AN: This story is canon-compliant up through chapter 405. This means no tiny!Zangetsu, no redeemed!Gin, and absolutely no Most-Beautiful-Butterfly!Aizen. All further extrapolations are my own.
My thanks first go to Jade for betaing, for her righteous fury over my weakness for adverbs, and for being so patient as I agonized over tenses. Thanks for being gentle with my drabble-writer's rough transition into chaptered fic.
Secondly, I would like to thank my mother for her help with several key plot points. This fanfic would not exist as it is without her input.
Finally, I have done simple little sketches that accompany each chapter. You can see them at my fic comm on Livejournal, which allows image embedding, here: lovelosshope-dot-livejournal-dot-com/12333-dot-html.
Soundtrack: I have created a playlist of the songs I listened to while writing this. If you're interested, you can go to playlist-dot-com/playlist/19515627275. The song used for this chapter is Colossal by Wolfmother.
I hope you enjoy!
Mortal Coil Overture
On the morning of his eighteenth birthday, almost two years after slaying the traitor Aizen and saving Soul Society, substitute shinigami Kurosaki Ichigo steps off the curb into the street and is immediately hit by a bus.
"Ow," he says, and sits up.
It takes him a moment to compose himself—Ichigo knows from extensive personal experience that collisions with masses of moving metal are never easily dismissed, and his first instinct is to hit back, and harder. He braces his elbows on his knees as the adrenaline wears off, counting to eight as the cedar smell of the trees that line the two-lane road seeps in to calm him down. After another eight-count, he is steady enough to clamber to his feet with relative ease, and, rolling his shoulders back to loosen the last lingering tightness in his chest, Ichigo squints against the brightness of the July sun and surveys his wreckage.
His bag has split open from the impact, and the brightly-colored, newly-purchased textbooks he'd stowed inside have scattered themselves across the pavement in an expensive, literary blast radius like so many bodies, the pages of his thick medical dictionary flipping in the breeze between "heart" and "hemorrhoids." Just beyond the shredded tatters of his physiology textbook, the bus has stopped against the curb, exhaust still puttering into the clear summer air. For a split-second, Ichigo is vaguely proud of the sizable dent in its front fender, but the distractions of common sense eventually remind him that he is still standing in the middle of the street, and more importantly, the books he has just bankrupted himself purchasing are scattered in the same place. He scoops up the three nearest from the asphalt and is just bending to collect the fourth when he hears voices from the direction of the bus, and he turns to see the bus driver, a woman in her late thirties with her dark hair knotted in a neat bun at the base of her neck, emerge from the side of the vehicle, white-faced and shaking.
"Oh, hey—" Ichigo starts, and the woman leans hard on the side of the bus. Ichigo feels a niggling of worry that tugs him a few steps in her direction—she looks like she's about to fall over from shock, after all—but when a concerned-looking man pokes his head out and puts his hand on her shoulder, Ichigo figures she's taken care of for the moment and turns on his heel. He plucks the remains of his bag from where it lays next to his body and thumbs through the gray canvas until he finds an intact pocket, which he then stuffs his books into. And then his hand freezes as a thought occurs to him, his fingers just brushing the books' covers, and Ichigo turns his head to look.
At his body.
"Oh, shit," he says. His bag thumps to the ground beside him, his knees following of their own volition a moment after. His body is there, right there, lying face up on the road, with one arm clearly dislocated and a spattering of blood on his shirt where his hands had skidded across the pavement. He looks down at his palms—at least, the ones he immediately controls—but they seem to be in perfectly normal unshredded shape—and then he sees it, dead center in the middle of his chest—both his chests, sprouting from his red t-shirt like it's at home there.
It is a smooth silver plate, resting just right of his heart, with an empty ring jutting to hold the Chain of Fate he ought to have, and doesn't. Ichigo sits back on his heels and hooks his thumb through the empty ring, suddenly aware of its faint humming vibrating against his teeth. "I'm dead," he says, and the sound of his own voice startles him.
