Title: The Beautiful Lie
Pairings: Urahara/Ichigo, Aizen/Ichigo, Shinji/Nel
Warning: Spoilers for recent chapters, Character death, Yaoi-ness, Post-war fic, Violence
Description: Years after the painful end, the echoes of war still prove their influence, and Ichigo discovers a dead man in his kitchen.
The light slowly seeps away, pulling back as though it has tangible presence and finally giving Ichigo leave to see again. He blinks, hand falling from shielding his eyes, and stares in utter shock.
He's not sure what he expected, but this certainly wasn't it.
The lake and the cave and the platform have all vanished. Instead, he finds himself standing in the middle of a ballroom, albeit one of dust and disrepair. There's no ceiling, save crumbled bits of stone, and the tapestries lining the walls are moth-eaten, the colors faded. Beneath him, the floor is marble, or at least, it might’ve been once. It’s now cracked and dirty.
At the far end of the room, there's a raised dais with several steps. Something sits on the dais, shrouded in fraying coverings, also blanketed with dust. Behind are the remains of a stained glass window, most of the glass missing so that the image is impossible to figure out. It smells old and musty with a lingering hint of incense, though Ichigo can't place the fragrance.
It must’ve been glorious once upon a time. A beautiful castle of some sorts. It's nothing like that anymore. Just the decaying, abandoned ruins of a great place.
Except... it's not so abandoned.
Someone is standing near the dais, at the base of it, looking his direction. This far away, Ichigo can only see a blur of red and black, and the shape of a man, but he can't make out anything familiar. He doesn't know if he's supposed to or not. He can't feel anything from him either. This place is so dead, so removed from Soul Society, that Ichigo can't tell if the reason there's no aura to the place is because it's in the living world or if it's just that spiritually dead.
There's nothing to do but get closer. Ichigo moves forward, unconsciously reaching for Zangetsu. Only to realize that his zanpakutou is gone. That gives him momentary pause. But he can still feel the old man, and his Hollow is shouting somewhere at the back of his mind. Not to mention the pulsing off-beat of power in his chest. Ichigo isn’t defenseless. Besides, he's never been one to hesitate either.
His shoes leave scuff marks in the dirty floor. Behind him, he can see where his steps have raised the dust, revealing glimpses of a polished stone beneath.
And when he gets closer, Ichigo gets his second surprise in just a short few minutes. His heart stutters in his chest, his breath catches, and he thinks he has to be dreaming. Because Renji can't be here. Renji's dead.
The man standing in front of him certainly looks like Renji. Red hair in a spiked ponytail. Tattoos. Feral grin. Sunglasses on his forehead. He's not wearing a shihakushou, but that's the only difference.
Ichigo's at a loss for words.
Fortunately, the figment that’s Renji seems to share his personality.
“Yo,” he says, lifting a hand in a wave. As though this is casual, this is an everyday thing that Ichigo's hallucinating twice-dead people and it's normal.
“How are you here?” Ichigo demands and ends up wondering if the key didn't so much open a gate to the palace as it did send Ichigo straight to whatever constitutes an afterlife for Shinigami.
The not-Renji sighs. “I don't even get a greetin'?” he asks with enough of a familiar drawl that something inside of Ichigo clenches and pangs in remembrance. “A guy's dead fer a few years, and ya forget what little manners ya had, brat.”
Ichigo bristles for all of a second before the irritation bleeds out of him. “You're really here,” he whispers instead.
“Course I am. Where else didja think I’d be?” Renji retorts. “Yes, this is real. No, it's not a dream. At least, not like ya think it is.”
He really shouldn't be relying on an apparition to tell him the truth, but honestly, nothing about this day has gone the way Ichigo has expected it. If this is what using the key invites, then Ichigo has no choice but to go along with it. He can't exactly turn back; there's nothing behind him but more ruins and a low-lying fog.
