Firstly, let me apologize for this long break between new chapters. Admittedly, this has not been the best year for me. I haven't been in a good place mentally or physically, and I haven't had any real will to write, let alone anything else. I hate putting it that way, but that's the only way I can think to describe it.

Regardless, I'm trying to get myself back together. Last night was the first night in quite a while that I felt like writing anything at all, and once I got started again, it just kept coming. I finally got this bad boy finished after months of trying to kick my own ass into gear, and although it may not be my best work to date, I'm happy that it turned out as well as it did. Hopefully you guys feel the same.

This signals the end of my Soul Society Arc. Without further ado, here's Chapter 37.

NOTE: I do not own Bleach.


Chapter 37: The End Has Only Begun

"Aizen…"

The cold and contemptuous way the name carried on her voice hid none of the anger and resentment she held for the man. This was the person responsible for every pain, every hardship she and her love had been through. This was the person who nearly took her Ichigo away on more than one occasion, and Rukia's blood threatened to boil at the very sight of him.

This reaction didn't seem to faze the traitor one bit, his amused smile ever present. "A pleasure to see you as well, Ms. Kuchiki."

Ichigo had to tear his eyes away from the viperous bastard Ichimaru to truly examine the apparent perpetrator of their misfortunes. It was bewildering. The guy looked too good-natured and even appeared meek, but the façade was betrayed the moment he reached the eyes. Although the smile was innocent enough, the eyes were cold, lifeless pools of darkness. Naught but calculated evil prowled behind those lenses of his. This man was dangerous.

"So you're the one" he began simply, taking a protective step in front of Rukia. "You're the one responsible for all of this."

Aizen's smile only broadened. "That I am, Ichigo Kurosaki, and might I say-"

The ebony blade of Tensa Zangetsu split the air in a mere instant…and hit nothing. Only the atmosphere was casualty to the sword. Aizen had simply disappeared without a trace. Was he really that exhausted from his fight with Byakuya? How could he have missed him, not even seen him evade his strike?

A gentle hand came to rest on his shoulder, the contact sending chills down to his very core. As his head slowly turned, his eyes were met with those same bottomless pits behind false spectacles.

"It is an honor to finally make your acquaintance."

That smile was unnerving and infuriating. There was no peace in it up close, no innocence whatsoever. The expression came to befit those eyes, mocking and belittling as if he were only a bug in his grasp. It was almost predatory in nature, the grin of a lion before it pounced.

The Substitute leapt back hastily, trying to put some distance between them, however vain that might be. It couldn't be that he'd lost that much strength, could it? He still felt the push of his Bankai, the power of Zangetsu's spiritual pressure flooding his muscles, albeit painfully. There was no way he'd become so exhausted. The Squad 6 Captain had been an equal. He could follow his movements well enough, and yet the new foe that stood before him had made his speed seem miniscule by comparison. Just what in the world was he?

"There's no need for hostile action" Aizen continued in his cool near-monotone. "This is merely a conjugal visit on our part, seeing the product of our endeavors. We mean you no harm at present."

"Like hell" Ichigo barked a retort. "You nearly killed both of us!"

The pretentious bastard had the nerve to look mildly offended. "A minor side-effect of our plans, and I do apologize for that. Your lives were at the time…necessary payment to proceed."

"Necessary?!" Ichigo growled in frustration. How could he call their deaths a 'minor' side-effect? He saw no more value in their lives than a Yen spent at an arcade. If their lives were so disposable, it was all the clearer that he would gladly sacrifice many more if it meant accomplishing his goal. This was no man. This was a monster, no better than a heartless hollow.

"Hand over the Hogyoku, and I'll settle for giving you a beating on principle." The Substitute dropped into a ready stance, preparing to spring.

The Captain turned his benevolent smile into a malevolent smirk as he discarded his glasses, brushing his hair back until only a single lock of hair remained across his forehead. "I see Kisuke Urahara has informed you well of the situation at hand, trained you well in addition. Tell me, was your master completely forthcoming?"

"What do you mean?" He didn't let up his guard an inch, watching carefully for an opening.

"I'm sure he informed you of his hand in creating the Hogyoku, yes?"

"What about it?!"

