All the Meisters had come out of the battle alive, as had their weapons - though with the time some of them had spent in the infirmary, they had toed the line. Ichigo now sat on the sidelines of the basketball court while the group of young people he'd come to think of as friends played a competitive game. Even though Maka was clearly outclassed and overwhelmed, she was actually holding her own. It helped that Black Star tended to overcommit on his blocks, sending him sailing out of the play and leaving Maka's line to shoot open.
It also helped that Soul was great at alley-oops.
With the sun shining down and puffy white clouds only occasionally casting shadows, the day was warm and calm. Ichigo leaned back and relaxed on the bench; his muscles were still a little sore even a few days after the battle.
You could heal those, y'know.
Ichigo closed his eyes and enjoyed the sensation of the sun on his face.
I could, he thought. But really, the soreness was a good reminder that he couldn't get lax in his training. The entire Hollow situation had been a freak accident, but even though it was over now, there was no telling when another emergency could occur. And given that his secret was pretty much out, Ichigo didn't see the point in being sealed again, so he wasn't overly inclined to heal his wounds immediately.
Part of him was impressed with how quickly the meisters and their weapons had bounced back from the battle. Despite the bruising they had endured, they were now perfectly happy to play a basketball game - a testament to their durability. If something like this happened again, everything Ichigo was now seeing indicated that they would be more than prepared to deal with the threat.
Zangetsu wasn't manifested right now. In this crowd it didn't make much of a difference whether he was or not, and the spirit had expressed a strong preference for staying in Ichigo's inner world when, "all there is out here is boring crap, and who the hell is gonna care enough t' notice anyway?"
New footsteps reached Ichigo's ears and he cracked an eye open to see Spirit and a cat - Blair, undoubtedly - strolling over. With the way Spirit's eyes kept tracking over to his daughter, Ichigo was surprised he didn't trip.
Ichigo gave himself three more seconds of relaxation before he opened both of his eyes and sat up.
"Yo," he said, offering Spirit a wave. Blair jumped onto the bench next to him and began insistently headbutting him. Ichigo rolled his eyes. "Yo to you too," he said.
"Hey," Spirit said. "You look like you're enjoying yourself."
Blair's headbutting got insistent enough that Ichigo finally relented and started scratching her behind her ears, resolutely refusing to think about the fact that Blair was capable of transforming into a person.
"It's nice to get some time to relax," Ichigo admitted. "I've had a hectic few weeks."
"So I heard." Spirit stopped next to the bench, rocking back and forth slightly. He was quiet for a minute, but Ichigo got the sense that he wasn't done, and he was proven right when Spirit coughed into his fist and then spoke again. "I, uh, meant to say this earlier, but. Thank you for protecting Maka."
His serious tone prompted Ichigo to sit up a little and face him. "Maka's a good fighter," he said. "She didn't need much protecting."
Spirit nodded, watching as Maka tripped on her shoelace and only barely stopped herself from falling. "I know." He slid his gaze back over to Ichigo. "All the same."
Ichigo's lips quirked. "Then you're welcome." Another half-minute of quiet passed between them. On the court, Maka passed the ball to Soul, who passed it back almost immediately. Maka fumbled the ball at first but managed to turn and throw the ball in the general direction of the basket. Soul jumped right over Black Star and slammed the ball home with a whoop of victory.
"You should be proud," Ichigo finally said, watching the pleased grin spread over Maka's face.
Spirit nodded, his expression turning wistful. "I am."
The basketball game continued with an argument springing up between Soul and Black Star over proper dunking form.
"She's smart, too," Ichigo continued as Maka broke up the two with solid whacks to their heads.
Spirit crossed his arms and puffed up a little. "Well, of course."
At that moment Maka glanced over at them. Ichigo waved a little while Spirit's semi-serious demeanor melted. Maka's expression dropped from curiosity to disgust at Spirit's antics, a change so fast and complete that Ichigo couldn't help laughing. After a few seconds Blair meowed and pawed at Ichigo's leg to get him to keep petting.
"Right, sorry," Ichigo told her. Spirit was distracted by his daughter now, and Ichigo - not for the first time - was reminded of Isshin. Goofy one moment and serious the next, Isshin had been a nonstop trip of unpredictability - beneath all of that, though, he'd been a father, even if he hadn't been all that great at it.
Ichigo stood and stretched. Death the Kid was approaching the court, Liz and Patti in tow - or maybe it was the other way around. They were talking animatedly about something, and Patti had a twelve-scoop cone of multicolored ice cream clutched in one hand that was teetering rather dangerously. The four people on the court quickly took notice of the new arrivals and greeted them with a hail of waves and playful taunts.
Yeah, these kids would be fine.
He walked out, calling out good-byes as he went. Blair followed, somehow managing to not get kicked despite the way she wound around his legs. Ichigo stuck his hands in his pockets and set out at an easy walking pace on his way back to the DWMA. Death had mentioned that he wanted to talk at some point today, and now was as good of a time as any. Ichigo was enjoying the weather, though, so he wasn't inclined to go quickly if he could avoid it.
