Title: Long Way to Goodbye: Epilogue
Summary: Rukia and Ichigo disappeared and, although she tries, Karin has no idea what happened to them. Did Ichigo abandon everyone or did he and Rukia die?
When reading this, please be aware that not all scenes happen in chronological order.
“You know what,” Urahara laughed, “we didn’t do anything tonight. We missed out on the main action.”
His catty companion hissed at him. Yoruichi’s stomach was tightly bound and being carried by Tessai wasn’t improving her mood.
“How can you laugh at a time like this?” snapped Yoruichi. She angrily licked at a tiny scratch along her arm. “I was gutted! We nearly died! Look at Tessai—he’s crying. Be a real man and follow his lead.”
“I’m not crying, it’s the rain,” mumbled Tessai. His face was lost beneath bandages and his glasses.
Urahara lifted a finger. “Ah, but we’re still alive, Yoruichi. That’s reason to be happy! As a matter of fact, I thought we’d die for certain. We should be celebrating.”
Yoruichi’s jaw fell. “I was skewered and you lost your arm!”
“So?” Urahara scratched his forehead. “It’s only a limb. Could’ve been worse.”
“It’s your arm, Kisuke!”
“Bah, I created a line of Shinigami prosthetics ages ago,” scoffed Urahara. “I’ve been prepared to lose an arm for over a century.”
“You’re serious, aren’t you?” Yoruichi gaped.
“A scientist needs both of his hands.”
“Yeah, your nights would be lonely without them,” she muttered.
Tessai, who was close enough to hear her, guffawed and accidentally squeezed Yoruichi, who yowled in pain.
Urahara cupped his ear with his remaining hand, and leaned forward with a frown. “What was that?”
“I said that you’re right,” Yoruichi lied, glaring at Tessai. She sighed. “Okay, I admit things could have ended worse. But I don’t understand how those kids stopped Ichigo.”
Urahara, still eying her suspiciously, explained as best he could. “I believe Kurosaki-san could’ve returned to his usual self, so long as his friends hit him on the head enough times. And that’s probably what happened.”
“Wait a sec,” Yoruichi threw him a cross look, “you said a minute ago that you believed we’d all die. Now you’re saying you thought Ichigo’d be okay?”
He shrugged. “I meant I only thought beating him up might work; I’m surprised it actually did. Most people just get angry when you smack them around, after all.”
Yoruichi growled and stopped arguing with him. She turned her attention to their nearby surroundings and changed the subject. “So the other Hollow tonight, the one Sado fought earlier, really was Shinji? Only a small trace of the reiatsu remains and I’m not sure it belonged to him.”
“Most likely, it’s his.” Urahara’s face darkened while he spoke. “Aizen killed the other Vizards two years ago, but we know Shinji survived. According to Inoue-san, he dragged Kurosaki-san away from her and the others after Kuchiki-san died.” Urahara scowled. “He saved four lives but didn’t want to save himself.”
Urahara’s words brought about a sober silence, and they took a moment to remember Shinji Hirako. The rain fell harder.
Then Yoruichi abruptly grinned. “See, Kisuke, I told you this was no time to laugh.” Her grin looked forced and unnatural.
“It was until you brought up Shinji,” Urahara retorted and shook his head.
With big teardrops streaking down his bandaged face, Tessai glanced at Yoruichi and his boss. His mouth fell open. “Hey, aren’t you both crying?”
Urahara snorted and pulled down the brim of his hat. “Like you said before, Tessai, it’s the rain.”
“You tried to kill him! How can we leave him alone with you?”
“You don’t have a choice. I’m the only one strong enough to drag him. Your new boyfriend’s pushed himself too far. Unless you heal him soon, he won’t be getting up again.”
“I-I-I know that! And Ishida-kun’s not my b-boyfriend…”
Yasutora groaned and opened his eyes. For a moment, he was at a loss to explain where he was. How was he still alive? Who was arguing? Were Ichigo and his sister okay? What about everyone else? Then all his aches and pains crept into awareness, and a memory of a mask cracking came back to him.
