Chapter 50: Knight of Cydonia (Insolvable normalcy)
Disclaimer: I do not own Bleach.
"I assume everything went… just as you planned, Kurosaki-san?"
Ichigo turned to the man. He felt a bitter taste accumulating in his mouth. His expression was blank but the muscles in his jaw tensed as soon as his eyes fell upon the face of one of the few he truly disliked.
"Despite what you may think, Urahara, it's impossible to keep a contingency plan for every situation. I simply followed the basic principle of 'appear strong when weak but appear weak when strong'."
He was, once again, in Urahara's shop and he hated every second of it. He didn't want to return to Soul Society with an artificial body hanging over his shoulder, so the visit was necessary, but it didn't stop him from clenching his jaw or wearing a semi-permanent scowl.
"Mm. Let's agree to disagree. Either way, I hope everything and everyone is all right. I wouldn't want to face Kūkaku-san if it turned out Ikumi-san got injured."
It wasn't a question, yet Ichigo answered anyway.
"She's fine. When she wakes up, she should have no memories of the incident."
Urahara's hands stopped moving, and he looked away from his computer screen to glance at the Gigai lying on a table behind him. For a moment, he appeared thoughtful. Then he resumed typing on the keyboard. Among the beeping sounds of his computer, his voice once again reached out to Ichigo.
"I didn't think you had that kind of ability."
He saw Urahara's shoulders droop a little, and the shopkeeper paused.
The man offered no further reaction but Ichigo was sure his expression turned a lot more serious. However, for the next few minutes and until he finished his analysis, Urahara remained silent. It was only when Ichigo shifted in his seat and let out a sigh of annoyance that the computer beeped in a loud, squeaky sound.
"Everything seems in order, Kurosaki-san. If that's all I think you may go. I'm sure the Gotei is already waiting for you."
Ichigo waited until Urahara's gaze met his and narrowed his eyes while rubbing his hands together.
"So, you did notify them then."
Urahara kept the eye-contact, but from the way his lower eyelids twitched Ichigo concluded the man was nervous.
"I'm afraid I'm under strict orders from the Commander."
"Since when do you care about orders?"
With the challenge thrown in his face, Urahara finally looked away and aimed his sight at the Gigai next to him.
"It's been a few weeks…"
Ichigo followed his line of sight and stopped rubbing his hands. Placing them on the armrests, he pushed himself up.
"And? What did you tell them?"
A humorless chuckle escaped Urahara's mouth.
"Tell them? Nothing. There was no exchange of words, Kurosaki-san. I simply did my job and notified them when your spiritual pressure jumped over a certain threshold."
Without looking back at him, Ichigo gave a short nod and debated with himself whether to be grateful. In the end, he went with what was already on the tip of his tongue.
"You knew him, didn't you?"
He didn't hear an answer for several long seconds.
It seemed Urahara had worked on his bad habit of keeping the truth for himself and, for once, tried to be honest.
"Another one of your science projects?"
He felt, rather than saw Urahara flinch in surprise. But he got the answer, nevertheless.
"I'd say it was more of an approximate basis for future possibilities."
Ichigo couldn't help himself. He snorted.
"Well, good job then. Goodbye."
With that, he took a step forward and opened the doors of the shop. Once he walked out, and before the doors closed, he heard a deep, tired sigh coming from inside. He ignored it and looked for a clearing large enough to summon the Senkaimon gate. He took out his zanpakuto and, walking over to the spot, plunged it in the air and then twisted it around. In a flash of blinding light, the inter-dimensional gate appeared with a black Hell butterfly flying out. It landed on his hand, accepting his request and granting him a safe passage. He took a step inside.
Not even a second later, he landed in Seireitei and felt and saw a large Shinigami force surrounding him. Something about the sheer size of the group made him grin in satisfaction. But only in his mind.
"Who are… wait, 3rd Seat Kurosaki-san?!"
He looked up at what seemed to be the leader of the unit with a questioning gaze.
The man, one of the numerous officers of Gotei 13, widened his eyes and took a quick look at a screen of a small electronic device in his hands. Whatever was written on it made his surprised expression turn confused and caused him to frown. He looked back up. His unsure gaze prompted Ichigo to mirror the man's reaction.
"Did something happen or…?"
The officer bit his cheek from the sheer confusion and raised his free hand to scratch the back of his head. Then his hand fell back, and he tapped on the device with furious urgency. A few seconds later, he brought the device to his ear.
"I'm very sorry to interrupt you, Captain Kurotsuchi, but are you sure your detectors work? Because I-"
Something cut the man off and Ichigo watched as all the color drained from his face. Pale as death, the man's eyes widened and his lower lip trembled.
"N-No! Of course not! But Kurosaki Ichigo just came through the Senkaimon and the device is… huh? Yes, Kurosaki Ichigo."
Ichigo found the speed with which the man changed his expressions fascinating. From confusion to fear and back to confusion in just a matter of instants, it was like a theater play. As if hearing his thoughts, the officer looked back at Ichigo with a frown and Ichigo reacted by raising his left eyebrow.
"I… I see but… are you sure, Captain. I mean, what if…?"
Whatever was said on the other side of the line caused the officer to flinch and shake his head with a surprising amount of vigor.
"Yes, sir! I mean, no sir! Yes! Will do!"
The line was cut and the officer, still very much pale, released a long, shaky sigh of relief. When he realized Ichigo was still looking at him, he glanced at the rest of his unit.
"Stand down. It's a false alarm. Seems like Captain Kurotsuchi is having difficulties calibrating the sensor."
