The lamps are dying. It's a ridiculous thought, really. All they need is a little more oil and the flames will steady out. Each lamp requires only a few ounces to burn for days; the cost of that fuel hardly measures as a rounding error on the military or even research budget. A single overworked prison guard could run to a general store, procure the necessary supplies, return, and refill the lamps within a couple of hours.
And yet, the lamps continue to flicker. Kisuke watches them with deadened eyes. He has given up on actually focusing his gaze; the light is a blur of color on a black background. His throat aches. When was the last time they provided food and water? His mind cycles through memories like files in a drawer. One hour ago, two hours ago, three hours ago, a day ago, a week—
No, not a week. Too far. Mental gears, cracked with disrepair, groan to a stop and restart. Thirty and a half hours. That is how long. Thirty hours, thirty-one minutes, and twelve seconds. Thirteen. Fourteen. Fifteen.
The sigh works its way from the deepest cells in his lungs, up his throat, and out his mouth. It moves his entire chest and shifts his shoulders against the rough stone wall. It presses his ribs against the skin pulled taught over them and makes the starved hollow of his stomach turn over in protest. And when it is gone, the only sounds left are his stubborn heart and the crackling oil lamps. For a moment, at least. Cloth slides across stone and Kisuke tilts his head. "Did I wake you?" His voice is scratchy. He needs water. The simple collector he painstakingly carved in the far corner only fills when it rains, and it has not rained in days. No amount of rationing can save him from the whims of nature.
"No." As rough as Kisuke's voice is, Ichigo's is seemingly untouched by their enforced famine. "I haven't been able to sleep in a while, anyway. It's not you."
"I see." Kisuke finally brings his eyes into focus. The tiny hole in the wall separating their two cells flickers with the light from the lamp just across the hall. "The dreams again?"
"Yeah." More movement. "Can you do another check?"
Kisuke obligingly pushes himself up and kneels by the hole. "You think it has progressed even more?"
"I didn't notice when it happened last time. I think…I think I might not be feeling it at all anymore." It's a scary thought. Kisuke peers through the hole with a single eye. Ichigo has his back to him, the bare skin there glimmering in the uneven firelight. Black marks radiate out from a single point roughly between his shoulder blades, meeting their mirrors from Ichigo's chest over his shoulders and under his arms. Around the marks—and well beyond them—Ichigo's skin is bone white. "Well?" Kisuke sighs again and draws back, giving Ichigo the bare minimum of privacy. It is all he has to offer, these days.
"You were right."
"It has reached your waist and your shoulders."
Ichigo curses quietly. Kisuke shuffles to his spot against his cell's back wall. The stone here is worn smoother than the rest, making it the single most comfortable part of his uncomfortable abode. "It appears to be speeding up."
"Yeah," Ichigo mutters. A peculiar sound echoes. Kisuke frowns. Porcelain? "There's something else now, too." The sound comes again. "It's developing right by the hole. Some kind of…I don't know. Armor, maybe."
"And the hole?" The black marks make it impossible to see in this lighting.
"Bigger. About the width of my palm."
A third sigh threatens to break through. Kisuke lets it die somewhere in the back of his mouth. His tongue is a leaden thing weighed down by six years of guilt.
"You don't have to apologize." Ichigo's voice cuts through the fog.
"I know you've been thinking about it. I don't care about the guilt you feel, but I don't want you in my debt. So don't say you're sorry, especially because I'd do it all again, even if I knew. You gave me the chance to protect my family, my friends, my whole town. If keeping them safe means I lose my humanity, then I'll make that trade every time."
As the echoes of his voice die down, Kisuke wonders if the void in his chest will eventually grow big enough to swallow his heart. "Easy enough to say that now," he finds himself saying, "when the price is already paid. Could you say that to me with your friends behind you, begging you not to go? Could you look them in the eyes and tell them that you will never come home?"
Silence. It is all he deserves. Kisuke closes his eyes and searches for relief in the emptiness of a dreamless sleep.
Scratching. The first few times, Kisuke ignores the sound, but when it continues, he can block it out no longer. Wincing, Kisuke draws himself out of the deepest reaches of his mind and blinks his cell into focus. There is not much to see; all the lamps are almost out of fuel. The walls are hunks of black against gray bars and dark floors. Kisuke squints. His stomach is a hollow pit. He licks his lips, but it does nothing except remind him of how chapped they are. In the grand scheme of things, it is a paltry discomfort, but it grates on him all the same.
