a/n: So this piece here. Originally Past Imperfect was going to be a separate story like The Beautiful Lie but with my declining interest in Bleach, I didn't want to get trapped in another long fic. But I didn't want to lose this awesome storyline either so I compromised. Write the fic, but make it short. So here it is.

This fic doesn't entirely turn out the way I originally planned, but some things had to change in order to fit into this different format. Even with shortening it, I still ended up with three parts. This is the first one. Also, this fic was conceived way before recent events in the manga so it's disastrously AU. As in, pretty much anything that happened after Nel battles Nnoitra, never happened here.

-EDIT- Ahem. Sorry for the confusion. This part, Protasis, is only the first part of Past Imperfect. There will be two other updates, one labeled Epitasis and one labeled Catastasis, that will be updated later on in Seireitei Monogatari. In fact, Epitasis is number 193 and Catastasis is number 198. I'm sorry if I led you to believe that this was all there would be to the story.-END EDIT-

With that said, please enjoy.

Enjoy.

Title: Past Imperfect (Protasis)

Characters: Ichigo, Shunsui, ensemble

Rating: T

Warning: character death, angst, AU-ish, after-battle images

Words: 2281

Description: The war has been won, but at a price that seems too costly to pay. Everything has been traced back to a single, defining moment. And Ichigo makes a choice.


A month later, the death toll rises, but the missing-in-action list never seems to shorten. The more bodies that are pulled from the rubble, the less the survivors are relieved or soothed. Funerals are an everyday occurrence, but the morgue doesn't empty, and the work never ends.

It's hot. The sun beaming down relentlessly, not a cloud in sight. Most of the surviving Shinigami have stripped down as they dig through the debris, each lifted plank of wood or stone causing dust to rise in the air. It coats their skin, their nostrils, turning them all the same greyish shade.

Ichigo is no different.

He sighs, sucks in a dusty breath, and lets a piece of wall slide to the side. Ash puffs up in its wake, but there's nothing underneath. Ichigo isn't sure if this is a good thing. Not anymore.

He straightens, back screeching in protest, and swipes his wrist over his sweating forehead. His fingers are starting to crack and bleed again from digging through blasted rock. Hanatarou will have to heal them, looking up at him with those limpid eyes. Wanting to ask if he's found anyone but terrified of the answer Ichigo will give.

Ichigo inhales carefully, nose wrinkling. A month later and the battlefield still smells of death. Of ash and blood. There are echoes of screams, cries of terror, weeping. It's been a month, and Ichigo can't escape the ghosts. He's not sure he wants to.

His body aches. His reiatsu is a tired throb inside his body. He's set Zangetsu aside a long time ago. The Shinigami digging around him are all strangers, but Ichigo feels an odd kinship with them. Their grieving, determined, and relentless pursuit through rubble.

Ichigo's not looking for anyone in particular. He's just looking. It's all he can do now. It's all he's good for. It's all that's left.

Licking his lips with a dry tongue, Ichigo sighs and moves on to a new spot, a new piece of land buried with debris. Blood is spattered on shattered stone. There's a scrap of black fabric pinched between columns of wood. Maybe something's here. Maybe there's nothing.

Ichigo grits his teeth. And he digs.

o0o0o

"When do you think it was?"

Ichigo looks up from his cup of sake, where he'd been listlessly swirling the contents around rather than drinking it.

"Hmm?"

"When do you think it was?" Kyouraku-soutaichou repeats, looking half-lost as he sits back in his chair. He stares out the window, face pensive and drawn. "At what point, did Aizen almost win?"

Ichigo slumps. "I don't know how to answer that. Would it matter if I did?"

"Maybe," Shunsui replies, and the fingers of one hand drums on his desktop. The others rise to rub at his forehead, another headache perhaps. "Maybe if we knew, maybe it would make things better."

"You can't change the past," Ichigo replies, wincing out of sympathy. He lifts his cup, inhales the sake's aroma, but still doesn't drink it.

"But if we could..."

"When would we," Ichigo finishes for him.

His gaze lifts again, taking in the tired and worn Shunsui that sits before him. A pale shadow of the vibrant man he had once been.

