Disclaimer: I do not own anything from Bleach.


General Warnings: AU, Time Travel, Ichigo-centric, violence, language, past IchiRuki.


Author's Notes: Definitely planned to stick Muramasa into this from the beginning:)

And since I've made it so that Tatsuki, Keigo, and Mizuiro didn't fight in the war, they'll be kept out of this fic for the most part.


Chapter 3


XXXII.

[One Day Ago; Shiba Household]

"Yoruichi, don't ya think it's time for you to go home?"

"So impatient to kick me out, Kukaku? We haven't seen each other in ages."

Kukaku heaved a sigh, nudging the woman lazing on the porch with one foot. "You've been here for three weeks, and I bet you were wanderin' around before ya came here. Urahara must be wonderin' where you are."

"He'll manage without me," Yoruichi waved a dismissive hand. "I'm not his keeper, you know."

"No, he's yours," Kukaku retorted with annoyance. "You really should be more responsible, Yoruichi."

"Ah, I'm not a captain anymore. I can do whatever," Yoruichi yawned, blinking blearily up at the sky before reaching for the sake. "How do you think Soifon is doing? She's probably keeping the Second Division on their toes. I expect nothing less from her!"

Kukaku sighed again and left her to her rambling. Sometimes, she had no idea how she put up with Yoruichi even though she considered the woman one of her closest friends, and she didn't even have to deal with the ex-captain all the time. Heavens only knew how Urahara did it.

"Nee-san, I'm heading out to do the shopping. Is Yoruichi-san staying for another day?"

Kukaku tossed a resigned look over her shoulder before focusing on her brother. "Best just to prepare for another week. You know what she's like when she gets in a nostalgic mood."

"Eating us out of house and home," Ganju muttered, and while Kukaku privately agreed, she still delivered a kick to the idiot's face that sent him careening out the front door.

"Get goin' or you can give your dinner to Yoruichi tonight!" She yelled after him before stomping off. It wasn't often that Yoruichi came and sulked (yes, she was sulking) around for a few weeks so Kukaku always tried to be understanding. The woman had been, for the most part, forced to leave her home; she didn't blame Yoruichi for wanting to linger as close to Seireitei as possible sometimes.

Kukaku was just sitting down in her room when a foreign reiatsu signature sent her to her feet again and reaching for her sword.

Whatever it was had entered her home.

She barged out into the hall, almost crashing into Ganju as her brother barrelled towards her.

"NEE-SAN!" Ganju bellowed. "RUN! There's a whole bunch of-"

Something the size of a child but distinctly Hollow-like popped into existence behind him, and before Kukaku could blink, the thing had disappeared again, taking Ganju with it.

"GANJU!" Kukaku yelled, and then swung around and cut another intruder in half, only to leap back when the thing simply reformed. "The hell?! Yoruichi! Are you still there? Shit!"

She ducked and swung again, slicing another Hollow's arm off. Again, it reattached itself, and as more and more of them teleported into the hallway, Kukaku backed away until her back hit the wall.

She gritted her teeth. If the things wouldn't die, there was no way she was getting out of this, and there was very little chance that Yoruichi had escaped if the things were flooding the house en masse.

"Tch," Kukaku tightened her hold on her katana. If she was going to be taken to who-knew-where, she wasn't leaving her weapon behind.

And then one of the Hollows touched her, and all she saw was black.

[One Day Ago; Thirteenth Division]

"It is largely thanks to one of your officers that I have discovered this treatment."

Juushirou glanced up from the notes Retsu had given him on a cure for his illness. A part of him still couldn't believe it. "Who was it? And why did they not come to me?"

Retsu smiled serenely at him. "It was Kuchiki Rukia. She told me she stumbled upon a possible cure during her assignment in Karakura Town."

Juushirou stilled, and then sighed wearily. He hadn't seen much of Rukia lately, a lot less than he had before Kaien had died. The girl had been Kaien's protégé, but she had pulled away after his death, and it didn't help that Byakuya had gone out of his way to make sure Rukia was never promoted to a seated position, even though she was more than ready in Juushirou's opinion. He understood that the Clan Head was simply trying to protect Rukia but she wasn't going to gain any real experience if she was held back like this.

"I will have to thank her," Juushirou said out loud, gaze falling to the notes again. "To think that the Human World had such a thing. We really should keep up with the times. Humans advance so fast."

He paused as something occurred to him, thinking back to the past few weeks.

"Juushirou?" Retsu prompted, obviously picking up on his sudden shift in mood. "Is something wrong?"

"Ah, it's probably nothing, Retsu-san," Juushirou smiled distractedly as he glanced out the nearby window. "I was laid out on my back again a few weeks ago but now that I think about it, I haven't seen Kuchiki since she reported in from her mission to Karakura."

Retsu tilted her head thoughtfully. "It is not so rare for an unseated officer to go unnoticed for a while. She could be busy with other things."

"Yes, I suppose so," Juushirou agreed. "I'll go find her after-"

He stopped, hand automatically dropping to his Zanpakutou when the air seemed to ripple a few feet away and a white creature blinked into existence. Across from him, Retsu did the same, a slight frown creasing her brow.

"What... is that?" Juushirou rose to his feet and warily backed up a step. "Is it a Hollow?"

"I have never seen one like it," Retsu had also stood up, stepping away from the table. "Perhaps it escaped from the Twelfth?"

Before Juushirou could voice his own opinion, the door slammed open and Sentarou burst in, panic clear on his face. "Taichou! We're being invaded! Kiyone-!"

Three of the same white creatures appeared behind Sentarou and all four were gone in the next second.

"Sentarou!" Juushirou drew his blade in a flash, whirling away just as the Hollow in the room disappeared and reappeared behind him. A heartbeat later, Retsu had swept forward and sliced the creature in half, separating its upper body from the waist.

Unfortunately, the Hollow reformed almost instantly, and Juushirou had no choice but to back away with Retsu as the room began to fill with more of the foreign creatures.

"I retract my previous speculation," Retsu looked as calm as ever even in the face of the growing mass of white. However, her gaze had taken on the terrifying shadowed cast that sent fear into the hearts of men and monsters alike. "It would be most unfortunate for Kurotsuchi-taichou if these creatures did indeed come from the Twelfth."

If Juushirou wasn't busy frowning at the three Hollows he had just slashed at as they restructured themselves, he would've spared a sympathetic thought for Kurotsuchi.

As it was, he could only hope that the other captains hadn't been caught off-guard like they had and would form some sort of plan to counteract these things.

And then there was no more time for thought as the Hollows swarmed them and Juushirou knew no more.

[One Day Ago; Twelfth Division]

"Their heads, Nemu," Mayuri ordered as he decapitated three more of the invading force. "Beheading them is the only way to kill them. Do be sure to leave a few alive though. I would love to study them in detail."

Of course, Mayuri thought in a rare moment of grim sobriety as he eyed the entrance of his lab where a growing throng of white crowded the doorway. That would only be if we make it out of this without being overwhelmed.

"Taichou-"

His gaze darted to the side just as one of the Hollow-like creatures broke past Nemu's defence and clamped down on her shoulder. A moment later, both were gone.

Mayuri took down another five in a fit of irritation, ignoring the tiny spark of concern that came along with it. It was so hard to find good help these days. Nemu had been satisfactory.

"Rip, Ashisogi Jizou," Mayuri snapped, and then tore eight Hollows apart with the curved blades.

Two minutes later, his back hit one of the supporting beams in the lab, and he only had time to curse his luck before the creatures descended on him like a tidal wave.

[One Day Ago; Eleventh Division]

"Taichou! There's no end to them!"

For once, Kenpachi wasn't enjoying a fight. Stabbing at an enemy was hardly satisfying when they simply popped back up a second later.

Plus, the things invading his Division had taken Yachiru, which was frankly unacceptable.

"Just keep killin' 'em!" He growled back, decapitating two before resorting to cutting them down without aiming for their necks. The things were appearing too fast to only aim for their throats.

"Yumi's gone, Taichou! I'll buy you some time! Get outta here!"

Kenpachi snorted. "I don't run from a fight! You get the hell outta here, you idiot!"

"I ain't leavin' ya to have all the fun, Taichou!"

Sometimes, Kenpachi really hated his Third and Fifth Seats. His Fourth Seat at least had long since had the good sense to retreat back into the barracks when Kenpachi had ordered it. Needless to say, Ikkaku and Yumichika had disobeyed orders, and now one of them had been taken as well.

"They're coming in from behind! Fuck-!"

Make that both.

Kenpachi roared out a wordless cry of fury, thoroughly pissed off as the Hollows closed in around him.

They wanted to take him? Fine. At least he'd be transported to wherever his subordinates were, and then he'd really tear into these pieces of trash.

He lowered his sword and grinned when five Hollows lunged towards him.

[One Day Ago; Tenth Division]

"Matsumoto!" Toshirou watched with gritted teeth as his lieutenant disappeared from sight under a horde of white.

Gritting his teeth, he leapt back several steps before raising his sword. "Reign over the frosted heavens, Hyourinmaru! Subjugation of the Heavens!"

Black clouds rumbled overhead as they gathered in the skies. Wind rose to a shriek around him as icy snow pelted downwards, swirling around the invading forces.

If nothing else, Toshirou thought grimly as he watched several of the Hollows teleport through his blizzard and hurtle towards him. The other captains would know something was wrong once they sensed his snowstorm.

[One Day Ago; Ninth Division]

"Hisagi-fukutaichou! What should we do?!"

Shuuhei cut through yet another of the creatures before rounding on his subordinates. "Get into the barracks! Close all the doors and raise the Kidou barriers! Do not lower them for anyone other than myself, Tousen-taichou, or one of the other captains!"

"What about you, sir?!"

"I'll buy some time!" Shuuhei ducked under three more Hollow-things before slicing them through the necks. "Go!"

Shuuhei shifted apprehensively as he stared out at the army of white in front of him. There was no possible way he was going to be able to hold them off for long.

"Reap, Kazeshini!" His two scythe blades plunged into the nearest Hollows as he tore his way through the creatures, staggering backwards when one of them blasted a Cero at him. Definitely a Hollow.

He threw up his arms as his vision filled with white. Damn, he wished his captain was here. Then again, at least Tousen might be able to escape.

[One Day Ago; Eighth Division]

Games were useless against opponents who didn't want to play and could actually... well, not play. They weren't trying to kill him, just grab him.

Shunsui shunpoed backwards over the roofs of his barracks, fending off the Hollows appearing and disappearing and reappearing around him. It hadn't taken long to realize that decapitation was the only way to get rid of them, but the things were fast and there wasn't always time to cut their throats before they flashed away again.

"Now that's just not fair," Shunsui sighed, tugging loose the strings attaching his sakkat to his head just in time as a Hollow appeared above him, dug its claws into his hat, and thankfully teleported away with only the accessory as Shunsui ducked away from one of his favourite possessions.

He hopped away and cleaved through another half dozen Hollows before shunpoing through the air and away from his Division. It would be best if he could draw them away from his barracks, though none of them had seemed all that interested in his subordinates.

Except for Nanao. They'd already kidnapped her five minutes ago.

Shunsui flipped over four more Hollows before slicing through them as well. Two dissipated, the other two reformed.

