Even when he was just a kid, Ichigo has never been able to stay still. For a while, when his mom was alive, he could push that itch to the back of his mind and concentrate on staying in one place. He loved his mother more than anything in the world, and he knew that it would upset her if he went through with the quicksilver thoughts of just picking a direction and taking off without looking back.
Then his mother dies but Ichigo still has to bite down on the desire to go where the wind takes him because his father is an idiot and his sisters need someone responsible to look after them. That someone is Ichigo; Yuzu and Karin are his sisters after all, five years old and still so young, and no matter what anyone says, it is Ichigo’s fault that their family’s heart is dead.
So Ichigo satisfies his itchy feet with even more karate lessons, and he starts hitting back when people pick on him and shove him around because of his hair or his school marks or a hundred other redundant reasons. The adrenaline from those fights keeps most of him occupied.
He stops crying and begins helping, keeping their insane father in line, doing the grocery shopping, and taking over most of the housework until Yuzu and Karin are old enough to insist on sharing a few chores with him as well.
Ichigo reluctantly lets them (but not until they both turn nine and their continuous nagging finally makes him cave) but he is also determined to be a good big brother so he always remembers to walk his sisters to and from school, he assists them as best he can when they get stumped over a math problem or English word tense, he finds a good soccer club for Karin and helps her sign up for it when he catches her staring enviously at a group of kids kicking a ball around, and he puts aside enough time to go over every single recipe in the cookbook with Yuzu when she tells him that she wants to learn how to cook but can’t understand all the measurements and a few of the longer words teaching her how. He also supervises her by moving his homework into the kitchen because even at nine with a stool under her feet, she can’t quite reach all the knobs on the stove, and Ichigo isn’t going to risk letting her cut herself with a knife or something equally terrifying just because he isn’t there to make sure she’s safe.
On the side, he also quadruple-checks every person he comes across to teach himself how to distinguish between ghosts and humans, and if that means he has to stare a little longer at some people and they shoot him weird looks in return, giving him a wide berth and hurrying away, he thinks it’s a small price to pay for not making another mistake and costing someone else their life.
And only at night does he open the window and sit on the ledge, legs swinging absently over the side as he allows himself to stare down the long stretch of road and wonder where it would lead if he continues walking down it straight out of town and beyond.
He never tells anyone because he knows it’s a bit strange, this yearning to travel, to wander the roads without care, tied to nothing but the direction of the winds.
But he’s used to ignoring the gnawing ache in his chest so it’s an easy enough matter to push aside. He focuses on getting good grades instead, tucks his sisters into bed, devotedly reads them bedtime stories until they turn eight, and silently wonders if his father still blames him for Kurosaki Masaki’s death when the man continuously wakes him up with flying kicks or greets him at the door with out-of-the-blue punches.
He doesn't complain or whine or bawl about it though, and the only thing he regrets about this decision is the fact that Karin follows suit and copies him, which means he has to keep an extra eye on her so that he can bandage all the scrapes she comes home from soccer with. In turn, she watches him like a hawk when he goes to pick them up from school, and drags him into the bathroom to dab antiseptic on the bloodied knuckles that he acquires from numerous scuffles in and out of school.
They have a silent agreement that Yuzu – kindest, sweetest, and most innocent of the three of them – is never to find out because neither of them can stand making her worry or cry. Telling their father is something they roll their eyes at because the man is already busy enough with singlehandedly running the family clinic, not to mention... well, it’s their father, enough said.
And this is how they grow up, month by month, year by year. Ichigo’s father gets crazier (if that’s at all possible), Yuzu becomes a better cook than anyone Ichigo knows, Karin’s a natural soccer player, and Ichigo pulls mostly A’s at school, gets into more fights than he can count (and cows most of the bullies and small-time yakuza who come after him), and pretends he doesn’t hear the wind enticing him with a siren’s call or the horizon beckoning him with the expanse of a sky that goes on forever.
Then Rukia appears, kicking off the biggest series of death-defying events to happen to any one person that Ichigo has ever even read about in adventure novels. He worries himself sick over his sisters and his father and his friends, and he runs around killing Hollows and training his ass off and trying to understand everything happening around him because Urahara is a cryptic bastard who probably secretly enjoys Ichigo’s clueless floundering.
