Chapter Six: Escape
Ichigo wakes from a strange dream to the sound of the doors beyond his cell opening. It is only a faint click to jar him into consciousness. He sits up, trying to clear away the drowsiness and focus on his visitors. His eyes flicker to the window, but it still shows the darkness of night and the occasional pinpoint star. It cannot possibly be time for them to come for him. Unless, of course, Soul Society is ignoring ceremony and trying to take care of him as soon as possible. He won't put it past the bastards.
He looks to the door, but it is only partly open. He can hear the low murmur of a voice but not make out the words. They have paused on the other side, though he is not sure why.
Raking a hand over his face, Ichigo tries to awaken fully. It is hard to return to his senses, especially when everything feels so muted. His reiatsu is still locked within him, giving him a feeling much like having stuffed sinuses. His head doesn't feel exactly clear, and it makes his other senses slow to react. He really hates this feeling.
Unbidden, the strange dream rises to the forefront of his mind. He remembers seeing his mother. Which isn't unusual. He often dreams of his mother, though those are usually nightmares in some shape or form. And those have only gotten worse after the end of the war.
This dream, however, is quite different. He recalls that she was standing somewhere, but he didn't recognize the place. There were a lot of steps, crystal-clear and slowly spiraling downward. They led to an underground pool filled to the brim with pure water, and a raised dais was in the middle with stepping stones leading to it.
His mother was standing there, gesturing to him under a corona of light. She was smiling at him, looking entirely at peace. Her appearance kept shimmering and shifting, almost as if she were not completely whole. And Ichigo himself was walking down the steps towards her, something about the room giving him a quiet sense of calm.
That was when he woke.
It seems so strange. He can't honestly remember dreaming anything like that before. Ichigo's dreams as of late have been more akin to nightmares. Rarely a day goes by that he doesn't somehow recall the war or how it had been before. He remembers those who fell as they were alive. Or he'll relive brutal battles and the blood that stains his own hands.
The door finally swings open to reveal his visitor. And Ichigo gives only a half-interested glance, not even bothering to rise from his cot. Until he sees who it is. Unohana Retsu, of all people, gliding into the room with an interesting expression on her face. She says something to the guard; he closes the door behind her, staying on the other side and granting them their privacy.
Surprised, Ichigo shuffles off the bed, not even noticing when his feet touch cold stone. Just standing is enough to make his head swim with dizziness, still suffering under the effects of the reiatsu dousing he underwent earlier. His body still aches, and there's a definite hollow feeling. But for the moment, he's alive; he supposes that's a saving grace.
“Good morning, Kurosaki-kun, I hope I did not wake you,” the captain says, coming to a pause just beyond the bars of his cell. Her smile is light, but it doesn't offer him fake cheer. He is glad for that.
Ichigo shakes his head. “Not from a sleep that meant anything,” he replies and regards her curiously. “Is it actually morning?”
“A few hours from dawn.” Her gaze flickers over him, and for the first time, he sees a trace of emotion enter her face. There is disappointment there and regret. “You do not look well, Kurosaki-kun.”
He doesn't doubt it. With his reiatsu locked away, Ichigo feels quite ill. It's hard to withstand the reiatsu of others that seems to press in on him. It gives him a feeling of vertigo. He knows he is pale, and his lack of good sleep must show in the darkening of his eyes. The strain of having Zangetsu so far from him is not helping.
“I look better than I will in a few hours,” he returns, and it is as pleasant as he can offer her. He wishes he could be politer, but he only has a limited time before he will no longer see the sky again. “Why are you here?”
He remembers this woman, remembers her well. In the long year or two that the war lasted, Unohana was of great help to him. It was her who helped teach him how to control his reiatsu. At the time, it was in her best interest as his leaking tendrils tended to harm the other injured when he was being tended in the fourth division. And she also helped prep him for the sneak attack they'd used on Aizen.
Ichigo remembers thinking of her as a friend. As a senpai he could rely on. Of course, once upon a time he had considered Ukitake Jyuushiro one as well. Considered him a hell of a lot more than that truth be told.
