((Trying out present-tense.))
"It's a very nice room." Ichigo Kurosaki mutters to himself, tossing his bag to the corner of the room as a familiar ache begins to set in his chest. The words aren't something he would normally say, not at all, but they come without warning and it causes a feeling very close to his chest collapsing in on itself. He ignores it as best he can, prolongs the inevitable as he slaps a too-large smile on his face, laughing aloud in a shaky, false tone.
"It's real nice, probably the best room they have here!" Ichigo speaks to thin air, with false bravado in his voice assuring him that it's alright, and he knows that it's not alright, it's not, to shadows and dust and memories he has long ago realized are fading fast. There's a constant humming of other university students moving about outside this room, the tiny little world that he has all to himself. It will be one of the few times he has to mourn, he really doesn't have much time to himself to do things like those, one of the few times he can just sit and wallow in self-pity.
Because he's the hero of the Winter War, and heroes don't have any sort of regret. They're heroes. They don't have silly human feelings like those. Not sadness, or grief, or god forbid, regret. Never that.
Of course he doesn't. He likes to believe that himself, from time to time. And as he makes sure the door is closed and locked, and walks over to his bed, dropping onto it and putting a hand over his eyes, he reminds himself of this. "Be happy. You survived. You made it back and you've got a normal life." Ichigo tells himself, already hearing bits of voices, conversations, laughter. Things he doesn't want to remember anymore, but still permits himself to remember as a sort of penance. He can't forget them, because if he does, who will remember?
Something hits his locked door and his bag shuffles, tipping over and letting a small stuffed lion spill out across the floor, limp and dull-eyed. Ichigo looks up and catches a scant glance of it, before burying his head in his hands. He doesn't want to look at that either, because when he sees it, he will wait for the little stuffed animal to jump up and start berating him for being so moody. And he knows it won't. It never will. Not anymore. A bit of a memory he can't stifle flashes before his eyes, of four mod souls in gigai as they stand before the Captains of Seireitei with their hands bound behind them. They glare at the shinigami set up to be the replacement Central Forty-Four who are coolly deliberating their fates, as if those four are animals being set up for euthanasia.
They are on trial for existing.
Kon moves to the forefront, in his gigai used especially for this trial, and he watches the shinigami with narrowed eyes. Rukia is there, and she and Ichigo testify about how Kon and the other Mod Souls have done nothing wrong and have only aided them in their war efforts. They are joined by none; the other shinigami that have seen him refuse to testify themselves, and when the deciding shinigami give their order down, Ichigo screams out a denial to them. He lashes forward, as the three behind Kon move to their feet slowly. They knew it would end this way from the beginning. Kon rises slowly, and he looks back at Ichigo as shinigami restrain him, his smile dissonant from the fate he now knows he's set for. Ichigo can only watch as Kon turns his back on them after saying something so quiet that he can't hear it amid the ruckus of the court room, and is lead away quietly. To this very day, Ichigo does not know what Kon said to him before he was lead away. It's one of the greatest regrets he has.
The Mod Souls are lead away and set up for a suicide mission to Hueco Mundo. Kon is killed. There is no funeral.
Ichigo rises from his seat on the bed, and he puts away the soulless stuffed animal quietly. His eyes are burning. He will not cry. Not again. The door is rattled, and for a moment Ichigo thinks that someone will want in and he'll have to explain why he's putting away a stuffed lion and near tears. But they leave, and he lets out a small mental sigh of relief. He puts Kon out of his mind, trying to stay positive. He was a survivor, and that's good. That's good. He remembers that it's good that he survived. And then he remembers that out of them all, he survived.
"It's...fine. I don't need to..." Ichigo attempts to speak, but he can't summon the words and has to stop. He knows he'll cry if he tries to apologize to them again, as he does often. He does not need to cry here, not on this good day. He was accepted into college, he should be happy, and in some way, he really is. He clears his mind completely, thinks of nothing as he puts away some his things, sets his books down on the small desk. And then he makes a mistake. He lets his mind wander, and it wanders over to the image of a buxom girl with long lovely orange hair almost the same shade as his, smiling at him with tears in her eyes. She's running to him, on bone white sand that whips through the dry air and stings at his skin, and he is happy that she isn't scared by his mask any longer, that she doesn't fear him like he was afraid she would-
And she's running right past him.
