When Ichigo is four, death means the people he sees, when everyone else can't. Sometimes he smiles at them, or walks carefully around them. Mostly, he leaves them alone, and they do the same.
When he is nine, death comes to mean something different, worse - Masaki, and the black hole of her absense, drawing them all in after her, so that he has to grit his teeth to hold on and wake up and remember to breathe.
A voice, telling him it's all your fault.
Ichigo doesn't argue.
The year he turns fifteen, death changes again - no, it explodes, all over the carefully built order of his life. It eats, breathes, talks, an annoyance dogging his every goddamn footstep, nagging his waking hours and harrying his sleep, creeping into his dreams. Death becomes a world wider than he can comprehend, death becomes something he can hold - a sword in his hand, a fight to win, and a reason to win it.
Death becomes a second chance.
So he takes it.
Ichigo turns twenty four. He finally graduates from medical school, and gets posted to a public hospital on the outskirts of Tokyo. He learns how very, very fine the line betwen life and death can be; and that there are no real weapons to fight the inevitable.
Death becomes a woman dying on a winter morning, while he sits beside her and watches.
He learns to let go.
If he is lucky (or perhaps not so lucky), Ichigo will grow old. His hair will fade to ash, his bones will creak, his eyes will dim and weaken. His scars will ache when it rains, and the days of his youth will run into each other in his mind.
He will watch his grandchildren play through long, honeyed summer afternoons, and fall asleep just before the sun sets so his wife will have to wake him for dinner. Death will shadow his slow, careful steps, draw ever closer, and he will wait for it, patient.
He has so little left to fear of it.
When it comes, it will wear a familiar face, young and arrogant as the day they met.
"You took your time," she will say, alighting on the park bench he's settled on.
"I'm in no hurry," he will point out, watching his granddaughter cover herself in dust and dirt.
"Hello, Auntie Rukia," she will say, looking up at his visitor.
"Have you come to take Grandpa away again?"
Ichigo will grimace and glower at the girl beside him. "Come back another day," he'll suggest.
"We've given you a week already. Do you want them to send Kenpachi?" she'll ask, dry.
"I rest my point."
He will sigh, and kiss his granddaughter on the cheek. "Go home," he'll tell her. "Tell Grandma I'll come visit when I can."
The dark haired child will nod and kiss him on the nose. "Bye bye!"
They will watch her meander down the street, her ponytail bouncing as she skips the cracks in the pavement.
"Ready?" she'll ask.
"Well." He will look down the street he has walked down everyday for the past twenty years of his life, rub the back of his neck, look at her, and shrug his shoulders. "I guess I am."