Kidnapped. Abducted. Such insignificant words aren’t quite enough to describe his current situation.
That one fits much better.
A fucking prisoner. They say guest, but this is what they really mean. It’s not like he can leave, after all; he’s here for the long haul, the victim of a few backstabbing comrades and a reiatsu inhibitor. Of course, that doesn’t even count the babysitters they’ve given him.
And he still can’t believe that he fell for it, much less that Rukia and Renji and hell, even Toushirou were all in on it. He should have known something was up when they came, when they appeared at his house without invitation or warning. He should have guessed something was up, especially after they escaped from Hueco Mundo. Should have known after all those strange and almost calculating looks he received.
But no, he’s Kurosaki Ichigo. Substitute Shinigami and all around patsy, a useful tool to be used only when needed.
The first week is both better and worse than he expected. He doesn’t speak to anyone, not to his minders… babysitters. Not to his so-called friends. Not even to the eleventh, despite the fact he’s staying with them. He doesn’t think his silent treatment is childish per se. It would be childish to rant, to rave at their actions, to yell and scream. Besides, his coldness unnerves them more than shouts ever could.
Ichigo watches them all carefully, eyes scrutinizing everyone who comes within fifty feet of him. Too wary of being stabbed in the back again. Kenpachi’s squad he doesn’t worry about as much. Those whackjobs at least have always preferred to assault people from the front.
He relents slightly when he realizes that Ikkaku and Yumichika-san are just as pissed about his situation as he is. And apparently, the rest of their division feels much the same, especially Yachiru. However, that’s the lone bright point of this whole fiasco.
And the worst part… the worst part is the seal. It’s like he’s trapped in a dark room with no way out and both hands tied behind his back. He can’t see. He can’t move. He can’t catch his breath. He can hardly feel Zangetsu. Hell, he can barely even hear his Hollow.
But nothing Ikkaku says or does makes it any better, and Yumichika-san has no idea what to do either. They can’t do much of anything but try to distract him, keep him busy with sparring. But Ichigo can feel their eyes on him when they think he isn’t looking, knows that their helplessness eats at them just as much as his own does him.
And even Kenpachi has had mercy on him. It is truly a sad, sad day when that maniac feels bad enough not to pick a fight. Of course, the fact that Ichigo doubts he could so much as ward off Keigo at the moment probably plays a role in that decision.
Time drags on, one day bleeding into the next with a sense of slow agony. He wonders when… if he’ll ever see his family again. He wonders where his friends are, what Ishida, Inoue, and Chad are doing at this very moment. He wonders if they’re coming for him, if they’ll save him. But a sinking sensation in his heart tells him that he already knows the answer.
And it hurts. It hurts more than he’ll ever admit to anyone, heart aching in his chest.
They aren’t coming for him. His friends have abandoned him when he needs them the most. Sure, they probably don’t think he needs rescuing, not in Soul Society where he’s safe, but he does. The damned inhibitor makes him so weak; he can barely function. Even if they don’t come to rescue him, he would still like to see them, know that they’re thinking of him.
Renji and Rukia are a poor substitute for his real friends, the people who couldn’t give less of a damn what the old man decrees. They just sit around, watching him like all the rest of his babysitters and reporting back to their captains if he so much as hiccups funny. Even their sad faces and apologetic eyes aren’t enough to ease the ache.
It hurts more than words can describe. Tears him up inside worse than his Hollow ever managed. Gives a coppery tang to his mouth, the flavor of betrayal so strong that he chokes.
And if anyone hears him at night and if his eyes are more than a little red in the morning, Kenpachi never once mentions it.
It has to be the Hollow’s mask. Or more generally, the Hollow itself. It can’t be any other reason. He never revealed what happened in Hueco Mundo, never mentioned how he managed to get away from Aizen and Ichimaru after he made his friends go on without him. He hasn’t told anybody, not a single soul, not even Rukia. Ichigo has never told them how he really escaped Las Noches.
Aizen let him go.
The former captain had simply smiled at him and allowed him to go on his merry way. But that was only after several very tense moments, Ichigo clutching Zangetsu so tightly that his hands bled. The man had merely studied him, in turn, brown eyes searching.