Looking back at Ichigo, the officer saluted and bowed in apology.
"Sorry for bothering you, sir. There's something wrong with the sensors and we thought you were an invader."
Keeping his eyebrow raised, Ichigo shrugged.
'Must be the new security system.'
"No harm done. Am I free to go now?"
The man nodded.
"Yes, sir… though Captain Kurotsuchi said you should report to the 1st Division for a Captain's meeting at once. I do not understand why though."
Ichigo had to fight the urge to roll his eyes.
"Eh, don't worry about it. I think I know why."
The officer, along with the rest of his unit, withdrew from the scene and left Ichigo alone with the pair of regular Senkaimon guards who, as always, stood on the two sides of the gate. Glancing at them, Ichigo brought his right hand to his forehead, held it there for one second and then moved it down in a sharp, smooth movement. Both guards chuckled and threw courteous nods in response.
Grinning, Ichigo used his Shunpo skill to disappear. From his next landing spot, he advanced towards the 1st Division barracks at a steady, yet calm pace. If they wanted him at the Captain's meeting, then they would have to wait for him.
'Nobody told me to hurry, anyway.'
Still, it didn't take him long to reach his destination. The large double doors were closed, but he didn't wait for them to open and simply pushed them apart. As soon as he did so, all conversations stopped and thirteen pair of eyes turned to stare at him in dead silence. But what had made him squirm before was now a fleeting annoyance and he strode inside with confidence oozing from his steps. Though he had plenty to hide, he was no longer a mere pawn on the Seireitei chessboard. He had evolved. But not to a rook nor a bishop.
He was a knight. A piece with the appearance of a horse, capable of overtaking others with unusual movements or jumping over those who were in his way without squashing them with his hooves. Most powerful when in closed position, the number disadvantage meant nothing to him. Fear was no longer in his vocabulary.
"You wanted to see me?"
Standing at the opposite side of the room, the furthest away from him, the Captain Commander of the Gotei 13 tapped the ground with his cane and motioned him to step inside.
"Yes. Come in, 3rd Seat Kurosaki Ichigo."
A short pause squeezed itself between Ichigo's steps. He looked at the Commander with narrowed eyes and his head tilted to the side in a silent question. As if reading his thoughts, the Commander tapped the ground one more time.
"It seems your powers have returned."
Stealing glances at the other occupants of the room to get a grasp on his surroundings, Ichigo withheld his answer for a few seconds.
"Did something happen or was it spontaneous?"
'What an odd question.'
Nevertheless, it did not catch him off-guard.
"Had a run in with a hollow."
His reply caused the Commander to release a short humming noise, the kind a person makes while contemplating a problem, and then look to his left, at the Captain of the 12th Division, with a raised eyebrow. In return, Kurotsuchi, while keeping his eyes dead set on Ichigo, nodded, even if with great reluctance.
"I can neither confirm nor deny his words, though we recorded a lingering presence of hollow energy near the location where his reiatsu source skyrocketed.
Ichigo did his best to remain indifferent and calm but a slight tremor shook his insides.
'Either he's just being responsible or this old man suspects something. Now I'm not so sure he'll buy my explanations.'
But as he was no longer a simple pawn, he kept a tight leash on his emotions and stayed motionless, even if his body disagreed and increased his heartbeat by a good amount. When the Commander turned back to him, he met his eyes with a neutral gaze.
"You attract all kinds of trouble, don't you, Kurosaki?"
Ichigo recognized the rhetorical question and remained quiet. But not for long as Commander's next words called for a definite reply.
"Still, even after consulting Captain Unohana and Captain Kurotsuchi about this issue, I find it strange how your powers simply reignited. I can't help think you have left out a few important details, Kurosaki Ichigo. Is there anything further you'd like to add to your report?"
The gaze he received wasn't accompanied with reiatsu, yet Ichigo felt like burning. It was like standing in the middle of an inferno, surrounded with sun's flames and no way out. The Commander's single eye bore into his head, a drill trying to dig up a confession, and for the first time Ichigo understood just how long the man in front of him had been the leader of the entire Gotei 13. Hidden deep within his stare was a definite hint of an old beast, ready to tear his enemy to pieces.
A single bead of sweat formed on his forehead.
'Yeah, I can understand why Aizen didn't want to fight him face to face.'
But this knight didn't bow down for anyone and held his head high. Without blinking, Ichigo chose his words.
"No, there's nothing else."
If he had expected several dozen different reactions, the Commander shifting his gaze away from him and using it to pin down his father was not one. It was such an unusual response it piqued his curiosity and made him too, look at Isshin with a raised eyebrow. The stare he got in return caught him by surprise and made him do a double take. While not as scorching hot as the Commander's, it drilled into him with a certain sense of déjà vu fueled not by his own but by his father's experience, clear in the man's somber expression of sudden clarity. It was as if the man relived a distant memory and somehow connected it to the current situation.
'I sense another wave of suspicion.'
But the standoff lasted only until a loud sound of cane tapping the ground echoed in the room once again.
"Very well, Kurosaki. I have but a single question for you. What about your memory?"
His increased heartbeat was yet to settle down and the Commander's question did little to help. However, it fell under the area of foreseen inquiries which made it easier to digest it without flinching or exposing himself in any other way. Therefore, it took minimal effort to loosen his lips and release his premeditated response which offered no answer to the ether.
"You want to know what happened to Aizen."
It was a simple statement, but it brought out unsurprising amount of emotions and a lot of spiritual energy which stacked in the room until it became uncomfortable for everyone. Among the spiritual chaos, the Commander's eye bore into him once more.