The sound of nails dragging against stone continues. It lasts for a few seconds, stops, resets, repeats. Kisuke focuses bleary eyes on the hole, but of course he can't see anything through it right now.
"Ichigo," he says, though his voice is more of a whisper than he intends. "Ichigo, are you awake?" With great effort, Kisuke pushes himself to his feet and staggers to the connecting wall. His shoulder knocks against it, and the pain chases away the most distracting tendrils of exhaustion. "I need you to answer me."
A few tense seconds. The scratching stops. "I'm here." Kisuke lets out a quiet breath of relief. "I don't have very long, though." Something in Ichigo's voice is an invitation, and Kisuke peers through the hole. Ichigo sits cross-legged facing Kisuke's cell, his back to the far wall. For all that he is just a silhouette, his left iris glows a molten gold. The sight sends chills down Kisuke's spine. Ichigo's gaze is unwavering. "You should stay out of sight. And stay quiet." He winces at something Kisuke cannot hear. The muted light of his hollow eye shines through his eyelid.
Disturbed and guilty in equal measure, Kisuke withdraws to a corner of his cell not visible from the peephole. He puts his back against the stone, crosses his legs against the protests of his aging knees, and waits. Ichigo's breathing, louder and harsher than normal, remains even for another ninety-seven seconds. It hitches at ninety-eight. Stops at ninety-nine. Restarts at one hundred and three, accompanied by sounds of quiet resistance that die soon after. He knows better than to look, even if the curiosity is a physical pull on his muscles.
A door opens. Kisuke, realization coming a second later, draws on his dwindling strength. "Stay back!" he calls to whatever poor guard has come down to check on them. The echoing footsteps stop. Ichigo's cell is quiet, but the strange gurgling sounds continue as a backdrop to Kisuke's one-sided warning. "He's having an episode. Come back when it's safe."
A trembling voice answers: "When is that, sir?"
"Two hours." Ichigo will be back to himself in less than one, but Kisuke knows he will want time to recover.
"Very well, s—"
The guard's surprised shriek is lost in the deafening roar. Kisuke's ears ring. A door slams and the resulting breeze stirs the fading embers in each lamp. They flare, but only for a moment. One, two, three teeth-rattling booms echo from Ichigo's cell as he throws himself against the barriers keeping the walls and bars intact. Another roar, even louder and more frustrated than the first, pierces the stagnant air. Kisuke weathers the sound with exhausted equilibrium. He counts the seconds, the roars, and the booms. He counts them all, and when Ichigo's delirious strength finally fades, he starts up one last timer.
That count reaches nearly fifteen minutes before Ichigo stirs. He coughs a few times, spits, gags. "How long?"
More coughing. "Fuck."
"You were unconscious for a quarter-hour afterwards. I told the food delivery boy to come back later."
Ichigo's mirthless chuckles barely carry to Kisuke's ears. "I bet that went over well."
"Your roared at him."
"Do you remember?"
"Pieces." Ichigo grunts and then settles down. "When will they be back? You haven't eaten in days."
"Soon enough." Each word scrapes like sandpaper up his throat. He tries to swallow, but it offers little relief.
"When did they refill the lamps?"
Ichigo's quiet question bounces around Kisuke's skull. There is something wrong with it. Something very wrong. His mind grasps at tired observations until he finally opens his eyes. The prison is still dark. "They did not." Kisuke turns his head towards Ichigo's cell. "Can you see?"
Each heartbeat of silence is a measure of Ichigo's fear. Kisuke makes the connection and something in his chest twinges. Guilt pools behind his eyes. Another measure, then. "Let me see," he says. He crawls to the hole and looks through. He cannot see Ichigo. "Ichigo. Please."
"What can you do?" The quiet, sullen question catches Kisuke off-guard.
Ichigo sighs. "Sorry. I just…I don't need you to tell me this time."
"May I see?"
He gets no verbal reply, but Ichigo does move until Kisuke can see his face. This time, it is Kisuke's breathing that stutters. "Your eyes." Ichigo blinks, eyelids sliding over black sclera and gold irises. They do not glow with the promise of an episode, but they are luminescent all the same. With their light, Kisuke can see the resigned tilt to Ichigo's lips.