He turns, confused, but a part of him knows what's happening and that part of him is screaming. That part of him happens to be his hollow. It's screeching in betrayal as Orihime Inoue runs over to the fallen Sexta Espada, scooping him up out of the sand and pressing his bloodied face to her bosom, tears running down her cheeks. Grimmjow is looking up at her hazily, almost as if he can't recognize her, and her tears are dripping from her chin and onto his cheek, and it looks like both of them are crying. And Ichigo watches, and he recognizes that the voice screaming betrayal in his head isn't his hollow, because his hollow has fallen silent. It's him. Only him. Orihime says something to Grimmjow and he lays his palm on her cheek, and she lays her hand on his cheek and traces the bare, mask-less jawline with trembling, careful fingers. He speaks back, and his lips are barely moving as blood runs from the corner of his mouth, and Orihime starts sobbing. His long blue hair is matted with blood and sand and tangled in Orihime's fingers as she leans down and kisses him softly, and he's digging his black claws into the flesh of her back as he pulls her closer, and Ichigo watches as stains of red bloom like flowers on the white material of her clothing.
He's been replaced. And she never wanted him to save her in the first place.
Grimmjow Jeagerjaquez's hand drops limply from her side as his release form dissipates, and she throws her arm around his neck and sobs into his chest. Ichigo feels horrific guilt at what he's just done, even if he had to do it to survive. Even if Grimmjow was going to kill him. Even if he knows that Orihime understands that Grimmjow was going to kill him. Ichigo knows that she's still going to blame him for as long as she lives. And while he's thinking these things, numb with shock, he doesn't notice something that Orihime does, as she kisses Grimmjow's corpse and stands tall. She won't save him, because Grimmjow made her promise that if he lost, that she would leave him dead. Ichigo doesn't know this, and he never will, but Orihime has steeled herself for this moment. She's reaching for Pantera, and before Ichigo can do anything, she's leveling the blade over her heart. And she turns her head to look at Ichigo, and she says something that he can't hear. He screams again, and his shunpo is not fast enough to save her as she impales herself on Grimmjow's zanpakutou. Blood is dripping down from her bloodied fingers onto Grimmjow's face, and it rolls down his cheek like tears as Orihime falls to her knees. She's smiling at something Ichigo isn't looking at, her hands still around the hilt of the sword before she lets go of it, and she raises her arms and spreads them wide in wait.
It's this moment in time that Ichigo Kurosaki sees how she looks so much like an angel, a dying angel with her wings ripped apart and waiting to join her demon laid bloody in the sands. And it's this moment where Ichigo feels total regret that he hadn't done something before now, something that could have kept her on his side instead of Grimmjow's. He regrets not speaking to her when he could have, because he now realizes that he doesn't know Orihime Inoue at all. He doesn't know what she likes to eat, just that she eats odd things. He doesn't know what her favorite color is. He doesn't know if she likes strawberries or blueberries. He'll never know those things now, as he watches a crescent-shaped blade whizz through the air and slam right into her body between her last two ribs, tearing through her flesh as the blade is ripped out and jerked back to the towering man laughing not too far away from them. Ichigo's not even fast enough to catch her before she falls to the sand beside Grimmjow, her eyes open and glassy and dead.
He failed. Ichigo failed. And he foiled his own rescue.
Back in the real world, away from his memories, Ichigo keeps his face passive and emotionless as he unpacks his clothes from his suitcase, laying them in neat piles on the floor. That moment is etched into his memory forever, as is the following battle with a laughing Nnoitra. He can't feel anything during this battle, and he nearly loses just because he doesn't care anymore. He almost dies when Nnoitra puts his boot on Ichigo's head and starts to press down on his skull. And it takes the combined efforts of Neliel Tu Odschervank and Kenpachi Zaraki to get him to respond to them again. Kenpachi survives the battle, and Neliel stays in her adult form because she never had to fight in the first place. Instead she and Ichigo watch as Kenpachi destroys Nnoitra's Fraccion Tesla, and then proceeds to spare Nnoitra himself. The Quinta is outraged. He wants to die. Kenpachi won't let him, and instead cuts the tendons in his legs to keep him immobile and screaming in the sand. They both look at Orihime and Grimmjow, and Yachiru and Zaraki don't respond. Of course they don't, they didn't know her. Neliel is much the same, though she at least attempts to comfort Ichigo.
