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Saturday, October 9th, 2010 06:42 pm

One Need Not Be A House

Summary: Ichigo finds that with or without spirit powers, it's possible to be haunted.
Spoilers: Until Chapter 423, ignores Chapter 424
Rating: T
Genre: Gen
Warnings for: Emotional instability, blood and gore, mutilation. Also contains scary ghosts, especially Hollows. Mentions of death and suicide, no character deaths.
Disclaimer: Not mine, or Chapter 424 wouldn't have jossed this ;_;

One need not be a chamber to be haunted,
One need not be a house;
The brain has corridors surpassing
Material place.

~Emily Dickinson

There are things to be said for being normal.

In Ichigo’s case, it means getting a smackdown from his dad first thing in the morning. The old man’s elbow connects with Ichigo’s face, but not hard enough that Ichigo can’t return the punch. In fact, Ichigo puts a little more strength into his own punch to remind his dad how it’s done.

“Good shot!” the old man declares. Ichigo can’t tell whether the tears flowing down his dad’s face are tears of joy or pain. “Just a little more – ”

“Sorry, I’ve got to get to school.” Ichigo darts past him and heads down for breakfast. His dad doesn’t follow.

There is an egg on his rice again. This time, Yuzu has decorated it with a smiley face, which is a complete contrast to the look that Karin is shooting him. He ignores her and picks up his chopsticks.

“You gonna eat that?”


Karin stares. “You know that’s just going to encourage her to include eggs in your breakfast every day.”


Karin storms off to the living room, supposedly to eat although she only brings her rice with her. That means Ichigo gets to finish his breakfast in relative quiet apart from the TV. Ichigo doesn’t pay attention to it, since it is the news and there are no gas explosions or any unexplained happenings to report. He is supposed to meet Keigo and Mizuiro, which means he has to hurry. He hasn’t even changed yet.

Ichigo manages to successfully dodge his father on the way back to his room and throw on his uniform. He spots Keigo and Mizuiro from his window just as he is getting his last button done, and he dashes down the stairs to meet them. Karin’s too busy sulking in the kitchen to bother about him, so he yells a quick goodbye to Yuzu on the way out.

“Good timing as always!” Keigo says when Ichigo bursts out of the gate to meet them. “How do you do it? You can’t sense us so you must – ”

“Ichigo knows our schedule,” Mizuiro says, saving Ichigo an explanation. “We’re going to be late if we don’t hurry. Right Ichigo?”

“Yeah,” Ichigo agrees. “Ochi-sensei’s been pretty short with me and I don’t want to make her mad.”

“Ochi-sensei? Nah, she likes you. You should have seen what she did to Oshima Reiichi!”

Ichigo already knows about it, but Keigo seems to be having fun with the story so he lets him talk on the way to school. Mizuiro is too busy with his handphone to keep up a conversation anyway. The story takes up most of the trip to school, and Ichigo had gotten used to the sound of Keigo’s voice that he is startled when Keigo breaks off with a shriek. “W-what’s that?”

The ambulance in front of the school gates is unmistakable. The body bag that’s being carried into it is just as unmistakable.

“No way!” Keigo cries out. “I can’t believe we had to see this. I don’t want to walk past that.”

“You don’t have a choice, Asano-san.”

“Why are you being so formal? And you don’t have to bother, you can’t see – ”

Ichigo squares his shoulders and strides past them all – Keigo, Mizuiro, the orderlies and the dead person. It doesn’t matter to him.

He’s left Death behind after all.

Halfway through the lesson, Inoue stuns everyone by running out of the class. This is made even more shocking when Chad runs out after her.

As the classroom bursts out into excited twitters, Ichigo sinks down into his seat, trying to ignore his own embarrassment. He has never noticed this reaction to his escapes from class, but then again he hadn’t paid attention. Did he look as weird running out of class? No wonder people kept talking about how strange he was. It wasn’t something he could have helped anyway; once a Hollow appeared, everyone was in danger.

That’s right; Inoue and Chad were going to fight a Hollow. Hollow…

Ichigo wishes that Chad hadn’t run off so fast – he could have yelled some tips before he left. But now Chad and Inoue were going to face down a Hollow on their own, and he wasn’t sure if there was a shinigami representative for Karakura yet.

Fine. His reputation wasn’t all that great to start with.

Before Ochi-sensei can get the class to quiet down, Ichigo is up and running too. Tossing back a quick apology, he bursts out of the classroom and into an empty corridor.

… He didn’t know Chad and Inoue could run that fast. He can’t sense them either.

On a hunch, he heads for the shoe lockers. Inoue lets out a startled yelp and drops her shoe upon seeing him.

“Kurosaki-kun! Ochi-sensei – ”

“Never mind that.” He sucks in a breath to replenish the air in his lungs. “Just wanted to remind you that you’ve got to break the Hollow’s mask. Not sure if it’ll work without a zanpakutou, but – ”

“Thanks Ichigo,” Chad replies. “But we all have to hurry. You can update us later.”

“Ah. OK.” He watches as Inoue finally gets her shoe on. As they turn to leave, he remembers something. “Oh, and if you see the girl that died this morning, can you tell her to look for a shinigami? I mean, only a shinigami can send her to Soul Society after all.”

Inoue smiles, though it doesn’t quite reach the edges of her mouth. “You’re so kind, Kurosaki-kun. I’ll remember that.” She bows quickly. “I’m off then!”

Chad nods at Ichigo and disappears with her. After their departure, the hallways are quieter than what Ichigo is used to.

Ichigo heads back to class.

Chad and Inoue only return after break, so Ichigo doesn’t get to ask them how it went. Neither of them appears to be injured, which is good. Of course, there is always the possibility that Inoue had healed them before they returned to school. He won’t know until he has talked to them.

Good thing he is meeting Chad after school today. He has some CDs in his bag that he remembers Chad liking, and Chad has promised to bring the demo his band had recorded, too. Ichigo can ask Chad about how their Hollow hunting went while they hang out.

Chad seems to have the same idea, although he has the patience to wait until they are near the school gates. “About earlier…” he begins, once most of the students are out of earshot.

“Yeah, how’d it go?”

Chad considers the question for a while. “It was OK.”

Ichigo shakes his head. “You really have to work on your storytelling, you always skip the exciting parts! So what happened? Did anyone get hurt?”

“No,” is Chad’s reply. “All thanks to you.”

“Me? I didn’t do anything.”

“We only found low level Hollows, but they could have hurt someone if we hadn’t been warned by your substitute shinigami badge.”

“Ah.” Low level Hollows weren’t anything for people with Inoue and Chad’s level of power to worry about. "It’s a good thing that the badge was useful for something. I was starting to think it was useless, since the shinigami representative Imoyama-san didn’t recognise it."

Chad doesn’t reply, which gives Ichigo the niggling feeling that he’s forgotten something. It doesn’t occur to him what it is until they’re almost in sight of the bridge where they usually hang out.

“Chad… you and Inoue both heard the substitute shinigami badge going off, didn’t you?”

“… Yes.”

“But,” Ichigo swallows past the sudden lump in his throat. “But I didn’t hear anything.”

“I guessed that.”

Ichigo can’t match Chad’s calm. “I didn’t even know I brought it to school. I thought Soul Society had taken it back while I was resting for that month.”

Chad doesn’t reply.

The question rushes out before Ichigo can stop it. “Where is it?"

“… I think it’s in your bag.”

Ichigo follows Chad’s gesture and starts rummaging in his bag. Books, CDs, pencil case –

The bag is unsettled by Ichigo’s gait, and everything spills out onto the ground. Ichigo swears, then gives it up as a lost cause. He starts sifting through the things on the ground instead. Book, book, CD, book –

“Are you sure you heard my badge?”

Chad takes a long time to think of a reply, but eventually responds, “Mmm. Could have been a mistake. Sorry.”

Ichigo gives up the search, and lets Chad help put the things back into his bag. He is trying to rearrange the things to fit when he sees Chad’s fingers close around seemingly nothing, then disappear into his pants pocket.

Ichigo goes numb. Then that is washed away by a quick rush of anger. So what if he couldn’t see the badge? It was his and Chad should have told him he was taking it!

He opens his mouth to tell Chad so, but the words falter before he can get them out. The longer he dwells on that thought, the more petty it sounds.

“Do you have everything?” Chad prompts.

Ichigo glances at the ground – nothing that he can see lying outside – and manages a “Yeah, I guess.” He shoulders his bag, and finds the prospect of the afternoon has dimmed. “I just remembered – I’ve got a lot of homework. Think I’ll head home instead.”

Chad keeps quiet. Ichigo takes his silence as agreement and turns away. He doesn’t make it two steps when Chad speaks up, “I’m sorry Ichigo.”

Ichigo doesn’t have to ask what Chad is sorry about, and Ichigo’s own reply comes out quieter than he likes. “Yeah, me too.”

Ichigo heads home.

Ichigo doesn’t expect the kick to his face when he steps into the house. “The hell!” he demands of his old man. “What are you doing here?”

“What are you doing here?” says the old man, and puts him in a headlock. “Shouldn’t you be out doing what young men your age do? When I was your age – ”

“How many freaking years ago was that? I don’t even think you were a young man in this century!” Ichigo tries to throw him off but doesn’t manage to.

“I was a young man to your mother and that was all that mattered. You, however, have no excuse!”

“Oh yeah? Maybe I though you would be too busy with the clinic to bother me, and that it might be nice to spend a quiet afternoon at home!”

“I bother you? I can show you exactly how bothersome I can be – ”

“I’m trying to do homework,” Yuzu complains from the kitchen, and the old man turns his attention to her.

