The war was over. Aizen had won.
Nineteen-year-old Ichigo stared pensively up at the sky, sprawled on the ground outside Urahara Shōten.
A stabilised Garganta in the sky allowed Hollows to come and go as they pleased, terrorising the residents, and there was nothing he could do. Even if he could purify all the Hollows, there was nowhere to send them. Soul Society had been completely destroyed, the entire world merged into Hueco Mundo. Karakura Town, indeed any town left at all in the real world, was literally a ghost town.
What was all his training for?
All his power, all for naught. So what if he could materialise his Hollow Mask at will, and keep it on for as long as he had reiatsu left? So what if he had come to a truce with his inner Hollow, who had agreed to fight alongside his King? So what if he could defeat the Primera Espada single-handedly?
No matter what he did, Aizen was always ahead of him.
He had failed them. He had sworn to protect them, and he had failed them.
Ever since the overlord had gotten his hands on the King's Key, the resistance had stood no chance. The last of them, if they even could be termed a resistance at all, had gone into hiding behind Urahara Shōten's extensive wards. The last haven safe from Aizen's clutches, thanks to Tessai.
It was all his fault. The deaths of his friends, the way his father stopped smiling, Yuzu's new ability to see spirits, Karin's tears, the haunted look that never left Yoruichi-san's eyes nowadays...
They had all lost the ones closest to them. They had all blamed themselves in some way. And they had all found different ways to cope.
Yoruichi had developed an aversion to bees and spent more time in her cat form than human form nowadays. No one saw Kisuke for weeks on end when he cloistered himself in his laboratory and worked himself to the bone to find a new way, any way to kill Aizen. Isshin talked compulsively to the poster of Masaki – the only item to survive the bombing of the Kurosaki Clinic.
Ichigo – Ichigo laid on the grass and stared up at the sky wondering what he could have done differently.
If only he had become stronger faster, become stronger before Aizen had a chance to destroy everything he held precious, none of that would have happened. He was the only one who could match Aizen, the only one not caught in his zanpakutō's illusions.
Four fully-fledged shinigami and an odd motley crew against the new Soul King and his army of minions.
It was clear that the war was over.
But could he really sit and wait for death? After all the people who had sacrificed their lives for him?
"Ichi-nii," called Yuzu, appearing at the door of the Shōten and interrupting his musings, "dinner is ready."
"I'm not hungry," Ichigo replied without thinking, still caught in the "what if"s.
Instantly, his sister's face crumpled. Ichigo hastily changed his mind, standing up and dusting himself off. Yuzu cooked compulsively. It was her way of coping with the war, and Ichigo had no intention of disparaging it.
Then the world exploded.
Ichigo threw himself in Yuzu's direction as the roof shook violently. Before he could reach her, however, the ground rocked again and the walls folded, sending the roof crashing down. Ichigo cried out sharply as he hit the ground, splinters of wood cutting into the arms he instinctively brought up to protect his face.
Silence, save for the debris settling around him.
Lying face-down on the ground and breathless, Ichigo tried to extend his reiatsu to see if it was an ambush. He found no Arrancar presence, which reassured him enough to check his immediate surroundings next.
There was a weight lying over him and sticky fluid was soaking into his hakama. Blood. But if he was bleeding, why was there no pain? And for that matter, the weight on top of him was too cold to be simply wood from a broken piece of furniture. It was almost as if…
Ichigo slowly turned his head to the right to meet golden irises. "Yo, aibō," his inner Hollow rasped, almost immediately coughing up more blood.
Specks of black hit Ichigo's cheek but he did not flinch. "Why?" he whispered numbly, "Why did you save me?"
Hichigo coughed again, the familiar grin appearing on his face. "Maa, a Horse needs his King. Anyway, I'm the one with all the instant regeneration."
When he had been fifteen, had anyone told him that his Hollow could be self-sacrificing and rational, Ichigo would have recommended them to the nearest asylum. That was before he had held the hōgyoku in his own hands, trying to get the orb away from Aizen, and it had thrown the last of its power into him. Ever since then, instead of an inner Hollow, the more accurate term would be an inner Arrancar. Complete with a Resurreción, though Hichigo still preferred to swing his white Zangetsu around. Fitting, given that had his mother not been Hollowfied, Hichigo would have been his zanpakutō spirit.
Footsteps sounded. A few seconds later, hands gently lifted the weight off. Ignoring the pained groan from his Arrancar, Ichigo twisted around and sat up, gingerly taking Hichigo into his arms, trying not to exacerbate the pain the other must be feeling. "Thank you," he whispered to his white counterpart, whose hakama was stained nearly totally black with blood. Hichigo shot him a lopsided smirk, closed his eyes and vanished in a spray of reishi particles.
