A/N: Something bittersweet... I hope. A companion piece to my other story "The birth of a protector".
Wrote it a few months ago.
Disclaimer: This is a tribute to the wonderful character of Ichigo Kurosaki. Unfortunately, I don't own him, Kubo Tite does.
(Oh, and this is in the same era as my stories under "Ichigo's got competition" title. ((By the way I'm also working on an update on that.)) If you've never read those, the only thing you're probably missing is that Sora, Michi and Yuzuki are Ichigo's (and Orihime's) children, two boys, and a much younger sister.)
Note: I have really no idea why I wanted to write this in the present tense. It just seemed to give more intensity. Never did that before, so I hope it didn't come out too weird...
The death of a protector
He sits on the bench, near the riverbank, on the same one on which he sits almost every afternoon. If the weather is fine that is. Today it's fine. Sparkling even. A few kids, all from the same elementary school, judging from their uniforms, have taken their sandals and socks off, and are wading up to their knees in the cool water, amidst joyful cries and laughs.
The scene in happy and peaceful. It brings a small smile to his lips, even if it doesn't quite reach his eyes. It's a sad smile, a little nostalgic. He feels disconnected from everything around him: kids, sunshine, laughter, and all. But it's still good to see the peace he has worked so hard to protect all these years...
He had less sunshine, less laughter and less carefree moments than others, but – he tells himself – it was worth it. And after all, he has nothing to complain about. He had a fine, complete life. He was successful, both in his ordinary chosen, and both in his not so ordinary "trust upon" profession... He'd done everything he could to protect everyone around him, both as a doctor, and as a soul reaper. He had shared strong bounds, with those he was privileged to call his friends. He had loved, and been loved back... He had a large family. Three kids, all doing well in life, standing firmly on their own feet, six grandchildren, and lately, even a cute little monkey of a great-grandson, whom his parents decided to name "Ichigo" after him, even though he told them that the name was clearly more trouble than it's worth.
With this large a family, and with luckily all of them living relatively close, he can't complain about being alone. Right now, he is waiting for Yuzuki, and her youngest son, to meet them on the way home. The 10 year old boy has karate practice, and it's common practice for them to meet like this, after it. His daughter always invites him to dinner, and there is no place he feels more comfortable, than in her little family's circle. He is always welcome, and it contents him to see his dearest one so happy.
He isn't alone, but he is lonely. Despite all Yuzuki's and his other kid's efforts, he longs for the company of a kindred spirit. One who'd seen it all with him, went through all with him... They just can't replace that... can't replace his nakama...
It's been so long since Orihime's parted... Twenty years... Even thinking about it is hard. Sometimes it feels like it was yesterday, and at other times, like a whole different life. He permits himself to remember that dreadful day, when he finally found out about her sickness... She hid it from him, as long as she could, always healing herself. But she got more and more weak with time, and the cruel auto-immune syndrome would come back stubbornly again and again, until even her powers were effected by it, and she had to succumb to her fate... He knew she only put up the heroic fight for his sake anyway. She was only 59.
Urahara explained to him, after a serious, desperate and angry outbreak from him, that it was to be expected. She had been using her spiritual power drainingly, from a young age, always giving help to others, and that weakened her spirit, when it came to defending herself. The scientist said, that the nakama (him included) probably wouldn't live to see really old age... this was the price they had to pay for their services...
Before her death, Ichigo took of a whole month from work, and they went away on a little trip. They'd done everything her beautifully crazy mind came up with, traveling, being together, seeing the sun go down, hand in hand... and collecting the weirdest food ingredients from where ever they found them...
Finally they came back to Karakura, and when her time came, she just fell into a peaceful sleep in his arms. After all, he did promise to protect her, and he did so, dutifully, until the very end... The tearful parting was hard, seeing her in spirit form, before the open senkaimon, where Rukia waited. She had come, upon his call, to accompany Orihime's spirit on the journey. But – along with his wife's wish - it was him, who did the konzo... Probably the hardest thing he ever did.