“They will betray you in the end, Kurosaki-kun,” he had said, voice and face oddly soft as Ichigo stilled completely. “I’ll be waiting.”
The man had lingered for several seconds before simply turning and walking away.
His suspicions are only confirmed two weeks to the day after his abduction. Toushirou, his minder for the day, wakes him up just before dawn and all but orders him to get dressed. Ichigo does so absentmindedly, too preoccupied with returning to consciousness to object. He balks, however, when the midget tells him to leave Zangetsu behind but complies, knowing that he can’t beat the captain with his reiatsu bound.
And it is only as they are leaving the eleventh division compound that Ichigo realizes no one else is awake yet. Suspicion grows inside him as they walk the deserted streets of Seireitei, and just as the sun rises, they go through the gates to another squad and inside a rather nondescript building
Ichigo instantly identifies the three people waiting to see him: braid-lady, the weirdo from the twelfth, and his freakshow daughter. He tenses as he takes in his surrounding, knowing an examination room when he sees one and recognizing a few devices as ones Urahara has. He’s supposedly here for a few tests and will be free to leave afterwards, but Ichigo’s belly twists with the realization of what exactly they’re testing.
They know what he is; he can see it reflected in their faces. Their curiosity is as evident as Inoue’s fear the first time she saw his mask. And he doesn’t miss the way Toushirou’s hand not-so-subtly rests near his sword. But Ichigo knows he can’t win, knows that he can’t beat three captains at once.
He just sits on the bed and closes his eyes.
The weirdo is excited, practically vibrating with glee like a child given a new plaything. Braid-lady smiles, but it doesn’t reach her eyes. Ichigo has the distinct impression that she’s mostly there to keep her colleague in line and to prevent him from being damaged too much. Toushirou loiters by the door, ostensibly standing guard.
Their tests take hours. Are rather painful and invasive in a way that the ones the geta-boushi ran on him never were. And he finds himself missing the dirty pervert, who would at least talk to him through the procedures and always stopped when Ichigo became uncomfortable.
But braid-lady and the weirdo don’t stop. Not even when Ichigo groans in pain, his nerves on fire.
They let him go some indeterminable amount of time later, but Ichigo knows that he’ll be back, if not tomorrow then some other day. Toushirou escorts him to the eleventh and leaves him at the gate. The midget lingers, acting as though he has something to say but never voicing it.
Ichigo staggers inside and passes by Ikkaku and Yumichika-san without really seeing them. He just goes back to his room and sits in the dark, staring out at nothing. His back is to the wall, knees drawn up to his chest, hands clenched into fists.
It is all he can do to keep from trembling.
It doesn’t take him long to realize why they don’t just keep him permanently locked up. Shinigami are fickle creatures, it seems. They have no qualms about experimenting on him without his consent, but most of them wouldn’t take well to an ally being caged like an animal. Letting him return to the eleventh is just for show, an attempt to ease their consciences. He thinks that the alternative might almost be better than this agonizing decay, than having a few desperate hours of freedom while dreading the next day.
He never tells his buddies what’s happening, what exactly they do to him. But they’re not stupid, and Kenpachi at least seems to catch on. The man looks at him, single eye gleaming with something almost like regret. He knows there is nothing they can do. They could fight, but the others would win in the end, and Ichigo would be even worse off than before. He probably wouldn’t be allowed even the illusion of freedom then.
Yachiru tries to make him feel better, bringing back what suspiciously looks like a chunk of Renji’s hair, complete with bloody scalp attached. But even that only gives Ichigo a moment of passing, albeit very vindictive, glee.
Surprisingly or maybe not, Hanatarou is the only person outside the eleventh who really seems concerned with his wellbeing. The only one who asks how he is doing and outwardly shows that he doesn’t believe the excuses. The little guy can’t do much more than talk with Ichigo, heal him up after his wonderful trips to see the freaks from the twelfth. But still, it’s nice to know that someone at least is trying to help.
And it’s a far cry from Rukia’s mournful looks or those completely meaningless visits with Ukitake. The ones where he has no choice but to go and sit for hours as the man and his perpetually drunken friend pile him with sweets and tea, doing their utmost to talk without really saying anything at all.
