There was a body in the gutter.
There was no mistaking that the woman was dead—no one could bleed that much and survive—but when you are nine years old, cold hard facts are hard to swallow. When the paramedics arrived, they found Ichigo still trying to convince his mother to stand up, to move, to just breathe. Rain mingled with sweat and tears, disturbing the freshly spilt blood. The scent of death hung in the air, overpowering the senses.
Ichigo felt gentle, but firm, hands propel him away from his mother’s side. He was vaguely aware of someone hugging him, but the sensation barely registered. He was supposed to protect her.
He had failed.
(“What does my name mean, Mommy?”
“Your name means ‘to protect one thing’, Ichigo”
“…in that case, I want to protect you, Mommy! Because I love you!”)
Both guilt and grief welled up inside him, as he watched them cover his mother with plastic, whitewashing the scene. At that, the numbness he had been feeling left him, to be replaced with white-hot anger. He struggled against the paramedic’s hold, screaming, fingers scrabbling against clinical plastic that smelt of impersonal disinfectant.
“You can’t take her! You can’t! She’s going to wake up, any minute now. She’s NOT DEAD, you hear me!? Stop it! Give her back!” He hated them in that moment. It was so much easier than hating himself.
“She’s gone, kid, I’m sorry.” The paramedic who had hugged him, and at whose hold he’d been struggling against, looked it too. She was young enough, but her eyes were old, and world-weary. Despite his grief, despite everything, Ichigo felt slightly ashamed. His next words were a whisper, “She can’t be dead. I love her.”
The paramedic did not reply. Her silence spoke volumes. I’m sorry, kid.
That’s not enough.
Tatsuki didn’t like the change that had come over Ichigo. She especially didn’t like the fact that he’d beat her consistently in their matches for the past ten classes. Tatsuki recalled the kid with the dopey, silly grin, and wondered where he had gone. She knew the answer, of course.
He’d died, the same day his mother had.
(“Um…..Hi. I’m Ichigo. I guess I’m fighting you today?…” His foot scuffed the floor.
“Yeah, yeah, cut the small talk. Let’s go, Ichigo.” She punched, but he didn’t stop her.
“OW!!” Amber eyes welled up with tears.
“You’re supposed to block me, idiot!”)
“Oy, Tatsuki.” It was probably the most he’d said all day. He used to be quiet because he was shy. Now, she thought, he was quiet because he’d been left empty, with nothing left to say.
“Let’s go.” They spend the rest of the afternoon practicing blows and kicks and Ichigo doesn’t speak, not once, to her again. When she landed a hit, one that would have left him crying a few weeks ago, he doesn’t even wince.
She hasn’t seen him, the crybaby, cry once since the death.
Tatsuki wasn’t by any means a girly-girl. She never wore dresses or ribbons, or did fool things like wish on shooting stars. And yet still…
There was a meteor shower that night. Tatsuki looked out her window and wished for Ichigo to smile again.
Ichigo spent the next few years scowling, and getting into constant fights. He ignored the ache in his heart as best as he could, watching over Karin and Yuzu as much as he was able. And his life plodded on, quietly and steadily. Contrary to popular belief, you could survive with a hole in your heart. Survive. Not live.
And then one night, everything changed.
Do you want to save your family?
A girl, who was not a girl, plunged a sword into his chest; straight into his heart. And it was not that he became something different, only that the truth of him was finally revealed.
Ichigo defeated his first Hollow, and began to fill the hollowness in himself.
“Stupid IDIOT!” Though her voice was furious, the hands that dressed his wound were surprisingly gentle, fingers soft against his back.
The first Hollow he fought after the Kingfisher, chose to attack near a middle school. Karin’s school.
The Hollow never stood a chance.
Unfortunately for Ichigo, the Hollow was agile and cunning, and despite Rukia’s frantic attempts to get him to stand still for long enough to listen to her battle strategy, Ichigo chose to go for his patented “hit-them-till-it-hurts” method of brawling. Which was ultimately effective, but left him quite heavily wounded. When he got back inside his body, everything stung. Rukia adopted a mixture of Kidou and common sense, but it was likely that some of the wounds would leave permanent scars.