They were difficult opponents. When they teleported away, their reiatsu signatures disappeared with them, and Shunsui only had two seconds of warning at most before the Hollows teleported back again.

Apparently though, Shunsui was proving to be more of a challenge than they had expected, and a dozen Hollows suddenly popped into existence, surrounding Shunsui in a tight circle.

Shunsui quirked a wry smile. "Now that's really not fair. Whatever happened to one on one?"

He glanced upwards when the skies darkened. Ah, it looked like it wasn't just his Division then, though at least Hitsugaya was well enough to put up a fight.

He jumped back when one of the Hollows lunged. Sweeping upwards with his wakizashi, he managed to cleave a diagonal line through the creature his tachi swung up to finish it off, severing its head from its body.

Another appeared at his elbow and Shunsui quickly dispatched it the same way, only to jerk around when a Cero narrowly missed his head, leaving his right side open.

He felt the tug of a Hollow's claws in his kimono just before he was jerked away and darkness descended around him.

[One Day Ago; Seventh Division]

"Komamura-taichou!"

Tetsuzaemon ducked under a swarm of white creatures and watched in dismay as dozens upon dozens of the invading Hollows crowded around Komamura. They'd obviously been prepared to overwhelm the large captain through sheer numbers alone, not giving Komamura enough time to retaliate.

Then again, Tetsuzaemon didn't have anywhere near as many to contend with and he was faltering under the surge of Hollows. He managed to bat away two more before a third bit into his shoulder and he was yanked off his feet, his vision going black.

[One Day Ago; Sixth Division]

"Scatter, Senbonzakura," Byakuya's jaw tightened when his sword fragments streaked forward, only for the enemy Hollows to teleport out of the way in rapid succession.

He spared a second to glance up at the sky when the sunlight faded and stormy clouds rolled in. Perhaps Hitsugaya would have better luck with freezing these creatures.

As it was, Byakuya knew he was at a disadvantage. His sword was useless if the Hollows could simply teleport past his shield of cherry blossoms.

He shunpoed backwards when several did exactly that and entered his woundless zone, claws outstretched as one of them blasted a Cero at him. He nimbly sidestepped it before raising a hand and sending a stream of cherry blossoms directly into the creature's face, separating its head from its body.

He arched an eyebrow as the Hollow dissolved instead of reforming. Decapitation then.

On top of dealing with the invading Hollows though, his lieutenant was also absent; the man hadn't been seen since he had left for a week-long mission three weeks ago. Byakuya hadn't been concerned – it wasn't unheard of for a Shinigami to need some extra time to complete their assignment, but with this new enemy attacking Seireitei, it was possible that Renji hadn't come back on time for a more significant reason.

And come to think of it, Rukia hadn't returned to the Kuchiki Compound for two weeks now, also not uncommon. His sister-in-law preferred residing in the Thirteenth Division barracks whenever possible, but-

Byakuya stumbled forward a step when a Cero nicked his arm from behind. He recovered instantly and directed Senbonzakura to the threat, but his momentary slip proved fatal as three more Hollows flashed into existence behind him and latched on to his back, snatching him away from his barracks in the span of a heartbeat.

[One Day Ago; Fifth Division]

"Ai- Aizen- taichou?"

"I do feel sorry for you, Hinamori-fukutaichou. A pity you are too weak to stand behind me. Your loyalty at least is admirable, if foolish."

[One Day Ago; Fourth Division]

"Keep all the patients inside, and then raise the Kidou barriers!"

"Hai, Kotetsu-fukutaichou!"

Isane whirled around and sliced down another Hollow. Of all days for Unohana to visit Ukitake instead of the other way around, it just had to be today.

Out of the corner of her eye, she caught the Seventh Seat beating back a Hollow trying to slip in through the rising Kidou barriers.

"Yamada-kun! Get inside!" Isane called out, and then paid for it as a Hollow appeared in her blind spot and closed its claws around her arm.

[One Day Ago; Third Division]

This was not part of the plan. To be honest, Gin had no idea what the plan was anymore. Mere weeks ago, Aizen had taken to keeping to himself, and Gin hadn't seen hide or hair of the man for days.

"Taichou?"

Gin glanced to the side, allowing himself a moment of regret at the thought of betraying his lieutenant as Izuru stared back at him with wide blue eyes. He didn't want to, not when he'd taken the blond under his wing for so many years, but it was the only way to destroy Aizen.

"Maa, get behind me, Izuru," Gin instructed, eyes slitting open as the next wave of those odd Hollows advanced on them. "You're already injured."

"With all due respect, Ichimaru-taichou, I'm fine. I can still fight."

With you went unspoken and Gin's smile faltered for a fraction of a heartbeat. It really was too bad. He would've liked to take Izuru with him when he left, but the lieutenant was loyal to the Gotei 13 as well, and would never follow a traitor out of Seireitei.

"Keep up then," Gin ordered, smile widening again as he pointed his Zanpakutou at the oncoming army. "Shoot to kill, Shinsou."

His wakizashi extended in the blink of an eye, skewering the first line of Hollows through the necks before retracting just as quickly.

"Raise your head, Wabisuke," Izuru voiced from beside him, and then struck just as three Hollows teleported in front of them.

The battle lasted for another five minutes, but just as Gin turned to deal with another cloud of Hollows, he heard a shout behind him and turned back just in time to see Izuru disappear.

His eyes flashed open and he eviscerated the Hollows surrounding him in retaliation.

Had Aizen discovered his plans for double-crossing him? Was that why these things were here?

If Aizen had taken Izuru as part of Gin's punishment, the man was making a big mistake.

A Cero from behind nearly took off his head, but as he spun around to take care of it, something crashed into his back and his feet were yanked from the ground as he was whisked away as well.

[One Day Ago; Second Division]

Soifon's accuracy and speed were second to none but even she couldn't keep up with the Hollows teleporting in and out around her, blasting Cero every time her back was turned.

She delivered a bone-cracking kick to another Hollow before lashing out with Suzumebachi, once, twice, and obliterated the thing.

This was insane. Where were these things coming from?

She grimaced as more Hollows poured in. Her useless lieutenant had long since been snatched away, and several of her subordinates were lying on the ground, out cold or dead.

"Damn it!" She snapped as a Hollow appeared right in front of her. She managed to get rid of it, only for something to collide with the back of her head, and before she could swear again, her Division disappeared around her and darkness replaced it.

[One Day Ago; First Division]

"Welcome, Yamamoto-soutaichou, to the end of the Gotei 13."

XXXIII.

[Present; First Division]

Genryuusai stood in stony silence as his – former – Fifth Division captain strode in again, this time with a small procession behind him. His eyes widened slightly when he recognized them.

"GET THE HELL OFF ME!"

"Shut up, Hiyori! Now's not the time!"

Murmurs swept the room as several captains stirred from their bored positions inside their respective cages.

"Lisa-chan?" Shunsui was, predictably, first to call out, stunned disbelief in his voice.

Yadoumaru Lisa craned her head around and glared daggers at her former captain even as she struggled fruitlessly against the reiatsu-suppressing cuffs around her wrists. "What do you want?"

Shunsui uncharacteristically faltered, subsiding for a second before his expression melted into warm regard. "I'm glad you're alive, Lisa-chan."

The former lieutenant snorted derisively. "Of course you are. Guess that explains why support from you was nonexistent a century ago. Get off, you creep! I can walk myself!"

This last bit was directed at the effeminate male Arrancar manhandling her from behind. Or attempting to anyway. Privately, Genryuusai approved of the elbow that the girl dug into the Hollow, even if it wasn't an entirely well thought-out move.

The slap she received proved it, and as she staggered forward and spat out a mouthful of blood, Genryuusai saw Shunsui's hand tighten around his tachi.

Not that any of their Zanpakutou worked against the odd cages that Aizen had placed them in. The enclosures prevented Kidou and reiatsu from activating within them, Zanpakutou could not cut through the Kidou-like barriers locking them in, and even the reiatsu-suppressing cuffs automatically disintegrated as soon as they passed into the cages.

For now, Genryuusai scanned the other newcomers. Yes, all the captains and lieutenants whom he had ordered to be executed for subjecting themselves to Hollowfication were there, as well as Urahara Kisuke and Tsukabishi Tessai.

"You too, Kisuke?" Shihouin Yoruichi called out from the cage she was sharing with Soifon and her lieutenant. Genryuusai had spent the first half hour in confinement watching the former and present Second Division captains fight as best they could before they had settled for a temporary truce.

Urahara smiled blithely at the Shihouin princess as he was shoved into a separate cage from the Visored and Tsukabishi. "So that's where you got to, Yoruichi-san. You haven't returned to the shop in five months."

"Meh," Yoruichi waved a hand. "I was busy."

"Don't listen to her," The Shiba Clan Head was lying on the floor of her cage, eyes closed and one arm tucked behind her head. "She was lazin' about in my house."

"I am sure this reunion can wait," Aizen interjected, and Genryuusai fully concentrated on the traitor again. "After all, you will have plenty of time to catch up later on. I do not plan on killing you yet. Most of you anyway."

"Aizen-taichou, the treacherous Espada have been captured."

Genryuusai's eyebrows twitched with irritation as the other traitor entered the room. To think two of his captains had fallen so far.

Several cages down, Komamura and Hisagi had both stiffened, but they did not attempt to shout at Tousen this time. Both had already yelled themselves hoarse yesterday.

Genryuusai eyed the group that were brought in after Tousen. From what he had gathered, the Espada were Aizen's strongest Arrancar.

He frowned when he caught sight of the green-haired child being hauled in beside an impassive man with brown hair and the remains of his Hollow mask positioned along his neck.

Behind them and snarling profanities in a guttural voice, a blue-haired Arrancar was being dragged along the floor. Unlike the others, this one had his legs cuffed together as well as his hands.

Two more entered last, a blonde-haired female Arrancar with dark skin and an emotionless black-haired male, smaller than the former but giving off a far more dangerous air. His green eyes held a hint of murderous rage.

"Turning on your own men now, Aizen?" Hirako drawled from across the room as the Espada were thrown into their own cage.

Aizen turned a pleasant smile on his former captain. "Perhaps, perhaps not. But as they will become traitors one day, I would rather not risk it for now."

Something flashed in Hirako's eyes but the man simply crossed his arms and settled against one wall of the cage. "So what? Ya can predict the future now?"

Genryuusai had been suspicious about that for a while now. The power he sensed from Aizen did not feel like it belonged to the former captain entirely. There was something more layering it.

Aizen came to a stop in the middle of the room, Tousen on his right and a smatter of his Arrancar on his left.

"Not quite, Hirako Shinji," Aizen smiled again, cold and cruel, before reaching for his collar and peeling back a piece of the cloth.

Genryuusai opened his eyes.

"I am from the future," Aizen announced dramatically as a sliver of blue shone from his chest. "A time where I am god and my empire stands above those too foolish to follow me. The Hogyoku accepted me as its master and has aided me in my sovereignty. Yet I regret taking my time in decimating your ranks and hoping there would come a day where the Gotei 13 would see sense and surrender to me unconditionally. As a result, ten years of bloodshed destroyed parts of my army that I would've preferred keeping intact. Now the Hogyoku has sent me back and given me a second chance to end the war before it starts. All of you will bow to me and me alone."

