Title: Past Imperfect (Catastasis)
Characters: Ichigo, Urahara, ensemble
Warning: character death, angst, AU-ish, battle scenes
Description: Sequel to Protasis and Epitasis. The war continues, but the future has a way of changing despite the best of intentions.
War continues. Such a thing is inevitable. For the most part, the details have remained constant from the future Ichigo knows. That makes it easier to change things. To fix what was broken.
And sometimes, reliving battles of the past is more painful than Ichigo can bear. It's a heavier burden than he knew he'd have to carry. It weighs on him, drags him down.
Night is the worst. Night is when his body rests but his mind wanders, memories coming to life in stark relief much to his own heartache. He doesn't ask for them, but they come anyway. Night is full of the past, and while Ichigo doesn't wish to forget, he does hope for a reprieve.
Rarely is he granted one.
The first time Kisuke wakes him up from a nightmare, heart pounding in his chest, sheets clinging to sweat-soaked skin, Ichigo stares at him with wide eyes. His fist is an inch from the shopkeeper's face and his reiatsu flaring outward in obvious threat. If Kisuke is struggling under the onset of Hollow-infused reiatsu, he doesn't show it.
“Nightmare?” the blond asks as Ichigo flops back onto the futon, throwing his arm up over his eyes.
Ichigo grunts out an affirmative. There's a rustle as Kisuke settles into a crouch beside his futon.
“Want to talk about it?”
Damn. Talking is the last thing Ichigo wants to do. Better that he just concentrate on the future and the success he's going to have.
“Understandable.” Kisuke puts a hand on his shoulder, giving him a companionable squeeze. “Let's get you some tea.”
Ichigo sits back up. His body is still thrumming with fight or flight instincts. He won't be going to sleep anytime soon.
“No. I'll make it.”
“What's wrong with my tea?” Kisuke puts in with a huff.
“Other than the fact it's fucking disgusting?” He throws off the twisted sheets and crawls to his feet with much less grace than he usually manages.
The blond’s lips purse in a fake pout. “I'll have you know its drinkable,” he retorts with an indignant air.
“Kisuke, even if I was in Hueco Mundo desperate for water, I wouldn’t drink your tea.” Ichigo drags a hand through his hair, making it spike in several directions.
“It's not that bad,” Kisuke protests, leading Ichigo out of the guest bedroom he'd claimed for his own use and into the kitchen. “Besides, how would you know? You've never tasted it before.”
Ichigo pauses in the doorway. A dark emotion cascades through him and chases away the humorous atmosphere that had been grudgingly trying to establish itself.
“You forget,” he murmurs, “I've had it before.”
Kisuke gazes at him for a moment before his face softens. “Oh. Right.” His shoulders slump as he moves the kettle to the sink to fill with water. “Sometimes... it's hard to tell the difference.”
Unfortunately, Ichigo understands that all too well.
Time ticks on. June shifts into July, plummets into August, and catapults over September, landing somewhere in October with a resounding clash of the renewing of hostilities.
Aizen is testing their skills, their defenses. Ichigo remembers this battle, remembers it being a surprise that had taken so many of them. Including Renji, who thought himself powerful enough to stand against Ulquiorra alone. He'd been so very wrong, and the consequences were such that Renji's death is the first one that Ichigo learned what it meant to mourn.
Later, there would be dozens others, but Renji's always stands poignant in his thoughts as the first of many to come. It is the shifting point in Ichigo's life, when he truly realized that it was war and many, many more were going to die. The possibility was there, lurking in every shadow.
This time, however, things are different.
Ichigo can warn them ahead of time, and he does. Though he manages to do so without referencing the fact he knows the future. Simply drawing their attention to an anomalous reiatsu that leads to the Gotei 13 discovering Aizen's intended entry point into the living world does the trick just fine.
This time, they lose no one. This time, the Vizard work together with the Shinigami, dispatching Aizen's attacking force of Vasto Lordes without a single fatality amongst them. Oh, there are injuries to be sure but nothing lethal.
