Alright, for lack of space in the summary, here are the warnings for this. These do not all apply in this chapter, but they will all occur at some point in the story.
Warnings: Torture, non-con, slavery, angst, violence, slight mind-fuckery, explicit sexual scenes, character deaths, etc.
Is this how it ends?
Ichigo swallows and stares down at the concrete beneath his knees, shivering at the feel of cold metal pressing against the back of his neck. Blood trickles down the side of his throat and into what little remains of his bankai outfit. It joins the larger patches of soaked fabric and the splashes of blood on the ground. He's already injured – right arm broken and a sizeable gash along his ribs – with countless minor cuts and scrapes. He has no idea where Zangetsu is. He dropped it when Aizen had casually wrenched his arm behind his back and snapped it, and they'd been high in the air at the time so it could be anywhere in the mostly destroyed fake-Karakura.
Breaking out of that hold had been amazingly painful, but at least he'd only gotten a thin slice across his side instead of being skewered like Aizen had intended. Of course, without Zangetsu all he could – can –do is run, and Aizen made damn sure he never had the time to look for it.
The others – the vizard and shinigami – had tried to help, but with the Espada, Ichimaru, and Tousen, they'd been hard pressed just to survive their own fights. Plus he's pretty sure Aizen had been keeping up some kind of illusion, interfering just enough to keep his subordinates alive. There wasn't really any other explanation for the lunges and slashes at empty air or Tousen's continued victory. He's certainly strong, especially since he'd turned into that thing, but there are enough people fighting him that he really should be dead by now. He definitely shouldn't have been able to take down Komamura, Hisagi, and Iba without breaking a sweat.
Ichigo had been on his own. Obviously that had gone incredibly well, what with him being on his knees in front of Aizen; a sword at his throat and no fucking chance of moving fast enough to dodge the inevitable killing strike.
No. Ichigo can't die here, he can't afford to. If he dies here then Karakura – just one reality away and that's too damn close – gets razed to the ground and everyone he knows dies. Aizen becomes what amounts to a god and then who knows what he'll do. Given the behavior trend, it won't be good. This all hinges on him surviving, He's the only one who isn't under Aizen's illusions, who has a chance in hell of beating the traitor. If he goes down, Aizen wins, and there's no way he can allow that.
His hollow stirs in the back of his mind, snarling, 'Let's go, King.'
The hollow's tired, exhausted even, but still willing to fight. The hollow is always willing to fight. Of course in cases like this the sentiment is a little silly since any ability he's had to fight is long since gone.
Ichigo looks up at Aizen, careful not to lift his head enough to press against the steel resting on his neck. Aizen's brown eyes are narrowed and contemplative, watching him steadily. He swallows again under the look, struggling to keep Aizen's gaze, and slowly moves his left hand to press against the gash across his right ribs, attempting – in vain and damnit he knows that – to stem the flow of blood. It drips between his fingers as Aizen looks down at him and the sounds of battle ring in both their ears. Metal clashes, someone cries out in pain, and he flinches, wincing as Aizen's sword – Kyouka Suigetsu, isn't it? – bites a little further into his flesh. No one's yelled at him, has even seemed to notice he's about to fucking die, so he can only assume that they're hidden in another of Aizen's illusions.
Just fantastic. No sword, barely any power left, and no one who knows he needs help.
Aizen's eyes harden minutely, the steel draws back for a blow, and Ichigo moves. He throws himself backwards, desperately, and instead of cutting his throat Kyouka Suigetsu only draws a thin line of blood across the front of his neck. He hits the ground on his back and bites back a cry of pain at the jostling of his arm and the rubble digging into his spine. Aizen doesn't miss a beat, stepping forward and returning Kyouka Suigetsu to its place against his throat. He stiffens, not moving as Aizen places a foot on his chest, holding him in place.
"This will be less painful if you stop trying to get away, Kurosaki. No one can see us and you're not fast or powerful enough to fight me or even escape me. Give in, Kurosaki."
He shivers, managing a tiny glare. "You think I'm just going to fucking lie here and let you kill me?!"
Aizen's lips curl in a smirk, amusement bursting to life in his eyes, "I don't think you have much of a choice, honestly."
He can't move. Even if Aizen wasn't holding him down and there wasn't steel at his throat, he wouldn't be able to move. Fear is heavy in his chest, the instinctual distress triggered by confronting an opponent much stronger than him. The amount of times Ichigo's felt this fear is ridiculous, but it never gets easier to handle. It's a combination of pain, blood loss, exhaustion, and just plain old fucking terror. It makes it a struggle to even breathe, each intake of air gasped in and seeming to catch on the sword pressed against his throat.
Aizen's sword lifts high for an appropriate killing blow and he knows he should move, should struggle, but he can't. He's staring at that steel and Aizen's eyes and smirk, and god he's going to die and he can't even fucking move! A brief hesitation, the sword glinting above Aizen's head, and finally he forces himself to move, to jerk and try to escape but it's too late and he really is just going to lie there and let Aizen kill him because he'll never make it out in time and-
There's a burst of light between them, whiting out his vision, and a burning pain spreads outwards from the foot on his chest with alarming speed. He tries to cry out, scream, but he's frozen and can't as much as twitch. Nausea swells – what has Aizen done to him?! – and he's hit with extreme vertigo, spinning through the air and unable to feel the concrete at his back or the foot on his chest.
