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There are marked similarities between this and Minutes to Midnight, but don't worry, it is an entirely separate fic. I've just jazzed things and mixed them up a bit.
Chapter Two – Answers
The ramen-ya that Aizen had suggested is a favorite amongst the university students, both for the cheapness of its noodles and the location right next to campus. Ichigo has been there on many occasions himself, stopping by for a quick bite to eat before or after classes. It also serves as a gossip-feeding ground, and the tables are often occupied by students in close clusters, meeting for group projects or something similar.
When Ichigo steps through the door at eleven pm exactly, he finds a restaurant that is nearly devoid of all college life. It is only a Tuesday, after all. The middle of the week and too early for students to be spending all night out of their homes or dorms. He sweeps a gaze over the available seats and realizes how much easier it would have been if Aizen still had his reiatsu.
He catches the head of tousled brown hair near the window on the far side of the restaurant. Aizen has an empty bowl in front of him, chopsticks set on top of the edges as he has already finished eating. His fingers are curled around a glass of water, condensation collecting on the sides. And his gaze seems to be captured by the view outside the dark window. Other than him, the employees, and the group of students by the door, it is deserted.
“Yo, Kurosaki-san!” Ono, the cook, greets from behind the counter, always able to recognize his customers. It is a special talent of his and another one that keeps business coming to his shop. “The usual?”
He isn't really hungry, but it would be rude not to order anything. “Yeah, that'll work.” Ichigo gestures with his head towards the table where Aizen is waiting. “I'll be sitting with a friend, Ono-san.”
“Gotcha.” The cook's attention is then diverted back to his work. “Be up in five minutes at the most.”
“Thanks.” The answer is mostly reflex as Ichigo makes his way to Aizen's table.
He pauses beside it, not yet taking his seat. Aizen turns his head to acknowledge his presence. For a moment, Ichigo catches the shadow of emotions in the former overlord’s eyes before they are carefully locked behind the strong, steel bars of his control.
“Kurosaki-san,” Aizen greets politely, holding all courtesies. “You made it.”
He can't help but feel just a little hostile. “Did you think that I wouldn't?” Ichigo nearly demands, looking down at the dead man who sits ever so casually at the table.
“It would be presumptuous of me to assume anything,” Aizen replies with that bedamned calm of his. “Will you take a seat?”
Feeling his brow twitch, Ichigo shrugs out of his jacket and lays it over the back of the chair. “I'm here, aren't I?” he says as he slides into the empty seat across from the other man, finally on even ground with him.
Aizen watches him, face unreadable. “Yes, you are.” One hand taps softly against the smooth ceramic of the tabletop. “What made you decide to come?”
“That's not really important,” Ichigo easily dismisses, not wanting to relay the long hours he had spent in contemplation, wondering just what is supposed to be the right path. He instead fixes Aizen with a stare. “So. Talk.”
If Aizen is bothered by his belligerence, he doesn't show it, still perfectly composed. “Very well. I suppose first you would like to know how I am alive?”
“Yeah, pretty much.” Settling more comfortably into the chair that squeaks beneath his weight, Ichigo nods. He feels he would be lax if he takes his eyes off Aizen for even a second, and so he doesn't.
Aizen inclines his head and takes a tip of his water. He moistens his lips with his tongue and begins, “I will not reveal any names because I will not dishonor their risk. But to put it shortly, my execution was not by any means what Soul Society would have normally employed. Since the Soukyoku had been destroyed, they had to try something else.”
“Here, ya go!” Ono interrupts their conversation and slides the bowl onto the table in front of Ichigo. “Need anythin' else?”
The former substitute shakes his head, offering Ono a smile of thanks as the cook grabs his towel from his arm and slings it back over his shoulder.
And then, Ono is gone, leaving them to their meal. He knows that Ichigo will pay before he leaves.
As the food steams in front of them, Ichigo focuses on Aizen. “Then how did they plan your assassination?” he asks, poking in the bowl with his chopsticks and pushing the contents around. It is strange how he can ask about the man's planned death as though it were next week's weather forecast.
“Not unlike your human methods,” Aizen replies softly, his gaze trapped by the window as though there is something fascinating beyond it. “Ukitake might be too kind for his own good. He would only accept a lethal injection, though other methods were certainly suggested.”
