It was over. Ichigo had won.
But why did he feel empty? Was it because he'd lost his powers? Because he'd had to see so many people get hurt because he couldn't protect them?
He didn't know the answer.
After his victory, his life had gone back to how it was before: going to school, hitting Keigo, chatting with Mizuiro, declining Orihime's offers for dinner at her house (her cooking had remained the same) and driving off bullies that were after him and Chad. But when he was alone, he could feel the numbness creeping up on him. He couldn't see spirits anymore, couldn't help his friends in "Hollow patrol", as Orihime called it.
He was useless now. And he knew it.
And one day, Soul Society had decided the elimination of his friends would be for the greater good. They arrived suddenly at Orihime's house, where they were eating, everything was going so fast it was like a blur, the world going too fast for him. And then the world stopped. His friends were dead, blood gushing out of their bodies onto the floor. Only he was spared, as "reward for saving Soul Society and the Seireitei". He was so useless he couldn't even stop the Onmitsukidou squad from killing them.
Every moment of the day, he could hear Orihime's yells and pleads to be spared. He could smell the blood, he'd see it staining the nearest surfaces. He'd remember Uryuu's face of determination before he was stabbed in the stomach, Chad's alarmed expression before even he was eliminated. Soi Fon and most of the other captains when they'd forced him to watch, some of their faces contorting into masks of insane glee as they saw the massacre, the day of his birthday.
The memories would plague him day and night, every moment of his existence.
A week after his friends' murder, he'd started deteriorating: he wouldn't eat, and rest was rare because the thoughts would come up like bile in his throat, and when he did manage to sleep, it would be short and fitful or torturingly long yet never satisfying – but the nightmares would always be there. Sometimes they'd just replay the massacre, but more often he'd dream of his friends accusing him of not being able to save them, the skin blotched everywhere in red, wounds littering their bodies, limbs missing…
The look of purest loathing and disgust in Orihime's sunken eyes as she yelled at him, her tortured, bloodied hands wrapping around his throat, leaving him gasping for air. Or Ishida insulting him, telling him he was useless, pathetic, while his inner organs started slipping out of his stomach wound onto the floor, littered with the corpses of his friends, his family, everyone he knew. And Chad,a disgusted expression on his face, as words of pure poison slipped out of his mouth, the head held in the body's arm as his flesh started to rot and desintegrate. All of them saying together that he should have been murdered like them that night.
15th of July
It was that day again. The anniversary of his friends' murders. Despite the time of the year, it was deadly cold, and the rain had been pouring nonstop for a week. A year had passed since the massacre, and Ichigo had changed. His hair was as long as it had been during the final battle, but he'd lost weight and his face had a permanent expression of sadness. The most shocking thing was his eyes: the molten caramel color they'd had was now dulled and opaque, flat, unmoving. During the past year his friends had been mourning as well, and he hadn't had much company from anyone else except the vizard's occasional visits, as the Seireitei was still searching for them, and Urahara, who often tried to unsuccessfully restore his morale, trying to hide the fact that he too was still recovering from the shock of Ururu and Jinta's deaths.
He'd decided to meet his friends at the cemetery, where their friends' tombs were. The sky seemed to reflect his feelings perfectly: flat grey when he'd woken up, evolving into the deepest blue when it started storming, lightning cutting through the sky.
Ichigo donned warm clothes and went outside, not bothering to bring an umbrella. When he reached the cemetery he was already wet to the bone, but it didn't matter. He enjoyed the cold, one of the only real sensations he'd felt in weeks. It was as if the sky was mourning with him.
Tatsuki, Keigo and Mizuiro had left hours ago, after praying with him for their friends. They'd lit incense at the best of their abilities despite the storm and quietly murmured to their friends, hoping their words would reach them, even if they knew they were in Soul Society. Ichigo had remained longer, asking them to go on without him, saying he needed to "think about stuff".
Ichigo meditated as he looked at the white, pristine graves of his friends and comrades, bathed in rain. The cold seeped into his body, but he didn't care. He only needed his mind to think, after all.
Since their death, he hardly felt anything. The only emotion he still had besides that soft, continuous love for his family and remaining friends was undiluted hate towards Soul Society and constant pain for the loss of his friends. That had been the hardest to deal with: the first few weeks after the murder the pain was white-hot and scorching, searing at his soul the entire time. It had started to wane with time, leaving only an aching, perpetual feeling of sadness, but it only needed a trigger to consume him.
But he couldn't continue to mope like this. It wasn't what his friends would want.
Yeah, they wouldn't want me like this. They want me dead too. If they feel as they do in my nightmares.