“My apologies, youngest daughter of my flesh!” As his dad rants about the punishments awaiting Ichigo, Ichigo pries himself free bit by bit, and when he has gotten himself enough slack, he breaks free and dashes into the kitchen. Yuzu is indeed doing her homework there. From the hallway his dad hollers, “Come back here and accept your punishment!”

“No way! I’m not stupid enough to subject myself to torture!”

“U- unfilial son! Ignoring his father's commands! If you don’t come here, I’ll come and get you!”

The threat of her sanctuary being breached causes Yuzu to sigh and go to the doorway. “Don’t you have a clinic to run?” she asks their dad.

When the old man’s sobbing has faded towards the front of the house, Yuzu turns to Ichigo. “Had a long day?”

“Yeah, I guess.” Ichigo goes to the fridge and digs out the orange juice. “Want some?” he asks Yuzu, and when she shakes her head he grabs a glass for himself. “A lot of homework?”

“Not really. It’s the same as always but it feels like more.” Catching Ichigo’s eye, she gives him a small smile, restrained yet hopeful. “You could help me with it, if it’s ok with you?”

Ichigo considers this. “Why not?” he agrees, and pulls up a seat. Her smile broadening into a grin, Yuzu slides into her own.

The next morning, Keigo is a lot quieter. Either Mizuiro or Chad must have talked to him – Ichigo doesn’t care either way. It does mean there isn’t much conversation on the way to school, as Keigo keeps half-starting sentences or talking about the weather, to which Mizuiro gives short replies. Ichigo doesn’t have much to say – there is nothing that has happened to him that they don’t already know.

The only major thing that happens is that Keigo and Mizuiro veer past a particular junction. Mizuiro tells Ichigo that he felt like a change, and Ichigo shrugs it off. There is no point in telling them that he has seen the irritating old man at the corner house since grade school, or any of the ghosts along their usual route. They are all harmless Pluses that weren’t in danger of becoming Hollows anytime soon.

Ichigo only wishes it was as quiet at school. The first thing he notices is that a few of the desks are empty. The next thing he notices is that the teacher who walks in isn’t Ochi-sensei.

“Ochi-sensei is held up with some urgent matters for the first two periods, along with some of your classmates,” he tells them.

The class murmurs but doesn’t seem too surprised. Ichigo soon learns why when the guy in front of him whispers from behind the safety of his book to his neighbour. “I heard there was another suicide!”

It is lunchtime, and only Chad and Ichigo can be found on the rooftop.

Ichigo stabs at his rice with his chopsticks as he thinks about where the others could be. They could only be talking about the suicide. It wasn’t as if a death was exciting; it was actually sickening. He didn’t know what they saw in it. Chad at least has the sense not to join them, though Ichigo isn’t sure how he feels about Chad’s choice to join him on the roof. They still haven’t talked about yesterday. They should.

Ichigo stares at the egg atop his rice instead. It has a smiley face.

He wonders where the others could be. The idea of them in some conspiratorial huddle is really starting to piss Ichigo off. Even Ishida is there, and he can’t imagine any situation where Ishida would entertain conversation with Keigo or hell, even Tatsuki of his own free will that would be a good situation.

“Are you OK?’ Chad asks. At the sound of his voice, Ichigo realizes he’s been gripping his chopsticks so tightly that it is surprising they haven’t snapped yet. He forces himself to relax his grip.

“Yeah,” he replies. But when his thoughts veer again to what they could be talking about, Ichigo finds himself gritting his teeth. What the hell. He didn’t survive this long by hiding from things. He puts the cover back on his bento, and stands.

“I’m going to the classroom,” he tells Chad. The hesitation Ichigo sees tells him that Chad probably knows that they are there. “Don’t bother trying to discourage me. I just want to see for myself.”

“Are you sure that’s a good thing?”

“Probably not,” Ichigo admits. “Do you think that’s gonna stop me?”

Chad meets Ichigo’s eyes, and whatever he sees there makes him shake his head in reply. Strangely heartened by Chad’s response, Ichigo heads back to the classroom.

He finds that he’s right. Keigo, Mizuiro, Tatsuki, Ishida… and Tatsuki is yelling at Ishida. Again. “Don’t tell us things that everyone already knows” is her grouse this time. Ishida ignores it in favour of spouting some useless facts about windows and school safety rules. Not that Ichigo is listening.

“What did I tell you about that?” says Tatsuki, cutting off Ishida’s speech with a glare. “Even if it’s true you don’t have to be so cold about it! Ayumi was a person, not ‘just another student’.”

“We are discussing the methods that could have caused a student to fall from a window, which I wanted to tackle logically. However, it appears to offend you.”

“Argh!” Tatsuki throws her hands up. “You better not let Ryou hear you talking like that, or she’ll punch you instead. Ayumi and Ryou are – were – close.”

“I know,” Ishida replies. “Inoue told me. That’s why I want to get to the bottom of this. Two suicides in a row is unusual.”

“But that doesn’t mean it has anything to do with spirits!” Tatsuki says. It’s the first time in days Ichigo has heard the word, which almost makes Ichigo think there should be some fanfare to go along with the event. There isn’t. The discussion continues.

“Everyone I’ve talked mentions they didn’t see the girls,” Mizuiro informs the others. “Before or after what happened. It’ll be hard to find out anything.”

“We still have to try,” Ishida insists.

“Why?” Keigo asks. “This all sounds wrong. It doesn’t sound like the girls would want to talk!”

“Probably not,” Ishida actually agrees. “But Ichigo would probably know better. You can join in the conversation,” he tells Ichigo. Everyone turns to look at Ichigo, all wearing some form of shock on their faces. Ichigo suspects Ishida probably did that for dramatic effect. Ishida being Ishida, he spoils the mood by adding, “You should still be familiar with the ghosts in the town.”

“Ishida!” Tatsuki rounds on him, ready to launch a punch.

Ichigo decides to save Ishida from a black eye, even if he does deserve it. “Don’t bother, he’s got a hard head.” To Ishida he says, “Why are you asking me? You’re the superior reiatsu detector!”

“It’s always good to get a second opinion. I’ve also never made friends with ghosts.”

“I don’t think you’ve ever made friends with anyone,” Ichigo points out. “The only thing I know is that ghosts turn up in the weirdest places.”

Ichigo feels stupid, telling them things they already know. He can’t believe that talking to them feels even worse than being on the roof, knowing that they were discussing things without him. “You go after your ghosts,” Ichigo advises them. “I got better things to do.”

“Ichigo!” Keigo calls out, but Ichigo finds that ignoring him is a lot easier than walking back. Anywhere else but here sounds good.

Ichigo lets his feet bring him where they want to, and finds himself outside in the school grounds. Most of the spots beneath the trees are taken by students and their lunches, but there are some free spots here and there. Like this one that is quiet and empty; the small shrine on one side ensures that. Ichigo flops down beneath the tree. Closing his eyes and listening to the silence is nice. Here he doesn’t have to think about friends who do things without him.

That doesn’t stop him from thinking about other things. He had – forgotten what not having power felt like. When he could only see spirits, he couldn’t do anything to stop them from disappearing. Now, he doesn’t even know when they disappear.

Ichigo lets his head fall back against the tree trunk. “My powers… I can’t do anything about it,” he tells himself to make the thought go away.

He stays under the tree until the bell rings. On the way back to class, Ichigo makes sure to throw out at least half of his lunch in the nearest dustbin. He doesn’t want to make Yuzu upset.

Ichigo would have cut classes, but the idea of Ochi-sensei talking to his dad isn’t one that he likes, so he makes himself stay through the second half of school. On hindsight, it isn’t such a great choice, because it means Tatsuki can corner Ichigo at the end of school. “I don’t believe you don’t care about the ghosts,” she says, hands on her hips.

Ichigo is never going to get used to Tatsuki talking like she knows what Ichigo is thinking, or mentioning spirits as if she has known about them all her life. It is just weird. As it is, he can’t help staring at Tatsuki before turning away. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I saw the look you gave Ishida. You want to help.”

“No I don’t.”

“You can help, even if – ”

“I said I don’t.”

“You’re a liar.”

“Stop it. That’s not true.”

“Haven’t you learnt anything from the War?” she yells, despite the other students trying not to stare at them. “Or do I have to put your head through another window?”

“It’s nothing like that!” Ichigo bursts out.

“It exactly like that! You’re just too stubborn to admit it!”

“It’s not!” he shoots back. “I don’t see why you should care anyway! You go ahead and do whatever you want to do. I’ve always done things my way!”

He really hates Tatsuki looking at him like she can read his mind.

“Ichigo. Everything you did during the War – you didn’t have to do it alone.”

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

“If you had told us – ”

“I said I don’t want to talk about it!”

Tatsuki’s hands ball into fists. Ichigo’s do the same. The homeroom isn’t a dojo or a training ground, but if she wants a fight she will get one. Tatsuki has always made it clear that she can take any shit he hands out, and he’s not in the mood for the crap she’s dishing out.

Apparently Tatsuki’s mind reading skills extend to that, because she only holds her glare for a second longer, then unclenches her fists. “If you change your mind, we’re always here if you want to talk about it. We’re your friends.”

“I don’t need to,” Ichigo insists. Tatsuki just shakes her head, and walks away to leave Ichigo alone.

Just as he wanted.

“If you want to mope, quit doing it at home.”

“Who said I was moping?” Ichigo turns to Karin, who has invited herself into his room. “How many times have I said to knock before you come in?”

Karin ignores him. “No one has to tell me you’re moping, I can see it. It’s making Yuzu upset.”

“I’m not moping.”


“I’m just doing my homework.”

“By staring at it?”

“I wasn’t! How would you know? You weren’t in the room.”

Karin eyes him with suspicion. “You don’t have to bite my head off. I’m just telling you to stop making Yuzu upset.” She waves at him. “Not talking to you until you stop denying things. See you.”

