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Second Chances

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Spoilers through the Fullbringer arc, including the Zanpakutō Rebellion anime arc. Timeline is from the anime; Ichigo’s birth year is 1988.

~

He was certain he would finally get to rest.

Muramasa had been beaten, abused, and betrayed by the beloved master whose voice he could no longer hear. Still, he had worked for centuries to return to Kōga Kuchiki, to release him from his prison and offer himself once more in service.

He had spawned a rebellion in the heart of the Seireitei, turning one Zanpakutō after another against its master, all in the quest to manipulate one immensely powerful human-Shinigami hybrid. He’d had to, once he discovered that the combined forces of the Zanpakutō spirits of the three most ancient, powerful captains of the Gotei 13 combined were not enough to break through Yamamoto’s shield. Not enough to allow him access to the old man’s secrets.

Not enough to get him the glimpse he needed, to locate his beloved master’s prison.

So he’d done what he had to do, and Ichigo Kurosaki had fallen into his trap perfectly. The young hybrid had gone into his masked state, and the combination of Shinigami, hollow and human power had done it. Muramasa had found the information he needed, and with the last of his strength he’d escaped to the World of the Living and broke open his master’s living tomb.

Of course, it wasn’t that easy. The Quincy boy, the Fullbring boy, the strange girl who had healed her enemy – he would never understand humans – had attacked. Nearly drained him of power, but Senbonzakura and the current Kuchiki head, Byakuya, had run interference.

Then his world collapsed around him… again.

He’d done disgusting, revolting things to survive, and to warp his power so that it would break apart Ginrei and Yamamoto’s bindings. He’d ingested so many hollows he’d nearly turned himself into an arrancar, but he’d held it off.

Instead of welcoming him home… Kōga stabbed him in the gut. Broke him into pieces and threw him away.

How had he never noticed just how arrogant an ass his master was? His devotion had still been complete, even then.

Until everything exploded. Byakuya fought Kōga, and Kōga refused to call him. At the end, he may have, in sheer desperation… but Muramasa couldn’t hear him.

Again.

Instead, he was locked in a battle within his own crumbling soulscape, poisoned by the evil he’d eaten for so long, despairing at his master’s final betrayal. He’d simply wanted to die, but he wanted to take Ichigo Kurosaki with him.

Because Ichigo’s strength had been his one last hope, and when that hope was destroyed, Muramasa’s rage knew no boundaries.

So they fought, and he could hear Ichigo’s Zanpakutō – the one he’d called, not the insane lizard hollow that had shown such powerful promise – calling to the man to escape. Before the collapse of Muramasa’s world killed them both.

But the boy didn’t leave.

Even at the end, when all his strength was gone, and he let himself fall into the dark waters of the Living World, hoping to drown… a strong hand caught his wrist, pulled his arm, brought him to safety on the shore of the tiny island.

“Why?” he barely croaked.

There were tears in Ichigo’s warm brown eyes. The boy understood. He knew loyalty, knew determination. Knew honor.

He wanted to protect everyone, even the ones against whom he should be protecting himself.

The last thing Muramasa saw was the sadness on Ichigo Kurosaki’s face. The last thing he felt was the warmth of the boy’s hand on his chest.

Then there was darkness.

Then… he woke up.

That surprised him. Immensely.

The world around him was not his own, but it was familiar. Glass and steel and water, sideways, stretching forever.

Ichigo’s inner world was unique. How had he ended up here? The last time he was here he’d been trying to destroy Ichigo and subvert his Zanpakutō. The boy had cut his spirit strings, overpowered him, and kicked him out.

So why let him back in?

“You’re givin’ him too much credit, asshole,” a two-toned voice warbled at him.

He looked up. Ichigo’s inner hollow wasn’t a giant lizard with waist-length orange hair and a brutally effective bludgeoning tail after all. Instead, he was a mirror image of Ichigo himself, with all the color bleached out of his skin and hair and clothing. The only color to him were the blazing gold irises on a sea of black that made up his eyes.

“Are you saying I brought myself here?” he wheezed, still quite out of breath. Being stabbed through and through more than once then drowning would do that to a person.

“Well, it wasn’t King’s decision. I’m thinkin’ you saw an out and took it.”

The warmth of his heart. He’d been drawn to the warmth of his heart. It had been so long since he’d been warm. He stilled, as a blade was suddenly directly beneath his chin, the tip digging lightly into his throat. He ignored the thin trickle of blood coming down from the small cut into his collar, and tried not to swallow. He’d rather avoid cutting his own throat.

“I’m not gonna kill ya. Yet. But heed my warnin’. Dick him around and I’ll gut ya and hang ya out to dry.”

Muramasa held the otherworldly eyes with his and barely whispered, “I will cherish him.”

The hollow sneered at him, then turned his back contemptuously and bounded away. In the near distance, Muramasa saw the dark form of Zangetsu. Watching him.

Neutral, for now. Poised to kill him in an instant, if he showed any hostility toward the one whose soul sheltered him.

He dipped his head in acceptance, then slipped deep into the shadows of the sideways buildings. He was exhausted. Hurt. His head was spinning.

He had so much to think about… and for once, he would actually think, not blindly follow. Kōga had lost his chance, and then his life.

Ichigo Kurosaki was a very different kind of man.

Perhaps, one day, a different kind of master.

~

It was sheer idiocy on the part of nearly everyone involved, and hubris on his own, to think that Sōsuke Aizen had control over the Hōgyoku.

Ichigo was a minority of one, but he just figured Aizen over-reached. He never guessed that the little rock that turned the megalomaniac into a fluttery purple butterfly was actually awake.

Had a mind of its own.

Had emotions.

And could feel everyone around it.

Most of them it ignored. When it was with its creator, Urahara was too involved in experimenting on it to pay much attention to it. Sentience wasn’t a factor in his actions, either.

Kurotsuchi wasn’t the first to experiment on Quincies.

Or Bounts. Or mod souls, for that matter, and Urahara kept on experimenting after his exile. His ‘special’ gigai were a little closer to human bodies than anyone would want to know.

But that wasn’t the point, at the moment. The point was that the Hōgyoku extended its empathy out past the keening greed for power pulling at it from the chest into which it was currently implanted, and found a barren landscape.

Most soul reapers were kind of shallow, really. Humans were a little more complex, mainly because their lives were so short in comparison, so they felt things more intensely.

The arrancar, for the most part, were practically one-dimensional. A few had developed past the ‘single emotion, very little brain’ aspect – a couple that it had hatched, and a couple that developed and even split on their own. But neither Starrk, nor Ulquiorra, nor Szayel, nor Harribel were interesting enough to impel the Hōgyoku to rebel.

No, that took circumstances and intervention much beyond the norm of its proscribed life. That took the unremittent demands of a madman, the warm proximity of a heart that burned like a forest fire, and its own near-death.

When Ichigo Kurosaki made the final sacrifice of his power, wrenching his soul apart, to immobilize Aizen long enough for Urahara to box him up and deliver him to prison, the Hōgyoku sensed an opening.

With every ounce of strength in it, it took the one chance it would ever have at a second chance. No one noticed the tiny stream of gleaming purple particles amidst all the dust and debris in the aftermath of the battle.

Ichigo’s soul was as warm as his heart.

The toddler looked up at the cackling hollow and the composed Quincy, smiled once, and dropped into the depths of Ichigo’s soulscape. Once there, it found a silent, still presence. Ice blue eyes surrounded by purple shadows peered at it, then lowered, and a long-nailed hand waved it welcome. The Hōgyoku stumbled unsteadily over to the undemanding presence and settled down next to him.

It had some healing to do. No need to bother its new master.

Not yet, anyway.

~

Neither Zangetsu nor the hollow could hear Ichigo’s voice during the long painful period of recovery after the final Getsuga Tenshō against Aizen. Tensa Zangetsu had disappeared, the old man reappeared, and the hollow sulked.

It was boring, all this silence.