"He revealed its intended purpose, did he not? With a sense of honor as keen as yours, why follow such a man? It seems at odds with your chosen morality, doesn't it?"

"You talk like you're some kind of saint!" Ichigo spat.

Aizen's smile broadened. "To you, I may seem like the enemy, but in truth, I merely wish to bring down the corrupt system that is the Soul Society, to birth it anew. In doing so, the worlds will be much the better for it. Have you, yourself, not seen the brutality of the Seireitei in your last few days spent here? Witnessed the seed of destruction that is this decaying system?"

"Ha! And you think you're any better?! I don't see them slaughtering innocent people!"

The smile didn't fade an inch. The traitor merely cocked an eyebrow, as if he was amused by the accusation. Out of his pocket, he withdrew a small clear casing housing a dark orb. Ichigo recognized it immediately for what it was, the device that was removed from him, the Hogyoku. The power seeping from it was immense, vastly denser than it had been that night. It pulsed with rampant energy compacted so tightly within, able to be felt reverberating in the ground. What had the fiend done to it?

"This Hogyoku is more than you believe it to be, Ichigo Kurosaki, more than even that fool Kisuke Urahara ever dreamed. Granted, its great power was never as close to complete as it is at this very moment, now that his Hogyoku and my own have been joined to one."

Ichigo's eyes widened in shock. Had Kisuke known that Aizen had one of his own all along?

"You see," he continued, "his notion that it had the ability to break down the boundary between Shinigami and hollows was only true, because he wished it to be so."

"What's that supposed to mean?" the Substitute muttered. He had to keep him talking, had to keep his focus away from his guard. The jewel was right there in sight, right where he wanted it.

The Captain looked down at the object almost fondly. "In reality, the Hogyoku's true purpose…is to grant the deepest wish of the one who commands it. And now that it has been combined with one of my own design, its powers will be neigh limitless once the evolution is complete-"

Ichigo leapt forward when his enemy's eyes were diverted, racing at his target with his weapon raised high. He would lop off his damned hand if he had to.

Just as he could swear it was within reach, he was met with a harsh clang of metal, sparks blazing in his vision as a dagger blade grinded against his, fending it off.

"Now, now" Gin scolded in his whimsical tone. "It's impolite to interrupt when someone is speaking."

A well-placed palm to the gut sent Ichigo back into the dirt, knocking the breath from his lungs. Sharp pain radiated up the strawberry-blonde's side as he lay stunned on the ground, his body pushed to the breaking point. All his injuries were now building up on him, every fiber of his being burning and screaming at him, begging to stop.

Grunting from the effort, he slowly drug himself up to his feet, bracing himself on Tensa Zangetsu. "Damn you…"

"Tsk. If you're going to lash out like that, I'm afraid I'll have to put you down, boy."

Ichimaru shifted to the side, tilting his head as his eyes opened marginally, piercingly harsh as he stared Ichigo down. In one fluid motion, he reversed his grip on his Zanpakuto, palming the hilt with his free hand as he made a sudden surge forward, aiming for the heart.

Before the teen could even react, a body seemed to phase into existence right in front of him, metal singing loudly before the small blade pierced flesh, blood dripping to the ground.

"Brother!"

"Captain!"

Byakuya had used every bit of the power he had left to move into Gin's path, deflecting the attack enough for it to only impale his already damaged shoulder. His face showed no emotion, barely strained as he pushed the man's blade back, forcing a leap of retreat.

"Well…Seems the good Captain still has a little fight left in him after all" the silver-haired Soul Reaper commented, his grin widening further.

Blood ran down his arm in rivulets as the Kuchiki Head stood there, the heavy rising and falling of his chest the only indication of his pain. His pride would not let his expression falter, not give away the suffering he was in and the pure rage he had aimed at the enemy before him. He could no more do so than to give in to his ailing body, not willingly at least. He had no energy left, no strength to fight, but giving in would be a weakness he could not afford to show.

Darkness formed at the edges of his vision, overpowering him. His jaw clenched with the effort to stay conscious, but his strength was spent. His body had had enough. Despite his will, his eyes fell shut just before he collapsed back.

