Ichigo ran toward the clear cage that held the woman, but he did not reach it first. Though he'd spent the last 20 years living as a human, shunpo was etched far more deeply into Isshin's reflexes.
Standing before the glass cage, Isshin said, "Masaki?"
The woman's eyes were blank.
"Masaki, it's me," he said.
"Isshin?" she said, slow and uncertain, her voice rough as if hazed by sleep.
"Yes!" said Isshin. "I've gotten old, I know." He pulled his son up beside him, and Ichigo looked at her with a lost child's expression.
"Ichigo?" she said.
The Kurosaki males moved as one, Isshin drawing his sword to smash the cage with, Ichigo simply swinging a fist.
"Stop!" shouted Urahara and Rukia together, and the Kurosaki men froze.
Ichigo did not turn from his mother, his voice tense as he said, "Why?"
Rukia answered, "She looks like the woman on the wall in your house. That doesn't mean she is."
Ichigo forced himself to accept that caution. That, however much he wanted her to be his mother, that didn't remove the possibility that she wasn't. He'd already fought one Hollow that had used her appearance.
"It may be truly her," said Urahara. "But Isshin. What does she feel like to you?"
Isshin said, "Not a Hollow." He frowned. "Or a Quincy, or a shinigami, or a Plus, or a normal human."
Urahara said, "If you wish for her to be returned to you, do NOT break the cell."
Only then did Ichigo see that Masaki's cage wasn't quite like the others. That there was a glowing, violet tint.
Urahara said, "Masaki-san, what do you remember?"
"I… remember my wedding. And the feel of a reishi bow in my fingers. And terror. And joy. When I held baby Ichigo to my chest. I…." She trailed off, still hazy and unsure, as if drugged or on her fourth straight day of no sleep.
"Do you remember me?" said Urahara, tapping his chest.
"Who?" said Masaki.
It amazed Ichigo, later, that he didn't break down and that he hardly cried. Perhaps it was due to the strangeness of it all. The fugue Masaki was in, and his heart couldn't decide if he was looking at a wraith, a shell, a sad memory of his mother, or if she was just drugged up and would be fine after a hot meal and a long nap.
Questioning showed that Masaki remembered the most important events of her life, and to some extent, the people who made them important, but relatively minor characters like Urahara were beyond her.
Ichigo had whip lash from Urahara expecting her to know him. And from her mention of a 'reishi bow.' Another line of questioning from Goat Chin left no doubt. His mother was, or had been, a Quincy.
Then came Urahara skimming through Aizen's files as he questioned her. Asked about what she remembered from her time as part of the Grand Fisher. What she remembered from Aizen extracting, and what had happened afterward.
"Interesting," said Urahara. "Within Hueco Mundo, souls that are released from Hollows are unable to re-enter the reincarnation cycle. Instead, they rise to the sky, and fall back to the sand as low-class, single soul Hollows. Like snow. If you release her now, that's exactly what will happen to her. Aizen thought he had some way around that." He tssked. "Fortunately, I see here that his plan involved beginning his modifications of her while she is still in this blank state. Plans that it would seem he left by the wayside when he saw in Inoue Orihime a chance to bring the Gotei 13 to battle immediately."
Usually Ichigo was peeved by Urahara's 'silly scientist' act, but for once he hung on every word.
He could imagine Aizen's plan. Turn his mother into an especially vicious and powerful Arrancar with only fragmentary memories of her human life, then turn her against her husband and son. Aizen would've loved that. Would've gotten some sick satisfaction.
If Inoue had been there, Ichigo would've hugged her for getting herself kidnapped and starting the ball rolling.
Urahara continued speaking as he looked through Aizen's files. "The inability of the vanquished to leave Hueco Mundo is why we don't normally send Shinigami here. 'Purifying' Hollows here just creates more low-level Hollows, and any shinigami who die here are reborn as low-level Hollows as well. If a Captain class shinigami dies here, it's essentially the donation of a Soul capable of becoming the nucleus of a Vasto Lorde, or at least an Adjuchas. For a spirit extracted from a Hollow, formed and then released, it should be much the same." He tssked and took out a silk bag of dark blue, covered with white diamond patterns. It was already a little bit full.
Urahara said, "I could simply stow her here with the others. I'll release them when we get back to Soul Society, and they'll all rejoin the reincarnation cycle."
Isshin said, "Isn't there's a way to turn her into a complete Soul? So we can take her back with us."
Urahara smiled broadly, like salesman selling used goods like they were brand new, and stepped toward the cage. "I don't think she's quite so far gone that she can't make the decision herself. How about it, Masaki-san? Would you like to finish dying, or would you rather go home?"
