Disclaimer: I do not own Bleach.
AN: There's an Author's Note at the end, you can start with that; or you can read the chapter first and then read the note after you're well and truly confused.
Ichigo sat at the now restored table with Zangetsu and Tensa lounging around him as invisible specters – though, given the way they were eyeing the others, guardians might be more accurate. Together, they quietly observed the gathering of former captains before them, digesting the lengthy and somewhat convoluted explanation they had just been given.
Sighing in soul weary exhaustion, Ichigo shook his head before finally speaking,
"I should have left the moment you told me Chad and Inoue were fine."
Spying his teachers smirking at him, he let his gaze drop to the cup of steaming tea placed before him, quite obviously contemplating putting it to a use other than what it was intended for. Shaking his head, he concluded that he needed it more than he needed to see Kisuke in pain.
From his place beside him, Zangetsu tilted his bleached white head as a devilish leer was birthed on his face, before he began to rise from his laid-back position, fingers pointed towards the other side of the table, telltale red glow beginning to creep down from his finger tips to the rest of his hand.
Without so much as a change in expression, Tensa reached behind Ichigo and slapped the back of Zangetsu's head, causing the whited-out teen to pout exaggeratedly.
Ichigo's eye twitched at the duo's actions, before he firmly decided to ignore them.
Just beyond his peripheral vision, Tensa and Zangetsu exchanged muted smirks as they felt the lightening of the hitherto barely detected tension in their partner's reiatsu, having succeeded in distracting Ichigo from the information dump he had just received.
Ichigo didn't even need to look to understand what the feelings of triumph were for.
Hours after the fact and he was still marveling at the changes that had occurred between the three of them.
As his thoughts once more went down the familiar path they had walked over the past few hours, Zangetsu and Tensa quietened down and focused on their shared inner world; manifestations present in the outside world, but attentions completely absent.
No matter how many times they luxuriated in the feeling of unity they now all shared, it never failed to take their breaths away even as it humbled them.
This was true Unity.
The sensation of being one person in three bodies…three hearts…three souls.
Kisuke's gaze sharpened as Ichigo's eyes slowly slid closed. His penetrating stare took in the serene expression on the normally scowling teen's face, as well as the barely detectable sway to his torso, as though he were unconsciously moving along to a song only he could hear.
Without removing his attention from his student, he snapped his hand to the right, clasping Isshin by the shoulder and holding him down with an ease that reminded the anxious father that more might be going on than his limited and recovering senses could detect.
Pausing as he warred between the impulse to check on his son and the reluctance to disturb him if his worries were for naught, Isshin hesitated long enough for it all to become moot.
Ichigo, slowly emerging from the Zen state he was just in, was suddenly beset by the urge to giggle, an urge which he swiftly killed before…
Ahh, he thought to himself, too late.
Zangetsu's howls of laughter and Tensa's quiet amusement let him know that he had failed to keep that sudden onset of helpless inebriation from them.
After a heartbeat, he shrugged his shoulders and decided to just ignore it, experience with his siblings letting him know that it was the quickest way to kill interest in something so embarrassing.
Turning his focus fully to the outside, he was just in time to see his father covering up the last of his concern behind a hastily cobbled together nonchalant expression.
Realizing what his father might have been thinking, especially considering the battle he had just witnessed, Ichigo rushed to reassure him, hiding his own sudden discomfort by casually reaching for his teacup,
"Ah, sorry about that. Tensa, Zangetsu, and I were checking something out."
Whether it was because he had rushed that statement, or just inattention on the parts of the others, none of the older Shinigami noticed references to three people in that sentence, having distinguished only two individuals in Ichigo's words – Tensa Zangetsu and Ichigo himself.
Shinji, who had been uncharacteristically unobtrusive the entire time, slowly panned his gaze from Isshin's nonchalant look to Ichigo's, before snorting in mirth at the unknowingly identical expressions on father and son.
The sound drew Ichigo's attention, and the moment he locked gazes with Shinji, all the mirth drained out of the former captain's expression as he was vividly reminded of why they had gathered as they did, causing the silent atmosphere to turn fully solemn.
It was time to get down to business.
