So, it's been not quite two years since I updated, and canon has marched on. I'd kind of lost my enthusiasm for Bleach for a long time, but recently got back into the mood to write, mostly because I wanted to remember what I liked about the series. A lot of stuff I speculated on in Hogyoku ex Machina has been either confirmed or denied by Kubo since then, and I have no plans to go back and retcon any of it. Yamamoto's bankai is going to stay a giant dragon. Whether or not I ever bring in the Fullbring or Quincy stuff will kind of depend on how many continuations I wind up writing. This chapter was meant to be a one-shot, but it's been sitting half-finished on my hard-drive for a year and I finally decided to post what I had in order to motivate myself to finish. So, this will probably be a two-shot; I'm aiming to post the second half at the end of July, two years after HeM was finished. For everyone who is still reading after the huge hiatus, thanks for sticking around, and I hope you enjoy this small continuation!
Edit as of 8/22/13- The next chapter has been delayed due to a death in my family in mid-July. I'm currently shooting for the end of September.
Disclaimer: I have not gained ownership of Bleach in the intervening years.
The night was still and quiet as Kuchiki Rukia came through the gates of the manor and through the door of her quarters, inclining her head in thanks to the servant that brought her a cup of tea. She took it into the garden and left it beside her as she unsheathed her sword and dropped into the familiar meditative pose. Rather than enter Jinzen immediately, though, she took a moment to simply look at the beautiful white blade in her hands. It had been a long day, and the sight of her sword rarely failed to bring her some measure of peace.
The Thirteenth Division was in a constant flurry of activity to prepare for the lengthy absence of their captain, but the hollow patrols still needed to be completed, and she had noticed a marked change in her interactions with the rest of the shinigami in the patrol. She had heard the whispers in the ranks around her, both before and after Karakura. 'Noblewoman, graduated too early, barely trained, if the Kuchiki name couldn't get her a seat how incompetent must she be-' had changed to 'Could kill an Espada' and 'did you see the battle where-'
She had been given the point position, to take the brunt of any frontal attack and to lead any charge, when she had always been in the more protected middle before. The name of her adopted family, and apparently the rumored displeasure of her brother should she become hurt, had been a swaddling wrap she hadn't noticed restricting her until she had been sent on her solo assignment in Karakura. Now, though, everyone knew she was capable of more. After all, they'd seen it. Seen it in the projected memories of a future that would never become the present.
'I am not that woman.' It had been her thought when the eighth-seat placed Rukia at the front of the ten shinigami, in the position that was given to the strongest fighter, while the higher-ranked woman took the second-most-vulnerable position at their rear. Rukia had never been through a war. She hadn't even been of any help when they were rescuing Ichigo from Tosen. 'Failed to protect the humans, changed Ichigo's life forever, had to be rescued from execution, took a spot in the exchange with Aizen that a stronger fighter could have used, how can I do this?' and she had to force herself to remember that her alternate self had failed just as badly, and had done what she had anyway.
Her fears hadn't mattered when the Huge Hollow attacked, and as she danced with it she could feel Sode no Shirayuki's smugness at finally being able to show the world what they were capable of. In front of her, the circle of ice had cracked, and as her dance partner shattered she had let her doubt shatter with it.
'I am not that woman. But I will be.'
It was that thought that she clung to as she ('not Eighth-seat Kanara, and why is it me?') had given the patrol report to Ukitake-taicho, and confirmed that her power had fully recovered from the drain of the last few months. She had been grateful; it had been the only reason they had delayed their captain's treatment in the human world. Before he began taking the human medicines, she would be accompanying her captain and all of the adult members of the Shiba family to Hueco Mundo.
"Kaien-dono," Rukia whispered, bowing her head as her hands tightened around her sword. She sat that way for a long minute before moving to stab the blade upright into the soft ground in front of her, and took a deep breath as she settled back into her preferred meditation position.
The woman she would have become had set him free. For the sake of Shiba Kaien's soul, she would become that woman again.
"Rukia!" The joyous call and tinkling laughter snapped her eyes open just before she began to push her heart into her blade. The speaker was a pixie-faced girl with enormous green eyes and blond hair, and Rukia's blood went as cold as the hollow she had destroyed earlier that day.
'No note, it's too soon and there was supposed to be a note-' but even as she grabbed her sword and bolted to her feet she remembered that the note had been to bring her from the human world-
"Stop, Hom-!" and she was cut off as the scythe swept through her from behind.
The white sword was left abandoned next to a still-steaming cup of tea.
It was well after dark, but in the depths of his research laboratory, the captain of the Twelfth was still begrudgingly filling out the paperwork generated by the recent audit. The accountants of the First Division had swept through the Shinigami Research and Development Association like a plague of locusts, and had done just as much damage. Almost half of his own personal projects had been judged to be too 'potentially destructive' to be allowed in the main facility, even under the newly heightened security, and now had been either put into storage or discontinued entirely. It still made his blood boil, to have those ignorant paper-pushers, devoid of any intellectual curiosity and barely capable of intelligent thought, passing judgment on the products of his genius-
Mayuri paused, and blinked down at the paper in his hands, then frowned and began reading it in more detail.
"Audit? When was I-" He broke off with a shake of his head, and yelled, "Nemu! Nemu, blasted girl, get in here!"
