[Bleach] Minutes to Midnight 35

The Key to Everything

The knocking disturbed Aizen from his thoughts. He glanced at the clock, lifting a brow when he took in just how late it was. Far too late for anyone to be knocking on his door. Unless…

His heart did a careful stutter.

Unless something untoward had happened in the laboratory.

Tearing his attention away from the schematics he had been considering, the lord of Hueco Mundo rose to his feet, throwing a robe on over his attire. It was annoying that he had been in his room to begin with, Gin practically throwing him out of the laboratory and demanding that he get some sleep. He would watch over Kisuke for him. Aizen internally snorted. As if his lieutenant had any room to speak with the way he hovered over Ichigo. And despite the fact that no man was his master, Sousuke acquiesced to the request, not wanting to add another worry to Gin’s list. Besides, the solitude of his own room also meant that he could fret on his own time without betraying the weakness to his Espada.

That was until he was met with the silence of his quarters, once soothing but now highly aggravating. He was twitchy, half-expecting at any moment for Kisuke to appear unannounced with another inane idea. Not that he enjoyed the man’s spontaneous visits or anything; he had simply grown used to their occurrence.

The knocking echoed again, much louder this time and with growing impatience. Suppressing a growl of annoyance, Sousuke stalked towards the door and only great restraint stopped him from ripping it open.

“Wha…” His words died on his tongue as bafflement replaced irritation, the individual standing in his hall certainly not who he had expected.

“Yo!” Kurosaki Isshin greeted with a wave of his hand. “Been a while, Sou-chan. Mind if I come in?”

It wasn’t often that Aizen lost his composure. And it was to Isshin’s credit that the sight of Ichigo’s father managed to make him falter for even a moment. His mouth fell open and then promptly closed as he was rendered speechless. Then, with a firm set of his shoulders, Sousuke found his shattered equanimity.

“Isshin,” he greeted as pleasantly as one who had been completely flummoxed could do. “Won’t you come in?”

Ichigo’s father grinned broadly, looking just a bit too happy for the invitation. “Was wondering when you’d get around to that,” he declared. “Don’t mind if I do. Excuse me.”

And with that, Isshin and all his broad-shouldered manliness stepped inside Aizen’s personal quarters. Only then did Sousuke notice the rather meek presence that had been hiding behind Isshin’s girth. Hunched shoulders and droopy blue eyes was all the identification that the Vizard needed. The very man who had so helpfully given Ichigo the incentive he needed to turn his back on Soul Society.

“And good evening to you Yamada-kun. I didn’t expect to see you here,” he stated and moved aside so that the smaller Shinigami could come in as well.

A somewhat shaky and hesitant smile was offered his direction. “Thank you, Aizen-saaaaan!”


Sousuke could only watch with some amusement as the Shinigami tottered forward and promptly tripped on his door jamb, crashing to the floor. His medical bag flopped over his head and skittered across the floor.


“Hana-kun! You should be more careful!” Isshin declared, having turned around at the sound of the healer toppling to the ground.

He reached down and grasped Hanatarou by the back of his shihakushou, hauling him to his feet. Isshin was given a sheepish smile in return as the medic wobbled a bit before finding his precarious balance. Sousuke, in the meantime, found Hanatarou’s scattered bag and handed it to the young man, trying this best to hide his amusement. Best to maintain decorum after all.

“Ah… thank you, Aizen-san, Isshin-san,” Hanatarou said with a faint bow. He looked terribly adorable.

Really, every time Isshin made his presence known, he caused commotion. Though to be fair, Yamada’s clumsiness was likely his own entirely, but he had still been brought by Isshin. Therefore, Sousuke could blame it all on the loud man standing in front of him.

“Why don’t you take a seat, Yamada-kun,” Aizen suggested, both for the young medic’s safety and for his own dignity. “And as for you, I can only assume there was a reason you barged into my quarters at near–” he quickly checked the clock “–three in the morning?”

