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Chapter Three – Discovery
He is doing his homework, a term paper due later this week, when he catches sight of the Shinigami badge out of the corner of his eyes. The red lights flash, as if to better catch his attention. It has been a while since the Shinigami have contacted him, and warning bells flash in his mind. But he also knows that he can't ignore the summons either. Else they might suddenly decide he is a threat.
How strange that this should happen only a couple of days after he had met Aizen. Yet, who could have possibly seen him? Ichigo thinks that it may just be coincidence, that there is nothing to worry about and he is being paranoid.
Frowning, he finishes out the last sentence and tries to keep the information on the edge of his mind. He has been putting off this paper until the last moment, mostly because the subject matter bores him to tears. But time is running out, and he needs to finish it quickly if he hopes to make high marks in the class. His future internship depends on it.
Rising to his feet, he gives a cursory glance around his room. Kon is nowhere in sight, not that he needs the mod soul to leave his body. Kon's probably off visiting Urahara and the other mod souls for the evening. Ririn has been known to drag him off for torture, cleverly designed as amusing little games.
He grabs the Shinigami badge off his desk and presses it to his chest. Then comes the disjointed feeling of his body toppling forward as his spirit remains standing. He catches the empty shell and sets it comfortably on the bed, having learned over the years the discomfort of slipping back into a body that has been resting in an awkward position. Minor details taken care of, Ichigo pushes open his window and disappears out of his room in a flit of shunpo.
After the end of the war and after his refusal of the position that had been offered to him, the Shinigami had allowed him to keep his title of substitute. He had also been declared the official liaison between the living world and Seireitei, at least for this portion of the planet. Along with that wonderful title had come the establishment of a location. One that when paged, he would immediately flock to in order to meet with whichever official had contacted him. It is a subtle, if not effective, way of keeping tabs on him. Ichigo is smart enough to recognize it for what it is.
On the edge of Karakura, between the clear demarcation of city and green forest, it is a patch of open field large enough to house a whole division. He doesn’t know why they had chosen such an obvious location, but then again, Soul Society has never struck him as being particularly intuitive either. Besides, in the years that have passed, they have only ever summoned him twice, mostly to report on some new strange occurrence that he needs to be wary of.
Twenty minutes after his Shinigami badge had initially beeped, Ichigo lands with a barely audible sound on the concrete surrounding the field. It is deserted, a fact which surprises him. Usually, someone is already waiting. A breeze stirs, causing the overgrown grass to ripple in the open tract. The edge of his senses resonates with unease.
Ichigo frowns and steps out onto the field, already expanding his senses to search for the reason behind his disquiet. It is a step he belatedly realizes he should not have taken.
No sooner had his waraji touched foot to the grass-covered soil then his entire body freezes in place. He cannot move his legs, no matter how much he tries, and it feels as if his arms are glued to his sides. It is not unlike being caught in a binding kidoh; he has learned that feeling well enough.
Zangetsu thrums on his back; the ossan is not too pleased with this. And Shirosaki hisses with the same annoyance. But there is nothing either of them can do. Ichigo can already tell. This barrier has been crafted specifically for him because it doesn't respond to his rising reiatsu, even when it becomes tainted by a Hollow's edge. Beneath his feet, the invisible trap begins to glow a bright, sky blue. Positive evidence of the identity of his captors, not that he believes it could be anyone else.
Shinigami. He should have known.
Ichigo holds no illusions as to what is going on, but he feigns ignorance for his own sake. Someone, though he doesn't know who, must have seen him with Aizen. Must have run to the nearest person of authority and babbled their traitorous little mouths off. He wonders if he will even have a chance to speak his peace, if he can make these people see reason. He hasn't even had opportunity to make his choice before this happens. How like his luck to cast him down this path so quickly.
A low growl echoes in Ichigo's throat, and his finds his eyes narrowing in anger. He doesn't have long to wait before his captors make their appearance, flashing into existence with the aid of shunpo. He is quickly surrounded, and if he could turn, he would count those that were behind him. The ten in front, which seems a bit like overkill, is all he needs to know that he is definitively outnumbered. Their only saving grace is that every face among them is a stranger. He doesn't have to feel entirely betrayed, not just yet.