"Yes, Mayuri-sama?" the vice-captin asked, hurrying into the room. She took the form he handed her, and focused on the familiar signature on the second-in-command's line, though her calm expression did not change. "No-one has come into the laboratory without your permission, Mayuri-sama. A forgery, perhaps."
"I did not ask your opinion, girl," the clown-faced captain snapped, sweeping past her and striding into the main section of the research complex. He hurried to the pipe-organ-shaped control unit and typed in the sequence that would summon his ultimate safeguard, the one that would ensure that he lived on even if his physical body was destroyed. Instead of retrieving the container with the cloned brain, however, an alarm started to blare and writing began appearing on the main screen.
Mayuri's eyes widened as he leaned forward and peered up in fascination, scrolling through the message hurriedly. The language, the coding in the instructions- his, unquestionably his. The first lines gave the new passwords to recover the memories of creating these new safeguards. The paragraphs following gave a warning- that if his memory had gaps, they were or would soon be under attack by the memory-stealing hollows in the provided pictures. Then came a link to a specimen file that he vaguely recalled from Urahara's tenure as the head of the SRDA , concerning the original hollow that had subsequently merged with two souls and transferred its power to them. Finally, a notice that the warning could not be removed from the screen, or the alarm sirens cut off, until the cloned brain was retrieved and he remembered the code to do so.
He began typing in the retrieval codes provided, and as the glass cylinder rose through the panel on his right, barriers of light suddenly sprang up over the container and in front of every entrance to the room. Mayuri glanced at the kido barrier covering the main entrance in surprise- and ducked.
"So you decided to come back to your prison, hmm?" he said to the pale, dark-haired boy wielding the double-bladed red scythe that had just swept through the air above him. "How foolish."
The boy made no reply, just disappeared in a puff of black smoke. Mayuri drew his zanpakuto and turned in one movement, catching the red blade cutting towards his head. They stared at each other for a frozen moment, and then the blade began to phase through Ashisogi Jizo. Mayuri's eyes widened and he flash-stepped to the other end of the room, noting with interest that six globes positioned at equal distances in the walls around the room were beginning to glow.
"If I know myself-" and he parried the next blow as the young hollow flew at him from across the room, "-and I do-"
His next step took him to one of the white globes in the wall, and as the white-clad boy appeared in front of Mayuri, it shot out a single beam of light that hit him in the chest, propelling him back towards the center of the room to intersect with the other five rays that had simultaneously emerged from the other kido balls.
"-you were trapped as soon as you entered the room." As the boy began to struggle, Mayuri came forward to inspect the six prongs of white light that made up the kido, which strongly resembled an enormous Bakudo 61: Rekujou Kourou. "An interesting choice of binding. I would have thought I would use- well, never mind. I am sure I had a good reason."
The boy gave up on breaking the binding and just looked coldly at the clown-faced scientist. "Shinigami." His voice was a flat monotone, but the hatred in it was clearly audible despite that.
"You have an interesting set of powers, specimen. Memory-erasure and teleportation, hmmm? I can immediately think of a half-dozen new experiments, and," he approached the glowing barrier around the artificial brain waiting for him at the control unit, "I'm sure that I'll remember quite a few more."
"We will erase you." Black tendrils of lightning began forming around him as he strained against the bonds of white light once more. "No shinigami will remember you, or anything you have done. No shinigami will remember us."
"Us?" Mayuri's high-pitched chuckle echoed through the room. "I recall the specimen you merged with. There was only one of you, and it was not human-shaped. Do you even remember why you are attacking this place?"
"To erase-" but his answer was cut off by an bell-like sound from the kido barrier across the main entrance.
Outside of the lab, black-clad shinigami were gathering in response to the alarms. Hitsugaya, Kenpachi, and Ukitake, the captains closest to the 12th division headquarters, had swiftly arrived on the scene and been informed by Nemu that the alarms had begun shortly before powerful kido seals cut her captain off from the rest of the world.
"Sounds like he's in trouble," Kenpachi grunted. "You sure we gotta do anything about it?"
"He is a fellow captain," Ukitake chided as he strode through the main doors to see the glowing barriers for himself. He raised his hand. "Shiro-chan, Sōren Sōkatsui, please. Stagger yours after mine."
Hitsugaya scowled at the nickname, but obediently began chanting the spell when Ukitake was halfway finished. "Ye lord! Mask of blood and flesh, all creation, flutter of wings, ye who bears the name of Man! On the wall of blue flame, inscribe a twin lotus. In the abyss of conflagration, wait at the far heavens. Hado 71: Sōren Sōkatsui!"
The first two blasts of blue energy burst from Ukitake's pointer and middle finger and impacted the barrier with no effect. He immediately began chanting again, while Hitsugaya completed his own attack. Ukitake's second blast caused the barrier to flicker, and they were all able to briefly see Mayuri, running towards them and waving his zanpakuto in alarm.
Hitsugaya and Ukitake had already begun chanting in unison to come to Mayuri's aid, and so Kenpachi was the only one to glance back and see the white-clad blond girl floating behind him. "Eh?"
"He's hurting him!" Black smoke and lightning began erupting from her feet. "I won't let you hurt him!"
Kenpachi grinned at the impending fight and unsheathed his sword, then glanced down, instantly feeling a change in the balance of his weapon. He frowned when he saw that the blade was clear and unpitted. "What the hell?"
Behind him, Ukitake and Hitsugaya's combined strike shattered the barrier, allowing them to see the boy trapped behind it and finally hear Mayuri's cries of distress.