Is this what dying feels like; this descent – or maybe ascent? – into empty space and this pain? Isn't the agony supposed to go away? Isn't he supposed to feel all light and insubstantial and certainly not like he's about to throw up? His vision fades, white to grey and then grey to black.
And then, quite suddenly, he is somewhere else and someone else.
His eyes flick open and he focuses in on his lieutenant, Hisagi Shuuhei, letting his eyes remain narrowed. Black spots remain in his vision from the abrupt flare of white – and he files that away in a corner of his mind to figure out later – but he ignores them in favor of straightening up, looking across the table at the older man.
Concern is evident in the black-haired man's gaze, but one hand is on his sword. Ichigo makes a note to praise Shuuhei for that later; you can never be too careful these days. The chances of Aizen – or one of his Arrancar - finding a way into Seireitei without them knowing about it is slim, Urahara had seen to that before his death, but still possible. With Aizen, things are always possible.
"Are you alright, Kurosaki-sou-taichou?" Shuuhei's tone is cautious and his dark grey eyes are just barely narrowed.
Ichigo hates that Aizen's driven them to this. Constantly wary of threats from outside, even from each other, unable to completely trust even their friends and partners. He hates that even Shuuhei – who he's known for almost thirteen years and who's been his lieutenant for seven of those – has reason to consider he might be an enemy. There have been – too many – assassinations at an Arrancar's hand, the threat concealed under an illusion that almost no one can see through.
He can, and Uryuu is one of the few others, but most of Seireitei has been exposed to Aizen's shikai at some point or another. That's not even mentioning the horrific powers of his bankai. Ichigo hadn't really known pain till the day Aizen first used that on him, and he still vaguely wishes that he'd never grown to be that much of a threat to the traitor. He'd been damn lucky that Aizen had already been tired and both Shunsui and Ukitake had been there to force Aizen away from him.
"Fine, Shuuhei, just a little dizzy. No illusions here, promise."
The fingers of his left hand dance a subtle pattern on the fabric of his hakama, where his hand is hanging, and Shuuhei visibly relaxes, hand falling from his sword. The movements and phrase, only ever together, is his code. Each captain and vice-captain has one, sometimes several different ones to use with different people. They're changed bi-weekly with a few days of warning, and each person is only given whatever codes will be used with them and what they'll use with others. Ichigo is the only person who knows exactly what each person's code is, and if they have more than one. If it isn't delivered correctly then the other person has standing orders to discreetly keep their distance and fetch him to confirm that it's an illusion and not just a mistake brought on by exhaustion or something similar.
It's the only system they've found that works almost all the time, and the few assassins that still get by are much better than the death rate they'd had before.
"Should I fetch Unohana-taichou, Kurosaki-sou-taichou?"
"No, I really am fine," Shuuhei pins him with a look, unyielding, and he sighs "but I'll go by the fourth later to make sure. Satisfied?"
Shuuhei nods and Ichigo can't help the tiny smile that curls his mouth. That. That's why he'd picked Shuuhei as his lieutenant. The older man won't let him get away with anything, regardless of his power or status or how much he argues. That stubbornness has probably saved his life more times than he knows, and he knows it's saved his life at least twice.
"Would you like me to continue with the division statuses, Kurosaki-sou-taichou?"
"Go ahead." Ichigo steps around the table as Shuuhei returns to the report he'd been giving, moving to stand at the slightly taller man's side and see the papers strewn over the table from his angle.
"The third is rather low on shinigami, I'd recommend filing some of the latest graduates into that division to keep it from falling behind in numbers." Understandably, most of Soul Society hasn't gotten over their dislike for the third, fifth and ninth divisions.
Shuuhei reaches down, picks up one of the four pens –the first thing Ichigo had introduced upon finding out that the shinigami were still using brushes for paperwork – scattered across the table, and makes a note on one of the papers.
"The fourth is running smoothly, Unohana-taichou doesn't need any help there, but I'm thinking we should probably just disband the fifth."
Ichigo can't hold back the sigh as he raises his left hand to rake through his hair, replying with just a moment of hesitation, "It's going to be a pain in the ass, but you're right. Plan it, I'll sign off on whatever you need me to and help how I can."
The fifth is all but gone anyway. While Shinji had – before Aizen killed him – attempted to rebuild it, he didn't get far. The shinigami that had been there before were disillusioned, especially with Hinamori at their head, and the dislike of the divisions surrounding them only made it worse. Not even Shinji's manic cheerfulness managed to bring them out of their slump. It certainly didn't – and doesn't – help that Aizen seems to have made it a personal goal to wipe out anyone in the fifth.
Yeah, it's really just better that they get rid of it. The couple hundred shinigami left can be easily sorted and absorbed into other divisions.
"Will do. The sixth needs a new vice-captain and Abarai has a few candidates in mind, do you want to look through them?"
He shakes his head, "No, I trust his judgment. Tell him to bring whoever he chooses to me so I can confirm his choice."
Another note is written down and Shuuhei makes a soft noise of assent. "The sixth is running fine apart from that. The seventh is running smoothly, Yumichika is adjusting well to his new captaincy. The eighth is still under reconstruction after Aizen's last attack, but that's coming along well and Nanao-san says it should be done within the week."
"That's good, the seventh will be glad to stop sharing space with them."
"Indeed. The ninth has academy duties starting in a week, so I put the papers across your desk last week. Everyone I chose has copies of the shifts and we're completely ready to take over as soon as the time comes."
