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Ichigo winced as he woke, his head was killing him and his chest felt like it had been kicked by a Hollow; the Shinigami opened his eyes slowly and looked around, finding himself alone in a whitewashed room. The smell of strong disinfectant and chemicals burned his nose and made him cringe in distaste before he was drawn by the image of himself reflected in the mirror across the room.
His face was gaunt, haunted almost; dark rings circled his eyes and his eyes were shadowed with regret and with fear. His skin was paler than usual, ashen slightly with no hint of the proud blush which sometimes graced his high cheekbones. He looked a shadow of himself, he looked like the measly runt he had been while living on the streets.
"What in the world happened to me?" he whispered his voice raw and raspy from disuse and thirst.
Hesitantly getting off the bed, Ichigo grabbed a white yukata from the cabinet beside him and dressed himself, for once shy of himself and his body. Still unsure of where he was or if he was completely alone, the strawberry haired male went in search of Zangetsu, but became concerned when he couldn't locate him anywhere. Even when he tried to commune with him via his inner world, there was no sign or word from the grim Zanpakto. However, the state o his inner world was something to behold! The proud city buildings which had formerly stood to attention in hues of blue and black were crumbled and decimated; as though a great battle had taken place. This made no sense, considering, after a battle with Zangetsu the buildings usually repaired themselves.
He sighed in confusion and left the white room, walking tentatively down a corridor; he could hear voices up ahead as well as the smell f food and coffee, and his footsteps grew faster in response.
Pushing open the door that was between him and some heavenly smelling food, Ichigo saw three things at the same time, the first thing he saw was a table with food and drink on it which made his mouth water. The second thing he saw was that his sword was being suspended above the table cocooned in a blue crystal cage. And the third thing that he saw was Kuchiki Byakuya led on the floor being force fed by a buxom darkly skinned woman who had dark purple hair, as well as a blond man who was laughing his head off at the scarlet faced nobleman.
Blinking at the scene, Ichigo closed the door again and wondered if he really was awake or if he was actually still asleep, but as the door opened to reveal the blond man he guessed he was awake.
"Oh good, Sleeping Beauty has awoken!" the blond grinned teasingly and Ichigo took an instant liking to him, "Come in, you must be hungry!"
He wasn't given the chance to argue as he was steered into the room and pushed down into a blue leather bean bag, "Uh..." he began before he went red as his stomach rumbled loudly.
"Eat first, question and answer time after." The blond said and handed him a plate and a mug of steaming coffee.
Obliging most willingly, Ichigo ate until he was more than a little stuffed, he could feel the colour returning to his face and his energy revitalising, for which he was more than grateful.
Setting his chopsticks down, he wiped his mouth and took a deep draught of coffee; Ichigo cleared his throat and drew the attention of the other occupants of the room, "Um... So... Where am I?
"An underground facility designed for research and experimentation." The blond answered.
"And... Why am I here?"
"Because you began to transform into a Hollow in the cemetery and very nearly killed out dear Kuchiki-san." He nodded to the noble who was still being offered bits of food by the woman.
"I... Wait what?!" he exclaimed as he stared at him, "A Hollow?! That is crazy! Who the hell are you?!"
He sighed, "My name is Urahara Kisuke, and my friend here is Yoruichi Shihouin, we were both formerly Taichou of the Gotei 13," he explained, "It appears that at some point you have been exposed to a suspect artefact of considerable power which has slightly altered your reiatsu chamber. Subsequently, when you began to feel great emotional stress in the cemetery, that alteration began to take action and change you into a Hollow."
Ichigo stared at him and shook his head slowly, "A subject artefact?! Exposed?! What are you on about?!" he cried in distress.
Byakuya pushed Yoruichi back as he watched Ichigo's eyes swim with genuine tears, "Urahara... Yoruichi... Leave us for a few moments. I will explain this to Ichigo myself." He murmured, resting a hand over his chest which had been heavily bandaged to help heal the wound he had sustained while fighting Ichigo.