Emotions flash in Unohana's blue eyes, and she sighs softly. “Jyuushiro is not the man we once knew,” she explains like she read his mind, hands idly patting down the folds of her captain's haori. “Losing what was essentially his father and brother to the war. The weight of his position. The increasing pain of his illness... He is buckling under the pressure, forced to endure it upon himself. And Chamber 46 makes it no easier for him.”
“Are you making excuses for him?” Ichigo demands because he has already realized this much. He knows it must be hard for Ukitake; that doesn't make what seems to be a betrayal any easier to bear. He is suffering, too. Just as much.
She shakes her head. “I wouldn't dare. He has made his choices. I simply want you to understand.”
“My understanding isn't going to change being pissed off about this.” Ichigo has the utmost respect for this woman, but his patience is worn thin. He doesn't feel like bothering with pleasantries or politeness.
“I know that you are aware he hasn't always been this way. Once, he truly was a man who understood honor.” She looks at him with knowledge, the kind that aches inside and prays for death. “Once, you were very close.”
Ichigo snorts, lifting his shoulders and trying to ease the cramping muscles. “Once,” he agrees bitterly, “but not now. I don't know who he is anymore. I’m not sure if I did in the first place. Maybe I really was just a replacement. Just a diversion.”
The silence that falls between them is heavy, and Ichigo still isn't sure why Unohana came to visit him. If she sought to reassure him, it isn't working. If she hopes that he will not feel bitter, that is also failing miserably.
Either way, he doesn’t care for the topic at hand. And he really, really doesn’t want to think about Ukitake right now. Or ever.
His eyes find hers through the bars that separate them. “Why did you come? You never answered my question.”
The smile that traces her lips is melancholy. “I am not sure you would understand if I explained it to you.”
“I might,” Ichigo says, and he remembers what Aizen told him. Or rather, what Aizen's words had implied. “He told me that you saved him,” he adds in a much quieter voice, ever mindful of the guards beyond the door.
She inclines her head, shifting in her stance. “I did.”
That sadness returns, something old and haunting, something that remembers and never forgets. Ichigo knows this sadness. He feels it every time he recalls his mother's laugh and the gentle way she held him. It reminds him of his inability to save her, as much as it reminds him of his inability to save Renji and all the others. Times when his strength failed him.
There is a grief that lingers inside of Unohana. Ichigo has the feeling that he is one of the few to fully witness it. To ever see her for what she really is. A woman in mourning. Dying from the inside out.
“I know what he is trying to do. And were I more powerful – braver even – I would have helped him. He is a good man; he just lost sight of his goals, became lost in his need for revenge.”
“What is it?” Ichigo questions softly now because he feels he has some connection with this kind woman. Some comprehension. “What binds you to him? There's something, isn't there?”
She is silent for a minute, and then, her eyes close as she takes a slow breath, only to open them again. “I would like to tell you a story, Kurosaki-kun. A story of a young man, not unlike yourself.”
And Ichigo can only listen.
It is not a long tale, and as she relates it to him, he feels that he garners a better knowledge of the man who came to him, humbly requesting help. And in truth, it is a story that has some similarities to his own.
“It is information few possess,” Unohana explains, her voice gentle and controlled, words carefully chosen. “My son, Kouichi, and the fact that he and Sousuke were once playmates as children. Were once friends.”
Ichigo blinks in surprise, having been unaware that Unohana even had children. He hasn't really thought of any of the Gotei as having families before. Except maybe for Byakuya’s long dead wife. He didn’t even know Unohana is married.
“Were?” he finally prompts after that revelation.
She draws in a deep breath, weighted and heavy. “It was Soul Society's decision to execute Kouichi,” she tells him in a voice flat and emotionless. “He was a danger, they said. He had delved into things he should not have.”
It rings very similar to Ichigo, and he has a feeling he knows where she is going with this. “Hollow abilities, you mean.”
She nods, reiatsu flickering as a result of her emotions. Ichigo feels it lashing at the edges of his senses and winces. The lightheadedness returns.
“If I had known what he was doing sooner, I might have been able to stop him,” Unohana continues, and her hands clasp together in front of her, delicately twisting as she remembers what surely must be agonizing. “But not even Sousuke knew, and they were closer than brothers.”
