Summary: 60 years after the war, both Ichigo and Aizen were exiled and their powers, sealed. But trouble is brewing in Seireitei. Will they answer the call from their former friends? Complete summary inside. Part of a series of oneshots. Will be a happy ending!
Warnings: Sequel of a story I will most likely never write where Ichigo is taken to Hueco Mundo and she and Aizen fall in love. Aizen is a GOOD GUY! Ichigo was BETRAYED at the end of the war, everybody turned on her, and yes, that means her human friends too, sad as it is. Fem!Ichigo. AU. OOC.
"You want to do what?"
The soutaichou sighed at the question, and rubbed his forehead tiredly. Of course, they would be disbelieving.
"You heard me."
"We do not have the choice! It is our last resort!"
A small, silver-haired captain stepped forward, looking calmly at the old man.
"And what if they decide to side with the enemy?" He asked in a low voice.
Yamamto slammed his staff on the ground.
"Then we will subdue them again." He looked around the room. "Any questions?"
Abarai Renji stepped forward.
"Yes. How do you plan on finding them? With no reiatsu to track and nobody knowing where they are, it will take years to search Rukongai! If they're still alive, that is."
As an answer, the soutaichou turned to Soi-Fon, captain of squad two.
"The Shirosaki twins, at the Academy. Sixth years, both extremely talented, and with lots of reiatsu, though it is extremely well-controlled. Their names are Jun and Katsumi. We have noticed that they frequently go to Rukongai, even more so than any student who has their family in there, and they bear a certain resemblance to our two traitors."
"And you actually believe that they're their children?" Renji asked, incredulous.
"We don't know. However, it is possible, and following them on one of their trip might prove very fruitful."
"They should go, according to Soi Fon-taichou, tonight. You will follow them as soon as they go, and observe, then come back and report. Dismissed."
"Wait, what about Kuchiki-taichou?" Renji asked.
"It is his day off, if I recall well."
The captains left.
Their appearance only was enough to prove everything. Both were tall, but where the male had brown eyes and wavy red-striped brown hair, the girl had long, straight, silky dark orange-striped black hair and steel grey eyes. They held themselves with pride and confidence, their Zanpakutô strapped to their hip.
They left in a flash of a pretty good Shunpo, heading North eagerly. It was clear that they couldn't wait to arrive wherever they were going. The Shinigamis were led all the way to a large house in the middle of an endless field of grass. There were hills here and there, with the edge of a forest a mile or so on the right. The house itself wasn't small, but not overly big either. It was made of dark wood, with an inviting feeling to it and a terrace.
The Soul Reapers-in-training came in without even knocking, and they could hear the sound of them calling for their parents. But there were no answers. They came out the front door, looking terribly disappointed, and seemed to discuss something, before suddenly, there was a muffled exclamation from right beside the Shinigamis' hiding place -behind a hill. They looked down, and saw...
A woman. She was wearing a beige kimono which complimented her long red, black and silver-striped dark orange hair very well, and had a basket of laundry in her arms. She held herself very straight, with pride, but something was off.
She was only skin and bones: the fabric of her clothes clung sickly to her skinny frame, and her wrists were only bones, looking like a mere flick could break them. Standing there, staring at the two students, she looked utterly fragile and breakable, with her deathly-pale skin and sunken eyes, ghastly cheeks without a hint of fat.
"Katsumi! Jun!" She cried out happily, and they beamed at her.
She walked forward hurriedly, but they shunpoed over to her, and engulfed her in a bear hug. The laundry basket fell to the floor with a thud as she hugged them back, before pulling away to look at them.
But then, the male, Jun, lifted her up in the air and spun her around, making her laugh hysterically with pure, undiluted joy. When he set her down, they hugged once more, and he whispered in her hair.
"I missed you."
She pulled away and took a step back to look at them critically.
"I missed you two, my babies... You grow up so fast..." There was a little sadness in her eyes as she said that, but then, she bent down and retrieved the basket, before standing upright again and smiling.
"So, you have to tell me the news!" She gave a light cough, and the twins frowned, tensing up, before covering up their obvious concern with fake carelessness.
"You first! How are you? Where is Hakaru? Is he okay? What about father? And Katsumi's father?" The male, Jun, asked.
