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Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Our Stories?

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For the first eight years of his life, Kurosaki Ichigo grows up listening to tales of Quincy and Shinigami and Hollows, of humans and gods and monsters.

It is his legacy, and as soon as he can understand, Masaki begins telling him their history, their legends, their power and prejudice, their rise and fall.

All the good and all the bad. She leaves nothing out.

She isn’t stupid, or oblivious, no matter what Isshin and that shopkeeper friend of his seem to think. She knows they have plans for Ichigo, and dangerous plans at that, if the satisfaction on Isshin’s face and the unreadable one on Urahara’s upon sensing just how much reiryoku Ichigo is born with are anything to go by.

She can’t stop them. She doesn’t know how. She’s afraid of confronting them because while she knows she can probably overpower her husband, she’s under no delusions that Urahara is far out of her league, in both strength and intellect. What if he comes up with a way to wipe her memories if she lets on that she suspects something? What if they take her son away from her? What if they kill her? She knows Urahara would do it, if she gets in the way of whatever his end game is, and while Isshin professes - constantly and dramatically - his love for her on a daily basis, she doesn’t know if he’ll turn on her too if she proves to be too much trouble to keep around.

(She never married Isshin out of love. She’s fond of him, sometimes, when his antics make her laugh, and he’s charming on occasion when he tries extra hard to be romantic and she forgets how she came to be his wife, not to mention her relationship with him is a nice big fuck-you to the Quincy inbreeding that her blood family is so proud of. Not to mention she’ll always be grateful that he - and Urahara - prevented her death by that Hollow. She saved him first, but no matter his ulterior motives, he still sealed off his Shinigami powers and left Soul Society behind in order to keep her alive.

But she doesn’t love him. She never could, not after her family found out she was tainted by a Hollow - Because how did they even find out? She definitely didn’t tell them, and she’s pretty sure Ryuuken didn’t either. - and kicked her out because she was no longer a pureblood, only to ‘bump’ into Urahara, who offered to pay for all her living expenses and even tuition fees, but also dropped enough hints about spending more time with Isshin in case the block holding back the Hollowfication of her soul suddenly became unstable.

She knew a threat when she heard one. But she weighed her options, and at fifteen-years-old with nothing to her name but a few meager heirlooms and the clothes on her back, she wanted to live more than she despised being forced down the road that led to an inevitable end. It wasn’t as if she was unfamiliar with arranged marriages anyway, and at least Isshin was content to let her continue on to higher education, not even making any advances until she turned eighteen. If her engagement to Ryuuken wasn’t broken, she would’ve been standing at the altar the day she turned sixteen and probably a pregnant high-school dropout by the end of the same week.

So at the very least, she was grateful to these Shinigami for giving her another option.)

She doesn’t even know what they want for the longest time, not until she’s twenty and holding her first child in her arms. Then Isshin invites Urahara around, and the way they both look at him…

Sometimes she thinks about killing them both and running away with Ichigo. Even if she fails, she could say that at least she tried.

She’ll never be certain whether it’s caution or cowardice that prevents her from going through with it.

Ichigo though. She’ll never regret Ichigo. Her firstborn, her son, with her eyes and a much brighter shade of her hair, and even as a newborn baby, she can tell that there’s very little Isshin in him.

And he’s powerful. Reiryoku levels aside, he has the genes of both Quincy and Shinigami in him, and Masaki shocks herself when she realizes - after Ichigo’s birth - that she can gather reishi and tap into her Quincy powers again, which means she’s also passed on the Hollow inside her to her son.

A part of her mourns it. She was supposed to bear the consequences of that fight. Ichigo has nothing to do with it. But at the same time, he’s also alive, and he has no need to be tethered to a Shinigami the way she had to be to keep the Hollowfication at bay. Ichigo’s very soul is part Quincy, part Shinigami, and part Hollow, perfectly fused together.

No wonder Isshin and Urahara want him for their plans. This was what they wanted from her - her baby, her child, with the potential to wield power from all three races.

Why they want that power, she doesn’t know. She figures it’s not all that important in the long run. What she does know, and what is important, is the fact that she can’t leave her son defenceless.

She’s not strong enough to save Ichigo from the Shinigami’s machinations entirely. But she is strong, and she’ll make damn certain that her son is too. If she can’t protect him directly, no matter how much she wants to, then at the very least, she’ll ensure that he can protect himself.

