Snake in the Fold
He wasn’t sure exactly what he thought he was doing. He was supposed to be keeping a low profile. He was supposed to be avoiding detection. He was supposed to be dead, after all. However, here he was, crouched in a tree, overlooking a sidewalk as the boy that had defeated Aizen walked past him without noticing him at all. He was amazed that he had no powers. However, some of his friends did have power. It was lucky he was good at masking his reiatsu.
He’d been watching for quite some time now. He had a hiding place in the world of the living, and considering most people couldn’t see him, he was relatively safe. Of course, people like Kisuke Urahara and Isshin Shiba would be able to sense him, and perhaps Shihōin. Other than that, Ichigo’s companions, while relatively powerful, wouldn’t be able to sense his presence. He fingered the short blade at his waist. Really, why was he so…?
He paused. There it was again. He twirled around and tried to pin down the reiatsu. Whoever it was could mask their reiatsu really well, but now and then, they slipped, and he could get a read on them. He wasn’t the only one trailing the powerless substitute Shinigami.
He noticed it a month after he escaped from the rubble he’d “died” in. He wondered at first why no one came looking for him. Then he understood. Of course, the one person in the world he’d do anything for wouldn’t tell anyone he had survived. She was the closest to his heart, and the one person that cried over his body despite everything he’d done. She knew he’d done it all to protect her. In the end, it was her tears that he regretted seeing the most.
Yes, Gin Ichimaru wasn’t quite as dead as most would like to believe.
Gin had many things about him that were sly and slippery; of course, it was simply in his nature. There were many things about him that no one realized. No one realized he was never on Aizen’s side. Everyone always assumed he was only what was on the surface. He was so much more. He had stayed in the World of the Living at first just because he wanted to hide. It seemed like a good plan. Then, he’d been lounging in a park one day and saw the Shinigami substitute walk by. He had sensed the absence of power. Of course, that made him curious, so he tailed the people that were often with him. Over the next few months he picked up that he’d lost his powers defeating Aizen. He couldn’t even sense spirits anymore.
The boy was broken. He saw it. The look on his face was one he’d seen before. He was powerless. He was unable to do the things he’d done before. He was unable to protect those he loved. At first Gin just followed him out of curiosity, of course. He wanted to see what would become of one that had had so much power at the tip of their fingers only to have it snatched from their grip. He wanted to know what that would be like. So, at first, for over a year, he simply hung on the edges of his world without interfering. He watched as he turned seventeen and his family celebrated, but no one from Soul Society was around. Gin sensed someone now and then, but he never strayed too close to the other higher reiatsu in the area. He definitely didn’t sense the other captains. He kept watching.
Then he started sensing the blips. Strong bursts of reiatsu, captain level or better, but hollow. Arrancar, perhaps? He would never locate them, and could never find an opening garganta. Now and then, he sensed a senkaimon opening, but nothing else. Urahara and occasionally the area Shinigami would dispatch threats. For another long stretch, he waited and watched from the shadows. The strange appearances of abnormally strong reiatsu bothered him. With no opening and closing garganta, whatever it was didn’t leave. Whatever it was had a capability to mask itself quite effectively.
Gin shook his head. It was the ending of July again. He’d watched from a distance as the ex-Shinigami gave his friends what he thought they wanted. He watched and felt the presence again. He took off, not catching the fact that the dark-haired companion of the Shinigami below caught him moving away.
“I don’t know, Ishida-kun,” Orihime said softly. She was sitting on the grass beside Uryū. “I don’t know what to make of him anymore. It…it’s been over two years. Shouldn’t he have gotten better by now?”
Uryū shook his head. “What can we do? I know what he’s feeling, Orihime, the helplessness of losing all that power. But Kurosaki, even more so. He sacrificed everything to save Soul Society and the World of the Living. He gave up so much, and he really didn’t get anything in return.”
Gin stood far enough away that his presence wouldn’t go detected by the Quincy or the woman, but close enough that he could hear them.
“He never leaves home, and when he does, he just…he’s sad,” she said, sighing.
