I shuffled forward, my hands anxiously tucked into my pockets as I journeyed towards the Bankai Training Grounds, as I had decided to dub it. Rukia was waiting for me inside. At least, I assumed she was, because I hadn't checked with my reiatsu sense. It had been a week since the event with the twins, and we hadn't talked since. I had gone to the Seireitei twice in that week, even visited the 13th Division grounds, and couldn't find her. There was no mistaking why. In the end, I just told Ukitake of when and where Rukia's training was going to be, so he could forward the message. At the moment, Shiro was with Chad in Hueco Mundo, and Ossan with Uryu in the Living World. It was having a definite drain on my reiatsu, but nothing I couldn't handle. In the end, all that it meant to me was that I didn't have them in my head to comfort me through whatever was about to happen. There was no way it wasn't going to hurt.

When I entered the training grounds, I did find that Rukia had clearly gotten the message, as she was standing with her arms crossed over her chest uncomfortably. I also found Renji sitting on a rock a couple feet away from her, pointedly looking away from me. My eyes widened, neither in shock nor confusion, but a different emotion entirely. No, I wasn't expecting Renji to be here at all, but the instant I saw him, I knew why. I forgot how to breathe for a long moment, as my mouth dropped open slightly. Frozen, I could barely move my eyes, but it was enough that I could look between the two of them. They displayed that they were able to feel my gaze, slightly turning even further away.

I don't know if it hurt more that I knew why Rukia needed Renji here, or that I completely understood why she felt that way. My face slowly drooped down, my shoulders falling with it, my breath slipping out from between my lips. I didn't step closer.

"…Thanks for making it here." I tried to find some balance of volume to keep from startling her, but I saw her shoulders flinch anyway. I didn't let my reaction to that show. "For, uh, for your training, the end goal is your bankai. I've seen it, it's pretty strong. B-but, for now, we'll be-"

"That's it?" Rukia's voice cracked, not daring to look in my direction. Sensing she wasn't done, I bit my lip to keep my mouth shut. "You're-" She paused for a moment. "You're just straight back into training? Did you even… Was it just more 'saving the world' to…do that? You're not even going to try apologizing?" I gulped at her words, soft and cautious. Afraid of the reaction. Heavy silence filled the room as I put together a response.

"…Would it not be hollow, to apologize?" Inside of my pockets, my fingers picked at the threads. "…Insulting? Saying sorry is…it's to say that you're going to do better. I've…I've been getting better, since I came here, and then I did that. I came up with every excuse I could latch onto but, none of them change the fact that I killed two people that deserved to be talked down." My eyes tracked her head tilting down slightly, as her shoulders hiked up.

"That's not what you said last week."

"I…wasn't in my right mind, when I did that." I explained. "But, you said it yourself: it doesn't justify what I did. It doesn't make it okay, it doesn't undo what happened, it doesn't mean that it's not going to happen again. It's an excuse, and a bad one. I lose my shit, kill more innocents, and everyone is supposed to be okay with that because my head's all fucked up? It's alright that people who have no idea what's going on lose their lives because I wasn't thinking straight and ripped them in half? No. I'm the only one who knows how bad I am, I have to be the one to keep myself in check, and I didn't do that." Once I finished speaking, the air returned to being dense. Full in a way that grated on me, made me want to lean over and empty my stomach. I wanted to pace around, bounce my leg, fucking hit something, but I couldn't. I shoved my arms down as far as they could go, driving my hands deeper into my pockets until I could feel the fabric pulling apart. I knew them too well for them to hide from me. It was as clear as day that they were both frightened. I wanted to scream so loudly that they had nothing to fear from me, but I could only scream at myself louder that they had every right to be nervous. Every muscle in my body wanted to move, to vent out my own anxieties, my goddamn fear, but every fiber of my brain knew it would only make the situation worse.

"…Your voice is the same as his." Rukia began, a near whisper. "Your hair, your-your nearsighted idiocy, your reckless drive to protect, they're all the same." Hesitantly, violet eyes crept around to meet mine. "But…you're not Ichigo." The inside of my mouth dried. All of the anxious energy that had been throbbing inside of me dissipated. My eyes burned, and I did what I could to blink it away.

"No." I smiled sadly. "I've been trying to tell you that. I…I just wish it hadn't had to come to this for it to click."