Even with Aizen's research and equipment to draw upon, Urahara claimed to need at least few hours to prepare to work a scientific miracle as unprecedented as completing the manual transformation of what had once been a subordinate spirit in a Hollow into a full-fledged Soul capable of living in Soul Society. Or inhabiting a gigai in the Human World.
Ichigo and Rukia worked as dogsbodies. The other two labs had turned out to hold not much of interest to them, though the Arrancars were deciding what to do with Aizen's non-Arrancar Hollow experiments, but there was a lot to move around. Urahara was setting up a condensation chamber for Ichigo's mother to manifest in once she'd been Konsoed.
Ichigo provided the long arms needed to securely hold cumbersome pieces of equipment. Rukia provided the passing knowledge of Soul Society tech needed to recognize what Urahara had sent them looking for.
Ichigo was too caught up in visions of his mother being, if not human, and arguably not alive, at least existing and maybe living with them too, to notice how quiet and withdrawn Rukia was, pointing at what they needed more than saying its name and not taking a single chance to show off her superior knowledge.
When they deposited the last of it at Urahara's feet, Rukia spoke more than two words for the first since they'd found Ichigo's mother.
She said, "Urahara-san, could you do this with any spirit devoured by a Hollow?"
"No," said Urahara. "Most of them would be too stripped. Masaki only has her form and some memories because of her strong will, her high degree of skill and power as a Quincy, and the Grand Fisher's unusual ability. Because it made use of its victims' forms, it had to preserve their original selves in some fashion."
Rukia said, "Suppose there were a Hollow that had consumed a shinigami. It could manifest the shinigami's appearance, memories, and even zanpakutou. Could you, hypothetically, recover the shinigami?"
Urahara's eyes were dark and fathomless. "Did this Hollow exhibit any of the shinigami's will?"
"No," said Rukia.
"Then no, it wouldn't be possible. Memories and zanpakutou abilities, without will, without resolve… it's like the difference between a computer and a person."
Rukia nodded and thanked him, and she almost at the door when Ichigo realized she was shaking.
He went after her, catching up to her just outside the room.
Rukia said, "You should return to your mother."
"Goat Chin's with her. What's wrong?"
"Nothing's wrong." She was still shaking.
"What Urahara told you really upset you." His eyes widened as he put two and two together. "Espada 9."
She jerked and went into an emptied room, taking a seat on a leather sofa that Aizen had likely sat on as he planned his atrocities.
Ichigo sat next to her, and he waited.
Slowly, her expression smoothed, her reiatsu calmed, and Ichigo knew she had no intention of ever speaking of it to anyone.
Ichigo said, "I'm not going to demand that you tell me. But, tell me. I want to help you carry this, if I can."
She was silent, and Ichigo thought she wouldn't speak after all.
"Kaien Shiba," Rukia said. "I guess he would've been your cousin. He was my Vice-Captain. And my mentor. My teacher. When I joined the Gotei 13, I wasn't ready. In skill, in power, or in heart. I had just become a Kuchiki, and… He helped. But he was killed by a Hollow. Sort of. It was a Hollow that could take over a shinigami's body, and it took over his. I killed him, with my own hands. I think he was still in there. I think he helped. Made it clumsy.
"Somehow, even though I killed it, should've purified it, it was one of Aizen's experiments, and it became part of Espada 9. And Espada 9..."
Had used Kaien Shiba's face, memories, power. She didn't have to explain.
"So..." said Rukia, and nothing more.
Ichigo said, "Urahara said he couldn't have been extracted.
"I think he was lying. And if he wasn't, he was guessing."
Ichigo didn't protest. Hat'n'Clogs had good traits. Honesty wasn't one of them.
It was a new thing, to comfort each other with touch, but putting an arm around her, Ichigo was glad they'd adopted it. He didn't know what else he could've done.
There was machinery. Pipes and tubes connecting two glass chambers. Wires. A tacky plastic tiara that Urahara had likely added to the device for its pure ridiculousness.
Ichigo saw none of that. Only his mother, standing in the first glass cage
"Whenever you're ready, Isshin-san," said Urahara.
Isshin advanced, drawing his zanpakutou.
Movements and blinking lights a deep thrumming sound like Chad's bass guitar, a sudden hole in the cage Masaki was in, and Isshin putting the end of the his zanpakutou against Masaki's head, his eyes moist.
Ichigo's mother wavered. Whisped away, like smoke on the wind, and in the other chamber, a shape materialized. Clear at first, like a sculpture of ice, but slowly taking on color. Partially crouched, with bright orange hair, amber eyes, and an expression puzzled and alert.
She stood from the crouch, looking out into the room, eyes passing over all of them.
"Urahara-san," she said, her voice full of recognition and confusion, but no more than that.
