Title: The Beautiful Lie
Pairings: Urahara/Ichigo, Aizen/Ichigo, Shinji/Nel
Warning: Spoilers for recent chapters, Character death, Yaoi-ness, Post-war fic, Violence
Description: Years after the painful end, the echoes of war still prove their influence, and Ichigo discovers a dead man in his kitchen.
Chapter Thirty-One : Homecoming
Dawn comes damp and grey, causing Ichigo's spirits to sink into his stomach. Not that he's particularly energetic in the first place. His belly is a twist of knots, his nerves completely raw. The fact that he's going to be invading Seireitei within the next fifteen minutes sits like a stone gargoyle on his shoulder.
Wind tugs at his hair. The town spreads out sleepily below him, slowly waking and greeting the day. A dog barks in the distance. A few horns sound in the street, but even traffic is at a minimum right now. It's almost peaceful.
He takes a deep breath, inhaling the clammy air, and lets that chill soak into his being. Numbing him to certain responses, to the fear. He can't afford that kind of distraction. He's strong; he's going to do this.
Resolved, Ichigo turns away from the edge of the roof and heads back inside.
The warehouse is fraught with tension. Ichigo can feel it in the air like a tangible pulse of power and anticipation. He knows that everyone's in the basement, but first, Ichigo makes a stop by his bedroom. He changes clothes, decides against wearing Shinigami-black and settles for something else. Comfortable pants. A short-sleeve shirt, no design on the front. Socks and his favorite shoes.
Whatever his clothing says about his alliance, Ichigo doesn't care. He's comfortable, he's himself, and he's not choosing a side. Not anymore. The only side he's on is his own. The fact that quite a few other people are on it too is coincidental.
Zangetsu goes over his back, strap firm across his chest, the weight too familiar. There's a pulse from his blade – Zangetsu's ready for this – and a purr in the back of Ichigo's mind – so is Shirosaki. His chest aches a little. Ichigo's fingers flutter across it briefly before he drops his hand. Yeah, that's ready, too.
He grabs the things Kisuke made for them and shoves the items into his pockets. He's about as prepared as he can get at this point.
Ichigo leaves his bedroom, closes the door behind him, and heads down, passing equally empty rooms. Everyone should be downstairs, even those who aren't going into Soul Society.
Ichigo's the last to arrive. He hadn't planned it that way, but somehow, it seems fitting. He's also struck by an amusing sense of deja vu at sight of Kisuke standing next to a built gate. Only instead of Tessai on the other side, it's Hachi. The gate's not been activated yet, so it's missing that ripple between the two pillars, but the effect is still familiar.
It feels like years ago, when Ichigo was just a teenager and had no clue what he was getting himself into. This time, however, he has a pretty good idea. And he's still going to do it. That's the epitome of foolishness right there.
“About time ya got here,” Shinji says, the first to greet Ichigo. He's grinning like they aren't about to go to war, hands tucked in his pockets, stance relaxed. “I thought we were gonna hafta do this without ya.”
Ichigo snorts. “So you're going to try and sit on the throne?”
Love groans like that's the worst idea he's ever heard. “If that happens, I'll happily take my exile.”
A quiet, nervous chuckle echoes through the basement. They are all trained soldiers for the most part, but Ichigo can't blame them for being apprehensive. Ichigo's not exactly confident in victory himself. But he's still going to do this because he can't fathom walking away. Not right now, not anymore.
He's already done that once, and look where it got him.
Ichigo glances around. Kisuke and Hachi are by the gate, the only two not going, waiting with a mixture of patience and anxiety. Ichigo purposefully only looks at Kisuke, unsure what to think about his lover – or former lover. Ichigo honestly doesn’t know what to call this man anymore. Friend sometimes feels like too much but not enough.
Isshin's here, too. In Shinigami black. Arms folded over his chest, zanpakutou at his waist. The strip of white cloth over his shoulder is missing though. He's pointedly not looking at anyone, staring at the ground as though it holds all the answers.
It strikes Ichigo that he doesn't even know the name of his father's sword. He wonders, offhand, if Isshin knows what Ichigo's is called? Gods above and below, Ichigo can even name Hiyori's zanpakutou. Not to mention Aizen’s and that of every Espada. All of them off the top of his head.
But he doesn't know his own father's? Doesn’t even know what it does or what it looks like in shikai.
An old, familiar anger starts to stir again, but Ichigo fights it down. Now isn't the time. He can demand answers later; Isshin's already promised to give them. Right now, Ichigo needs to focus. So he tears his gaze away and moves onto the rest.