He craned his neck, with no small amount of effort, and saw Renji, Inoue, and Karin standing around Ichigo’s fallen form. Ishida was nearby and had similarly collapsed. Thankfully, everyone appeared alive.
“What do you think, Karin-chan?” Inoue turned to Ichigo’s little sister. “Should we trust him? Um, Karin-chan?”
Why can’t they trust Renji? What’d happened while Yasutora was unconscious?
“I already told you, I’ll kick his ass if he tries anything stupid again,” Karin said, sounding tired. Her face was pale and she looked exhausted. “If you don’t trust him, just trust me.”
Renji rolled his eyes. “Listen, if I was going to kill Ichigo, I’d already have done it! Besides, nothing I can do could be worse than how he’ll feel once he remembers that he… you know.”
Inoue still hesitated.
“It’s all right,” Yasutora spoke up, startling Inoue and Renji. “I’ll go with them.”
Inoue fixed a stare on Yasutora. Specifically, her eyes locked on his broken elbow.
“I can manage,” he grumbled defensively under Inoue’s apprehensive stare. He disregarded his body’s protests and stood up.
“Then let’s go already!” Renji snapped. “I owe Ichigo and the sooner I pay him back, the better!”
So, Yasutora promised Inoue he’d let her heal him after Ishida was fine, and she finally relented. The group split in two, and Karin offered Yasutora a shoulder. The walk to Ichigo’s house was quiet save for rain and the sound of Ichigo’s limp body being dragged along the cement. Nobody said a word until Karin slammed the door behind her.
“So…it’s over,” Yasutora said dully.
Renji grimaced. “Yeah.”
“What happened while I was unconscious?”
Renji frowned in consternation and threw up his arms. The Shinigami left soon after. Yasutora needed to ask someone else for answers, apparently. First, though, he had to figure out what to do with his life now that peace had returned.
Come to think of it, he’d done little for himself over the years; he was always helping others—be it guarding Ichigo’s back, rescuing Rukia and then Inoue, or training in a basement for his friends’ sake. All of a sudden, the future had opened up. His newfound freedom was somewhat alarming.
Should he go back to the band? Last he heard, they’d found a terrible replacement for him. Perhaps he should follow Urahara’s advice and finally get a girlfriend. College entrance exams were near and he’d seriously neglected his studying. He could always find a job. Yasutora needed the money and he was sick of living in Urahara-san’s basement. What about his powers? Hollows would never be gone for good. Should he stop fighting just because Ichigo was back to normal? He could continue to fight and protect as many people as possible.
Yasutora laughed at himself for questioning the future. If he couldn’t decide, why not do all of the above?
Renji entered Soul Society. The attendants at the gate did a double-take when they realized who he was. Had it been so long since he last returned?
“Oh, sir!” One of the attendants spoke up. “Are you with Captain Unohana or the Captain-Commander?”
The hell is he talking about? Renji ignored the gatekeeper and stepped onto the streets of Rukongai. He nodded to the occasional Shinigami he recognized.
When was the last time Renji visited his division’s headquarters? He vaguely recalled going there once: he’d told his lieutenant, what’s-her-name, to take care of the paperwork and left. He scowled, which frightened some wimps from the Fourth Division. Hastily, Renji apologized to his unintended victims. They fled before he finished saying sorry.
Really, he chided himself, what’s-her-name? What kind of lousy captain didn’t remember his lieutenant? Renji swore loudly and again needed to apologize to more innocent bystanders. Ashamed, he searched his memories for his lieutenant’s name. What was it? Ah, yes: Nemu. How could he forget? She was the daughter of that long-dead maniac.
More random people asked Renji if he’d sided with Unohana or the Captain-Commander. Eventually, he got so irritated by their persistence that he unkindly told all of them to piss off. Then Renji stopped in his path when he realized he was heading towards Byakuya’s headquarters instead of his own.
