Disclaimer: I do not own anything from Bleach.
General Warnings: AU, GEN, violence, language, Espada-in-Soul-Society.
Summary: In the aftermath of the war, Ichigo's family is dead (in Soul Society; a meagre comfort), his powers are sealed (courtesy of Central 46), and when Ichigo finally passes on himself (too young and too old at the same time), it's without an ounce of faith in the organization he once fought alongside. Luckily, Soul Society is huge. Not so luckily, certain people find him anyway.
Author's Notes: An AU in which the war against Aizen extended a few extra years, and Ichigo lost his powers via Central 46 sealing them away after the war ended and not from the Final Getsuga Tenshou. Zangetsu is Zangetsu here, so nothing on the new Quincy stuff from the manga.
Once upon a time, Ichigo could remember being less bitter.
He could remember having a family to return to as well, and the comforting whisper of his Zanpakutou always at the back of his mind, and the surprisingly long-missed cackle of his Hollow, echoing in his ears, and friends he could count on to have his back.
But all those things were neither here nor there anymore.
After the war (that long, bloody war in which most of the captains, vice-captains, and seated officers had all, shockingly enough, come out alive in the end, albeit at least half of them seriously injured), Ichigo had been hauled – quietly, and in the dead of night with no one the wiser – in front of Central 46 almost before he had fully woken up from his three-day-long coma. On hindsight, he supposed he should've been grateful that they hadn't sealed Zangetsu away while he'd still been out.
As it was, he had been weak from blood loss, shaky from exhaustion and hunger, and pissed off to a homicidal degree after figuring out what the government bastards wanted with him. There hadn't exactly been anything he could do though, not with his Zanpakutou already confiscated and bound, and his reiatsu levels still ridiculously low.
Oh, they'd given their reasons – Humans shouldn't have Shinigami powers, much less that and Hollow powers, etc, etc – but Ichigo knew they'd simply been afraid of him, afraid of what he would be capable of with so much power at his fingertips, and afraid that they wouldn't be able to control him when push came to shove (rightly so too because Ichigo had never obeyed anyone in his entire life, not really, and that farce of a trial had only cemented this).
Central 46 had assured him that his Zanpakutou and reiatsu would be returned to him upon his death once he had shed his Human body, and if Ichigo hadn't been so furious, he would've laughed in their faces.
If having his powers sealed was his reward for killing a megalomaniac with delusions of godhood intent on destroying Soul Society, Ichigo had mused sardonically at the time. Then he'd be sure not to make that mistake again.
He'd cursed them out, flinging every swearword he knew at them even while he'd struggled as best he could in the seat he'd been given as two Shinigami forced some sort of reiatsu suppresser into his Human body, effectively shutting out the last of Zangetsu's desperate calls and Shiro's raging tirade.
It had hurt.
His Zanpakutou and Hollow were parts of his soul, and having them separated felt like having a piece of his very being torn away.
He'd lost consciousness after that, and when he had woken up again, he had been in his house (empty, filled with memories of two precious sisters slaughtered at Aizen's hands and a comatose father fighting for his life in the Fourth), dumped in his sitting room with little care and feeling sick and raw and drained.
As soon as he had been physically able, Ichigo had scoured the town for signs of any Shinigami who might be able to help him, but he no longer had his reiatsu, he could no longer see, and that search had ended with fruitless results.
Of course, he'd tried going to Ishida for help, but the Quincy, while still having his powers intact, had sworn up and down that he could sense no Shinigami in Karakura. Ishida's old man had said the same.
Ichigo had left it at that. He had never really known Ryuuken – the man was his father's friend – and the friendship between himself and Ishida had become strained after Inoue had been killed. He suspected that the Quincy probably blamed him for it. Ichigo couldn't fault him for that; he blamed himself for both Inoue and Chad's deaths.
Tatsuki hadn't even been worth mentioning. Ichigo hadn't managed to bring back her best friend, enough said.
He'd gone to Kisuke's shop as well, just in case one of its previous residents had returned for something or other in the burnt remains of the building, but there hadn't been so much as a rustle amongst the wreckage. Most likely, Tessai, Jinta, and Ururu were wherever Kisuke was, and Ichigo would bet that the former shopkeeper would be wherever Yoruichi was. The woman had taken some serious injuries in the final battle.
