a/n: There are kinda-sorta spoilers in here. I'm drawing from the recent chapters of the manga but not copying them exactly. Just a warning.
Also, these flashbacks are in no definite order. Ichigo doesn't recall the past in the order in which it happened. Keep that in mind. All flashbacks are in italics. I recommend that this is read slowly and carefully as it does jump around and moments of the present are sparsely interspersed with the flash-memories.
Also, azardarkstar contributed a lot to this chapter. She wrote like half of it, so give her some love, too.
Warnings for spoilers and character death and language and boykisses and pretty much everything that you guys have come to expect from a fic written by me. I hope you enjoy! It's a long one!
Chapter 9: Memories
Blood and terror, it soaks into the battlefield. Ichigo battles away a Hollow's claws and cuts it down halfway without looking. He feels reiatsu spiking everywhere around him, so many different flavors. He can hardly tell one from the other, even those he knows the best. Ash and smoke rise in the air, clouding his sight.
Renji's voice, stressed and frantic, cuts through the noise and clamor like a knife into Ichigo's senses. He last remembers seeing the redhead with one of the lower Arrancar, no one too powerful. Easy pickings, even for Renji. It isn't an opponent that would require that level of attack, nowhere close.
Ichigo whirls, tries to peer across a battlefield thick with clashes and the dead and dying. He sees that head of hair, bright despite the dust clouds and loose from its high ponytail. He sees the pieces of Zabimaru glowing with reiatsu, Renji's last desperate attack.
And he sees Grimmjow. Who Ichigo spared earlier in the war. Somehow, he's here, back in the battle, fangs bared in his resurreccion form. Has the vice-captain by the throat, claws digging in tightly. And Ichigo feels something inside of him grow cold.
He's too far. Too fucking far. But he moves anyway.
Power and reiatsu clash, the smell of blood thick on Ichigo's tongue. Even with the other spiritual pressures in the area, he can feel the last of Renji. He thinks he might be shouting, but it's hard to tell. An Arrancar looms in front of him; Ichigo cuts it down without noticing.
A burst of air from another battle stirs the cloud settling over Renji and Grimmjow. And then, one of the Fraccion dive into Ichigo's path, too strong for him just to cleave through and move on. Their zanpakutou meet as the man – or woman, he's not sure – grins at him over their kissed blades.
Blood intermingles with hair nearly the same shade. Renji's body jerks and falls forward, too slowly for it to make any sense. He drops to his knees, and Ichigo can see Grimmjow standing there, blood dripping from one arm, scorched and bleeding from Renji's last attack but still fucking standing there.
Renji's not moving. Ichigo can feel him like a tiny flicker, a bare pulse in time with the crimson that soaks the ground beneath him. Horror rises with bile, and then, the Arrancar in front of him screeches something incoherent, renewing her – his... it's – attack. The blow is jarring, and Ichigo is forced to pay attention, even as his mind screams to hurry. That he's in the wrong place at the wrong battle, and he's needed somewhere else.
Ichigo's heart feels as if it's climbed into his throat as he claws his way out of the memory. “Too little, too late” a voice whispers inside of him. Right now, he can't remember who it was that eventually took Grimmjow down. Someone did; he's sure of it. Maybe it was Jyuushiro. Maybe Urahara. His recollections of that moment are completely overridden by Renji's death. After that, the rest of the battle is a blur.
He doesn't want to, but the silence demands it. He can hear some clock ticking away the time, and the heavy feeling in his gut pretty much tells him that it's going to be one of those nights. A bad night.
One where the nightmares have more strength than anything else. He'll wake up with sweat-soaked sheets. Possibly on his bed. Possibly his flailing will throw him to the floor. He won't be able to stop his heart from trying to escape from his chest, and the echoes will reverberate in his ears, long after he's stopped dreaming.
Yeah, one of those nights. Something to look forward to.
Ichigo thinks about what Aizen wants from him. And he doesn't know what he wants in return. A bit of mayhem and payback perhaps. His life is nothing but shards around him now. Everything he's worked to build, they've taken it from him. He won't ever see that degree. He won't see that future.
He hates it.
Ichigo pushes his spine against the wall, pressing the heels of his palms into his eyes. It doesn't stop the flood of images, though he'd like to think it would. He can't escape from it, he realizes. He can't try to move on. Not when the past reaches forward and yanks him back.
“Ichigo, you are very young.”
He wonders if Jyuushiro is just now figuring that out. “I suppose that means you're going to tell me to wait or something.”