He doesn't smile much. There isn't reason to smile. Not with his father and his brother dead. His best friend. His columns of support. He doesn't drink, doesn't laugh. The stacks of paperwork on his desk grow higher and higher. His brown hair turns greyer and greyer. By looking at him, Ichigo would think they'd lost the war.

Except that they'd won.

It didn't feel like it.

"Yes," Shunsui confirms, sounding heavy and broken. "When would we?"

o0o0o

"Is there any change?"

"No, taichou. Not since last week," Hanatarou replies, exhausted, dark circles under his eyes, in desperate need of rest. Just like the rest of them, the rest of the survivors.

Not victors. Survivors.

Ichigo sighs and pinches the bridge of his nose. "I told you that you didn't have to call me that, Hanatarou." He offers a thin smile. "Formality isn't really important anymore."

Hanatarou looks at him, shoulders stiff and voice plain. "It's part of the Shinigami culture," he replies. "If we abandon that, what else will we have?"

Ichigo doesn't have an answer for that. But he doesn't think Hanatarou expects one. The newly appointed vice-captain instead turns and leads Ichigo down the hallway, toward the long-term care ward of the fourth division. Rarely in use before Aizen's war, now it has only one occupant. The last person Ichigo would have ever expected to take up residence.

Hanatarou opens the door. It's not locked. There's no reason for it to be. They would all rejoice if the resident could get up and leave under his own power.

Ichigo pauses in the doorway, lingering in the threshold, once again feeling like a failure. Like their victory is nothing less than a result of being the last ones standing.

"He likes the blinds open," Hanatarou comments, strolling inside and opening the window so that bright sunshine fills the room. "There's a detectable change in his reiatsu when it's open. It's not much, but..."

Ichigo shakes his head. "It's nothing," he returns perhaps a bit too harshly, and his insides tighten.

That staring, empty husk is not Zaraki Kenpachi. Those blank eyes, combed hair, neat clothes, sitting and seeing nothing, is not Zaraki Kenpachi.

Except that it is.

His hands clench into fists. It shouldn't have ended like this.

o0o0o

"You asked me once when it was that we nearly lost the war. I think I know."

There's a pause. Hesitation.

"When?"

"When Halibel stabbed Urahara in the back."

More silence. But it's contemplative now.

"He was our first serious fatality."

Agreement.

"And after that, we started dropping like flies. No one else could read Aizen like he did. We were fighting blind. We got lucky."

A scoff.

"You call this lucky?"

Quiet. Solemn. Painful.

"Not anymore."

o0o0o

He stares at the small object, barely larger than his hand. It's hexagonal in shape, one end covered in a clear stone, not quite glass but something stronger. The other end has some kind of digital display.

"What is it?"

Tessai folds his arms behind his back. "From his notes, my best guess is that it is some kind of reality distorter along the space-time continuum."

Ichigo wrinkles his brow. That can't mean what he thinks it does, right?

"A time machine?" he asks almost softly.

"If you want to call it that," Tessai replies and shifts uncomfortably. "I don't know if it works. It requires a massive amount of energy, which I suspect is the reason tenchou never tried it himself. He didn't have the necessary reiatsu."

He's skeptical, but Ichigo takes the device anyway. "Why give it to me?"

Tessai's gaze skitters away. His shoulders droop. The grief is still palpable even four years after the fact.

"He would have wanted you to have it."

Urahara has – had – has a dozen or more experiments in his laboratory, some of them finished, some of them not. Tessai could have easily chosen one of those to bring to Ichigo. Instead, he arrives with an item best described as a time machine.

"I see," Ichigo allows. "Thank you, Tessai."

The man nods and excuses himself, heading back to the living world and Uryuu and Jinta, who need him now more than ever. Leaving Ichigo to stare at the device, a wild part of him wondering if it works. An insane part of him wanting to try. A desperate side of him needing it to function.

When has anything of Urahara's ever failed?

o0o0o

"We could do it."

Pleading. Begging even.

"We don't even know if it works."

"His inventions always work."

Determination. Need.

"At what cost, Ichigo?"

"I don't know. But I imagine it's not any worse than what we're enduring now."

"We won. That should be enough."

Silence. Pain.

"You know, Shunsui, I'm not entirely sure that we did."

o0o0o

"You're crazy." Rukia shakes her head. "It sounds like suicide. You're going to get yourself killed."

Ichigo listlessly pushes his chopsticks through his food. "I think it'll work."

