Spoilers: Assumes knowledge of all characters and events leading up to the winter war, but as this takes place in the future, historical references are largely creative inventions.
Huge, huge thanks to Raynos, Utenatai, Hecatehatesthat, and Tenebris for asskicking beta, spec, and putting up with my whining. This fic has gone through a lot of changes in the year I've been plotting/writing it, and I absolutely could not have done it without them. Formerly referred to as "Dead Ichigo" (and probably always will be in my head), it was produced through the power of many cans of Dr. Pepper and copious listening to Imogen Heap and is the longest fic I've ever finished. I hope you enjoy it.
Setting Sun, Rising Moon: Chapter 1
Chapter one: On death, career changes, and memories of youthful indiscretions.
He sat up. "Well. That was easier than I thought it would be."
"I'm impressed you managed it." Rukia smirked at him as he stood. "You've been pretty hard to kill in the past."
"I wasn't 77 in the past," he said. He glanced at his still, silent body that lay on the bed he'd died in, then down at his soul's form, which from his vantage point appeared considerably younger. "Huh. I look a lot more handsome now."
She just smiled. "You know, you've kept important people waiting a long time."
"Ah, pipe down, I had things to do." He looked away from the body and flexed his arms experimentally. The arthritis was gone. He hadn't been able to move this easily in years.
Rukia still looked the same—that face that hadn't changed since the day they'd met but had somehow grown younger to him as he'd aged. That "exasperated by human foolishness but deigning to tolerate it" expression. It had been a long time since she'd looked at him like that. He'd missed it more than he'd realized. "So you're here instead of the local shinigami, huh? You must have missed me."
"Of course not," she scoffed. "You're too annoying to miss."
"And you're too bossy."
They glared at each other, but Ichigo could see the corners of Rukia's mouth turning up, and as if by mutual agreement, they broke into grins. "So, are you ready to do this thing?" he asked.
Rukia nodded. "I'll see you soon."
"Aren't you coming with me?"
She shook her head. "Every soul has to do this alone." In one smooth motion, she unsheathed Shirayuki and smacked his forehead with the end of her hilt. It tingled where she struck.
The world around him dissolved.
When he felt the ground under his feet again, he looked down to see that he was still wearing his faded pajamas and hospital robe instead of a proper black uniform. He hadn't realized that he would arrive in Soul Society without one. Rukia probably had. Trust her not to mention that detail.
It only took one glance to tell him he stood in Rukongai. The current residents barely spared the newcomer a glance as they passed by. He didn't look like anything special, and with their lack of spiritual sense, they couldn't tell he was a shinigami. And he was, even then—his blade was nowhere in sight, but Ichigo could still feel Zangetsu resting in his mind, deep and silent but a little closer to the surface than he had been in many years.
"It's all right, ossan," he said. "Take your time waking up."
He turned his attention to what was around him. He needed to find Seireitei, but he had no idea how to get there. He didn't recognize the buildings around him—it would be too much to hope that he could find Ganjuu for a drink, a brawl, and directions.
A strange pang struck him then. The last time he'd arrived in Soul Society feeling this lost, he'd at least had his friends by his side. Chad, Inoue, Ishida...it had been a while since he'd been fit to keep in contact, but as far as he knew, he couldn't expect to find them here. Not yet. For the moment, he was on his own.
Well, there was only one other way to do it. He looked up, squinting against the sun, and spotted the tip of Senzaikyuu far, far in the distance.
He stuck his hands in his pockets and started walking. It was a hot day with little breeze, so he was sweating lightly within a few minutes, but it felt good just to be outside. Fresh air was supposed to be good for you, and Ichigo believed it. It certainly felt better in his lungs than the sterile, circulated air of the hospital had. The people he passed looked clean and the buildings were well-kept. This had to be a lower-numbered district. That should make the trip easier; he'd be at Seireitei in no time.
Five hours later, he was sweaty, tired, and in a pissier mood than when he was fucking dying, but with perseverance and a few inquiries to the souls that lived closer to Seireitei, he'd finally made it to one of the gates. Eastern, by the look of the shadows the walls cast. It was closed, but there was no giant ape-like guardian in sight, so Ichigo just headed toward it, figuring he'd decide what to do next when he got there.