It had taken several weeks, but Ichigo had finally accepted the fact that he had absolutely no way of getting back into Soul Society.
He hadn't had the faintest clue where Rukia or Renji or Toshirou or any of his other Shinigami friends had been either, but evidently, they had been otherwise occupied, either unable to come due to lingering injuries or-
Unwilling to come.
Ichigo hadn't liked pondering on that for long. The thoughts had sown resentment in his heart, especially when the poisonous questions of why none of them appeared even after a month of Ichigo wandering up and down the length of his hometown, lost and aching with his grief.
So Ichigo had simply stopped thinking about it, or at least as much as he could anyway. He had dragged himself from the depths of his depression with a certain sort of self-awareness that if he actually hit rock bottom, he wouldn't ever get up again.
Instead, he forced himself to visit Karin and Yuzu's graves, comforting himself with the knowledge that they would eventually reach Soul Society if they weren't there already where at least Kukaku and Ganju would take care of them, and then arranged for his own father's funeral in the form a not-so-creatively-spun story of suicide over his sisters' deaths and an extra gigai that Ichigo had poached from the remains of the Urahara Shoten (Ichigo wasn't so stupid as to not realize which world Isshin would choose to live in if and when he recovered) before selling the house, taking care of his father's will (he'd inherited everything), packing what little necessary belongings he had (war had taught him that most nonessential possessions were, in the end, largely unimportant), and hightailing out of that memory-dredged town.
He had been twenty-one going on twenty-two, a slightly late high-school graduate with unexpectedly good grades considering the fact that he had spent over five years fighting a war.
An adult half-forged in blood and death and betrayal on the sandy plains of Hueco Mundo, and fully capable of taking care of himself.
Not that he had, at first.
He'd left without a word to anyone, took the first train to Tokyo, checked into a cheap motel, and then hit the nearest bar in an attempt to get completely sloshed. He'd succeeded for the most part, falling flat on his face when the bartender had tossed him out at closing time. Staggering back to his temporary lodgings had been difficult; he had crashed into several poles and a dumpster along the way, and scared several pedestrians – civilians, his mind sneered – as well. Waking up the next day had been torture; hangovers were nothing to scoff at.
That hadn't been enough to deter him from going back though, and that had basically been his life for the next six months. Memories of the war had haunted his dreams, the faces of his sisters and friends had dogged his every step, and the only peace he had ever managed to get was when he had successfully drowned himself in several bottles of booze. To this day, Ichigo was still astonished that he hadn't died from alcohol poisoning from all the liquor he had consumed.
Ironically enough, it had been a Hollow of all things that had snapped him out of his downward spiral.
Ichigo had no longer been able to see anything out of the ordinary, but that hadn't meant he hadn't known what to look for. In the few times he had been semi-lucid during those months, he had spotted stories in the paper and on the internet of people being mauled by something invisible or disappearing without a trace, and while others dismissed them as exaggerations or murders blown out of proportion, Ichigo had known better. Still, those sightings hadn't taken place near the part of Tokyo he had been staying in so he hadn't paid them much mind.
It had been just another day – or night – when Ichigo had been stumbling back to his motel room, fumbling his way along a brick wall in some back alley when he had come across a woman hanging in the air, screams muffled and eyes wide with terror.
It had taken Ichigo all of a second for his training to kick back in, and his hand had already dropped to his waist where the comforting sealed form of Zangetsu had once hung from, only to realize that he had no weapon.
The practical reaction would've been to run. Ichigo had never been one for practicality, especially when someone in front of him was in danger.
So he'd scrambled for a makeshift weapon – an abandoned metal post dumped next to a pile of garbage – and even inebriated, he had still had damn good aim.
He had flung the metal rod like a spear, aiming for the general area of where Ichigo had guessed that the Hollow's head would be, and while he hadn't heard the inevitable howl of pain, the woman had been abruptly dropped back to the ground. Ichigo hadn't wasted any time getting her away.