None of the shinigami ever say they know what he's feeling, because they don't. And every time they tell him that they understand, when they're preparing to die in the final clash of the Winter War, he tells them that they don't have any idea what they're talking about. And they don't. They've never caused a friend of theirs to commit suicide for her lover that they themselves were forced to kill. They all learn not to mention Orihime Inoue to him, and so they cease and Orihime Inoue fades from the memories of everybody but Ichigo.
Someone bangs on his dorm door and Ichigo does not answer, because he's too choked up to speak. They tell him that orientation is beginning and to hurry up and get out there, but he knows that he can't show up now. He'll catch up later. They leave, whoever they are, and Ichigo continues to exist in thick memories that are either vivid with things he does not want to remember or are whispy and insubstantial things that he wants to remember for the rest of his life. Things like preparing for battle with Eleventh Company by means of a huge party. Ichigo can laugh now, and he does, and his voice is shaking as he does but he doesn't notice it at the moment. He remembers Ikkaku getting in a shouting match with Renji over something or other, and he remembers having a drink shoved into his hands by Zaraki under threat of having to spar him. And Ichigo doesn't remember much after that, but he's kind of happy that he doesn't, because he woke up in the possession of the Shinigami Women's Association without a shirt and covered in lipstick kiss marks, bruised and in a ditch in Rukongai. To this day he doesn't know what happened that night, and everyone he asks gives him a shifty smile and tells him they didn't see. But he's noticed that the color of the lipstick covering his chest in kisses is the same color that Rangiku Matsumoto wears on special days, and what vague recollections of that night he has are the sensations of hands all over him, and tasting strong alcohol in someone's kiss, and drunkenly grabbing someone for support while accidentally shoving his face in their bosom. That was followed by strong hands dragging him off of her, strong arms that were hairy and fingers that dug into the flesh of his shoulder tightly. And the owner smelled like sake and Ichigo could recall pink flowery material fluttering around him as he was dragged away from the other people that smelled like flowers and good things and kissed him all over and thrown out into a cold, wet ditch.
Ichigo laughs at this as he sits on his bed with his head in his hands, as he's figured out what happened and knows that Kyoraku was always a protective man when it came to his "lovely Nanao". And Ichigo's laughing dies down as he recalls running through the hot battlefield and passing fluttering pink material all ragged and torn upon the ground, and he ignores it as best he can and runs past to engage another enemy. And Ichigo remembers the last words he ever spoke to Ikkaku Madarame as they were preparing for the final battle, and he remembers Madarame grinning at him and punching him on the shoulder still bruised from getting thrown into a ditch two nights ago at the gigantic party.
"When you fight somebody, tell them your name and learn theirs, if they'll tell you." Ikkaku jabbed him in the shoulder, and Ichigo blankly nodded, not having a response to that. Yumichika had to pipe in at that moment as well, leaning over Ikkaku's shoulder. "And look beautiful when you fall." He told Ichigo, before the two of them went off to talk with their other buddies. Ichigo was blindsided by a ball of pink and quickly found out that Yachiru wanted to say goodbye to her Itchy before she left with Kenny. And Ichigo looked up at Zaraki himself, the man looking strangely austere as he watched all the shinigami mulling about, laughing a bit too forcedly and wearing smiles strained. He looked over to Ichigo at that moment, his one sharp grey eye seeming to pierce right through him.
"Don't die," Zaraki stated in a low growl after Yachiru ran off to see somebody else before the battle, "And if you do, you look the fucker in the eye as you fall. Give him nightmares."