Of course. Shuuhei would never allow his division – which the dark-haired man runs on top of being his lieutenant and handling the newspaper – to fall behind on anything. Not once has Shuuhei ever brought one of the ninth's problems to Ichigo. They're always handled long before they could require his attention. He secretly thinks that Unohana and Nanao have been giving Shuuhei lessons since they're the only other people he knows who can do so much and not show the slightest bit of stress. He is, however, the only person filling two different posts, and the sleeveless – to match his original shinigami uniform which he still wears beneath it – white coat over the top announces that by bearing both the ninth's and the first's symbols.
"I don't think Matsumoto is up to the task of being the tenth's captain. We need to find a replacement for her and return her to the post of vice-captain. She's strong, but she doesn't have the focus needed to be a captain."
"Is there anyone else we can even ask?"
Shuuhei gives him a look, and he immediately knows he won't like his lieutenant's answer.
"Tatsuki-fuku-taichou has bankai, she achieved it a few weeks ago. There's no one else."
He grits his teeth and bites back a curse. Sure, Tatsuki is powerful, but Aizen knows his attachment to her and the idea of putting her just that one step farther up in the traitor's priorities is sickening. But, he also knows he doesn't particularly have a choice. If Aizen goes after her then Ichigo will do his best to stop him, maybe he'll even succeed. After all, he's managed to keep Renji, Uryuu, and Shuuhei alive, and they're all on Aizen's 'most wanted' list. Surely he can manage one more person.
"Do it. Ask her and we can have her captain's test within a few days if she agrees."
Shuuhei shifts over a fraction, gently pressing their shoulders together and providing a steady support. Ichigo knows Shuuhei can read the war in his eyes – he's never been good at hiding his emotions. The desire to keep a friend safe facing off with his duties and responsibility as captain-commander of the Gotei thirteen to make sure all his divisions are running to their best ability.
"If Tatsuki-fuku-taichou does accept, we'll need a new vice-captain for the second. Are we allowing Soi Fon to choose her own?"
He gratefully accepts the contact, snorting at his lieutenant's question, "as if she'd ever accept someone if we appointed them. Yes, Soi Fon can choose her own vice-captain with no interference from me."
Shuuhei nods in confirmation.
"Ikkaku-san is running the eleventh as well as it ever runs, nothing serious there though you can expect some late paperwork, as usual. Kurotsuchi-taichou has finally come up with a list of everything in their inventory and all the different projects they're running, along with brief descriptions. She'll have that to us by tomorrow."
Nemu had taken over after Mayuri's death, almost two years ago. The twelfth is certainly much saner than it used to be, and after she shut down all of Mayuri's pet projects – most of which were useless – the division had actually churned out some very interesting things.
"Finally, the thirteenth," Shuuhei hesitates for a brief moment before continuing, "I think you should ask Ukitake-taichou to step down as captain once we find a suitable replacement."
Ichigo looks over and catches the edge of a darkly worried expression before Shuuhei wipes it clean and returns his look. He's not entirely surprised, in fact he's been thinking the same thing. Ukitake is strong, no one can argue that, but Shunsui's death hit him hard and his illness has been steadily worsening. He isn't always in a condition to lead his division on the battlefield and they honestly can't afford to have a leaderless division these days.
"I know. I'll talk to him, Shuuhei. I promise," he pauses to consider the logistics. They don't have anyone – as far as he knows – about to gain bankai, and Ukitake's health is an issue now. "Make sure Kotetsu-fuku-taichou knows how to lead the thirteenth, just in case."
Shuuhei nods and leans forward, making a last note on the paper before folding it and tucking it into his uniform. "Yes, Kurosaki-sou-taichou."
Ichigo straightens and pulls away from Shuuhei's shoulder as the older man starts to gather up the papers on the table, watching and admiring the grace and play of hard muscle. Shuuhei looks back at him, one eyebrow raised and expression silently demanding an explanation for why he's still standing there. He sighs and rolls his eyes, stepping back and half-turning away.
"Alright, alright, I'll go talk to Ukitake."
"Fourth first," Shuuhei interjects immediately, reaching across the table for the last of the papers and shuffling them into a neat pile.
Shuuhei's lips curl into a tiny smirk as he straightens to his full height and tucks the papers underneath his left arm. "Go to the fourth, speak to Ukitake and Matsumoto, and I'll make sure everything that needs attention in the first is complete in two hours. Deal?"
Clever bastard knows just how to wrap him around his fingers. The promise of a night off for the first time in weeks, to actually be able to sleep – or not sleep, that sounds good too – for more than a hastily grabbed two or three hours.
He answers the smirk, "The first and ninth, then you have a deal."
Shuuhei's eyes flare with banked heat and the older man gives a soft laugh, "what a hardship, Kurosaki-sou-taichou. Deal. Now get going."
Ichigo turns without another word as warmth builds in his chest. He leaves the first division's headquarters and jumps to the roof, taking off towards the fourth. Shuuhei has been his – lover, partner? – for just over five years now. The older man is perfect, in his opinion. Attractive and honest and not at all opposed, in fact that had been what started it, to being his grounding rock in the midst of the chaos of the war. Maybe, when the war ends – if it ends – they can settle down. Maybe even retire, eventually.
A lot of things hinge on 'when the war ends'.
