a/n: Aizen's POV once again. And I've finally gotten around to uploading all of the chapters onto my livejournal so you don't have to go to another site to find them. See the above link for the list of all the chapters.
Warnings this chapter for flashbacks, violence, lotsa spoilers
Chapter Nineteen: Remembrance
Hirako Shinji has quickly become a pain in his proverbial ass.
If there is any reason that Sousuke misses the cramped quarters of Urahara’s hovel and having to listen to the shopkeeper and Ichigo-kun engage in their relations at all hours of the night, it is the fact that Hirako has taken to following him around as though they are long-lost brothers recently reunited. Hirako is there every time he turns around. There with a grin or a hug or a teasing word. So close that Sousuke nearly trips on him.
He can hardly breathe with the man’s suffocating presence. It’s bad enough that he has to share quarters with his former captain, but he has to endure Hirako’s strangely suffocating attention outside of the room as well. It doesn’t help that the other Vizard openly avoid Sousuke. Not that he minds as it leaves him without having to engage their less than sane personalities.
At least in Urahara’s small house, Sousuke had only one hateful personality to contend with. And Urahara has never been much of a threat. Sousuke can handle him with a few well-placed barbs and insinuating remarks. But now, he’s surrounded by… well, enemies is the closest approximation he can find. And it makes him twitchy. Ichigo-kun and perhaps Hirako – if the blond isn’t in the midst of one of his mind games and only pretending to be so damn glad to see him – are the only ones Sousuke trusts not to stab him in the back. Or the front, for that matter.
That leaves him surrounded by over a half-dozen possible assassins in a very close and confined space. He thought he had troubles sleeping in that tiny bungalow? Well, Sousuke has had to rethink his measurement of stress. It now goes by the name of Hirako Shinji.
He just doesn’t know what his ex-captain is thinking. Behind that shark-like grin and clingy behavior is an intelligent man. Of sorts. Sousuke is not fooled by Hirako’s flippant manner and teasing. Hirako wouldn’t have made it as a captain if he were a complete idiot. And he wouldn’t have survived this long if he were not a keen observer. No, Sousuke is certain that Hirako has some sort of plan, and not knowing what that is makes him even further on edge.
Urahara, at least, is obvious in his hatred. Though thankfully encounters with him have been less and less here in the Vizard’s hidden warehouse. No, Urahara has better things to do than bait Sousuke. Like bundle the other Vizard into his “get rid of Aizen as soon as possible” plans. And apparently, christen every possible room, closet, surface with Ichigo-kun every chance he gets.
Sousuke must admit. If there is one good reason that they have left the cramped bungalow, it is for the changes he has seen in Ichigo-kun. The boy doesn’t look as trapped anymore. His eyes less resemble that of an injured and cornered animal. More like the confident, put-together fighter that Sousuke remembers. This freedom and space is good for him, and the other Vizard appear to bolster him as well.
And well, Sousuke must admit feeling just a tad smug that being here is a step in the right direction for his own ambitions. Ichigo-kun has admitted as much. That they will need help from the Vizard with Sousuke’s plans to put Ichigo-kun on the throne. Which means, Ichigo-kun actually wants to attempt taking said throne. Thoughts such as these are what make Sousuke believe that this might actually be worth it in the end.
So long as he can survive Hirako Shinji.
Sighing, Sousuke peers around a corner, hating that it feels as if he’s hiding from the boogeyman. But no, he’s just trying to avoid the clinging presence of his former superior. The very same man who’d helped bring him down. The very same man who took Sousuke’s powers from him.
Even now, years later, those memories are sharp and clear in his mind. As though it happened only yesterday.
Blood. He feels it rattling in his lungs and dripping over his skin. His fingers twitch, but Kyouka Suigetsu is missing. He can feel her, hear her, but she’s not in his grip. She’s not in sight either.
There’s only the grassy slope of some unknown place far out in Rukongai. A place already splattered with blood and ash, streaked by destruction. Drizzled with white bits of broken Hollow masks. There’s regret and sadness, horror that strikes through him.
By the gods, Shunsui… by his own hands. He hadn’t--
Sousuke’s eyes slip closed and then open again.
There’s only him, kneeling in his defeat. And Hirako. Unohana-san. There are only two witnesses but more approaching. He can feel their reiatsu, such pitiful breadth compared to his own and the two Shinigami standing before him. But they all want to gloat anyway, because Soul Society won and Sousuke is defeated.
He hurts. There’s a hole in his mid-section. A gash in his thigh. His head is still bleeding. His arm is mangled. But he’s not dead. Not yet. And he lacks the strength and energy to end it himself.
Hirako stands there, and Sousuke can’t tell if he plans to finish the job. Sousuke can’t read the look in his eyes. Can only see the crimson splattered on the man’s face, dripping from his zanpakutou, painting his clothes.