"Stop, you imbeciles!"
Ukitake blinked, hand still raised to cast. Hitsugaya snorted and let his own fall. "Korutsuchi, I could be sleeping right now. Explain to me why I am not sleeping."
"There's the other one!" The captain of the Twelfth pointed behind them, and then ducked a bolt of black lightning. "Capture her!"
"Shinigami! I won't let you!" The girl disappeared from behind them and reappeared above her companion as her black lightning became more agitated than ever. She screamed, and the room exploded into chaos. Mayuri, the only shinigami inside the room itself, took a bolt directly to the chest and flew into the wall, where he lay groaning. Other bolts flew into the control unit, shorting out the message on the screen, killing the alarms, and bouncing off of the barrier surrounding the artificial brain. Still others shattered the globes holding her brother imprisoned, and as the kido disappeared he immediately appeared in front of Mayuri, scythe raised to strike.
In a last-ditch effort, Mayuri's own blade moved- not to block, but to rest at his own throat. The hollow boy paused in shock, and in that instant Mayuri's gaze flickered beyond him, to the still-intact brain floating in the shielded container on the other side of the room.
He let the sword fall from his hand, and the scythe come down. He clung to the knowledge that the floating brain was important, even as the reason why fled from his mind.
As was her custom, Hinamori Momo woke at the first light of dawn, and then blinked in confusion at the room she lay in. She was definitely not her quarters in the Fifth. She dressed in the slightly dusty uniform left next to the bed- hers, despite the unfamiliar surroundings, and with her badge left on top- and stepped into the hallway. She was in the long-term care section of the Fourth, if she wasn't mistaken. She had occasionally come here with her captain to visit the more severely wounded members of the Fifth.
As she raised a hand to catch the attention of a passing healer, a Hell Butterfly alighted on her finger, and Chojiro Sasakibe's voice resounded through her head. "To all lieutenants and captains, from Yamamoto-Soutaicho: the ryoka have been sighted in the vicinity of the South Gate, and appear to be attempting to flee to the Rukongai. The man is carrying an unidentified woman in uniform. Search parties in the vicinity of the North, South, East, and West gates are to be doubled. Patrols in the rest of the Seireitei are to continue unchanged. Should you find the ryoka or any of the missing personnel, report their presence, but do not approach without backup."
Hinamori shook her head, now even more confused than before. She hurried out into the main hallway, and heard a scream of "Stop! Don't come any closer! You want to capture me!"
Kotetsu Isane, the vice-captain of the Fourth, rushed out of the room where the cries originated and slid the door shut with an audible sigh of relief.
"Isane-san!" At Momo's call, Isane glanced down the hall and promptly dropped the bowl of water she carried.
"Hinamori! You're all right!" The tall woman ran down the hall and placed her hands on Momo's shoulders, looking her over anxiously, before deciding that she actually was physically unharmed. "Where have you been? All of the patrols are out looking for you!"
"For me?" She shook her head, confused. "I don't- I don't remember. I woke up here- you didn't know?"
"You were not placed under the care of the healers of the Fourth, Hinamori-san," Unohana Retsu said serenely as she left the room Isane had just retreated from. The cries from within had cut off abruptly a few seconds before. "Someone may have dropped you in an empty room without making us aware, however. How do you feel?"
Momo paused, and thought about it. "I feel… I feel wonderful. As though the entire world is new. I feel like I've woken from a nightmare that had no end."
"Oh?" Unohana murmured. "A very different effect, then. Do you know the date?"
Momo hesitated, and then guessed. Unohana shook her head. "More than a month later, I'm afraid."
"I was asleep for a month?" Momo blinked. How had no-one noticed her lying in that room?
"You were attacked, and have lost several weeks worth of memories," Unohana corrected. "Last night, a small group of ryoka invaded the Seireitei and completely erased Korutsuchi-taicho's memory, rendering him paranoid and violent. He sounded the alarm and held them off long enough for reinforcements to arrive, however, and the attack was witnessed. When the alert was sounded, we found that several other officers and a number of unseated shinigami were unaccounted for. You were one of them."
The same Hell Butterfly that had come to Momo fluttered away from Isane, having delivered its message, but instead of fluttering to Unohana it went down the hallway. Isane smiled at them both. "I've let the First Division know that you were found. We'll start searching for the others- this really is the last place anyone would look!"
Unohana nodded. "Please organize the search party, Isane, although the rest of the victims may have hidden through their own volition if their reaction was more similar to Korutsuchi-taicho's than to Hinamori-fukataicho's."
"Who else is missing?" Momo asked absently, already turning her mind to her duty. Helping her captain coordinate the search parties from the Fifth, figuring out what she had missed in the last few weeks… this wasn't great, but it was manageable. She hadn't lost everything, like Unohana said Mayuri had.
"Most of the missing shinigami are from the Twelfth Division; an entire squad is unaccounted for. Of the seated officers, we are missing Shiba Kaien of the Thirteenth Division, Tosen Kaname of the Ninth, and…" Unohana sighed slightly, bowing her head, "… I am sorry, Hinamori-san. Aizen Sosuke of the Fifth."
Hinamori froze, all thought fleeing her head. "Aizen-taicho?"
"We found you, and you're fine!" Isane said hurriedly. "Mayuri isn't hurt, and we'll figure out how to reverse the spell and get him back to normal right away! Don't worry, Momo-chan. It'll be alright."
