It wasn’t supposed to end like this.
It never did in the manga anyway. Or in the movies. The video games. The good guys were supposed to win, and the bad guys were supposed to vow vengeance and more destruction. Everyone was supposed to be smiling in the end, and by some freak miracle, those dead weren’t really gone or forgotten.
The hero never failed. His strikes always sailed true, and no matter how much he struggled, he emerged victorious. There was nothing to regret; there was nothing to mourn.
Fiction was so damn far from reality.
At least, that was the thought that crossed Ichigo’s mind as he stood in the middle of a silent battlefield, quiet only because the sound of fighting had long since ceased. The evidence was still there. In the scent and the heaviness of the aura. Blood and pain and sulfur and smoke, ash clogging on his tongue and a tainted wind whipping at his clothes.
Somewhere, he could hear faint sounds. Whimpers of pain. The constant plip-plip of blood that was probably falling from his own katana, a steady dripping. The distant clang of other fights had gone quiet to Ichigo’s ears.
It wasn’t supposed to end like this.
His hands felt heavy. Arms too heavy to lift himself. There was a far-flung clatter as his blade dropped to the ground, and he felt an urge to fall. The sun shone down, bright and cheerful. Wrong somehow. It should be raining. Thick and heavy, bitter-cold drops to cleanse away everything. To soak up the pain and flow one harsh memory into another.
Ichigo was falling apart. There were pieces of him, breaking down and sloughing to the ground. Crunched like shards of glass beneath someone’s accidental footstep. He wondered why he wasn’t satisfied with this so-called victory. Why it tasted so acrid on his heart. The enemy was vanquished, and yet, so much had been lost.
He felt them, sliding down his cheeks wet and warm. Slipping from eyes that stared and stared into an increasing darkness. Unable to tear his gaze away from the horrific truth. It was as if it were swallowing him whole.
His knees weakened, and Ichigo was certain he was going to fall. Hands fell across his shoulders tightly, squeezing and reminding him of their presence. There were voices, familiar ones, surrounding him. Worry emanating from them, but he was the one who suffered the brunt of the concern. He had to do it, to protect them.
Ichigo still thought he had to battle somewhere. That it wasn’t over. It couldn’t be that simple. He needed to pick up Zangetsu again. The threat was still there. Aizen was dead, and Ichimaru was dead, and Tousen was dead, but that wasn’t enough. He had to train to get stronger because no matter how much he fought, it was never enough.
And Shirosaki was laughing. That bastard had his fun. He’d had his moments of freedom, his control over Ichigo.
Ichigo didn’t know who – what – he was anymore. He just knew what he had to do. Protect them. Protect her. Protect everyone. Everything. It wasn’t enough. He wasn’t satisfied.
Those fingers tightened, heedless – or perhaps because of – the violent trembling his body had taken. The scent and taste of blood was too familiar. He was used to it, the coppery flavor no longer surprising. Pain was a mere nuisance he’d learned to bear. Scrapes and scratches and gouges and slices and holes in his flesh. He’d bore it all.
He had become that. The driving determination. The sharp blade. The soldier on the battlefield, rising again and again, even without bullets. Trudging forward through the bloody mire to face the opposition. No one would ever be safe if he didn’t defeat the enemy wherever he could find it.
They didn’t see the guilt that tried to consume him. How it crashed over his head at first and trickled over his ears, across his shoulders, down his back and further still, coating his entire body in a damning layer. He felt as if he were moving against a harsh wind, each step a drag through acrid emotion.
Heroes didn’t regret the lives they took. Heroes celebrated victories.
Ichigo was supposed to be a hero in their eyes, even if he didn’t want it. He was just protecting those that mattered to him. Protecting everyone. That was all he ever wanted. How had it turned into this?
It wasn’t supposed to end like this.
The sob caught in his chest, a huge and gaping sensation, but it never made it past his lips again. The fierce hotness dried from his eyes. He couldn’t afford it anymore. He simply slipped from those comforting fingers because they wouldn’t understand anyway. And he scooped up Zangetsu, ignoring the slipperiness of the grip. Probably blood, he imagined. Or some other heart-breaking gore. His own sweat maybe.
He could smell it, taste it on his tongue. Ash and sorrow intermingling. But he couldn’t stop. Wouldn’t stop. There was something else out there. Something or someone else threatened them. He felt it in his bones. His fingers tightened around his zanpakutou’s hilt. He had to train, to get stronger. Or they would never be safe.
Someone called his name, but Ichigo didn’t even recognize who it could have been. In fact, there was a lot of shouting around him. He ignored it.
Ichigo started forward. He wasn’t sure where he was going; he just knew he needed to get there. He didn’t know who he was fighting, but he was certain they’d show their face eventually.
He buried it all beneath the hurt and the memories and the teenager he once was. He was Ichigo now. Shinigami substitute. Vizard. Hollow when he lost control. A murderer, though it was covered up by the name of justice. What he was could no longer be again. And if he felt dead inside, he didn’t know anyone else to blame but himself.
A hand grabbed his shoulder. “Ichigo!”
He turned and saw Rukia, recognizing her in an instant. “Yeah?”
Her blue eyes flickered over him, no doubt taking in the blood, sweat, and grime that caked his body. She looked little better than he did, if a bit more dressed.
“Where are you going?” Rukia looked worried; Ichigo wondered why.
“I’ll stop them,” he assured her and wondered why his smile made her face crinkle like that, becoming even more concerned. “Don’t worry. I’ll defeat them.”
He eased out of her hold and slid Zangetsu into the bindings across his back, the weight settling comfortably. He was filthy, but he didn’t need to be clean to fight. A few flits of shunpo, and he could be on his way.
Rukia didn’t seem to understand this. “Fight who?” she asked, eyebrows drawn with confusion. And around them, some of the others stopped whatever they were doing and looked too. The geta-boushi. Renji. Ishida.
But no Chad. No Hanatarou.
That was Ichigo’s fault, too. He had to make sure he didn’t let it happen again.
“I’ll stop them,” was all Ichigo said again, voice little more than a whisper, hands clenching into fists at his side. Brown eyes were focused on the horizon, settling red like blood over the edge of the battlefield.
And then, he was gone, too fast for Rukia to follow. Too fast for anyone to realize there was a need to follow. His single-minded determination led the way, driven by a desire to protect, to defeat. To find whoever threatened his loved ones and defeat them so that no one would ever cry again. So he wouldn’t have to watch someone else he cared for slip away, and the tightness in his chest grew with every passing moment.
He thought he heard Zangetsu call to him, but then, even the ossan was silent.
He would protect them. Ichigo vowed this. Until the bitter end, he would be the blade.