The close shave had cleared his head somewhat, enough for Ichigo to escort the woman back onto a busier street and warn her against taking back alley shortcuts again. The woman had thanked him tearfully, but there had been an edge of wariness in her eyes as well, and Ichigo knew he had smelled like a distillery had exploded all over him.
So he had made things short, nodding curtly before taking off in the opposite direction. With adrenaline still pumping in his veins, his mind had been less fuzzy than it had been for months, and he had quickly deduced that if there had been a Hollow sighting, then sooner or later, Shinigami would be dispatched to take care of it.
Ichigo hadn't wanted anything to do with them. For one, if they had turned out to be his friends, revealed themselves to him in gigai, and Ichigo had found out that they had agreed to Central 46's decision, the revelation probably would've broken him, and he probably would've done his level best to break their faces. If he didn't see them, he could keep his temper and hurt and useless feelings of betrayal under lock and key.
And for another, he hadn't wanted to know what would happen if Central 46 ever got wind of him fending off a Hollow even without his reiatsu. What if those cowards got scared again, freaked out over not being able to control Ichigo even after they had taken away the source of most of his strength, and ended up sending someone to apprehend him and lock him up 'for his own good'? It had been a ludicrous notion, but then again, sealing his powers away after everything he had done for them had been equally absurd, and look where that belief had gotten him.
So, once again, he had packed his bags and left, this time for Okinawa. And so it had went for the next year or so; he jumped from city to town to prefecture every time the mention of a Hollow had reached his ears, always staying well away from the spiritual world that had once been such a large part of his life.
And without realizing it, he had slowly cut back on his alcohol intake.
And then, one night on a train heading up to Sapporo, it had occurred to him that perhaps it had been high time to do something. His old man had left him plenty of money but it wouldn't last him the rest of his life, and doing nothing but drinking and running away had lost its appeal fast.
The grief he had felt had eased a little at last, time distancing him from the agony of the loss of his loved ones, and Ichigo had figured that he had had nothing to lose anyway by applying himself to university. If nothing else, throwing himself into his studies would serve to take his mind off of all the crap the universe had seen fit to dump on him.
So he had. He had grabbed the first plane out of Japan, his English good enough to get him by in the States where, hopefully, there would be less Hollows out and about and more space for him to hide from unwanted attention.
Five years of overnighters, unhealthy amounts of coffee, self-study hours, accelerated programs, and an internship in England later, Ichigo took the medical field by storm at the age of twenty-eight, one of the best and brightest surgeons of his generation.
Another four years later, filled with rising popularity, research papers, lives saved under his proficient hands, and a steady stream of job offers from various hospitals and army bases around the world who had all heard of Ichigo's strange penchant for keeping his face out of the papers and adamant refusal to stay in one place for long (they took shameless advantage of this and tried to snag him for their own establishments every time Ichigo announced his retirement from his latest workplace), and Kurosaki Ichigo had made a reputation for himself.
If he was honest, Ichigo would say that he wasn't happy, or at least not happy very often, though the ecstatic tears from a child after he had saved one of their parents or vice versa could sometimes bring a smile to his face.
But for the most part, he was content. He kept his livelihood simple despite the amount of money he was earning and he had no real interest in creating close ties with anyone, which made it fairly easy for him to pick up his life in a few duffel bags and walk away every time he caught wind of a Hollow or even Shinigami sighting.
He liked to keep busy at the hospital or in whatever medical tent that had been set up when he could be convinced to fill in for several weeks here and there as a provisional army doctor (he was pretty sure there was something wrong with him when he realized that he was perfectly at home with cannon fire going off in the distance, hands always as steady as a rock even during the occasional time he had had to step onto a battlefield to attend to a downed officer), taking long hours and overnight shifts and emergency operations whenever he could.
It kept him moving forward, and it was far better than sitting alone in an apartment and letting old memories slink back into the forefront of his mind. It helped him ignore the empty ache in his soul as well.
(Though in the rare times when he indulged in nostalgia, he would wonder if his father would be proud of what he had made of himself, or if his sisters would love him just as much for keeping himself going.)
However, Ichigo's luck had never been very dependable. Good things happened, bad things followed – that was about as predictable as it got.
