Bleach: The Afterlife Saga

*Disclaimer: I don't own Bleach or any of its characters. All the characters mentioned in this story, with the exception of OCs, are the property of Kubo Tite.

Chapter 1 Death and Strawberry Reprise

If fate is a millstone, then we are the grist…The wheel of fate is guided by an infallible power…as the wheel of fate turns, so the blade is swung down again…

An eerie wind blew across the rooftops of Karakura Town. Dark clouds hung low in the sky, obscuring the light of the full moon. Perched on top of a telephone pole, a raven haired woman dressed in black observed her surroundings. A tiny butterfly fluttered by her side.

"I sense…an unusual presence in the air. Could it be him?" she said to herself. Without a moment's thought she leaped off the telephone pole and onto the streets below…

"Wake up Ichi-nii!" a girl's voice shouted in a high pitched squeal as a stuffed pillow slammed onto the head of a man with orange hair. "It's time already!"

"Oww, stop that!" Kurosaki Ichigo responded as he thrust the pillow away. He saw Yuzu standing next to him, her face all flustered. "What is the matter?"

"It's time for the clinic to open! You've got four appointments booked out! They're going to be mad if you keep them waiting!" scolded Yuzu. Ichigo looked at his watch and realized it was almost nine in the morning.

"Okay, I get it. If the patients are already waiting, tell them I'll be down within five minutes." Ichigo watched as Yuzu left the room. Then with a sigh, he climbed out of his bed. Still half-asleep, he stumbled into the bathroom, his head throbbing in pain from a late night. When he got in front of the wash basin, he looked at himself in the mirror, and frowned. The stubble he had shaved barely a day ago was already starting to grow back. He also realized he needed a haircut, as his shaggy orange hair had nearly grown down to his shoulder. The sight of his hair however, caused a flash of images through his mind. He suddenly clutched his chest in a reflex action, but lowered his hands a moment later.

Has it been that long already? Ichigo thought to himself. It had been five years since he lost his spiritual powers. Five years since he defeated the traitorous Shinigami Aizen Sousuke. But most importantly for Ichigo, it had been five years since he last saw Rukia.

Despite his vow to never forget her, Ichigo had long ago shut out all memories of Rukia and the other Shinigami of Soul Society from his head, preferring to live life as an ordinary human. He had completed high school and went onto to study a course in medicine at Tokyo University. But events in the family conspired to force him to cancel his studies and return home.

Ichigo laughed at himself as he hastily put on a shirt, trousers and finally a white overcoat. His current outfit was a far cry from his younger days as a Substitute Shinigami. Instead of being dressed in black and saving the souls of the dead, he was now dressed in white and dedicated to protecting the health of the living. The irony of his current situation was not lost on him. He finished dressing and rushed downstairs. Both Yuzu and Karin were already waiting for him.

"Am I already late?" asked Ichigo.

"No, you're just on time," replied Karin.

"Then let's begin." Ichigo walked to the front door and flipped over the 'open/closed' sign, before stepping outside, where he saw a group of people standing beside the entrance. He greeted them all with a smile. "Good morning everyone. The Kurosaki Clinic is now open."

After the four consultations were done, Ichigo and his sisters settled down for lunch around the kitchen table. Although Yuzu was still responsible for most of the cooking, Ichigo and Karin did their best to help her. As they ate, Ichigo calmly observed his two sisters. In the last five years they had both grown into fine young women. Yuzu had grown into the spitting image of their late mother; especially with the way her long hair, amble bosom and sparkling eyes gave the impression of a warm and loving demeanor. Karin was still a tomboy in her attitude, but she now had a very feminine body, with shoulder length black hair tied in a knot, and a chest almost as large as Yuzu's, despite her attempts to strap it down.

Their appearances were not the only aspects that were different. Yuzu was no longer as emotional as she was before, and instead strived to be the family's emotional centre of support. Karin on the other hand was more open and outgoing, and regularly expressed her feelings to others. Ichigo knew what had brought about these changes and secretly wished they had never happened.

"Do you think Otoo-san will ever come home?" asked Yuzu.

"I'm sure he will. Someday," replied Ichigo with a faint smile.