At his question, Isshin’s face quickly lost its jovial and almost joking glow and settled into a more familiar sobering expression. As Hanatarou tottered over to a seat, looking just a bit intimidated by the size of the room and all that decorated it, Isshin’s eyes pinned Sousuke down.

“I heard,” he began slowly, as though he were carefully choosing his words. And ever so subtly, the sense of reiatsu rose in the room, prickling at the edges of Sousuke’s own barrier. “Yoruichi was kind enough to inform me during one of her usual mail delivery visits, what happened a few days ago.” Gone was the clown-like man most of the world saw. “You were supposed to protect him.”

And this… this right here, was the reason Soul Society feared Ichigo. Not just for the anger of a father who seemed pretty damn perturbed right now. But for the heartbreak of a lover who was still pacing back and forth in a laboratory with little sleep. For the fury of countless friends who wouldn’t sit still the moment they had heard of Ichigo’s injury. For the connections this one simple boy managed to create, simple little bonds that were stronger than steel and nigh unbreakable.

If Sousuke broke into a sweat for just a moment, if the hair on his arms rose for the fraction of a second, he didn’t let it show. A father’s ire was never one to invoke carelessly. And he had to hold back on his smirk. Soul Society had made their worst mistake. But first, to calm the fury that was being directed at his person.

Inclining his head, Sousuke met Isshin’s gaze equally, not to be cowed despite the rumors he had heard of Isshin’s abilities. “I protected him to the best of my abilities,” he replied softly. “It was sheer bad luck that they were prepared with a poison.” Something in him twisted then, but he ignored the distraction.

A growl echoed in the other man’s throat, mildly intimidating. “Bad luck, my ass. I didn’t leave him in your hands for you to let some Seireitei lackey nearly kill him.”

“You didn’t give him to me in the first place. Ichigo came of his own volition… with or without your consent,” Sousuke reminded him, fingers of one hand tightening fractionally. And though it might not have been the wisest thing to say, it was a point that needed to be made.

He could see the battle on Isshin’s face, restraint fighting with his need to argue and make his own point. He was Ichigo’s father by rights, but he had also given his son to the other world in more ways than one. By looking at it from another side, one could almost say that he was no longer the teen’s father at all. Still, no matter how it appeared, Isshin loved his son and would give him up for nothing. And especially not to the greedy, corrupt murderers of Soul Society.

Isshin sucked in a breath, rubbed fingers over his forehead, and his shoulders slumped visibly. “Hit them where it hurts. Your strategies haven’t changed in the least,” he muttered, and though some of the anger bled out of his expression, it was still there and seething beneath the surface.

“Of course not,” Sousuke responded, slipping his arms behind his back and lacing his fingers together. His eyes flickered to his other guest. “And Yamada-kun?”

The medic gave a little jump and rubbed the back of his head, all a fluster, as though shocked he was actually remembered. Then again, he had witnessed something one wouldn’t normally see between two men of such stature.

“Ah,” he replied and ducked his head just a tad beneath their combined look. “When I heard about Urahara-san and Ichigo-san, I came to see if I could be of any help.”

Sousuke smiled reassuringly. “You are indeed correct. While the antidote is working well, it would surely make Gin feel better if an actual healer looked over them. Would you like to check on them now?”

Hanatarou practically leapt to his feet, nearly sending him tumbling to the floor. “Yes, sir,” he fumbled and reached for his bag. “That, uh, was the whole reason I came.”

Amused, Sousuke chuckled under his breath and opened his door, stepping into the hall with the intention of summoning someone to guide his guest to the proper place. The whole affair took a matter of minutes as he located an Arrancar he trusted not to eat the timid Shinigami – one of Halibel’s fraccion – and sent Hanatarou off on his way. This also served a dual purpose of ensuring no other ears were listening in on whatever else Isshin wanted to say.

“You don’t want to see him yourself?” Sousuke idly questioned as he watched Hanatarou head off down the corridor, already making hesitant introductions with the slim female.