If Renji had difficulty remembering Nemu’s name, it was nothing compared to his inability to recall the other seated officers. He couldn’t remember any of their names, let alone their faces.
Renji contained his anger and resisted the urge to curse out loud. Nonetheless, the strained expression on his scarred face terrified more rookies. He decided he should have all the scars removed as soon as possible, or else he’d need to accept seeing Shinigami flee from his presence. Also, it occurred to Renji that he should’ve cleaned himself up after the battle with Ichigo before returning to Soul Society; he was drenched in blood.
Dammit, why’d I have to realize too late that I was doing a poor job as a captain?! After admitting his grudge against Ichigo had been a mistake, so many of the decisions he’d made in the last two years felt like mistakes, too. Renji didn’t blame Inoue for not telling him the truth sooner, however. He’d been avoiding her and everyone else. Even if she’d said anything, would I have listened to her before tonight?
On the streets, people now gave Renji a wide berth. At least they’d stopped asking him who he’d sided with, whatever that meant.
Just when he was about to curse himself again, the tiny voice in Renji’s head told him to relax. He ignored it out of habit, and was startled when the voice called him a dumbass. He halted in confusion, and dimly noted that he stood before his division headquarters. He recognized that voice—it wasn’t his own.
“Captain Abarai? Yes, it is you,” Nemu, his lieutenant, said in a monotone voice. She didn’t sound the least bit surprised that her long-absent boss had walked through the door. “Everything is in order. I anticipate the others will be relieved to see you.”
Feeling the scrutiny from his subordinate, Renji shook himself and gave Nemu an awkward smile. How to explain himself? Screw it, he didn’t need to—he was the captain. “Ah…err…I’m back.”
“Welcome back.” She bowed.
His smile widened and he made his way past her and into his office. He had plenty of time to make it up to her and the rest of the guys. But he needed a minute alone first.
Fifty years and now another two. How many times had he failed to see what was in plain sight? Rukia obviously hadn’t wanted to be alone after being adopted into the Kuchiki family, but he’d repressed his instinct to reach out to her. Furthermore, she wouldn’t have wanted her childhood friend to destroy himself trying to kill another friend. Renji had refused to consider her wishes a second time.
She’d been beside him ever since she died. Not literally next to him, but close enough for him to know better. Yes, Renji knew the source of that small, imaginary voice. That voice came from his memories of her.
For two years, he’d forgotten how to remember Rukia.
Ishida dreamed he saw a pair of brown eyes. It wasn’t all he saw in the dream. He saw all of her in his dream. All that was appropriate. In his dreams, she was always clothed in something Ishida designed for her. His dreams’ beginnings, at least, were not indecent. Maybe this dream was different, mind you, and was not so proper. Ishida wasn’t certain since those brown eyes dominated his vision.
Then the brown eyes blinked and Ishida jumped. And Inoue, the subject of his dream, was startled by his being startled and jumped. For a moment, their hearts pounded and then they laughed. This was no dream, he slowly realized.
His chuckles died down and he grimaced, recalling what’d happened that night. Inoue’s good mirth similarly cooled, likely due to the same memories. Ishida was glad the worst had been avoided, but the victory tonight signaled the end. Time was dwindling. Ishida and Inoue would graduate in less than ten months and then go their separate ways.
He frowned. A hand softly pressed against his arm.
Inoue lowered her head and avoided his gaze. “It’s all right, Ishida-kun, I understand,” she mumbled, and quickly took her hand off him.
“Y-you do?” he stuttered, dumbstruck. Why did she stop touching his arm? Hastily, he added in all formality, “Thank you for taking care of me, Inoue-san. Your care is always highly appreciated, I assure you.”
She recoiled and his brow furrowed. Why did she stop touching his arm? Inoue was in no hurry to reply to him, even though they were alone.
