The smell of blood and smoke permeated the air. Crumbling buildings weakened as the rubble of the warzone started to tremble. After almost 14 years of unending carnage to not only the Seireitei but all of Soul Society. The clouds overhead have been painted blood red as smoke rose from the fires still burning on top of dead bodies, both enemies and allies. In the glimmer of the flames, one could make out an eye-catching orange. A color that had no place being in a place filled with such death and destruction.
In a clearing, where all had been decimated within a 70-meter radius a shinigami lay. Upon closer inspection, one would see multiple cuts and gashes that were bordering the line of being fatal. Blue lines underneath pale skin could be seen on anything uncovered by his haori and shihakusho. The most striking aspect of the man was not his hair color but his eyes. Once amber eyes filled with warmth and innocence were now dead bloodshot orbs of brown. Eyes that told the tale of never-ending guilt and grief. Eyes that had a way of holding so much emotion but at the same time, none at all. The figure itself could be described as nothing but tired. As if the world that had once held itself on his shoulders had now left. Leaving nothing but a beaten, broken, and torn soul that had no reason to keep holding on to the feeble strands on life.
Not that Ichigo could deny it.
‘ This is it’ , he thought, ‘ 14 years of fighting, 14 years of pain and loss, 14 years of hiding and planning, all for this. Both Aizen and Yhwach may be dead but they didn’t go down alone. ’ Glancing around the clearing, he could see the charred bodies of both friend and foe. Despite their differences in species and mentalities, they all died the same, in pure unadulterated agony. Their faces would forever be seared into the broken man’s mind.
Closing his eyes, he let himself imagine the impossible, where all of his friends and family weren’t truly dead and that at any second would walk up to him. Uryu would push up his glasses and insult his Blut Vene, mumbling in exasperation on how they were related. Orihime would come up beside the Quincy and heal the orange-haired shinigami’s staunch wounds and babble on about a new recipe she created with salmon and jelly. Chad would just stand there as silent as always but the expression on his face would be one of relief, that they were all still in one piece and that he would get to fight alongside his best friend again. Rukia and Renji would be teasing him on how horrible his Kido was and how he was ruining the title of Soutaicho. The war-hero would just brush off the insults and retort with one of his own.
After Ichigo would be able to move they would go to his house in Karakura and they would all eat a meal from Yuzu. Joking around and celebrating their victory, they would just enjoy each other’s company. Goat-Face would of course butt himself into the conversation and wildly exclaim of his escapades in his youth. Then trying to surprise attack him, which hasn’t worked since he was 9, and whimper pathetically on the ground when he was given a savage kick to the face. Goat-Chin would make a scene as he cried to his giant poster of Masaki until Karin would cuff the back of the idiot’s head and mumble a few colorful phrases that she most likely learned from her brother. Yuzu would then berate the three of them, threatening them with no dessert if they continued their antics. Laughing, they would all put this dark chapter of their lives behind them and enjoy the peace after war.
But then Ichigo opened his eyes and all he would see were charred corpses and the rotting bodies of quincies, hollows, and shinigami. In life, they may have been on different sides but in death, their souls all faded into nothing, never to be reincarnated or become a soul. The irony brought a small smile to the man as he chuckled, which caused a bout of racketing coughs.
‘ I guess this is the end, no afterlife just nothingness. ’, surprisingly the thought put Ichigo at peace. ‘ Maybe, I can finally stop feeling so tired and numb. Maybe the constant ache in my soul will finally recede, even if just by a tiny bit. ’ The war-hero winced a second after. ‘ No ’, he thought, ‘ I can never let this guilt go, I deserve it after all. With all I’ve done, I should be receiving much more than this. Nothing could make up for the crimes I’ve committed. My soul deserves this never-ending pain and loss. I couldn’t save any of them in the end. Not a single soul. Not. A. SINGLE. SOUL! ’
‘AIBOU STOP!’ , a dual-toned warble yelled in his mindscape, ‘Both Ossan and I have been listening to your self-deprecating whining for the last whatever minutes and it is NOT TRUE ! How many times do I have to beat it in your goddamn skull that you’ve done more for them than they ever deserved. You’ve destroyed your inner world, subjecting yourself to things that people never experience for LIFETIMES ! Unless you get your shit together I’m taking over your goddamn body and NEVER giving it back!’