Unohana-san, the only mother he’s ever truly had, he can’t read her face either. Such a mask. But there is no hatred. No utter loathing. Sadness perhaps. Sadness that can’t and won’t be easily eased. Her zanpakutou lacks the awful stench and color of blood, but her part hadn’t been to attack. She suppressed his abilities, blocked his kidoh, leaving room for Hirako to be the sword. She was perhaps the only one with the skill to see through his illusions. She’s had too much practice. Spent too much time seeing all the things he tried so hard to hide.
Only these two stand over him, and he doesn’t even have the strength to rise to his feet. It’s all he can manage to stay upright. His gaze focused forward. He can’t look behind him. He can’t see the flutter of white and black and pink cloth, the piece of family that Sousuke has slain with his very own hands.
More are approaching. Some that Sousuke can recognize. Kuchiki. Shihouin. Urahara. And more than anything, he doesn’t want the latter to touch him. To look at him or gloat over a victory that isn’t his to claim. Even the Kurosaki boy is coming, one of the first. His movements sharp and powerful, tasting vaguely of Hollow.
He looks up at Hirako, who hasn’t lowered his blade. “What are you waiting for?” Sousuke asks, voice soft. Not broken but not demanding either. “You’re losing your chance.”
“To kill ya?” Hirako snorts, but Sousuke can see his fingers tightening around the hilt. “Somethin’ tells me that’s not how this should be played.”
“There is the matter of justice,” Unohana-san says gently, carefully, but her eyes are shadowed. They keep looking from Sousuke, to the body lying in the grass, and back again.
“Justice?” Hirako barks out a laughter. “That wasn’t what I was thinkin’. But yeah, sure. We’ll go with that. Whatever Soul Society thinks is justice, let ‘em have it.”
Sousuke’s fingers spasm. Kyouya Suigetsu is out of his reach. He thinks he can see her hilt on the ground several yards away. But he is not defenseless. He is still a master of kidoh. He still knows other tricks that would frighten even the strongest and wisest Shinigami. His fingers twitch again.
And Hirako’s eyes swivel back his direction. “I won’t kill ya,” he says, voice empty, dark, lacking emotion. Not anger or hatred or revenge. Just empty. “But I can’t hand ya over ta them like this either. Not safely.”
Hirako shakes his head He drags the flat of his blade over his arm and wipes most of the blood off on his sleeve.
“Just a simple severance of his powers. Nothin’ that’ll bring him permanent harm, Retsu-san.”
Sousuke feels his breath catch in his throat. Death… death he can live with. Ever since he began this, he has expected that end. But to have his power stripped from him. To have Kyouka Suigetsu taken from him… That is another story entirely. Better by this own hand than the fate they would give him.
Strength, where it once failed him, surges into his limbs. His fingers clench and unclench, and incantations rise to the front of his mind, dancing on his tongue and his lips. He doesn’t need to speak them. But Sousuke knows that they are so much stronger that way.
Hirako’s gaze flickers away from him for a moment. “Retsu-san?”
She steps forward, eyes so very sad. Looking at Sousuke as though he’s her son. Just a lost boy that she’s waiting to come home again.
“I apologize, dear. But it must be done.” She lifts her hands.
And the binding spell wraps around Sousuke. Locking his arms to his sides, clamping his mouth shut, trapping him there. On his knees. He can only watch as Hirako approaches, head bowed. The wind whips around him and flutters his frayed tie. He’s not smiling, not now, his fingers curled around Sakanade.
Sousuke watches the blade come with eyes wide open. And as the zanpakutou pierces his chest, pushing through his very core, he hears Kyouka Suigetsu call out for him one last time. Her voice is high, thin, frightened. Then, she’s gone. And he’s overcome with a sense of loss so heavy that his back and shoulders bow under the pressure.
It doesn’t hurt. There’s no pain. And when Hirako removes Sakanade, there’s no wound to heal. Not even a blip of blood. But Sousuke can already feel things missing. The weight of reiatsu on the air hurts, like knives stabbing into his skin. He drags his lower lip into his mouth and bite down on it rather than crying out in pain. He wants to scream.
Defeat... defeat he can stomach. But this! This is more than defeat. This is torture. This is death in every sense of the word. There’s no returning from this.
None. None at all.
Sousuke slides out of the memory with lingering traces of agony rippling through him. Had he any reiatsu, it would be wild and frazzled, crashing at the bonds of his control. But no, as he is, the worst thing that happens is the frantic beating of his heart and the twisted look on his face.
He peers down the empty hallway, sees no sign of anyone much less his former captain, and Sousuke slides into the corridor. He’s hoping to find a place where Hirako won’t look, where Sousuke can be alone for once and not tracked by several pairs of eyes. All of them convinced he’s going to murder them in their sleep. As if he even could. Well, maybe if he went into the kitchen and used a knife, but Sousuke would like to think of himself as more sophisticated than that. Such a method would be beneath him. Perhaps not beneath Urahara but definitely beneath himself.