Uryū nodded. “I know. Urahara has been helping Karin, you know, and Kurosaki pretends not to notice that she can see what he can’t. It hurts him a lot more than he’ll ever say, I think. Knowing that his father even is powerful. I think he feels useless.”
Orihime sighed again and leaned into Uryū’s arms. He looked surprised but he put his arms around her. “Ishida-kun, is it okay to give up on something that will never happen?” she said quietly.
He nodded. “Of course, Inoue. Hopeless causes are just that, hopeless.”
“Kurosaki-kun will never be more than my friend, will he?” she said softly. “Even after everything he did for me, it was for a friend, not for any other reason.”
Uryū swallowed. “Yeah, I’m afraid so, Inoue. I don’t think he’s ever seen you as more than a friend. I doubt he ever will. Giving your heart to someone that can’t accept it will only hurt you. I think…I think sometimes giving up is necessary.”
She nodded then turned and kissed Uryū on the cheek, blushing as she did it and turned away, hiding her face. Uryū blinked, surprised.
“I’m sorry,” she said softly, still not looking at him.
Uryū put his hand on her shoulder. “Don’t be sorry,” he said, softly, pulling her arm to make her turn toward him. “I’m not a hopeless cause.”
Gin sighed, leaping up and heading toward Kurosaki’s house. He didn’t sense Isshin nearby so he landed outside the window in the tree to watch inside. Ichigo slammed the door and tossed his books to the floor and opened the window with a violent shove. He growled and flopped on the bed and ran his hands through his hair. Grin frowned and leapt upon the sill to watch closer. It wasn’t like he could see or hear him, after all.
He watched as Ichigo reached over and grabbed a spiral bound book and began to do something within the pages with a pen. Gin waited. After what seemed like hours, he shut the book and buried his face in the bed. Gin heard a call for dinner come from downstairs from one of his sisters.
“Not hungry,” he yelled, lifting his head and then putting it back down with a sigh. “Never hungry anymore.”
Gin waited a while longer and he fell asleep, then he crept inside as the sun began to set. He sat down beside the sleeping form and picked up the book. He opened the first page to see it was a sketchbook. He frowned and saw that it began as images of the people from Soul Society, then Arrancar, but never anyone living. He realized quickly he was trying to capture the things he could never see again, the spiritual beings. Then there were hollows, all sorts of hollows devouring souls, and being killed by Shinigami. The images became steadily darker and more disturbing as the book continued. Finally, he got to the page he’d drawn when he came home and almost flinched. It looked like he’d been drawing his own Shinigami form, but it was twisted and warped horribly, and beside it was a rough sketch of a hollow of a sort that Gin had no idea that Ichigo would know of, White.
He flipped back over the last few weeks and realized that a lot of the hollows resembled the horned vasto lorde hollow without a hollow hole. The same mask, the same markings, the same things. That was odd, he thought. None of the images were touched again after they were sketched and occasionally they were marked with a single kanji. At first, they were marked with kanji for some attribute of the person he drew. Strength, courage, loyalty, but as the pictures warped, they became more and more rancid. Liar, Fake, False, Ruined, Promises Broken, other things like that continued throughout the latter pages. Gin even found a picture of himself among the sketches; he smiled softly because he’d written the kanji for sacrifice and protection on that page. So, the boy knew what he’d done. Even the Espada and Arrancar were labeled with positive things at the beginning before things began to decay.
He then realized the backs of the pages had notes on them in places. He frowned as he turned the book over and looked the other way. He had thought the boy was in a dark place…but this… He shook his head and put down the book. Taking a huge chance, he put a sleeping kido on him so that he didn’t wake. He had to hope no one was close enough to sense that.
He put the book down by his head and rolled his body to his back. He’d fallen asleep in his school uniform, not even bothering to change or turn down the covers on his bed. He’d been following his routines enough to know he kept himself busy by taking summer classes. Gin glanced around and saw his dresser and found pajamas inside the top drawer and took them out. He quickly pulled the covers out from under him and then set to removing the school clothes. He pulled the shirt off and saw the remains of scars he’d gotten in fights on his chest. He frowned as his thin fingers ghosted over the ribs that were too pronounced on the boy’s body. Was he starving himself?