So it stood to reason that, nine years after he had left Japan and ten and a half years after the war had ended and his reiatsu had been sealed, Ichigo's rather successful life would take a downturn once more.
He just didn't know that this downturn would land him straight back in the middle of the very place he had tried his hardest not to think about for over a decade now.
Ichigo frowned as he took a gulp of coffee, eyes scanning the small article of a series of funny deaths in which witnesses reported people being whisked away in the air by an invisible force.
Looked like it was time to leave. It was a good thing his contract had expired two days ago and he'd told the hospital director that he'd take a rain check on signing another one.
He rose to his feet, swiped up the stack of mail he had gotten over the past week that included numerous job offers, and started flipping through them again. The hospitals and military bases had gotten their timing down to an art; someone somewhere always managed to get the word out when Ichigo's latest contract came to an end.
They were all addressed to Kuroh Shirosaki though. On the off-chance that a Shinigami decided to read a newspaper from the Human World (which wasn't likely what with how ignorant they could be but still possible), Ichigo didn't want to make it too easy for them so he'd stayed away from cameras and gotten his name changed. Granted, his new name wasn't all that different, but he'd never been good with names before; he had had to stick to something close or risk not answering when someone called out to him, especially during those first few years of his new life.
Never staying long in one place helped quite a bit though since no one had managed to hunt him down thus far.
Although he supposed that could also be contributed to nobody wanting to hunt him down. Ichigo had decided long ago that he didn't care which was worse.
He paused at one offer from a hospital up in Alaska, in Anchorage. Well, he'd never been there before.
He flicked through a few more, and then stopped on one from Japan. Karakura to be exact.
He'd gotten a few of these over the years, but whether this was because Ryuuken knew who he was or because the man honestly wanted Ichigo's skills at his hospital was anyone's guess. The Quincy was frighteningly intelligent though, with a certain calculating cunning that his son had, thankfully, never inherited. A fake name would hardly be enough to trick Ryuuken if the man had decided to dig a little, or his son for that matter. Last Ichigo had heard, Ishida had made it big in the fashion industry, not so surprising all things considered.
Of course, Ichigo had turned all of Ryuuken's offers down. He hadn't stepped foot in his hometown since he had left it ten and a half years ago. Returning was just asking for trouble.
It would be nice to visit his family's gravesites. It was the closest he could get to them now, short of committing suicide.
(And even now, if he wasn't so certain that his mother and sisters would never forgive him for it, he could very well find it in himself to go for the pills or a scalpel.)
Ichigo heaved a sigh, tossing the stack of letters back onto his kitchen counter before grabbing his coat. He should head back to the hospital to inform the director that he would be moving away soon so there was no need to hold his position for him.
The medical circle had been kind to him over the years, which wasn't something just anybody could say. He had taken to surgery like a fish to water; after spending half his teenage years killing one thing or another, healing people was something he actually enjoyed. There were still days when he itched to pick up a real sword and cut down a few Hollows, but he had to make do with a few hours at a local gym and a borrowed shinai from a kendo dojo if he happened to find one near his residence.
Ichigo checked his watch as he stepped out the door, shrugging on his jacket as he jogged down the street. If he hurried, he could catch the ten o'clock bus and not waste half an hour at the bus stop for the next one.
As he crossed the street, loud honking caught his attention. He turned in time to spot a little girl behind him who had run back to retrieve something in the middle of the road and was now frozen in fear as a car rushed towards her, no signs of stopping even as the girl's mother, only half a foot from Ichigo, jerked around and began moving back to her daughter, horror in every line of her face.
Ichigo didn't think.
He spun, hurtled forward, shoved both mother and daughter out of the way, and just had a nanosecond's time to think – somewhat inanely and with definite morbid humour – that this was the sort of thing that was only supposed to happen in a movie, not in real life.
And then he was thrown clean off his feet, screams echoing in his ears even as agony exploded in his side. Another fraction of a second passed as he was tossed through the air like a ragdoll, and he dimly wondered if there was something mentally wrong with him when he automatically catalogued his injuries right then and there – broken ribs arm, and leg, punctured lung, cardiac damage, at least one ruptured kidney.