His room is no solace; he shares it with Hirako. Every other room is likely to be occupied by one Vizard or another. And while Sousuke could wander down to the basement, he has the feeling that Ichigo-kun is still down there, as he has been for the past few days. Blowing off steam, releasing pent-up energy, calling his Hollow, drawing his zanpakutou. All things that Sousuke is no longer capable of. Not to mention that where Ichigo-kun is, no doubt Urahara is as well.
This is what Sousuke has been reduced to. Wandering around, glancing over his shoulder, hiding from his ex-captain and others who might mean him arm. Though if anyone asked, Sousuke wasn’t hiding. He was making a strategic exit.
He had once been powerful, nearly a god. And now, he is reduced to this.
They let him stand. Sousuke is surprised to have been granted that much. They haven’t even shackled his limbs. Why should they bother? He has no reiatsu. He can’t even cast the simplest kidoh. He doesn’t have Kyouka Suigetsu. All he has are years and years of martial arts training, but even they are useless. A simple binding spell, and Sousuke will be even more helpless than before.
So Sousuke is allowed to stand as he is judged, surrounded by former allies and friends. Surrounded by his enemies. There are fewer here than he would expect. He would think that this would be a spectacle for all of Seireitei, all of Soul Society to witness. But no, it appears the new captain-commander Ukitake has some respect for the privacy of its greatest villain. Not even he wants to turn this into a parade. Into a joke or a show.
Ukitake is here. As is Unohana-san for medical reasons. Kuchiki to represent the nobles. Hitsugaya, looking battered and bruised. Bandaged and far, far older than he used to be.
Hirako is noticeable for his absence. Sousuke wonders if the Vizard weren’t allowed to serve as witnesses. Or if Soul Society’s justice had already forced their flight.
He doesn’t flinch, doesn’t hardly blink as Ukitake calls his attention. Sousuke looks at the new captain-commander, face pinched with fatigue and sorrow. No, Sousuke hasn’t forgotten. Sousuke knows what grief tears apart Ukitake. He looks at Sousuke and no longer sees a boy. He sees a murderer. One who has killed his own uncle, the man who was a father to him. Sousuke sees the same thing now; he doesn’t need anyone else to tell him that truth.
“You have been accused, tried, found guilty, and sentenced to death by lethal injection,” Ukitake continues, voice soft and commanding, yet lacking that air of total obedience that Yamamoto always carried. “Chamber 46 advises that I deny your final word, but I am not in accord with their advisement. Do you have anything you wish to say?”
Sousuke can’t help it; he laughs. Low and bitter.
“You are Shinigami, and yet, you think death is the end. You may kill me, but you can’t kill the truth of my intentions. Soul Society is dying with or without my war. Someday, you’ll see that, and you will see that I was right.”
Ukitake flinches. Sousuke knows he sees the truth. That Ukitake knows the truth. But he will never admit it. Hitsugaya hisses, hands pulling into fists. Kuchiki is silent, solid. He might as well be carved from stone as much reaction as he shows, save for the subtle flicker in his eyes. The tightening that says without words something that Sousuke has long suspected. That Kuchiki isn’t nearly as certain of himself or this place as he appears.
“Are those your final words?” Ukitake finally manages.
“My actions have always spoken for themselves,” Aizen says and stares at Ukitake, refusing to close his eyes in the face of death.
He was once Shinigami. He refuses to be afraid of something he had mastered. Death is neither the beginning nor the end; it is a reset button. And they all damn well know it. They’ve already taken Kyouka Suigetsu from him. Death is nothing. And Ukitake and Unohana-san won’t allow them to extinguish him fully. To erase his soul as if it never even was.
Ukitake looks at him – regret and sadness and guilt and sorrow – and shifts his gaze to Unohana-san standing at Sousuke’s right. He nods once, a confirmation and returns his attention to their prisoner. As though he can’t bear to look away. As though it’s his duty to watch Sousuke’s end like he watched over a small boy who used to play in his garden.
Sousuke’s not afraid. Not even when he is gently directed back towards a chair. The better to keep him from slumping undignified to the floor, he supposes. He meets the stares of his executioners evenly. Without flinching, aware of their hatred. Their anger. Their relief.
Unohana-san’s hands are gentle. As they always are. Her fingers warm and soft as she pushes his sleeve upwards, baring his skin to the chilly air. Sousuke forces himself to look in her eyes. Her face, like before, is unreadable. Yet, her eyes tell the tale. Of apology and sorrow, as though this hurts her far more than it will hurt him. There is so much that he could say, but he keeps his words to himself. He would not speak them in front of all these witnesses. But somehow, his silence says enough.
He doesn’t flinch when the needle pierces his skin. Or when he feels the potent chemical enter his bloodstream. Or the warmth that floods his arm, floods his body. He starts to feel fatigued, and Sousuke fights it. He fights for coherence to the last moment, letting a gaze full of clarity fall on each and every person in the room.
