Epilogue: Forever a Protector
Disclaimer: I do not own Bleach.
'Inner hollow/Zanpakuto speech'
"You really want to do it, huh? Nothing will convince you otherwise?"
Supporting himself against railing, Ichigo took a deep breath of a fresh air and shook his head.
"You should think about it too, Keigo."
The teen in question, one of Ichigo's best friends and a bit of a goof, stared at Ichigo's backside in horror, his mouth forming a big O.
"Are you out of your mind? Me and University? Just thinking about studying again makes me want to puke."
Ichigo chuckled and slowly turned his head towards his friend. There was a playful twinkle in his eyes.
"I heard the campus is full of single and beautiful young women."
He watched Keigo blink a few times. The horror in the goofy teen's eyes turned to greed and thirst so fast, it was almost uncanny. Ichigo couldn't help but to laugh out loud. From beside Ichigo, another of his friends shook his head.
"He's right Asano-san. Maybe you could finally find somebody desperate enough to take your virginity."
Keigo flinched as if physically hurt and theatrically collapsed on the ground, bawling his eyes out.
"Aaah, Mizuiro, you are so cruel with your jokes."
Ichigo, still laughing a little, glanced at his other friend and coughed to get rid of the mirth.
"So, you're going, Mizuiro?"
The smaller black-haired boy took a sip of juice he held in his hand and nodded towards still crying Keigo.
"I'll go wherever he's going. Can't let him without a guard. Besides, there's no way he can get a woman without my help."
Almost immediately, Keigo stopped whining and jumped towards Mizuiro's legs and started to worship the boy. Scrunching his face in disgust, Mizuiro gave Ichigo an exasperated look. Ichigo shrugged.
"Hey, I thought you knew what you were getting yourself into."
The three of them erupted in laughter and Ichigo turned to the view of Karakura Town. Standing on the top of Karakura's High School, he could see as far as the outskirts of Naruki town. It was times like these when he could relax and forget about everything that had happened almost two years ago. When the fate of the world hanged on a thread, when he had to fight a god and when he won the war.
A few quick, nearly silent footsteps resonated on the railing and he felt his head getting pushed into a dark but also warm and soft bosom.
"What is this about young and beautiful women I hear? Are you no longer satisfied with my services, Ichigo?"
"Aaaah, the goddess!" Keigo exclaimed and fell on his knees, bawling his eyes out once again. Ichigo inhaled the sweet aroma of the woman and sighed.
"You really enjoy tormenting him, don't you?"
Looking up, he saw a brilliant smile staring back at him. Yoruichi leaned down and gave him a quick peck on the lips, widening her smile even more.
"His reactions are always top-notch!"
He couldn't argue with that. Keigo, even without trying, was always funny enough to make almost anyone smile. Ichigo suspected there was a long and successful career of a comedian in store for the boy. Maybe then he could finally find a woman for himself.
"So, what's up?"
Yoruichi's smile withered a bit and, with a scoff, she rolled her eyes. When Ichigo saw that, he rolled his eyes as well.
Ichigo groaned and shook his head a little. Then he turned to his friends.
"I have to go guys. See you tomorrow."
As he and Yoruichi were leaving, Ichigo heard Keigo's cry.
"Remember, Ichigo. No lewd stuff until you're married!"
There was no way Ichigo would have listened to Keigo and, while walking to the Karakura's Hospital, he and Yoruichi took a short detour to do some of those forbidden acts. The teen just couldn't help himself. Yoruichi was just too damn beautiful. Not even long months spent together could satiate his thirst for her.
Even a lifetime was too short for that. Even though he was still young, he already knew the two of them were going to spend the rest of their lives together. The thing Keigo mentioned, marriage, was something Ichigo had on more than one occasion considered but, for now, rejected. He was convinced that sealing the deal would make Yoruichi incredibly happy but they had all the time in the world now. They could marry anytime they wanted and, right now, Ichigo wanted to focus on completing his education.
The building of Karakura's Hospital appeared in his vision sooner than he had hoped. Steeling his nerves and shielding his mind with a layer of patience, he walked inside, Yoruichi trailing right after him.
"Hm, I thought Orihime would still be here." He muttered when they passed the smiling receptionist. From his side, Yoruichi nudged him with her elbow.
