It was a sunny afternoon. Rukia visited them again and Ichigo hadn seen Renji so happy for a while now. It was a very much peaceful and nice afternoon, at least until they all heard the piercing shriek of Hollows not far from where they were.

Their friends immediately knelt on their knees at the massive reiatsu that the Hollows, apparently two of them, possessed. All three of them, who had high spiritual awareness, immediately froze, especially Ichigo. All his encounters with Hollows always ended up with someone close to him dying.

The events were so fast that somehow, in just a blink of an eye, the Hollows were already in front of them, shrieking pitifully in a voice they couldn fathom. Renji was the first to recover. He immediately grabbed both Ichigo and Rukia by the arm and ran for it.

”Wait, Renji!! ” Ichigo immediately struggled from his friends grip. ”The others! ”

As if by cue, all the other kids started coming out of their little hideout one by one. Renjis eyes widened. ”Idiots!! Get inside!! ” Generally, Hollows only went for souls with high reiatsu, so Renji was convinced that if they went inside the house, all the Hollows would chase were Ichigo, Rukia, and him, who were all high in spiritual awareness.

But the damn kids just had to come after Ichigo and the others, fearing for their own lives inside the little hut. One of the Hollows gripped the two kids with both hands while the other turned to Ichigos direction.

The three of them could only watch in horror as the other Hollow swallowed their little friends one by one as the other Hollow went in their direction.

”Run!! ” Ichigo shrieked in agony as the other two little kids tried their best to run away from the grasp of the huge Hollow, but in vain. He still couldn summon his sword at will but he tried his best to convey the urgency in the name that he uttered. ”Zangetsu!! ”

And before he knew it, there were already two disintegrating Hollows in front of him and behind him were his two shocked friends. All the other kids in their group were eaten by the two Hollows except them. His whole body was trembling uncontrollably as he held the enormous zanpakutou with both hands.

In the background, he heard Rukia start to sob for the loss of their friends and from the soft thud on the ground, he was sure that her knees just gave out. Renji immediately knelt beside her and consoled her, though he was still very badly shaken too.

Ichigos face was stony, though he was trembling. During the time with his mothers death, he was already unconscious when the Hollow ate her soul. During the time with his baa-chan, he was already too late to see it. It was the first time he saw it, how a Hollow ate souls. It was hideous, their friends screams still echoed in the air and his mind still kept on re-winding how the Hollow opened its huge mouth, with many layers of teeth inside, and swallowed the kids one by one. It was frightening, horrible, and sickening to say the least.

”Ichigo,��� Renji called him quietly. He heard it, but his body seemed to have stopped from responding. ”Oy, Ichigo! ” From Renjis voice, Ichigo knew that he too was crying.

He slowly turned around, zanpakutou still tightly clutch with both hands. Renji was indeed kneeling on a softly sobbing Rukia and was looking at him with a pained expression. He slowly strode towards his two friends and knelt, or rather collapsed, beside Rukia, zanpakutou fell with a soft thud on the ground.

”Are you alright? ” Renji asked his friend. He knew that the question was pathetic because he himself wasn alright. But he still had to ask, just to ease Ichigos pain and fear a little. He already knew that Ichigos death was from a Hollow, his mothers death was because of a Hollow, his poster grandmothers death was also because of a Hollow, and now, even his precious friends deaths were because of Hollows.

He looked at the huge zanpakutou of his friend. He wouldve berated Ichigo for not telling them about it if the situation wasn so horrible. Ichigos reiatsu was immense and was fluctuating wildly, mirroring the intense emotion inside him. He hadn thought that Ichigo was such a powerful person, a prodigy for being able to summon his zanpakutou at such a young age. Not even normal Shinigamis could do that. They often needed training at the Academy first, and there were even those who were still having a hard time summoning their zanpakutou even with such trainings.

Ichigos fringe covered his stinging eyes as he looked down on the ground. He promised his baa-chan he wouldn cry anymore. He promised that he would be strong, strong enough to protect those he loved. And yet… and yet he failed again…

”Ichigo, if you think that its your fault, you better stop. ” Renji said in a serious, almost cold tone. ”Because if you think that way, then it means that Rukia and I are as much responsible for their deaths as you are. ” Ichigo looked at him, clearly on the verge of crying, both of them were.