"I'm fine, as always. Hakaru is at Miura's, I'll go pick him up in a hour or so. And your father is doing well too. He should be back in a few hours as well. Your father" she turned to Katsumi "should come back in a few hours as well, but he had work. He said hi, and will be here for your birthday."
So the twins didn't have the same father? The Soul Reapers glanced at each other in wonder, then went back to the conversation.
The twins giggled as hands covered their mother's eyes from behind, and a playful voice asked lowly in her ear:
"Who is it?"
She gave a soft smile, tilting her head back to rest it on his chest, and he let his hands fall to sneak his arms around her waist in a loving embrace, pulling her against him, back to chest.
"You're home early." she said.
"Aye. I felt the two catastrophes over there, and decided to check on you before they destroyed the house."
The Shinigamis observed the man. Contrarily to Ichigo, Aizen had barely changed. He was a little thinner, a little paler, and looked a little tired, but that was about all. He was clad in a simple dark kimono, and was as impeccably groomed as he had always been. He chuckled warmly at his children's enthusiast greeting, then sat down in the grass, pulling Ichigo down with him so that she was now sitting between his legs and leaning on his chest.
A content smile came to rest on her lips as she listened to the twins' animated tale of their adventures at the Academy, and after a while, they paused.
"It seems like she is." Aizen commented gently, running his fingers through the dark hair lovingly. "Kami knows she needs it."
He looked saddened, and the kids sobered up as well, worry taking over their features.
"How has she been doing?"
"Bad. Very bad, in fact. It's getting worse and worse, and there's nothing I can do about it."
"In case you've forgotten, Katsumi, your mother and I are both banned from Seireitei lest we be executed on sight. What's more, Unohana Retsu may look harmless, but I can assure you that she's far from it. She's dangerous. Very much so, in fact."
"And on top of that, if Ukitake's been dragging his tuberculosis with him for two-thousand years, I sincerely doubt Unohana would manage to save Ichigo, who's in a far more advanced stage of it."
The girl's eyes narrowed in anger.
"Did you even ask her opinion? Maybe she thinks differently! Maybe she wants to be cured! Maybe she...!"
"Katsumi," Aizen interrupted firmly, and with a hint of coldness, "your mother is the first to acknowledge the fact that she tends to be reckless. But, you forget that she would never, ever do anything to endanger you, your brothers, your father or me. The three of us have discussed this already, on countless occasions. And let me tell you that our roles were inverted. She adamantly refuses Seireitei's help for the reasons I just exposed, but also because..."
He trailed off, his eyes unfocused. The twins waited impatiently, knowing not to rush him, and that he would talk after a moment.
"Ichigo was... a person of utmost loyalty. When we fell in love, she knew she was risking everything, but still hoped that her friends would at least listen to her, and understand her decision. But in the end, her powers were sealed, she was stripped from her title as a Shinigami, lost the ability to go to the real world and see her family. Everybody turned their backs on her, Shinigamis and humans alike, and she lost the very thing she had become so strong for." He looked down at the sleeping woman.
"Ichigo doesn't have a lot of pride left, but I don't think she would accept their help even if they offered it, for she has suffered too much at their hands already."
"That's stupid." Jun commented.
Aizen shot him a warning look.
"Refrain from speaking of your mother's pain like this." He said icily. They flinched.
There was a silence, before he softened.
"Your mother and I worked hard to come to this peaceful freedom, children. I know it's difficult for you to see her decline and die slowly, but do you think she would be happier dying while sure of your safety, or fearing for you because a Shinigami is aware of our whereabouts? Think about it."
They looked down dejectedly.
"Still..." Katsumi mumbled.
Silence fell as they all looked at the unconscious ex-shinigami, and the Shinigami shivered at the sheer intensity of the gaze the former captain of the fifth division covered her in.
She stirred, and opened her eyes, but they remained unfocused, and Aizen, who had immediately noticed it, sighed before helping her straighten up.
"Katsumi...? Jun...?" She asked hesitantly.
"We're here, Mom. Can't you see us?"
She chuckled weakly.
"I have temporary blindness from time to time. It's nothing, don't worry."