The Vizard are here, even Lisa, in various states of dress. For all that they must be anxious, they look composed. Hiyori especially seems more annoyed than anything. Hands crossed, one foot tapping a nonsense rhythm, her eyes narrowed and brow drawn low.
Neliel's beside Shinji, the only other one who seems perfectly calm. She's smiling even, dressed casual and almost cute, sword at her side. She's also an adult right now, and Ichigo hopes she stays that way. He doesn't want to worry about her in her child form, though he's quite certain that Shinji will take it upon himself to protect his girlfriend – fiancé.
Sousuke – and yes, Ichigo has decided it's about time he calls him that – is here. A little away from everyone but closest to Shinji. He doesn't have a zanpakutou to call his own, but someone's provided him a sword. He won't be completely helpless, just mostly. That's a small comfort.
They are all here. Ichigo's strike force against Seireitei. He supposes he ought to say something, since they've decided he's to be their leader, but Ichigo's never been one for inspiring speeches. He doesn't have the first clue where to begin. He’s never had this problem before. Usually, the fight came to him.
“It's dawn,” Ichigo begins, heading toward the gate, feeling every eye on him. It's a little unsettling but also calming.
It feels a bit like stepping onto the battlefield again, and that at least Ichigo is familiar with. He'd fought in Aizen's war. He remembers that feeling. That calm before the storm.
“We need to pin down the Gotei 13 first. Don't worry about the lower seats. Just take out the captains and vice-captains,” Ichigo adds. If he can help it, he doesn't want anyone to die. “That'll be our distraction. I'll get the key.” And Sousuke, but that's pretty much implied. “And if I'm lucky, I can sit on that throne before the real battle begins.”
In other words, it's a race against the clock.
It also sounds like a suicide mission. Seven of them against the might of the Gotei 13. Ichigo and Sousuke against the Royal Guard with only Kisuke's inventions to help clear the way. The enormity of what they are trying to accomplish settles heavy and unyielding on Ichigo's shoulders.
If anyone has a protest to his plan, they don't speak it.
Kisuke steps forward, looking half-nervous, half-worried out of his mind. He's carrying three identical devices, ones so small that Ichigo can't immediately identify them.
“I put these together last night,” he explains as he hands them over. “There was only enough time for three.”
Ichigo looks down at the pieces of black plastic. Closer inspection reveals them to resemble an ear piece, like the kind made for cell phones, with a button on the side. Some sort of communication device, he supposes, though he can't see how they'd work. There's hardly any room in them for batteries.
“They're powered by reiatsu,” Kisuke inserts as though reading Ichigo's mind. “And they'll work in Soul Society. Which is the point.”
Ichigo's brows lift toward his hairline. How incredibly useful. On the off chance they need to split up, this is the best way to communicate. Certainly faster than message by Hell Butterfly.
“Thanks.” He puts one around his ear and tucks the other two into the only pocket he has left.
Grey eyes slant to the side, as though Kisuke is carefully considering his words. His response is too soft for anyone else to catch.
“Come back,” he murmurs. “Please.”
Ichigo nods, unwilling to say anything back, feeling a near-dozen pairs of eyes watching their interaction closely. Knowing that Sousuke watches as well. Knowing that Ichigo himself isn't sure what the hell he wants anymore.
“Dying isn't part of the plan,” he replies and takes a step away, creating a practical distance. Then, Hachi comes into view, shifting uncomfortably as though he believes he’s interrupted something private and touching.
“The gate's ready,” the large man states, the rocky ground crackling under his feet. “Whenever you are.”
Now is as good a time as any, Ichigo supposes. What have they to wait for?
He inclines his head. “What kind of window are we looking at?”
Kisuke answers this time with only a small hesitation on his part.
“Seven minutes,” he answers, and the tiniest of smiles curls his lip. “Far more than I was able to give you the last time.”
If Ichigo wasn't so tense, he'd laugh at that. The memory of years past when they'd had to run helter-skelter through the gate and hope they'd make it to the other side on time, all of them following a black cat that could talk and none of them with shunpo. Back then, the line between good and evil had been so simple, so obvious. Not anymore. Not since Aizen stomped all over that line and kicked the Shinigami away from straddling the fence.
“It's more than long enough,” Sousuke says, and there's almost appreciation in his tone, though Ichigo wouldn't dare call it gratitude.
Kisuke looks surprised by the near-compliment. But he doesn't offer a snappish retort like he usually would.
Ichigo would be shocked, too, but he doesn't have the energy to spare for it right now. That Kisuke and Sousuke are finally restraining themselves is something to ponder, but later, when Ichigo isn’t so tense and geared for upcoming battle.
“No one should be able to detect your arrival either,” Hachi adds, his eyes darting between Kisuke and Sousuke pointedly. “At least, not for several minutes. Which should give you some element of surprise.”