“Hey!” he calls out to her, but she has left as quickly as she came. He turns back to his books for a minute, then tosses down his pen. Karin was right – he has been staring at the same page for the last ten minutes.

He heads to the bathroom and splashes some water on his face. He catches sight of his reflection in the mirror over the sink, and frowns at it. Where was the downcast look that everyone kept talking about? Maybe his frown was a little tighter than usual, and his face a little paler. His eyes were a bit tired too.

Yeah, he was tired, that was it.

He wipes his face with a towel, then catches a glimpse of his reflection in the mirror. It hasn’t followed his movements, still stuck in the same pose that he had earlier. He grips the sink, trying to figure out whether his mind is playing tricks on him. He should have switched on the light; in the dim glow from the small window, the eyes of his frozen reflection look weird.

Then his reflection grins at him and he tightens his grip on the sink. “You!”

“Hello… partner,” says Ichigo’s Hollow. Other than his black and white eyes and the grin on his face, he still looks sickeningly like Ichigo's reflection, which makes a sick sort of sense that Ichigo hates.

Shoving his dislike aside, he confronts it. “You disappeared! You were gone, along with all my powers!”

“You? Kill me?” The Hollow in the mirror cocks his head. Ichigo finds his own following suit, and has to stop himself. He isn't going to be controlled again. “I decline.”

“But- but you were merged with Zangetsu, and he told me that after I used Mugetsu my powers would disappear!”

“I AM Zangetsu!”

“Then how can you be here? I can’t even see spirits anymore! And I can see you just fine!”

“There's only one answer: INSTINCT!”

“Instinct?” Ichigo laughs, although it comes out bitter and brittle. The Hollow titters along. “What instinct? The instinct to seek out battles? I can’t fight anymore!”

“Must protect,” his Hollow chants. “Must protect. Must protect.”

Ichigo stares in disbelief. “T-that’s not what you want. That’s what I want! You just wanted to hurt others.”

“I want to protect... a mountain-load of people.”

“Shut up!”

“If I cannot protect by just extending my hand,” the reflection in the mirror says. “I want a blade so I reach in front of them.”

Ichigo tries to look away, but he can't - his Hollow is still looking at him. Whatever control he had earlier is gone, and as long as his Hollow is looking back he has to keep his eyes on the mirror. His fingers strain on the sink but his hands can’t pull free.

"I am shinigami."

“Shut up!” Ichigo shouts back, using the only option open to him. “Don’t keep quoting my own thoughts at me! I’m normal now, you hear? I don’t do that anymore!”

“Just surviving is meaningless. Fighting just for the sake of it is meaningless.” The Hollow leans in, as if trying to get close to Ichigo. Ichigo tries to lean back, he really tries, but he finds himself leaning in too. “The only thing I want to do is WIN!”


“Advance!” his Hollow advises. “Never stop! If you retreat, you will age. Be afraid, and you’ll die.”

Ichigo shakes his head. Or his Hollow does - he doesn't know who moved first. Was his movement returning? “Easy for you to say. My spirit powers have pretty much run out. I don’t even know how you’re here.”

His Hollow ignores him. “I want to become strong… otherwise I won’t be able to face mom.”

That does it. Ichigo wrestles back control and manages to tear his hands off the sink, though they settle into fists at his sides. “I don’t have time for this. You’re just part of my imagination.” Saying this seems to break whatever power his reflection had; he is able to force his eyes away from it and make himself walk to the door without looking back.

He is almost there when he hears his Hollow say, “You might be imagining me, partner, but you’re not imagining your desire to protect. And you’re not as helpless as you think you are.”

Ichigo whips back to look at the mirror, but it hangs empty in the bathroom.

The walk to school the next day isn't just filled with Keigo's stories. Instead, Ichigo keeps hearing snippets of conversations that he isn't a part of. It’s like channel surfing, except Ichigo only gets random words and has no control over what he hears. Good thing that both Keigo and Mizuiro don’t seem to want to talk about yesterday, because Ichigo might not be able to focus on whatever they say. Keigo seems to have a more important story to tell anyway.

“So I was minding my own business – ” Keigo is saying.

“Good morning!” another voice chirps.

“ – hanging out at the – ”

“I really hate being stuck here,” a deeper voice grumbles.

“ – they have this really cool game – ”

“Hey Mister!”

“ – spaceships that shoot lasers! Yeah!”

“Why have you been ignoring us?”

“ – new and NO ONE WAS PLAYING IT! It was there, available! WAITING FOR ME TO SHOW OFF MY SKILLS!”

“I really liked the toy you got me the last time.”

“But then MY SISTER calls and says she has to have her snacks on time, or else she’ll tell on me! Because I’m not supposed to be at the arcade!”

“Yeah, I didn’t want to spend my afterlife with you either!”

Mizuiro breaks through the noise. “You look distracted,” he says to Ichigo.

“Aah?” Ichigo turns his attention fully to them. “Nah, just thinking.”

“If I’m boring you, you can just say so! I won’t get hurt,” says Keigo, in the long-suffering tones of someone who will.

“Had a rough night,” Ichigo explains. As he says that, the image of white eyes flashes through his mind again. He pushes it down using the method that he used on his Hollow the last time, though he meets with no resistance in his own mind.

Keigo heaves a sigh of relief. “That’s good. You have no idea how hard it is to be entertaining! Your comment alone inspires me to greater levels of confidence!”


“It’s no fun when you reply like that…”

“Do you want to tell us what’s on your mind?” Mizuiro asks.

Ichigo is reminded of what Tatsuki said to him yesterday. What was with everyone and their idea that he needed to talk? Then again, his friends can see spirits now; they could tell him whether the voices that he is hearing belong to any ghosts.

Just surviving is meaningless.

Ichigo has to suppress a shudder as he recalls his conversation with his mirror last night. He can still remember yelling at it...

“I’m normal now, you hear?”

He’s better off not talking. “It’s nothing,” he tells them, and pretends he doesn’t see how disappointed they look. There is no conversation between the three of them for the rest of the journey.

Around them, the disembodied voices continue their chatter.

Between ignoring random voices and the disappointed looks Keigo and Mizuiro keep shooting him during class, Ichigo manages to forget his books in the lab. To make things worse, he doesn’t remember until after school is out. Well, better late than never. If he heads to the labs now, he might be able to find them.

“Don’t go there!”

Ichigo is ready to chalk it up to one of the voices he has been hearing all day when a classmate runs up to him. She looks pretty serious about her warning.

“Ah, you’re one of Inoue’s friends right?”

“I’m Ogawa Michiru,” she says, with the long-suffering tone that many of Ichigo’s classmates use to remind him of their names. At least she isn’t berating him about his bad memory.

“Is there something wrong?”

“You look like you’re heading to the labs. It’s… not a good place to go now.”

“Why? The labs looked fine when we had class there today.”

“… You didn’t see anything?”

“What was there?”

Ogawa looks as if she is regretting her words with each minute. “N-nothing. Just be careful.”

Ichigo is reminded of his younger self, giving warnings that he couldn’t explain before he learned that just because ghosts looked scary didn’t mean they were dangerous. At least, as long as they weren’t Hollows. “Did you see a ghost?” he demands.

His guess is confirmed when Ogawa looks both surprised and relieved. “I think so,” she admits. “I saw a dark shadow, and Ryou said she saw something too. It didn’t look… solid.”

Ichigo doesn’t recall any of Inoue’s friends having any reiatsu from when he was able to sense it. If they were able to see a vague outline, it must be a simple spirit. “Ah,” he says. “Thanks for the tip.”

Ogawa actually grabs his sleeve to stop him from going. “Don’t!” she yelps. “What if it’s the ghost of Ayumi or the other girl who died?”

The possibility stops Ichigo in his tracks. “You mean one of the girls who committed suicide?” he asks.

Ogawa nods. Ichigo turns this new fact over in his head. If it really was the spirit of either girl who killed herself, Ishida and the others would like to know. But there was nothing to stop him from checking it out. He was starting to hear spirits again, wasn’t he? And if he couldn’t find anything, well, that was no loss to anyone.

He turns towards the labs, which startles Ogawa. “You’re still going in?” she asks nervously.

“I’m not scared of ghosts,” Ichigo tells her. Ogawa goes pale at his statement. “Thanks for the warning.” She still doesn’t move. “What is it now?”

“I’ll just stand here in case anything goes wrong!” she replies. It looks like the last thing she wants to do – her mouth is in a thin unhappy line, and her fingers are twisted together so tightly that her knuckles have gone white. “I can go for help if you don’t come out again.”

Ichigo shrugs. “Suit yourself.

The corridor is empty, and the labs are dark because there are no more classes here for the day. Although the place is familiar, seeing it so empty gives it a mysterious feel. He can’t help the vague feeling that he should be seeing someone there.

Ogawa yanks him out of his thoughts by asking from her end of the corridor, “What are you looking for?”

“Just some books.”

Ogawa nods, but her silence doesn’t last another five minutes, when she yelps, “What’s that?”

Ichigo follows her gaze, and is disappointed when he doesn’t see anything. “… It’s OK,” Ogawa declares after a pause. "Just get your books and go back.”

Ichigo nods and quickens his pace. Just as he reaches the right lab she freezes, eyes transfixed on something in the distance. “It’s there isn’t it?” Ichigo asks.

“It’s all black and it moves so fast… and it doesn’t walk!”

“It won’t hurt you,” Ichigo tries to reassure her. “That’s why you’re standing somewhere safe, right?”

“But it’s dead. And it could be anywhere, just watching and waiting…”

“It’s just looking, isn’t it? Leave it alone, it’ll be alri- ”

Something in one of the labs crashes to the ground.