Ichigo digs around in his ramen and selects a few choice bits to eat. He absorbs the information Aizen is giving him with a detached expression. He has a pretty good idea where Aizen is heading with his story, which narrows the suspects down considerably. But Ichigo isn't interested in placing the blame on someone for Aizen's survival. He is more interested in the traitor’s future plans.
He pauses and eyes the other man. “Wait a minute. How could Ono-san see you?” he demands, pinning him with an accusing stare. “And Yuzu, for that matter. Where'd you get a gigai?”
The look Aizen returns is faintly amused. “If you're asking whether or not Urahara-san knows of my existence, then I cannot answer that because I do not know. This shell was a gift from the one who saved me.”
Another question that Ichigo just knows Aizen won't answer. And he won't press either. He has learned thanks to Urahara-san, that it's pointless to push those enigmatic types to explain themselves when they have no intention of doing so.
His brief curiosity somewhat sated, Ichigo waves for Aizen to continue. “All right. Then how did you survive?”
Aizen's fingers curl around his glass of water. “The lethal poison was switched with something that put me in a coma-like state. And without any reiatsu, those who pronounced my death saw nothing more than a corpse. When I woke later, it was to the face of the one who had spared my life.”
That certainly narrows down the suspects. Ichigo has a suspicion who it was, but he honestly doesn’t care by this point. What’s done is done.
He pokes around in the ramen a bit more, appetite nonexistent. On a normal day, he would be gobbling it down. But right now, the thought of food sends a leaden feeling through his belly. Biting back on his sigh, Ichigo folds his chopsticks over the top of the bowl and pushes it to the side.
“I think I get the picture,” he says, scowl furrowing his brows. “I want to know what you plan to do now.”
Rolling his shoulders, Aizen appears to be searching his face for something before he continues. “I've given up on becoming god,” he finally replies with a tired sigh and rubs fingers over his forehead. “Without a spark of reiatsu, I couldn't anyway. Even if I wanted.”
Ichigo stares at him, disbelief etched onto his features. “Then, what do you want from me?” Ichigo demands. “If it's not my help, then what?”
Brown eyes framed by thin glasses lift towards him, completely unapologetic. “I would like you to finish what I started for me,” he says simply. “Take up where I failed.”
Ichigo jerks to his feet, anger spilling over him in a cresting wave. “And kill everyone?” he demands in a heated whisper, still mindful of their audience. And then, the vizard realizes he really doesn't want to hear any more of it. “You're out of your fucking mind,” he spits in the deranged man's direction and whirls on his heels, stalking for the door. One hand is already digging in his pocket to pay for the half-eaten ramen.
He hears a scraping sound and realizes that it is Aizen, rising from the table and moving to follow him. “Is that what you think I wanted?”
Ichigo pauses near the counter and hands over the correct bills for his meal as Ono-san watches the two of them curiously. The man wisely stays out of what appears to be argument, trying not even to think about what kind of argument it looks like.
“Isn't it?” he replies scathingly and glances at Aizen from the corner of his eye.
There is a hint of desperation in the older man, though it is clear that he is surviving within his composure. “I am an intelligent man, don't you agree?”
He refuses to answer the statement, and waving off the change from Ono-san, Ichigo continues towards the door. He steps into the cold autumn night and tugs the lapels of his coat tighter around him. Luckily, it is not a long walk from here to home. Footsteps quickly follow in his wake – Aizen.
“And as such, why would I want to become god of destruction and death?” Aizen asks, half-distracted by trying to pull on his own long coat and situate it around his taller frame. “Why would I want to rule over an empty and dead world?”
It sounds logical, but that isn't the reason Ichigo stops to turn and look at him. It is late at night, but he still doesn't want to be seen walking down the road with a man chasing after him and spouting things no one else would understand. He watches Aizen who is searching his face for some sort of sign and realizes the man has a damn point. A point that Ichigo had often wondered himself during the war.
Sensing that Ichigo is at least willing to listen for the moment, Aizen burrows deeper into the warmth of his coat and continues, “You can see it in history, if you look. When the governing body loses sight of its original purpose, when it takes its own path. Something, someone must rise to put an end to it.” He takes the risk of stepping closer to Ichigo so that the rising wind wouldn't dampen his voice. “Soul Society is corrupt.”
He doesn't have a response for that, a part of him knowing that Aizen's statement is the absolute truth. He remembers how easily they had fallen to Aizen's manipulations. How quick they had been to judge. How well Aizen had been able to trick them, to make them see things that hadn't been there.
