Ichigo burst out of the dangai into Karakura Town. He'd thought, when he'd entered it, that he'd heard his dad shouting something after him, but he'd rushed through. There was no time, and likely as not his dad was just yelling at him to hurry.
What he saw when he reached Karakura Town was utterly unexpected.
Aizen's chest was mostly missing, a vast hole in his torso, but the bastard was still alive, arm extended toward Ichimaru Gin.
The flying blade of black reiatsu did only minimal damage, but it at least knocked Aizen back.
Ichimaru's bankai went right through Aizen's arm, and the monster's zanpakutou hit the ground.
Ichigo loaded a Getsuga Tenshou into Tensa Zangetsu and struck Aizen in the head with his Getsuga infused blade, edge sinking in mere inches. He didn't know what it meant that Gin was fighting Aizen, but they'd sort it out once Aizen was defeated.
"Buto Renjin," said Gin, and Ichigo shunpoed out of the way as Gin's bankai made mincemeat of Aizen. Ichigo snatched up Aizen's zanpakutou.
Aizen was gone, and then Aizen was in front of them, his body more holes than flesh, but it was moving so terrifyingly fast, with such monstrous reiatsu, and it was all Ichigo could do to keep the monster away from Gin, who struck out again with his bankai, which was, in its way, even faster than Ichigo's.
Around them, people were dying, popped by the sheer spiritual pressure of the their battle. But what could he do? If he stopped fighting, Aizen would kill all of them. The phrase 'collateral damage' entered Ichigo's head, and he shook it out, concentrating on the fight before him.
Isshin spilled out of the gate. On taking in the scene, he shouted, "Bankai!"
In any other situation, Ichigo would've stared. As similar as their shikai might be, their bankai were different. Isshin's bankai was a 30 foot mecha, gundam style, with Isshin somewhere inside of it. It was either the coolest or lamest thing he'd ever seen.
But the situation being what it was, Ichigo only glanced at it to assess how to fight alongside it before launching another Getsuga Tenshou at Aizen. Fighting with only one hand, but if he dropped Aizen's zanpakutou., Aizen would pick it up and use his illusions, and then they'd have no chance.
Gin was thrown through a building a blow to his head. Isshin kicked Aizen with his massive mecha foot, which tossed Aizen a little ways but did him no damage, and another dimensional portal was opening.
Not a dangai. A bright blue field of spiritual energy, like the gate Urahara had used to get them to Hueco Mundo.
A small shinigami stepped out, zanpakutou. already in shikai.
Rukia. Ichigo's eyes widened. Rukia was strong. Strong as a lot of Vice-Captains. But she had no place in this battle. It was Captain Class only. But at least, if she was coming, the rest weren't far behind. Kenpachi and Byakuya. That would do it, surely.
Aizen must've thought the same, because a raised finger shot out a cero-like blast of energy that destroyed the portal before anyone could follow after her.
"Hakuren!" shouted Rukia.
The pillar of ice bound Aizen for only the merest moment, bubbled away by his monstrous reiatsu. Rukia followed it up with a bakudo, but that was no more effective.
Aizen waved a hand, not bothering with a Kido, and the sheer force of his reiatsu sent Rukia flying.
Goat Chin brought his massive mecha sword down on Aizen, and Aizen blocked it, one handed above his head. An odd sight, the small figure stronger than the large. The mecha grunted, and a line of black blood oozed out of Aizen's hand.
Ichigo raced at Aizen, intending to drive the point of Tensa Zangetsu straight through Aizen's face, and with his free hand, Aizen batted Ichigo aside.
Head bleeding, Gin stood on a building and shot his bankai straight through the pinned Aizen. With a shout, Aizen's reiatsu rose even higher. He threw Isshin across Karakura Town and appeared on the building in front of Gin. Aizen buried his hand in Gin's chest.
Gin threw the Hougyoku into the air and immolated himself in a sacrificial Kido, setting Aizen ablaze, holding him briefly motionless.
Rukia snagged the Hougyoku out of the air and shunpoed away. A good idea. If the Hougyoku was far enough away, maybe it would stop keeping Aizen alive.
Unfortunately, Aizen had become far faster than any shinigami's shunpo.