"That would be preferable, yes."
Nodding to himself, he combined an apologetic tone with a light frown.
"Then I'm afraid I have to disappoint you.
In an instant, he saw both Commander's eyes narrow at him.
"Then, your memory…?"
He shook his head.
"I recovered many memories but since I don't know just how many I lost, it's hard to say if I got all. Either way, it's not a problem with my memory. It's just, well, complicated."
He caught a snort coming from the sidelines.
"Well, enlighten us then."
Ignoring the comment, he folded his arms, took a deep breath and spoke while exhaling.
They all met his attempt at enlightening the room with a complete lack of reaction. It seemed the Captains didn't realize he wasn't planning on giving any further explanation. However, when he continued bathing in silence, the Commander's eyebrows twitched.
Seeing the look in the man's eyes, Ichigo rethought his original plan and picked one of the backup ones. It wasn't as if he had expected them to eat the short explanation without a protest in the first place but he had maintained hope he wouldn't have to go with the long route. Nevertheless, the bit of hope crashed and burned and he paced around in a small circle while throwing short glances at the Commander as he spoke.
"Well, you could say it all came down during the aftermath of my fight with Ulquiorra wh-"
The sudden interruption came from the sidelines but the blood-thirst permeating the voice divulged the person's identity well enough. He didn't even need to check to see a mad glint in the eyes boring into him.
"A member of Espada, the group of ten strongest Arrancars within Aizen's army. Quatro Espada, Ulquiorra Cifer."
"Quatro translates to the number four so, is it correct to assume this Ulquiorra was the fourth strongest Arrancar in Aizen's entire army?" Another Captain asked with an honest curiosity in his tone, yet Ichigo didn't believe it for one second. Instead, what he heard was a dangerous notion which he tried to disperse with an immediate response.
"I wouldn't go that far. Going by the information I gained, my best guess is that Aizen ranked the Espada according to the amount of spiritual energy they had and not on their battle skills. Besides, Ulquiorra is even more difficult to judge as he was the only one who had a special, secondary release of his, uhm, sword?"
He realized his mistake as soon as he finished talking and observed a quiet murmur all around him.
"A secondary release you say? That should not be possible. An Arrancar's release, the 'Resurrección' if you will, is basically them unleashing their true power and true form where even their energy signature changes from that of a hybrid to their original Hollow-like one. I'm still processing the data I've accumulated so far but I'd liken this 'Resurrección' to a Shinigami's Bankai. And Bankai is the final stage of evolution. There is nothing past that."
The identity of the man behind the clarification caused Ichigo to shudder and curse.
'Damn it, I should have kept my mouth shut.'
"Curious. Do you, perhaps, recall more of this secondary release?"
Receiving a nod from the Commander, Ichigo turned towards the scientist with every intention on denying everything but a tiny voice within his head which didn't belong to either of his spirits tickled his own curiosity. It was the voice which separated him from the rest, the voice of reason, separate from Yhwach, and the voice behind every question he had had so far.
'Ah crap, now I mentioned it, I want to know more about it too.'
He knew full well that meddling with Kurotsuchi spelled trouble and that he was most likely going to regret this decision but he couldn't bring himself to lie. Back then, at the peak of the short war with Aizen, even Hōgyoku itself had given a short nod towards the minuscule amount of reiryoku he had absorbed from Ulquiorra after killing him.
There was a good chance Kurotsuchi could come up with a hypothesis. Or Urahara. On his own, Ichigo's ability to reach some scientific conclusion was nil, and he liked Urahara even less than Kurotsuchi.
"He called it Resurrección: Segunda Etapa."
He saw Kurotsuchi's eyes narrow in wonder.
"Segunda Etapa, huh? So, perhaps it was nothing else but another stage of release, similar to the stages of Shinigami's Bankai and not a true additional release?" The man muttered, then pierced Ichigo with an intense gaze.
"Tell me, Kurosaki, did his appearance change in any noticeable way after he unleashed this Segunda Etapa?"
Without missing a beat, Ichigo nodded.
"It did. He looked completely different. And now I think about it, I think his hollow mask vanished too."
Kurotsuchi blinked. It seemed the answer took him by surprise.
"Vanished? As in all of it?"
Kurotsuchi's response was unlike anything Ichigo had ever seen. His eyes twitched and shook, then moved each to a different side of his head in a grotesque show of lunacy and for a split second it looked as if the man's brain overheated. It was like he could see the gears in the man's mad mind spinning. But, in the blink of an eye, the image disappeared.
"Very interesting. There's nothing even remotely similar in my entire database. I'd love to dissect this Ulquiorra."
Still freaked out from what he witnessed, Ichigo squeezed his eyes shut. Once he opened them, he shook his head.
"There's nothing to dissect. I separated his head from the rest of his body. It's now nothing more than reishi dust in Hueco Mundo's air.
"… damn it."
A firm tap of the Commander's cane prevented any further discussion.
"Back to the topic, Kurosaki."
Ichigo gave the man a curt nod.
"My bad. So, as I was saying, once my fight with Ulquiorra ended I, uh, this is really difficult to describe." He said and then, using a short pause, gathered his thoughts. The Commander's grouchy stare caused him to hurry. Yet it didn't prevent him from choosing his words with extreme caution. It was crucial that the man in front of him understood the point he was about to make.
"Even though my memory suffered and my memories may be in disarray, as far as I can remember my goal has always been to protect. I wanted to keep those I care about safe. Over time, this concept evolved, making me lend a helping hand to those who stood in front of me and later, after passing on, even to those who didn't. But at its core, it was always about protecting somebody. Or something."