Katsumi opened her mouth to give a furious answer, but Jun's hand slapped on her mouth, and shut her up before she could spit out something hurtful. Aizen's glare could have frozen Hell.
"So... what squad do you reckon you'll chose?"
"Well, we're still hesitating between 3 and 5..." Katsumi began.
"... and 11 and 2." Jun finished.
Ichigo rose her eyebrows.
"It seems that you were gifted in Hakuda." Her husband said with a smile.
She turned and glared, though there was no heart to it. "Or maybe it came from Misters Perfect's multitask genes!"
They laughed heartily, and carried on speaking of nothing and everything, before suddenly, someone called Ichigo's name.
Ichigo stood up and turned to the path, where a woman of about thirty was walking over to them, two little boys with her, holding her hands. The taller one, a kid with dark brown eyes and dark, silky black hair, rushed over to the ex-shinigami and jumped in her arms. She hugged him against her chest, and he nuzzled her neck.
"Okaerinasai baby." She whispered back tenderly.
"Ichika-san! Thank you very much, you didn't have to bring him back, I was about to come and fetch him anyway!" The dark-haired woman said with a soft smile, but the other female merely laughed kindly.
"Oh please, Aizen-san, it's not a bother, and I'm happy to help. Kami knows you need your rest! What's more, Kuchiki-sama was kind enough to walk me here. He said it was too dangerous to go alone."
She stepped aside.
And indeed there he was. Standing very tall, regally clad in his black kimono, wrists and forearms protected by his white gloves, white scarf wrapped around his neck and falling down his back in graceful waves. The Kenseikan was nowhere to be seen, as was the haori, but Senbonzakura was at its usual place on his hip.
Ichigo's eyes lit up.
She smiled and took his hand, intertwining their fingers as he went to stand by her side. "Okaeri."
The ex-Shinigami turned back to the young mother.
"Well, thank you very much Ichika-san. How are you, Miura-kun?"
The other boy beamed at her, and ran over to hug her, as Aizen made his way over to them. Ichika smiled at him.
"Aizen-dono! How are you today?"
"Very well, thank you. I see that Miura-kun and yourself are in good health. How is your husband?"
"Fine! Thanks to you, I must say. He told me all about how you saved his life. I can't thank you enough, I don't know what I would have done without him."
"Please, it was only natural."
"Hi Ichika-san!" Two voices chorused, and she looked at the twins.
"Oh my!" she exclaimed. "Here come the two Shinigamis! You look so perfect! How are your studies going? You do know everybody's rooting for you at the village, right?"
They chatted for a while, before Ichika left, taking Miura with her. The three adults and the kids went back to the spot they had been sitting in, much to the Shinigamis' relief, for they could hear what was said perfectly.
Aizen and Byakuya greeted each other with a firm handshake, then sat down.
"So, how come you're back so soon?" Ichigo asked the noble, who shrugged in a very un-Kuchiki like fashion.
"Well, I did go back, but all the captains have left, along with the lieutenants. Only the soutaichou remains. So I came back. After all, if there's nobody to notice my absence, I might as well take advantage of it."
The young woman leaned forward and captured his lips in a soft kiss.
"I'm glad." she whispered. "They've really been exploiting you, we barely see you anymore."
They turned to Katsumi, who had been talking to her brothers, asking about the toddler's day, as she walked over to them.
"Katsumi." Byakuya greeted calmly. "How are you doing?"
"Great as always, father, but I'd be even better if I could see you all more. I miss you so much!"
He gave a small smile.
"I apologize. You know it is necessary."
She stood there awkwardly fidgeting with the desire to say something, with him staring at her critically, before he opened his arms with a sigh.
She beamed and rushed forward, tackling him in a bear hug and burying her face in the folds of his kosode. He wrapped his arms around her gently, caressing her hair soothingly.
"I missed you too."
The five -well, six, but Hakaru didn't really count, since he merely sat in his mother's arms and listened to the voices of his family quietly, sat there for some time, talking comfortably of small things, their daily lives, their plans for the future, before the twins stood.
"Well, we have to go."
"So soon?" Ichigo said, disappointed.
Byakuya laughed, as did the others.
"That's what you say every time, Ichigo."