The blond man and the purple haired woman exchanged glances before they complied and retreated from the room to give the two men some space.
Ichigo looked down as the room went quiet and scowled at the remnants of his coffee, he flinched as he felt an arm slip around his shoulders and glared at his Taichou, "What are you doing?"
"Providing you with some comfort." He stated in response.
"Are you going to shag me here or in that room then?" he frowned.
"What?" Byakuya stared and raised an eyebrow at him.
The strawberry sighed at the man's obvious stupidity, "You said you were going to provide me with comfort... So you are going to shag me right?"
"Uh... No." The noble replied, "Comfort doesn't have to be sex or words... It can be the gentlest of touches, or just having someone beside you when you need them... Are you really that inexperienced with the caring of others?"
A fresh scowl appeared on his face, along with a blush of embarrassment, "I... If you're going to take the piss out of me just call those two back in here." He muttered.
Byakuya rolled his eyes and took his arm back, "Uh you are hard work..."
They sat in silence for a moment before the nobleman glanced at the strawberry and decided to broach the subject, "One hundred years ago Urahara created an object of great power which he named the Hogyuku. It has the power to do whatever the holder desires the most. Becoming afraid of the capabilities of his invention Urahara sought to conceal and hide the Hogyuku, but it was stolen before he had a chance to do so."
"What has this got to do with me?"
"Everything," he replied quietly, he reached out and pressed the palm of his hand into Ichigo's chest, "From the tests Urahara ran on you while you were unconscious, to determine the reason for your sudden change, it became clear to him that at some point you had been exposed to the will of someone wielding the Hogyuku... And the will of the person wielding it was to break down the barriers between Shinigami and Hollow power, to learn how to create the ultimate being, a godly figure... Greater and more terrible than the Soul King: a physical and present being who could rule with an iron fist."
Ichigo looked at him slowly, "Who would want that?"
"I think... You know that answer..." he said quietly.
The strawberry looked down and took a breath, sighing heavily before he ran his hands through his hair, "Aizen-Taichou."
Byakuya sat back and interlocked his fingers as he watched the younger man's reaction, "Urahara believes so. Urahara believes that Aizen is responsible for a lot of things... Such as the reason for the loss of your memories."
Ichigo downed the last dregs of his coffee in one mouthful and half slammed the mug on the table, his eyes closed as he considered and contemplated the information pouring into his brain. He let out a shaky breath, "The death of my family. I remember."
His eyes widened slightly before he raised an eyebrow, "We believed that after your partial transformation you would forget again..."
"No," he murmured, "Believe me I wish I couldn't remember... There was so much blood everywhere... So much death and horror... I can't remember the moments leading up to their deaths but I do remember what happened after. I was sat there... Staring when several Division Two members arrived and took me away..."
"I... Have the report from the Library if you desire to read it?"
"Yes... But not right now."
"Very well." Byakuya murmured before he reached out again and rested a hand on Ichigo's back.
The raven haired male looked at him after another long moment, "What will you do?"
"What I have always done. Ask him."
He looked at the nobleman, "I can't lie to him, he can see through it easily. So I will tell him the truth. I will tell him I suspect him of having something to do with my family's death."
"Ichigo... Are you out of your mind?!"
With a sigh, the strawberry looked at him, "According to you I started turning into a Hollow, and yet I am still breathing and I am still alive. Are you out of your mind for letting me live?"
"That is totally different!"
"No it isn't. Speaking of which... With what you told me about the Hogyuku's power I suppose I am to assume that Aizen used it on me in order to lower the barrier between Shinigami and Hollow power?"
"That is what we have assumed yes."
"I see... So why hasn't he told me? Why has it taken so long to show itself?" he asked with a frown.
"I... I don't know... Urahara could probably answer that second question but as for the first... Probably only Aizen knows that." He smiled weakly.
"Alright... I'll ask Urahara then." He sighed and looked at the bandages that were on the other's chest, "Did I do that?"
"Yes. You were incredibly strong."