The only hope they had, really, was that they hadn’t gone into hibernation, as they’d expected. It was probably the last strength of the Hōgyoku, now toddling around on unsteady legs, poking into corners and watching them all the time it wasn’t sleeping.

Or maybe it was Ichigo’s iron will, his sheer determination to not lose the parts of his soul he’d come to rely upon in his quest to protect all three freakin’ worlds, whether they wanted it or not.

The hollow snorted. That was his King. Gonna be king even when every damned one of those fuckin’ Shinigami take advantage of him. Use him until he’s all used up then throw him away like yesterday’s trash.

He slashed moodily at a nearby window, not getting the joy out of wanton destruction he usually got. He’d never admit it, not in a million years… but he wanted his King back. Ichigo was nothing if not entertaining. Feisty, cranky, easy to poke into a fight.

The Quincy was just boring. Standing there on his pole all the time. Stupid coat blowing in the wind when there wasn’t any wind blowing. The hollow rolled his eyes. Stupid damned Quincy.

If the fuckin’ Quincy hadn’t been so quick to push him down and take over, they wouldn’t be in this mess, he grumbled internally. He’d never let those damned Shinigami mess with his King like this. He’d kick all their asses, and kick his King’s ass, too, yeah, until he wasn’t moping and the damned rain stopped!

He refused to admit, even to himself, that he’d grown fond of the punk.

And missed him.

~

Zangetsu stared up at the clouded sky and endured the suffocating silence.

He wasn’t in a coma, so that was encouraging. The hollow was still around, unfortunately for his peace of mind, but that was also a positive sign that Ichigo’ soul wasn’t badly damaged. They’d even taken in a few refugees.

He blinked over at the toddler sleeping in Muramasa’s fur collar, violet hair spilling over the fugitive Zanpakutō’s own spiky brown hair, little fists clenched tight to it to keep himself seated even in his deep sleep. Zangetsu wasn’t quite sure what to make of either newcomer, but they didn’t cause a fuss, so he just kept watch.

If anything, he actually felt a small amount of gratitude. Were it not for those two, Ichigo would have lost all his powers when he threw himself into a suicide attack against Aizen. He, Zangetsu, and the hollow, combined, had not been strong enough to retain cognizance.

That didn’t mean he trusted them, of course. But he did accept them.

He knew quite well what it was to be an interloper, and he would not hold it against them.

Unless, of course, they tried to hurt Ichigo.

Then he’d squash them like insects.

He didn’t think they would, though. They’d been drawn to his boy the same way everyone else seemed to be. Even the hollow, in his own feral way. There was a quality of warmth and acceptance in Ichigo, for all his ferocity and scowling visage, that proved his strength of heart.

That heart would be the saving of them all.

~

If Ichigo’s sophomore year had been insane, what with finding out he was some kind of hybrid supernatural being and going to war to save two of three worlds, then his junior year was a nightmare.

He didn’t even pretend to look away as what had been his nakama all suddenly had to go to the toilet at the same time.

He couldn’t believe, after two years, the idiot teacher still bought that excuse.

There was Orihime, bounding away with her hands on her hairclips, ready to pop a shield at a moment’s notice. She faced forward.

There was Chad, warming up his arm, armoring up as he ran. He never looked back, either.

There was Ishida. Cross dropped and ready, fingers twitching as if they were already curved to aim an arrow. He did look back. Ichigo couldn’t make out the expression in his eyes, and he had a mean poker face, but the corners of his lips were turned down.

Quincy Archer didn’t hate him. Quincy Archer didn’t want to leave him behind. But Quincy Archer couldn’t take him along, so he did what he had to do.

He looked around the classroom. Tatsuki, Mizuiro, even Chizuru, were being obvious in their attempts to be subtle in not looking at him. Keigo wasn’t, but that was only because he was asleep.

Ichigo deliberately unclenched his teeth before he cracked a molar. He supposed he couldn’t blame them. Mizuiro and Keigo weren’t close, but they’d been affected by his spiritual pressure, just like Chizuru, who he honestly couldn’t stand. They’d been hurt because of him, and while he felt guilty about that, he still couldn’t stand the way they tiptoed around him like he would shatter at any moment.

He didn’t know what to do about Tatsuki. She’d been his staunchest friend when he was a little kid, helping him as much as she could after his Mom was killed. But they’d been pulling away from each other for years. When all the Shinigami shit started going down, she couldn’t even see hollows. Sadly, that wasn’t the case now, but still. She didn’t need to treat him like he was crippled.

Even if it kinda felt like he was.

Chad had been his best friend for over two years, then Ichigo had stupidly left him behind. He hadn’t realized it until after it was all over, but in a way, he’d replaced Chad with Renji. Renji could keep up with him, at least at first, while he rapidly left Chad in the dust, no matter how hard Chad worked to keep up. Renji was big, had a flashy weapon, and lost most of his fights… just like Chad. The main difference was the polar opposite personalities, with Chad being as quiet as Renji was loud. Still, he’d abandoned Chad first, so he couldn’t really blame the guy for turning away from him now.

Even though he did, kinda.

Orihime had been Tatsuki’s friend, not his. He’d known about her crush, and figured the nicest thing to do was pretend it wasn’t there, since he didn’t feel that way about her. He knew she’d come and healed him up before handing herself over to Ulquiorra to take to Aizen… but he hadn’t asked for her sacrifice, and he figured he’d paid her back when he’d defied old man Yamamoto and invaded Hueco Mundo to save her. Still, he’d never want to hurt her. Though it was hard, sometimes, not to lash out when every time he looked at her he saw pity in her eyes.

Pity. For fuck’s sake.

Oddly enough, or maybe not, Uryū was the one who treated him the most normally. He’d always been sarcastic, brutally blunt, and a little abrasive. He had toned that down a little, but mainly he did the silent frown of concern. For some reason, that didn’t make Ichigo nearly as insane as the rest of them. Maybe because that expression wasn’t all that much different from the silent frown of you’re-an-idiot that he’d been used to from his Quincy friend.

Or maybe he just reminded him of Zangetsu. Not that Ichigo dwelled on that, or he’d get a headache, then the depression would be back, then he’d have to hunt down some thugs and beat them unconscious just so he could breathe again.

They were still friends on the surface. He would still give everything he had to protect any one of them.

Not that he had much to give, at the moment.

Still, his nakama gave off a slight edge of ‘serves you right for leaving us behind’ as they went off to play Karakura Heroes.

And it wasn’t like his human friends – and how weird was it to say that? – were the only ones pissing him off.

Half the Visored had rejoined the Gotei 13, their reward, he guessed, for coming out to fight Aizen even though they were exiled. He shook his head, sighing. They got their captaincies back.

He got his soul ripped apart. Great fucking reward for him.

Growling under his breath, he half-listened as his sensei went over the social science assignment he’d already got down, and let his mind wander. Not all the Visored had left, but the ones still in Karakura may as well have. They all had damned gigai, but did any of them ever come by? Just to say hi, nice to see you’re still alive, by the way, thanks for taking out the asshole that hollowified us?

Nah.

They were a lot like the rest of the Shinigami, really. Even the ones he’d thought were his friends. He hadn’t caught so much as a glimpse of Rukia or Renji. They damned sure had gigai, too. Tōshirō and his crew had been all set to move in with him, but had they dropped by to at least make sure he was still alive?

Not once.

And don’t get him started on that bastard Urahara, he ranted silently. He’d found out just last week that the man was training Karin – his little sister! – on the sly. Guess he’d burned out one Kurosaki, so it was time to turn on the next one. Oh, Ichigo wanted to kill him for that. If not for the gut feeling he had that Karin was the one to instigate the training.

Still, he could have said no.

Refusing to admit that Karin was just as hard-headed as he was, and that she’d fight the hollows with or without training so it was probably just as well Urahara was taking her in hand, he sighed again. He didn’t want her to go through what he had gone through. It wasn’t jealousy that she was able to protect their family when he couldn’t.

It really wasn’t.

It made him sick to think of his little sister fighting hollows.