So when Isshin mentions casually over breakfast that he wants Ichigo to grow up as a normal boy, without all that Shinigami and Quincy nonsense, Masaki smiles and nods and lies.

She’s never regretted anything less.

 


 

So Ichigo learns about his heritage, his birthright. He’s descended from a king, a prince in his own right despite his status as a disgraced halfblood, through no fault of his own. When Isshin isn’t within earshot, she teaches him the Kaiser Gesang right alongside his letters and numbers and nursery rhymes. She whispers the secrets passed down through her own pureblood family in place of bedtime stories, about Yhwach and his Echt Quincy army, about their war with the Shinigami and their subsequent defeat, about the Sealed King’s fabled Wandenreich, even about their hubris causing the instability of souls and the genocide that followed. She shows him their Quincy Zeichen and explains - as best she can - their techniques, some commonly used, others that haven’t been seen in a thousand years.

Ichigo listens to her every word. He’s a bright boy, clever and curious and always happiest when he’s spending time with her. Masaki worries about that a little - children usually want to make friends of their own, don’t they? But he’s the light of her life, and she’s never loved anyone more, so it’s never a hardship to keep Ichigo close, letting him follow her everywhere.

And if that means he rarely leaves her sight, which means there aren’t any opportunities for Isshin or Urahara to whisk him away to god knows where without her knowledge, then all the better for her nerves.

It helps that Isshin never seems to want to spend any quality time with him. He plays peek-a-boo with Ichigo and buys toys for him, coos at him and occasionally burps him, but nothing beyond that. He's not invested, the way a father should be, and if someone asked Masaki to pick one thing she hates most about her husband, it would be this.

She wonders if he views Ichigo as his son at all. She suspects not, and it infuriates her all the more, because always, in her dreams, at the back of her mind, every time she lays eyes on Isshin, she is acutely aware of that unknown deadline looming in her son’s future. So she disguises reishi lessons as games, encouraging Ichigo to mould cats and bears and birds out of blue light to strengthen his flexibility with it, and then borrowing library books on a variety of weapons so he can learn to make those too.

Ichigo soaks everything in like a sponge. As she suspected, his massive levels of reiryoku is not the most terrifying thing about him. It’s his potential to learn and grow and master.

By the time she’s pregnant with twins and Ichigo is entering school, he’s fluent in Japanese, English, and German, as much as a four-year-old can be. His hands are still that of a child’s, small and delicate and a little chubby, but he flips reishi daggers between his fingers with the ease of a magician performing card tricks.

Upon Isshin’s insistence, Ichigo is signed up for karate. He makes a rival-friend there - Arisawa Tatsuki - and they take turns beating each other up every week, so at least Masaki won’t have to worry about teaching him any martial arts.

They keep everything secret from Isshin of course. Ichigo asks her why, once.

“Your father wouldn’t understand,” Masaki tells him, which is true enough, if terribly vague, and more than a little trite. But Ichigo just nods and accepts it, and goes back to eating his ice-cream.

Masaki thinks he cares about Isshin about as much as Isshin cares about him. Ichigo’s always been intuitive, and he can probably sense the distance between himself and his father. He’s never complained or cried about it though, and Masaki hopes that’s because he doesn’t feel the loss. Perhaps her love alone is enough to make up for the fact that the three of them will never be a proper family.

If nothing else though, at least Ichigo never sees anything wrong with hiding things from Isshin.

 


 

When the twins are born, Masaki is torn between overwhelming relief and jittery apprehension. On one hand, Karin and Yuzu combined aren’t born with even a tenth of Ichigo’s amount of reiryoku. She suspects they have very little Hollow in them too since Ichigo seems to have inherited the bulk of it, and that’s good, that’s excellent, because she won’t have to worry about Isshin and Urahara wanting to get their hands on them, although it does make her feel a little guilty for being happy that her daughters were born so much weaker than her son.

Because on the other hand, there’s still a lot of supernatural things out there that can kill them, and they might not have the means to defend themselves if and when that day comes.

“It’s okay, Okaa-san,” Ichigo pipes up one day when she’s changing Yuzu’s diaper, and Ichigo - bless him - sticks around to learn, watching her like a hawk despite wrinkling his nose at the smell. “I’ll protect them! I’m their older brother so it’s my job!”