A burst of pride blossoms within Ichigo. He can do this. He can alter the course of the war. The proof lies right here in front of him with Renji still alive and kicking and determined to get stronger. If he's embarrassed about siding with Grimmjow to send Ulquiorra fleeing back to Aizen with his proverbial tail tucked between his legs, the redhead doesn't show it. In fact, he and Grimmjow seem to be forming a friendship based on the sheer amount of destruction they can cause together.
‘It's worth it,’ Ichigo thinks to himself as he watches the two – Shinigami and Arrancar – trade barbed words. ‘Whatever lies I have to tell, this makes it worth it.’
It's about two weeks after that history-altering battle that Rukia comes to him. Ichigo, for the most part, has avoided spending time with anyone who knows him well enough to notice the differences in his behavior. Clearly, Rukia has noticed this. Though there's something about this particular situation that strikes a peculiar chord within Ichigo.
It seems... familiar.
“It feels like I hardly see you anymore,” Rukia comments as they walk together down the streets of Seireitei, deftly ignoring the lower-ranked Shinigami who stare as they pass. “You've been... distant.”
“I've been busy,” Ichigo corrects and rubs a hand across the back of his neck. “This is a war.”
“I know.” Rukia huffs a sigh then skips ahead of him and forces Ichigo to stop lest he crash into her. She looks up at him, eyes bright and vivid. “But I'd like to think that we are… friends.”
By her hesitation, however, Ichigo is quite certain that she means something else. He's not ignorant of the speculation amongst their friends about the depths of their relationship. He knows that the others already think they’re lovers of some sort, but he honestly thought Rukia was ignoring the rumors same as he.
Could she possibly believe them? And why is this sounding so familiar?
“Am I wrong?” Rukia asks, stepping closer and looking up at him. Something buzzes in the small distance between them.
“We are friends,” Ichigo says definitively, still trying to rack his brain. He's memorized so much of the prior war he'd forgotten some of the mundane details. Like the daily life things that happened between bloody battles. “I've just been... busy.”
“Well, don't be.” Rukia sighs, her gaze cutting away for a minute as she shakes her head. “This war... it's not ending anytime soon. Aizen's relentless. And today was a close call. Too close. Who knows if we'll live to see the end of it?”
Ichigo doesn't particularly like the maudlin to her voice. “We're going to win,” he assures her, though he can't tell her all the details why he knows it's certain.
“Oh, I know that. But it still got me to thinking.” She bites her lip for a moment before returning her eyes to his, something determined shining behind them. “We could all die tomorrow. And there's a lot of things I haven't said or done that I don't want to feel regret over.”
The eerie feeling of deja vu creeps up Ichigo's back and sits on the nape of his neck with spindly fingers.
Rukia sets her jaw. “And I've decided there's a least one thing I'm not hold back on.”
Suddenly, Ichigo remembers why this is so familiar with a frantic jolt to his reiatsu. His eyes widen in alarm as Rukia leans toward him with intent.
Ichigo holds up a hand, stopping before she can get within a foot of his lips. “You don't want to do that,” he warns as embarrassment tints his cheeks as he remembered what happened in the other timeline.
Rukia grabs his arm and shoves it down. “I'm sorry. What?”
“You really don't want to do that,” Ichigo repeats, shaking his head. “I'm not the one you really like, just the one you think you can have.”
Which doesn't make much sense in retrospect.
Confusion replaces the humiliation coloring Rukia's face.
“How do you know that?”
“Just trust me. I know,” Ichigo retorts and decides that it's in his best interest to lay it all out in the open, here and now. Well, the relevant details at any rate. “Besides, I don't like girls... err, women.”
Her reiatsu flares with utter surprise. Rukia takes a noticeable step backward.
“When were you going to tell me this?”
Honestly? Never if he could get away with it.
“I'm telling you right now,” Ichigo insists diplomatically.
She gives him a look, one Ichigo has learned to identify as 'you and every man I know are morons'.
“And how long have you known this important detail?”
Again, his past self wouldn't have stumbled upon this little revelation until the end of Aizen's long war. But Ichigo, future self inhabiting the past, has known for a while now. It's all a matter of perspective.
Rukia quirks an eyebrow. “Since before you even knew me?”
