When he dies, it is not from illness, old age or a general deterioration of his mortal form.
When he dies, it is not from the various machinations of the rulers of a backward society and their never-ending paranoia. He does not die from the hidden knife of a supposed friend, nor upon Aizen’s own unstoppable blade.
No, what truly happens on Kurosaki Ichigo’s last day as a living being goes something like this:
At the tender age of just-turned-seventeen, Ichigo dies because his crazy, fucked out of his mind, sad excuse for a mentor blows his run-down candy shop sky-high - taking out Ichigo, himself, and the rest of the goddamn block with him.
(Or at least, Ichigo assumes he took the entire block too because that fucking explosion hurt enough that it would be almost insulting if it hadn’t.)
What had the man been doing, Ichigo wonders, on the nights when it’s too hot to sleep.
Everything is a bit blurry for all he tries to keep the memory sharp, but what he knows is that he walked into the back of the store. He’d been looking for that shitty Hat’n’clogs Urahara, but no one had answered his calls. He’d considered his options for about two seconds before shrugging and going behind the counter to take a look around.
If the man had a massive underground training room, it figured there would be other rooms, right? At least one or two labs, right? And Ichigo’s problem had seemed vaguely big and time-sensitive enough at the time that he didn’t stop to consider that a) experiments, as a general rule, are rather volatile things and b) if the man was going through the effort to hide the room he was working in, there was probably a good reason for it .
(...In hindsight, what happened next was… hmm, maaaaybe about five-percent Ichigo’s fault.)
He kicked open the (fourth) locked/suspicious door, had enough time to say, “Oi, Geta-" and catch the horrified look on Urahara’s stupid face before there was only pain.
And gods, the pain. There was just. A lot of it.
He tries not to think of the pain, especially on the nights where the scratchy bedding, the thin cot, the unaccustomed smell of fresh, unpolluted air and things unfamiliar keep him from sleep.
In the day, it’s easier to not think of his utterly pointless end.
The old lady (gruff but kind, in her own way, kind enough at least to take pity on the lump of dirty, bleeding humanity and nurse it back into some semblance of health) isn’t cruel, but life isn’t easy on the outskirts of Seireitei, and if he wants to eat, he has to work. And he does want to eat; the hunger gnaws at him, digs its talons deep into his belly (it seems that, even here, his reiryoku is an unwanted curse).
He tries not to let on how much he needs the food (more than average, more than enough that the worry of attracting Hollows will keep him up on the bad nights) but he thinks the Old Lady knows, at least some: sometimes he’ll catch her looking at him with something other than the blank emptiness that they all seem to carry in this unfriendly territory, and she’ll give him just a little bit more at the end of the day.
The sun is hot, and maintaining the house and the fields is not easy work. But food equals work and work equals food, so he digs and he carries and he cleans. And it’s easy, when he is moving, to forget about the pain.
But where the day erases painful memories, it brings other unpleasant realities to light.
Where - days? Months? Years? - ago this work would have been nothing to him, Ichigo now finds each action a chore. His once whipcord muscles are soft and useless, his stamina non-existent. Before, where his height would have come in handy, now everything needs to be reached for, climbed up, clung to.
In the day, Ichigo cannot ignore that his soul - this body, this curse - is in the form of a nine-year-old boy.
“Eat,” the old lady says, a few weeks into his new life. She’s holding out a charcoal-blackened parcel, which on closer inspection is made from a bundle of bamboo leaves.
He moves (smaller, more delicate) bones and joints (that don’t creak and ache when it rains) and sits up from his pallet to take it reluctantly, at her insistence; when he unwraps the leaves, inside is nestled a slightly-burnt sweet potato.
“Eat,” she urges, and he eats. When hunger pains he hadn’t known existed settle for the first time since his arrival in the afterlife, Ichigo looks at her with surprise that she obviously does not feel.
“You’ve got a bit’a reiryoku in you,” she grunts. “You’re gonna be needing something in your belly every once in a while, or that pain you were feelin’? That’s gonna get worse.
“You don’t work, you don’t eat; rest now so you can pull your weight soon’s you’re better. Aoi will show you what to do.”
“Aoi?” Ichigo asks around a mouthful of potato. And that’s how Ichigo meets his new housemate.
“Oi, shrimp! Get back in here! You’re done for today!”
Ichigo straightens up from his crouch with a quiet groan. The sun is sinking slowly below the horizon, and he’s been up since the crack of dawn. His body gives protest in creaks and pops of abused joints and muscle. He stretches painfully and shouts over his shoulder: "Coming!”
The southern beds are nearly clear of weeds; the old lady has plans to turn it into farming ground, eventually. There hasn't been much rain these past few months, and the ground is cracked and dry - progress has been slow.
It is nearly a year to the day since Ichigo died and he has barely made a dent in this new world.
And how many more years will it take, huh? he wonders darkly.
As many as you need, Ichigo, a calm voice responds.
As always, Zangetsu’s voice is a soothing presence in his mind: his one link to his past - his best and only surviving friend.