Even the littlest bit would be helpful.
“Thanks.” Ichigo inhales slowly. There's nothing left to do but go for it. “Is everyone ready?” he asks, turning to let his gaze sift over his allies.
A mere nine – counting himself – against more than two dozen strong Shinigami plus an innumerable force of lower seats. It's almost enough to make him rethink this whole escapade, save that last time Ichigo had invaded Seireitei, he'd been much weaker and even less prepared.
That realization is a small comfort.
“How 'bout a speech?” Shinji asks, sounding half-mischievous and half-serious. “Something to inspire us.”
Ichigo snorts. “Fight hard. Don't die.”
There's a moment of stunned silence before Love chuckles and Rose shakes his head.
“Wow, I feel ready to take on the world now,” he drawls.
“Bring 'em on,” Hiyori adds for good measure, the trembling in her frame one of battle-ready anticipation.
Shrugging, Ichigo turns back toward the gate, staring into the flickering depths of it. “That's all I can ask. Don't die. I'm tired of grieving.”
And a lot of other things, too. Which is the whole point of this merry jaunt into Soul Society, isn't it?
Shinji claps. One of those dainty and annoying polite ones, his lips stretched wide in a grin.
“It's good enough fer me,” he allows and makes an exaggerated bow, gesturing toward the gate. “After you, Ichigo. We're right behind ya.”
It shouldn't be so encouraging, but it is. They are right behind him and beside him and with him. He's not doing this alone, though sometimes he thinks it, and Ichigo squares his shoulders. His gaze flickers from the gate to Kisuke and back again, thoughts lingering on the hope and the worry he catches in shadowed eyes, and then, Ichigo heads toward the gate.
Slow at first, like he has all the time in the world, more a stroll. But as he feels Zangetsu pulse, and the answering echoes of his companions, his stroll becomes a jog and then an all out run. He hurtles toward the gleaming ripple and hears the sound of his friends following along behind him.
The journey is different than before. They arrive, rather than land, stepping out onto the broad expanse of the Soukyoku Hill with nary a stumble. Ichigo's the first to slip free of the dangai, his shoes crunching over the barren hilltop as a fierce wind whips at his face and clothing. He can hear the others arriving behind him, some clumsier than others, but they are all here. Every last one.
The sun is rising, always a few steps behind that of the living world it seems, cascading the horizon in sheets of red and orange and gold. Seireitei is a slowly waking beast, quiet and serene but with claws sheathed.
Ichigo's hand moves to Zangetsu, drawing in anticipation of a fight, even as he moves to the edge of the hill and looks down at Seireitei spread out before him. Up here it looks peaceful. Idyllic even. The white walls and white buildings making it appear as if nothing is amiss, as though the people within are as pure as their surroundings.
His reiatsu flickers, slowly unfurling from his body. Someone will sense it, Ichigo is sure, but he's ready for that. Ready for this.
There's the sound of footsteps over gravel. “Ichigo?”
He doesn't have to look to know that it's Shinji. He shakes his head and turns away from the edge.
“Nothing,” he says, and his eyes roam over his gathered force, most of whom already have their zanpakutou drawn and ready. Sousuke lingers at the back of the crowd, watching with an unfathomable expression.
Ichigo opens his mouth, prepares to tell them to split up, go after their targets, when the sound of an explosion causes him to whirl back toward the edge. His jaw drops as a cloud of dust and debris rises where the eighth division is, if Ichigo remembers correctly.
What the hell...?
That's when he notices it. The subtle but powerful buzz of reiatsu in the air. It's tangled, almost tangible, like Ichigo could taste it. There's so much of it, not just any one Shinigami either, but as though an entire force of them are releasing their shikai at any given moment. It hangs in the air, dances down Ichigo's spine, makes Zangetsu thrum in anticipation.
“What is that?” Neliel asks, stepping up beside him. Her soft eyes track the plume of smoke.
Ichigo shakes his head. “I don't know.” His thumb traces over Zangetsu's hilt. “But it's as good a place to start as any.” He half-turns toward his motley assortment of fighters. “Aizen?”
Stepping into sight, where he'd been hovering on the edges, Sousuke comes into view. He looks a twinge uncomfortable, which is probably due to the atmosphere of heady reiatsu.
Instantly, all eyes swivel toward Sousuke, who doesn't look the least bit intimidated. He inclines his head.
“My contact will find us shortly.”
Good enough. Ichigo turns his attention back toward Seireitei, just as another explosion rocks the eerie stillness, this time coming from the direction of the Central 46 compound. A fireball careens toward the sky and something glitters, like light reflecting off a shattered mirror. Ichigo's skin prickles; Shirosaki cackles with mad glee, eager to join the fight.
