A/N: Finally, after eight long months, the final chapter is up! I am SO sorry that it took me this long to write this chapter, and while I had to rush a little to get it finished before summer, I'm pretty happy with the ending. Thank you for reading my story, and as always, don't forget to R/R!
The night was eerily quiet as Chad, Ichigo, and Orihime hurried through the empty streets of Karakura with Chad carrying Ishida in his arms. The sound of their own footsteps hitting the pavement served as a metronome that kept them running, propelling them forward and deterring them from stopping to rest. There was no time to stop. They had to keep going.
Ichigo gritted his teeth. Normally he was horrible at sensing other people's reiatsu, but even this was something he couldn't ignore. Ishida's reiatsu had grown weaker ever since they'd left the forest, and Ichigo was very worried. He remembered how back in Soul Society, Chad's reiatsu had disappeared after he nearly died in his first (and only) battle, and he was afraid that if Ishida's reiatsu continued its downward spiral, then it meant that Ishida was dying, too.
If you have to do CPR on someone, it's because harm has already been done…when that happens, you do what you can and wait to see if it's effective. That's all you can do.
Ichigo's heart sank as he recalled Isshin's words. Back at the pool, he'd known exactly what to do in order to save Ishida's life, but even then there were times when he wasn't sure if Ishida would survive. Now Ishida's been hurt again, he thought guiltily, but this time I don't know how to help him. Hopefully, he will know.
Ishida suddenly let out a weak moan, and Chad gasped as he felt Ishida's reiatsu wavering. "Ichigo!" he yelled. "Should we stop?"
"No!" Ichigo shouted back. "We can't waste any more time! The sooner we get Ishida to Urahara shouten, the better!"
Ishida shivered, and Chad tightened his arms protectively around the unconscious boy to keep him warm. "Hold on," he muttered. "Just hold on, Ishida. We're almost there."
Orihime struggled not to fall too far behind the boys. That's right, she thought. Now that Ishida-kun has lost his powers, it's not safe for him to be by himself anymore. He needs our protection, and there's no safer place in town than the shouten. Urahara-san will take care of Ishida-kun. I just know he will.
Suddenly Orihime saw a familiar, two-story building looming in the distance. "There it is! I see it!" she shouted as she pointed to the building. "The shouten…it's straight ahead!"
With their destination visibly in sight, the three teenagers increased their speed as they ran the last several yards toward the Urahara shouten. Ichigo was the first to reach the door.
"URAHARA-SAN!" he shouted as he pounded desperately the door. "URAHARA-SAN, ARE YOU IN THERE?"
Seconds later, the front door opened as Urahara and Tessai stepped outside. "Kurosaki-san, this is a surprise!" Urahara greeted cheerfully. "What brings you here this time of…?"
His voice trailed off as he saw Orihime, Chad, and Ichigo standing on his doorstep, panting heavily and on the verge of collapse, with Chad's arms just barely holding on to Ishida. "Oh dear," he murmured. "Tessai!"
Tessai nodded. "I'll take him," he said as he lifted Ishida from Chad's arms and carried him into the shouten. The other three teenagers immediately tried to follow Tessai, but Urahara's cane suddenly flew in front of them and blocked their path.
"Not so fast," the former Shinigami captain said calmly as he noticed the outraged looks on their faces. "I know you're worried about Ishida-san, but I can assure you, he's in very good hands. More importantly, after the three of you rest awhile, I'd like you to tell me what happened to him. Please, come inside."
With that, he lowered his cane and ushered the exhausted teenagers into the shouten, closing the door securely behind them.
Ichigo, Chad, and Orihime sat silently at the round table in Urahara's living room. After Urahara finished questioning them about the events leading to their arrival at the shouten, he had excused himself to see how Ishida was faring under Tessai's care. Once Urahara left the room, Ichigo told Orihime and Chad his suspicions of how Ishida had no one to comfort him in the wake of his grandfather's death, and how the loss of his powers combined with the stress of recent events had caused him to fall apart in the forest. The news had stunned them both.
"How horrible," Orihime whispered, blinking back tears. "I didn't know that hollows killed Ishida-kun's grandfather, or that Ishida-kun saw it happen. He must have been so scared…"
"He was," Ichigo said darkly. "Remember what he said last night, when his heart was trapped in that barrier and we couldn't get through to him?"
Chad nodded. "He didn't want to be alone," he remembered, "and he kept calling for his grandfather."
"Exactly," said Ichigo. "Ishida pretends that nothing bothers him when he's around us, but all these years, he's been keeping his pain hidden somewhere deep in his heart where no one can see how much he was hurting. But now we know the truth. The Ishida we heard last night, that's who he was years ago, a scared little kid who missed his grandfather and was afraid of getting hurt. He just won't admit it."