Chad was next, 5 years later. Only cancer was able to finally break his so strong body, and the even stronger will inside it. Ichigo was heartbroken again, seeing his long friend suffer, but there was only so much he could do for him, as a doctor, and as a friend. He was standing there, right by his side, holding his hand, when he breathed his last, and died with Ichigo's name on his lips. And it was the same thing over again, with Rukia coming, and him doing the konzo.
In consistence with his stubborn nature, Uryu was the one, who held on longest. As a doctor himself too, he regarded it as his greatest failure that he was unable to come over the the disease consuming his body. He was really pissed about it, to tell the truth... One day he subtended on the floor of his office, and Ichigo was the one who ran immediately to him, having felt his weakening spiritual pressure.
He briefly regained consciousness before the end.
'Great... just what I needed...' the Quincy whispered weakly. 'I'm heading to a place full of damn soul reapers, and I can't even live my last moments devoid of one...'
This made Ichigo smile.
'Let's make a bet! I'm sure I'll still live to see a sword in your hands, Ishida!'
'Like hell you will, you arrogant...!'
Uryu rambled a lot of less coherent things after this, but the last understandable thing coming from his mouth was also Ichigo's name. When Rukia walked into the senkaimon after his spirit butterfly, she turned back briefly, and sent Ichigo an expressive look.
Seven more years passed...
He sits on the bench now, remembering all this, and it's not the first time he comes to wonder how he is still here, like he was just forgotten... He's still healthy and strong, as a man of 79 can be. True, the color of his hair have dimmed a few shades, but it's still unmistakably orange... Little wannabe punks continuously pester him, laughing cruelly at "bleached Gramps". Some things just never change... He can always scare them away easily though: his scowl only seems more frightening from those many wrinkles that often use intensified it with.
Seven long, lonely years...
Isshin is no more, Yuzu also passed on. Karin remains, but she lives far away, they can mostly talk only trough the phone. Tatsuki is still here, and she's a great comfort to him. She visits twice a week, bringing him food, and hitting his head hard when ever she thinks he neglects anything in his household... like it's any of her business, if his carpets are dusty!... He's still grateful for it.
Ichigo closes his eyes to feel out for Yuzuki's spiritual pressure... it's close. He gathers his jacket from the bench, having decided to head them of. He straightens, and starts walking leisurely. Soon, he spots them. Hayato waves at him merrily. The kid pulls at his mother's ankle a little to get her attention.
Ichigo suddenly friezes... there is a strange feeling in the air... something's changed... A new, dark source of spiritual pressure appears... He knows immediately: a hollow!
Ichigo looks around with narrowed eyes. He tries to locate the hollow's position more precisely with his soul reaper senses, but that soon proves unnecessary, because he hears it roar, and sees it right after... The ugly masked monster have materialized right behind Yuzuki and Hayato! Fear enters his heart.
Yuzuki also feels the danger. Ichigo can see her eyes snap up to him, fearfully. (A/N: anyone wondering why she doesn't use her powers is because she no longer has them, only the ability to see ghosts.) Ichigo looks around wildly. His senses are searching for Sora's and Michi's spiritual pressure. He's sure one of his sons, or most likely both of them must arrive soon. After all they followed him in the duty of protecting this town, and they would never leave their sister in danger! But he can't feel either of the strong spiritual pressures close enough to get here in time...
Yuzuki starts running forward, trying to get away from the hollow, pulling her son with her. But she suddenly screams. Two more hollows materialize from thin air before her, cutting her way off...
'Damn!' Ichigo curses.
He hesitates for only a second, then his hand reaches inside his jacket's pocket, to pull out the substitute soul reaper badge. Yuzuki sees it. Her cry is drowned out by the roaring sounds of the monster, but Ichigo can read the message from her lips.
But his will is unbroken, and he quickly presses the combat pass to his chest. He closes his eyes as the familiar, slightly cold feeling of being freed from his body washes over him, and he only faintly registers the soft thud of his empty shell hitting the ground behind him. The feel of the light caress around his ankles and knees, he knows are from his comfortable lose hakama, that is the best suited clothing for battle... And the sleeves of his black shikansho slide back obediently as he reaches for the hilt of his sword.