Jyuushiro smiles, his brown eyes dancing. “That would be best,” he says, and it shifts into slightly mischievous as he skates a hand down Ichigo's side. “Though it won’t bother me as much as it will bother you.”
“I wouldn't say you were a bother,” Ichigo returns and stares at Jyuushiro's lips. Considers another kiss. He likes the way the older man tastes. He isn't sure what to call it. Manly or something. It's not like he has a lot of experience with this sort of thing. Maybe that's what Jyuushiro really means when he says that Ichigo is young.
Young enough that Jyuushiro won't touch him but old enough to fight to the death in a massive war. Old enough to break and bleed and die a little inside. How ironic.
It seems like a lifetime ago. More than that. Like it happened to another person, someone who only resembles Ichigo on the outside. The Jyuushiro he knew then is vastly different from the man he has just seen. As if they are no longer even the same person.
Ichigo aches, just a little, for the Jyuushiro he once knew.
He can't remember what started it. At least not clearly. Maybe excitement for a battle won or relief that they were both alive and well. Maybe it had something to do with the look in Jyuushiro's eyes. In the end, the reason why or what probably doesn't matter.
Jyuushiro is kissing him. That's the first thing that registers in Ichigo's mind. And he knows he must be blushing because he's pretty sure that his own skill is clumsy and nonexistent. It's his first kiss, after all. His mind goes blank. He registers soft and warm, arms around him, and Ichigo sort of leans against Jyuushiro, not minding one bit to his own astonishment.
The older man comes to his senses pretty quickly. He pulls away, and there's a look on his face. Not quite horror, but definitely an “Oh, shit.” Like he has just realized he's done something he shouldn't have or probably wasn't allowed to. Ichigo's been harboring his own crush for awhile and hasn't really realized that it is reciprocated. Until now.
His blush burns a bit brighter.
Jyuushiro seems at a loss for words. And Ichigo is pretty sure that the first ones he'll find will be an apology of some kind. He's still in Jyuushiro's arms, and he wonders when the captain will realize that. Well, that and the fact Shunsui is watching them so obviously, a look of wolfish glee on his face.
Ichigo kisses him again, just to prove that he doesn't mind one bit and well… because he wants to. He's probably even more unskilled than before, but he supposes he has plenty of time to learn. Jyuushiro makes a little noise of surprise and then returns the rather chaste kiss warmly. His fingers pressing gently against Ichigo. He smells of battlefields, steel and blood and smoke. But beneath it all is something purely Jyuushiro. He can't really define it.
“This is probably a bad idea,” Jyuushiro murmurs against his lips as he draws back from the brief touch. “A very bad idea.”
Jyuushiro hesitates, his dark eyes searching Ichigo's face. “You are very young, Ichigo. A certain sense of propriety is relevant here.”
Ah, he hasn't really thought about that. This idea of a crush, of liking another person, is still somewhat new to Ichigo. It had taken him a while to admit it to himself. He never expected to admit it to Jyuushiro, and now, here they are.
Ichigo hadn't wanted to, but there were times back then he'd thought of who else Jyuushiro might have seen when he looked at Ichigo. And the war made it difficult for them to find time to pursue whatever it was blossoming between them. Jyuushiro only ever kissed him. Perhaps a few innocent gropes but never anything further. His sense of honor pretty much dictated that.
Honor. Ichigo wonders if he even has such a thing anymore. If he ever had it to begin with. It is strange. He's always thought nothing of destroying the Hollows. He's always justified it by saying that he is saving them. That he's relieving them of their loneliness and their hunger by letting them move on.
Somehow, he can't justify Ulquiorra. He wants to. He thinks it will be easier to forgive himself if he can just convince his own convictions that he's done the right thing. Ichigo doesn't ever want to take a life again. Not with the burden such a deed places on him. Not even the enemy. No one. It's too heavy.
Laughing. Cackling really. And rip, rip, rip, tearing. Blood splashes everywhere, and he feels the force of the blow reverberate through his fingers. But it's not him. It's not him; it's Shirosaki. And Ichigo snarls, fighting to regain control.
He sees the world through tainted eyes, feels his body move of its own accord. No! This is his body, his existence! Dammit, you have to--
Shirosaki laughs, and a limb goes flying. Ulquiorra can't keep up to Ichigo – no, Shirosaki's – speed. He's flung across the room. Shirosaki chases him down relentlessly, like a beast and its prey.
Ichigo digs in his fingers, draws on Zangetsu's strength. He has to stop this. It isn't how he wanted to win. It's not how he wants to defeat Ulquiorra. Green eyes are empty, and for the first time, he sees a spark of something that might be fear. He's going to die, and Ichigo can't stop it.