“It's been so long, aibou,” he whines, and Ichigo can half-imagine those black-tipped fingers reaching for the fight.
“Aizen. Shinji. Nel. You're with me,” Ichigo says, long dormant battle instincts unfurling within him. He pulls out the communicators Kisuke had given him, handing one to Lisa and the other to Goat-Face. “Love. Rose. Isshin. Find out what's attacking the eighth division. Lisa and Hiyori--”
Spurts of reiatsu cut off Ichigo's instructions, and a series of smaller explosions ring through the second division, more like buildings had collapsed than anything else. It's like someone has started the invasion without him, though Ichigo can't imagine who it would be. Sousuke had hinted that they might have allies within the Gotei 13 but hadn't named any names. Besides, how would said allies know that they were planning this day to attack?
“--see what's going on at Chamber 46,” Ichigo finishes, a bit unsure if splitting up is the right thing to do. Or going after the explosions for that matter. “We'll head to the second.”
Shinji grins, clapping Ichigo on the shoulder companionably. As though they are all off to play rather than battle for their lives and their future.
“A good plan, Ichigo. We'll make a tactician of you yet.”
Ichigo can't be sure if Shinji means it for a compliment or a tease. Either way, he doesn’t have time to stand here and debate. The explosions are perhaps a lucky distraction, but still, someone’s going to sense their arrival soon enough. Ichigo would rather be long gone before someone decides to investigate. The Shinigami have never been that good at thinking on their feet.
“Much better than you anyway,” Hiyori retorts with a smirk, to which Shinji replies with a wounded look.
Ichigo half-expects one of their childish quarrels to break out, but instead, Hiyori and Lisa choose that moment to throw a salute at Ichigo and launch into shunpo. He watches as they leap into the sky and race off.
“And now we're leaving, too,” Rose says, flicking his hair over his shoulder. “Come on, Kurosaki. Let's make your son proud.”
Isshin looks like he wants to protest, but his head jerks into a sharp nod, and they – along with Love – take off opposite from the two women. That only leaves Ichigo, Sousuke, Shinji, and Neliel.
“Come on, Sou-chan,” Shinji says cheerily, hooking an arm through Sousuke's and dragging the former overlord against his side. “Ya can shunpo with me.”
“Joy,” Sousuke drawls but allows the contact.
Neliel chuckles, her eyes dancing with mirth. “Are you going to protect him, too?”
“I'll be his personal bodyguard,” Shinji announces, probably to mortify Sousuke as much as he possibly can. Which often makes Ichigo wonder if Shinji's actually on Sousuke's side as much as everyone thinks he is.
Ichigo bites back a sigh. “Let's go.”
He steps off the cliff, briefly enjoying the free-fall before he slides into shunpo, setting his sights on the second division. Several more explosions light up the morning, throwing rock and wood into the air. Ichigo's eyes narrow, noticing black-clad shapes flitting through the streets. Likely the Onmitsukidoh, who are most definitely not on Ichigo's side.
That's when Ichigo feels the brush of familiar reiatsu, almost as though its bearer knows he’s here. He draws to an abrupt halt, midair, and focuses on the teasing familiarity. It's been years since he's spoken with her, but he can still recognize Yoruichi-san's quietly buzzing reiatsu. What the hell is she doing?
It's easy enough to follow her energy down to where Yoruichi-san is perched on a roof, gazing down at the smoking second division, the movement of black-clad figures less and less. She has her back to them when Ichigo touches shoes to shingles but turns as they land. She’s rather unsurprised at their arrival.
“Wondered when you'd get here,” Yoruichi-san comments, her golden eyes sparkling with humor as she looks from Ichigo to the members of his team. “Shinji, always a pleasure. Neliel, nice to see you as an adult this time.”
She doesn't greet Sousuke. Instead, her gaze hardens as she lands on the former overlord before it skips back to Ichigo.
“It's about time you joined our little insurrection.”
Ichigo blinks. “Insurrection?”
A suspicion is born at the back of his mind, and it has something to do with the broadly grinning blond behind him.
Yoruichi gestures. Her arms sweep outward as though including every bit of destruction running rampant through Seireitei.
“Some of us thought it was time we stopped reacting and started acting,” she says with a sage nod. “And thanks to Shinji over there, we knew exactly where to start.”
Ichigo's eyes narrow as he whirls toward the blond, whose face has reddened from the exertion of holding in his amusement. His gaze, however, seems to break Shinji’s composure as he bursts into laughter, all too pleased with himself. His amusement shatters Ichigo's own restraint as he stomps across the few feet separating them and soundly punches Shinji in the shoulder.