The redhead patted his shoulder quite harshly before he squeezed it. It was a small thing, but it made the tightness in his chest lighten a little.

Rukia had ceased from sobbing and was now trying her best to hide her tear-soaked face with the sleeve of her kimono. Without any word, Renji hugged them both. Ichigo was surprised and Rukia just melted from the touch, still raw from crying. ”Im glad that both of you are here, still with me. ”

They remained like that for hours, and after they thought that they could already stand, they made mounds for their friends and put crosses on top, to remember them, even if there were no bodies underneath. The place that they chose overlooked the 78th District of Rukongai, a grassy cliff that was blessed with fresh air and bright sun.

They stared at the crosses bearing their four friends names, and right there and then, Renji said in his hoarse but steady voice, ”I promise, I will be a Shinigami and avenge your deaths. ”

And Rukia followed. ”I will too. Its a promise. ”

”Ill stay outside Seireitei and watch over their tombs. ” Ichigo said, directing his speech to Rukia and Renji, who only nodded in return.

It had been four years ago, and yet Ichigo still couldn help but feel that he was weak. He was still too weak. And thats the reason why he refused to live with anyone anymore. He didn want to witness any other Hollow victims anymore. He lived in isolation for two years now, in the outskirts of the 78th District. It took some time convincing Kaien and Juushirou but he was still able to. They used the grassy plain in their training and Ichigo was more contented living here.

e slacking again! ” Kaien shouted over his shoulder and he immediately resumed in his training.

He had not seen both Renji and Rukia since then. Those two had surely become closer, or so he hoped. And without warning, Kaien charged at him with his so-called intention to kill. Ichigos talent was honed now that even if he was spacing out, he was still able to dodge Kaiens attack using shunpo. He learned it through Juushirou and not Kaien. His mentor wanted him to learn it all by himself, and certainly not use it in trying to escape, but to fight.

The two exchanged blows for a while before retreating in a shade.

”You two seem to be getting better and better. ” A voice they knew so well made both of them turn. Ichigo grinned when he saw Juushirou and Kaien immediately stood up and bowed in respect before he smirked.

”Ichigo still has lots and lots to learn. ” He voiced, though Ichigo had basically surpassed him. He knew that the kid was now holding back every time the two of them would fight, and Kaien still had to give his all to not lose. Hell, he would not even be bragging anymore if he said that Ichigo had a Captain class reiatsu, though it rarely showed because of all the years of teaching the kid on how to control it.

Ichigo was basically powerful but without any form of control. And thus, the harsh trainings. And after some years of struggling, the boy barely even let his reiatsu slip. Hell, he couldn even feel anything anymore. Thats how powerful Ichigo had become, though he still hadn tried fighting Ichigo to the point that the kid had to let out all his power. He knew he would die if that happened.

Ichigo scowled at Kaiens words while Juushirou chuckled. ”Aside from that, how are you these days, Ichigo-kun? ”

”Uhm, okay… Im okay. ” He smiled one of his rare smiles that was reserved only for his guardian. Kaien rolled his eyes. Ichigo was such an angel when Juushirou was here and yet hes the demons pawn when the two of them were alone, not that he minded. Ichigo was more fun to be with when hes a little mischievous than when hes an angel.

They all sat and Juushirou brought out the things he was carrying, three packs of lunch. Ichigo brightened and Kaien grinned. They both liked Juushirous cooking.

”So, how
e the new recruits? ” Juushirou asked as they ate in companionable silence. Kaien looked at him before he answered.

e very energetic. ” He grinned. ”Unlike someone I know who slacks often. ”

Ichigo scowled. ”Im not slackening! ” He knew Kaien was pertaining to him, if that grin of his was any indication. Juushirou laughed and Kaiens grin widened.

”Who said it was you? ” He arched an eyebrow at Ichigo. ”My, my. How defensive. ”

Ichigos scowl deepened. By now, its his normal expression so Kaien just let him be. Juushirou and Kaien, just like always, used their spare time to discuss some Shinigami business that Ichigo had no care about. He just ate in contentment as he listened half-heartedly.

After a while, Kaien and Juushirou already said their goodbyes to him. Ichigo waved back and was about to retreat in his little hut when Kaien was suddenly behind him and ruffled his hair once more.