A shocked silence followed. Some looked skeptical; others paled in restrained apprehension. Ichimaru Gin looked blank as he sat motionlessly beside his lieutenant. Aizen had already revealed the man to be a double-crosser. Apparently, the captain would've betrayed the Gotei 13 in an attempt to assassinate Aizen in the end.

Genryuusai closed his eyes. If Aizen was telling the truth, then the man would know more than enough to counter anything they could attack him with. The Hollows that had invaded Seireitei must have been created in the future.

"You would think, Aizen," The blonde Arrancar spoke up from behind her collar. "That it would be wiser to keep your strongest Espada close by. If you are indeed from the future."

Aizen glanced dismissively at her. "I made stronger Espada. You are a mere footnote, especially after you defected."

The woman stiffened.

"I'd never follow anyone weak!" The blue-haired Espada spat out. "Means someone stronger came along and fucked you up, didn't they?"

Aizen's smile cooled several degrees. It seemed the Arrancar had struck a nerve.

"That boy had potential," Aizen responded vaguely. "Until his friends and family corrupted him. When I am done here, I will go fetch him. He will grow under my guidance, and become my strongest soldier."

Genryuusai's frown deepened. Boy? Which boy? Shinigami? Or Arrancar?

He shifted a little and caught the downward tilt of Hirako's trademark smile, as well as Urahara's narrowed eyes.

"Bring the girl in," Aizen said next, and one of the Arrancar departed, coming back two minutes later with-

"Rukia!"

Genryuusai glanced briefly to the side at where the previously-missing Abarai Renji was now standing, leaning heavily against the wall of the cage with injuries of his own as Kuchiki Rukia limped in, features pale, eyes wide, and subtle signs of torture, not extremely serious but enough, in the strained lines of her face.

Kuchiki Byakuya had never looked colder.

"You son-of-a-bitch, I'll kill you!" Abarai railed, almost falling flat on his face when he tried to take a step forward. Only his captain's timely intervention in the form of a brief hand at his elbow prevented it.

Three cages down, Juushirou looked as white as his hair and he had one balled fist placed against the barrier.

They had all discovered too late that both Abarai Renji and Kuchiki Rukia had been abducted two weeks ago and had been in the company of Aizen ever since.

"Why have you not given your powers to the boy?" Aizen was saying now as he forced Kuchiki to her knees. "If anyone here can answer for her, she need not suffer any further."

"And like I said a dozen times before," Kuchiki bit out, venom in every word. "I have no idea what you're talking about!"

Aizen ignored her as he continued, eyes glittering obsessively. "You should've met the boy on your last assignment. The Kurosaki boy. Unless... the effect my return had on the past prevented such a thing..."

He trailed off and Genryuusai could actually see the madness in the traitor's eyes. The Hogyoku had thoroughly ruined the man.

"We don't know anyone named Kurosaki Ichigo!" Abarai yelled hoarsely.

Aizen glanced sharply at the redhead. "This I can believe from you, Abarai-fukutaichou. You would not have befriended him yet at this point in time. But Kuchiki Rukia should have already met him."

"I haven't met anybody by that name," Kuchiki rasped out. Genryuusai stifled a sigh. He could hear the lie in her voice.

Aizen flattened her on the ground with one foot. "You are lying, Kuchiki-fukutaichou. It is admirable of you to keep your silence for Kurosaki Ichigo. That boy has always had the ability to secure the unconditional loyalty of everyone around him. But your continued refusal to cooperate will only result in your death."

"You're planning on killing me anyway!" Kuchiki – fukutaichou, Aizen had called her – snapped. "What kind of threat is that? You've been spouting all this for the past two weeks!"

Genryuusai arched an eyebrow. Had the girl always possessed this much vitriol?

"Be silent, Kuchiki-fukutaichou," Aizen ordered coolly and the foot on Kuchiki's back increased in pressure. He paused and his gaze lifted to take in everyone else. "...Urahara Kisuke, where is your Zanpakutou?"

The captain Genryuusai remembered had, once upon a time, even after ten years of captaincy, held a thin edge of nervousness in his conduct. This man had none of that. Exile had hardened him, and Urahara was all smiles.

"Who knows?" The man said airily. "Must've left it lying back at the shop. I'm getting forgetful in my old age."

Aizen stared at him, and then removed his foot from Kuchiki's back and stalked across the room, lethality in every step.

"You should know Kurosaki Ichigo, Urahara Kisuke," Aizen said softly as he came to a stop in front of Urahara's cage. "You are friends with his father after all."

Urahara didn't look perturbed. "Of course I know him. It would be pointless to deny it. It doesn't change the fact that Kurosaki-san is not a Shinigami."

Aizen smiled coldly. "He is not a mere Human either."

Genryuusai straightened. Several others exchanged glances. A Human? What would be so special about a Human?

"No," Urahara agreed amicably. "That isn't quite possible."

Aizen surveyed the blond shopkeeper. "So why did Kuchiki-fukutaichou not give her powers to Kurosaki Ichigo? And why did you not leave the Hogyoku inside the girl?"

Urahara smiled blandly back at him. "I changed my mind. I found a way to destroy the Hogyoku."

"That is impossible," Aizen said smoothly. "The Hogyoku cannot be destroyed. Unfortunately, my Hogyoku has been used up for the most part to bring me back, leaving me with only part of it, enough to create my army but it would be best to obtain another one. Where is it?"

Urahara gazed back, implacable stare against Aizen's hungry eyes. "I destroyed it."

Next second, Urahara stumbled back as Aizen planted an open palm against the barrier and a thin white blade shot out of his hand and through the barrier, scoring a deep gouge in the scientist's shoulder and painting a splash of crimson on the wall behind.

"Kisuke!" Yoruichi's voice cut through the room.

Urahara grunted as the blade disappeared, a mocking smile on his lips when he raised his head again. "You've grown impatient in your old age, Aizen-san."

Aizen smiled thinly. "I do not like to be kept waiting by worthless dissenters."

He turned away and waved a hand at one of the Arrancar hidden in the shadows. "Perhaps this will jog your memory."

Even Genryuusai started when the figure stepped out into the open.

"Kaien!" The cry came from Kukaku who had lunged forward, eyes wild. "What the hell-!"

"That's not Kaien!" Kuchiki interrupted. "That's one of his Espada pretending to be Kaien! That thing absorbed the Hollow that killed Kaien and gained his memories and Nejibana!"

"And so he is still Shiba Kaien in some form," Aizen said, amused again as the Kaien-lookalike strode forward. "And what better way for Kuchiki-fukutaichou to die than at the hands of the man she killed?"

Anguish flashed across Kuchiki's face. Genryuusai frowned. This was bad. The Shiba Clan Head losing control would be exactly what Aizen wanted, and a stressed Juushirou was never good for his former student's health. As it was, Juushirou was already wavering on his feet and his Third Seats were hovering anxiously at his side.

"But first," Aizen glanced down at Kuchiki. "One last chance, Kuchiki-fukutaichou. What interactions have you had with Kurosaki Ichigo? Have you told him of the Spiritual World? Turned his head with fancy notions of heroics?"

Kuchiki stared back, silent as the grave.

Aizen sighed as if bemoaning a disobedient toddler. His gaze lifted to examine his captives once more. "Luppi, the child. Bring the child here."

The effeminate Arrancar from before bowed with a smirk before sauntering over to the cage holding the Espada.

The brown-haired Arrancar who had remained calm and pokerfaced up until now surged to his feet and forcibly shoved the girl behind him, previously half-lidded eyes now blazing with restrained anger. "Aizen, I wouldn't do that if I were you."

Aizen chuckled detachedly. "You always were far too attached to other people, Starrk. Depending on others will not make you powerful."

Luppi had extended a hand now and one of the teleporting Hollows from before flickered into existence. Half a second later, it was inside the cage, and before Starrk could do more than whirl around and draw his blade, the Hollow had disappeared again with the girl in tow.

"Starrk!" The girl yelped, struggling against Luppi's grip as the Arrancar grabbed her.

"Let her go," The Espada's voice was low with suppressed rage. "I will make you pay for this, Aizen!"

Aizen dismissed the threat with a patronizing smile before turning to the struggling child Arrancar Luppi had dragged over. "Lilynette Gingerback, was it?"

The girl bared her teeth in a snarl. Aizen shook his head. "No manners at all. Well, no matter."

He turned to Kuchiki on the ground. "Now then, Kuchiki-fukutaichou, she may be an Arrancar but she is still a child. Will you let her die? Or will you answer my questions? I will start with her, and then I will pick another, and another, and another, until I reach your brother, and then his lieutenant, and then even your captain. How many people will you condemn to death for the sake of one boy?"

Kuchiki trembled but kept her mouth shut. Genryuusai frowned again. Who was this Kurosaki Ichigo?

"Very well," Aizen nodded at the Kaien-double. "Kill the child."

"LILYNETTE!" Starrk had struck out at the barrier but his Zanpakutou merely glanced off of it.

The child began thrashing more desperately as Aizen's Espada advanced, unsheathing Nejibana, but with Luppi pinning her down, it was impossible for her to get away.

Instead, she went limp and turned to stare at her partner. "Starrk. Sorry."

Genryuusai hardened his heart, watching as several of the lieutenants and seated officers averted their gazes.

A twisted smirk that didn't fit Kaien's features curled the Espada's mouth as the sword descended.

Blood sprayed the air.

XXXIV.

"Go, Aibou! I'll take care of this!" Shiro shouted above the din of panicked Shinigami and shrieking Hollows.

Ichigo didn't pause, nodding curtly as he sped past his Hollow. Any Tels that appeared in his path were beheaded with the wakizashi he was wielding, Muramasa slicing through the enemy ranks with ease. Zangetsu thrummed with restrained power against his back, ready any time Ichigo needed him.

Faster. He had to move faster. The Gotei 13 was ridiculously unprepared when it came to any sort of invasions.

Even from halfway across Seireitei, he could sense the pulse of the Hogyoku mixed with Aizen's own reiatsu, but there was something different. The Hogyoku's power was significantly lessened. Had travelling back in time done something to it?

Clearly however, it hadn't affected it enough to stop Aizen from causing havoc with its help.

He sprinted towards the First Division, single eye on the orange roof as he skated through the air at top speed.

Faster. Faster.

He could only pray that Aizen hadn't started his killing spree yet.

There. He could see the entrance, guarded by two Numeros.

They didn't even see him coming before Ichigo had cut them down.

Through the halls. Aizen was just up ahead. Ichigo fully concealed his reiatsu.

One chance. He had one chance at an ambush. The Hogyoku wasn't as strong. Aizen should be able to die without the full power of the Hogyoku granting him immortality.

Ichigo surged through the dark shadows cast by the alcoves. There. Up ahead.

He took in everything in the room in the span of a heartbeat.

Captains, lieutenants, seated officers, Visored, and various others all locked up in cages.

Tousen lingering in the corner.

Rukia on the ground.

Lilynette beside her.

Luppi holding her down.

Aizen several feet away from them.

And-

Aaroniero. Not Shiba Kaien. Sword raised above Lilynette.

No.

Aizen or Lilynette. Aizen, with a high chance of dying if Ichigo skewered him, or Lilynette, not important in the greater scheme of things but would certainly die at Aaroniero's hand before Ichigo could dispatch him.