All the remaining colour drains from Ogawa’s face. “T-that’s the spirit isn’t it? Why is it b-breaking stuff?”

Ichigo opens the door of the lab where the sound came from. The light from the corridor glints off the glass shards on the ground. Something overturned a whole tray of beakers.

“Kurosaki, please go.”

“You go first,” Ichigo says. “I’ve got to find out what it is.”

“No!” Ogawa says. The horror is clear on her face.

“It could hurt someone else – I better stop it before it gets worse.”

“But - !”

“It’s OK, I know what I’m doing.” Taking in Ogawa’s wide eyes and trembling frame, he says again, “You should go.”

“But – ”

“Go! Didn’t you say you wanted to get help if something went wrong? Get help! Just don’t stay here!”

Ogawa flees. Ichigo looks back to the broken beakers on the ground and the darkened lab. Time to find out if he has been hearing things.

He steps in.

It’s crazy not being able to sense anything. He can’t tell the instant he steps into the lab whether or not there is anything there. So he strains the last sense he suspects he has: his hearing.

The first thing he realizes is that the lab is quiet. Then he has to amend that thought: it is filled with useless noises – the drip of a tap, the humming of machines – but not human noises. Deciding that switching on the light would make too much noise, he goes farther into the lab to check if there are spirit noises.

The next thing he realizes is that it is pretty hard to be quiet when you are human. His sneakers scuff against the floor. The door creaks when he pushes it open. But it is easy to be quiet if you are a spirit; although if the ghost knocked down the beakers, it could be anywhere else by now. Straining his ears doesn’t get him anything.

“Where are you?” he demands, and immediately feels stupid. If the spirit meant him harm, of course it wouldn’t answer, not when he was helpless –

He shakes the thought off and strains his senses again. Maybe his power isn’t returning. Maybe he hasn’t been hearing ghosts all this while.

He decides to move instead, and begins to walk around the deserted lab. Silent racks of equipment greet him. It feels empty, but Ichigo knows better than that. Just because something can’t be seen doesn’t mean it isn’t there. He has plenty of experience with that.

When he accidentally shifts a chair, there is a simultaneous clink of glassware. Ichigo freezes, trying to hear if anything else has shifted after the noise he has made. All is still.

“I know you’re there!” he tries.

“Leave me alone!” someone bursts out, right next to his ear. The sudden slap of sound sends Ichigo reeling backwards into a cupboard, which rattles from the impact. “Leave me alone!” the voice demands again. “I have to hide!”

“Wait! Hide from what? Who are you?” Ichigo calls back. All he gets in reply is the slam of the door he came in from, cutting off the light from the corridor. “The hell? You didn’t have to close the door on me! This spooky thing isn’t funny, you hear?”

There is a rustle near him. He lunges for it and almost grabs something that slips away from him. He tries again. There is a strange buzzing coming from another direction, but he ignores it. Now that the ghost is moving and the lights are off, he can hear the noise it is making and catch it. He can!

The ghost flits by Ichigo again. This time he manages to grab onto it, though it feels amorphous in his hands.

Several things happen at once. The ghost starts to slide through Ichigo’s fingers like sand. Ichigo tries to get a better grip, but is distracted when the door is flung open again, blinding him with sudden light. From a completely different direction, the thing making the buzzing sound tackles him.

He reaches back to get his attacker off him. This ghost feels just as fuzzy as the first one, but it isn’t trying to run away, which makes it a lot easier to grapple with it. Strangely he can’t hear this ghost at all – all he can hear is indistinctive buzzing. “Get off,” he grits out. When it doesn’t he shouts, “I said get off!”

In response, the ghost hits him in the head, and then Ichigo feels something wrap around his arms and force them behind his back. He crashes to the ground.

This feels familiar…

“Rukia!” he hollers, trying to throw off the Way of Binding. “Rukia is that you??”

The buzzing starts up again. It sounds irritated, but that's all Ichigo can figure out. It is like a badly tuned radio, only Ichigo can't turn the dial on his hearing.

"I can't hear you, so stop complaining!" he tells her. The buzzing stops, and then a weight akin to that of a foot settles on his back. "Cut it out! Let me go!"

He gets a short sharp buzz in response, and the weight on his back doesn't let up. He considers throwing her, but isn't quite sure how to do it without flailing around and looking stupid.

"Kurosaki-kun?" He glances up to see Inoue there. She looks like she has run a long way at top speed to get here. "Kuchiki-san?"

He was right! Being right almost makes him ok with being trussed up on the floor like a chicken. Even Inoue looks absurdly relieved. "Thank goodness you weren't actually in danger," she says.

Rukia seems to buzz a retort to her, and steps off Ichigo to talk to Inoue. Ichigo is happy enough with this change that he almost forgives them having a conversation while he’s trussed up. Besides, Inoue looks happier than she has in a while. But Inoue's smile changes to a stern look at Ichigo. "I heard from Kuchiki-san and Michiru that you've been going after ghosts."

Many things occur to Ichigo, but he is not going to admit to Inoue anything that could make her angry while he was all tied up. Inoue had been trained in martial arts by Tatsuki after all. He settles for, "I was there, what did you expect me to do?”

"That's very dangerous! You haven't recovered yet - what if you met a Hollow? Good thing that Kuchiki-san stopped you before you could hurt yourself."

"Being tied up by her is supposed to be a good thing?" Ichigo mutters to himself.

"She was trying to talk to one of the spirits in the school before you scared it off. Kuchiki-san says if you keep this up she'll just leave you here." Rukia interjects, and Inoue seems disconcerted by the contents of the buzz. "Kuchiki-san!" she exclaims. "I can't say that!" Another burst of speech. "Uh. She also - uh - has terrible consequences planned!"

"Right. Should be easy, since I can't see you at all."

Inoue goes back to being stern. "She's getting a gigai from Urahara. You'll be able to see her then."

“Oh.” Ichigo tries to figure out if that revelation makes him feel stupid, but it seems he is mostly relieved. "That's good." Something occurs to him. "Wait, Ogawa can see shinigami?"

Inoue gives an uncertain laugh. All her cheer seems to have disappeared. "I guess? She did tell me that you and Kuchiki-san were here..."


The restraints on Ichigo's arms are released, and Rukia tugs on his wrist. He lets himself be helped up. Inoue keeps near to him too, ready to help.

"You can hear now," Inoue says. "That's a good thing isn't it? That means you will recover."

"Yeah," Ichigo says. The touch on his wrist is light and insubstantial. "I guess so."

It’s been a while since Ichigo last saw Rukia in a gigai. It’s weird.

When he first met Rukia she was in a gigai all the time, since she was trying to get her spirit form to recover. Then she used another one when she first returned from Soul Society. That was around the same time that she brought Pyon, too. Since he can only guess who it is by looking, Ichigo can’t tell the difference at first.

Then Rukia frowns at him, and Ichigo feels a profound sense of relief. It’s Rukia. Good thing it isn’t Pyon; his arm still hurts on rainy nights.

“What’s with that look?” is the first clear sentence he gets out of her.

“It’s nice to see you, too,” he shoots back. She studies him a moment more, then cracks a grin.

“Weren’t expecting me, were you?”

Hell no. Out loud, Ichigo says. “I thought you’d be busy with Soul Society.”

At the mention of Soul Society, Rukia turns pensive. “Soul Society is rebuilding and its people are recovering. It will be a long time before everything is as it was again.” She dwells on this thought a moment, before shaking it off and returning to herself. “But there is always time for friends. Did you think we would just leave without caring about the consequences?”

“I’m not shinigami anymore,” he points out. “Why would Soul Society let you bother about me?”

Rukia’s grin disappears.

She follows it up with a punch.

Ichigo reels, then manages a “What was that for?”

“Renji said to punch you for him if it looked like you were moping.”

“Yeah? What – You punched me again!”

“That was from me,” says Rukia, shaking out her fingers. “Your head is as hard as ever,” she adds in a grumble.

“Why’d you have to hit me so hard then?”

“I wouldn’t have to hit you if you weren’t so busy being stupid!”

“What’s so stupid about facts?”

It’s then that Inoue walks in. “Oh no!” she exclaims, when she sees the two of them glowering at each other. “Kurosaki-kun, what did you do?”

“H-hey! How could you assume it was me?”

But Rukia has gone to sidle up to Inoue and link arms with her. “Let’s go for ice cream,” Rukia says to her.

“Uh,” Inoue looks between Ichigo and Rukia. “Kurosaki-kun too?"

“I don’t eat ice cream with hard-headed people.”

“I’m not hard-headed!”

“What do you think, Inoue?”

“Kurosaki-kun’s one of the most hard-headed people I know!” is her immediate reply. “But it’s a good thing, really. Like having a permanent helmet, so you’ll always be protected!”

“I don’t need a permanent helmet, and I’m not hard-headed,” Ichigo tells them, but Rukia is already dragging Inoue off.

“See you Kurosaki-kun!” Rukia simpers. “Have fun moping!”

“Don’t use that voice! And I’m not moping!” he calls after them, but they have left.

Rukia must have enjoyed her ice cream; she doesn’t turn up at Ichigo’s house that night. Ichigo even checks his closet to make sure of that.

Rukia’s weirdness is contagious.

That’s the only reason Ichigo can think of to explain everyone’s weird treatment of him. It starts on the way to school, where he is greeted by “Woooo-woooo-wooo!”

“I know it’s you, Keigo.”

“Yes! That means your spirit sense is returning – you can tell the difference between me and a ghost!”

“Yes, ghosts don’t make such awful sounds.”

“Please don’t say that…” Keigo complains. But his disappointment passes quickly. “At least you know the difference! Right, Mizuiro?”