Fortunately, the main power of Ichigo's bankai was speed.
He clashed twice with Aizen, and on the second time, his arm was broken, snapped, and Aizen had taken his zanpakutou. back.
Arm broken or not, Ichigo scooped up Rukia, racing away at top speed.
Aizen left a slash on his back. A second. A third. Toying with him. He couldn't outrun Aizen while carrying Rukia. So he turned to fight.
Aizen slowed to a walk, smiling. His reiatsu rose ever, even higher. Rukia struggled to breathe, and Ichigo's mouth went dry.
Aizen said, "Kurosaki Ichigo. Once, I took the Hougyoku from Kuchiki Rukia as you helplessly watched. No I get to do it again, but without interruption."
He'd kill her at the end, he meant.
Rukia attempted to press the Hougyoku into the palm of Ichigo's broken arm. He refused to close his fingers around it.
"Take it, Ichigo," she hissed. "You're the only one fast enough. Get it far enough from him, for long enough, and maybe..."
"I'm not leaving you."
"You have to."
Aizen raised his zanpakutou.
Ichigo raised his.
In Rukia's hands, the Hougyoku glowed.
The Hougyoku recognized Rukia. It remembered her. It had spent decades nestled inside her, sleeping comfortably, dreaming her dreams.
It had begun to fuse with Aizen, but now it wasn't in him, but it was still part of him, and its other part was trying to kill its sleeping place whose dreams it dreamt, and she regretted so deeply, and it was all too much to bear.
The last thing they saw was Aizen, confused and frightened before the Hougyoku burst and the world went purple.
Purple faded, like how strange colors vanish as eyes adjust to the sunlight.
Ichigo found himself holding Rukia in a weedy glade amid sparse trees, dew on the leaves. It was a cold morning, the sun low on the horizon and hidden by gray skies so Ichigo could only pick out its position by which spot of cloud was oddly bright.
His arm wasn't broken. He was wearing a brown Yukata, and Rukia's was a dirty yellow.
Rukia was even smaller than normal, though not by much. He'd never been able to peg her physical age –everywhere from 14 to 22 had seemed plausible – but she was clearly moved more to the 14 end of the spectrum. 12, even.
And he wasn't that much taller.
"What the hell?" said Ichigo.
"Ichigo," she said, as if in recognition, and she vomited.
Ichigo put aside his confusion to hold her hair back and murmur reassurances as she dry-heaved again and again. He glanced around wildly as he did. He didn't see or feel Aizen anywhere. Couldn't feel the titanic clash of powers. Which meant wherever they were was a hella long way from where they'd been, and he had no idea where to go. Rukia would know, once she had gathered herself.
When Rukia's stomach had calmed, she lay on the weedy earth, eyes closed, breathing deep.
Ichigo wondered if she was asleep, and how he would keep her warm in the cold morning air.
First, he would carry her away from her vomit, into the lee of the gray boulder to his left, shielding her from the chill breeze but not from the sun's light when it finally burned through the overcast sky.
He'd hooked her by the armpits when she poke. "Ichigo, am I a shinigami?"
"What kind of question is that?"
"Am I?" her tone was urgent.
"Course. What's wrong with you?"
Rukia said, "I think I have a concussion. My memories are swimming around like fish." She opened her eyes. "Why are you small?"
"Dunno," he said, dragging her to the lee of the boulder.
"Sode no Shirayuki?"
"Dunno. I don't even know where we are. Something weird happened with the Hougyoku."
Rukia looked around. "I think we're in District 78. Inuzuri. Where I grew up."
"Huh," said Ichigo, putting an arm around her shoulder.
"What are you doing?"
"You're enough trouble without hypothermia."
"Idiot. I'm an ice type. I don't get cold unless I'm in a gigai." But she shivered and moved into him. "You're the real cold one, aren't you?"
Her breath smelled of vomit, and Ichigo turned his head aside.
They sat in silence, Ichigo turning over events in his head. He didn't have Zangetsu, and he was smaller. It wasn't a mere physical relocation. It had to be some sort of sustained dreamscape created by the Hougyoku. At any moment, it might end, which meant he had to be ready to react instantly on its breaking. If Aizen was in a similar dreamscape, the moment of disorientation when it ended would be a golden opportunity.