"And if you fail? What then?" she demands and slams back her sake like its water, like the harsh burn of it doesn't even faze her anymore. "You can't change the past. It's impossible. What happened, happened."

He lifts his eyes. "You don't know that for sure. I have to try. I have to do... something."

"No, you don't," Rukia shoots back. Now, she looks pained as she sets down her chopsticks and reaches for his hand, covering it with her warm fingers. "I miss them, too. I want them back more than anything. But not if I have to lose you in the process. I can't do that, Ichigo." Her thumb rubs over the back of his hand, a pale attempt at comforting him. "You don't have to be our hero."

But Ichigo knows the truth. It's not that he doesn't have to be, it's that he couldn't be. That for all the power in the world, he couldn't stop Ulquiorra and his band of Arrancar from wiping out the sixth division. He couldn't prevent Barragan from tearing apart Isshin. He couldn't protect Yachiru from Wonderwice and Tousen.

He hadn't been able to do much of anything.

"Ichigo," Rukia says gently. "Let it go."

He already knows that he can't.

o0o0o

"No one will believe me if I tell them Aizen is going to betray you."

Obvious truth is obvious.

"I know. Besides, we can't be sure the device will go back that far. If your body can sustain that much inertia."

"Later than that then. When I actually have a chance to change something."

A spark of mirth. Of hope.

"Ki-kun will believe you."

"He'll be my first contact."

"You'll need more than that. Find me."

Certainty now.

"You think you'll believe the cocky ryoka? That I'm a visitor from the future."

"I will if you tell me all the things no one else knows."

More mirth. Laughter even.

"...That sounds crazy and convoluted, Shunsui."

"So does this plan. We're still doing it though."

"Yeah. Yeah we are. We have to."

o0o0o

There's nothing to pack, nothing that can go with him. Not even Zangetsu. In the past, Ichigo has his zanpakutou, so he's not worried about that. But there are other things he'd like to take, mementos, items with meaning.

Everything he needs to know, he's memorized. All he needs is Urahara's device, some privacy, and a location that can be destroyed in the off chance the time machine explodes or something similar. There's nothing left to do except go for it.

Ichigo's said his goodbyes. What few there are to make. Rukia's under the impression that he's changed his mind, that she's right and he doesn't need to fix things. She fully believes that he's starting to recover, that he'll get over it, find happiness.

He regrets that he's had to give her that lie.

Yuzu and Karin don't know anything either. Ichigo regrets that he's leaving them, especially now that both Isshin and their mom are gone, but if he fixes the past, they won't have that loneliness anymore. Besides, Tessai will watch over them. Shunsui won't let anything happen to them either. Rukia's all but adopted them; they'll never lack for care.

He'll miss them. He'll miss them most of all. But he has to do this. He has no choice. This victory is anything but. He has to fix things before he goes mad.

Shunsui knows what to do. How long to wait and see if Ichigo's failed. How to follow in Ichigo's footsteps if he must. He's been as coached in how to handle the Ichigo of the past, as much as Ichigo has been instructed about the himself. They've talked this out, over and over, step by step.

Ichigo finds himself at Soukyoku Hill. A fitting place since it is where it began all those years ago. Though Ichigo isn't sure that hill is a suitable name anymore. Not since the Hougyoku's destruction tore a crater in it and blew half of the rock away.

It's warm. Pleasant. A cheery spring day.

Ichigo stands on the edge and looks down at Seireitei or what's left of it. Surveying the destroyed divisions, shattered buildings, the tattered flags and it's even more tattered residents. There is no corner of Soul Society that remains untouched by the war. Not a one. There'd been no escape. Not even the living world had survived unscathed.

And they'd dare name it a victory.

His fingers tighten around Urahara's creation. It's going to work. It has to work. Ichigo won't accept failure. Not in this. Not in himself.

He closes his eyes, feels his reiatsu swirl around him, and pours it and himself into the device. Feels it warm in his fingers, pulse and throb like it has a heartbeat. Something tugs at the very center of his being, between his ribs and below his heart. It pulls him inward and upward and backward.

The world dissolves beneath him, and Ichigo falls into it gladly.


a/n: I'm sure time-travel fics have been done to death, but this story demanded to be told and I must bow to the muses.

Feedback is welcome and appreciated!