Ichigo remembers those words to this day. And when he was submerged in the fire and heat and sweat and blood of the final battlefield, he clung to them. He remembers the events of the final cataclysmic battle on the outskirts of Rukongai being blurry, a sequence of dodging swords from souls he would never know and plunging his blade into whatever flesh he could reach, as the color black became good and the color white became death. Ichigo remembers before the battle, seeing Yumichika and Ikkaku talking with some others that he was barely acquainted with, Izuru Kira and Hisagi Shuuhei, and Renji joined them later on. Ichigo remembers seeing them talk and laugh and take friendly jabs at one another, and at that point in time, he didn't think much of it. Just friends laughing before a battle.
It's only much later, long after the battle is over and when Ichigo has had his viewpoint matured rapidly, does Ichigo realize that they weren't just laughing together, they were saying goodbye. And Ichigo remembers that after the battle, so many things were destroyed. Old friendships, romantic partners, soul mates, people that weren't friends so much as family, so many fell and were lost. Ichigo knows this feeling well, because he has lost just as much as anybody else. For a moment, Ichigo can almost feel Rukia's arms around his midsection as she stares into his eyes and tells him that he'd better not die, and he can almost see her smile at him for a moment before stepping back and turning, straightening her expression and walking towards her Captain with a professional look about her. He calls out to her and says that she'd better watch herself, because he'll be fine! And as he feels the weight of Zangetsu shift on his back, Ichigo calls out again with a smile that feels stiff.
"I'll be fine; it's you that needs to be careful! Why don't you have Renji watch your back for you, because I won't need it."
Fifty minutes later, Rukia Kuchiki dies in battle. Renji Abarai is at her back until the end.
Ichigo can remember feeling numb as he mourns. It's after the battle when a mass funeral is being held for all the fallen shinigami. Ichigo is standing beside Byakuya, and for this moment, neither man says a word to the other. They don't need to. Byakuya and Ichigo, for that moment, have a kinship in their loss. Ichigo has lost a good friend and a woman that he's not sure if he loved or not. Byakuya has lost a comrade, a friend of sorts and the last shred of his late wife that he ever had. They exchange not a single word; only one look, before Byakuya turns away and leaves, as Ichigo stares dumbfounded. There was emotion in Byakuya Kuchiki's dark eyes as he shared a glance with Ichigo, torment that Ichigo knows well.
Ichigo then moves away from Rukia and Renji's coffins, now moving to join a heavily-bandaged Kenpachi Zaraki standing before coffins bearing the Eleventh Company insignia and the kanji for three and five.
And now Ichigo turns away from the door and stares at the wall, trying to erase visions of blood and fire on the battlefield. He's had PTSD ever since he went into the war against Aizen. Horrific nightmares, an aversion to the color white, and the sound of steel clashing with steel sends him into panic attacks. The teenage Karakura kids thrown into the war, Fourteenth Company as they were nickamed, have experienced things that people sixty, eighty years their seniors have nightmares about. Last Ichigo heard, Uryu has become a recluse and barely leaves his room at whatever medical school he's gone to. Keigo went mad from his sudden, jarring entrance into Ichigo's world, and his sister had him committed. Mizuiro visits him sometimes. Tatsuki, after losing Orihime, won't speak to Ichigo. She says that it's because he didn't tell her about it all, didn't let her into this world and didn't even let her try to help. But Ichigo knows that it's because she blames him. Chad left Japan; nobody knows where he went, but it's speculated that he probably went to get away from Japan and its afterlife. Ichigo still wants to search for Orihime's soul, but Seireitei has forbidden it so that Orihime can start her new life in Rukongai without being hassled by some random man that she doesn't remember.
There's a thudding on the leftmost wall of Ichigo's dorm room, and he jumps at the sudden noise. It takes him a minute to settle down again, and for a moment, he thinks he'll be alright. He's putting it all away again; the guilt, the scent of steel and blood flowing through a hot breeze, the coffins and the death. Ichigo ignores the final image he saw of that battle, the sight of Urahara squaring off with Aizen himself, furious flashes of white and green and the sound of metal on metal, and he ignores the sight of watching both of them strike one final time before both men fell. Ichigo's sure now that he can straighten himself up and go on about his day, as he turns around on his bed and prepares to catch up with what's left of orientation. He glances up casually as he starts to move, and stops.
And Ichigo Kurosaki begins to sob as he sees the open, empty closet before him.