”Hey! ” Ichigo immediately tried to break from his strong grip but was in vain. Kaien laughed and Juushirou too, much to Ichigos embarrassment.

”Youve grown up, Berry-chan! ” Kaien smirked. ”Make sure to prepare for next time. The training will be much harsher. ” Ichigo snorted at that.

And he and Juushirou were gone.

Ichigo kept scowling for a while, but when they were already out of sight. He smiled as he touched his hair. He liked it, though secretly, how Kaien ruffled his hair like that. It was a very comforting feeling, though it was also embarrassing.

He sighed before he entered his house.

You haven called me since then. Ichigo knew that voice all too well.

He sighed. ”Its not that I don want to call you… Its just… ”

Still as pathetic as always.

”Shut up, Hollow! ” Ichigo voiced loudly. He had long learned that the other voice inside his head was, in fact, a Hollow, though no one knew of Hichigo Shirosakis existence except him. Not even Kaien or Juushirou, especially not Renji and Rukia, not that they were able to talk to one another after that mournful afternoon.

Shiro, Ichigo knew, was concerned for him in his own way, so he didn fear his own Hollow too much, though he had yet to learn controlling his Hollow power. At best, he was neglecting it, at worst, he feared it. Everyone he loved was killed by Hollows, so it was hard for him to accept that he was partly one.

Thats what I say about you being pathetic, King.

”Shut up, and stop reading my mind, Shiro. ” Ichigo rarely used his Hollows name, but when he did, it meant that he was serious.

Fine, fine. But don go around moping every time you
e alone. Its annoying. You know very well that Zangetsu and I hate the rain.

It rains here a lot. It was Zangetsus voice this time. Ichigo sighed as he closed his eyes.

When he opened them again, he was already surrounded by tall buildings which were gravity-defying and horizontal. The surrounding was damp. It meant that it just rained here, again.

Ichigo. Zangetsu, a middle-aged man with a long flowing black robe and brown sunglasses looked at him solemnly. It was his normal expression, just like how Ichigos normal expression was a scowl. His hair was a shoulder-length wavy brunette and the color of his eyes was hidden by the glasses that he wore.

”Yo, Zangetsu-ojii-san. ” He answered and immediately ducked when he felt Shiros sword almost cut him in half horizontally.

It seems that annoying guy taught you something useful after all.

”Are you trying to **ing kill me!? ” Ichigo exclaimed when he recovered.

Shiro merely grinned, the creepy grin that was his signature, as he swung the sword over his shoulder. No, King. Of course not. Id be damned if I kill you. He looked like Ichigo that sometimes the teen felt that he was looking at a mirror, except that Shiros eyes were gold and not chocolate in color. And his hair was white, not orange. He wore a Shihakusho, the official Shinigami uniform. Only, his clothes were white, just like his whole body, and not black.

The Hollow was born together with him, just like Zangetsu was. Shiro told him that his mother also had her own Hollow inside her, though Ichigo didn understand it at the time.

Shiro was also another reason why he didn want to be a Shinigami. Shinigamis hunted Hollows. If the Shinigamis learned that he had a Hollow inside him, then what would become of him? Not to mention the contempt that Juushirou and Kaien might receive for taking care of him. Of course, the other reason… was because of a certain brunette Captain whose name he couldn even remember. It had been sixteen years after all. He was just a boy then, a boy whose only trauma was the death of his mother and his own death. He was an eighteen-year-old now, at least thats how his body looked like, a teen whose worries and fears were far too numerous to be named.

Ichigo rolled his eyes at his Hollows annoying antics. He was used to Shiros attempts to cut him every time he visited in his own world. It was the world that only he could see or live in. It was also the place that he always found himself retreating to every time the memories and the guilt would get too much to bear. Zangetsu (and Shiro, sometimes) comforted him when he was here, and those two were his strength and his power.

Shirosaki, its better if you stop doing such reckless things. Zangetsu said in his monotone voice, so unlike Shiros high-pitch creepy one.

”I think Ill be staying here for a while. ” Ichigo sat on one of the buildings. He remembered the first time he went here, not by his own accord of course. He sat at the building and saw, to his panic and shock, that he was sitting on the buildings wall and not on the floor.