"How astute," says a cool, dry voice behind him, and Ichigo nearly breaks his back trying to spin against asphalt. "Kurosaki," says Ishida Uryuu, glasses gleaming as he pushes them back to the bridge of his nose. He is wearing a short-sleeved white button-up, dark pants, and an expression of long-suffering toleration, and all three fit impeccably.
Ichigo chokes. "Bastard! Sneaking up on me—"
"Hardly," Ishida says, bending over him to peer at Ichigo's body. "I simply thought that it would be better to keep your body away from 'professional' hands if I could help it. Unless you'd prefer surgery over Inoue-san's help, of course," he adds mildly. "You've been known to do idiotic things before."
"Damn, you are such a— wait. Why are you here? Were you on the bus?"
"I was attempting to attend a sale at the Sunflower Tailor, but seeing as you are so determined to prevent me—"
"Oh, like I was asking for this, just came out of nowhere—"
"Really, Kurosaki, if you were so opposed to my hobbies you could have said something—"
"Would you just shut up and help me?"
Ishida snorts, but he gingerly kneels next to him. Over his shoulder, Ichigo can see the passengers trickling off the bus, most of them with mobile phones pressed to their ears. Someone has handed the bus driver a bottle of water which she clutches in visibly trembling hands; she is so pale that her brown eyes look black against her skin. He knows she can't see him, but the wide-eyed stare she's giving his body puts her almost in direct eyeline with him, and with a little movement of his head he can imagine she's looking straight into his eyes. And that's when he realizes Ishida is talking to him—has been talking to him, and Ichigo jerks his attention back to the conversation. "Uh, what?"
Ishida shoots him his standard look of pity and muted disdain. "I said, Kurosaki, that your body isn't dead."
With just the tiniest, disappointed sigh, Ishida gestures at Ichigo's body. "Unless you're fragile enough to be killed by a dislocated shoulder and a few cracked ribs, your body's still alive." He sees Ichigo's look of shock and an even larger sigh escapes him. "You didn't even check?"
"Shut up," Ichigo says automatically, already leaning forward to press his hand against his body's shoulder, and he can't quite keep his stomach from flipping when his forefinger sinks almost an inch into the skin. But it's thick, like pushing through mud, and no matter where he presses, he can't get more than a knuckle deep; in addition, the faintly metallic buzzing of the plate on his chest grows worse when he tries, like it's reaching inside his head to rattle his teeth out. He's to the point of punching his own body out, certain the thing is mocking him with its stubborn solidity, when the quiet hiss of air through Ishida's teeth sends up a warning, and Ichigo glances up just in time to see the bus driver approach on shaky legs, gripping her water bottle like a lifeline.
"Is he—" she starts, but her voice seems to fail her, and she licks her lips to try again. "Is he—alive?"
Ishida doesn't even spare him a glance. "He is," he says, and the woman sags in relief.
"Thank God. I thought—" She puts the water bottle to her flushing cheeks. "Is there anything I can do to help, Doctor?"
Ichigo leans back on his hands. "Doctor? Since when?"
Ishida coughs into his fist. "Ah, thank you, but I don't think so. The injuries don't look too severe, and until we know if there's a spinal injury he shouldn't be moved. Although I can't speak much for the man's intelligence, seeing as he walked into oncoming traffic—"
"—I'll see he gets taken care of."
Strands of dark hair have fallen out of her bun, and the bus driver tucks them behind her ears with steadier fingers as she crouches next to Ichigo's body. "The poor thing," she says with real guilt, and Ichigo chokes when she actually brushes his hair away from the gouges on his forehead. "He just stepped right off, right into the road—didn't even look, you know. Just walked right into the street, and then there were books flying everywhere and it all—it all happened so fast." Her voice tightens and she swallows, hard, and Ichigo's indignation overwhelms his sympathy when she pats his body on the hand.
"Ishida. She's touching me."
"Anyway," she says, collecting herself, "the passengers have already called emergency services. The ambulance should get here any minute."