The feel of it (him, really) inside his hands is consoling, bringing him such contentment, as nothing else in this world can. He sharpens his spiritual pressure, and feels it mingle with Zangetsu's own instantly, the two of them not horse and King, not even comrades in arms, but coessential in truth. He feels that the additional power helps him support the blade easily, making him forget all pains of age.
God, how he missed this! Why is he still here, if he can no longer protect? It's been what? Five years now? Yes, that must be it... Five years, since that day, when they fought back to back with Sora, and his one moment of weakness nearly cost his son's life. That was the last time he took the form of a soul reaper... to this day.
Yuzuki still tries to run. But Hayato stumbles. She has no other choice but to flung herself at the boy to protect him with her body... and Ichigo reaches her just in time, coming between the monster and his daughter, stopping the deathly claws from entering her flesh. Zangetsu is above his head, unwavering in his hands, but his knees give way under the force of the trust, and he curses vainly and angrily at how easily his former strength have disappeared... How pathetic... how disappointing. He stumbles down on his knees, struggling to hold back the enemy.
But he must do this! No matter how. If he can't protect his daughter now, that would mean that Ichigo Kurosaki is already dead. Or worse: like he doesn't even exist! He doesn't care about his strength, he never did to begin with. He just always did the protecting, no matter if the enemy was stronger, or if the odds were against him. Because his will was forever the strongest...
His eyes flash with anger, and the hollow laughs. It's clawed hand is still keeping him down, and suddenly Ichigo feels pain. A sense of dejs-vu hits him, as he sees the hollow's claws extended, piercing through his chest. One of the sharp tips hit his heart.
Yuzuki screams. Ichigo gathers all his remaining strength. One swish of his blade cuts the hollow's hand off. It backs away, roaring with anger. He stands up.
'Dad!' Yuzuki calls, fear making her voice high-pinched.
'Don't worry, this is nothing.' he tells Yuzuki, even though he can feel hot blood oozing down his chest in thick streamlets. He leaps into the air.
With a shrill battle-cry, he brings Zangetsu down on one of the hollows, and it disappears from only that one thrust. Hayato peers out from under his mother's arms, with awe. He has never seen his grandfather fight before, even though he heard the stories...
That's when Michi arrives, and he slays down the second hollow, but when he wants to go for the last, the one almost killing Yuzuki before, Ichigo stops him.
'No! He's mine!'
Confusion only crosses Michi's face for an instance, before he steps back.
Ichigo's eyes are burning. He ignores the taste of blood in his mouth, and the black dots clouding his vision. He gathers his strength, and lifts Zangetsu high above his head.
'Getsuga Tenso!' he cries, swinging down.
He really gives everything he got into the move, even though it's just a common hollow he deals with... When the shining half moon shaped energy beam flies out of his sword, he is drained. The next second, the hollow is no more, but the damage it has done on him remains: aching, pulsating wounds on his chest... But even this feeling is welcome, as he slides down gratefully to the floor. There is only relief and gratitude in him. He didn't fail this time! His daughter is safe, and Hayato wouldn't have to grow up without his mother, haunted by the visions of her death...
Atonement... bringing full circle... maybe this was what he still had to do here...
And now he can rest...
Yuzuki speaks to him, but he hardly understands. When he manages to gather some spiritual pressure again, he founds that Michi is also next to him, with his drawn sword still in his hand. And there is another person with them...
Ichigo tries to sit up.
'Stay put, Idiot!' her shaking, wannabe stern voice orders him.
'Rukia... How come you're here?' he asks.
Her mouth curves upward into a shy smile, but it's corners are trembling.
'I've never been far, Ichigo.'
He doesn't know what to answer to that, so he lets himself fall back down. He still feels annoyingly weak after all.
'Quick, Rukia!' he hears Michi's voice, that is full of concern. 'Use your kido! The bleeding doesn't want to stop!'