Sure, why not? Keep things simple.
She nods slowly and chews on her bottom lip. Looks him up and down.
“You know, it explains so much.”
Ichigo's jaw drops. “What in the hell is that supposed to mean?”
It's not like he's flagrant or anything about it.
“How did I not see it sooner?” Rukia mutters, clearly speaking to herself and not him. “It must not be my brother. Or Renji.” She pauses, eyeing him critically. “Is it?”
Ichigo can't hide his grimace and doesn't bother to try. Renji is his friend, yes, and Byakuya an ally he likes to tease, but romantically? Not in this lifetime or the next!
“Not even close!”
“Then who is it?” Rukia, all thoughts of romantic interactions between them abruptly gone as though they'd never been there at all, peers at him closer.
He opens his mouth to answer no one, but then, that would be a lie, too. He's already done enough of that. There is someone who he considers out of reach. Someone who knows the truth about his existence and might even return the feelings.
But the Ichigo this person loves is a lie. A shadow of the Ichigo he used to know. He can't take advantage of it. Of anything. He's been half-lying this whole time. Relationships can't be built on that. They can't.
“It doesn't matter.” Ichigo rubs fingers across his forehead where he feels an aching starting to build. “It just... It doesn't matter.”
It's the truth. One of the few he's been able to keep. Whatever lies between he and Kisuke must be kept platonic for all of their sakes.
It's the way things have to be.
“Aizen-taichou asked me!” Hinamori screeches, struggling against both the kidoh that bind her and the thick metal chains. “He said I was the only one who could do it! He needed me!”
Ichigo watches, completely apathetic, as the psychotic woman is hauled away by Iba and Ikkaku, two of the few people capable of restraining her thrashing form. For such a small thing, she not only packs quite the punch but is fiercely strong. Does the insanity grant her strength?
Beside him, Matsumoto-san sighs. She sounds both forlorn and guilty.
“I honestly didn't…. I didn’t think... If not for Kuchiki-taichou noticing what was going on...”
She'd be dead.
Matsumoto-san doesn't have to say it aloud; Ichigo knows. He remembers her from his past, stabbed in the back, never even saw it coming. Hinamori had been the reason they'd lost so many of the earlier skirmishes, how Aizen had always seemed to know where their troops were or when the heavy-hitters weren't available.
In the past, Hinamori had died at Ichigo's own hands. This time, however, she’d live long enough to be tried for her crimes. Honestly, Ichigo doesn't know which fate is more just. He supposes he could contribute her willingness to betray her friends and family to madness. Hinamori could certainly use the insanity defense.
But in her eyes, she’d do anything for Aizen-taichou. Because he loves her, treats her special, and there will never be an equal. An insanity that's soul deep, and frankly, Ichigo doesn’t think she can ever be rehabilitated.
“We owe Byakuya for a lot of things,” Ichigo says if only to agree with her. “And now, Aizen has one less spy in our ranks.”
Matsumoto-san stares at him with eyes on the verge of tears. “You think there's more?” she murmurs.
Ichigo shrugs. “I honestly don’t know.”
At least, none others had been exposed or made their presence known in the war he lived through. Then again, there were so few of them left alive that sides hadn't mattered by the end.
Matsumoto-san breathes a sigh that might be relief. Her eyes are red. Swollen from the tears she hasn’t even shed.
“I don't think any of us could bear any more traitors. It's enough to dishearten anyone.” She tucks a loose strand of hair behind her ear. “By the gods, I need a drink.”
She turns to go.
Suddenly, Ichigo's mouth is dry. Frankly, he could use a drink, too. A whole jug of sake to be more precise. He moves to follow her.
“I'll join you.”
Kisuke huffs and sits back, rubbing his hand over his forehead. “Nowadays, I can't remember a time when I used to win.”
“Some of these tricks you taught me,” Ichigo replies with a light grin, gaze roaming over the chessboard and recalling all the moves he'd made. “Rematch?”
“So I can suffer through another agonizing defeat?” The blond huffs out noisily, though there's a trace of amusement in his irritation. “I think I've learned my lesson.”
Ichigo shakes his head. “If you say so.”