Uryuu intends to move to America, just to escape all the memories of Karakura, and – if Ichigo remembers correctly – the Quincy wants to start a career over there as a fashion designer. When the war ends the two remaining vizards – just Lisa and Hachi, now – are going to leave, though they haven't shared, and he won't ask, where. Nanao has expressed her desire to marry her longtime partner Ikkaku (and there's a match he never expected) once the fighting is done, but the both of them agree that they won't even consider it while the war is still going.
Too many things hinge on the eventual end of a war that so far doesn't have an end in sight.
He lands in front of the fourth with practiced ease, startling a few division members with his sudden appearance. He nods to them and heads into the division, angling himself towards where he can feel Unohana's reiatsu. That's a skill that took way too long for him to master. Reiatsu control and kidou was his deepest weakness for a very long time and only Unohana's terrifying patience and Shuuhei's endless determination pulled him past it. He certainly doesn't have skills in that category even close to his lieutenant's or Nanao's – that woman can do things with kidou that scare even him – but he's getting better.
Besides, any kidou he uses is absurdly powerful without him really needing the finer points of control and he knows enough to recognize what kidou Aizen is going to throw at him next, which is the most important part.
He steps into the doorway of the room Unohana is currently in just as she pats the occupant of the room – a mid-thirties black haired man with bandages wrapped around his chest and right arm – on his uninjured shoulder and speaks softly.
The man nods, his eyelids already drooping, and Unohana looks up at Ichigo. She moves across the room and he steps back to stop blocking the doorway, briefly inclining his head in response to the soft smile she gives him.
"How can I help you, Kurosaki-sou-taichou?"
Inevitably, Unohana always makes him feel absurdly young and inexperienced - which he is, technically. The only reason he's captain-commander instead of her is that she had declined the offer and admitted that she would much prefer to stay captain of the fourth. He's pretty sure that even Aizen would never dare harm Unohana - she's just that scary.
"Shuuhei sent me over, Unohana-san."
She crooks a finger for him to follow her and he does, staying several steps behind as she leads him to an unoccupied room and waves him inside. He steps in and shrugs out of his captain's coat, throwing it onto the chair directly next to the door. The door clicks shut behind him as he moves to sit on the edge of the bed that dominates the center of the room.
He knows the drill by now. He's been in and out of the fourth way too many times in the twelve odd years since the start of the war, especially after Orihime's death - No. Since he'd had her killed. That wound will never close, and he's never had to make a harder choice than that, but Soul Society couldn't afford to have her around anymore. There was no way they could compete with Aizen when his troops took all of an hour to heal, if that. Eventually, when they were all forced to go back into battle against fully healed Espada with their own injuries still bleeding and bandaged, and when Byakuya had died as a result of that, Shuuhei had demanded he make a choice. Either expend every effort to rescue her, or have the second division kill her. They didn't have the strength to get her out, so he called it.
He didn't sleep that night, or the rest of that week, and every time he closed his eyes he saw her staring back at him, grey eyes sad and accusatory. Uryuu wouldn't look at him for months afterwards. He still, occasionally, wakes from nightmares related to that.
"So, Kurosaki-san, what happened?"
He shakes his head, frowning and bringing the memory back to the front of his mind. "No idea. We were talking, nothing out of the ordinary, there was this bright flash of white light and I got really dizzy for a few seconds. Then, nothing. It all just went away."
She makes a soft noise of understanding and moves forwards, pressing her left hand against his forehead. He shivers at the current of reiatsu that slides into him, recognizing it as Unohana's version of a basic check-up. Ichigo's eyes slip closed and he relaxes, letting the tension bleed out of his muscles and his reiatsu settles into a smooth pond instead of the storm ravaged ocean it's been since the bout of dizziness.
Unohana always has this effect on him. Just being around her – when she's not irritated at you in that 'I'm going to be so cuttingly polite and friendly that you'll immediately be guilty and fix whatever is irritating me' way – is calming, soothing. She's like the adopted mother of the entire Gotei thirteen, and how she manages that he doesn't know.
"There doesn't appear to be anything wrong with you, Kurosaki-san."
He stirs and flicks his eyes open as Unohana withdraws her hand, looking up at the other captain. Her blue eyes are warm and she smiles at him in a way that on anyone else would be completely friendly and open. On her it is a 'you're going to listen to me and do exactly as I say' smile, and he obediently straightens up and pays full attention.
"Most likely it was caused by simple stress. I'd recommend you get some sleep, Kurosaki-san. Go home early today."
Sometimes he swears Shuuhei can see the future. If it hadn't been such a spur of the moment visit he might even think the two of them were conspiring against him. It wouldn't be the first time.
"Shuuhei already has plans to have everything done in both of our divisions in a little under two hours. That good with you, Unohana-san?"
Her smile twitches upwards, becomes a genuine expression of warmth with no meaning behind it, and she nods. "Express my thanks to Hisagi-san, Kurosaki-san," she steps back and moves to the door, speaking softly over her shoulder as she opens it, "and tell him I said not to keep you up all night." He flushes as she sweeps away without glancing back, any kind of rebuttal impossible in the face of her gentle teasing.
He shakes his head and stands, walking across the room to collect his captain's coat. He shrugs back into it and steps out of the room, easily navigating back through the fourth division and out to its courtyard. Seriously, he knows the fourth division way too well. The only other divisions he can navigate as well as the fourth are the first and ninth, for obvious reasons.