This is real. And Renji is actually here, looking a lot better than the last time Ichigo saw him. Covered in blood, unmoving, sunglasses shattered, Zabimaru in pieces. There are no signs of the mortal wounds that Grimmjow had dealt. Renji doesn't have his sword, but since Ichigo doesn't either, he supposes that's par for the course here.
“Were you waiting for me?” Ichigo questions, some of the surprise and awe bleeding out of him. It leaves behind all the other emotions that Ichigo has since associated with his memories of Renji.
Guilt. Regret. Shame.
Renji lifts his shoulders. “Waitin' for somethin',” he says vaguely. “Couldn't really tell ya what. All of us were.” He gestures to the space around them.
Ichigo looks but doesn't see anything. At least, not at first. He catches movement out of the corner of his eye, and when he whirls to face it, nothing’s there. This happens a couple more times before he realizes that if he stands still and doesn't pay close attention, he can see them. Vague outlines of people, their faces blurred and indistinct, walking around as though they can't see Renji and Ichigo either.
“Who are they?” the Vizard asks, trying to identify the blurred faces but having little luck.
“Echoes. Other Shinigami. Ghosts. I dunno,” Renji replies with another shrug, scratching at his chin. “No one knows enough to explain things 'round here. I'm not even sure why I'm standin' here, just that I am.”
Ichigo's attention reverts to him. “You're dead.”
“Yeah, I am,” Renji agrees, and there's no trace of anger in his tone. Or regret. Or fear or anything really. He admits that he's dead like it's something he's long accepted and the fact no longer bothers him. “I'm also here right now. Up ta you ta figure out why.”
He gropes for the right answer, but as usual, proper elocution fails him. Renji doesn't know either, but that's okay, Ichigo doesn't have the right questions. He looks at the man standing in front of him, arguably one of his best friends, and all he can see is the moment when Renji fell.
Blood splashing into the air, the same color as loose hair, a bright scarlet halo. The sound of shattering steel, sprinkling to the ground in fine rain. His body falling slowly, as though suspended in time. Grimmjow's triumphant smirk...
Ichigo closes his eyes, trying to chase away the image. He attempts to reconcile it with the sight of his unharmed friend standing before him in reality. It's difficult to chase away the memory, but easier still than looking Renji in the eyes right now.
“I'm sorry,” Ichigo finds himself saying, and his throat is thick. “For not killing Grimmjow. You were right. If I had--”
The fist that slams into his cheek comes out of nowhere, and Ichigo staggers a step backward as pain blossoms in his face. He cries out, tasting blood where he'd bitten his tongue, the sharp copper flavor all the more bright for the blandness of his surroundings.
Ichigo cups his jaw, which feels bruised but not broken, and stares dumbly at Renji. Who had just hit him.
“What the hell was that for?” he demands, tongue throbbing, face aching. Renji’s just looking at him like he's the dumbest thing this side of the universe.
“Yer still an idiot.” Renji casually examines his knuckles before lowering his hand again. His eyes are dark, but he doesn't look angry. More sad than anything. “Ain't nothin' changed fer winnin' the war, did it?”
That doesn't make a damn bit of sense to Ichigo. He rubs his aching jaw and glares at Renji.
“That's not an answer, asshole.”
“Quit feeling guilty for shit that ain't yer fault. Ya didn't kill Grimmjow. So what? I had no business going after him.” He sighs and shakes his head, some of the tension easing out of his larger frame. “But then, I guess ya wouldn't be you if that changed, huh?”
Ichigo bristles, caught between frustration and gratitude. Curses dance on the tip of his tongue, a longer argument that Renji is wrong. That it is Ichigo's fault only Renji's too stubborn to see it.
“You know, kid,” Renji says, as though heedless of Ichigo's growing aggravation. “A long time ago, I asked ya to save someone very important ta me. And ya did it. Even though we were enemies. Back then, you were the one who made me realize what I couldn't do.” He shakes his head, face uncharacteristically solemn. “Guess I should've listened to ya.”
Working his jaw, still sore, Ichigo sucks in several sharp breaths. He tries to calm his flickering reiatsu and turbulent emotions.