He had to have revenge on the shinigami. It had been the only thought that had kept him alive for all these months, keeping him motivated. He knew most people said revenge was futile and useless, causing more misery than benefit. But there were times when he'd have the urge to just kill something, or rather somebody. He could picture beating the shit out of Soi Fon, smashing her head against a wall so many times her brains would be gushing out of her head, wiping her face of that irritating smug look she'd had during the massacre. Or Yamamoto-Soutaicho, consumed by his own flames, writhing in pain on the floor.
He swore to his friends' graves with his blood. They would be avenged, no matter what it took, or how long he'd have to wait.
Urahara's store was still how it had always been: small and shabby on the outside, but at least three times its size on the inside. As he entered, Urahara was sitting on the floor, alone, hat over his eyes and fan in hand.
"Ah, Kurosaki-kun, what can I do for you?"
"How do I restore my powers?"
Urahara's smirk just grew behind the paper fan.
Two months later
Ichigo was panting, exertion taking its toll. Sparring with Urahara was hard. The man would never stop moving, attacking him from unexpected angles and constantly surprising him. But it didn't matter if training was harsh, the exhilarating rush of having his powers back and the incumbency of his revenge against Soul Society giving him all the motivation he needed to stand Geta boshi's taunts and comments.
With the return of his reiatsu, he'd started returning more like he was before the massacre. He still mourned them, and had frequent bouts of sadness, but he tried keeping his morale up for Keigo, Mizuiro and Tatsuki. He knew they needed his support as well.
The sound of a blade slicing through the air towards his ear brought his attention to the problem at hand: Urahara. He swung Tensa Zangetsu straight at him, the feeling of the sword's hilt in his hands familiar and comforting, like a friend. Urahara's hat flied off its owner's head and settled onto the ground.
"Well, Kurosaki-kun" -the man practically sang- "I think you've passed the test. You're more than ready, but I wouldn't advise you to go against them single handed. They don't quite have the quality, but they have plenty of quantity."
"What do you mean by single-handed? Aren't you and Tessai coming with me?"
"Kurosaki-kun, Tessai and I have a sweet shop to run, you know. We can't go around picking fights with Soul Society! We have serious business to attend to!"
"Oh. I'll have to ask him then." Replied the orange haired teen with a slight frown on his face, eyes contemplating the basement's desert-like scenery.
"Urahara-san, how can I unbind Aizen?"
"Kurosaki-kun, are you sure you want to do that?". For once, the shopkeeper's voice was serious.
"He's the only one who can help me now."
"All right then! Let's get started!"
The man's mood swings were getting annoying.
Getting into Avici, the underground prison in which Aizen was kept, was far easier than what Ichigo had thought. The guards were absent (thanks to Urahara's quick gas-bomb expedient further up and at the Shinigami Research Institute, creating chaos) and the silence was eerie. His steps resonated against the floor, the only sound around him. A heavy iron doorway closed the actual confines of the prison, but despite its size, it gave away almost immediately when he swung Zangetsu against the metal.
The prison was more cave-like than he'd imagined, lightless and damp. He could barely make out Aizen's silhouette, at the back of the cave, still bound on the chair he'd received his sentence on.
He let his reiatsu leak out, allowing it to probe its way to the bindings, forming slythering black and red words around the binding substance. As each character formed on the surface beneath it, the bonds started dissolving, almost as if crumbling and disappearing into thin air.
The last to go were the ones against Las Noches' overlord's mouth and eyes, and Aizen spoke for the first ime in over a year, his voice surprisingly uncracked from disuse.
"What a pleasure, ryoka boy. And to what do I owe this favour?". The voice was like always, amused and silky, the pleasant, honeyed words barely betraying the malice and poison so often hidden beneath them.
"I want you to help me." Ichigo's response was calm, controlled.
"I understand. I thought you'd come, sooner or later. It was only a matter of time."
Arrogant as always.
Ichigo was surprised at that. He'd known the man to be arrogant and slightly know-it-all, but this was near impossible. Could he just be saying that? "How did you know?"
He chuckled. A chuckle that sent shivers running down his spine, because that was often the indicator that the man hadn't been lying. "Everybody knows the Central 46 and Soul Society eliminate what isn't necessary any longer to them. You defeated me and lost your powers, expiring your utility. I'm surprised they didn't kill you, though. Who died?"
"That's none of your business."
"Very well. I suppose you want revenge on Soul Society." Ichigo nodded sombrely. "But I don't make deals without profit to me. What will I have in return?"
Ichigo lowered his eyes, thinking it over for the last time. If he spoke, he'd seal his fate. If he didn't, he could still back out of it.
He opened his mouth. "Anything you want."
Aizen's mouth could only widen in a smirk.