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Chapter 4

A Risk he Shall Take

Ichigo shook his head, trying to rid himself of memories coming back to haunt him. Perhaps—he thought scathingly—this was another 'gift' from immortality; the ability to remember things as easily as if they happened a moment ago. It was always the same. The screams, the terror, the silence, the empty shells of his friends, what he could have done, and what he failed to do…Rukia…

What would have happened to them both, if fate hadn't played out the way it had? Would he be married? How many children would they have had? Would he have become a Soul Reaper captain? How many years would he have lived before dying of old age?

No. It wasn't any use to think like that anymore. He mustn't break his resolve. It was, after all, useless to dwell on the past. He needed to devote his time to the present and his mission, not wishful thinking.

Ichigo closed his eyes tiredly. But what was the use? They say time is the best healer, but he'd currently lived nearly five thousand years. Time couldn't affect him. Time couldn't heal the hurt and guilt…Death had seen to that…All he could to it seemed was wander around in a vain search for those who possessed 'magic', trying to help others when he couldn't even help himself. How pathetic.

Ichigo noticed as he went around that the general population of magic folk had started an underground society (a group of clans). He'd tried to meet with a few, but they were afraid him. In fact, he was half the reason why they were underground in the first place. The Lone Demon nickname had somehow been changed to the Grim Reaper over the last thousand years. Now, he was known as a cloaked terror who stole souls from the chosen ones and drank their magic blood as food. His inner hollow's laughter filled his head for a full ten minutes when Ichigo first heard that story. Even Zangetsu had chuckled. Ichigo personally didn't see what was so funny. He actually found it offensive. The foolish humans thought he must be some odd mutation of a dementor and vampire. Relatively speaking, who wouldn't be slightly angered over an unfounded accusation? Seeing people scream with fright and run away was only funny after the first few times. Either that or they tried to kill him. Neither of those situations was rather helpful.

They had even gone so far as to band a group together to hunt him down, going so far as to name themselves Death Hunters. The magic folk had developed powerful weapons to attack him; strange stick like objects with their centers differing on varied magical creature body parts. Ichigo swore he once detected a basilisk's hide in one.

His ambition to rescue persecuted children who could perform magic was somewhat hindered because of this Grim Reaper identity. Each attempt of good will was thwarted, every effort in vain, leaving himself to question humanity and pull his hair out in frustration—only to have it instantly grow back.

The snide remarks from his hollow don't help either. All the creature spoke of was violence, horses, and how stupid his 'king' was.

Zangetsu didn't have much to say. So long as Ichigo didn't give up on his hopes and no rain fell, the zanpakutou would content himself with naps to ignore the inner hollow's rants on magical weaklings.

So, grudgingly, Ichigo was left to his own reasoning.

He was currently standing in the middle of a thick wood, his face scrunched up in concentration. Wandering about for the last few years was drying up his ideas, so instead he pictured other people in his stead.

What would Azrael of done? What would Rukia of done?

Ichigo closed his eyes, picturing their faces and imagining their voices.

"Loney!" came Azrael's happy chirp, "Don't feel bad! Just keep trying!"

A smiled flickered across his lips. Yes, she would say that.

"You fool!" Rukia's voice was annoyed as she always was when Ichigo forgot his tact, "Stop moping around like some pig headed, stupid oaf and get to your feet! Rise up and defeat your enemies! Nothing will ever happen if you just sit there on your butt! So what if you fall down once?! Just get back up, fool!"

A frown crossed his features as he bend down and touched his shin lightly. She would have kicked him there and dragged him off, intent on making him fix his problems. Yes, that was just like Rukia. Blunt and straight to the point, yet at the same time, caring and strong hearted.

There was a boom in the distance and Ichigo glanced up at the horizon.

"Great, just what I need. A rain shower on a cold night will be so good for my health."

He cursed. Perhaps it had not been wise to venture this far north after all. Sure, there had been rumors of someone who could do 'magic' in these parts, but they were just rumors. Why had he been stupid enough to believe them? Oh right, because there'd been no other leads. Stupid peddler dressed in rags with his bunch of lies, spewing rumors from his fowl mouth left and right. It should have been obvious that this was yet another false lead.

The small town he just visited had been dingy and putrid. He'd seen a werewolf or two near here, so it was possible that there were some magic dwellers here. Possible

He'd been asking around, ignoring the strange looks and glares that were directed his way. Normally, doing something like this ended up in being chased by superstitious villagers hell-bent on driving a stake through his heart. But today he was lucky.