Masaki goes still for a moment, then smiles, proud but also a little sad. Ichigo’s always been attuned to her moods so she isn’t surprised that he’s picked up on her concern. At the same time though…

“And as your mother, it’s my job to protect all three of you,” Masaki retorts. She sighs at the stubborn tilt of Ichigo’s chin. “But I’m glad I’ll have help with the girls. Just make sure to take care of yourself too, okay sweetheart?”

“Of course, Okaa-san,” He beams at her, still so innocent despite knowing three different ways to cripple a Shinigami should he ever get into a fight with one, and purifying his first Hollow just the other day. “I can’t protect anyone if I’m dead.”

Masaki hates herself sometimes, because it’s times like this that she knows she’s raising him wrong. But what else can she do?

 


 

Isshin treats the girls differently. He dotes on them and reads them bedtime stories, takes them shopping for cute clothes and pushes them on the swings in the park when they’re old enough. He’s still dismally irresponsible when it comes to the practical aspects of being a parent, like making sure they’re dressed warmly enough before they go outside and teaching them their first words and looking both ways before he leads them across a street, but he loves them the way he loves Masaki, noisy and theatrical and probably honestly believing it himself.

It also makes the disparity between his interactions with the twins and his interactions with Ichigo so obvious to Masaki that she’s surprised strangers on the street don’t point it out when they’re on a walk and Isshin buys snacks for them all except Ichigo because he apparently didn’t have enough hands.

She’s not sure what he’s playing at but he’s taken to calling Ichigo a mama’s boy lately, and he says it like a taunt, loudly and occasionally within the earshot of other children at the park who go to the same school Ichigo does.

“I’m sorry, darling,” She murmurs once when she’s tucking him into bed. He tripped out of school with barely suppressed tears because the kids wouldn’t stop sniggering at him for clutching at her skirts all the time. They wouldn’t laugh if they knew he could hit a target from ten feet away, but she made sure to drill into him that his strength must always be used to protect and defend, and schoolyard taunts don’t count.

Ichigo makes a sleepy questioning noise so Masaki clarifies, “It’s my fault. I don’t reprimand your dad nearly enough. He doesn’t- He doesn’t treat you right, I know.”

Her son is seven and uses reishi like he was born knowing how. He recites their history in German like he has an eidetic memory, and he’s already hearing voices in his head when they meditate together. He is amazing, and Masaki doesn’t tell him enough, especially when he looks at her now, clear-eyed and sweet-smiled and says, “I don’t care, Kaa-san. People can call me whatever they want. I still love you best!” He pauses, and then tacks on almost apologetically, “Yuzu and Karin share the spot with you though. Sorry.”

She laughs a little and presses a kiss to his forehead and assures him she doesn’t mind.

She bids him goodnight and does her best not to cry. This was never the life she wanted for any children she would ever have, trained to protect himself, trained to kill, all because she’s afraid of what the man she married will do to him one day.

 


 

Generally speaking, Masaki doesn’t know that much about Shinigami. She knows what they do and what they’re made of and where they live and work, but not much else. She’s managed to coax answers out of Isshin over the years though. Her husband isn’t half as smart as Urahara, and she’s relieved the shopkeeper hasn’t come around again after meeting Ichigo that first time. But Isshin indulges her with little anecdotes of his life in Seireitei and the clan he came from and bits and pieces of his job and position and even his powers, especially when she gets him drunk enough. She never pushes too far because he was a Shinigami captain once, so even he might start getting suspicious if she asks too many specific questions.

But what she does learn, she passes on to Ichigo. Reiatsu is something she - as a Quincy - had to learn about anyway, along with what made a Hollow and the difference between killing them and purifying them. Masaki supervised her son’s first Hollow kill when he was five, only for Ichigo to surprise them both when the Hollow dispersed into a single white butterfly instead of dissolving into the standard blue light. As it turned out, Ichigo can purify Hollows instead of outright killing them. Masaki lets him take over most of the finishing blows when they fight after that. It’s still death, in a way, but at least it isn’t murder, and Masaki tries to take comfort in that.

(Someday, someone will paint her baby boy’s hands red. She’s selfishly glad it won’t be her.)

Information about Zanpakutou is sparse but she gets the gist of it from Isshin, and Ichigo improvises the rest. He’s eight when he rushes into the kitchen where she’s washing the dishes, full to the brim with a dazed sort of excitement, and it’s lucky Isshin is driving the girls to a birthday party because Ichigo proceeds to shout, “Kaa-san! I did it! I met my spirits!”