Blair kept pace beside him for a while, her witch's hat bobbing oddly on her feline head with every step. After a few minutes, though, she switched to her human form with a puff of purple smoke. Coughing, Ichigo waved the smoke out of his eyes, knowing that Blair had created it entirely on purpose. When he could see again, he sidestepped so that Blair's hug attempt would miss him.
"What?" she asked. "Not even a high five?"
"I was petting you earlier," Ichigo pointed out. Blair crossed her arms and rolled her eyes.
"You call that petting?"
"You were purring."
"All right, fine. So where are you going?"
Ichigo started walking again and Blair easily kept pace. "The DWMA. I've got a meeting with Death."
"Oooh, fancy. What's it about?"
"Not even any guesses?"
Ichigo shrugged. "Honestly, there's so much that it could be that there's really no point in trying to predict it. Besides, Death isn't exactly the type to be predictable."
"That's true." Blair hopped in front of Ichigo and began walking backwards, which was impressive given that the street was relatively crowded and she was running into precisely no one. "So, when are you leaving?"
"Leaving?" Ichigo ran a hand through his hair and shrugged. "I'm not really sure. I've tried before and it hasn't gone over all that well."
As in, Gargantas that led nowhere but the infinite void between dimensions. Not exactly a vacation destination, and certainly not Karakura Town.
Blair tilted her head a little. "But you are planning on leaving soon."
"Well - I'm going to keep trying, at least. How do you even know about all this?"
Blair smiled. "I've got ways."
She didn't respond.
Ichigo shrugged - he could find that out later - and stopped by a vendor to buy some ice cream. He got an extra cone for Blair, who lit up at the sight of the offered treat. They walked in silence for a while. Ichigo's ice cream was something between chocolate and mint that wasn't unpleasant, though Ichigo would prefer that it was one or the other and not both. The cone was good, though, and Blair enjoyed hers as well.
"So where's your sword buddy?" she asked when she finished.
"Zangetsu?" Ichigo asked to buy some time.
"Yup. He's your inseparable twin brother, isn't he?"
"Where did you hear that?"
She waved a hand. "A cat has sensitive ears, you know."
"And a nose close to the ground," Ichigo said with an easy roll of his eyes. Blair's nosiness would be a problem if she wasn't an ally. At the very least, she didn't seem to be planning to do anything with what she knew. "He's out on his own right now. He said something about wanting to let off some steam. Knowing him, he's probably wasting time in some pub."
Ichigo then experienced the strange mental sensation of Zangetsu projecting the feeling of flipping him off.
"And you didn't want to join him?"
"I'm not much of a pub guy."
Blair nodded. "I can see that." She let the distance between them close slightly. "I can also change that."
Ichigo let his lips twist into a light smile. "Thanks, but no thanks," he said, stepping to one side and walking faster so that Blair had to turn and walk next to him to keep up.
"Have it your way, spoilsport."
"As long as you aren't stalking me, I'm fine with rude names."
Blair rolled her eyes. "Which one of us pointed a sword at the other for taking an innocent evening stroll?"
"If that was an innocent evening stroll, then the hollows outside the city were a large band of minstrels."
They walked right up to the steps leading to the DWMA.
"All right," Blair said when they stopped. "I've got important matters I need to attend to, so I'm going." She looked Ichigo right in the eyes. "And you'd better pay me a visit if you're ever leaving for good. Otherwise, I will hunt you down and trap you in a pumpkin for all eternity."
Ichigo was leaning back slightly because of how close she was. "Uh - yeah, okay. Sure."
Blair stood straight and smiled. "Great! See you around."
Then she was gone. Ichigo stared after her for a moment before he shook his head and started his trek up to Death's quarters. Even if he spent another four years in this place, he'd never quite understand how things were supposed to work.
"Ichigo!" Death greeted when Ichigo walked into his main room.
"Hey," Ichigo replied. "Why did you want to meet with me?"
"Getting right into it, aren't you?" Death said.
Little rude, King.
"The hollow is right."
"Sorry," Ichigo said.
"It's all right. I do have work I need to do after this, so I suppose I can hurry through it."
Outwardly, Ichigo appeared calm. On the inside, however, he was itching to know what Death was talking about. It didn't seem as though it was an emergency, but then why would he call Ichigo up? And where was Sid? The zombie was practically Death's right hand.
Death stood a little straighter.
"The Garganta never closed," he said.
Ichigo's thoughts jerked to a halt. "It what?"
"The witch's power had widened and stabilized it, but the actual tear into our world never completely closed," Death explained. "I found this out yesterday and have had meisters and their weapons guarding it. Sid is currently there, supervising."
Ichigo reeled. If the Garganta was still open, that was his way home. Those hollows could only have come from Hueco Mundo, and any Garganta went both ways. If Hollows could come here, Ichigo could go there. Both sides of Zangetsu were thinking the same thing; energy buzzed through Ichigo's veins, quickly followed by a dizzying array of images and sensory impressions that culminated in the feeling of warmth and a crippling need to go home.
He wanted to see his family again. His friends. His own world.
"I - " Ichigo started, only to cut himself off. He dug his nails into his palm to try to center himself and then tried again. "May I investigate?"