Now, to Ukitake.
He jumps back into the air, enjoying the rush of wind that beats against his face and billows out his coat, and makes his way to the thirteenth via rooftops. The corridors below are fine if he feels the need to think or just to walk, but totally useless for actually getting from one area to another quickly. Someday, once – if – the war ends, he's going to tear down the entire place and rebuild it. There is no reason for it to be so complicated.
He follows Ukitake's reiatsu signature to the much older man's office, setting down in the thirteenth's main courtyard. Kiyone – the thirteenth's vice-captain since her third-seat partner Sentarou's death – waves as he straightens up and detaches herself from the group of shinigami she'd been talking to. He meets her halfway as the other shinigami none-too-subtly ogle at them.
"Here to talk to Ukitake-taichou, Kurosaki-sou-taichou?" He nods and she grins, ever playing the friendly kid. "Follow me!"
He does, letting her lead him through the thirteenth division to Ukitake's office. The other shinigami step out of their way and murmur greetings, bowing and not meeting his eyes. He'll never get used to that. Still, he supposes it's better than the looks he got before becoming captain-commander, when he was just some part-human kid with way too much power who also just so happened to be Soul Society's only hope against Aizen.
Kiyone smiles again and knocks on the door to Ukitake's office, receiving a muffled, "Come in!"
She opens the sliding door and he enters after giving her a nod of thanks, the door sliding shut behind him. Ukitake looks up and his eyes widen for a brief moment before the captain straightens and smiles, carefully setting down the pen in his hand.
"Kurosaki-sou-taichou! How can I help you?"
Ichigo moves into the room, taking the chair opposite the desk from Ukitake and flicking eyes over the captain. He looks good today, normal color in his cheeks and his hands lacking the tremor usually there if he's had an attack recently.
"Ukitake-san, I…" His throat locks. Ukitake is one of his most trusted friends, one of the few people he's never doubted. Asking him to step down from a position he's had long before Ichigo was even born is more difficult than he thought it'd be.
Ukitake sighs and his smile softens, hands clasping together in front of him. "Ah, I was wondering when you'd get around to it. You're here to ask me to step down as captain, correct?"
He nods, wincing. "Not immediately, but when we find someone capable of replacing you."
Ukitake smiles and leans back in his chair, "In truth I was considering asking you to replace me if you didn't get around to it soon. I'm getting too old for this, and while I am perfectly willing to continue fighting till the war ends, it isn't fair to the thirteenth to have a leader who isn't capable of leading half the time." The older captain gives him a reassuring smile, brown eyes light and friendly. "Let me know when you have a replacement in mind, Kurosaki-san. I'll gladly hand over my seat and stick around for awhile to help them integrate with life here."
He can't help sighing in relief, eyes flickering closed for a brief moment. "Thanks, Ukitake-san. That makes things a lot simpler."
Ukitake chuckles and straightens up, reclaiming his pen from the desk and pulling several papers towards him. "You're welcome, Kurosaki-san. Now I imagine there are a few other errands on Hisagi-san's list which you need to attend to. Thank you for the visit, Kurosaki-sou-taichou."
Effectively dismissed, Ichigo bows his head and stands from the chair. He leaves the division, nodding to Kiyone on the way out, and pauses in the courtyard. Matsumoto will be the most difficult of his 'errands'.
She's still grieving for Hitsugaya's death – only a few short months ago – and she's been trying to manage the tenth on top of that and with only a third-seat hurriedly turned vice-captain to help. They'd thought she was ready but, well, the late paperwork and recent disorganization of the tenth division proved that she wasn't. He doesn't relish the idea of telling Matsumoto that if Tatsuki accepts their offer she'll be replaced by a woman at least fifty years her junior, and she'll also be expected to return to her post as vice-captain and help said woman.
He can't imagine she'll take that news well, Ichigo knows he wouldn't if their positions were reversed.
He takes to the air, hunting down Matsumoto's unique reiatsu pattern and moving towards it. She's outside her division – in one of the training yards – watching silently as her vice-captain drills what Ichigo knows has to be the latest batch of recruits from the Academy. He can't stifle a wince at her appearance, her eyes ringed with dark circles and a heavy mix of exhaustion and grief in her gaze. Nevertheless she immediately turns towards him as he lands next to her, summoning a tiny smile to her lips.
"Welcome, Kurosaki-sou-taichou. What is it?"
"I have something to tell you, Matsumoto-san." Worry lights in her eyes but all she does is nod in assent, obviously bracing to hear it. "Shuuhei and I are going to ask Tatsuki to take over as captain of the tenth. If she accepts, you'll be moved back down to vice-captain."
To his surprise Matsumoto sighs in relief, sagging. "Oh thank god!" He gets less than a second's warning before she has him in a bone-crushingly tight hug, her head on his shoulder.
"Matsumoto…" he manages to croak out as his ribs groan in protest, but she completely ignores him.
"I am so not cut out for this! Thank you, thank you, thank you! I've never been so grateful to be demoted in my life!"
"Matsumoto," he repeats, vainly pushing at her chest, "need to breathe."
"Oh!" She releases him and he gasps in air, coughing and wincing at the leftover twinges from his abused sides. "Sorry, Kurosaki-sou-taichou." He waves off the apology and she beams, looking about two inches away from hugging him again and he edges away because really, once was enough.
"I'll let you know when Tatsuki decides, but ideally we'll have her test within a few days and the ceremony right after that."
