The Protector's Temptation

EDIT: Changed some parts to fit with the new arc starting in Chapter 22. If you don't want to re-read the entire chapter, I've posted what I changed at the bottom.

Disclaimer: I do not own Bleach.

"Normal Speech"

'Inner Speech/Thoughts'

"Kido/Zanpakuto/Quincy Techniques"

"Zanpakuto Speech"

"Hollow Speech"

XXX

Chapter 21:

It was raining again today. Typical really, he thought as he stood there watching as the casket was loaded into the hearse and the people began to disperse. Ichigo stood alone under the eaves of the building, dressed in a black suit, white shirt, black tie and black dress shoes, watching as the last few mourners paid their respects to the family and left. Hearing shuffling to his left, he glimpsed some of his friends also dressed in the colour of mourning, staring at him with baleful eyes.

"It wasn't your fault Kurosaki-kun," Orihime said softly, walking up to him and placing a hand on his arm. Scoffing inwardly, he looked down at her bloodshot eyes, before looking up again and staring at nothing in particular.

"She's right Kurosaki…after all, it's not your fault that you weren't strong enough," Uryu commented, his even tone cutting Ichigo to his core

"I'm not weak," he growled at the archer, clenching his fists at his sides and glaring back at him.

"Then why didn't you save her Ichigo? Was it to make your life easier? Was it because you truly didn't care for her?" Rukia asked as she appeared above him, dressed in her shihakusho.

"Not care for her?" he sputtered in outrage. "What…how…how could you even think that?!"

"Then why didn't you protect me Ichigo-kun?" Michiru asked as her ghostly form appeared in front of him, the chain attached to her chest tinkling softly.

"No…NO! I sent you to the Soul Society! You shouldn't be here! This isn't real!" he yelled out, clutching his head in agony as they all closed in around him, asking him over and over again if he was weak or heartless.

XXX

Bolting upright with a strangled yell, Ichigo gasped for breath, his hand clutching at his bandaged chest as he felt a dull pain over his heart. 'Another nightmare…and they're happening more frequently now without something to occupy my mind,' he thought with a sigh, running a hand through his hair and staring at the clock next to his bedside. In the pale light of the early morning he could just make out the clock hands showing that it was just past 5am. 'The pain though, that's new and it's different from injuries I got from Kyoka. I don't get it though, mom's death hurt, but it was never this physical pain,' he thought with a grimace, tossing the covers from his body and climbing out of bed.

Grabbing his jogging clothes, he changed quickly before slipping down the stairs and out the door. Starting off at a brisk pace, his feet pounded down the concrete walkway, the steady beat allowing his mind to become blank as he focussed on his breathing and footwork. As he crossed the bridge over the river, he paused to catch his breath and stared out over the pristine waters. Unfortunately, the disruption to his rhythm caused the pain, both physical and mental to return with a vengeance, tormenting him once more.

'I have the power now and the will to use that power. No more hesitation, no more playing around. I've been an idiot, almost like Aizen, thinking that I've crushed my opponent, but never finishing him off, but all that will change.' Images of Yamamoto, Byakuya and Renji flitted across his mind, while he rested his palms on the rail in front of him. 'They're too blinded by their laws…their pride…their emotions to understand. If their reactions are anything to go by, they'll come visit me again soon and come hell or high water I won't back down from them. I don't need them; Kyoka's all I need and all I want right now.' Pushing himself off the railing, he started to head home to get ready for the real funeral.

XXX

Within his inner world, Kyoka Suigetsu sighed at the direction Ichigo's thoughts had taken. From the distress he felt in his nightmare, to the frigid coldness in his declaration, it was a far cry from the warmth and joy he had known mere days ago.

"And he takes yet another step closer to being the man I wanted him to be," a cold voice said, breaking into her reverie.

"Well maybe he shouldn't have to be the man you want him to be!" she shouted back, her anger rising at the being's return. "His love for others made him what I wanted and here you are trying to destroy that! Will you not content yourself with having driven Sosuke to madness?! Are you so bent on your own selfish desires that you will destroy another soul to achieve them?!"

*SMACK!* The tell-tale sound of flesh impacting on flesh echoed through the world and Kyoka's expression flashed between shock, anger and loathing as she held a palm to her stinging cheek.

"Your love for him has blinded you Kyoka," the being chided her. "I care not for his petty attachments to this world or the next. All that matters to me and all that should matter to you is that soon he will be ours…and ours alone!"