“Ow!” the blond Vizard gripes and straightens with a hiss. “What th' hell was that fer?”
“What have I said about secrets?” Ichigo demands, more frustrated than furious and feeling a tad bit hurt as well.
Shinji probably thinks this is some kind of funny game, but Ichigo isn't amused. He could have saved himself a lot of stress if he'd known about this little rebellion.
Neliel sighs. “I told you so,” she comments and doesn't display an ounce of sympathy for Shinji's pain.
“Yoruichi didn't tell him either,” Shinji mutters.
“I haven't had any contact with Ichigo in months,” Yoruichi counters, wagging her finger at him. “So don't blame your pain on me. I've no interest in sharing your punishment.”
The earpiece chirruped to life, and Ichigo winces, head cocked as he focuses on the stream of conversation and background noise that blares in his ear. He reaches up, pressing the button, remarking that the communicator is remarkably like a walkie-talkie.
“What?” he demands.
It’s Isshin who answers. “We’re here at what's left of the eighth division.”
“It's completely encased in ice,” Goat-Face explains, and there's a notable pause in his speech before he continues in a tight voice. “Your sister is here.”
Ichigo blinks, face twisting with disbelief. “Repeat that,” he demands, a bit harsher than he needs to with Shinji, Nel, and Sousuke all looking at him in surprise. Yoruichi, however, just looks smug and amused.
“Karin is here. Fighting alongside that damned boy of hers,” Isshin repeats, and his voice comes out a hiss, a sign of silent seething. Like he can't wait to get his hands on Toushirou and wring his scrawny neck.
Feeling an odd and random urge to pinch his nose, Ichigo exhales.
“No strangling Toushirou,” he replies, and that's when Shinji and Nel erupt into snickers, Yoruichi's grin blossoming with her own amusement. “He's more valuable than you are.”
On the other end, Isshin squawks with indignation. Though he must know that Ichigo is teasing. Mostly.
“Son,” Isshin begins warningly, only to pause, take a deep breath, and seem to change his mind. “Ukitake's here, too. Seems like we're late to the party.”
Good news. Ichigo resists the urge to glare at Shinji again. Some of this information could’ve been useful in preventing Ichigo's many anxious nights about invading Soul Society.
“Figures,” Lisa cuts in, joining the conversation with a disappointed sniff. “You get to see him in action, and I'm stuck watching the one-eyed crazy laugh as he tears down what's left of Chamber 46.”
Ichigo's brow crinkles. “Kenpachi?” he hazards a guess. Though honestly, how many other one-eyed crazies are there in Soul Society.
“Kuchiki, too,” Lisa confirms, her voice betraying her admiration. “I haven't seen him this ruthless since he took down Ichimaru.”
“I see,” Ichigo says, and he eyes Yoruichi, who looks far too self-satisfied for Ichigo's sanity. “I guess you two ought to help them clean out the resistance. Since there's little else for us to do.”
Lisa laughs into the communicator. “Roger that.”
“If you insist.”
Both Lisa and Isshin cut off their transmission, leaving Ichigo free to pin Yoruichi with a firm look.
“So...” he says casually, pretending he can't hear Shinji snickering behind him. “Got anyone else involved in your little insurrection?”
Yoruichi thumbs her chin, rolling her eyes skyward. “Well, if you haven't noticed by now, the third is up in flames. That'd be the work of Kira and Hisagi.” Behind her, something explodes, but she doesn't seem to notice or feel bothered about it. “The thirteenth should be taking a good beating from Ayasegawa and Kuchiki the younger right about now. And Matsumoto and Ise are currently rampaging through the fifth”
“Correction: we finished rampaging and have decided to meet up with the main force,” a voice inserts from behind Ichigo and his group. He whirls to see Matsumoto and Ise-san standing behind him, looking a little signed and bruised but otherwise none the worse for wear.
A streak of soot on her cheek and yet Matsumoto-san still manages to grin cheerfully and wiggle her fingers in an excited wave. “Been a while, Kurosaki-kun. Taichou sure missed you.”
Somehow, Ichigo doesn't think that Toushirou will appreciate Matsumoto sharing such information.
“Nice to see you, too,” he returns.
His gaze shifts to Ise-san, who has actually approached Sousuke, and even now, the two of them are trading glances. As though weighing and measuring one another by sight alone.
It's not quite like two former enemies encountering one another. No, this is something different. Something Ichigo can't quite name. Almost as though they had been friends once but more than that. Lovers perhaps. Though that breaks his brain in a way he can't quite define. It makes sense, if he thinks hard about it, but frankly, Ichigo doesn't want to.