/A body clad in crimson-stained white, pinned to the side of a building./
Her heart hurt. She raised a hand up involuntarily, to see if someone really had pierced it, but met nothing but cloth. "I have to find him."
"It would be better for you to stay here for observation, Hinamori-san. We may not yet know the full effect of the ability you were subjected to."
Momo shook her head violently. "Aizen-taicho needs me. My place is with the Fifth, to help our captain."
"Hinamori-san." Unohana's voice, somehow, became slightly milder, and her smile a fraction more gentle. "It would be better-"
"Unohana-taicho!" The interruption was almost a shriek, despite the ice running down her spine. Isane's hand flew to her mouth in shock, and even Unohana's eyes widened fractionally. Momo continued in a whisper. "Please. I can feel it. Something… something terrible has happened. He needs my help."
The Fourth Division captain looked at her for a long moment, then nodded once. "Very well, Hinamori-fukataicho. Your loyalty does you credit. Go, and give him any aid you can."
Momo bowed in thanks, and left the Fourth as fast as she could shunpo.
Kira Izuru, the lieutenant of the Third Division, placed his hand on his sword hilt and looked around warily, hearing a continuous stream of words that was rapidly coming closer. He glanced up barely in time to leap out of the impact zone of a swearing man with orange hair who kicked up a cloud of dust as he twisted to land in a crouch in front of the patrol squads guarding the Black Ridge Gate. A few quick gestures had his men surrounding the newcomer, who had risen and was brushing himself off. He was still muttering something about 'stupid hats and clogs', apparently unfazed by the ring of steel surrounding him, until he finally glanced up and raised a hand in greeting towards the blond assistant captain.
"Hey, Kira-san, I've got a letter I need to drop off at the First."
"Who are you, and what division are you with?" Kira asked warily, stepping around his men and into the center of the circle with Wakisube in hand. The man- a boy, almost, though physical age didn't mean much among shinigami with the amount of reiatsu this one had- was wearing the standard uniform with the addition of a red chain across his chest, which supported a large white-wrapped zanpakuto slung across his back. Oddly, he also carried a second sword at his waist, this one a far more normal katana with a purple hilt-wrap.
"Kurosaki Ichigo, substitute shinigami. I'm not with any of the divisions. " The newly-named Kurosaki fished around in the single-strap messenger bag he was carrying over one shoulder before pulling out a piece of folded parchment and tossing it to Kira, who fumbled slightly as he caught it. His eyes widened when he saw the wax seal on the letter.
"This is…" Orders from the Captain-Commander usually carried the chrysanthemum design of the First Division. This one carried Yamamoto's personal seal, which was used only for the most urgent and sensitive instructions. Kira had never seen the design used outside of his Academy classes. He tossed the letter back as though it had burned him. "… and you're taking it to the First?"
"Yeah, it's about the people who attacked Mayuri. Yamamoto told me to bring it back." He stuffed the letter back in his bag without any apparent concern for the gravity of the information he carried, and looked at the distant hulk of the Soukyoku Hill, using it to orient himself. "North Gate this time, huh? See you later, then."
Without any further concern for Kira or his men, who had broken the circle at Kira's urgent gesture, the young 'substitute shinigami' (and what sort of title was that, anyway?) flash-stepped down the road to the south, in the vague direction of the First Division.
Kira shook his head, frowning slightly, and glanced at his fifth-seat. "Did he look… familiar to you?"
Yamamoto stared at the papers in his hand in disbelief, then looked up to study the teenager fidgeting impatiently in front of him. "Do you know what this says, boy?"
"You said you'd tell yourself to let me take care of finding Rukia, and to help me if I needed it. I can find her pretty easily. Can I go now?"
'-are herby ordered to assist and aid Kurosaki Ichigo in any manner he requires, and to follow his instructions concerning the capture of the intruders and the recovery of the shinigami Kuchiki Rukia, until such a time as everything forgotten has been regained-'
Unbelievable, that he would transfer command of the forces during a crisis to a human boy. Unbelievable, except-
'-by my hand and seal, Yamamoto Genryūsai Shigekuni, Soutaicho of the Gotei 13.'
Handwriting could be forged. The seal had been accurate, with all of the little flaws from thousands of years of use that never made it into the pictures the Academy students were taught to recognize, but a skilled thief might have stolen it for a single use and returned it. Might have, but-
A name he hadn't heard spoken in centuries, and that no person in this millennium would have any reason to remember. A fitting choice for a password, and one that would be very difficult to fake. It was still beyond conception that he would give this… child such power. He shifted to the second page, this one apparently a personal letter from his past self, looking for some explanation.
The letter did not address the current crisis at all. No mention of the missing shinigami was made, not even the new Kuchiki that the official orders had said must be recovered. Instead it focused almost entirely on Kurosaki, a time-traveler who, in addition to several other upcoming threats to Soul Society, had warned the Seireitei of the attack on their memories in advance. The lack of detail in the letter was thankfully addressed in the second paragraph by telling him that his personal files contained a comprehensive briefing prepared specifically for this purpose, and gave the catalog numbers in the Central 46 archive for the complete records of the missing information. No insight into his forgotten motives appeared, however, until the last paragraph.
'-urge you to take this second chance to make a first impression, and use it well. Advise him, watch him, and judge him with clear eyes.'