"It does explain a lot," said Chad. "Now I know why Ishida always seemed to have some kind of invisible barrier around him that separated him from everyone else." He paused. "I don't blame him for not trusting us. How would we have reacted if we had no one to help us through the worst pain of our lives?"
"It isn't fair," Orihime said angrily, clenching her fists tightly in her lap. "It's hard enough losing someone you love, but no one should have to go through the worst pain of their lives alone. How is it fair that the three of us had other people to help us through our pain when Ishida-kun had no one? I don't understand. Where was his father after his grandfather died?"
"Probably at the hospital, too busy with work to realize that his own son was suffering," Ichigo said bitterly. "Dad told me once that there are some doctors who spend so much time at work that they end up neglecting their own families. And with Ishida's dad being the director of the hospital, I bet he wasn't home very much. Ishida and his dad don't seem close at all; I wouldn't be surprised if his grandfather gave him more attention than his dad ever did."
An image of Isshin's grinning face flashed through Ichigo's mind, and suddenly he felt a warm surge of affection for his father. Dad always put our family first. Even before Mom died, and especially afterwards, he was there for Karin, Yuzu, and me whenever we needed him, no matter how busy things got at the clinic. Ichigo sighed. Dad might be an idiot, but at least we know he cares.
"I think Ishida's powers were a diversion for his grief," Ichigo continued. "He didn't have anyone to help him cope with his grandfather's death, so instead of dealing with his pain, I think he focused all his energy on developing his powers instead. But once he lost his powers…"
"There was nothing left to protect his heart from breaking all over again," Chad finished. "That's why he tried to close his heart within a barrier, but instead of keeping his pain out, it ended up locking his pain in." He shook his head. "You know, for a while yesterday, I thought he was finally beginning to trust us."
"Until we ignored him when he tried to tell us about his powers," Ichigo muttered angrily. "Can you imagine how hard it must have been for him to open up to us, only to get slapped in the face?" He sighed and ran his fingers through his hair. "We were no friend to him today," he murmured.
"Kurosaki-kun…" Orihime whispered.
Chad placed a hand on Ichigo's shoulder. "We'll make it up to him," he said reassuringly. "That's a promise."
Ichigo smiled weakly at Chad, and with that, the three teenagers fell silent, each lost in their own thoughts. Orihime clasped her hands on the table, closed her eyes, and bowed her head in silent prayer. Chad leaned back on his hands and stared blankly at the wall in front of him. Ichigo looked impatiently at his watch and scowled. Damn that Urahara-san…it's been almost ten minutes since he left to check on Ishida. What's taking so long? Did something bad happen to Ishida?
The sliding door to the living room opened, and the three teenagers quickly rose to their feet as Urahara entered the room. "Urahara-san, how is he?" asked Ichigo.
"Is Ishida-kun all right?" Orihime asked anxiously.
Urahara held his hands up to calm them down. "Ishida-san will be fine," he said. "You three did the right thing in bringing him here tonight. He's very fortunate, actually. Given what's happened, his condition could have been much worse."
The teenagers exchanged worried looks. "What do you mean?" asked Chad.
Urahara sat down at the table and motioned for them to sit as well. Pouring himself a cup of tea, he explained, "When Tessai and I examined Ishida-san, it appeared that he hasn't had anything to eat or drink in half a day. That, coupled with his recent illness and the amount of time he spent training in the forest, left him dehydrated and placed a terrible amount of strain on his body. Had you not found him when you did…" The blond man shook his head. "I also suspect he hasn't been eating well for quite some time now. He's lost quite a bit of weight since the last time I examined him, on the night that Abarai Renji cut him open with his zanpakuto."
Ichigo remembered that night all too well. It was the same night that Rukia was taken back to Soul Society, the same night Ishida got injured trying to protect her from Renji and Byakuya. Urahara had been the one to dress Ishida's wounds that night, and Ichigo realized that only Urahara, who did not spent a lot of time with Ishida, would notice if Ishida had lost weight in a short amount of time. I never noticed, he thought guiltily. I just thought Ishida was always thin.
Chad stayed quiet, but inwardly he felt sick to the stomach. I thought it was just my imagination, he thought. Yesterday, when I pulled Ishida out of the pool, and this evening, when we left the forest, Ishida's body seemed lighter when it did when we first went to Soul Society. I thought it felt that way because he was unconscious. I didn't know that he wasn't eating…
"We didn't know." Orihime looked as though she was about to cry. "Ishida-kun doesn't like other people to see his weaknesses. He never told us that he'd lost his powers. After we came back from Soul Society, he avoided us whenever he could. I didn't know why he didn't want to be friends with us anymore, but I never thought…" She stopped and stared helplessly at her hands.