"Don't get your hopes us. Goat-face has either forgotten about us, or he is dead," said Karin. "I'm hoping it's the latter."

"How could you say such a thing Karin-chan!" said Yuzu in exasperation.

Ichigo didn't say anything. He knew how sensitive his sisters' feelings were. Isshin's disappearance had almost torn apart the entire family. Ichigo could still remember the day his father told them he was leaving…

"Why are you going away?" asked Ichigo. "You can't just leave us like that!"

"I'm sorry Ichigo, I have no choice. Someday you'll understand my reasons for doing so," his father replied.

"What about Yuzu and Karin? Who's going to protect them?"

"You of course. When I am gone, you must become the head of the family."

"But I'm not a Shinigami anymore. Heck I can't even sense reiatsu! How am I supposed to respond if Yuzu and Karin are attacked by hollows?"

"There is no need to worry about the hollows. Soul Society has made arrangements to provide ongoing supervision over this house. All you need to worry about is the health and wellbeing of your sisters." Isshin picked up his bags and headed for the door. He turned around to face Ichigo for the final time.

"I'll be back some day Ichigo. Until that day, you must become the guardian of the family. I'm counting on you…"

With those words, Isshin had left the house and never returned. For the last two years Ichigo did the best he could to support the whole family. He was forced to cancel his studies at Tokyo University, and instead completed a brief medical traineeship before earning a qualification as a general practitioner. He then took over the running of the family clinic, using whatever skills and experience he had to keep the business going.

Isshin's departure had further consequences on Ichigo's social life. He had not seen Chad, Orihime, Ishida or any of his school mates for the last two years, and seldom contacted them by phone or email. The conversations he did have with his former friends gave Ichigo the impression that he had become ostracized from his nakama, simply because he no longer had any spirit powers. He wasn't that bothered about this realization, for managing the clinic and looking after his sisters demanded almost all of his attention every single day.

Just as they were finishing lunch, the phone rang. Yuzu picked up the phone and answered.

"Uh, huh, this is the Kurosaki Family Clinic. He's right beside me now. You want to speak to him? Okay." Yuzu gave the receiver to Ichigo. "It's someone from the Karakura General Hospital." Ichigo wondered who that person might be, but as soon as he heard the voice on the other end he knew who it was.

"Hey there Strawberry," said a very familiar voice.

"What is it Ishida?" Ichigo asked. "Don't tell me it's about patient referrals again." He heard a slight chuckle from the other end as he walked upstairs to his room. Just as Ichigo had taken over his father's clinic, Ishida had replaced his father as the head doctor at the hospital. Their relationship was a cordial one, much the same as the one their fathers shared, but there had been frequent arguments between them about the patients they each treated.

"It has nothing to do with patient referrals," replied Ishida. "Sado, Inoue and I are going to hold a party to commemorate the day you lost your powers."

"The day I lost my powers?"

"Yes Kurosaki. It's been give years since you last saw Kuchiki. Or have you completely forgotten about her?" Ishida's words caused Ichigo to reflect for a moment.

"Yeah, I guess I have. I've tried hard not to think about her, or any of the Shinigami."

"Well, it's about time you remembered. All of our fellow classmates are going to be there; at least the ones who are spiritually aware. They've all been asking me, Inoue and Sado about what's happened to you. They haven't seen your face in two years Kurosaki. They deserve to know how you've been."

Ichigo took in Ishida's words and thought for a moment. He then took a deep breath.

"You're right Ishida; I have shut myself from my nakama for far too long. Just tell me where I need to go. I'll be there once business hours finish," he said.

Ichigo had been surprised when Ishida told him the location of the party. It was an outdoor café next to the square where Don Kanonji had performed his live 'exorcism' that went out of hand. Ichigo hadn't known it at the time, but that was the moment where his nakama had begun their contact with the spiritual world. It was a fitting place, Ichigo thought; to celebrate the anniversary of the day his involvement in the spiritual world had ended.

As he walked through the front entrance of the café, he spotted three very familiar faces who were sitting in a table by the window. As soon as they saw him, they got up from their seats and rushed toward him.

