Ichigo feels like he is going crazy. His dreams of Rukia have stopped. It's been one year and one month since he lost his powers, and he coasts through his days at school. It's not in his nature to mope; instead, Ichigo has stopped feeling anything.
It is strange. He thought he was happy to be ordinary; suddenly, one year and a month later, he is not.
Since the loss of his Hollow mask, Ichigo has another mask that he uses around other people. He smiles politely when Orihime goes off on one of her tangents, or scowls when Tatsuki is lecturing him. Sometimes he thinks he's turned into a robot, going through the motions of living. He speaks when spoken to, eats at appropriate times, ducks when Isshin attacks, laughs when Yuzu jokes, and nods when Karin says anything. Still, he tells himself, at least you're not dead.
Some days he wishes he was. He thinks about the last battle with Aizen, not regretting that he won, but wishing he had died with his powers. At least if he were dead he would no longer get the looks of pity from his friends. He cannot even spend long periods of time with them anymore. Ichigo gets exhausted listening to the endless chattering of Orihime trying to fill the awkward silences. Even looking at Uryuu's face makes him tired.
Lately he has been spending time alone in his room, sitting in his bed, staring at the shadows. He does not want to admit, even to himself, that he is trying to get even a trace of the scent of cucumbers and strawberries, or a memory of a dream of purple eyes darkening. So Ichigo stares at nothing for hours at a time, his mind blessedly blank.
The summer nights are getting longer and the leaves are starting to turn gold. The end-of-summer festival has everyone wearing their best yukata and going to the nightly street fairs, culminating in a parade of lanterns. Ichigo accompanies his sisters and friends, but is deaf to the sounds and blind to the colours.
In the crowds, Ichigo starts to feel panicky. There are too many people and they are too exposed. If a Hollow attacks, he cannot defend his family. The lights are too bright. Why won't his friends walk together in a group?
His hand itches for Zangetsu's handle.
There are too many people. It feels like the swarms of hollows he faced in Hueco Mundo. But these people are laughing, without a care in the world. As if the world had not almost ended.
A pushy vendor grabs his shoulder, and Ichigo swings at him. Thankfully, Urahara is there to deflect his fist. With a hefty tip and apology to the man, Urahara herds him to a mostly empty sidestreet. Ichigo cannot breathe. His chest is too tight, his blood is too hot. Urahara pounds his back, trying to loosen his shoulders. Finally the black spots in his eyes disappear. Ichigo leans back against the wall.
"How long has this been going on?" Urahara asks, offering him some water.
Ichigo starts laughing bitterly. "Since the day I met Rukia Kuchiki and she stabbed me in the chest." He wipes his mouth with the back of his hand and leans his head back. "Don't worry about me, Urahara-san. I'm already nobody."
Urahara watches him stagger back into the crowds, a worried look in his eyes.
Ichigo heads back into the crowds, searching for his family. Suddenly he spots a familiar head of dark hair on a petite woman in a pink kimono. She turns her head and Ichigo's heart speeds up. Could it be - He starts pushing towards her. The woman is tiny, and it is hard to keep up with her in a crowd this dense. "Please, wait," Ichigo calls out desperately, stepping around people, squeezing between carts. It is as if the world has gone silent, waiting for him to catch her. He finally makes it to touching distance, grabbing her hand. She turns, eyes wide. But it is not Rukia Kuchiki.
Ichigo lets go with an apology on his lips. The world is at full volume again, as if nothing happened.
His father is easy enough to hear in the crowd with his big booming voice. Ichigo rejoins his family. Karin is with her posse of boys, but she can sense Ichigo's disquiet. She looks at him and fakes a headache, begging him to take her home.
That night, he dreams about drowning in a sea of sand with everyone watching him and applauding.
Three months pass.
Each day blurs into the next. Ichigo is waiting for the day when he can leave this godforsaken town, and go to a college where nobody knows him, and people will leave him alone. He immediately feels guilty for even thinking this, knowing how much Ishida, Chad and Orihime have been through because of him. Chad has stopped speaking to him. This barely registers on Ichigo's radar, and he is vaguely saddened by the loss of his friend, but he doesn't know what he can do for Chad when he can barely help himself.
Slowly, things settle down again, and all of them try to ignore the new holes in their lives. He gets a job, simply because he has to get away from all the heavy looks and sighs and pity. A single mom, Ikumi Unagiya, runs an odd-jobs service out of her home.
This is exactly what he needs as most of the odd jobs do not make him interact too deeply with people. He can do the job, collect his money, and be done for the day. But every day, after he goes home and has dinner with his family, he goes to his room, and slips off his mask, sitting in the dark.
It is now early winter, and there is frost on the windows. He presses his hand to the icy glass, watching the crystals melt. Yuzu enters the room, asking if he can help her with homework. He sighs, pushes his face into a carefree smile, and turns to face his sister. "Sure," he tells her.
Yuzu settles on his floor, cross legged, and hands him a sheet of questions. "What are these for?" Ichigo skims through them, confused.
His sister blushes. "Well… we have to write a report on our personal hero and… oni-chan, I picked you."