‘ Go ahead Zangetsu. ’, the war-hardened man replied wearily, shocking his zanpakuto spirit. ‘ We both know that you couldn’t do anything worse to me that I haven’t already suffered.’ Shiro didn’t want to admit it but he was right, his Aibou had suffered too much to be affected by his half-hearted taunts anymore.
‘ Ichigo. I always tried to shield you away from the path of a shinigami. Thinking that if I just gave you enough power to survive then you would eventually lose interest and live out your human life. I always thought that you would be happier that way. Then you proved me wrong, you fought anyway and from that moment I knew. Like the tide, you cannot stop it from crashing amongst the shore. I knew could not shelter you anymore. So I told you the truth much too late and because of my error, you have become this. Do not blame yourself Ichigo, if anyone is to blame, it would be me. You can curse me to hell and back and that would be ok but please Ichigo. Do not blame yourself for my failures. ’
It was the most Ossan has spoken in the last 6 years of this cursed war and his words seared his heart like the acid of the Vasto Lorde hollows he’d fight day-in and day-out. ‘ No, Ossan please, you are not the one to blame. Don’t go on saying that you could have taught me better! It was my bull-headed actions that got us into this shit. That made us lose hundreds on the battlefield. That caused unimaginable grief onto my comrades. That trapped us in that- in that- ’, Ichigo faltered for a split-second, pain and fear flashed in his eyes before being replaced by resolve and grim determination. ‘ That place… Where we were beaten and experimented on. I still don’t know to this day why you both still stay with me. No, before you start, I am fully aware of the fact that we share the same soul but… why did you have to be paired with a ruined soul such a mine. ’
The silence after his internal speech resounded across the clearing. Wind blowing through his hair and the rubble at his feet.
‘Listen here you little shi-’, the hollow was cut mid-thought as the world trembled. Buildings that were only standing by sticks collapsed and dust and ash flew into the already smoky air. Ichigo sat up, looking at his surroundings and fled. He didn’t know where he could go. There was nowhere left to hide as all the four realms were about to collide and mark the end of all things. So he decided to go to the one place he felt his soul could rest in peace at.
Shunpoing across the war-torn terrain, Ichigo scanned the area searching for the one patch of land that was not affected by the battles fought around it. ‘ It’s still here. ’, he thought as he spotted it. It was more than just a patch of land underneath a crumbling building. This was the last place he saw all of his family and friends alive.
It was after a raid onto the Quincy base encampment near Sakahone in the Eastern Rukongai, back when the second war was just beginning. When the Seireitei was still standing strong. Occupying most of the souls who were living in the Rukongai before. (Later they regretted putting all those souls in one place) They were successful in destroying the Quincy’s base of operations and were celebrating together. Someone was able to convince Shiro to cook again, which may or may not have included the puppy-dog eyes from both Yuzu and Karin. (Thinking of their names, even after all these years, still sent one of Toshiro’s ice lances through Ichigo’s grief-stricken heart.)
When Ossan… left, and Ichigo would get severely injured on solo missions Shiro would have to step in to make sure Ichigo wouldn’t starve himself. If not from his injuries but from the extreme guilt that always hung in Ichigo’s heart every time a comrade died on his watch. After Ichigo began to make that a common practice, Shiro had to step in again and again. (Ichigo would forever be grateful that Shiro never once teased the orange-haired man for his weakness in front of the spirit. He would taunt him at times but Ichigo was always able to see through the hollow’s facade. His zanpakuto only did it to try to make Ichigo feel something other than his crippling loneliness and regret.)
When Shiro was finished cooking they all gathered and sat together on the grass outside. Ichigo would always remember that it was such a sunny day that morning. Hiyori started insulting Shinji as usual and of course, Shinji replied in kind. Their squabbling continued until one of them knocked down one of the pots filled with stew.
Even Hiyori fled whenever Shiro gained a psychotic grin and chased after the two, swearing that their deaths would be long and painful. It may not be common knowledge but Shiro prided in his cooking. Because even though the spirit would never admit it, Shiro enjoyed having something that put smiles on people’s faces and not looks of fear and horror. (However, he still enjoyed faces full of pain and agony because the hollow would forever be a sadistic little shit) So when anyone but Ichigo and his sisters knock down one of his dishes, unholy amounts of agony awaited them.