"Kurosaki-kun!" shouted Inoue Orihime in an excited voice. She hugged her arms tightly around Ichigo's body. "I've missed you so much!"

"Erm, yeah, I've missed you too, Inoue," said Ichigo, a little taken aback by Orihime's actions.

"It's good to see you again, Ichigo," said Chad. "How have you been?"

"I've been alright, I guess." Ichigo noticed that Orihime and Chad hadn't changed much since he last saw them five years ago. When he saw Ishida however, he was stunned at how different he looked. Ishida's hair was no longer black, but slightly grayish in colour; and his face had become more chiseled in appearance.

"Hey there Kurosaki. I was beginning to think you wouldn't show up," said Ishida.

"What happened to your hair, Ishida?" asked Ichigo.

"Premature graying. It's a genetic trait of my family. I should ask the same question about your hair. It's as long as it was when you lost your powers."

"Oh yeah, I hadn't noticed. I just didn't bother trimming it as I used to." Ichigo looked around the café and noticed that Chad, Orihime and Ishida were the only school mates that were present.

"Where are Tatsuki and the others? Are they coming?" he asked.

"They'll be here soon. Arisawa told me that she, Asano and Kojima got held up in traffic." At this point Ishida noticed something and turned his attention to the front door. "Speak of the devil, here they are." As soon as Ichigo turned his head, he made eye contact with Tatsuki, Keigo and Mizuiro. Though none of the three had changed much in outward in appearances, Ichigo felt something different about their inward beings.

"Tatsuki, Keigo, Mizuiro…" said Ichigo, before he was suddenly slapped in the face by Tatsuki.

"Where have you been Ichigo? We haven't seen you since the end of high school!" shouted Tatsuki. "Plus, you still owe us an explanation for all the shit that happened five years ago!"

"Um, didn't Ishida, Inoue or Sado tell you guys anything?" asked Ichigo.

"Ishida told us why you were running around dressed in those black robes, and we know a bit about that place called Soul Society. But we want to hear more from your own mouth Ichigo. What happened back then that made you shun yourself from us?" Ichigo thought for a moment about how he was going to respond. He glanced at Orihime and Chad, and saw them nod their heads. I guess it is time for me to tell the truth. He gave them a brief account of the events in Hueco Mundo, Fake Karakura Town and the outskirts of Rukongai, but left out most of the details concerning the Arrancars or Aizen Sousuke.

"In short, I sacrificed all of Shinigami powers to defeat the bad guy who had been chasing you. As a side effect of that sacrifice, I lost all of spiritual power. Now I am just an ordinary human. I can't even see spirits like you guys can."

"But surely that wouldn't make you not speak to us for the last two years," said Keigo.

"No, I was quite happy being an ordinary human. I was planning to keep contact with you guys when I went to Toudai, but something happened back home." Ichigo paused for a moment, trying to stop himself from being caught up in his own emotions. "Just as I was finishing my first year, my father suddenly left home without any explanation, and asked me to look after my sisters. But how could I protect them from hollows when I can't even see ordinary ghosts? And with their strong spiritual powers, Karin and Yuzu would be easy prey for hollows. For the past two years I've been frightened to even leave the house, less I lose them the same way I lost my mother and father."

As his nakama took in his words, they finally realized the enormous burden that Ichigo had been carrying, and what it meant for him to lose his powers.

"I'm sorry for scolding you Ichigo," said Tatsuki. "No wonder you've kept yourself from us. I can't imagine what it must be like to care for your sisters whilst worrying about their safety all the time."

Ichigo chatted with his nakama for another two hours before he decided it was time to head back. It was already dark outside, and Ichigo knew that Yuzu and Karin would already be anxious about him. He said goodbye to his friends and promised them that he would see them more often.