He explained it to Kaien one time and the older Shinigami merely laughed, saying that his world was a reflection of his identity. And even now, he still couldn understand why his world was made of horizontal buildings and silence that stretched for eternity. Everything was so still and lifeless, so hard and cold. And yet Zangetsu lived here together with Shiro. Maybe it was because he too was hard, cold, and lifeless?

You know, its annoying every time you think of pathetic things. Ichigo opened his eyes again, not realizing he closed them, and looked at Shiros annoyed expression.

Ichigo, its best that you stop thinking of things that weigh you down and things that weaken your heart. Zangetsu voiced again. Instead, think of things that will make you stronger, things that will strengthen your resolve, and will definitely make you move on.

”Sorry, ” Ichigo smiled sheepishly at his two companions. He inhaled before he lay down the wall of the building. ”Its just that… I think sometimes Im still too weak. ”

Comes with great power a great responsibility. Zangetsu voiced. You need not rush things, Ichigo.

Apparently, King here thinks that it will be the end of the world if he wouldn be able to protect someone. Ichigo glared at him, but he just continued, ignoring his master. Even if everyone dies, the world will still continue to exist. Time will still continue.

Ichigo snorted. He hated it every time Shiro would be in Lecture-mode. Of course, a creepy Hollow lecturing him, a kid whose loved ones were killed by a Hollow? Preposterous. But that didn mean that Shiro was wrong. Ichigo was far too mature now, far too engrossed in Juushirou and Kaiens teachings, to not accept anothers well-grounded advice.

”Anyway, let me sleep here for a while. ” He said just as he let his body relax. He heard Zangetsu and Shiros voice just as he drifted into sleep.

Of course.

This is your world.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

”W-What do you mean gone? ” Ichigo asked, his heart starting to feel silent panic. He was training earlier when Juushirou showed up with a very mournful and anguished expression.

They were seated in a small table, the tea already cold in front of them. Juushirou closed his eyes, not really wanting to repeat the same words all over again. ”Shiba-kun, your mentor, has passed away. ”

Ichigo felt his chest tightened as he fisted his hands tightly. He watched the total agony in Juushirous expression and he knew that his death was something tragic. He wanted to ask how, but he suddenly couldn find his voice. He willed himself to stop trembling and break down in front of Juushirou.

Kaien hadn shown up ever since that afternoon. It had been two weeks since then and just as he was happy to actually see Juushirou, this news was broken to him. It was painful to lose someone who had been with him for eight years now, someone he had grown close to, like an older brother. And Kaien just had to die before fulfilling his promise of harsh training…

He closed his eyes. ”H-How did he..? ” He didn need to continue. He was sure that Juushirou would understand.

The older man looked at Ichigo. The teen was taking it a little too calmly and he was afraid that Ichigo was breaking inside without anyone to lean on. He stood up and walked towards Ichigo. The teen looked at him with sorrowful expression and the older male knew he was right. He sat beside the boy and held his tanned hands.

”Shiba-kuns wife, Miyako-san, was sent to investigate some Hollow activities the day after we last saw you. ” Juushirou started, voice just slightly trembling despite the deep pain that clenched his heart. ”She came back the afternoon after, alone and weak. All the others aside from her were killed. That night, a massacre happened. Many of my subordinates were killed by an unknown someone and it was too late when we realized that it was her who killed them all. The Hollow Metastacia used her body and resided within her, using her to eat more souls. After that, Shiba-kun willed himself to kill Miyako, just for the sake of preserving her dignity as a Shinigami. ”

Ichigo felt his heart constricted at the story. ”Its just like Baa-chan… ” Ichigo knew Kaiens wife Miyako. Sometimes, when Kaien came to Ichigos house, she would also visit. Sometimes she would cook for Ichigo while her husband and the boy were sparring. It was like having a mother all over again, though no one could replace his real mother so he just treated her like an elder sister. And much to Kaiens amusement, he also called her by name without any honorific. Miyako was too kind, way too kind for Kaien as Ichigo always teased. She was honorable and strong, despite being tender and warm. Shes the third seat, but her influence wasn limited to that. For her to be possessed must be so hard for Kaien to endure.