He smiled genially, and when Masaki looked around again, her eyes fixed on Isshin, wide and worried.
Ichigo saw the moment she recognized him despite his journey into middle age. "Shibafu," she whispered. His mother's pet name for Goat Chin. "You've gotten older. What? No, I can ask later. Ichigo. He was being attacked by a Hollow and-"
"I'm right here," said Ichigo, raising a hand. His voice was rough, but he needed to be strong for her. "I'm fine. Yuzu and Karin are fine too."
"You've gotten big," she said. "How long..."
"A little over six years," said Isshin. "Not very long." Isshin's seriousness fled. "And yet you didn't recognize me at first!" he wailed. "You recognized stupid Kisuke before me!"
Ichigo nearly hit his father for being so ridiculous at such a bad time, but his mother smiled, as if amused, or at least, as if she knew Goat Chin was doing it for her amusement. Her own tone was light as she said, "Stupid Kisuke doesn't look any different. You though, you look like you've aged 12 years in the past six. I always said you wouldn't be able to take care of yourself if I wasn't around. But..."
Her eyes raked again around the room, the blinking lights, the waiting shinigami, Nell unobtrusively in a corner. "Is this Soul Society?"
Isshin said, "It's Hueco Mundo. We finally had the war with Aizen. We won."
Good," she said, eyes falling again on Ichigo. "You're a shinigami."
"Yeah. Sort of. A few months now."
She breathed out. "And you're only 15?"
"Did you die?"
Ichigo's eyes flitted to Urahara, and he decided to pass over the ambiguities of his circumstances, saying only, "My body is alive and well."
Masaki said, "It's like a dream, but I remember you as a shinigami before. I was fighting you? Fighting for you? I wanted you to stab me with your zanpakutou, but you wouldn't."
"Yeah. That. The Grand Fisher. A Hollow. You helped me."
"I was a part of a Hollow." She shivered.
Ichigo waited. For her, over 6 years hadn't passed. For her, this wasn't a miraculous reunion. Simply a waking from a long nightmare.
His mother tapped the glass of the chamber she was in and said, "When can I get out of this?"
Most of the liberated captives, both human and shinigami, had been assembled, minus a few who were too dangerous. Masaki was just behind Ichigo, and Rukia was at the back of the group, riding herd.
Breathing deep and even, Ichigo faced the wall and searched within himself for what he'd done once before.
Zangetsu said it first. Ichigo heard, and said it second.
Moon gate pierces heaven.
With a name for it, the technique was vastly easier to perform. The Garganta, or Garganta-like portal opened in space itself, and Ichigo stepped confidently through, finding the footing more solid than before, and the light at the end of the tunnel not nearly so far off.
A bare minute of walking brought them to the end of the tunnel of silver and black, and Ichigo stepped onto the hard ground in front of the White Road Gate, the only entrance to Seireitei that Ichigo knew to visualize.
Careful to keep the Getsumon stable, he offered a hand to Masaki to help her down, though she seemed amused as she took it.
The liberated captives filed out of the Getsumon, gathering into a disciplined square before the gate. Rukia hopped down last of all.
"Clear!" she said, and Ichigo closed the Getsumon.
Jidanbo stepped forward, not drawing his either of his massive axes, but a hand noticeably near the first. He seemed cheerful, though, as he said, "Kurosaki Ichigo. Kuchiki Rukia-san. What's this?"
Rukia stepped forward. "Liberated prisoners from Aizen's base. We're escorting them to Division 4. I have a letter from Captain Kuchiki." She drew the letter from her inner pocket, but Jidanbo waved her off and opened the gate.
"Welcome back," Jidanbo said, grinning broadly, and many of the liberated greeted him back by name.
Though he knew the routes from the Kuchiki Estate, Ichigo's general ability to navigate Seireitei was still rough, so Rukia came to the front, walking along with him and his mother.
"It's even more old-fashioned than I expected," said Masaki.
Ichigo said, "It is and it isn't. Most of the time, they seem to live like people did centuries ago, but when they care to, they whip out tech that would make Tokyo University green with envy."
Rukia nodded. "My television is much larger than yours, with an excellent sound system.
Ichigo tried playing tour guide, but he'd never been much for making conversation, and he kept trailing off uncomfortably since most of his references were things like, 'I fought Ikkaku about over there,' and, 'I hid in that nook when I was running from Kenpachi, it smells like ass.' He was hoping to avoid those revelations for as long as possible.
Amid his stammering, his mother said, "It's alright, Ichigo. You don't have to force yourself. I'm not going anywhere."
He wanted to hold her. Wanted to hug her and cry and be a child again.