When he took a moment to breathe a strict voice reached his ears.
"Is there a point to this rambling?"
Without looking away from the Commander's face, he nodded once again.
He saw the Commander's eyes narrowing just a little. It was but a tiny difference in demeanor yet it suggested an attempt to understand the meaning behind his uttered words. Still, the man remained silent. Instead, another voice, until now unheard, spoke in a quiet yet encouraging tone.
"Go on, Ichigo-kun."
His eyes shifted, just enough to slide off the Commander's face and until he stared at the spot above the man's shoulder. Then, his head drooped and his gaze fell upon the cold floor beneath his feet.
"There is no 'protect' in the war. In it, one person cannot save everyone. You can't be everywhere at once. All you can do is watch as the blood of your comrades spills on the ground and soaks the sand until it turns to mud. You try to help, you try to prevent death but it's all in vain. Broken bodies, torn limbs, spilled guts, it all surrounds you until you are driven insane. It's a never-ending cycle of pointless destruction. And no matter what, there's no escape. Not until you reach the easy, logical conclusion."
The same voice spoke again, egging him to continue.
In response, Ichigo clenched his jaw and took another breath. Then he looked up.
"To stop the war means to erase the reason behind it. Which is what I wished for with my entire being when I landed in front of Aizen and grabbed the Hōgyoku embedded in his body."
His statement was met with silence but the Commander's eyes relaxed in what Ichigo assumed was a sudden arrival to a conclusion and a moment of clarity when the pieces of a puzzle came together to paint a coherent and clear picture. At once, the Commander looked away from him and at one of his Captains.
There was a pause during which the scientist hummed to himself.
"Certainly, many of us witnessed Aizen Sōsuke's transformations which, if we are to believe his words, were a product of the Hōgyoku's will mixed with a sufficient amount of spiritual energy and intent. This, coupled with Urahara Kisuke's notes, supports the hypothesis that the Hōgyoku, acting as a catalyst, can indeed produce a wide array of results, some of which may defy common sense or even laws of nature. And since this is Kurosaki we are talking about, it wouldn't surprise me if he did something as stupid as bending the natural laws while depleting all of his reiryoku reserves at the same time."
While grateful for the unexpected support, Ichigo felt a shiver running up and down his spine. Kurotsuchi's words, while at first glance a simple jab at his ability to screw up, seemed more like an innocent implication meant only for his ears. As if the man was telling him he knew something he shouldn't have known.
'Or maybe I'm getting paranoid. But I'd take paranoia over Kurotsuchi anytime.'
Meanwhile, the Commander turned his attention towards another Captain.
"As I said before, Commander, Kurosaki-san's reserves truly dropped to the point of falling into a coma. And such an event is traumatizing to the body and it can, as there have been similar cases before, result in amnesia. For the other part, Aizen Sōsuke's reiatsu vanished without a trace, as if erased from existence, and so I have no reason to doubt this explanation."
Dissatisfied, the Commander took a moment to ponder about the situation and then looked back at Ichigo with a calculative gaze. And even though he was not a telepath, Ichigo felt confident he could interpret it well, meaning that Kurotsuchi was the Gotei's best scientist and Unohana its best medic and so it was difficult to reject their opinions without looking biased.
"Very well, Kurosaki. I accept your answer."
His words lifted an invisible weight from Ichigo's body and he had to stop himself from sighing in relief. In the process, he stole several glances at the Captains around him, to gauge their reactions. And while most of them seemed indifferent, there were four whose stares worried him.
Kyōraku with his face hidden behind the conveniently tilted hat, an action the man used in particular situations when he didn't want the other party to realize how much he knew about the current topic. Kurotsuchi with his scheming stare, reserved for what he considered being interesting subjects of study. Isshin with an odd, knowing look which felt like a beam of knowledge capable of seeing through his son's half-truths and last but not least, Sui-Feng who was trying her hardest to look anywhere else but his face.
He was almost glad to hear the Commander speak again.
"Kurosaki, since you claim to have recovered your memories, let's move on to the next topic. As a spy, you spent a substantial amount of time in Aizen Sōsuke's headquarters. Report on your findings."
Yes, almost glad. With a slight turn and a tilt of his head, he let his facial muscles move until a ghost of a frown formed on his face.
"But… the war is over."
He made sure his tone exuded enough confusion to warrant an explanation because he didn't want to get ignored. And since he still ranked as just a 3rd Seat, questioning an order from the Commander while standing right in front of him was unthinkable. In this moment his achievements, no matter how numerous, held little weight.
To his surprise, after drowning the room in a moment of dead air, the Commander let out a sigh.
"War. You talked about erasing it but do you know what the end of a war means, Kurosaki?"
An unexpected question. He was about to open his mouth and speak but the Commander stopped him with a shake of his head.
"Yes, for a youngling like you, war is nothing but a macabre march of living corpses struggling to escape certain death and its ending is a maudlin moment of salvation. For me though, the end of a war never spells true peace. It is just a brief armistice preceding yet another conflict, brewing behind the horizon."
An answer he was not ready for. It came from nowhere and held nothing back with a surprising amount of cruel honesty which was, for the Commander, a rare occurrence. In a sense, it embodied the expression 'be careful what you wish for' and, after a few seconds of digesting, Ichigo understood the futility of any further objections. And as he took a breath, he returned to the original topic with no mention of what the man said.
"Is there anything in particular you want to know?"
If the shift in conversation surprised the Commander, the man didn't let it show. With a tap of his cane and a quiet grunt, he gave Ichigo a curt nod.