"Acourse' there woulda' be witches in these parts," said one old woman causally, her breath ragged as she wheezed in Ichigo's face. "I saw manya' few burnt to their death's a few years back. One had to be burnt twelve times o'er befor' her soul wasa' released, curseda' devil spawn she was."

"So I havea' heard," he replied carefully, wiping the flakes of spit that covered his cheeks. "Word on the road says there werea' manya' evil doers bout these parts. Rounda' fortnight ago, there wasa' powerful devil's child rumored to be near thisa' village."

This tactic to glean information was common for Ichigo. Give a fresh piece of gossip and you get something in return. He'd learned nary a few bartering skills over the past few thousand years, his favorite being the 'Roman intimidation'.

"O to be sure, youngin, he'd been seen stealin manya' food from old Martian's shoppe, lives in the forest he does. Chased em off we have, though the little devil's kept getting away, thevin mongrel." She spat on the ground. Ichigo did likewise.

"I be extra cautious then, a manya' blessings to you…"

"And to you, child…"

Ichigo stooped back, away from the old maid over her many woven baskets. He had to lean close because her voice was so soft and heavily accented. After giving her a respectful bow, he walked through the town with ease, buying a meal along the way.

He was currently somewhere in Europe, have just left Egypt. Those enchanted tombs had been freaky. Scratch that. Egyptian magic was just plain freaky. Apparently they had some control over the 'power', but it was crude and elemental. Still, he'd spent a good hundred years around Africa. But it seemed there was little persecution for 'magic' users. In fact, it seemed they were practically worshipped. Humans are strange…

He scratched the back of his head tiredly. Dealing with creepy mummies and insane witch doctors had been the last straw for him. He'd rather deal with chimeras and other nice timid beasts.

This was becoming bothersome. The magic users here in Europe hid themselves quite well, for fear of maltreatment and just to be left alone. It was even harder to find these people under the right circumstances, let alone make them agree to his plan. Stupid time period... Stupid reputation…

Thunder rumbled in the distance again, triggering his usual scowl. He hated getting wet, especially when he was out in the middle of the forest with no shelter of any kind.

"Now you know how we feel…" said snide voice of his inner hollow, eavesdropping on his thoughts.

"Shut up. You have buildings."

"You could at least put some effort into improving the weather conditions of your soul," Zangetsu's usual calm voice sounded slightly disgruntled. "I wouldn't mind some greenery either."

"Yeah, let's get a park in here, king!"

"Just be quiet will you?" Ichigo rubbed his head in annoyance.

Well, it was better weather here than the up in the mountains—nearly got himself snowed under ten feet the last time he'd tried to take a short cut. Now that had been a nightmare. Of course, the random avalanche didn't help much either. The feeling of getting frostbite over and over was nothing short of torture. Instant generation didn't help much, himself being so close to death and all. Pain. Pain. Pain.

He inwardly shuttered, slightly irritated. Stupid perfect memory.

It was getting late. He wrapped the folds of his cloak more tightly around himself. This wild goose chase was going to come to nothing. Randomly walking out in the middle of the woods would do him no good. There was an old shack ahead; perhaps it would suffice for shelter if there weren't too many cracks in the ceiling. Well, it was better than nothing.

The old building's floor boards creaked upon Ichigo's entry, startling the occupant already inside.

"Stay back!"

This was his lucky day. Ichigo turned his tired gaze upon a child of twelve, clumsily holding a sword.

Oh, a fighter eh? How cute.

"Yeah kid? You and who's army?"

"I don't need an army to defeat you!" the child spat bravely and charged at Ichigo.

He had no time for this. He was tired and wanted a nap. A long nap. He'd talk to the murderous child later. Over a cup of disgusting tea…of whatever these people drank.

Ichigo lazily sidestepped the thrust and sucker punched the boy in the stomach. He watched the kid collapse to the ground, gasping for breath and clutching his innards.

"Go chase a dragon brat, that way you'll have more of a chance of winning."

The child merely glared, "You're all so full of yourselves, every last one of you! Thinking you're better and stronger than anyone else. But it's a lie! I'm the strongest there is! No mere stupid human can be as strong as—"

"You're no more human than I am. Now just shut up and sit down. I'm not in the mood for your self-proclaimed strength," Ichigo replied, pulling his cloak and zanpakutou off his back, ignoring the tirade. The child eyed the large cleaver in slight amazement then looked down at his poorly crafted bronze short sword.

