A/N: This is it, folks. Thanks very much for staying with this story and making it this far :)
Special kudos to all of you who've sent me private messages and reviews over the years that this fic was being published. Thanks very much to The Crafty Cracker, Blitch, Child of the Ashes, kikyoevil, nypsy, ohsayHUN, CrystalDawn, Bleachichihime, Oh My Kira, luvtousall, ombre nocturne, VirgilTheart, himelove22, Fostersb, zodious, smartkid360, LoveAngelDreams, gigitootrill, Ashe Flight, camille91, calamita, golden jade, Pchan712, The A-Reader, Orange Drops, makary, EternalRoses, HinaFilipina18, Ellie-ellie, muddychan, Racholasj, Simply-Ai, TrappedInWonderland, XtremeGal87, Sweety Rahai, EL0NI, honeybear15, Twix10, hannehbuns, chuchootrain, Marvolo-san, Noey, LittleMargarita, Ginnya, butterflylavender, Cophy, uzamaki898, kittenkitt11, JammersFlood, XBluexFlamingoX, EclairHime, Fpix, Aeliid, Mz Valkyrie, Sulllla, Devoid Dreamer, Cool Haruhiism-follower, vicucha, Summer Eclair, MiKaZuKi239, jubulicious, Rin Sessys Girl, Aijou829, WeaverGoddess, Tina Caps, SleeplessxB3auty, nisey610, star0704, GalanthaDreams, Lady Miel Cacao, IObleachmaniacIO, Ms. Pufferfish, ladycorvidae, randomfan17, RuthlessChild, Odinson91, sentientInsanity, PoeticNonsenseNinjaStyle, Abiding Angel, orphiucus, ShadowFoxAngel, shadowanime1, Yahtzey, Nayuki-Bunny, SsAnImE, LiluFaery87, princess-myu, serpenscape, xxsickestalivexx, Reflected Moon, Muise, Nadex, Dark Vizard447, Liym Enello, KrayKrayKat, saveme57, hitsuika kuchiki, Soccercraze111, Sin Piedad, Oicherealtai, SasuNarulover49, UnknownXPerson, koimikodemon, star0704, IceFire Dragon Alchemist73, CharNinja LOL, Lonewingwriter, sKyLaR KnIgHt, The0Blind0Writer, witchgal, chibisamasempai20, UnluckyAmulet, Sdarian, luversblues, Skelo, Toyobi, hikari-hime 01, Yoruichi-Flash Godess, eastraven, Arasia, ShinigamiNatsumeNashiKurosaki, TheCatWithTheHat, Onyxclarinet, CagedRaven, NinaSkyLove, ReniJo, GottaGetM3sumPIE, The Four Crosses, Aeducan, OrihimeKurosakiInoue, shintochick, Aiasaka, This is getting old, codegal, .Tree, Sakura Soryu, it0takes0skills0to0be0me, hexsilverwand, LyricalSin, AiiroDatenshi, StarFlake000, Reignashii, ilyena damodred, VisceralMel, Masterjeryn, bowlfullofcherries, Angelina Cat, KenZe, Eren4ever, Talita Silva, HiddenMaster, AncientReaver, oCloudNine, OdDmOvIeSaReNeOn, that-blonde-full-of-light, luvofbooks, Vermouth, chris, jbhsdjasbdjshb839437483, akito kyo, SakR9, Altair718, Jessica, Steph, Blue Aidelle, hollowfreak, ADAM, Ayaka Rain, Xtremefairy, carina, sunflowerspot, Seliet, hime-x-x, tokiluv, DarkIrisGypsy, lyerlaboys1, Ichihime supporter, animefan29, Lady Alkina, melnel, 0ri0n, iheartligers, thebeautywithin13, moodymel, Fantasy Obsession, boho, DeathBerryHime, Ermilus, Awii Eloise, trpl, Ducky1, aryaputra, Naruhinafan86, XDARKERXDESIREX, hadilu-chan, Misha, Caitriona695, xNINJABLADE45x, BiblioMatsuri, Aero-Cluster, abandonedbymich, kayai1995, Spectre8, RainingLight1, titikaka, supremekikay24, Accountclozed, dani-h, TheDeadBeat, BeInfinitexx, S0phi3F4wn, foggraven, kateisawizard, bloodlinenaruto, xXKarkatluvXx, Sword of the Azure Rain, blue and gold, emma-nyaaan, me (this is their signed username), Melody Anna Kamiya Tudor, CoffeeBooks, Moneymaka, Michiko Burel, PornstarWaffles, HikariMustang25, Sele de la Luna, Sasha88, Emumoon, mehnaz, Kiri Rozu, A Midsummer, Nadex, mryann, Fai Gensou, Skyshattered, IchigoOrihime, TheSilentDarkAngel, teddybunny99, Tenma, LoVe23, racesa36, northpeach, Armageddon Angel, chibi313, Bacon lover, Shree, brnkofeternity06, Liz, Selene Moonchild, Shreehime, Ouka Hime, 93, asilentvoice, Mansdas2, aej1085, beaucoup riant, sweet-penelope, Isabella Rose G, IchiHimelover86, Five Lifetimes, Tifah98, inuyashalvrtoo, Miyu kuran, Duesal Bladesinger, kunoichi CP, lilred90, Lazurman, feedthegrimmjows, Arai kaji, Saint Sita, emm297, ougley, The King in White, AnimaAmore, pianoman555, Aria Scarlet, shotgunhero, anonymousP, teetertotter23, angelicfrosty, spinoff, MoonlightRurouni, PerniciousPenny, BrokenAngelWings83, DJMirnum, fanficlover, sumtyms, Red bean, bolt is cute, SourxApples, avengeme, Gguest, TiraChan31, silvavee, reader101, Atemumberry, sapphirehimitsu, ShioriErz, Death-Angel-of-Anime, Luffy D. Hancock, Ciekawa Osoba, tsukinoyume11, Fangirl17, hinaichigo48, Matilda, Ana, Livingdeadclaire, NaruHinadorablez, HikariTwinAkari, jhian casey, none need say, ShadowElite, tyra, Lynansidhe, L, Kurama's Foxy Rose, Rochelleteentitan, mariawalker112, fantasy-baka, DarkWolf Publications, daianapotter, Cerulean Twin, Ellieastic, tdish, Summer RainingStars, Mymina, Vita Rubella, A Whimsical Seishin, MistySweetness, UfailATlifenowDIE, HuntressxHunter, PurseMonger, anonymous (x3), and Guest (x31)
I apologize if I miss anyone (or if your name is too long that ffnet deleted it from the list above).