Mizuiro smiles briefly at them, and then goes back to his phone.

At school, Chad too comes and hovers at Ichigo’s shoulder for a full minute. It is only when Ichigo asks him what is wrong that he rumbles, “Heard you got your spirit powers back.”

Ichigo wonders whether it was Rukia or Inoue who told Chad this. If it was Rukia, he was going to warn her to mind her own business. “Yeah.”


“… yeah, thanks.”

As if that wasn’t weird enough, later on Ichigo does hear the substitute shinigami badge go off,. It almost startles him out of his seat. He then has to try not to stare too hard as Chad runs out of the classroom with Inoue. As they run off, the shrill cries of “Hollow!” from the badge trail behind them.

Ishida is by far the worst. “I hope you understand now that there was nothing to worry about.”

Ichigo has learned to deal with Ishida’s sudden declarations over the time that he has known him. “How would you know what I was worrying about?’

“I did lose my powers for a while,” Ishida reminds him. “From the moment I made the decision to put on the Quincy glove, I was always aware that the possibility might arise where I would be forced to take it off, which would make me lose my powers. In order to be prepared for such a day, I saved containers of processed reiatsu so that I would be protected from spirits, even if my own ability to draw reiatsu was limited.”

Ichigo didn’t know that last part, but he tries not to show how interested he is. “So?” he prompts.

“To put it in simple words that even you would understand, Kurosaki - what I am saying is that no matter how unexpected a decision is, when it’s a major decision such as losing your powers, it’s only natural for a person to put in contingencies to live with such an action. In your case, it is the restoration of your powers arising from exposure to high reiatsu individuals such as your friends. That is why I said you should have known that the day would come when your powers would start to return.”

“I didn’t plan for shit,” Ichigo blurts out. “I didn’t even think my powers were ever going to come back. I’m not a planner like you – I just wanted to get rid of Aizen.”

Ishida is unfazed by Ichigo’s statement. “So you mentally prepared yourself,” Ishida replied. “Now things are better than you expected. Are you saying you’re disappointed with this development, Kurosaki? Would you rather have no powers at all?”

Ichigo has to admit, “No.”

“That’s all I wanted to hear,” Ishida says. Ichigo doesn’t see how the answer is good enough, but since it gets Ishida to go away Ichigo is fine with that.

Only Tatsuki doesn’t bother talking to Ichigo about this, though Ichigo sometimes catches her staring at him with a furrowed brow. That’s ok; it makes her the only normal one out of the group.

It turns out there has been another death in the school over the weekend.

Someone out there in Ichigo’s life must really hate him, because that’s the third death in five days. As if to prove Ichigo’s point, this death hasn’t been categorised as a suicide – it’s apparently a murder. The knowledge bothers Ichigo more than it should. Whether it was suicide or murder, the fact that someone died is bad enough.

With how rapidly the murders have been taking place, it only makes sense then that Rukia and the others are making plans to investigate. He only wishes they weren’t so enthusiastic about it.

Soul Society seemed to think that it was not necessary for Rukia to attend any classes, and Ichigo can't decide whether he's thankful for or not. He doesn't have to explain Rukia's weirdness, but Rukia spends her time instead on what she calls "real world research". Upon hearing about the newest death, she turns up after school with the declaration, "Let us go and investigate."

Ichigo looks around. "Us" consists of himself, Ishida and Inoue. Mizuiro and Keigo must have seen the Detective Blues manga in Rukia's hand and made their escape. Dammit. Trying to rescue the situation he says, "You do know that manga aren't real, right?"

"Of course," says Rukia, chilly. "But the writers draw upon real life experiences to bring us such exciting and moving stories. And this chapter is relevant to our particular experience." She proudly shows the manga to the assembled people. "It tells us to approach every problem with an open and investigative mind, with a focus on details. I think this is what is missing from our own approach. Tell me, who has seen the crime scene?"

Inoue averts her eyes. "I have. But I don't think it's something that you would want to see..."

"So there are still plenty of clues to be discovered?"

Inoue sighs, but reluctantly admits, "Yes."

"If that's the case, I agree with Kuchiki-san. We should go and investigate." Ishida says, but he is watching Inoue with great concern. Rukia gives Inoue's hand a reassuring squeeze.

"Don't worry, we all will be there."

"What's with the 'we all'? Did you forget that the crime scene is in a girls' toilet?" Ichigo can't help asking. "That automatically rules out Ishida and me."

"Kuchiki-san and I don't mind," Inoue pipes up. "And I'm sure the other girls won't. You are going in for a higher calling that reaches out to everyone regardless of gender! It would be selfish for Rukia and I to deny you of fulfilling this greater purpose!"

"And given how uneasy Inoue is about going back there, you wouldn't let her go with just me for company?" Rukia titters, though her performance is ruined by the wide grin she shoots Ichigo. Ichigo would have reminded them of how "just Rukia" took out Arrancar with no problem, but Ishida shoots him a warning look.

Ichigo almost wishes that Keigo and Mizuiro were here so he could give the job to them instead, and then decides that he wouldn't inflict Keigo on any girl. He has to admit, now that Rukia puts it that way, he feels pretty bad about opting out.

"OK, let's go. But Ishida and I will be OUTSIDE."

Ichigo is actually pretty satisfied with this arrangement as they walk to the toilet. Then he realises that the toilet in question is in this corridor. A very populated, busy corridor.

"Still want to hang around outside?" Rukia asks smugly under her breath. The movement of people rushing to club activities forces them to walk side by side.

"I'd like to see how you get me in."

"A distraction, of course."

Ichigo scoffs and Rukia pretends to be avoiding a particularly exuberant junior to discreetly shove her elbow into his ribs. "Just watch. And if you and Ishida aren't inside by the time I'm done, I'm not going to do it again."

She falls behind and exchanges excited whispers with Inoue. Ichigo is forced to fall in step with Ishida. He struggles to ignore the other boy, but his concern over Rukia's schemes wins out. "Do you know what they are planning?"

Ishida gives an elegant shrug of his shoulder, as if he couldn't be bothered with more. "I don't want to know, when it comes to them."

They're almost to the toilet when someone shouts, "She fainted!"

If that's not a cue, Ichigo doesn't know what else is. He and Ishida are in the toilet before they can find out which of the girls fainted. They slam the door shut and lean against it, hoping that no one saw them. When he doesn't hear any screaming, Ichigo cautiously cracks an eye open.

The first sense Ichigo gets is that he really wanted to throw up. There is a coppery tang in the air that really irritates his nose. He also feels an echo of pain. It is surprisingly clean for a crime scene, although bits of the bathroom look weird, as if he is seeing it through a layer of grime. He swipes a finger along the sink nearest to him, and it comes away sticky. “What is this?” he asks.

“Spirit blood,” says Ishida. “And lots of it.”He kneels down and swipes at something that Ichigo can’t see.

"Another murder?" Ichigo has to ask, as disgusting as the thought sounds. Another murder means that there is a dead body in that cubicle and they are probably going to have to investigate that too. He can't sense any spirits around so that means that they'd have to do this the normal way.

Ishida shakes his head. "No, this is old so it's probably from the last death. But what is it still doing here? I thought the police would have cleared it up."

Someone pushes against the door that Ichigo is leaning on and he jumps. "It's us," Inoue says from the other side, and he sidles aside to let them in. Once in, Rukia pulls herself free from Inoue's supporting arms. Inoue locks the door behind her and joins Ichigo by the door, looking a bit queasy herself.

Ishida raises his finger that is probably covered with blood. "Kuchiki-san, do you know why this is here?"

"It's spirit blood," explains Rukia, also kneeling by Ishida. "Probably can't be removed by normal cleaning supplies."

"I did suspect when only Tatsuki and I seemed to notice," says Inoue. "We tried to tell everyone else not to use the toilet but they wouldn't listen. Can human objects also hurt the spirit?"

"No, not unless the attacker had high reiatsu such that their spirit could affect other spirits even when they are in their own body. But spirits such as Hollows and shinigami can harm the human body and the spirit."

"Of course," says Inoue, her voice small. Her uneasiness seems to feed Ichigo's, and he finds himself speaking much louder than anyone else.

"That's not true. I've seen ghosts that have the wounds from the car accidents that killed them."

"The physical appearance of a ghost is altered by the matter in which they died," Rukia admits. "However, wounds that bleed in this manner are more consistent with injuries on the spirit itself. Something must have hurt this spirit, and probably forced it into hiding. The blood carries traces of the same reiatsu.” She swipes a finger along the same sink Ichigo touched earlier, and sniffs it. Her frown deepens. “There is no other reiatsu – usually the reiatsu of the spirit that caused the wound would be mixed in with the blood.”

Something in Ichigo seizes on that last thought and won't let it go. "That doesn't sound like a Hollow."

“Yes,” Ishida agrees. “This is more consistent of a situation where the spirit inflicted the wounds on itself. That is unlikely, considering the amount of blood.”

Rukia considers this, a pinched line between her eyes. Ichigo really hates when she gets that look. It'd be even worse if she--

She curls her fingers under her chin. Yup, it just got worse.

"But there still should be a trace of the spirit around," she murmurs. "Even though you can't sense it..." She gives Ishida a sharp look. "Right?"

He nods, and stands too. "Right."

"Then we need to go find it," she says, and strides out the bathroom door.

The group of them look at the door blankly for a moment, until she sticks her head back around the door. "Coming?" she asks. "Or do you like it--"

"Shut up," Ichigo says brusquely. He finds a little comfort in the fact thatIshida is blushing bright red.

“I have an announcement to make!” Isshin declares over dinner. “After much coaxing, Rukia-chan has agreed to come over for dinner!”

Only Yuzu cheers. Karin points to Rukia in her seat at the table. “Yeah, we can see that.”