They're calling for him. He wants to stop. He wants to, needs to, has to.
This is his battle, bastard. He's going to fight. Ichigo screams, howls, grabs Shirosaki by his white hair and pulls. The Hollow screeches in fury, tries to resist. But this is Ichigo's body; he's not giving up that easily. He wrests control, curls his fingers around his own zanpakutou--
--and blinks at the harshness of the light, at wet warmth that splatters across his face. It smells and tastes like blood as Ichigo spits, gagging. In the back of his mind, Shirosaki howls with laughter as Ichigo stares into Ulquiorra's disbelieving eyes, the Espada cleaved in half right before him. He unconsciously rips his blade free, and Ulquiorra topples, tattered wings twitching behind him.
“I... What the hell?”
Ulquiorra looks at him, at least emotion in his gaze. It's hatred. And shock. Confusion. He doesn't know what's happened to him anymore than Ichigo does.
Ichigo doesn't want it to end like this. He doesn't want his victory to be like this.
Ichigo doesn't want to kill.
The Espada's mouth opens as if he wants to say something, but nothing emerges. And the edges of his body crumble and darken, fading to ash. His wings are already gone, flittering into the smoke that clogs the battlefield. Ichigo drops Zangetsu from nerveless fingers, flinching at the resulting clatter. He is sure his horror must reflect on his face.
Ichigo watches, unable to look away, as Ulquiorra crumbles into dust. His own body aches and groans with pain. He is covered with blood, most of it not his own. He can't completely remember the last ten minutes. He thinks that the destruction that surrounds them must be partly his fault.
Ulquiorra is dead, and Ichigo's the one who killed him.
The guilt tries to swallow him whole. Rukia never understood that, how Ichigo had died just a little inside. To her, the rules are simple. Ulquiorra is the enemy. He is an abomination. He should be dead. Ichigo is right to have killed him. She doesn't understand why he feels so tainted, polluted by something that has nothing to do with the Hollow inside of him.
Death should not come that easy to him. He was a kid then. Just a teenager. And she acted like he should be able to take that sort of thing in stride. Like he's been killing all his life and what's another one to add to the list? And Ichigo couldn't explain to her why Ulquiorra is so different. He just knows it is.
She didn't understand. And in the end, it wasn't her that helped him.
Hands are on his shoulders, and Ichigo blinks out of a daze, where he's been staring into nothing. Or truthfully, the spot where Ulquiorra had been lying. There's a dark film coating the sand and rock, but that's all that remains. There's nothing left of the Espada. Except the blood that stains Ichigo's clothing.
“Ichigo,” someone says, and he knows that voice. It is accompanied by a squeezing of strong fingers. “Come away. We need to get you cleaned up.”
He suspects that they – two because one is rarely without the other – are exchanging looks behind his back.
Jyuushiro's additional comments are in a soothing tone, like one would use when speaking to a frightened animal. “You're injured, Ichigo,” he murmurs. “We need to get that taken care of.”
“It's not mine,” Ichigo whispers, and his voice croaks alarmingly. He's still staring. “The blood... it's not mine.”
“We know,” Shunsui replies, and he turns Ichigo away with a touch. Gentle but firm. “It's okay.”
Somehow, that makes it hurt all the more. Ichigo doesn't say anything more. He can't. There's something lodged in his throat, preventing him from speaking. He stares as they pull him away from the battlefield, barely cognizant of the clean-up. Checking for survivors and the injured, seeing if any of the enemy remains. Another day, another clash. Tomorrow looks to be blood-red as well.
He barely notices as they usher him to one of the med tents. Help strip him of his clothes. Bathe him. Someone's had enough sense to grab Zangetsu for him. Probably Jyuushiro. And Ichigo is glad that he is there. He feels the warmth of Jyuushiro's fingers and clings to it, relieved for the support. It makes him feel a little less poisoned.
They talk over and around him, about anything and everything. It's something like normal, even if Ichigo keeps staring at the wall like some sort of empty doll.
It's only when they are surrounded by silence and away from prying eyes that they actually address him, propping Ichigo between the two of them. Keeping his zanpakutou close, Zangetsu reverberating a worried sort of hum.
“It will get better,” Shunsui tells him, arm warm around his back in a one-sided hug. The kind that Isshin has never dared give but he so desperately needed after his mother died. “I promise that it’ll get better.”
Jyuushiro presses in close from the other side, hand grasping Ichigo's to keep it from balling into a fist. “Maybe not today. Or even tomorrow. But it’ll get better,” he affirms softly.