Rukia said, "Today, I left the base to go scavenging for edible plants and lick dew off the leaves. I knew I wouldn't get too cold so long as I walked quickly."
Ichigo stared at her. "Today we fought everyone. I'm pretty sure you killed an Espada. Or maybe that was yesterday. Either way, you almost died."
"My head hurts," Rukia replied.
"Huh." Ichigo scowled more deeply than normal. Not only was he small and missing Zangetsu, but his reiryoku was way below where it should be. He hadn't been so weak since becoming a shinigami.
A presence intruded on his senses. A small one, like one of the rank and file shinigami who were happy to kill low-level Hollows in teams and leave everything else to officers. Less even. Ichigo, never known for his keen spiritual senses, wouldn't have felt it at all if the area hadn't been such a spiritual wasteland except for him and Rukia. It was like a spark in a dark room.
Abarai Renji trotted into view, panting. Abarai Renji, except he looked about 14, was wearing a threadbare bluish-gray Yukata instead of a shihakusho, and was holding a stout stick instead of Zabimaru.
Seeing them, Renji brandished the stick. "Get away from Rukia," he said.
Rukia said, "Don't you remember Ichigo?"
"No," said Renji, relaxing only fractionally.
Rukia said, "Now that I think of it, I guess you haven't met. But I've seen him around lately. He's cool." She pointed to the vomit, flies and gnats buzzing over it. "I got sick, so Ichigo was looking after me. I'm starting to feel better, so I thought we'd all go back."
Renji frowned. "You want to bring him to our base?"
"Yes," said Rukia, in a tone that brooked no argument.
The base was as Rukia remembered. An improvised hut hidden in a little grove of trees that formed around a low spot in the ground, where rain collected. Improvised though the hut was, they had invested serious effort into proofing it against water and wind and insulating it from the cold. Two windows let in light and a breeze when required. When warmth was wanted, wooden boards were placed in the open windows, and when warmth was really, really wanted, dirt and stones were added to the ledge.
But the stove, there in all its dilapidated glory, had made a huge difference. Getting it had been an adventure, but worth it. It provided light, heat, and a method of cooking that was far more efficient than a spit over an open fire.
The hut was small, a room for five children to sleep in together, taking shelter against the cold. The inner walls were dried mud, the floor was rushes, and it was full of precious people who'd long since died.
Tokihiro. Nobu. Subaru. Each name was a treasure and a sad memory.
Yet they were also the people she saw every day, her comrades, who she'd seen just earlier that morning. The memories still swirled through her head, as if she were two Rukias, one old, one young, one a Kuchiki and one a brat of Rukongai.
She greeted her long dead friends who she'd seen earlier that day as normally as she could, and introduced them to Ichigo.
"Ugh," said Subaru. "Your breath reeks, Rukia."
"I'll bet," said Renji. "She puked all over the place."
Rukia took one of the precious jugs of water just from where they were supposed to be, hidden by the sleeping mats. It was the Kuchiki that insisted she pour herself a cup rather than drinking straight from the jug, and she did. It was also the Kuchiki that was tempted to thoroughly rinse her mouth out by spitting the water out.
The Outer-Rukongai brat knew better. Water wasn't wasted. She swished the water around, swallowed, and did it again. If any remnant of the stench remained, it could wait until she needed water again.
Rukia said, "Everyone, this is Ichigo. I've seen him around before, and he helped me out just now when I wasn't feeling well."
The others introduced themselves, and Ichigo returned the bows, even though he would surely rather shake hands or bump fists or one of his other strange human things.
She offered him a cup of water, and he knocked it back quickly and gave a casual thanks after, clearly not grasping how significant an offer of water was among the urchins of Outer-Rukongai, the solemn gratefulness with which it should be received.
And then Ichigo's stomach growled.
"You have spiritual pressure?" said Tokihiro.
The others looked awkward. Offering him water was one thing. Offering him food was another.
Ichigo gestured to the stove. "If I catch something, will you guys cook it?"
"Sure," said Renji.