However, all this serves to distract Ichigo from the incessant longing tugging at him, and for a long while, it’s enough to turn his eyes away from the road and the wind and concentrate on saving Rukia instead.
It’s when they're staying at the Shiba house, lying low and getting stronger as they prepare to invade Seireitei, when Ichigo finds someone who finally sees and, more importantly, understands.
“You’re just like my brother,” Kukaku tells him, eyes full of quiet empathy when she catches Ichigo sneaking out of the Shiba house in the middle of the night yet again, too tired to train but too restless to sleep with thoughts of Rukia’s execution plaguing him and the foreign night wind coaxing him outside. “You want to run with the wind.”
That night, Ichigo sits on the roof beside Kukaku as she tells him about Shiba Kaien and his refusal to stay within the walls of Seireitei, choosing instead to train on the road and travel where he pleased.
“Ganju and I went with him, of course,” Kukaku says with a wistful smile. “We preferred it too, not being caged or tied to anything. The thing about most Shibas is that we all have itchy feet, at least until we find something worth settling down for. For me and Ganju, it’s always been Kaien. He goes, we follow, and we had fun. Those times spent travelling were the best.”
Ichigo hesitates, glancing at the house below them and the walls of Seireitei in the far distance. “But he eventually became a lieutenant, right? What changed?”
Kukaku snorts and takes a swig of her sake. “He found something worth staying for. We were out fighting some Hollows when a squad of Shinigami swooped in to save the day, led by a captain – Ukitake Juushirou, head of the Thirteenth Division.”
She pauses, tilting her head back to stare idly up at the moon hanging in the sky. “I never did find out what Ukitake-san said to Kaien but whatever it was, it was enough to send Kaien back to Seireitei. He applied for the Academy and said his goal was to enter the Thirteenth Division and work under its captain. Kaien respected Ukitake-san more than anyone else in the world.”
Ichigo isn’t sure but he wonders if there’s some resentment on Kukaku’s part over the fact that Kaien serving in the Gotei 13 ultimately resulted in her brother’s death. Then again, she probably understood the dangers, that there would have always been a day when Kaien wouldn't come home alive.
“Eventually, other things tied him down as well,” Kukaku continues when Ichigo remains silent. “Miyako was one, his wife. His entire squad, obviously. And then there was that protégé of his.”
Rukia, Ichigo’s mind supplies, recalling the sad tale that the female Shinigami had revealed to him. Still, he says nothing for a long while, simply sitting beside Kukaku and listening to the distant sounds of night time in Soul Society.
“Do you think... Do you think I’m a Shiba?” He rushes out in a hushed voice many minutes later. “I mean- I know humans and Shinigami probably aren’t supposed to- well. But maybe- an ancestor or something-”
Kukaku looks at him with something akin to pity, but mostly with anger that he instinctively knows isn’t directed at him. “...Maybe. I’ll tell you one thing – you look far too much like Kaien not to have some Shiba blood in you.” She grins, but there’s little humour in the expression. “And you inherited the worst of our wanderlust. Lucky you.”
Ichigo blinks, remembering the empty pang in his heart and the pull of the open road for almost his entire life. He takes in the way Kukaku looks like she understands when no one else, not even his family, has ever even glimpsed what he feels, and for just a moment, Ichigo doesn't think he has ever loved anyone more, his mother included.
They don’t talk about this again for the rest of the time Ichigo and his friends stay at the Shiba house, but on nights when he can’t sleep, Kukaku joins him outside and shows him some of the secrets hidden away in the forests out back. The one that stands out in his mind is the time she shows him the clear, calm lake in an eerily beautiful clearing, just in time to watch the surrounding Queen of the Nights bloom and wither within hours.
This only serves to make Ichigo wonder what other phenomenal sights are out there for him to see if only he could just-
But he can’t, and that’s the entire point. Besides, his friends are more important than waltzing off to see the world, and Ichigo’s always been good at putting his responsibilities before his wants. He’s been doing it for as long as he remembers after all.
So Ichigo shoves aside the tempting whispers of travelling, and storms Seireitei instead where he battles Shinigami after Shinigami, all to save a girl he’s barely known for a handful of months, but who is also far too accepting of her own death for his liking. Her brother just pisses him off even more so Ichigo doesn't regret throwing everything he has at Byakuya and pounding some common big-brother sense into the guy.