“What's going on?” Ichigo demands, though he has a pretty good idea already.
It is a waste of time to lament on the fact that he should have known better, so he doesn't bother. He can't go back and change his choice to appear, and even if he hadn't, they still would have come after him. At least this way, there is a small chance of reasoning with the madness.
No one seems particularly inclined to answer his question immediately, but a woman in a captain's haori steps forward. Ichigo doesn't recognize her, and if it weren't for the number on the back of her haori, he would not even be able to tell which division she heads. The eight is a pretty bright emblazon, however. And Ichigo can't help but think that she doesn't deserve it. The previous owner of that haori would never have participated in what this woman is currently doing. Would never have betrayed an ally, much less a friend.
“Kurosaki Ichigo,” the stranger begins in as authoritative voice as she can muster, lacking all of the smooth charm of her predecessor. “You are to be detained and questioned for suspected treason.”
Brown eyes narrow, especially since he hadn't even so much as given Aizen an answer of any sort. “What the fuck are you talking about?”
He wants to know just how much they think they know, just what they think they are going to pin on his shoulders. Soul Society is always looking for a scapegoat, and Ichigo doesn't plan to become one for them.
The stranger is unperturbed by Ichigo's hostility, standing straight and firm. “We have reason to believe that you have been fraternizing with the enemy,” she continues, tone almost bored. “Most notably, one Aizen Sousuke.”
That they are admitting the man is alive is a surprise to Ichigo. He feels his muscles tighten and subtly jerks at the invisible bindings locked around his frame. Yet, he quickly realizes that throwing his reiatsu at the unnaturally strong barrier is absolutely futile and ceases, recognizing that it is better to save his strength.
“Then you know he’s alive?” Ichigo questions and doesn't care that it might as well be an admission of guilt. Consorting with the enemy, yes perhaps. Traitor? Not quite yet, but Ichigo thinks that he might just be convinced to become one.
The woman frowns, deepening the lines on her face. “The questions are to be saved for later,” she intones and nods towards one of her subordinates, who steps forward with intention in every motion.
The next thing Ichigo knows, he feels himself falling, a great fatigue washing over his body. Darkness pulls at the edge of his conscious, and then, there is nothing but silence. A sleeping kidoh, the cowardly bastards.
Ichigo wakes to absolute silence and a great urge to find something, but what, he isn't sure. He is certain, however, that he lost some important object, and it is greatly important that he gets it back. He peels open his eyes and finds himself staring into a dim darkness. The only visible light is that which streams in through the window – moonlight – and the pale fluorescence of whatever was beyond the bars to his cell.
Yes, a cell. Ichigo isn't surprised to have found himself locked in one. There is something pressing insistently at his throat, encircling his neck, feeling cold despite his body heat. And his wrists are clamped within something wooden that rattles when he tries to lift them.
He is lying on an uncomfortable cot, and Ichigo forces himself to sit up, each motion rather difficult. It feels as if his reiatsu is trapped in his body, every surge and sound of it dangerously muted. It is hard to breathe, and he feels enclosed by his own skin. It is a feeling more claustrophobic than being trapped within the cell. And that explains the reason for the feeling of missing something.
Zangetsu's voice is a bare murmur in the distance, like being yelled across a canyon. And Shirosaki's angry shouts are even further, so muted that he can only make out the reverberations of noise.
His bare feet touch the cold floor, and Ichigo winces, a shiver creeping up his spine. It is cold and dark here, empty. He doesn't like it one bit. Rolling his shoulders to ease the ache that had gathered in his upper back, his eyes find the bars of his cell. Beyond, he can see one guard on duty, another face he doesn't recognize.
And then, a door shuts outside his line of sight, attracting the Shinigami's attention. He watches as another form steps into view, one he does know, and speaks briefly with the man on duty. The stranger shrugs, gestures towards the cell. And his visitor turns around, giving him a full view of her expression.
Apology. Regret. Shame and guilt. All these and many more describe the flurry of emotions that flicker across Rukia's face.
Ichigo sits a little straighter, forcing his tired body to face the barrier that stands between them. Rukia steps to the bars, chewing on her bottom lip in worry. Her big blue eyes are so apologetic that it makes him sick, and he realizes that he is looking into the face of his betrayer. But even so, when she admits it, he can't help the shock.