And now, onwards to...
Chapter 31: beyond — a thousand years
In the Isle of Memory, attached to the great library that housed the history of the gods and the worlds was a scriptorium filled with Scribes hard at work in their respective inclined desks. The air was filled with the murmurs of hushed voices as well as the scratching of quills and the strokes of paintbrushes on parchment and canvas. It was here that Shuuhei Hisagi could be found, perusing through the pile of paper on the smaller table adjoining his desk. Finding what he was seeking, he sat back and examined the piece.
It was one of the preliminary sketches that Rukia, the Goddess of Snow and the Arts, made of Rangiku, the Goddess of Love and Fertility, and Orihime, the bride of the former Death God. The actual version had already been finalized centuries ago, displayed on a wall inside the temple of Rangiku in Junrinan.
After tracing Orihime's features with his eyes to remind himself of what she looked like, he turned once more to the parchment on his desk, picked up his paintbrush, and resumed. The rustle of the implement on paper as he drew became lost among the white noise of the Scribes working, as he told through his pictures the tale that had changed the world so much, that had affected the pantheon of the gods themselves – and which no mortal would ever know. Even this story was one that Hisagi himself was sure would never be permitted to be distributed outside the realm of gods.
As a Scribe, though, he was required to record it, for it was an important part of the history of the world.
At the bottom, he captioned the piece: The Message of the Messenger of the Sun God.
Contrary to how she had been when she presented herself a few days ago, Neliel's demeanour now was downcast, harbouring deeply-held grief, shaking her head as she looked at the two that lay unconscious on the ground.
Her voice trembled as she spoke, "Greetings. I come to you with charges from the Spirit King in light of what you see before you."
"Neliel—" began Renji, but stopped when she held up a hand, a silent request to keep his questions in check until she finished with what she came to say.
"I'm sure you're wanting to know exactly what happened here. I witnessed it all from the sky, and from there I was given orders by the one who rules over all of us." The eyes of the Goddess of Time fell upon Orihime and the figure of her husband, holding sympathy and sorrow in her gaze. Lowering herself to a knee, she held out a hand and traced the hole on Ichigo's chest, uncertainty over finding the right words or the right tone briefly warring inside her. Deciding that being straightforward would be best and that she would simply take their reactions in stride and respond as needed, she claimed, "Senna destroyed Ichigo's heart."
Disbelief silenced the air briefly, then Orihime and Renji cried out in unison, "What?!"
A sad, deprecating smile pulled at the corner of Neliel's mouth as she rose and made her way to the still-glowing dome that surrounded the Goddess of Autumn, kneeling beside the woman and taking her limp hand. Examining the glow, she recalled that not scant minutes before, her friend's figure was hardly recognizable after Ichigo attacked her following his transformation. Now, beneath the golden hue that proved to be Orihime's power as a goddess, Senna looked for all the world as though no such ferocity happened. Gone were the scars and bruises, the trails of blood and torn skin. A shuddering sigh escaped Neliel as she tried to hold her emotions in check. She was here for a purpose, she reminded herself. Raising her eyes, she allowed her gaze to wander, mustering coldness and detachment into her tone, understanding all too well what drove her friend to have done what she did, what drove Grimmjow, her former lover, to his own actions in front of her just days before. "Because she was hurting. Because she wanted to hurt him for hurting her."
Because (he) was hurting. Because (he) wanted to hurt (me) for hurting (him), substituted Neliel inside her mind. Grimmjow and me. Senna and Ichigo. What a cycle we have found ourselves in.
Orihime closed her eyes, tears anew meandering down her cheeks. She felt Renji's hand, still on her shoulder, holding on as though she was a lifeline, tremble slightly. She raised her own hand and placed it over his, the only measure of comfort she could return. "Ichigo...what about him now? Please. His heart—can he turn back? I don't think he's dead." She placed her hand on her chest. "In here...my heart...I can feel that he isn't."
Looking back at her, Neliel offered a smile she couldn't really feel. "No, he isn't." Carefully, she arranged Senna's hands over her stomach, placing a stray autumn leaf between her fingers. Rising, she dusted herself and walked back to where Renji and Orihime sat, bracing herself to say what she came to say. "But as he is now, Ichigo cannot perform his duties. The Spirit King, other than being the God of the Sun, also preserves the Natural Order of the World. Ichigo's dominions, Death and the Moon, fall upon these Natural Orders, and without him to oversee these, there is a gap in the world. There is a need for another to take over his duties for him.