Wait, why were they alone? “Where is everyone?” Ishida asked, looking around. His eyes widened when he realized they were in a bedroom. Hers, he assumed. So was he on her bed?! He’d been so focused on her that he’d failed to register his surroundings. He flushed when he noticed the room smelled like Inoue.
“They left. Renji and Sado-san took Kurosaki-kun and Karin-chan home,” replied Inoue, rubbing her arms and shivering. Perhaps Ishida should put an arm around her shoulder; she looked cold, despite the heat. No, that would be too forward.
Ishida nodded. “Ah, I see. And we are?” Hopefully, he didn’t sound too hopeful.
“In my apartment. It’s raining outside and my place was nearby,” explained Inoue, still not meeting his eyes.
Ishida nodded again, as if it were perfectly normal for him to be in her room. On her bed, no less! Inoue’d healed him, so should it be this difficult for him to breathe?
Eventually, Inoue, speaking so quietly he barely heard her, asked him:
“You’re not angry…are you? Though, like I said,” she added bitterly, “I understand if you are.”
He looked at her in confusion. “Angry?” He wasn’t mad that she stopped touching his arm, though he’d prefer it if she still were. “I’m not angry,” he denied out of reflex.
“Yes, you are! You have more reason to be mad than anyone else!”
How did she know that? No man else would miss her hand on his arm than he.
“Listen, Inoue-san, it’s perfectly fine,” he assured her, “you can always do it again.”
She stared at him, aghast, as if he’d just said the most horrendous thing in the world. He gaped, too—it was just his arm, nothing indecent!
Inoue backed away from him like he was some kind of monster. “Ishida-kun…how could you even…? Why would you want me to keep secrets from you again?”
He frowned. Keep secrets from him? What was she talking about? “What does this have to do with my arm?”
She glanced at his arm, taken aback. “What does your arm have to do with me hiding the truth from you about Kurosaki-kun and Rukia? What are you talking about?”
“What are you talking about?”
“About how you’re mad at me for not telling you about what really happened two years ago!” Tears were on the verge of falling from her brown eyes.
“Oh. That.” Ishida hadn’t even considered that. “But I’m not mad at you for that.”
She opened her mouth and closed it, seeming bewildered by his simple denial. “Y-you’re not?”
“No,” he shook his head. “What does that matter? You had your reasons and matters turned out fine in the end.” Then he reconsidered his answer. “No wait, I take that back. If it was hurting you so much to bottle it up, you should have said something sooner.”
She went still, shocked by this admission. Abruptly, she hugged him. The thought struck him that he hadn’t fully recovered, and that her embrace was so strong it might crack a few of his ribs. Odd how that didn’t alarm him. Ishida patted her on the back until she calmed down.
“You know,” he said to pass the time, “I tried so hard to protect you tonight, but you ended up saving me instead. I owe you, and even though we only have a few months left, I’ll do my best to return the favor.”
“But you have plenty of time, don’t you?” Inoue sounded puzzled. “What’s this about a few months?”
Now Ishida was baffled. “We won’t see each other after university starts, right?”
“What? I thought we were both trying for the same university. Unless you don’t want to go to the same school as me?”
“No!” Ishida protested vehemently, “I do! That is, if you want to go there with me there, too?”
“Yes.” For the first time since he woke up, she smiled. “It’s settled then.”
That smile was a perfect complement to her brown eyes, and it left him speechless. It dawned on Ishida that dreams couldn’t measure up to reality.
Isshin’s son snapped awake. When Ichigo noticed he’d been sleeping at the dinner table, he promptly stood up, only to lose his balance. He leaned against a wall and clutched his head, looking as though he were nursing a hangover. Only Isshin knew his son hadn’t been drinking. If only that’d been the case.
“Oh, you're home,” Isshin said loudly. “More importantly, where's Rukia?” She could help his son better than he could. Urahara never did tell Isshin what’d happened to her.
