Chapter Four – Judgment
He licks his lips, and the chains rattle as his wrists twitch, aching from their long confinement. Zangetsu is so far away, Shirosaki even farther, and he wants them here with him now. Reiatsu crawls over his skin, prickles his flesh. It burns, and his stomach churns, but Ichigo remains placid. He knows he should have anticipated this.
Ukitake-soutaichou sits like an impenetrable pillar of strength at the head of the proceedings, though his face is pinched with fatigue and stress. He doesn't want to be here anymore than Ichigo does. And Ichigo suspects that this is not his doing alone, that the aged faces to either side of him have much to do with it.
“Do you know why you are here today?”
Ichigo doesn't bother with respect because they haven't given him any. “Your lackeys have made it pretty damn clear.”
“Then, you don't deny your involvement with the notorious criminal Aizen Sousuke?” one of the panel members demands, sitting forward eagerly. Clearly, he wants to see an execution, to see some sort of bloodshed.
Brown eyes flicker his direction lazily before Ichigo returns his attention to Ukitake. “I didn't say anything close to that.”
“But you did speak with him, yes?” another of Chamber 46 asks – a woman, her hair pulled into a severe bun and thin but deep lines around her pursed lips.
He briefly argues with himself whether to tell the truth or to lie. Until he realizes that either way, he is a condemned man. Seireitei has never been interested in truth, only their parody of justice. They've been waiting for an excuse to kill him. It has now so neatly fallen into their laps.
Ichigo works his jaw. “Aizen Sousuke is dead,” he says because as far as they are supposed to know, that is the truth. Hell, he believed it up until less than a week ago. He has never thought to believe anything different.
“He is supposed to be dead,” Kurotsuchi corrects in that whiny, pre-pubescent tone of his. It is condescending and lofty, proving how superior he felt to others. “But obviously a mistake was made.”
Snorting, the Vizard rolls his shoulders, muscles uncommonly stiff. “Considering who I'm dealing with here, I'm not surprised,” Ichigo comments with an unusual sense of snark falling from his lips. He doesn't feel inclined to stop it.
One of the Gotei 13 makes a noise, but it's nothing verbal so Ichigo can't identify who. It sounds like derision. It could be anger. Maybe it’s one of the captains he doesn't know.
And Ukitake-soutaichou levels a look at him; it is almost pleading. “Did you or did you not make contact with Aizen?” His voice sounds stern, the very essence of authority. It is not the burning heat of Yamamoto but the cold pressure of an ocean, surrounding and enclosing Ichigo. Threatening to drown him. But only a threat, no real danger.
“I wasn't the one who did the contacting,” Ichigo replies, and his eyes are for the captain-commander alone for the moment. Looking at a man he had once considered like a friend and teacher to him. Like a lot more than that. “A dead man shows up in my kitchen. You tell me how I'm supposed to react.”
There is a grumble of discontent at his words as they murmur amongst themselves. He can feel their varied opinions rippling over and around him, but Ichigo doesn't care. Or at least, he tells himself he doesn't. He doesn't honestly believe that they'll come to any other decision than death of some sort. He can only hope that they don't touch his family and friends. He hates that he won't be able to go down fighting, the cowards.
“Why would Aizen come visit you?” another member asks, tapping manicured fingernails on the tabletop. It is an annoying sound in the silence, grating and echoing around the high ceilings.
He can hardly tell them that Aizen wants him to be the king of Soul Society; that would go over so well. So Ichigo just shrugs and tries to swallow around the collar encircling his throat. It's harder than it should be.
“How should I know?” he deflects. “Other than the war, I'd never met him before.”
There is a snort of disbelief. “Or maybe you were allies with him during the war, and he's trying to regain his lost empire.” The voice comes from the Gotei 13, and when Ichigo looks, he realizes that it is the head of the fifth who speaks. His lips curling into a disgusted sneer. He is trying too hard to prove he is not like his predecessor.
“Maybe,” Ichigo responds vaguely because if he can't break free, at least he can keep any knowledge from them. He is telling the truth, after all. He's still not certain what Aizen wants from him. And he never really got the chance to make his own decision.