XXX

The weather was considerably better for the actual funeral than it had been in his dream, but the atmosphere was just as depressing as he had imagined it. Listening to the priest recite a sutra with half an ear, he glanced at the girls seated in the row next to him. Mahana, Ryo and Chizuru were sniffling softly, tears in the corners of their eyes, while Orihime rested her head on Tatsuki's shoulder, while said girl rubbed soothing circles on her friend's back. Hearing the priest fall silent, Ichigo turned back to the front, an impassive mask upon his face as he watched people stand. The first people to make any move were her parents, her mother being guided over by her father as they tearfully placed a single flower each around her head, before making their way down the aisle to wait by the door. As each row moved to place a flower around Michiru's head, Ichigo soon found himself leading the procession of girls, pausing only briefly at the casket to deliver his offering.

When he reached the door to offer his condolences to her parents though, he was half-dragged, half-led away by Michiru's mother, leaving her father alone to bid farewell to the mourners.

"Thank you for coming today Ichigo-kun," she said softly, causing his ears to strain to hear her words. "I had many dreams for my daughter. To cry tears of joy on her wedding day, on the birth of her first child…on so many different occasions," she finished with a sob. "But that will never happen now. I want to thank you though…because even if it was only a fleeting romance…I want to thank you for putting that smile on my daughter's face. Her smile these last few days…it reminds me of moments my husband and I shared and it eases my pain to know that she at least knew the joy we knew as husband and wife." Wiping away some of the tears that had formed at the corner of her eyes, Ichigo watched as she reached into her bag and withdrew a medium sized package. "Here, this is for you. You deserve it more than we do after all," she explained as she pressed it into his hand.

Sliding his finger under the seal, Ichigo tore it away and peered into the envelope, his eyes widening as he pulled out a framed photo. Looking at the photo though, he could see that it was the one they had taken on their first date, his head resting on her shoulder as she leaned back into him. Out of the corner of his eye he could see her mother starting to walk away.

"Mrs Ogawa…thanks," he said with actual gratitude in his tone, dropping his mask for a moment for her to see it. "I…I know it won't make it any easier, but Michiru was so relieved that you would make it. She…she confessed that she never really knew how much she would miss you and that she saw each moment spent with you as a treasure. I…I can't describe the love she held for the both of you, but I can say that she loved you two more than anything else in this world."

"Thank you for your words Ichigo-kun…I need to get back now. Keep safe, no parent should have to bury their child," she murmured, walking away from him with hunched shoulders.

As Ichigo stared at the photo, lost in his own thoughts, his mind was abruptly pulled back to reality by a subtle flare of reiatsu. Narrowing his eyes in the direction of the nearest high-rise building, he slipped over to a nearby tree and popped a little green pill into his mouth. "Stay here and mingle for a bit. If everyone leaves before I get back, head back home and I'll meet you there," he ordered the mod soul, before disappearing in a flash step to arrive at his destination.

XXX

Standing atop a nearby building, observing the few dozen people that milled about below him, Komamura didn't have to wait long for Ichigo to come to meet him.

"Komamura-san," Ichigo said curtly with a stiff nod as he landed on the roof and walked over to the canine-like Captain.

"Kurosaki-san," Komamura replied, inclining his head politely. "My apologies for disturbing you at this time, but it is a matter of grave importance to the Gotei 13 and Soul Society in general."

"When is it not," Ichigo muttered under his breath. "So what is it about this time?"

"The Captains and I are…concerned Kurosaki-san. We paid little attention to the return of your powers as you say, but with newfound knowledge that you are using Kyoka Suigetsu, some of the Captains feel that Aizen's zanpakuto may be controlling you." As Komamura waited patiently for Ichigo to answer, he was unprepared for the former substitute's response.

"You know…we always feared Aizen because of Kyoka Suigetsu, but do you ever think we feared Aizen simply because of who he really was? In fact, wasn't that what led to so many of our mistakes? That we focussed so much on stopping an almost unstoppable power that we ignored the fact that even without his blade Aizen was more powerful than any of us could imagine. And here we are again, concentrating so much on the fact that it's Kyoka Suigetsu and ignoring her wielder completely. Komamura-san…do I look like a threat to you? Is it in my character to be a threat to the Gotei 13 or Soul Society?"

Glancing over at the Captain, Ichigo could see his brows furrowed in though, mulling over his words.

"I'm not the threat here Komamura-san, but I can tell you who is," he trailed off cryptically, causing the Captain's ears to perk up slightly. "The true threat here…is the Gotei 13 itself," he said with such a sense of finality that Komamura was left floored. Growling and about to utter a retort, he was silenced by Ichigo's glare.

"Think of every threat the Gotei 13 has faced these last two years Komamura-san and tell me what they all have in common. Aizen, the Bount, Muramasa, Kageroza, each and every single one of them was a former member of the Gotei 13, but through a combination of negligence, greed, fear and arrogance, each of them strove to rise up and destroy the Soul Society for the slights they received. Look at the damage to my town…to my life…all this would have made any of them swear on their souls to destroy the Gotei 13 and Soul Society. I won't though, because I've come to understand that despite its flaws, the Gotei 13 is a necessary evil and I will not stand against them…unless provoked. Even now you have Mayuri Kurotsuchi as a Captain. Just take a look at all the 'heroic' things he's done and tell me that I'm wrong."