It’s a unique form of torture. One with candy and forced smiles.
Ichigo thinks that he rather prefers the experiments. At least then, he’s not expected to enjoy himself and then thank them when they’re done.
His Hollow has been different since Hueco Mundo, quieter and much easier to get along with. He’s not docile, not by a long stretch, but he’s got a new target now. Ichigo’s enemies are his enemies, and he doesn’t like to be bound, to be so tied and unable to breathe. He just simmers beneath the surface of Ichigo’s mind, occasionally making snide comments but doing little else.
Zangetsu is likewise displeased. And by displeased, Ichigo means that his zanpakutou puts Byakuya to shame with the level of coldness he directs at the Shinigami. He half-dreads what will happen when… if the inhibitor comes off, and he won’t be held responsible for any of Zangetsu’s actions.
Ichigo’s own urge to throttle them grows daily, almost overwhelming with its intensity. It’s all he can do not to wrap his hands around someone’s throat and just squeeze. And the only thing that stops him is the knowledge that he’s alone and severely outnumbered, the not-so-slight fear of what they might do to him if they decide to stop playing nice.
This new aloofness seems to unnerve them, especially Rukia. She tries her best to elicit a response. But somehow, he still keeps his cool, Zangetsu seething frostily in his head.
“Let the bitch squirm a little,” his Hollow comments with a clear sneer in his voice. “Che. Not like she an’ the rest of the fucktards don’t deserve it.”
Ichigo can’t help but agree.
Ichigo’s mind takes to wandering during the tests, a means to keep him from attacking them or doing something else equally insane. He thinks of all that has happened to him, all that he has learned.
Bounto. Mod Souls. Quincy. Vizard.
Their names. Their stories resound in his head. Right alongside just how badly Seireitei has wronged them. Most are dead, destroyed by the very same people who he is imprisoned by now.
A chill shoots down his spine at the implications. But what other options does he have?
Urahara. Yoruichi-san. Aizen.
The last one makes him pause. Makes him slowly consider.
The man is an enemy. Maybe. Possibly.
And for what?
For wanting to kill a stranger who was meaningless to him? For fighting against Ichigo’s so-called allies?
On a personal level, the only thing Aizen’s really done to him was try to kill Rukia, the girl who apparently isn’t really Ichigo’s friend. Everything else was the result of either his own stupidity or when Ichigo happened to get in the way.
The whole thing with Inoue is a bit more ambiguous. But then, she had gone willingly in the end. She had chosen to go with Ulquiorra. It had been under coercion, but still, she had gone of her own free will. And truthfully, Aizen himself had never harmed her. She had only been bothered by the Arrancar and only when Aizen and the other traitors had been too distracted to watch out for her.
Aizen’s done nothing to him. Didn’t kill him when he had the chance, when Ichigo invaded his fortress and attacked his underlings. Even warned him of what was to come.
He’s certainly never lied to Ichigo. Or stabbed him in the back. Used him to further his own ends. Imprisoned him against his will. Experimented on him like some animal.
And it leaves a bitter taste in Ichigo’s mouth to realize that for all his illusions, Aizen Sousuke is the most honest and honorable one of them all.
About a month into his stay, Ichigo has an epiphany, a dark revelation of the most horrific kind. He realizes with a startling sense of clarity that they’re going to kill him. That even if he survives this war, he’ll be dead within a year of its end. He’ll have a convenient accident or perhaps simply disappear into the twelfth division labs never to be seen again.
It’s not something he’s going to take lying down. He didn’t survive all this mess, didn’t live through the battles and the Hollows and the blood and the pain just to die like this. He has to get out of here. He has to leave. Go somewhere. Anywhere.
He has no doubt that the geta-boushi has more than one hiding place. Has somewhere safe to stash him until they can work something else out. Plus, Urahara owes him big, and they both know it.
Yoruichi-san likes him; she’d definitely be willing to help. She knows that he’s only a threat to those who would try to harm he and his. Being able to stick it to the old fart is simply a bonus.
And the Vizard would undoubtedly take him in. He might not have left their company on the best of terms, but they hate Soul Society more than anything. They’d help him just to spite the Shinigami if nothing else.