“Be nicer to our guest, Karin!”

“I thought you said she was a third daughter.”

“Please don’t keep talking about me, it’s embarrassing,” Rukia demurs. Ichigo notes that she even blushes to go along with her act. It’s a contrast to earlier, when she was quiet after their search of the school had turned up nothing. At least someone is happy around here.

“How can we not talk about Rukia-chan when she visits us so rarely? You must tell me where you have been staying! Although I’m sure the atmosphere there can’t match the hospitality of our house, we can make things better for you at your new residence too. Just say the word!”

“Inoue is a very gracious host, I couldn’t ask for more!”

That means his closet is probably safe, Ichigo thinks, as he helps himself to the food. Yuzu is too busy serving Rukia to bother about anyone else.

“At least Rukia keeps the old man entertained so he doesn’t fight with his kids over food,” Karin mutters to Ichigo, also helping herself with great gusto.

Between the five of them, the food is finished quickly. After the last mouthful has disappeared, Rukia pushes back from the table. “I’m afraid I have to go.

‘Do not worry, third daughter!” Isshin declares. “Go fulfil your duties!”

“Thank you, Kurosaki-san.”

“Still so formal, third daughter?”

“You’re the one who is inappropriate,” Ichigo cuts in. He asks Rukia, “Does it mean you’re going back to school?”

“It is not something you need to bother yourself with.”

“What kind of answer is that?”

Rukia pokes him in the forehead. “You’ve already helped in the afternoon. Those who are healing should focus on getting well. If you want to join us so badly, focus on regaining your strength!”

“Truer words were never spoken!” says Isshin, twirling an empty plate on one finger like a circus artiste. But he turns far too knowing eyes on Ichigo. Ichigo pretends not to notice – just because his old man managed to wait out the loss of his powers doesn’t mean Ichigo has the ability to do the same. The old man’s ruse works though; Rukia ends up saying a quick goodbye to all of them and makes her escape. Ichigo decides to escape to his own room.

Away from his dad and Rukia, the urge becomes harder to ignore. He wonders what his friends are doing now – Rukia had to be meeting the others, wouldn’t she? Had they found the murdered girls? Or the culprit? Are they in danger? How can he know all this when he is stuck here?

It isn’t as if he will be much trouble, he reasons. He can hear now, and he has been dealing with ghosts all his life. He knows what he is doing.

Having convinced himself, Ichigo heads to school.

Given how big the school is, Ichigo is surprised to find that Tatsuki finds him almost the minute he steps in. Chad is a step behind her.

“You!” she yells, not caring that her voice echoes through the entire school yard. The sound is a sharp contrast to the quiet that is usually found at this late hour. “What are you doing?”

“I could ask you the same thing!”Ichigo shoots back. “It’s way later than karate practice.”

“I’m here because we’re in pairs – people who can fight and people who can sense things. You, however, are alone.”

“Well, I’m with you guys now, aren’t I? Stop complaining.”

“You want Sado to take care of the both of us?”

“I can do that,” Chad agrees.

“That’s not the point,” Tatsuki says with a groan. “This guy thinks he can do anything when he puts his mind to it. If we find a Hollow, he’s not going to let you protect him.”

“That’s not true!”

“Oh yeah? Give me an example.”

‘I’m brave, not suicidal,” Ichigo insists. “If it’s a big Hollow, I wouldn’t go after it!”

“A Menos Grande is not a big Hollow?” Chad mutters.

“That was an accident, an accident!”

“Have it your way,” Tatsuki huffs. “If a Hollow finds us, I’m going to throw you at it.”

“Yeah yeah,” says Ichigo, falling in step with them.

It turns out to be pretty boring – there is no one in school, dead or alive, apart from his friends. They meet some of the other patrolling groups – Keigo and Inoue, Ishida on his own—but they don’t run into Mizuiro and Rukia, which is good. The last thing he needs is another earful on how he shouldn’t be here. Tatsuki has got that pretty covered on her own.

Her steady jibes and the late hour causes Ichigo to yawn. After a few hours, the school corridors all start to look the same.

“Need your beauty sleep?”

“Shut up, Tatsuki,” he shoots back on reflex.”

“I’m sure we can send you home.”

“I’ve been up later when chasing Hollows!”

“Oh, so it isn’t just your head injuries that are making you stupid.”

Before Ichigo can attempt a punch, Chad cuts in. “Not all of us need to be here. If the Hollow wanted to appear, it would have done so earlier.”

“At least someone here is sensible,” says Tatsuki. “How about it Ichigo? Can your sensitive ego take it if we all go home together?”

“If you want to go home, don’t blame it on me. I’m not going to be stupid and hang around by myself.”

“Fair enough.” To Chad, Tatsuki says. “Lead on. We’ll tell the others on the way out.”

Something whizzes by them.

Ichigo knows this by the rustle that passes close to him. He is even more convinced it is not alive when he catches a whiff of it – it reminds him of the dead fish that he had once found washed up on the riverbank, a wet and rotten smell. He looks to the others; their pale expressions confirm that they have seen it. Then Chad raises a fist, likely forming one of the gloves that he uses to fight with. Ichigo is not amused to see the fist Chad has raised is the left one.

“Hollow?” Ichigo asks.


“It’s not here?”

“Not sure,” Chad replies. “I don’t see it now.” Indeed, the smell of the Hollow is starting to settle as if the main source is gone, though the stench still clings to everything. “I’ll look for it. Chad adds, and starts down the corridor.

“I’ll go with you,” Ichigo begins, but Tatsuki throws an arm in front of him.

“You want to go after a Hollow that even Sado and I have difficulty spotting?’ she asks. “What happened to ‘I’m brave, not suicidal’?”

“If you want Chad to go alone after that, you’re insane,” Ichigo snaps. “You said it yourself – it’s quick and fast. He needs backup.”

“Yeah, but that backup isn’t us.” Tatsuki waves a phone in front of Ichigo’s face. “I’m calling the others. Until then, nobody move. Not even you Sado!”

As Tatsuki makes her call, Ichigo peers about in the dark. He feels like he is back in the science lab again, straining his sense for something he can’t see. But unlike that time, he is quite sure the ghost isn’t Rukia. He falls back on his hearing, which is the most attuned to spirits of all his sense. He can’t hear anything. In fact, other than Tatsuki talking, it’s too quiet.

“Tatsuki,” Ichigo asks, after she has hung up. “Which floor did the girls fall from?”

“They think it’s the fourth floor. Why – ”

“We’re on the fourth floor now,” Ichigo points out.

He doesn’t have to continue. Tatsuki falls into a defensive position, ready for an attack. Ichigo does the same; he might not have a sword, but he still trained in a dojo. He is glad for Chad’s steady presence at his back. Between Tatsuki and Chad, it feels like old times again.

Whatever warm feelings conjured up by that thought are swept away when the scream starts.

“Someone was here?!” Tatsuki exclaims.

“Could be the Hollow.”

“Only one way to find out,” Ichigo tells the both of them, and dashes towards the sound. Tatsuki makes an annoyed noise, but soon she and Chad’s footfalls are close behind Ichigo.

Ichigo wishes that they weren’t in a corridor. The space makes the screams echo until Ichigo can’t tell where the sound is coming from, as the classroom doors are closed. On impulse, Ichigo starts throwing the doors open as he runs along. He almost wishes he didn’t – the banging of the doors combined with the screams grate on his ears. But if the spirit had gone into any of the classrooms –

A scream, high and feminine. At this point Ichigo isn't even sure if it's human – Hollows scream all the time too – but it does make him run faster. That is until Tatsuki grabs Ichigo’s arm to tug him back, causing him to barely dodge something. Then Ichigo realises that the something is a someone. Someone who has just run into Chad.

The human girl screams again as Chad's hand closes on her arm. Chad lets go and she falls to the ground, still trying to scream through a throat closed up in terror. She scrabbles backwards, almost pulling herself over Ichigo's feet. Unthinkingly, he reaches down to pick her up.

The feel of his hand unsticks the scream in her throat. The sound startles Ichigo and he lets go. She clings to the place where his hand had been and backs into the wall, the screams still burbling out whenever she has breath to do so.

Ichigo shrinks back, uncertain; Chad crouches down and tries to make himself less intimidating. Her shrieks slowly die down, and she watches Chad through wide eyes.

"It's ok," Chad says, voice soft. "We’re not going to hurt you."

The something they had sensed earlier has tried to hurt the girl, Ichigo realises; the same sickly reiatsu the girl's arms and back. There is a trail of it, rapidly disappearing, along the corridor, though Ichigo isn't sure if it's from the girl or the spirit. He looks to Tatsuki and Chad, who both shake their heads.

Ichigo stays with them and lets the trail go cold.

The next day, despite the hour he got home the night before, Ichigo finds himself in school at the time that Mizuiro and Keigo come to pick him up from his house. He should meet up with them, but after yesterday, he needs some time to himself.

He flops down under a tree, not wanting to go into the school just yet. If he doesn’t see a school corridor again, it will be too soon. When Ichigo closes his eyes now, he can still see the terrified face of the girl they had found yesterday. At least the school yard is quiet; he doesn’t think he can handle screaming right now.”

“Is something bothering you?” a voice asks. It is feminine, but unlike the screams of the girl, its voice is low and calm.

“Who’s there?” Ichigo demands, looking around. There is no one he can see.

“Over here,” the voice prompts. Ichigo turns towards the voice and sees a familiar shrine. “I’ve seen you before, haven’t I?”

“Yeah, I was here a few days ago. Sorry about that, I just wanted some quiet. I’ll go – ”

“Oh no, stay. Not many people can appreciate the quiet,” says the spirit. “But humans don’t normally go looking for silence. Are you troubled?”