Sousuke slides into darkness silently. A darkness that is surprisingly not cold. Rather, it is warm and gentle. Like a loving embrace. There are sounds in the far distance – voices, music, words – but he can’t make them out. Like they are in the next room over and muffled by wood and concrete. He can’t feel his limbs, can’t feel much of anything. And he wonders if this is what death is supposed to be like. Just an endless nothing?
There is a low, dull thump. Not a sound but a feeling, something that vibrates across his skin rhythmically. Like the beat of a heart, slower and slower with each passing moment. But never quite stopping entirely.
And then, the images start. Flickering in front of his eyes. Grainy like an old movie from the living world before the advent of modern film. They are in black and white, out of order. The past and then the present and then the Academy and then Hueco Mundo and then his time in the fifth division followed by the thirteenth. It’s like he’s floating through each image of the past, watching without sound, remembering strongly or faintly depending on the situation.
Sousuke floats and watches and grieves. And on one occasion, he even laughs. He remembers and reminds himself of all the reasons he had chosen to try and become god.
He sees Kouichi. Laughing, smiling, grinning. More than a friend but a brother. Only a real brother and not the creature that Sousuke has to claim by blood.
He sees Shunsui, alive and whole and trying to drag his nose-stuffed-in-a-book younger self out into the world. More a father than Yoshio ever was.
He sees Unohana-san, smiling gently as she dabs ointment on his face. Never believing his story of those damn tricky stairs for a minute. Her eyes are blue, the same shade as those of her son. Shining with concern. With anger. With a determination to protect.
Someone calls his name. It’s the first actually audible thing that he’s picked up. It’s more than a murmur or muffled noise.
He stirs, feels his fingers and toes tingle, feels them wiggle. It’s the first time he’s moved since floating in the black. The images are fading, less grainy, less black and white. Now drifting away like smoke on the wind.
His eyes snap open as his name echoes around the small room, and he feels warm, gentle fingers on his face. The world is blurry, but his nose still works. Antiseptic, herbs, molasses. Above him is a black and blue blur. And beyond it, a bright light that makes him wince. He makes a sound in the back of his throat. Little more than a whimper, like his voice has stopped working.
“Thank the gods,” a familiar voice whispers. “I worried I’d given you too much.”
Sousuke knows that voice. He knows that scent. He knows where he is. Why isn’t he dead? He should be dead. The Shinigami have killed him. He remembers the prick of the needle and the warmth of the poison. But he’s not dead.
He works his jaw. Forces sound out through his throat. Feeling as if gears are shifting that haven’t worked in years.
“Retsu, my dearest. I have always given you permission to call me Retsu,” she chides softly, and her hands leave his forehead to move elsewhere. “Though you never took me up on it.”
Something pricks at his skin, followed by soothing warmth to chase away the chill that has invaded his flesh. Slowly, surely, awareness dawns. The world focuses, and he recognizes the blurs now.
“Retsu-san,” Sousuke amends with little more than a dry croak. “Why… am I alive?”
Her face appears in his line of sight. Pale and pinched with fatigue. Blue eyes dark with sadness but so full of affection that he has to look away.
“I couldn’t let them kill you, dear heart.” And her hands find his face and force him to look at her. “I love you,” she says with such vehemence that he's taken aback. “I love you, and I couldn’t let you die. Kyouraku-san… He and I were in agreement. We would save you if we could. And I did.”
He can hardly stand to face her. To let her gaze into his eyes with the knowledge of what he’s done. The war, he doesn’t regret. But other things? Gin? His uncle? The reminder of them is an open wound, a pain that still aches. The blood on his hands has never felt so thick and gummy. So strongly scented of copper. So tainted and ugly.
His fingers twitch feebly as Sousuke thinks to grab her hand. “They won’t accept this,” he says, unable to give voice to anything else.
“Accept what?” She smiles gently. “To them, you are dead. They need never know.”
Hotness pricks at the back of his eyes. He’s not sure if it’s because of whatever concoctions are surging through his systems or if it’s another reason entirely. Gratitude surges inside of him. Along with other and stronger emotions. All faster than Sousuke can process. Feelings of comfort and tenderness and warmth, things he’s never held for Aizen Sakura but has always carefully protected for this woman.
She shushes him, a gentle finger pressed to his lips. “Let the drug finish working out of your system first. Save your strength, dear. You’ll need it.”
And she kisses his forehead then. Soft and light and full of something nameless. Just like when he was a child and never knew the gentleness of a mother’s touch save hers.
“There you are.”
The voice bursts through Sousuke’s memory like a balloon struck by a sharp pin. He blinks, startled, and turns slowly. Recognizing the voice before he sets his eyes on the man. Hirako is standing there, grinning like a damn fool with hands shoved in his pockets.
“I was startin’ ta think ya were avoidin’ me.”