Ukitake-soutaichou lifts one brow, confusion momentarily breaking his stoic facade. “You claim him as an ally now?” his tone is soft, almost heartbroken. But he doesn’t have the right to feel that way.
“No.” Ichigo represses a sigh of irritation. “Maybe he's trying to build an army again. I don't know. But I do know that I fought against him the first fucking time around.”
They grumble discontentedly at his vulgarity, but Ichigo doesn't care because he's angry now. Angrier than he's been the past few years. The first truly lively emotions he's had since the war ended, leaving him wondering how he was supposed to return to a normal life after everything he'd seen.
“I bled and ached and killed for the sake of a friend, and this is what it brought me.” His gaze flickers harshly around the room, landing accusingly on each familiar face for a split-second before moving on to the next. “Some recompense this is.” He makes a sound of disgust, the taste of something bitter on the tip of his tongue.
“It is not that we are ungrateful,” Ukitake begins, but before he can even finish his statement, someone else cuts him off. None of the other captains would dare, but Chamber 46 goes by different rules.
“And the reports that you are a Vizard,” another woman interrupts, perhaps the youngest of the lot but no less severe. In fact, she looks the least inclined to believe him and to have mercy. “Do they hold true or false?”
Ichigo thinks that had he these cuffs off, he could show them the validity of the reports. And they would regret having ever asked. As it is, he is having enough trouble keeping a steady breath under the climbing reiatsu in the room.
“Byakuya destroyed my Shinigami abilities the first time we encountered each other in the living world,” Ichigo answers, not even sparing the mentioned captain a glance. He doesn't want to reveal Byakuya's own promise, a kept secret that could ruin him. That could end his life. “Did you think that I could just return with my abilities intact and not suffer any consequences?”
One of the newly appointed captain's sneers. “Urahara,” he spits in a disgusted tone. “That man has always stretched the limits of science.”
Kurotsuchi sniffs. “Do not tarnish the name of science. It has benefited you in more ways than you could possibly imagine.” There is something there in his tone, a sense of indignation, and not entirely for himself.
Ichigo blinks and wonders if he imagined it.
The strange captain, a rather smallish sort with a beady stare, narrows his eyes like he is merely itching for a fight and not caring who will give it to him. “Much in the way it has created your appearance, I imagine,” he retorts, and a sense of hostility begins to creep into the chambers.
Ichigo realizes that despite appearances, the Gotei 13 is not a unified group. There are thin beads of tension between all the captains, and the newcomers haven't been as accepted as the higher-ups would lead them to believe. It isn't working, and no one's saying anything. It's a government that's tearing itself to pieces, and they're too wrapped in their pride to do anything about it.
Ukitake-soutaichou senses that trouble is brewing between his captains, and before Kurotsuchi can retort, he speaks sharply. “Enough. Your grievances can be addressed later. This is not the time.”
Suitably chastised, the two captains trade annoyed glares and grumble under their breaths. They say nothing else, and it returns to a vague sort of order. Back to the matter at hand, after all, deciding how best they can kill Kurosaki Ichigo and make it look legitimate. Ichigo knows where this is going. And though there are several who might not want to see his death, there are more too terrified of the power he wields. And frightened leaders are cautious leaders, who care nothing for innocence or guilt.
“Are you aware that Vizard capabilities are punishable by death under Seireitei law,” one of Chamber 46 questions him, now that the captains are back under control.
The very threat in her voice would have made Ichigo's spine shrivel had he not been expecting it. “In case you have forgotten,” he returns, annoyed that she is speaking to him as though he were a dull child, “I am a human. I didn't go to your precious Academy.”
“You cannot seem to decide which to claim,” the new leader of the eighth states, a sense of bemusement on her severe features. “You are human. You are Shinigami. You are Vizard. Which are you?”
“You have forgotten one. He is also Aizen's ally,” the new third division captain adds with a smarmy smirk on his face that is all too reminiscent of his predecessor. Though undoubtedly Ichimaru's would have been far more pleasant.