“No,” he corrects solemnly. “I was the one who didn't understand what war meant.” He pauses, shoulders feeling heavy. “I get that now.”
“Then maybe we both learned somethin',” Renji concedes, those eyes watching Ichigo closely. “But I still say it ain't yer fault. Maybe someday you'll actually believe it, too.”
Ichigo snorts. “I'll believe it when it's true.”
Renji rolls his eyes. He gazes at Ichigo for a long moment, and that look is so familiar that Ichigo feels something behind his eyes burn. His heart hurts in his chest, and he can’t swallow past the lump in his throat. Ichigo actually thinks he might cry. From the way Renji watches him then, he knows it, too. Knows that Ichigo has missed him more than he’ll ever admit to anyone but himself. Knows that Ichigo will regret until his dying day not taking Grimmjow out if it meant Renji would live. Knows that no matter what Renji says now, Ichigo will never let go of that guilt.
“Stubborn brat,” Renji finally mutters. “Look, I'd love ta argue with ya all day, but there's someone else's who's been waitin' a lot longer than me,” he retorts, jerking a thumb over his shoulder. “So we'll continue this later, huh?”
Later? Is there going to be a later?
Renji chooses that moment to step aside, and when Ichigo catches sight of who's standing just behind him, his heart stutters in his chest.
She smiles at him, soft and sure, her eyes lighting up, face just as he remembers. Unchanged for the years and years that lie between them.
“Hello, dear.” Masaki moves forward, her footsteps a soft wisp over the dusty floor.
Once again, Ichigo is speechless. His hands twitch, the urge to fall into her arms like a little boy almost overwhelming.
“I... I can't believe you're here.”
His mother chuckles and closes the distance. “How could I miss this opportunity?”
Her hands lift to grasp his, squeezing his fingers. She feels warm to the touch, like she's real and not a figment of his imagination. Ichigo swallows; he's imagined what he’d say to his mother if he ever saw her again a thousand times. He's practiced the words over and over, but now, he finds all those carefully planned phrases becoming dust in the wind.
“I'm proud of you.”
Ichigo's head jerks up, his eyes catching his mother's own. “For what?”
“For being who you are. Exactly the man I thought you'd be. And more,” Masaki says, her lips pulling into a soft smile that is highlighted by a quiet chuckle. “And certainly better than I could have expected for only having Isshin to rely on.”
Ichigo's torn between scowling at mention of his father and agreeing with amusement at Isshin's less than stellar parenting. He can’t decide to smile or frown.
“Did you know?”
“About him being a Shinigami?” Masaki asks, and when Ichigo nods, she continues. “Yes, I knew. He told me.”
Ichigo's brow furrows, drawn tight with a mix of emotions. “Then you knew it was a Hollow that day. Didn't you?”
His mother's expression softens. “Ichigo, you were too young to understand the difference. All I could do was protect you until you were old enough to realize it for yourself. It was all I could do without powers of my own.”
Ichigo looks away, his own shame cascading over him. “That should have been Isshin's job,” he mutters.
Masaki squeezes his fingers warmly. “When you’re ready, you should listen to your father's story. And all the reasons why he couldn't.”
“He doesn't deserve it,” Ichigo huffs.
His mother outright laughs, affectionate and amused. “You're so stubborn,” she murmurs and releases his hands, only to reach up and cup his face. Touch so warm and familiar. “But it's one of the reasons you’re so charming. You've grown into a fine man, Ichigo. I always knew you would.”
He can't hold her eyes. His gaze skitters away to the safety of this dream, where the walls are coated in dusts and intangible ghosts roam around them.
“I don't feel like one.”
“Such is the way of things.” Her thumb strokes across his cheekbone. “And that, my son, is the reason why you are here.”
He turns his head back toward her. “You mean...?”
“I can't tell you the answers,” Masaki replies. “But I know you, Ichigo. You'll figure them out on your own. I am only the push.”
His brow furrows; his mother's words make little sense.