He should have worried. The gate swung up when he arrived, but instead of Rukia it was Zaraki Kenpachi who stood behind it, with that vice-captain of his perched on his shoulder like a tiny pink demon.
Zaraki grinned. "Welcome to Soul Society, Kurosaki," he said. "We can finally fight again."
Ichigo swore. "No way," he said firmly. "I'm done with that."
Zaraki's grin grew bigger, if that was possible. "You're dead this time. You can't run away anymore."
"What are you even doing here? Where's the gatekeeper?!"
"Ken-chan gave him the day off!" Yachiru announced. "Ken-chan's been looking forward to this for decades!"
"I DON'T EVEN HAVE MY ZANPAKUTOU, YOU LOON!"
"Captain Zaraki!" Rukia's voice rang out as she ran up to the gate from the inside. Ichigo thought he had never been so happy to see her. "Harassing newly-arrived souls is strictly forbidden!"
"Bah, I'm just preparing him." He turned to go, his expectant grin never wavering. "After all, I want him to be as strong as possible when we fight again!"
"Bye-bye, Vice-Captain Shorty! Bye, Itchy!" Yachiru waved enthusiastically from her position on Zaraki's shoulder until they were out of sight. A stray thought about kids these days having no respect flashed through his brain, but he shook it off.
"Sorry about that." Rukia shook her head. "I knew he wanted to challenge you, but frankly, I assumed they'd get lost. We can go now."
"About time," he said. He started to move, then stopped. "Wait. Did she call you...?"
"Yes. As if she is one to speak of height." She rolled her eyes. "But then, Vice-Captain Kusajishi has never had any sense of irony."
"I have invited her to call me by my given name more than once, but she persists in—"
"Not that!" he said. "The other part!"
"Oh." A smirk spread across her face. "Don't gape like that at a vice-captain, Ichigo. It's unbecoming."
He shut his mouth with a click. "Well...hey! Congratulations." He wanted to ask how long it had been, what had finally prompted it, why she hadn't told him when it did—he'd been infirm, not deaf—but she spoke before he could continue.
"Thank you." She nodded. "Come on. This way."
When he'd come to Soul Society to rescue Rukia, Ichigo had explored one of the lower Western districts of Rukongai. The souls who lived there were poor but clean, and he'd been impressed with how nice things looked, considering. The Kuchiki estate went way beyond that. Ichigo could barely tell they were inside Seireitei once they passed through the gate. The path they took to the main house wound around sprawling gardens and meticulously landscaped yards. Everything was so orderly, not a pebble out of place or weed where one shouldn't be. There wasn't anything splashy, but he could tell it took serious money to keep everything looking so rigidly perfect.
"Nice digs," he said as Rukia led him on.
"They suffice," she said. "As vice-captain, I am entitled to private quarters in the thirteenth division barracks, but I still spend time here out of propriety."
"Right." He stretched his legs, enjoying the slower pace now that he wasn't hurrying to meet anyone. It had been a while since he'd been able to take a walk like this under his own power. Getting pushed around in a wheelchair by thoughtful grandnieces was nice, but it didn't qualify, and at the end there had been no walks at all. Right now, he felt like he could walk forever. "So this is what it's like to be dead."
"Does it feel different being here?"
"Pretty much the same as last time," he said. "Feels good to be able to move around easy on my own again. Nice to be here, I guess. Kinda weird at the same time."
"Well, yeah." He fidgeted. "I thought it'd feel more like the old days, but it's like my brain hasn't made the connection yet. I keep expecting to need a walker or something."
Rukia looked amused. "Would you have preferred to remain an invalid?"
"Hell no. Glad I didn't pop out old. My creaky bones wouldn't be much good in a fight then."
"Be thankful for your spiritual abilities. Those who have them arrive at Soul Society in their prime and age at will. Without them, you would have spent your time here as you did in life."
Ichigo shuddered. "I did get pretty used to being old. Not much choice, you know? But I never got to like it." He shrugged. "It feels good to be here. Been a long time since I last visited."
"You're not a visitor anymore, though," she said. "This is your world now."
His world—the same as hers. For once, they'd have that in common. "Heh. I guess it is."
"You find it amusing?"