"There's something else," Ichigo says. He looks down, reaches with shaking hands highlighted in subtle gold to tap his chest, right around the hole. That strange porcelain sound echoes. Kisuke peers closer, but the light is too faint to see.
"What is it?"
"I still don't know. Bone, maybe. It's spreading fast. I can't peel it off."
Kisuke sits back on his heels. "This is a…new development." Ichigo's laugh makes him flinch.
"A development? A development? Kisuke, it's happening faster and faster. That was my third episode in—in—"
"In five days. I have maybe, maybe two or three more before I don't wake up, and you're calling this—" his voice takes on a hysterical edge, or maybe Kisuke is only now hearing it—"you're calling this a development. I am losing my mind, Kisuke. He's taking it all."
Kisuke retreats to his wall. The ensuing silence rings with accusation, with bitterness, with grief. "I am so, so sorry," he says, the words empty and meaningless. Choked, muffled sobs carries from Ichigo's cell—stifled tears for a family he cannot return to and a life he can hardly stand to live. Kisuke weathers the sounds the same way he did the roars, even though the hollow's cries never cut quite so deep.
Six years ago
Frowning at the monitor, Kisuke mentally runs through his experiment and tries to figure out how he could get such wildly inaccurate readings. He plugs in a few different values for the same variable and gets equally improbable results. Rocking back on his heels, he scans his small array of equipment until his gaze lands on the glass tank functioning as the reaction chamber. His eyes narrow.
Invisible from afar but obvious from up close, the tiny cracks in the glass walls are more than enough to make any trial a failure. Sighing, Kisuke flips open a nearby notepad and writes a reminder to order another tank. This experiment will have to wait until the replacement arrives, which could take weeks. Getting glass supplies on the frontlines—or anywhere near the frontlines—was a trial in and of itself. A quiet chime draws him from his musings on what his research should be in the meantime.
"Yoruichi!" She raises an eyebrow at him, and then at the mess his tent has become.
"When is the last time you cleaned this place, Kisuke?"
"I've been busy. What brings you here? I thought you were on the Western front."
She nods, picking her way around the discarded beakers, papers, and tools to the only cleared-off bench in the whole space. "I was, but we had to retreat. Most of my men are being treated in the medical tents right now. We had to take a back way and loop around to the East."
"You retreated well behind our lines, then."
"We were desperate. The enemy chased us for far longer than I anticipated. We were worrying close to civilian settlements. Fortunately, the enemy gave up before we had to do anything heroic. If they hadn't…" she shrugs. "I didn't come here to regale you with war stories, though. Ichigo! You can come in now. Careful not to trip."
Kisuke straightens in surprise as a young boy—no older than sixteen—ducks through the entrance flaps. When he checks with Yoruichi, though, she merely has a smug smile on her face.
"Ichigo, I'd like to introduce you to the head of our Research and Development team, Dr. Kisuke Urahara. Kisuke, I'd like you to meet Ichigo Kurosaki, a resident of Karakura Town."
The town name rings a bell. It is near here, only a few miles from the front lines. Yoruichi must have passed through it on her way back after her long retreat. Kisuke turns to her. "I did not realize you were in the habit of picking up strays."
She snorts. "Hardly. Ichigo?"
The kid steps forward. "I want to help."
Kisuke hardly believes this is happening. First, Yoruichi—a captain—grabs a random civilian out of his village while in a full retreat. Then she drags him along to their military-personnel-only frontlines base, and, as a final act, she brings him to Kisuke's lab and all the confidential projects it contains. Worst of all, he can see in her eyes that she knows exactly what she's done.
Ichigo clears his throat. "Look, I know I can make a difference. I came here because I want to protect my family and Captain Yoruichi said you'd know how to make that happen."
Kisuke fixes his longtime friend with a droll look hidden behind a chipper tone. "Did she now? Why would she say something like that to a young boy like you, I wonder?"
Unfazed, Yoruichi gestures to Ichigo. "Stop using your eyes for a second, Kisuke, and really look at him."
"I really don't—" Kisuke stops. For a moment, the whole world stops with him. The boy, Ichigo, is standing still, but the air around him roils with power. If not for the tens of other incredibly powerful characters wandering around the camp, Kisuke would have sensed him miles away. Now that he is paying attention, though, Ichigo's reiatsu is a beacon. And, even more interestingly, if he really looks, there are traces of…
"Well?" Yoruichi interrupts, her pleased smirk all too obvious. "Care to try your response again?"