“I'm sorry, Ichigo,” she whispers, hands dropping from their aborted motion to touch the bars.
He realizes later that it is because they have been rigged. Soul Society really fears for his escape, as if he could with his reiatsu bottled within him and out of reach.
“I didn't think this would happen.”
Ichigo's eyes harden, jaw set as the sensation of betrayal begins to set in. Now, he knows how Hinamori and Kira felt all those years ago.
“You did this?”
She shakes her head, not a denial but a motion of regret. “What was I supposed to do?” Rukia asks, her tone urgent as though begging for him to understand. “All I could see was Aizen, and we all know how he can hypnotize. I was worried.”
Surprise turns to fury so quickly that Ichigo is on his feet before he knows what he is doing, strengthened by the force of his emotions. He storms up to the bars and fixes her with his most volatile glare. One that even works on the geta-boushi and sends most people running.
“I risked my life to save you, and this is how you repay me?” he hisses, the vein in his forehead ticking dangerously. “By running straight to them without even asking me?”
She flinches at the force of his tone, at the accusation in his words. “I was trying to help you,” Rukia replies, and for him, it is strange to see her so meek. So lost and utterly confused.
How could she have expected Soul Society to act any different? Did she think they would invite him in for tea and cookies, calmly ask him to explain why he was consorting with the enemy?
Ichigo remembers the other Vizard and wonders how Rukia could have forgotten them and what Soul Society had done to them so quickly. The Vizard, who had stepped out of the shadows to join the cause against Aizen. As much as they hated Soul Society, they despised Aizen even more, though Ichigo still isn’t sure why.
They had fought, and they had bled, and they had grieved, for two of their own had fallen. They had thrown themselves into battle after battle, helping Soul Society emerge victorious. If not for their aid, the war might have dragged on longer. And if not for Shinji, Aizen might not have been defeated.
Yet, when it was all over, Soul Society refused to simply let them go. They wanted to return to their freedom, and Soul Society preferred that they were kept under observation. That they be watched and studied and ruthlessly surveilled, just to make sure they wouldn't become a threat in the future. Predictably, the Vizard wanted none of it. They vanished into the night, and not even Ichigo had heard from then since.
How could Rukia actually believe that Soul Society would do anything but throw him in jail?
“Next time, don't bother,” Ichigo snaps and turns his back on her because if he looks at her face any longer he'll find himself feeling hatred. And Ichigo doesn't want to hate Rukia because although she has betrayed him it wasn't out of ill intent.
He can't help but think that Renji would have never been like this. That Renji wouldn't have turned him in. He would have confronted Ichigo, would have demanded answers. Would have tried to beat the truth out of him first. Would have found his own facts first. It would have been awkward and full of some type of confrontation, but he would have asked. Renji was always too forward for subtle and would have known that Ichigo wouldn't want help like this. Rukia never could understand that about him. Not for the first time, Ichigo wishes that Renji hadn't died in the war.
His shoulders square, the shackles around his wrist rattling in place. “Obviously, I can do better on my own.”
“Well, what was I supposed to do?” Rukia cries, voice rising a bit too loud for the hushed conversation she is attempting. “It's not like you talk to me.”
Ichigo can't answer that. The truth is now that the war is over and the Shinigami have collected their victory, he has nothing to do with them. All those who helped have returned to Soul Society, have pulled back into their own lives, and Ichigo has returned to his.
He has concentrated on being human, so he rarely sees any of those he had known as a Shinigami. In fact, unless he has specifically visited for some reason or another, he doesn't see them. They've all returned to their own lives, as if the whole war with Aizen had never happened.
Perhaps it is their way of coping. Ichigo knows that part of it is his. If he doesn't have to look at them, he doesn't have to be reminded of his failures and their mistakes. He doesn't have to hate some of those he would rather not. He doesn't have to see all the things that made him sick to his stomach during the war.
He doesn't have to question his own choices.
Rukia lets the silence surround them for a few minutes longer before she fidgets and finally speaks again. “There's more,” she admits quietly.
Ichigo finds himself growing cold. What more could there be but another secret that Rukia would give them? He turns to face her, fatigue pulling at his body. But he won't be convinced to sit again, not now. He wants to know just how much she has betrayed him. How deep she’s twisted in the knife.