“Someone else is waiting to talk to you,” Masaki says, straightening, her hand falling from his face and leaving him feel chilled and alone.
“Don't worry. You'll have plenty of time to talk with me later,” she reassures, and her hands fall on his shoulders, spinning him around as though they are playing some sort of game. “Time is what you have plenty of now, Ichigo.”
Confusion leaves him sputtering, head turning to try and keep track of his mother, but she gives him a light push. It's enough to make stumble, stepping forward, and when he looks over his shoulder, she's gone. Like she'd never been there at all.
Ichigo whirls around, searching the faceless shapes milling around for his mother's smile or a flash of auburn hair. Masaki, however, is nowhere to be found. What Ichigo finds instead is another familiar face. One that he'd only expected to see if Sousuke had been standing beside him.
But then, the war makes family out of even the most distant of strangers.
Kyouraku Shunsui reclines on the floor, hands folded behind his head, straw hat half-cocked. One leg is balanced over a drawn up knee, and the pink haori is a familiar sight, achingly so. He's chewing on a stalk of grass, but he seems to sense when Ichigo notices him. He sits up, one hand rising to keep his hat on his head.
“Hey,” he greets with a grin and a chuckle, hauling himself to his feet. His haori settles around his shoulders like it's attached to him, but underneath, he's not dressed like a Shinigami. “It's about time you noticed me.”
“Have you been here the whole time?”
Shunsui tilts his head from side to side. “Depends on what you mean by that.” He plucks the grass from his lips. “If you mean, here in this afterlife of the afterlife, then yes. If you mean here in this room... well, yes and no.”
Ichigo scowls. “Are you all supposed to speak in riddles?”
“It's part of the rules, kid,” Shunsui replies with an outright laugh, genuine amusement that echoes around the broken walls. “If we told you what to do, it would invalidate everything. So we can only play our parts and believe. Which we do, Ichigo, honestly. Otherwise, I wouldn't have agreed to linger. And neither would your mother. Or Abarai-kun.”
More riddles. More puzzles. Ichigo's not cut out for these. In that moment, he wishes Kisuke were at his side. Sousuke even. They are much better at word games, at figuring out confusing mysteries. They'd be able to tell him what to do next.
Instead, the world gets Ichigo. Who's floundering, weighed down by his guilt, unable to see the right path.
He rakes a hand through his hair. “I don't know what I'm doing,” he admits.
“I don't think any of us do, really.” Shunsui reaches up and removes his hat, holding it to his chest as though putting on a solemn act. “We just do what we can and hope that it works out in the end.”
“What we can isn't always good enough,” Ichigo retorts bitterly.
Shunsui shakes his head. “Your best is all we can ask for,” he corrects, and something in his tone seems to echo. “Anything else is unfair. And yet... here we are, on hands and knees, begging when all you really need is to rest.”
“Rest?” Ichigo snorts, surprising himself with the level of his bitterness, especially to someone who doesn't deserve it. Shunsui has only ever been supportive of him. “I don't know the meaning of it.”
The normally affable man’s face morphs into sobriety. Such an out of character expression that Ichigo shifts uncomfortably.
“Is this really what you want, Ichigo?”
“What do you mean?”
Shunsui gestures with one hand, indicating the crumbling ruins around them, the faceless ghosts, the feelings of expectation that hang in the air and on Ichigo's shoulders. Like a thousand eyes are watching him, hanging on his every word, waiting for something, waiting for… him.
“You don't have to do this. Right now, all you have to do is walk away,” Shunsui explains, but he doesn't elaborate on what this is.
Which is okay because Ichigo knows what he means. He's beginning to understand.
“Just leave,” Shunsui continues. “None of us would fault you for it. We want your happiness above all.”
Ichigo blinks. “Walk away?”
His eyes are soft, understanding, filled with regret and innumerable other things. Almost as though he's not seeing Ichigo but someone else. Someone from the past who he couldn't save the first go round.
“You don't have to be responsible for the whole world. You don't have to take that weight upon yourself.”