There was a grunt of assent from behind him. “He’d kick my ass for leaving Yuzu and Karin behind, even if they are with Hime-chan and Sado-kun.”

Turning, Sousuke regarded his nighttime visitor. Isshin had found a seat in the length of time it had taken Aizen to send Hanatarou away. Now, perched on one of the many comfortable chairs scattered around the room, he was a much less intimidating picture.

“He is your son,” he reminded Isshin somewhat cryptically and was rewarded for his enigmatic response by a flash of emotions across the other man’s eyes.

Isshin sighed. “And it shames me to say that you have probably been a better father to him than I ever have,” he grudgingly admitted, fingers rubbing across his brow again as though it took him great pains to say so. He paused and searched for words before changing his mind and heading in another direction. “How is he?”

“Getting better,” Sousuke answered, stepping across the room to his own seat. He lowered himself into his desk chair and swiveled around to face the former Shinigami. “We were lucky to find the antidote in time. He, as well as Kisuke, are still confined to their beds but should be up and about within a week’s time.”

Isshin’s shoulders slumped in visible relief, some of the worry pinching his expression fading away. His hands clasped in front of his body as he folded his elbows on his knees. And then, he released a breath of pent-up air.

“I’m so glad,” he breathed, looking very defeated for a moment. “Masaki would have never forgiven me if something happened to him. I wouldn’t be able to face her again.”

He settled his elbow on the arm of his chair, leaning his weight against it. “Soul Society aimed for him specifically,” Sousuke enlightened the other man. “As well as Kisuke. It was only sheer luck that Szayel and I discovered the cure.”

A strangled sound echoed in Isshin’s throat. “I should have known.” He growled, angered glare focused on the floor as though he could burn through solid stone with a glower alone. “Cover up their mistakes in the easiest way possible. Nothing’s changed with the fucking corrupt bastards.”

“Did you honestly think it would?”

“No,” Isshin replied, rubbing his hand over the back of his neck and squeezing the tense muscles found there. “But that was the reason he came here in the first place, isn’t it? That’s the reason we’re all here.”

Sousuke shifted in his seat, free fingers tapping against the other arm of his chair. “Indeed,” he conceded and thought to himself that Soul Society was winning the war for him. He simply collected its cast offs and promptly used them against their former masters. No fool was he, contrary to their belief.

“And your plans? How are they proceeding?”

Lifting one brow, Sousuke regarded him intently. “How kind of you to ask, Isshin. But you are out of the loop; therefore, I cannot share. I will say, however, that they are proceeding as expected.”

“Fine.” Isshin snorted. “Can you even tell me just what you plan on having Ichigo do?”

No argument. Not a single one. It almost made Sousuke miss his verbal sparring with Kisuke when the other man wasn’t being deliberately annoying.

He gestured faintly with his fingers before returning them to their duty as a prop for his chin. “Only what he agrees to do for me,” Sousuke responded, a rather amused with his own deliberate avoidance. “I would never push him into anything. I am no fool.”

Isshin growled, growing just a tad annoyed. “Look, Sousuke, I only came here for one reason. So stop being as difficult as Ki-kun, dammit,” he demanded and rose to his feet with enough force to set his chair to rocking.

Mildly impressed, Sousuke arched one brow. “And that was?”

Dark eyes narrowed as Isshin crossed the floor, prompting Sousuke to stand as well so that they matched in height. “This,” Isshin stated and held out a hand, something lying innocently in his palm.

And for the second time that night, Sousuke was rendered speechless. It was only warning bells later that reminded him to breathe, and he sucked in a breath, a very inelegant motion but necessary all the same.

The key. The very key he had been seeking, had been ruthlessly scanning archives and Soul Society’s most hidden locations to find. It was right there in front of him, tantalizingly close. Silver metal glinted in the pale light of his bedroom, and for all its importance, it seemed so terribly small to have the entire war resting on its shoulders.

“You? How did you…?”

Isshin laughed at his expense. After all, it wasn’t everyday that one could make Aizen Sousuke practically stutter.