"His form now is one that is halfway to death. As you see him, this is what becomes of the gods who have passed on. Yet you see him still retaining a small portion of life. He may recuperate from this; he may return to the form he was before. But we are facing the uncertainty of when that may happen. The Natural Order must be preserved, for the sake of the real world. The humans are expecting to see the moon to be up in the sky like it always has; they are expecting that someone will come for their souls when they die.
"Even with the moon destroyed, a piece of his heart lives on: his love for you, Orihime. You have his heart. But the mortal world needs to see that moon rise, else its absence cause chaos there. They have a fragile constitution, and not seeing that regularity, they might think the world is ending and wreak who knows what kind of havoc on each other. And we, as the gods who oversee them, shall show them what they expect to see in the sky, everyday of their lives. It is our duty as gods.
"It is not usual that guests of the Spirit King's domain are charged to undertake tasks. But for this highly unusual circumstance, Orihime, this will be your first duty as a goddess: to uphold the ruse that the moon in still in the sky."
The auburn-haired's mouth opened and closed, words escaping her, overwhelmed with what she'd just heard. It was too much to take in, nothing seemed to register in her mind save for the one thing she held to be the most important: "But how can—I-I can't just leave Ichigo like this."
Neliel felt a pang of sympathy for what the newly-made goddess had to be feeling at that moment. She understood all too well, having been in the same position thousands of years before when she had been chosen by the Spirit King to undertake a specific task in the sky and to leave everything she loved behind. For the good of keeping the worlds – the humans', the gods', and those who dwell in the sky – in balance, feelings had to be swept aside. Or at least burrowed down. Personal was not the same as important. There were more pressing matters than the microcosm of an individual's life.
Knowing this, the Goddess of Time responded, "He – Ichigo – needs to recuperate. He needs to be restored to some semblance of what he once was. His duties as a god are too great to remain unbound and neglected. As it stands now, with his heart gone, there is no longer a moon—"
"And death?" interjected Renji. "Without him to usher souls..." He trailed off, swallowing the words back, not liking the sinking feeling growing inside him at the way Neliel simply gazed at him imploringly. Even though he knew it was futile, he still couldn't help voicing out his refusal. "No."
Orihime turned to him as she heard the vehemence in his tone, only then realizing that if she was the one charged with the moon's substitution, then Renji was...
He stood, shaking his head as he paced restlessly, kicking at rocks, at the sand, and at broken autumn leaves as though it would help alleviate the heavy despair that was spreading inside him.
Neliel's words, when she spoke, were weighted with the unwanted charge he was being dealt. And he knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that there was no escape from this duty that he was being bound to.
"By order of the Spirit King, you, Renji Abarai, formerly a Scribe and now risen to the ranks of gods by marriage to a goddess, are hereby charged to take over Ichigo's duty as the God of Death."
He closed his eyes tightly, curling his hands into fists, as he once more found himself beside Orihime and the real Death God, falling to his knees. He wanted nothing more than to drown out the words as the Sun God's Messenger continued, tone grave and hollow.
"The Spirit King's word is the only law of the gods. To refuse him is to choose your own end. You know that, Renji. I, too, know what it's like to be charged with a divine duty. You know that someone has to be there to usher the souls of the dead. Ichigo, in his present state, cannot do it. You're the only one that is qualified to take over since you're not presently presiding over anything. You know from being a Scribe that this is not the first instance that another god has had to take over another's job when they've become indisposed."
Silence fell between the three of them, only broken by the still-falling rain. Neliel allowed them their time to grieve, to accept, to register the importance of what was being asked of them. She held herself, hands on her arms, knowing the two needed comfort but also knowing they would not accept any measure of consolation from her. Her eyes wandered over to her unconscious friend, watching as the golden dome surrounding her dissipated, and two small figures seemed to fly towards Orihime, landing in her hair by her ear. The Goddess of Time strode to where Senna lay, seeing that the healing seemed to have finished. Then, she felt a tug inside her, and instinctively she knew that the sun had reached the horizon and night was about to fall.
She rose and made her way to the pregnant woman. "Orihime," she said, holding out her hand. "It is time."
The auburn-haired turned to her with tear-stained cheeks, shaking her head. "I-I can't," cried Orihime. "I c-can't just leave him!"
Neliel raised her head, closing her eyes to the falling rain, invoking the only thing that should be enough to quell any form of dissent. "By order of the Spirit King. This is necessary. For the world. The Natural Order must be preserved."
"So you say, but—"
The Messenger of the Sun God tried a different tactic. "Your powers – you – can help him recover. Its use is starting to become instinctive to you, isn't it? And you were human yourself once. Think of what the former you would have thought if you were expecting to see the moon, but finding that it is gone. Out of schedule and much different from the night of the new moon when it wasn't supposed to be there. Won't the old you think it is the end of the world? As gods, we must preserve beliefs, and in doing so, we preserve order. All gods are bound by their duty. To shirk it would mean we've lost our reason to exist. So in order to keep up the appearance that the moon is still in the sky, we will need your powers. This is what you can do for the God of Death and the Moon. Only you can do this. For the sake of the love you bear for Ichigo."