But first, he has to ditch the inhibitor.
Hanatarou is his willing accomplice. It doesn’t take much to get him assigned as a regular minder, especially since Ichigo actually listens to him. Just a few subtle hints to Ukitake during another one of their mind-numbingly boring visits and voila! But that’s about the only thing that goes right.
“I’m sorry, Ichigo-san. I’m just not powerful enough to remove the seal,” Hanatarou apologizes, wringing his hands. “It requires captain-level reiatsu or higher, and I’m not certain even Zaraki-taichou could do it.”
The little guy cringes at his companion’s defeated expression, awkwardly patting him on the back. Feeling Ichigo tremble beneath his fingertips.
And sure enough, Kenpachi can’t take the damned thing off either. Even as strong as the man is, he’s simply lacks that kind of power.
His grip on Ichigo’s shoulder is painful. But it’s a dull throb in comparison to the sharp jab in the boy’s chest. The stinging behind his eyes when Ichigo retreats to his room, burying his face into his pillow to stifle the sounds.
The weeks drag on. Bitter taste in his mouth transforming to full on illness, a perpetual case of nausea that won’t go away.
Ichigo is sick of it. Sick of them. So full of resentment that he’s practically bursting with the need to get it off his chest. He’s slowly going mad, fingers clenching and unclenching. Burning with the need to hit something. To punch them in their collective faces.
He can barely contain himself when his escort comes to take him for his daily bout of torture. And even Ichigo isn’t certain how he manages not to murder Soifon on sight. He just grudgingly trudges behind her as they traverse Seireitei’s backstreets.
But a glimpse of something out of the corner of his eyes brings him up short. A glance to the side shows him Rukia and Byakuya, less than ten feet away, talking to each other in low tones. He moves toward them automatically, body acting of its own accord. But Soifon’s hand on his arm roughly stops him.
“This way, Kurosaki,” the woman puts in brusquely, volume increasing when he doesn’t budge. “Come along now.”
The commotion is enough to draw the others’ attention. And there must be something in his expression because Rukia walks over, her brother trailing behind at a sedate pace. And Ichigo’s filled with a crazy sort of relief. Possibly even hope. His stomach is doing summersaults, head swimming.
The boy wants to snag Rukia’s sleeve, to twist his fingers into the fabric like a child begging for comfort. But he doesn’t have the energy. He’s too tired, too filled with some nameless emotion. He doesn’t know if it’s anger or desperation. Doesn’t care. He just can’t take it anymore.
Soifon tenses at their approach, eyes narrowing at the other captain. Rukia shifts uneasily, lip pulled between her teeth as she nibbles on it. She takes another step forward, towards Ichigo, but Soifon jerks on her charge again.
Byakuya seems on the verge of saying something. However, he remains silent.
And all Ichigo can see is Rukia.
“Please,” he says so faintly that he can barely even perceive it himself. “Please.”
But Rukia still hears. She looks at him with sad eyes, an unreadable expression on her face as he is forcefully tugged again, Soifon all but dragging him along.
And then, she turns away.
He can’t breathe, every inhale a battle of its own. He tries and tries, but still, Ichigo can’t get enough air. He is drowning in the void of his reiatsu, dying a little more each day that he can’t reach it.
His Hollow snarls in his mind. He growls and thrashes, using words of vengeance and dark encouragement. Promises of retribution, even as he gives mental support to his counterpart. He buoys his king, firmly catching him as he stumbles and putting him upright.
And Ichigo thinks that it’s almost like his relationship with his family. It is one thing for them to fight and argue, for them to try to best each other. It is entirely another when it’s someone else, an outside threat. They are united then, united now, like they never are normally.
He bitterly supposes that he has Soul Society to thank for it. Ichigo and his Hollow have reached a level of understanding, of accord and mutual respect that they wouldn’t have on their own. Not for years, if ever.
But his freedom, his very life, is a steep price to pay for such a thing.
The insanity is unending. Weeks. Months. Dammit, he doesn’t even know how long he’s been here anymore. Time is meaningless. As useless as his visits with Ukitake. As worthless as his friendship with Rukia and Renji.
He’s had enough.