“And they killed him for that?” Ichigo doesn’t really have to ask. He already knows the answer.
“If it were that simple, maybe it would be forgivable,” Unohana returns, and the sadness in her tone grows deeper, flickers with something a lot like rage. Cold and deadly. “I can understand their reasoning in that matter… to a certain extent. But I can't forgive their decision to make his family disappear as well.”
“What?” Ichigo's eyes widen in shock, an icy blast growing in his chest to spread thickly through his body.
“There is no proof,” she explains, fingers clasping together and tightening in their grip. “It wasn't a direct order, but they disappeared anyway. My three grandchildren and their mother.” Unohana quiets then, throat too thick to continue and eyes glittering with moisture.
“That's--” Ichigo is horrified, and the anger he has been cultivating finds a deeper hold. It hooks into his very being, fueling a fire that has built since the end of the war.
“Kouichi had not done anything, but it was the Hollow within him they feared,” Unohana continues, lifting her gaze back to him. “Just like it is the Hollow within you that they truly fear. You are strong, Ichigo-kun, and they are well-aware that we could not have won the war without you. That it would have ended before it even began.”
It should make him feel proud to hear such a compliment; Ichigo only feels apathy. He knows that his efforts were welcomed by most of Soul Society. And that many of them feel grateful for the battles he fought. But none of them know just what effect it had on him. Those battle hardened soldiers… they can't even begin to understand.
Ichigo wishes he could feel shocked by her story. But to learn that Soul Society has betrayed its own long before he's known them is not news to him. They have always been drastic in their choices when it came to their idea of safety and balance. What happened to the Quincy is proof. To Urahara-san and the Vizard.
What they are doing now is undeniable.
He shakes his head and immediately wishes he hadn't; the motion makes his mind spin dizzily. He sways on his feet, and Ichigo shifts to sit back on the bed before he makes a fool of himself by falling on his face. These reiatsu limiters are playing havoc on his system, and his stomach churns. It's so hard to breathe, as though he's suffocating on his own air.
“I knew there had to be a reason,” he murmurs, dropping back onto stark cot and leaning his head against the cold concrete. It helps somewhat with the burning that crawls across his skin. “Aizen is too smart for wanting nothing but destruction.”
Unohana inclines her head, pity entering her face. “That is true, though I fear he's lost sight of his initial goals. There is much he did that I do not agree with it. I think that in the end, however, what he desired is not wrong.”
Swallowing thickly, Ichigo shifts to look at her, wishing the roiling in his abdomen would cease. It's worse than the pulsing within his skull, like a fierce hangover gone wrong.
“You saved him because of your son?”
“Regardless of his deeds, I could not watch him die,” Unohana answers; that sad smile returns. A mother's smile. “He is as much my son as Kouichi is.”
A sudden knock on the door interrupts their conversation. It is an obvious reminder that the time is up for her visit. Ichigo is honestly surprised they allowed her to see him at all, dangerous criminal that he is.
“It appears my time is over,” Unohana comments with a soft exhale. “I thank you for listening to my story, Kurosaki-kun.” She looks as though she wants to reach through the bars. Like she wants to take his hand and squeeze. Like she wants to do more than just walk away.
He lifts his own hands helplessly, making the manacles knock together. “Thanks for telling me. It was... enlightening.” He feels fatigue pulling at him, trying to drag him under its encompassing net.
The door opens, and a guard sticks his head inside. “Unohana-taichou?”
“I am coming,” she calls over her shoulder. She casts one more glance at Ichigo, as though thinking to offer words of comfort, only to realize that such words don't exist.
Unohana just looks at him. Her eyes windows to the agony inside her.
And then, she is gone. The door closes with a quiet snick behind her, and Ichigo is left to his solitude once more. He can't decide which he prefers. The pressure of her reiatsu against him. Or the absolute quiet and stillness of being alone.
He carefully rubs his palms down his face. Yet, it does nothing for the headache rapidly building in his skull. There is a gnawing clench inside of him that he can't ignore.
And a desperate part of Ichigo wishes that morning never comes.