Metal glinted in the dim light.

It was a no-brainer.

The blade descended.

Ichigo darted into the room and struck.

Blood sprayed the air.

XXXV.

Ichigo didn't waste any time as he ran Aaroniero through from behind, thrusting Muramasa straight through the Espada's chest before slicing outwards to the left to free his Zanpakutou, ripping a gaping wound in the Arrancar's side. He spun around Aaroniero and planted himself in front of Lilynette and Rukia as the Espada howled in agony, crumpling to the ground as green liquid gushed out and stained the floorboards.

Ichigo didn't linger on the fallen Espada though. His neck prickled and he had Zangetsu unsheathed from his back even as Luppi leapt at him from behind, sword raised and a battle cry on his tongue.

Wrong move.

In less time than it took to blink, Ichigo spun on his heel and struck out again, bringing the katana down on Luppi's left shoulder and cleaving a line straight through the Arrancar's body, nearly ripping him in half as Ichigo lifted him bodily from the ground and flung him aside.

Three steps, turn, and he had Tousen, who had tried to attack him from the right, frozen in his tracks, the tip of Zangetsu pressed against the blind man's jugular.

The entire exchange had taken three seconds.

"Stand down, Tousen," Ichigo said in the ringing silence that ensued. His voice had flattened, blank and frigid as a frozen pond. "Drop your Zanpakutou or I'll cut you down right now."

Tousen remained motionless for a few seconds longer before slowly lowering his Zanpakutou, the blade hitting the ground with a dull clang.

Ichigo wasted no time bringing Muramasa up and flipping the blade around to knock the man out with the hilt.

For Shuuhei and Komamura, or Ichigo wouldn't bother. Tousen had given them all enough grief in the future to last three lifetimes.

"I- Ichigo?"

Without pause, he sheathed his Zanpakutou, swiftly scooped up both Rukia and Lilynette, and then shunpoed away just as three more Arrancars sonidoed forward and thrust their respective swords into the ground where they had been half a second ago.

He landed between the cages that held the Visored and the Espada, and it didn't take eyes to sense the relief coming from Starrk as the man dropped to his knees on the other side of the barrier.

"Lilynette-"

"I'm fine, Starrk," Lilynette assured before peering up at Ichigo, wary but obediently still in the cradle of Ichigo's right arm. "Not a scratch."

Carefully, Ichigo lowered both Shinigami and Arrancar to the ground, making sure Lilynette only shuffled over to the side of the cage Starrk was still in, not quite touching the surface, and wasn't going to do anything reckless before he turned to Rukia.

His once-lover and always-friend was staring up at him with wide violet eyes, hair mussed and exhaustion plain on her features but still alive.

Still alive. He'd made it in time.

XXXVI.

"Ichigo?" Rukia whispered, taking in the longer, messier hair, the uneven scar and glittering, pale blue eye peeking out from behind tousled bangs, the stronger jawline and sharper cheekbones, and the overall matured air about him. "Is- Is that you?"

Ichigo nodded, helping her lean against a part of the wall next to the cages on either side of them. He cupped one of her hands in his and sent a gentle wave of healing Kidou into her system. Rukia was too stunned to ask who had taught him that.

"You're older," Rukia said shakily, mindless of the rest of the room listening in on their conversation with equal attentiveness. "You're- You're a Shinigami. Why is your soul older than your body?"

Ichigo blinked at her. "Aizen's been monologuing all this time and you can't take a shot in the dark, Princess Midget?"

Rukia flushed and bristled indignantly, all impending awkwardness forgotten. "Don't call me by that ridiculous name! Besides, you're just abnormally tall!"

"That means pretty much everyone's abnormally tall to you," Ichigo teased, something very much like relief in his eyes as he scanned her before glancing sharply over his shoulder. Rukia craned her head and caught sight of the three advancing Arrancar.

"I would highly advise against your next actions," Ichigo's grip on her hand was still gentle. His voice on the other hand was frostier than Hitsugaya's Zanpakutou. "You will die."

One of the Arrancar sneered, and all three, rather unwisely in Rukia's opinion, raised their swords. "It's three against one. We take ya down and we'll be the next Espada!"

They sonidoed forward.

All Rukia registered was the fact that Ichigo was no longer beside her before she was gaping at the bodies that simultaneously hit the ground, and then at Ichigo standing in front of her, both his swords sheathed once more.

He glanced back at her, genuine remorse surfacing on his expression. "I'm sorry for not coming sooner."

Rukia raised her eyes, studying him for a moment with shrewd sobriety. He had nothing to be sorry about. If she was a time-traveler, she wouldn't go about announcing it to everyone right away either, and from what she'd gathered, neither Ichigo nor Aizen had had any idea that the other had also come back in time. Ichigo couldn't have known, yet the self-deprecating guilt on his face was very real.

So she bit back the million-and-one questions all wanting to be answered and smiled instead.

"You were late, idiot," Rukia sniped, falling into their normal verbal jousting. "But at least you're here now."

Ichigo looked thrown for a moment, happy and surprised and sad all at the same time in a way that made Rukia's heart wrench, before he quirked a tiny smile at her and then stepped over the already dissipating bodies of the three Arrancars he had just killed.

Rukia spared a moment to check the other people in the room. There wasn't a single Shinigami or Arrancar who wasn't looking at Ichigo, waiting for him to make his next move.

She just hoped Ichigo knew what he was doing.

XXXVII.

"I do hope you brought Benihime with you, Ichigo," Kisuke called from one cage over, inwardly breathing a sigh of relief at Ichigo's timely arrival.

Ichigo rolled his eyes and drew out Kisuke's Zanpakutou from the folds of his Shihakushou. "Next time, don't go leaving your Zanpakutou behind."

Kisuke aimed for a look that Yoruichi always called an idiotic pout. "I was leaving you a clue!"

Ichigo eyed him in exasperation. "I can put two and two together. There's no one here who knows Aizen better than I do, and Tels can only be created from the Hogyoku."

Kisuke huffed but he had to hide a small grin of wry amusement. Half the time, he'd swear Ichigo was his age. The time-traveler scolded him more often than Tessai did. "Yes, yes, I suppose you have a point."

He reached out for Benihime as Ichigo passed the blade through the barrier. Interesting; it seemed that anything could enter but only Tels could exit, at least while the barriers were activated. He'd have to study the cages in more detail later.

He glanced up and found Ichigo gazing at his shoulder. "You alright?"

Kisuke tugged his hat down and shrugged easily, ignoring the ache of his injury. "Flesh wound. Nothing serious."

Ichigo nodded in acceptance, though there was a certain gleam in his eye that told Kisuke that he'd probably be bullied to the Fourth in the near future. Honestly, Ichigo worried far too much.

"Kurosaki Ichigo."

Kisuke stiffened imperceptibly as Ichigo turned away. At the moment, he'd give an arm to be able to break out. He'd sworn to himself that Ichigo wouldn't have to face Aizen alone, not to mention he'd die via Engetsu if Ichigo failed to return to his family.

All he could do now though was hide his anxiety and watch as the faceoff unfolded.

XXXVIII.

"He's a dual-wielder like you, Taichou."

Shunsui glanced briefly at his lieutenant before nodding, taking in the new arrival and the way the young man carried himself.

Light on his feet, body relaxed but ready to strike at a moment's notice, a fast and lethal fighting style, and-

Shunsui absently tilted up his hat and took an estimate of the newcomer's stance. A wakizashi and a katana, almost equally balanced on both sides, yet he'd gamble that the time-traveler was right-hand dominant since the heavier blade was held in his right hand. But there was an odd slant in the man's shoulder line, very slight and probably unnoticeable to anyone who wasn't intimately familiar with wielding two swords.

When fighting with two blades of unequal size, the lighter one always led while the heavier one followed for the finishing blow, which also meant that the former would be angled slightly higher than the latter when held at the ready. Yet this man was the opposite, his katana raised half a centimetre higher than Shunsui would've expected, concurrently tightening the defense of the man's right side.

It didn't really matter in the long run, especially since, from what Shunsui had seen after those five Arrancar and Tousen had been taken down, the newcomer's speed more than covered up any lag when wielding the wakizashi, but-

Shunsui took a step to the left and caught a glimpse of unfocused blue beneath wayward orange bangs.

Ah. That was why. Subconscious compensation for a much wider blind spot than most other people.

Shunsui frowned, mulling over the rapid series of events over the past few minutes. Aizen had travelled back in time. This young man, Kurosaki Ichigo of unknown heritage, had also travelled back in time and was seemingly on their side. Rukia had met him in Karakura, which implied that that was where he lived, and she had protected him even through two weeks of torture.

Not a mere Human, Aizen had said. And Rukia had mentioned the kid's soul being older than his body which meant that Kurosaki Ichigo was still part Human. Did that mean the other part was Shinigami? But Urahara had said that he wasn't one at all.

Then again, Urahara Kisuke had always had the strange tendency to lie. Shunsui figured that it came with the package of once having been Onmitsukidou.

He paused and glanced over at the man in question. Urahara was no longer smiling. If anything, there was a tightness in the downward tilt of his mouth, and the hand that grasped his Zanpakutou was close to white-knuckled.

Shunsui looked back towards the standoff. Aizen was still smiling, but Shunsui recognized the ugly irritation tainting the expression.

On the other hand, Kurosaki Ichigo was utterly blank, closed off and cold, hardened and very different from the gentle way he had checked Rukia over earlier. The only thing that remained the same was the weariness that stubbornly clung on to the young man's thin frame like a wet cloak.

"Taichou?"

"Hmm?" Shunsui glanced again at Nanao, whose gaze had dropped downwards. He looked down as well, blinked, and then released a faint sigh. He offered a reassuring smile to his lieutenant and quickly loosened the involuntary grip he had had on his tachi.

It wasn't so unexpected that he was feeling just a little bit on edge.

The part-Human was still Human after all, and he was so young. Aizen had said ten years. Kurosaki Ichigo couldn't possibly be a day over thirty right now. There shouldn't have been any plausible reason for him to fight a Shinigami's war.

And yet here he was, and for all the strength he had shown even in the mere few seconds it had taken him to defeat five Arrancar and a Shinigami captain, there was something glass-like and brittle in the young man's bearing that Shunsui disliked.

His gaze swept the room and rested on Retsu, who was frowning ever-so-slightly in disapproval, and then on Juushirou, who, while paler than usual, was staring at the scene with uncharacteristic grimness. Even Hitsugaya had a mildly disconcerted scowl on his face.

So Shunsui wasn't the only one then. The other captains could see it too.

He turned back once more, something a lot like dread tugging at his gut. Just how bad had the future been?

XXXIX.

There was a touch of Kaien in Kurosaki Ichigo's features.

That was the first thought that came to Juushirou's mind when he had laid eyes on the bright-haired man.

Only a touch.

Physically, they were almost the same and would've looked even more similar if Kaien had had slightly longer hair, but that was where the resemblances ended.

Because if there was one thing Juushirou could've label Kaien as, it was happy. That, and loyal of course, but his former lieutenant had always been happy with life overall, right up until his death.