Through her grief, Orihime felt a resounding warmth from inside her belly, and she realized it was meant to convey comfort. It will be alright, the life housed within her seemed to say. She leaned down and peered into the eyes of the masked figure on the ground. The golden glint was faint, as though refusing to succumb to unconsciousness. The pale arms trembled as they fought to move, and she reached down to grip one of his hands and stroked his mask with her other hand. Lowering her head, she placed her lips upon the mask's mouth. Although she was filled with uncertainty, although she couldn't even begin to fully comprehend all that had happened to her – to them – what she knew for sure was that she couldn't simply keep still anymore, couldn't let things just happen and force change upon her. It was time she took matters into her own hands and shape the rest of her life with her own volition. She had to do all that she could to find some kind of balance and stasis, to keep her life and her family intact. And if this was what it took, then...
"Wait for me," she whispered against his lips. "I'll save you."
Rising, she nodded to Neliel, and reached down to briefly hug Renji. She didn't know what to say; they were both aggrieved, at a loss, thrust into a situation they would rather not have been part of. The red-haired man squeezed her arm before letting his hand fall once more upon his lap.
Circling over to where the Messenger of the Sun God stood, Orihime took the proffered hand and, stepping onto the bridge of rain that connected the two worlds, accepted the role of the heart of the Death God.
After one last stroke, Hisagi sat back and inspected his work. Having only Renji's interview to work with since he couldn't exactly take Orihime's or Neliel's statements about the matter – being still up in the sky and therefore unapproachable – not to mention Renji himself was distraught at being appointed to take up the mantle of the God of Death, Hisagi couldn't help the feeling that he hadn't quite captured the moment. It was one of those circumstances where one had to be there to really take in and understand the situation.
Unpinning the parchment from the desk, he gently lifted it and placed it on an empty area on the smaller table beside him to dry before pinning a new blank sheet on the inclined desk once more. Taking up a graphite in order to sketch out the next picture, Hisagi began the composition.
On that night where the Natural Order of the world was restructured, Senna was assisted back to her house to recuperate. It seemed that it was Orihime – before she had gone beyond with Neliel – who had been the one to restore her back to a semblance of wellness, using her new power as a goddess to heal the tangerine-eyed woman. It was not long after that that Senna regained consciousness and was able to tell her side of the story to the Scribes who had been waiting on her, keeping vigil.
Through her, they were able to learn just how deeply tangled the web was between her, Orihime, Ichigo, Grimmjow, and even Ulquiorra.
Looking back through the lengthy history of the gods, the situation herein was not at all unusual, considering that it was far from the worst that had happened. Well, aside from it affecting the Natural Order.
Of Ulquiorra, the God of Despair and Visions, and of Grimmjow, the God of Destruction… they were still nowhere to be found, although the gods knew that the two still lived in whichever dimension they were sent through Szayel's cage. And even the pink-haired Butterfly Man who called himself the other god of knowledge didn't know what kind of places lay on the other side of his invention. The comfort of knowing they were still alive somewhere was owed to Renji, who, as the newly appointed God of Death, confirmed that through his inherited power, he had not felt their demise. The lack of their statues appearing in the Isle of Memory was also proof that they hadn't ceased to be.
As for Ichigo, the former God of Death and the Moon, himself…
What remained of him had been moved to the area of the Isle of Memory reserved for gods who had transformed into living statues. Those who, through extreme measures, had had their hearts destroyed, who then metamorphosed into beings that were neither living nor dead, and who therefore could not perform their functions as gods, and whose duties were thus appointed to other gods. In that place, Ichigo now stood alongside Shinji, the former God of Illusion; Rojuro, the former God of Music; and Hiyori, the former Goddess of Education and Advancement.
Shuuhei found that place eerie, and very rarely ever tried to visit if he could help it. Simply knowing that within those statues still lay living gods and not the husks they usually left behind at their demise filled him with the feeling that nothing was quite right with the world. And their presence was definite proof that nothing was right, that there had been a displacement in the Natural Order, that it was such a great disturbance enough for the Spirit King himself to take action to rectify the situation, even if it was done by proxy with the Goddess of Time, his Messenger.
After his succession, Renji had taken to visiting Ichigo's statue and reporting to the unresponsive former deity how things had gone with his day as he performed his task as the new Death God. It was a way for him to hold on to the past, to hold on to the hope that things would go back to the way they used to be.
If there was one great benefit for Renji with this appointment, it was that the other gods had ceased treating him as subservient to them, having begun his life as a Scribe before being granted godhood through his marriage to the Goddess of Snow and the Arts. Along with the tasks of the Death God, the fear and awe of the other gods also transferred over to him, and Renji found the others keeping him at a distance, addressing him with more respect but with less easy friendliness, much like how Ichigo was treated. His wife, Rukia, stood by him as though nothing had changed (and for which he was extremely grateful), though because of the work he'd had to take up, she was less prone to send him out on errands.
Hisagi sat back and examined the illustration, cataloguing in his mind where this piece would fit in the book he was composing, before leaning forward once more to inscribe the caption and then signing his name on the corner. It had taken centuries, but he was finally close to finishing his book, even though he was nowhere close to finding an ending for it, if there was one.
Up in the sky, it was peaceful. Dark and warm, with the world of the gods spread out below, and farther still, beyond the borders formed by water and mist and clouds, the world of humans. From where she sat, Orihime could see Karakura and its people going about their daily lives, children running from the square and out into the streets, and she could imagine herself and her dead friends in their place, from so long ago back when those cobbled streets were once expansive fields, with their laughter ringing through the air and their voices lost in conversation and gossip.