"I think she's still assisting Ishida."
"The older one?"
Yoruichi winked at him.
"The younger one."
Ichigo raised one eyebrow and took a short glance at Yoruichi's innocent expression.
"Assisting as in… medical assisting?"
The brown-skinned goddess wiggled her eyebrows.
"Oh, I'm sure it can be called that."
"Spoilsport. Fine, yeah, it's medical assisting. She finally managed to get better at some sort of specialized healing."
Ichigo smiled warmly.
"Good for her."
After being ripped from her soul, Orihime's special powers of event rejection never truly returned. However, once Yhwach had been defeated, she had woken up from her coma and little by little, month by month, fragments of her soul healed. Thanks to Hachi, the Vizard, her six spirits had been reformed and she frantically trained to the point, where some of her spiritual energy returned and she became capable of some healing once again. Though it was different from her previous powers and even she wasn't sure about its limitations, it was still enough to bring some life back into her eyes. Here, at the hospital, she was learning to further enhance her new technique she called 'Mantra Palm'.
Similar thing happened to Chad, though he wasn't as keen on obtaining something that could rival his previous powers. Now that he no longer needed to fight supernatural battles, he was content with being able to see spirits and with the power of his normal, human fists. There was also a rumor of him going for a boxing career right after finishing High School.
Walking up the stairs, Ichigo glanced in Yoruichi's direction.
"So, what's the deal now?"
"They want to visit Hueco Mundo for some samples of hollow reishi but they refuse to do it without you leading them." Yoruichi answered with a salty grimace, prompting Ichigo to groan.
"Again? They already met Harribel and the others. I thought they trusted them."
"Pff, Ichigo, please. Quincy and Hollows have been enemies for a thousand years. I don't think mere two years are enough."
When he saw Yoruichi puffing her cheeks, he raised one eyebrow and, with a tiny smirk, deflated one of them with a poke of his finger. She ignored him and puffed the cheek again.
"Is that what's bugging you?"
For a few moments, Yoruichi refused to answer and they took the stairs in silence. Once they got close to a certain hospital room, she resigned and lowered her head.
"I bet they would go by themselves and it's just that bimbo insisting on your company."
Ichigo froze in mid-step and slowly turned to Yoruichi, who was openly pouting. The teen couldn't help and started to laugh. Immediately, Yoruichi's expression turned scandalized and she put her hands on her hips, giving him a hard stare.
"What's so funny?!"
Ichigo, still chuckling, didn't reply. Instead, he grabbed the Goddess of Flash and enveloped her in a tight embrace, kissing her on the lips. Only once he let go of her he spoke.
"I never thought I'd see you jealous again."
As Yoruichi returned to pouting, he placed his hands on her shoulders and stared straight at her, until she turned her head to return the gaze.
"Yoruichi, I love you."
Her expression mellowed a bit, but she still didn't seem convinced.
"You also love Lilynette and Retsu. What's stopping you from falling in love with yet another woman."
Ichigo rolled his eyes.
"Lilynette is… special. We share bits of our souls. Retsu… I don't love Retsu. I like her, yes, but we have strict rules between us. We only share a few sessions once a month. Besides, you regularly hump Sui-Feng and you don't see me talking you out of it."
Yoruichi continued to pout but there was a definite hint of a smile playing on her lips. Before long, she conceded and broke into a grin.
"That's because you'd like to join us."
He laughed and raised his hands in defense.
"Guilty as charged."
Shaking her head, Yoruichi joined him in laughing. Before walking through the door in front of them, she suggestively swayed her hips and gave him a wink.
"Maybe next time I'll invite you." She said and entered the room.
Trailing after her, Ichigo chuckled.
"Sure, when I'll be in a mood to lose my balls, I'll accept."
Together, they entered a special room built only for the purposes and needs of Quincy, the Sternritter survivors of the war. After Yhwach had torn their special powers from them via Auswählen, those who had been still alive surrendered and, after many weeks of negotiating and peaceful talks, had decided to settle in Karakura Town. Once they had done that, Ryūken had offered all of them a work in the hospital where they could have used their Quincy powers for helping people. They all accepted. Under one condition.