As he walked home, Ichigo started having second thoughts about being a normal human soul. The dreams and visions he had been experiencing recently weighed heavily in his mind. I thought I was comfortable in not being a Shinigami, in not having to carry the weight of the world on my shoulders, in not having to be in fear of my own power. So why then do I constantly feel a deep regret in my heart? He glanced at the palm of his hand and tried to clench it into a fist. I can't protect Yuzu and Karin. Hell I can't even protect myself anymore. The realization of his own powerlessness cut into Ichigo's heart like cold steel. Maybe I desired to be a Shinigami. To be a being with the power to shatter the hand of fate. He thought about his decision not to see his school friends once over the last two years and was disturbed by the fact he felt no sense of regret in not meeting them. He realized there was only person he longed to meet again. Rukia…did I really forget about her? The person who changed my whole world, who gave me a purpose in life… I watched her disappear before my very own eyes, but that didn't mean she was gone forever. She could have been watching over me like a guardian angel, yet I've acted as if she never existed…

A girl's scream broke Ichigo's introspection. He looked around and realized he was but a block away from home. Furthermore, the scream sounded familiar. To Ichigo it sounded like…

"Yuzu!" he exclaimed. He dashed around the corner and ran towards the house at break neck speak. As soon as he neared the house, he saw something that made him utterly shocked. Hanging dozens of feet above the ground and screaming for her dear life was Yuzu. Her hands appeared to be grasping something invisible and Ichigo noticed she was gasping for breath, as if something was constricting her neck.

He was so focused on the sight of Yuzu that he didn't see the bloodied figure nearby until he heard another girl's voice.

"Run…Onii-chan," croaked Karin. When Ichigo saw her body, a sense of dread came over him. Karin's legs were nothing more than bloodied stumps; and a large red gash streaked across her back. A pool of blood had formed beneath Ichigo couldn't sense spiritual pressure, he could still tell that her wounds weren't caused by an ordinary human; nor were they caused by a Shinigami. Only one being could have caused it: a hollow. This can't be happening, Ichigo thought. It was the outcome he feared the most since his father disappeared.

He glanced up at Yuzu again and saw the colour on the skin had started turning pale. I'm not going to let her die! Without a moment's thought he grabbed a stick nearby and ran towards Yuzu at breakneck speed.

"NO ONII-CHAN!" Ichigo heard Karin scream at the top of her voice. Nothing could have prepared Ichigo for what happened next. Without warning, a huge sharp object stabbed him in the back and ripped open his chest. Ichigo felt a moment of incredible pain, before darkness fell upon him…

Ichigo opened his eyes a second later, but found something wrong with his body. It felt far too light. It was when he looked down that he realized what had happened to him. There was a black hole in the centre of his chest, from which was attached a chain that extended for roughly three feet before it tapered off. This must be a dream, Ichigo thought to himself. But when he saw his mutilated body lying on the road nearby, he knew it wasn't a dream. He was actually dead. And now he could clearly see the creature that had killed him. It was a monstrous hollow, nearly forty feet high, with the face of a goat, two arms that tapered into gigantic razor sharp claws, and a serpentine tongue that was still grasped around Yuzu's neck.

But what shocked Ichigo was the sight of another Yuzu lying on the ground next to the hollow. This Yuzu also had a broken soul chain attached to her body. Ichigo realized she was already dead and the Yuzu the hollow was holding was nothing more than a corpse. The hollow also appeared to sense this fact, for to Ichigo's horror it devoured her entire body. With its mouth still drooling with blood, the hollow stomped towards the barely alive Karin and wrapped its tongue around her neck. When it tried to yank her in the air, the hollow inadvertently separated Karin's soul from her body. Her Konpaku, intact but unconscious, flopped to the ground, but Karin's mutilated body was devoured by the hollow in a sickening display.

"Karin! Yuzu!" shouted Ichigo. He willed his body to stand up, but he found himself weighed down by his soul chain. He tried instead to crawl to where Karin's soul lay, just as he watched the hollow completely devour what was left of his body. He barely crawled more than three yards before he lost all strength in his arms and legs. Ichigo closed his eyes in despair. Why? Why is this happening to me again? I couldn't protect them…I couldn't even protect myself! Why am I so powerless? He opened his eyes again and saw the hollow grab hold of Yuzu's Konpaku with its tongue. Ichigo lost all semblance of hope in his heart. If Yuzu's soul was devoured, she would be gone from existence. And Karin and himself would be next. Unable to control his own feelings, tears started streaming from Ichigo's eyes.

"Someone…anyone…help us!" he shouted. I beg of you…He closed his eyes, unable to bear watching his sister's soul get consumed.