Urahara's face softened. "As I said before, Ishida-san will be all right," he said. "His reiatsu was fading due to the damage inflicted to his body, but it's stabilized now. We've already begun treating him for dehydration and replenishing the nutrients and fluids that he's lost. After Tessai is done cleaning him up, we're putting him straight to bed. Sleep is the best medicine for him now. It'll help speed up his recovery."
The teenagers breathed a sigh of relief. "Thank goodness," said Orihime.
"Urahara-san?" said Ichigo. "Are Ishida's Quincy powers really gone for good? Isn't there any way for him to get them back?"
Urahara took a sip of tea. "Tessai and I were able to analyze a portion of Ishida-san's reiatsu a short while ago. It seems that while his spiritual awareness is still intact, his Quincy powers have effectively been sealed somewhere deep in his soul, far away from his body's reach. Because of this, he cannot harness his powers at will anymore." Urahara frowned. "This is the first time I've ever heard of such a thing, so if there is a way for him to regain his powers, then I have no knowledge of it."
"So his training in the forest to get his powers back…it was all for nothing?" asked Chad.
"That's right. The only thing his 'training' accomplished was to deplete his reiatsu and weaken him further. I imagine that his resolve was the last thing holding him together by the time you three found him. The Quincies were—are, I should say—well known to be strong-willed and stubborn people, and that was one reason why they were so formidable. But Ishida-san is still young, and a Quincy's resolve, however strong, is certainly not unbreakable."
No, it sure isn't, Ichigo thought bitterly, the image of Ishida falling to the ground in tears resurfacing in his mind.
Seeing the worried expressions on the teenagers' faces, Urahara smiled. "Don't underestimate Ishida-san. His resolve may be broken at the moment, but he has that strong Quincy determination in his favor. I have no doubt that he'll recover from this."
"Can we see him?" asked Orihime.
Urahara nodded and stood up. "Of course. I'll go see if he's ready." At the doorway, he paused.
"Inoue-san," he said, "I'll have to ask you not to heal Ishida-san while he's under my roof. After what happened this afternoon, I can't trust that he won't try to run away once you heal him completely. That's why I want you to allow Tessai and me to take care of him and make sure he gets enough food and rest before we let him go home. Is that all right?"
Orihime bowed her head. "I understand," she said softly. If I hadn't healed Ishida-kun back at his apartment, then maybe he wouldn't have gone to the forest. Maybe he would have stayed home and rested, just like he was supposed to. The thought of it made her sad.
Urahara nodded and left the room. As soon as he left, Chad turned and looked directly at Orihime. "You did nothing wrong, Inoue," he said. "We didn't know that Ishida was going to go to the forest as soon as you healed him. None of this is your fault."
Orihime blushed. Am I so transparent that Sado-kun knew exactly what I was thinking? "Thank you, Sado-kun," she replied. "I needed to hear that."
Ichigo shook his head. "What happened to Ishida today…that could have been any of us," he said. "We've all lost someone we loved when we were kids, and we all suffered for it. But Ishida…he had it so much worse than we did, all because he never had a shoulder to cry on."
Chad placed a hand on his own shoulder, where his shirt was still damp from Ishida's tears. "He had one tonight," he said softly.
"Three," Orihime corrected. She frowned. "Or is it six? We each have two shoulders, so…"
"Three is fine, Inoue," said Ichigo, smiling slightly.
Orihime smiled back. "You know, I'm glad we were there for him tonight," she said. "I feel like I finally understand Ishida-kun better now."
"Yeah, same here," Ichigo agreed. "If anything good came out of all this, it would be that."
The door opened again, and the teenagers looked up in surprise to see not Urahara, but Tessai standing in the doorway. "You may see him now," said Tessai, "but please keep quiet and don't stay too long. Ishida-san needs his rest."
"We understand," said Chad, and the other two nodded as they walked past Tessai and down the hallway toward the very last room. Tessai looked after them with his arms crossed firmly across his chest. When it came to caring for the injured, Tessai took his job very seriously, and he had no qualms about making them leave if they did anything to jeopardize Ishida's recovery.
The room was dark and faintly lit by a small lamp. A single futon rested in the center of the room, and on that futon lay Ishida. A damp washcloth rested on his forehead, and a soft blanket covered him up to his shoulders so that only his head and neck were visible. Under the covers, he looked impossibly small and frail. Even in the dim light of the room, his face, though relaxed and calm, looked very pale, and at first glance he hardly seemed to be breathing at all.