“That has not been proven,” Ukitake quickly interjects with a stern glare to his captains, though it is clear that control is quickly slipping through his grasp.
Ichigo wonders if he should feel grateful for the half-hearted defense and then realizes that he shouldn't bother. If Ukitake were really trying to help him out, this would have never happened at all. He is the most powerful man in Soul Society at the moment. They could not have forced him to do anything.
One of the female members of Chamber 46 frowns deeply, disapproval clearly written into her features. “He isn't clearly answering our questions. How can we be sure he isn't in league with Aizen?” She gestures vaguely.
“And for that matter, even if he is not, there is still the issue concerning Aizen's contact with him,” another adds, and Ichigo's head spins in an attempt to connect voice to face. There are too many severe and important people crowded into this space. “He is obviously part of Aizen's plan. We cannot ignore that.”
“Kurosaki-san has always supported the Shinigami,” Byakuya inserts, a steely glint entering his tone.
It is the first time he has spoken, and though his tone is devoid of emotion, Ichigo is rather relieved. Byakuya will not outwardly support him, but they cannot punish him for speaking the undeniable truth
“He is one of our most trusted associates,” Byakuya continues, “and invaluable during the most recent war.” His words echo in the chambers, carrying the heavy weight of nobility and respect. “One in which he had no obligation to fight.”
A few of the former captains who know Ichigo murmur in agreement. The war proves itself in their memories, in the deeper lines on their faces. In the blood that they must surely remember spilling. And Unohana's blue gaze falls briefly on Ichigo, friendly and sorrowful but reminding him of what Aizen had implied.
Byakuya's words, however, are obviously not enough for the skeptical Chamber 46. Most of whom had never even met Ichigo before. And the new captains are even more skeptical, having only heard of Ichigo's exploits. None of them had ever met him personally either.
“A war which is several years past,” one of the oldest judges counters, his wrinkled face giving Ichigo vague recollections of Yamamoto. “And since then, we've heard little of him.”
A woman shifts in her seat, as if suddenly recounting an important piece of information. Her head nods in agreement with her counterpart. “Did he not, Ukitake-soutaichou, turn down your offer of a captain's position?”
“He was a child,” the new captain-commander persists, but even he looks as if he knows he's fighting a losing battle.
More are there to see Ichigo fall than are there to support him. Otherwise, this farce would have never occurred.
“And a human at that,” Ukitake adds softly, almost half-heartedly. Like he is too weak to get the words out. Or perhaps too afraid.
For all that Ukitake Jyuushiro had once meant to him, all that he could’ve meant, Ichigo has never wished him ill like he does now. Has never wanted to scream at him as he does in this moment. Never wanted to strike him. To demand that for once in his life he be firm about something.
And a bitter, almost spiteful part of Ichigo wishes that it was this man and not his almost-brother who had died. Kyouraku Shunsui was many things, but a traitor wasn’t one of them. He may have been a man of peace and flowered haori, but he would’ve rather died than to see anyone go through this. He would’ve been a great captain-commander, just as he was a great friend to a confused and scared boy, who was terrified of failing. He would have never been what Ukitake has become.
But that thought flitters away in the face of what is said next.
“And yet, adult enough to fight in the war. Adult enough to make his decision to raid Seireitei against all odds in order to retrieve a companion,” one of the new captains points out, and Ichigo thinks it came from the direction of the thirteenth. He can't be certain.
Sitting back in her chair, her chin balanced on elegantly styled fingers, a woman of Chamber 46 nods in agreement. “Precisely. Nor does that excuse the utter lack of communication. Regardless, his actions are not convincing.”
“He wanted to return to a normal life,” Ukitake-soutaichou argues, his points not carrying much force. In fact, he looks a bit strained, as though his illness is acting up again. “And I fail to see how that's relevant to this case.”
Ichigo, however, has had enough. They have been discussing over his head for the better part of ten minutes. He's seen his actions dissected and put on display. He's had to listen to them decide whether or not he was a traitor, and all he had ever done was fight for them. All his friends had ever done was risk their lives for Seireitei's sake, and now, none of them were the same.