"Are you all right, Ichigo?" Shihōin Yoruichi asked, crouched in front of him, in human form for once. Absently, Ichigo registered that she must have just assumed human form to help get Hichigo off him, for she was not wearing anything – but he had long become accustomed to it and no longer freaked out like he used to at age fifteen. There were far more important things to worry about than nudity when you were doing your best to keep someone alive just for a moment longer, buried up to your elbows in their abdomen. Between maintaining someone's modesty and saving her life – you cannot defibrillate a woman in a bra, not even Urahara Kisuke has invented such a device yet – no one would pick the former. He had personally seen Isshin rip someone's shihakusho open to perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation, manually forcing her heart to beat, long enough for one of their preciously few healers to arrive. Hell, there were times he himself had been carried back, unconscious and reiatsu almost non-existent, his shihakusho nothing more than tattered strips barely clinging to him.
"Aa," Ichigo answered, picking the splinters out of his arm and turning his head to the shop front. "What about Yu –" the words died in his throat.
Isshin was several steps away, eyes transfixed on what had formerly been the doorway of Urahara Shōten.
Yuzu was in a tiny ball, arms wrapped around her head. Ichigo could almost believe she had survived the explosion, had there not been several long pieces of wood digging into – into her… he turned away, unable to continue looking, only to spot Karin.
His other sister had one hand outstretched towards Yuzu, face twisted in pain. She had obviously tried to do the same thing Ichigo had wanted to, but had no inner Hollow to protect her from the flying debris. Even as he stared in mounting horror, Karin's spirit shattered into reishi particles and disappeared.
Bare feet padded hurriedly across the ground, skidding to a stop. They stopped. In the silence, the sharp sucking in of breath was deafening.
"Kisuke," Isshin murmured, almost pleasantly, "if that's one of your experiments gone wrong I'm going to kill you." His father's reiatsu had been climbing steadily throughout the speech, hand shifting to Engetsu's hilt, and for a moment it appeared as though he would attack regardless of Kisuke's reply.
"It's not," Urahara Kisuke replied, equally quietly, grey eyes for once not drooping in exhaustion. Some small part of Ichigo, the part not numb with shock at the sight of both his sisters' deaths, was surprised. Kisuke had obviously gotten some sleep recently, a feat he thought the former shopkeeper no longer capable of. He was about to inquire after the change when –
"Sa-SADO-KUN!" came Orihime's panicked voice.
Ichigo was not aware of when he started running, only that he was, running towards her voice. Not Chad. Please. No.
The scene he stumbled on stopped him in shock.
Chad was sprawled on the ground, left arm buried in the chest of an Arrancar. The same kind that had killed Ishida Uryū. Its ability to mask reiatsu was probably how it got past the wards around Urahara Shōten in the first place. Tessai would have to upgrade –
No, Tessai was dead, killed in a skirmish last week.
Shaking his head sharply to dispel the images that featured most prominently in his latest nightmares, Ichigo focused on the present.
Orihime had stopped screaming, and was simply rocking back and forth, hands fluttering in agitation as an orange dome briefly enveloped Chad before disappearing. For all her powers, she could not bring the dead back to life, and the Shun Shun Rikka knew that.
"Kurosaki-kun!" she exclaimed, jerking her head up. It was her eyes that drew his attention, eyes filled with helplessness and despair and terror.
"Inoue," Ichigo murmured, because there was nothing else he could say.
His voice appeared to break her out of the horrified staring, and she crumpled onto Chad's chest, sobbing hysterically. "Why wasn't I strong enough? Fast enough? I could have blocked it, could have done something…" Hands clutched weakly at her hairpins, pulling them free.
"It wasn't your fault," Ichigo started, kneeling beside her and stretching out a hand to comfort her.
Through her muffled weeping he could barely hear her next words. "I… I regret not being able to do anything…"
Ichigo had barely a moment to realise something was very, very wrong when Orihime screamed, her head snapping backwards, and for the first time he took in the chain dangling from her chest. The broken chain.
Then her reiatsu mutated.
Ichigo threw himself backwards, eyes wide with horror as the Hollow – Inoue, this was Inoue – swiped blindly at him with new too-sharp claws. His awkward former position afforded him little balance as he toppled over, barely putting any distance between them. Ichigo fumbled for Zangetsu, already knowing he would never manage to raise the zanpakutō in time.