Oi, what’s that make me, chopped liver? demands the other piece of his soul.
A smile briefly flits over his mouth as Ichigo kicks off his sandals and dusts his feet on the reed mat in the entrance to the house.
Of course not, Shiro , he thinks, fake-chiding. You’re what the cat dragged in.
Ignoring Shiro’s subsequent indignant rant, Ichigo nods stiltedly to the old lady and goes to wash his hands. There were enough herbs and roots gathered this week to supplement the evening meal as well as to sell in the village center. Ichigo can feel his stomach growling and does his best to ignore it.
He’s better at ignoring a lot of things, these days.
“Hey, babaa , look what I found!” a cheery voice calls from behind the paper door; it’s slammed open a minute later, and Ichigo rolls his eyes at the brown blur that goes flying past.
“Don’t you ‘babaa’ me you little brat!” the old woman shrieks. The brown blur dodges the hand that lashes out at it, trips, and lands face-first on the dirt floor.
“That’s what you get for running around inside! Now go wash up, or there’s no food for you!”
Ichigo finishes washing up, walks over to the pitiful lump, and looks down at it askance.
“...Seriously? Could you be any more clumsy!”
“Ichiiiiii,” whines the lump, “it huuurts.”
“Oh, get up, Aoi,” Ichigo snaps irritably. Unlike his tone, his hands are gentle as he tugs and pulls the lump to its feet.
The lump turns out to be an androgynous child who is very, very filthy. Dark hair made darker by filth and cut into what some might call a buzz cut, the only sign that the child is female is the softness in the features, if you know where to look.
(When Ichigo idly mentions her hair one day, Aoi's eyes go dark and haunted as she says: "It’s just better this way.”
Ichigo tactfully drops the subject and never asks again.)
Aoi pouts up at him, even as she fidgets and rocks back and forth on her heels. When Ichigo ignores this attempt at getting sympathy, Aoi immediately drops her ploy and beams instead.
“Look what I found,” she repeats, and shoves something into his hands.
He looks down, and it’s a rock.
No, not a rock , he amends, bringing it up to the light. A stone of some kind, almost semi-precious looking, if his memories are correct. Coming to a smooth, rounded point at one end, it flares out at the other in a wider circle, leading to a rough triangle shape. It’s dark brown at first glance, but when brought up to the light it gleams a dark red. There’s a splatter of darker brown - almost black - spots dotted throughout and overall it’s… well. It’s really just a rock.
Ichigo favors her with a what-is-this-about look, which she returns with a gleeful, you’re-gonna-hate-me-for-this look, which he has come to dread.
“Can’t you see, Ichigo? It’s an ichigo ! Get it?”
It takes two seconds, a double-take and the raucous laughter of his Hollow in his mindscape before the image clicks in his mind. Then he’s running after a hooting Aoi, scrambling over the tattered tatami as best he can in his frustratingly gangly, uncoordinated limbs and ignoring the angry yells to 'behave or they can both get out'.
Rukongai is everything he expected, but also different in so many ways. Some days he hates it, some days he doesn’t. Almost every spare moment he has, he sits and wonders, and tries not to think about how he’ll probably never see his family again and how they (his friends, he thought they were his friends) have not come to find him.
But while this new life is strange and hard, it is good in other ways. When Ichigo sits down that night to eat broth made from miso and root vegetables and herbs, when he lies down that night next to his new family, his hunger sated and his eyelids heavy, he can’t bring himself to hate this new life at all.
(That doesn’t mean, of course, that he won’t be strangling that hat-wearing bastard the first chance he gets)
The first time he catches sight of his reflection, he falls instantly back to that horrible moment on the bank of the river. It’s like he’s there , living that moment over again: the instant all the good things in his life began to leave him, starting with the best things first.
He comes back to himself as the life drains out of his mother’s eyes to find water falling out of his own. His reflection ripples in the water of the muddy riverbank as tears fall, distorting his reflection - distorted further by his hands, immersed in the water, his basket for collecting edible greens forlornly lying on its side in the muddy embankment.
The ripples hide a face that shouldn’t exist any longer, a face that belongs to a better time. Ichigo reaches a wet, trembling hand up to that face and slowly, gently presses his fingers into soft skin till the pressure reveals the feeling of hard bone.
It almost seems fitting, somehow, that he’s back in this state. A lot of things began to die after his mother disappeared in a shower of light; it makes sense that his final death should be in this form.
Time seems to flow differently in the afterlife.
When Ichigo is out in the fields, cleaning out the shed or carrying water from the river - a constant stream of sweat dotting his brow - it’s easy to feel that each moment stretches out forever.
But while each day does blend into the next in some way, Ichigo sometimes feels like he’ll blink and a whole month has passed.
Perhaps that’s the way time works in the afterlife.
In any case, it feels like both yesterday and a million years ago when he showed up at the old lady’s place, and the drudgery of his new life is both painful and a welcome relief.
