was trying to make sense of it, Ichigo wasn't lying, but there was more to the story.
"I told him I would stay, I never said I wouldn't try to escape, and I didn't know that my staying would mean being chained naked to his chair the whole damn time." The dark look had only gotten stronger in Ichigo's eyes, "Orihime was his captive too, but she was well cared for compared to most prisoners, she even had a personal bodyguard in Ulquiorra. He wanted her cooperation, from me he wanted submission."
"Were you tempted?" Jyuushiro asked quietly, knowing this was the most Ichigo had spoken about his captivity, and it was a good idea to keep him talking so he could work through the pain.
"You've seen him, of course I was, Junichi already forced me to face that. I was tempted alright, but Aizen wasn't the strongest temptation. I scared myself while I was there. If he had allowed me some freedom, and I had been allowed to get closer to the Espada, well my decision might have been a lot different." Ichigo felt comfortable talking to Jyuushiro, he was calm and actually listened to what he had to say, gently encouraging him to go on when he stumbled.
The elder Shinigami put a hand over Ichigo's on the railing they were leaning against, "Listen you were gone for six months, we have no doubt Aizen played game after game with you, I am telling you right now. It is okay if you were tempted by him. He is charismatic and alluring, he always has been. Power draws to power, and both of you are extremely powerful, the fact that you resisted him enough to be tempted by others while in his clutches shows just how strong your spirit is. Temptation is not a crime, we are all tempted by the forbidden every once and awhile, it is giving into that temptation that can be wrong."
The soothing voice of Zangetsu echoed the Captain, "Listen to him Ichigo, he is right."
"Yeah King, what do you think I have been trying to get you to realize? If you won't listen to me, listen to him and the Old Man." Junichi couldn't stay silent either.
"Thanks Zangetsu, and Junichi if that was what you meant, why didn't you just say it?" Ichigo asked in frustration.
"Because he didn't know how to say it," Zangetsu actually replied, overwhelming the spluttering Hollow, "The Captain knew how to phrase it so you would understand, Junichi didn't, he tried to show you when he couldn't find a way of telling you."
"If you knew what he was trying, why didn't you say something?" Having two voices in his head might just drive him insane, if he wasn't already.
Zangetsu seemed to chuckle, and oddity in itself, "Would you have listened? You weren't ready to hear it, you needed to work through a few things first. Now are you going to believe us and start moving forward again?"
"Yes, sorry it took me so long to come back around guys." Ichigo apologized.
Junichi had to have the last word, "It's too bad we aren't allowed to challenge Kenpachi I want to fight him this time, last time it was mostly Zangetsu."
"Oh yeah, speaking of that, if you are a part of me, then how come that first fight you were a part of Zangetsu?" The Hollow had reminded him of the oddity.
"Jeez King, do I have to spell it out for you? We are both a part of Zangetsu, it's not as if he is just floating around in your mind, he is connected to our soul. When I first got here I was still disoriented and unsure of where I was, and it was Zangetsu who introduced me to everything. We agreed you would learn quicker if he was the soft guide, and I pushed you as harshly as I could manage, and at the time speed was the most important part of our training." Junichi was impatient, but at least he did explain it.
"You two ganged up on me?" He asked incredulously.
"Yes," They both replied without shame, causing Ichigo to laugh softly, catching Jyuushiro's attention.
"So what did your alter egos have to say?" Ichigo had been around long enough for him to notice when he was simply thinking, or if he was talking to his Zanpakuto and Hollow.
"They agree with you, and think I should get to training again. Junichi is disappointed we can't fight Kenpachi yet, last time it was mostly Zangetsu." Ichigo relayed, the others still listening curiously to the exchange with the Captain.
"Just because you are not supposed to fight him, doesn't mean there aren't other good opponents. Look out on that field. If you went down there and sparred with them, you could teach them a lot, and maybe learn a thing or two yourself. If I am recovering from a bout of illness I join in these training sessions rather than with my more powerful squad members. We can both get something out of it if I do that. I like getting a fresh perspective on fighting, and these young ones can give me that." Jyuushiro offered, pointing out the beginner squad members, some of which hadn't even progressed to Shikai yet.
Ichigo knew better than to deny it, he remembered his first lesson with Kisuke, Ururu had nearly killed him with a single punch and she was just a little girl. "If I went down and joined them, would you come too?"
"I don't see why not, I'm feeling good today," Jyuushiro agreed, and when the two of them walked into the arena you could see the looks of devotion and awe the members showered on Jyuushiro, they honestly adored their Captain.
Even Ichigo received more than a few curious stare, and one man, not much older than Ichigo himself approached. "I have never seen a continuous release Zanpakuto, can we see it?" He requested curiously, staring at the sword as long as Ichigo himself.
The Visored reached over his shoulder, and drew his blade, the thrill of the familiar weight in his hand not diminished from the firs time he had called the blade's name. "This is Zangetsu, you can look at him if you want, or you could spar with me, your choice?" Ichigo offered, feeling both his sword and Hollow's approval at the move.
"You would really fight me? I didn't think I was close to your level?" The young Soul Reaper was hopeful but contained, thinking Ichigo had only offered so he wouldn't be rude not out of any desire to actually fight him.
"So? I was trained by someone a lot stronger than I was, you won't get any better if you only fight people on your level; you have to aim higher. Come on and spar with me, I won't hurt you, you might even win, I'm a little rusty," Ichigo enticed, he liked this guy, and everything he said was true. Kisuke had taught him when they were miles apart, and instead of dragging Kisuke down, it had raised Ichigo up.
Jyuushiro was swamped with questions and requests for advice, but he kept an eye on Ichigo when he could. To his surprise there was a small smile on the Visoreds face as he sparred, that first opponent opening the flood gates for others to come. Ichigo was a good teacher, he pushed them just a little harder than they were comfortable, and he saw progress being made from almost all of his opponents.
The thing that really made Jyuushiro smile was the fire, it was back in Ichigo's eyes, as painful as their talk had been it had woken something up in Ichigo. That was the best thing to come from the day, even the news of his physical recovery wasn't as reassuring as that tiny spark in his warm brown eyes.