It really isn't that bad. Truth be told, it's something of an improvement. There's nothing left worth living for anymore. His family is gone. His friends are dead. Soul Society is a ruin. The living world is a wasteland.
Blood drips down the side of his face, across both hands. Slicks his skin as he kneels in the ashes. His brain misfires as everything fades away. Bringing up stray thoughts and memories. Regrets.
That he could've done better. That he should've done more. That he'd give anything to do it over again. That he had so many opportunities to get it right but failed.
With Rukia. With Aizen. With Juhabach. With everything.
And he remembers it all then.
He's seventeen and powerless.
He's eighteen and strong but losing.
He's nineteen and the world is ending.
He closes his eyes. He dies.
He wakes up, fifteen, and in his bed.
A week later, he meets Kuchiki Rukia for the first – second – time.
Only to wake up once more in his room. Fifteen. But with his memories intact and knowledge of how to get to his own powers.
The third time isn't the charm though. In fact, it's the worst time of the lot, and the quickest Ichigo loses overall. He goes for Aizen far too soon. While Rukia is still snug in his closet, sleeping away like the innocent she still is, and weeks before they send anyone to fetch her.
It isn't hard to get to Soul Society on his own. His hollow is so ingrained in him now that he made the time jump, and all Ichigo has to do is form a garganta. He takes out the traitors so easily it's pathetic. It's the rest of the Gotei 13 that's the issue. Ichigo doesn't want to fight them. They're his friends. He's already watched them die twice. He can't do it again.
They don't have the same problem.
It isn't Byakuya or even the old man to kill him, however. Not like he thought it would be. It's Kyouraku Shunsui, and the look on his face, the glint in his eyes, is more terrifying than Aizen ever thought of being. Even several tries later, Ichigo still won't turn his back to the man, and he's never alone with him.
The cycles continue.
Living. Dying. Always dying.
Three times by Aizen – one on the soukyoku hill and again in Karakura town. Once by Byakuya and Renji together when they come to fetch Rukia. Then, by Xcution members and their fucked up powers. Twice by the Onmitsukidoh in the middle of night after Aizen is dead but before the Vandenreich come. Another time by the old man when he isn't careful enough to hide his true abilities. A few tries by the Quincy king himself. Even once by Urahara, Yoruichi-san, and Tessai-san when he slips and lets his hollow bleed into his eyes too early. And one particularly nasty go-around when he faces off against Unohana-san in the Chamber 46 compound.
His life quickly becomes a nightmare. A waking hell that he can never escape.
It's probably an illusion. He hopes it's a hallucination. A lie.
Maybe Aizen's. Maybe his own.
In the end, there really isn't a difference. It stops to even matter.
Ichigo keeps dying. So does everyone else.
One time, he's holding Rukia as she sobs out her despair onto his shoulder. The next, it's Inoue. Then, Renji. Even Ukitake-san.
He watches his sisters die together. Separately. Screaming out his name.
He sees the Espada turn on their master and then fight alongside him the next time.
It just keeps going. And going.
The problem is that he has too many enemies and not enough friends. Not when he has to keep making them again and again. Not when everyone is still so much older and experienced. Not when they've had so much time to set things in motion that he can't hope to ever change. Not when he's always struggling to prepare. To plan. To learn.
Fighting. Strategy. Kidoh. Everything.
But now, Ichigo's catching up.
He still fails. A lot.
His friends die. Rukia with Renji. Chad, Ishida, and Inoue together. Byakuya and Toushirou separately. Ukitake-san. Urahara.
His family dies. His sisters. His father. The Shiba.
The world dies.
Time and time again.
He wakes up fifteen, but he's probably closer to fifty. He can't really be sure. He feels it though. Feels older. Feels old. Tired.
He hasn't cried since the first time he watched his sisters die. Since he held Yuzu's broken body and knelt in Karin's blood. He's honestly forgotten how by now.
He keeps going though. He doesn't have any choice.
They're still his friends, even when they don't know him. They're still his family, even when they don't remember. This is still his home, even when all he sees are ashes.
He never allows it to happen again. Not as the go-arounds pass and he doesn't know his own age anymore. He isn't as old as her in years, but he's older where it counts. He can't feel the same about her. Not when he's seen her fall time and time again. Not when he's lived so many different possibilities.