Spirits, plural, because he has two apparently. Masaki doesn’t think that’s normal - Isshin only has Engetsu - but nothing about her son has ever been normal so she simply listens intently to his animated babble about “an old man named Zangetsu, he’s pretty cool” and “a white one who looks like me and won’t tell me his name, and he waved a sword at me but Zangetsu wouldn’t let him attack so it’s fine and I’ll keep talking to him until he likes me!”

It chills her to her bones, because she can take an educated guess about ‘the white one’. She doesn’t know how Hollowfication works exactly, doesn’t know if this creature in Ichigo’s mind is literally part of the same one that attacked her and infected her and was locked away inside her by Isshin and Urahara to save her life. She prays it isn’t, or if it is, she prays it doesn’t hold a grudge against her son because of her. At least it has that other one - Zangetsu - to keep it in check, and Ichigo seems perfectly fine after meeting both his spirits.

She doesn’t tell Ichigo about her reservations. It’s the one thing she hasn’t told him - her battle with that Hollow and what Isshin did to save her and Urahara’s condition for keeping her alive and providing for her livelihood when she needed it - which, she knows, is terribly ironic in an amusing laugh-so-you-won’t-cry sort of way because it’s half the reason she’s been training Ichigo all these years in the first place.

But she’s ashamed of it, of herself, for her own failure to keep her son safe, and she doesn’t know how to bring it up anyway. Ichigo knows by now how messed up Quincy traditions can be, especially for pureblood females, but it’s a… broad sort of understanding, because however smart Ichigo is, he’s still only eight, and it’s one thing to explain inbreeding and blood purity from an objective point of view, it’s another entirely to make it personal.

So in the end, she says nothing and only expresses her pride and joy at what Ichigo’s managed to achieve.

 


 

Masaki loves her daughters, loves them before they’re even born, loves them all the more when she finally gets to hold them. They feel as fragile as Ichigo felt in her arms when he was a baby, and sometimes still feels when she hugs him.

But Ichigo is her favourite, her firstborn, her lovely golden boy with the full weight of two bloodlines running through his veins and a fate that won’t guarantee a long safe life. The twins are Shinigami and Quincy too, but it’s far more diluted in them, especially Yuzu. She’s hesitant to tell the girls about their legacy, and she knows it’s unfair to spare them the burden when she’s placed it so squarely on Ichigo, but Isshin and Urahara have no designs on them, and so she tells herself that she can wait for Karin and Yuzu to grow up a bit first, maybe even reach their teens, before telling them their truths.

So Ichigo remains the only one she shares her secrets with and imparts almost everything she knows to, her favourite, her firstborn, her lovely golden boy.

If he wonders why, he doesn’t ask this time, but he looks at his sisters with something fierce and resolute, holds their hands when they cross the street, zips up their coats and snarls at anyone who looks at them wrong on the playground, and Masaki thinks she understands.

 


 

The last time she spoke to Ryuuken was shortly before her aunt threw her out of the house and told her not to come back, to consider herself lucky that they weren’t going to execute her for her impure blood.

She doesn’t contact him when she hears that his mother’s passed away. She doesn’t invite him to her wedding. She doesn’t call him when she hears he’s finally settled for marrying that halfblood Quincy who used to follow Ryuuken around all the time.

But every year, once a year, she sends him a picture of her children on their birthdays, first Ichigo, then the twins later on. He still has the same number from back when they were teenagers. He never texts anything back, even after the very first time she sent him a photo of Ichigo out of the blue, still in the hospital on the day of his birth, but four months later, she gets a photo of her own, a baby with hair as black as Ryuuken’s is white but with the same-coloured eyes, if not quite the same shape.

They don’t talk about it, but the exchange of photos continue like clockwork, every year, once a year.

She’s just reached the entrance of the park with all three of her children when she spots Ryuuken and his wife across the street, with Uncle Souken and little Uryuu a few feet back. She keeps a sharp eye on the twins as they run ahead towards the slide but she holds Ichigo back for a few seconds before he can dart off.

“That’s your Uncle Ryuuken and his wife,” She points out discreetly. “And your cousin Uryuu with his grandfather Souken over there. Well, technically speaking, they’re mostly all cousins, but I was adopted into their family after my parents died.”