And then, because life just likes to screw with him more than anyone else, Aizen decides to reveal his game plan of three-world domination (and seriously, what the fuck is wrong with these Shinigami that they can be blind enough to not notice one of their own people plotting chaos and World War III behind their backs for centuries?), and Ichigo can only watch as the madman retreats through a Garganta, smirking all the way. Ichigo’s gut tells him that a life-changing war is on the horizon, and he’s going to be smack in the middle of it.
But for a short while after that, everything returns to normal. Ichigo and his friends go back to school, Inoue is slightly less ditzy (in an exasperatingly endearing sort of way) than before, Chad still has Ichigo’s back, and Ishida complains about hanging out with them when everyone and their grandma knows he doesn't mean a word of it.
And Ichigo continues keeping up with his grades, kills the random Hollow that threatens his father or sisters, dreams of a cackling black-and-yellow-eyed monster living inside him, and disregards the call of the wind and the agitation of his own soul.
Their relative peace is interrupted once more when Arrancar start showing up, and Ichigo has no choice but to follow Hirako Shinji to his base and train to get stronger. He spares a few seconds to resent Urahara for not explaining things clearly to him but soon dismisses this in favour of focusing on his inner Hollow and learning how to control it.
And then Inoue gets kidnapped, and Ichigo has never been angrier when the Gotei 13 refuses to send a rescue team for her, the old man even going so far as to accuse her of betrayal. Ichigo can’t possibly be any more disgusted than he already is; for an organization who can’t even pick out a real betrayal in their own midst, he can’t believe they have the gall to accuse someone of the same thing without any proof whatsoever.
So Ichigo does what he does best – he forges on by himself, makes his own plans and heads off to Hueco Mundo with his friends tagging along to save Inoue. When it comes to dealing with the Shinigami, he’s learnt that if he wants anything done, he has to do it himself because the Gotei 13 in general is far too big a fan of sitting back and waiting to see what happens before retaliating when it might already be too late.
Ichigo nearly dies several times, does sort of die at Ulquiorra’s hands (who is so miserably lonely and doesn't even know it that even Ichigo sympathizes just a little), but he’s a man on a mission so he kills what needs to be killed and defeats the rest through desperate skill and sheer willpower, never letting up until finally, finally, the Shinigami show up to lend a hand.
He is ushered back to the Human World by Unohana and upon everyone else’s urging, where Aizen boasts of his plans and fends off captain-class Shinigami like he’s playing with children.
And later, much later, Ichigo will wonder why the older Shinigami, Unohana and Kyouraku and even Hirako, all refuse to release their Bankai, because clearly, Aizen doesn't expect them to, knows they won’t because of their pride or their laws or their decades of complacency, and Ichigo can’t help thinking that the war would end that much faster if all the captains simply get their acts together and throw everything they have at Aizen Sousuke. Surely not even a wannabe-god can stand up to the entire combined might of the Gotei 13 elite, and it certainly wouldn't hurt for them to at least try.
But they don’t, and in the middle of a war, Ichigo doesn't have time to think about such things, so when his father (his father, for fuck’s sake, and everything Kukaku didn't say makes a whole lot more sense) whisks him away and tells him that he has to learn the Final Getsuga Tenshou to win the war, Ichigo agrees even though he’s not quite certain what this attack entails. But it’s his dad who suggests it, and even though the man will never win Father of the Year, and has lied to him and played the fool even when Ichigo was lost in a world of gods and monsters (it leaves a bitter tang in his mouth), it’s still his dad so surely it can’t be that bad.
As it turns out, it is that bad. Ichigo has to pay the ultimate price to save three worlds (nothing worth having ever comes cheap), and he ends up losing all his powers, and the ache in his soul suddenly grows a hundredfold.
Despite saving his hometown and Soul Society and everyone in both, Ichigo thinks, deep in his heart, that he might just hate everyone a little bit. He doesn't understand why it takes a teenager who doesn't really understand the full extent of his powers to save the day when a bunch of people who have centuries more experience than he does can’t.
Ichigo can’t wallow in self-pity forever though, and he doesn't want to worry his sisters more than he already has, so eventually, he drags himself out of bed, nails his usual scowl on his face, goes back to school, and pretends that everyone isn’t tiptoeing around him like he’s made of glass and one word of Shinigami or Hollow is going to make him break down in tears.