Sighing, she pulled her gaze from the world below to the pile of threads on her lap, and resumed her weaving.
How long had it been since she came to the world beyond, up here in the sky? Orihime had long since ceased to be surprised that she could measure her life in centuries. She simply watched the world pass her by, watched Karakura grow from having its population decline through the plague and into the booming city that it now came to be. She'd watched a newly wedded bride and groom take over the house Orihime had shared with her brother, watched that family form and grow, the children there turn to adults who would then move on to form their own lives and their own families, watched those first two aged together and perished together, and a new family take their place in that house and the house itself be changed into a structure of wood and cement from its origin of thatch. She'd learned to weave, the picture of people's lives forming through the threads between her hands, turned into cloth and gifted to the denizens of the sky. Orihime was proud and happy to see her work worn graciously by the Spirit King and the stars.
Long ago, when she'd arrived here in the place the gods called the 'beyond', her first task had been to keep up the ruse that the moon still existed in the sky. She had come up with the idea of weaving silver threads in the shape of a moon onto a black cloth. When the time came for the moon to appear, she'd draped it over her still rounded belly, somehow feeling as though she had accomplished something great despite the feelings of loss and confusion still heavy in her heart. Every night for the remainder of her pregnancy she'd draped that cloth over herself as a reminder of what she had set out to do: to save her husband, Ichigo.
Weaving, Orihime had found, gave her a sense of peace. It calmed the turmoil broiling in her mind and her heart. At first, she wove simple patterns, turning them into clothing in preparation for the birth of her child. After her son was born, she continued to weave, her cloths becoming more complex as he grew, for now she wove pictures of his life, of what he was like when still a baby, a toddler, a child who had just learned how to run and jump and hide, playing with his Aunt Yuzu and Aunt Karin, running around with Neliel, being doted on by the Spirit King and the rest of the stars. Orihime wove his life into cloth, the only way she could show his father – should she ever see him again – of what he had missed as he was gone from their lives.
When her son was still young and she could hold him in her arms easily, she would point to the Isle of Memory down below, to where the statue of the former God of Death and the Moon stood, and told him what she could of his father. Every now and then, Karin and Yuzu would join in with their own anecdotes, of their time with Ichigo when they were living in the realm of the gods, sometimes including stories of Isshin and Masaki.
Thinking of how big and extended their family could have been, Orihime would also speak of her brother, Sora, and of her time back when she was still human, what she could remember of what her brother told her their lives had been like in the city of Inuzuri, being abused by their father and ignored by their mother (the latter fearing that their father's fists would turn to her should she take action against him), before Sora took Orihime and fled from there.
She wove the stories of the life she had lived: of her brother reading his books to her. Of them finding a welcoming home in Karakura. Of her meeting Tatsuki and growing up together with the rest of their friends. Of their deaths and the ending of her life as a human and the beginning of her life as a goddess.
It was after her son was born that they discovered he had succeeded Ichigo in presiding over the moon. He was born on the night of the new moon, his hair black, reminding Orihime of the form Ichigo took that was commonly known as 'Mugetsu'. The stars and the Spirit King cooed over him, remarking that the child had his grandfather Isshin's hair, his Aunt Karin's hair.
A mere few weeks after, when the full moon was due in the sky, did her son transform. His hair whitened, and half a skullcap formed over the top of his head, black with white markings, and with a lone black horn jutting from the side of it.
Orihime had cradled him close, fingering the strands of his wispy hair, the smooth skin of his cheek, at the blade-like horn that was identical to his father's. Awakened from his nap at her touch, he blearily peered up at her: his right eye was their normal grey, but his left iris was white with the sclera black.
As though they had felt the change happen, the stars came over to see him.
"Hail to thee, o God of the Moon," they greeted.
"The God of the Moon!" The proclamation resounded up there in the beyond. The Spirit King then summoned Neliel to spread the message to the gods and the Scribes in the realm below.
Before she left, the Goddess of Time went to Orihime and reassured her that the first to know of this news would be none other than Ichigo himself, even if he couldn't hear or understand in his present state.
Orihime watched Neliel's star flare and shoot down straight for the Isle of Memory, watched for any reaction to come from the living statue, and was disheartened that even this message could not free him. She held her son close and wondered how to change Ichigo back to what he once was.
Was there even a method to fix the destroyed heart of a god?
Her gaze wandered over to the other still figures that kept the former Death God company. She had heard that they themselves had had their hearts destroyed, and had been trapped in those forms for centuries. Other gods had taken over the roles they used to preside over, the same thing that had happened to her and Renji when Ichigo had transformed.
Should she find a way to bring Ichigo back…if Renji was now the God of Death and her son was now the God of the Moon…what, then, would Ichigo's purpose be as a god? Would he still be considered as a god? Renji, prior to becoming the new Death God, was simply a god by association because he had married a goddess, so it wasn't unnatural for him to not preside over anything. But Ichigo had been born a god—would he still have his power if he should be freed?
It was disheartening for Orihime to discover that even the Spirit King held no answer to this when she had asked him. What laid beyond the demise and retirement of a god was unknown even to him, and the only action he could take against it was to reappoint their roles to someone else. In all the immeasurable time he had ruled over the gods, through all the history that he had witnessed from his vantage point in the beyond, he had never found a way to bring back those who had been lost.