And this is how they show their gratitude.
“He,” Ichigo inserts through gritted teeth, cutting through their pointless bickering back and forth, “is standing right the fuck here. Don't just talk about me like I can't hear what you're saying.”
Anger blooms brightly one of the old men's faces, stark against the pale-white of his skin. “Quiet, child,” he declares with nostrils flaring. “Your belligerence is doing nothing for your case.”
Ichigo is having no more of silence. He will not sit here and placidly await their decision. He knows that his words would make no difference because they have already made their choice, long before he was even brought into the chamber. It is merely a formality at this point, a show for the captains who would want otherwise for him. A parody of justice in order to ease their corrupted conscience. He only wishes he could have seen Seireitei for the diseased creature it has become before he helped them destroy Aizen and all chance of a different future.
Ichigo growls, his fingers curling around the cuffs, and the harsh wood and metal bites into his flesh. “Whether I speak or don't doesn't make a difference. Obviously, you guys already had plans before I even stepped into the room.”
Deep inside himself, far away, he can feel Zangetsu and Shirosaki agree. It is only a dim flicker, and he hates that it gives him a feeling of loneliness. As though he is standing here, truly abandoned in a place of judgment. His one comfort having been stripped away.
The eighth division captain flicks fingers boredly through the air. “It is that kind of attitude that makes us question your loyalty.”
“What do you expect when you imprison someone without any explanation,” Ichigo retorts, strangely clam despite the fact his fate hangs in the balance.
Perhaps it is because he has always known it would come to this. He has tried moving on in his existence as a human. He's gone to school; he's dated a few times. He helps his family with the clinic and tries to return to normalcy. All the while, the threat of Seireitei hangs over his head. He knows they watch Ishida and Chad. He is certain they probably watch him. They don't bother with Orihime. Without her powers, she is no threat.
Aizen's words linger in the back of his mind. He had known it was coming, too. Maybe that is why he had sought Ichigo out.
“I am not one of your men. You don’t pay me, and I don’t work for you,” Ichigo adds to their utter astonishment. It is a truth they had always conveniently ignored. “You can't decide my fate for me.”
His words spark an immediate response. Several members of Chamber 46 gasp, and low murmurs ripple through the room. He might as well have damned himself with that statement, but Ichigo finds himself hard-pressed to care. They have allowed his existence – their words, not his – since he first came to Soul Society. They think they have the right to determine his life for him. And even if he dies here, he wants them to know that Ichigo was always there because he chose to be, not because they demanded it of him.
Ukitake-taichou looks at him, and his gaze is telling. Those dark eyes are saying that there is nothing more he can do, that Ichigo has dug his own grave. No doubt, he thinks that Ichigo should have bowed to these old fools. That he should have wept and begged for forgiveness, spilled every bit of knowledge he carries about Aizen Sousuke.
But Ichigo is not like Ukitake Jyuushiro. He never was and never will be. He won't allow himself to prostrate before these hypocritical bastards and beg their forgiveness for something he hasn't done.
“What we must do now is clear.” A voice emerges above the increasing din, and one man of Chamber 46 rises to his feet. It makes an effective presence as the room immediately quiets, and all attention is diverted his way. “Kurosaki Ichigo's allegiance cannot be determined with the evidence presented. Our choices are limited.”
The captain of the third division inclines his head in agreement, for once showing an interest in the proceedings. “He does carry a dangerous power. It cannot go unchecked. Nor can we afford to be wrong.”
It seems Ichigo theory is right. It's obvious they've already debated his future and punishment. All that remains is to make it final, to bang the gavel one last time.
The standing judge shifts his attention to the leader of the Gotei forces. “Ukitake-soutaichou, what is the verdict?”
His hands clenching tightly on the arms of his chair, Ukitake forces his fingers to lose their grip and rises to his feet. There is a lack of grace in his movements, as though the years are finally taking their toll. His dark eyes seem empty of emotion, voice robotic and cold.
“For the sake of Soul Society and the ever-important balance, it must be so,” he agrees, and an inch of fatigue creeps into his voice. “We are not barbarians, however. And we have learned from our mistakes. Execution is not an option.”