"I think I would." Kisuke strides up to Ichigo and holds out a hand. The boy looks him in the eyes, shoulders set with all the confidence and courage a fifteen-year-old-boy can muster. "Pleasure to meet you, young Kurosaki. Call me Dr. Urahara. You and I are going to do great things together."
Ichigo shakes his hand with a firm, calloused grip. He doesn't mirror Kisuke's smile, but he doesn't have to. All plans for other research projects are unceremoniously tossed aside as Kisuke clears mental room for his new experiment, one that will be a reverse of previous failed attempts.
Great things, indeed.
Three months ago
"With all due respect, this committee is the one that commissioned, financed, and oversaw my research. Any crimes I may or may not have committed are not—"
"Silence!" Kisuke winces. The judge glowers at him from on high, the only illuminated figure in a sea of heads floating over empty desks. "Do you have records to prove what you say?"
"Where might they be?"
Kisuke's stomach sinks. His eyes flick to Yoruichi, the only silhouette he recognizes, for just an instant, and he sees in her stony expression that she too has figured out the depths of the setup Kisuke cannot escape. "They were…they were likely destroyed in the fire that destroyed my main laboratory, your honor."
The judge sits back with a huff. "How convenient for you."
"Please, your honor, give me a day to round up what evidence still remains in my lab. The fire was intentional. Someone here is trying to frame me. They want to stop my research because they know it can win the war."
"A bold claim." Whispers spread throughout the upper echelons, but they quiet down when the judge raises his hand. "Tell me this, then, Dr. Urahara, if you can. Are you not the one who conducted hollowfication experiments on our own people?"
"I was trying to cure—"
"Are you not," the judge continued, speaking louder now, his voice echoing around the chamber, "the one who took a fifteen-year-old boy from his home and performed those same despicable procedures on him?"
"Ichigo Kurosaki was a volunteer—"
"And are you not the one who, upon learning of that man's increasingly uncontrollable rages, did everything in your power to cover it up and, in so doing, put each and every one of your so-called allies at risk?"
Kisuke sees that protesting will get him nothing. His expression reflects the barest flickers of his desperate wrestle for calm amid his frustration. Arguments build themselves and fall apart in his head. He is no longer thinking of freedom when he finally speaks again. "I claim no right to an assumption of innocence. The sins on my shoulders will burden me until the day I die. Despite this, I have only ever worked in service of this country. All my research, all my experiments, all my tests were in pursuit of a final, permanent victory. Not once have I intended my exploits to cause harm to our own people.
"Ichigo Kurosaki came to me as a young man desperate for a cause. I did not seek him out. Nor did I understand the true nature of his soul. The Shattered Shaft experimental training that I put him through exacerbated an imbalance I did not know existed. By the time I realized my mistake, it was too late to correct it. I did what could to preserve his sanity so that our forces did not lose the single greatest wartime asset we have ever had before we successfully turned the tide. You would call that 'covering it up'. Maybe so. But you cannot deny that this boy you have callously thrown in prison and left to rot is the reason you are able to sit here and judge me in such comfort."
Outrage. Kisuke ignores the calls for order. "I know nothing I say will persuade you to change your sentencing. As a matter of fact, I suspect you had a punishment in mind long before I was dragged in front of this court. So be it." He stares down the judge despite being ten feet below him, eyes like steel. "In two minutes and twenty-one seconds, the remainder of my research will automatically purge itself without my hand there to stay the Kidō formulas responsible. There is nothing you can do to stop this. It was an honor serving with you."
He bows, and to any ordinary observer the gesture is genuine. Only Yoruichi catches its mocking edge—and only she sees the uncertainty buried deep between his shoulders. The guards come in a tidal wave of black uniforms and carry Kisuke away in chains. His eyes find Yoruichi's in the chaos and his expression softens. There is an apology in there, one he could never say aloud. She nods, and Kisuke closes his eyes, embracing the last taste of absolution he is ever likely to get.
He wakes with a start, blinking his cell into focus. His first thought is that they refilled the lamps. The second is that there is a plate of food in his cell. Hunger explodes in his stomach and he cannot stop himself from crawling over.
"I know you're awake."
"Apologies," Kisuke says after swallowing the mouthful of bread and water, "I was eating." The embers of their last conversation go untended. "What is it?"
"I need you to promise me something."
A dangerous preamble to any statement. "I'll need to hear what exactly it is I'm supposed to promise, first."