She pouted, her eyes shining with happiness and sadness at the same time. The twins said their goodbyes to their fathers, before turning to their mother, who stood, passing Hakaru to Byakuya.
"Goodbye my children. Never forget that I love you."
"Never give up." Jun said.
"And never break." Katsumi completed.
Ichigo smiled, nodding. "That's right." She hugged them tightly, one after the other, burying her face in the crook of her son's neck as he was taller than her already. "Be well."
When they did leave, there were tears in their eyes.
And the Shinigamis couldn't help but feel like these goodbyes were definitive.
Ichigo stood still for a while, staring silently at the point where her children had previously been, before turning to the two men.
"I'll go put Hakaru to bed. Wait for me...?"
They smiled and nodded, watching her open the door and disappear inside the house. But as soon, as she was out of sight, their expression faltered, and Aizen ran a hand through his hair with a sigh, glancing at Byakuya, whose shoulders had suddenly slumped. They exchanged a gaze full of pain and sadness, not needing to speak to express their fear of being separated from the woman they loved unconditionally.
A few minutes passed, and Ichigo came out again, holding a tray with three cups of tea and biscuits.
"Here." she said as she sat down. "I thought you would like one after playing hero all day."
"I'm not playing. This job is important and you know it."
"And today was my day off."
She smiled. "Ah, come on, I was just messing with you."
"I know." They chorused, before chuckling.
A pause, and then: "You saved his life? What happened?"
"A Hollow. But it was weak, and I managed to stab it when it was distracted. My reiatsu's so weak that it didn't even notice me until I had my sword buried in its mask."
She relaxed slightly.
"Do you miss you power? I know I miss Zangetsu."
"Do you... have regrets?"
"Not at all. I'm happy I chose you, both of you and to have acted along my beliefs." Her tone was firm, without a hint of hesitation.
"It'll be sixty years this summer."
A few minutes later, she spoke again, raising her hand to brush lovingly against his jaw, leaning in Byakuya's embrace at the same time. The two men were now sitting side by side, facing the setting sun, and Ichigo between them, her head leaning on the noble's shoulders, one hand in his, the other in Aizen's.
"I love you, Sôsuke, Byakuya. More than anything in the world. And I am sorry that it didn't prove to be enough in the end. So sorry..."
They merely tightened their grip on her as an answer, gritting their teeth in sadness. Byakuya couldn't help but feel his heart clench and his eyes sting. Aizen set his jaw in a stubborn effort to remain expressionless, but it was... hard... And the hidden Shinigamis could not help but notice that his eyes were far too bright to be dry. As were Byakuya's, for that matter.
"Sôsuke, Byakuya... the twins inherited my personality, especially Katsumi... When I'm gone, please make sure they don't do anything stupid like revealing their lineage and seeking revenge from the shinigamis."
"They'd be right."
She punched the brown-haired man lightly on the arm.
"Stop that! They might be powerful, but the captains will wipe them out in a second! Or get them experimented on! Nobody must know! And you must take care of Hakaru, not trigger another war!"
The man stayed silent.
"I'll adopt Katsumi into the Kuchiki clan if it is your wish. Though I cannot tell that she truly is of my blood, it is not uncommon for noble clans to adopt strong elements to strengthen the family. I can pass her off as a promising Academy student who caught my eye."
"What about her brother?"
The man shrugged.
"It's their choice."
Neither of them argued the fact that she was going to die, and understood that even if they didn't accept it, they had subconsciously acknowledged that it was ineluctable.
For the first time in their life, Aizen Sôsuke and Kuchiki Byakuya, for all their spiritual and political power were helpless.
And they hated it with a passion.
She stood, and faced the setting sun, the light clinging to her frame like a halo, dark hair swinging softly in the breeze, then turned to them, a bright smile on her face, arms wide open and eyes bright.
"I love you!" She cried out happily. "I love you! Let the world know! I love you! I love you! I love you! I love you!" She went on and on, before they finally stood as well, laughing at her joy, and Byakuya lifted her up in the air before spinning her around. She laughed madly, before he set her down, and she hugged him tightly to her, before kissing Aizen lightly on the lips. They looked at each other silently for a few seconds.