After losing his powers, the most he thought to achieve was graduating (without any fuss from his crazy-old man) and maybe a quiet celebration with his sisters. He never dreamed he’d be celebrating his seventeenth birthday in the slums of Rukongai, dirt under his fingernails and a sunburn blistering his face.
Some days it's all he can do to fight the bitterness. He knew (oh he can’t deny that he knew) what he was giving up when he went after Aizen. He knew that he’d lose his powers, knew that he wouldn’t be able to see Hollows any longer; but somehow, despite the knowing, it never quite registered that not being able to see anymore meant he would be losing his friends.
Now that he is, inexplicably, back here in Soul Society, with his reiryoku slowly but surely building up and his Zanpakuto and Hollow spirits present (in his mindscape, if not in physical form), his first instinct should be to connect with friends he hasn’t seen for over a year.
That should be his first instinct. It… should be.
So why the surge of bitterness every time he thinks of them, why the anger, why the hurt?
Losing his power had been a hard enough blow to power through, but... He understands, in a way, the long silence. Perhaps they feared his bitterness, feared that seeing them would be rubbing salt in old wounds (for as long as he could still see them, which wouldn't be long at all)? It's not that he doesn't understand, because he does .
There are plenty of reasons and excuses he could make for them, but when it comes down to it, the fact is this: When he was at his absolute lowest, when he needed them the most and they just... weren't there? No matter their reasoning or how good their excuses, that's always going to hurt.
Some wounds take longer to heal than others (if they heal at all).
“No, not that way,” Aoi says patiently as Ichigo messes up for the third time in a row.
“Urgh, what the fuck am I doing wrong?” he snarls. He briefly contemplates tossing down the mangled sandal in his hands and stomping, but he wouldn’t put it past the old lady to wack him over the head with it, so he satisfies himself with thwacking it on the ground instead.
“You’re not doing it slow enough. Here, watch me.”
So saying, Aoi goes through the process of lacing the straw into the sandals that they all wear. They go through a pair or so a week, and part of Ichigo’s new job is going to be making his own share. It’s tedious and so far from anything Ichigo has done before, and it’s frustrating.
Everything these days is frustrating.
“You have all the time in the world to learn, Ichi,” Aoi reminds him when he messes up again and finally does throw that damn sandal into next week.
The reminder - that he is dead, that everything he knew and loved is gone - doesn’t help anything, but Ichigo takes a deep breath - flexes his small, useless hands - and tries again. And again.
Aoi teaches him to take the bark from trees, the roots from plants and flowers, teaches him to wash laundry and cook and clean and clear out the weeds overflowing behind the house.
The old lady should be the one teaching him, Ichigo thinks, but he is glad that she isn’t. The old lady may be the one to have saved him, but he isn’t very fond of her and gives her a wide berth whenever possible. Her circumstances have made her hard and cold, and she is just as likely to snap at him as teach him anything.
Aoi is, by contrast, very easy to be around. In a way that makes his chest ache, she reminds him of Yuzu, from her endless patience to the way she smiles. Sometimes she’ll say something that is just so Yuzu, that something inside him will freeze and he’ll think, Could the explosion have…. Could it be…?
But then she’ll roll her eyes or laugh her hooting laugh and go running through the grass, barefoot and nearly bald and so devil-may-care that Ichigo will roll his eyes and dismiss his fears.
If the thought, the fear, never truly disappears from the back of his mind, well - it at least doesn’t stop him from loving her and appreciating her all the more with each slow day that passes.
The sun-baked ground is cracked and dry the day Aoi brings Shigeru home.
The rain hasn't come for weeks, and with weeding and planting an impossible task, they mostly while the days away lounging about in what shade can be found while trying to find something to occupy themselves with. Aoi wanders off that day to 'explore' the area because Ichigo is being, 'a boring wet blanket.'
The wet blanket in question had spent half the night wracked by nightmares, and was consequently exhausted and not in the best of moods. So Ichigo ignores her and does his best to get some shut-eye.
He must drift off at some point despite the unending heat, because the next thing he knows, Aoi is shaking him awake.
"Oi, Ichi, wake up," she calls into his ear. He jolts awake with a curse and a flailing of his limbs which she dodges with relative ease.
"What?" he snaps. Falling asleep is hard enough with just his subconscious to deal with: someone deliberately breaking him out of it is just plain unkind.
"So look, don't be mad," Aoi begins despite this, which is horribly ominous and a very mean thing to say to someone who's just woken up. Ichigo buys himself a few seconds by rolling over onto his side and sitting up; he even takes a moment to brush off the dust and the occasional leaves, careful to avoid looking in the direction of an impatient Aoi to avoid confirming what he already fears.
When every last speck of dust is gone and he can put it off no longer, Ichigo takes a fortifying breath and straightens his spine to emphasize the grim look he then levels at Aoi.
He ruins it a moment later by groaning and slapping a hand over his face.
"Tell me you didn't."
Aoi's look of exaggerated offense is all the answer he needs. And, of course, the small boy hovering in her shadow.