Claws scrabbled off a blood-red shield, a fraction of a second away from ripping off his arm.
Then Kisuke was suddenly in front of him, blocking Hollow-Orihime's frenzied attacks, while Yoruichi – who had yelled his name earlier – was dragging him out of the way because his legs were too numb to move.
How could he have missed Orihime's soul chain earlier?
"She… she regretted…" strongly enough to turn her into a Hollow, he wanted to say, but the words were stuck in his throat, lost in the turmoil of emotions threatening to claw their way out of his chest.
"Is there any chance she might become a Visored?" Ichigo asked, clinging on to the last shred of hope he had.
In response, Yoruichi simply gave him a small, sad smile, eyes fixed on Kisuke's back and the newborn Hollow.
"But she has reiatsu too and… and –" Ichigo trailed off, unable to finish his half-hearted protest. Orihime had never been a shinigami, and thus she could not become a Visored. His mind knew that, but his heart could not bear to accept it, not when that would mean the last two of his friends were truly gone.
"Why?" he managed breathlessly.
Silence met his rhetorical question, only broken by the sounds of Benihime against claws. Ichigo blinked, his attention finally focusing on the pair now that he belatedly realised that the battle had been going on far too long. He identified the reason a moment later: Kisuke was merely defending, not attacking. He turned a questioning gaze on Yoruichi.
"She reminds him too much of Hiyori," murmured Yoruichi, gaze never leaving the duo.
Suddenly Ichigo understood. The reason why Kisuke always did his best to dissuade Orihime from participating in the battle, why he refused to spar with the girl, why even now he could not bring himself to attack the Hollow she had become. "He blames himself for her death," he whispered.
Yoruichi said nothing, eyes riveted on Kisuke.
Hollow-Orihime growled again, one paw crashing into the blood-red shield Kisuke called up in time.
"And she is your friend," Isshin spoke up and Ichigo jumped. He had not even sensed his father approach. "She deserves to have you look her in the eye."
Kisuke tilted his head sideways, one grey eye searching out Ichigo with unerring accuracy. A hint of emotion flashed through the visible eye, an emotion that Ichigo recognised.
He saw it in the mirror every day.
Kisuke was suffering just as much as everyone else. The man had jumped in to save Ichigo from a possibly fatal blow, but in doing so he had forced himself to raise his zanpakutō against someone he had failed to protect. The reminder of someone else whom he had failed.
In that split second Ichigo knew what to do. His hand scrabbled blindly for Zangetsu's hilt, swinging it down at the geta-bōshi's back.
With a quick burst of shunpo Kisuke flitted to the side, allowing the weak version of the attack to smash right into Hollow-Orihime. She screeched in surprise, one clawed hand flying up to touch her mask, which was already crumbling at the edges.
The mask took an eternity to shatter, each broken fragment revealing more of Orihime's tear-stained face.
"I'm so sorry," she whispered, still clutching her hairpins as she dissolved. "I wish this had never happened."
And the world spun out of focus.
Back when there were more of them, they had taken the battle to Hueco Mundo. All the seated officers of the Eleventh Division had volunteered to be part of the assault. They charged at the front, Kenpachi in the lead, Yachiru as always on his shoulder. "The one who kills the most of those bastards gets treated to all-you-can-drink sake!" he had yelled to the wildly cheering division.
A flash of red. A spray of blood.
In the midst of the chaos darted a tiny figure, whose speed and agility enabled her to avoid the brunt of the Arrancars' blows.
Any who ever questioned Kenpachi's decision to promote Yachiru to fukutaichō had all of their doubts erased when her reiatsu exploded around her, painting the surroundings scarlet.
Kenpachi, Yachiru, Ikkaku… Ichigo had to watch them fall.
Thousands of vines erupted from the ground, wrapping around the Arrancar army. They screamed and writhed, fighting desperately to get out of the bindings, which drained them of all their strength.
Flowers unfurled their blood-red petals, blooming wildly.
Then the reiatsu stored in the vines detonated.
"Heh… I win."
Yamamoto-soutaichō, who had sought out Aizen right at the beginning of the invasion, was not faring much better. They had been locked in a stalemate for so long, even after both had released their bankai. Ryūjin Jakka lived up to its name, burning away all but the illusions created by Kyoka Suigetsu.
The soutaichō was concentrating so hard on breaking the deadlock that he failed to notice a sneak shot by a tiny Arrancar in his blind spot.
Following his victory in Hueco Mundo, Aizen pressed his attack to Soul Society itself, backed by newly-initiated Espada.