"I love you..." She whispered, more subdued than before.
She rose her hand to Byakuya's face, and traced his jaw with light fingers, drinking in his features as if she was seeing him for the first time. She then tilted her head to look at Aizen. Her eyes glinted strangely, and suddenly, a lone tear ran down her cheek.
Aizen's eyes softened.
"Why are you crying?"
She looked down, then back up at them.
"You can feel it too, can't you?"
They could barely hear it, and had to strain to catch the question. But the two men had obviously understood what it was that she was talking about, because they stiffened, and their faces turned somber.
"The time's coming." she interrupted.
"I will die soon."
That night, more than a Shinigami can't sleep. Ichigo's terrible words haunted them, so much that they didn't even mention Byakuya's presence and status to the Captain-Commander. But they remember seeing the barely contained tears of the noble when he had kissed her goodbye, and then wrapped her in his arms in a long hug which she had passionately, desperately returned.
There had been such a sense of fate, of ineluctable in this simple embrace, that the female lieutenants couldn't help the tears flowing their cheeks, and the males' eyes -Renji's, in particular, had been far too bright to be normal. The captains hadn't been better-off.
They had decided to come back tomorrow. Without Byakuya, who still didn't know a thing about their mission.
On the next morning, they returned, only to be greeted by the sixth division captain's disheveled appearance. The man's eyes were red-rimmed from lack of sleep or crying, they didn't know, his hair was far from being the silky flow they usually presented to the world, and he wasn't wearing his official gear. He was currently rocking Hakaru back and forth on the terrace. The boy was already half-asleep, and he would most likely have already drifted back into oblivion had big sobs not been disrupting his small body from time to time. The remains of a tearful tantrum, no doubt.
The door opened, revealing Aizen and another man, a Rukongai soul, and the noble stood up, careful not to wake the boy in his arms.
"Thank you very much, senseï."
"I'm sorry, Aizen-san, Kuchiki-sama. At this point, I doubt even the Shinigami could save her."
They nodded curtly, trying not to lose their composure, and the man left, with one last sorry look at them. The two men faced each other in silence, silently communicating, before Byakuya sighed heavily.
"I will put Hakaru back to bed and maybe put on a spell or two so that he doesn't wake Ichigo. And vice versa." He added darkly.
Aizen nodded. He disappeared inside the house, then came back a moment later, only to sit gracelessly on a chair. The brown-haired man gave him a cup of steaming tea, which he accepted with gratitude, and started nursing gently between his palms.
The two looked tired, horribly so, and desperate. Like they were going to break, like they would fall and never stand back up ever again.
"Let's go." Soi-Fon said.
The Soul Reapers jumped, but complied, and in a flash of shunpo, they were standing before the house,and a startled man, as Byakuya had seen them come, and already had Senbonzakura unsheathed. The teacup fell with a clatter on the floor, spilling its contents everywhere. Aizen sighed.
They all stared at each other for a moment, as if surprised, but then, Kyoraku spoke up.
"Ma, I have to say, it's a surprise to find you here, Byakuya..."
The man relaxed, but didn't sheathe his Zanpakutô.
"But it seems that you aren't here for the same reasons we are." Komamura said. "May I ask what you're doing here?"
"No you may not." The noble answered coldly. "Now, what is your reason to be here, I wonder."
"Yes, well, we need to talk to Ichigo."
As if on cue, the two men stiffened, and Byakuya tightened his grip on Senbonzakura. His knuckles whitened.
"What do you want with her?" Aizen asked blankly.
"It actually concerns the both of you." Ukitake said sheepishly. "Could you please go fetch her? We promise not to attack any of you."
The two men looked at each other, silently communicating, before Aizen looked back at them.
"I don't think so. What you want to tell us will have to be said to me. I'll see afterwards if I deem it necessary to know of your visit."
It was annoying, but they knew he was only trying to protect her, as strange as it seemed on his part, and since Byakuya was agreeing, they could only comply.
"New Hollows have been invading the Living World recently. They're very powerful, low Vasto Lorde level, and we don't have enough manpower to defeat them all. We've already lost countless men. The other day, two of them entered Seireitei. It was a slaughter." Soi-Fon explained.