A test, then. A test for what, he supposed would remember eventually. Yamamoto folded the papers and rose from his cushion to stand with both hands on the head of the cane in front of him. He felt Ryuujin Jakka stir within his soul, and tasted… recognition. Recognition and interest and the satisfaction of a plan coming together, and that more than any password reassured him that the boy's word was true, and that this was the course of action that he had judged wisest when he had had full knowledge of the circumstances. He opened his eyes fully and straightened his back.
"Very well." Centuries of command and a power unmatched in Soul Society echoed through his voice as the Captain-Commander of the Gotei 13 gave control of his forces to another being for the first time in his tenure. "Kurosaki Ichigo, the forces of the Thirteen Court Guards stand ready to aid and assist you during this crisis. What would you have us do?"
"Huh? Nothing, that was just in case something went wrong. Bye, Jii-san." The boy raised a hand in farewell and turned towards the sliding door. Yamamoto twitched and the flames in his soul flared brighter with his sword's amusement. This would be the reason for the 'advice' part of the instructions, then.
"Stop, boy, and let me give you a briefing on our current deployment…"
Kuchiki Byakuya re-read the orders from the captain-commander for the fifth time as he waited for his two companions to emerge from their trances. His vice-captain was sitting cross-legged with Zabimaru in its Shikai form across his knees, having the discussion with his sword that the bright-haired new shinigami had told him he needed before they left on the mission. The newcomer was leaning against the wall surrounding the Sixth Division training yard, attempting to sort through the spirit ribbons that surrounded them and find the one that belonged to their target. And that target…
/ "I can't stop looking. Even under these conditions."/
His wife had been searching for something throughout their too-short marriage. A sister, according to Kurosaki, and said that Byakuya had continued the search in her memory until the young student shinigami was adopted into the Kuchiki clan. And then the boy had continued to spin a tale about time-travel and memory-erasing hollows and a woman whose loss had ripped a hole in the history of Soul Society that they were only just beginning to notice.
It seemed too fantastic to be true, but the boy had Yamamoto's support, and the captain commander was nowhere near senility yet. The search parties from the other divisions had been either recalled or sent to reinforce the gates. The Sixth, though, had been placed directly under Kurosaki- apparently solely because 'you guys would kill me when you got your memory back otherwise'.
His train of thought was broken as Abarai Renji opened his eyes and lifted his sword from his knees with trembling hands. He stood shakily, and when he spoke his voice was a mere whisper. "Bankai."
A red glow briefly engulfed Renji's body before his subordinate was obscured by a tornado that picked up all of the dirt on the training ground floor. Kurosaki was brought out of his own trance, coughing, as the dust-storm cleared to reveal an enormous snake skeleton with a red crest that matched Renji's hair.
"When did you achieve the final release, Renji?" Byakuya asked quietly, coming forward to examine the construct.
Renji lifted the tail of the snake that had replaced the hilt of his sword, and groped at the new pelt on his shoulder with his other hand as he shook his head blankly. "I haven't."
"A few weeks ago," Kurosaki said as he dusted himself off and came to join them. "You did it for Rukia. She was in trouble and you wanted to rescue her."
"You don't do this on a whim, Kurosaki!" Renji snapped. "It takes years of training and you need a teacher! I don't even know how to manifest Zabimaru! I wouldn't forget this!"
"You forgot it when you forgot her. You'll remember it eventually." Kurosai shrugged. "Can't you think of anyone who would have taught you, if you'd asked?"
Renji stiffened slightly as the substitute shinigami glanced at Byakuya. "Believe me now?"
"I would not question the Soutaicho," Byakuya replied smoothly.
Kurosaki snorted at some private joke. "Sure. But I don't care about your orders. I'm here because you both care a lot about Rukia and Yamamoto reminded me you'd want to be included. If you don't want to come, say so now, and I'll go alone."
The boy might not care about his instructions- and what shinigami would dare to not care?- but Byakuya was not so cavalier. Yamamoto was expecting a report. "Did you find her, then?"
"Yeah. It was harder with so many shinigami around, but I've gotten better at reiatsu-sensing since the first time. Whether you want to come or not, I'm not waiting any longer. Are you in or out?" The challenge was directed at Renji rather than Byakuya.
"I'm coming. I don't know what your friend is to me, but I've forgotten something I need to remember." Renji frowned in concentration, and the massive snake disappeared, leaving Zabimaru's shikai form in his right hand. He then remembered that his superior officer was standing next to him. "Ah, with your permission, Taicho."
"You do not appear to need it," the captain said dryly, glancing at the orders he carried before turning to the orange-haired shinigami. Kurosaki had been placed in command of the Seireitei's response to the invasion, and could demand any backup he wanted. Perplexing, then, that he did not seem to want backup… "But clearly more than just Mayuri's memories have been tampered with, and if you were an enemy you would not add another captain-class fighter to our ranks. If the rest of your story is true, then my duty is clear."
Kurosaki nodded, clearly having expected the answer, while in front of them Renji mouthed the words 'captain-class fighter' in disbelief. It would likely take some time for the idea of the eventual promotion to sink in, but Byakuya doubted that he would be keeping Renji for much longer than the years he would need to train his Bankai sufficiently.
"Let's go, then. It'll just be the three of us. They've been moving around a lot, and they can teleport. The rest of your men aren't fast enough to keep up." Kurosaki waited for their nods of acknowledgement, and then flashed into the air above the division. He paused a moment to orient himself and let the other two catch up, then headed southwest at a pace that left Byakuya stretching his steps to keep up and Renji trailing behind.
