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by P L Nunn





Ichigo Kurosaki died an ordinary death. There was nothing noble about it, or heroic. A mundane act of petty violence, that caught a man used to acts of extraordinary, world-shattering violence, entirely off his guard. A simple robbery. A bullet to the back of the head that he'd never seen coming. That he'd never sensed, his attacker having no more spirit energy than any other normal human being. By the time his body had been found it had been too late for Orihime Inoue to do anything but cry. And even if she had been able to heal the fist-sized chunk of missing skull that the bullet had blown away on its outward trajectory, it wouldn't have mattered. That intrinsic part of a human being that made him what he was had already gone, dissipated like most souls of the departed, leaving not a whisper of a trace behind.

He had been thirty-five. And he'd left behind a wife and a son. A family. Friends, enemies and various entities that measured someplace in-between. He'd left behind shock, that a life so vibrant, that a spiritual essence so vastly powerful could be extinguished so simply. Flickering out on a whimper instead of an explosion that shook the boundaries between realms. Drifting, without any guidance whatsoever, like the multitude of ordinary deceased human souls into the vast plains of the afterlife, to be reborn, one way or another into something entirely new. Memory of their old life wiped clean. It was the cycle of existence. Life. Death. Rebirth. And there was no being in heaven or on earth that could escape that fate forever.

Of course not all souls went so peacefully. There were those so dark and twisted that they sank to darker realms where the Shinigami, the reapers of souls had no jurisdiction to police. There were souls so filled with despair or unfulfilled desire or mind-numbing regret that they lingered in the mortal realm, linked to the things that had held meaning to them in life. Some moved on eventually of their own volition. Others needed the assistance of a soul reaper's konso to send them on their way, be it to the spirit world of the soul society or the darker realms of hell. Others went darker still, souls corrupted, twisted with ravenous hunger and driven to devour the souls of both living and dead. Those were hollows.

Out of fear for Ichigo's soul, those friends of his with the license and the ability searched for a trace of it, but there was no remnant of it to be found, either lingering on earth or within the sprawling and constantly evolving districts of Rukongai, the city of wondering souls. Of course finding one soul amongst so many was a dauntless task, and inevitably a fruitless one. There were always souls that slipped through the net of accountability, souls that lingered in the in-between waiting for rebirth, or even those that ended up outside the boundaries of Rukongai altogether, to drift in those lawless, outer realms. So eventually, as time passed and other duties demanded, they gave up the search, succumbing to the inevitable acceptance that Ichigo Kurosaki as they had known him, was no more.

And life went on as life inevitably did. And with Ichigo gone, those supernatural things that often attracted themselves to him like moths to flame, dissipated, finding other paths to follow. Or if they did lurk in the shadows just beyond human ken, stalking the family he'd left behind, they were dealt with swiftly and mercilessly by the guardians in those same shadows who were determined to safeguard the things he had loved and left behind. And Orihime wanted very much for Kazui to never have to face death time and again and again, the way his father had. She wanted him to live a normal life. And Ichigo had wanted the same thing. And those friends of his, that dwelled on the other side of mortality, had respected those wishes and distanced themselves, because association with soul reapers brought with it the dark things they stood against.

Thankfully enough, Kazui found human things to intrigue him. He was content with sports and school and girls and only rarely distracted by the sight that had been passed down to him via his soul reaper bloodline. And though she would never disparage the character of her son, he simply didn't have his father's heart. That fiercely loyal heart that had driven Ichigo to extraordinary lengths to protect those things dear to him. That had driven him to defend those unable to defend themselves, be they stranger or friend, or even in some cases, foe. Ichigo had been unique in so very many ways.

And to Orihime's relief, when Kazui met that special girl during his second year of collage, he turned his back entirely on all things outside the human world. Four years after that he gave her the first of her grandchildren and finally the grief that had made life a leaden, grey existence for years, began to fade. She let herself live again, and love. Laughter entered her life once again after more than two decades of missing a man she'd loved more than life itself.

And the world went on, as it always did. Tears, laughter, pain and joy, all those essential elements of human existence.

It was a wheel that never stopped turning.



Utter, overwhelming nothingness. Time held no meaning. Light didn't. Nor darkness. Nor life. Nor death. There was simply void.