This man however was anything but, though if everything that had been said and implied and shown since Aizen had revealed himself to be from the future was true, then Juushirou figured that there would have to be a hell of a lot of loyalty involved for Kurosaki Ichigo to come back just to stop a madman for them.

Time travel itself was nearly unheard of, or at least not something most people would even contemplate, so for someone to voluntarily come back in time, leaving everything they'd ever known and virtually condemning themselves to a life in permanent exile, the future must have been beyond dire.

And Rukia had befriended him despite the physical reminders when she had spent all the years since Kaien's death avoiding the places that the lieutenant had once haunted most. Juushirou had thought something had changed when she had reported in a few months ago after her assignment to Karakura; lighter, with a happier air about her and wearing a smile he hadn't seen since Kaien had been alive. He had chalked it up to a mission in the Human World; some time away from the restrictions of the Gotei 13 did everyone good. He hadn't expected an actual person to be responsible.

He stifled a cough and let his gaze drift back to where the newcomer was standing. The young man had saved a child; an Arrancar, but still a child, and Juushirou was glad. The muted anguish on the face of the girl's caretaker – partner? – had made him wince in sympathy.

He studied Kurosaki's profile. What little he could sense of the man's reiatsu was finely honed and screamed of power. The time-traveler wielded two swords, like himself and Shunsui, though Kurosaki's Zanpakutou looked to still be in its sealed form. Twin blades were rare enough when released; to have them in sealed form as well...

Juushirou thought back to the brief display of skill when Kurosaki had ambushed the Kaien-double and cut down that other Arrancar before knocking Tousen out. The young man's fighting style was shockingly familiar; Juushirou had placed it almost at once – Kurosaki Ichigo fought very much like Shunsui did.

So had they known each other in the future? Surely, if Shunsui had taken the bright-haired Shinigami under his wing to the point where their fighting styles almost matched, then Juushirou would know him fairly well too?

And if they did, if Kurosaki Ichigo had been more than just a distant ally, more of a friend to them and perhaps quite a few others in this room, then Juushirou wondered just how the time-traveler's mental state was still holding up so well.

He paused and scrutinized the stony features, the visible eye looking like it was trying to stare Aizen to death, and he corrected himself.

Kurosaki didn't seem like he was holding up very well at all.

When this was over – and Juushirou fervently hoped that it wouldn't end with the orange-haired time-traveler dead on the ground – he would try to approach the young man and suggest a visit to the Fourth.

XL.

Shinji wasn't happy. Far from it. In fact, he was about as unhappy as he could possibly get.

He knew that there was no way Ichigo could've known that Aizen would abduct all of them and stick them into these cages but that didn't stop him from wanting to shake some sense into the time-travelling Visored.

Hadn't they talked about this? Just last night?

Shinji clicked his tongue in annoyance as he leaned against the immovable barrier and watched Ichigo step away from Kisuke towards Aizen.

It wasn't that he thought Ichigo was weak and wouldn't be able to stand a chance against Aizen; the time-traveler wouldn't have lasted ten years in the war without significant talent in survival, not to mention that he had taken Hiyori (that was understandable), Kensei, and Love by surprise that first day they had met and had had them all at his mercy before any of them could retaliate. Shinji knew strength when he saw it and Ichigo had that in spades.

What he was worried about was whether or not Ichigo was strong enough to pull through in an all-or-nothing battle against Aizen, what with Ichigo's state of mind the way it was.

No one had actually come out and said it – not Kisuke, not Shinji, and certainly not Ichigo – but it didn't take a genius to realize that the younger man was at least a little screwed in the head. You couldn't fight a war against god-wannabes and monsters for ten years, lose a whole slew of people along the way, travel back in time and essentially strand yourself in the past alone, surround yourself with should-be-dead friends and family, and still come out perfectly sane.

Heck, you couldn't come out of Hollowfication perfectly sane, and from what Shinji had heard, Ichigo's soul had already gone through a whole crapload of weird shit. Pile everything else on top of that and it was a downright miracle that Ichigo hadn't gone off the deep end yet.

It was something Shinji had admired about Ichigo as soon as he had heard the entire story from Kisuke. It took a lot of strength to keep going like that, even after losing everything and knowing none of it could ever be recovered. But he also knew that there was only so far Ichigo could keep going before he simply couldn't anymore. The younger man's heart wouldn't allow it.

Saving the Arrancar kid had been a prime example. Instead of going for Aizen, Ichigo had chosen to save the girl. In a way, even after everything he'd been through, Ichigo's heart was still soft. He cared too much, though Shinji supposed that if he didn't, things would be going to hell right now since Ichigo wouldn't have bothered coming back in the first place. He knew Kisuke cared about them but the future version of the shopkeeper had chosen to push everything onto a twenty-six-year-old instead of coming back himself.

(Shinji would've kicked the shopkeeper when he had heard that part if they had been in the same room instead of talking over the phone.)

So Shinji very much preferred being outside of this damn barrier instead of shut away while Ichigo prepared for yet another battle against the traitor-who-just-wouldn't-do-the-world-a-favour-an d-die.

That wasn't an option though so he was stuck with watching helplessly on the sidelines as two evident adversaries stepped forward for yet another confrontation.

XLI.

Ichigo faced the man standing across the room. God, he hated this guy. "Long time no see, Aizen. How long's it been? Nine months or so?"

"Thereabouts," Aizen agreed cordially, though his tone took on a scornful edge. "I believe I finished off most of what was left of your pitiful resistance the last time we faced each other. Who was last? Oh yes, Hirako Shinji, wasn't it? I believe you even cried for him. It was truly heartbreaking."

There was a sharp intake of breath from the Visored's direction.

Ichigo's expression didn't waver. His heart felt cold. "Last of the resistance is standing right in front of you, Aizen. Though I'll admit, I didn't expect to see you here."

"Likewise," Aizen's smile grew. "Urahara Kisuke made yet another mistake, didn't he? He meant to send you back to kill me in the past, but the Hogyoku evidently latched on to the power source and brought me back as well. The Hogyoku is always hungry for more power."

Ichigo didn't really understand the science part of it all, and it didn't really matter. He was here, Aizen was here, and it would come down to a fight to the death between them.

"Let me ask you, Kurosaki Ichigo," Aizen continued, his gaze drifting over Ichigo's shoulder. "Why did you attack Aaroniero? Why did you save Lilynette Gingerback?"

He paused, and when Ichigo remained silent, a smirk curled at the Shinigami's lips. "It would've been wiser to attack me. You have lost your one chance at an ambush. As always, your heart is too soft. The girl would've died but there was a possibility of my death at your hands."

He stopped again, and then goaded silkily, "Then again, if I recall correctly, my Primera Espada were always your favourites. You spent two extra weeks in my company for the girl when you could've escaped alone."

A startled noise came from Lilynette's direction, also ignored.

Ichigo's hand reached for Muramasa. Aizen chuckled. "So hasty, Kurosaki Ichigo. Don't you want to chat some more? I even have an offer for you."

Ichigo found his voice. "There's nothing you can offer me. You're the one who took everything I had."

"Not true," Aizen admonished. "Was it not your choice to come back? In that future, you still had Urahara Kisuke and a few others, did you not, broken though they might've been? Yet you gave even that up, all for a chance to come back and save a Soul Society that does not know you. They will never fully appreciate what you have done for them, what you have given up for them. Is it not better to join me? I will even let you keep your pet Espada. And your friends need not die if you convince them to join me. I'll even-"

Aizen coughed, a splatter of blood dripping onto the floorboards. Ichigo drove his wakizashi deeper into the overlord's gut, trying to drive it upwards towards the Hogyoku even as Aizen managed to stop part of the attack.

"You know what your problem is, Aizen?" Ichigo enquired evenly as Aizen's face twisted into a grimace of hate and he forcibly wrenched himself away from Ichigo's blade, shunpoing backwards to put some distance between them. "You talk way too much."

Aizen coughed again, one hand drenched in blood as he held it against the injury Ichigo had dealt. "You fool! I offered you a place within my ranks. I offered you the safety of your friends and family, and yet you-"

"It would be an unforgiveable insult to every single one of them if I had accepted," Ichigo interjected steadily, raising his Zanpakutou. "Besides, I'd slit my own throat before I'd ever bow down to you."

Aizen's gaze burned. "I will destroy Soul Society. You gave them ten years of your life, Kurosaki Ichigo; you gave up any chance of a future you've ever had, gave them everything you had and more. Would you do so yet again?"

Ichigo rotated Muramasa so that the tip pointed to the left. "We both know the answer to that, Aizen. Enough talk. Let's get on with this."

"Your loyalty to people who will never deserve it will be your downfall, Kurosaki Ichigo!" Aizen spat out. "I will destroy you!"

Ichigo expected it when Aizen attempted to flee. The Hogyoku wasn't healing the overlord as quickly as it once had and Aizen would want to recover first.

"You're not going anywhere!" He snarled, and shot forward. This time, Aizen just managed to form a sword from the palm of his hand to block Ichigo's downward strike. Kyouka Suigetsu had long since disintegrated, taken in by the Hogyoku for more power.

"YOU DARE DEFY A GOD, KUROSAKI ICHIGO?!" Aizen shrieked as they crashed together, metal against metal echoing off the walls of the room.

"You're no god, Aizen!" Ichigo shouted back, ducking under the swipe of his enemy's blade before attacking again. "You're just insane!"

Blow after lethal blow they traded, blades screeching together in showers of sparks, evenly matched in every way.

Ichigo blocked another strike, only to twist as Aizen whirled past him in a flurry of white. With an inward curse, Ichigo disappeared in a blur of Shunpo, unsheathing Zangetsu and meeting Aizen halfway just as the traitor appeared in front of Rukia, weapon already plunging down towards her.

"Get the hell away from her," Ichigo snarled, voice quiet with something well beyond rage. His mind flashed back to a dying Rukia, struck down personally by Aizen.

Aizen's face twisted into a smirk even as he leapt back from the katana Ichigo tried to skewer him with.

"Protective as always, Kurosaki Ichigo," Aizen taunted. "But your efforts are futile. I will kill her like I did last time. I wonder – will it hurt as much? This one at least isn't your fi-"

Ichigo hurled Muramasa across the room, and Aizen only barely managed to get out of the way. As it was, the Shinigami was still left with a deep gash carved into his bicep.

Aizen didn't even seem to notice as he laughed softly, glancing dismissively at the wakizashi now embedded in the wall behind him. "Throwing your Zanpakutou, Kurosaki Ichigo? Hasn't anyone warned you against such a thoughtless feat?"

Ichigo rested Zangetsu against one shoulder as he stared at his enemy. "You never did take much notice in anything beyond yourself, did you? Especially not me. I was always beneath you even though I was the only one who could fight you on even footing."

Aizen sneered. "Do not be so arrogant, Hybrid. I will always stand above you."

Ichigo scoffed. "Say that when you aren't kneeling on the ground. Have you forgotten what my Zanpakutou can do, Aizen?"

Aizen only had time to frown before he choked on his own blood once more, a blade thrust clean through his chest from behind. The man's head jerked around, eyes wide with fury. "What-"

Ichigo smiled, the expression cold and foreign on his face as he strode forward. "Nice, Muramasa."

The manifested Zanpakutou standing behind Aizen smiled back, expression just as icy. "I have been waiting for this for a very long time."