It seems like it would be difficult for him to sleep with the collar around his neck and the manacles on his wrists, but Ichigo actually finds it easy to drift off again. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that he's so tired. As much as they have sealed away his reiatsu, it feels like they've stripped away his energy as well. He's dragged since the judgment, and the more he attempts to stay alert, the less his body supports his determination.
If they want him meek, they have surely accomplished it. He finds it difficult to even stay awake and slips into an awkward doze. At least, it's better than sitting awake and waiting for the time to come. It's better than anticipating his imprisonment.
The next time he opens his eyes, he thinks it's because they have come for him. He is wrong, however, and the hands that shake him into consciousness are actually gentle. A groan escapes his lips as he peels his eyelids all the way open, dizzily trying to focus on the face above his. A very familiar face.
“Unohana-san?” He stirs sluggishly.
Are the sealing cuffs actually getting stronger? He feels more out of it now than he had in the beginning of his imprisonment.
Her hand gently cups his face, warm against the chill of the cell. “We don't have much time, Kurosaki-kun. Can you stand?”
“Maybe.” He hates that he can't be surer of that. With her help, he sits up and swings his legs over the side of the cot.
“I wish I could remove your limiters,” Unohana comments, briefly brushing over the collar. “But I'm afraid if I did, you would be unable to control the reiatsu that would be released and we would be caught. I cannot have that.”
“It's okay.” His speech slurs just a little, and he rises to his feet like a drunken man, swaying where he stands. But he's pretty relieved that he can at least do that on his own. Even if it makes his head spin and the nausea in his belly churn stronger.
Unohana frowns again, but Ichigo is too busy concentrating on taking his first step. His feet seem heavier than they should, just like the rest of him. It feels like his ears are stuffed with cotton, mouth dry as paste. And he’s going to suffer this for the rest of his existence?
It would be kinder just to kill him.
“Unohana-taichou, we must hurry.”
Another voice pierces the fog, and Ichigo groggily seeks out the owner of the female tone. He sees another face that is familiar to him, and yet, he remains more confused than ever. What is Ise doing here? And with Unohana?
Not only that, she is carrying a bag in one hand, and a familiar sword is strapped to her back; she barely hunches over from the additional weight. Ichigo feels a great sense of relief ripple through him at the sight of Zangetsu. There, just within his reach if he could manage to move a step.
He doesn't even realize he is already reaching for the blade until Unohana grabs his outstretched hand and slides it over her shoulder. “I'm sorry, Kurosaki-kun, but not just yet. We will return Zangetsu to you soon. I promise.”
Ichigo makes a vague sound of agreement and lets Unohana help him out of the cell. His feet drag, as though iron blocks are locked around his ankles, but he forces himself to move. He cannot live with himself if he leans entirely on Unohana, even if she seems unnaturally strong for her size. Like a taller Yachiru really.
He realizes then what hasn't connected in his brain yet. They aren't here to take him to his confinement. They are here to help him, to free him before Chamber 46 can follow through with its plans. The simple thought warms him greatly, helping to chase away some of the slog that his body keeps trying to submit to.
They care enough to come for him; that is all that matters to Ichigo. And though Unohana might be doing it for her dead son and for Aizen who is like a son to her, she is still here. Still risking everything to save Ichigo. He may not know Ise’s reasons, though he bets it has something to do with her late captain, but she is there all the same.
All that matter is that they came for him. That they will help him, just as he helped them not so long ago.
They usher him out of the room and through the main door, where Ichigo belatedly notices his guards. He can't tell if they are unconscious or dead, probably the former considering that Unohana is a healer. And Ise, as Ichigo knows, is one of the best at kidoh. She could even give Kyouraku a run for his money, and that really says something. For a supposedly drunken lush, the man sure knew his kidoh. He could do things with spells that would’ve left Aizen speechless with envy.
His thoughts are redirected as they step out into the early morning, crisp and cool. Enough so that his breath, short and strained it may be, leaves little puffs of white mist in front of him. He can see the pinking of the sky on the horizon, where dawn is coming all too swiftly. And there's a biting wind, cutting through the layers of his clothing.
It feels so damn good to be in the fresh air Ichigo doesn't even care how cold it is. Or that his head is still spinning. He has a frantic hold on Unohana's shihakushou – missing its trademark haori, he belatedly notices – and his knuckles are white from the force of it. But he fears if he lets go, he will fall.