It took the combined effort from Yuzu and Karin to calm the hollow. Saying soothing things such as, “Don’t worry I’m sure that if we work together we can make the stew again in no time flat.” and “Yeah and we can stage a little ‘ accident ’ involving them later.” Shiro grinned down at them devilishly at the second comment which most likely came from Karin.
Shiro and Yuzu went back into the kitchen and not 15 minutes later, came out with another cauldron of stew. After placing the pot down on the grass, the spirit and Karin started scheming something evil in the corner. Shinji was already sweating and despite her rough exterior, Hiyori was feeling the same. Everyone knew that when Karin and Shiro teamed up, it always ended in pure havoc and chaos. Renji and the others were already starting to place bets on when the two Visord’s punishment will come.
The rest of the picnic went by in a flash and soon, it was dusk. With the sun slowly sinking below the horizon, they packed up their belongings and went back inside. It wasn’t until midnight exact, (Ichigo knew this because he never was able to sleep much due to the horrifying nightmares that plagued him throughout the night) that they heard both Hiyori’s and Shinji’s high pitched screams echoing through their encampment. He later heard a victory shout from both Ikkaku’s and Shunsui’s rooms and defeated groans throughout the building. With the occasional sound of crying from Isshin’s and Getaboshi’s rooms.
It was one of Ichigo’s favorite memories. The day after was one of his worst.
The Quincies decided to stage their counterattack as a hit-and-run when they least expected it. Raining several dozens of arrows upon their heads they made sure to cause an unavoidable distraction while some of their soldiers went into the base encampment and killed all the injured. It was that day that they learned to never all fight as one. Easier to slip past the cracks that way. It was the first time Ichigo lost close friends to the hands of the enemy.
It was raining the next day when they buried Yumichika and Chad. Which they would soon regret. (Giselle always had a knack for finding dead bodies)
For the next few weeks after the ambush, they all fought like hell. Slaughtering all enemies in their way. Ichigo was the worst of them. He went without food, water or rest for weeks on end. It wasn’t until Shiro took control of his body and forced himself to be trapped in multiple kido barriers, courtesy of Hachi and Tessai, and pulled him into unconsciousness that he finally slept.
It would be the most amount of sleep he would get at once in a long, long time.
Ichigo silently grieved at the memory, feeling an old wound being opened again. The hybrid moved towards the last standing building and sat on the dead grass. Another earthquake shook the world as the end grew closer and closer.
Ichigo his breath hitched as he laid down, starting to feel all the injuries that were ignored by adrenaline earlier. He looked up at the blood-red sky that had begun to drizzle and thought, ‘ At least it is better than the pouring rain.’ Settling into the decaying foliage around him he thought about how he had gotten to this point. All he could remember was his failure.
Failing to save his mother at 9, failing to shield his friends from the spiritual world, failing to follow instructions which caused mass losses on their side later, and the sin that would forever carve itself to him and his name. Failing to be the protector his mother always wanted him to be.
“I don’t deserve the name you gave me.”, the orange-haired shinigami spoke aloud for the very first time in months. (If you didn’t count his screams as words) “I only leave pain and destruction for those around me. If you were here I know you would have been disappointed in everything I’ve done. I tried so hard but, I’m also oh so tired. Tired of being the one always depended upon, tired of the nightmares and memories that haunt my every waking moment, tired of having to carry the world’s burdens on my shoulders alone. I HATE MYSELF BECAUSE OF THIS! I DESERVE THIS! I DID THIS! I DID THIS! I practically murdered them all with my own hands. It’s not like my hands aren’t already soaked in blood. But know this, if I had a chance to change this. To change this twisted future, I would take it. I don’t care if I would have to eviscerate my own soul to do it. It would probably be an easier fate than this torturous existence. Of being the last one standing. I hope wherever you are, it is a better place than this. You don’t deserve to suffer for my mistakes. Goodbye Okaasan.”
While he was speaking it had begun to pour, thunder booming as lightning ricocheted across the clouds. For the first time in his entire life did Ichigo appreciate the rain. The raindrops hid his tears as he smiled into the sky, welcoming the oblivion that awaited him.
In the hybrid’s inner world his zanpakuto spirits watched on silently until they materialized beside their wielder in his final moments. (Linking their hands together as if to say that they came into this world together, so they would leave in the same fashion.) They too were grateful for the rain.