Rukia sighs, fingers rising to press at her temples as shame causes her eyes to meet the floor. “I told them you were a Vizard,” she admits and chews on her bottom lip. “But I only did it because I thought you needed the help. That maybe the Hollow in you was trying to--”
“Trying to what?” Ichigo demands loudly, his voice harsh and accusing. He steps towards the bars, close enough that the light can reflect on his eyes. “Betray everyone? Like you've already done? Gods, are you trying to get me executed?”
She winces again. “Ichigo--”
He shakes his head, cutting her off because he really doesn't want to hear her excuses. “I fought in that war for the better part of two years. I bled for them. I nearly died more times than I can count. And not once, not once, did I ever falter. Not once did the truth of what I am put anyone around me in danger.”
“I know that, but--”
“No,” Ichigo interrupts coldly, staring down at her from his greater height. “No, you obviously don't.” And he just looks at her. “I’m not a monster. But you seem to think me one.”
He makes a harsh sound and refuses to let her finish the sentence; it all sounds like excuses to him though she might be sincere. The paling of her features might be fear that she's losing someone who is supposed to be one of her closest friends. And Rukia can't have that because she's already lost one of her dear brothers. She doesn't want to lose him, too.
And maybe that is what has driven her to this betrayal of him. Maybe it is this fear that made her rush into a situation without thinking. But Ichigo doesn't allow that as an excuse. Not right now. Not when it is his hands that are in shackles and his life on the line.
Ichigo draws in a breath, body shaking from the force of his own emotions. Treachery stings heavily and tastes bitter, like acid on his tongue. And anger is attempting to consume him. Try as he might, he cannot control it.
He lifts his head to get a hold of himself and looks down on her from the corner of his eyes, tone turning soft and accusatory. “I fought because you asked,” he reminds her, thinking of her pleading eyes and words that had reminded him of all that he had to protect. “You were my friend. I couldn't – and didn't – say no.”
“Ichigo...” she whispers, swallowing thickly. And her face is so pale, so full of shame, that it makes his stomach clench. “I didn't mean to. I'm so sorry. I didn't want this.”
But he is no longer listening. He has more he thinks he wants to say, but the words die on the tip of his tongue, and all he can do is look at her. His hands clench in their shackles. Part of him thinks that he should blame Aizen, too. For being the one to contact him, for putting him in the line of sight. But he also knows that Soul Society is just as much to blame.
On the corner of his vision, he can see the door, and before he can speak again, the knob turns and more people step inside. He doesn't recognize their garb, only knows that it is very official appearing. Important.
Surely, they won't execute him without some sort of hearing? Some sort of questioning?
Rukia's eyes widen at the sight, and she quickly moves to the side, playing the part of impartial observer. Her hand drops to her side, and it is only then that Ichigo realizes she doesn't have her zanpakutou. He wonders if they took it from her before allowing her to visit him. Even among her allies, she isn't trusted.
“Visitors are not allowed,” the officiate in the front of the mob states, giving Rukia a very cold and disapproving glare. “Who allowed you entrance?” he demands rather than asks.
She flinches at his tone before drawing herself up straight, effecting a noble pride that Ichigo hasn't seen her invoke before. “The soutaichou himself,” Rukia declares, eyes narrowing. “What exactly are you accusing him of?”
He barely gives her a second glance. “That is none of your concern,” the leader states, and with a passing look to one of his subordinates, he sends Rukia from the room. She doesn't get a chance to say anything more as they forcibly remove her from the jail, shoving her out the door and slamming it in her face.
Ichigo vaguely wonders if it is the last time he will ever see her. See anyone he can recognize as friend and not political foe.
The officiate then pins a disapproving stare on the guard of Ichigo's cell, who cringes under the force of it. He doesn't even have to say anything; the look is enough. On the edge of Ichigo's senses, he can feel a trickle of power, and it is painful. Without the blanketing shield of his own reiatsu, the touch of any other's stings, abrades him. Like scraping rocks over bare skin.
Ichigo barely contains his gasp, shoulders hunching under the pressure. He can't imagine what it would be like in the face of someone more powerful. Crippling probably.