Taking a breath and turning back to the funeral procession in the distance, Ichigo could see the hearse pulling away and decided to finish his conversation. "I said that I wouldn't stand against you Komamura-san, but I'm afraid that I can no longer stand with you either. The Gotei 13 has pushed me away constantly and now I'm pushing back." Taking the substitute badge out of his shihakusho, he tossed it over at the canine Captain, watching him catch it with ease. "Tell Ukitake-san that I was grateful for it, but I won't have the Gotei 13 watching over me any longer." Walking over to the ledge, he paused as he felt Komamura's heavy hand on his shoulder.

"Kurosaki…wait. Let's at least…KUROSAKI!" he shouted in surprise as Ichigo shrugged his arm off his shoulder and flash stepped a couple of feet away.

"Annoying isn't it when people don't try and listen to you isn't it? Forgive me Komamura-san but I don't have time to waste with you and nothing you say will make me change my mind. Good day to you Captain Komamura," he finished with a bow of his head and vanished with a dull buzz.

Sighing as he stared at the empty sky in front of him, Komamura looked down at the former substitute's badge forlornly, before pocketing it and drawing his zanpakuto. Stabbing it into mid-air, he twisted it counter-clockwise and opened a senkaimon back to the Soul Society, a small black butterfly floating in front of him.

XXX

Hours later in the Seireitei, a dull thud echoed repeatedly through the halls of the Thirteenth Division, its source being the Captain's office, where the recently promoted Rukia Kuchiki repeatedly banged her head against her desk as the newly promoted Lieutenant of the Thirteenth Division. Hitting her head against the desk one last time, she sat with her forehead pressed against her desk as she thought back to her reaction to Ichigo's use of Kyoka Suigetsu and once again cursed herself. While it was to be expected that they would all react with some form of fear to the knowledge, she cursed her fear for clouding her senses when it came to Ichigo's character. He had put his life on the line for her and others so many times, but the one time she really needed to listen to him and she couldn't even do that, because of her pointless fear.

Even now her Captain was in an emergency meeting to discuss Captain Komamura's conversation with Ichigo and judging from the Captain's expression on his return, it had not gone nearly as well as she hoped. Hearing the sliding door to their office open, her head shot up and she bolted to her feet as her Captain returned.

"Welcome back Captain Ukitake," she said with a bow, causing Ukitake to sigh at her rigid formality.

"Come now Rukia, Kaien and I were never this formal with one another," he said tiredly, seating himself behind his desk.

"My apologies Captain," she replied sheepishly. Standing in front of his desk, she fidgeted with her sleeves as he organised his paperwork. "Captain forgive me, but has a decision been made about Ichigo?"

Looking up at her from the sheaf of papers in his hand, Ukitake sighed and set them down again, looking her straight in her eyes. "Ichigo-kun…has come to the conclusion that we are not an organisation worth allying himself with and as such he has decided to go his separate way." Reaching into his shihakusho, he withdrew the destroyed combat pass and placed it on his desk, watching as Rukia's eyes shot open in surprise and she collapsed into the chair across from him. "The Captain Commander has come to a decision regarding his fate though. The boy we knew in the Winter War lost his powers in it and has not regained them. That is the official story." Gaining a melancholic expression, Ukitake stood and moved around to place a hand on her shoulder. "No further action will be taken Rukia, so he is safe for now. I believe that sensei has granted him, his request for neutrality as a means of at least offering some form of compensation for all the troubles we have caused him."

"Thank you Captain," she whispered, her mind still digesting what neutrality meant to her and everyone as a whole. A stray thought flitted across her mind though, causing her eyes to shoot back to her Captain, her expression fearful. "Captain Ukitake, what about Central 46 though, they will never allow for Kyoka Suigetsu to be in the hands of another!"

"Ah yes about that," Ukitake said somewhat sheepishly as he reached into his shihakusho once again. "It seems as if the report detailing Ichigo-kun's zanpakuto seemingly went missing while en route to the Central 46 archives," he said as he withdrew a set of papers. "A shame wouldn't you say Rukia?" he finished with a smile, while Rukia's jaw hit the ground.

XXX

EDIT: Okay so I've chopped out the mini-arc I had planned and toned down Ichigo's talk with Komamura a bit.. After writing it out, I just found that while nice, it was pointless. Maybe in the future I'll do some sort of omake or one-shot with what happened, but for now it is completely scrapped.

Insight Corner

Not much at all I want to talk about guys, since a lot of what you asked was explained in this chapter, or will be explained soon. I will at least confirm that he went for Bankai and the fight I wrote fell flat on its face, but I will add snippets of it from time to time since I found them to be nice as standalone pieces.