“I apologize,” the captain tells him quietly, and it seems that's all she's doing. “But we're going to have to shunpo. It may be a little disorientating.”
Ichigo nods; haste is what is necessary at the moment.
His words cut off suddenly as Unohana takes a great leap, surprising him with her strength once more. They are into the air and over the side of the railing in an instant, plummeting downwards. His stomach leaps into his throat, and he feels reiatsu crawling across his skin, warm and subtle but nevertheless very discomfiting. He gasps, more from the uncomfortable surge than the unexpected jump.
And then, they are blurring through the air, the wind whipping across Ichigo's face and making it even more difficult to breathe. He can't help but think that Unohana was right. The subtle bursts of her reiatsu are jarring, as is each slide into shunpo. And by the time they finally stop, a good distance away from where he was kept, Ichigo is green and nearly sick to his stomach.
“Ise-san, if you would please,” Unohana suggests with a tone displaying extreme calm ,despite the urgency of the situation and the pressure the two of them must be under.
The lieutenant inclines her head, and Ichigo watches as she withdraws her zanpakutou from the sleeve of her shihakushou. It is only the second time he has ever seen her blade, and he can distinctly remember the first being on the field of battle. There is a masked swell of power that Ichigo feels prickling on the edge of his skin, muted compared to Unohana's but still palpable. A Seikaimon opens in front of them, pale light spilling through the doors, and Ichigo worries just a bit.
“Can't these be traced?” he questions, even as the captain hurries them towards it.
“For anyone else they would be.” Ise-san pushes her glasses up with a certain gleam that reminds him all too much of Ishida. There is a hint of arrogance in her voice, but it is not unfounded.
“Oh.” He's really too dizzy to say anything more intelligent.
Together, the three of them step out of Seireitei and into the gate.
It isn't long before they are emerging onto the darkened streets of Karakura; the sound of barking dogs and garbage trucks as they rattle by greets their ears. It is a bit darker here than it was in Soul Society, as though the sun always strikes the spirit world first. Or perhaps they are simply in a different time zone.
Ichigo feels a smidgeon better now that he's far from that cell and its seki-seki walls. He doesn't have to cling so tightly to Unohana anymore, but he is still overcome by a great fatigue. Unbidden, a yawn fights to the surface.
“Where is the meeting place?” Unohana asks as they pause to get their bearings.
Ichigo himself doesn't quite recognize where they are. Nowhere close to his home or the school, he is sure. Or the Urahara Shouten. In fact, he's not certain they are still in Karakurachou. They might actually be in Naruki-shi. He hasn't been there much except for the occasional visit to Keigo or Mizuiro's house, neither of whom he has seen lately.
His knees buckle a little. Unohana easily shifts his weight, casting him an apologetic look.
“Just a little longer, Kurosaki-kun. And then, you will be able to rest.”
“Why did you do this?” he wonders aloud as Ise whips out a map to consult. “Why help me?”
“It is the right thing to do,” comes the answer, but it's actually Ise who says it. She is looking at Ichigo now, and there is grief still fresh and bleeding in her eyes. “And it is what he would have done.”
It goes without saying that she means her former captain. Kyouraku Shunsui. Probably one of the few men in Seireitei who was ever worth a damn.
But then, Unohana squeezes his arm warmly. “We cannot do much,” she murmurs apologetically, as though she wishes she were capable of more. “Yet, we do what we can.”
There is a snap as Ise closes the map and stashes it up her sleeve, where her zanpakutou has already returned. “It's only a short distance from here. We are close.”
“Then let us make haste,” Unohana suggests.
Before Ichigo can question either of them further, such as to their actual destination, they are all three sliding into shunpo. It makes his head spin worse than before, and Ichigo groans, wishing they really wouldn't do that. Or would at least knock him out first. His wrists ache inside the manacles, and the collar still makes it difficult to breathe. He knows the reason they haven't removed it yet, however. He understands that much.
Several steps from their previous position, an actual distance that is easily crossed using shunpo, they come to a rest in front of the entrance to a small park. It is not much, but it is fenced in and the walkways are dimly lit. In the cold morning, it seems even more serene. And there are few, if any, people present.