He reaches out, starting to reset the board. Inevitably, Kisuke will give in at some point. He enjoys their games too much.
“It was you, wasn't it?”
He pauses, brow crinkling with confusion.
“What do you mean?”
Kisuke leans back in his chair, propping his chin on his fist. “You're the one who told Byakuya to take a closer look at the senkaimon records.”
“In a roundabout way,” Ichigo allows and watches Kisuke out of the corner of his eye. “Why?”
“It was a very... Aizen thing to do.”
Ichigo abandons resetting the board. He straightens so that he can look Kisuke in the face.
Kisuke nibbles on his lower lip for a long moment as though debating his words before he finally speaks. “Aizen used to be good at chess, too, you know. He had a knack for plotting ten, fifteen, even twenty moves ahead of his opponents.” He pauses, fingers of his free hand rapping a discordant beat over the table. “He was unafraid of sacrificing his pieces for the sake of the larger picture.”
Ichigo is silent for a moment. Contemplative.
“You're becoming a lot like him,” Kisuke replies and is surprisingly blunt about the whole thing considering his earlier reluctance. “Scarily so, in fact.”
Ichigo frowns but not out of offense or displeasure. He cocks his head to the side.
“Is that so terrible a thing?”
Grey eyes widen perceptibly. He's made Kisuke speechless. Unsurprising since he's all but admitted that he's behaving much like the man they’re determined to defeat.
Ichigo isn’t blind to this. He realizes that he's become ruthless in some ways. Impersonal. Heartless. He's had to make tough choices. He's had to consider the costs, the sacrifices needed in order to prevent future deaths. His methods have saved more lives than lost. He's altered the course of the war.
He's become someone else in the process, yes. But then, he wasn't entirely himself when he chose to return to the past in the first place.
The Ichigo everyone in this timeline knew has been dead for a very long time.
“We lost, Kisuke. Remember?” he asks, unflinching in the face of his own lie. Then again, by his reckoning, they had lost the war. It was a Pyrrhic victory at best. “I refuse to let that happen again. And I will do whatever it takes.”
He rises from his chair, leaving the room on that flat statement. Kisuke doesn't try to follow.
This is the way things must be. Ichigo won't – can't – apologize for it.
Battles come and go with startling regularity. They are small skirmishes, nothing more than Aizen testing the waters, stretching the breadth of his reach. Injuries are mild at best, a broken limb at worse. No fatalities, for which Ichigo is grateful.
The current timeline seems to match with the past Ichigo remembers down to the letter. Well, there are tiny inconsistencies, places where once-dead fighters are alive to lend a hand or smaller battles that were skipped because Aizen's forces had already been defeated. But for the most part, Ichigo is confident in his success.
It seems possible; it seems like this is going to work. He's treading so carefully, measuring each choice before he makes it. He's confident but not too bold. He's determined but not unwilling to make the necessary, hard choices. He's doing as much as he can, saving as many lives as possible.
It's a victory in every sense of the word. He can do this. He can win this war. He can change the future.
Until Hell reaches out and grabs him, reminding him that in the end, he's only mortal.
He’s standing in Kisuke's kitchen, waiting for a pot of water to boil when he feels the sharp, stuttered rise of reiatsu. There's something oddly familiar about it. He frowns, senses expanding outward to identify the fighter.
At the table, Kisuke looks up at him, likely sensing the reiatsu as well.
Another sharp burst, this one stronger, the cry of a Shinigami facing odds that are more than he can defeat. The familiarity turns into recognition, and Ichigo feels his heart skip several beats.
Kisuke jerks up from his chair, throwing it backward. The blood drains from his face.
“Isshin,” he identifies, voice thick with horror.
Ichigo shakes his head. He’s already starting for the door, urgency making his legs tremble.
“No,” he says, near-shouting as he throws open the door and slides into a shunpo effortlessly, Kisuke right beside him. “No, no, no. It's not possible.”
He leaves Kisuke in the dust. In the past, he's always been marginally faster than the shopkeeper, but something else gives him speed now. He's stronger than he's ever been, and there's no one who can match his pace now.