That his words echo those of both Kisuke and Sousuke doesn't surprise Ichigo. Both men are concerned for Ichigo in their own way, though their reasoning is somewhat different. But it’s also a point Ichigo has made to himself over and over, in the long hours of even longer nights, when he's debated his course of action and the consequences of it.
He shakes his head. “No one else is stepping up to do it,” Ichigo shoots back. “And I can't do nothing. I can't sit and watch the world burn if there's something I can do to stop it.”
He can't tie his hands and pretend it doesn't affect him. Can’t stick his head in the sand and pretend he can’t see. Ichigo can't and won't be like his father.
A fond smile curls Shunsui's lips. “Then that's all I want to hear.” He claps Ichigo on the shoulder in a move that Isshin has done maybe once since Ichigo was a boy. “Just remember to be happy then. That's all we want for you. Take time to enjoy what you're protecting. Or you'll hate yourself in the future. And perhaps everyone else.”
Ichigo finds himself pulled into a fierce embrace in the next instant. One that reminds him all too much of the first time Shunsui had hugged him. Back when Ichigo had just killed Ulquiorra and no one else understood why that bothered him so much. Rukia sure hadn't. And at the time, Kisuke had been too busy to notice.
“Thank you,” Ichigo says as the emotional hug ends, though he's not entirely sure for what.
“No need,” Shunsui says with a smile. “Now turn around. There's just one more step.”
Emboldened, Ichigo nods and obeys, sensing that Shunsui has already faded into nothingness behind him. Just like the others. Which leaves him staring at the last person Ichigo would’ve ever expected to see. They are enemies who were never allies, had never truly spoken to each other, had barely interacted during the war.
For the life of him, Ichigo isn't sure why he's staring at Ichimaru Gin. Who has his arms buried in the sleeves of a pale kimono, his feet oddly bare, silvery hair brushing across his forehead. For once, his eyes aren't closed, and the very blueness of them is as startling as it is surprising.
Ichigo tilts his head.
“I don't get it,” he says.
Ichimaru grins, lips slowly curling with amusement. “What do ya mean?”
He rubs one hand over his arm, glancing at the faceless ghosts roaming around. “I get why Renji was here. And my mother. And even Shunsui if I thought about it. But you... I've never even talked to you. Not really. So why are you here?”
“‘Cause I’m the one most like you,” Ichimaru replies easily, as though it makes the most sense in the world. “Yer everything I could’ve been, and I'm everything you never were.”
Ichigo sighs yet again. “You speak in riddles, too?”
“It's a learned trait,” Ichimaru replies with a chuckle. “Look at the man who raised me.”
It goes without saying who he means. And Ichigo has a feeling he know where this is going.
“I suppose you're going to tell me to forgive Aizen and everyone else in order to make the world a better place, right?” he asks skeptically.
“No.” Ichimaru sounds even more amused as he fixes Ichigo with dancing eyes. “I'm here ta tell ya ta forgive yerself.”
It's the last thing Ichigo expects to hear, and he honestly doesn’t understand it.
“For what?” he all but demands and waves a hand.
Ichimaru rolls his shoulders. “For not saving yer mother. For not being smarter. For being a human child in a Shinigami war.” His gaze steadies, focusing on Ichigo. “For not chasing after Jyuu-san. For trying ta pretend ya could go back. For not doing something sooner.”
His words strike a toll inside Ichigo.
Forgive himself. What a novel concept. It seems so simple, doesn't it? Just move on, toss the past aside, get over it. He can't fix everything; he can't pretend it didn't happen. He's not the hero he thinks he should be.
Ichigo suspects that's not what Ichimaru is trying to tell him though. Those lingering echoes of self-doubt are the problem here. Ichigo could save the whole world, and it still wouldn't be enough, not to him. There will always be something he regrets, something he didn't do. Something he didn't prevent, someone he didn't rescue, a life he lost. Maybe he should realize he's not god, he's not omniscient, he's allowed to fail.