And it is something in his voice – in both their voices – that makes Ichigo believe. That lets him rest his head on Jyuushiro's shoulder and allow his eyes to close with relief.
“It will never be easier. But it will get better.”
Their words didn't exactly mollify him. They didn't heal him or make it any better. But Ichigo liked hearing them. He liked the fact that they were there, understanding without shaking their heads at his foolishness. That neither looked at his red-rimmed eyes with disgust. Or commented on how long he held on. That they never spoke of that night without Ichigo mentioning it first, and that when Rukia returned the next morning, they pretended like nothing had even happened.
Unohana is – was – good for that, too. She never laughed at him. Never mocked the fact that he had so much trouble controlling his reiatsu. Even Yoruichi-san had trouble not showing her annoyance at times. Looking like she wanted to throttle him when he failed time and time again.
But Unohana-san was always the epitome of patience. Always gently urging him on.
She smiles at him, seeming rather ferocious for all the kindness that she normally exudes. “Try it again, Kurosaki-kun,” Unohana insists, standing back as he pants and sweats and feels like he's going to die right here and now.
Ichigo resists the urge to glare because he has the feeling he would be threatening his own life to be so rude to her. Unohana-san somehow has the unique ability to terrify him and calm him all in the same moment. He thinks for a moment that he understands why Kenpachi avoids the fourth division.
Rather than say something smart, Ichigo merely nods and takes in a deep breath. He concentrates, focuses on the feeling of the reiatsu surrounding his body, and tries to pull it in. He is overcome with the sensation of being swallowed by power, the pulse and press of it knocking at the thin restraints of his control. It's almost painful but oh-so-necessary, as Unohana has reminded him of time and time again.
“You are doing very well,” she murmurs, and it should sound patronizing; only, it doesn't.
Instead, it encourages him, even as sweat beads on his forehead and his skull pulses. He desperately needs sleep, but as Unohana has pointed out, he is harming others with his wild reiatsu. A sense of control must be maintained. It's the only reason he's agreed to her demonic, grueling lessons.
“Don't think of it as a box,” his teacher continues, her tone a soothing murmur as Ichigo pants to keep it inside. “Think of it as a cloak or an article of clothing. A blanket you wear close to your body but never beyond it.”
Okay, that imagery is more helpful.
Ichigo nods and is treated to a warm smile as he focuses. Breathe in. Breathe out. His reiatsu is a cloak. His reiatsu is a cloak. Ack, the wind got it.
“Kurosaki-kun, you're slipping.” Perhaps a bit of amusement in that chastisement.
This is going to take a while.
He remembers that Unohana-san and Kyouraku – call me Shunsui – had taken over most of his training by that point except for whenever the geta-boushi taught him. And he wonders if Yoruichi-san thought herself well rid of him. But then, she had her mind on other things. On her own problems.
He never liked Soifon. She was cold and arrogant. Unfeeling except for her former captain. And her eyes never gave her away like Byakuya's did.
But that still doesn't mean he wanted her dead. That he wanted her to suffer such a fate. And suffer she did. Blood and agony and screaming that echoes so loudly he can hear it even as far away as he is. But all he could do is watch Yoruichi-san streak by as he battles his own opponent. Only have Chad half-carry him back to the medical tents afterwards, hesitantly wondering what happened.
The orange glow of Inoue's Shun Shun Rikka blocks off most of Ichigo's senses, but it doesn't stop his sight. He can still see Urahara and Yoruichi, the former trying to catch the latter before she vanishes. Grief is a pained mask on the woman’s face, her arms carrying Soifon's broken body reverently.
The blond is trying to stop her, but Yoruichi won't let him. She'd rather deal with her pain by herself. And physically shoves him away. The cast to her face is enough to keep him on the ground, on his knees as she stalks by him. The geta-boushi is torn as he watches her disappear from sight. His hat is in the dirt beside him, and Ichigo can see the agony reflected in his eyes as he stares after her for what surely must be an eternity.
But then, his gaze drifts over and meet's Ichigo's own. A thousand things visible in the grey depths of his eyes and each one completely unnameable. And something on Ichigo's face must have been equally sorrowful, just as pleading because Urahara stands and draws closer then. Kneeling down just out of Inoue's range. Sitting so close to the edge of the healing field that Ichigo's fingers brush his leg. And he stays there long after Inoue herself has left.