He hates it though. He’s never hated anything more, the way Ishida and Inoue and even Chad on occasion look at him with mournful pitying looks, the way they run off to deal with Hollows without even mentioning it in passing to him because he obviously can’t do anything about them anymore, the way none of his Shinigami friends or allies come to visit, the way not even the Visored have stopped by for a chat when once they had welcomed him into their fold with open arms, the way Urahara is infuriatingly evasive about their whereabouts and always seems like he can’t wait for Ichigo to leave his shop when Ichigo swings by to visit him because he is that goddamn lonely.
All in all, Ichigo hates being useless because at least when he was useful, people seemed to like having him around.
Even his family is drifting away from him. Now that his father’s secret is out in the open, the man spends more time with Urahara and even Ishida’s old man, and while Ichigo’s mind says that he shouldn't begrudge his dad for wanting to socialize with old friends, his heart wants to plant a fist through a wall because at least that pain will distract him from the festering bitterness coiled in his chest.
And his sisters are growing up too, and Ichigo can’t be happier for them (though he sometimes wonders why they aren’t like him, why they both seem perfectly happy to stay put). Yuzu has made more friends, and Ichigo delights in scaring the crap out of the boys who are beginning to sniff around his oblivious sister. She still takes time to ask after Ichigo, if he’s sleeping well, if he’s eating enough, and she fusses over him in a way that makes him smile and lie and say yes to both because it’s Yuzu.
Karin on the other hand...
The first time he catches Karin slipping out of Urahara’s shop, Ichigo takes off down the road and runs and runs and runs until he can’t run anymore because he knows that if had stayed, he would've done something he would regret, like giving Karin the third degree or yelling at Urahara until the man probably cracks up with laughter at Ichigo’s childish temper tantrum because the shopkeeper can be that much of an asshole.
When he finally drags himself home and confronts Karin about it, she starts out as vague as Ichigo both expects and doesn't expect (because his sisters have never been anything but open and honest with him), and perhaps Karin sees the flash of hurt that Ichigo can’t quite suppress because she hastily tacks on that she’s not doing anything bad, and nor is Urahara making her do anything she doesn't want to.
“I’m just learning more about Hollows, Ichi-nii, I promise it’s nothing dangerous,” Karin tells him, and then tinges pink in a way that Ichigo has never seen before. “And- um- I sometimes go to Soul Society for a little while. You know, ’cause Kukaku-san and Ganju-san are there.”
Ichigo’s eyes widen at this but he bites back the ‘you shouldn't go there’ that’s at the tip of his tongue because there’s no reason for her to not go, and they do have family up there after all.
So, “Okay,” He says quietly, tousling her hair and letting her give him a hug before he leaves. He’s back in his own room before he wonders why she was blushing if she’s only travelling to Soul Society to visit family.
Still, Karin’s a growing girl, a teenager now, and all teenagers have things they don’t want to tell anyone else about. Ichigo lets it be.
He lets it be and pretends he doesn't usually have the house to himself most of the time now. He pretends he doesn't notice the way Inoue, Ishida, and Chad stop whispering between themselves whenever he approaches them but seem to be okay with continuing their conversation if it’s Tatsuki, Mizuiro, or Keigo instead. He pretends they don’t try to change the subject as fast as possible whenever he tries to ask after Rukia or Renji or any of the other Shinigami in Soul Society. He pretends he doesn't have trouble sleeping, and pretends his dreams aren’t filled with blood and death and murderous monsters.
He pretends and pretends until he looks out the window one night at an empty street and a sky that stretches on forever, and he hears the winds singing to him, louder and stronger than ever before.
And he wonders, why not?
Why can’t he do what he wants for once? He has no responsibilities anymore. He’s almost finished his final year of high school. His sisters don’t really need him anymore. He sees more of his books than his friends these days. His father, when the man is around, watches his every movement as if he thinks that Ichigo is on the verge of a meltdown via Shinigami withdrawal, and he hasn’t even heard from his Shinigami friends since he and Rukia said goodbye.
So really, there’s nothing stopping him from taking off as soon as he finishes the year. Granted, under Japanese law, he’s not a legal adult until he turns twenty, but eighteen-almost-nineteen is close enough, not to mention he very much doubts his father would go to the trouble of filing a missing persons report for him anyway; Ichigo has always been able to take care of himself. He’s raised himself and helped raise his sisters since he was nine years old.