If anything happened to her, he was going to gut Urahara with his own Zanpakutō.

The whole situation rankled. Even on the home front. He’d waited, he’d made himself available, but he hadn’t heard any explanation from his dad. The man wasn’t ever going to come clean.

Just leave him in the dark, leave him to his silence, and go on as if everything was fine.

Leaving him behind.

~

By the time his senior year came along, the only person in his life who treated him normally was Yuzu. He didn’t know if she was really as clueless as she seemed, but he also didn’t care. She was fine, he was fine, it was all fine.

If he ignored Karin’s dark eyes, and his father’s forced mania, and the way all his friends were pretty much ignoring him.

Uryū continued to be a super-achiever – first rank in class standings, student council president, head of a couple clubs, still leading the charge to cleanse Karakura of hollows, and hating Shinigami as much as he ever had. Ichigo had a feeling some of that hatred was on his behalf, and didn’t know if he should feel honored or freaked out. So he tried not to think about it.

Chad was the invisible man. Orihime was joined at the hip with Tatsuki, and that was okay, as it kept her away from Ichigo. He still wasn’t comfortable with her crush, and wished she’d get over it. Everybody pretty much left him alone, except for Keigo’s daily clotheslining. Everybody else just watched him. Like he was going to explode or self-destruct.

He told himself he was fine with that. Not like he could do much about it, anyway.

Between hiring himself out to whatever sports team could pay the most – it was a good way to keep himself in shape and the money was not bad, dodging his crazy boss, keeping up with homework, and spending time with his sisters, he didn’t miss the hectic times he’d had in the past. Or so he told himself. At least he wasn’t flinching at shadows anymore.

The weirdest thing was… he’d started seeing ghosts again. At first they were nearly transparent, but they got more solid as days went by.

He pretended he didn’t see them. It was better that way, until he could figure out what was happening. It might be a change for the better, or he might just be losing his mind.

He also started meditating again. It helped calm him down when the distance from his friends or the noise of his family made him nuts. He couldn’t find his soulscape, but it was quiet in his head.

He missed the voices.

Which might be why he thought he heard them.

Not always. Now and then. More often lately.

Zangetsu’s deep voice.

The hollow’s flute-like warble.

Something that sounded like a little kid laughing.

And a whisper.

~

A month before his seventeenth birthday, he saw his soulscape clearly for the first time in nearly a year.

He’d caught glimpses of it, thinking he was dreaming just because he wanted it so damned much. But when it cleared up, he knew it couldn’t be a dream, because it wasn’t the same. The changes were not subtle, and they were everywhere.

There were trees scattered among the skyscrapers.

There were ponds, too, or maybe even lakes. Some of them had broken columns in them, and that looked oddly familiar.

It was overcast, but it wasn’t raining. More like it was shadowed, as if it were right at dusk, or dawn.

And there were butterflies. In all colors of the rainbow. None of them looked natural, neon green and silky fuschia and speckled indigo, but there were all incredibly beautiful. But that wasn’t even the weirdest part.

“When the hell did my soul start to sparkle?” he asked, bemused.

Seriously, even in the faded light, there was a sheen to the windows, a snap to the air, that had never been there before. It was probably just as well it wasn’t sunny, because the gleam would have blinded him.

“Did you get bored and redecorate, hollow?”

He didn’t actually expect a response, as he hadn’t heard any voices in his head for months. God, had he missed them. So he jumped a foot when he heard a warble behind him.

“Yeah, totally! And, no, it wasn’t me.” Then a cackle. Yeah. That was familiar!

He swung around, but didn’t bring his sword up. The usual level of killer intent wasn’t coming at him in waves. If anything, it sounded like the hollow missed him as much as he’d been missed.

Then he tripped over his feet and nearly fell on his face, because instead of facing his hollow… there was a four-year-old beaming up at him.

The hell?

From his new perspective – on his knees – he got a close look. The tiny kid, could be a boy or girl, he couldn’t tell, had light purple hair, dark purple eyes that had a familiar sparkle, a little white Espada outfit, and Urahara’s grin.

Oh. Shit.

“Hōgyoku?” he stuttered.

“Nii-chan!”

Okay. That was different.

“I’m… glad you survived?” He looked around for Aizen and was very relieved not to see him.

Hōgyoku suddenly flew at him, and he found he had an armful of toddler. Cuddly toddler. Who was nuzzling his chest and gazing at him adoringly. Oddly enough, it wasn’t creepy.

“Ah, ain’t that so cute! Makes me wanna puke.”

Yeah, there was his hollow. He looked too lean, almost sharp, like he hadn’t been eating or something. His eyes were too big, and there were shadows under his eyes and in the hollows of his cheeks.

“Are you okay?” Ichigo asked automatically.

The hollow glared at him, then giggled. “Yeah, King, I’m fine. Nothing like being EXILED for MONTHS because my king is a SELF-SACRIFICING MORON. Yeah, I’m fuckin’ fine!”

“Language,” he replied, still on automatic.

The hollow goggled at him. Hōgyoku giggled. And drooled, a little. He hoped the hollow didn’t attack, because he’d have a hard time fighting with the octopus wrapped around his chest. Then the tiny hand came up to curl around his chin. It was warm, and surprisingly strong.

“Nii-chan came home,” Hōgyoku mumbled happily. Then butted his – her? – head into Ichigo’s neck and fell asleep.

Great. More drool, this time down the neck of his shirt. He sighed, then looked over at his hollow.

“So. My life’s been kinda sucky lately. How have you been?”

The hollow laughed so hard he fell over. Ichigo couldn’t tell if it was because the hollow thought he was funny or was laughing at his miserable life. Probably both. Jackass. He couldn’t quite fight the little grin on his face.

He’d missed the bastard.

And the kid was ridiculously cute.

But what about… “Zangetsu?”

The wind picked up in one of the trees, and Ichigo followed it with his eyes. There, draped elegantly on a branch instead of standing stiffly on a pole, was the Old Man. He looked nearly transparent, he was so lean. But his coat and hair still flapped in the breeze, his sunglasses were still there, and he was still himself. The little grin grew.

“It is good to see you here again, Ichigo. We have heard you calling for so long, but you could not hear our voices in return. It is a relief that we can once again hear one another clearly.”

Yeah, that was the old man. Never use one word when twelve would do. “Glad to hear you too. The place is looking good. Different, but good.” He wandered over toward the tree, walking around the weakly giggling idiot hollow sprawled on the glass at his feet. “Did you do the redecorating?”

Sunglasses glinted at him, and one edge of the Old Man’s mouth curled down. “These changes are not of my making. Surely you don’t think you could go through such traumatic experiences and not see differences springing from them?” He paused, then wriggled his back against the trunk holding him up. “I do, however, enjoy the addition of trees.”

“Glad you’re happy,” Ichigo said. “Makes the place more interesting.”

“Glad you approve,” came a quiet voice behind him.

He froze. Hōgyoku snuffled and cuddled closer, wordlessly protesting the sudden stiffness in his arms.

He knew those columns looked familiar.

Swallowing to ease the dryness in his throat, he slowly pivoted to face the newest addition to his soulscape tribe. “Muramasa?” he croaked.

There in all his eerie glory was a dead Zanpakutō. He was looking a lot healthier than the last time Ichigo had seen him. He wasn’t crying blood, he had some light in his eyes, and he’d lost some of the markers of eating way too many hollows, like the Menos boots. Of course, he was also ALIVE, which was a shocker, given that the last time Ichigo had seen him he’d been bleeding out from multiple stab wounds, turning to sparkling purple dust, and rising into the sky like a plus soul that had just taken konsō.

“Hi?”

“Hello, master,” Muramasa replied politely, with a small bow.

A swoosh of displaced air announced the arrival of the hollow, who slung an arm around Muramasa’s shoulder and ignored the disdainful look he got in return. Ichigo got the strong impression this happened a lot.

“Master, king, big brother, you’re just chock full o’ titles!” the hollow jeered.