”Yes, it is. ” Juushirou answered Ichigos words. ”Shiba-kun chased after her and ended up in some forested area in Rukongai. Kuchiki-san and I followed after them but when we arrived, Shiba-kun was already engaged in a fight to at least recover her body. We could not do anything because it was his fight. He was fighting for his wifes honor, and we mustn intervene. But in the end… ”

Ichigo somehow had the gist of what happened. He closed his eyes as his grip on Juushirous hand tightened. ”In the end, the Hollow consumed him too. And, with the last of his will, he purposefully stabbed himself with Kuchiki-sans zanpakutou. Kuchiki wasn the one who stabbed him. It was him who thrust himself through the sword that she held. He sacrificed himself just for Metastacia, the Hollow that killed his wife, to be slain. Even now, Kuchiki-san blames herself for what happened to him, even though its entirely my fault… ” He said as he let his tears fell one by one.

Ichigos heart broke even more at the sight of his beloved guardian breaking in front of him. He immediately hugged Juushirou and the older man leaned on him for support as he cried for the first time ever since it happened. He cooped everything up inside him in order to proceed to proper investigation and everything else that was needed to be done after that. His subordinates didn need a leader that would break in front of them. They needed to see him strong. And he maintained his façade up until this afternoon.

By now, Juushirou was far too exhausted and far too broken to care if he was sobbing in front of the boy that he should have been comforting instead. He was far too anguished by the deaths of his subordinates and his lieutenant to even care about his pride as a Captain. He knew Ichigo wouldn judge him by that. He knew that with Ichigo, he could cry his heart out without any shame. Because Ichigo was his son.

”Its not your fault, Juushirou-san. Its not anyones fault, except the Hollows. ” Ichigos voice was hoarse and was trembling a bit, but it was alright. He drew circles on Juushirous back with his palm, calming his beloved guardian with all his might. He remembered Renjis words once, and now he truly believed them. This was not Juushirous fault, or anybody elses for that matter. ”It never was your fault and never would be. ”

Juushirou continued to sob. ”But I am the Captain, Ichigo… I shouldve felt that something was wrong with Miyako-san that afternoon… I shouldve prevented it… ”

Ichigo didn know what to say to that. He had experienced that as a child, and he knew that no matter what he would say to Juushirou now, the older man would still think that he was at fault. It was disheartening. And now he wondered if this was his fathers feeling while consoling him, utter agony at the sight of his son blaming himself for something that was entirely out of his control.

Now you see, King? Every time you blame yourself for something, this is how other people feel for you.

”Shut up, Shiro. ”

He didn know how much time they remained like that. But when Juushirou finally let go of his hakama, it was already past dusk outside. The older mans face was still tear-streaked and Ichigo immediately stood up and took a towel to give to his guardian. Juushirou took it and started wiping the tears off his face, though his face was still basically red and his eyes sore from crying.

Ichigo reheated the tea and gave it to Juushirou afterwards. The older man murmured a soft hank you before accepting it.

”Thank you, Ichigo-kun… ” Juushirou voiced after a while. Ichigo tried to smile in return to at least make Juushirou feel better but all that came out of him was a sad grimace. He couldn smile. Not when one of his favorite people just died on him… not when Kaien hadn fulfilled his promise of not dying on him…

”He broke his promises to me, Juushirou-san… ” He voiced after a while. ”He promised to train me harsher the next time we meet… he promised not to die on me… ”

Juushirou put the cup of tea down and looked at his poster son. Ichigo was still not shedding any tears. He was cooping it up inside…

”Ichigo-kun, you can cry on my shoulders too. ” He smiled sadly. ”Lets not make Shiba-kun worry too much by holding everything inside us… ”

”I promised… not to cry anymore… ” Ichigo closed his eyes to prevent the traitor of a tear to come out. He gulped as the agony inside him intensified with his action.

Before he knew it, Juushirou was beside him again, comforting him by ruffling his hair gently. It wasn how Kaien did it. Kaiens way of doing it was brash, just like him. Juushirous hands were more gentle and kind. But both of them were nevertheless comforting. He looked down and leaned on Juushirous shoulder.

Juushirou felt the silent trembles from his sons body. He felt the warm wetness on his Shihakusho, but he didn say anything. He continued ruffling Ichigos hair, not because he always saw Kaien doing it. But because he always saw how Ichigo felt comforted with this small gesture. It was the least he could do…

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