Ichigo would have to regularly visit them.
"Ichigo-sama! You're here and… you also brought Shihōin-san. Uh, welcome."
Only now Ichigo understood what Yoruichi meant earlier and, looking at the upbeat Quincy in front of him, he chuckled. With a hand raised, he greeted the Quincy girl.
"Hey there Bambietta. Everything all right?"
When the girl heard him saying her name, she renewed her smile and rapidly nodded.
"Yes, we're fine."
"Come on now, we told you to not speak for all of us." Another Quincy, leaning to the wall in the corner, said with a sigh. In response, Bambietta quickly glanced in his direction and raised one eyebrow.
"Am I wrong, Nakk Le Vaar?"
The Quincy in question, Askin Nakk Le Vaar, blew on the single strand of hair that was hanging down his face and shrugged.
"Now, now Bambi-chan. I thought you said to play nice?" A different Quincy girl, one with long black hair and a porcelain-white skin, said while looking at everyone with a glint in her eyes that Ichigo had been, so far, still unable to decode.
Bambietta just pursed her lips, causing Ichigo to nod to the other girl.
"Where is Lile, Äs Nödt and Cang Du?"
Before anyone could answer, the door to the room opened and three figures walked inside.
"We're here. Ryūken-san was just giving us last moment advice." A tall, brown-skinned Quincy said while nodding to Ichigo. The teen returned the favor and then looked over all of them.
"So, what are your expectations of this trip? Last time I heard, you were close to some sort of a breakthrough?"
The Quincy exchanged quick glances, making Ichigo roll his eyes. He disliked their theatrics.
"Yes… we think we can finally make the first prototype of the serum. We jussst… need to conduct a few more tests. That isss why we need more samples." The one to answer him was the Quincy Ichigo rarely heard talking, As Nödt.
Ichigo stared at him in surprise.
"You mean it works? Completely?"
They all shook their heads.
"No, unfortunately we have a long way to go. However, this first prototype should ensure that no Quincy would go into anaphylactic shock when exposed to hollow contamination. Not even the weakest ones."
Ichigo stared at them for a full minute before glancing at Yoruichi.
"I guess Ishida-san was right. Thanks to their experience, they can finally do what he has been trying to do for years."
Next day, a quiet but still considerably unpleasant snoring interrupted Ichigo far too early in the morning. Sleepily blinking, he stared at the ceiling of his room until a small person that lay on his chest shifted. He heard another snore, interrupted with occasional incoherent mumbling, and he glanced down. With a smile, he raised his hand and poked the girl in her cheek, causing her to mumble and wrinkle her forehead. Still, she continued to snore and so he repeatedly poked her until she groggily opened her eyes and gave him a tired glare.
She shook her head and strands of her green hair fell down her face and tickled his skin.
"You were snoring." Ichigo said with a smile. Forming a sheepish grin, the girl rubbed her head in his chest and patted his bare stomach.
"What can I say, your heartbeat is very comforting."
After visiting Hueco Mundo the previous day, Ichigo returned back home with Lilynette, who had been visiting the hollow world as well but for different reasons. Ever since she had started living with Ichigo in Karakura Town, she regularly took some of her time to sleepover in Hueco Mundo with Harribel and the others. At her core, she was still partly a hollow and short stays in Hueco Mundo helped her feel better about herself.
Ichigo originally didn't want to immediately return home. Being sly, Yoruichi had remembered her earlier promise and had offered him a chance to join her and Sui-Feng in Soul Society for a night full of "pleasures of flesh". However, Ichigo was still wary of the Captain of the 2nd Squad and had believed it to be just a ruse. In any event, he had needed only one puppy look from Lilynette to completely abandon even the tiniest thought of actually joining them.
A small peck on the lips interrupted his trail of thoughts and he studied Lilynette's sleepy expression as well as the lack of light outside. He gently patted her head and closed his eyes.
"In that case, I think we can sleep for a little while longer."
He felt another peck, this time on his collarbone and he suppressed the urge to shiver. Sleeping together and an occasional peck on the lips was the most intimacy he and Lilynette shared but for the past few weeks, the girl had been showing signs of further interests.