Even so, by the time he arrives, Ichigo is too late. To be fair, by the time he sensed the abnormal surge of reiatsu, it was too late.
What was once a child's playground is now the site of a vicious, bloody battle. The twisted metal wreckage of what had once been monkey bars and a swing set lay smoking in a blackened sand pit. Ash coats the ground in several dark clumps, giving evidence to the Hollow that was killed before Ichigo's arrival.
The victors had fled the scene, perhaps sensing Ichigo growing closer. Ichigo and the other reinforcements he can sense coming. Kisuke is less than a mile behind him, and Renji and Ikkaku are nearby. Nearby but not nearly close enough.
Touching down in the middle of the desolated playground, Ichigo feels sick to his stomach. Blood is everywhere, splattered around like a macabre painting. Nevertheless, he does locate what seems to be the main source, finding a crumbled form wrapped in Shinigami black. A once-white strip of fabric winds around the fallen man’s upper chest; it’s now torn to ribbons.
He doesn't understand. This wasn't how it happened in the past. At all. Nothing similar. Isshin had died protecting Karin and Yuzu. Their house had been destroyed, but the twins had been safe.
Ichigo knows for a fact that his sisters are at school right now, safe and secure, with an invisible (to the average human) Rukia perched nearby. There's no reason for Isshin to have been here. There's no reason for him to have been dragged into battle. He's not even revealed himself to be a Shinigami in this timeline yet!
The truth, however, is in front of him, Broken and very much defeated. Dead. Gone. Again.
Ichigo had failed. Utterly.
His legs wobble, refusing to hold his weight, and Ichigo sinks to his knees. He grips his thighs with white-knuckled hands, reiatsu locked tight for fear of what he might destroy if he loses his control.
He was supposed to save his father. All of his calculations and his plans had indicated that it wouldn't affect the course of this timeline too strongly.
He hadn't even gotten the chance to tell Isshin the truth. He hadn't gotten to say all the things he’d meant to say. He never got to apologize. He didn't get the opportunity to forgive Isshin either. This is supposed to be the second chance Ichigo so desperately wanted.
This... this is his fault. It has to be. There's no other explanation. He's changed things, and now, Isshin's dead, and it's all Ichigo's fault.
Behind him, he hears a sharp inhalation of breath, followed by a brief burst of identifying reiatsu. Kisuke has finally caught up.
“Isshin,” the shopkeeper whispers on an exhalation. “Oh, no. Ichigo...”
He senses, more than sees, Kisuke reaching for his shoulder. Ichigo twists out from under his hand, rocketing to his feet. He doesn't want the comfort. He doesn't deserve it.
“Don't.” Ichigo shakes his head. “Just... don't. This wasn't supposed to happen. This... just don't.”
He turns away from Kisuke, only to be left facing his father's bloodied and broken corpse. He has to... do something. Clean up. Give Isshin some dignity. Karin and Yuzu will have to be told.
By the gods... he has to tell them all over again. He has to watch their faces crumple with grief, fresh and old. He has to tell them that they’re all orphans now. He has to do it again when the first time had been more than agony.
Kisuke, however, is not leaving him alone. “What do you mean, Ichigo?”
“The next attack was supposed to be next week,” Ichigo murmurs, frantically searching his memory, trying to recall the main points of the previous timeline's war. “Aizen was supposed to send a horde of lesser Hollow into Rukongai just to cause some chaos. I don't... I did this.”
“What?” Kisuke sounds startled and grabs for him. “No, Ichigo. Aizen did this.”
Ichigo whirls around, grief and anger intermingling until he can't tell them apart. His thoughts are a jumble. Turning and curling and twisting until he can’t think straight.
“No, I did. It didn't happen like this. But I've changed things. I've failed.” His breath hitches, one hand wiping down his face. His fingers are wet, and he doesn’t know why. “What else am I going to miss? What else is going to be different? How can I fix it, save everyone if nothing's the same anymore?”
His voices rises in pitch, echoing over the destroyed playground. Kisuke stares at him, grief etched into his own features, but he has no words. His hand is on Ichigo’s wrist, and Ichigo isn’t even sure when that happened.
“Holy shit. What the hell happened here?”