Death nodded. "That is precisely why I called you here. Do what you believe is necessary to prevent that incident from happening again. After that, your actions are entirely up to you."
The implication was clear. Death wasn't going to hold him here.
King. King, we can go back. We can go home.
Zangetsu sounded almost giddy at the concept. Even the Quincy half was equally in favor; with the amount of energy the two were giving off, Ichigo had to bid Death a quick farewell and take off before he started vibrating in place. Of course, there was no way to know what his home was like now. The whole reason he had ended up in this world was that Kisuke's machine had misfired. Ichigo had been avoiding thinking about that for a long time now, but with this opportunity, his situation loomed ever larger in his mind.
"We will deal with what comes when it comes."
Ichigo heeded his Quincy side's counsel and pushed those thoughts out of his mind. Investigate first, think later.
Shunpo carried him over Death City at nauseating speeds. He reached the decimated former battleground in less than two minutes and dropped down by the ring of meisters he had seen on his way over. A few of them reacted to him, but most kept their eyes on the swirling black shape hovering just above the ground.
"Ichigo, you're here," Sid said. Ichigo shook hands with the zombie and nodded.
"Yeah, Death told me the situation. I can set up some barriers that'll keep this thing from spewing out Hollows into your world again."
"I'm never one to pass up help, that's the kind of man I was," Sid said with a nod. "Go ahead."
The ring of meisters and weapons expanded so that Ichigo could step through. He stood in front of the Garganta, his eyes refusing to focus properly on the rip in the fabric between worlds. Its dimensions were impossible to pin down, its depths inconceivable. It swirled with darkness black enough at its edges to swallow nearly all of the light that hit it while the rest spiraled into the void.
It was the most welcoming thing Ichigo had seen in weeks.
He raised his hands, drawing upon his Reiryoku reserves. The proper chants passed over his lips and an orange barrier shimmered into place around the Garganta. He spoke another chant and glowing yellow chains wrapped around the orange cube. A third chant, and the entire thing seemed to glow brighter, arcs of blue energy shooting across the chains before the entire thing faded from view. Ichigo then went around the barrier, marking its dimensions.
"It'll shock anyone that gets too close," he explained. "If anyone makes a genuine attempt to get through it, they'll be in for a nasty experience."
"Hong long will it last?" Sid asked. Ichigo cast a considering eye over his work. Based on the rate of decay he had tested with during his time awake and his memories of his fight with Death and how Reiatsu and the spiritual arts interacted with the nature of this world...
"A few hundred years, I think. At the least."
Sid nodded. "Thank you."
"You're welcome. I think, though...with the chants I used..."
Ichigo stepped over to the barrier. He lifted a hand and the orange cube shimmered into life - but only in an area about a meter in diameter around Ichigo's hand so that most of it remained invisible. Ichigo pressed his hand against the surface, and something inside him resonated with the barrier. Ichigo smiled and stepped through, the hole he created closing as soon as he was on the other side.
"Yeah, it's tuned to my Reiatsu. I can still get through."
Sid nodded. "Are you going to go into the - " he paused to think of the word - "the Garganta?"
Ichigo glanced back at the Garganta. Both of his spirits wanted to go through. Their desire was a pull upon Ichigo almost as strong as his own need to find out what was on the other side. He slowly nodded.
"Yeah. Yeah, I think I am."
He took a few steps closer to the rip. The closer he got the more it hurt his eyes to stare into it. The hole broke the laws of physics, distorted reality - and it was his only way home. He had to go. He had to know - and he wasn't going to wait one second longer. Not after hundreds of years of being sealed and several weeks of conspiracy. Not after everything he'd gone through just to get to this point.
"Give Death my regards," he said.
"I will," Sid replied. "Good luck."
Ichigo raised a hand in farewell without looking away from the swirling rift.
Y'know, we never actually answered any of Stein's questions.
Ichigo smiled. "No. No, we did not."
He stepped through the Garganta and let the familiar darkness swallow him whole.
A/N Ha! I finished! I actually finished this! I totally expected from the start that I would finish this so I am not at all (in any way, conceivably, possibly) surprised that I actually finished this!
Speedyquader: So Ichigo has pretty much all of his abilities that he would have in his soul form. Only now, he's in his squishy mortal body. His stamina isn't quite the same (still unbelievable, though). Basically, he's got all of the following: Kido, Bakudo, Shunpo/Sonido, hollow abilities, shinigami abilities, mild Quincy abilities (rarely practiced so fairly unreliable), and anything else I'm forgetting. He's not supposed to be weak, obviously.
GoldenFalls: Yes, I do have an AO3! I believe it's the same name, just underscores between the words - so Reign_of_Rayne. [insert me actually checking] Yup, that's it. I don't have as much posted on there, though.
I will admit that everything in this story doesn't...feel right, to me. I didn't put as much time into it as I would like and it has been a long, long time since I watched Soul Eater. This ending is not meant to be a true ending, really; it's an implication that his journey is not over yet. I don't plan on ever writing a sequel, but I'll leave you to think of what could happen next.
Until we meet again,