Just then however, Ichigo felt the temperature in the air around him cool dramatically. Then, from somewhere nearby, he heard a voice chant the words "Some no Mai, Hakuren". A second later a huge blast of ice struck the hollow, snap freezing it an instant before it was about to swallow Yuzu's soul. It can't be! Ichigo thought as he saw the sight of the frozen hollow. But then a figure that slowly appeared from the mist was unmistakable. It was her.

First a pair of sandals emerged, followed by a black Shihakusho. A Zanpakuto of pure white dangled from her right hand. And finally a face that was exactly the same as it was since the day he last saw her.

"Rukia…" Ichigo couldn't believe his eyes. She had finally reappeared before him, five years after she vanished from his existence. A ton of questions started forming in Ichigo's mind but they were all silenced when he saw Rukia's smile.

"Long time no see Ichigo," she said. She cast her attention to the frozen hollow for a moment. With her wave of her sword she shattered the ice along with the hollow. The action caused Yuzu's spirit to drop to the ground. Rukia then resealed her Zanpakuto before she knelt down in front of Ichigo.

"I'm so sorry that our reunion had to be like this," said Rukia. She examined Ichigo's soul chain for a moment before she gave a deep sigh of regret. "I wish I could have come a fraction earlier. I might have been able to save you and your sisters. But now it is too late." Ichigo knew what Rukia meant. He and his sisters' bodies had already been devoured by the hollow. There was no way for them to return to life. He watched as Rukia went over to check on the Konpaku of his sisters.

"How are they Rukia?" asked Ichigo.

"They're unconscious but their spiritual bodies are undamaged," said Rukia. "However, you and sisters can't stay in the world of the living for long."

"What do you mean?" asked Ichigo. Rukia pointed to Ichigo's soul chain.

"All of your soul chains are broken. You of all people should know what means." Ichigo suddenly remembered his experience in Urahara Kisuke's shattered shaft. He knew that he and his sisters would become hollows if they stayed in the world of the living eventually and when that happened Rukia would be forced to purify them.

"I have no wish to see you or your sisters turn into hollows," said Rukia. She grasped Ichigo's hands. "For if that happened, I would have to kill you with own hands. I don't think my heart would be able to bear it.

"So rather than letting you stay in the world of the living, I'll perform Konso on each of you and send you all to Soul Society. You'll be able to keep your Konpaku and retain your memories. Is that okay with you?" Ichigo considered Rukia's offer for a moment, before he realized that was the only acceptable alternative for him.

"Well, seeing as I'm going to end up in Soul Society either way, I'd prefer to keep my sense of identity," he said. "I accept your offer Rukia, but can you do me one favour?"

"What is it?"

"Please send my sisters and I to Soul Society together."

"That is fine with me. I was planning on doing so anyway," said Rukia with a smile. She dragged Yuzu and Karin's bodies beside Ichigo's. She proceeded to draw a white spiritual circle that surrounded the three of them. When the circle started glowing, Rukia planted seals on each of their foreheads with the pommel of her Zanpakuto. Finally, she stepped out of the circle and watched as Ichigo and his sisters' Konpaku started disappearing.

"When you get to Soul Society, just survive the best you can and wait for me," said Rukia. "I'll return to Soul Society myself shortly and when I do so, I'll try to find you again."

"Heh," Ichigo smiled. "I guess I shouldn't say goodbye just yet."

"Of course not," Rukia replied in a sarcastic tone.

"See you later." With that Ichigo felt his spiritual body disappear, and his presence transported across time and space.

Rukia watched as their Konpaku disintegrated and the spiritual circle faded away. This isn't the end Ichigo. It's only the beginning. You put your life on the line to protect me many times before, so it is time for me to return the favour. I'll put my life on the line to protect you. Live Ichigo. Your life in the real world may have ended, but your life in Soul Society has just begun…

Notes: This story is set after Chapter 423 of the Bleach Manga and assumes that Ichigo did not regain his powers. Isshin's whereabouts won't be revealed until much, much later down the track. For the next few chapters, the story will focus mostly on Ichigo and his sisters, but Rukia will feature in a prominent role.