Followed by the others, Ichigo went outside. Looking around the bases of the trees, he found a likely looking stick, stripped the twigs off, gave it a test swing, and with a nod let the others know he was satisfied.
He took a deep breath, senses strained, trying to feel animal lives. He shortly gave it up as a lost cause. Rukia was way too bright. She seemed to have more reiatsu than he did, which was weird.
He'd have to use his eyes and ears, like everyone else.
They hadn't been walking through the sparse trees long when Ichigo caught sight of movement.
A gray rabbit, good sized, nose winkling, looking at them warily from fifty feet away. It wasn't like the half-tame rabbits at the park in the human world. It knew humans were a threat. Renji loaded his sling, but clearly needed to get a little closer.
Fifty feet away one instant, Ichigo was right behind the rabbit the next. A single hard strike of the stick broke its neck, and the rabbit, which had jumped when he appeared behind it, hit the ground in a dead heap.
Ichigo had killed plenty of insects, and Goat Chin had taken him fishing twice, but a rabbit was different. An insanely aggressive mouse had gotten into the girl's room once, but he and Karin had taken the trouble get it safely out, rather than killing it.
But he wasn't going to show his conflicted feelings to Renji. He picked up the dead rabbit as if he did such things every day.
Renji said, "You know shunpo?!"
Ichigo said, "A woman took a shine to me once and taught me for a bit. I've learned it better since then."
"Dunno. She wasn't dressed like one and I didn't see a sword on her, but maybe."
Rukia rolled her eyes. "Lots of people besides shinigami know shunpo, Renji."
Ichigo walked back to them. He'd wondered if Rukia, Chappy lover that she was, would object, but she looked pleased as she took it. "What a cute little boy," she said, stroking the dead rabbit. "I'll skin you nice and pretty."
Renji said, "Can you teach us shunpo?"
"Maybe," said Ichigo. "It's not easy, and your reiryoku needs to be higher."
Renji blustered. "My reiryoku is plenty high enough."
"No, it ain't," said Ichigo. "Not unless you're just damn good at hiding it. But work at it and you'll improve. Anyway, I'm gonna catch more food."
And he shunpoed away before Renji could protest.
Ichigo took a long circuit through the area, getting the lay of the land. There was a little village. Some hills that had lots of stumpy trees in the valleys and a few along the ridges. A sort of stucco city. A lot of arid scrubland. A double-line of trees traced a stream. The water looked as if it wouldn't be safe for drinking even after you'd boiled it.
Rukia was acting like he'd been around, so he should at least know where stuff was. He kept alert to some hint of the battle with Aizen, but there was nothing.
He returned an hour later with two birds of the same species, a little smaller than chickens. He'd found them in the scrubland. He wondered if anything like them lived in the Human World, or if they were indigenous to Soul Society.
When he returned to the 'base,' he set the two dead birds by the stove. The boy, Tokihiro, already had the rabbit sliced into browning in the pot.
Tokihiro said, "You must be a great hunter."
As Renji scowled in the corner, Ichigo said, "I do alright. Oi, Rukia, you wanna pluck these?"
She looked up from scraping the rabbit skin and came right over. Ichigo watched her pluck a few feathers before copying her, trying to look as if he'd done it before.
The other girl came over, reminded Ichigo that her name was Subaru, and they got the birds plucked and gutted in time to enter the pot with the rabbits and various leaves and roots.
Tokihiro said, "People forget this, but water isn't enough to live on even for people without reiryoku. We need salt too." And he gestured at the birds.
Dinner was thick stew. If Ichigo hadn't been hungry, it would've been bland. As it was, he liked it. The four without reiryoku sipped broth and had a few small bites of meat and the bitter leaves and roots, but Ichigo, Rukia and Renji ate their fill. It was too much for the three of them to eat, so Rukia covered the pot and cheerfully said it would feed them the next day as well.
He caught Rukia's eyes over the pot, and she said, "Nobu-kun could you lay out a place for Ichigo to sleep? I'm going to show him where to pass water."
When they were outside, out of sight of the hut, they shunpoed away, to one of the little collections of trees in the folds of the hills.