It takes all his effort to drag his gaze up to the man, flanked by several of his lackeys. The officiate's gaze is cold, emotionless. The perfect picture of platitude and complete obedience. Ichigo doubts he has even thought about his orders, simply obeying because they are commands.
“What?” he asks and doesn't bother with manners. He doubts his playing pretty words with anyone will grant him any sort of goodwill. They've already made their mind up about him; this is all a formality.
He's seen it all before.
The guard scampers forward, hurriedly shoving his key in the lock so that Ichigo can leave without the officiate having to fetch him.
“It is time for your trial,” the man says, as though Ichigo hasn't figured so much out for himself. “Come along.”
Ichigo obeys, only because it would be pointless to do otherwise. He can't fight back, even if he tried. The swell of their reiatsu steals his breath, and he belatedly realizes that they are not even that powerful. If it had been Kenpachi or Byakuya, he would be drowning in it. And if it had been the old man, Ichigo would probably be dead. He doesn't know if he should be relieved.
He steps out of the cell, and immediately, he's flanked by several members of the mob. His hands are attached to a long chain, and another connects to the collar around his throat. It becomes difficult to swallow over the thing, but Ichigo keeps his silence. He seethes beneath the surface, wishing he had Zangetsu. A part of him wishing he had never helped preserve this farce of justice. Thinking that maybe Aizen is right after all.
They escort him quickly through the calls, and Ichigo can feel eyes on his person. Random Shinigami he doesn't know stopping to watch and stare as they lead him somewhere, Ichigo isn't sure where. He doesn't know Seireitei well enough to recognize anything, though the tall white column of the Repentance Tower is visible just in the distance. A mocking reminder.
Eventually, they stand before a set of double doors, easily twenty feet high. The officiate steps ahead of him and pushes the massive white structures open with nary a creak, gesturing for his followers and Ichigo to precede him. It all seems terribly ceremonial, and Ichigo wonders if they planned it that way out of some sense of pride.
It is much brighter inside than out, and he blinks to try and restore his sight at the sudden change. Black dots invade his vision, and there is a low thud as the doors close behind him, sealing him within the room. The chains are dropped from the hands of his guards, and they melt into the shadows. But Ichigo is under no illusions of escape. He can feel the press of reiatsu surrounding him, crawling creepily across his skin like the skitter of a spider.
He is some sort of chamber, surrounded on all sides by Shinigami and other important members of Seireitei. Directly in front sits Ukitake-soutaichou and fourteen strangers in matching uniforms divide themselves to either side of him. Ichigo has no doubt by their severe expressions and aged faces that they are members of Chamber 46. And Nanao looks uncomfortable standing behind Ukitake, as though she is there because she is supposed to be and not because she wants to be. No doubt the grief for Kyouraku Shunsui's death is still strong.
To each side of Ichigo is a panel with the representatives of the Gotei 13 – captains and their vice-captains – each seated at a table with their seconds standing behind them. Second through the seventh division on the left and eighth through the thirteenth on the right. Some faces, he recognizes. Some, he does not. Kenpachi unsurprisingly is not present. In fact, the eleventh division space remains obvious for its vacancy. No doubt they have been confined to their division, unwilling to stand for this farce
There is someone he doesn't know sitting in front of Omaeda, a woman who matches Soifon for sourness but not quite for skill. Ichigo remembers watching Soifon die and being too far away to do anything about it. He remembers the harsh spray of blood as she fell to Barragan – an honorless attack from behind – and the viciousness in Yoruichi's counterattack. How she ripped apart the second Espada as though he were nothing more than tissue paper.
He remembers Yoruichi's following grief, how she had scooped up Soifon's body and had disappeared for days. A week even or more. No one knew where she was, not even Urahara, and when she reappeared later, no one asked. They didn't dare. And in Aizen's next assault, Yoruichi was a vengeful spirit on the battlefield. He clearly remembers the look of blood splashed on her cheeks as she flashed in and out of enemies, leaving ruin and madness in her wake.