"…Who are you, then?" Renji spoke up for the first time. My mouth opened to speak, only for me to realize I didn't know the right way to answer that.

"…I'm…someone who…" I shook my head, before restarting. "…When I look at someone I know, the first thing I see is their body. For a second, I'm right back in the moment when they died. I-" My gaze drifted up to lock eyes with the redhead. "I see your shihakusho burning away in my hand, when I failed to pull you out of a Quincy trap." Then Rukia. "I see you, zombified by one of the Sternritter, being thrown at me, again and again, until either I die, or you do." My eyes then returned to the dirt beneath my feet. "I see Byakuya, shredded by his own stolen Bankai. I see Yoruichi, poisoned to death by her own blood. I see Unohana, impaled by a Quincy spear. I see myself not being able to get there in time, not strong enough to deal with the enemy, not able to do the only thing I've ever wanted to do. Have that happen enough times, and you start to stop caring about what you have to do to keep what you have left safe. You…stop thinking about where the road you're on is taking you, and just focus on keeping as many people as you can alive." I couldn't help but pause for a moment, as my own ramblings made sense to myself. My gaze lifted back up, finding the two of them staring at me openmouthed. "I'm someone who reached the end of the road, and trying to find my way back."

Violet and Brown watched me carefully, analyzing me in a new light.

"…Do you regret any of the things you've done?" Rukia had to ask. I focused on her, my expression not changing from that same sad smile.

"I've been through two wars, Rukia." I reminded gently. "Do you really think I don't?" She had the awareness to slightly regret asking that question.

"I think we're starting to understand, now, that we're no longer trying to pretend you're the same fifteen-year-old brat who has no idea how anything works. Just…don't go thinking everything is going to go back to normal because of that." Renji stated. I wasn't able to stop the depreciating laugh that shook my chest.

"If everything went back to normal because someone realized things were wrong, I wouldn't be having the problems that I am." Both of them were able to flinch at that, as they realized just who they said that to. "I figure you two are gonna want some time to let this settle in your heads, so how about we get started on the training so I can give you some distance?" The lieutenant and third-seat-that-I-had-to-keep-reminding-myself-wasn't-a-lieutenant nodded wordlessly. "Okay, so, I was saying earlier that we're not going to work on your Bankai yet. We're going to work on your Shikai first, because you're not using it right." Rukia stared at me, utterly dumbfounded by what she just heard.

"…I'm…not using my Shikai right…?" The idea was clearly completely incomprehensible to her.

"I, really don't want to knock you down or anything, but you fundamentally misunderstand your zanpakuto." I winced. She worked her jaw as she attempted to come up with a response, but whether she even believed my words or not, she was at a blatant loss. "Your zanpakuto isn't an ice-type." I decided to explain for her.

"It's…but that doesn't…h-how could…I-I don't under…" Beside her, Renji was equally as baffled as his childhood friend, looking down in thought as his brain worked to reason what Rukia's zanpakuto was if it wasn't an ice-type.

"Your zanpakuto is a cold-type." I clarified. The tattooed man's head immediately shot up.

"W-what's the difference?! What even is a cold-type zanpakuto?!"

"Sode no Shirayuki is a zanpakuto whose ability is to reduce the temperature of things within its range. Ice and snow is more of a side-effect." I couldn't help but smile sheepishly as my hand came up to rub at the back of my head. Rukia was not going to like this next part. "Your body growing colder the more you use your Shikai isn't something to manage, it's what your Shikai is supposed to do." Yup, as soon as I finished speaking, she numbly let herself collapse onto her ass, her legs flopping in front of her. "In general, Sode no Shirayuki reduces your own body's temperature to such a point that you freeze anything that you come into contact with, its dances and even the blade itself are intended to be a means to extend your reach." Just as numbly, she let herself fall back, now spread eagle on the ground, staring blankly at the ceiling of the cavern. I leaned in slightly, with mild concern and curiosity. Renji did the same.

"…Rukia?" He asked gently. "…Are you gonna be okay?"