Aizen rose an eyebrow at Byakuya, whose blank expression turned into one of distaste, a smile tugged at his lips at the reaction, and he looked back at the Shinigamis.
"And so what?"
"We need your help."
There was a moment of stunned silence at that, before suddenly, Byakuya, Byakuya snorted, while the former Shinigami captain's lips twitched.
"Our help? You mean Ichigo and I's?"
The man snickered.
"Of course. And then what? In case you've already forgotten, we've been exiled, and our powers sealed. We do not have more reiatsu than the average Rukongai soul. Not to mention that we're done with Seireitei."
"Maybe Ichigo doesn't think like you."
The man glared.
"You will leave Ichigo out of this. I think she has suffered enough at your hands for you to hurt her again. I alive, you will not come anywhere near her."
"I second this." Byakuya said calmly as they looked at him in search for support.
There was a shuffling sound inside the house, and Aizen's muffled name was called, before suddenly, the door burst open, revealing Ichigo in all her bony glory, her hair tied in a loose sideways ponytail, and her feet clad in white socks, while she wore the same kimono as the day before. She stopped dead in her tracks as she saw the Soul Reapers.
"Ichigo!" Rukia, Renji, Inoue, and a few others chorused.
She paled a few shades of white, to the point that they thought she would pass out on the spot, but then, she got a grip on herself, and turned to the two men.
Up close, she was even thinner than she had looked the day before.
"What's going on?"
Aizen briefly explained the situation, and she turned back to them, scrutinizing them for a second. They stood still and silent, knowing that if she decided to help, then the two would tag along to protect her.
Ichigo doubled over and fell on her knees, tears of mirth running down her cheeks, as the two men stared at her in amusement, and the Soul Reapers looked on bewilderment.
"Seriously?" She finally gasped, standing up and placing herself between the towering forms of her lovers. "You want our help? Are you kidding me?" The gaiety had completely disappeared by now, and she looked somber. "I won't help you. I don't know about Sôsuke or Byakuya, but I won't. There was a time when my powers, the ability to protect my loved ones, was everything to me. But you took it away from me. You didn't listen to the one who had sacrificed everything for you. You didn't listen even after I had dirtied my hands for you. You didn't listen even when I died twice for you! You turned your backs on me, even my human friends, whom I can see you enrolled in the Gotei 13, and left me to rot in some secluded part of Rukongai. You left us, who had sacrificed everything we had for Soul Society, for dead! Well help yourself now. I don't care anymore."
She made to turn her back on them.
"If you don't help us, they'll invade us. And once Seireitei has fallen, they will roam free in Rukongai. Is that what you want?"
"Everybody will die. You... Aizen... Byakuya... and your children." They stiffened. "Katsumi and Jun... and Hakaru."
Slowly, she turned around, glowering at them.
But there was fear in the depths of her hazel eyes.
"Do you think that you can pressure me into doing this? Well, let me tell you: you're wrong. The answer is still no."
"So you'll die peacefully and let them fend for themselves?"
The question had been asked by Renji in a harsh tone, but it wasn't what made her freeze in her tracks and turn to face them.
"I said, are you going to die peacefully and then leave them to fend for themselves?"
She kept silent for a minute, hazel eyes studying them.
"So you know..." She whispered, before continuing. "And you still came to ask us for help when you knew perfectly well that I didn't have the physical power needed to fight?"
"We can heal you."
"Seeing how Ukitake still is stuck in bed most of the time, I doubt you can." She said coldly.
"Face it, I can't help you. Sôsuke could, but I doubt he would, though it's up to him." She turned back to the door. "Good luck with your fight. Too bad you weren't smart enough to keep your allies close!"
The last words were spat with disdainful mockery, and they flinched, especially Ichigo's former friends. She entered the house silently, and they were left with Byakuya's blank face and Aizen's frigid eyes.
"I suggest you leave now." He said icily, before nodding at the noble and following Ichigo inside.
"Nii-sama..." Rukia murmured in a pleading tone.
"No." Was the mere answer before he left as well.
There was nothing they could do but leave. Maybe they would come back later. To give them the time to think about it.