Wait for it: he had nowhere else- "He had nowhere else to go!"
And there it is.
Ichigo places his hands on his hips and looks at the sky in total exasperation. If this were the first time, it would be one thing, but Aoi has an unfortunate hobby of picking up strays they just can’t afford to keep.
“I’m sorry,” a small voice says, making Ichigo abandon his useless pleading to nonexistent gods and look down.
Above stark cheekbones, two dark eyes stare sadly up at him. Even before the boy continues talking, Ichigo knows he’s lost this fight.
“The family I was staying with, they... they couldn’t keep me anymore because I keep getting hungry, and I just... I didn’t know what else to do, and Aoi offered-“
Ichigo runs a tired hand over his face, resigned. “Forget it kid, don’t apologize. You’re explaining this to the old lady Aoi - no don’t you whine at me, you brought this on yourself.
“Welcome to the family, kid.”
Rain, when it comes, comes in endless sheets.
Each drop feels like pointed needles against bare skin, and when an extra-strong gust of wind can carry what feels like an entire waterfall of water, most avoid being outside if they can help it.
Unfortunately for Ichigo, these torrential rains happen to be the best times for fishing.
The animals in Rukongai are not aware, per se, but they do seem to have a sense of awareness for reiryoku that gives them warning when Ichigo - or Aoi, with her not-inconsiderable reiryoku - is approaching.
The rain provides enough noise and lack of visibility to bring out the fish in droves, though, so Ichigo (who needs to eat and who refuses to let the other children go hungry) will do what needs to be done.
Necessity doesn't stop the rain from being terribly unpleasant, unfortunately.
Ichigo squints his eyes and scowls through the water trying to drip into them. There is a poor excuse for a road before him on a slight incline, washed nearly smooth by the rain, leading down to the river; a wrong misstep, and he’ll be taking a quick shortcut down right into the deepest part of the river.
He runs his tongue over his lips, catching rainwater, and briefly (very briefly!) considers heading back. There’s a few hours of daylight left, he could… go scrounge for berries and things. Nuts and.. and mushrooms and whatnot.
A few seconds later, Ichigo is taking small, ginger steps down treacherously slippery mud and feeling grateful (perhaps for the first time since his death) that this body is so much lighter than his old one.
One step, two, three, four. On step five, he loses his footing and takes a terrifying slide down the remaining few feet of slope and further onwards towards the lake. He manages to redirect his slide towards a large boulder, and with a wet splat and a pained umph, he comes to an undignified stop in an inch-deep puddle of mud.
I could still go back , Ichigo thinks, darkly recalling the way Aoi had pretended to sleep as the old woman ordered someone to go get ingredients for the evening meal.
But Ichigo walked into the middle of Seireitei - a boy burning with righteous anger and armed with nothing more than his determination and his handful of friends - and he walked out of there alive and with allies to show for it.
What kind of man would he be if he let a little rain stop him?
He pushes off his backside and into a crouch, grabs his discarded bucket and makeshift pole and sets up shop atop the boulder that stopped his fall, some of that old determination settling as he resolves to get this done, and done right.
He and his gear collect puddles within seconds.
How the fish will notice the bait amidst all the rain, Ichigo can't imagine. He peers through heavy curtains of rain and wishes he’d thought to research the topic while he had the chance.
The soil is soft and wet, and a few minutes of digging produces a handful of worms which he immediately sets about hooking on to what passes as his hook. The remnants of an old rake that lost one of its spokes, Ichigo had whiled away many an afternoon beating it into the closest to a hook shape as he could manage. It doesn’t look like anything special, but he’s quite proud of it nonetheless.
There will be no more trips to the supermarket, hardware store or convenience stores; Ichigo has accepted that, though it was hard at first. The first time, on another day nearly lost in the humdrum of all the others in this semblance of living, Ichigo woke up feeling hunger pains. Still lost in sleepy disorientation, he had a thought: I'd kill for pancakes . When coherency and awareness hit a few minutes later, Ichigo had to curl up in his cot for a few extra minutes under the weight of all the things he would never have or see again (school, cellphones, cheeseburgers, his sisters' smiles ).
Getting up that day was so very, very hard.
Nowadays, he can almost look back on the things he doesn’t have and never will again with a fond sort of nostalgia - a fondness, tinted by something like grief, and a determination to survive in spite or because of it all.
Ichigo has always been a fighter, and a loss of convenience and everything he has ever known isn't nearly enough to break him.
The rain continues to pour in thick sheets that make visibility almost nonexistent; Ichigo continues to hold out his makeshift pole with its ugly hook and wriggling bait to wait for fish that aren't bothering to bite, and the day passes and blends into another in the never-ending gray of the afterlife.
”Where do you want to go, have you ever thought?"
"What?" Ichigo asks irritably.
The sun is merciless today, the air soupy and thick with humidity. The sun’s rays feel like they’re burning off a new layer of skin every time his body shifts and a new area is exposed to the midday sun. It’s a hot, muggy, miserable (typical) summer day.