Muramasa put his hand out, fingers splayed and palm toward the hollow, and tried to control him. Or push him away with the power of his mind. He failed, again. That made the hollow laugh, again. Muramasa sighed, stared at his hand, and shrugged under the weight of the hollow’s arm.

“Please unhand me.” His voice was deadpan and resigned.

Yeah, they did this a lot.

“But whyyyyy?” the hollow whine. “You’re even more fun to torment than the king, ‘cause he can always escape! The pussy.”

Having his arms full of the Hōgyoku child didn’t stop his feet, and Ichigo caught the hollow under the chin with a kick before he saw it coming. He arched away into the air, then came running back up, still without a sword, but all ready to play. Ichigo scowled at him.

“Take care of her… him… ah, we’ll talk later, okay?” he muttered, carefully handing the sleeping child off to Muramasa. The Zanpakutō looked a little nervous, whether at holding the Hōgyoku or the promise/threat of the discussion, but he did as he was asked.

Then the sword finally came to his hand, and Ichigo was home.

Four hours of mass mayhem, shattered glass, and broken trees later, the brawl of a spar ended in a final free-for-all between Ichigo, the hollow, and Zangetsu. They found themselves tapped out, sprawled over various rocks and tree stumps in one of the now numerous parks. Muramasa sat on a rock next to them, holding the now-awake Hōgyoku in his lap. The kid had been cheering for them, a lot like Yachiru only without the eardrum-splitting shrieks and the creepy bloodlust.

“So much nicer than hanging on to the side of a building,” Ichigo remarked, catching his breath, patting the grass appreciatively.

The hollow smirked at him, cleaning his sword, looking relaxed, tired out in the aftermath of a good, hard fight. Zangetsu was back on a tree branch, unruffled as always, but radiating contentment. Muramasa blinked at him over Hōgyoku’s tousled purple head. Ichigo sat up and pinned the Zanpakutō with a stern look.

The hollow snickered. Ichigo didn’t dignify that with a response.

“Now that’s out of the way –“

“For the moment,” Zangetsu interjected.

“Yeah! I got my second wind! Let’s go again, King! This time I’ll kick your ass but good!” the hollow tossed his two cents in.

Ichigo manfully ignored them both. Muramasa looked like he was torn between pure shock and trying not to laugh.

The Hōgyoku suddenly yelped, slid off Muramasa’s lap, and started chasing butterflies. Ichigo blinked. Okay. He/she was a kid. Made sense he/she/he really had to pick a gender because he didn’t feel right calling him/her an it, SHE had the attention span of a gnat.

“Ichigo-dono?”

He jerked around and stared at Muramasa. Oh, right, they were having a conversation.

“Not a brain to spare between them,” the hollow snarked.

Ichigo threw a rock at his head and grinned when it thumped into his forehead.

“Hey! Bastard king!”

Of course, that led to a wrestling match. After batting the hollow’s hands away from his private places several times, catching his breath from getting kneed in the gut more than once, and working his jaw where it had nearly been dislocated, Ichigo managed to pin the idiot and sit on his back. With the interruption subdued for the moment, he turned back to Muramasa.

Who was looking at him like he was some kind of god. It was really embarrassing.

“Master?” he asked softly.

“Please, call me Ichigo. I don’t like honorifics. Plus, your last master, sorry, I know you loved him. But he was a bastard. He hurt you, abused you even, then blamed you when it was his own fault you couldn’t hear him. I don’t want you to think of me in any way like him.”

Muramasa dipped his head, closing his eyes. After a long moment, he took a breath, raised his head, and met Ichigo’s determined gaze. “You are the strangest Shinigami I have ever met.”

A muffled snicker from the dirt below the hollow’s face answered that. Ichigo gave him a noogie. The hollow bucked him off, and they would have been at it again if Zangetsu hadn’t come down off his tree branch, grabbed the hollow by the scruff, and pulled him away like an unruly kitten. The hollow snarled, but his heart wasn’t in it. Zangetsu gave him a little shake, then dropped him on a tree stump with a stern, “Enough.” He grumbled, but subsided, bright golden eyes watching his king. Ichigo’s confusion obviously amused him.

“Yeah, well, I’m human, so I’m different,” Ichigo shrugged.

Mutters from his Zanpakutō and his hollow made it clear that wasn’t the only weird thing about him, but he ignored them with the ease of long practice. He also ignored the way Hōgyoku stopped chasing butterflies to look at him like he was nuts, although the words “Understatement of the century” coming from a toddler were a little disconcerting. Gritting his teeth, he concentrated on Muramasa.

Wonderment was definitely giving way to amusement. Ichigo sighed.

“So,” he tried again to make sense of things, “last I saw you were disintegrated. What happened?”

“Your words reached me,” Muramasa answered solemnly. “You spoke from the heart. You claimed that Zanpakutō deserved free will. You said that they were part of you.” He glanced over at the hollow and Zangetsu, letting his eyes linger. “You meant it.”

“Of course.” Ichigo didn’t understand. What was the big deal?

Muramasa turned his stare to Ichigo. He hadn’t known that such icy blue eyes could hold so much warmth. Affection. Even devotion. It shocked him.

“I died. I was reborn. A Zanpakutō is not the same as a human soul. When we are reborn, it is not into the World of the Living. It is into a different soul.”

Ichigo took a deep breath. The little park, hell, his entire soulscape, were so quiet his breath sounded loudly in his ears. “And you ended up in me?” That was heavy.

“I chose you,” Muramasa corrected him. “This time, I made the correct choice.”

Ichigo got up, walked over, and put his hand on Muramasa’s shoulder. “I can’t promise to be a good master, because I don’t want to be anybody’s master. But I can promise I won’t ever abuse you. When I hit you, you better hit me back, okay?”

“Yes, master,” Muramasa smiled slyly up at him.

“Bastard,” Ichigo growled back at him with the hint of a smile in his eyes.

Then Hōgyoku ran full tilt into his back, babbling about a butterfly she caught, and Ichigo found himself face-down in Muramasa’s lap, with Hōgyoku sitting on his shoulders.

Awkward.

Thankfully, Muramasa just helped him up.

Then helped him kick the hollow’s ass for laughing so damned loud.

Zangetsu came in from the side, Hōgyoku cheered them all on, and the never-ending spar began again.

~

For the next several months, Ichigo spent most of his nights in his soulscape. He learned new techniques from Muramasa, and finally got him to trim his fingernails. He got back up to speed with his hollow, and discovered both how to sonído and create a garganta. He honed his skills with Zangetsu, and found new ways to harden his skin and stop his wounds from bleeding out… turns out his Zanpakutō was actually a Quincy, but they didn’t talk about it.

Something to do with his mother. Zangetsu told him that much, then said he really needed to talk to his dad about his family history. From which Ichigo inferred his mom was a Quincy. Anything more specific would have to come from his father.

Yeah. Like that would happen. He could ask, but it wasn’t like Isshin would ever tell him anything. The hollow piped up with a few torture techniques, and Muramasa earnestly offered to hypnotize him, but Ichigo refused. It was up to his dad to talk or not talk. Beating it out of him, no matter how satisfying it might have been, wasn’t the answer. So he could wait, and he’d eventually find out how his sword came to be, and how Quincy got in the mix with everything else. At this point all he needed was some kind of were-creature, a bit of angel and a bit of demon, and he’d have everything.

He didn’t know hell waited for him in the future, but fate took a sharp left turn before he got there.

Hōgyoku, who as it turned out didn’t have a gender but agreed to be a girl because that’s what nii-chan called her, was still growing. Her power seemed to have something to do with illusions, no doubt from too-close contact with the bastard Aizen, but it also could create change. She called it transmutation, and it sprang from breaking the barriers between Shinigami and hollows. As she grew, her powers were refining themselves. All of the tribe in his soulscape took time with her, training, caring for her, and watching out for her. Under their attention, she blossomed.

Not that Ichigo let anyone in on the fact that his powers were coming back. He still wasn’t up to full strength. There were cracks in his soulscape, and there was a fragility to his connection that he didn’t want to risk shattering again.