Except if this works, Ichigo will be god. Which is rather gut-clenching now that he actually thinks about it.
Of all things that Ichigo could’ve anticipated Ichimaru demanding of him, this is the last he expects. And yet, it is also the most challenging. Is that it, then? The final step?
No, that's not what Ichimaru is saying. He's giving Ichigo permission, isn't he? He doesn't have to build his bridge right now; he just has to accept that the potential is there. That he can grieve and mourn and feel the burning anger, so long as he learns in the end.
The bitter anger slowly bleeds out of Ichigo. No, Ichimaru isn't demanding that he forgets the past. Ichigo can live with that.
He exhales a quiet breath. “You know,” Ichigo begins with a strange sense of understanding. “We could’ve been friends.”
“We still can,” Ichimaru replies, and his lips widen into a grin that is less inflammatory and menacing as Ichigo remembers it to be. “My social calendar's pretty empty now, ya know. Not a lot ta do up here while we wait.”
Renji had said the same thing. That they were all waiting. But waiting for him? Or is Ichigo overreaching, thinking himself more important than he already is? Maybe they're waiting for something – someone – else entirely?
“Wait for what?”
Ichimaru looks amused. “Oh, Ichi-kun. I think ya know the answer to that.”
Ichigo half-turns. He lets his gaze sweep over the crumbling walls, the tattered drapes, the faceless spirits, the feeling of absolute nothingness.
“I get the theory,” he admits. “But telling me where to go from here would be nice.”
“In my experience, it's always best ta try th' door,” Gin responds, and when Ichigo shifts back his direction, he notices that the man is pointing to an entryway that had completely escaped Ichigo's notice before.
Or perhaps it hadn't existed until he'd asked. Ichigo will never know for sure. He looks at it, the frame etched with a scrolling designs, the clearance several feet above his own head. From his position, he should at least be able to see some of the room where it leads, but to Ichigo's eyes, there is nothing. Just a dim and grey formlessness.
Ichigo turns toward it, taking a step across the dusty marble.
“That's it?” he asks, moving until he stands in front of the archway, staring into nothing. He hesitates, but he's not sure why.
Ichimaru doesn't answer. Ichigo looks behind him, and to his surprise, the milling, spirits have all vanished. The only one there is Ichimaru now, and even he is fading. His edges are less defined, his colors less bright and noticeable. He's only looking at Ichigo now, as though to say “get on with it.”
There's no reason to delay anymore. This is why Ichigo is here. There's nothing to be afraid of at this point. And Ichigo doesn't want any more regrets.
He turns toward the archway and walks through it without a second's pause. Ichigo flinches, expecting to feel something tangible. Like stepping into a spider's web or diving into lukewarm water or even the tingling sensation of traveling through the gate between worlds. He half-expects to be blinded by a brilliant, white light.
Instead, the dimness falls away like someone's lowered a curtain of grey and revealed the startling color behind it. Ichigo walks, but there's no path or immediate destination. He looks down, and his sneakers don't seem to be landing on anything. But when he looks around, walls are springing up to either side of him. Popping up from the nothingness like they've been grown, building brick by brick in fast, soundless succession.
He wants to stop and stare but feels compelled to keep moving, head swiveling back and forth in utter awe.
The walls build, and at their apex, they curve above him, reaching toward one another until they form a ceiling. Chandeliers drop down, cascading in gleaming rows of platinum and gold and sparkling gems. In some places, the ceiling opens up with skylights, and blue sky can be seen peppered with white clouds.
The walls themselves don't stay bare for long, tapestries unfurling in glorious washes of color, the images weaving themselves instantly, so fast that the scenes almost come to life. Sunlight streams in from windows where glass blooms between wooden panes as though it were liquid water suddenly flash frozen, clear and beautiful.
He takes another step and nearly stumbles as there is sudden firmness beneath his feet. Ichigo looks down and stares into his own face, the floor so polished it reflects his features as though it were a mirror. It's a mixture of grays and pinks and light blues, and his footsteps seem abnormally loud as he walks over it. That is, until his very path is abruptly covered by a plush rug in a soft navy shade, one that lines the very middle of the corridor but not the entire floor.