An almost maniacal gleam entered Muramasa's eyes as he kicked out Aizen's legs, driving the overlord to his knees.

"Scream, Aizen Sousuke!" Muramasa hissed, twisting the blade in deeper and forcing a strangled sound from Aizen. "Is that not what you told my wielder? How does it feel to be on the receiving end?"

Ichigo's eyes narrowed, footsteps slowing. Muramasa had always been more possessive than Shiro or even Zangetsu, latching onto Ichigo ever since Ichigo had opened his soul for the Zanpakutou and given Muramasa a place in his heart. So sometimes, especially when it came to Aizen, that possessiveness and almost-fear of being rejected and separated, much like he had been with Kouga and despite Ichigo's best efforts at convincing the Zanpakutou otherwise (though it had gotten much better over the years), tended to appear in the form of a more sadistic side than Muramasa typically showed, never good for their opponents.

However, Aizen was just a little too... composed for his current situation despite his injuries.

"Muramasa!" Ichigo barked out, catching the smirk that curled at Aizen's mouth. "Let go! Get over here!"

Muramasa flicked a startled glance at him and then disappeared in a flash of purple just in time as white spikes exploded from Aizen's back, missing Muramasa by mere nanoseconds as Aizen clambered back onto his feet.

The wakizashi disappeared from Aizen's chest, and an instant later, Muramasa reformed beside Ichigo, a grimace on his face.

"My apologies, Ichigo," Muramasa looked ready to throttle someone, preferably Aizen. "I forgot about the Hogyoku."

"It's fine," Ichigo raised Zangetsu as Muramasa began glowing with his signature reiatsu again. "I wasn't expecting a sliver of the Hogyoku to still be able to do that much anyway."

Muramasa inclined his head, still furious but more controlled now as his physical body blurred and became a wakizashi in Ichigo's hand once more.

"Careless, Kurosaki Ichigo," Aizen called out, looking highly entertained as the white spikes retreated into his back and the Hogyoku shone in his chest. The prior injury Ichigo had dealt to the man's gut didn't look as bad anymore.

The battle was drawing out too long.

Ichigo sighed and sheathed Zangetsu. Things could never be simple, could they?

He dodged out of the way when Aizen suddenly rushed towards him, and the speed at which he moved would've been frightening if Ichigo hadn't been able to match it. He leapt up and slammed a foot against Aizen's sternum, right against the still open wound, before flipping backwards and letting his reiatsu flare.

"Whisper, Muramasa!"

Purple reiatsu exploded from his Zanpakutou, swirling around him as the wakizashi lengthened into a sleek katana, washing over everything in a wave of amethyst light as ominous shadows danced along the walls.

Ichigo straightened.

Aizen's lip curled.

Both of them shot forward.

XLII.

"That's impossible! No one has two Zanpakutou!"

"Well, it looks like he does. The other one's still strapped to his back."

Byakuya tuned the mutters out, staring hard at the bright-haired figure instead.

That was his uncle's blade.

He frowned. This Kurosaki Ichigo would dare take another's Zanpakutou, even if the wielder was sealed away?

Yet as purple reiatsu pulsed from the sword and crashed explosively into Aizen, it became quite clear that Muramasa worked well with the boy. There was no tension between them, only an easy companionship that spoke of years of fighting together. So what had happened? As far as Byakuya knew, Muramasa was a single blade Zanpakutou, not two, so did that mean that Kurosaki Ichigo wielded two Zanpakutou? That should not be possible.

Then again, time travel technically should not be possible either yet Urahara Kisuke had succeeded, even if it had simultaneously brought Aizen back as well.

And Rukia had protected this boy for two weeks and hadn't broken. She had remained silent for someone she had known for a mere few months. The boy's character could not be entirely bad.

So he would wait; wait and perhaps find out just who this Human amalgam was before passing judgement. After all, Kurosaki Ichigo had saved Rukia, despite indirectly being the reason for her capture in the first place.

XLIII.

Metal rang against metal as Ichigo clashed again and again with Aizen. Neither gave an inch as they fought, mere blurs to anyone else's eyes.

Ichigo gritted his teeth as a particularly harsh blow sent him skidding backwards, but he retaliated in the next heartbeat with a series of amethyst, crescent-shaped slashes. The best thing about Muramasa's power was that it could draw on Zangetsu's abilities and adapt them for its own use.

Ichigo scowled harder when Aizen managed to deflect most of the attacks, either dissipating them with his own blade or deflecting them off to the side, resulting in loud explosions all around the room.

It was a good thing everyone was locked up in those cages, Ichigo mused sardonically. And Rukia and Lilynette were far enough behind him not to get caught in any of the detonations.

There were only two ways to deactivate the barriers: one, somebody could disable them with whatever password had been encoded into the Kidou walls, or two, attack the inside and outside of the barrier at the exact same time to neutralize them. One had to time it correctly, and nobody here knew-

Wait. There was a genius in the house. Several actually, but only one who could read Kidou with the expertise required for any scientist who had dedicated their life to studying that particular art.

Still, that didn't mean the man had managed to figure it out just by observing the way the attacks slammed against the Kidou barriers...

Oh who was he kidding? Kisuke had done exactly that in Ichigo's original timeline, much to Kurotsuchi's ire.

There was no telling with all the smoke swirling around them though, and Ichigo only managed to get one last strike in, carving a bloody gash in Aizen's shoulder even as the man leapt back and into the air again.

His senses tingled, and Ichigo jerked and spun clockwise. He looked up in time to see Aizen descend on him with terrifying speed, and even as he brought his blade around once more, he knew he wouldn't be able to block the attack completely; he wasn't turning fast enough.

But before Aizen could hurtle downwards even halfway, a familiar black-and-silver sword interceded, its wielder flashing into sight several feet above Ichigo.

"Bind, Benihime," Kisuke intoned, and a blood-red net launched itself at Aizen, restricting the Shinigami and toppling him to the ground. Landing, the shopkeeper twirled his Zanpakutou and stabbed the net with the tip of the blade. "Fire-Playing, Benihime, Beaded Mesh!"

Orbs of fire formed along the outside of the net, exploding one by one like linked land mines in a domino formation, speeding towards Aizen bound under the net. Seconds later, a large, devastating explosion rocked the very foundations of the First Division barracks as a wall of flames rushed up and blew a hole straight through the ceiling.

Kisuke straightened, blowing out a breath as he landed beside Ichigo and adjusted his hat. He glanced back at Ichigo. "He's still alive?"

Ichigo stared at the smoke churning all around them, and then up at the hole where Aizen had escaped. "Yes. Fuck. ...You shouldn't have interfered."

Kisuke tilted his hat in acknowledgement but didn't apologize. Ichigo didn't ask him to. Both of them knew he wasn't sorry.

Besides, the downside of having fought Aizen so many times that he knew the overlord's moves inside-out was the fact that that worked both ways. Aizen had already known he was weak against aerial assaults when they came in from his right side (he had tightened his defence and trained like hell so that no one could take him by surprise, but that particular blind spot was still a handicap on occasion), and Aizen had used that fraction of a second when Ichigo had lagged to attack. If Kisuke hadn't intervened, Ichigo would've gotten hurt. Not badly, but hurt.

It was why he and Kisuke had made such a good pair in battle in the future. Kisuke had also known his fighting style forwards and backwards, and Ichigo had sparred with the man enough times to know his. They had covered each other's weaknesses and the result had been a flawless defense that even Aizen had been wary of. This Kisuke didn't know Ichigo as well, but the shopkeeper hadn't been lauded as a genius for nothing. They'd sparred enough over the past few months for the former captain to get a general idea of Ichigo's skill.

A groan drew their attention to the ground. Miraculously, Aaroniero was still alive. Even Luppi was dead; Ichigo had all but ripped that Arrancar in half.

In three strides, Ichigo was standing beside the Espada, looming over the Kaien-lookalike.

Aaroniero froze.

"Let me tell you how this is gonna work," Ichigo informed him calmly, inwardly seething at the fact that Aizen had escaped yet again, though hopefully not far if the man's injuries were anything to go by. "You're going to die within the next ten seconds so I suggest you stop wearing my cousin's face. It's always better to die as yourself."

Kaien's image shimmered for a moment before melting away, leaving a large, glass cylindrical capsule filled with red liquid and two small, floating Hollow heads. The body filled out as well, enlarging and stretching the critical injury Ichigo had given him.

Ichigo smiled coldly at the Noveno Espada. "Better."

The upper head cursed him, and one of the Espada's hands scrambled for Nejibana. "You bastard, I'll kill-!"

Ichigo impaled the Arrancar through the head before it could finish, and the other head screamed, high-pitched and tormented before splitting in half, crimson fluid spilling out over the floor.

A flick of his wrist got rid of the excess of liquid staining his katana before he shrunk it back to its sealed form again.

And then there was silence.

Save for the crackle of a few flames and the distant screeches of Hollows, nobody spoke.

Ichigo got the feeling that nobody knew what to say. He himself couldn't quite look at all the familiar faces just yet so he busied himself with picking up Nejibana. The spirit itself was long gone but the blade remained.

As he straightened, he supposed it wasn't so surprising that Kukaku spoke first. "Cousin, huh? Isshin-ji-san told ya then? In the future?"

Ichigo straightened, drew in a fortifying breath, told himself that they were just faces and nothing more, and then turned around.

He almost felt like throwing up.

Instead, he nailed a strained half-smile on his face as he took a few steps forward. "Yes. It's nice to see you again, Kukaku-san, Ganju-san."

Kukaku eyed him for a long moment before snorting and crossing her arms. Ganju hovered in the background, looking mildly dumbfounded.

"Kukaku-nee-san, brat," Kukaku corrected. "We're family. And don't go hightailing off before we have a chance ta celebrate."

Ichigo blinked, completely lost. Celebrating was the last thing on his mind. "Celebrate? Celebrate what?"

Kukaku jabbed a finger at him. "The birth of three new Shibas into the Clan, moron."

"Wait."

They both glanced over to where the Tenth Division captain and lieutenant were standing.

"Isshin as in Shiba Isshin?" Toshirou stared from Ichigo to Kukaku and then back to Ichigo. "But Shiba-taichou died."

Ichigo waved a hand in the general direction of all the former Gotei 13 members. "Yeah, well, supposedly, so did a good eleven people in this room."

Toshirou scowled at him, a hint of bewilderment entering his expression. "Shiba-taichou was assumed dead; killed by a Hollow during a mission in the Human World. How did he survive?"

Ichigo shrugged. "Someone saved him."

"Who?" Toshirou looked increasingly impatient. Rangiku drifted forward, eyes wide as she studied Ichigo. "Shiba-taichou was my captain, Kurosaki. I have a right to know."

Ichigo squinted at him. "Take it easy; I'm not hiding anything from you. My mother did. Saved him I mean."

Toshirou very nearly gaped at him. Ichigo secretly enjoyed it.

"Then why did he not come back?" Toshirou demanded. "If he was fine-"

"Toshirou," Ichigo ignored the irritated expression on the captain's face and pointed at himself. "My mother saved him. My Human mother. As cheesy as it sounds, they fell in love, got married, and had me and my two sisters, and that's breaking several of your laws."