"I..." he paused and met the man's steel grey eyes, gulping slightly, "I'm sorry for hurting you."
Taken aback momentarily, Byakuya released a small smile, "Don't worry about it. My injury will heal."
Urahara and Yoruichi returned a short while later when it became apparent that Ichigo and Byakuya had finished their conversation; the blond man sat down opposite Ichigo and rested his hands on the table between them.
"I understand if you have questions, I will do my best to answer them." He promised.
Ichigo nodded once, "Why has it taken so long for this Hollow-side to show? Can it be controlled or reversed? Do you know roughly when I was exposed to the Hogyuku?"
The blond smiled weakly before he began, "I am going to begin with your last question first, I believe from my test results and also from the records of your amnesia that you would have been exposed a short while before the murder of your family, or else you would have remembered it happening. It would have been a very unpleasant and painful experience, not something easily forgotten, which is why I believe that to be the rough time of when it happened.
"At the moment, because your Hollow transformation was interrupted and stopped, it is incomplete and can therefore be reversed, however if you were to lose control again and the process to complete it would become impossible. In that scenario there are two options open, you would either become an incredibly strong Hollow, maybe even a Vasto Lordes... Or you would become something called Vizard which is a Shinigami who can summon a Hollow mask and a Hollow's powers but who retains their memories and their sanity without becoming a full Hollow.
"And finally... If I am correct about when you were exposed to the Hogyuku then you became emotionally void. The 'Hollowfication' process is triggered and sped up by emotional heightened stress. So considering that up until yesterday in the cemetery you had gone years without feeling anything in excess, or indeed anything at all, there was no trigger and no release for the power. However, yesterday that all changed. You suddenly released a boat load of extreme and raw emotion all at once, without a doubt it acted as a trigger to the transformation, and that is why it is pinnacle that you do not lose control again."
Ichigo balled a fist as he listened, snorting as he recalled the flood of pathetic emotions which had consumed him in the cemetery. It had been so long, well, he couldn't remember when he had last felt such things, and it was most unwelcome, "I understand, and believe me... I am in no hurry to feel any of those things again." He muttered venomously.
"Your emotions do not make you weak Ichigo," Byakuya said sternly, "You have to know your own heart to be able to understand the desires of others. If you hide yourself away you cannot discover what will make you stronger, this is the fundamental reason you have not achieved Bankai yet. Because you have nothing to fight for!"
"I have pleasant to fight for!" he snapped back.
"What? Fighting for your next sexual encounter? Fighting to impress Aizen? You should be fighting for your freedom and your pride!"
"You don't know anything about me! Don't assume you do!" he yelled.
Byakuya snorted at him, "You don't let anyone close enough for them to know anything about you! You keep everyone at a distance because deep down you are terrified of getting hurt!"
"I am not scared!" Ichigo said as he got to his feet, "I have nothing to be afraid of! It is you who does! Aizen has got everything planned out! How do you think you are going to fight the impossible! YOU ARE ALL GOING TO DIE!"
Byakuya slapped the younger man sharply around the face, "Calm yourself down!" he barked, "This is neither the time nor the place for hysterical little boys. Did you not hear what Urahara said? If you lose control again there may be no coming back from it. Do you want that?"
Ichigo swallowed, his eyes stinging to his shock as he touched his reddening cheek, "I... No Kuchiki-Taichou." He croaked, "My apologies."
The strawberry plopped back down in his seat and remained staring at the table, "Why is Zangetsu encased like that?" he asked as he glanced at his trapped Zanpakto.
Urahara cleared his throat as the tension in the room remained present, "Have you tried to visit your inner world?"
"Yes, it was in ruins..."
"That is the effect of the Hollowfication. Until it is reversed or completed your inner world will remain in flux, Zangetsu will be reunited with you shortly, but you should be aware, you inner world is going to take longer to repair because of the foreign subject of the Hollow side of your soul." He murmured.
"Okay... Thank you." He said quietly before he glanced at Byakuya and then away again, "When are we returning to the Division Taichou?"