Ichigo didn't feel himself hit the ground or he probably would've added head trauma to the list. As it was, blissful darkness swept across his vision, and he willingly closed his eyes as oblivion dragged him under.
[Rukongai, Soul Society]
"AIBOU! AIBOU! WAKE THE HELL UP, AIBOU!"
'He is waking already, Shiro. Do not rush him.'
Ichigo groaned softly, eyes fluttering open to take in the rustle of leaves above him, trees swaying overhead with glimpses of blue sky peeking through the branches.
"Aibou, get your head on straight and please tell me you remember us. It's gonna be a pain in the ass if we have an amnesiac on our hands."
"Shiro, shut up," Ichigo retorted out of reflex as he eased himself into a sitting position, trying to work through the headache hammering away in his head.
And then he froze.
A heartbeat, two, and then Shiro's cackles were resounding in his head, louder and louder and edged with glee. A moment later, Zangetsu's deeper chuckles sounded, blatant relief reverberating in Ichigo's very soul.
Ichigo didn't know whether he wanted to laugh along or cry or- or-
He drew in a shuddering breath, dizzy with how utterly whole he felt for the first time in over a decade. "God, Zangetsu, Shiro-"
"We get it, Aibou,"There was something very close to fondness in Shiro's voice. "Don't go crying like a little girl now."
Ichigo finally released a ragged laugh, pressing his palms against his eyes. Shit, he had even missed Shiro's insults and wasn't that just sad?
"Zangetsu?" Always the quietest of the three of them, Ichigo just wanted his Zanpakutou to say something, anything.
'I'm here, Ichigo,' Zangetsu's soothing tenor resonated in his mind, and Ichigo slumped, energy leaving him as he savoured the feeling of his spirit partners at his side once more. 'You have had a difficult ten years.'
"Nah, it wasn't so bad," Ichigo assured, and frankly, at this moment, nothing felt all that bad.
He could handle not seeing his sisters and father; over the years, he had pretended that they had been on a long vacation, which had sort of been true. But nothing, not time, not distance, had ever managed to alleviate the hollow pang in the depths of his soul. He had been able to brush it aside now and then, especially when he had been elbow-deep in someone's intestines, but it always came back like a knife through his chest. Now though, he had both Zangetsu and Shiro with him again; Ichigo literally couldn't remember feeling this at peace with himself since the war, which was just all sorts of messed up.
"Not so bad?" Shiro repeated, disgust plain in his voice. "Ugh, you were a doctor; how borin'. And a car accident?That's a shitty way to die. And... huh, that's more booze than you ever drank durin' the war. Holy fuck, you were a wreck."
Ichigo rolled his eyes but he couldn't help quirking a faint smile. "Only at the beginning. I was... I didn't handle things all that well."
"I'll fuckin' say," Shiro grumbled darkly, and his voice took on a more bloodthirsty edge. "Damn government bastards; I always said it'd be the upper management that drove us to an early grave. Never thought that would literally happen."
Ichigo cocked his head. "Technically-"
"Shut it, Aibou."
Ichigo laughed again, a little hoarse from lack of use. He'd laughed more in the past five minutes than he had in the past ten years.
"So," He prompted, dragging their collective attention away from all the memories of his past life. "What now? I'm guessing I'm in Rukongai, I'm not all that surprised I have all my memories intact, and here's to hoping nobody knows where I am even though they've probably been notified that I'm dead since you two aren't sealed away anymore."
Zangetsu and Shiro replied at the same time.
'You must get your bearings first, and find food and a place to stay low.'
"We gut the sons-of-bitches who did this to us! Every last one! They should've known they were signin' their death warrants when they forced us apart!"
"No," Ichigo shook his head in unconscious emphasis.
"No? No?! Aibou, they tore our soul apart! They deserve everything they've got comin' to them!"
"I understand that, Shiro," Ichigo placated patiently. "But I haven't picked up a Zanpakutou in ten years-"
"Aibou, you're a natural swordsman; out of practice ain't an excuse."
"-and I don't want anything to do with them," Ichigo finished relentlessly. He sighed and scanned his surroundings. A clearing surrounded by trees; most likely one of the outer districts of Rukongai. Beside him laid his Zanpakutou in its sealed form.