Inoue manages to confess to him twice, but he turns her down both times as gently as he can and makes sure afterwards to always head her off early.
It's the others who manage to get the jump on him. Who sneak in when he changes the timeline and make him forget why he needs to be stronger than this.
There's Byakuya, who approaches him during a horrendous cycle where Renji is dead and Rukia in a coma. Gets him to take a risk so stupid that even Ichigo has never tried it before. Spends over a year curled around his back as he sleeps. Makes him feel safe and almost happy despite the insanity. Who is the only person Ichigo ever tells the truth. But dies minutes before Ichigo and doesn't remember a damn thing when they wake to the past yet again. Who doesn't understand for numerous times afterwards why Ichigo never looks him in the eye.
Lisa comes later, and Ichigo still isn't quite sure how it happens or why he allows it. Maybe because she knows what it means to share her soul with something dark and dangerous. Perhaps it's her sharp wit that actually makes him laugh despite himself. It could be because all the blood and death takes a toll and if he can forget for a while, all the better. Or maybe it's because she isn't Rukia – or Byakuya – and he's never had to die for her. Or she for him.
And if Ichigo wakes to dark hair on his pillow and thinks – if only for a second – that it's someone else. Well, he never tells a soul. He makes a point not to call her the wrong name either.
He doesn't see her die. Not like he did Byakuya. It's both better and worse. Better because he doesn't have to dream it for decades afterward. Worse because he has to endure the pity and the sympathy for months before he meets his own end.
Ulquiorra comes later still. By then, Ichigo has long stopped fighting with his own demons and actually started thinking that he's less human than a true hollow. He's ceased caring about a lot of things by this point, but an emotionless Arrancar makes him feel more alive than he has since he really was fifteen. And they come together like the world is on fire and burning down around them.
It's a good cycle even with how badly it ends. This is the closest Ichigo has ever come to winning in all the times he's tried before. Victory almost seems within his grasp.
But all it takes is a single careless action. An unspoken invitation, an inopportune moment that the Onmitsukidoh happens to see. The Shinigami will tolerate many things about Ichigo if he plays his cards right, but even with all he's done, they won't risk his loyalty when he has such a strong tie to an Arrancar. To a monster.
The first and only time he ever sees Ulquiorra cry is as they take Ichigo away to his execution. It's worse than watching Byakuya fall or knowing that Lisa is dead. Combined.
The next time, he stabs Soifon in the face at the first opportunity. He does it the following go-around, too. Just because he can and she still deserves it.
It doesn't make him feel any better.
He fails occasionally. And ends up right back where he starts. Which is a pain in the ass and redundant as hell. But it's his life. For better or worse.
However, he finally decides to take a different approach. Since the other way obviously isn't working. Ichigo thinks that he's doing things in the wrong order. He's always gone after Aizen first. Then worried about each obstacle as it comes. Finally finishing with the Vandenreich. He's done it that way because that's how it happened the first time. The original time. And every time after that.
But only because he let it.
He's been fighting them every step of the way, but he's still been playing by their rules. He's let them set the stage, even when he subsequently burns down the theater. He's been passive, even while being aggressive.
Passive. Weak. He's let the Shinigami – the old fart, Kyouraku, Ukitake-san, Urahara – call all the shots. Danced to their tune.
Because they were older. More experienced. Because he thought they knew what they were doing.
Well, fuck that.
And it only took a somewhat small change. Just a simple reordering of events. After all, he knows exactly where Juhabach's headquarters are, and as many times as he's been there, Ichigo even recalls the layout. It isn't that hard to slip away one night, Rukia once more sleeping in his closet, and head on over for a visit. A truly regrettable amount of property damage and one showdown later, the Vandenreich is scattered and minus a king.
He limps back over a day later and blames his injuries on a hollow. Rukia seems to believe him, and he's learned to lie very convincingly by this point.
Aizen is, as always, trickier. But he gets it, too. And Ichigo honestly thinks he might succeed. But a dead Aizen doesn't mean the end of the threat… as he soon learns. The traitors are gone, but they still had all those Arrancar and Vasto Lorde.
Ichigo dies to an Espada of all things. He's killed them a dozen times over, befriended them a dozen more. Led them out and into death. This is the first time that they've ever beaten him.