She nods, still smiling, and then gives him a sly little wink that she must have learned from Shunsui. "Have a good night with Shuuhei, Kurosaki-sou-taichou. Thank him for me, hm?" She turns without letting him answer, swaying over towards her vice-captain and the recruits.
He shakes his head and sighs, though his lips do quirk upwards in a smile of his own. There's maybe an hour and a half left of work back at his division before the promised night off, before he can spend all night properly reacquainting himself with Shuuhei. They haven't had this much time to themselves in a very long time, it'll be nice to be able to relax and just be himself instead of 'the captain-commander'.
He heads back to the first division, finding a moderately sized stack of paperwork on his desk with a note stuck to the top, written in smooth, flowing handwriting.
Already looked over these, just need a signature. See you at six.
He sinks into his chair and runs a hand through his hair before reaching for one of the two or three pens on his desk. After that he sinks into a kind of trance, mindlessly pulling papers towards him and signing his name at the required spots. It's dull – mind-numbingly boring to be honest – but sadly necessary. It's everything from supply requests to reports from shinigami stationed in the human world, and every single one needs either his approval or a signature confirming that he's read it.
Thank god for Shuuhei or he'd be up to his neck in the stuff.
Eventually he's woken by a light tap to the frame of his door. He flinches, going into high alert for a moment before he recognizes the reiatsu and face at his door as Shuuhei's. His lieutenant gives a soft smile, dark grey eyes amused.
"Lose track of time?"
He straightens up and drops the pen, pushing back from the desk. "Well there's no clock in here, what do you expect?" He gets to his feet, pushing his arms over his head in a stretch and groaning at the multitude of cracks from his back. "What time is it?"
Shuuhei crosses the room with an easy grace and circles the desk to stand next to him, smirk tugging at his lips. "Two minutes till six. How'd your meetings go?"
He looks over at the other man, dropping his arms down and returning the smirk. "Ukitake is perfectly willing to step down, wants to, actually. Matsumoto is the same way. Matsumoto and Unohana wanted me to thank you." He grins, reaching out and taking a fistful of the older man's shirt to pull him closer. "And Unohana says to tell you not to keep me up all night."
Shuuhei leans in and they share a kiss, chaste and sweet. "Well, I suppose we'll have to get started earlier then, hm? Dinner?"
"I can wait," he nearly growls, dragging Shuuhei back down.
But right before their lips touch Ichigo stiffens, something tugging deep in his soul and raising warning bells in every corner of his mind. "Fuck…" he hisses out, leaning his head down to rest against Shuuhei's shoulder.
A moment later alarms go off, shrieking into the air and undoubtedly waking every shinigami not already awake. Shuuhei sighs and Ichigo can't help but snort as he releases the older man and steps back.
"Aizen's got terrible timing, as usual," he comments.
Shuuhei steps to the window and shoves it open, slipping a foot up onto the windowsill to prepare for a jump. As he does a chill hits Ichigo, something sending a shudder down his spine and settling in his gut. Something is different about this fight, something is important, and he learned a long time ago not to ignore his instincts.
The older man looks back at him, one eyebrow raised and clearly puzzled. "What is it?"
"I love you," he admits, and Shuuhei's eyes widen, "I've never said it, but I do. I thought you should know."
Shuuhei doesn't move off the windowsill but he gives a soft smile as he quietly says, "I love you too, Ichigo." He holds out a hand and Ichigo takes it, allowing the older man to pull him towards the window. "Let's go, we have a would-be god to defeat, remember?"
He grins, feeling lighter than he has in a long time and launches himself from the window towards where he can feel Aizen waiting. Soukyoku hill, how appropriate. The Espada and Arrancar he's brought along are already wreaking havoc, but he can feel his own forces moving to counter them. He knows Shuuhei will make sure to deploy everyone as efficiently as possible, tactics and strategy are his strongest point after all. Not like Ichigo. He can hit, and hit hard, but in the end his only job in this fight is to keep Aizen occupied. He's the only one who can stand up to the traitor, Aizen has made sure to wipe out every other threat.
He skids to a stop as he draws Zangetsu from its sheath at his waist, the massive blade long since sealed into a normal state instead of its permanent shikai. Aizen smiles at him, all knives behind the mask of honey, Kyouka Suigetsu already drawn at his side.
"Come back for another try, bastard?" he snaps and Aizen laughs, the traitor's reiatsu cold and abrasive against his own where they brush against each other.
"Of course. Ready, Ichigo-kun?"
"Let's dance, Aizen."
There's no point in drawing this out, not at this stage. They're both too powerful and they know each other too well to waste time on the normal ritual of combat.
"Bankai, Tensa Zangetsu!"
The dust swirls around him but even through the roar of power in his ears he can hear Aizen's similar call.
"Bankai, Kyouka Suigetsu Oroseken!"
Great, just great. Aizen's bankai has to be the nastiest piece he's ever seen, and that's saying something considering Soi Fon has a nuke and Shuuhei's focuses on depriving his opponent of air and slowly suffocating them. No offense to his partner but he'd really like to never watch that again.
A single drop of Ichigo's blood on his blade and Aizen will be able to trap him inside a mental universe that is completely and utterly under his control. Anything that the traitor can imagine – and that imagination is damn vivid – he can create and even though none of it is real, and they're simply frozen on the outside, it definitely feels real.