"You're a brave one; I'll give you that…" Ichigo sighed as the young boy charged him again, sword glinting in the firelight.

It was brave. Brave, but reckless…wait…that sounded familiar… he knew someone like that…

Ichigo cleared his thoughts and made to grab the child, but, incredibly, the sword somehow moved faster than his seemingly slug-like movements and slipped under his guard. Ichigo felt a familiar pain as something powerful impaling his stomach. Energy was coursing through the blade from the small boy, almost as if it was a zanpakutou. Time seemed to freeze as Ichigo took in what had just happened. He looked from the object in his torso to the boy's paled expression.

"So you're brave and strong, good for you," said Ichigo nonchalantly. His hand clasped the boy's wrist tightly and jerked the blade out. The child stumbled backwards onto the floor, looking up at Ichigo in horror.

"You're sick of it, aren't you?" Ichigo continued as his high speed regeneration did its job. "You're tired of constantly having to look behind your shoulder. You're tired of being alone…"

"You—you're a monster!" the boy declared, pointing his finger accusingly at Ichigo.

"We'll get to that later," he batted his hand as if it could brush the accusation away. "Right now, call truce?"

The child just stared at him blankly, as if he never heard of such an offer.

Poor little lout…

"Good, glad you agree." said Ichigo as he smirked and inspected the room, ignoring the boy's spluttering.

The fire in the hearth was nothing but coals now. A mound of rags was piled in one corner, stinking and filthy. In the other corner was a collected assortment of weapons, food, and a giant pot. Yawning, Ichigo tugged the caldron over to the fireplace along with some spare firewood.

"Hold on!" the boy protested, watching the strange man use his supplies that he'd gathered over the past week but not feeling brave enough to make a move to stop the inhuman intruder, "That stuff's mine!"

"And you can't cook worth a rat's pelt," replied Ichigo nonplused, gesturing to the mush that he'd just emptied out of the bowl and was now striking some flint against a rock. "Tell me, when was the last time you had a decent, well cooked meal?"

Like before, he didn't bother to wait for the kid's answer and said, "—thought so…"

"I can cook just fine! I'm fine on my own!"

"A person who cooks just fine doesn't resort to stealing other's cooking, so don't bother telling such thoughtless lies, I already am aware you steal from that town, though now, I can't really blame you for it," Ichigo chuckled slightly as he took some meat and began chopping it up.

He himself wasn't the best cook in the world, but he certainly wasn't the worst. Well, he had poisoned himself on occasion with a few bright colored berries, but he learned from his mistakes—and was able to tell the difference between creepy-vine-strangling-poisonous plants and harmless herbs. Because of this newfound ability, he could now make do with nearly any ingredient, animal, or herb.

"My name's Ichigo, but don't bother repeating it. You'll only slaughter it with your accent."

"But…what do I call you then?"

"Whatever comes to that mind of yours, now, how about telling me your name? With that accent of yours…I bet it starts with Mc…"

"No it doesn't, it's Merlin."

Ichigo froze. That name sounded strangely significant.

"Merlin…strong little red headed Merlin…"

Merlin frowned and Ichigo laughed.

"Don't take offence; I can only handle grudges for about half of your lifetime. But no matter, talk about yourself now. You sound like an interesting person. When did you discover you had magic?"

Merlin fidgeted, as if embarrassed.

"As long as I can remember…"

Another unusual trait... Ichigo made a mental note.

"Did your family cast you out?"

The boy shrugged as his eyes studied the fire.

"Doesn't matter…"

"Nothing matters anymore. I won't push if you don't feel like talking…" Ichigo sighed, running a thin hand through his hair. "Look, I understand that you have had bad experiences with people who hate magic, and quite frankly, I don't blame you in the slightest for despising them. But what say you start a new story?"

"A new story?" Merlin questioned, his eyes round.

"Yeah," The intruder scratched the back of his head, finding comfort in the quirky habit, "a brand new life. One can't go through life full of hatred and is able to say "I lived". It doesn't work like that. You'll just make yourself sick. Hatred's a poison and it kills you fast. So I have a deal to make with you, to save your life from this terrible fate."

Merlin crossed his arms, frowning at Ichigo.

"What exactly do you propose?"

Ichigo shrugged, a lopsided smile lighting his sharp features, "How about you travel with me?"