Ichigo, knowing what Shinji wanted to talk about, opened his mouth to speak, but Shinji beat him to it,
"Look kid, I know we got off on the wrong foot and all, and I think Hiyori has learned that lesson for herself, but you know this is still something we gotta talk about."
Pausing to gauge Ichigo's expression, and seeing that it was still calm and open, he continued,
"It's obvious that somehow, you and ya hollow have come to some kinda understanding, but what ya gotta understand is that might not last. You get really into a fight, I'm talking life and death, and all that killing intent can cause it to slip ya control and then things start getting ugly pretty quick."
Ichigo, having waited a few seconds to make sure Shinji was done, now moved to speak, but it was not to be.
"Your mother had one too, you know."
The funny thing is that, at first, that statement didn't even register in Ichigo's mind. It was so unexpected that his brain didn't even file it as comprehensible when it was received by his ears. He had already begun to speak when the import of his father's words struck him with all the forewarning of a bored Kenpachi.
Abruptly, his attention snapped to Isshin, and he felt Zangetsu and Tensa do the same.
He wasn't even aware that he had spoken until Yoruichi chuckled from in front of him,
Meeting his son's disbelieving gaze with his own steady one, Isshin repeated,
"Masaki had one…an inner hollow, that is."
Ichigo wasn't an idiot.
A thousand little inconsistencies he had noticed over the past few weeks suddenly coalesced into one big picture, and boy was it a doozy.
Ignoring the others in front of him, he completely turned his gaze to his soul mates, confusing everyone else except for Kisuke who had been working his way towards certain realizations concerning his student.
Ichigo's words cleared the initial confusion from Yoruichi, Isshin, and Shinji, and introduced new ones in their place,
"Tensa, Zangetsu, this…"
The rest of the conversation occurred between their souls, information being passed at many times the speed of thought, and on a level beyond which mere words failed to express.
Though they started out from different points of view, they arrived at the same conclusion at the same time.
It mattered not what forces had brought them together; what events had conspired to birth something like them. They were one, until the stars fell out of the heavens, and the sun burned itself to ash.
Nothing could change that.
Drawing strength from the unassailable resolution he felt in the beings of his two companions, Ichigo took a deep breath and returned his focus to the older Shinigami in the room.
Isshin, who had never once stopped observing his son, saw that he was ready to continue, and – filing away his questions on who his son had been speaking to, though he could guess – he pressed on,
Here, he floundered as he searched for a way to convey the earth-shattering revelations about his wife; revelations that he had no idea his son had long since suspected.
Kisuke spoke up, reminding Isshin why after all their years together and countless annoyances the man had caused him, they remained the closest of friends.
"Your mother was a Quincy."
Pausing and making special note of Ichigo's lack of reaction, Kisuke continued,
"And not just any Quincy, but a pureblooded direct descendant of the legendary Quincy king, Yhwach."
At that name, spoken with all the gravitas of a legend, Kisuke thought to himself, observing Ichigo's face,
Finally, a reaction
What Kisuke could never have known, however, is that the sudden narrowing of Ichigo's eyes and tightening of his jaw were reflexive reactions to the effect Kisuke's word had had on his first soul companion. In particular, it was a reflection of Tensa's reaction to the name of the legendary Quincy king.
Both Ichigo and Zangetsu felt the jolt that shook Tensa when that name was mentioned – though for them, it was more metaphysical than not – and were thus prepared for some kind of reaction from their partner.
They were not, however, prepared for the severity of it.
With a grunt of pain, Tensa tensed before abruptly vanishing from the physical world, having rapidly retreated to the solace of Ichigo's inner world in hopes of mitigating the damage about to be caused by the storm bubbling within his very being.
Ichigo and Zangetsu shared a glance and as one, they withdrew as well, hot on Tensa's tail.
When their visions had switched from the backroom of the Urahara Shōten to the panoramic view of their shared inner domain, they barely spared the rapidly approaching storm clouds any attention before focusing on the crouched form of their partner.
Tensa was on his knees with his head clasped between his hands in mind numbing pain as he fought to contain the explosion wanting to escape from him.
Ichigo and Zangetsu hurried to his side, falling to their knees on either side of him in eerie synchronicity.