“Not very eloquent now are you, Sou-chan?” he mocked and slipped the key between two fingers so that he could waggle it prominently in the Vizard’s direction. “I was a member of the Royal Guard. Not that you would have known that. As such, it was my duty to guard this thing.”

Thing! He called it a thing as if it wasn’t the most pivotal piece of metal that Sousuke had been searching for incessantly. Like the key wasn’t the very thing he needed to complete his plans and instill himself as the rightful god. How utterly like Isshin.

Kurosaki held out his hand, and wordlessly, Sousuke lifted his own. The key dropped into his palm, feeling strangely heavy to be so small. Barely the length of his middle finger. There was a spark, a sizzle of spirit pressure along his palm as it touched his flesh and the layer of reiatsu he kept cloaked around himself. It was powerful, too powerful for something of its size. And Sousuke couldn’t stop staring.

“The old man probably doesn’t even know that I took it,” Isshin continued with a nonchalant shrug. But his eyes persisted in watching Sousuke, as though trying to decide if it was a good idea or not to finally hand it over.

Curling his fingers around the key, a tad bit possessively perhaps, Sousuke tore his gaze away. “Why are you giving it to me?” he questioned, wondering if this gift came with a price. If there was something he had to pay in return for having what was potentially six more months of searching and spying entirely erased.

“Because,” Isshin began, voice taking on a dangerous edge. Giving Sousuke a hint of the dangerous man he had once been and likely still was given the proper incentive. “They tried to kill my son. And I can’t just stand on the side and pretend I know nothing. I’ve done that long enough.”

Tipping his head to the side, Sousuke couldn’t help where his mouth took him, despite his sheer gratitude. “Isn’t that what you’re doing now?” he posed with all seriousness, fingers clamped tightly around the key.

Isshin shook his head. “I can’t fight in this war. Someone’s got to protect Yuzu and Karin. I don’t trust they won’t come after my daughters. And those kids–”

“Sado and Inoue?”

“Yes.” Isshin brushed fingers over his chin and scratched the goatee that hadn’t changed. “They are strong, and Hime-chan’s healing abilities are second-to-none, but Ichigo didn’t want them in the battle either.”

It made perfect sense, all except for one anomaly that was currently hiding from Aizen’s Eighth Espada. “Ishida?”

A grin broke the surface of Isshin’s dangerous calm as he shot the lord and master of Hueco Mundo a knowing look. “You try keeping the boy away and let me know how that goes?” He dropped his voice an octave and looked around, almost as if he expected someone to jump out of the shadows and attack him. “By the way… if Ryuuken comes looking for his son, I’ll cover for you, ne?”

“I really don’t think that is necessary.” Sousuke thought of the elder of the two remaining Quincy, who most likely wasn’t going to be a problem. As near as he could tell, things between father and son were a bit… strained, for lack of a better word.

He sought to change the subject. “Wouldn’t you care to hear more about Ichigo?”

A look of fondness replaced the amusement schooled into Isshin’s expression. “I know everything Yoruichi’s told me,” the man began slowly. “But from her grin, I get the feeling something’s being left out. And Ichigo isn’t being particularly forthcoming either, though Karin’s walking around like she knows a secret I don’t. And even Yuzu’s hiding something from me.”

Sousuke’s lips curled into a smile. “Then, you don’t know about the turn in your son’s love life?” he queried, sensing an opportunity making itself known before him.

He nearly laughed when he watched Isshin choke on his next breath. “No,” the older man wheezed, “Can’t say that I have.” Dark eyes peered at Sousuke. “Care to share?”

The debate within the lord of Hueco Mundo didn’t last very long. At the rate Ichigo was going, it would be next year before he even let his father know anything. Besides, the boy wasn’t exactly shy about his relationship. And whatever fallout would be worth it just to see Isshin choke again.

“I might,” Sousuke teased. “I’ll have you know that he and Gin have become very good friends. In fact, one hardly finds them separated.”