Ichigo swipes at his face, grimacing at the gritty feel of it.
The old lady tasked them with cutting down a dying peach tree that's blocking off the airflow to the east side of the house. The tools they've been given to work with… well. Dull isn't quite the right adjective - something more along the lines of 'never been sharpened, ever' would probably fit best. It's a bit like trying to break down a house with a couple of hammers.
Aoi is being even less helpful than the dull axes; she half-heartedly hacked at the tree for maybe three minutes before dramatically declaring her defeat. She’s been sprawled out, dreamily staring at the sky since.
Suffice it to say, Ichigo really isn't feeling the love.
"I mean, what do you want to do? Where would you like to be in the future?" Aoi clarifies, rolling over onto her side. She plops her head on her palm and watches Ichigo continue to fail at chopping down the tree.
"I don't know, Aoi, maybe in an alternate universe where you're actually helping me ?"
“Hmmm, no," she says pensively, ignoring his grumbling. "Here's definitely better. I meant, well, is there anything you want to do? Anything you want to be? I think..."
She cut herself off, and Ichigo eyes her from the corner of his eye, noting the distant look on her face.
"I'd like.... to be a Shinigami, I think."
Lodging the dull ax into the tree with a firm thud, Ichigo bites down on his tongue and carefully doesn't say the first thing that springs to mind.
( You’re still younginnocenthappy despite everything why would you risk all of those things for people who would turn their back on you at the slightest hint that you are weak who would abandon you like yesterday’s trash the second you stop being useful why don’t you just take what you have now little though it may be and make it work and live live live -)
To give himself some time, he looks down at the trunk of the tree he's failing to cut down: the rotting wood is a dark brown, crawling vines and patches of bright moss gleefully overtaking what hasn't already been devoured by insects; a trail of ants make their way doggedly upwards, a small black line weaving through patches of brown and white-topped mushrooms towards a lump of dried sap; a lone cicada, its color so close to the tree as to be almost unnoticeable, scratches out its piercing cry to match the chorus in the surrounding trees.
For a hollow, rotting, nearly disintegrated tree, it's kind of ridiculous how much life it still holds, how stubbornly it refuses to give in to the inevitable.
He looks at Aoi - at her buzzed head, her sun-darkened skin and rough hands - and thinks: You're a bit like this tree, aren't you?
"That's a great goal, Aoi," he hears himself say. Flinching, Ichigo turns, mouth opening to take it back-
Brown eyes, already large on a too-thin face are wider than ever, surprised pleasure making them shine.
And Ichigo could still take it back, but.
"Who-hoo!!! Yes!!" She throws herself on him before he can stop her, and he lets her push him to the ground, laughing and whooping.
"So that means you're gonna join me right?"
"No, not that way," it's Ichigo's turn to say. He tries to keep down the automatic urge to snap, and he's rewarded by Aoi firmly shifting back into the correct stance without any further encouragement.
She needed a little coaxing, at the start (mostly because Ichigo's initial reaction to everything is hostility, and while Aoi may not be a shrinking violet, she's not immune to harsh criticism); now she swings her practice sword - a heavy branch nearly as long as she is - without a murmur of complaint.
The strain of holding the stance sends tremors through her limbs. Ichigo pushes off the tree he was leaning against and stalks closer, critically examining her foot placement.
"...Better," he admits grudgingly. She beams at him. Ichigo snorts and looks away to hide his own smile.
They have all the time in the world, but somehow never enough. Time passes like the slow crawl of condensation on glass, but these days there is a feeling of urgency they cannot fight. It's nothing tangible, and they certainly can’t explain when they try to put it to words - but they train that much harder, run that much faster, and push themselves to collapsing.
"Ichi-niisan!" Shigeru calls as he walks, ignoring Ichigo's angry shout of, "Don't fucking call me that!"
"The old lady said to take a break! I brought water and snacks."
Aoi perks up, and Ichigo waves a hand in permission. They both accept the bucket of water, sharing the ladle and enjoying the gloriously cool liquid. They make equally quick work of the dried fish and sweet-peas, and this time Shigeru settles in to watch them as they get back to drills.
An hour under the relentless sun passes, and soon the kids are all lounging on the grass in various states of relaxation. Ichigo prowls about, at times criticizing, others praising (if rarely, and grudgingly) and demonstrating where needed.
There will be other things to learn besides swordwork. Ichigo is absolute pants at Kido, but what little he knows he drills into Aoi’s head mercilessly. It helps him recall things he's long forgotten, and sometimes he surprises himself with some half-remembered spell or lesson.
It's a learning experience all around, and the days pass quicker, more urgently than before. They have a purpose now; the other children may not be able to follow after them into the academy, but what they can pick up won't hurt them. They rotate the chores to give Ichigo and Aoi the time they need to practice, and the old lady gives them the gimlet eye, but ignores it when they stumble in bruised, rumpled and covered in grime.
The days pass - and they grow strong.
And soon the day comes for them to hunt more than just each other's shadows.