"Not really," he said. "I was just thinking." He stuck his hands in his pockets and searched for the right words. "Living in Soul Society for good. Guess I didn't think it would ever really happen."
She looked away. "Everyone dies eventually."
"Dying's the easy part. I'm not so sure about what comes next."
She was quiet for a moment before smiling. "You can start by changing out of those ridiculous pajamas."
"Hey! They're comfortable. And if you'd bothered to bring something for me to wear, I wouldn't be in them!"
"I am not your fashion consultant!"
"No, you're just the girl who can't go five minutes without busting my balls."
"Someone has to." She grinned. He realized he was grinning, too.
It almost slipped as he looked down at her. He'd almost forgotten what it was like to be around Rukia like this—the camaraderie, the comfortable bickering. It didn't feel completely natural yet—he still felt like he should be a grumpy old man, and it had been a long time since they'd talked like this. But it was still reassuring in its way. Like something once lost that he was starting to believe he could find again.
"Come on, let's go inside," Rukia said. "I'll give you the tour."
The interior of the Kuchiki mansion reminded Ichigo a lot of its owner: tastefully sparse. There were a few decorations—a wall scroll here, an exquisitely carved table there—but nothing to make the place look lived in. Servants hung about, ready when they were needed but otherwise fading into the background. Their master was nowhere to be seen. Rukia assured him that Byakuya would be pleased to see him, really, it was just that he was tied up with Captain business at the moment. Ichigo had his doubts.
"So how is everything in Soul Society going?" he asked. "Uncover any more secret conspiracies lately?"
Rukia shot him one of her special Looks. "All conspiracies are secret, idiot," she said. "Things are calm, though I doubt that will last now that you're here."
"You do tend to stir things up, Ichigo."
"It's not me who started things last time," he retorted. "But I'm just a normal shinigami like the rest of you now."
Rukia laughed. "I doubt anyone would ever describe you as normal." Her expression cleared. "Actually, that's something I needed to talk to you about. I was going to wait and let you acclimate, but I suppose now's as good a time as any."
"Eh?" He raised an eyebrow. "Sounds serious."
"It is, in a way," she said. "It was recently announced that Captain Hisagi is to ascend to a seat in the Central 46."
"Hisagi Shuuhei," she said. "He replaced Aizen as captain of the fifth division after the war. I know I told you this when it happened."
"Probably." He frowned, trying to jog his hazy memory. "Tattooed guy?"
"Yes, the tattooed guy.' You fought on his side, Ichigo, you should remember who he is!"
"You know I'm lousy at remembering names."
"You'll have to get better if you want to be a captain of the Gotei 13," she said sharply.
He nodded. "Ah. Right...WHAT?" He stopped abruptly in the middle of the hall they were in, wheeling around to face her.
"Someone has to be captain, and now you are here." She paused. "It never occurred to you that this might happen?"
"No!" He gaped at her as he fumbled for words. "I thought—I thought I'd just die and then do the same stuff I used to only I wouldn't have to worry about my body! And they want to make me a CAPTAIN? WHY?"
Rukia looked at him as if he'd lost his mind. "You're more than qualified," she said. "You are a skilled fighter. You achieved bankai in record time. You have the ability to lead and inspire respect in those who follow you. You demonstrated all these qualities decades ago. You should have expected to be made captain."
He glared at her. "Yeah, well, I didn't. It's a huge responsibility."
"Since when have you been one to run from responsibility?"
"It's not like that. It's...look, all you Soul Society guys have your own way of doing things. There's this whole structure of things I don't know anything about—I just come in and smash all the rules and do it my way. That's not really what they should be looking for in a leader. I might be a shinigami but I was never really part of the group."
"You are an idiot," Rukia snapped. She leaned closer, hands firmly on her hips, and Ichigo felt like she was bearing down on him with disapproval, as physically impossible as that would be. "Of course you weren't part of the group,' as you say. You had the rest of your life to live. Everyone respected that. But you're here now, Ichigo. What would you like to do instead? Run off on your own, ignore your duty?"
That stung. "No. But that doesn't mean I have to be a captain. It's not an either-or thing."
"It is in this case," she said. "To be offered a captaincy is a tremendous honor. To turn it down for the sake of your own unfounded misgivings would be an equally tremendous insult."