Besides, being known as the top fighter in all of Karakura has its perks. Ichigo has fought against everything from school bullies to shady thugs, and he knows the underground network of criminal activity in this town better than he probably should. Even just off the top of his head, he knows three different people – excluding Mizuiro who might or might not try to stop him – who can sell him decent fake Ids in case he ever needs them.
And for the first time since the end of the Winter War, Ichigo smiles, anticipation and excitement welling up inside him as he realizes that he no longer has to stay.
Ichigo throws himself into his end-of-year exams with no less resolve to do well than usual but more fervour than all the years before combined, determined to finish his schooling with the highest marks possible. His friends have begun filling out applications for universities or colleges, and while Ichigo dutifully fills out his own fair share, he also knows that it’s just for show; he’s not continuing his education, at least not immediately afterwards.
Over a few dinners, his dad actually takes the time to ask after Ichigo’s future education, so Ichigo waves a few school applications in the man’s face without really saying anything at all substantial, but it satisfies his father, makes his sisters beam proudly, creates a smokescreen for Ichigo’s real plans, and everyone’s happy.
When the final grades are posted, Ichigo smirks widely at the looks of shock on his classmates’ faces when they find out that the ‘orange-haired delinquent’ has secured the second highest mark in their entire graduating class, booting Inoue down to third place and only beaten out by Ishida for the top spot and, of course, valedictorian. Ichigo’s never been a fan of making speeches anyway.
The graduation ceremony comes as something of a surprise because not only are his sisters and father sitting in the audience, with Ishida’s old man settled stiffly beside Isshin, Ichigo also spots Urahara and Tessai – both wearing normal modern-day clothes – a row behind them, and even Jinta and Ururu wave at him from beside Yuzu and Karin (actually, the waving is just Ururu).
Ichigo mentally shakes his head as his name is called and he gets to his feet. Of course, they are here for the others. After all, he’s overheard from snippets of murmured conversations that Tessai has been helping Chad train, and Urahara is still overseeing Inoue’s progress with her spirits. Ichigo even has a hunch that Tatsuki, Mizuiro, and even Keigo have been over at the shop more than a few times.
So Ichigo is borderline shocked when Urahara approaches him with a winning smile after Yuzu and Karin have congratulated him, and his father has slapped him on the back with a broad grin and a slightly awkward ‘you did well’.
“Congratulations on your successful graduation, Kurosaki-san,” Urahara chirps cheerfully, and Ichigo has no idea what to make of the glint of fond, genuine pride in the shopkeeper’s eyes. “I wish you all the luck in your future endeavours.”
The words sound somewhat cliché and almost as if Urahara has rehearsed them in front of the bathroom mirror several times before coming today to deliver them, but they ring clear with sincerity, and it’s already more than Isshin has said, so Ichigo is understandably taken aback.
Perhaps some of his astonishment creeps through the cracks and into his typical scowl – not to mention Urahara is more perceptive than anyone Ichigo knows – because the even smile on the shopkeeper’s face falters a little and becomes more puzzled. “Kurosaki-san? Are you alright?”
Ichigo hastily fumbles for a reply, mildly embarrassed. “Uh, yeah, thanks. I mean, thanks for- for the... er, good wishes. I just didn't expect it, that’s all.”
Something sharpens in Urahara’s gaze, grey eyes narrowing and flitting briefly over to Isshin before one hand reaches up to tug down his striped hat in an automatic gesture. Ichigo swears he hears the shopkeeper mutter something that sounds confusingly like ‘Isshin-san, you fool’, but that can’t be right.
And then Urahara looks up again, all sly smiles and shrewd eyes, and he suggests, “You should come over more often, Kurosaki-san. We never see you anymore.”
This only serves to perplex Ichigo even more because he can barely remember the last time someone has invited him into Shinigami domain, or actively wants him there at all when he shows up unannounced, and why would they want to anyway? He’s useless without his powers.
“Uh, I’ll think about it,” He agrees in stilted tones, and then scoots off before Urahara can throw out anymore bewildering offers. Even as Ichigo slips outside though, he can feel the shopkeeper’s gaze on his back until he turns a corner.