The dust starts to clear and he jumps forwards towards the reiatsu he can feel pushing against his own, shoving his blade against Aizen's. The other man is still smiling and that sets him on edge, normally Aizen has long since started smirking. In fact, the last time he can recall Aizen smiling like this was mid-way through one of their previous fights. Oh god, no. It had been the day he'd set Stark on Shunsui and very deliberately had Ukitake distracted so there was no one to watch the captain of the eighth's back.
"What did you do?!" he demands, a hundred different possibilities jumping to the front of his mind. Tatsuki, Renji, Uryuu, Shuuhei.
Aizen casually flicks his blade aside, an unvoiced kidou flying from his hand, and Ichigo brushes it aside with his bare hand and swirls out of the way of the follow-up slash of Kyouka Suigetsu. He answers with a thrust to Aizen's ribs that the traitor slides away from, still smiling.
"Haven't you sensed it already, Ichigo-kun?" A brief check of the different reiatsu signatures and Ichigo knows what the other man is talking about, the blood draining from his face. Aizen gives a mock noise of worry, cruel amusement dancing in his eyes. "I don't think dear Shuuhei is up to the task of beating Stark, do you?"
No. Shuuhei is powerful, but not that powerful. He'll never survive against Stark, not if the Espada is even halfway serious, and if this is Aizen's direct order then Stark – true to his nature – will do it quickly and efficiently and Shuuhei will die.
"You bastard," he snarls, lunging at Aizen. The traitor blocks his sword and his left hand flings a kidou at Ichigo who turns to avoid it, letting the burst of white energy fly past his cheek with only inches to spare. "I'll fucking kill you!"
Another swing of metal and Aizen's sword flashes past his throat, Zangetsu driving forward in response and being pushed away by the flat of the blade. "You've tried before, Ichigo-kun."
He barely avoids the next slice of Kyouka Suigetsu, the blade ripping a small hole in the fabric of his captain's coat which – for some reason he's never been able to figure out – sticks around when he goes into bankai. Aizen smirks and presses forwards, ducking low to aim another strike at Ichigo's stomach. He jumps back and reaches inwards for the well of reiatsu deep in his soul, immediately stepping forwards again to counter as he begins to whisper a kidou chant under his breath. Damnit, Shuuhei and Unohana had drilled the incantations into his mind so he might as well use them.
"Ye lord, mask of flesh and blood," Aizen's eyes narrow and the traitor goes on full offensive, "flutter of wings, ye who bears the name of man," Ichigo's driven back, gritting his teeth against the force of Aizen's blows, "truth and temperance, upon this sinless wall of dreams," Kyouka Suigetsu slides past his guard, slicing another hole in his coat as he jerks to the side to stop it cutting open his side, "unleash but slightly the wrath of your claws."
He bats aside Aizen's sword, stepping in closer and lashing out with his left hand, energy gathering at his fingertips. "Hadou thirty-three, Soukatsui!"
Aizen whirls out of the way of the massive blue blast of energy, a single step of shunpo taking him out of harm's way. He knows he should take advantage of the traitor's momentary distraction, but as he starts to move Shuuhei's reiatsu flares in panic and he hesitates, caught between fighting Aizen and leaving to save his lieutenant. Aizen reemerges and the choice is taken from him as the older man throws another unvoiced kidou at him and follows right on its heels.
He flicks Zangetsu to send the kidou ricocheting off into the dirt and nearly gets impaled by Kyouka Suigetsu as Aizen drives it forward. It misses him by almost nothing, sinking through the fabric of his coat and so close he can almost feel the biting cold of it through his bankai robes. He immediately lashes out with Zangetsu and Aizen jerks back, drawing far enough away to free his sword and avoid all but a thin slice across his cheek that instantaneously begins beading blood. He takes a step forward to pursue Aizen and Shuuhei's reiatsu spikes again, stilling him.
Aizen smirks, Kyouka Suigetsu hanging at his side. "If I'd known you were this easy to distract I would have sent Stark after your little lieutenant years ago, Ichigo-kun."
Fury sparks and he almost lunges at Aizen before he feels Shuuhei's reiatsu waver. He almost turns, almost leaps into the air with all of his considerable speed to save the other man, until Aizen's smirk and the anticipatory gleam in the older man's eyes bring him crashing back down to reality.
He can't save Shuuhei.
If he leaves to save his lieutenant from Stark then Aizen will follow him. If he kills Stark – and that's not hard, he's so much stronger than the Espada – then Shuuhei will be stuck in the middle of a fight between him and Aizen, and that's not a place anyone can survive. Especially not since Aizen will make sure to send as many stray bursts of energy towards the lieutenant as possible.
Shuuhei will just have to save himself because there's nothing Ichigo can do without making the situation worse. It burns, but he forces himself to focus on Aizen and turn his worry and anger into fuel for his determination. The best thing he can do at the moment is to keep Aizen busy and, hopefully, kill him.
Yeah… not likely.
"Go to hell, Aizen."
The older man's smirk widens a little, brown eyes alight with cruel amusement. "Not likely, but you're welcome to try and send me there if you like," Aizen slides his left foot back, turning sideways, and continues with words that Ichigo knows far too well, "Seeping crest of turbidity, arrogant vessel of lunacy."