Long-time friends Ukitake Jyūshirō and Kyōraku Shunsui fought back-to-back, flanked by their respective fukutaichō. Twin pairs of zanpakutō flashed in unison, until the new Arrancar scientist released a cloud of acidic smoke. Jyūshirō had fallen to his knees in a coughing fit, blood splattering across his hand. In an attempt to block an incoming attack, Shunsui had thrown himself over his best friend.
Twin pairs of zanpakutō fell.
"I want to protect them too. Pesche, Dondachakka, you're free to leave if you want."
The two Fracción stuck by her, even when Aizen personally made sure she would serve as a warning to any other Arrancar who dared to even entertain the thought of betraying him.
Someone had the time and inclination to find a way to preserve souls before they dissolved into reishi particles after death.
Ganju and Kūkakū led Soul Society's last line of defence, fighting to protect their home. Fireworks mixed with Raikōhō and Hiryū Gekizoku Shinten Raihō exploded in the faces of the advancing Arrancar with unerring accuracy, dealing incomparable damage.
For a moment it even appeared as if Soul Society would succeed, until Hueco Mundo smashed into it and forcibly absorbed the entire world.
They moved to the Transient World, but Aizen was relentless in his pursuit, with no regard for the Espada who were by then replaced almost daily.
"Taichō, watch out!"
A deafening crash. Ichigo turned his head just in time to see a whole section of buildings collapse on where the Tenth Division had formerly been fighting.
Above the ground, Hyōrinmaru suddenly gave an agonizing howl and shattered into pieces.
Somewhere, Ichigo was sure, hell had just frozen over.
All other battles ceased as Ichimaru Gin, formerly known as Aizen Sōsuke's right-hand man, spun around and sank his zanpakutō to the hilt into Aizen's chest.
"Gin-kun, how did you…"
"You think you can possess me forever?" snarled the silver-haired man, blazing blue eyes fully open for the first time in many shinigami's memories, as he yanked Shinsō out savagely. "Ya shouldn'a touched Rangiku."
Aizen shook his head, almost sadly, as if he were scolding a recalcitrant child.
"Korose, Kamishini no Yari!"
"Such a pity, Gin-kun… if only you never woke up…"
Unohana Retsu, who had been focused on mass-healing the badly injured, was caught off-guard when several of the highest ranked Espada collaborated to fire one single massive cero at her bankai.
She did not survive.
Suì-Fēng, who had flung herself in front of an attack meant for Yoruichi, smiled as her zanpakutō fell from her lifeless hands.
The losses were not only restricted to the shinigami. The difference was that Aizen could retaliate by creating more Arrancar, with different, dangerous new powers.
While walking home from the store, Ishida Uryū was caught by surprise by an Arrancar with the ability to enact a shield with properties similar to sekkiseki.
By the time anyone felt his reiatsu, it was too late.
Ishida Ryūken, mad with grief, painted the sky blue with reiatsu arrows for three days and three nights straight. Several Vasto Lorde numbered amongst his countless kills before he succumbed to the toll it took on his body.
As the survivors quipped with respect, hell hath no fury like a Quincy scorned.
Ichigo arrived home to see Renji sprawled across the doorstep, red hair spilling out of his hair tie like a macabre complement to the blood liberally painted over his – torture, those were signs of torture – body, his hakama in shreds and a zanpakutō buried in his chest. His gigai had been slumped protectively over the immobile forms of Yuzu and Karin.
In a fit of blind rage, Ichigo had attacked the Arrancar responsible. It was only after he had ripped all three of them physically apart that he realised that Yuzu was still conscious and Karin lay in a shihakusho, her real body bifurcated.
Yuzu could see spirits from then onwards.
It was supposed to be a simple mission. Run interference, raid Aizen's temporary base in Karakura Town, and get out.
Nothing ever went to plan, as the destruction of that base triggered a stabilised Garganta to open and out poured thousands of Arrancar led by the latest Espada.
Ichigo was separated from the other Visored almost immediately.
"Lisa! Behind you!" Love shrieked.
Bankai, being such a reiatsu leech, was never meant to be used for long.
Ichigo reached out, trying to blast the wall of Hollows between them out of his way, trying to do anything to get to the rest of them as one by one, they let go of their bankai. The last Visored's reiatsu spiked once, twice, then plummeted.
Somehow, even while falling Shinji managed to catch Ichigo's eye. A pained look flitted across his face as he mouthed, "Farewell."
The Hollows swarmed.
"Watashi wa danko toshite kyozetsu suru!"