“Well, can’t say that I’m surprised,” Isshin said with a very naïve shrug, fingers rubbing across his goateed chin. “He’s always… been… able to…” he trailed off, his brow furrowing as the extent of Aizen’s insinuations played through his mind.

Sousuke could pinpoint the exact moment Isshin understood by how red the other man’s face became as he nearly forgot to breathe in his shock. It was almost shameful how much the sight amused him. Isshin was gaping like a drowning fish, trying to grasp onto what should have been an involuntary and automatic process.

“You mean to tell me,” Isshin managed to grit out as he sucked in several deep breaths, “that my son and your… lieutenant are lo–” He choked on the last word, as though he couldn’t bring himself to say it and getting a strange look on his face.

The former captain of the fifth smiled patiently. “Lovers?” he supplied for the other man and fought back his chuckles as Isshin wheezed. “And yes, that is what I mean.”

He allowed Isshin to reflect on that for another moment, face flushing an interesting shade of red, when something occurred to him. Seriousness replaced the bemusement as he pinned Isshin with one of his more penetrating stares. One that turned even belligerent louts like Grimmjow into a kneeling, jibbering wreck.

“Would you happen to have an issue with that?”

Isshin shook his head, still struck dumb and speechless. “No, but Sousuke, that’s a pretty damn big revelation to be springing on an old man like me all of the sudden.” He waved one hand in the air, as though trying to grasp onto his lost and always in short supply composure.

“Being human tends to do that to you,” Sousuke replied critically, though he knew nothing behind the circumstances of why Isshin left Soul Society and what led him to his current path in life. Honestly, the Vizard was pretty certain that he didn’t need to know to be angered on Isshin’s behalf. Undoubtedly, something had driven him from Seireitei.

Brown eyes looked at him, and all sense of play vanished. The serious, sober man returned as Isshin straightened.

“Human,” he repeated, almost thoughtfully. “I hope you remember that Ichigo, for all his powers, is still just a human. Just a boy.”

“He is more adult than you know.” He sighed. “Still, I’ve always been very aware of that truth.” Sousuke inclined his head, sensing that they were once again returning to sedate matters. “It is a fact I have always taken into consideration.”

Isshin exhaled and scraped a palm down the front of his face as he tilted his head back to look up at the huge and shadowed ceiling. “Masaki probably wouldn’t like this, letting him dive headfirst into war. But then, she’d probably just be glad that he’s found something to make him happy.”

“She was a wise woman, I am sure.”

“Much wiser than myself,” Isshin replied wistfully and then dropped his hand, dipping it into one of his pockets.

He pulled something out and looked at it, thumb rubbing over whatever objects he held. Sousuke couldn’t see them just yet, though he caught sight of the light glinting over their surface. Isshin lingered over the objects for several long moments before he finally turned and crossed the distance between them in a few short steps.

Sousuke arched one brow. “Another key?”

“Not quite.” Isshin held out the occupied hand, a silent gesture for his companion to do the same. “I’ve finished my business here. I need to get back to my daughters before my heart explodes from worry.”

Wordlessly, Sousuke humored the older man and lifted his hand, watching as two small objects dropped into his palm. Thin golden bands, resembling wedding rings like the originally western custom. He blinked in confusion. Was this Isshin’s subtle way of saying he supported his son’s choice in partners?

“Give them to Ichigo,” Isshin explained as Sousuke tried to piece out the meaning behind the jewelry. “He’ll understand when he sees them.”

Sousuke nodded, slipping the rings into his pocket next to the key. “I suppose this means you’ll return to wherever it is you are hiding?”

“Is that your underhanded way of asking me where that would be?” Isshin returned evenly.

The query was dismissed with a wave of his hand. “I honestly don’t care to know because it is safer for you. Yoruichi knows, and that is good enough for me.”

Isshin appeared to accept this response with little argument. “Then, I’ll take my leave. Yoruichi’s waiting to guide me back out anyway.” He stepped towards the door but paused halfway through to look over his shoulder. “You had better protect him, Sousuke. He’s still my son.”