Fuck. He jumps forwards, trying to keep Aizen from continuing that chant. The spell itself is devastating but when Aizen bothers to chant the whole thing – which he's done all of three times and Ichigo doesn't think he's ever lost more blood than the one time he got caught in it – it's more than enough to kill a normal captain. Aizen bats aside his sword and retaliates with a swift slash that forces him to retreat several steps. The traitor doesn't give him a chance to come back on the offensive, pursuing him and forcing him to struggle just to avoid Kyouka Suigetsu.
"Boil forth and deny, grow numb and flicker. Carriage of thunder, bridge of a spinning wheel," wait, those aren't the words to Kurohitsugi, "Disrupt sleep, crawling queen of iron, eternally self-destructing doll of mud. Unite! Repulse! With light, divide this into six! Fill with soil and know your own powerlessness!"
Aizen pauses and raises his left hand, smirk just shy of a grin. "Bakudou sixty-one, Rikujoukourou! Hadou ninety, Kurohitsugi!"
Yellow light leaves Aizen's hand just before black energy pours from it and Ichigo can only think one thing as the binding kidou slams into his midsection and immobilizes him, the black energy starting to form around both him and Aizen in the distinctive box shape.
Aizen steps back and out of the box, it slams shut behind him. The reiatsu vibrates around Ichigo and as the kidou activates, lancing dark energy at him and shattering the yellow binding spell on impact, he screams.
It hurts, unbelievably so, and he can feel each individual spear of the kidou as it slices through his skin. His massive reiatsu is enough to dull it and stop it from being fatal, but that's about all. He's finished, that's all there is to it. While Zangetsu is still in his hand – he will not release his grip on the sword – it won't be useful. He can feel one of the spears where it's impaling his right calf, that'll slow him down, and another that's been driven through his left side. He breathes shallowly, struggling not to let the second scream building in his throat pass.
The kidou – after what feels like several long minutes – withdraws and he staggers, crying out at the fresh pain to his leg, side, and the hundred other surface – and not so surface – cuts overlaying his skin. Blood soaks the tattered remains of his clothing and drips to the ground, too much of it.
Ichigo catches movement out of the corner of his eye and registers Aizen's presence, far too late, as the traitor steps in front of him and smoothly thrusts Kyouka Suigetsu forward and through his chest. He stares at the blade for a moment before raising his eyes to Aizen's face. The brown eyes are cold, dark, and he shivers.
That's it, Aizen's won. Ichigo's not going to survive – even he can't usually shake off a sword through the chest – and he knows it, he can feel it. At the edge of his perception he feels Ukitake join Shuuhei and has a moment of relief. Good, Ukitake is a match for Stark, Shuuhei will survive the Espada after all even though he couldn't be there to save him.
"Rest in peace, Ichigo-kun."
No. Shuuhei will never accept Aizen's rule, and the traitor will kill him without a doubt. Shuuhei and Renji and Uryuu and Tatsuki and every other person Ichigo knows. No.
He grabs Aizen's arm with his left hand, dragging the startled traitor closer as he brings Zangetsu up through pure force of will. Aizen gives a shocked gasp as the sword slides into his flesh in a near mirror of Ichigo's own wound.
"Not alone," he grits out, hand tightening around Zangetsu even as his legs give out and send him crashing to the ground. Because of the way they're connected Aizen is pulled down with him, a cry of pain leaving the traitor's lips as Ichigo's sword digs into the edges of the injury.
"You…" Aizen gasps out, brown eyes narrowed in anger, and Ichigo can't help but sag against the older man. His head falls against Aizen's shoulder, pain creasing his brow even as satisfaction rises from the tremble he can feel in Aizen's frame.
"You think I'd die and not take you with me?" He snorts and then winces. Sudden clarity hits him and he relaxes, cold starting to invade the tips of his fingers. "Come on, Aizen. This is how it has to end, this is how it's always had to end."
Aizen shudders against him and he feels the traitor's head settle against his shoulder, warm breath hitting his neck. "I should have killed you years ago."
He chokes out a laugh, tasting the coppery flavor of blood as it fills his mouth. "Yeah. Should is a terrible word, isn't it?"
The traitor chuckles, breathy and laced with pain. "Is this really an appropriate time to discuss the merits of the word 'should', Ichigo-kun?"
Yeah, Aizen has a point there. "Probably not," he admits, closing his eyes against the white fabric of Aizen's outfit. Not that it'll be white for long, he's bleeding all over it. In the back of his mind he feels Stark falter, fall, and sighs just as Aizen flinches against him.
"There goes that," the traitor murmurs, "I suppose Shuuhei will be here any minute now to scream a long, cliché, 'no' at you."
He can, in fact, feel Shuuhei moving towards them, Ukitake at his heels. The pain has dulled, partly due to the cold stealing into his limbs and partly because of his lack of movement. He knows if he tries to pull away from Aizen the sword will shift in his chest and ignite a fresh wave of pain. It's so much easier to just stay here with his eyes closed and lean against Aizen and let that cold numb all the pain of the hundred or so slices in his skin. He gives an involuntary shiver as his clothes shift around him and change back into his normal shinigami uniform, a clear sign that he's dying.
Is it sad this has happened to him five separate times?
Ichigo lets out a long breath, his hand dropping from Zangetsu as his thoughts fog. Someone is yelling – or at least he thinks that sound in his ears is yelling – but it's dim and muted and not important at the moment, right?
The void pulls at him and he lets it, sinking into its welcoming abyss and letting the darkness strip him into nothingness.