I do not own the character's of Bleach, much to my great sorrow.
Okay, this fic has a bit of back-story. You see, my friend Stephanie and I are both huge bleach fans, and a few months back she was at her place in the Keys where there was no internet. As a means of sating her addiction, I got into the habit of reading her bleach fics. On a whim, I decided to write a very quick and dirty one just to see what she thought of it without telling her it was mine, and here we have this Ichigo-centric one-shot. I tried to get the Ichigo-Rukia dynamic right since that seems to be the hardest bit for bleach fics, and I made some guesses about how the series will go. There are a lot of cliché's and if I were going to be serious about it, there are some things I would do differently, but overall I felt it was worth posting. It's a future-fic and shouldn't be a spoiler to you if you know what an Arrancar/vizard is. I'm not really writing fanfics anymore since original fiction is a whole lot more challenging and notably more time consuming, but who knows, maybe this little diddy could be a diversion for some other poor soul marooned on a halcyon Floridian beach, surrounded by swaying palms, lapping waves, and really shitty cable connections.
Hope you like.
For we who are hollow.
Alone in the dojo, Ichigo ran through the familiar katas and lived the familiar nightmares. Whatever peace he could know in life, he knew here: the familiar weight of Zangetsu as it whipped through the stillness, the almost musical noise of its well-honed edge slicing the spirit-particle-laden air of Seretei, his hakama pants fluttering with each step, and the familiar ache in his muscles. He had been alone with his thoughts for hours as he moved with the lethal grace of a well-made killer. He only wished he also possessed the mental grace of one.
He had lived. When so many had not, he had survived Aizen's war, and the memories of that horrible time asserted themselves so readily that at times he wished he had not. Zangetsu bit sharply into one of the cutting mats. Clean and lethal, it cleaved through the straw with a sound and impact nothing like the real thing. The slicing whump of decapitated straw was nothing like the horrible crunch Zangetsu had made as it drove through Aizen's bone-white hollow mask and buried itself into the stone beneath.
A cold sweat ran down Ichigo's back at the memory. The bloodied Aizen had been knocked back, and with possessed conviction Ichigo had lunged after him, and in one fateful moment he had landed atop and drove his blade through the monstrous hollow mask, then through the face, then the skull, the brain, and finally into the floor. He would always remember the surprise in Aizen's eyes and the way his grasping hands had fallen away from Ichgio's shinigami robes. He had saved Soul Society, he had saved Earth, he had saved so many friends, but in that moment, he had failed to save himself.
Swift beyond sight, he kicked the air repeatedly, his shunpo flawless. He was the hero of Soul Society and as a reward, they made him leave his own world behind. No single shinigami would have been able to force him—even old man Yamamoto had nowhere near the reiatsu of Ichigo at full strength—but they compelled him nonetheless. His gargantuan reiatsu was too much for Karakura Town. Being of Earth and not Seretei, no binding would hold, and so his own natural powers poured outward, altering his home and those around him. Normal people were seeing spirits, seeing hollows—and becoming their prey. Ichigo had left them to save them, limiting himself to semi-annual visits to his family and less than semi-annual visits to his former friends.
No one really wanted to see the reminders of that time anyway. Those days changed everyone. Ichigo had saved many lives, but in a sense, he hadn't really saved them at all. Ishida's face was torn, and even with Orihime's singular abilities, the healing had only been able to restore his eye and soften the jagged wound left by Ulquiorra. He would restore the Quincy, and maybe someday Ichigo, the shinigami, would have to kill him for it. Chad faired better than all of them, but there was a distance in his eyes now. He was a mountain that held back so much, but like Ichigo, there were those he had not been able to save.
And then there was Orihime.
Ichigo would cry for her if there were still tears in his eyes left for anyone. Orihime's time among the Arrancar had shown her so much. Rescued, but never the same, she had seen the Arrancar in a way none of the others had. She had seen their savagery and wickedness, but she had also known their names. She had been innocent, and now…
She still smiled, and that was perhaps the most Ichigo could ever hope for her. For even diminished, Orihime had a good smile.
The lashing bandage around Zangetsu fluttered, whipped, and roiled through Ichigo's moves like a crazed serpent. His reiatsu ran through his veins like ice water as he allowed more to flood through him. His hollow mask bubbled from his skin and hardened into a bone-white death's head that was cool on his sweating brow. His strength doubled and then doubled again as his amber eyes sharpened to a focus that observed and processed so quickly, that time may as well have been slowing. Zangetsu swirled in his grasp, cutting imagined enemies away like a swirling obsidian wraith. There had been times when he would look through his Vizard eyes and see some of the younger shinigami watching him. He could see their awe, and when he looked down at them from behind his mask, their fear.
"Damnit!" he roared. He drove Zangetsu into the ground with such force that the spiritual energy-dissipating floor buckled and groaned. Back when Kenpachi still trained, he used to train here—the place where the walls would sap his strength and lessen his power. Now, it was the only place Ichigo could find some peace and not bleed pure reiatsu. His rasped breathing echoed from beneath the bleached white mask. Of all the shinigami, he was the strongest. His hollow side was debated to be that of a Vasto Lord-class of monster. His shinigami side was superior to that of a captain-class, and between the two, his humanity seemed as substantial as a wisp of smoke. He was strong enough to protect some of those he loved, but he was not strong enough to protect himself from that tiny little ghost of who he had once been.