"Thought so." Lilynette said and, before long, they both fell asleep, Ichigo's hands wrapped around her small frame.
They both woke up on loud knocking on the door.
"Ichi-nii, wake up! It's almost noon!"
Ichigo heard somebody open the door but then that somebody squealed and hurriedly scurried away. Lilynette rubbed her eyes and gave him an incredulous stare.
"I though you said they are used to this."
"Karin is. Yuzu, not so much."
After lunch, and after ignoring Yuzu's red cheeks and her accusing glare, Ichigo aimed his steps towards Urahara's shop. He had promised Kūkaku he would make some free time and join her for a show of fireworks she had been preparing for the last few weeks. Thanks to the new Captain Commander, he had been allowed to create a Senkaimon gate straight from Urahara's shop to Shiba's compound.
"Ah, Kurosaki-san, welcome!"
Ichigo waved his hand in greetings and nodded to the exceptional scientist.
"Is everything ready?"
Urahara shook his head.
"Yes and no. Captain Commander wanted you to come to him first but I assured him I can rely any kind of message to you so you wouldn't have to go."
"Is it about…?"
Urahara quickly shook his head and placed a hand on Ichigo's shoulder.
"No, no. Aizen is completely stable and, after extensive testing, he will be for a long time. I told you that already, Kurosaki-san."
In response, Ichigo lowered his head and sighed heavily.
Intently staring at his face, Urahara squeezed the teen's shoulder and then retracted his hand.
"Don't feel guilty, Kurosaki-san. I know I will repeat myself, but Aizen's dream always was to change the way the world was. Now, after his death, a part of his dream is fulfilled and he now stands as the Soul King. It was the best possible decision you could have made. Don't beat yourself over it, Kurosaki-san."
Ichigo blew a bit of air through his nostrils and looked up to see Urahara giving him an encouraging smile. Then he nodded.
Urahara's smile widened.
"That's better. Now, is everything okay with you? Is the seal intact? I know that yesterday you went to Hueco Mundo in your spiritual body so I'm kind of worried whether the transition damaged it like the last time."
Ichigo focused in his spiritual energy and, after a moment, negatively shook his head.
"No, I think this new version is finally holding up as you intended." He said and gave the scientist thumbs up, prompting Urahara to take a theatrical bow.
"Why thank you, Kurosaki-san."
"No, thank you, Urahara-san. It's thanks to you I can finally live like a normal person."
"My, my, Kurosaki-san, are you trying to make me blush?"
Chuckling, Ichigo nodded towards the entrance to the shop.
"So, what was the message from Kyōraku-san?"
As they walked inside, Urahara reached for his hat and shifted its position.
"It's good news, actually. He finally managed to convince the majority of Central 46 and so now, unless they deliberately attempt to disturb the balance, all the Quincy are free. In case they are forced to use their powers to protect themselves or innocent souls from a hollow, they won't be prosecuted although they are required to immediately alert the Soul Society, so that proper arrangements can be made. Kurotsuchi-san mentioned he is ready for such a situation."
Ichigo formed a wide smile.
He was no longer smiling when he stood in the middle of Shiba's family house with his hand close to the doors that led to Kūkaku's room and he heard suspicious noise coming from within it. Noise that completely caught him unprepared and caused him to go red in face. He immediately turned around and decided that maybe, maybe he could wait a few hours before coming back only for the wooden panel under his foot creaking so loud, it almost made him jump. Before he could move from the spot, the noises vanished and sound of rapid footsteps caused him to gulp.
"Who's there…oh. Oh!" Kūkaku swiftly opened the doors with a glare only to lose her temper as soon as she saw Ichigo frozen in spot.
"Who is it?"
When Ichigo heard the second voice, he wished he was somewhere else, preferably thousand miles below the ground or in Hell.
'Yep. Hell would be nice.'
Another pair of footsteps later, the owner of the second voice stared at Ichigo in shock, only to quickly become mortified. Ichigo immediately decided to cut the silence. It was pointless to dwell on the little things.
"Hey Tatsuki. I guess you, uh, found your new sparring partner?"
The girl in question instantly turned the deepest shade of red he had ever seen and seemed ready to explode like a bloated tomato. Before she could, Kūkaku intervened.