This time, Toshirou did gape at him, or at least he went slack-jawed for a brief second. Behind him, Rangiku had stars in her eyes.

"Shiba-taichou got married and had a darling like you!" The blonde squealed, bouncing forward. "That's wonderful! A forbidden romance!"

Ichigo shot her an unimpressed look. "My life's not a soap opera, Rangiku-san. Please refrain from making such a big deal out of it."

"What kind of person would willingly marry Shiba-taichou?" Toshirou blurted out a second later, and then snapped his mouth shut upon realizing how rude that came out.

Ichigo snorted. "I wonder about that myself sometimes."

From her cage, Kukaku grinned broadly and gave him a thumbs-up. "I like ya already, Ichigo."

"Thanks, I think," Ichigo sighed. His old man was a real nutjob and he had just gotten confirmation that it wasn't only him who thought so.

"Now get us outta here," Kukaku added as an afterthought.

"Yes ma'am," Ichigo murmured, but his gaze darted over to Rukia first. The girl was trying to heave herself onto her feet.

"Rukia-" Ichigo sighed and shunpoed over to her side, tucking Nejibana in his sash before helping her to her feet. She'd hit him if he tried to get her to sit down. "Take it easy, Princess."

"Don't call me that," Rukia grumbled raggedly. "I'll kick you."

Ichigo sighed again and glanced around the room. Rukia yelped when Ichigo simply picked her up again and flashed over to one of the abandoned chairs scattered on the side.

"Sit," Ichigo instructed firmly. "You're in no condition to be moving around."

Rukia shot him the evil eye but settled down without fuss, shoulders sagging with exhaustion. Ichigo patted her on the shoulder, refraining from hugging her or doing something equally stupid.

He turned back and surveyed the captives all staring avidly back at him, and then glanced away again from the probing stares. God, fighting Aizen was less nerve-wracking than this.

"How do you know Rukia?"

Ichigo slowly dragged his gaze to where Renji was scowling at him. "We met in Karakura."

He glanced down at Rukia. "She took down a Hollow outside my house-"

"-that you finished off," Rukia cut in, glaring accusingly at him. "That one and the Shrieker, and while I was panicking about some rogue Shinigami roaming the streets, it was you all along!"

Ichigo ran a hand through his hair guiltily. "Yeah. Sorry. I couldn't tell you yet."

Rukia harrumphed but didn't say anything else.

"No," Renji interjected once more. "I meant how did you meet her the first time around? Two weeks, Aizen was ranting and raving about why Rukia still had her powers and whether or not she met you. What the hell did he mean?"

Ichigo frowned. "The first time around, I started out as just a Human who could see souls. Pluses, Hollows, Shinigami. Like this time, Rukia was sent to Karakura, except the Hollow overwhelmed her and grabbed one of my sisters. Rukia was injured and I wanted to protect my family, so she gave me her powers."

"That is illegal!" Soifon barked.

Ichigo scowled at her. "Good thing it didn't happen this time then. The last time you all ran around like headless chickens desperately trying to execute her. Bit extreme against someone who was just trying to save lives."

Ichigo huffed as he forced himself to subside. Even after all these years, that still rubbed him the wrong way.

"Kurosaki Ichigo."

Ichigo hid a grimace. Here it was. "Yeah, Gramps?"

"Watch your tongue!" Soifon interrupted again, glowering at him.

Ichigo glared right back, temper frayed, uneasy from Aizen's disappearance, and barely holding his shit together while being in the same room as so many should-be-dead faces. "Well he's not my captain-commander so suck it up and deal. What are you gonna do, kill me for breaking some obscure law on military mannerisms?"

Soifon bristled but before she could open her mouth, Shinji intervened.

"Soifon-taichou, Ichigo just crossed blades with Aizen like he's been doin' it since he was born," Shinji's eyes narrowed even as his grin widened. "Ya probably shouldn't piss him off."

Soifon faltered, hesitant as to what to do upon being reprimanded by not only a former captain but also a supposedly dead man.

Ichigo flicked a grateful look in Shinji's direction before concentrating on Yamamoto again. "What is it?"

The old man peered at him through narrow eyes. "How old are you, young'un?"

Ichigo frowned. "Twenty-six. I came back eleven years, so my Human body's fifteen."

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Juushirou start.

"And the war lasted for ten years?" Juushirou sounded troubled. "Then you would've been sixteen when you started fighting?"

Ichigo wasn't quite sure where this was headed. "Yeah. What of it?"

"Maa," Shunsui smiled kindly at him, though there was an odd tinge of melancholic resignation in the slight frown creasing his brow. "I think what Juu-chan is trying to say is that sixteen is a bit young to be fighting a war. So is twenty-six for that matter, especially when it comes to a Shinigami war."

Ichigo stared at the captain who would one day become captain-commander as well as one of his mentors when Ichigo had had to learn how to fight with two swords at the same time. Shunsui had been like an uncle to him and it had hurt to lose the man. Hell, it had hurt everyone. Shunsui had made an excellent captain-commander, not to mention he had had his fair share of friends who'd mourned his passing. It had been a serious blow to morale, especially when they had just lost Juushirou half a year earlier.

"I'm not that young," Ichigo said when the silence started to stretch. "Twenty-six is just a number. So is sixteen. The only thing that matters is what you can cram in those years."

Ichigo looked away when Shunsui's gaze turned thoughtful. For all his laziness, the Eighth Division captain had always been one of the most perceptive.

"And why did you return to the past?" Yamamoto enquired.

Ichigo looked at him incredulously. "Uh, Gramps, you're all locked up in cages, courtesy of the resident lunatic with delusions of godhood. If I hadn't come back, everything would've panned out exactly like before.

"See that?" He pointed out the far window. The skies were cloudy but pieces of blue peaked out from behind, and while the Hollows still ran wild, most of Seireitei was still very much intact.

"Imagine a wasteland in its place," He said bluntly. "Literally. That's what Aizen reduced Soul Society to. Rukongai was gone. The few handfuls of survivors were moved into Seireitei until Aizen torched half the city anyway. The barracks that survived were turned into a hospital and a shelter. We had to move our base of operations to Hueco Mundo. We fought there, we ate there, we lived there, and trust me, that's not something you'd want, especially when all the food eventually started tasting like sand and the nights were forty below outside and all you had to keep yourself warm with was a tent and a few blankets. Some of the lower-ranked Shinigami froze to death at night. Aizen didn't even need to waste time killing them."

By the time he had finished, Ichigo's voice was harsh and most of his audience had turned pale.

He glanced down when Rukia suddenly reached out, one of her hands coming to rest against his. They were balled into white-knuckled fists. Ichigo gritted his teeth and forced himself to relax.

With a sharp exhale, he quirked a tiny, hopefully reassuring smile in Rukia's direction before his gaze narrowed and his head snapped to the side. He unsheathed Muramasa just as a Tel popped into existence on his right, Cero already forming in its mouth. Ichigo cleaved the thing in half before it could finish, its head and body dissipating in an instant.

Three more appeared, but before Ichigo could take care of them, a blur of white hurtled in through the window and destroyed them with three precise blows.

"I thought you were doing crowd control!" Ichigo said as Shiro sonidoed to his side, the sealed form of Zangetsu in his hand.

"There's too many!" Shiro snapped back. "It's a fuckin' Hollow pageant out there! Jeez, Shinigami sure fail big time at counterin' invasions, don't they?"

Shiro glanced over his shoulder at the goggling eyes before focusing on Shunsui. "Yo, boss-man, your Shinigami need retrainin' in a big way. I'd say just overhaul all the losers at the bottom of the ladder 'cause they seriously don't have a fuckin' clue in hell what they're doin' out there. I keep tellin' 'em ta cut the Tels' heads off but they just continue aimin' at the limbs, even when the things clearly reattach themselves! How the fuck did they even pass the entrance exam? I thought havin' a brain was a requirement for gettin' inta the Academy!"

Shinji was laughing. So were the other Visored. Yoruichi was grinning with visible entertainment. Kisuke was smirking. Kukaku cackled. The expressions on the captains ranged from bemused to indignant.

Ichigo was glad someone was getting a good laugh out of this because all he could do was facepalm and then slap Shiro upside the head.

"Ow! The fuck was that for?"

"Shut up!" Ichigo hissed. "Shun- Kyouraku-san isn't- you know, yet. And sometimes, I wonder if you have a brain!"

"You're insultin' yourself, Aibou," Shiro jeered. "I'm your Hollow. And I can call the drunk 'boss-man' if I wanna!"

They spun at the same time, Ichigo to the left and Shiro to the right just as six more Tels teleported into the room. Ichigo skewered three in a whirl of black while Shiro smashed their heads open and crushed their throats in a flurry of white.

"Where the fuck's Aizen?" Shiro shouted as more Tels popped in and were promptly cut down half a second later.

"Escaped," Ichigo said bleakly.

"What?!"

"You heard me," Ichigo growled, reversing his grip on Muramasa and killing two more Tels as the Hollows tried to attack him from his blind spot. Behind both of them, Kisuke was keeping up fairly well; it seemed that the shopkeeper was only going to be taken off guard once by these things and had adjusted accordingly to battle them more efficiently.

"We goin' after him?"

Ichigo shot Shiro a deadpan look. Duh.

Sweeping the now-empty room, he cocked an eyebrow at his Hollow who clicked his tongue but leapt at Ichigo.

"Ruin my fun, why don't ya? I was just gettin' warmed up," The Hollow groused, disappearing into thin air the moment his hand touched Ichigo's shoulder.

"Kurosaki Ichigo."

Ugh, what was it with people calling him by his full name all the time?

"Yeah, Byakuya?" Ichigo turned in the Sixth Division captain's direction. It had taken him four years to wear the man down and make him give up on Ichigo ever referring to him by his surname and title. He wasn't about to stop now.

Nostalgia hit him when he laid eyes on Byakuya though. They hadn't gotten along at first, had been out-and-out enemies, but they had grown to respect each other, and the war had only cemented that until they had become friends.

At the moment though, Byakuya was frowning sternly at him though the Clan Head made no move to correct Ichigo's form of address. Instead, he enquired, voice chilled, "The wakizashi you wield – I am certain it belongs to Kuchiki Kouga-"

Aw, not this again, Ichigo groaned inwardly as Muramasa's reiatsu flared in irritation.

"I am Kurosaki Ichigo's Zanpakutou!" Even Murmasa's hair looked windswept as he landed beside Ichigo, glaring darkly at a subtly startled Byakuya. "Your uncle threw me away, Kuchiki Byakuya! He refused to trust me and I could no longer hear his voice. I gave him all that I could give of myself and he cast me away! I do not belong to a man like that."

Muramasa tossed one last contemptuous sneer in Byakuya's direction before reforming at Ichigo's waist in his sword form.

Ichigo cleared his throat. "Sorry 'bout that. He's not actually angry at you; he just doesn't like it when people talk about Kuchiki Kouga, especially when in context with him. They have... bad history together, as I'm sure you already know. Muramasa's my partner now."

Byakuya stared unblinkingly at him for a long minute before inclining his head, and Ichigo was taken aback to find a glimmer of respect in the man's eyes.

"He heard your voice when you called him?" Byakuya enquired in a monotone, but Ichigo knew him well enough to hear the trace of proprietary concern towards a Zanpakutou that had once been in the care of a Kuchiki.