Ishida…eyes closed, lips blue…lying motionless on the ground…not breathing…
"Ichigo." Snapped abruptly out of his thoughts, Ichigo turned to find Chad looking at him with concern. "Are you all right? You looked strange just now."
"Yeah, yeah, I'm fine," Ichigo said quickly. "It's just…seeing him like this reminded me of what happened at the pool yesterday."
Chad nodded sympathetically. "Same here."
"I don't think we can ever forget," said Orihime.
As quietly as possible, without bothering to close the door behind them, the three teenagers made their way to Ishida's side and kneeled beside him. Ishida's eyes were closed, and his breathing was so soft that only the subtle rise and fall of his chest indicated that he was alive. Ichigo could still recall with sickening clarity a time when Ishida's chest moved only because he was blowing air into the other boy's lungs, and as he watched Ishida breathe, he inwardly shuddered. We almost lost him for good.
At first, no one dared to touch Ishida for fear of waking him up, until Orihime reached out and gently placed her hand on Ishida's forehead. "We're here, Ishida-kun," she said softly. "We're right here with you."
At Orihime's touch, Ishida's eyebrows furrowed as though he were concentrating hard on something. Then, with a soft sigh, he visibly relaxed.
Orihime smiled and withdrew her hand. "At least now he isn't hurting anymore."
"That's good," said Ichigo. "Because I never want to see him like that again."
"Me neither," Chad murmured. He understood Ichigo well enough to know that if there was one thing that Ichigo despised, it was watching his friends and family suffer, and that now included Ishida. Traveling together to Soul Society had inevitably bound them together, and despite his distant personality, Ishida had proven himself to be a true friend and comrade to Ichigo, Chad, and Orihime.
Ichigo felt guilty as he looked down at Ishida, who looked so vulnerable as he slept. "I'm sorry," he said quietly, "I shouldn't have yelled at you back in the forest. I know that we hurt you, and I hope you'll give us a chance to make it up to you later. You got to hang in there, okay? This won't be like the last time, I promise."
"That's right," said Chad. "You don't have to carry all this pain by yourself anymore. We'll help you through this. We're not going to give up on you, so please don't give up on yourself."
"You're going to get better, Ishida-kun," said Orihime. "And when you do, we'll make sure you never feel alone again."
Ishida gave no sign that he heard his friends. He never once stirred from his deep sleep, but despite that, the other teenagers still hoped that somehow he could sense their reiatsu and find comfort in their presence.
"Maybe when this is over, his heart can finally begin to heal," said Chad.
"I hope so," said Orihime.
Ichigo nodded and lightly placed a hand on Ishida's shoulder. "Sleep well, Ishida," he said. "You're going to be okay."
From the doorway, Urahara observed the teenagers watching over their friend, then silently closed the door to give them some privacy.
Ishida found himself back in the forest where his grandfather died again, but this time he wasn't alone. Less than four feet away, huddled under a tree with his knees drawn to his chest, was a small, dark-haired boy who stared back at Ishida with narrowed, suspicious eyes. It was a look that Ishida was all too familiar with; he had seen it on numerous occasions in the mirror.
"I know I haven't been fair to you," Ishida continued. "All these years, I thought I was doing the right thing by pushing other people away before they got close to me. I didn't want to face the truth, and the truth is that I am afraid. I can't forget how much it hurt to lose Sensei, and I thought that as long as I didn't allow myself to grow too close to someone, then it wouldn't hurt as much when that person left. But I know now that by doing that, I only made myself even more alone. I tried to convince myself it was all right, that I didn't need anyone else…but in the end I was only lying to myself."
The little boy silently climbed to his feet. His eyes, no longer angry or suspicious, were now slowly filling with tears.
Ishida sank to his knees and lowered his head. "Please forgive me," he whispered. "I ignored you for so long because I knew that you'd never stopped crying, and I didn't want to hear you cry. Because I knew…I knew that if I allowed myself to even think about it, then I'd start crying, too, and I didn't want that. I've been such a coward…"
The little boy took several small steps toward Ishida, who didn't raise his head, and without warning threw his arms tightly around the older boy's neck. Ishida gasped as the pressure around his neck tightened, nearly choking him, but instead of pushing the little boy away, he wrapped his arms protectively around him and drew him close, allowing the boy to cry on his shoulder.
He's so little, Ishida thought, closing his eyes. Too young to go through this sort of pain alone.