“Then, what is it that you suggest?” the official man counters, a certain gleam in his eyes. It is that of victory. He has won, and he knows it.
Ukitake-soutaichou breathes slowly, sweat dotting his forehead, and glances at Ichigo. It is a half-attempt to be apologetic, but it disappears behind the mask of captain-commander all too quickly. Ichigo can't find it in him to be grateful. This man was supposed to be his friend. Would’ve been his boss and mentor if he’d had his way. Could’ve been something else entirely had things gone differently.
“Kurosaki Ichigo is to be sealed of his abilities and confined to the Special Underground Detention Facility.” It is said in a soft voice, lightness a complete contrast to the harshness of the verdict.
“The Maggot's Nest,” the second division captain murmurs, her fingers clacking noisily over the tabletop. It is her jurisdiction, after all.
Ichigo wishes he could feel a bit more disappointed, but it is what he expected. He can’t decide if this is better than execution. He'll be alive, but unable to be with this family again. He won't have Zangetsu; he won't see those he cares about. He'll be locked away from the light of day, until they decide he is no longer a threat. He doubts that will ever happen.
The captain-commander’s order causes a ripple of mixed feelings in the room. Ichigo feels their reiatsu swell and coalesce as a result. It makes his knees tremble at the onslaught he is unprotected against. His heart thunders in his chest, though on the outside he is an unmovable stone of apathy.
Some appear relieved and proud of the decision. Many are disappointed. Toushirou is the first to rise, a disgusted look on his features, no longer so young. He hadn't spoken during the proceedings, but Ichigo has the feeling he knew it would be pointless. Their eyes briefly meet before he is gone, Matsumoto following behind him just as quickly.
The sound of the door swinging shut behind him is all too telling. The room is filled with murmuring voices, but Ukitake-soutaichou lifts a hand, calling for order. Ichigo can't even recognize him anymore. He's not sure who this man, once a friend to him, really is. The past years have changed him thoroughly.
“Is there anything you wish to say, Kurosaki-san?”
Ichigo shakes his head. “You’ll not hear me anyway.” He looks away then, unable to fight the tightening in his chest. The ache that was once pleasant, almost hopeful. But has now gone bitter.
“Very well.” Ukitake sighs faintly and then gestures to the guard. “Return him to his cell. We will carry out the judgment on the morrow.”
And just like that, it is over. The attending members of Chamber 46 and the leading men of the Gotei 13 watch as Ichigo is escorted out of the room, their faces careful masks. Ichigo doesn't look at them, doesn’t want to look at them, but he does manage to hold his head high. He will not show them a defeated face, even if he feels very much so.
He is returned to the same cell they had kept him in before with little ceremony, locked inside without a word and left to his thoughts. Ichigo moves to the flat cot and lowers himself down onto it, his back against the cold concrete. His wrists ache inside the bindings. His head lightly falls against the wall.
Outside the cell, the door to the room closes with a final click. He's left alone.
Tomorrow it is then. He'll have to feel like this for a very long time. His reiatsu trapped within him, there but out of reach. Zangetsu out of his sight and Shirosaki even farther. He wonders again, just where they placed his zanpakutou.
There is a heavy sense of betrayal lingering around him. The very idea that for all he has done, this is what it gains him. Trust is nonexistent, and for the sake of Soul Society, he must be locked away. Caged like the beast they believe him to be.
He is reminded of the very reasons he had distanced himself from Soul Society in the first place. After the way they treated Ishida and the Vizard, after they had so callously taken Orihime's powers, he couldn't believe in their principles anymore. It bothered him immensely. Yet, there was nothing he could do about it. He couldn't fix Orihime, and Ishida has since disappeared. Not even the geta-boushi knows where he is.
He is one of the few Shinigami who Ichigo did keep in contact with. Probably one of his only real friends. Ichigo borrows the basement from time to time, working out his aggression. And sometimes, they sit and talk. About the war. About before the war. About anything and everything. It is a spark of normality in Ichigo's life. One he cherishes.