Kisuke stares at the wedge of cheese on his tray. After some deliberation, he carefully splits it up into fourths. "Promises between prisoners are not worth very much, don't you think?"
"You owe me this."
It wasn't his imagination, then. The strange double-toned nature of Ichigo's voice is not a product of his hunger or exhaustion; it's really there, and growing more obvious each time Ichigo speaks. "With respect, I intend to pay all my debts in Hell like a proper sinner."
Ichigo slams a hand against the wall separating their cells hard enough to make the barriers flare orange in warning. "Kisuke!" The cheese is good, if a little soft. He chews slowly, waiting. "Please," Ichigo repeats, his voice breaking. "You're all I've got. My family—"
"Let me stop you right there," Kisuke interrupts sharply. He finally spins to face Ichigo's cell, knowing that the other man is looking through the hole. "I know what you're going to ask me to do. A final message to your friends and family for whenever I get out because you think you have no chance of survival. I cannot make a promise like that."
"Why?" Kisuke shakes his head and returns to his food. "Why? Answer me!" He bears Ichigo's cries as long as he can, but eventually the thin thread of patience holding back the terrible truth snaps.
"Because you'll kill them!" Ichigo's voice cuts off the moment Kisuke speaks and does not return. Kisuke slams the remaining half of the apple down on his tray, hands shaking. "Because you'll kill them," he repeats quietly, "long before I ever have the chance to tell them what happened to you. The next time you have an episode, you will break the barriers. You've been weakening them beyond repair each time you lose control." He hears himself as an observer in his own head, detached and methodical. "At the rate your hollowfication is progressing, it won't be three episodes or even two until your humanity is lost. It will be one. You will escape, and you will do what all newly-turned hollows do: hunt down and kill the ones closest to your heart. And there will be nothing I can do to stop you." He closes his eyes, traitorous, frustrated tears sliding down his cheeks. "That is why I cannot promise you anything, Ichigo, because I have already broken every promise I could have possibly made."
Ichigo sits heavily, the sound of his body hitting the floor echoing. "Only…one…" he whispers in numb disbelief.
"Every prediction I made was wrong," Kisuke continues, because now the words just won't stop. "Every assumption I made was wrong. You are suffering because of my arrogance. Your family will suffer because of it. I am sorry for all of it: my hubris, my ignorance, my selfishness—and the way I, and every member of this army, used you, and then discarded you when you needed us most." He draws a breath and lets it out slowly, only speaking again when he is sure his voice is level. "I will hear whatever you have left to say, but please, if I can ask anything of you, don't force me to make you a promise I cannot keep."
In the ensuing quiet, Kisuke watches his shadow twitch over the stones, at the mercy of the lamps and the fickle fires within. He wonders if it was always meant to come to this. That, no matter what choices he made that first day with Ichigo, no matter what experiments he ran in the ensuing years, they would always end up here. Maybe that's why he keeps dreaming of that moment when they first met. That was his turning point. That was when he could've said no and spared them all a world of pain—even though he knows, even now, that he wouldn't say no. That knowledge only makes his guilt worse. It is a terrible fact, but an irrefutable one: the cost of letting Ichigo live his normal life is simply too high.
If Kisuke believed in a god, he would pray. But there are no gods here. There haven't been for a long, long time. He focuses on the tray instead, on the meager food remaining.
"There's something you missed."
Kisuke finishes separating his food into another six days' worth of portions. His hands are finally steady again. "Oh?"
"If I go after anyone I'm close to, I'll go after you."
"Ah." Kisuke stares at his tray. Six days is…optimistic. He reorganizes. "I suppose you're right. I will be your first target." Four days? Three? Perhaps even fewer. He can save as much as possible and have a pathetic little feast before the hollow he'd seen as a brother tears his throat out.
Ichigo's doubled voice barely sounds like the one in Kisuke's memories. "You're pretty calm about all this."
One day. He will give himself one more day. "'Calm' is the wrong word, I'm afraid."
"Aren't you angry?"
Ichigo's sheer frustration is enough to give Kisuke pause. He takes stock. There is anger there, yes, the cooling embers of what was once a white-hot rage fueled by betrayal. Easily fanned, but there is neither wind nor fuel down here. "I was."