"NO!" Renji flashed to his Captain's side, Rukia managing to shamble up as well through her pain. The Lieutenant felt only a swell of pride for his superior as he lifted him from the dirt, holding his weight on his shoulder to support the unconscious noble. The man had given his all to the very last, an honorable action for any who would serve in the 13 Court Guard Squads. Nothing less would do for Byakuya Kuchiki.

Not even Ichigo could turn a blind eye to the act. He'd fought for what he believed was right no matter the circumstance, even putting himself in the way of an attack meant to end the Substitute's life. He couldn't just stand by and let it be in vain. It wasn't in him to do that.

Just as the boy tried to stagger forward in one final attempt, a hand clapped onto his shoulder, halting him.

"That's enough, Ichigo" a gentle voice proclaimed kindly as the man stepped forward, hand braced on his sword. "We'll take it from here."

"Captain Ukitake" Rukia exclaimed in relief, holding her shoulder to staunch her bleeding.

"Good to see you're still in one piece" Jushiro said with a smile at his subordinate.

"Seems you two have made quite a mess here" Shunsui Kyoraku commented as he touched down beside his friend, pulling his hat down to hide his smile. He took in the sight of both battered combatants before him, impressed beyond measure at the resilience the young man displayed. "Gave us quite the scare Byakuya, Ichigo."

From every direction, Soul Reapers from all across the Seireitei flashed onto the mountaintop behind them, gathering to face down the threat. Captains and seated officers stood tall amongst the group, all glaring hard and battle ready. While all showed resentment towards the three ahead of them, a particular few apart from the rest had their own scores to settle. A snowy-headed prodigy for the sake of his broken-hearted friend. Two Lieutenants betrayed by their idols. Most of all, a Captain wrought with grief and anger at his best friend's defection.

Lastly, Head Captain Genryusai Yamamoto appeared in front, his cane tapping down on the battered earth with all the authority of millennia past.

"Sosuke Aizen," his weathered voice declared, "you and your compatriots are guilty of treason against the Soul Society, as well as murder, attempted and succeeded."

"Head Captain" Aizen regarded with the same self-assured smile, never having shifted an inch as he continued to examine the Hogyoku, his prize. "I am honored to witness the symbol of the decaying system in person, as always."

The elder man's brows furrowed in thinly-veiled anger, his voice becoming thunderous. "Justice shall be swift on your head, insolent boy. The sentence for your treachery is death."

With a slam of his cane, Zanpakuto were unleashed with ungodly fury, spirit energy igniting the air and overtaking the sun's light. Each and every one was willing to die to put this man down, the man who had betrayed them all.

Unleashing a mighty howl, Sajin Komamura slashed his blade down the front, eyes burning with hatred for Aizen as he aimed to strike him down. Crashing into existence, a gigantic hand wielding a massive sword swung from the heavens, falling fast on the mastermind.

Not a sound was made as Tosen stepped forward, raising his Zanpakuto high in one hand and catching the offending weapon on the flat of his blade, stopping it dead without effort. The only give was from the ground beneath his feet, cracking under the force of the impact.

"WHY, KANAME!" growled Sajin. "WHY DO THIS?! HAVE YOU FORGOTTEN YOUR PURPOSE?!"

The blind man's sightless eyes remained forward, as if taking in his friend before him. "My purpose has not changed, Sajin" he spoke languidly. "I fight for true justice, just as I always have."

Shuhei Hisagi bared his teeth at those words, gripping his Zanpakuto tightly. How could the man he'd known and looked up to for so long call this fighting for justice? How could this be his Captain? The Kaname Tosen he knew was worlds apart from this man, a man he deplored violence and killing simply for the sake of it.

He shut his eyes and resigned himself, setting his trepidations aside. He could not hold back anything, even if it meant resorting to the thing he feared most. "Reap…Kazeshini."

With a tilt of Tosen's head, his Suzumushi vibrated, following his silent command. Swiping imperceptibly, 100 mirrors of his blade appeared in a circle before launching at the enormous hand waiting above him. A thunderous roar of pain echoed as it disappeared into thin air, Komamura's arm suddenly shredding and spraying with blood, forcing him to drop his sword.