"Oh, shit," says Ichigo, and the sudden twitch of Ishida's fingers tells him he's realized their problem as well. They can't get his body away with her sitting there, not without raising questions—but letting the local hospital take control is a complication they can't afford. Worse, she seems to be settling in, still faintly sniffling as she pats her hair back into the bun and straightens her disheveled uniform. "Ishida," Ichigo says with some urgency, "you have to get her out of here—we need a distraction."
Ishida gives the woman a polite smile and cuts his eyes very deliberately at Ichigo.
"Oh please, what do you want me to do, just walk out with it? I'm not exactly corporeal right now—it's not like Zangetsu's leaping out—leaping out to…" A thought strikes him, and Ichigo trails off in sudden, real alarm. He turns his gaze inward, fearing his sword will be gone like his shihakusho, but to his immense relief, the old man is still there. Deeper than usual, and feeling almost fuzzy around the edges, but there. He is just pulling back into the real world when a foreboding thought strikes him—but he has no time to dive deeper into the corners of his soul, because someone else is approaching them, and Ichigo is beginning to think that he may just have to take his body and run if he becomes any more popular.
The approaching man gestures at the bus driver as he draws near. "One of the other passengers just got off the phone with the police," he calls, and the bus driver rises to her feet. "They said they'd need to speak with you when they got here, you know, take a statement and go through the accident with you."
"Of course," the woman says, nodding, and then seems to think of something. She pulls a scrap of paper from her pocket and scribbles quickly, then hands it to Ishida. "Here, this is my phone number. Please, can you let me know how he does?"
Ishida hesitates, just for a moment, and ignoring Ichigo's let's-hurry-it-along-shall-we gestures, takes the folded paper with a thin smile. "Of course, Miss…?"
She looks surprised and then embarrassed. "Oh—I'm so sorry. It's Wakahisa. Wakahisa Kazuko."
"Wakahisa-san. I'll let you know."
"Thank you so much, and…please, apologize to him for me." She turns, then, and with a small smile, walks back towards the bus and the waiting crowd, and in the distance, Ichigo hears the first sirens of approaching ambulances.
"Ishida, we are out of time, you need to get me out of here now—"
"Your body's dead weight, Kurosaki, it's not like I can just stagger out of here with you on my back before the ambulances arrive, we'd need Sado-kun for that—"
"Oh come on, can't you make some kind of floating Quincy shield you can put it on?"
"And where would you like me to pull the reishi from? The passengers?"
"Well, hurry up and come up with something, you're the one talking to thin air—"
Ishida looks irritated enough to hit him, but his attention is suddenly pulled up behind Ichigo; the clack of wooden clogs against pavement sounds just behind him, and a smooth voice Ichigo knows too well enters the conversation. "My, my, what have we gotten ourselves into, gentlemen?"
"Urahara-san," says Ichigo in mingled relief and surprise as he turns. "When did you get here?"
Instead of answering, the shifty shopkeeper smiles, and all of Ichigo's relief drains away, leaving him with only surprise and vague unease.
"My dear Kurosaki-san," Urahara says, making his way around Ichigo and delicately placing the tip of his cane squarely between Ichigo's body's eyes, "you seem to be absolutely beside yourself today."
Ichigo flings caution to the wind; the sirens are getting closer, and he's never had time for caution, anyway. "Urahara-san, I need your help."
Urahara looks at him for a long moment, then pushes the tip of his cane entirely through Ichigo's head until it hits the pavement with a quiet tack. "You have no idea," he says, and everything goes black.
The first thing of which Ichigo becomes aware is that his skinned palms hurt like hell. He's had more serious wounds, of course, but superficial lacerations always seem to take vicious pleasure in overloading his pain centers unlike anything else.
The second thought that lazily drifts through his head is that he's kind of hungry. Thirsty, too, but mostly hungry. He kind of wants an apple. Or an orange. Something somebody could make juice out of.
His third thought is oh damn, I was dead for twenty minutes today, and that is the one that makes him open his eyes and sit up in a hurry.