His heart is thudding in his chest, but his hands are steady. Ichigo breathes in, silent and deep; breathes out.
Doing good, boss, Shiro puts in. He's hovering in the forefront of their shared mindscape, eagerness lending a sharpness to his presence.
Zangetsu is more sedate, his presence subdued and calm as ever, but even he has an underlying feel of expectation to his silence.
Ichigo glances at the gnarled old oak that hides Aoi in its shadow; the moon is bright tonight but lends little visibility. He wonders if she's worried (understandably, of course), but it's impossible to see her face in the dark. She's staying still enough, though, so as long as she remembers the plan, Ichigo supposes he'll just have to trust that his training was enough.
Breath in, out. Then -
A spark. A single, small flash of light from a flint, set off by Shigeru. It briefly illuminates the hulking form of their prey, and every muscle in Ichigo’s body tenses as the shadowy form begins to turn in the direction of the light.
At the bright signal, Aoi’s voice rings out clearly in the silence:
“Disintegrate, black dog of Rondaniini! Look upon your burning soul and sever your own throat! Bakudo 8: Geki! ”
Over the screeching of the Hollow as Aoi’s (absolutely gorgeous, marvelously and perfectly done on her very first try ) binding spell takes hold in a flash of red light, Ichigo takes a fortifying breath and a half-second to pray for luck - and calls upon his dearest, most loyal friend.
You ready, old man?
Whenever you are, Ichigo .
Then, he moves .
Aoi approaches him afterward, slinking her way out of the shadows of an old pine with low-hanging branches. The look on her face reflects the one he feels: astonishment, wonder, the giddy feel of coming down from a fear-induced adrenaline high. He’s vaguely aware of Shigeru stumbling towards them as he exhales unevenly and holds out the manifestation of Zangetsu in his hand for her to see.
She gently touches the hilt, runs a finger down the dull side of the blade, watches with Ichigo as the moon reflects its light on the flawless metal.
They had meditated and practiced and sparred till they couldn’t move a muscle, but a part of Ichigo never could wash away the fear that his powers, lost when he activated Getsuga Tensho , would never be recovered. He’d buried his fears in practice and teaching Aoi Kido, which she’d shown a natural talent for; if she’d noticed his anxiety and occasional mood swings, she hadn’t mentioned it. He had wondered and worried to the point where even Shiro had tried to reassure him in his own bumbling, rough way.
But, in the end. In the end.
“It’s beautiful,” Aoi breathes, joyous and reverent. Shigeru places his hand on Ichigo’s own, struck silent. The remnants of the lost soul-turned-Hollow have long since faded, and the night is still.
“Yeah,” is all Ichigo can manage, his voice rough from the tightness in his throat.
A phantom feeling on his shoulder, like the touch of a hand, carries the warmth echoing through his mindscape - that warmth cries out victory and smug triumph, bringing with it the near-tangible feel of great things to come.
(He doesn’t it see it, then, for what it actually is: the first hints of the storm that will soon be upon them)
“Yeah. It really is.”
Days pass, a month passes, a year. Two years, three, four. Ichigo is thirteen going on seventeen going on twenty-one, and he doesn’t look a day over nine. It’s aggravating, but he’s gotten used to this body’s new way of growing, which is to the tune of Slow, Slow, Slow.
He and Aoi are joined together at the hip; they move like a machine, smoothly going about all the necessary jobs needed to keep a roof over their heads.
Somewhere along the way the old lady picks up a few more kids: Konosuke, all long-limbed and awkward, older than Ichigo but with not a speck of reiryoku and half of Ichigo’s brashness; Shigeru, all round edges but with a tongue sharp enough to cut glass; and little Reika, no older than five but more than happy to pull her weight.
They train their powers, they flex their reiryoku, they help even the little ones exercise what little they can control. They train and they fight and they grow, and they grow strong .
Together they find a way to squeeze into the house that gets smaller and smaller with every passing year, and the life they live, while not easy, has them content.
(But all good things, inevitably, come to an end.)
" Maido ~"
Ichigo flaps a hand at the dead-eyed owner of the stall in thanks and ducks out from under the thatched overhang.
A few coins jingle in his threadbare pockets and the cloth bag is empty of its contents. The air is starting to get a bit of a bite as the season turns to autumn; those who require sustenance are beginning to stock up for the winter. Ichigo thinks he got a good enough price (his intimidating demeanor hasn’t suffered for a sudden drop in height and size), but he's not usually the one sent off to the market.
Ichigo kicks at the gravel road irritably at the mental reminder.
With the weather turning, the old woman needed all hands on deck with the canning and drying and storing of food, things he isn’t terribly good at, and she hadn’t wasted any time kicking him out of the house.
A passing spirit - an old, crotchety man with milky cataract eyes - shakes a fist at him, and Ichigo scowls till he scurries away.
It's not the first time he's been to what passes as the market in these parts, but it's the first time he's been here without Aoi or one of the kids snapping at his heels.
It's... oddly lonely.