He knows that Aizen is right. Soul Society is corrupt. But what he isn't sure of is Aizen's plan, whatever it may be, and whether it is capable of ending that corruption. Or that destroying Soul Society is the best option. Soul Society is corrupt, but it is also necessary, and Ichigo understands that most of all.
He keeps his silence.
“Don't tell me that you don't think the same as I do,” Aizen poses, his words like a prod in Ichigo's side. “Or that even once, you didn't have a doubt.”
“I had plenty of doubts,” Ichigo retorts, hands buried in his pockets twitching to do something. “But I still helped take you down.”
Aizen is undaunted by his subtle hostility, by the reminder of his own past deeds. “And what did you preserve? Corruption? Injustice? Madness hidden by rules and regulations?” The wind stirred, spilling locks of dark hair into his face. “How long do you think they will let you roam without supervision? They already watch your Quincy friend, and he helped save an entire division. The seventh would be little more than ash and bone had he not been there.” His eyes gleamed behind his glasses. “Komamura owes your friend his life.”
Ichigo stills. It is nothing but the truth. Ishida had helped Soul Society. More than made up for any supposed sins of his ancestors. He can’t even hunt Hollows anymore, but they still watch him. Always watch him. And probably will watch any kids he has, too.
“They know what you are,” Aizen adds softly, something unreadable in his tone.
The Vizard pales and feels his heart skip several beats in his chest. It takes all of his effort to swallow, and the saliva goes down sticky and choking. His Hollow. Aizen is speaking about Shirosaki in his roundabout way. The very thing that Seireitei would try to kill him for having.
Very few are aware of his Hollow and his existence as a Vizard. He can probably name the Shinigami in the know on one hand, possibly spilling over into the other. Somehow, he had managed to cling to his secret during the war, only relying on the mask when there presented no other option. But of them, who can he really trust? Who can he rely on to keep that part of his life a secret?
He can only really count on four to never say anything.
Byakuya would never tell, no matter how much of a bastard he can be. He had sworn as much during one of their rare conversations, shortly after Ichigo had saved Rukia the first time. Kenpachi and Hanatarou are both smart enough to keep their mouths shut and too loyal to even betray him accidentally. And Renji is beyond telling anyone.
As for the others, he can’t be certain. Even Rukia would say something if she thought there is a good enough reason. And Ichigo did wonder if she’d already spilled his secret to her captain.
All in all, it is a very careful manipulation on Aizen's part to remind him of that danger he is always in. The danger of someone discovering his true nature and putting him on Soul Society's hit list. Or perhaps they already know and are just playing with him. Using him until the very moment his usefulness runs out. Ichigo isn't going to put it past the bastards.
He can still remember the sight of them sending lower-ranked Shinigami into battle, those who couldn't possibly stand a chance against the Arrancar. They had just been cannon fodder, a distraction against the real battle. He remembers watching them die and being helpless to put an end to it. Ichigo recalls the anger he had felt, burning bright and hot within him. He had turned that fury on the so-called enemy, on Aizen's forces, but he had also never forgotten that scene. Never forgotten just how expendable they were, how easily dismissed.
Ichigo shakes his head, feeling the chill of the night on the back of his neck. It travels down his spine, but he has the feeling it’s not just the wind making him so cold. Aizen has a very obvious point, but still...
“I'm not helping you kill people,” he states flatly, and no amount of convincing is going to change his mind. Ichigo is not a murderer, and he doesn't plan on becoming one.
He refuses to become like them. He has enough blood on his hands, enough deaths that haunt him. And one in particular that no one will ever understand. He can't add any more to his burden.
Aizen doesn't flinch, hardly even blinks at Ichigo's declaration. “What a coincidence,” he responds quietly, voice barely carrying across the distance between them. “Since I do not want you to kill anyone.”
Ichigo gives him a strange look, Aizen's words completely contradicting anything Soul Society has ever told him about this man.
“I no longer need to make a key,” Aizen explains as he correctly identifies Ichigo's confusion. “I know where the real one is.”
He searches Aizen's expression as he digests the news, his gaze raking over tousled hair and square-rimmed glasses. All so innocent and harmless appearing. Like the facade he had presented before betraying all of his comrades. He wonders if Aizen chose that mask when appearing before Ichigo on purpose, and he wonders which Aizen is really before him now.