“You could say that.”

“What’s wrong?”

“I’m not quite sure. I – ” Ichigo thinks about last night, when the Hollow had disappeared into the dark and he could do nothing. “I want to help people.”

“A noble pursuit.”

“But because of a choice I made, I can’t help people anymore. My friends keep hinting that I should rely on them for once, but – but it’s not easy when I see people who need help.”

“Then your friends don’t understand you.”

“They’re trying!” Ichigo retorts. It feels wrong to let such a remark slide, even from a spirit that knows nothing about his friends.

“But you disagree with what they suggest.”

“It’s… hard to do.” Ichigo leans his forehead against his knees and thinks of his dad, Rukia, Ishida. “The others who lost their powers before – I don’t know how they managed. I’m not like them.”

“They aren’t you,” the spirit agrees. “You know that, so shouldn’t you go with what suits you best?”

Ichigo doesn’t know what to say. He knows he should be rational about this, but it’s hard to be. He is not used to not protecting others.

“Your friends shouldn’t tell you what to do. The lives that they lead are very different from your own. Only you can find your own path.”

“That’s what I’m here for,” Ichigo mutters to his knees. “I need to be alone for a bit. To figure things out.”

“That’s good. You’re making steps towards solving your problems,” the spirit replies. With the air of an old sage, it adds, “Answers aren’t easy – you should take all the time you need.”

“Yes,” Ichigo agrees. “Time is what I need.”

The spirit rambles a few more sayings at Ichigo, but when another student comes to sit under the trees, the spirit falls silent. Which is good; Ichigo doesn’t want to look like he is talking to himself. As more students arrive, the school yard looks less and less like the sanctuary Ichigo wanted. Finally, having enough of being annoyed by the other students Ichigo shoulders his bag. The homeroom should still be empty this early.

The first thing he thinks when he gets there is that the students on cleaning duty the day before didn’t do a very good job. Tables aren’t in their rows, and chairs have been knocked all over the place. He picks up the nearest chair and rights it.

The first thing he realizes is that there is a lot of blood. The desks and chairs strewn all over the classroom are all liberally covered in red smears. There is more of the red too, spreading in a large pool on the floor.

Then his thoughts scream to a complete halt when he sees Rukia’s head on the table.

Her body is on the table behind it.

Her body is on a different table.

Her body is on a different table from her head.

It can't be.

She survived the War - it can't be.

It was only a spirit! She had fought Espada.

It can't be. Can't be!

A shout escapes him before he can think about it. No, he can't think - if he thinks he has to think about what it means for Rukia's body to be in this position. He does realise that he's blindly dashing forward, even though he doesn't seem to be moving at all. It seems to take forever before his leg hits the first obstacle. It's only a fallen chair. He steps over it. There's more debris in his way. He's about to shove it all aside when a hand grabs his arm.

Rukia says, "I don't think you should touch anything."

He stares at his arm. He can't make sense of this.

Rukia walks around him, expression changing to fierce and determined. He lets her take his arm. “Ichigo,” she says slowly. If you can hear me, this is Rukia. That thing lying on the table isn’t me. I’m not a Hollow. I’m Rukia. Ichigo. Ichigo, please.”

He grabs her shoulders. They are thin and bony, but the flesh over them is warm, which means she’s alive. He manages a "That -" before his voice fails him. This Rukia is not broken and empty and she is here.


“You’re alive,” he finally gets out. It’s an attempt to make this real and chase out the image of the dismembered body behind him.

The worry in Rukia’s eyes eases. “You can see me?” she asks. “I’m glad.”

At this, he has to shake her. Maybe if he does the world will start making sense. “How can you be glad when that happened?” he chokes out. The action makes his words hoarser than he wants them to be.”

“It’s only my gigai. I managed to escape before it could do anything to me," Rukia says. “I thought I wouldn’t be able to explain – but you can see me now, not just hear me. Your spirit powers are returning.”

“How can you care about my spirit powers right now?” He gestures wildly behind him – he is not sure if he is pointing the right way but he doesn’t want to look to make sure. “You were in the gigai when that happened, weren’t you? You could have died!”

“But I didn’t.” She tugs on his arm. “I am sorry, I should have taken you away first. This isn’t good for you.”

Ichigo wants to protest, but lets himself be led away from the scene. Rukia's hand is wrapped tight around his wrist as she leads him through the corridors. She does not smell of blood.

"It surprised me," she is saying. “I left the gigai immediately, but it had already been damaged. The spirit fled when I used kidou. It has learnt to hide itself very well. The skill isn’t unique to Hollows - most old spirits do pick up habits like that.”

Ichigo stares at the back of her head. He never though he would see her in shinigami uniform again. Rukia moves with confident steps, not the least bit shaken by her ordeal. Ichigo wishes he could say the same.

“Why are you here this early?” she asks him. Ichigo tries to remember what he had been doing before he found her – her body.

“I wanted a quiet place to think,” he says, when his mind lets him recall the details. “But I ended up speaking to a spirit… ” The connection dawns upon him, and his throat goes dry. “A spirit – do you think it could know something about this ghost? The spirit lives in a shrine under a tree – it’s one of those to the left of the school gate when you come in…”

“I have been there,” says Rukia. “Though the spirit refused to reveal itself to me. Perhaps it will be more cooperative this time.”

Ichigo tugs Rukia to a halt. “Are you going to talk to another spirit? One of them just tried to kill you!”

“Hollows are always trying to hurt others,” Rukia points out. “It’s part of being a shinigami.”

“But – ”

“Are you saying I can’t do my job?”

“Don’t go alone,” Ichigo blurts out. It’s not what he wants to say, but it’ll have to do.

“I don’t intend to,” Rukia agrees. “I have you, and Inoue, and Sado, and all the others, don’t I? We can find them before going to talk to the spirit”

Ichigo can't help but stare. How does she do it? How do any of his friends do it? How do they just keep going? Somehow he feels incredibly lucky to be among them. They've alive – that’s what he needs to remember now. No one is dead or dying.

He meets her gaze and sees the determination in her eyes. "Let's."

It's weird for Ichigo to see all his friends in one place. Good, but weird.

"Ichigo!" Keigo exclaims when he sees him. "So good of you to finally join us!"

"Only because he got his spirit powers back, if what Rukia says is right. He probably thinks he can take on the world now."

"Shut up, Tatsuki," he says, but she only laughs at him. He looks to the others. “I can’t believe everyone skipped class for this.” Even Mizuiro is there.

“It’s the first spirit that has been seen in this school recently,” says Ishida. “Do excuse us if we can’t contain our excitement.”

“Kuchiki-san and I should go ahead first, shouldn’t we?” Inoue muses.

“Why?” Ichigo hasn’t been following how the others keep tabs on spirits, but that doesn’t sound like what he would do.

“Only Kuchiki-san and I can shield many people at a time. That’s why we usually lead the charge!”

“You – you expect talking to this spirit will be dangerous, don’t you?”

“I thought you had figured it out, Kurosaki,” says Ishida. “There has to be a reason why the spirit is the only one in the school that hasn’t gone into hiding.”

The quiet that he gets in school, especially around the shrine, suddenly makes sense. Ichigo’s hands ball into fists as he thinks about how calmly the spirit spoke to him. That the spirit could pretend to be so helpful when it has killed others before…

“Kurosaki – ” Ishida warns, but Ichigo is already off running. He ignores the shouts of his friends, heading towards where he last spoke to the spirit.

When he sees the spirit, he is surprised; it looks just like a normal ghost, only tied to the shrine by a long chain. But as he approaches, the spirit looks up. Hollow eyes glint back at him, and the spirit’s claws rasp on the chain.

“Ah,” she says. “You can finally see me now.”

“Who are you?” Ichigo demands.

“Isn’t it obvious?” The spirit gestures towards the shrine. “I am a spirit who grants the innermost desires of people who pray to me.”

“By killing them?” Ichigo can't help but glance towards the end attached to the ghost. That part is attached by a thin flap of skin that can't quite cover the darkness where it used to be. The spirit is turning into a Hollow.

The spirit smiles. Although her face isn’t covered with a mask yet, her teeth are sharp and pointed. “That’s why you should be careful what you wish for. But you’re very careful about what you wish for, aren’t you? You didn’t even speak to me the first time you came to my shrine.”

“W- what? I didn’t wish for anything!”

“You must have, otherwise you wouldn’t have approached my shrine. It’s not simple wishes I grant. Only deep, heart-felt wishes, sometimes so deep that you don’t even know them. But you know your wish, don’t you?”

“Stop lying to him!”

The spirit looks at Rukia, who has caught up to Ichigo. He sees his other friends are not far behind.

“So you’re still alive, shinigami,” says the spirit. Rukia’s hand goes to her sword. “I’ll fix that!”

The spirit’s reiatsu floods Ichigo’s senses like a spreading stain as the spirit lunges for Rukia. Ichigo tries to grab for it, but Inoue’s shield slams into place between them.

“Kurosaki-kun!” Inoue pulls him away, even as Rukia vaults over her shield to engage the spirit. The sharp sound of claws striking metal rings through the air.

“Are you kidding? That spirit could hurt Rukia again! It’s turning into a Hollow!”

“But it could hurt you, too! Please, Kurosaki-kun. Look, the others have come to help.”

The spirit tries to attack Rukia from behind. She is stopped by a powerful fist hitting the ground right in front of her, throwing up dust and dirt. The spirit blinks at Chad through the mess, and then smiles eerily. "Doesn't matter how many of you there are; if I have to kill you all, I will!" She darts in for a second attack. This is countered by the shield on Chad's right arm. As the spirit starts to focus its attacks on Chad, Rukia takes advantage of the spirit's distraction to gesture with her hands and say, "Six Rod Prison of Light."