"Well, you left her for dry, what was she supposed to do?" She stated while folding her arms. Biting his lip, Ichigo fought the urge to laugh.
"She doesn't look that dry to me." He deadpanned, noting the glistening sweat all over Tatsuki's as well as Kūkaku's skin. This time, even Kūkaku turned red. However, it quickly disappeared when she noticed Ichigo's barely hidden grin.
The two of them shared a laugh. Tatsuki didn't join but the red color receded from her face and she managed to form a nervous and embarrassed smile.
"If I didn't know better I'd say Yoruichi's influence has been rubbing off on you." Kūkaku said while slapping him on the shoulder.
"That's not the only thing-"
"Okaaaaay, too much information!" Kūkaku exclaimed and slapped him again. Then she nodded towards herself and Tatsuki.
"Wait here, Ichigo. I think we should change our appearances to something more presentable."
As she was closing the door, Ichigo couldn't help it but to quip after her.
"Take your time. I'll be waiting for you to... come."
Late at night, good mood quietly slipped away from Ichigo's grasp. The sky was clear with its black color, occasionally brightened with light from distant stars and the moon shyly illuminated the path of Ichigo's choosing.
He was in the middle of the Seireitei, on top of the Sōkyoku Hill, alone and deep in thoughts.
Yoruichi wasn't near, Lilynette stayed in Karakura Town and the next session with Unohana was weeks away, which meant he had no companion to sleep with. The lack of intimacy didn't bother him; he was nowhere near as horny as he used to be. However, when night came and cloaked the world in its darkness, every time he was alone his worst nightmare returned and attacked him fiercely, violently until he woke up trashing and covered in cold sweat.
The effects of Aizen's Bankai and all the fighting and killing he had done in two wars had been long-lasting and affected him more than he cared and more than he dared to admit to anyone but his father. Thanks to the man's extensive knowledge of medicine, Ichigo quickly understood what was happening to him. He was reminded of it each time he was plunged into deep dark of the night when there was no other being next to him. Yet he didn't want to admit it to others. He could imagine their reactions. Their pity. Their compassion.
He didn't want that. A part of his mind knew he deserved it. For all that was worth, he had killed many beings. That they weren't innocent didn't change the fact that he mowed them down like their lives meant nothing. For everyone he loved, he fought gods and survived.
Such encounters had changed him profusely. He liked to think it was for the better. He liked to lie to himself. It was one of the few things many people berated him for. However, he was also maturing and wanted to deal with his problems on his own terms and with his own wits. He knew it probably wasn't the healthiest approach but he was too stubborn to do it differently. Moreover, he was confident he could do it.
He had defeated a literal God. He had defeated his inner demon. There was nothing he couldn't do.
As he reached the edge of the Sōkyoku Hill, the cliff offered him a beautiful and wide view of the entirety of Seireitei. A place that just two years ago had been in absolute ruins.
'They managed to rebuild so much.' He thought.
Seireitei was still long away from being completely rejuvenated but the progress so far had been astounding. For a place in afterlife that used to be proud of its stagnant life, the dynamics of renewing process had been as lively as his two little sisters. Barracks of each division had been the first thing to reconstruct and it had been completed in just two months. It could have been done even faster but Urahara and Kurotsuchi had urged the new Captain Commander to reconsider including some new upgrades within the reconstruction process.
The man's approval had been instantaneous. Soul Society had been years behind some of the technology and advancements of the real world and it was time to take the remedy pill. It had been costly but, with some pressure on the Noble clans that had more financial resources that they could spend, it had also been doable.
With that, life had quietly and slowly returned to Seireitei and to the Gotei 13. Friendships had been forged anew, inter-division cooperation had been established stronger than ever and everyday normality had settled itself as a seed deep within the organization. Moreover, many reforms had been created for the sole purpose of increasing the likelihood that no war would ever come again.
Even love managed to bloom within the military organization. Ichigo had been quite surprised to see so many pairs coming out with their relationships. Some of them had been obvious for a long time but some not so much. Ichigo was happy for all of them.
Peace was peaceful and that was how it should have been.
"Life is good."
But it was exactly in that moment that Ichigo felt a bad premonition. Maybe it was because he took the tranquility of the situation for granted but, for some reason, he just knew something would come along and damage it.