Ichigo growls something. He gets up and Kisuke can hear him pacing the length of his cell. One, two, three, four, turn. One, two, three, four—
"I hate this." Ichigo stops. "All of it. I did all that, I worked for all of it, I did—I did everything I could, and it ends like this. It's pathetic."
"Being consumed by a literal demon is hardly something I'd call pathetic," Kisuke demurs, but Ichigo isn't listening.
"What good is the strength to raze whole armies if I can't even use it to save my family? If it kills my family? There has to be something I can do."
Kisuke closes his eyes at the familiar phrase. Ichigo always says it when he's frustrated, and following it, he always attempts something to regain control. It never works. But their time is limited now, so he keeps those thoughts to himself. "What haven't you tried?"
"I don't know. Every time I do something, it just makes it worse. And I'm starting to think…" he trails off.
"I'm not sure my dreams are dreams." Kisuke considers the thought. A conversation with yourself, only the other self is drained of color and almost manic. "I think he's been trying to talk to me for a long time."
"And you can never hear him."
"Why would he bother trying to communicate?" More powerful hollows were known to be more intelligent, and Ichigo's was certainty strong—most soldiers thought adjuchas level. Kisuke knew better. "You should only be an obstacle."
"I don't know what he's thinking, but whatever it is, it's not good." This time, when Ichigo stops, the pause is unnatural. Kisuke, skin prickling in response to something he cannot articulate, carefully moves towards the viewing hole.
"Ichigo?" He peers through. Ichigo is in on his knees in the center of his cell, one bleached hand over his mouth, the other over his chest. "Ichigo!"
He coughs, and Kisuke stares in mute horror as something white splatters across the ground. It is the exact color of the material creeping over Ichigo's skin. And at that the horror grows: the encroachment is happening quickly enough that Kisuke can see it with the naked eye.
Not one. Not even one full day. Is this really how it ends? His resignation feels worthless now, confronted with the reality of his fate, with the kind of fear he has not felt in decades. What kind of warrior is he if he cannot find the strength to resist an end like this?
An idea strikes, one so absurd that Kisuke would never normally entertain it.
"Ichigo," he says, urgent, "listen to me."
Ichigo groans, both hands now pressed against his temples, his whole body arched with pain.
"Ichigo!" Kisuke snaps, slamming one open palm into the wall. The barrier lights up a dull green. It is just enough to catch Ichigo's attention. His discolored eyes skate over Kisuke's, unfocused and scared. Kisuke draws on years of command to make his voice carry: "Look at me." He does. "There is one theory I never entertained: that the hollow in you is not an infection like it is in every other soldier I treated, but rather a part of your soul, something you were born with. It has never happened before, not even in rumor, but if it is the case, then the constant struggle I encouraged between you and your hollow nature has been tearing your soul apart."
Ichigo's shoulders rise and fall with his rapid breathing. The white, viscous fluid leaks from his eyes like macabre tears. It's forming something on his face. A hollow mask. Kisuke speaks faster.
"Your hollow might be fighting so desperately to take control now as a last resort to save your soul before it self-destructs." Ichigo jerks like a puppet on strings. Kisuke grits his teeth. "Look at me! Focus on me like your life depends on it! By fighting your hollow every step of the way, you have been creating a rift in the very core of your being. That is why you cannot hear his voice. It's why your hollow transformations are out of control when you are powerful enough to be sentient as both human and hollow. The only way to stop this hollowfication process is to bridge that gap. Work with the hollow instead of against it. Do you understand? You must find a way to repair the damage before you reach the point of no return."
If Ichigo hears him, if he intends to respond, Kisuke doesn't know; Ichigo stares for just a moment longer before his eyes roll up into his head and he collapses. Still breathing hard, Kisuke watches Ichigo's body, waiting for the hollow to claw its way out, but Ichigo does not stir. Kisuke can only see that he is still alive from the rise and fall of his chest as he breathes.
Drained, Kisuke falls back. His mind, alight with adrenaline just moments ago, now slogs through what he said. Born with a hollow in his soul. Soul suicide. Bridging the gap. He brings a trembling hand up to his face. Could it all really be that simple? A single impossible possibility, the answer he's been seeking for three long years? He always prided himself on considering every angle, yet he missed this one, always assuming that Ichigo's hollow was just too strong to hold back, even when Ichigo's symptoms were so different than every other infected soldier's. He'd thought it was just because he'd gotten to Ichigo quickly enough, but now…now, the truth seems obvious.