Ichigo feels an uncomfortable lump growing in his throat. Of everyone around him, Yuzu was the only one who did not know about his substitute shinigami life. He stares at her. "Why me?"
She picks at the edge of her notebook shyly. "Because you take care of Karin and me. And you're always so nice to everybody, even people that are mean. And you care about all your friends, and they love you in return. You are always helping people, oni-chan."
Ichigo is uncomfortable, and touched. "That's not true… I'm always getting into fights." He ruffles her hair affectionately.
Yuzu smiles as she writes into the sheet. "Yes, but that's because you're always trying to help people, like Chad-san. And you brought Rukia-chan here when she had nowhere else to go…"
"Well, Rukia was a little more complicated," Ichigo, to his horror, is blushing. "Anyway, don't make me out to be a hero. Really, I'm not that special."
"But you are," Yuzu insists, still scribbling away. "I think one day, you will save the world. You're my big brother, after all." She ends the interview with a smile. Ichigo smiles back at her. He feels like this is the first time he has actually smiled in months. "By the way, oni-chan, what happened to Rukia-Chan? Did she find a place to live? Can we visit her? Karin and I miss her."
"Well," Ichigo looks at the drawer on his desk where he keeps all Rukia's notes. "She had to go somewhere else. I don't think we'll be seeing her again anytime soon." He sees Yuzu's face fall, and says, "But maybe you can write her a letter! It's almost Christmas so you can probably send her a letter."
Yuzu claps her hands together excitedly. "Oh, do you have her address?"
Ichigo rubs the back of his head sheepishly. "No, but I know someone who may be heading to her town. It's a - er, small town, so I'm sure they'll be able to find her."
"Great! Let's put a Christmas package together for Rukia-chan!" Yuzu pauses, and sends him a sunny grin. "See, I knew you were my hero for a reason."
Ichigo watches the door close after his little sister, feeling better than he has in weeks.
Yuzu takes this project to heart with scary efficiency. Within a week she has letters and presents from Karin, Orihime, Tatsuki, even Keigo and Mizuiro. Isshin sends a box labeled, To My Third Daughter.
"You're the only one left, oni-chan," Yuzu admonishes. "Can't you write her a letter too? You were her closest friend!"
Ichigo procrastinates as much as he can, uncomfortable with the idea of contacting Rukia. He is too busy anyway, he tells himself, as he works through the chill of early December.
His work schedule has picked up, since the holiday season has people sending presents via messenger. It makes it easier for him to avoid Yuzu's nagging.
Finally, Yuzu gives up. She asks Ichigo to send the box, which he brings to Urahara's store after school.
The older man eyes the hefty box. "Are these all from you?"
Ichigo scowls. "No, they're from my sisters. Can you make sure Rukia gets this?"
Urahara beams. "Of course. Will you be sending your present to Rukia separately?"
Ichigo shakes his head. "Why would I send her anything? Since I lost my reiatsu I've been dead to her and the rest of Soul Society. "
Urahara strokes his chin for a moment, then grabs Ichigo by the ear and drags him into a room.
"What are you doing?" Ichigo tries to escape the painful grip the older man has on his ears.
"Oh, stop being such a drama queen. Just fill out a card. On the house. It's on the table." Urahara slides the door shut, leaving Ichigo in the room with pen and paper. "And slide it in the door slat. I'll let you out afterwards." Expletives greet his pronouncement. "Watch your language, there are children present!" Urahara smiles to himself, though. He has seen more spirit in Ichigo tonight that in the whole year previously. It is heartening to see.
Thirty minutes minutes pass. A sealed red envelope pops out from between the door slats. Urahara grins, and slips it in the box. Ichigo yells, "Can I get out now?"
"It's not locked," Urahara hollers back, sealing the box with packaging tape. A red-faced Ichigo stumbles out. "I didn't hear you unlock it." He tells the older man, slipping on his shoes.
"Ichigo, it's a sliding door. It doesn't lock," Urahara beams at him. Flustered, Ichigo pulls on his winter coat and heads for home.
After a particularly busy day at work, Ikumi sends Ichigo home later than usual. Night has fallen, and people are rushing home.
Ichigo stops by the park playground, and settles on the bench, enjoying the solitude. He puts his headphones on, zipping his parka all the way up to his chin. A snowflake floats down, landing on his cheek. He looks up, surprised, and smiles in spite of himself.
The tiny white flakes dance down slowly, turning the park into a snowy wonderland. It is the first snow of the year.
Ichigo sits, eyes skyward, his orange hair peeking out from under his hood, looking peaceful for once. Briefly, he wonders if Rukia received the package, and if she has read his letter.
Karin is walking home from soccer practice. As she is walking home in the snow, she glances over at the park bench and spots her brother.
A few inches beside him, Rukia sits, hands primly folded on her knees, looking up with wonder. He puts his hand down on the bench right where hers is, causing Rukia's eyes to jump to his face. He is blissful in his oblivion. Rukia looks back down to their joined hands.
Karin watches them for a moment, then turns away, feeling as if she is interrupting something private. She stomps home, muttering about her idiot brother.