“Who wakes up his son like this?! What kind of father are you?!”
“I’m a worried father since you haven’t explained where Rukia is yet.”
“She’s…” Ichigo frowned. “I’m not sure. I can’t remember…Wait, how long has it been since I last saw you? I don’t remember your beard being so long.”
“Just go and get Rukia back. Right now!”
“Huh, what’s with you? Rukia can take care of herself…I don’t know, but I’m sure she’s okay.”
“It's Karin, your sister!”
“She came home miserable—she pretended she was fine, obviously—and nothing I've done can cheer her up. Now Yuzu's scared, too, and you're a good-for-nothing son, so only Rukia can help out!”
“I...Okay, I'll find her.”
“I'm already out the door, jackass...!”
His son's voice trailed off as he slammed the door behind him. Immediately, Isshin dropped the obnoxious father act and sighed in relief. He was worried about the girls, all right, but Ichigo was the real cause for concern. Karin didn’t need Rukia: Ichigo did. With some luck, the boy would find her before too long. Times like these, he missed Masaki the most.
What the hell kind of fool things had Ichigo done as a Hollow? In any case, getting his boy out of the house might help Karin; Isshin bet it was her brother that’d ruined her day. Besides, Isshin needed a minute to kick Kon out of Ichigo’s body.
Isshin gnashed his teeth in frustration. Seriously, what had his kids done tonight?!
Urahara must know something. Isshin had some questions for him of the violent variety the next time they met. No, that was a bad idea—Isshin knew that fighting his old friend would not help his children in the least right now. Nor would it even make Isshin feel any better. After all, he might lose.
Pacing, Isshin waited for Ichigo to return with Rukia. Surely, Rukia must’ve come rushing over as soon as Ichigo lost it, so it shouldn’t take Ichigo too long long to find her.
“Really,” he muttered, “what did Ichigo do to Karin?”
Then, mid-pace, Isshin’s foot brushed against something. He looked down in curiosity and saw two small objects. Now, how did that get into the house? Did Karin throw them aside when she stumbled inside? Or did they belong to Ichigo? Cautiously, Isshin picked them up. They were two fragments of the same item and he placed them together.
For a long while, Isshin stared at what he held. In his hands was a horned black mask with two rough gashes for eyes and an uneven, jagged mouth. While holding it, Isshin swore he could hear a cruel laughter.
He frowned and grunted, dropping the broken mask. Then he grabbed the shards and threw them in the garbage.
Feeling uneasy, he tapped his foot against the floor and waited. How long could it take Ichigo to bring Rukia back? His gaze idly fell upon the calendar and Isshin recalled the date with a start—it was the fifteenth of July. Come to think of it, Isshin forgot to wish his son a happy birthday.
Ichigo walked through town listlessly, guided only by a strong desire to reunite with Rukia. His father had said to bring her back quickly, but he’d no idea where she could be. Was she even in Karakura? Soul Society? Answers and memories eluded him; his mind was empty, blank. His body was stiff and moved mechanically. He felt like he’d just woken up after a deep, long sleep.
Still, Ichigo searched, if only because he didn’t know what else to do. The town seemed inexplicably unfamiliar to Ichigo. He got the impression he didn’t belong here any longer. It was as though Karakura had aged several years without him. How were his friends doing lately? His sisters? I should know…but I don’t.
For the rest of the night, he looked for Rukia. He never found her. He eventually returned home and told his dad that he’d resume the search tomorrow. Isshin balked, but Ichigo was too tired to argue with his dad. After Ichigo collapsed while walking up the stairs, his father helped him to bed.
The nightmares began as soon as Ichigo shut his eyes.
Karin trampled up the stairs in a hurry, unconcerned about the racket she made. She hadn’t spoken a word since coming home. She hadn’t stopped to answer her dad’s questions, she’d been so anxious to get away from Ichigo. For two years, Karin had searched high and low for her brother, and upon finding him, she couldn’t wait to get out of his sight!