Renji caught up with the other two at a crossroads not too far from the South Gate, where the ryoka had last been seen. Kurosaki ("Call me Ichigo") gestured down the road leading north as he pulled a brown cloak out of the bag slung over his shoulders. "She's down there a bit. I'll go ahead and see what's going on before we move in."
Renji glanced at his expressionless captain before saying what he was pretty sure they were both thinking. "I don't think that's gonna work too well-" but he cut himself off as Kurosaki slung the cloak over his shoulders and his reiatsu just disappeared.
"A friend thought I might need this, and left a note for himself before he forgot me," Ichigo explained, seeing the expression on his face. "The kids won't notice me. I'll be right back."
He pulled the hood over his head and was gone a second later, and Renji realized belatedly that he'd never heard the guy make a sound that hadn't come from his mouth. His spirit-pressure was like Kenpachi's- so large and so uncontrolled that he might as well have had had his own personal marching band and town criers announcing his presence. He felt noisy, but his clothes had never rustled, and when he'd been following him Renji hadn't heard the swishing sound that often accompanied shunpo. He followed Byakuya's glance to their feet, and saw that there were only two sets of footprints in the dirt on the cobblestones.
"Onmitsukido training," the captain of the Sixth murmured. "Strange, if he is a substitute."
"I haven't heard about any position like that," Renji remarked.
"There has only been one other. He was the reason that it is punishable by death for a shinigami to transfer their powers to a human."
"Oh." Renji frowned. Anything more that he would have said, though, was cut off by an explosion of black lightning from the direction of the South Gate. "Shit!"
He drew his sword and was about to run to reinforce the guards until he was cut off by Byakuya's upraised hand. "That is not our assignment. We wait for Kurosaki."
"We don't know how long he'll be, Taicho-"
"I'm right here," came a voice from right behind them. Renji, already on edge, turned and half-swung in one movement before pulling the strike. Ichigo flash-stepped back and blinked at the redhead in bemusement, lifting the sleeping woman in his arms protectively. "You alright there, Renji?"
"Don't do that, Kurosaki." Renji looked at the dark-haired girl more closely, trying to dredge up some feeling of familiarity. "Is this her?"
"Yeah. She was in an old house down the street; I think they left her alone while they tried to get the gate open." He looked at Byakuya, who was staring at his new sister, and his customary frown softened slightly. "I've seen Hisana-san's shrine. They look a lot alike, don't they? Here, take her."
Renji didn't think he'd ever seen his captain as anything less than graceful, but the uncertain way he hefted the woman- and she was tiny, he doubted she'd come more than halfway up his chest, so it wasn't like she was heavy- was the closest he'd come yet. Kurosaki took off his cloak, making him suddenly there again, loud reiatsu and all, and handed it to Byakuya. "Here. Get her home; she'll regain her memories faster in familiar surroundings. The kids won't be able to track her with this on. We'll catch up later."
Byakuya wrapped the woman in the cloak, and her own not-insignificant reiatsu disappeared. He was gone a second later, and Ichigo grabbed the hilt of the large cleaver-shaped zanpakuto on his back as he turned towards the South Gate. "Coming, Renji?"
Ikkaku leapt high and came down hard, spinning his naginata in both hands and aiming for the blond girl gathering dark lightning around her feet, only to be blocked by her dark-haired companion once again. He used the rebound from his jump to leap back and dodge the return scythe-strike, but was forced to duck as another lightning storm erupted from the girl in all directions. Lousy aim or not, though, it was the second time the Red Hollow Gate had been hit by the lightning, and this time it gave off an ominous creaking sound.
"It can't take another of those," Yumichika said calmly as he appeared next to Ikkaku, his sword already in the unfolded sickle shapes of its released form.
Ikkaku nodded in acknowledgement. "Any sign of Higonyudo yet?"
"The only Gate Guardian at his post is Jidanbo, and they've avoided the West Gate entirely. We're it."
Ikkaku grinned, while in front of him the men of the Eleventh charged in and were effortlessly tossed back by the flat blade of the scythe. "I've got the boy."
No further planning was needed; Yumichika flash-stepped around behind the girl, dodged a minor bolt of energy, and struck, coming almost close enough to strike before she flinched and puffed away. Her brother meanwhile had used his scythe handle to block Ikkaku's body strike, and Ikkaku's grin just got wider.
"Split, Houzukimaru!" The spear split into three sections, and the deadly blade curved around the scythe to carve a deep cut in the startled boy's face, just below the eye. Like his sister, he disappeared in a puff of black smoke, and Ikkaku was forced to dive forward and roll to avoid the strike coming in from behind.
"Nii-san!" The blond was standing in the air above them now, looking with dismay at the blood dripping from below her brother's right eye.
"I'm fine. Get the gate open."
"So arrogant? It's not gonna be that easy. I am the second-strongest man in the strongest division of the Gotei 13. You don't stand a chance against me." The bald man was on his feet again, with the end sections of the three-part staff in his hands. "You gonna tell me your name?"
The question got the most expression he'd seen from the intruder yet. His lips pulled back into a snarl and the girl above them hissed in anger, forcing both shinigami to dodge bolts of static.