It’s a testing day. And Rukia’s the one sent to bring him in. The trek there is silent, but she pauses outside the building, hesitant and awkward.
“Ichigo,” Rukia begins, but the rest of the words won’t come. “I’m really… I just… I wish…” She just shakes her head and reaches for his hand, fingers brushing his skin.
And something inside of him snaps.
“Get off me, bitch,” Ichigo bites out, jerking back harshly as the brown in his eyes shifts to gold. “Don’t touch me. And don’t talk to me.”
There’s something in her expression. Something a lot like horror mixed with terror. And some wild part of him wonders what he must look like, if she can see the Hollow reflected in his eyes. Wonders if his mask is forming on his face. He’s too far gone to really tell.
For all that Rukia knew of him, she had never seen him angry before, not really. She had seen him moody and sullen, determined, miffed, and severely annoyed but never angry. Not until then.
She trembles. “Ichi… go--”
“I said,” he interrupts with a deceptively calm voice, one full of malice, “don’t talk to me.”
There’s a tingle of power across his forehead and temple. And he’s damn sure that the mask is starting to form. His reiatsu rises to the surface, locked in a deadly struggle with the seal. He hears a strange cracking sound, like the sound of brittle glass, but for the life of him, Ichigo can’t figure out where it’s coming from.
Rukia slowly sinks to her knees, struggling to breathe. The air around them is filling with reiatsu, so much that she’s overwhelmed. And it only continues to grow, to increase to the breaking point. A blue haze is over everything, and the only sounds are the buzz of energy and another distinct crack. Loud. Sharp. Liberating.
And with that, his inhibitor breaks. Shatters into a thousand pieces that go flying in all directions.
Power surges all around him. His Hollow crows with dark laughter, and Zangetsu suddenly materializes on his back, despite the fact that he was left behind.
Rukia is on the ground, unconscious.
But Ichigo… Ichigo is suddenly alive again. He’s free. Something he won’t be much longer if he stays here.
He takes a blind shunpo. And then another. And a few more. Moving without conscious thought as his brain struggles to catch up with events. He finally stops at the Soukyoku Hill, not knowing where else to go, needing just a few seconds to think. The captains will be on him any minute now. They had to have felt the surge.
Ichigo has to get out of here. He has to leave. The senkaimon is in eyeshot. But there’s no way in hell he’s going to manage using it before the others arrive. There has to be something else. Some other way.
His Hollow shifts in his soul, whispering.
He’s seen the Espada do it. Watched as Ulquiorra bent the fabric of reality and dimensions to return to Hueco Mundo. Felt the universe stretch and rearrange itself to fit.
And like with all things, Ichigo either fails or succeeds beyond what should be possible. His eyes still blazing gold, he draws his power forth and wishes. Just wishes that he were elsewhere. That the world would temporarily open up like it did for Ulquiorra and let him catch a glimpse of the other side, of a darkened sky and empty white sands.
Just like that, the air in front of his hand tightens and then rolls back. The perfect picture of Las Noches hovers within reach.
Ichigo doesn’t bother to question his good fortune. He doesn’t even hesitate, taking a step forward and passing between this world and the next, feeling energy tingle along his skin as he transitions. He turns on the other side and gazes at Seireitei as the breach pulls itself shut.
Little does Ichigo know that the next time he sees this place will be only to watch it burn.
He is barely in Hueco Mundo five seconds before Ichimaru arrives. Ichigo is too tired by his recent bursts of power to do much of anything but blink as the man whisks him off to Las Noches. There, he’s literally tucked into bed before he can even think to say anything, only thankful that the ex-captain doesn’t try to read him a bedtime story as he slips into unconsciousness.
And the next morning, Aizen finally talks with him over breakfast, acting like his former enemies drop in for a friendly visit all the time. The man just smiles as Ichigo looks around in confusion, inviting him to stay without prompting. Chuckling lightly when his guest hesitantly agrees.
It’s not like Ichigo has anywhere else to go, after all.
He spends the next few days in a perpetually bemused state, freely wandering around the fortress. No minders. None at all. And no inhibitor. The food’s pretty damned good, too, especially when considering what the rest of Hueco Mundo looks like.