Doors appear in the walls, but where they lead, Ichigo doesn't know. Not yet. He keeps walking forward, following a hallway that seems endless, stretching out before him. Except that it's not endless. At the far end is a pair of doors, nearly twice Ichigo's height, thick wood banded with gleaming metal.
Ichigo reaches out, intending to pull one half of the doors open, but it swings away from his hand before he can even touch it. The hinges don't creak as the door swings inward, revealing a room so large he almost can't see the end. It reminds him of the first place he'd woken with the tattered scrolls and the draped dais, only this time it's different.
Everything shines, awash with color, and at the far end is not a throne on a dais, but a long table. A rectangular piece of sturdy, polished wood with chairs enough to seat a dozen men or women on either side. Perhaps more. It's hard to count chairs at this distance.
The walls here are as covered with tapestries as everywhere else. The chandeliers sprinkling a rainbow of color over the ceiling. His footsteps are a soft whisper of sound on the thick, navy runner. Something pulses in the air around him, a spiritual presence that doesn't seem defined.
Ichigo runs his fingers across the wood of the table. It's cool to the touch, the whorls in the polished surface easily traced by his fingertips.
The palace is beautiful, and it's to be his. Ichigo understands that now. As much as he understands that there isn't a throne because Ichigo doesn't want one. He doesn’t want to sit in a high tower, staring down at the rest of the world. He doesn't want to be that removed.
But for all that it is glorious and beautiful and elegant, the palace – or castle perhaps – is empty. Devoid of residents and life. It's lacking in what really matters.
And Ichigo has the sudden, desperate worry that it means he'll spend the rest of his existence trapped in this place of luxury, utterly alone. Which would be not only a fate worse than death but worse than laboring under Soul Society's broken rule.
He doesn't want to be alone.
Reiatsu suddenly surges around Ichigo. He can't tell if it's coming from him or elsewhere, as it strobes throughout the large chamber in a tidal wave of pure power. There's a flash of light, not blinding, but seeming to implode. It throbs through Ichigo in perfect tandem with his heartbeat. It's strong enough to rattle the walls and make the delicate glass in the windows tremble.
Ichigo turns around, and his jaw drops.
‘Ask and ye shall receive,’ he thinks because where there had been emptiness, the entire chamber is now packed to the brim with people. Familiar faces who are not ghosts, who can't be here but are and who are staring at him with as much confusion as Ichigo is giving them in return.
“Wow...” Shinji says, the first to speak, standing at the head of the pack and staring around him in unbridled wonder. “It actually worked.”
Ichigo scowls. “Thanks for the show of confidence,” he snarks back, arms crossing over his chest as his eyes narrow. “What are you doing here?”
Shinji arches a brow at him. Gives him a look that says Ichigo is still a dumb kid no matter which throne he sits on.
“I should be asking ya that question. One minute, we're waiting fer ya ta come back from wherever ya went. The next--”
“We're here,” Kisuke finishes for him. He’s somehow standing on Shinji's other side, though Ichigo distinctly remembers leaving the blond behind in the living world.
“Wait a minute,” Hiyori pipes up, her brow scrunching with confusion. “If this worked, does that mean you're the king now?”
It's a valid question. Ichigo doesn't quite know how to answer it. He doesn't feel any different. He still feels like himself, just Ichigo, with a zanpakutou and a Hollow and a scientifically created power throbbing within his chest.
A snort ripples through the open room, invoking everyone's attention. Many of them turn to Ichigo’s left, and the gasp that follows is almost universal.
“How else do ya think ya got here?” Gin questions with a wide smirk.
Ichigo blinks. Another ripple of outright disbelief echoes through the crowd of gathered folk, all Ichigo's allies in some way, shape, and form.
“Gin?” a voice whispers then, one which sounds so familiar but so unlike the Aizen Sousuke they all know that it’s hardly recognizable.