How very accurate. Sousuke, in fact, was. But he can’t tell Hirako that. Hirako is one of the few here not treating him like a time bomb just waiting to explode.
Instead, Sousuke smoothly changes the subject. “Weren’t you with Nel-chan?”
Hirako waves a dismissing hand through the air. “She caught sight of Ichigo, and after that, I was forgotten.” He twists his jaw and purses his lips. “Damn kid’s always gonna be more popular than me. Seems ta be a common curse that I suffer from.” His eyes glance pointedly Sousuke’s direction.
Well, Ichigo-kun is about ten times more likeable. Though that is yet another comment that Sousuke will keep to himself. Best not to antagonize his new roommate after all.
“Kurosaki-kun does have a certain air about him,” Sousuke agrees thoughtfully, a much safer comment to make than the truth rattling inside his brain. “A certain charisma if you will.”
Hirako looks at him for a long moment before his lips curl into a slow, lazy grin. “Noticed that, have ya?” he asks with a thoughtful hum. “What else have ya discovered ‘bout Ichigo?”
Unsure if Hirako is attempting to trick or tease him, Sousuke pauses to consider. “He is more intelligent than anyone gives him credit. And he is chafing under Urahara’s mother-like smothering.”
The Vizard laughs and hooks fingers in his belt loops. He rocks on his heels with an enormous grin.
“What? Ya don’t think their relationship’s all snuggly-cute and gag-worthy?”
“Definitely the latter,” Sousuke agrees. “But it’s not my place to form an opinion either way.”
“A perfectly political answer,” Hirako comments with a sniff and peers at Sousuke again. As though looking right through him and seeing everything that he fails to hide.
Not that there is anything.
“Kisuke… He’s somethin’ else, ain’t he?” Hirako questions, and Sousuke can tell that is rhetorical.
“What that something else is can be a matter of much debate,” he still can’t help but reply. “A man. A child. A human-shaped octopus.”
That only earns him a snort.
“I’d forgotten how funny ya could be.” Hirako gives a slap to Sousuke’s shoulder that near drives him to his knees.
“I’d forgotten how hard you could hit,” Sousuke retorts, somehow managing to steady himself.
Hirako chuckles. “Such a comedian. Ya probably still kill all the ladies. Right, Sousuke?”
“Hardly,” the former overlord replies drolly.
Hirako just grins again at that and studies Sousuke’s face again. But then, he’s silent for a minute. Peering at his one-time lieutenant with an intent air before he frowns. As though he’s found something he doesn’t like. As though he can see into Sousuke’s soul and is somehow concerned with what he’s found.
“It’s good ta see ya like this,” the blond comments then.
It earns him a lifted eyebrow.
“Oh? And how exactly am I like?”
Sousuke feels a flicker of warning seconds after he asks. A tingle that cautions him of approaching danger.
“Better,” Hirako says bluntly. “Even if yer not happy. I don’t think I’ve ever seen ya like that. Content, sure. But not outright happy without Gin-chan nearby.” He considers for a heartbeat. “But ya seem better now. Better than ya were at the end of the war.”
Sousuke lifts an eyebrow. Even as a hand clenches at his side.
“Forgive me, Hirako-san,” he inserts with complete and utter calm that is completely and utterly forced. “But I was not at my best then.”
Not even near to it.
His former captain gazes at him, face unreadable. “I don’t mean the fact that ya lost, and ya know it.” There is something akin to sympathy then. “It’s not easy losing yer dad. Much less a kid. And I can’t pretend that I know what it’s like.”
Sousuke stills. His throat refuses to work for a moment. But when it does, his voice is firm and without any of the emotions swirling inside.
“I am not Gin’s father.”
But Sousuke realizes then the error he’s made. Hirako hadn’t mention Gin by name. And yet, Sousuke had known exactly who he meant.
Hirako stares at him, eyes penetrating and incisive. As they’ve always been, one hundred years ago and now.
“Ya might not be his dad, but that didn’t make him any less your son. Didn’t mean that him dying hurt any less.”
Sousuke’s lips firm. As though trying to keep the truth inside where it belongs and not out in the open where anyone can mock him for it.
“I’m not the poor, misguided child you think I am. I’m not the pitiable victim who just needs to be understood,” he says tightly, thinking he knows where Hirako is deriving his sudden friendliness from. “I’m everything that Urahara and your fellow Vizard believe me to be. Every epithet that Soul Society has branded on me. Make no mistake, Hirako-san, I am the villain here.”
A moment of silence follows his declaration before Hirako snorts and crowds in on Sousuke’s personal space. All but pinning him against the wall.
“Don’t play that bullshit game with me, Sou-chan. Ya want me ta feel sorry for you?” he asks, but it isn’t nearly as harsh as it should be. “Pity ya? Do ya need me ta reassure ya? Pat ya on the back and say ‘It’s okay. You’re not that bad of a guy?’”
Sousuke’s eyes narrow. “I have never sought your sympathy, and I certainly haven’t asked for forgiveness either.”