A familiar voice makes Ichigo startle. He glances to the left, spotting Ikkaku and Renji as they touch down. Too late, just like Ichigo.
“Hollow attack,” Kisuke answers automatically; he still grips Ichigo as though fearing he’ll suddenly disappear. “Sent by Aizen. It had a target.”
Ikkaku starts poking around in the debris; Renji draws nearer and stares at the man on the ground like he can’t even recognize him. Maybe he can’t.
“Who is it?” the redhead asks bluntly.
“My father,” Ichigo manages, voice hoarse.
He can feel it as both Ikkaku and Renji turn to gape at him. Ichigo can’t bring himself to care.
He opens his mouth to continue, but words fail him. He just stands there numbly, not looking at anything. Kisuke’s grip tightens until it’s nearly painful. He’s pulled Ichigo so close to him that they’re touching from shoulder to hip, but his hand is probably the only thing that’s keeping Ichigo on his feet.
“What--” Renji starts to ask, but he’s cut off.
“We'll explain later,” Kisuke interrupts, an odd note in his tone. “Could you send for a team to clear the area and try tracing the attacker's flight path?” He takes a deep breath and glances from Ichigo to Ikkaku to Renji. “I trust you will handle Kurosaki-san's body with care.”
Renji's eyes flicker to Ichigo, but he nods anyway.
“Yeah, ya know I will. Damn, Ichigo, I'm sorry about this.”
Not nearly as sorry as Ichigo himself. He jerks his head into the semblance of a nod, not trusting himself to say anything else.
Kisuke starts to usher Ichigo away. His expression is unreadable now.
“Come on,” he urges Ichigo in the direction of the shouten. “Not here.”
But he can feel it, the trembling in his limbs, the way his breathing has started to increase. He's standing on the edge of breaking, and he can't bear for anyone to see him. It's understandable, but he fears he may let something slip in his grief.
So he lets Kisuke drag him back to the shouten and plunk him down in a bedroom on a futon left messy from the night before. He lets Kisuke set Zangetsu aside and then sit next to him, concern finally showing on his face. Ichigo's fingers clench and unclench. His eyes feel hot, his throat thick, and his body tense all over.
Isshin is dead for the second time, and part of Ichigo just feels numb. Broken. This wasn't supposed to happen, but it did. His fault. His mistake. He failed.
Kisuke is the first to break the silence.
“We didn't lose, did we?” he asks softly.
Though how he had come to this conclusion, Ichigo does not know. Kisuke is not a stupid man by any means.
Ichigo sighs. There is no point in lying any longer.
“We only won in the sense that by the end we were the ones still alive. What few of us there were.”
Kisuke absorbs that for a second.
Ichigo shrugs. “Does it matter?”
Kisuke's hand grips his arm. “How many, Ichigo?” he demands, strongly this time, forcing Ichigo to look at him. “How many deaths are you carrying?”
Something cracks inside of Ichigo. Some measure of control he's barely managed to cling to. His shoulders sag.
“Too many,” he replies, voice a bare whisper. “More than I can count. More than I could bear.”
He sleeps at night, and he sees their faces. He watches them die. And every time he wakes, it's with a greater determination to see that future never come to pass.
“I failed,” Ichigo continues, less to carry a conversation and more to voice the cascading thoughts within him. “My father's dead. I didn't see it coming. I couldn't prevent it. I couldn't protect him. I couldn't save him.”
Kisuke's grip shifts to Ichigo's shoulders, tightening, until he can feel the press of each individual finger.
“You can't save everyone,” the man murmurs with a resigned sort of exasperation. “That's impossible. Illogical. The flow of time doesn't work that way.”
Ichigo knows that. It's why he's been able to reason out certain losses. Why he's allowed himself to accept certain defeats and why he could endure allowing Inoue to be taken instead of stopping that from happening in the first place.
He's not an idealistic fool. But...
He looks up, meeting Kisuke's gaze firmly.
“I saved you,” Ichigo counters because this he knows to be a truth.
Halibel is dead. She'll never be able to stab Kisuke in the back again.