The familar kidou snaps the spirit’s arms to her waist with six beams of light.

"Damn you!" she screams, her features twisting out of more than fury as bits of bone crawl across her face. "Let me go! Please — please, please!" At the first ‘please,’ her face falls back into that of a human. She wails insensibly for some moments, her features changing right along with her tone. No time for feeling sorry, Ichigo reminds himself. Just a little while more...

Then the spirit dashes upwards in an attempt to escape. Rukia and Chad stop short, but they needn't have worried, as a flurry of arrows soon puts that idea out of the spirit's mind.

“Inoue, hurry!”

From beside Ichigo, Inoue raises her arms, a new shield already forming around the spirit. "I reject, Souten Kisshun."

Rukia draws back her kidou and the spirit launches itself at the shield, only to find it cannot pass. "What are you doing to me?" she demands.

"Helping you," Inoue replies. "Let us help you, please."

The spirit falls back and begins to cry. As they watch, the claws retreat and the fingers returned to normal. What had been a mass of energy redefines itself into a pair of legs. And the chain that had been falling off flows back and sticks to the spirit's chest. She looks up at Inoue, and whatever Inoue sees there makes her heave a sigh of relief and drop the shield.

"All better now!" she declares. "Another good job by Doctor Orihime and her amazing friends."

The spirit stares at her hands, flipping to look at them from all angles. "Thank you," she says sweetly. "For that, you must die first."

Rukia and Tatsuki dash in front of Inoue before anything can happen. The impact of the spirit's lunge is blocked by another shield. Behind it all, Inoue is wide-eyed and shocked. "I don't understand..."

"Why would I want to go back to being helpless?" the spirit demands. She strikes out at Chad with nails that are not quite yet claws; again, he again deflects it. "Do you have any idea what it's like to just watch, day after day after day, and not be able to do anything about it?" She turns to Ichigo. Her eyes are human, and filled with desperation. "How can you do this to me!" she howls, and this time her fingers do turn to claws. She lunges for Ichigo –

Inoue throws up yet another shield in front of him. "I could restore her to an earlier state - " Inoue begins, but falls silent just as quickly.

"No," Rukia replies. "No, if she wants to become a Hollow, there's nothing that we can do to stop her."

Tatsuki frowns, looking between Inoue's distress and Rukia's calm as if she were watching a tennis match. "Then why don't you send her to Soul Society or do whatever it is that shinigami do!"

"Attempting a spirit burial would not send the spirit on to Soul Society,” says Rukia. “Because the spirit wishes to avoid being sent on, she would reform as a Hollow as far away from here as possible. We must keep her attention here, and let her become a Hollow." Rukia touches the hilt of her sword but stops just short of drawing it. Ichigo remembers his training with her. If the spirit turns into a Hollow, break the mask. If the mask is broken, the spirit is purified. If the spirit is purified, it will be restored to its original state before it started turning into a Hollow, and go to Soul Society.

Why doesn’t the thought comfort him?

Inoue sighs unhappily, but the shield still falls away. The spirit rises from the ground, dark and terrible. To his shock the spirit is still focused on him. Ichigo is aware of Tatsuki looking at him, trying to convey through a gaze the warning she cannot give voice to.

"You’re useless at your duty," he tells the spirit, ignoring the shocked gasp he gets from Keigo.

It provokes the reaction he expects; the spirit gives a wordless howl and tries to get closer to him. Keigo and Mizuiro are the closest, and they try to jump in front of Ichigo, but the spirit sweeps them away. He does a quick check to see whether they’re ok – yes, Inoue has gone to them, they should be fine - then breaks into a run to lead it away. He hopes that no one else follows him; he can't say any more with an audience.

“After all I’ve done for you!” the spirit howls behind him. He dodges the swipe of her claws – he may have lost his powers, but he still has his reflexes. He still has what he learnt from being a shinigami.

"Whatever you thought that people wished, you were wrong!" Yes, stick to nice general facts. There is no need to go into what has happened to him. “People don’t wish for others to die – there’s no reason for such a wish!”

Behind him the spirit makes a grating harsh sound, and it takes some time for Ichigo to realise that she is laughing in a voice that has not laughed in a long time. "Boy, people wish for many things. For anger, for hate, for vengeance – you do not understand the dark depths of human nature." The spirit suddenly smiles with sharp teeth. “Or maybe you do. Were you not a killer once?”

He remembers his Hollow. He remembers Ulquiorra. He remembers striking Aizen, carving him in half.

“I did it to protect!”

“Then how am I different from you?” the spirit demands. “You came to me and your wish was this – you wanted power in order to protect! While I – I wanted the power to grant the prayers of those who came to me! How are we different?”

Ichigo forces these words out: “I never wanted to kill anyone.”

“Then,” the spirit says, “that makes you weak and unworthy of the wish I granted you.” As the spirit’s reiatsu peaks to a murderous high, its chain fully disintegrates and the spirit disappears. Ichigo stands perfectly still, senses strained to the max. The reiatsu of Karakura town boils around him, but is still devoid of the one power he is looking for.

He waits.

Then the spirit starts to appear somewhere behind him, its reiatsu bubbling in stages. The reiatsu now carries the full taint of a Hollow, but it is still recognisable as the spirit from the shrine.

Ichigo waits.

The reiatsu stabilises. There is the sound of claws being extended and retracted, but the claws do not reach out and attack him. He does not know what it is doing.

Ichigo does not turn. He waits.

The newly formed Hollow lets out a roar. Ichigo does not look;he doesn't have to, he knows exactly where the Hollow is. It’s just behind him –

A blur of black dashes past him and pushes the Hollow back. Rukia disengages, then brings down her sword on the Hollow’s mask, a clean, fast strike. Before Ichigo’s eyes the Hollow disintegrates, its particles streaming towards Soul Society.

Rukia’s smile at him is beginning to disintegrate, too.

His friends rush to him as the spirit power he thought he had regained starts to stream away. He hears their concerned voices all around him just before he passes out.

Ichigo spends a lot of time by the river over the next few days. He doesn't exactly hide himself, which means everyone comes looking for him. Keigo is especially loud, complaining about how scary the spirit was and how Ichigo owes him for jumping in for him. Ichigo doesn’t mention that he owes Keigo more than that. He owes everyone more than that.

He just can’t bring himself to face them and say so.

This is the second time Rukia has come around. He wonders why she has not returned to Soul Society yet, why she is still is standing around in a gigai bothering a sulky teenager. Her borrowed dress flutters in the wind.

"Everyone is worried about you," she reminds him.

He had originally thought of speaking to Tatsuki. It would mean a lot less to explain, but Rukia is a shinigami, and maybe that is what this whole problem is about. Maybe humans aren't meant to be shinigami after all, or even meant to have spirit powers.

"I'm sorry."

"We already knew that." In her gigai, he can see Rukia. It's almost as if she is alive, though she isn't. She's a spirit. "That doesn't explain why you're still moping here after so many days."

This is part of the reason why explaining to Tatsuki would be easier. He’s never had to tell anyone else about this place; if they know, they would understand, and if they didn't know, then they didn't have to know. Up until now.

"My mom died here." He's intentionally not looking at her at this point, and Rukia does not betray her expression with a gasp. "I used to look for my mom's spirit here."

She does not prompt him to speak, but he takes her silence as a sign to continue. "I thought that if her spirit was around, it would still be ok. I assumed the old man couldn't see her, but I could, and Karin and Yuzu would in time. It would be as if she never left." A wry chuckle slips past before he can stop it. "She probably would have ended up like that spirit instead."

"She may not have become a Hollow." This time Ichigo does look around. Rukia looks back, her eyes blazing with the same determination that she faces fights with. "She may have chosen to move on. She may have met a shinigami."

"It took me 15 years to meet my first shinigami."

Rukia makes her way carefully down the slope and takes a seat next to Ichigo. He stares at the blades of grass that make up the slope he's sitting on instead of looking at the concern that must be on her face.

"What is 15 years to a spirit that can endure for hundreds of years? And what about yourself, Ichigo? I know that you would not have sat by and watched your mother turn into a Hollow. You would have protected her."

"Yes, I did such a good job of it during the War, didn't I? I turned into a Hollow and I did nothing to stop myself."

"You did," Rukia states, her tone forcing Ichigo to look at her. The determination that she began this conversation still burns in her eyes. "You tore off that mask and gave up your power in order to live as an ordinary human. You’ve kept your humanity." She smiles at him with all the confidence in the world. "You know you've made mistakes. That's why you regret."

“Regrets.” The word leaves a bitter taste in Ichigo’s mouth. “Is that all that being human is meant to be then? Regrets and being unable to do anything.”

“I don’t know anything about being human,” says Rukia. “But I do know about making choices, and living with those choices.”

Ichigo breathes. The sunlight glints off the rushing water from the river. “It isn’t easy.”

“No, it isn’t. But were any of the choices you made easy? Choosing to become a shinigami to save your family. Choosing to protect the humans and spirits of your town from Hollows. Choosing to defend Karakura again Aizen and his Arrancar. These are only a few of the choices that you have made, and you have lived with those.” Rukia stands with the same bright assured smile, and stretches out a hand to him. "Now that you have made your choice - do not be afraid."

He looks from her outstretched hand to her face and feels himself grin for the first time in days. He takes it and pulls himself up. "Who said I was afraid?"

Her smile changes then, but there is too much happiness in it to be devious. "Why behave as if you were?" She starts to walk back up the slope and Ichigo walks alongside her, comfortable in his skin for the first time in days. Suddenly seeing his other friends doesn't seem to be so terrifying an idea, and he tells her so.

"Yes," Rukia agrees. "We were all cheering for you."

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