Right into Orihime's face. "Ah, Kurosaki-kun," she says, although it's somewhat muffled by the fingers covering her abused nose. "Welcome back!"
Ichigo puts a hand to his head, embarrassed, and props himself up on the other elbow. "Ah, sorry, Inoue. You okay?"
She nods cheerfully, and it is then he notices the quiet yellow glow of the Shun Shun Rikka between their faces. That explains why the cracked ribs don't hurt, he realizes, prodding the area in question. And the dislocated shoulder—but no, that's good, too. He opens his hands, palms-up, and watches as even those scratches are healed into smooth, unbroken skin. The glow flickers and fades, and Orihime presses her nose gingerly.
"Thanks," Ichigo says, and then feeling like that somehow isn't enough, adds, "Souten Kisshun's getting really good."
There is a familiar snort behind him. "Ungrateful bastard," someone mutters, and Ichigo turns to see Renji, who is looking bored out of his mind, lounging against the wall beside a patient-looking Chad.
Ichigo blinks. "You guys…what are you doing here?"
"Sado-kun and I were having lunch," Orihime offers. "Talking about things, you know, like the war and a new dish I'm trying with sashimi and hot sauce—" Ichigo glances at Chad, who shrugs, "—and then all of a sudden Ishida-kun came, and he said there'd been an accident and your soul had popped out like a balloon! So of course we rushed right over here, but by the time we'd come you were already back in your body and just a little scraped up, so I used Souten Kisshun and then Renji-kun showed up and said 'I heard that idiot got killed and I wasn't even here to see it.' And then Ishida-kun said he had to get zippers before the store closed and he left, but the rest of us waited and then you woke up!"
Ichigo glances over at Renji, irked. "So what, you just came to pay your respects?"
Renji cocks an eyebrow. "You serious?" He rolls his eyes, then speaks with an exaggerated slowness. "You might not have noticed, but I am a shinigami. When people die," and he mimes with his fingers someone walking and then falling over dead, "we come from Soul Society, where the doors open whoosh—"
"You are such an ass—"
"Don't blame me, fuckface, you're the one asking why I'm here—"
"I thought that's why they assigned Afro-san to this district!"
"Not when it's a high-profile case like yours! Not like you could ever do anything normal—"
He hears pounding feet on the mats outside, and then the screen slides open with a bang—"Ichigo!"
"Shit, is that—Rukia? Oh my God whatis this, a party—"
"You don't look dead to me at all. Urahara, I thought you said—"
"Kurosaki-kun, please don't! The wounds will open up again!"
And then, yet another voice at the door: "Inoue-san, I got the zippers you needed—Kuchiki-san? Abarai-kun?"
"Hey, Quincy—" Renji starts, but he doesn't get any further, because in the midst of the chaos of six people trying to speak over each other comes the sound of a sharp explosion, and in the shocked silence that follows, all eyes shoot to Urahara and the smoking, kidou-induced hole in the wooden doorframe beside him.
"Now then," he says pleasantly, "if you'll follow me?" He strides out the door and down the hallway, but when no one moves, he pokes his head back into view. "I have tea," he offers, and this time, when he turns and sweeps down the hall, the stunned six of them follow.
Moments later, they are all seated around a low table, steaming tea in porcelain cups before them. The afternoon sun streams in through the window, gleaming off the ceramic, and in the moment, looking around the table at his friends, Ichigo suddenly realizes that this is the first time they've been together since the war. And then another thought strikes him, and he doesn't even know he's said it aloud until Rukia glances at him.
Ichigo shrugs uncomfortably, aware that everyone's looking at him like an exhibit on display. "I just meant it feels like one, you know—you and Renji coming from Soul Society, and Chad and Inoue and Ishida…like it's a reading of the last will and testament or something."
"You did die today," Renji points out.
"Well, yeah," Ichigo says, looking at Urahara. "But it was just a fluke."