Huh. He was pretty sure that wasn't supposed to happen.
"Look," Ichigo said out loud, pushing himself to his feet and dusting his plain white kimono off with a grimace. He didn't like wearing white; it was too eye-catching. He would have to find something with darker colours as soon as possible. "Even if we charge in and slaughter Central 46, and believe me, that's been one of my favourite ideas since the end of the war, there's no way we'll get away with it unchallenged."
'Ichigo is right,' Zangetsu interjected with his own agreement. 'The Captain-Commander, assuming he has recovered, will order our capture, and we will have to face every single squad in the Gotei 13. I have confidence that we will be able to handle most of them, but at the very least, the captains of the Eighth and Thirteenth will, in all likelihood, be able to stop us. They will most definitely hinder us enough for the Captain-Commander to step in and kill us himself if need be. In the worst-case scenario, they will succeed in capturing us and separating us once again. You and I will be destroyed this time, Shiro, and Ichigo will be confined in the Maggots' Nest or even Muken if they deem it necessary.'
Zangetsu had always been the most effective when it came to shutting Shiro up, Ichigo mused somewhat wryly in the prevailing silence as he bent down to pick up his katana.
"I don't trust them," Ichigo said, and it felt a little odd when he voiced it like that. It was the first time he had deliberately focused on this, and to his resentment, the overall betrayal still stung. Then again, he had been pushing the issue away for a decade now. "Any of them. It's been ten years for me, and I've gotten used to life without them. I miss my sisters and my father but I can stand that too. Goat-Face would never let anything happen to the girls, and Kisuke at least would back him up on that front. I just..."
He paused and looked forward through the trees as a breeze whistled through the clearing. He could just spot a town in the far distance.
"I just want to live my life the way I want to," He confessed at last, and there was nothing but answering acceptance from his two counterparts. "I need you two by my side, and I'm content enough knowing that my sisters are taken care of. Everyone else... well, how much do you want to bet that if they find me, they'll be insisting I enter their ranks before I have time to exchange pleasantries?"
Shiro snorted derisively. "No bet. It'd be just like them to pretend they never separated us and act like everythin's fine and dandy. Though I thought at least the Kuchiki chick and the pineapple moron would've gone after you."
"I thought-" They would too.
Ichigo bit back the last few words, though he knew that Zangetsu and Shiro had both heard them perfectly fine.
"Well, they didn't," Ichigo continued briskly, sliding his Zanpakutou into the red sash at his waist (red against white; seriously?). "And it's over and done with now. We keep our heads down and hopefully do nothing to attract attention."
'They will scour all of Rukongai looking for you,' Zangetsu cautioned.
Ichigo frowned. That would be a problem. There were only so many places he could run before he would be surrounded.
"What's outside of Soul Society?" He asked on a whim. "I mean, there's Soul Society, and then... what? Is there just nothing beyond it? The place just ends?"
There was a long silence.
'I am not sure,' Zangetsu sounded almost surprised as if the thought had never occurred to him before. 'We did not come across anything that mentioned this in the Seireitei library.'
"We could go see for ourselves," Shiro suggested slyly.
Ichigo began walking towards the town even as the idea bounced around his head persistently. "It could be dangerous."
Shiro cackled knowingly. "Aibou, isn't that exactly what you've been missing? You can't lie to me."
Ichigo huffed, but for the first time in a very, very long time, he felt himself relax entirely. His soul was whole again, and he had a purpose, even if it was an outrageous one. "It might take a while."
'We have quite a few hundred years to spare, Ichigo,' Zangetsu reminded him, and there was a rare note of intrigue in his voice. Being sealed away could not have been a picnic.
"Yeah," Ichigo smiled. "Yeah, we do. Food first though. And rest. And some new clothes."
Agreement came from both his spirits, and Ichigo quickened his pace.
"'Shirosaki Kuroh'? Seriously?"
Please leave a review on your way out.
Not quite sure where I'm going with this but it popped into my mind last night and wouldn't scram so I figured writing down the first chapter wouldn't hurt.