And then, there wasn't.

A pin prickling sense of something. A slow seepage of warmth that came and went, rhythmic like - - no word came to mind. And then, after the ebbing warmth edged back only to crest again, it occurred to him that it was like the tides.

It also occurred to him, in agonizingly slow degrees that 'he' was a separate entity altogether from the void. And that was curious in a lethargic sort of way. Then curiosity seeped away, drained out of him along with the rest of his struggling awareness and he went back to void.

And out again. A cycle that endlessly repeated.

Something brushed at the edges of his awareness, a feather soft whisper flittering against the vastness of the void. It meant nothing and the void seeped like molten nothingness around him, sucking the budding cognizance away into itself.

Ichigoichigoichigo a blur of meaningless sounds/not sounds that scratched at the nothingness surrounding him. Nails like shards of glistening ebony gouged at the inside of his mind. He clenched a fist, pain a novel experience. That there was a form within the void to experience it an even more puzzling awareness. That there was a fist, at the end of an arm that was attached to a body a baffling realization.

Ichigo. Ichigo. The whisper slithered inside his head and he chased it away with an effort of something he didn't know he had. Will. It went, subsiding into the depths, content perhaps that it had stirred him.

He opened his eyes, vision watery and uncertain. It was not void in which he found himself, but murk and shadow and darkness and the feeling of a great, great space. He was immersed in it, tendrils of black, faintly pulsing sinew coiled around him, slithering like living things. Constricting his flesh, arms, legs, torso. Invasive and horrible and radiating out into the darkness, as if he were at the heart of some monstrous circulatory system. The beating heart of it. Or the thing that fed it, for the ends of those imprisoning tendrils had bored into his flesh, undulating under his skin, pulsing with that same rhythmic tidal beat as they stole from him.

Stole. That seemed the proper word. He felt it now, that awareness had taken firm hold, himself being drawn thin and transparent as the things that held him in their grip grew fat and warm, rippling as what they took from him flowed out into the darkness.

He felt himself falling again, into that blank void of numb acceptance, as they sucked him dry. If it happened once more, he might never find his way back up again. Victim to this atrocity. And that sat wrong with him, even though wrong and right seemed far distant things.

But he hadn't the strength of spirit or will or body to stop them. All he could do was hang, limp and horrified/frustrated from the tendrils that held him, desperately clinging to the shreds of awareness he had gained.

Perhaps that struggle attracted the attention of something else, lurking in the darkness. Something ink black, long and lithe, oddly jointed legs, as tall at the shoulder as a man, with a tail that bled black smoke and eyes that were pits into true void. It crouched in the murk, until it sprang, ink black maw latching hold of his leg, teeth black as sin digging into his flesh and raking the tendril twining its way up his thigh.

He screamed, and the sound of it in this vast murk was as foreign as sunlight. He broke it off, a choking gurgle as another nightmare creature rushed out of the shadows, lunging for his throat.

The tentacles took issue. A great sinewy appendage whipping loose from him, and whipping the beast across its black face. Another slithered off him and looped about the beast tearing into his leg, coiling like a snake as the thing silently writhed, biting and clawing to get at him. A territorial dispute, with him at the center of it. Predators fighting over helpless prey.

No. No. No. No. Something flared at the center of him, spurred by fear or pain or the simple desire not to be devoured alive. Light that seared his dark adjusted eyes, that made the black things shriek in protest and the tentacles shrink back, loosening their hold on him just long enough for him to twist away. The black beasts lunged at the tentacles, snarling and clawing, ignoring him in favor of taking on the competition. He floundered in the featureless murk, no ground to shore him up, no horizon to orient his flight. Only a tear that seemed to float in the very air, that might have been where the black beasts had slipped through.

He dove for it, tumbling through, senses spinning as wildly as his body as he hurtled through, wind tearing at his skin, pin pricks of light spattering his skin, burning as they touched. He held his hands up, shielding his face, and only caught the briefest peripheral glimpse of the ground rushing up to meet him.

When it he hit, it was solid and real and painful. The black that dropped over him like a hammer, had nothing to do with void and everything to do with the shock of impact.



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