What would become of me now? Orihime wondered with a sinking heart. Should I just give up? They all believe that Ichigo is as good as dead in that form he's in… Should I let go of hope that I could a find a way to return him? Should I stay up here in the sky for the rest of my life, wishing for him, wishing to regain what we once had and yet knowing we can never take it back?
How did my life end up this way?
Am I doomed to lose everything that mattered to me?
Feeling as though she had lost her purpose and place in life, Orihime contented herself with staying in the beyond and weaving the scenes she saw on the worlds below.
Her son grew. Centuries passed. The mortal world changed. Ichigo remained unchanged.
Although Orihime had found joy in her son, there was always the yearning for her love that lurked in her heart. With her son having taken up the mantle as the God of the Moon, there was no longer any need for the ruse that had become her first official task as a goddess visiting the Spirit King. With her son as the new Moon God, she was free from the charge of making it seem as though the former Death God's heart was still in the sky, free to finally return to the worlds below.
But even as she longed, even as she wished, even if she should go back to where Ichigo was, Orihime was no closer to figuring out what she could do to return him to his former self.
Uttering a tired sigh, she drew her knees up to her chest, folded her arms over her knees, and rested her cheek over her arms, eyes still drawn to that distant figure on the Isle of Memory below. Even after all this time, if only's plagued her thoughts. Reaching up to pluck one of the blue flowers by her ear, she twirled it between thumb and forefinger. If I should send this to you, she thought, would it reach you? Would my thoughts and this power connect to you despite this great distance between us and would it heal you? Would it be worth it to set this flower free, and hope it would get to you? Would this flower, if I should imbue it with my power, restore you to what you were? Ichigo...
The gamble lingered in her thoughts; the memory tickled the idea into being: the memory of seeing the destroyed gravestones of Karakura's cemetery restored back to what they once were, the memory of the golden dome encasing the Goddess of Autumn and healing her on that unforgettable day when Orihime's world once more was sundered. If Orihime had sent that golden dome to Ichigo first, would he have been restored back to himself right then and there, and their present circumstance would have been for nothing, avoided entirely? Renji would still be Renji, the bridegroom of the Snow Goddess. Ichigo would still be the God of the Moon and Death. Orihime would still be with him, returning to him after her required visit to the Sun God, and then their son would be born and they could have raised him together.
Curling her fingers around the flower, she buried her face in her arms.
I don't want to be burdened by regrets and if only's anymore, thought Orihime.
On the nights of the new moon her son was free from his duty as the God of the Moon.
As soon as he gained permission from the Spirit King for some leave, the first place he wanted to visit was the Isle of Memory to finally meet his father.
He was excited, and little bit afraid, expressing to Orihime as much as he threw her woven cloths over his shoulder as he bent over the wooden chest where they were kept, seeking out what he deemed to be an appropriate gift.
Orihime smiled at his antics, reaching down to pick up the discarded fabrics, smoothing them and folding them neatly once more. "Ten," she called, "there's no need to be nervous."
The moon turned to her, attempting to adopt a veneer of composure. "I just...I want him to acknowledge me, even if it seems impossible right now with the way he is."
She felt her heart crumple inside her chest at his longing for his father that mirrored her own. Walking over to where he knelt, she reached down and kissed the top of his head, unable to give words or voice that would alleviate the heavy loss they both felt.
Reaching up to her hair, she plucked one of the blue flowers that rested by her ear. "Here," she said, dropping the blue hibiscus on her son's open palm. "And here." Carefully, she chose from the pile on her arm the cloth that had the moon's early life woven upon it and draped it carefully over his shoulder. "Start with these. Even if these gifts stir no reaction from him, do not lose heart. What matters is that it came from us, and that we're sending them with our love."
She watched from the sky as her son made his way to his father's living statue. Watched him present the gifts, watched the one-sided conversation between them. Even from this far, the only movement from Ichigo had been instigated by her son as he reached down for his father's hand and curled the long claws around Orihime's blue flower, and then as he draped the cloth over his father's white shoulders, tucking it under the long fall of orange hair. Before taking his leave, he reached up and placed a kiss upon the mask.
Later, when her son returned, he knelt by her seat and laid his head on her lap.
"He's there, but not really there," he said as she ran her fingers through his dark hair. "I saw his eyes beneath his mask, and he could only blink at me. And his voice is but a rumble of a growl."
Despite not being surprised at this news, Orihime couldn't help closing her eyes in pain. She reached inside herself, deep into her heart for the wish she'd locked away, prayed and hoped that some glimmer of her power would reach him, sent through that blue flower that now nestled in the palm of Ichigo's hand.
I don't know how to replace your heart, Ichigo. I don't know if this will be able to fix you. But know that our love is with you, and I can only hope you'll feel it.
Far down below, too faint for even the all-seeing eyes of the stars, a small golden glint twinkled inside the former Death God's hand. He raised his hand to his chest, where his heart used to be, and felt its warmth.
On the nights of the new moon, the Moon God would roam across the realms, and when he returned he would tell Orihime of the adventures he'd had, of what he had seen, of whom he'd spoken with. He would tell her of the secret places he'd ventured in: forgotten tombs of old kings and queens; labyrinths that housed creatures only heard of in myths and folk tales; dream worlds conjured up only by those who were in the midst of their sleep.
"I was in a sideways world, Mother," said the moon. "There was only one star in the sky there, and it was you."
Orihime reached out and ruffled his hair. "Silly," she replied. "How do you know that's me?"