They settled at the trunk of a low slung oak, and Rukia cast a Kido he'd never seen before, but its purpose was clear – privacy.
With the blue walls shimmering around them, Rukia spoke. "This isn't a sustained delusion. It sent us back. I've merged with my younger self, and you've been de-aged to about what your age would've been 65 years ago, if you were really a shinigami. About human 13."
Ichigo accepted that as truth. He was used to accepting Rukia's words as truth and time travel was an easy pill to swallow compared to the revelation of Hollows and shinigami when they'd first met. Besides, he'd already realized it himself.
"How do we get back?" said Ichigo. But even as he asked, his mind was working. They had been losing to Aizen, their cause very nearly lost, Aizen's goal of godhood all but achieved. Returning would be worse than suicide. It would be sentencing the world, including his family, to the depredations of a sadistic god. The Hougyoku's psychotic break was nothing less than a miracle.
"We wait," said Ichigo.
Rukia said, "I've studied a great deal about reincarnation, about destiny. I've studied time manipulation – going back in time is supposed to be impossible, but there are forbidden Kido for slowing time down – and I think, I don't know, I'm not an expert, and even an expert couldn't be sure, but I think that time is springy. Everything that we don't forcefully change should go pretty much the same. Mostly. Especially who's born."
Ichigo said, "Whatever we do, things can't go exactly the same as before. Not as far as It goes. Not like we are now."
Rukia said, "I talked to Urahara-san, after. He put Itinside me a long time before It was found. Before It started to wake up and became possible to find. It should be inside me even now. Already."
"That..." said Ichigo, pulling on his hair. That changed things. "It'll wake up in a few decades this time too, right?" Which meant they needed to turn her into a trap. That was… a damn lot of waiting. He didn't want to wait nearly that long, but they'd obviously have to wait a while. "I guess you want to join the Gotei?"
Rukia said, "It would be best."
"We'll have to figure out a way to avoid seeing his shikai without him knowing we avoided it."
Ichigo said, "We could just hang out here, train, and when we're ready, swoop down and kick his ass."
"He's strong. Even as just a shinigami, he's so strong. He'd probably survive, and then we'd be enemies to the entirety of the Gotei 13. The criminals who attacked a popular Captain."
Ichigo sighed, admitting the point. He was fresh off almost getting half his friends killed off of recklessness. By invading Hueco Mundo, he'd played into Aizen's plans.
Rukia said, "I don't have Sode no Shirayuki. I can feel her in me, but I haven't called her yet. It's probably the same for you with Zangetsu."
"We should wait on that."
"I figured." He moved to the next topic. "You want to settle here first?"
"I want to get them into a higher district. 65, maybe. Rukongai gets a lot safer starting around then."
Ichigo said, "We just walk, right?"
"It's not that simple. Changing Districts means crossing a lot of territory we don't know anything about, ruled by gangs we've never heard of. For us, it's no trouble, but for the others..."
"We'll just protect them."
"Fool, how much attention do you want to attract? And don't think everyone here is weak. There are criminals in Rukongai who could make us dearly wish we had zanpakutou. You and I will scout ahead with shunpo and map out a good route for the others, and then we'll shepherd them through it. And we have to get some money. In the higher districts, everywhere is someone's property, and they kick you out if they catch you squatting, and they have vagrancy laws."
Ichigo rubbed his brow. Helping out her friends was a bigger undertaking than he'd realized, and it wasn't even their only immediate problem. "Is Renji going to realize your reiryoku has suddenly jacked up to almost Lieutenant level?"
She snorted. "That idiot? Not likely. He may have reiryoku, but he can't sense reiatsu for shit. But he is going to be frustrated by how quickly you teach me shunpo. I'll just be a born genius, is all. But we will have to hide our true strength, as much as possible. I'll teach you how, if you're not too thick to learn. Lesson one starts right now, and then I'll tell you everything you need to know to make it seem like you've been here for years."
That I am not the sort of person who finishes my fanfics may just be something I'm learning about myself. Hardly the worst character fault, so long as it's restricted to fanfiction. Ah well. I've enjoyed plenty of uncompleted fics. This is at about 40k words on my computer. Maybe reviews will encourage me to finish it. Probably not.