“What…I was supposed to let that thing possibly get near those kids?” Ichigo snarled, jerking away from her touch to face her properly.
She gave him an admonishing glare, small frame tensed. “If you had listened to me, the battle would have ended much earlier! You would not be so wounded! Those kids would not have been involved, either way!” Her hands clutched tightly at the edge of her skirt. She did not say, Karin would not have been involved, but they both knew that was what she really meant.
Ichigo looked even more stubborn, if it were at all possible. “I’m not going to fail them, Rukia.” She knew without him saying so that he was talking about his family. “I’m not going to let anyone I care about get hurt. Ever.” He wanted to look away then, but forced himself to keep his eyes on hers. He expected her to say, Don’t be ridiculous, you can’t promise that.
As he felt the prickling of an old guilt, he was even irrationally afraid to hear, Don’t be ridiculous, you already failed them once before.
To his immense surprise, her glare softened. There was an expression in her dark eyes that he couldn’t quite name. Gently, she laid her small palm against his shoulder, trembling a little. He realized with a start, that she had been terrified for him, at the risks he took in the fight. But her expression held more than fear. Something new and strange, that he wasn’t quite used to seeing.
The word for it might be faith.
“No,” Rukia said gravely, “You won’t.”
Six weeks before school ended for the summer break, Tatsuki saw it. It was there and gone in the blink of an eye, as transient as the flap of a butterfly’s wing, but it happened. She was sure of it.
Walking home after school one sunny day, Tatsuki saw Ichigo with Rukia on the other side of the street. Which in and of itself was not an uncommon occurrence; they were frequently seen in each other’s company. Some of the wilder rumors at school even had them secretly engaged at this point.
The two of them were obviously arguing, or at least discussing something in a very heated fashion. What struck Tatsuki though, was that she rather thought they were both enjoying it, though neither was about to let the other know, of course.
Just then, Ichigo said something that made Rukia give him a look, before she stalked off ahead of him, fists clenched and skirt swaying. And then, there it was.
Ichigo was smiling.
It was not the goofy grin he used to sport. It was not even a very long smile; he replaced it with his trademark scowl a heartbeat later. But for a moment, it transformed his features, and Tatsuki was reminded of the little boy she met one day at the dojo, so very long ago.
(Wish upon a shooting star...)
Finally, Tatsuki thought, things were going to be all right.
There is a body in the gutter.
Urahara glances down at Ichigo with dispassionate features. The boy is bleeding and unconscious, but still breathing. The rain and darkness cloak him from the details of the boy’s injuries, but Urahara does not suppose for even one second that Ichigo will not pull through.
He is betting everything he has on this boy after all.
When Ichigo awakes, he discovers that he is in the care of Urahara, and more importantly, alive, though he does not care much about this fact at the moment. Twice in his life now, a woman has given up her life to save his and twice he has failed them both. He remembers lying, wounded in the street, with no Rukia to help him mend, as the rain comes pouring down on him, stinging with icy coolness. He remembers making an impossible vow, one that she had believed, dark eyes shimmering softly.
He remembers the feeling of helplessness he thought he had long lost, one moonlit night, when he first held the weight of a sword.
And then Urahara speaks. He tells him that there is a way to save the girl, should he wish to. He outlines for Ichigo, quite systematically, the method and the means of doing so. He’ll have to work at it, of course, but Urahara will personally train him. In ten days, he’ll be pushed harder than ever; to absorb enough so that the next time he crosses swords with a Shinigami, it’ll be as an equal. Maybe more. If he wants this.
(…your name means “to-protect-one-thing”…)
Urahara finishes explaining and tells him to choose. For Ichigo, it is not a choice at all.
There is not yet enough heat to call it love, but it isn’t the cold call of duty either. This is the warmth of hope, of a slender chance.
This is redemption.