Rukia bumped into him while walking, as if by accident, and it was enough. He nodded and said, "Good," focusing on the path ahead.
He felt it before it arrived. Captain Kurotsuchi, coming quickly around a corner, eyes passing over the Ichigo and Rukia and fixing on the others.
"Returning," he said, "With shinigami? From Las Noches. Experimental subjects, aren't they? I'll look after them."
As the liberated captives shifted uneasily, Rukia stepped forward. Rukia said, "We are taking them to Division 4 and Captain Unohana. I have orders from Captain Kuchiki." She waved her letter.
"And I am giving you different orders. They will come with me."
Ichigo tensed. Byakuya had been very clear in saying that they were not to allow the liberated prisoners to fall into the care of Captain Kurotsuchi. Byakuya had told him to use force, if necessary. That had seemed nuts to Ichigo, but Rukia had simply nodded, so there had to be a reason.
From how frightened some of the liberated captives behind him seemed, it wasn't only the Kuchiki family that didn't trust the Captain of Division 12.
Rukia said, "Nii-sama's orders supersede yours, Captain Kurotsuchi, and have for many years."
"Not in my area responsibility."
The clown painted freak's reiatsu rose, and Ichigo cautiously put a hand to Zangetsu's hilt.
A flash, and Toushirou was in the middle of the road between them. Ichigo let out a sigh of relief and let go of Zangetsu.
Rukia bowed. "Captain Hitsugaya, we have liberated prisoner's from Aizen's base. We are escorting them to Division 4 before returning, as ordered to by Captain Kuchiki."
"That seems wise," said Toushirou. "Captain Kurotsuchi, I will escort them there. Kurosaki, run tail."
Gathering the young Captain's meaning, Ichigo shunpoed to the back of the file, ready to protect the liberated captives if Kurotsuchi tried to make off with any of them.
Kurotsuchi hmmphed and shunpoed away – not very quickly, in Ichigo's opinion – and the procession to Division 4 was steady but tense.
When they reached it, Captain Unohana was waiting outside it, arms folded, with a squad of her shinigami, as if she'd known they were coming.
Division 4 was fast and efficient, noting down details and getting the liberated captives into examination rooms even before Rukia was done giving her report to Captain Unohana and handing over the packet Urahara had given her.
And a Division 4 member was at his mother's side, asking for her name and rank, and after the shinigami overcome her surprise at the answers, put her into an examination room, and his mother vanished behind the door.
Having heard the conversation, Unohana inclined her head and said, "I will see to your mother personally, Kurosaki-san. But there are others who require my attention first."
With a swish of her robes, she was gone, leaving Rukia and Ichigo alone in front of the door to this mother's examination room.
"You had better do it sometime," said Rukia.
Ichigo raised an eyebrow.
"Go. Hug her. Cry. Babble. Do whatever it is you must do. This is the time to let yourself fall apart, if only briefly. You have 15 minutes. Use them well." And Rukia shoved him through the door.
The examination room was empty except for them, his mother sitting on a mat.
"I've missed you," said Ichigo. "I missed you so much. I know it wasn't long for you, but for me… It's half the years I can remember, and..." He swallowed.
He cried, he babbled, he let himself go. She held him close, as if he were a child, gently stroking his hair, murmuring reassurances.
The clock on the wall ticked on. When his tears had stopped, and his babbling too, Kurosaki Masaki said, "You have to go. It's been twenty minutes. That girl gave you fifteen."
"You heard that?"
"She was not quiet."
"Right." Quiet. Rukia wasn't that.
"Ichigo, I am glad, that you have such a good friend."
"You have a duty. Carry it out. I will be here when you return."
He savored the heartache, because it had an end. He would return, and she would still be there.
He let himself look back only once.
There were still the Arrancar to settle.
A reunion from beyond the grave, a woman returning from death to join her husband and son… I don't know how to write that. How do you write that?
There's a disagreement going on in my reviews regarding Arrancars and Souls. Thanks for pointing stuff out to me. I do commit oversights, and am pleased when readers point them out to me, and I usually fix them.
However, I do not believe that in any of the previous chapters I've stated that Arrancars require souls to consume. The next chapter will deal a lot with Arrancar, and however I write it will probably be however I want it to be for this story. Not an oversight, but a decision.
Yes, Masaki's hair is now bright orange.
As far as Quincies, I'm going with my initial impressions of Quincies from the first three major arcs rather than what's later established as canon.
I've posted the first four chapters of an original story on Wattpad. It's called Skeleton of a Dead God, by Jonathan Lake. It's vaguely Bleach inspired. I find the Wattpad interface on mobile counter-intuitive. To reach the next chapter, you just keep scrolling past the end of the previous chapter and past the profile page. Please give it a shot.