"I guess it doesn't matter. Announcing your name and rank is a custom taught to us when we learn how to fight. It's known as the last courtesy. If a person dies in combat, at least you get to know the name of the one that brought death to you. Third Seat of Zaraki's Division, Ikkaku Madarame. As for the lowlifes who ignore this etiquette," and Ikkaku shifted his grip on sections of his weapon, "I simply kill them, after they know who did them in."
The strike this time came from the side, but Ikkaku had timed the previous one and twisted to plunge the bladed section of his staff into the smoke while he used the stick in his other hand to block the scythe-blade. The blade cut through the lavender trimming of the ragged white kimono and angled up to cut into his shoulder. The boy gave a slight gasp of pain, but pressed forward with his scythe, and Ikkaku's eyes widened as it began phasing through the wood of the handle. He disengaged before it could pass completely through, and the pale ryoka leapt into the air to join his sister.
"Shinigami… you ruin everything. You bring nothing but pain, ruin lives- just…" She trailed off into a furious scream, and the lightning at her feet doubled with the strength of her emotions as Ikkaku and Yumichika leapt into the air and attacked the pair from opposite sides to try to stop the attack as before it was formed.
"Getsuga Tensho!" A crescent of black energy sailed through the air towards the two ryoka, and the brother turned to intercept it with his blade. It prevented him from being cut apart, but the impact of the attack blew him into his sister and slammed them both into the wall to the side of the gate.
"What the hell are you doing, Renji?" Ikkaku yelled at his friend as he and a shinigami he didn't recognize ran into the gate square. "This is our fight!"
"Not now, Ikkaku," the stranger snapped as he stopped a safe distance away from where the two kids were picking themselves off the ground. While the third-seat frowned at the guy in confusion, he angled his sword slightly so that it wasn't pointing directly at them and said, "Before you erased her memories, she knew your names."
The boy stiffened and the girl's eyes went impossibly wide. The orange-haired shinigami took a step forward, lowering his cleaver even more. Seeing that, Ikkaku joined the pieces of his zanpakuto back together and raised his own guard while Yumichika and Renji spread out around the small group, ready to step in if the idiot got himself killed.
"How do you remember, shinigami?" the boy snarled.
"Rukia changed my life. I won't ever forget her." He took another step forward, cautiously, as though he were approaching wild animals. "Reverse it. She'll tell you your names, and get to know you. She wanted to remember you."
"Liar." He had fallen back into his quiet monotone. "You just want her to remember you. She is ours. There is no-one more important to us than Rukia."
This apparently meant something to the guy; he raised his sword to where it should have been all along, pointed directly at the enemy. The girl spoke next as she stepped forward to stand next to her brother. "If you are the only person who remembers her, then we must erase your memories as well. Then she will stay with us forever."
The dark-haired hollow vanished in a puff of smoke once again, but the stranger turned and caught the scythe-blade swinging downwards easily and without surprise. "You lunatics! It's already too late. She's got friends and family, and you can't erase her from our souls!"
"Who is he, how does he know them, and what is going on?" Yumichika asked Renji conversationally as the shinigami continued to dance and block the scythe-strikes without retaliating. They had better manners than the stranger, and would not interfere in another man's fight. Renji shook his head while, on the other side of the square, the yellow-haired girl puffed away.
"Kurosaki Ichigo. Yamamoto's put him in charge. These kids have screwed with all of our memories except his." Renji hesitated. "Hey, Ikkaku… if I had asked you to, would you have taught me…"
"SHE'S GONE!" The girl screamed as she appeared back on the battlefield. "They took Rukia!"
She didn't try to use the dark energy coiling at her feet this time, but just shot forward towards her brother's opponent. Kurosaki easily avoided the clumsy attack and swatted her out of the air with the flat of his blade. She hit the ground hard and rolled, and her brother teleported to her side as she staggered up, tears on her face. "Bring her back, shinigami!"
"Onee-chan." He put a restraining hand on his sister's shoulder. It stopped her from flying at Kurosaki again, but didn't do anything about the sobs or the tears. Ikkaku sighed and dropped out of shikai, though he kept his sword and sheath in his hands.
"I hate it when they start cryin'," he muttered to Renji as the red-head and Yumichika followed his lead and sealed their swords. "Doesn't look like they've got much left."
"I said, you're too late," Kurosaki told the pair. "Rukia's been a part of too much for anybody to just forget her. You can't erase history, and you haven't touched our souls. Renji's already recovering what you took from him, and Mayuri's gonna remember everything really soon. Everyone else will figure out what they've forgotten pretty quickly after that. It's already over."
"You did this, shinigami. When we erase you, it won't matter." If the boy had let any of Kurosaki's speech affect him, it didn't show.
"You won't be able to." His words were confident- a statement of fact, not a boast. Ikkaku started liking the guy a bit more, interrupted fight or no. He could appreciate someone who knew where he stood in the world. "Rukia loved you. That's the only reason I'm talking to you right now. When you want to learn your names, come find me."
Around the edges of the square, the squads from the 11th that had been watching the action drew closer, and several squads from the 13th clattered down the side road and also crowded into the square. The odds hadn't actually changed- the kids had no chance at taking the four of them down, so the lower-ranked shinigami didn't make much difference- but the reinforcements seemed to make up the boy's mind about something. He nodded to Kurosaki once, pulled his sister closer, and disappeared.
"You're letting them go?" Renji asked, sheathing his sword. "I thought you said they were hollows."
"Sort of, but that doesn't mean much to me. And I don't know what would happen if I just killed them. You might remember, might not." Kurosaki hesitated, and said a bit more quietly, "She wouldn't want me to."