It doesn't really matter, he later decides in the privacy of his room. Urahara was most likely extending an invitation out of sympathetic politeness after the way Ichigo accidentally implies that his father has been less than fatherly (though why anyone would be surprised by this is beyond him).
Besides, Ichigo will be gone soon anyway.
He chooses to wait another week before leaving the day after. Karin has a soccer camp to go to for the next seven days, and Yuzu is bouncing around making pies for a five-day-long bake sale, and while Ichigo has considered simply leaving a note before taking off, he doesn't really want to do that to his sisters. Undoubtedly, they’ll be upset once they find out that he has chosen to travel instead of attending university, but it isn’t as if they can really stop him, especially since he has kept it secret until the last minute.
So, in the following week, Ichigo meticulously triple-checks everything he wants to bring with him. He’s decided on taking only one duffel bag filled with clothes, money, necessary toiletries, a book, and some dry foods, as well as his identification, both real and fake. He also goes down to the local drugstore and picks out a few maps of various areas in Japan but he knows that he probably won’t look at them. Travelling without a destination in mind is so much more fun.
This only occupies him for two days at most, and by the third day, his knee is jittering up and down whenever he sits, his hands won’t stay still, and he spends more and more time strolling up and down the streets of Karakura, always finding it harder to turn back each day when the sun sets.
It’s different now than before, back when he didn't allow himself more than a fleeting thought of leaving. Now, leaving is a very real possibility, about to turn into reality in a few days’ time, and he can barely stand it as he waits for each minute to tick by.
By the time Thursday evening rolls around and Karin sends him a text message to tell him that she’s almost home, Ichigo has all but worn a hole in his carpet. Yuzu is over at a friend’s house while his dad is finished work for the day and has already skipped off to Urahara’s place. Ichigo peers out the window, frowns at the darkening sky, and grabs the car keys before leaving the house to go pick up Karin.
As it turns out, things don’t go the way Ichigo imagines. He is greeted with a grin and a self-conscious I’m-a-teenager-but-you’re-my-favourite-big-brother hug but before he can ask her how her soccer camp went, Karin scratches her cheek and confesses, “Actually, Ichi-nii, I have other plans tonight. Can you drop me off at Urahara-san’s?”
Ichigo blinks at her, stomach twisting uncomfortably. “Why? Tired of your big brother already?”
Karin huffs and thumps him good-naturedly on the arm. “Of course not, but-” She clears her throat, blushing like she had that first and only time Ichigo asked her about her dealings in the supernatural. She takes a steadying breath before blurting out, “Ichi-nii, I have a boyfriend. Sort of.”
She cringes like she expects him to start yelling. Ichigo might’ve if he doesn't feel so numb.
“Boy- friend?” He repeats slowly, and he didn't graduate from Karakura High as the second smartest guy for nothing. “This boyfriend wouldn't happen to be a Shinigami, would he?”
Karin shuffles in place but nods staunchly. “It’s- I mean, it’s a recent thing. We were just friends before, but you know, I’ll be fourteen in a month, and we’re not doing anything- you know. We’re just going on- a date. Just dinner. Today. Like, with friends, so it’s not even a real date.”
Ichigo takes a deep breath. “Who is he?”
Karin bites her lip. “Toshirou-kun.”
Ichigo grits his teeth. “Hitsugaya Toshirou?”
Karin nods, face beet red.
Ichigo’s jaw clenches harder. “And he didn't come see me about this... development because...?”
Karin rubs the back of her head, looking sheepish and cautiously tentative now. “Oh, well, Goat-Face gave the okay, and we just didn't- I mean everyone thought we shouldn't remind you of-”
Everyone thought we shouldn't remind you of everything you’ve lost.
Ichigo closes his eyes. Screws them shut and tries not to scream out loud. Goat-Face knew, and Ichigo didn't? Since when has Karin or even Yuzu ever gone to their father first before him? Why can’t anyone see that it is exactly because everybody keeps everything from him that he feels that loss all the more? To him, it isn’t just his powers that he has lost. He has lost his family, his friends, even his self-proclaimed rivals and teachers and allies.
Ichigo keeps his eyes closed. “Does... Yuzu know?” Yuzu, who can only see blurry images of Shinigami at best.
“Um, yeah. She thought it was- cute.”
Ichigo opens his eyes and starts the car.