He didn’t think he’d survive it a second time.

Besides, no one else needed to know. His soul was his, and what happened there was no one else’s business. He didn’t need their nosiness, their judgment, or their input. He trained, both his physical body and inside his soul, and he kept his secrets. He kept all their secrets. Because the Hōgyoku was just a baby, Muramasa was the most loyal being he had ever met, Shiro was a troublemaker, Zangetsu was finally starting to open up, and Ichigo wasn’t as trusting as he used to be before the Gotei 13 threw him away… and every one of them deserved a second chance.

Not that there was anyone around to tell. Sometimes he saw the incompetent Shinigami with the afro sleeping on a rooftop. But there was no Rukia, no Renji, none of his so-called friends among the Shinigami or Visored. As he got his strength back, he took to killing hollows at night, keeping out of sight, shadowing Karin to make sure she stayed safe, watching over his nakama and saving them more than once from hollows they didn’t seem coming at their backs.

He was a protector in the shadows, and he discovered he liked it. No pressure, no need to fight anyone else’s war, no constant nagging or getting smacked around by a violent midget who thought she owned him… yes, time and distance had caused him to reexamine his relationship with Rukia with a clear eye, and it wasn’t pretty. Still, he was doing what he could, all his precious people were safe, those who would use him and throw him away were gone, and he was getting along just fine. Well, he and his internal posse.

It stayed that way for seven months. Until Chad crashed back into his life, bringing with him a pack of power-hungry, lying, bastard Fullbringers.

~

It started with a man getting his bag stolen. Ichigo did what he always does, and helped out the stranger.

Then it got weird.

The stranger showed up at his work, and wanted to hire him to investigate his own dad. Then he dropped what he thought was the bomb about Urahara training Karin.

Ichigo didn’t let his lack of surprise show. The guy, Ginjee something, was obviously after something. Nobody acts that mysterious and snotty unless they’re trying to start something.

Then it got bad.

Somebody attacked Ishida. Ichigo got the news via Orihime, and flew out the door to the hospital. Uryū was swathed in bandages until he looked like a mummy. Ryūken had performed surgery on him, and he’d nearly died.

Whatever willingness he’d had to wait and see what was going on died a quick death. Uryū was the only one of his fighting cohort who’d tried to remain beside him during his year of powerlessness and depression. Whoever hurt him so badly was going to die.

The next day, somebody lured Mizuiro and Keigo to a construction site and tried to kill them. Ichigo got them out, using his shunpo since nobody was watching. Then a tall, skinny man with a mean expression, holding a book, came out and tried to attack him.

He missed.

He also looked shocked that Ichigo could move so fast.

After that it was a chase through the skies of Karakura. Ichigo finally knocked him down and pinned him, deep in the forest, a mile or so from town. The man was spluttering and trying to stab him, until Ichigo lost his temper, grabbed the sword by the hilt, and ripped it away from its owner. He slammed it so far into the ground only the very top curve of the grip could be seen. Then he started asking questions, punching after each one that wasn’t answered. Which was all of them.

It didn’t work.

Then he called on Muramasa.

His second – third? – maybe fourth? – he shook it off… his mind-controlling Zanpakutō materialized, glaring at the stranger with icy eyes.

“He’s up to something. Any way you can figure out what? I tried beating it out of him, but he clammed up.”

Muramasa sent him an affectionate look, then rolled his eyes and turned to the stranger. Long fingernails stabbed out at his skull, then sunk in.

Ichigo gulped.

“His powers are hollow-based,” Muramasa said slowly, his eyes half-closed as he concentrated on rifling through the stranger’s mind. “He is a memory manipulator.” Then he went rigid, his expression hardening. “He enjoys toying with his victims by replacing them with himself in the memories of their loved ones. Then he continues hurting them psychologically until he destroys them. He planned to do the same to you, master.”

Leaning forward, Muramasa dug his fingers even further into the man’s skull. He was now whimpering in pain, tears running down his face. “His name is Tsukishima. He is acting in concert with others of his ilk, master. They plan to force your own hollow-based power to manifest, then rip it from you and take it for themselves.”

That sent a shiver down Ichigo’s spine. He’d had his powers torn away once, thanks. That was enough. A squelching sound brought his attention back to the interrogation. Then he nearly lost his breakfast.

Apparently, Muramasa wasn’t happy that the hollow-human had planned to hurt his master. That, or he misjudged his own strength. Ichigo had a suspicion it was the former, because Muramasa was a very precise being. He knew exactly what he intended to do, and that was exactly what he did.

In this case, squash the guy’s head like a grape between his fingers.

Then pull his hands away, whip out a handkerchief from god-knows-where, and clean his fingernails.

“Uh, okay, so, you got what you needed?” Ichigo asked, his voice a little higher than normal.

Fierce ice-blue eyes stared at him with utter devotion. If it wasn’t so reassuring it would be a little creepy. The newly-cleaned hand flared, and the body disappeared. “Yes, master. I know who masterminded the attack, and the plan this misbegotten son of a sow has hatched with his lover.”

“Eh?” was the most Ichigo could articulate.

“Another hollow-human, named Ginjō Kūgo, who was at one time a substitute soul reaper. He either turned from the Gotei 13 or they turned on him, likely both, as he has a hollow form and makes use of it. The Shinigami would find this anathema, and Kūgo is power-hungry as well. This is not the first time he has targeted a human with Shinigami or Fullbringer powers, in order to steal them.”

Shaking off his shock, Ichigo growled, “Was Tsuki-tats-“ he broke off to huff in frustration and gestured at the place where the man’s body had been. “Was that the bastard that nearly killed Uryū?”

“No,” Muramasa shook his head, surprising Ichigo. “It was Kūgo. The attack on your Quincy friend, much as the attack on your human friends, was intended to invoke feelings of fear and vulnerability in you, to cause you to seek his aid, and fall into his clutches.”

Sometimes, Ichigo thought Muramasa spoke like an ancient storyteller… or Byakuya… but it was his quirk, a lot like Zangetsu, so he accepted it. Still, there was a hint of melodrama to the whole thing. Not that the attempt on Uryū’s life, and the steel beams that nearly crushed Mizuiro and Keigo, were anything but real and serious.

“I knew there was something up with that Ginjee guy.”

“Ginjō,” Muramasa corrected him.

He waved it off. Whatever the guy’s name was, it was soon going to be mud. Nobody fucked with his friends and family.

Nobody.

~

“Time has… stopped.”

Riruka and Jackie stopped arguing at Giriko’s shocked exclamation. Yukio didn’t bother looking up from his videogame, and Ginjō was too deep in a bottle of whiskey to care.

Then the shockwave hit them.

Jackie screamed, and stomped her boot, nearly breaking the building. Riruka whimpered and curled up in a little ball, both arms covering her head. Giriko dropped his watch, and it shattered on the gleaming wooden surface of the bar. Yukio crushed his game in his hand and stared, lost, into the distance.

Ginjō bellowed like a bull and crashed both fists through the wall.

This was not supposed to happen.

The boy was supposed to be powerless. Tsukishima was supposed to lead him in like a lamb to the slaughter.

Not die like an animal, himself.

They were all supposed to feast off the boy’s power.

How had it gone so wrong?

~

Ichigo pulled the business card Ginjee-whatever had given him at work the previous day. So they thought they could shred his soul, did they? He was going to take the fight directly to them, and kick every one of their asses. He headed for the club Xcution, address listed on the card, ready to kill.

A block from there, he found Chad, heading in the same direction.

For a moment, his temper made his entire world go red. Then he saw the clueless look on Chad’s face and realized his old friend wasn’t actually trying to suck him dry like some kind of strange hollow vampire. If anything, Chad looked confused.

“Ichigo? Did Ginjō already talk to you?”

Ichigo subvocalized a growl that his hollow echoed. “Did you know what they were planning to do, Chad?” Did he have to smack down his friend, too? Had they fallen that far apart?