"You're the boss," the lieutenant shrugged.
"Is he? What's your story, Kurosaki?" Ikkaku asked, circling in front of the newcomer and looking him up and down with his sheathed sword slung over his shoulders.
"It's a long one, and you actually know it already. Basically, those kids have made it so all of the shinigami have forgotten a lot of recent history. You knew this was coming and that I wouldn't have any memory loss, so Yamamoto put me in charge of hunting them down until you all get your memories back." The summary was practiced; he'd clearly had to give it several times already.
"Makes sense. Are you strong?" Very little else mattered, in the Eleventh.
That got him the first smile he'd seen from the guy. "Yeah."
"Good. Can't have a weakling in charge just 'cause he's got a good memory. We'll fight sometime."
"If you want to lose again," Kurosaki said, smirking, "anytime."
Ikkaku twitched. "Like I'd lose to a punk like you!"
Kurosaki turned away, still smirking, with a hand raised in farewell. "See you later, Ikkaku, Yumichika. Renji, I'm headed to the Kuchiki mansion. You coming?"
Renji's affirmative answer was interrupted by the approach of a young light-haired woman from the squads from the Thirteenth. "Excuse me?"
"Yeah? Kotetsu, right?" Kurosaki asked. "Isane's sister?"
"Third-seat Kotetsu Kiyone, sir!" she said, saluting. "Leading the search parties of the Thirteenth!"
Kurosaki winced. "Ichigo's fine. Kurosaki Ichigo, not sir."
"I thought the search parties had been recalled?" Renji asked, frowning.
"The searchers for the ryoka have, Abarai-fukataicho, but no mention was made about the search parties for the missing officers!"
"And that's the story the Fifth, Ninth, and Thirteenth divisions are sticking with, hmm?" Yumichika murmured.
"And the Seventh, and the Tenth," Kiyone confirmed cheerfully. "I was wondering, Kurosaki-san, since you look a lot like-"
"Kiyone, where's Ukitake-san?" His voice was flat, and colder than it had been even when he was speaking with the hollows.
She blinked, startled at the abrupt interruption and change in his attitude. "Um, the captains were called to a meeting half an hour ago."
"Go back to the Thirteenth, and wait for him."
"But," she stuttered, "but, Kaien-dono and the others-"
"Kiyone. Get your search parties, and go wait for your captain. That's an order." He glanced at Renji. "I can do that, right?"
"Y-yeah. If I read those papers right, you could order around the captain-commander." He hesitated, then added, "…though I really wouldn't try it."
"So, go home, Kiyone. Ukitake-san will explain everything when he gets back. And," he paused, then continued in a softer voice, "I'm sorry."
She ushered her squads out, visibly confused and dismayed. Once they were gone, Ikkaku asked, "So what have we forgotten about the missing guys, then? Once Hinamori was found, we didn't think there would be a problem."
"They're all dead." His voice was flat again. "I didn't want to tell her."
"Dead?" Renji snapped. "How? When?"
"Shiba Kaien died years ago. I'm not sure how long exactly. Aizen and Tosen… a couple of weeks."
"Aizen-san," the redhead muttered, and Ikkaku remembered suddenly that he'd transferred to the Eleventh from the Fifth. "…shit. Are you sure?"
"Very." There was a wealth of meaning in the word that they simply didn't have the context to interpret. Kurosaki shook his head, visibly shrugging off the mood Kiyone's questions had put him into. "Let's go, Renji. Byakuya's probably got to go to this meeting too. Rukia's going to need guards for when they come back."
Ikkaku raised an eyebrow as Kurosaki disappeared. "He calls Kuchiki by his first name?"
Renji shook his head in disbelief. "Not to his face. Yet, anyway. He's right, though- I need to go. I'll see you guys around."
"Bring your new friend to the Eleventh when you have the time," Yumichika murmured, looking speculatively at the spot where Kurosaki had been standing. "Taicho will want to meet him."
Leadership in the Gotei 13 was based on strength, and the Soutaicho had stepped aside. Had given command to an unknown fighter. No matter how limited the time of his abdication, or the scope of the stranger's authority, it was the first time in a millenium. Yes, Zaraki Kenpachi would want to meet him.
Renji nodded once, grimly, and followed after Kurosaki, leaving the men from the Eleventh to guard the gate.
"… so what do you think happened to Higonyudo?"
AN: In the Fade to Black movie, Homura and Shizuku knew exactly where to go and what to do to get some pretty destructive experimental weapons. I think they went back to the SRDA in the first place because of the vague memories of the hollow that they absorbed. It didn't like it there, and they've kept a feeling that makes them want to destroy the institution. Realistically, though, they would have had to have had Mayuri's lab under surveillance for a while to get such detailed information. I've assumed here that they did so because they had the time, since they had to figure out where Rukia was and how to get her back into Seireitei. The timeline has been moved up because they had no trouble whatsoever finding Rukia, so they just went for their primary goal without as much planning, and tried to kill the current captain of the SRDA almost as an afterthought. (And because the first six months of my two-year hiatus was spent with massive writers block on the chapter I tentatively titled 'Hueco Mundo Road Trip', so I eventually just decided to write this first.)
And, yes, they had a ridiculously easy time getting Rukia back. The kids… aren't exactly going to challenge anyone who knows what they're dealing with. They are not the biggest problem Ichigo is going to have.