"I thought you said I deserved it."
"That does not lessen the honor," she said sternly. Her voice carried through the still, silent air and he wondered briefly if the servants were listening or if they'd been trained not to hear private arguments.
"Look, it's not like I want to insult anyone," he said. "I just don't want them to make the wrong choice just cuz I kicked some ass when I was a kid."
Rukia gave him a long, piercing look, one that meant she was about to say something important and he damn well better listen. "You are an idiot," she said again, "because you insist on being blind to your own worth. The captains of the Gotei 13 are not stupid, Ichigo. They know you. They believe in you. And so do I. You've been proving yourself since the day you took on my duties."
Ichigo faltered. He felt his cheeks heat up. "That was different."
"Is it?" She tilted her head to one side. "You always wanted to protect people. How many more people do you think you can protect as a captain—working with Soul Society instead of on your own?"
"Is dealing with a ton of paperwork going to help with that?"
"You take things so literally." Her expression softened into what looked like the beginnings of a smile, though the sternness didn't leave her eyes. "There's more to protecting people than running around slicing hollows to ribbons. You might not get your hands as bloody, but since when has that been the most important thing?"
"Still. It's not like I really fit in well last time I was here, Rukia."
"Yes. And that is why this is so important," she said. "You saw how things were, how easy it was for Aizen to manipulate everyone. Soul Society's foundation is strong, but..." She looked away for a moment, and he knew how hard it was for her to say this. "But we must make sure such a thing can never happen again. You fought Soul Society with an outsider's eyes and helped reveal the truth. We still need that, to keep protecting people…the way you protected me then."
"I…" He wanted to say something, to protest further, but it was very difficult to form words when she was looking at him with such absolute confidence. "I don't know how to be a captain."
She made a face and kicked him in the shin. "Is that all you're worried about? Idiot. We'll train you, of course. You thought we'd just give you a captain's haori and turn you loose?"
He rolled his eyes. "Hell yeah. You've already got Zaraki running around."
She kicked him again. "We do. And he agreed that you should be the next captain. They all did. It was unanimous among the other captains."
"Really? Even your tight-assed brother?"
Rukia gave him a "continue and I'll flash-freeze you" look. "Yes, nii-sama agreed. That is what unanimous means."
"I know that! I just have a hard time believing that your brother of all people would—"
A wave of reiatsu stopped him from continuing. "That I would what, exactly?"
Ichigo turned to see Kuchiki Byakuya standing in the doorway, his standard "bored and better than you" expression firmly in place. "Good evening, Rukia, Kurosaki," he said, not waiting for Ichigo's answer. "Welcome to Soul Society and to my home. Will you be joining us for dinner?"
"Yes, nii-sama," Rukia answered for him. "I think he should stay here tonight as well. His guest quarters won't be ready until tomorrow."
Byakuya nodded. "I will have the servants prepare a room."
"Was he really just polite to me?" Ichigo hissed once Byakuya had left.
She elbowed him in the side. "Shut up, idiot. He respects you, you know, in his own way. Now come on, you've got to change before dinner."
"Change? Into what?"
"Into the proper attire." She grinned. "You're a full-time shinigami now, Ichigo. You've got to look the part."
Dinner was about as uncomfortable as Ichigo had imagined it would be. Byakuya said very little and Rukia followed his lead, leaving Ichigo to feel hopelessly outclassed—the Kuchiki family even ate gracefully.
At least the food was good.
The guest room Rukia led him to afterwards was as sparsely furnished as the rest of the place, but he didn't need much more than a futon.
"If you need anything, I'll be just down the hall," she said.
"Rukia," he said, stopping her as she turned to leave.
He wasn't actually sure what he wanted to say. There was a time when he wouldn't have had to say anything—Rukia had always been good at reading him, better than anyone else.
But that was a long time ago. "Goodnight," he finally said.
He watched her go to her own room before entering his. There didn't seem to be anything to do other than undress and go to bed, so he did. He was kind of tired, now that he thought about it. Dying took a lot out of a guy.
Yet he couldn't bring himself to actually fall asleep; he lay there and stared at the ceiling, all that had happened and all that was going to happen swirling through his mind. He was lost in thought when he heard a loud click come from the direction of the door; he could feel Byakuya's reiatsu moving away.