“As if he were my own,” Sousuke promised without a hint of hesitation. In the half-year that Ichigo had been with them, he had grown fond of the boy. As had nearly everyone under his command with the exception of Tousen, who didn’t really like anyone, and a few choice Arrancar.

Something flickered across Isshin’s face, and it almost resembled regret. “And that’s the only payment I’ll ask in return. Good luck with your war, Aizen Sousuke.”

“And you with yours,” came the enigmatic response before Isshin was slipping out the door, closing it behind him with a faint click. Undoubtedly, Yoruichi was waiting for him somewhere beyond it, prepared to guide him out of Las Noches and Hueco Mundo and back into the Living World.

Taking a breath, Sousuke drew out the gift he had been given and looked at the key again. His fingers traced the many planes and he couldn’t help but wonder why his luck had once again served him so well. He never would have believed that the key to his victory would have simply been handed to him.

In an uncharacteristic bout of eagerness, Sousuke found himself wanting to head immediately to the laboratory to share the exciting news with those closest to him. Kisuke especially would be thrilled, and he didn’t doubt for one moment that his friend had probably already known of Isshin’s past. Though he doubted the shopkeeper was aware that Isshin had been in possession of the key.

His decision made, Sousuke slipped out of his room and stepped quickly down the hallway, heading for the fifth laboratory. The few Arrancar he passed dipped their heads in deference to his position, but it was otherwise silent. To be honest, it was rather late, so he was surprised to see anyone up and about at all.

The door to the lab was open, spilling a paler light than what that brightened the corridor in front of him. And he could hear voices beyond, one of which was female, and he had the notion that it wasn’t Halibel. Sure enough, when he stepped inside, he found Rukia talking to Ichigo and ignoring the glares that Gin sent her way. Gin would never voice that dislike aloud though, knowing that Ichigo still considered the girl a friend.

Better, however, was that Ichigo was conscious, coloring a damn sight better than it had been a day or so prior. He was more alert as well, eyes clear and their usual brown rather than the gold that had hovered around during his bout with the poison. All very good signs.

And on the bed next to Ichigo, Kisuke sat up straight, a tired set to his shoulders but determination in his eyes. He was scribbling something in a notebook, an amused smile pulling at his lips as he unashamedly eavesdropped on the conversation between the other three residents of the room.

Gin noticed his presence first. “Aizen-taichou,” his subordinate greeted. “I tho’ght ya were otherwise occupied.”

That was pretty damn subtle for Gin, a way of saying, “Didn’t I tell you to get some sleep?” without showing any weakness.

“I finished my necessary business,” Aizen smoothly responded.

His gaze flickered to Kisuke, who had stopped writing and was looking up at him with interest. Perhaps he detected something in Sousuke’s tone. Or more likely, he had sensed Isshin’s reiatsu.

“Oh?” Kisuke replied, tone full of secret amusement. “And what business would that have been?”

His lips quirked. “The kind that promises an end to the madness, if you will.”

Ichigo glanced between the two of them, eyebrow twitching. “Okay, one of you needs to explain something because not everyone understands genius talk,” he stated with a scowl, voice still hoarse but sounding degrees better than it had before.

Sousuke smiled indulgently. “How true, Ichigo.” His eyes found Rukia. “If you’ll excuse us, Kuchiki-san, but we have matters to discuss.”

For a moment, the Shinigami looked as if she were going to argue. Logic prevailed; she knew her position in the pecking order, and it was even lower than Yammy. Rukia simply nodded and hurried from the room, telling Ichigo that she would be back later. The door closed behind her and gave them some semblance of privacy.

Sousuke looked around, distinctly remembering that someone else should have been present. “I sent Yamada-kun here. Where is he?”

“He left with Renji a few minutes ago,” Ichigo answered before anyone else could. “After healing us, he was a bit tired.”

“I see.”