He can only hope that he intervened in time.
Kisuke pops the last of the cheese into his mouth. His tray sits empty in front of him, the corner just barely brushing the bars. Unlike Kisuke, the food tray can pass through. For a long moment, Kisuke just stares at the point where the tray and bars touch. He wants something. He doesn't know what it is. He glances at the dividing wall, trying to figure it out. Ichigo is still unconscious and has been that way for almost two hours now. There are no answers there.
"Hm." Leaning closer to the bars, Kisuke stretches out a hand and lets it rest flat against the barrier, which hardly bothers to become visible with how little force he's exerting. "Is it time, then?" No one answers—not that he expects a response—and Kisuke sighs. His escape was so important to him at the start, back when he was determined to prove his own innocence. But then he'd seen Ichigo's condition, realized the severity of what he'd done to the poor kid, and he hadn't been able to leave. He no longer knows the state of Ichigo's soul; his reiatsu is so wild that being this close has only serves to give Kisuke a headache. Actually paying attention in any capacity will surely turn that headache into a migraine.
He sighs. Finally given a choice, and he is locked in indecision. Yoruichi would be laughing at him if she knew.
It happens too quickly to process. Blinded and deafened, Kisuke pieces together the last couple of seconds through a searing agony. A blinding flash of white light—the barrier breaking. A shockwave strong enough to hurl him into the far wall—a concussive blast of Ichigo's spiritual pressure. His own head cracking against the stone before he crumpled to the floor—a concussion.
The spots in his vision recede but the darkness remains. The pressure wave blew out the lamps. Kisuke pushes himself up to his knees. Rubble surrounds him, a mixture of metal and stone. The bars have been blown off their moorings. The wall separating their cells is all but gone. And, in the center of Ichigo's cell, a lone figure stands at the very epicenter of this little explosion.
If this is going to be his end, Kisuke at least wants to see it coming. Without the barrier around to interfere, he raises a hand, a glowing red ball hovering over his palm. Its light washes over the destruction, and in response, Ichigo turns to face him. Primal fear rips up Kisuke's spine and only decades of training keep it from taking over. His Kidō ball wobbles dangerously.
The hollow that was Ichigo stares at Kisuke with brilliant gold eyes locked behind a terrifying visage. Gleaming white teeth spread across his mask in a vicious grin between two wicked horns. The fur around his neck, wrists, and ankles appears bloody in the red light. Kisuke's eyes follow the curve of the fur down to the claws on his fingers. Each one is easily an inch long and sharp enough to rend flesh. Kisuke swallows and stands straight even as the room spins around him. He has no sword and barely enough focus to maintain his light, but he'll be damned if he doesn't try.
Nothing moves. Not the hollow, not Kisuke, not even the air. And then, quite abruptly, the gold light dies. Two yawning pits of black stare out at nothing for only a moment before the mask cracks. More fissures follow with a sound like cascading stone until all of it—the mask, the armor, the claws, the fur—simply falls away, leaving a rather pale Ichigo behind.
Speechless, Kisuke watches as Ichigo blinks and brushes off the last of the strange white material. The black tendrils in his eyes retreat until there is nothing left. Color floods Ichigo's skin again, and with a final surge of reiatsu, the hole in the center of his chest closes. Even the black marks fade.
Ichigo glances up. Blinks. "Kisuke." He looks back down at himself, bringing up one hand to check that his chest is truly whole again. "I…I guess I did."
Kisuke cannot look away. It has been years—years—since he saw Ichigo like this: healthy, whole, human. It is a jarring reminder of how much he'd lost. "You were unconscious for nearly two hours. What happened? How did you reverse the hollowfication process?"
"I did what you told me to do," Ichigo says with a shrug. "I was right about the dreams. They weren't dreams. I went to the same place they always took place in and worked things out with my hollow."
"Worked things out," Kisuke repeats.
"Yeah. It was pretty difficult, and he says we were pretty much dead when everything snapped back to the way it's supposed to be."
"You can hear him now?"
Ichigo nods. "He's kind of annoying." He winces. "And loud."
Relief floods through Kisuke and steals what little strength remains in his muscles. He falls to his knees, sharp rocks cutting into his legs. The light goes out.
"Kisuke? Kisuke!" Ichigo catches him by the shoulders. His irises shift from brown to gold, but his voice remains unmistakably human. "Hey, you okay?"