But Yoruichi wasn't the only to know loss. To feel like her soul was ripped to shreds. Losing Renji was horrible. Excruciating. But he can't even begin to fathom what it was like for Jyuushiro. Who had known Shunsui for so very long. Or for Yumichika-san. He'd lost Ikkaku. His best friend. His family. Ikkaku had died bravely. Stupidly, some would say. Ichimaru Gin was way out of his league. Way out of even Ichigo's league. And he had cut through Ikkaku like the man wasn't even there. Like he wasn't made of flesh and bone but only air.
Ichigo didn't see him die. Didn't even know about it until later. Until he stumbled upon them on a grassy spot not too far from the eleventh division. The dirt is still fresh, still newly moved. But all the worse for that.
Kenpachi is holding Yumichika upright and using all of his strength to keep the man from running off to what will surely be his own death. The normally composed fifth-seat is wild. Feral. Eyes now a dark and venomous purple. The scar across his face angry and red, a mark courtesy of that freaky Arrancar Wonderweiss. His fingers are like claws, digging into Kenpachi's arm, but the captain's face is a mask.
Yachiru isn't on his shoulder, instead standing to the side, eyes brimming with tears as she quietly sobs. Renji is next to her, cleaned up but out of it, hair hanging all around his face. But he just doesn't seem to care. To even realize as Yachiru digs her mouth into his hip and sobs brokenly. Crying the tears Yumichika can't seem to shed.
Ichigo just backs away. Knowing that he shouldn't intrude on such a moment. On the grief of people who don't know how to grieve. On a family who has just lost such an integral part.
Ichigo just walks way. But even when he reaches Jyuushiro's house, his ears still ring with the force of Yumichika's shrieks.
A sob catches in his throat then. But he stifles it as quickly as it rises. He remembers what happened that day. The way Jyuushiro took him inside. How they curled up on the porch together and stared out into the garden. How Shunsui came by later, offering sake as always and quick to tell some story from his academy days. Something just to make Ichigo laugh.
But later, even the laughter died away. Until there was no more Shunsui. Until there was still a Jyuushiro but not with him.
Ichigo tries not to flinch, but his entire body twitches anyway. It's been through too much lately. Slashed and stabbed and bitten, healed again, only to repeat the cycle. His skin is tired of being mended, his blood thin from constantly being replaced. There is a strain on his body, and he honestly can't remember the night he slept without being woken by a shrill scream or a cry of terror or a call to join battle again.
“How's it look?” Ichigo asks and winces when it comes out hoarse, barely sounding like himself.
Urahara tosses him a wan grin, a pale shade of the usual humor that he is used to seeing. “Don't worry. Yamada-kun's good at his job. There won't even be a scar.”
Not that Ichigo really cares about scars. He's got too many to count anymore. He's used to the sight of them on his body. After all, Inoue couldn't heal him after every battle. She tries, but he tells her to treat the more critically wounded first. Ichigo's pretty sure that he'll live through this little hint of damage. The war's over.
“I know,” Ichigo murmurs, much to Hanatarou's blushing and stammering. “I trust him.”
Urahara hands him something, a wet cloth to wipe at his face. He registers that he still has blood clinging to his skin. Ash and soot. He's such a mess. Ichigo accepts it gratefully, trying not to disturb the healer as Hanatarou works on his thigh. He fucked it up by standing to talk to Jyuu-- Ukitake.
“You shouldn't have gotten out of bed.”
Ichigo snorts. “It wasn't the sort of thing I wanted to say lying down.”
“He would have understood.”
“Maybe.” Ichigo lets his hand fall over his eyes, shielding them from Urahara's probing gaze. “He doesn't understand me.”
The shopkeeper's response is noncommittal. “Circumstances weren't exactly the best at promoting that sort of thing.”
Ichigo's lips curl in some parody of an amused smile. “Are you standing up for him?”
“I just want you to see that there are other things to consider.” Urahara's fingers brush across his arm where he gently unravels the bandages, giving Hanatarou more room to work with. “You won't--”
“It's over,” Ichigo says on the end of a heavy exhale. Tries to ignore the tightness in his throat. “And I'm not entirely sure there was ever a beginning.”
But the betrayal didn't end there.
“What the fuck! You can't be serious!” Ichigo growls, body trembling with restrained fury as he barely stops himself from launching at the messenger from Soul Society.
Urahara's hand on his arm might have something to do with it. He forgets sometimes, just how strong the blond is compared to himself.
The man – looks to be a member of the second division – doesn't even flinch in the face of Ichigo's rage. And behind Ichigo, he can hear Inoue’s startled sound of surprise. Her terror is palpable. He hadn't stormed into Hueco Mundo to save her for Soul Society to go and pull this shit!