Kisuke's eyes widen, his fingers again squeezing tighter in their grip. “You're going to tell me the truth,” he says then and in a tone that brooks no argument. “About the past. About the future. Everything.”
Ichigo nods sharply.
Truth. Yes. That is what he will give.
He expects the war to crumble. With Isshin's death, the rest of the war is surely a collapsing house of cards, a long, quick slide into defeat for Ichigo. He believes that he can no longer accurately predict what Aizen will do because he has changed too much. He fears there's nothing he can do.
Kisuke is the one to shake him out of his pessimism.
“Together,” the blond says. “You know the future. I know the present. We'll do it together.”
And they do.
Ichigo tells Kisuke everything, every step of the past that he can remember. Every death, every lost battle, every destroyed battleground. He leaves nothing major out, save for the one detail he keeps to himself. It is personal and of no consequence to the war effort.
Kisuke helps him bear some of the burden, but Ichigo still takes the weight of the more difficult decisions on his own shoulders.
He has to be more careful. Above all else, Aizen must not win. That is Ichigo's only goal. Nothing else matters.
Ichigo doesn't tell Kisuke about the next large battle. He's confident that it will not change from his own timeline because it was a marked victory for Aizen, the attack that took the Shinigami completely by surprise. That had Aizen put into perfect place.
Kisuke is under the impression that the battle was later in the war. Ichigo regrets his lie because of everyone, Kisuke deserves to know the truth. But he doesn't want his closest confidante to bear the burden of this choice.
He has to let Hisagi die.
Inoue was different. Ichigo knew she wouldn't be harmed. At most, she would be frightened, a bit rattled and discomforted. But she wouldn't be killed. She'd live, so while he felt some guilt for letting her to be taken, it's nothing like the weight of Hisagi on his shoulders.
He might as well have killed Hisagi himself. But no, Ichimaru is the one who does it.
Hisagi must die to keep the war on the right course. He's a rallying cry in many ways. Kira's motivations become firmer. Aizen thinks himself to be winning. He'll keep on the path that Ichigo knows best.
He has to let Hisagi die. He has to sacrifice a pawn to win the game.
This is his punishment.
Ichigo kneels on the blood-soaked earth of the battlefield and gently drags his shaking fingertips over Chad's face, closing his sightless eyes. Once again, Ichigo had not been able to prevent this. Once again, he'd been too late. Once again, he had failed.
Or perhaps failure is too strong of a word.
Ichigo's head dips in apology to his fallen friend. His insides feel as though they are being squeezed by a much larger hand.
In his own timeline, Chad had lived through the war. He was scarred, both inside and out. But he was alive.
In his own timeline, Ishida had been the one to fall in this battle. Ichigo had protected him this time around. He hadn't suffered so much as a broken limb.
But no one had been there for Chad. And this is Ichigo's punishment.
‘I’ve become the monster I am fighting.’
Yet, the thought does not fill him with as much self-revulsion as it had in previous moments. Ichigo can feel it. Something in the air, something that buzzes with ripe certainty. The war is drawing to a close. Things have changed from Ichigo's timeline, but others have remained the same.
Aizen is getting desperate. The Shinigami have a better foothold this time. Aizen will be defeated; it's only a matter of time.
The smell of ash and spilled blood is heavy in the air. The taste of it is thick on Ichigo's tongue. The sound of swords clashing and kidoh firing echo in his ears. Somewhere, there is mourning.
The Hougyoku has been destroyed but not without its sacrifices.
Ichigo is tired. Weary. Ready to see the end of this. His muscles are heavy, Zangetsu heavier. Even Shirosaki has lost the urge to sneer.
He isn’t without his injuries. One arm dangles useless at his side, blood-soaked and dislocated. He can't see from one eye, and Ichigo honestly doesn't know if it's because he's been blinded or the blood streaming from his forehead. He's wrenched his knee and been sliced in the side.
But he's still standing, and that's what matters.
This is the moment. It has all come down to this.
To Aizen, glaring up at him with blood streaming from his lips, confusion and hatred spilling from his eyes. His army has fallen with less loss to the Shinigami than the past has shown.