“Yeah,” Chad seemed happy about the whole thing. Like he was being helpful.

“Are you part of the plan? To force me to manifest my powers, so you can tear them away from me?”

Chad tripped over his own feet. “What?! No! To help you get your power back!” His eyes were huge behind his shaggy brown hair.

“So they played you, too, huh? Didn’t tell you why they were really doing this.”

“No, Ichigo, you’re wrong. They’re trying to help you!”

He didn’t believe it. “Come with me. Let’s see who’s wrong. Sorry to say, buddy, it ain’t me.”

Chad held his silence, as he usually did, all the way to the building and up the stairs, but he was angry. Disappointed. Confused. This mix of emotion actually calmed Ichigo down. His old friend wasn’t in on the plot. He was a victim, too.

Raising his hand for silence as they got closer, Ichigo called on Hōgyoku for one of her neat little tricks. The kid, now about five, materialized. Chad sucked in a shocked breath, but thankfully remained quiet.

She reached out, ran her fingers over air as if plucking the strings of a samisen, then beamed at him. “All done, nii-chan!” she burbled softly, then disappeared.

He grinned. The door pushed open beneath his hand, without a sound. Her ability to transform reality was a real kick in the ass, and very useful.

Chad opened his mouth, and Ichigo laid his hand over it. Then he nodded toward the doorway. They could hear voices through it. A woman sounded hysterical. A girl was sobbing. A man was muttering gibberish, and a boy was talking with a man whose voice Ichigo recognized.

Ginjō.

“I know he’s dead, of course. His death removed the changes he’d created in our memories. My question is, how did he mess up so badly as to be killed? I didn’t think he was that incompetent.”

There was the sound of flesh impacting flesh, then of a small body hitting a wall.

“Shut up and let me think, you little shit. I can’t believe this. I can’t believe that powerless little twerp managed to kill my Shūkurō. So many years. So much planning. Kurosaki was nothing! Just an empty battery, to fill up and empty out again! How could this happen?”

Chad lost his mind when he heard this. Ichigo wasn’t fast enough to stop him, as he roared in anger and betrayal.

“Fuck you bastards! Trying to kill my friends! Using me! I’ll beat you all to a pulp! Brazo Derecha de Gigante!” he screamed as he plowed into the room.

Instantly, a boot stomped on the ground, knocking him off balance. He caught himself before he hit the ground, and stopped Ginjō’s sword with his Brazo Izquierda del Diablo, pushing him back toward the door. Then he was caught in a pixilated prison, and discovered what it was like to be trapped in a videogame. With no hacks and a controller with a god-complex.

Giriko was still frantically scraping up fragments of his pocket watch, growing visibly more aged by the second. Needless to say, he was out of the fight. Eventually, he turned to dust and fell behind the bar in a little pile. Nobody noticed.

While Chad was distracting everyone else, Ichigo gave a huge push, and manifested all his spiritual partners. “Have fun, guys,” he told them.

Given that it was the first time they’d been out of the soulscape in a year and a half – or longer – they took him at his word.

The hollow headed for Jackie, sword in hand, cackling like a nutcase. Appropriately. She armored up, and the fight ranged all over the abandoned apartment building. It was a damned good thing it was nearly empty, too, because they destroyed most of it before he finally wore her out and she ran away. He chased after her for a while before he got bored and returned to the fight to see who else he could beat up.

Muramasa went directly to Yukio and took command of the game controller. It was the work of moments to call his hollow influences to the surface, then manipulate them to release Chad. Once the boy was safe, spat back out onto the ground and trying to catch his breath, Muramasa whispered a command. Yukio followed it blindly, stepping into his own pixilated creation. Once he was boxed up, Muramasa calmly stomped the game controller into small crunchy pieces, and the psychotic little brat was trapped for eternity in the darkness of his own making.

Hōgyoku bounced over to Riruka and began pulling her pigtails. Eventually she stopped crying long enough to lift her head and snarl at the kid. She then got hearts in her eyes at the sheer adorability staring back at her. The two spent the rest of the fight playing peekaboo, until it was all over and Riruka realized they’d lost. At that point, she wandered off to eventually be found by Jackie. They left Karakura far behind them, and they were not missed. The Hōgyoku was happy with her work, having rewired Riruka’s brain to the point she’d never hurt anyone again. Then she bounced over to go cheer for her nii-chan. Watching him kick butt was even better than chasing butterflies.

Zangetsu looked around, then faded back into his soulscape. “Let us fight together, Ichigo,” he called. They did.

Ginjō didn’t stand a chance. He’d made the mistake of targeting Ichigo’s friends and father, nearly killing Uryū, and putting the rest in mortal jeopardy. It was only a matter of time before he’d gone after Ichigo’s sisters, and he wasn’t going to get that far.

As Jackie and the hollow were merrily destroying the building, Ichigo and Ginjō found themselves taking their fight to the skies above. Ginjō was big, and strong, and insane with frustration – well, really, just insane altogether. But he was also overconfident, full of alcohol, and grieving for his lover. It didn’t take long before he went full-arrancar.

Ichigo was at his protective best, which was one step shy of a category five hurricane. All he could see was Uryū in that hospital bed, his dad’s face in that photo as Ginjō tried to hire him to investigate him, Keigo and Mizuiro unconscious beneath a fall of steel beams, Chad’s look of betrayal at those he thought were his friends. His eyes turned gold, his hair got a violet tint to it, his jacket started to billow in the breeze, and shadows painted themselves around his eyes.

Even without his partners being in his soulscape, he retained their characteristics. They lived through him, and he lived because of them.

As their swords clashed, the spiritual pressure grew heavy in the air. Ginjō was a butcher. Ichigo was a surgeon. Their swirling forms flew higher, unseen by the humans below.

Neither of them noticed the small pack of Shinigami watching with wide eyes. The widest eyes belonged to Isshin, wondering how in the hell his miracle of a son was pulling this off.

The narrowest eyes were shadowed by a hat, as Urahara scowled at his asauchi full of donated reiryoku, and wondered what kind of experiments he could do with it, since Ichigo obviously didn’t need the infusion of power… or if the captain commander would make him give it back. He shivered. Or Unohana. Yeah. She’d probably want him to give it back. And she scared him. What a disappointment. All that work, and he couldn’t even play with it.

When the last blow was struck, and Ginjō’s body flew to the ground with all the grace of a large rock, Ichigo finally noticed his audience.

“Eh, hi, guys,” he greeted them awkwardly, blinking the gold and black from his eyes as the adrenalin rush subsided. He waved his sword at them in a friendly, non-threatening manner. He didn’t want to give them any ideas, especially Kenpachi. Or Ikkaku. “Surprise?” he tacked on, then sheepishly opened his hand and allowed his sword to dissipate back into his soulscape.

Byakuya looked vaguely approving, if he read the stoic face correctly. Renji was giving him a big, if quiet, cheer behind his captain, making Ichigo smile a little. Rukia reached out to smack him, but he ducked. He was still pissed at them, after all, not that he bothered trying to explain. They’d kept their distance. He’d learned his lesson. Now it was time for him to keep his.

He wasn’t stupid enough to open himself up to being abandoned again.

So he gave them all a polite nod, then turned his attention to Tōshirō, who stepped forward officiously. Ichigo’s discarded substitute soul reaper badge, or an identical replacement, was in his hand. He held it out to Ichigo.

“Thank you, once again, Kurosaki. You have done a service to Soul Society in removing the threat of the Fullbringers led by the rogue substitute Shinigami Ginjō Kūgo.” He pressed the badge into Ichigo’s hand.

“We are impressed, if puzzled, by the return of your soul reaper powers, Ichigo Kurosaki,” Byakuya intoned.

Ichigo nodded absently, still frowning down at the badge. “Hey, Byakuya.” He ignored the sniff that always got, and continued, “Thanks, Tōshirō. Good to see all you guys. I’m tired now. Heading home. See you later.”

Then he turned on his heel and disappeared. Yoruichi would have been hard-pressed to keep up.