The ghost that was Ichigo before Rukia's zanpakuto had pierced his heart and changed his destiny.
Now he wore the white cloak, but he never felt like a captain.
Fists balled and teeth clenched, Ichigo did not hear her until she was close enough to kill him, were that her intent. He closed his eyes and waited while she gradually knelt before him and laid her zanpakuto on the ground beside her. Her fingers slid through his hair and slowly worked forward until they took the edge of his mask and gently pulled it free of his face. She took the mask and laid it—more gently than it deserved—on the ground at her side.
She had never recoiled from him, and that touched something deep within. She embraced him now —the fearful captain who wore the face of a hollow and could cut down any man— just as she had embraced him as he lay dying, and again when he stared blankly ahead with Aizen's blood on his face.
"I heard you outside," she said simply, her hand still lingering at his temple. Cool and yet warming, her touched eased his breathing and sapped away his fury. His eyes opened and he looked at her, the girl who made him a shinigami and had been prepared to die for it unrepented, the woman who was stronger than he could ever be.
Kuchiki Rukia. Captain of the Thirteenth Squad. She wore the white mantle well; better than Ichigo felt he wore his own at any rate. Soul Society had lost captains and their service had earned their places, justified or not. She frowned at him, her unadorned lips as pale as the rest of her skin.
"You're breaking apart, Ichigo," she said simply.
"No, I'm not," he replied levelly, tasting the lie in his words as she surely did.
There was a pause, and she hit him, her fist striking just above his cheek—hard.
"Damnit!" he growled, holding his aching face and biting back curses. Her lip pulled slightly.
"You're coming here for the wrong reasons." She looked out over the spartan training dojo. The scattered straw mats that had been rent to ruin under Zangetsu's edge. "We don't train to punish ourselves Ichigo. We train to punish those who need it."
She frowned disapprovingly at him, looking almost boyish, and with the haircut to match. He said nothing, but simply frowned.
"What does Zangetsu tell you, Ichigo? Maybe you'll have better results if you listen to him."
Ichigo sighed finally, and returned his gaze to her eyes. "He says you're right."
"Smart sword," she mused.
"Zangetsu thinks I don't deserve all this," he said, motioning to the dojo. "He says —how can you just be okay with everything, Rukia?" Ichigo blurted out, trying to find anger, but only reaping its shadows from the emptiness.
"We've done so much. How can you be okay with things like this? All I use this sword for is killing. I don't perform soul burials, I don't get to live in my own world, I don't…" He looked down at her where she sat silently, his eyes coming to rest on her flat abdomen.
"I'm not even permitted to marry the woman who's carrying my own goddammed child." He felt a hiss of anger, but Rukia smothered it with her presence before it could grow to anything more than an echo of that wonderfully vindicating emotion.
"Does it matter to you Ichigo? I don't get to call you my husband because a handful of old men in my family won't grant the title? Ichigo, after Aizen, after all the things we've done, does it really matter?
"I took Ukitake-sama's place without even asking permission. If Renji were still…" She trailed off, biting her lip then forcing a weak smile. "He would have been horrified that I did that. I'm a little horrified that I did it. But none of that really matters…" She took his hand and kissed his knuckle then placed it on Zangetsu's hilt. Her expression firmed in the way it always did when she had to call up that strength of hers.
"Ichigo, it's not fair that we have to live with all this. If I could, I would take away all the pain you've felt over doing what you've done. Nevertheless, I can't. You've got Zangetsu so you know, but let me say it out loud so you'll really hear it.
"Swords are heavy burdens. We carry them and each time we use them they get a little heavier. You're the strongest of us all, Ichigo, so fair or not, you're obligated to use that strength and carry more than most. That's life.
"You know you've done good. You may not want to believe that, but you have. I know that you remember the names of every person you couldn't save, of every person who got hurt because you just couldn't lift any more. But try to think of the names of the people who will survive because of the weight you've already carried; who will survive because of the weight you may yet to be able to carry. Your son is going to grow up hearing about all the things his father has done. And he's going to be proud of you, Ichigo."
She leaned over and kissed him, brief and yet scandalous for two captains in public. He smelled her hair and felt a quick flick of her tongue against his own, and then she was rising, her white coat a snowy swathe of rustling movement. He stared after her as she turned her back and fastened her zanpakuto to her side, tasting the ghost of her mouth on his.
"Work on your hakuda. Those kicks were fast enough, but too damn sloppy for a captain." She squared her shoulders and made for the door only to pause at the threshold.
"I'm proud of you too, Ichigo."
Then, she was gone. He watched her and wanted to follow. He wanted to lay with her and feel her body, taste her lips, gossip about the latest antics of her two warring lieutenants, and dream of when he would visit Karakura Town and introduce Yuzu and Karin to his son. He would do all of that, but by god, his muscles were not yet tired and he could put a bit more weight on those shoulders before this night ended. He picked up Zangetsu and listened to the song it made as it cut through the air.