After a while, the little boy suddenly let go of Ishida and looked over his shoulder. Confused, Ishida turned his head to see what he was looking at. Three children, two boys and a girl, were standing by the river and waving. Ishida blinked. There was something familiar about those three…
The little boy took a few steps toward the three children, then looked back at Ishida with an apprehensive look on his face.
"It's all right," Ishida said to his younger self. "Go on, they're waiting for you."
A huge grin spread across the younger Ishida Uryuu's face, and with a cheerful wave he turned and ran to join his new friends. Once they were all together, the four children ran off to play, giggling and laughing. Ishida watched them go with a sad smile on his face.
"He's not crying anymore," Ishida murmured thoughtfully. "He's with friends, and he's happy. He's finally at peace."
We'll be all right now.
As the first rays of dawn entered the shouten, Ishida's eyes slowly opened. The first thing he noticed was that he felt warm, and he sleepily glanced down to see that he was lying on a futon with a blanket covering him up to his shoulders. Where am I? he thought groggily as he silently surveyed his unfamiliar surroundings. This isn't the hospital, but I'm not home, either. How…?
"Ah, I see you're awake, Ishida-san."
Startled by the sound of another voice, Ishida gasped and turned his head to see Urahara Kisuke sitting beside him. "It's all right," the older man said softly. "You're safe here."
Ishida's head spun with confusion. Urahara-san? So then…I'm at the shouten? How did I get here? He struggled to sit up, but found to his dismay that he had no strength to do more than lift his head off his pillow.
"Easy now," Urahara murmured as he gave Ishida's shoulder a reassuring squeeze. "Your body hasn't fully recovered yet, so please don't push yourself." Ishida opened his mouth to speak, but Urahara quickly placed a finger to his lips, silencing him before he could make a sound. "Shhh, don't try to talk. You don't want to wake the others."
The others? Ishida didn't understand. What others? Who else is at the shouten?
"Here, let me show you." Urahara said as he carefully slipped his arm behind Ishida's back and helped Ishida sit up. Ishida didn't protest when Urahara made him lean against him; he knew that he was too weak to sit on his own in his current state. The only source of light in the room came from a nightlight in the wall, and as Ishida's eyes adjusted to the light, he got a great surprise.
Three futons lay side by side not far from his own, and on these futons slept Ichigo, Chad, and Orihime. Chad looked almost like a solid wall under his blanket. Ichigo had one arm flung carelessly over his eyes. The only visible part of Orihime was her long hair, since her blanket had been pulled almost above her head. All of them appeared to be sleeping peacefully.
Ishida's eyes widened with shock. Sado-kun, Inoue-san, and Kurosaki? Why…?
"Kurosaki-san, Sado-san, and Inoue-san brought you to the shouten after you lost consciousness last night," Urahara said quietly. "The three of them have refused to leave until they know for sure that you'll be all right. They even insisted on spending the night here, in this very room beside you, so that they can keep you company even while you slept."
Ishida stared silently at the sleeping teenagers, unable to tear his eyes away from them. It can't be, he thought numbly. They stayed the night…for me? A wave of mixed emotions tugged painfully at his heart. He wasn't sure whether to feel grateful for his friends' attention, or guilty for all the trouble he'd caused them these last few days.
"Now then…" Ishida finally turned his head away to find Urahara pouring some dark, herbal-smelling liquid from a flask into a small teacup. "I know you're tired, but before you go back to sleep I need you to take some medicine. It's good for you and will help you get your strength back faster."
Ishida made a face after taking just one sip and tried to turn his head away, but Urahara shook his head and brought the cup even closer to his mouth. Seeing that there was no way out, Ishida let out a resigned sigh and drank the rest of the medicine in one gulp. With that, Urahara smiled and gently laid Ishida back on his futon. "See, that wasn't so bad, was it?" he asked cheerfully.
Yes, it was, Ishida thought with a scowl. It was becoming harder to keep his eyes open now, and he wondered vaguely if the medicine had something to do with making him so sleepy. Closing his eyes, he decided not to worry about that as he felt Urahara's hands tucking his blanket around his shoulders. It was a familiar, nostalgic gesture, and for a while Ishida imagined that he was a child again, and it was his beloved grandfather, not Urahara, who was putting him to bed. Then he remembered that Ichigo, Chad, and Orihime were only several feet away, and a single tear trickled down his cheek. I was wrong…they really do care…
"I'm sorry," he whispered, his words barely audible as he felt himself drifting back to sleep.
"Look, Sensei!" Uryuu exclaimed as he drew back his bowstring and released an arrow so that it flew cleanly across the river. "Did you see that? The arrow never hit the water this time!"