And if there's a small part of him that is abruptly seething with jealousy… well, Ichigo isn't going to admit that either.
“You're looking well, Nanao.” Sousuke takes her hand in his, a polite gesture that lingers longer than Ichigo would’ve liked.
Her lips curl into a smirk, a far cry from the contained expression she had borne the last time Ichigo saw her. “Wish I could say the same for you,” she replies, and something in her gaze turns harsh and calculating. “Taichou would’ve approved of the changes.”
Emotions flicker across Sousuke's face – guilt and regret most prominent among them – before they are quickly shuttered away again.
“One can only hope,” Sousuke murmurs, voice quieter than before. “I believe you have something for me?”
“Straight to business, I see,” Nanao says and reaches for the book that is always tucked at her side, holding it with one palm to flip it open. “I should’ve expected nothing less.” Her fingers pluck something old and rusted from the pages, which she then holds out.
He doesn't reach for it immediately. Not when her eyes narrow and her voice hardens with warning.
“Don't make me regret this, Sousuke.”
The brunet inclines his head and then steps aside. He gestures briefly to Ichigo, who’s watching the entire exchange with intense scrutiny.
“The key is not meant for me.”
“Of course it isn't,” Ise-san murmurs, and she turns to Ichigo.
He finally forces himself to move, crossing the short distance between them until he can see the small, rusted key laying on her palm. It certainly doesn't look grand. It's the size of a regular house key, rust flecking from the four planes of it. There's a hole in the bow, oblong with an arched tip, and there are three teeth on the blade. They are rectangular in shape, the two outer teeth twice as long as the one in the middle. More importantly, however, is the subtle pulse of tangible reiatsu that resonates from it.
Ichigo reaches out, and a light shock zaps his fingers. It's not enough to deter him, however, and when he plucks the key from Ise-san's palm, it buzzes faintly in his hold. More like a purr, a quiet roll of reiatsu that washes over his hand and resonates with his own and the pulse of power within his chest.
He can only hope that's the intended effect.
He closes his fingers around the key and lowers his arm to his side. Ise-san inclines her head in acceptance of him and then glances past Ichigo to Yoruichi-san.
“Ayasegawa requires some assistance cleaning out the thirteenth, if you have need of me,” she says and vanishes in a flit of shunpo, obviously considering her task complete.
“She has a point,” Yoruichi muses aloud, grabbing Ichigo's attention once again, only to find that she was making shooing motions at the four of them. “I've got a coup to finish, and you all have somewhere else to be right now, yes? So get on with you.”
Shinji chuckles. “Only because ya insist.” He slings an arm over Neliel's shoulders and pulls his fiancée in close. “Though a little direction would be nice. Sou-chan?”
“The first division.” Sousuke appears to shake himself out of a stupor as his frown melts into impassivity once again. “The entrance to the path can be found there.”
There's nothing left to do but follow. Yoruichi cheerfully waves at their departure before leaving in a flit of shunpo herself. This time, Ichigo's the one who takes Sousuke in arm, so that the brunet doesn't get left behind.
High above Seireitei, the destruction looks even more prominent. Plumes of smoke rising from all directions, the eighth division gleaming from under a coating of ice, spikes of reiatsu tangible in the air. A part of Ichigo is disappointed that there's been no great battle, that he hasn't even found need to draw Zangetsu yet. He'd been so keyed for a vicious fight, and now, all the work has been done for him.
Yet, they still saved the most difficult part for Ichigo.
When they arrive at the first division, two Shinigami are waiting for them in the courtyard. They drop down onto cracked stone, and Ichigo isn't surprised at who's waiting for them. They must have received word from Yoruichi-san. Either that, or they already suspected what Ichigo's next destination would be.
The sight of Unohana-san and Jyuushiro gives Ichigo pause. Mostly because of the latter, who makes Ichigo's insides roil with uncertainty, a half-dozen memories unfurling within him. He has mixed feelings about Jyuushiro, not all of them unpleasant. At least he has only gratitude toward Unohana-san for saving his life.
She’s the first to speak. Her eyes are warm as she glances between Ichigo and Sousuke then past them to their two companions.
“Greetings, Kurosaki-kun,” she says, her chin tilted with pride. “You've fully recovered, I see.”
She addresses him first, but her gaze keeps drifting back to Sousuke. Somehow, Ichigo isn’t surprised.
“I have,” Ichigo replies and shifts awkwardly. Gratitude has never come easy for him, and somehow, Unohana-san always makes him feel like a child. Like a little boy playing dress-up. “I never got a chance to thank you before either. So... yeah. Thanks.”