Is the mask of Aizen Sousuke, captain of the fifth division, the one who really matters? Or is it the facade of Aizen Sousuke, lord and master of Hueco Mundo? Will he find himself watching Aizen rising into the sky, crumpling bits of his innocent and bumbling appearance in his hands?
Ichigo isn't sure what to think.
“I thought you said you didn't want to become god anymore,” Ichigo responds and eyes him suspiciously.
“I have given up on attaining godhood for myself,” Aizen clarifies, and a hint of something mysterious and vaguely Urahara-like begins to gleam in his eyes. “But that doesn't mean that Soul Society needs a new one any less. And I intend to provide him.”
Ichigo hunches his shoulders, feeling his extremities beginning to take on a chill. In the far off distance, he senses a Hollow, hearing its roar at the edge of his hearing. He knows he should probably go take care of it, but he also knows that he is not the only Shinigami in Karakura. Nor can he imagine just walking away from what had been considered the greatest threat to mankind just a few years ago.
As if to confirm his thoughts, he feels the faintest surge of an answering reiatsu as the local Shinigami takes care of the random Hollow. Ichigo has never even met this new Shinigami and hasn't bothered to introduce himself. Never really cared for the woman’s identity. And though he has seen her on occasion from a distance, she hasn’t even made eye contact. She probably can’t sense him, not after the grueling lessons Unohana-san put him through. For such a nice and polite lady, the healer can be a tough task-masker and just as firm as Yoruichi.
He sucks in a breath, his attention returning to Aizen. “And just who do you plan to set on this vacant throne?” he asks and wonders if his voice is as hoarse as it feels to him.
Aizen smiles. “You,” he states plainly and without any hesitation in his voice.
Ichigo nearly chokes and has to lift a hand to cover his mouth when he starts coughing, now strangled on his own breath. He certainly didn’t expect the other man to be so blunt or to throw such an option in his face. Him? Become the king of Soul Society? His aspirations have never been so lofty! He doesn't want it! A doctor, yes… but king? God in all but name?
Those eyes watch him placidly, and Aizen has the good graces to wait until he has at least regained some control of himself before continuing, “At least, that is my intention. But I cannot be certain that is what the world plans for itself. For all I know, it could choose someone else. I simply need your help to create that possibility.”
His amendments make it no easier for Ichigo to breathe, and it feels like he has to grind out his next question. “I still don't see what you want me to do. Especially if the world doesn't choose me… or whatever the hell you want to call it.”
“I need your help to get the key,” Aizen explains easily, though there is a flicker of something a lot like disappointment in his eyes. “In my current state, I am powerless to retrieve it for myself. As well as unable to use it.”
Ichigo drops his hand from his mouth, returning it to the safety and warmth of his coat pocket. His fingers brush against the cold wood of the Shinigami badge, just to remind him of its presence.
“And then what?” he questions.
Aizen tilts his head. “You open the gate. We step inside and let fate guide us from there.”
“Not much of a plan, is it?” Ichigo snipes rather nastily, his lips twisting towards a very rude sneer.
Aizen doesn't seem to take offense, displaying an unfair amount of patience. “Admittedly, it has some kinks. But we are dealing with a sentient being here, whose knowledge far supersedes my own. I do not believe I can accurately calculate what will happen.”
He shifts his gaze to the side, contemplating what Aizen has just said. He's long past the point where he should have walked away, something keeping him rooted to the spot. Keeping him asking all these questions.
Finally, he asks the big question. “What makes you think I'm going to help you?”
Aizen isn’t even taken aback. “I've said this before. You understand as much as I do just why the powers that be need to be dethroned.”
“Which is probably true, but that doesn't mean I give a damn,” Ichigo responds harshly, words colored by too many memories. Too many nights waking up in a cold sweat. “I left Soul Society and the Shinigami a long time ago. I don't care about them.”
Dark eyes watch him. “And yet, you keep your badge close to you,” Aizen points out, and Ichigo wonders if the man has been observing him before this. “You destroy any Hollow you sense, even if they threaten a stranger. You may believe that you have cut all ties from Seireitei, Kurosaki-san, but you can never fully be free from them. Just ask Isshin.”
“What the fuck does my father have to do with this?” Ichigo demands, voice fierce and hard.
“I'm afraid that's a question I cannot answer.” Aizen responds in that same calm tone, “You will have to ask him.”