"Arrancars. What can you tell us about the structure of Aizen Sōsuke's army?"
And so he told them. About the fact that not a single member of Aizen's military force was just a regular Hollow but an Arrancar. That there used to be over one hundred of them, all divided into groups; Privaron Espada, Números who often belonged to a certain Espada's Fracción and Espada themselves. He explained the rankings within Espada which, as he had stated before, Aizen most likely based on the amount of spiritual energy. At that point, his explanation turned into a debate in which the Captains forced him to make educated guesses about the type of Menos each Espada and others used to be before becoming Arrancars.
"I'd wager that most of Números used to be Gillians or Adjuchas. Some Espada could have been Adjuchas but the strongest ones most likely used to be Vasto Lorde."
A quiet murmur echoed in the room. Among the noise, Kurotsuchi berated him in a sharp tone.
"Careful with your claims, Kurosaki. Vasto Lorde should be the pinnacle of a Hollow evolution - they are extremely rare. Which is fortunate as the combat capabilities of a Vasto Lorde, as far as the records go, are around or even above those of most of the Captains of the Gotei 13. A Vasto Lorde turned Arrancar would be even more of a threat. It should be easy even for you to distinguish between an Adjuchas and Vasto Lorde. The difference between their spiritual energies alone should be like a difference between a Captain and a seated officer."
Before he could react, another Captain called out to him.
"Be more specific, Kurosaki."
It was Byakuya. With one glance Ichigo noticed the man's usual stern demeanor, though he also saw him giving him a nod of encouragement.
"Right." He said and turned to Kurotsuchi.
"The differences between reiatsu were small from the tenth Espada until Nnoitra, Espada number five. Then there was a large gap between him and Ulquiorra whose reiatsu seemed comparable to Harribel, Espada number three, but a bit weaker when compared to Starrk, Espada number one. On the other hand, Ulquiorra's reiatsu in Segunda Etapa was stronger but since I haven't seen neither Harribel's nor Starrk's Resurrección, I can't compare them. I also know nothing about Barragan, Espada number two. So, it's possible the first four Espada used to be Vasto Lorde but, really, that's just my guess."
"A guess it may be but it would fit with what we experienced."
Surprised to hear the Captain of the 13th Division, Ichigo turned to look at him only to shift his gaze when another person, Kyōraku, joined the debate.
"We fought the top three Espada, Ichigo-kun, and they weren't easy battles. Despite having a number advantage, me and Jūshirō were slowly losing my fight with the Barragan guy. Only luck and timely intervention saved our limbs."
Ichigo's eyes snapped wide open.
'Kyōraku-san was losing against Barragan? Even with Ukitake-san at his side? What? Was Barragan really that strong?'
His father's voice cut through his thoughts.
"I agree. While laid-back and not keen on fighting, this Starrk guy took on both of us with startling ease. It was only once Hirako-san's gang arrived, and we turned it into a three on one battle that he released his sword and turned somewhat serious."
Hearing the words caused a pang of pain to strike his insides. He liked Starrk. For just a second, he closed his eyes and hoped the Primera Espada survived.
"Not to mention Captain Hitsugaya could not even scratch the Harribel woman. It was an unfortunate match for his abilities, yet even then, the difference in power was clear. She too, had to be driven into a number disadvantage to level the playing field."
Same as with Starrk, Ichigo hoped for Harribel's survival. Then again, those two were not the only ones he hoped survived. Despite the bloody conflict between the sides, he had troubles thinking of several Arrancars as enemies.
It was then when he realized the entire room fell into silence and he became the center of everyone's attention. Glancing from side to side, he raised one eyebrow in question.
'What's going on?'
"So, it means you are the only one who fought and defeated a Vasto Lorde class Arrancar all by himself."
It was at that moment he knew… he fucked up. In less than a year he had gone from a powerless soul to a Shinigami capable of fighting enemies some Captains who had lived for centuries could not. And despite the other feats he had accomplished so far, it seemed his unnatural progress finally exceeded even those and awoke the interest of the upper echelon of Gotei 13. And, judging from the more than a dozen pairs of eyes boring into his skull, this gave birth to suspicion, caution and an unhealthy amount of fascination.
But those were parts he could withstand if only because he understood where those emotions came from. However, it was the glue which tied all of them together that worried him.
Dismissed, Ichigo left the room in silence. Outside, his first thought was to flee but the Commander's parting words, a warning to wait until the official end of the meeting to undergo a medical checkup, kept his legs heavy and unresponsive. Nevertheless, it didn't stop his mind from going into overdrive.
'And you're sure she won't find out.'
'Like I said, she'd either have to be the same as you are or you'd have to make a conscious effort for her to even sense it. All she can find out is the size of your reiryoku reserves.'
Instead of replying, he sighed and fought against the nervous trembling of his stomach. Closing his eyes, he breathed in and out at a slow, calming pace. It was a natural rhythm acting as a lullaby in moments of uneasiness. But it also allowed his other thoughts to form.
'I need to keep a low profile. They seemed to accept my explanations but I don't think they are convinced. At least the old man isn't for sure. His stare spoke volumes.'
A groan echoed in every corner of his mind.
'And you're surprised? You told them you erased Aizen from existence with a mere wish.'
Ichigo grimaced but let his zanpakuto spirit continue.
'I said it before but you should have kept going with the amnesia excuse.'
'And I told you that would have been a lot more dangerous. It was good while it lasted because amnesia fit the situation. But if I continued this charade, the chance of me screwing up would only grow. No, this was the perfect excuse to stop.'