He unbuckled the belt and the slacks and pulled them off him quickly and then found what he was seeking. He ran fingers down the varying degrees of straight cuts healing on his thighs. They began above the leg band of his underpants, how far up, Gin didn’t see, and ended above his knees. The freshest ones were less than a day old, possibly even from that day. The lines were perfectly straight and evenly measured. He frowned and slipped the pajamas on the boy’s too thin body. He felt the sudden presence of a heavy reiatsu coming toward him so he was out and gone. Isshin, no doubt.
Isshin opened the door on Ichigo’s room and looked in. “Son?” he called, but got no answer. He felt the vague presence of another reiatsu. He frowned and entered the room, looking around. The window was open, of course, it was July, and getting warm. Ichigo was in his bed, asleep. He frowned again, though, because he was in pajamas. Lately, Ichigo had become despondent and reclusive. He knew it, and he knew why, but it was this case that he couldn’t do anything about it. He saw his sketchbook lying open on the bed and picked it up. He blinked. Why was it open to this page?
He closed the book and put it on the table and looked out into the darkness. He swore to all that if that snake bastard was alive, and messing with his son, he would kill him for good this time.
Gin became increasingly more worried. He was sensing the strong reiatsu incursions more and more often and it was getting harder to tail the Kurosaki boy without being noticed. He had a feeling his visit several weeks before had been noticed by Shiba. He was watching one morning as he sat and watched Ichigo’s sister play soccer. His father and other sister sat with him and he didn’t see anything out of the ordinary. The boy looked pale, though, and more drawn. He noticed Isshin get up and go to the snack stand. He didn’t notice when he suddenly flash stepped behind him.
“Gin Ichimaru,” came Isshin’s voice. Gin winced. Damn.
“Ah, Shiba-taichou,” he said, turning and smiling at him.
Isshin crossed his arms over his shihakuso clad chest. “Kurosaki now. What are you doing following my son?”
“Mah, mah, you don’t wanna know how I’m alive?” Gin said, with his trademark smirk.
“I could care less why or how you’re alive, I want to know what you want with Ichigo. He’s been through enough. He doesn’t need anyone from Soul Society messing with his life while he’s trying to get back to living it,” Isshin said, eyes hard.
Gin snorted. “Living? Is that what your boy is doing? From what I see, he’s not doing much good, you know. You’ve seen what he’s doing to himself?”
“That’s none of your business. It is my business to help him get through it. When he works through it, he’ll be fine,” Isshin said, frowning. Isshin couldn’t hide the internal struggle at how to handle the fact that his son was cutting himself daily and refused to even discuss what was happening to him.
Gin arched a brow under his silver fringe. “Over two years, Kurosaki, I think he’s taking longer to get through it than is good for him. But that’s not why I’m here. Someone else is here, someone with hollow reiatsu. I keep sensing it, and it is following Ichigo. I’m just…”
“No, you don’t get to say things like that. The only one following him is you,” Isshin said. “If I catch you near him again, I will kill you.”
With that, he was gone and Gin stared after him. Well, this didn’t bode well for whatever was going on. He couldn’t tail him with Isshin keeping an eye out for him. He had to hope, though, that if Isshin was keeping such watch out for him, he would sense something else coming for him. He didn’t know what else to do. He couldn’t chance Soul Society getting wind of him being alive.
Gin’s worries seemed to be well founded when a burst of that same reiatsu flooded near him. He was off in a moment. He sensed Ichigo was far in the other direction. This was good, very good. He rushed toward it and dropped down into the top of an empty warehouse. The presence was covering itself again, but he was on the trail now and it wouldn’t get away from him this time. He leaped down from the rafters in front of a figure that was moving through the lower level.
“Ah!” came the muttered response and Gin found he was crossing Shinso with Pantera and facing the also assumed dead sixth Espada.
“Well, what have we here?” Gin said, locking his gaze on the surprised blue eyes of Grimmjow.
“The fuck are you doing here?” Grimmjow muttered. “Aren’t you fucking dead?”
“Aren’t you dead?” Gin said, smiling at him, unperturbed by the situation at the least it would seem.