The red head rolled his eyes.

"And how will that help?" he asked. "Do you really think everything could be solved by traveling with you?"



Ichigo turned fully from the fire to face the boy.

"This all relies on you. If you intend to sulk and moan the whole trip, you won't gain anything. If you continue to banter away and fill your ego with flattering words, you won't learn anything. If you want things to get better, stand up and make it so. If you want to find something worth living for, be prepared to move on."

He sighed and focused back to the cauldron, stirring it a bit while putting some spiritual pressure into the mix. The fire reflected eerily in his eyes.

"In the life I've lived, I've found it hard to see what was ahead, what I needed to do, what my purpose was. I had lost everything, my home, my friends, and my family. They were my world. I devoted my entire soul to them. And when they were all gone, it just…hurts. It's a jagged wound that won't ever be able to heal. Its existence deprived me of purpose in such a way that I wished I was dead. But I couldn't stay like that forever. There comes a point where you have to face the world, no matter how long you hide from it. Moving on hurts at first, but it's the only way you'll be able to find peace and accept what has happened."

Ichigo turned his tired gaze to Merlin.

"It won't be easy traveling with me. I am going to put you through hell, purposely. There are many dangers along the road and I can't promise you that your life won't become forfeit. However, I will put all my effort into making you strong. You will become a great man, I promise you."

The rain was now at a downpour, dripping through cracks in the roof.

"Grim…" said the boy to the monster, "I'll call you Grim."

"Where did you come up with that one?" asked Ichigo, raising an eyebrow and thinking of the hated "Grim Reaper" label.

"You keep on frowning," said Merlin, "your mood reminds me of those soul suckers in the north. Terrible depressing things they are… I think it's fitting, unless you have any arguments against it?"

"None whatsoever, here have some stew, it'll warm you up," Ichigo passed a bowl over to the boy before taking his own.

They both went to sleep not long afterwards, enjoying the warmth of the shack while the storm raged outside. Ichigo felt particularly light hearted. It was a strange feeling. One he hadn't felt since befriending Azrael. That scared him a little. He was afraid of being around another person that he would grow attached to. Bonding—becoming friends was a risk; a dangerous, meddlesome risk. Because, like it or not, he would live to watch Merlin grow old and die. It was one of the reasons why he avoided people. He'd already had so much heart break, was it worth it to chance getting to know a person—to have a friend again?

He sighed and rolled over. He couldn't help it. He was only human at heart.

Ichigo stared at the dwindling fire a few feet away, his mind full of thoughts, dreams, and doubts.

"Do you think I'm doing the right thing, Rukia?"

There was no reply. Only the thunder in the sky, crackling of the embers, and Merlin's heavy snoring could be heard.

But Ichigo smiled and closed his eyes, for once enjoying his perfect memory and picturing moments he and Rukia had shared. He didn't need recall his love, because he always loves her constantly; as long as he lives.

Regrettably, it has been 11 months since my last update, and this is not even half it's length. I apologize for that.

To tell you the truth, I've been getting so much positive feedback from this story that I've been afraid I'm gonna mess this up. For as you see, unlike some think, I haven't written a plot for this. I am just...err, winging it. This unfortunately has draw backs (utterly random updating), but this story ain't too shabby. I do have some things in mind for later purposes.

Interesting note: Ichigo is stuck in his age (late 17) ergo unable to mature in some areas such as emotional development. He will forever be grieving for his loss of friends and family, he will forever be in love with Rukia, and he will forever be a boy striving to become a man. This is kind of tricky to write, because he can still learn things and has the ability to learn, so he is not totally frozen in time. If he is to grow in something...let's say his power, it will be a very slow progress. If not for his incredible potential, he probably would be completely unable to grow in strength.

On another note, I am going to eventually move on to the modern wizarding world, however, it will be a few chapters until then. I have a confrontation in mind for Ichigo and the Ministry of Magic heh heh heh.

On pairing Ichigo with someone. That is a NO. I'm not much of a...err, romantic writer. I also believe there's something admirable in Ichigo forever loving Rukia. If there is one thing he will never move on in, it would be love. Ichigo's heart will always belong to Rukia. And I think having him fall in love with someone else would be too tragic for him to risk. I AIN'T TOTALLY HEARTLESS, THOUGH I CAN SEE WHY YOU DOUBT ME.

But anyway, I'm glad that this story is back and I hope to update in a few months. Till then!