Of course, it's Ulquiorra. It's been so long since they've really and truly fought, Ichigo has forgotten that he has high-speed regeneration. Or maybe he just never thought Ulquiorra would hurt him. Much less attack him from behind.
But this Ulquiorra is not that Ulquiorra. Not his Ulquiorra. No matter how much they look like.
Still, Ichigo can't bring himself to feel anything but sorrow. He doesn't even try to save himself.
"It had to be you," he murmurs as he feels his heart stutter and stop.
He looks at Ulquiorra in frustration mixed with admiration and fondness. The last he sees is startled green eyes and a pale hand reaching for him.
Tsukishima stares even as Ichigo feels him begin to rifle through his mind and memories. All of his memories. Several lifetimes' worth of them. Blood and agony and death. So much death. Theirs. His.
Rukia. Byakuya. Lisa. Ulquiorra. Two of them have killed him. The others he's even let die.
Over and over and over again.
Tsukishima screams then. And keeps screaming even as he pulls back. As his mind retreats. As he clutches at his head and falls to the ground, bleeding from his nose.
Ichigo is so startled that he barely has enough time to block the attack from behind. And soon, he isn't fighting just one member of Xcution but two. Then, three. Then, all of them.
He kills at least two, but Ginjou slashes him in the neck before he can pull his own blade loose from Kutsuzawa's body.
He dies to the sounds of Tsukishima still screaming.
He's even smarter this time. He takes back-up.
And that's his fatal mistake.
Ginjou is dead at his feet and the rest of the group is scattered.
Ichigo himself is bleeding, but that's easily fixed. He's done his homework. He's watched the Arrancar and Espada. He's learned the trick to quick healing without kidoh. He even has Ulquiorra to thank for that, and he fixes himself thoughtlessly. Without realizing his audience.
That's when it all unravels.
He turns to find Rukia and Renji staring at him in absolute horror. Inoue has already backed away with Chad and Ishida standing in front of her protectively. They all have their weapons raised.
Ichigo gazes at them for a long moment. At the gleam of ignorance in their eyes. At the youthful curve to their faces. At the agonizing innocence that permeates their souls.
For all that they've done, for the enemies they've defeated, he looks at them. And for the first time, he doesn't see his friends. He sees a group of strangers. Ones who look familiar to be sure. But strangers nonetheless. They haven't seen or done or experienced even a tenth of what he has.
They are strangers. They are children.
Ichigo is not.
And he knows exactly how this will play out.
It'll be Renji first. Then, Rukia will flank him. While Ishida fires away from the high ground. Chad and Inoue will defend only.
He knows them so well. They don't know him at all.
He takes out Renji when the redhead makes the first move, but afterwards, Ichigo hangs back. There's no point in fighting. Not now. Not anymore.
Rukia doesn't agree. Her sword is in her hands then, and she takes a swing that he sees coming a mile away.
"Who are you?" she demands as he sidesteps and holds up his hands. "What are you?"
"I'm Ichigo," he says back, and he doesn't even have the energy to yell. He hasn't for a very, very long time.
"What are you?" Rukia shrieks again, and her eyes are wild. "What are you?"
Ichigo doesn't even try to dodge this time. He just lets the strike come.
Her face is white as his blood sprays, and her hand shakes as she pulls her sword free. Ichigo can't find it within himself to be angry.
"I'm your friend," he whispers and sinks to his knees. "I always have been."
Then, there is only darkness.
Then, he gets to work.
It's the same routine as the last few go-arounds. Vandenreich first. Then, he recruits the Espada while Aizen isn't looking. Next, the traitors themselves while the Shinigami are still scratching their heads, trying to figure out what the hell just happened. He takes a page from Soifon's book for the next one and uses good old-fashioned assassination for Xcution. Soul Society's other enemies meet similar fates.
He goes to sleep a year later, thinking that finally – finally! – he's actually won. But he wakes to footsteps in his room and something heading for his face, and Ichigo reacts automatically. Rolling out of bed and eliminating the threat before his mind even kicks into gear. But this time, it isn't the Onmitsukidoh, and Ichigo sinks to the floor when he sees both Urahara and his own father bleeding out over his bedroom rug. Yoruichi is in better shape over by his closet, but her eyes are huge and afraid as she watches him.