“Why should you? I doubt there’s anything you regret.” Hirako’s tone is low as he cocks his head, as though an idea has just occurred to him. “No, I take that back. I can think of a few things as a matter of fact. And I know without your sarcasm, that you’re not the monster you’re trying ta convince me ya are.”
Sousuke tilts his head and refuses to be intimidated by his former captain. “I don’t need to convince you. My actions speak for themselves.”
“That they do,” Hirako agrees with another of his wide-mouthed, teeth-gleaming grins. “They tell me everythin’ I need ta know. And only prove that you’re not the merciless, bloodthirsty bastard ya think ya are.”
“So certain of that, are you?” he retorts with eyes still narrowed behind his glasses.
Hirako draws back, one hand flicking through the air as the other rests on his hip. “I know that ya could’ve beaten me. Me and Retsu-san both.” His face is tight and controlled. “Ya could’ve cut us down after mindfucking us so thoroughly that we thought the sky was pink and the ground made of cotton candy.”
He studies Sousuke. And eyes the exits as though refusing the former overlord the chance to escape.
“But we both know ya didn’t try in the end. Not really. Not after Shunsui. And not after Gin-chan.” Hirako’s gaze is so intense that Sousuke fights not to look away. “You’d stopped caring by then. And truth be told, I think ya wanted to die. Ya wanted one of us ta kill ya. Put ya out of yer misery.”
“Is that so?”
His eyebrows twitch. Question forced out through clenched teeth while he fights his body’s urge to start shaking. Hirako’s words strike too deeply, too true. And Sousuke hates that Hirako has always been able to see right through him.
“It is.” Hirako pauses and looks right at him as though Sousuke’s so transparent he might as well not even have a body. “There’s your regret, right there. And it makes me wonder if maybe that’s why ya really went ta find Ichigo in the first place. Ya were hoping he’d kill ya, and when he didn’t, ya had to go with plan B.”
Sousuke feels his fingers draw into fists, not out of violence. But to stop himself from a pathetic, visible trembling.
“If I wanted death so badly, I wouldn’t be here and hiding with you,” he cuts in sharply. “I would have walked out in the street, announced myself to Soul Society, and let them do as they willed.”
“But then you’d be betraying Retsu’s sacrifice, wouldn’t ya?” Hirako says smugly and nods in satisfaction at the subtle widening of Sousuke’s eyes. “Oh yeah, I know who helped ya. In the end, I only needed one guess. She would’ve done anything ta save ya. Shunsui would’ve, too. Had he lived, I wouldn’t have been surprised if he disappeared into the living world with ya. Especially since Ukitake would’ve had Ichigo ta take care of ‘im.”
To Sousuke’s horror, he finds himself taking a step away from Hirako’s all-too-close-to-the-truth accusation. He stops himself. But not until the damage has already been done.
“She shouldn’t have taken the risk,” Sousuke manages after a beat. “But I will not dishonor that either.”
Hirako gives a fierce nod. “At least you’ve held on ta some common sense,” he comments and thumbs his chin, eyes raking Sousuke up and down. Opens his mouth to say something further.
But another voice cuts in before he can.
And never has anyone sounded so much like a blessing to Sousuke as Ichigo-kun does now. He turns to see the young man approaching. Trailed by Nel Tu, who skips happily after him in her child form, all but clinging to his pants.
Hirako brightens, spreading his arms wide. “Ichigo!” he greets enthusiastically. “Were ya lookin’ for me?”
Ichigo-kun makes a face. One of long-standing patience. And oddly, he rubs at his chest. Directly over his sternum as though it pains him in some way. A very odd motion. And one Sousuke recalls him doing several times in the past. How peculiar.
“Kinda. More like Kisuke was looking for you, and I was sent to play fetch.”
“That lazy bum,” Hirako puts in with cheer. As though he and Sousuke hadn’t just been discussing dark and dire topics. “What about?”
Ichigo-kun shrugs. His eyes briefly flicker to Sousuke, who is very subtly inching out of Hirako’s peripheral vision.
“He didn’t say.”
“Figures.” Hirako snorts and casts a very fake but still apologetic glance Sousuke’s direction. “Well, I guess we’ll have ta save our heart-ta-heart for later, Sou-chan. And we were makin’ so much progress.”
Sousuke resists the childish urge to roll his eyes. “It is regrettable indeed, Hirako-san,” he lies, relief flooding through him at the convenient excuse.
The blond harrumphs at Sousuke’s reversion to a polite distance. But turns on his heel nevertheless and strides down the hall in the direction Ichigo-kun had come, waving a over his shoulder. Then, Ichigo-kun gives Sousuke a long searching look as though trying to figure out a particularly stubborn puzzle before moving to follow Hirako.
They leave Nel-chan behind, standing and staring up at Sousuke as though she’s seeing a new person and not her former ruler. He returns her stare. Never quite sure what to make of the Arrancar who at random moments switches between adult and child.