A head poked out of a door on the second floor. “Hey! Who’s making all of that noise?! Some of us here want to sleep!” For once, Kon’s scowl matched Ichigo’s trademark expression.
Fresh memories of a masked man flinging Orihime aside and blood splattering came to Karin upon seeing the fake. She dug her nails into her palms. Now I’m too chicken to face a copy of my brother?! Karin put all the anger she felt at herself into a fierce glare directed Kon’s way. He withered under her glower, and pawed uncertainly at the face he’d borrowed from Ichigo.
“W-what is it?” he blubbered, thunderstruck. “Did I forget to wash or something? Err…are you all right?”
His response was so unlike Ichigo that the bad memories fled. “It’s nothing,” she said to Kon and stalked away from him.
With the real Ichigo back, Kon would soon be out of the picture, but Karin had to admit she’d miss him a little. Ever since she’d learned the truth about the fake, it’d been a lot easier to put up with his antics. If only there were some way to keep him around; if nothing else, he made for a good target when Karin needed to vent her frustrations. Oh well—she wouldn’t miss him that much.
Karin stormed into her room when a drowsy voice froze her.
Yuzu. It seemed Kon wasn’t the only one she’d woken up. Karin saw her twin sister peering through half-lidded eyes in the dim light. Karin groaned weakly: after all the hell she went through tonight, she’d forgotten about her quarrel with Yuzu.
“Yeah?” Karin grunted, wincing at how weakly her voice came out.
Yuzu didn’t reply immediately, so Karin slipped into her bed. This stupid squabble began because Yuzu wouldn’t believe that “Ichigo,” that is, Kon, was not their brother.
No, that was wrong. It started because Karin thought Yuzu had to know the truth. In hindsight, Karin couldn’t understand why they were bickering. This ordeal seemed so stupid.
“Um, are you okay?” Yuzu finally asked when Karin thought she’d fallen back to sleep.
A day ago, her concern would have irritated Karin. After witnessing their brother go crazy, Yuzu’s honest concern put a big lump in her throat. “I’m f-f—I mean, no, I’m not.”
“Do you want to talk about it?”
Karin recalled the night with a shudder. “Not really, no.”
“Oh…” Yuzu sounded hurt. Her back was turned, so Karin couldn’t see her sister’s face.
It occurred to Karin then that she finally had proof. She could prove she was right about their brother. Except it seemed pointless now to flaunt the real Ichigo in Yuzu’s face like Karin had imagined. Would that seriously make things better with Yuzu? Would Yuzu believe there had ever been a fake?
Was it really so important that Yuzu believe her?
“I’m sorry!” she apologized in a rush, hearing a strange echo.
Karin needed a moment to realize the echo came from her sister. They’d said sorry simultaneously. Suddenly, Yuzu scrambled out of her bed and rushed to Karin’s side. No more words were said as the bottled-up emotions flowed out, but no words were needed.
Drifting off to sleep that night, Karin felt hope. If she could mend the rift between her and Yuzu, she could do the same with Ichigo. Her brother was alive, that’s what counted. Their family would return to normal, or as normal as they could get—Karin would make sure of it. Tomorrow, she’d say good morning to Ichigo and take things from there.
“The Laughing Man’s last act, before turning his face to the bloodstained ground, was to pull off his mask.”
- J.D. Salinger
The above quotation is from one of Salinger’s short story that influenced this fanfic. Only, this story changed a lot before I uploaded the first chapter, so the relevance of the quotation towards the fic has diminished. But it still has a connection and resonance with me, so it stays.
For those wondering about Isshin’s demands that Ichigo find Rukia, remember that Isshin never learned what happened to her in this fic. If he knew her fate, he wouldn’t have sent Ichigo on such a futile quest.
Thank you to everybody who commented on this story, and to those who read silently. And especially to Rachel, who is nothing but supportive.