Urahara steeples his fingers in front of him, and the bottom of Ichigo's stomach drops out. "You're a very peculiar soul, Kurosaki-san. Shinigami have given their powers to another in times of emergency before Kuchiki-san, of course, but only twice before have those powers been given to a human. And never," he adds, "have the humans involved had your natural talent."
"More proof that you're a total freak."
"Shut up, Renji."
"I am partly to blame for the situation," Urahara continues, ignoring the interruption. "I cut your Chain of Fate very soon after our dear friend Kuchiki-san was returned to Soul Society. Possibly too soon. Your growth rate was already far higher than any human's ought to be, and my treatment accelerated it even further—which was necessary, I remind you, but apparently seems to have had the small and unfortunate side effect of making your soul a little too big for your human body."
"Too big for my human body."
"Think of the soul as a gas and the body as the container that holds it. In a shinigami, the container can flex and grow as the soul does, allowing for potentially unlimited spiritual growth. But a human is a living being with a fixed body; where normal humans never even come close to approaching their limits, you, Kurosaki-san, and maybe eventually your friends, are astonishing exceptions. The pressure inside of you has been building up and building up, and until today, your body was strong enough to hold it. But add in the accident today, that little physical disturbance—what would in anyone else be perfectly harmless, spiritually speaking—and your soul was able to escape."
Ichigo suddenly finds it very hard to swallow.
"If I am right—and I believe I am—these occurrences of popping out of his living body will become more and more frequent, and each time it will be harder to force the soul to return. Today it was only difficult to push through; eventually, perhaps within a few weeks, perhaps a few months…" Urahara makes an expansive gesture, "it will be impossible. The soul will be trapped outside the body."
"What are you saying, Urahara?" asks Rukia, and her voice is low and angry.
"I am saying," Urahara says, with no trace of a smile on his face, "that Kurosaki-san is dying."
Silence falls in the room, the only motion for several seconds the dust flickering light in the shafts of sunlight still spilling through the windows. They're all looking at Ichigo, and he suddenly wants desperately to be somewhere else, anywhere away from the surprise and the pity in their eyes, and he drops his own to stare at his teacup. They all seem to be waiting on him to say something, but his head has gone white-blank, so instead he counts the ripples in his tea and wonders how many heartbeats he has left.
"Are you absolutely certain?" says Ishida, and the sound of his voice breaks the silence in half. Orihime sniffles audibly and next to Ichigo, Rukia lets out a soft breath he hadn't even been aware she was holding, but he can't look up to meet her eyes; he's sure they hold the same look as everyone else's, and he can't—he can't handle pity right now.
Urahara answers in the affirmative, as Ichigo had known he would, and then there is a rattling noise that startles him, and he looks across the table to see Urahara holding a small envelope and a plastic bottle of blue pills, both of which he passes to Ichigo. "This is a medicine I developed for treatment of this phenomenon—specifically, for you. It's similar to the gikongan in that it binds a soul to an empty body, but it's attuned to you rather than an artificial soul." He pauses, and even in the shadows cast by the hat Ichigo can see that his eyes are tired. "I had hoped to use it as a permanent fix, but for whatever reason, your dissociation advanced too rapidly. Those pills can only prolong your life. They can't save it." He hesitates, again, and then almost too quietly for Ichigo to hear, says, "I'm sorry, Kurosaki-san."
Ichigo stands up abruptly. "Good thing I hadn't started studying for the medical exams," he says, because he has to say something or be flattened by the silence. Renji speaks to him, and he says something back, but he isn't paying attention at all; his eyes are looking inwards at his overflowing traitorous soul, the stupid power he'd begged Rukia for so long ago billowing out like ink over all his carefully-laid plans. "Thank you for the medicine, Urahara-san," he says, tucking it into his pocket, and then he turns and strides out the door, not bothering to respond to the voices calling out behind him. He knows in the back of his mind that he is being a self-centered jerk, knows that people die all the time and he isn't any different from them, that walking away from his friends like this is a terribly stupid and selfish thing to do and that they're hurting as much as he is—but the other, more insistent part of his mind is wondering when, exactly, fate intends to give him a vacation from life-changing meetings and other worlds' wars and the capricious nature of his own soul, and when fate remains silent, he breaks into a run.