“Come on, Sou-kun. Spill it,” Kisuke inserted with a grin, setting aside his pen and paper and fixing Aizen with a knowing look. “You’re practically brimming with excitement.”

Gin chuckled, having surmised the same thing himself.

“You know me too well,” Sousuke admitted, stepping between the two beds and pulling his recent gift out of his pocket. “I simply thought I would share the result of my own great luck.”

He held out his hand and allowed the key to dangle from his fingers by the string that had been wound through the bow. Immediately, three sets of eyes were locked on it, but only two actually knew its identity. Kisuke sucked in a breath as Gin’s mouth nearly dropped, rising to his feet in a stunned sort of astonishment. Ichigo looked between the three of them, his brow furrowing in annoyed confusion.

“What?” he demanded, seeing how speechless his lover and the geta-boushi had become. “What is it?”

“This, my dear Ichigo, is the very thing I have been seeking to put an end to this war,” Sousuke answered simply, moving to place the key in Kisuke’s hands as the shopkeeper was making faintly grasping motions with his fingers.

Grey eyes sharpened as they looked at the key with amazement, tracing each angled bit of metal with the pad of his fingers. “And how did you acquire this bit of luck?”

“It was a gift,” Sousuke replied, a knowing look passing between the two of them. “From an anonymous friend.”

Kisuke inclined his head. “Of course. He has important things of his own to protect, after all.”

A low growl echoed in the room. Sousuke’s attention to returned to Ichigo, who wasn’t very amused.

“I could really use an explanation about now.”

Gin chuckled, lifting Ichigo’s hands to kiss his knuckles briefly. “Aizen-taichou has th’ King’s Key,” he informed his younger lover. “But don’t count on ‘im tellin’ us how.”

“Just like that?” Ichigo’s cheeks pinked a bit at the intimate gesture.

“Yes,” Aizen confirmed, and he turned towards the younger man, pulling out the other item that had been left in his care. “And there was one other gift that I was told to give.” He held out his hand, gesturing towards Ichigo with it.

Frowning in confusion, Ichigo gently detangled his fingers from Gin’s and opened his palm, watching as two rings were deposited into them. The gold caught the light, and as he tilted his hand, a small inscription could be seen on the inside of the ring. His skin tingled at the faint feeling of reiatsu on the edge of his senses, vaguely familiar and coming from the rings themselves.

Brown eyes widened in recognition, the identity of the anonymous friend no longer a mystery. “He didn’t–”

“He said that it was more important to you that he protect your sisters,” Sousuke put in gently, watching as Ichigo rolled the rings back and forth in his palm. Something as important to him as the key was to Aizen.

Ichigo snorted and curled his fingers around the gift, tucking his hand safely against his side. “Sounds like something Goat-Face would say.” The look on his face was faintly contemplative.

It wasn’t hard for Gin to deduce the anonymous friend from there. Still, he turned to his captain, having a feeling that all was not said yet.

“What does it mean, Aizen-taichou?” he inquired with a gesture towards the key. “What’s it change?”

“Everything,” Sousuke answered, moving back to Kisuke’s side and reaching for the key. Enjoying the slight weight of it in his palm. “I no longer have to wait like I had originally planned. We can move directly into the final stage.”

Kisuke chuckled lightly, not wanting to risk heavy laughter. “You mean in a couple of days when Ichigo and I are back on our feet.”

He tipped his head in acquiescence, knowing full well the consequences if he were to do anything else. “I wouldn’t think to leave either of you out.”

Sousuke knew far better. It would be pointless to forbid either of them, though he half-suspected Gin had a mind to try. Both Kisuke and Ichigo were rather stubborn and would do as they pleased, regardless of anyone else. Otherwise, they would have never found their way to Sousuke’s side in the first place.

For the first time in many months and since the moment he had abandoned Soul Society for his position of power in Hueco Mundo, Aizen Sousuke felt a treble of excitement shoot through him. No more waiting. No more planning and searching. Nothing but the path to godhood standing before him. And all he had to do was reach out and take out.

It was time for Seireitei to fall.



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