A few days later, they were inspecting the Academy students when there was a pause. Byakuya, who had tuned the proceedings out, woke up as the teacher repeated the name of the student who had failed to answer the call.
"Shirosaki Jun! Shirosaki! Shirosaki Katsumi!"
No answer. The captains all glanced at Byakuya, who had frowned slightly. The noble pursed his lips. Where were they? They had already left the Academy when it happened.
On their way to the barracks, Byakuya had just started walking ahead to his division when suddenly, they saw two students race by them and skid to a stop right behind him. He froze in his tracks as they called his name (Kuchiki-taichou!), hand over Senbonzakura's handle, then spun around, paling.
There stood the twins.
And they looked terrified. Tears were running down Katsumi's cheeks, and Jun's eyes were wild with panic.
"Kuchiki-taichou..." the boy choked out. "Kuchiki-taichou..."
The man felt a growing sense of dread knot in his throat, cutting out his breathing, and his vision grew hazy as he stepped forward hastily and bent slightly to hear what they had to say.
"It's Mom... It's Mom... Kuchiki-taichou... please..." Jun managed to gasp out, still managing to keep up with the honorifics in front of their audience. "Please..."
Byakuya straightened up, and they could all see how pale he had become.
There was blood on their shikahushô...
Without a word, he disappeared in a flash of shunpo. The kids immediately followed, but fear made their flash steps shaky, and the captains, who had immediately taken off after Byakuya, quickly caught up to them. Kyoraku grabbed Jun, Kenpachi slung Katsumi over his shoulder, and they tailed the racing sixth division captain to the house.
Time was ticking by.
Time had run out.
When they arrived, the house was silent. Byakuya had already rushed through the door, and they followed, setting the students on their feet as they did so. The sound of the noble's voice led them to a large room they assumed was the master bedroom, and they froze on the threshold.
There was blood everywhere. Splattered on the walls, the furniture, the floor. Mostly on the floor, where a large puddle was starting to dry. The remnants of a cup of tea were scattered all around the room, and the spilled liquids had soaked the armchair were Ichigo had most likely been sitting when it had happened.
Ichigo herself was laid on the bed, coughing her lungs out, choking on blood, if the gurgling sounds she was emitting were anything to go by, with Byakuya bent over her and Aizen talking to him in a low voice. Unohana immediately pushed her way to the bed, and started applying healing kidô to the sick woman, but it didn't seem to be working.
Time had run out.
They stood there for what seemed like an eternity before they finally straightened up. Ichigo's coughs had subsided slowly, and she was now sleeping. Unohana stepped back, her hands trembling a little from the effort, and sat down, which allowed them to finally have a good look at the former Shinigami Substitute.
She looked like she had just been trampled over.
Her hair was damp with sweat and matted down with blood. Her kimono was irreparably stained, soaked with her blood, and her face and hands were also splattered with crimson liquid. She was pale as death, and even thinner than the last time they had seen her, a few days prior.
Aizen's perfect hair was mussed and his kimono stained red as well. He looked like he hadn't slept in ages, and his hands were shaking.
"I made some tea."
Without even noticing that Rukia, one of their betrayers, had used their kitchen and food without asking, and that the Soul Reapers they had as good as thrown out a few days ago were sitting everywhere in the room, Aizen and Byakuya took a cup and sipped silently.
"What happened?" Unohana asked at last.
Aizen glanced at her without seeing her, his eyes glazed over in shock.
"Nothing special. She was -we were having tea... And then she started coughing... And she couldn't stop. And there was more blood than usual... and she just collapsed..."
He trailed off, shivering slightly as he relived the memories.
"When Katsumi and Jun came, I sent them to you..."
He stopped. The two men stared at each other, silently communicating, before Byakuya turned to Unohana.
"How is she?" He asked wearily.
She set her empty cup down, eyes dark with regret.
"I could only stop the coughing fit and put her into sleep for the both of us to recuperate some energy. As soon as she wakes up, I can start healing her again..." She paused. "She's dying."
Heavy silence. Katsumi let out a sob. Even Jun was crying now, albeit silently.
"What about Hakaru?" Rukia asked.
"He's at a friend's." Aizen answered blankly.
Silence hovered over them for a while, before Renji spoke up.
"She'll make it through."