"Well done," Souken smiled as he reached out and ruffled Uryuu's dark hair. "You're improving more and more each day. I'm proud of you, Uryuu my boy."
Uryuu smiled happily at these words. He liked making Sensei proud. Nothing he did ever pleased his father, so whenever Sensei smiled and said he was proud of him, it made Uryuu feel like he could accomplish anything.
"I wish Father would let me spend more time with you," Uryuu said wistfully as he turned and gave Souken a hug. "I'm happy whenever I'm with you, Sensei."
As Souken embraced his grandson, he looked slightly worried. "And I want you to be happy, too, Uryuu," he said softly. "No matter what happens…"
The sound of birds chirping outside his window woke Ishida up. Groaning softly, he opened his eyes and found himself staring blankly at the wooden ceiling above him. That's right, he thought as he recalled the events from the previous night. I'm at the…
"Ishida-kun!" Suddenly, without warning, Orihime's face appeared mere inches away from Ishida's, making him gasp and shrink back against his futon in surprise. "Thank goodness! Kurosaki-kun, Sado-kun, he's awake!"
"Back off, Inoue, you're scaring him," Ichigo scolded upon seeing the startled look on Ishida's face. He still remembered what it was like to wake up with Tessai in his face and under the covers with him, and he thought wryly that Ishida was fortunate not to have had the exact same experience that he did.
"Oh, sorry!" Orihime apologized and immediately moved back several feet to give Ishida some space. Taking deep breaths to calm down from that surprise awakening, Ishida turned his head to find Ichigo, Orihime, and Chad sitting at his bedside, watching him with relieved smiles on their faces.
"Inoue-san," he whispered faintly. "Sado-kun…Kurosaki…"
Ichigo smiled. "Are you okay?" he asked.
Ishida nodded and carefully moved his arms and legs, relieved to find that he had regained some of his strength back. Slowly propping himself up on his elbows, he pressed his hands firmly against the futon and shakily pushed himself to a sitting position. His body still felt weak and tired, and for a split second he feared that he'd collapse. Ichigo and Chad immediately moved forward to help him, with Chad keeping a supportive hand against his back until he was able to fully sit up without support.
"Here you go, Ishida-kun," Orihime said, placing a glass of water in Ishida's right hand and his glasses in his left hand. "You must be thirsty."
"Thank you," Ishida said politely as he slipped on his glasses and gingerly took a sip of water. The water felt cool and refreshing as it trickled down his throat, surprising him; he didn't realize how parched he was. "How long was I asleep?"
"A pretty long time," said Ichigo. "It's almost 10:00. Aside from the few minutes you were awake earlier this morning, I'd say you slept close to eleven or twelve hours in all."
Ishida looked stunned. That long? Glancing down at his lap, he noticed for the first time that someone had dressed him in a navy yukata, and he looked up to see Ichigo, Chad, and Orihime wearing gray, dark-green, and lavender yukatas, respectively. Behind them, three futons and their accompanying blankets were neatly folded and stacked against the wall, proof that they had spent the night at the shouten. "You three have been here all this time?" Ishida asked.
"Well, yeah," said Ichigo. "Did you really think we were going to leave you alone after what happened yesterday?"
"There wasn't anywhere to be but here," Chad said simply.
After hearing these heartfelt words, Ishida felt his face flush with a mixture of gratitude, relief, and embarrassment. Unable to bear the sight of his friends looking at him so intently, he turned his head and looked away. Sensing his discomfort, the other three exchanged looks and tentatively touched his shoulder. Ishida immediately stiffened, but he made no move to shake them off. Several seconds passed before his body finally relaxed.
Ichigo watched Ishida with a careful eye, silently making note of Ishida's discomfort around the other teenagers. Looks like Ishida still doesn't trust us, he thought with some disappointment, but I guess I can't blame him for being so guarded. He's been pushing people away for most of his life; it'd be hard for him to change overnight.
"I'm sorry," Ishida whispered with his head still bowed. "I've caused you all so much trouble. First that…accident at the pool, then staying with me at the hospital, and…"
Ichigo shook his head. "No, you idiot," he muttered, cutting Ishida off. "What have you got to be sorry for? We're the ones who should be apologizing, not you."
Ishida looked up in surprise.
"We haven't been a good friend to you, Ishida-kun," confessed Orihime. "When we left your apartment yesterday, we didn't mean to hurt your feelings or let you think that we didn't care about you. We let you down when you needed us, and we're really sorry." She bowed her head in shame, and Chad and Ichigo quickly followed suit. "Please forgive us, Ishida-kun."