"I'm-" There was a deep resignation in her tone. She did not shift in her position. "I'm…just gonna…" The two of us nodded understandingly and slightly shifted away to give her more space. While we did that, she brought her hands up to cover her face, inhaled deeply, and screamed with all her might. It lasted several seconds, I was actually impressed. Once it was done, I cautiously stepped closer to her, until I was nearly standing between her and Renji. I leaned over slightly to look down at her, even though she displayed exactly no desire to remove her hands from her face.

"You wanna beat on me a little bit while you practice with your Shikai?" I offered softly. She didn't respond for a long moment, I almost began to wonder if she heard me before she wordlessly nodded her head with her hands still covering her. "Okay."

My fingers tapped on my desk restlessly. Below, my foot bounced in much the same manner. I glared at the camera sitting on a small tripod in front of me, the lens reflecting my bedroom light like it was glaring back at me. Yoruichi was lying on my bed, watching anime once more. She really liked that hero school anime, she had once pointed out some white rat in a suit and told me he remined her of Kisuke. Unohana was currently downstairs with Dad, learning about modern medicine. And in the meantime, I was trying and failing badly to record that podcast Shuhei wanted me to do. I had been on the fence about it since he had first brought up the idea, with Unohana encouraging me to do it and Yoruichi just wanting me to go with whatever option I was most comfortable with.

It was seeing Rukia so afraid of me that she needed Renji's company which made my decision. The idea of Rukia not being comfortable being alone with me disturbed me on an unfathomable level. This was the woman who was the reason I had first awakened my Shinigami powers, she redefined my life and was one of the fundamental cores of how I became who I was now, excluding all the trauma. The only one of my friends who had truly been there longer than she was Chad. Always at my side, not the unflinching wall covering my back like Chad, but there to assist every time I needed an extra hand or a good slap in the face. That she couldn't be alone with me spoke volumes for what the rest of the Soul Society must've felt towards me. The Tsunayashiro's probably wanted my head now, no doubt the rumor mill had been working overtime about all the Shinigami I've killed since my time travel, the gigantic section of the Seireitei I blew apart during the Kusaka Incident was probably the first thing unseated Shinigami pointed to when talking about me.

The Gotei couldn't function at its best if it was terrified of the guy leading the charge. And it was just unreasonable to even talk to enough seated Shinigami to spread the word that I was a decent guy. Which meant using the camera Shuhei had all but forced into my hands was the best bet. Only, of course, I had no fucking clue how to do this right. Growling, I stood up, stomped away from my desk, and flopped onto Yoruichi, draping my body over hers and hanging my head over her right shoulder. She hummed happily, and brought up her right hand to idly caress my face. She spread her legs a little so that they were outside mine, and brought up her ankles to hook them around my thighs.

"Of all things, I didn't think it would be a camcorder that would end up beating you." The princess purred as she nuzzled the side of my head.

"How the fuck do I start this thing?" I groaned into her shoulder.

"Depends on how far back you wanna go. The whole point is to connect better with the Seireitei, but it's not like they need to hear every detail of your backstory."

"What, so do I start with Rukia appearing in my room and me literally kicking her in the ass? Do I explain that I'm such a living, breathing 'Fuck you' to logic that I broke a bakudo spell as a human through sheer force of will? Do I talk about being strong enough to more-or-less go toe-to-toe with a Menos Grande before I even went to the Soul Society for the first time?" I complained. "The main purpose is to better connect with the Gotei, but it's hard for them to connect with someone when you hear that their entire life is actually manufactured bullshit. There's not a single part of my life that I can describe that isn't shoving down their throats that I'm a borderline-impossible anomaly whose definition of normal is a world-ending threat every other week. It's like being expected to connect to Sakada fucking Kintoki."

"You…could talk about your relationships?" She offered. "Talk about how you bicker with Rukia, or get into contests with Uryu, or go drinking with Rangiku and I."

"Again, Rukia is a third-seat, Uryu is a Quincy, and you and Rangiku are a noble ex-captain and lieutenant respectively. The only person I talk to on the regular that isn't in the upper echelons of power is Hanataro."

"Hanataro works, doesn't he?"

"Hanataro is a fourth-seat." I reminded. She lightly patted my cheek.

"He's a seventh-seat, Berry-kun."

"He's still seated."

"He is still seated." She acknowledged. "But he's meek, and a good in for people to realize you're not the child-eating monster everyone thinks you are."