Still moving as one, they reached for him, Ichigo's hand coming to rest on his head, while an exact replica in white came to rest on Tensa's back.
A wail of psychic pain pain pain slammed into the two, giving them a taste of the torment plaguing their sable haired companion,
Not even flinching in the face of that agony, they began to pump energy into Tensa's trembling form, hoping that their hastily cobbled together plan would work.
After a few seconds, when it seemed like all hope of lending aid would be lost, the gale force winds that had been growing steadily stronger in their inner world – a precursor to the apocalyptic storm about to crash down from the heavens – stagnated, before gradually but noticeably weakening.
Tensa, who had been pale and sweating, began to improve…slowly at first, but with increasing swiftness as the combined might of the three teens halted the mental assault and eventually overcame it.
Once the last of the tremors had passed from his now supine form – Zangetsu's hand having moved from his back to his chest – Ichigo and Zangetsu cut off the flow of their reiatsu, all three soul siblings now equally as fatigued.
Zangetsu panted out,
"What. Da. Fuck?"
Giving a commiserating, if somewhat sardonic chuckle in response, Tensa slowly levered himself into a seated position, leaving the three of them facing each other in a triangular formation that was rapidly becoming the norm for them.
Taking a fortifying breath in preparation for what he was about to do – and also to shore up his courage – Tensa relaxed the mental walls he had hastily erected when he had first sensed the impending crisis.
As one, all three teens acquired absent minded looks on their faces as a deluge of information and memories assaulted them.
A few subjective hours later, minutes in their inner world, they blinked back into focus as one, with two sets of eyes widened in disbelief and one cool pair of blue guarded and inscrutable.
Ichigo, seeing – and more so, feeling – the tension mounting in Tensa's shoulders as the silence lasted, wasted no time in giving the dark-haired teen a firm mental rap, drawing him out of his thoughts and shifting his attention to the feelings currently suffusing their three-way bond.
Hesitant at the thought of finding any negative emotion there, Tensa slowly focused on what Ichigo and Zangetsu were feeling, and after a few seconds, he released a low sigh of relief, before a faint scowl crept over his features as he found himself face to face with two identically smirking teens.
Though all three teens had relaxed from the ordeal, they both knew that the recent revelations would take some time to settle; time that will involve quite a bit of discussion, some of it bound to be unpleasant.
Nonetheless, Ichigo knew that it was something that needed to wait.
Regardless of the time distortion which existed between his inner world and the outside world, he couldn't really afford to delay returning any longer.
Tensa, understanding Ichigo's dilemma, sent a surge of warmth at the orange haired teen, who spared a quick grin for his sword spirit, before fading out of view.
Blinking to clear out the haze from his vision, Ichigo clamped down on any other outward reaction as he raised his gaze from where it had rested on the cup held in his hands while he was helping Tensa tide through the sudden storm.
Kisuke, gray eyes sharp and intent on the young Shinigami, waited for Ichigo to speak up, his frighteningly sharp intellect already inching towards an answer – though perhaps incorrect – as to what had just happened in the past few seconds.
Despite the fact that he could sense a new tension in the room which was not previously there, Ichigo still took the time to place his cup back down and brush off the few droplets that had spilled onto his folded legs – the effort required to stabilize Tensa had manifested in a faint tremor in his hands.
Having finally finished gathering his thoughts, he picked up the conversation from where it had dropped off as if nothing had happened,
"I thought the specific flavor of a Quincy's reiatsu was anathema to hollows. How could mom have sustained one at all?"
Blinking in surprise at the astute question, and with memories of days spent mentoring scientists in his former division, Kisuke opened his mouth in preparation to spew forth a tide of scientific jargon.
Shinji would have none of that.
Speaking over the other blond and ignoring the disturbing pout now aimed at him, the leering former captain of the fifth division dropped another bomb on Ichigo with much the same finesse that a pissed of Hiyori would maintain when divulging her displeasure to him.
"Aizen had initially planned the experiment for your old man here, but your mom intervened and you know how da rest of that played out…boy met girl, boy fell in love with girl, boy did the nas – "
Withdrawing her hand from where it had interrupted her companion, Hiyori turned her scowl towards the still silent teen in their midst and grit out,
"Oi, berry, who the hell are you faking for?"