A sigh so heavy it made his shoulders droop slithered from the depths of his body.
'I thought using Hōgyoku as the center of the explanation would convince all. But, well, at least I didn't have to use a complete lie. That would have been a disaster.'
'Yeah, you're still having too much trouble lying to people's faces. Speaking of which, it's a miracle you fooled those Fullbringers for as long as you did.'
'Now that's just mean, Zangetsu.'
Screeching of the nearby large doors ended their mental conversation. Captains poured out of the room in a steady flow, most of them acknowledging his presence with a nod or a wave of hands. One of those who did neither was the Captain of the 2nd Division. The fact she still refused to even meet his eyes confused and worried him at the same time. But he had no time to dwell on it.
"Kurosaki-san. Shall we?"
"Ah, yeah, sure. Lead the way, Captain."
He suppressed the urge to shudder and followed the Captain of the 4th Division with a dry throat. Seeing her angelic smile brought back the memory of their last encounter, during which she leaked some of her real persona that had nothing to do with her current image. It made the current situation awkward though he had to admit being aware of a fragment of her true personality felt liberating.
Minutes later, within a secluded and empty room, he watched the green glow fade away from her hands with a serious expression on his face. Receiving a nod, he rose from the bed and tuck his undershirt back in his pants, then glanced at the medic next to him only to see her deep in thoughts.
"Is something wrong?"
She blinked in response and formed a small frown.
"No, not at all, Kurosaki-san. It's just like you said. You appear to be completely fine."
When she didn't seem keen on continuing, he sighed and took the obvious bait.
Her face relaxed, and she shook her head.
"The size of your reiryoku reserves caught me off guard. They grew enormous compared to the last time I checked your health. Not even the Captains of the Gotei 13 possess this much."
He tried his hardest to remain indifferent.
"I think I finally understand why so many speak highly of you, Kurosaki-san. You have an amazing potential."
Even though she said it with her usual sweet smile, Ichigo couldn't help feel cold sweat trickling down his brow. It was as if there was something otherworldly about her expression, a sense of eldritch, sinister intent which spoke directly to his hollow side. And so, forcing his rigid facial muscles to form a smile, he grabbed the rest of his clothes and bolted out of the room as fast as he could without looking odd.
'That woman is dangerous.'
'Got that right. She's crazy.'
As he passed the gate of the 1st Division barracks, he heard his spirit speak again.
'But it went well.'
'Really? Well? If that was her reaction after learning how much reiryoku I have, then I don't want to see what she'd do if she found out the rest.'
'It couldn't be helped, Ichigo. Until you learn how to control its properties by yourself, it's our job to keep it converted and doing so prevents us from hiding the size of your reserves.'
A bitter taste washed over his tongue.
'I better hurry and learn it, then.'
Another voice popped into the conversation.
'Yes. But don't rush it, Ichigo. It is a difficult process. Besides, to hide a secret, one often has to reveal something else. It's a classic tactic of redirecting the attention.'
He sighed in defeat.
'Fine. But now I definitely need to lie low.'
An unexpected symphony of coordinated chuckles reverberated in his mind.
'Like that's something you can do.'
'Agreed. Whether you want it, you are a magnet for trouble, Ichigo.'
Rolling his eyes, he did the only thing he could think of and ended their shared mental link with a simple thought.
The plan to keep a low profile comprised a rather simple routine:
Wake up at dawn. Avoid the rest of your loud family and have a calm, peaceful breakfast. Use the time to talk to your spirits. Steer clear of Kūkaku to delay a conversation about what happened with you and Ginjō. Leave the Shiba compound and make your way to the Shinigami Academy. Find your usual spot and spend around two hours reading through the never-ending horde of novels and textbooks. Ignore the increasing similarity between your zeal for education and a certain man's thirst for knowledge which resulted in a war. Lunch in the academy's cafeteria alone and deep in thoughts. And then, spend the rest of the day in the 9th Division barracks either doing division-related paperwork or helping Hisagi with editorial work for Seireitei Communication Monthly magazine.
It was a far cry from the days spent dealing with various conflicts but, for the first few days, Ichigo found a strange peace in this repeated pattern of living. Waking up and knowing exactly how the rest of the day would go brought a certain unidentified comfort to his life. He didn't have to stress about complex schemes or march through armed conflicts. His brain could relax and his raw power sleep. Every morning was just another day at work.
But nine days, seven hours and forty-three minutes later, the gears in his brain came to a screeching halt and his happiness came undone in a single moment of epiphany.
As his mind screamed, his head drooped low enough for his forehead to smack against the desk in front of him.
"Please! Just call Kenpachi or something! If I have to correct one more line of bad grammar, I'll go crazy!"
His plea for mercy echoed in the room like a siren and several heads turned in his direction. The sound of snorts and chuckles entered his ear. But there was one who did neither.
"Come on, it can't be that bad."
Raising his head, Ichigo located the man in the blink of an eye and threw him a look full of despair. In return, the current Editor-in-Chief of Seireitei Communication Monthly sighed and walked over to his spot. Without a word, Ichigo grabbed the paper he had been working on for the past two hours and passed it to him.
In perverse satisfaction, he watched as the man's expression turned from amused but serious to perturbed.
"Okay, it is bad."
"Thanks for the great analysis."
Then he let his head fall down and bang against the desk once again.
"And this is all your fault, Hisagi-san."
"What? Mine? How?"
With his forehead pressed against the cold wood, he moved his body to the side and let his head make a slight turn until he saw Hisagi's widened eyes and his face, twisted in a miffed grimace.