At first Ichigo thinks his words are referring to someone else. Then he looks down on himself, and realizes that his son is right: his shikanso is totally drenched in thick red wetness... Life is pouring slowly out of him, and he didn't even notice. He isn't feeling that much pain either. He had much worse.
'Sora?' he hears Yuzuki ask.
'He's coming...' Michi answers.
Rukia's face appears above him, and her violet eyes, that can show, or hide so much emotion in them, are looking straightly at him. He just blinks up, too tired to really decode the meaning in them. But when she puts her palms above his chest, and the soft light of her healing kido begins to shine, he suddenly reaches up, grabbing her wrists, and pushing her hands away gently.
'Rukia... don't.' is all he says.
Their eyes meet again, and he smiles at her softly.
'I've born the duties of a soul reaper you've entrusted me with conscientiously for all these years... in exchange, let me ask this of you now. I've been divided in spirit between two worlds for far too long now...'
Rukia's hands shake in his grip.
'Are you sure?'
'Yes. I want you to take me with you this time...'
She finally lowers her hands.
'Rukia!' Yuzuki cries.
The soul reaper woman looks up.
'It's his choice. If anybody has a right to chose his way, it's him.'
Rukia retreats from next to him, to let Yuzuki kneel by his side. She kisses his cheek. Ichigo can feel that her face is wet.
'What in the name of Heaven happened here?' asks a disbelieving voice from behind their backs. Sora just arrived, landing next to them. 'Don't tell me... Quick, Yuzuki! Let me thorough!'
But Rukia puts a hand on his shoulder.
'It's too late now... But it's ok... that's how he wants it.'
Sora's hand releases the handle of his zanpakuto. His face goes white. He looks down on his sister kneeling next to their father.
'Don't go, Daddy... please! I so love you!' Yuzuki cries.
Ichigo wants to answer, but something is squeezing his throat. He lifts his hand to caress his daughter's face.
'I'm just so glad you're all right... that I could protect...' he whispers.
Then his hand falls back... Everything is still. Peaceful...
He feels warmness. He can't tell where it comes from. White light obscures his vision for a moment, and then he sees again. What confuses him is, that he can actually see better! And the pain is gone... He sits up. He is still in his black soul reaper uniform, with Zangetsu beside him. Nothing seems to have changed, and yet something feels so different. He reaches out to grab his sword's handle, standing up. He slowly, hesitantly puts Zangetsu back to his back. The moves are so easy, and the sword's weight is like nothing! He even feels it in the air... in breathing. The power.
Finally he looks around himself, and sees Rukia's slightly tearful, but happy face.
'Welcome...' she greets.
'Wow... all that crap about fearing death! Was this really all that it was?'
The only answer he gets is the found light in her eyes.
He turns to look around, and notices that all three of his children are staring at him with round eyes and open mouths. As for Hayato, the poor boy seems totally confused...
'What?' Ichigo asks them, much in his usual ruff manner.
Rukia starts giggling.
'I guess by now you are aware of the fact, that when a person dies, their spirit form takes on a the traits showing how old they feel themselves in spirit, or more precisely, how old they are in terms of spiritual pressure...'
'Yeah...' Ichigo answers cautiously.
Rukia forcibly turns him around, making him face a parking car, in witch's shining windows he can get a gimps of himself...
'You went back to your namesake, Midget!' she laughs, throwing her own nickname back at him. 'You don't look one day older than you did the day we first met...'
Sora shakes his head.
'This sucks... my father could be my son now... I think now I've seen everything...'
'Confusing...' Michi admits.
'Well... I can only think of one way to make this more easy for you all!' Rukia declares, smiling broadly and mysteriously.
All four Kurosakis look at her questioningly. Rukia only steps away from them to reopen the senkaimon she has come through earlier.
'Ichigo! The Head Captain granted a special escort to you when ever your time should come...' Rukia turns to the opening portal, and calls inside. 'All right! You can come out now!'
From behind the slowly sliding door-wings a figure steps out... Ichigo's eyes are glued to the site, he even leans forward slightly, and his hands shake. He feels sweat-drops form and roll down his forehead...