Her lips curve into a fond smile. “You did not deserve what they had planned for you,” she answers softly and adds a sidelong look at her companion. “I was merely correcting another's cowardice.”
A touch of red stains Jyuushiro’s cheeks. “For which I owe you an enormous apology. We all do.”
He starts to bow or perhaps go even lower, but Ichigo shakes his head. As much as he'd like that, they don't have time for it right now. It’d take more than a hastily executed conversation in the middle of a battlefield to rebuild the burnt bridges between them.
“Later,” he says, hoping that there is going to be a later. “Right now, we've got to find the entrance to the royal palace.”
“Then you're in the right place,” Jyuushiro allows, looking understandably relieved. “The records I've found indicate that it's here. Somewhere.”
“It's in the secondary courtyard,” Sousuke inserts, speaking up from Ichigo's side. He shares a warm look with Unohana-san, and there are volumes of conversation that need to pass there, but now isn’t the time.
Jyuushiro blinks. “No one's used it in centuries. It's been abandoned.”
“What better place ta hide a secret then?” Shinji pipes up. One hand flicks through the air. “Lead the way, Jyuu. We've got a throne ta take.”
“If we can get by the royal guard, that is,” Neliel comments as Jyuushiro turns and they fall into step behind him.
Jyuushiro tosses a glance over his shoulder. His expression is a mixture of resignation and hesitation.
“They no longer exist,” he says quietly, tucking his hands into his sleeves. “And the king is only a memory.”
“What?” Ichigo demands. His shock is surpassed only by that echoing from his companions.
To be fair, they had all suspected that the guard wouldn't be an issue. But for the king to be gone as well... that hadn't been anticipated.
Jyuushiro sighs, leading them down one empty corridor and into another. The light is dimmer and obviously the path less traveled.
“It's been that way for decades, though I'm not sure exactly when they ceased to control Soul Society. Genryuusai-sensei's notes are vague and mostly incomprehensible.”
“That's...” Sousuke shakes his head and frowns intently. “It is an impossibility. There must be some king. The imbalance would otherwise destroy everything.”
Pausing at the end of a corridor, where a wooden door is locked and bolted, Jyuushiro looks at Ichigo's team and Unohana-san with something akin to sadness. He looks tired. Old. Older than he should. Older than he did during the war. Wrinkles line his mouth and eyes where none had been before, and were his hair not already white, Ichigo guess that it’d be turning that way.
“Not immediately,” Jyuushiro says, voice impossibly soft and sad. “Over time, yes, the stability has fractured.” He glances at Sousuke. “There are even a few among us who wonder if the war was only a product of that instability.”
Stunned silence meets Jyuushiro’s words as he turns to fiddle with the doors. Even Sousuke looks surprised. Ichigo himself is unsure what to think. He doesn't know what drove Isshin to abandon the guard and Soul Society. He doesn't know what could’ve happened in that frame of time. He doesn't know if he can so easily link the pain of the past to that one singular point.
“Are ya sayin’ that our lack of a king caused everything?” Shinji demands as the huge door creaks open, dust puffing out and pale light spilling into the dim corridor where they stand.
Jyuushiro pushes the door all the way open and allows them to pass by him and into the courtyard. “Are you telling me you didn't notice the sudden surge in Hollow attacks?” he asks. “And how few Shinigami-empowered spirits were becoming available? How many pluses were reverting to Hollow, too quick for us to purify? How weak we, as Shinigami, had become?”
It's starting to make a horrifying sort of sense to Ichigo. And he's not the only one.
“The world has only been waiting for a king,” Sousuke murmurs with sudden understanding, brown eyes focusing on Ichigo. “We need one to exist.”
“We do,” Jyuushiro confirms with a tilt of his head and then gestures to the open doorway. “I'll wait here in case there are complications. We all await your success.”
He's carrying nothing, but Ichigo's shoulders feel heavy nonetheless. Shinji prods him forward, and they step into pale sunlight and a courtyard that better resembles a garden, albeit a dead one. The cobbled walk is littered with dried leaves and branches, the bushes and trees twisted with dehydration, and in the middle, there’s a stone fountain that’s long gone dry, the pale stone coated with dirt and dust of ages.
Sousuke passes them all, striding without hesitation toward the fountain. He crouches in front of the face of it, palm swiping over one of the images on the front. Fingernails scrape at a depression, revealing a keyhole, one with four projections. It’s a perfect match to the key in Ichigo's hand.
“That's it?” Neliel questions as Ichigo approaches, a part of him inexplicably nervous beyond mention.
Sousuke nods. “This is only the first step. The true entrance is below.”
Part of Ichigo relaxes. The test isn't upon him. He can save his freak-out for later.