In the distance, he heard babble break out.

“Is he always going to call me by my first name?”

“That’s Captain Hitsugaya… oh, forget it.”

“Come back here, Ichigo! I need to talk to you! What do you think you’re doing, you idiot?”

“Eh, Rukia, stop screaming, willya? You’re giving me a headache – OUCH!”

“Get back here, Kurosaki! Fight me!”

The usual.

A few blocks away from the rubble of what had been an apartment building, the Hōgyoku appeared at his side. “Hi, nii-chan!” she chirped.

He caught her up in a hug and rubbed his cheek against her violet curls. “Hey, little one. Did you have fun?”

“Yup! Riruka-chan was funny! And now she’s a lot less mean and nasty!”

He grinned and dropped a kiss on her nose. “Good job!”

She sparkled at him, then dissipated, and he heard her cheerful laughter in his soul. He put a hand over his heart and smiled softly before his face relaxed into its usual neutral expression.

Following shortly afterward, he felt another tug inside his soul, and a deep warmth spread through him. “Welcome back, Muramasa. Great job today. Thank you.”

A pulse of acceptance and gratitude answered him, and he gave another half-smile. The loyalty in that Zanpakutō spirit never ceased to amaze him.

Halfway home, his hollow caught up with him. He was hyperactive, hopped up on his win over Jackie, ecstatic to finally have somebody else to fight, and a strong opponent, at that.

“King! That was FUN! We gotta do this again! I saw that bat-shit-crazy dude with the bells in his hair – can we fight him next? Please, c’mon, you know you wanna…” he burbled.

Ichigo snickered. “Sorry to rain on your parade – “

“Yeah, but you’re gonna, ain’t ya,” the hollow grumped.

“But I can’t let them know about you. They think you’re gone, and if they know you’re not, they’ll haul me off to clown-face and he’ll run…” he shuddered, and gulped, “experiments on us. It’ll be even worse if they find out about… everybody.”

The hollow sulked, but he understood. With a last cackle, he pointed his sword at Ichigo and told him, “Okay, raincheck for now – that don’t mean to make it rain, damnit! Next time, I’m going berserker!”

With that cheerful promise, he disappeared back into Ichigo’s world. The last thing he felt from his soulscape before he stomped up the stairs to his house was the resignation from Zangetsu as he was once again It in the hollow’s endless game of sword-tag.

~

Over the months that followed, Ichigo slowly came out to his friends about his powers returning. Chad knew, of course, from the assault on Xcution. Uryū was the next one he told, and the Quincy stared at him out of serious blue eyes for the longest time before nodding once and telling him to come along the next time they battled hollows.

He was not impressed to discover that Ichigo had been their back-up for the past six months and never told them. Still, he got over his snit relatively quickly. It was good to fight together again.

Orihime found out by accident, and nearly got eaten by a hollow because she was too distracted to dodge. Chad knocked the monster on its ass and Ichigo cut it in half while she stood there with her eyes wide open and her mouth agape. Then she fainted. Uryū caught her. When she woke up, she asked for an explanation, then started to give her own before he could say anything. When she got to the robot babies made from scrap parts and the zombie telepaths, he figured she was close enough, and that was the end of that conversation.

He also sat Karin down and had a long talk with her. He was heading off to Johns Hopkins University on an exchange scholarship – that last two years when he was spending all his spare time on schoolwork instead of fighting Shinigamis’ battles for them had really paid off – and she would be the default defense for Karakura town in his absence. The Shinigami on duty was still useless.

He also dragged her to Urahara and joined in her training sessions. After he beat the crap out of the bastard for going behind his back, even if it did keep her safe. By the time he left, he’d done everything he could to make sure she was up to the challenge and would keep herself safe. She would also take over protecting Yuzu. The girl was a hollow-magnet, and even with Kon as an early-warning system, Ichigo spend a lot of time keeping her out of their claws.

It was Karin’s job, now.

He then went home and kicked the crap out of father, as well. They never did have a conversation, because Isshin was allergic to the concept of ever telling Ichigo anything of substance, but he did get a promise out of the man to do a better job protecting his daughter than he did his wife or son. It was a harsh fight, but a necessary one.

Uryū was off to Oxford – the bastard, still one-upping Ichigo even in medical schools. But Chad and Orihime were staying in town, and they, along with Tatsuki, were Karin’s fighting support. She, and they, would be okay.

Ichigo never used his shiny new substitute badge. When he left to study overseas, he left it in his desk drawer. Ukitake knew, of course, but he never brought it up. Whenever Yamamoto asked, he demurred, and gave the impression that everything was just fine. Because, really, it was.

Rukia tried several times to contact Ichigo, but he ducked her. He wasn’t interested. She tried yelling, running after him, trying – and failing – to punch or slap him, and even, as a last resort, tears. Finally, he stopped, turned on her, and caught her fist before it could hit his face.

“Go home, Rukia. You weren’t here when I needed you. I don’t need you now.”

“But Ichigo!” she wailed. “We’re friends!”

“Are we?” he asked quietly. “Or was I just there, when you needed somebody to fight for you?”

“I went to Hueco Mundo for you,” she pointed out.

“You went to Hueco Mundo for Orihime,” he disagreed. “Not the point. After Aizen, you disappeared. You have a gigai, you didn’t use it. After a while I stopped looking for you.”

“It was too hard,” she said, hiccupping as tears came down her cheeks again.

He shook his head. “Yeah. It was hard.” He sighed. “Go home. Please.”

Then he turned and walked away again. This time, she didn’t follow.

To his relief, she must have been reassigned, because the few times she came back to Karakura were very short visits, and she spent them with Orihime.

Renji showed up once. He stared at Ichigo for a long moment, then closed his eyes and frowned. When he opened them, Ichigo saw understanding in them.

“I came up in a rotten part of the Rukongai,” Renji said quietly. “You learned early who to trust and who’d put a knife in your back for a jug of water. You didn’t rely on anyone unless you trusted them completely. There weren’t many you could trust like that. I fucked up with you. I should have been around, and I wasn’t. I’m sorry.”

Ichigo nodded once, then reached out his hand. They clasped wrists, and Renji squeezed once before letting go.

“You ever feel up to it, give me a call. I’ll come.”

Ichigo never did, but he appreciated the offer.

~

He knew they were keeping an eye on him, but once he left Karakura they had trouble finding him. Especially in America, where there was a lot of supernatural energy that made his own hard to sense, even if there weren’t any hollows. There were evil ghosts and wendigos and vampires, of all things, along with a bunch of other nasty creatures. Ichigo took advantage of the fact to loosen his hold on his inner spirits when they went hunting. There were still innocent humans to protect, after all. They each found their own pursuits, and everything they learned enriched Ichigo as well.

Along with their monster hunts, they had hobbies. The hollow turned out to be a pretty damned successful cage fighter, and was cagy enough to keep his wins off the radar, never being filmed, never doing anything that could get the Gotei 13 on their asses. Any bootleg of any of his matches had an inexplicable upload failure, and more than one phone shorted out. He was having a blast, and bringing every trick he learned back to his King, who got his ass whipped on a regular basis but also grew incredibly skilled as a fighter.

The Hōgyoku grew into a beautiful androgynous being who could change the world in ways that would make Edward Elric jealous. She used these talents to great effect against the supernatural monsters. Also in Ichigo’s soulscape, and later in his apartment, his garden, and his office, but never where anyone could catch her. She was still young, and fiercely protective of her nii-chan. She would do nothing that might hurt him, or get her taken away from him. One day, she vowed secretly, she would kill Mayuri Kurotsuchi. She knew from her nii-chan’s memories what kind of monster he was, and what he would do to them if anyone ever discovered her. She made sure no one ever did.

Zangetsu finally came clean about his background during Ichigo’s sophomore year in college. He was buried in coursework for a double major in biology and cognitive sciences, preparatory to post-graduate work in medicine. His course load, combined with his physical training to keep in shape, his prolonged visits to his soulscape, and every weekend on Skype keeping track of his family and friends, were enough that Zangetsu figured he didn’t need to worry about the Quincy war.