“Chamber 46 has made its decision,” the messenger states doggedly, straight-backed and looking as if he's prepared for a fight. He probably has companions somewhere, watching to see what Ichigo will do. “We cannot afford to take the risk.”
Ichigo spits a foul curse, feeling Urahara's fingers tighten. “You can't afford?” he retorts, and nausea curls in his belly. He can't believe this. “She fuckin'--”
Another hand settles on his arm, gentle and filled with calm. It's not Urahara's. And he stills, turning to see Orihime looking at him. She's smiling through eyes filled with tears and fear. It's seeing her trying to be brave all over again.
“It's okay, Kurosaki-kun,” she tries to assure him, feeling the trembling of his body, Shirosaki stirring beneath the surface. “This power wasn't even mine in the first place, right?”
Ichigo just stares as Inoue stammers over her words, trying to justify Soul Society's cowardly decision when she herself is frightened.
“You gave it to me, and I used it for you. So now that the war is over, I don't really need it anymore anyway. And they're right. We don't want Aizen-sa... Aizen coming back or anything. That would be bad. So it's okay.”
“No, it's not,” Ichigo forces out, hating when she flinches at his harsh tone. “It's not fucking okay. This is your life, not theirs. They can't make that decision for you!”
She shakes her head, and he can't help but wonder when the hell she got so strong. How can she just stand there and agree to this? How she can allow the very same people she saved so many times to dictate her life?
And something a lot like rage burns in his veins, but Urahara is drawing him away. Pulling him through the doorway. Dragging him down the hall of the shouten to his own bedroom. The only place in the shop no one will dare follow them. He somehow manages to slide the door shut with both arms locked around his captive. A feat that would normally impress Ichigo. But he's too pissed to even notice.
“I can't believe—“
“Ichigo.” Urahara's voice breaks through with just that one word, a whisper across his neck. “If she doesn't give up her powers, they will execute her.”
He suddenly can't breathe. “They wo--”
“They will,” the blond insists. “You know they will. And before that they'll snoop around. Try to ferret out any other dangers we carry.”
It goes without saying what he means. And with the Shinigami so close, Urahara doesn't dare even whisper the word Vizard.
“She is trying to protect us. Protect you,” he adds the last in the faintest murmur, lips just behind Ichigo's ear. “Let her do this. Please.”
Ichigo bites his lip, but he can only nod. Still held too tightly to do anything else.
But in the background, he feels her reiatsu drop and then vanish completely. And only Urahara's arms around his shoulders contain the shudder of fear that goes through his entire body. He only can guess what they'd ever do to him if they learn about his Hollow.
And how right he was to fear that. How right Urahara was to warn him. It's like Ichigo lived at the edge of a knife these last few years. Just waiting for them to figure it out. Urahara his only real solace. His only real friend.
He owes the man a lot. And Ichigo knows it. Knows that he never would've made it this far without him. Without the geta-boushi looking out for him. Supporting him when he really needed it.
He thinks it interesting that when it came down to it, it wasn't Rukia who came to him. Or Chad. Or Inoue. It was Urahara. The voice of reason when the chaos inside Ichigo railed at its confines and struggled to break free. When war had too much weight on him. He was just a teenager, after all. He thinks a lot of them conveniently forgot that.
“Kuchiki-san is looking for you.”
“Not right now,” Ichigo mutters, and even to himself, his voice sounds flat. Lifeless. His hands are clenched so tightly that they hurt. He can still see it, bright and vivid. “Too late, too late, too late” an ongoing chant in his brain.
Feet appear in the corner of his vision, not that he hasn't recognized the voice. Urahara-san stands next to him, face readable for once. That stupid hat is gone, dropped down to his side where he holds it with one hand. Grey eyes are thoughtful and understanding.
“She needs to look after herself.”
“So am I.”
Surprised at the frank admission, Ichigo looks at the shopkeeper, actually looks at him. And indeed, there is worry. Perhaps a touch of grief as well. Urahara had known Renji, had helped teach him a little bit. They hadn't been as close but close enough. No doubt he knows the sorts of things that are running through Ichigo's mind right now.
Too late, too late, too late.
Urahara reaches, and Ichigo's too surprised by it to avoid. A hand settles on his shoulder, squeezing warmly.
“You can't be everywhere at once,” the blond says, as though it’s the most logical thing in the world and Ichigo should just accept that integral truth. “Abarai-san was a warrior like yourself. I can imagine he was prepared.”