Twenty minutes have passed before he slows. His feet have led him to a wide walking path near the small local park, and he follows it until he comes to the place where it arches over the river. He makes it halfway across before he stops, wandering over to the chest-high railing and gripping the bars, leaning over them to look at the gleaming water below. The seconds rush by with the river; he doesn't know how long he stands there, but it's long enough that by the time he notices Rukia standing next to him, his knuckles are aching against the metal rail.
"Drowning is an excessively unpleasant way to die," she begins conversationally, standing on tiptoe to look over the railing. "But I suppose if you are that committed, I could knock you unconscious first."
"Idiot. I wasn't going to drown myself."
"Not in anything but self-pity."
His head whips around, but she is still looking at the water. She is quiet for a long moment as if waiting for him to speak, the only sounds the lapping of the ripples below and the occasional car in the distance.
"You stopped coming," he says without meaning to, but she doesn't move.
"So did you."
"I was busy."
"And so was I."
Ichigo looks back at the river, his jaw set mulishly. "I had classes and cram school—exams for medical schools all over the country. Worked at Dad's clinic, too, to pay for the books I bought this morning that I'll never use."
"And I had squads of new recruits, green and untried, looking to me to protect them against Hollows and their own naïveté. We both had responsibilities, Ichigo, and blaming each other for them is unkind to us both."
"We all agreed to get together," he says. "Once a month, the six of us. But we couldn't even make it once—not once, Rukia. Things started cropping up at the last minute. Chad's band would have a gig, or you or Renji would be off on a mission—and then Inoue and Ishida went off to Chiba Medical, and after that we were lucky to get two of us in the same place, much less us all." He swivels on the spot so his back is to the rail. "Do you realize that this is the first time we've even seen each other in over eight months? It took someone fucking dying to get us in the same place again."
She is very quiet, and then at last: "You are angry about more than this," she says, as if she speaks to the river, and then her eyes flick up to meet his. "You are angry at yourself, and at me."
He doesn't say anything, but even after their months apart, Rukia is still able to read his silences. "You are afraid," she says, and his fingers twitch against his sides.
"Of dying, then."
Ichigo says nothing.
"You've faced dying before without fear."
Ichigo snorts bitterly. "I didn't know I'd be losing to my own soul then."
"Don't be childish," she snaps. "I know exactly how much you have sacrificed for me—for us. And I thought, just as you did, that you were finally going to be able to live like a human ought to, to go to that ridiculous school and become a doctor. But Ichigo," and her voice is hard, "No matter how much I wish to, I cannot change this. And you cannot change it either. And to shut your friends out, to whine and childishly run away as if closing your eyes and pretending would change anything—this would be intolerable for everyone you care about."
He says nothing—he knows she's right, but he is still afraid and so angry he can't think straight, can't come up with a thought besides this is not fair.
"Ichigo," Rukia says again, but this time it is gentler, and when Ichigo looks at her she turns her whole body to face him. "Ichigo, you must notlet yourself grow bitter over this. It will eat you from the inside out, more than your Hollow ever could. You must control it, for your own sake, and for the sake of the friends who love you. Do you understand?"
Ichigo takes a measured breath, and then he meets her eyes, tinged with a sorrow without pity, and he wonders if her resolve can seep into him. I understand, he wants to say, and maybe I'm sorry, but his voice seems to be entirely gone, so instead he turns until his elbow bumps hers and rests his arms on the railing in front of him, his awkward hands dangling over the water.
Rukia places her hands on the rail beside his, one loosely fisted around the other; even after all this time, Ichigo is surprised by how his hands dwarf hers. He studies her hands, fine-boned and strong, and then he looks back up to Karakura, and when the river below rushes to amber in the light of the setting sun, he breathes out his bitterness with it.