He’d already fought one war for the Shinigami. They could take care of this one.

So he waited until the war was over. He gave up on Isshin ever telling Ichigo his history. Yhwach was dead, the Soul King had snagged Ukitake to take his place on the throne, Yamamoto was dead – along with quite a few other Shinigami – and Byakuya had taken his place, before Zangetsu finally approached Ichigo.

It was a long, painful conversation. It covered history, what happened to Masaki, where White the hollow came from, who Isshin had been, and who the not-so-extinct Quincies really were. Zangetsu brought Ichigo up on current events, including the invasion of Soul Society, the slaughter of the Arrancars, the mass slaughter of the remainder of the Quincies either by the Shinigami or by their own king, how Ishida had acted as a double-agent to keep Karakura safe from the destruction, and the fact that he wasn’t, actually, a Zanpakutō, but was actually a manifestation of his mother’s Quincy powers genetically transmitted to Ichigo at birth.

Ichigo punched a wall. Several times.

The hollow silently healed him. Hōgyoku fixed the wall and cuddled up in his lap so he wouldn’t break any more bones on plaster and drywall. Muramasa hovered and did his very best impression of a mother hen, which was actually pretty damned good. And Zangetsu stood in front of him, head bowed, awaiting judgement.

He expected the punch to the jaw, impressed that Ichigo could throw it so well while still holding Hōgyoku. He hadn’t expected the hug that came afterward, though he really should have.

“I’d have helped, you know,” Ichigo muttered into the side of his neck, holding him in a hug tight enough to bend his ribs.

“I know,” Zangetsu replied gently. “That is why I could not tell you. Uryū Ishida would not have appreciated the interference, even if he would have liked the support. He had a difficult role to play, and you being part of the situation would have made it even harder to bear. Kenpachi and the others would still have died. In fact, some that would have died may have been saved. Due to your absence, the Gotei 13 mobilized more aggressively, the Zero Division and the Soul King were more involved in the fight, and the war actually ended rather quickly.”

Ichigo pulled back to glare at him. “So me being there would have fucked things up?”

Zangetsu shook his head, patting him on the shoulder in reassurance. “No, but the course of events ran differently than it would have had you become involved, and no one knows what changes came about because of it. You have your life to life, Ichigo. They have their duties to carry out. Most of your friends survived, and those that did not are once again part of the rebirth cycle. They may not know you, wherever and whenever they live now, but they do live. You may be assured of and comforted by that.”

It took a lot of meditation, more than one fight, and a whole lot of distraction, but eventually he got through it. Though the next time he got Uryū on Skype they had a long-overdue and rather loud conversation that ended in both of them being in a snit… until the next time they talked, then, as usual, everything was fine. That was normal for their friendship.

It helped that none of them had gone after Karin to help. If they’d dragged her into the mess, he’d have stomped all their asses.

Life continued. Karin went professional with her football, and Yuzu went off to Osaka to take the Tsuji Culinary Institute by storm… and open her own restaurant. Isshin stayed at the clinic in Karakura, and knocked the rust off his Shinigami skills at night by helping Chad, Tatsuki and Orihime fight hollows. Uryū came back from Oxford, eventually, and booted his father into retirement, taking over the family’s hospital.

By the time he was thirty, Ichigo was established as one of the premier pediatricians in Tokyo. He was also dying.

The incredible stress his body had taken in his teen years caught up with him all too soon. He was glad he hadn’t specialized in surgery, as Uryū had, because by his early thirties, he had a barely perceptible tremor in his hands. By his late thirties, he had trouble catching his breath after a day’s work, as his internal organs began to break down.

It made the spars in his soulscape particularly fierce, as he worked through his pain and aggravation at his helplessness. His hollow thought they were some of the best fights they’d ever had, but he had sense enough, finally, to not say anything. His inner spirits drew close around him, keeping him company. He needed it, as he’d first been too busy, then too aware of his limited lifespan, to find a life partner. Not to say he stayed chaste, as one night stands were easy to find in Tokyo – he had a particular weakness for burly Australians, for some reason – but he didn’t settle down.

He had no time.

A couple weeks before his fortieth birthday, he took a flying trip to Osaka to enjoy some of Yuzu’s wonderful food creations in a celebratory dinner after Karin led Team Japan to a silver medal in the 2027 FIFA Women’s World Cup. It was her first year as coach, and she was ecstatic. Their dad was there and for once didn’t make a complete ass of himself, though he did have a few moments of loudly praising how talented all his children were. Various team members stopped at the table, Yuzu outdid herself – which was saying something, since her dishes were featured on the Food Channel and her restaurant was a go-to stop for foodie tourists – and the party lasted long into the night.

Ichigo didn’t wake up the next morning.

Well, he did, but when he got up, his body was still lying in the bed. He looked down at himself. He was still wearing his pajamas. There was no chain growing out of his chest, but there was a little tiny hole, and it was getting bigger as he stared at it.

“Well, shit.”

He glared at his corpse for a moment, then sighed and headed off down the hallway to let Karin know. He didn’t dare go to his dad first, or the ruckus would be ridiculous. Karin could see him, as Yuzu never had developed enough spiritual pressure to clearly see ghosts, and his always-practical sister would take care of the details.

When he showed up in her room, she shot out of bed and over to him. Tentatively placing a hand on his chest, she scowled as it sunk below the surface.

“You’re not in your Shinigami outfit,” she pointed out. “Does that mean you’re just taking a walk on the astral plane? Or something more permanent?”

He appreciated her attempt at humor, and smiled gently at the tears starting to spill from the corners of her eyes. “I’m sorry, Karin. Would you make sure Yuzu is okay, and watch the Old Goat for me? I have to go now.”

She bit her lip, then nodded, and brushed away her tears. “I’ll miss you, Ichi-nii. Take care of yourself, and I’ll take care of everything here.”

“I don’t want to see you for a very long time, okay?” he told her. He could feel his spiritual body beginning to disintegrate into tiny sparkling black particles. For some reason, none of his inner spirits seemed bothered. At all. It would have pissed him off if he hadn’t been distracted by trying not to break down like a baby in front of his little sister. “Say goodbye to Uryū for me, please? And Chad and the others? Well, not Urahara. I don’t want to give him any warning that I’m gone. He might try to hunt me down and do god-knows-what. Or send Yoruichi after me. Then Byakuya will try to recruit me, and that ain’t gonna happen.”

Karin’s laughter interrupted his babbling, and he gave her a half-grin.

“Watch yourself out there, Ichi-nii,” she told him through her tears. Her smile was wobbly, but it was there.

He put a hand over the expanding hole in his chest, and willed himself to go faster. He didn’t want to hollowify. Not here. Not now. Not ever.

The last thing he saw before he disappeared was Karin’s solemn dark grey eyes staring back at him.

~

He woke up in a ditch.

His pajamas had changed to a dark brown hakama and a deep purple kosode, with a pale gold shitagi beneath it, tied with an ice-blue hakama-himo. His feet were bare, and he had twin blades crossed in sheaths on his back.

Zangetsu. Muramasa.

Their hilts had changed with his death, and they were now a burnished orange wrapped in crimson and black silk strands. It was a little funny that his sword grips were the same color as his hair. The guards had also changed, flowing sharply back over his fist, in the form of crescent moons, inlaid with… yes, they were… he coughed, something between a snarl and a laugh.

The guard on his swords, protecting his knuckles were engraved with little tiny strawberries.

Sometimes he wondered about himself.

A scream drew him out of his fugue, or he might have stood there for days staring at his swords like a dumbass. Jerking his head to the side, he saw a woman about to be dragged away by a small gang of thugs. No one around seemed to care, and no one was coming to her aid.

His sonído was soundless.

He caught them behind a building, where no one was watching, before they could tear off her clothes or beat her to death.

He drew his swords, took his stance, and murmured, “Whisper, Cutting Moon.”

The dance began again.

~
fin