Ichigo gives them a (somewhat adorable, Masaki privately thinks) narrow-eyed look. “But you ran away cuz you didn’t want to marry your brother.”

Masaki offers a slightly strained smile. “That’s right. He’s not a bad person though, your Uncle Ryuuken. It was mostly his mother and some extended relatives pushing for it.”

Ichigo huffs and doesn’t look any less forgiving. Masaki’s smile comes a little easier, and she ruffles his hair before nudging him in the direction of the playground. “Go play with your sisters now. Make sure Karin doesn’t try to walk on the monkey bars again, alright?”

“‘Kay, Kaa-san!” Ichigo agrees and darts off.

Masaki watches him go before glancing back at Ryuuken, only to find him staring at her too. She hesitates briefly, then nods a greeting. After a moment, Ryuuken nods back.

They part ways without further acknowledgement, and that's the last time Masaki ever sees him.

 


 

Masaki has become complacent, because when her death comes, she does not expect it.

A part of her always thought, after she gave birth to Ichigo, that Isshin would divorce her, or Urahara would send someone to kill her. He might even do it himself. She spent years waiting for the other shoe to drop, terrified at first because while she may have decided to train Ichigo enough so that her son would be able to protect himself, that would come later, he was still a baby back then, and he needed her more than ever.

But perhaps her two Shinigami benefactors were less cruel than her paranoia thought, or maybe Isshin really did convince himself that he was in love with her, or maybe they just didn’t want to waste time raising a child themselves when Masaki could be there to do that job-- whatever the reason, they let her live, they let her stay, and as the years passed, she began to think that she might actually live to see Ichigo grow up, to see exactly what Isshin and Urahara wanted from him, and maybe even convince them to let her take his place when the time came.

So she doesn’t expect it when death comes for her, and she thinks it must be some cosmic joke that neither of the two threats she’s kept as close an eye on as possible all these years is responsible for killing her in the end.

She’s walking home with Ichigo after his karate practice. It’s pouring rain, the late afternoon made even darker with the storm clouds above, and they’re huddled under one umbrella. They’re walking past the turbulent river that bisects Karakura when movement catches her eye and she finds a little girl standing on the bank.

Ichigo jerks to a stop beside her as he too notices, and he takes a step towards the river before halting again. “Kaa-san, is that a Hollow?”

“It is,” Masaki glances sharply left and right, squinting through the rain. It’s faint but her senses tell her there’s a Hollow here, hidden from sight, more than just an innocuous-looking girl.

“It looks like a trap,” She says to Ichigo in low tones. “I’ll attack first. Get whatever jumps out at me when I do.”

Ichigo nods, his face settling into determined lines as reishi sparks at his fingertips. Masaki squeezes his hand one more time, then lets go, sets their umbrella aside, and heads towards the river.

She summons her bow with half a thought, skewering the not-girl with an arrow just as something large and dark looms over her from behind. She’s already turning, another arrow notched even though she knows she won’t need it because there’s no way her son will miss. But then-

-lightning flashes and lights up the sky, so bright that Masaki has to blink spots out of her eyes, and then-

“Kaa-san!” Ichigo’s voice splits the air, horror and panic duelling for dominance, and underneath that-- pain. Masaki is already turning to look, searching frantically for the bright beacon of her son’s hair in the dark, heart in her throat because she’s never heard Ichigo sound like that before.

“Kaa-san! I can’t make- watch out!

The Hollow - a large one with red bird-like hands at feet grins at her, jaws yawning open - bears down on her, and Masaki raises her bow, ready to kill it, only to freeze when her weapon disintegrates in her hands and something inside her breaks.

Everything is still so bright.

That’s not lightning, is the only thing she has time to realize right before the Hollow lunges and its teeth rips a chunk out of her torso.

She chokes on a cry even as she staggers and falls. Above the roar in her ears, she hears someone scream, and it only takes a moment for everything to click.

“Stay away!” Masaki shrills out as loud as she possibly can even as her hands slip-slide over what’s left of her blood-drenched stomach. “Stay away, Ichigo! Run away! Just run!”

Maybe- Maybe if he runs far enough away, Yhwach will spare him-

Large white teeth enters her line of sight again, and she knows - this is how she dies, in the mud and the cold, alone and inglorious, with her precious son watching on.

Ichigo won’t get a birthday present from me this year, she thinks dimly, inanely, and then even that is swept away as the world goes dark for the very last time.