"Later on today, Urahara is going to heal my chest a little more and then we will go." He replied stiffly.
"Very well... In that case I will return to that room for a while, I've suddenly become very tired again. Excuse me." The strawberry kept his head bowed as he fled the room, retreating to the same room he had woken up in.
He sat down on the edge of the bed and ran his fingers through his hair, gripping a handful as his other hand fell beside him on the bed. He was losing his grasp on reality, overnight everything had changed; there was no longer any guarantee that he would be at all safe in Aizen's company, there was no guarantee that he would even survive the onslaught if he became a Hollow... His memories were returning in dribs and drabs, yet his emotions were flooding his senses and making him cower from his responsibilities, his loyalties... One event had made him doubt his purpose, his reason for serving Aizen...
Ichigo blinked as he watched a droplet of water drip onto the back of his hand and stared for a moment, before he realised with a jolt that the tear was his own. He raised a hand shakily and touched his cheeks, they were wet. He was... Crying?
Gritting his teeth, Ichigo swiped the tears away, cursing himself for being so ridiculously overwhelmed by a single slap. He had been slapped several times by Aizen in the past; even Tousen had given him the odd slap around the head for talking back to him. But none had hurt quite so much as one from Byakuya's hand. It confused him and... Frightened him how he had been reduced to embarrassment and shame for his outburst by his Taichou.
"What stupidity is this? Such weakness and unbelievable embarrassment... I don't understand what I'm feeling... I don't understand my feelings at all... What does it mean to feel?" he breathed, his shoulders slumping slightly.
"To feel is to be humane," Byakuya replied from the doorway, "Ichigo, I apologise for striking you, my temper momentarily got the better of me. Are you alright?"
Standing up sharply, the strawberry clenched his teeth, "I would prefer for you not to see me like this."
He walked towards him slowly, "Why? Because you are afraid of it?"
"I... I am not afraid. I merely dislike being seen as weak." He muttered.
"You are not weak. You are strong... you are powerful and you are..." the noble paused and sucked in a breath, "Incredibly attractive when you scowl."
The two froze and stared at each other for a long moment as they both grew red in the face at the nobleman's comments. They exchanged a nervous chuckle and fidgeted on the spot, finally looking away as the tension grew too much for them both.
"Well... This isn't awkward at all is it?" Ichigo said after what felt like an eternity, "I had no idea you thought I was attractive... In fact I thought you were strictly straight considering your whole marriage thing."
Byakuya ground his teeth and exhaled noisily through his nose, "I did not say that I thought that... I was stating in general." He muttered, "Besides... My marriage to Hisana does not necessarily mean I am one hundred percent straight, does it?"
"So... You're bisexual?" the strawberry asked as he tilted his head to the side.
"No... I just don't believe in labelling people. Why should love have a gender specific?" he responded, raising an eyebrow at him.
"Love?" Ichigo smirked, "You actually believe in 'love'? Are you soft?"
"No, Ichigo, I merely have some hope left in the world around me, enough that I do not seal myself away from fanciful hopes of the soul. Love being the greatest of those hopes. I loved Hisana, but she was taken from me before her time. Yet her passing does not mean I cannot find love again, it appears in the most unlikely places; the most unlikely people." The nobleman scolded.
The strawberry paused to consider his words and frowned slightly, "Hmm... It is a fanciful hope and yet... Not an entirely unpleasant one."
The two shared a long look before Byakuya inclined his head, "I'll leave you to your thoughts."
"Thanks," he reached out and grabbed his Captain's arm suddenly, "Don't give up on me."
The raven haired male smiled slightly, "Never." He promised before he left the room, letting the door shut behind him.
Ichigo looked at the space where the man had been stood and sighed, looking towards the mirror again slowly and taking in his appearance, his eyes widening slightly as he saw the faint smile tugging at his lips. Shaking his head, Ichigo sat back down and considered what would happen next, there was going to be hell to pay that was for sure; maybe he would die or maybe he would live, either way, he needed to find a new purpose. He needed to find a little... Pride.