He is glad now that he hadn't gone to the shouten for advice, though he had considered it. Urahara-san wouldn't have turned him in, but if Ichigo had gone there, it would have implicated the geta-boushi as well. They have already exiled him, true. But that didn't mean there weren't worse fates. He could have easily found himself in Ichigo's current position. Or even dead.
Ichigo wonders if Urahara-san knows what happened. If he's heard of Ichigo's imprisonment. And then, he snorts to himself, the sound echoing within his cell. Of course, he does. The geta-boushi has spies everywhere. The real question is whether he can do anything about it.
His exile means Urahara-san cannot enter Soul Society on his own. They have certain measures in place to prevent that. And with Yoruichi-san being so scattered lately, there is little chance of obtaining her help. Honestly, neither of them has seen the Shihouin heir in months. Urahara-san says that it wasn't unusual, but Ichigo could see the disappointment in his eyes.
Ichigo wonders if anyone will come save him like he did for Rukia and Orihime so many years ago. He realizes that it is very close to an impossibility. With Ishida missing and Orihime stripped of her powers, neither of them could help. Renji is dead, and Urahara-san can't enter Soul Society.
Aizen, the initial cause behind all the madness, could not come even if he cared. Without reiatsu, there is nothing he can do.
As for Shinigami, Ichigo does not expect much help there. Kenpachi is on lockdown, much like Rukia he imagines. Byakuya will not defy the law, and Toushirou may be disgusted with the outcome, but he will do nothing to stop it. Hanatarou, in his sweet honesty, would probably try. But it is beyond his abilities.
There is no one. And that thought is even more sobering. It is not that Ichigo expects to be repaid for the risks he made to help others. That is by his choice alone. He didn’t do it for reward or thanks. It is simply a little depressing to learn that while he could risk everything for them, nothing could be done for himself. That he would sacrifice so much, and those he considered allies – if not friends – would turn away.
It is sobering. Ichigo has resigned himself to his fate. He thinks that he ought to curse Aizen for this. It is his fault, after all. In the end, however, it would serve nothing. Aizen cannot be blamed for Soul Society's fears and hypocrisy. He cannot be blamed for measures that have been put into place long before he was even born. And Ichigo himself can no longer feel angry. There is just an overwhelming sense of apathy.
He should have known.
Closing his eyes, he balances his bound hands on his knees and thinks. He worries about his family – Goat-Face and his sisters. They will not be happy when they find out what has happened. Surely, Urahara-san will tell them. He wishes he could have said goodbye. That he could tell his sisters, that he could warn them. Especially Karin.
He thinks of his body, growing colder and stiffer as it lays on his bed. Perhaps Kon will finally come home and take it upon himself to animate it.
He thinks of his schooling, which he is so close to completing. The paper that still needs to be finished. He'll never become a doctor now. He'll never take over his dad's clinic. Strangely enough, the thought doesn't upset him as much as it should.
The silence surrounding his cell is really bothersome. He's so used to noise and bustle. He knows there's a guard just outside the door, but he doesn't expect conversation. There is a window, but it's still dark outside. The moonlight only offers a small consolation. In that moment, it reminds him a little of Hueco Mundo, where the blackness is brightened only by a single white moon. He thinks that he almost prefers that to this almost paradise full of lies and hypocrites.
But Ichigo sighs at that thought. Tries to chase it from his mind. He simply stares into the near blackness and feels a sharp stab in his chest. The place where his heart once was. And he attempts not to think about betrayal. About might have been and could have been. Should have been.
He doesn’t want to think about Ukitake at all. But his thoughts still drift that direction before he can force them away.
It is going to be a very long night.
a/n: In all cases, it is usually Chamber 46 that makes the final decisions on matters like Ichigo's case. But here, they are forcing Ukitake to give the sentencing for reasons that will be explained in later chapters. More will be revealed in the future. Thanks for reading!
I hope you enjoyed! And I look forward to your comments. Just remember that this story takes place about seven plus years in the future, at the end of the war, and much has changed.
On to chapter five!.