Before his very eyes, a Hell Butterfly emerged from the vast darkness of the night and quickly landed on his hand. A moment later, Ichigo heard the familiar voice of the new Captain Commander of the Gotei 13, Kyōraku.
'Ichigo, I despise doing this but it seems we need your help once again. I just got a memo from Ichibei-san. Out of nothing, Yhwach's black flames appeared in the Greater Palace of Soul King and encompassed the crystal with Aizen Sōsuke. Ichibei-san said you'd know what is going on. If you do, please hurry. I'm trying to avoid a full-blown panic but Captains are getting anxious fast. I already alerted Shiba-san, so she's preparing the transportation as we speak.
I truly am sorry, Ichigo. We thought we were prepared for anything, yet once again we find ourselves at your mercy. It this is truly Yhwach, we are powerless and can do one thing and one thing only.
Hope for your intervention.'
The message came to an end and the Hell Butterfly vanished but the words still echoed in Ichigo's mind as a reminder that Yhwach's last warning hadn't been just empty words.
The madman, the false prophet and a fake god in one person, Yhwach had threatened to return in the future but Ichigo had thought it to be just the last scream of a dying man.
He turned around and flashed across the Seireitei, back to Shiba's mansion.
The Zero Division had pulled back from the Soul Palace and there was only empty path from where he stood all the way to the crystal.
Ichigo took a step forward.
He was furious.
He was nuclear.
Two years of peace. Two years of no war, no battles and no blood-spilling. Just smiles and love.
It had taken him every ounce of his vast power to bring it back from the brink of destruction. He would do anything to stop Yhwach from taking it all away. He had done it once, he would do it again.
Whispers of fear and doubt no longer bothered him. He was a changed man. The glass from broken determination had been cleared and melted, redone and built anew. There was no weakness lurking in the shadows of his inner self. His inner demon, his inner light, they were both complete as the mentor within his sword.
There was only one way for him. Going forward and not looking back. The way of a protector. The way of a boy turned god. A god with human heart.
A heart which held only one desire.
Standing at the edges of the walkway, he glanced at the goal of his path and leaped across the abyss without hesitation. Through the light and through the dark, through the sealed doors he landed in front of the large crystal that held a corpse of Aizen Sōsuke, now embraced in black flames that burned anyone but him.
Reaching into his own soul, Ichigo drew out his sword and grabbed the part of him that resonated with the eternal aura of the true Soul King. A parting gift he had received two years ago. Ichigo closed his eyes and let it pass through him. He felt pain but also serenity.
The duality of the emotions forced him to drop his zanpakuto and he almost fell to his knees. He could see the glow surrounding him and, for a brief moment, he saw everything.
He saw past.
He saw future.
He was stretched across the void, existing in every time and at every place. In that moment, he became omnipotent, closer to a true god than any other person before him.
It scared him more than death itself.
Fighting against the vast infinity, he raised his hands and reached through the black flames in front of him. Foraging through the cloud of Yhwach's power, he placed both his hands on the crystal and willed his will onto it.
Intense pain assaulted all of his senses and he felt Yhwach's consciousness at the tip of his fingers, fighting against the overwhelming power he momentarily possessed.
And then, without any warning, the cloud of black flames imploded on itself and vanished from existence. Ichigo's hands slipped away from the crystal and he fell on all four, breathing heavily.
He could still hear Yhwach's thoughts as they slowly disappeared from his mind and he formed a determined smile.
"Anytime and every time, Yhwach. No matter the future, I will always be there to defeat you."
He slowly rose from the ground and stared at the crystal in front of him.
"I will protect them all. Forever."
Way of the Protector – End.
That's the end.
This time, for real.
Ichigo's way of the protector will last forever and anytime a threat arises, he will be there, ready to protect.
As this is the first fanfic I have ever written, it was always meant to be optimistic and uplifting. Though there was drama, I do hope this story leaves you with a happy mood. That's all I ever want from people. To be happy. (Although I am ruining this with my other bleach story... well, I did say I am not to be trusted)
So, until we meet again in another story, goodbye.
P.S: Just a small piece of information (I am once again working on my other bleach story. More info on my profile page)