She wears a black shikansho. He is not used to that, but it suits her tall, lean form. Her hair is even longer than he remembers ever seeing it, the rich light-brown locks reaching below her hips. When their eyes connect, he can see the shadow of the same uncertainty and hesitance in hers, that he himself feels. Then it all goes away... He feels his legs move out of their own accord, and he starts running towards her.
'Can't be...' Sora whispers, awed, like he has seen the most wonderful miracle in the world.
'Mommy!' Yuzuki and Michi say next to him in union.
Orihime's eyes snap up to her kids briefly, but the next moment she is engulfed inside a passionate bear-hug by her newly rejuvenated husband. Ichigo has never shown this forward an outbreak of affection before, dead or alive... He lifts her up in the air, and spins with her a few times, saying her sweet name again and again. His joy is simply overflowing, and Orihime's heart is warmed, all her fears washed away...
'Hi, guys!' she waves merrily to her kids. 'I've missed you all so much!'
'What's this? No!' Ichigo exclaims, his hands coming across some foreign addiction on Orihime's arm.
'Oh, that... yes, it is.' she says, kind of sheepishly.
'You? A 13 Court Guard Squad's lieutenant?'
She smiles, lifting her hand to a salute.
'4th division and proud!... I'm probably the only soul reaper ever, never to wield a zanpakuto.'
Ichigo reaches up to her temples, where her hairpins are in place, shining with a friendly blue light.
'You're the same as ever...' he says, his voice full of gentleness.
'And you... just look at you!' she says playfully, but adoringly. 'I may pass for 20 or something, but you look even younger! Oh, I knew how it would be! After waiting so much for you, everyone will say that I'm too old for you now!' she adds in a mock horrified voice.
Ichigo just embraces her again, and crushes his lips onto hers in a forceful kiss, that turns gentle and loving on the way.
Sora clears his throat loudly.
'Hey! Not in front of the kids, will you!'
Michi hits his head from behind.
'You just admitted to never having grown up... Jerk!'
Orihime and Ichigo are lost in each others eyes.
'I'm so happy!' Orihime cries in her usual enthusiastic voice. Then her face turns a little scared. 'Oh!I mean I know I shouldn't be... you've only just... oh... hehehe... this sounds so silly! But I AM happy to finally see you again! Just wait till you hear about Sado-kun and Ishida-kun! They... oh... but I'm probably overwhelming you! I'm sorry!'
Ichigo only smiles.
'Don't worry. I guess we'll have all the time we want now, won't we?'
'Yes!' she smiles cheerfully.
Rukia is having her one arm comfortingly around the confused Yuzuki's shoulders, who fidgets uneasily, standing from her one foot to the other. Orihime sees this, and whispers something into Ichigo's ear. She walks forward and when she comes before her daughter, she opens her arms wide. Yuzuki looks at her mother a little uncertainly. She now looks half her age, like a college student... But Orihime smiles, and in her smile, it's easy to recognize the familiarity. So Yuzuki launches herself forward.
'Mommy! I've missed you so much! Why didn't you come? You never came back...'
'I'm so sorry... It was hard... but you know, it does no good if the dead don't let the living move forward, or the other way around... I've learned that much. Can you understand that?'
'Yes... I think so.' Yuzuki mumbles into her shoulder amidst tears.
'And besides...' Rukia adds. 'Gotei 13 lieutenants have strict rules.'
Orihime finally moves away to embrace the uncomfortable looking Sora, and Michi who is the one dealing with the situation the best out of the three, and she introduces herself to the awedly staring Hayato as his late grandmother... Ichigo goes to his daughter.
'Daddy...' Yuzuki mumbles, keeping her eyes cast down.
'I'll always be your Daddy, no matter what!' he declares, and his tone does comfort her. She even manages to smile.
'I'll miss you!'
'Me too, my little princess!'
'I guess you'll be happy now... I'm so glad.'
Ichigo smiles a true, happy smile. He sends a fleeting look to Orihime.
'Very happy!' he says.
A/N: I guess some of you liked this, and some of you hated it... Send me a review to let me know...No flames, please, just your opinion! Thanks!