Ichigo snorts, and his knees wobble. He drops to the ground to avoid looking weak, finding it easier to sit and stare across the remains of a battlefield. Blood and smoke and charred remains and twisted bodies. It makes him sick.
The shopkeeper follows him down, a warm and familiar presence at Ichigo's side. He could lean on him if he wants, and the pain in his heart seems to demand it. Ichigo feels the heat burning at the back of his eyes and blinks it away again. Renji would have teased him for it. Teased but not mocked. He remembers watching Renji watch Ikkaku’s grave.
“I hate this,” Ichigo mutters, digging the heels of his palm into his burning eyes. And inwardly, he curses Aizen and wishes he could remember who took down Grimmjow. Wishes he didn't feel so much like it was his own fault.
“I know.” Urahara's shoulder is a comfort against his, and Ichigo leans just a bit further, drawing strength from that familiarity.
“I wish...” Ichigo trails off, keeping the rest of it to himself.
Urahara wisely doesn't prod him to continue.
He wishes he never agreed to help Rukia. He wishes he hadn't let Grimmjow live. He wishes to be the ignorant teenager he used to be. He wishes for a lot of things.
Ichigo moans, a low and terrible sound, feeling as if it's pulled from his chest. He wants to make it stop, to cease remembering. But now that he's started, it's just not going to leave him alone. This is the reason he's avoided Soul Society. This is the reason he turned down the captaincy. This is the reason he can't forget.
They call him a hero. He wishes he knew what that really meant. Heroes are supposed to save everyone. Heroes don't let anyone die. Heroes don't make mistakes. Heroes always get the girl and celebrate their victory in some spectacular way.
They don't wake up every night, sweating from nightmares that are actually just re-lived memories. They don't regret their choices, regret not being fast enough or strong enough. They don't regret ever picking up a sword and fighting in the first place. They don't fear the things they've seen.
Aizen stands there, as if he were lord and master of his domain, paying no attention to the crumbling of his army around him. He faces off against his opponents as though they are mere fleas on his path to victory. He is suave and even, despite knowing that Gin is dead and Tousen is dead and all he has left are the tattered remains of his Espada.
Ichigo can only see glimpses of the stand-off from a distance, distracted by his own battle and worries. He can't let anyone else die. He's clenched his teeth and vowed this.
He sees Aizen's adversaries in profile, resolute and determined. He thinks it's the first time he's ever seen Shunsui so serious, missing his trademark hat and haori, blades already drawn as the wind whips his hair around. Grief lines his expression. Ichigo remembers that the old man is one of the recent fatalities. Caught in a crossfire, protecting one of the lower-seats, making the mistake of taking his eyes off Aizen for a brief moment...
Not even Ryuujin Jakka's flames were strong enough to burn through Aizen's illusions. Not even the old man was powerful enough to prevent his own mind from betraying him.
Ichigo is forced to tear his gaze away as he crosses blades with some of the minions scattered around. But he still feels the weight of their reiatsu above him, blanketing the entire area. Shunsui's is edged with anger and grief. Fury at having his home and his family threatened. Fury at the treachery.
And Shinji's... Shinji's is a mass of vengeance, of cool calm masking the sorrow that lies beneath. He's seen two of his own fall in the war. Dying for the Shinigami when Soul Society hadn't given a damn about the Vizard before. That's to be blamed on Aizen, too. And it's clear that Shinji intends to return it in full.
Ichigo tiredly lifts Zangetsu, cuts down a Hollow, crosses blades with an Arrancar. And winces under the weight of their clashing. He can't quite describe the breadth of Aizen's reiatsu – Shinigami and Hollow entangled in one. Vizard. He doesn't like to admit that it's kind of familiar, not unlike his own.
Too much like his own as Aizen decapitates Kyouraku Shunsui with a fierce but elegant side-swing. And even from the distance, even through his own blood turning to ice, Ichigo can see the surprise flicker across Aizen's face. See shock plain as day. Watch him barely move in enough time to prevent his own demise at Shinji's hand. And take a shunpo to the side to collect himself for all of a heartbeat before Shinji is on him again. He recovers by that point. Mask sliding back into place, but there is something almost mechanical to his movements for all that they are smooth and even. Like he isn't himself. As though he has just made a tremendous miscalculation and has no idea how to backtrack and correct.
But that is the last Ichigo sees of them as another few dozen Arrancar launch in his direction. As they scrape and bite at his skin. And all thoughts of Shunsui and Shinji and Aizen flutter away as he is set upon. As he fights and claws his way free, not daring to use his mask but on the edge of it before Urahara comes to the rescue. And even then, he is nearly too late. It takes both Hanatarou and Tessai to keep Ichigo alive this time. And Shunsui is beyond help by the time they get to him.