Ichigo glances from his father's body to Urahara to her and back. He doesn't know whether to laugh from the sheer absurdity of the situation. Or start screaming and never stop.
He settles for throwing himself on his own sword. He doesn't even care that his sisters watch the whole thing from his doorway.
Ichigo realizes now what he has to do. He honestly doesn't know how he hasn't seen it before. This, all of this, has never been about survival. Not his friends or family. Not his own.
Ichigo has been to the spirit king's domain before, but he hasn't had reason to go there for decades. Now, he does.
It's the same story again, but Ichigo doesn't bother going to his house afterwards. It really and truly isn't his home anymore. Sad that it's taken so long for him to realize.
Instead, he finds one of the royal guard. It really isn't that difficult, and he knows exactly how to lure them out. Oetsu never even stands a chance.
Getting to the palace itself is painfully easy. They really aren't prepared for an invasion; nobody ever really is. Not where Ichigo is concerned.
And it isn't much harder to find who he's looking for. After all, the king has no real reason to hide, and Ichigo stands in front of him with his arms crossed, but his face is expressionless.
"Oh," the man – being… thing – says. "It's you."
His eyes are black. Black with no trace of white at all. Black and empty. More inhuman than a hollow. Deader than Ichigo's every time he looks in the mirror. And Ichigo knows without knowing that this really is the spirit king. The ruler of Soul Society. The boss of the Shinigami. And his, too, he supposes.
"I've been waiting for you," the man continues with a put-upon sigh. "But you finally came. Just as I knew you would."
Despite himself, Ichigo feels his eyes narrow. When he was younger, he would've blustered. Demanded answers. Yelled perhaps. Threatened even.
But he's older now. Older. Wiser. Colder.
He appreciates the beauty of silence. The simplicity of not bothering to care no matter how much it burns. After all, there is such a thing as hell, and Ichigo's just spent countless decades living it. What's there to worry over by this point?
"You understand now, don't you?" the spirit king asks, and it's a not even really a question at all. His face is somehow both young and ancient at the same time as he tilts his head.
"Understand what?" Ichigo questions back, and his voice is inflectionless. Like they discuss nothing more substantial than the passing clouds and have little better to do than stand here for eternity.
The king just smiles. It's broken and terrible to see. His subsequent laugh is even worse.
"What it means to stand above, of course," he explains, patient in the way that only the ageless can be. "To be without equal or true ally. To be completely and utterly alone."
Tone is both mocking and bitter, but there's a hint of relief. As if he's at the end of an extended journey and has returned home to find it burned to the ground. Little more than cinders and ash.
It sends a chill down Ichigo's spine in a way nothing has for a great many years. He braces himself, but he isn't quite sure for what. Every instinct shrieks at him. To flee. To fight. To lay down and die and start this mess all over again.
A silly idea. A silly urge. There's nothing that this man can do to him that hasn't already been done.
And as if sensing that thought, the king's smile widens.
"You did marvelously. Better than even I imagined," he announces, but it's something like tragedy in his voice. "And you figured it out so much quicker than I did. Bravo indeed."
He offers a short bow, barely more than the twitch of his head and back, but then, his hand whips out. Despite the fact it's empty, something heavy and metallic flies through the air. It lands at Ichigo's feet.
He blinks. And blinks again. Brain and eyes trying to make sense of what he sees. But nothing makes sense anymore. It hasn't for a long time.
He glances from the crown to the spirit king and back. The man merely makes a dismissive motion with his hand, and Ichigo reluctantly bends down to pick it up. The crown is surprisingly cold in his grasp and even heavier than it looks.
The king watches him for a moment, and his smile is even bitterer than before. Ragged. Broken like glass. Bloody like a blade. Twice as sharp.
"Do better than I did," he orders, but it's more like a curse. "Be better."
And then, he's fading. Body first. Legs, arms, chest, right up to his head. Smile disappearing like sunlight eaten by shadows. Last to go are his black and blank eyes.
Now, it's just Ichigo. Only him in the palace. Echoing and alone. Empty.
The only sounds are that of his own breathing. Nothing else is there. Nothing else alive.
And Ichigo stares out towards his kingdom, crown in hand, and has no idea what he's supposed to do now.