“Where are ya goin’ now?” Nel-chan asks, trotting up alongside him as he goes opposite of Hirako’s direction.
He hopes for a little piece of quiet. And perhaps a touch of rationality and sanity to go with it. Both of which are in short supply in this place.
“I’m not exactly sure,” he answers truthfully because not even he has fully explored this place and knows it’ll be difficult to find a room not infested by Vizard or perverted shopkeepers. “Somewhere quiet.”
There’s a pop, a slight surge of reiatsu. And suddenly, Neliel is beside him in her adult form, watching him curiously as her clothes stretch to almost obscene proportions. Her gaze is steady and intelligent, insightful.
“I think I know just the place,” she pronounces and grabs his hand lightening fast.
Sousuke blinks in surprise. And idly wonders why she has chosen to linger with him. They’ve never truly spoken aside from meetings with his Espada. Or when he dispensed orders in his usual detached but polite way.
“Lead on” is all he can say as curiosity eats at him.
Neliel beams and tugs him along. He allows her to pull him down the hallway and into the main room where Yadomaru Lisa is still engrossed by her movie. The bespectacled Vizard spares them a parting look but little else, and Neliel moves to the opposite side of the room where another door opens into yet another hallway. This one is brighter, filled with a cheery, sweet smell.
Sousuke follows Neliel to the kitchen of all places. Where the sunlight shines through the window over the sink that’s covered in lacey, yellow curtains of all things. No one’s here at the moment, but the sight of a pot bubbling on the stove proves that someone will return at some point. Neliel doesn’t pause, however, moving easily through the room to the door on the other side.
It doesn’t open to a backyard, like Sousuke expects. Rather to a sun room with a wide set of glass doors that reveal a veranda covered in green vegetation. The room itself is carefully packed with various bits of furniture, and it holds a quaint, homey sort of feeling. Which begs the question of who, among the insane and tasteless Vizard, could’ve designed and decorated such a room.
Neliel takes him to a chair and all but sits him down in it. Sousuke just allows it and watches as she wanders over to the sliding doors, staring out but not leaving. He supposes if he has to suffer anyone’s company, Neliel in her current form is most preferable, aside from a decent conversation with Ichigo-kun. Still, Sousuke isn’t sure where Neliel stands on his presence.
“When you said quiet, did you also mean alone?” she asks then, turning to regard him with those eerily mature eyes.
Sousuke shakes his head. Occupying his own gaze by intently studying one of the few paintings decorating the walls.
“I would not argue against company such as yours,” he replies easily enough.
A small, indulgent smile curls Neliel’s lips. “You always were a smooth talker,” she comments, as though she’d been the ruler and he the subordinate. “I wouldn’t begrudge you solitude, Aizen-san.”
He pauses to consider her. Tilting his head slightly.
“I’m actually curious,” he admits.
She quirks a brow a faces him fully. “Oh?”
Sousuke settles for sincerity since there’s something about Neliel that speaks of blunt honesty. That she won’t play silly word games and she won’t mock him for speaking the truth. That she won’t try to use it against him in some way. That Sousuke can be frank without worry.
“Am I foe or friend?”
Neliel smiles at him and chuckles softly. “Neither.” She lowers herself into a chair with more grace than Sousuke would’ve expected. “Right now, you are Aizen-san, a man I once admired greatly and still might. A few minutes ago, you were Aizen-sama, the terrible but amazing. Who dared challenge Soul Society and its might. It is all simply a matter of perspective.”
It takes Sousuke several seconds to reason out her explanation before understanding crashes over him. Ah, she is referring to her different forms. Sousuke supposes that makes an odd sort of sense.
“Then I needn’t worry about a knife in the back?” he questions with a slight smile of his own. “Or perhaps one in the front?”
“Not from me.” She gives that mysterious, knowing almost-smirk at him once again. “You were always too busy for us, but I remember Ichimaru-sama fondly, Aizen-san. Sometimes, he had nothing better to do than chat with the Espada. Those who would sit around and listen to him at any rate.”
Sousuke can’t help the involuntary hitch in his breathing or the stutter in his heart at the mention of Gin. He so rarely finds reason to talk about him; there are none around who regard him in a favorable light like Sousuke does. No, he’s surrounded by mostly enemies who consider anyone in connection with him to be made of the same, vile components. They don’t see Gin as Sousuke does. Do not remember him as the boy who was so happy to follow in his shadow and bask in his attention.
He leans forward, bracing his elbows on his knees. “Did he now?” Sousuke asks, and fondness curls his lips. “I always wondered where he went when he disappeared. And he did speak well of you, Neliel.”
“I’m sure he had other equally secret getaways,” she agrees with a similarly fond chuckle. “But he’d talk of Soul Society or Rukongai or the past with me and anyone else who’d listen. Ulquiorra whenever Ichimaru-sama mentioned you. Halibel sometimes. Stark if he was awake and in need of a good cup of tea.”