Ishida stared at his friends in surprise, unsure of what to say. He would be lying if he denied that they had hurt his feelings, but he didn't want to make them feel worse than they already did. Up until now he hadn't dared to think about what happened yesterday for fear that it would hurt too much, but thinking back now, to his surprise, the memories didn't seem to bother him anymore.
Ishida frowned. How is that last night, my heart hurt so much that I almost wanted to die, yet now, I'm not sad or afraid anymore? He deliberately tried to relive one of the most painful moments of his life, the night Ryuuken left him alone after his grandfather's funeral, in order to draw out as much pain as he could endure. To his surprise, it never came. Something inside him kept stopping his grief from taking form, a feeling he had never felt before until recently.
Warmth. The same warmth he felt in the forest when three pairs of arms surrounded him, holding him, trying to comfort him even as his body couldn't stop shaking from crying so hard. The warmth of soothing voices telling him that he was safe and that everything would be okay, even when he did not believe it himself. The warmth he felt surging through his blood when he saw three familiar faces smiling back at him, the moment when he realized that he wasn't alone anymore.
As he remembered, Ishida suddenly felt as though a heavy weight had been lifted off his shoulders, and he was amazed by how light and relaxed he presently felt. It doesn't hurt so much anymore, he thought to himself. Does this mean that I've moved on, that I've finally let go of my grief?
Ishida turned back to the others. "It's all right," he said softly. "There's nothing to forgive. After all, the three of you were there for me last night, and you're here now."
Chad, Orihime, and Ichigo lifted their heads, looking both surprised and relieved that Ishida had forgiven them so readily.
"No, there's still one more thing," said Ichigo. "I know that if I hadn't dragged you to Soul Society to help me save Rukia, then you'd still have your powers, and none of this would have happened."
Ishida froze, his eyes widening with shock. "W-What?" he whispered.
"You don't have to tell us how you lost your powers," Orihime said quickly. "Just let us know if there's anything we can do to help, okay?"
Ishida's head spun furiously. He had never told anyone that he'd lost his powers in Soul Society, but looking back, he supposed it wasn't too hard to figure out. Maybe Orihime had told Chad and Ichigo how he'd stayed behind to fight Kurotsuchi alone, and since that was the only time he was separated from everyone else, they assumed that he must have lost his powers during that battle. To his surprise, he didn't mind that they knew; in fact, he felt relieved. As long as they didn't know the more personal details—like Kurotsuchi describing how he'd tortured and killed countless numbers of Quincies, including his grandfather, or how he'd disobeyed his grandfather by removing the Sanrei glove to gain the power to defeat Kurotsuchi, and how all his efforts were in vain—he had no qualms. I just don't think I'm ready to talk about those other things just yet.
Shaking his head, Ishida sighed. "You're wrong, Kurosaki. You didn't 'drag' me anywhere. If you'll recall, I showed up at the shouten by my own will. It was my choice to go to Soul Society with you to save Kuchiki-san. No one forced me to go." He couldn't help but smirk at the befuddled expression on Ichigo's face. "You give yourself way too much credit, Kurosaki."
"What?! You little—" Ichigo growled. He wanted nothing more than to wipe that smug expression off Ishida's face, but instead, he grinned. If Ishida was able to throw insults at him, then it was a good sign that he was feeling like his old self again.
Ishida's smirk faded, and suddenly he looked small and defeated. "I've never blamed any of you for what happened in Soul Society," he said quietly. "I knew the risk I was taking, and in the end, my own actions cost me my powers. It was no one's fault but mine, so please don't blame yourselves. I won't have you feeling sorry for something that had nothing to do with you."
I've seen that face before, Ichigo realized with a pang as he studied the miserable expression on Ishida's face. Ishida had that same empty look in his eyes on the day I defeated the Menos Grande, after he saved my life. Back then he looked just as he does now…sad, full of regret…
"Are you sure there's no way to get your powers back?" said Ichigo. "Maybe your dad knows something. If you and your grandfather were both Quincies, then…"
"No," Ishida replied firmly. "My father never wanted me to follow in Sensei's footsteps. He hated being a Quincy, and even if he knew of a way to restore my powers, he'd never tell me. He always said it was a waste of time to focus on the dead instead of the living."
Although Ishida's face remained calm as he spoke, the others could still hear his sadness tinged with resentment in his voice.
"What good is a powerless Quincy who can't protect others from harm anymore?" Ishida whispered. "If a hollow appears, I can't even draw a bow to defend myself, much less save other people from getting hurt. I'd only get in everyone's way." He lowered his head. "I was the last Quincy, and now…now the Quincies are gone forever. And Sensei…after the countless ways I've him down, he'd be heartbroken if he could see me now. I can never face him again."