The war has come down to Aizen and Ichigo. To Aizen's surprise. Confusion. The bare thrum of his reiatsu as it spills out of him as though it were as tangible as blood.
“How?” Aizen questions. “Every plan I made. Every action I took. Somehow, you knew.”
“I did,” Ichigo answers, his voice as fatigued as Aizen's. His fingers white-knuckled around Zangetsu's hilt. His reiatsu a rattled, wild force that weakens with every pulse of his spirit. “And you'll die without knowing why.”
The overlord's face twists with an expression of fury and defeat, blood bubbles out of his mouth, and the sword at Ichigo's feet crackles visibly like a mirror that's been shattered.
“You've defeated me,” Aizen says, as though his admission is the only thing making it true. “But I'll die with a victory.”
He moves fast, faster than Ichigo could have anticipated, perhaps using the last of his will and strength and reiatsu. And even then, Ichigo feels the hot slice of pain through him before he registers what Aizen has done, that he's struck.
Kyouka Suigetsu crumbles within Ichigo, but the damage is done. The blow is final. Ichigo sinks to his knees.
He should be raging. He should be furious and disappointed. Ichigo should be filled with grief and regret, bemoaning all the things he hasn't done and hasn't said.
But as the black sweeps over him, and the silence where even Shirosaki and Zangetsu have nothing to say, Ichigo feels relieved.
After that, nothing more.
He's in Seireitei, a place he always wondered if he'd ever freely enter again. There, on the Soukyoku Hill where it all began, the world looks a lot different to Kisuke. There's something in the air, something near-tangible, a reminder that nothing will ever be the same.
There's also something – someone – missing. Kisuke tries, but he can't shake the sensation of that lingering absence.
The sound of waraji over the rocky turf announces the presence of another person. Kisuke is unsurprised at his visitor.
“He loved you, you know,” Ukitake says, his voice quiet as he moves to stand beside Kisuke.
Both of them look out over a sleeping Seireitei below.
Kisuke's eyes close as he inhales audibly. There are things he should’ve said. Should’ve done. But Ichigo had been young on the outside if not the inside. And they would’ve had to hide. Had to pretend. And Ichigo had to pretend too much already. Kisuke had wanted to wait. Just a little while. Just until Ichigo’s outward appearance caught up.
Ukitake blinks. Puzzled. Shocked.
“He seemed determined to wait for something. I thought it would be wiser to let him wait until he was ready.” Kisuke pauses, considering his words. “I thought he knew something I didn't.”
Ukitake shifts. “You think he knew he would die?”
“He's not dead!” Kisuke retorts, perhaps a bit too sharply. He pauses to gather his composure. “He was stronger than any of us could fathom. He did not die. But he's not here, and that is also an unarguable fact. I don't know what Ichigo knew. He didn't tell me everything.”
Ukitake’s eyes are sad. So sad. Too sad.
“Not even the things he should have.”
“Not even,” Kisuke agrees softly. He turns toward Ukitake, sympathizing with the grief in the other man’s dark eyes. “I'm sorry to hear about your losses.”
Ukitake exhales softly. “Maybe it's better this way. From what Ichigo implied...” His gaze lowers as he trails off. “In the end, I can handle living without Shunsui. Though what that says about me and my feelings, I don't know.”
“It speaks better of your strength,” the blond reassures him.
“If you say so.” Ukitake shifts his gaze back to the horizon, where pinks and golds chase away the dark of the night. “What now?”
Kisuke feels a smile twitch at the corner of his lips, combating against the overwhelming regret. He doesn’t for a minute think that Ichigo is dead. Not until he sees proof. Not until he finds a body. And maybe not even then.
But he can be patient. He can wait.
And in the meantime, he’ll be the kind of man Ichigo needs.
“Now,” Kisuke repeats, “we live. It's what he came back for us to do.”
a/n: This is the last piece of the Past Imperfect series. I welcome all commentary. :)
Only two more pieces left in the drabble series. One is HitsugayaxKarin and the other is the last of the A Thousand Suns series which is AizenxUrahara.
This entry was originally posted at http://dracoqueen22.dreamwidth.org/170211.html. Feel free to comment wherever you find most convenient.