A growl of frustration echoes in his throat. “I'm tired of this,” Ichigo tells him. “The fighting, the war, the blood, the--” He growls again, not sure why he is telling Aizen such a things. “I'm sick of it all. You don't know what you're asking me.”
“On the contrary, I know precisely what I'm asking,” he responds, his voice sympathetic. “And if I succeed, I can make all the things you are weary of end. It is one last battle, Kurosaki-san.”
“One last battle that I don't care about,” he mutters, feeling more than a bit hostile. He wants to leave but finds his feet glued to the ground. Some part of him drawn by Aizen's honesty, by his wants. He turns away.
“A week,” the other man says to his back. “Think about it, Kurosaki-kun. All I ask is that you don't dismiss it so quickly.”
“You're in no position to be asking anything from me,” he hisses.
And again, Ichigo remembers Renji, covered in blood and falling to the ground. He remembers Orihime's tears and Chad's apologetic face. He remembers Ishida, never able to draw a bow again. He sees Yumichika standing disfigured over Ikkaku's grave and Rukia wishing for one last chance as cold, dead fingers slip through her own, never to rise again.
The memories crop up before he can stop them, and Ichigo's hands clench into fists in his pockets. He feels sick.
Behind him, Aizen shifts. “I apologize,” he says and damn near sounds sincere.
As if he knows just what Ichigo is thinking, what he is remembering, and his own mind is helpfully supplying him with bloody images as well. Bloody, painful memories that tear at his heart and wake him up at night, gasping for breath and eyes burning with barely restrained tears.
It is this kind of confusion that tears at Ichigo, that makes him waver on a fence between betrayal and fidelity. Aizen grieves for what he has lost, just as much as Ichigo grieves for those he couldn't save. And Aizen is the one who is supposed to be evil, the man in the wrong. The black side in the conflict. Yet, Ichigo feels like he is stumbling through a veil of gray where he doesn't know which is really the right or wrong answer anymore.
“I will be waiting,” Aizen continues in that same quiet and yet vaguely hopeful tone. “At the ramen-ya, a week from now until eight. I hope that it will be ample time for you to think.”
“It won't be the answer you want,” Ichigo spits harshly, only half-looking over his shoulder. Catching the sight of Aizen standing in the corona of the street light even as he is bathed in the darkness.
Aizen inclines his head, seeming as if he expected that response. “Even so,” he replies simply, calmly. “I will be waiting.”
“Che.” Ichigo doesn't give him another response, just trudges off into the night and heads for his home. A chill has settled into his bones, and he wants nothing more than to return to the comfort and warmth of his bed. To the familiarity of his family, even with their insanity.
He doesn't look back again, doesn't look to see where Aizen is going. He doesn't even know if he plans on thinking about the man’s request, nor does he care what the former overlord plans on doing. That's Soul Society's problem, not his.
Ichigo has other things to worry about. Two more years, that's all that remains in his medical school education. And he has finals he needs to start thinking about. Yuzu and Karin should be looking into their own careers now, and he needs to be there for them. He doesn't need to be pulled into another battle, not when there is nothing at stake and everything to lose. When he has everything he has ever wanted. His true friends and family safe and happy.
He tells himself this, but he knows he won't be dismissing Aizen's request so easily. Even now, the words hover on the back of his mind, ringing of bitter truth. And a part of him tugs in Aizen's direction, agreeing with the man's plans. It is the same part of him that doubted all those years ago in the midst of the bloody battle.
Ichigo knows that the next seven days will be particularly taxing for him, all thoughts of school aside. And he hates the weary set to his shoulder, cursing Aizen under his breath for shoving all this contemplation upon him.
His distracted mind is too busy to even pay attention to the stray threads of reiatsu observing nearby. He never notices the eyes that have been watching his interaction with Aizen. Narrowed and angry.
a/n: I would just like to point out that this chapter you're seeing now, as well as the one previous and the four to follow were actually written before most of the recent Bleach chapters. So some of the events that I hint to happening, I actually decided before Kubo confirmed them. *grins* It was quite amazing actually. My beta keeps teasing me about predicting Kubo.
Anyways, I hope you enjoyed. Things are steadily going to grow darker with questionable characterization, so I hope you stick with me. There's an explanation for everything if you allow me the benefit of the doubt. I look forward to your comments! Thanks!
On to chapter three!