The moon shrugged, his lips stretching into a small, knowing smile. "I just knew."
"What kind of place is that anyway?"
"The world of someone who was lost in dreaming."
She went back to her weaving, nodding for him to continue.
"There were strange buildings there, all standing sideways. And below, there was just water. It seemed deep, but I could tell someone was down there."
"In the water?"
"Hmm. Let's hope whoever it is doesn't drown, then."
"I'll try to see if I can go back there next month. It seemed as though he'd been down there for a long time."
"How do you know it's a he?" she asked, half-preoccupied with the threads she was connecting together.
"I...I just know."
A month later, when it was once more the night of the new moon, true to his word, the God of the Moon wandered into the sideways dream world that had so fascinated him.
"I tried to go into the water," her son told Orihime. "But I couldn't go in."
She looked up from her threads. "Why not?"
"The dreamer wouldn't let me. He was too lost in his sleep. I wanted to meet him."
Orihime patted him on the shoulder. "Maybe next time."
Seeing his disheartened expression, Orihime tried to get his mind onto other things. "Tell me where else you went."
The next month, her son came back from his wanderings with his expression subdued.
"What's wrong?" asked Orihime.
His eyes met hers, mouth opening and closing. "I found…"
Orihime's eyebrows rose, and she nodded, prompting him to continue.
There was a struggle behind his eyes as he sought for words, at the last settling for: "A wish."
Her head tilted in curiosity. "What do you mean?"
He knelt in front of her, pulling the threads she had been weaving from her grasp and took her hands. "Mother," he said instead, "please give me time to find a way to answer the wish hidden deep in your heart."
Orihime took back her hands and cupped his cheeks, leaning forward to rest her forehead against his. "Silly boy. Don't speak in riddles. I don't even know what you're talking about."
"I know you've been waiting for a long time."
She simply shook her head before dropping a kiss at the top of her son's head and then pinched his nose playfully.
"I know I didn't raise you to be cryptic," she replied before sending him off so she could get back to her weaving.
Orihime started, then looked up from watching the Isle of Memory. "Yes, Ten, what is it?"
"I am the moon now."
She blinked. "Yes, we all know that. You were always the moon."
"Before, though, before I was born, the moon was Father's heart."
Biting her lip, she couldn't help her gaze stray towards a particular still figure in the Isle of Memory. "You are his heart. And my heart as well."
"I love you, Mother."
Looking back up to him, she responded, "I love you, too."
"And thank you."
She frowned. "For what?"
Orihime rose from her seat and strode to her son, cupping his cheek. "Ten, what's wrong? What brought this on?"
He closed his eyes and leaned into her hand.
"It's time to say goodbye."
He dreamt of the moon, of the new star that held the moon so close beside it.
There wasn't much for him but the passing of days and of years, hardly aware of himself, of his surroundings. He felt as though he was underwater, watching the world from beneath the gently lulling waves, seeing buildings beyond the surface, standing sideways. And beyond them, way up there, the moon was a constant companion. Somewhere in the deepest part of him, when he deigned to acknowledge its existence, he recognized that that moon once belonged to him. That it used to be a crucial part of him. It was who he was. It was the reason he lived.
Sometimes, in the dreams, when he saw the moon, when the water rippled, he thought it looked like a flag, a piece of cloth, waving in the wind, waving through the ripple.
Sometimes it was full. Sometimes half-formed. A façade of what it used to be, what it used to represent.
Sometimes, he could almost feel as though he was becoming whole again. That the hole in his chest was healing, that the mask over his face and the armour over his whole body were breaking, and in the sky he could almost see a face that made the emptiness inside him ache. He could almost remember what having a heart felt like. He could almost remember what her kiss felt like.
When he became aware again, he was floating on the water's surface. The water had risen to the level of the sideways buildings, and he was gently being jerked against the window sidings. Over the surface of the water, the sky loomed nearer. The new star was there, but beside it the moon was dark.
The night of the new moon, came the thought. Somehow, the knowledge came to him, unbidden. 'New moon' was what it was called when it wasn't visible to be seen.
Beyond the darkness, beyond the gentle sound of rippling water, he heard a voice. His eyebrows furrowed, annoyed at having his sleep and his silence disturbed.
"Won't you wake?" It was male, young.
He found himself uninterested in answering. He wanted only to be left to the silence.
But the voice persisted. "How long will you keep sleeping? How long will you stay apart from the world? She's waiting for you, you know."
Something stirred within the emptiness in his chest, and he found himself goaded to respond. His own voice, long unused, croaked and struggled, but somehow managed to form: "Who?"
A hand caressed his cheek instead of answering. And then he was alone, sinking back into the depths, the star rising higher and higher beyond his reach.
Another time, when the moon was once more not visible, the voice came and spoke to him again.
"I want to know you," it said.
Who are you? he wanted to say.
"I wish..." the voice started, then chuckled, a sound suffused with melancholy. "I have a lot of wishes... It's childish, isn't it? When it was a wish that's got us all into this?"
Then, silence reigned.
Above the water, it was another night of the new moon. In his sideways world, he surfaced, lying on a window. He turned at a movement, seeing the absent moon reflected on the glass. It was a young man clad in a black robe, his chin-length black hair framing a pale face.
"You've finally come up from there," said the youth.
He slowly rose to sit up, staring at the moon's reflection. "Who are you?"
Sadness descended upon the youth's eyes. "Do you not recognize me?"