Even as the Shinigami all started forward to charge the trio, a great slam of Genryusai's cane stopped them short. The wood unfurled to reveal the weapon hidden within, the Zanpakuto respected and feared by all.

"No more time will be wasted on you traitors. I will carry out the sentence and smite this scourge out of existence" his weathered voice boomed as he drew his blade, the temperature suddenly climbing sharply.

"I see." Aizen smirked a little more broadly. "Interesting to see our power would warrant the Head Captain's personal intervention."

The ancient Soul Reaper's brows furrowed in thinly-veiled anger. "You will be burned away all at once, and your remains will scatter on the wind. All things in the universe turn to ashes…RYUJIN JAKKA!" With a resounding crash, his blade erupted in a torrent of intense flame, spreading out before him, drowning out all other noise on the wind.

Ichigo could not find his breath in the suffocating heat, awed by the sheer power displayed by the old man. If anything, he was sincerely glad that he had run into Byakuya instead of him. He had no illusions about how quickly he would've met his death at the Head Captain's hand.

"Well now. It appears Yamamoto isn't playing around" Ichimaru commented, the spreading inferno gleaming in his slitted eyes.

"Taimatsu…" With a wave of his sword, Genryusai sent an immense tide of fire barreling at them, intent on swallowing them up and incinerating them on the very ground they stood.

"I suppose it is up to me, then, is it?" With a shrug, the silver-haired Captain strolled forward toward the racing flames nonchalantly. His smile widening, he drew his blade. "Shoot 'em dead. Shinso."

Rock and dust flew into the air as the wall of fire engulfed them, their shadows disappearing behind the blinding light of the inferno. The earth quaked as the mountainside crashed away in an avalanche, the expanse of flames clearing in the seconds it took for Genryusai to sheath his sword. Had it worked, Ichigo wondered. Had they been killed?

A brilliant flash of golden light beamed down from the sky out of nowhere, shining brightly down the side of the newly-formed cliff. In the midst of the low rumbling hum, the chunk of mountain cleaved away began to rise up. To everyone's shock, Aizen and his companions appeared back over the face, riding the rocky expanse up as it lifted in the glow.

Ichimaru's blade retracted back to its dagger form as he stepped back to his commander's side. "That was awfully close, don't you think? Then again, I enjoyed the fireworks."

The former Captain of Squad 5 just continued to smile on as he turned his eyes back to the sum of the Seireitei's military before him. "I'm afraid this is where we part ways for now. Enjoy this little respite while it lasts."

Gritting his teeth, the Substitute Soul Reaper watched in frustration as his perpetrator lifted off. He'd come so close, saw the Hogyoku within reach, and was now about to lose it. He could not let this stand. He could not let him get away.

"Aizen!"

He ran with all the remaining strength he could muster headlong at the beam of light raining down from the sky, intent on stopping his adversary by any means necessary. Though his body was riddled with pain, he fought with every bound to keep going. Leaping with as much might as he had left, he aimed his sword at the man, his last shot to take the bastard down.

Agony erupted across his entire being as he rebounded off the golden stream of light, a solid field between him and the three former Captains. He could not contain the scream that erupted from his throat as he was thrown back to the ground, skidding painfully to a stop.

"Ichigo!" Rukia cried out, running for all her worth to get to him. She dropped to her knees beside him, drawing his shoulders into her lap and cradling his beaten and broken form to her.

The boy seized with a gut-wrenching cough, doing everything he could just to crack open one eye to see the son of a bitch still smiling down at them all as he escaped. Only now did he see the black rip in the sky where the cone of light emanated, the red eyes of hundreds of Menos peering out from the darkness.

"Until we meet again, Ichigo Kurosaki" Aizen said in a calm, cool voice, smirking that same belittling smirk as the platform of broken rock ascended into the hole and was swallowed up, the Garganta slamming shut behind it. With it, all hope of stopping that man seemed to vanish.

"N-No…" Ichigo gripped his sword until blood drew from his palm, the crushing weight of his defeat bearing down on him. "AAAAIIIIIZEEEEEEEN!"


Phew! Feels good to finally post another one. I hope you all enjoyed it. I appreciate any reviews you guys post, so don't be shy.

Next time: The Aftermath...