“Ichimaru?” someone else demands from the back. “You're supposed to be dead.”
“So am I,” Renji jumps in and heads swivel toward him. He's leaning against the wall between two large tapestries, arms crossed over his chest. “Didn't stop me from bein' here either.”
“And you're in the Royal Palace,” Shunsui adds, suddenly blinking into existence and startling the life out of Ichigo. “Death is relative here.”
An odd smile tugs at his mouth as his gaze flits to his nephew, who’s only a few steps away but staring in Gin’s direction like his life depends on it. But then, Shunsui looks away, and one hand lifts in a friendly wave, his eyes suddenly too shiny.
Ichigo hears something like a startled gasp mixed with a sob of joy but turns away to give them the illusion of privacy. He takes several steps forward as a blur of white rushes by him, and then, he’s pointedly not looking behind him. Nor is he looking to his right where Gin now stands before Sousuke.
“I called everyone here then?” Ichigo asks no one in particular.
His mind is boggling over the idea. He doesn't feel any different. Not bursting with power or brimming with reiatsu. He still feels like himself, just Ichigo.
Renji grins as he saunters over. “Yeah. Which means you'll have ta be a bit more circumspect with the things ya wish for from now on.”
“No kidding,” Shinji retorts, but Neliel hushes him with a hand to his arm.
There’s another general murmur of the crowd, but they’re all too distracted with looking around now, and Ichigo watches as they slowly disperse. Yoruichi-san has already wandered over to a window to peek out, while Byakuya has gone over to inspect a tapestry. The fact that it’s right next to Renji is completely coincidental, but Rukia, who is here too somehow, doesn’t even seem to care as she launches herself at her oldest friend. Yumichika-san, Kenpachi, and Yachiru slowly make their way over too, but Ichigo is distracted from that reunion by the sight of a slightly bloody but grinning Karin headed his direction with Toushirou barely a step behind. Isshin is following, but he’s unceremoniously shoved out of the way by Yuzu as she comes in from the other side.
Ichigo braces himself as both his sisters reach him at the same time in a whirl of hugs, and he’s lost in the feel of them for a moment before opening his eyes to look over their heads. Toushirou is just smirking at him a few steps away, but that turns to something like a look of horror as his lieutenant rushes over and grabs him for a bone-crushing hug that lifts him from the ground. Hanatarou stands where Yuzu left him but makes his way to her side as she steps back from her brother, hovering in a way that Isshin certainly doesn’t like if his expression is anything to go by. He’s fortunately interrupted before he can say anything though as the rest of the Vizard and Neliel come up to them.
“I knew you could do it,” Neliel is the first to jump in, beaming with pride and clapping her hands together.
“Ya made us so proud,” Shinji adds, but it’s hard to tell how serious he’s being with the glint to his eye.
Lisa snorts. “Not like we did much to help. Everything was wrapping up when we got here.”
“What can I say?” Karin jumps in. “It’s not our fault you were late to the party.”
Lisa gives an unexpected laugh at that, eyeing Toushirou as he stands next to Ichigo’s sister and then shrugging. Thankfully, her gaze goes elsewhere then, but it’s more like she’s distracted by the reunion taking place nearby as Ise goes to join her former captain and Jyuushiro.
Ichigo supposes it’s just the day for seeing old friends and family. Everybody here lost someone during the war, and it seems like most of them are suddenly popping up. He can already see the newcomers looking around for familiar faces, and most of them have to be wondering if they’ll turn up. If Ichigo has anything to say about it, they will.
“So,” Hiyori interrupts his thoughts, voice loud and clear over the murmur of multiple conversations. “What's next?”
Ichigo, for all his confusion and trepidation and anxiety, bursts into unexpected laughter. It only draws a host of concern, but he ways them off. Since really, it’s too funny. Too ironic.
Honestly, he doesn't know where to start.
a/n: Be calm, my friends. This isn't the last chapter. There is still more to come.
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