Blinking in momentary confusion, Ichigo raised his gaze to meet Hiyori's eyes in an effort to divine her thoughts.
A suggestion from his inner world had him tilting his head in consideration before he responded,
"What? Do you expect me to lose my shit over what I just learned?"
Seeing her eyes narrow let him know that he was on the right track. Scoffing softly, he turned his head up a bit and channeled all the frigid haughtiness of a certain scarf wearing Captain as he said,
"I met a guy who can turn a sword into millions of flower petals and kill you with them. Plus there's a friend of mine who can summon infinite mana arrows or some shit and you think telling me that my mom was a bit more than a vanilla human is gonna freak me out? Pft, please."
Blinking bemusedly at the somewhat out of character outburst from the orange haired teen, Hiyori could not even summon up a response before Ichigo continued,
"Also, don't forget –" and here Ichigo motioned in Kisuke's direction, leaving the shopkeeper confused for a moment, before that confusion became indignation, " – as soon as I learned that my dad knew this weirdo here, I knew that a lot of things I might have taken for granted were no longer true. Honestly, I haven't learned anything I hadn't already suspected. I guess the thing about Aizen attacking Dad was a surprise but I already knew he was a shady son of a bitch so that doesn't really surprise me too much. Besides…"
Here he trailed off, before fixing his father with a complicated look, forewarning Isshin that the next words would be difficult to bear,
"During mom's funeral, I remember seeing some of you there. But, one thing I'm not sure of is, if mom was a Quincy then she should have been able to kill Grand Fisher right? Something interfered with her powers huh?"
Surprised at his son's verbosity, and more so at that little titbit about Masaki's funeral, Isshin took a moment before nodding his head with a grim look on his face, and responding,
"Yeah, Masaki actually never tried to use her ability after we got married. Stabilizing her soul after she got infected with the Hollow cost me my power, and she didn't want to risk undoing the work we did. And then after she was – after that night, my power started to recover again."
Nodding his head at that, Ichigo considered shelving the other questions that he was dying to ask, but after a wordless query aimed at his sable haired partner, he moved on to buy more time for equilibrium to reinstate itself in his Inner World.
"You mentioned that she was Quincy royalty? Then was it because she married a Shinigami that there was no guard with her?"
Blinking in surprise at that question, and reminding himself again that for all his rumored delinquency, Ichigo was a fiercely intelligent kid, Kisuke hummed and responded,
"Correct. Your mother left her family and wanted nothing to do with them anymore – something about them being warmongers. She moved to Karakura, where her cousin lived with her uncle, who shared her views on the Quincy leaving the execution of Hollows to Shinigami and focusing more on protecting the innocent. I believe you're familiar with them, Ichigo-kun"
Casting a look at the smirking shopkeeper, Ichigo sighed,
"The Ishida family then?"
Silently inclining his head in agreement, Kisuke moved the discussion back on track,
"You must understand, I know the research into Hollowfication like the back of my hand, though admittedly, my knowledge is more theoretical than practical like it is for Aizen. That said, while Hirako is right to be concerned as common sense dictates, I know you Ichigo-kun, and how much sway common sense has in your case."
Chuckling at the scowl now adorning his student's face, Kisuke continued, cutting off Shinji in a fit a petty revenge,
"That doesn't mean though that we should relax our guards, if not because your hollow is a danger in and of itself, but at least because your current situation is one that we have never encountered before, even in unproved hypothesis. It is for your safety – both of you – that we should track the changes you are going through."
Having finished his piece, Kisuke pulled his ever present hat down a tad, just enough to cast his eyes into shadow, signaling his retreat from the present conversation into his thoughts.
Yoruichi, knowing what her best friend's abrupt silence meant, smoothly took over the conversation,
"Right now, Aizen doesn't know that you are a Vizard and it is in our best interest to keep it that way. Furthermore, while the Gotei 13 might be reconsidering previous judgements they had made in the wake of Aizen's betrayal, it is still too soon to say how understanding they will be if they find out about your condition. So, for the time being, we'll need to minimize the number of fights you get into, at least outside the underground training area where your reiatsu would be shielded from notice."