He could only stare, eyes roving over the features that were at once familiar and foreign.
Despite the disappointment and the sorrow that lined his face, the moon straightened, coming forward to kneel beside him.
"I am Tensa Zangetsu."
Inside his chest, he felt the ghost of his heart start up a beat, slow and intermittent at first, then taking up a staccato rhythm.
"Mother is waiting for you," said the moon. "It's time to wake up, Father."
The sideways world began to crumble.
After decades turned into centuries, after the years lost their meaning in immeasurable numbers, the star that once stood beside the moon descended from the sky towards the world of the gods, onto the Isle of Memory.
The shooting star traveled on a golden triangle of light, and as Orihime flew down, she couldn't help but look back at the sky. The moon stared back at her, a hand raised up in a silent wave. Knowing it was her heart that she was leaving behind, tears fell from her eyes, blurring her vision.
The moon shone, growing ever farther, no longer the silver threads that were once woven on black fabric, draped over her pregnant belly from centuries ago. It was the form that her love for the Death God took, the fruit of their union.
If there was a great lesson that Orihime learned, it was that the gods themselves weren't exempt from making sacrifices. That they themselves were not permitted to be wholly happy. They had to give something up, one way or another. A favour for a favour. An exchange that might not be worth in equivalence; a price that must be paid regardless.
Only it was too great, the concept too vast for comprehension.
In the beginning, it was the heart of the Death God that was the moon. And now, it was her heart, her child, grown into a young man whose duty as a god was to stay in the sky, taking his father's place as the moon.
As she floated down to the realm of gods, the only regret she had was of the time lost that could never be regained. All those years, all those moments, of her son's growth, of his birth and his childhood – all missed by his father. And she found herself torn, wanting to remain at Tensa Zangetsu's side, but also wanting to be with Ichigo again. And after all these years, it was the hope that she could restore his heart and turn him back to himself that kept her from falling into despair.
As she neared the grove where the former Death God's statue stood, the moon lowered his hand and sent her one last sad smile, the stars that were his aunts drawing close beside him to console him, surrounding him in the circle of their arms.
"I'll visit you both on the night of the new moon, Mother, Father," he called as Orihime flew farther and farther from him.
"We'll be waiting," she replied as she kissed the tips of her fingers and waved.
The triangle of golden light dissolved once her feet touched the ground, the tiny lights flying up to rest as a blue flower by her ear. Orihime pulled her gaze from the sky and found herself face to face with her husband. A breeze flew between them, ruffling the long fall of his orange hair, blowing small pieces of cracked white stone from his figure, uncovering the flesh beneath.
He was restored. He now possessed a living heart in the form of his son. It took this long, but something as great as the moon, as destroyed and broken down as a god's heart, was not easy to fix, and there had been still too much for her to learn about her acquired power.
Feeling her heart expand at the sight of him, eyes that had last seen him centuries ago drank their fill. It was just like the first time she had ever seen him: as still as a statue, waiting for her to arrive in the boat that brought her to his house. So long ago, and yet the memory still seemed fresh in her mind's eye.
Staring as the fractures that surrounded the armour that covered him begin to spread and break, she felt that this was it. Their time together...they could pick up where they'd left off. They could restart their lives together once more.
And there was only one thing left for her to do.
She reached out, cupped the crumbling mask over his cheeks with her hands, feeling them disintegrate and fall away at her touch, revealing his jaw and his mouth. Rising up on tiptoes, Orihime placed a kiss on his lips.
Hisagi Shuuhei – a Scribe serving the gods
Rukia – Goddess of Snow and the Arts
Rangiku – Goddess of Love and Fertility
Neliel – Goddess of Time, Messenger of the Sun God (transforms into a half-human, half-goat/ibex)
Spirit King – God of the Sun, Ruler of All Gods and the Natural Order of the World
Renji – formerly a Scribe but was made into a god following his marriage to the Goddess of Snow and the Arts; newly appointed as the God of Death
Senna – Goddess of Autumn (filler character from Bleach: Memories of Nobody movie)
Grimmjow – God of Destruction (transforms into a panther)
Ulquiorra – God of Despair and Visions (transforms into a half-human, half-bat)
Szayel – formerly a messenger butterfly that evolved into the form of a man; calls himself the other God of Knowledge with permission from Urahara, the actual God of Knowledge
Shinji – the former God of Illusions
Rojuro – the former God of Music
Hiyori – the former Goddess of Education and Advancement
Karin and Yuzu – twin stars that orbit around the moon (younger sisters of Ichigo)
Isshin – God of Life
Masaki – (deceased) Goddess of the Home and Family; wife to Isshin; mother to Ichigo, Yuzu, and Karin
Tensa Zangetsu – the new God of the Moon; son of Ichigo and Orihime; nicknamed "Ten" by Orihime (meaning "heaven"); free to visit his family on the nights of the new moon
A/N: Well, here we are. This is it. I hope you enjoyed this chapter and also enjoyed the whole story overall. Thanks very much to those who've been following this fic since the beginning, those who've joined the wait (patiently and impatiently) along the way, and those who've only come by at the end.
I gotta say that Part B is the one that gave me the most trouble and took the longest to finally come together :/
Please let me know what you thought of the ending, I'd be really grateful ^_^
Disclaimer: Bleach belongs to Kubo Tite.
Flashback order: 14, 2, 9, 13, 17, 3, 15, 11, 8, 7, 6, 5, 12, 4, 10, 16.
Thanks for reading :)