Ichigo grimaces and picks up his pace, eager to get out of the endless rows of shanties and run-down buildings, shutters closed and boarded up in glaringly unfriendly ways.
A gust of wind swirls through the streets, sending leaves floating up in swirling clouds. He hunches down against the blast without really meaning to, feeling a chill unrelated to the icy blast run down his spine.
While he may have never had to fear Hollows in his previous life, in this one he is a magnet for them without the added benefit of being able to fight back with complete confidence, and that makes being out after dark dangerous.
The shadows of the trees are getting long enough that he'll really need to hurry, at this rate.
I’m gettin’ a bad feelin’, Aibou, Shiro pipes up unexpectedly, nearly causing him to walk into a tree.
Grumbling, Ichigo shifts around the tree and asks, What are you going on about?
Dunno, it’s just… somethin’ in the air ain’t right. We should get back. Somethin’... ain’t right.
Ichigo rolls his eyes, trying to ignore his growing uncertainty, and is about to make a comment when Zangetsu adds his two cents.
Shiro is right, Ichigo. Something is amiss. There is an unusual stillness about the wood that I find ominous. We had best hurry back.
Shiro admitting to anything resembling fear is strange enough. For Zangetsu to be worried?
Ichigo hunches in his shoulders against the next gust of wind and picks up his pace.
It’s the smell that hits him first.
Iron, sharp and metallic: blood freshly spilled. He’s already breaking into a run before he fully registers it, moving so fast he might well have broken into shunpo on accident - and maybe that’s why he doesn’t see the blood until he’s already stepping in it.
He does stop, then. He stops, and stares, and breathes. Then he drops to knees, and throws up.
Konosuke - an over-large, bite-shaped chunk of flesh taken out of his torso - breaks into reishi-particles as Ichigo heaves out the small portion of rations he’d eaten that morning. He leaves a body-shaped puddle of blood behind.
Reika - her small, delicate limbs twisted at unnatural angles - begins to fade as he pushes himself to his feet, dry heaving as his hands press into soil, soaking wet with still-warm blood. She disappears completely before he can reach her.
The front yard is a sea of carnage, and as Ichigo stumbles and weaves towards the house in something like a drunken stupor, the scene burns itself into his mind in snapshots of full-blown resolution and color:
The slim maple tree flanking the west end of the house, now so many bits of kindling.
The carefully stacked woodpile, logs scattered about the yard as if from an explosion.
Pockmarks in the dry-packed earth.
Bomb-sized holes still steaming with heat.
Long patches of discolored grass, straight and even.
Controlled burn marks.
Blood. Blood on the ground, on the walls, on the windows and wood and grass and mud and on his hands. Puddles and puddles and puddles of it.
Burn marks mean Kido, the part of his brain not frozen by horror says. Explosions mean Kido. Kido, and blood, and lots of both, which means -
“Aoi,” he breathes, and his next step doesn’t falter. This time he does break into Shunpo with deliberate intent as he moves and in seconds breaks through the front door like it’s nothing more than paper.
“ Aoi !” Ichigo screams as he comes to a stumbling halt, as he’s even still moving. “ Shigeru ! Aoi !”
The reason he stumbles, he soon finds, is because something has broken his momentum. Some one .
“ Oh. Oh no.”
Shigeru looks almost peaceful. He is on his back, eyes closed, face muscles slack. If not for the gaping hole where his chest used to be, Ichigo could almost fool himself into believing that he is only sleeping.
The hand he reaches out (towards his apprentice, his friend, his brother ) shakes so badly he is almost afraid to actually touch - he is afraid, really, truly - so afraid of what will happen if he does anything to wake himself out of this terrible, terrible dream.
In the end, he doesn’t get the choice. The trembling hand reaches and touches air as Shigeru disappears in a bright cascade of light.
The sound he makes then is like a scream, but deeper, from deep down - as if all his pain were gathered into a giant ball and torn out of his throat: an animal shriek of pain, and grief, and horror.
He might have collapsed right there and let the breaking of the dam on his emotions wash him away, but an answering noise has him jumping to his feet:
A small, hiccuping cry of his name.
He lurches up onto the raised-tatami at the center of the small house and stumbles towards the sound, mindlessly kicking away the low table, the iron pot knocked off its support, floor cushions and pottery, broken and burned and ruined. He gets rid of every obstacle in his way till he finds what he is looking for… and again finds himself falling to his knees.
Aoi coughs - a wet, heaving cough that splatters blood all across the ruined front of her yukata - and gives him a tremulous smile from red-painted lips.
“Hey, I-Ichi. You’re… late.”
Ichigo blinks fast and hard, but it doesn’t help to stop the water flowing from his eyes. “Not late,” he croaks, trembling fingers reaching out to close around hers, a sharp whine of relief escaping him as she doesn’t disappear at the contact.
“M’always on time, you know that.”
He scrubs hard at his eyes with his free arm and finally takes proper stock of her injuries. Immediately after, he puts the hand back over his eyes because he can’t… he can’t…
The hand in his own tightens, the slightest bit. “That bad, huh?”