"I'll be fine," Kisuke says through a bubble of hysteria threatening to burst, "in just a moment." Ichigo still helps him sit against an intact wall before looking around.
"What happened here?"
The laugh breaks through, but Kisuke quickly gets it under control. "You did, I'm afraid."
"Oh. The barrier?"
"Down. Shattered, in fact."
"Huh." Kisuke can hear Ichigo moving in the dark. A minute later, one of the lamps flares to life. When Ichigo faces him again, his eyes have returned to normal. The part of Kisuke's mind that has been keeping notes this whole time goes mad with curiosity. Kisuke cordons it off to dream up experiments on its own. "Feeling better?"
"Enough." Waving off Ichigo's assistance, Kisuke gets to his feet. He sways, braces himself against the wall, and closes his eyes against a cresting wave of nausea. It passes, and he straightens. "And you? You're sounding rather healthy."
Ichigo chuckles and awkwardly scratches the back of his neck. "To be honest, I still haven't really processed everything. I'm just enjoying not feeling like I'm being torn in two." He looks over the destroyed cells again. "But…what now?"
What now, indeed. "Ichigo." He looks so much younger. Kisuke, despite being only a couple decades his senior, suddenly feels very old. "I'm sorry."
Ichigo frowns. "This again? I told you—" he stops when Kisuke holds up a hand.
"A different apology, this time. Every treatment I tried on you made one critical assumption I never thought to question until I was left with no other choice: that your hollowfication was the result of you encountering and being infected by a hollow. I was wrong, and I was too proud to see it, and if I hadn't been so caught up in my own beliefs, we may have avoided all of this." Kisuke lets it end there, knowing that anything else will just be an excuse. Ichigo stares at him for one second. Two. Three. Fo—
"I get it." Ichigo absently nudges a couple rocks away from his feet. "You've been apologizing nonstop since you joined me down here. I know you're sorry." His eyes harden. "But I also know neither of us would change anything that already happened. I'd still say yes to your experiments, and you'd still run them. Maybe we could avoid all this if we got a second go at it, but that's not possible. I'll admit, I got pretty angry at you. I thought I'd lost everything, but getting my balance back…it's helping me see things for what they are. I'm still mad—hard not to be—but you were doing everything you could to help me when you realized you fucked up, and that should count for something. We both know what would've happened if you hadn't let me fight in this war. So stop apologizing. I already forgave you. Now," Ichigo jerked his chin at the exit door, "what do you think about seeing the sun again?"
Kisuke closes his eyes, takes a breath, nods, and straightens his shoulders. "I think I'd like that. Although…" Ichigo stops, one eyebrow climbing high. "I believe there is someone in our army working against us."
"A double agent?"
"Most likely. They burned down my lab and staged the trial that put me here. I think they intended for you to kill me, since my crimes weren't enough for outright execution. If we just leave without a plan in mind, we'll be making targets of ourselves all over again."
Ichigo's eyes flick between Kisuke's face and the door. "Any idea who it is?"
"And if they're influential enough to get you thrown in prison, they'll probably stir the whole camp into a riot if we try to find them. Especially since I just broke us both out."
Watching Ichigo's expression carefully, Kisuke nods. "Almost certainly."
"I know you've already got plans brewing in that head of yours."
"A few." Ichigo snorts. "I won't force you into anything. I want it to be your choice. I was convicted in court; they'll never let me back into the fold. I'm sure that you, however, could find a way to demonstrate that you have control again. They'd leap at the chance to have you back. Plenty of your men were upset about your imprisonment, never mind your fellow captains."
Ichigo bites his bottom lip, his gaze going distant, his focus turning inward, before he nods. "Fine. But only if I stay in your corner."
"I'm not gonna just abandon you to whatever this asshole has planned. You're scarily smart, but if it comes down to a fight, I want to be there. You gave me the strength to protect everyone I care about. That's a debt I'll never call even. I know you like to solve your problems on your own, but that's what got us here to begin with. If—when—you find this guy, you let me know, and we'll tear him apart together."
"You're remarkably willing to work with a rogue for someone with a reputation as such a dependable soldier."
Ichigo grins, and it holds a sharp, hungry edge that Kisuke has never seen before. "Things change. You catch the spy, we give him what he's due, and then we win the war."
"It sounds so simple when you phrase it like that."
"With what my hollow is telling me we can do? Yeah, it just might be."
Just might be worth a review, too.