"It's all because of that damn article of yours. The one about war. It's still so damn popular, everybody wants to voice their opinion on it."
When Hisagi's only reaction was to blink, he continued.
"Don't get me wrong, I think it was an incredible article and I understand why you wrote it. And people love it because it's easy to identify with. But we can't handle so much feedback. There are so many letters I feel like I'm losing my mind!"
Hisagi remained silent for a few more seconds.
"… well, if you'd rather fight Captain Kenpachi than staying here, then I think you already lost it."
The sound of forced coughs caused Ichigo to roll his eyes.
"He's not that bad. I mean, he can get overzealous but sparring with him is actually nice."
Standing still, one of Hisagi's legs twitched so much he had to support himself on the desk or risk tripping. Just as Ichigo, confused as hell, formed a frown, Hisagi raised his head and looked at him as if he grew not a second but a third head as well.
"You are the only one who would ever describe a spar with Captain Kenpachi as… nice, Kurosaki."
When Ichigo opened his mouth to protest, Hisagi raised his hand to stop him.
"But back to the topic." He said, then sighed.
"Look, Kurosaki. How about you take a break from the editorial department? We both know you are more of, well, an active kind of guy. I heard the Shin'ō Academy is short on staff and they appreciate all the help they can get. They lost good people during the conflict with, well, you know."
As he finished saying it, Hisagi turned his head with a faraway look in his eyes and Ichigo had to bite his lip to prevent himself from saying something maladroit or otherwise insensitive. He knew the reason behind Hisagi's strong reaction and didn't want to fuel the fire by talking about the former Captain of their division. His death hit Hisagi hard. Even more so when he was one of the two people responsible for it. So, he did the only sensible thing and changed the subject.
"Okay, sure. What kind of help do they need?"
It took Hisagi a moment to return from his memory trip and when he did; he shrugged.
"No idea. Ask them. I'm sure they'll find something for you."
As he stood in front of the entrance, Ichigo wasn't sure what he had expected to see. Shin'ō Academy, also known as Shinigami Academy, looked just like it always had; a large stylized multiple story building with the architecture similar to that of the rest of the Seireitei. The sight did not surprise him. It couldn't. After all, he had been coming here every day for the past nine days, not to mention his frequent visits during his amnesia period. Yet Hisagi's words still echoed within his head and so, when he stepped inside, he paused and took a good, long look around. He ignored the obvious details like the fresh paint on the walls, electronic cables running through the roof or the parts of the building which still hadn't been repaired after the Bounts incident. Instead, he focused on other elements.
What he saw chilled his body all the way to the bone.
'How the hell did I not notice it before?'
Oppressive corridors, filled with students roaming them with an undebatable look of agony in their eyes. Young people shuffling their feet in silence, interrupted with an occasional echo of a subdued voice. Their expressions crestfallen and devoid of excitement. Rotten air pumped full of melancholy and lethargic boredom. All of it had eluded him before, like water poured into a sieve.
But now when he knew the situation, he saw more each time he blinked.
He spotted a few instructors, but they moved so fast, it was difficult to get a reading on them, though their demeanor, the way their shoulders sagged and the way they kept their heads down suggested nothing but a full surrender. The academy itself, once full of noises, yells, shouts or the sounds of clashing blades and exploding spells, had fallen mute and reeked of defeat. War, despite being over, loomed over the compound like a Sword of Damocles, ready to pierce through the roof and extinguish even the last remnants of knowledge with its ever-lasting presence.
It was such a loud foul atmosphere he, again, couldn't believe he hadn't realized it before. Desperate to understand his own blindness, he racked his brain until he stumbled upon an excuse.
'Right, I use the side entrance and try to steer clear of crowds.'
It was weak, but it achieved what he wanted; to ease his guilty conscience at least a little. And so, he braced himself and made his way through the building, minding his own business even if he soon realized he didn't need to. Aside from one or two students, the vast majority ignored his presence and flowed around him like a swarm of ants, each moving towards his or hers predetermined destination in a deeply engraved routine.
'This is almost painful.'
In a few moments, he reached the main desk and as he walked towards it the woman sitting there looked up. Her eyes widened in immediate recognition and she opened her mouth, without a doubt to greet him in a loud tone, but before she could do so, he placed his index finger against his mouth and mustered his friendliest smile.
"Hi, Vice-Captain Hisagi-san sent me. We heard you are short on staff?" His voice, brought down to a soft volume, caused the woman to relax and then point at the door of the principal's office with a polite smile. He sent her a grateful nod.
When he walked through the door, the principal welcomed him with a forced smile but a smile, nonetheless.
"3rd Seat Kurosaki-san, to what do I owe the pleasure?"
Offered a seat, Ichigo closed the door and sat down. He skipped the formalities and went straight to the point.
"They told me you are asking the Gotei for help because of the lack of staff?"
Principal's forced smile fell and a look of concern replaced it. The man rose to his feet and, with a tired sigh, turned away from him and towards the only window in the room.
Ichigo shifted in his seat and waited but it didn't look like the man intended to continue.
"Care to elaborate?"
He received a brief glance, then the principal cast his eyes down.
"It's the 'reality', Kurosaki-san, reality of the present time. It robbed most of my students of their thirst for knowledge, their enthusiasm for training and also any positive outlook on life. It took all of that and replaced it with melancholy, apathy and harsh truth."
Leaning forward, Ichigo curled his fingers inwards and then pressed his fists against the edge of the principal's table.
"You're talking about the casualties of the war, aren't you?"