Ishida looked away and fell silent while Ichigo, Orihime, and Chad exchanged startled looks. Their eyes met, and in a flash they knew. This was the real reason behind Ishida's pain. After his grandfather's death, Ishida had somehow been able to suppress his sadness and guilt. Years later, the loss of his powers and his subsequent belief that he'd disappointed his grandfather brought those feelings to the surface, and because he'd never properly coped with his loss, his present grief felt as fresh and painful as it did when he was a child, tearing him apart. But this time, we'll be here to help him. It won't be like last time, when he had to grieve alone.
After one or two minutes of awkward silence, Chad finally spoke. "Ishida, I was raised by my grandfather, too," he said, "and I don't believe your sensei would have wanted you to suffer for his sake. He would be heartbroken if he could see you now, not because you let him down, but because he can't stop you from torturing yourself like this."
Ishida's head spun around as he looked at Chad in surprise and disbelief. "What?" he choked out.
"Don't forget, your grandfather gave his life for you," said Ichigo. Just like Mom gave her life for me, he thought. "I know you said your actions cost you your powers, but you did what you had to do to stay alive. Your sensei wouldn't have wanted you to die. He would have wanted you to live."
Orihime nodded in agreement. "I think he would be very proud of you."
I'm proud of you, Uryuu my boy.
Ishida gasped. Sensei? He could have sworn that he just heard Souken's voice, but that was impossible. Maybe he'd just imagined it, but even still, he remembered now. That's right. How could I have forgotten? Sensei never wanted to see me upset. He loved me. He wanted me to be happy. But…Ishida bit his lip. How can I be happy after everything that's happened?
"You've got to stop beating yourself up," Ichigo said quietly. "Trust me, I've been there, and I know it's easier said than done, but no one here is going to think any less of you just because your powers are gone. Stop thinking that no one cares about you, because it's not true."
"We wouldn't be here if we didn't care," said Orihime. "You're our friend, Ishida-kun."
"And don't worry about the hollows," said Ichigo. "Remember, Captain Ukitake gave me a badge that'll allow me change into a Shinigami form whenever I need to. If any hollow dares to set foot in town, I'll make short work of it easily. It's my turn to protect the people in Karakura, now."
"Inoue and I will help, too," said Chad. "And we'll protect you as well, Ishida."
"That's right," chimed Orihime. "I won't let anything bad happen to you, Ishida-kun!"
Ishida hesitated. Can I trust them? he wondered. Then he gazed at their earnest faces, saw that they truly meant what they said, and realized that he could. A tiny smile tentatively formed on his lips. "Thank you," he whispered.
The door to the room suddenly opened, and the teenagers looked up to find Urahara standing in the doorway. "You're awake, Ishida-san!" he chirped. "Feeling better this morning?"
Ishida nodded. "Yes, much better. Thank you for taking care of me, Urahara-san."
"It was no trouble at all," Urahara smiled. "Now then, you must be hungry. Tessai prepared some of his extra-nutritious okayu (Japanese rice porridge) for you, and I promise it'll be light on your stomach. How about it, Ishida-san? Do you feel like having something to eat now?"
The sound of breakfast sounded good to Ishida, who hadn't had anything to eat since lunch the previous day at the hospital. "Sounds great," he said.
"All right, then, everyone to the living room!" Urahara said as he turned and left the room.
Ichigo and Chad offered Ishida their hands and helped pull him to his feet. "I've got you," Chad said, keeping both hands on Ishida's shoulders as Ishida nearly stumbled. "You okay?"
"Yes, thank you, Sado-kun," Ishida replied as he managed to regain his balance. Then he remembered something. "Kurosaki?"
"What is it?"
"I never did thank you for saving my life at the pool, did I?"
Ichigo frowned. "I forget. Did I ever thank you for saving me the day we fought the Menos?"
Ishida shrugged. "Don't remember," he murmured. "I guess we're even then."
As the four teenagers carefully made their way out of the bedroom and toward the living room with Ishida flanked protectively on all sides by Ichigo, Orihime, and Chad, Ishida smiled again. I owe these three so much, he thought. Not only did they save my life, they opened the closed doors of my heart and reawakened something in me that I thought was lost a long time ago. I don't know if I can ever get it back entirely, but now, for the first time since we left Soul Society, I feel as though I can finally move forward with my life, wherever it decides to lead me.
I may not have my Quincy powers anymore, but in the end, I think I've gained something more valuable. I have my friends, and as long as they're here, I know I'll never be alone again.