“Fuck you, Shinigami bastard,” Grimmjow said, trying to disengage his sword from Gin’s without success.
“Mah, mah, such a foul mouth,” Gin said, dancing around as Grimmjow began to press him.
Grimmjow snorted. “I ain’t gonna fight you, fucker. Not here for that.”
“What are ya here for?” Gin asked smiling still, stepping back but keeping Shinso up at the ready.
“None yer business, fuckface,” Grimmjow snarled, stepping back and holding Pantera up.
Gin looked at him. “No Shinigami forces here now, only one lone powerless substitute that you had quite the fetish for, are you here for him? You are the one following him?”
Grimmjow shook his head in turn. “I’m here for none of yer business,” he said. “’Sides, looks ta me, you are the one following him.”
Gin shook his head and began to respond when they both turned back toward the east where they felt a garganta opening. Gin and Grimmjow both took off toward it at top speed. By the time they arrived, it was still open, and Isshin stood on the ground staring in his shihakuso and Shihōin and Urahara stood near him.
A shadowy figure in the darkness of the garganta looked back with vivid red eyes. Over his shoulder was slung an obviously unconscious Ichigo. He gave them a feral grin and was gone, the garganta snapping closed.
Isshin turned and stared at both Gin and Grimmjow. “It wasn’t either of you.”
Gin and Grimmjow looked at each other and shook their heads. “Who was that?” Gin asked, turning suspiciously toward Grimmjow.
“Fuck, just because whatever that was took him to Hueco Mundo doesn’t mean I know what the shit it was!” he exclaimed.
Isshin shook his head. “I thought…I thought it was one of you.”
At the same time, Grimmjow and Gin looked at Isshin and said, “You knew he was here?” They then glared at each other.
“I did. I thought you were each talking about the other when you said there was another reiatsu following Ichigo. I told you both to leave him alone. I thought…I thought that was it. I don’t know what that was,” he said, turning to Urahara.
Urahara shook his head. “It was hollow, but like nothing I’ve ever seen. The closest I’ve seen to that was…White.”
Isshin’s head snapped up. “White? Ichigo has no power, White isn’t there anymore, what does he matter?”
Urahara shook his head. “No, you don’t understand, since he’s come back, I’ve sensed it. His power, it is still there, under the surface, dormant, waiting to be activated, revived by something. I’m not sure how to do it myself, or I would have spoken of it sooner. It may be that something that forces power onto him will do it, or it may be something else entirely. I’ve been talking to Mayuri about a plan to possibly transfer power to him like Rukia did in the beginning, but we haven’t gotten approval from the Sou-Taichou.”
Gin shook his head. “That doesn’t matter, what are you doing here?” he said, turning to Grimmjow.
Grimmjow shook his head. “Look, I’m fucking here because Starrk wanted to keep an eye on the kid, and I don’t know what the fuck White is.”
Urahara looked at him. “Starrk didn’t perish?”
Grimmjow shook his head. “Starrk’s taken over Las Noches, runs the place now with those of us that survived. Tier and her girls are there, what’s left of the others have gathered there. Lilynette hasn’t recovered yet, so Starrk isn’t up to his full power yet, but she’s mending.”
“Can you open a garganta?” Gin said to Grimmjow.
Grimmjow nodded. “Yeah, I can take us to Las Noches.”
“Let’s go,” he said nodding to him.
Before Urahara and Isshin could even say anything, Grimmjow flicked his fingers and opened it. Gin turned to Isshin.
“I wasn’t here to hurt him, Kurosaki-san. I’ll bring him home.”
With that, the pair disappeared into the darkness.
Ichigo awoke with a start and realized he couldn’t move. He turned from left to right and saw no one and realized he had no idea where he was. It looked like he was in a cave or something. He was tied down on something but he couldn’t tell what it was. His wrists were secured above his head, and his legs were both strapped down to something at the ankle, but he couldn’t see it because his knees were bent as though his legs were dangling off whatever he was laying on. There was a cloth gag in his mouth.
He looked around but fear began to climb his throat. He knew this place and he had no idea how he was here as a human. He was in Hueco Mundo again.