Something tugs at Sousuke’s insides. “He always did brew the best tea.”
The past calls to him so strongly that Sousuke can’t ignore it. He wants to relish in old, happy memories. To remind himself of better times before his foolishness had gotten nearly everyone who meant anything to him killed.
But his thoughts, it seems, have a mind of their own. And Sousuke doesn’t recall gentle times. Doesn’t remember little boy laughter and the feel of silvery hair sliding affectionately through his fingers. Or watching Gin master techniques and skills effortlessly. Or sparring shikai to bankai and the sight of Gin’s smile whenever he managed to score a hit. Or the taste of well-made tea and warmth of pride at the man across from him, newly frocked in a captain’s haori.
He only thinks of the last minutes of Gin’s life. When he’d failed to do anything to prevent his death. When Sousuke was too far, too weak, too distracted and could only watch as Gin fell to Senbonzakura.
On the other side of the battlefield, he feels Gin’s reiatsu spike. A feeling of dread accompanies the burst of power and claws at his belly. Gin is usually so calm, unruffled, his power something that rarely finds needs to rise. And Sousuke knows that there are few on the battlefield capable of providing challenge to his second. Few who can fight him at full strength. But Gin has already battled this day. Already fought long and hard against two Vizard and driven them back.
Sousuke turns, eyes raking the combat zone. Looking with both sight and sense. Trying to identify Gin’s opponent through streaks of familiar and unfamiliar reiatsu that soak the air and the ground. Ukitake is there somewhere, all jagged lightning and indignant tidal wave. But he’s dropping back, reiatsu pulling around him like one would a thick coat on a cold day.
Gin’s facing someone else now. Someone who tastes sharp and refined. Cold and relentless. Not as young as Hitsugaya, but jaded.
Sousuke is less concerned now. Actually feels a flicker of relief. There’s no way that Kuchiki is capable of defeating Gin. Not by a long shot and not if he couldn’t even take down that Kurosaki brat. Sousuke turns his attention back to his own opponents, little more than distractions on his goal to obtaining the Royal Key.
He’s so close to victory that Sousuke can practically taste it. The power that he’ll soon carry, the ability to change the world, to alter Soul Society. To protect and prevent and hold the world in the palm of his hands. More power than Sousuke can possibly imagine. It is everything they’ve ever worked for. Everything they’ve ever dreamed.
Tousen who lost his closest friend and only family. Murdered by her own husband.
Gin who grew up among the worst parts of Rukongai. Surrounded by poverty and pain and death.
Sousuke himself. Who intimately knows the corruption inherent in their own government. In Chamber 46 and the father who held the power of life and death over his youngest son.
But then, Gin’s reiatsu surges again. Stronger this time, tasting of desperation. Full of pain and the reopening of injuries he earned hours ago and Sousuke had thought healed. Surges and then sputters.
And Sousuke whirls in just enough time to see him falter. To watch his slow fall that seems to take forever but not long at all. For their eyes to meet one final time and for Gin to mouth out words he no longer has the strength to voice.
“I’m sorry,” he tries to say. “Forgive me, Aizen-taichou.”
Then, he is lost to a wave of pink petals. And seconds later, his reiatsu flickers and fades away.
Neliel’s voice pulls him from the memories. Sousuke shakes his head, though the motion does little to chase away the grief and anger such recollections bring to life. He failed Gin as much as he failed himself. And here, he is. Concocting another scheme with an even smaller margin of success. Why? For all the reasons Hirako had outlined to him? Did he crave power that much? Did he truly care what happened to Soul Society anymore? Did he care if it survived when Shunsui and Gin were both gone? When Ulquiorra was little more than ashes in the wind?
What did it matter?
Sousuke bites back his sigh. “Nothing,” he says, unwilling to divulge the absolute truth. “The past is simply proving particularly strong today.”
“It’s never completely forgotten,” Neliel agrees with a solemn nod.
He knows that she now thinks of her fallen Fracción. Lost to a Shinigami who mistook them for those still loyal to Sousuke. And he wonders if the man ever lived to regret that ghastly mistake. If Neliel delivered the justice he so sorely deserved and she so desperately needed.
But then, who among them gets what they deserve?
Not Gin. He deserved an easier life. The one that Seireitei promised but failed to deliver. Instead receiving one full of whispers and rumors and near knives to his back.
Not Shunsui. He deserved a son of his own. A better son. One who could return his love and goodness wholeheartedly. Who wasn’t so damaged that he couldn’t offer more than betrayal.
Not Sousuke himself. He deserves a far worse fate. One meant for sons who murder their fathers. For fathers who outlive their sons. For failures who still cling to the past and refuse to put the dead to rest.
Coming up next time!
Chapter 20: Revelation, Ichigo's POV, in which a familiar face returns but it's not a very happy reunion.
See you next time! Comments are always appreciated!