Ichigo's lovers looked at him sharply.
"Yes." He said firmly. "She's strong. She never let anything break her before. She won't let a disease take her down. She's strong, she won't die."
They looked at him coldly.
"You live in the past, Abarai." Aizen started.
"Maybe nothing could break before, but it changed when the only thing she lived for was turned against her."
"In other words, when you betrayed her, she lost half her will to live."
"We may have given her some back, but she believes it is her time."
"And we understand her decision perfectly. She is far younger than any of us and yet, has seen and suffered much more than we ever will."
"This disease has been actively eating away at her for the past six decades, something which Ukitake never had to undergo, and he's not exactly at his best."
"In other words, we don't see how you could help her at this point." Aizen concluded.
There was sadness in their eyes, unfathomable sadness. And they couldn't even understand how the two men could bear it.
Silence had fallen once again on the room of the sick Ichigo. Aizen and Byakuya had moved their chairs to her bedside, and were now dozing off. Aizen's head had fallen on his chest, one hand holding Ichigo's limp one, and another on top of Jun's head, which rested on his lap. Byakuya was seated across from him, with Katsumi's arms around his waist and her head on his chest. His fingers were intertwined with Aizen and Ichigo's, and his eyes were half-lidded in his effort to remain conscious despite his need for sleep.
They had been sitting here for almost two days already, and neither man had left Ichigo's bedside unless it was to satisfy their most basic needs.
The noble's head shot up and snapped towards the origin of the sound, a.k.a. the bed. Ichigo was frowning in effort to open her eyes, and soon, hazy hazel eyes were unveiled as she gazed at the ceiling, then at her surroundings. Byakuya leaned forward, a small smile playing on his lips.
"Hey." She whispered hoarsely.
He took the glass of water sitting on the bedside table, and brought it to her lips.
"Yeah." She smiled, then glanced at Aizen.
"How long?" She asked, concern obvious in her voice.
She sighed, then held back a cough. Byakuya frowned, but cleared his face of worry as soon as she focused back on him.
She whispered the nickname gently, and it held so much love in this simple murmur, that none of them could find the heart to laugh at the idea of the regal captain being called like that. She closed her eyes in fatigue, and the man bent forward.
"You shouldn't speak. Rest, I'll stay there."
She shook her head weakly. It was painfully obvious how hard it was for her to move.
"Byakushi... I'm sorry. So sorry. I..."
"No... no, listen... listen to me. I feel... I don't have much time left... My energy is running out. You need to hear this... Please... wake... Sôsuke..."
She paused to let him answer and catch her breath. He nodded and obeyed.
"I never... expected to survive the previous fit... and as I lost consciousness... I became terrifyingly aware... that for all the times I had told you I loved you... maybe you hadn't... heard... it hadn't been enough... do you... understand?"
Byakuya's eyes filled with tears he wouldn't allow to fall. Aizen gritted his teeth.
"Unohana healed you."
Surprise flickered in her eyes, before it vanished in a flash.
"But she can't... do anything more..." She rasped out. "Byakushi... Sôsuke..." Pant. "I... I love you... The both of you... More than life itself... I... I was nothing... before... I met you... You gave meaning... to my... life... when it didn't have... any... Thank you..."
She closed her eyes in exhaustion.
Her eyelids snapped open, and she looked at the twins, who had tears flowing down their cheeks. She gave a weak smile.
"Katsumi... Jun... My children... Forgive me..."
"I didn't... want you... to see me... like this... Take care... of your fathers... and of Hakaru... When he is older... tell him... how sorry I was... to leave him... so early... but the time... has come... for me..."
"I love you..."
"Don't leave us!" They cried softly.
She rose her hand painstakingly, and managed to brush Katsumi's cheek before running out of energy. There was a flash of horror in her hazel orbs as her limb gave out on her. Jun caught her hand, and brushed her fingers against his own skin.
"I love you... my children... my darling babies... Never forget... I will be there... by your side... even if... you can't see me... or hear me... I will be there... I..."
Her hand dropped back down on the bed.
Her heart stopped.
Her face froze in a ever loving expression.
Kurosaki Ichigo was no more.
Kurosaki Ichigo was dead.
For all eternity.