"Yeah," Ichigo nodded. "We work well together."

Byakuya said nothing more, and Ichigo relaxed. Maybe they would actually get along this time around without all the death fights. When he had time though, he'd have to sit down with the Clan Head and figure out what Byakuya wanted to do about Kuchiki Kouga. The man had been sealed away, and while Muramasa would no longer attempt to free him, someone would eventually stumble on the disgraced Kuchiki. Better to prevent that from happening before anything actually happened.

"Oi, Ichigo," Shinji spoke up next, leaning against the barrier. "Ya remember what we talked about yesterday?"

Ichigo scowled at him. "Yeah, we agreed to disagree. Here's me disagreeing."

He made to turn away (for God's sakes, why was he still here?), only for the thump of Shinji's fist against the barrier to make him pause.

"Ichigo," It was the sternest Ichigo had ever heard the Visored leader. "Ya ain't handlin' him alone."

"And you think you stand a chance?" Ichigo retorted. "Eleven years in the future, you threw everything you had against Aizen, gambled everything, and you lost. Right now, you'd be killed before you could say Bankai, and I mean that literally!"

He glared at the blond. "This is my job. I came back here to kill him. Stop trying to prevent me from doing my job."

"Ya don't have ta-"

"Yes I do!" Ichigo snarled, temper finally snapping. "What else am I good for?!"

Silence echoed like a gong. Ichigo closed his eyes and turned around. "I didn't mean-"

He was already jumping back as a katana sliced into his abdomen, tearing a jagged path through his Shihakushou and grazing his skin before he managed to get away, Shiro howling with outrage inside his head.

"Ichigo!"

Rukia half-staggered to her feet, Kisuke had stepped up beside Ichigo, Benihime at the ready, and Shinji was glaring daggers at both the barrier and the figure that was currently stepping out of the last plumes of smoke that hadn't quite cleared yet.

"TOUSEN!" Komamura roared. "How could you? Kurosaki Ichigo is-"

"-Aizen-taichou's enemy," Tousen stated, Zanpakutou extended. "Aizen-taichou follows the path of least bloodshed, and so I will follow him. Anyone who stands in the way must be removed."

Ichigo's mouth twisted as he drew Muramasa and Zangetsu, both swords weighing comfortably in his hands. He ignored the slight sting in his side. Shiro was already working on it.

"Shuuhei, Komamura-san, can I please take him down?" He spat out bitterly, keeping one eye on the Justice-preacher. He hated this man just as much as he hated Aizen. Once upon a time, Shunsui had been the one to kill him after forbidding Ichigo from doing the same.

For all that he had gone through a war, Ichigo had never killed in cold blood before; killed, yes, but never while the enemy had been helpless. Tousen had been captured, weaponless, and at their mercy, and Ichigo hadn't exactly been in his right mind at the time, having just lost both his sisters to Aizen – indirectly – and Tousen – directly. Killing in cold blood would've been exactly what Ichigo would've done if Shunsui hadn't forcibly stopped him before hauling Tousen off for interrogation.

At that point, nobody was willing to run the risk of keeping prisoners so almost anyone they had captured had had to go after all relevant and irrelevant information had been dragged from them.

Tousen had been no different; not even Komamura or Shuuhei had had the balls to ask for mercy on the traitor's behalf, and Ichigo never saw Tousen ever again after that, but there had been concrete rumours of the traitor meeting his end at Shunsui's hands in the privacy of one of the First Division prison cells.

However, at the moment, Shuuhei looked like he desperately wanted to throw himself into the battle while Komamura had bowed his head. Before either could give him a proper answer, Tousen surged forward, katana raised.

Ichigo scoffed and knocked the first blow aside with his wakizashi before sweeping out with his katana. Tousen didn't stand a flying fuck of a chance. The first blow had been pure luck. Ichigo had been distracted.

He weaved to the side as the former captain thrust his sword forward, dodging and blocking each strike with ease. Metal screeched as Ichigo deflected another blow, forcing Tousen's blade down and to the side with Muramasa before Zangetsu snaked forward with the speed of a striking cobra and left a brutal laceration in the former captain's left side.

Tousen must have realized that he was hopelessly outmatched because he fell back and jumped into the air, moving his Zanpakutou in a semi-circle.

Ichigo's eyes widened. Was the man crazy?

Without a word, he whirled and grabbed Rukia, bundling her into the corner along with Lilynette, and then turning to shove Kisuke out of the way before spinning back to the fight.

"Suzumushi Second Movement: Crimson Flying Locusts!"

Ichigo offered up a silent apology to Yamamoto for the soon-to-be destroyed wall of the First Division just as hundreds of swords began raining down on him.

Ichigo relaxed and threw himself into the battle.

This was what he did best. Fighting. When it was intuition combined with skill, there were very few who could truly best him, and those who did certainly didn't for long.

Sword after sword, Ichigo deflected to the side and into the empty courtyard below, twisting around the barrage of blades and redirecting them all, some with his wakizashi, others with his katana, and still others with a combination of both as he danced amongst the volley of deadly metal. His arms were a blur as he reacted purely out of instinct, never slowing down as he held back Tousen's assault.

And when the onslaught finally ended, Ichigo took a deep breath and looked around. The far wall had been demolished but-

There wasn't so much as a scratch mark on the wooden floor behind him.

Ichigo grinned humourlessly, eyes bright with adrenaline, before turning back to the confounded Tousen. "You don't honestly think you can win against me, do you?"

And before the former captain could sputter out a response, Ichigo shunpoed forward and cracked the hilt of his sword against the man's temple once more. This time, he kicked the Zanpakutou away before hauling Tousen across the room and dropping him in a heap at the foot of Shuuhei and Komamura's cage, making sure to bind him with Kidou as well while he was at it.

"All yours," Ichigo informed them, only not even breathless as he sheathed his swords once more. He had to remind himself – over and over again – that this wasn't the Tousen that had completely lost himself to Aizen's madness, not yet, and that there might still be a chance for him. His sisters' deaths had long since become a permanent but lessened ache in his chest, and unlike even just a year ago, he could stay his hand when it came to confronting his sisters' would-be murderer. "But if he comes after me again, I reserve the right to kill him."

Komamura bowed low. "I thank you, Kurosaki Ichigo."

Shuuhei nodded shakily, features pained but resolute.

Ichigo rubbed his neck in embarrassment. "Don't worry about it."

"Ichigo!"

Ichigo froze, and then slowly turned to Kenpachi who was grinning dementedly at him. "Uh, yeah?"

"When I get outta here, let's fight!"

Ichigo blanched. "No thanks, I'm good."

The last thing he needed was a fight against the craziest captain in the Gotei 13 (Kurotsuchi didn't count; the man was just downright creepy).

"And I'm done!" Kisuke chirped from across the room where he was standing next to the cage that Yoruichi and Soifon were in, studying the barrier intently. "Kidou walls encrypted with a password – how quaint. And Aizen never did have much imagination; I'd say... '397537' as the password – his rather lesser-known Academy registration number. Unfortunately for him, I've been through all his files."

Ichigo narrowed his eyes. Damn Kisuke. The shopkeeper had probably used the time Ichigo had been fighting to crack the method behind disabling the cages, preventing Ichigo from going after Aizen alone while he still could.

"Ichigo..."

Ichigo scowled at the warning note in Shinji's voice, clearly advising him not to run off before they'd been freed. As if he'd do that.

Though it might've occurred to him.

"Gramps," He said instead, striding back to the center of the room. Yamamoto peered at him impassively. Ichigo crossed his arms and squared his shoulders. "So, in case it hasn't been cleared up yet, Aizen was responsible for the Hollowfication of eight Shinigami a century ago, and then framed Kisuke and Tessai-san for it. You and Central 46 ordered the execution of four captains and four lieutenants, the imprisonment of the Kidou Corps captain, and the exile of another captain."

He paused. His gaze remained steely. "I want them fully pardoned. They can come and go as they please, and if they choose to stay away, they're free to do that too. But a full pardon for each of them is only fair. The very least you can do."

Tension skyrocketed in the room. All the Visored looked almost blatantly surprised.

"And if I refuse, you will keep us locked up, young'un?" Yamamoto rumbled, a dangerous, menacing edge entering his voice.

Out of the corner of Ichigo's eye, he saw the Visored bristle on his behalf.

"Of course not," Ichigo objected, waving the seals in the air. "I'll free you, all of you. But I'm going to free them first so they'll have time to disappear before you can hunt them down. And while we're on the subject of hunting, the Arrancar-"

He jerked his head at the former Espada who had all been phenomenally silent thus far. Or at least Grimmjow and Lilynette had been. The other three were relatively quiet people in general.

"They get to leave. They haven't done anything, so just let them head back to Hueco Mundo without trying to kill them.

"And I think it goes without saying," He tacked on, figuring he might as well be thorough about it. "That my father will not be arrested or interrogated or imprisoned or executed or anything else you people can think of. And really, laying a finger on my sisters is plain suicide, so just don't try it."

He stopped again, tilting his head in consideration. He let his expression cool. "Though I suppose it's only fair to warn you – if you do try to hunt any of them down, Visored or Arrancar or Kisuke and Tessai-san or my family, you and I are going to have a difference of opinion, and all of us are going to have problems getting along."

Ichigo finished with a bland smile. "I'd like to get along with everyone, Gramps. Trust me; it's less hassle in the future."

Another long silence ensued. Yamamoto stared holes in him, age-old gaze challenging and pushing him to back down. Ichigo didn't look away, staring back calmly. He had faced far more frightening things than Yamamoto Genryuusai.

Perhaps he saw Ichigo's resolve or just sheer bullheadedness but the old man's eyes closed after a drawn-out two minutes of solid silence and some of the pressure in the room seeped away.

"Very well," Yamamoto said at long last, staff thumping against the ground. "Kurosaki Ichigo, I will grant your request as the facts are founded to be true. All six former captains and four former lieutenants will be granted a full pardon, and all five Arrancar will be granted safe passage out of Soul Society, provided that they do not attack anyone here. Your family will also be left alone."

Ichigo released a soundless sigh of relief and dipped his head in thanks. He had a nagging suspicion that Yamamoto hadn't just 'granted his request' because everyone – mostly everyone; his father had broken the law, even if it was a stupid one – was actually innocent. The old man not wanting a time-travelling powerhouse against them probably came under consideration as well. Still, Ichigo would take what he could get.

He stilled when Kisuke brushed past him with a murmured thank-you, grey eyes warmer than Ichigo had ever seen them since he had returned to the past.

Ichigo smiled dryly to himself as he headed for the former Espada first. As if there had ever been any doubt of him not speaking up for them. He'd promised after all.

Of course, he'd also promised not to endanger any of his past friends and family members and look where he was now. He had at least a handful of people who couldn't seem to understand the fact that they just weren't strong enough to fight Aizen at the moment. How was he supposed to keep them safe if they insisted on throwing themselves headfirst into a life-or-death battle against the crazy overlord?

And Ichigo thought he was supposed to be the reckless one.

It looked like he'd just have to find a way to sneak after Aizen when no one was looking, or at least put up barriers of his own if and when they faced the former captain.

Ichigo had come back with one purpose alone, and he'd be damned if he failed.


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