He kneels. “Here goes nothing,” Ichigo mutters and shoves the key into the lock.
It's made of stone, so turning it does no good. But the pulse of reiatsu that suddenly pushes outward seems to be all that's needed.
He gasps, feeling the power pulled from within him, and stumbles backward. The key comes out with him as he lands on his backside, but there's no time to worry because the ground starts to rumble with an awful noise of rock grating on rock. Ichigo watches as the stone of the fountain appears to fold in on itself, the rim folding outward and the bowl of it sliding to the side. Only to reveal a gaping opening that’s large enough for two people to walk next to each other. The spiraling center of the fountain splits down the middle, and swings open as though it were a door, giving them more space.
Hauling himself to his feet, Ichigo watches as a set of stairs appear, only the first few steps visible in the sunlight. Beyond them is a dark abyss, leading to Sousuke only knew where. Somehow to heaven. Or what’s left of it.
“After you,” Shinji graciously allows, looking pointedly at Ichigo.
He exhales. “Guess I'll be the first to dive into darkness then.”
Ichigo closes his fingers around the key and the takes the first step. The stairs are stone and quite solid beneath him, a small consolation. He steps down, squinting into approaching darkness, his left hand finding a wall and holding on. He's being particularly careful, unwilling to find out how long the stairs are by falling down them.
Footsteps echo behind him as Shinji, Neliel, Unohana-san, and Sousuke follow him down. Ichigo's pace slows as he steps completely into darkness, and his eyes are forced to adjust. The corona of sunlight becomes more distant, but it's not completely black here either. There's an odd, subtle glow beneath Ichigo, like bio-luminescence or something similar. It's a soft green-white color, and Ichigo heads toward it, unable to see anything else.
No conversation passes between them. Ichigo can only hear the sound of their breathing, their footsteps, and something else. The continuous dripping of water perhaps. The air here is fresher than he could’ve expected, and a scent lingers in the air that’s all too much like flowers.
Ichigo is struck with the oddest sense of deja vu.
The stairs start to curve towards his right though the wall remains. His eyes are starting to adjust, and the cavern begins to take shape, a stone path spiraling down and ending at a platform. The flat ground ripples and moves, not stone then but water. An underground lake?
Platforms of rock hopscotch across the surface, a more or less straight path to something in the middle. A circular rise of stone. There's a pale fall of light directly over the dais, illuminating an empty space. It's the only destination in sight, so Ichigo heads for it.
Shinji's mumbling something behind him, but Ichigo isn’t paying attention. His heart is beating too loud in his chest, and the key is humming in his fingers. Pulsing with odd warmth. He feels strangely breathless, and it has nothing to do with the exertion of descending into this dank cavern.
His feet hit stone at the bottom of the stairs, and Ichigo hesitates as he stares across rippling water, the lily pad-like rocks only large enough for them to cross one at a time. The King's Key has grown hotter, uncomfortable but not burning. He doesn't know if that's an encouragement, or if it means he's the wrong one to be doing this.
Across the way, there's a flicker of movement on the circular platform. A wavering image of auburn and peach and ivory. A pulsing warmth of something familiar.
Ichigo's heart leaps into his throat. “... Mom?”
Neliel sounds worried. He ignores her, stepping onto the rock pads without hesitation now, crossing effortlessly from one to the next. The image on the platform wavers, solidifying briefly before becoming translucent and ghost-like once again. Ichigo is quite certain he's losing his mind. But no matter how much he blinks and stares, the image still resembles his mother.
He crosses the lake quickly, climbs the three short stairs to the circular platform, and stands on the edge of the corona of light. The closer he gets, the more she solidifies, colors sharpening, features distinct and recognizable. In his hand, the burning of the key is almost unbearable, but his fingers are locked around it. He couldn't drop it if he wanted to.
Ichigo doesn't know if the others followed him or not. He only has eyes for the sight of his mother, standing in the middle of the light. She's smiling, looking like she hasn't aged a day.
She reaches out for him, and Ichigo doesn't hesitate. He ought to, considering the last time it’d been an illusion of Grand Fisher's, but this moment feels too right to be a lie.
There's a pulse of power that echoes inside of him and through him that seems to match the resonating purr of the key in his hand. Ichigo reaches, crossing the mere foot between them. Behind him, someone shouts. He doesn't know if it was Shinji or Sousuke. He can't hear the words, just the intent.
His mother's still smiling, hand held out, waiting for him, always so patient.
Their fingers touch.
And Ichigo's world bleeds white.
a/n: Cliffhanger! Alas! And believe it or not, I actually planned for the "invasion" to go like this from day one. *grins*
Feedback is welcome and appreciated!
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