“You’ll be fine,” Ichigo says after a few controlled breaths. He can’t come close to sounding fine, or normal, but he can at least manage to sound convincing.
“Liar,” Aoi sighs back, her usually vibrant voice thin and weak. She coughs again, and Ichigo tries to help her sit up, but immediately has to place her down again when it only aggravates the deep slices across her chest and belly. He recognizes the rancid smell of a gut wound and knows, he knows that she doesn’t have long, but maybe there’s some way, someone-
“The old lady!” Ichigo exclaims, half-rising to his feet. “The old lady, where is - “
“Gone,” Aoi whispers. “She’s gone, Ichigo. She… tried to pro-protect us, you-you know? She tried. But she. She didn’t-“
(If only he had practiced Kido if only he had spent time in the Fourth Division if only he had studied and tried harder if only if only if only ifonlyifonlyifonly-)
He sinks back to the floor and lets the last of his hope wither away.
“Yeah, alright, I get it. Stop talking, save your breath.”
Ichigo shushes her when she tries to continue because he knows what she wants to say:
She didn’t have to, and they didn’t expect it, but she tried to protect them anyway.
Ichigo finds that maybe he does have the room, in all this grief, for one more; and this particular grief is also trying to drag up an older, deeper sort of grief that is different, but not altogether dissimilar.
But he doesn’t have time to dwell on that now, so he shelves the pain, shelves all the memories of his lost friends and brothers and sisters and fathers and mothers because he cannot afford to get lost in the pain of it, not now.
Aoi, with what little time she has left, deserves his full attention.
“What happened, Aoi?” Ichigo urges, gently but still demanding because while the awful weight in his chest tells him his guess is probably right, he has to know.
“Hollows,” Aoi says, and Ichigo instantly feels like he is the one bleeding out.
“So…so many. We-we tri-tried to fight them off, but we…we were outnumbered, un-…unprepared. Shigeru and-I, we… we tried… luring them inside, to-to trap them, and - the kids, di-did they…!”
“They’re fine,” Ichigo lies around the ashes in his mouth. “They’re hurt bad, though, so I haven’t moved’em. They’ll be fine. Your plan worked. You… protected them well.”
“Oh,” she breathes, relief making her sag. Ichigo feels the ash in his mouth building and clogging his throat, and has to cover his mouth for a moment to hide it. “And Shigeru?”
This… this he can’t lie about. “He… didn’t make it.”
“Oh,” she says again, only this time sadly. “Oh. But he… was brave. He… died, bravely. Right?”
“Yeah he did,” Ichigo says. “He died bravely.”
“Would… you lie down… next.. to me, Ichi?”
Everything is quiet, like in the aftermath of a great storm.
His mind, too, is quiet, as it has been since the start of this horrible nightmare. He doesn’t know why and knows he should care, but right now he wants that quiet, welcomes it.
He lies down, curling as close as he can to her prone form without hurting her. He pulls her hand to his chest and holds it there, pressing down on the pain in his chest as if that will help it disappear.
“Remem-ber when you… first came here, Ichigo?”
“You-you couldn’t… even make shu-shoes.” Cough-cough . “You… were s-s-so useless.”
His side, where it is nearly pressed against Aoi, is wet and cold, but the blood flowing down from her chest is slowly warming it. He presses her hand tighter to his own chest and slows his breathing, so she will match him and slow hers as well.
“I had to… to teach you everything. Bu-but you…. Learned fast. You le-arned and then… you… taught me. Taught me to-to fight, to-you believed I could. You didn’t… laugh, you… you taught me, and I-I learned. Than-thank you. Ichigo.”
Hot tears warm his cheeks, and the ceiling above him is once again blurry. The hand in his is limp, and growing cold.
“You… you go… be a Shini-gami, Ichigo, you… go and. Be. You can, be something… something great.”
He swallows down his disagreement, his building anger at Shinigami who should have been here to help a bunch of children who didn’t know better ( but he did know) than to play with their Reishi and attract predators they weren’t prepared to fight.
(But he knew he did know that he knew he knew he should have known-)
He swallows down what he really wants to say, and what he says instead is: “I will, Aoi. I promise.”
Her hand begins to glow, and Ichigo jolts up, a cry of denial on his lips.
Aoi meets his teary eyes with her own, and gives him a soft echo of her bright, cheerful grin, even as her face begins to glow.
“Bye, Ichi-niisan. I love-”
And she shatters into a million glowing particles that flutter to the ground and fade into nothing.
His empty hand gropes at emptier air as he gasps for words, for breath, for anything; but no matter how he grabs and reaches, his hand stays empty.
Ichigo’s eyes burn with a renewed desire for tears, his throat swelling with the beginnings of a potentially unending scream - but just then, his swollen eyes land on the blood-soaked tatami under his knees.
There are great tears and rips in the mat, in direct correlation to the bloodstains; deep, ugly tears, from giant, ugly claws.
And grief is, abruptly, eclipsed by fury.