There is another stranger in the third division captain's place – a man who definitely doesn't match his predecessor, and Kira stands placidly behind the bulky, older male. He looks no better than the last time Ichigo saw him, and he is almost surprised that Kira’s grief hasn't consumed him yet or that he would even accept a new captain. There is a bitterness there, where Kira hasn't quite forgiven Byakuya for Gin's death but still recognizes the necessity of it. Ichigo doesn't think they'll ever promote him. In fact, he's shocked they are still keeping him an active member of the third.
The fourth is the same, though Isane's grief probably hasn't healed with time either, and he almost wishes that Hanatarou could give him the same shy smile and wave. But Hanatarou is not here because he's only the seventh-seat. And they wouldn't allow him to do so anyway.
The fifth has a new captain and vice-captain both. It is the position they wanted Ichigo to take, offering it as though it were considerably appropriate. Ichigo still feels sick inside at the offer. He didn't even need to think before turning it down. He hadn't wanted anything else to do with Soul Society. He doesn't know what happened to Hinamori; Ichigo never thought to ask.
He thinks that he sees a flash of black tattoo behind Byakuya, but it takes a deep breath and another careful look before he reminds himself that it's not Renji. That it can't be Renji. It shouldn't surprise him that Renji's been replaced either because he vaguely remembers Rukia mentioning something about it. Of course, they would have to replace Renji. They couldn't leave the Gotei 13 in shambles because it left them vulnerable. Positions needed to be filled.
Byakuya's face is perfectly blank, devoid of all expression. His eyes, however, tell a different story. One filled with disapproval and disdain. He watches everything with a straight back, poised, as though preparing to jump into battle at any moment. Ichigo wonders if he can even smell the blood on his hands anymore.
Komamura sits beside him, his vice-captain unchanged. The bastard is alive thanks to Ishida, he and his entire division. Yet, there is not an ounce of gratefulness in his eyes. They still watch the last Quincy, still half-expect him to do something crazy.
On the other side, a familiar yet unknown face greets Ichigo. The captain of the eighth, the same one who had come to arrest him. He thinks that her predecessor wouldn't have stood for this. The space behind her is empty, where her vice-captain would likely stand. He isn't surprised that they didn't allow Rukia to attend this travesty of justice.
Hisagi is the new captain of the ninth, though Ichigo anticipated as much. The man always seemed unusually driven from what little Ichigo knew of him. He remembers the one-time lieutenant helping to take down his former captain, remembers the bankai he surprised everyone with. How wind that cut like knives ripped through the area. Hisagi was like black death, sweeping over the battlefield. And behind him, there is a face Ichigo does not recognize.
The tenth is entirely unchanged, and Rangiku-san shifts behind Toushirou, clearly disappointed with the turn of events. Toushirou seems to be an immovable object, much like Byakuya, one hand clenching into a fist on the tabletop. Several fingers are missing, and though Ichigo can't see it, he knows there is a ragged gash on Toushirou's back. Ugly and deep, a wound he almost didn't survive. Halibel did quite the number on him before he managed to strike her down.
As mentioned before, the eleventh is empty, but the twelfth is represented. Kurotsuchi looks bored, and his daughter stands behind him. They emerged relatively unscathed from the war, Kurotsuchi with a few new toys to experiment on. Ichigo tries not to think about it because he doesn't want to remember those horrifying images, and just a glance at the twelfth division captain makes him swallow down rising bile and move on quickly.
The thirteenth has a new captain, some man that Ichigo feels he should recognize but can't. He's never been good with faces. And Ukitake-soutaichou's former third-seat stands just behind him, looking as if he'd rather never gained his position. Kiyone's death was not been easily accepted, not by her peers and not by her sisters. Ichigo wishes he knew more about how she had died, but he hadn't been there at the time.
His name is called, and he jerks his attention back to the front, resisting the urge to stand at attention as though he has done something wrong. Ichigo hasn't done anything. Yet. He can feel the eyes on him the same way he can feel the trickles of power thrumming through the floor and flowing out from the walls, creeping up his unprotected body.
Silence reigns, and Ichigo's trial begins.
a/n: Ah, the politics begin. Annoying but important. Lots more clues as to who's dead and alive in this chapter. There may be flashbacks in future chapters. I'm not sure yet.
Also, don't hate Rukia just yet. She's not an enemy or a villain here. She's just very worried for Ichigo. All will be explained. Promise!
Hope you enjoyed!
On to chapter four!