"I don't think him by himself would be enough to get them to get past all of the absurdity that makes up my life."

"Prrrrrobably not." The werecat accepted. She tilted her head to the left. "…You could lean on the insanity?"

"What?" I nuzzled into the space between her neck and collarbone.

"Don't be all flat-faced about it. Have some fun, highlight the fact that the situations you get into are crazy. Don't go 'I was strong enough to fight a Menos before I even realized the Gotei 13 was a thing', go 'this nutjob Quincy challenged me to a hollow slaying contest, and somewhere amidst the chaos I looked up and saw a goddamn Menos!'" I blinked, tossing the idea around in my head.

"That could work." I mumbled into her skin. "That could work really well. Less 'follow me as I become strong enough to kill the Soul King', more 'all I want to do is graduate high school and people keep trying to kill me.'"

"Exactly." I felt her cheek curl in as she grinned. My arms moved from limply being draped over her to circling around to hold her loosely.

"I think we've pretty thoroughly established that I should never be given the freedom to name things, so what do you propose we call this?"

"Well, 'The Exciting Adventures of the God of Sex, Ichigo', obviously." She smirked.

"Stop." I groaned.

"Fine, fine." She giggled. "Hmm, don't wanna go too anime with it, they're not supposed to treat it as a joke. But we also want something that really gives off an Ichigo vibe. Maybe 'The Afterlife is Bullshit?' That's bound to get people's curiosity."

"I love you." I hummed. Her laugh was beautiful.

"You're welcome." I shifted my arms again, ready to push myself up off the bed. The chocolate skinned goddess pat my cheek once more before lowering her hand. With a grunt, I got up off the bed and sat back down in my seat, bringing my left hand up to hover my finger over the button once more. A deep breath in, hold for three seconds, and out. Then, click. My hand fell back into my lap, and I blinked at the reflective lens.

"Uh, I didn't think of, like, an intro for this."

"Unless you did it in your head, nope." Yoruichi called.

"Ah, screw it, it's already recording. Um, hi, uh, Soul Society, I guess?" My eyebrows furrowed. "I-I don't know how to talk to a camera, so deal with it…whoever ends up watching this. Uh, thank Shuhei-"

"Hisagi-fukitaicho." She interrupted once more. "Remember that most people use titles."

"Well, I don't, so if we wanna do this right, I ain't gonna be calling him 'Hisagi-fukutaicho.'" The snark was immediate. "So, yeah, thank Shuhei for asking me to do something like this. I can confidently say there would be too much to go over for me to go through everything in one sitting, so this is episode one, I guess? Of 'The Afterlife is Bullshit'. It's basically my life-story." I paused for a moment, taking a second to get my thoughts together. "The reason I'm doing this is because I recently realized how much of a divide there is between me and all of my old friends." My voice had turned somber. "I had 'known', in a sense, that I wouldn't be able to have the same relationships I had originally, but it didn't click until a couple days ago to what extent. It's been said to me a few times, and it didn't hit me until recently, that I know a lot of people better than they may ever know me, now. I'm not naïve enough to believe this will get those relationships back, but I'm hoping I can mend all the bridges I've inadvertently burned. With that in mind, I guess the best way to start this off is the first time I ever met a Shinigami. That is, when I kicked Rukia Kuchiki in the ass." I grinned. It didn't matter how rocky our relationship got. I would never pass up an opportunity to tell people about that.

Yeah…this chapter is a seriously short one by my standards. But, it feels wrong to artificially extend it. So, the short-stack gets the short chapter. The next updates are going to be Welcome to Wonderland, I'm going to form a schedule of one chapter of TUiA, two chapters of WtW, then back to TUiA.

As for other stuff, IMPORTANT STUFF, that is the reason why it took two months before I posted anything on fanfiction:

I WROTE A BOOK! It's available on Amazon as an eBook and hardcover, the paperback will be made available at a later date. It's a supernatural mystery horror novel by the name of 'No Good Man' under my pen name of, obviously, Grimlock Bragi. I'm really excited about having gotten it published, and would greatly appreciate it if you guys took a look at it.

Here's an obligatory reminder that there is a financial way to support me: pat_reon_dot_com/user_?u=_83835975 without underscores

And, finally, the title of the next chapter: Awakening the Devil