He loves his sisters more than anything in the world, loves his father even, and cares about his friends, would die for them, would kill for them, has killed for them, but-
“I’ll drop you off at Urahara-san’s.”
-but right now, he can’t bear to look at any of them.
Karin is flustered and says she’s sorry even though Ichigo can tell that she’s not quite sure which part she’s apologizing for. Ichigo pastes a smile on his face and waves her out of the car, tells her it’s fine and jokes (half-jokes) that the next time he sees Toshirou, the captain will receive at least a broken nose, and Karin smiles, looking relieved before she drops a kiss on his cheek and darts towards the shop.
Ichigo watches until she reaches the door where Urahara – clearly in a Gigai – opens it and welcomes her inside with a practiced bow and a flap of his fan. The shopkeeper turns to look at Ichigo almost expectantly but Ichigo only nods once before peeling away from the shop.
If he goes in there when his emotions are so tangled with anger and resentment and hurt, he doesn't know what he’ll do but it probably won’t be pretty.
In the end, Ichigo eats his dinner alone. Sometime between boiling water for his instant ramen and putting Karin’s dirty clothes in the washing machine, Yuzu phones home and begs permission to stay over at her friend’s house for a sleepover because they’re having some sort of movie marathon. Ichigo doesn't have the heart to say no.
Isshin doesn't even call, but Ichigo’s used to it, so he puts away the two other instant ramen he had previously set out and settles down at the dinner table to scarf down his own meal.
By the time he’s showered and is getting ready for bed, the house is still as empty as it was before.
His lips thin as his gaze falls on his duffel bag. He has set his alarm clock for four in the morning, intent on taking the first bus out of Karakura, and he’s not about to change his plans just because his family wasn't home for him to tell them said plans. It’s not exactly their fault that they all have other things to do since Ichigo hasn’t told them that he has something to tell them at all. Really, it’s his own fault for not saying anything earlier.
Still, the thoughts sit like lead in his stomach.
When he wakes up with the sun the next day, Ichigo isn’t surprised to find the house still vacant of everyone save himself. It doesn't hurt as much as last night though, especially when he’s brushing his teeth and the first rays of sunshine wash over him through the window.
It’s today, Ichigo thinks with a sudden rush of exhilaration. I can finally leave today.
He flies through the rest of his morning routine, throws on a pair of comfortable jeans and a shirt, and charges downstairs to wolf down a bowl of cereal. He pauses only long enough to tear out a page from a spare notepad and actually think about what he wants to write before penning a short message filled with an explanation of where he is going, why he is leaving, tells them not to worry, that he’ll come back sooner or later, and, after a long moment of contemplation, signs it off without adding any apologies.
Because he’s not sorry.
Satisfied, he pins the note to the corner of the fridge that their family has always left notes on before hurrying back up to his room and picking up his duffel bag, stuffing his charger and cell into it as well. He takes one last look at his room, eyes lingering on the Substitute Shinigami badge that he hasn’t even looked at for over a year now and has deliberately left on his desk since last night for someone to retrieve, and then descends the stairs, pulls on his socks, toes on his running shoes, and steps outside, locking the door behind him.
The sound of the click makes him smile.
He steps out onto the quiet street where not a single soul is stirring. He remembers to make a trip to his mother’s grave first, and he tells her that he loves her but that he has to go and he hopes she isn’t too mad at him for it.
And then he leaves.
The road stretches on and on and on, the wind ruffles his hair playfully, and Ichigo’s smile widens in the light of the sunrise as he finally sets off on his journey.
This is everything he has ever wanted.
Later, he takes it as a sign that he has made the right decision in leaving when he doesn't get his first frantic where-are-you until three in the afternoon when he’s in Kyoto exploring Arashiyama and the Tenryuu-ji Temple.
It’s from Yuzu, who calls five times and intersperses the phone calls with two dozen texts, each more hysterical than the last.
Ichigo bites down on a flare of guilt, stares up at the open sky, and knows he can’t go back, not yet. The wind croons contentedly around him and there’s still so much to see. He can’t return to a place where he’ll be restricted, his wings clipped, so he ignores the calls and fires off an ‘I’m fine’ before putting his phone on silent and stuffing it back into his bag.
He doesn't look at it again until nightfall and he’s safely checked into a cheap hostel for the night, legs tired, ceiling fan whirring above him, and feeling happier than he has felt in a long, long time.
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