Ichigo stared for a moment before sighing and closing his eyes. For all that Rukia professed Byakuya's newfound respect, it seemed the guy still had some reservations. Ichigo had no doubt that if he got up to check, the door would be locked from the outside, all in the name of preventing Ichigo from sneaking into Byakuya's little sister's room for more hospitality than Byakuya wanted her to offer.
Ichigo rolled over to sleep. He couldn't blame the stuffed-shirt; he'd been tempted to do the same with a few of Karin and Yuzu's boyfriends, after all.
It was just too bad that Byakuya was over fifty years too late.
Ichigo didn't usually remember his dreams with any kind of clarity, and when he did, they never made much sense. Maybe it was something about Soul Society's inherently spiritual nature, or maybe it was just being around Rukia again, but the memories washed over him as he lay there, strong enough that they didn't seem to stop when he fell asleep.
They'd been so young. Him more than her, but even with the decades she'd already had on him, he couldn't think of her as anything else when he looked back. It had been a while since he'd seen her face to face. She'd still had duties in the living world from time to time, but she'd never been reinstated as Karakura's shinigami after that disastrous first assignment, and with the Aizen thing over and done with, she had less reason to be there. He'd missed her, a hell of a lot sometimes, but the epic battles were done and they each had their own world to return to.
She went to Soul Society; he went to college. He discovered dating and did a little of it, though nothing really stuck with the girls he knew. Rukia still came to see him when she could and they'd go on the hunt together, purifying Hollows and performing konso all night and talking until dawn when they could find no more. It was almost like the old days, until she'd have to leave again.
And then, at the beginning of one weekend in the spring, she showed up unexpectedly and announced that she wanted to see more of this university thing that took up so much of his time. She'd even procured a gigai for the occasion. He'd shown her around the place, introduced her to friends who didn't know about spirits and Soul Society and didn't understand what such a hot chick was doing with Ichigo.
It had been fun. It felt right to have Rukia around again, sharing his life beyond the stolen hours as a shinigami representative. He hadn't planned for it to be anything more than a nice weekend with an old friend—hadn't planned to kiss her, nor thought of how he'd react when she kissed him upon returning from Ichigo's favorite sake bar.
He'd loved Rukia for a long time, but had never let himself think of being in love with her. He'd gone out and lived his life. He knew there were steps to this sort of thing—go on a date, start with a few kisses. That didn't stop him from unbuttoning her blouse and slipping her bra straps off the shoulders of her false body when she pressed herself against him.
He saw it again in his dreams, the details hazier but still remembered—the way she'd flushed as she undressed him, the expression on her face when he'd tried to stop them both to go to the drugstore for a condom. The ache in his skull when she'd hit him and explained why it was unnecessary.
In his mind, Ichigo was in the middle of losing his virginity when he glanced over to see Zangetsu leaning against the wall, viewing the proceedings with a critical eye.
"Ossan?!" he shouted. "What—what are you doing here?"
"I've always been here, Ichigo," the zanpakutou-made-manifest said coolly. "Always with you."
"But you weren't HERE! I remember—this didn't happen!"
Zangetsu shook his head and strode over. "Ichigo," he said. "Do you really think I could sleep through this?"
He tapped Ichigo sharply on the head and suddenly the world went sideways. Ichigo crashed off the bed, but if the Rukia in his dreams noticed, he couldn't tell, because the walls dissolved and he was falling, rushing past the glass windows of skyscrapers...
Ichigo sat up.
It was morning. A quick look around the guest room assured him that he was still dead and, unfortunately, not in the middle of getting any. Though his body didn't seem to have gotten that message. He stood up to find a bathroom for a cold shower—Byakuya probably would've sent someone to unlock the door by this time, but if he hadn't, he'd bust it open now and apologize later.
He stopped when he saw Zangetsu—in sword form this time—leaning against the wall like he had always been there. Like he belonged there.
He grinned. "Morning, ossan."
Soul Society already felt a little more like home.
Comments and criticism are warmly welcomed.
NEXT CHAPTER: "Don't worry—since we're old friends, I'll only make you call me 'sempai' in front of cute girls."