Pausing a moment to see if Ichigo had any objections to that, pleasantly surprised when none was forthcoming, she continued,
"My contacts tell me that we should be expecting a Shinigami detachment in the area soon, led by one captain, not sure who it is yet but I have my suspicions. Kisuke has just about finished studying the Arrancar – yeah, that's their official name, Hollows that have been brought close to the realm of the Shinigami, as opposed to Vizards which are the opposites. He'll explain how to fight them later and what we need to keep in mind. Other than that, you and your friends just need to focus on training because we know Aizen is definitely going to try to get his hands on the Hōgyoku we have in our possession."
In eerie synchronization forged from centuries of friendship, Yoruichi's words drew to a close just as Kisuke emerged from his thoughts to pick up from where she left off with a knowing smile on his face,
"Speaking on the Hōgyoku, I'm surprised the Gotei 13 has not yet asked for it to be moved to Soul Society for safe keeping."
At this, all four former captains exchanged similarly knowing looks, though Isshin's was a tad less amiable than the others'. Resuming his explanation, Kisuke said,
"Still, until and unless they do, we shall simply have to ensure that no harm comes to it and that we safeguard it for as long as we can. Isshin, of all of us, it is probably best if you keep a hold of it. While your powers are returning, you still possess the least amount of reiatsu of everyone here which should keep you from interacting with and reawakening the device. Furthermore, while you are not yet fully recovered, you are still capable to providing enough resistance to delay any attempt to retrieve it until the rest of us can arrive."
Mouth thinning in displeasure at the idea of holding onto such a troublesome thing, but knowing that the reasons his friend gave were faultless – though, Isshin wasn't foolish enough to believe that those reasons were complete – Isshin nodded in acquiescence.
Ichigo, who similarly knew better than to take his teacher at face value, cast a contemplative look at the blond genius with his seemingly harmless smile and watched as his father received the innocuous looking orb encased in a deceptively fragile looking glass case.
Briefly, Ichigo wondered at when his world got filled with nuclear warhead level artifacts disguised at curious baubles one might expect to find at a carnival.
Come to think of it, he mused internally with a mildly sardonic look pointed towards his blond haired teacher, that kind of applies to the people as well.
Kisuke, not knowing why he was suddenly feeling the urge to pout, continued on,
"In the meantime, Ichigo-kun, Yoruichi, Shinji, and I will be exercising your new power to gauge its stability and help you get accustomed to it."
Nodding in acquiescence at that wisdom, Ichigo asked,
"When do you want to start?"
Stifling the curious scientist in him which pushed him to begin immediately, Kisuke responded,
"I know you're anxious to check on your sisters and friends, so why don't we begin tomorrow?"
Inclining his head in gratitude, Ichigo rose from his position at the table, swiftly joined by Isshin who had already squirreled the Hōgyoku away on his person.
Bidding farewell to the remaining former Captains, the Kurosaki duo made their way out of the store and back home, the air between them filled with a serenity and closeness borne from the sharing of most of the secrets that had once plagued their reduced family.
Watching the vanishing backs of her student and his father, Yoruichi turned her cat-like gaze to her best friend and in lieu of any verbal statement, she simply narrowed her eyes marginally.
Knowing better than to feign innocence, Kisuke met her eyes frankly and let her see the self-loathing that always seems to strengthen every time he was confronted with evidence of his perceived failures; especially when he the goes on to consciously make the hard choices that while necessary, always seemed to damn innocents around him.
Shinji and Hiyori, with the knowledge gained from long association with the genius of the Twelfth Division kept their own counsel, allowing Yoruichi to handle the inner turmoil of their friend.
Sighing to himself, Ichigo finally allowed his body to collapse into his bed, weary from the long day and difficult conversation he had just concluded with his sisters. While he had not given them the gory details of what he was now involved in and the history of their family, he had made sure to impress in their minds the importance of the reiatsu cloaking bracelets they now wore.
Shaking off his heavy thoughts – knowing full well that he couldn't afford to be distracted for the upcoming and final conversation of his day.
With nary a jolt, he was no longer staring at his bedroom ceiling but at his inner world, with Tensa and Zangetsu already waiting for him.