The principal raised his head and looked through the window one more time. Then he turned around and nodded.
"I am. Even though these kids took no part in it, this short war still caused them a great deal of pain and suffering. Parents, siblings, aunts, uncles or older friends; most of them lost at least one of those. Even those who came from Rukongai weren't spared. After spending months at the Academy, they formed close connections, friendships or else and seeing those they hold dear weep for their broken bonds makes them do the same." He said and, once he returned to his seat, looked at Ichigo with another tired sigh.
"Frankly, I don't blame them. It doesn't matter how long it lasts, war is never pretty. Though I guess that as the person who represents the student's body and this entire institution, I should thank you, Kurosaki-san, for stopping it before it turned truly ugly."
Ichigo didn't like that and looked away.
"I understand the sentiment but…"
From the corner of his eyes, he saw the principal forming a small sad smile.
There was a short moment of silence, during which Ichigo looked around the office until he was ready to speak again.
"What kind of help do you need?"
The principal placed both his elbows on his table and brought his hands together in what looked like a pleading gesture.
"My students are having a rough time focusing on their studies or on their training. A vast majority of them lost any interest in continuing their education at all, since finishing it means, most of the time, joining the Gotei which is the last thing they want to do. And we, as instructors and educators, failed at bringing this interest back. That's the kind of help we need. I know the Gotei faces a lot of problems on its own but if there was an officer willing to share their routine, experience, struggles or insight on what it means to be a Shinigami of Gotei 13 with my students, I believe it could reignite the lost fire."
Still leaning forward, Ichigo frowned. An uncertain, doubtful look washed over his face.
"Won't it have an opposite effect? Wouldn't we, the officers, be nothing else but cruel reminders of the war?"
His words didn't seem to discourage the principal. Instead, he put his chin above his clasped hands and rested it against them.
"Maybe. Or maybe, they would see it as a chance to confront their pain and share it with somebody who witnessed war with his own eyes and still came out of it in one piece. A chance to lean against the pillar of power and a chance to borrow some of his unyielding strength."
Seeing the eyes boring into him with an unwavering intensity, Ichigo brought his right hand to his face and gave it a rub.
"I'm the least qualified person for this. My life is anything but normal and I don't think I could share my insights since I have none."
The principal shook his head.
"You are selling yourself short, Kurosaki-san. You are extraordinary and your presence would be like bringing a gale to the pile of smoldering coal - a source of oxygen for the dying fire."
Keeping the palm of his hand resting against his face, Ichigo rolled his eyes at the melodrama.
"What would I even talk about?"
Through his fingers, he noticed a glint in the principal's eyes and cursed.
'A trap. He's good.'
"I'm glad you asked. It is no longer a secret you acted as a spy and because of it spent weeks in Hueco Mundo in the presence of not just Aizen Sōsuke but also his army of Arrancars. You see, Kurosaki-san, Arrancars used to be so rare, our curriculum mentions them only as a term and nothing else. However, you met these beings face to face. You saw what they are, how they act or how they differ from regular Hollows or Menos, which are questions none of our students know the answers for. For them, this topic is an uncharted territory and if it awakens their curiosity, I'm sure it'll help renew their interest in education too."
While not outright a bad logic, Ichigo saw a potential danger in the man's train of thoughts. A tiny hole which could shatter a fragile, cracked psyche.
"You realize that it was these Arrancars who caused most of the deaths, right? There's no way they would want to hear about those who killed their… killed their…" He began only to trail off when the realization hit him.
"You are one sneaky, sly fox. They would totally want to hear about them if only so they could associate their pain with a concrete person, wouldn't they?"
The principal caught his gaze and gave him a slow nod.
In return, Ichigo groaned. After seeing the state of the Academy and listening to everything that the principal said, there was no way he could just turn the man down. And, to be honest, it wasn't as if he didn't want to talk about Arrancars. It was just the opposite. But there was one problem.
The principal's aim was to paint them as villains, somebody the students could blame for their pain, but Ichigo knew just how wrong such thinking was because of one simple truth.
That some Arrancars were the most humane beings he had ever met.
End of Chapter 50.
And the story advances to a new arc.
This chapter contains a lot of breadcrumbs; some about future plot, some about character's motivations, changes in their thinking or current state of their minds, but also about the changes in the setting and how the previous parts of the story influenced it. It'll take a few chapters until the main force behind the arc makes an appearance but don't worry, I'm making sure the wait will be as entertaining as it is important.
Yes, it took me a while to update. I put it on my profile but I was in a hospital and unable to focus on ff since November. I should be fine now, though my progress on writing and editing is slow. If everything goes well, my regular two-week schedule should work. I hope.
To address some reviews:
Takei Daloui - kind of. It's my take on Tsukishima's ability - that to make them work, in the moment of cutting his victim, he injects some of his reiryoku into the person's bloodstream. I'll let you figure out the rest.
D - very nice analysis about the Shiba clan. Very, very nice.
Fish On Stick - looking back, I sort of agree. Some Espada lacked proper characterization. But Hueco Mundo will play a role in the future and I may be able to mend some of those mistakes.
Title of this chapter - Knight of Cydonia - is a reference to a song from Muse because the song's meaning is exactly what I wanted to portray. I'll let you google what that is for yourselves.
Subtitle of this chapter should be fairly obvious.
Alright, I guess that's all I wanted to say. Thanks for all reviews, thank you for reading and thank you for still being interested in this story. I know I am. And as always, feel free to give your impressions.
Next chapter: Chapter 51 - A lecture on reality (Hornet's nest) - should be posted on 17/18th January.