And for all that it is supposed to be the final battle of the war, Ichigo thinks that it is the worst one.
Ichigo takes a shuddering breath and does everything in his mind to chase that recollection away.
Happier memories. Ichigo thinks that there might be some of those in there. If he can only grab onto them. Sand slipping through his fingers. Trying to catch a fish with his bare hands. Behind the darkness and the blood. Before the sob breaks free from his throat
Jyuushiro makes a face, and Ichigo smirks at it.
“Please, don't call me that, Ichigo. It makes me feel old.” And before Shunsui can even say whatever it is that dances on his tongue, Jyuushiro shoots him a hard look. “Not a word, Shun. Not a word.”
Ichigo can't help but laugh. Sometimes, he forgets just how old the Shinigami can be. Jyuushiro looks barely thirty – if that – but he's probably thousands of years older than him. Thoughts like that tend to remind Ichigo of the differences between them.
“What should I call you then?” Ichigo asks with honesty. Still not entirely certain where they stand.
The older man leans in then, lips brushing and body pressed in close. “Jyuushiro,” he says, voice gone husky and eyes dark. “Call me Jyuushiro.” He kisses Ichigo then, not at all caring about his audience.
Even this is bittersweet.
Ichigo's legs don't really want to support him, but he forces himself to stand anyway. He can feel Urahara lingering behind him, observing but not saying much of anything. Not just yet.
And in front of him, Jyuushiro stands. Looking tired and drawn, making Ichigo's heart clench just a little. There's desperation in his face. Ichigo struggles to not be swayed by that look. He can't tell Jyuushiro what he's really thinking, how much he hates what he's become, so he evades it.
“We need you, Ichigo,” Jyuushiro says again, but the part Ichigo really wants to hear, remains unspoken.
Soul Society needs him; he gets that much. They need another captain to fill in the blanks, someone they can trust. Jyuushiro needs and wants an ally, especially now that his heart is already breaking. They need Ichigo's bankai and his skills. But Jyuushiro doesn't say that he needs Ichigo.
He shakes his head. “I...” Ichigo pauses, frustrated that he doesn't have the right words. He's never been good at this. “I can't.” He won't, but that's not what he wants to say.
Behind him, Urahara shifts, perhaps noticing Ichigo struggling, and steps forward. “Ichigo, you should be in bed,” he says. Half-sternly, half-softly. “You shouldn't even be having visitors.”
There is a flash of guilt across Jyuushiro's face. His eyes flickering to the bandages strewn across Ichigo's torso and upper thigh, pressed to his forehead, wound about an arm. He's lucky he came out of this in one piece, instead of several. And that's only the physical injuries. There's nothing to show for the ones inside, the empty places where Renji should be. And Shunsui. And countless others he didn't know but feels the loss of regardless.
Ichigo drags his gaze back to Jyuushiro, ignoring the dizziness and the pain that strikes through him. Jyuushiro just looks at him. And his eyes say a thousand things, but his lips don't move. All Ichigo can feel in that moment is the heat of Urahara's hands as they support him, and he really wants to go to Jyuushiro, wants to take that step forward. But he lacks the energy. He's just so very tired.
“You need to leave now,” Urahara finally breaks the silence between them. “Give it a few more days. He needs to rest.”
Jyuushiro nods and then hesitates. He is on the cusp of stepping forward, but instead, he moves back. And his hand, which seemed to have lifted of its own accord, drops back to his side.
“I'll be back later,” he promises. Tone so full of conviction and need that Ichigo feels his heart burn in his chest. “I'll come back.”
But he never does.
Ichigo's fingers tighten into white-knuckled fists, and he sucks in a shuddering breath. He feels the wall against his back. It's too cold in the room, or maybe that's the emotions of his own body. He can't breathe, can't think, chokes back a sob. He can't escape either. Not from the past, not from Soul Society.
It cycles again. Always reminding. Never letting him forget.
Blood and terror, it soaks into the battlefield. Ichigo battles away a Hollow's claws and cuts it down...
a/n: Whew. Have to stop and take a breath after that one. The raw emotion is just a bit strong, even for me.
I hope it answered some of your questions, though I'm sure it merely raised even more. Don't worry, future chapters bring more answers, and I won't spoil the surprise of the next one.
I do hope you enjoyed and I look forward to your comments!
On to chapter ten!