Dropping down into similarly seated pose, he faced his two soul brothers and waited.
Minutes passed as slowly, all the tension he had been carrying from the past few weeks melted away, replaced by the serenity and subtle power that always permeated his inner world – at least when he was well centered.
Finally, noticing that the moment was ripe, Tensa opened up discussions with the directness that underlays his style of swordsmanship,
"Yhwach was the Quincy king, but what no one except he knew, was that he was also the only son of the Soul King."
And with that explosive opening statement, he begins a conversation that would last over ten subjective hours in their inner world, and involve lots of rage, fights, concerns, but above all – and almost impossibly – increased camaraderie between the three teens.
Ichigo ducked under a purple clad thundering kick which would have knocked his head right off his neck if it didn't pulp it instead. In the same motion he twisted around while still in the lowered position, escaping a skewering thrust from his blond haired teacher.
Breaking out into a dizzying burst of shunpo left him in between and in close proximity to the dastardly duo of Kisuke and Yoruichi, where he was able to appreciate the smiles falling off their face as a telltale red light lit up their features.
The beam of concentrated red death singed both former captains and then erased a moderately sized boulder from existence.
Ichigo fought to suppress the delighted laugh worming its way up his throat but then gave it up as a bad job when Zangetsu's unholy glee and Tensa's subtly malicious amusement mixed with the sheer exhilaration of being able to cut loose and rejoice in their combined power.
Yoruichi let loose a grin that was all teeth and Kisuke even chuckled lightly at seeing his student lose himself in their fight.
Exchanging a meaningful glance with his dark skinned companion, Kisuke turned to find Ichigo now more cautious than carefree.
My my my, Ichigo has got rather good senses hasn't he?
Thinking once more of what he was about to do and the burden he was about to place on his student gave him pause for just a moment, but Yoruichi bumping into him with her shoulder knocked him out of his melancholy.
Ignoring Ichigo who was now beginning to look concerned rather than alarmed, Kisuke blanked his face before meeting the teen's eyes.
As the usual joviality which he regularly wore as a mask drained away, his student was left looking into the face of the former sometimes amoral head of the Science Division and one time high ranking officer of the Assassination and Stealth Squad.
The sudden increase in alarm in Ichigo's eyes let him know that Yoruichi was doing the same beside him.
Just when the tension in the underground training ground seemed at its peak, it ratcheted up with no warning as Kisuke spoke words that had not been heard for over a century while Ichigo hurried to merge fully with both Tensa and Zangetsu,
Bankai, Kannonbiraki Benihime Aratame
An incalculable distance away, indifferent teal eyes set in a pale and slightly emaciated face watched as the last of the hollows faded away, their forms dispersing into reishi particles without any reiatsu to sustain them.
Raising his right hand the figure dabbed at the left corner of his lips, wiping away the residue of an unidentified liquid from his face.
Turning to once more take in the sight of desolate sand dunes, he eventually turned his back on the place he had called home for many years and stepped into the maw of darkness that had opened up before him.
Though his steps were even and his gait was casual, his seeming indifference belied the storm of anticipation and fear raging through his core.
There was only one thought in his mind, one hope, one yearning cry,
And between one step and the next, he vanished, with a whisper.
You'll notice a marked difference between this chapter and the one preceding it. Perhaps that difference can be excused due to the long hiatus I was forced to take, but…no, that would be an excuse, and nothing more.
The truth is that I am tired. So very tired. And I have been tired for years now. At this point, I just want this story to end. I don't think I have it in me to keep to the same 10K+ word count that I have maintained for most of this story. I just can't do it.
I'm not going to burden you with the details of Real Life and their demands on my time; we don't come here for that right? Heh, so, all I will say is, I'm sorry, I've kept you waiting. Please, just bear with me a little more.
There's so much I'm going to have to give up to get this story finished. So much I had already laid the groundwork for…so much potential I am going to knowingly and consciously discard. Maybe one day, when I'm not…when I'm better, I'll go back and update the eventual finished product and add all the extras I so very dearly want to include. But that day is not today. So, I will continue like this, skipping very important parts, but trying to preserve the very very important parts.
Let's walk this road to the end, yes?