“I've arranged for them to arrive in ten minutes. He won't be alone long,” Ise explains.
They step into the park, unnoticed by a man walking his dog that they pass. The canine though seems to sense their presence, the ruff on the back of her neck rising as she growls. The two Shinigami and their charge keep walking like they don’t even care. Ichigo's strength has reached its limits. He is relieved when they finally let him rest on a bench, and he slumps against the cool metal. His entire body is hot, despite the chill to the air. And he wonders if the reiatsu sealers are making him ill. His eyes flutter, and he misses Ise removing Zangetsu from his ties, laying the zanpakutou next to him.
He can hear Zangetsu calling to him, sounding even louder than he has in the past half-day or however long it has been. Shirosaki is louder, too, and he's fighting bitterly against the cage that holds him back. He is ranting and railing, dark eyes gleaming with fury. Zangetsu is more restrained, hands folded into his coat as always. Patiently waiting. But there is an anger cloaking him as well, an icy fury that wishes to be unleashed.
They want him to take hold.
Unconsciously, Ichigo's fingers reach for the blade, but Unohana's hands grasp his first.
“Not yet, Kurosaki-kun. Please bear with it awhile longer,” she informs him, squeezing gently and pushing his hand back towards his lap.
“Why are we here?” he questions, and it feels like the words are being dragged from him. He's so tired.
“Someone you know will be here very soon,” Ise assures him, and for the first time, he sees a crack in her business-like exterior. He isn't sure what to call the glimpse he manages, but there does seem to be a sense of relief.
Ichigo feels like going to sleep again, and his eyes flutter once more. Dawn is coming faster now. He can see the sky lightening; he can hear the town waking around him.
“We have to leave you now,” Unohana inserts she squeezes his hand warmly once more, drawing his wavering focus back to her. “Please forgive us.” She very gently brushes his hair from his face. The gesture is so familiar – so motherly – that he would ache at it if he weren’t so very tired.
“For what?” he thinks aloud since it is they who have saved him. And they weren't the ones to condemn him in the first place.
The two women exchange a glance, but it is Unohana who answers him again.
“For being too weak to do anything sooner.” Her fingers linger on his cheek. “Stay safe, Kurosaki-kun.”
He almost swears that he feels the feather-light touch of lips against his forehead.
Then, she is withdrawing the warmth of her hands, and the two of them are walking away. There is a faint taste of reiatsu in the air, pushing gently against his skin as they prepare to call another Seikaimon.
It occurs to Ichigo, despite his flickering conscious, that there is something important he's yet to say. “Thank you,” he manages, raising his voice enough that it carries to them. “For everything.”
It seems a paltry phrase. And hardly enough to cover the sacrifice and the risk they have taken for him. But he can't focus well enough to think of something more appropriate.
The last he sees of the women are two appreciative but sorrowful smiles. Then, they are vanishing into the gate, returning to their existence in Soul Society. He is left alone on the park bench, slipping towards unconscious once more. The ossan and Shirosaki call to him, but he's too tired to answer right now.
Hands are on him not but a few minutes later, gently shaking him awake. They then slide around his upper arms to his back, face pressed into a clothed shoulder as fingers steady his head. Ichigo forces his eyes to peel open, seeing only a sea of green before shifting to glimpse a very familiar hat. The scent of sugarcane and smoke fills his nostrils, even as a recognizable voice filters through his conscious. There is an immediate sense of safety, and some part of Ichigo breaks inside. He can’t help the tears that come.
a/n: For those who don't know, Ichigo lives in Karakura. Keigo and Mizuiro live in Naruki, which is nearby. Or so my handy-dandy, new Character Souls book informs me.
And yes, for readers of my other series, there are many similarities between Kouichi and Shigure who is an OC in Minutes to Midnight. They are not quite the same person, but their stories are similar.
So at last we have some explanations. But not many. There are certainly more to come, I promise. It's a slow-moving story, but sometimes, that's a good thing! I hope you enjoyed and I look forward to your comments! I don't know when I'll update again, but I definitely won't abandon this.
On to chapter seven!