Better yet, nobody bothers him. The Espada are polite if somewhat distant. Grimmjow avoids him like the plague. Ulquiorra just ignores him. The tired-dude falls asleep in Ichigo’s room. Nel, still in child form in spite of her new station as the fifth Espada, glomps onto him. Like his own personal Yachiru.
Ichimaru shows him how not to get lost in the endless white corridors. Justice-guy asks him to spar and doesn’t attempt to kill or even maim him.
And Aizen… Aizen just smiles.
It’s like Ichigo’s living in the fucking twilight zone.
He can understand why people are so willing to follow this man. He’s comforting, easy to talk to, easy to like. Wickedly intelligent and strangely honest. Cunning and crafty but not unmerciful, quick and clean deaths and little collateral damage. His quiet presence is powerful, doesn’t demand loyalty, but it’s freely given nonetheless.
They talk every day, but it’s not like his visits with Ukitake. He’s not expected to sit there with a smile plastered on his face. Aizen actually says things, tells him things. Important things. Goes over his plans, his strategies and sees what Ichigo makes of them. Asks Ichigo’s opinion on various topics and tells him stories about the Shinigami, the true history of Soul Society.
The boy isn’t certain if it’s a show of trust or a test; it honestly doesn’t matter. Either way, it’s better than the alternative. He’s not flying around blind, not having information withheld from him because his allies don’t feel like sharing. He’s not forced to stay here, knows that he can leave any time he wants.
But Ichigo lingers. And not just because he can’t think of where else to go.
He thinks that Aizen likes this, likes watching him learn and grow. Likes watching him train with the blind-dude. Likes seeing Gin’s rather crazy and disjointed but oddly successful attempts to teach him kidoh. Likes the fact that Ichigo is slowly starting to view them all as sort-of friends.
Ichigo knows that he enjoys it as well. Enjoys their daily tea sessions. The rich tones of the man’s voice. The fact that despite the sword-calluses, Aizen’s fingers are warm and smooth over his.
His fight with Renji is a surprise but not entirely unexpected. He knew when he agreed to help Aizen that this was bound to happen eventually. That he’d have to face his former friends and allies.
But he didn’t expect it to hurt so very much. Didn’t expect it to be quite this difficult.
He’s never killed anyone before. Not really. Hollows don’t count. He didn’t even kill Grimmjow when they fought. He had no choice with Kariya. It was the only thing he could do, so he has no regrets.
This… this is different. This is Renji dammit! The guy who teased him mercilessly about his hair and pretty much everything else. Who he sparred with and fought alongside. Who helped him deal with Rukia. Who had dinner with Ichigo’s family!
In the end, they both made their own choices. But that still doesn’t make it any easier.
Ichigo comes back to Las Noches afterward and sits out on his balcony with his back to the wall. His knees are drawn up to his chest, arms resting on them with his head in his hands. Eyes trying not to stare at the bloodstains on his once white hakama.
Ichigo starts as Aizen settles down next to him but relaxes within seconds. The man just sits beside Ichigo for hours, not saying anything as he stares up at the lone moon in the sky. A quiet but comforting presence in the face of such pain and uncertainty. He rises some indeterminable amount of time later, gently waking the sleeping boy on his shoulder.
Aizen offers him a hand up, beckoning, promising. And Ichigo takes it without hesitation.
Afterwards, neither lets go.
It’s ironic really that the man who wants to be king, to be a god, still gets bed-head. That he still stubs his toe on the furniture as he stumbles around in the morning, trying to wake up. Or that he has an unnatural aversion for plums and peaches, practically shuddering whenever they’re even mentioned.
It makes him more real. More human. If the people in Soul Society could see their worst enemy now, they’d probably die of shock.
And it’s not what he pictured for his life. Not at all. But Ichigo finds that he doesn’t care. It’s not bad. Just different.
He likes it this way.
He shouldn’t trust these people, this man. But he does. In the beginning, he stayed because he had nowhere else to go, followed because he felt that he owed them. Now, he does it because he wants to, because he can’t imagine living any other way. Just as taken in as everyone else. Just as believing in Aizen Sousuke.
Maybe even more so.
If this is all an illusion, a dream, a lie… it’s the very best kind. And Ichigo knows that he never wants to wake up.