In the middle of the night, Isshin is troubled by the decisions he's made - and the ones he did not. Spoilers up to chapter 300.
by Great Writer Sarah
On a hot summer night Karakura Town is a broiling cement trap. Isshin lies awake, haunted. Guilt gnaws at his insides like a hungry beast searching for a meal. The sheets, once clean and starched, now covered in a thin layer of sweat, are thrown off. The house is suffocating; he rises and soon seeks retreat on the curb, hunched over the smoldering ember of a dying Salem.
Memories come and go in his mind, like flowers blooming then wilting at high speed. On occasion, he wipes moisture from his brow with the back of his free hand, then takes another drag from the lit cigarette, wondering how long it will last.
He remembers sitting on the green slopes of Tokyo University, Masaki's head resting in his lap, as natural as a key fits inside a lock. There, too, he smoked a cigarette, holding it between two fingers next to his mouth. It makes you look cool, Masaki said, voice soft and even, her first and last compliment. They married a year later.
He remembers holding sniffling baby Ichigo, bundled up in blue cloth, thinking that if any harm ever came to his little strawberry son, how easy it would be to put his soul into a gigai so he'd never feel pain again.
It is fuzzy, but he remembers the bone mask of the Hollow crashing through the wall, its gaping mouth eating him then spitting him out, like he was just an appetizer to be tasted. For the first time in six years, he felt the familiar pull of spirit energy from three places: himself, the Hollow, and his son. Before losing consciousness, he knew his son had taken the mantle of shinigami as his own.
The shortening fuse of the cigarette threatens to singe Isshin's fingers, so he throws it onto the ground and stamps it out with one movement. Soon it is replaced by a new one, lit fresh and thriving in the old man's mouth. Its heat seems to balance out with the dry, hot air.
He regrets not telling Ichigo the truth: about his past, his father's partnership with Urahara Kisuke, the day his mother died. He regrets not being more supportive of him during his period of great change (no, not that 'menarche' stuff, his changing into a full-fledged subservient of Soul Society, although calling him 'full-fledged' was giving him too much credit).
Isshin notices Ichigo's frequent absences from school and from home, times in which the little mod soul - Kon - takes his place in a physical sense but never anything emotional. It's the same way that Isshin was a father; he was always there, but he could never understand what his children were going through. The troubles of youth seemed over a hundred years ago, trapped like an insect in amber; a world of black kimonos and white sashes, the sounds of woven sandals pitter-pattering on hardwood floor and the trickle of tea being poured heard side by side with the clashing of steel upon matching steel.
He regrets not teaching Yuzu and Karin, the two women in his life, the real mysteries of the world. Isshin would have to be blind not to see that their spiritual energy was growing day by day, little by little, until it could no longer be ignored. With their curiosity and energy, it was hard not to see glimmers of Masaki, of the young woman he would always love.
If he had been there and shielded them both, his son and his wife, as the rain fell on their bodies.
If he had seen Rukia for who she was at first glance and left her to fend for herself on the streets, leaving Ichigo out of Seireitei's hands.
If he had taken the ride with Captains Kuchiki and Zaraki into Hueco Mundo.
If, on that night where the moon hung heavy in the sky and appeared as if soaked in red wine, he had unsheathed his zanpakutō and slid the blade into the soft space where the neck and collarbone met on Sosuke Aizen's prone body.
The short and painless death of his second cigarette takes Isshin by surprise. He thought he had more time, but two outside was his limit. With slow, deliberate steps, Isshin made the journey back to his room: across the door's threshold, through the kitchen where a poster of his late wife hung, up the stairs, two at a time, past the bedroom where he knew Ichigo was not sleeping or even there, past the bedrooms of his little girls, and at last to his own bedroom with the vacant double bed and the captain's uniform tied up and hidden in the back of the closet.
It is as he drifts into the arms of sleep, lying scissor-legged on a bare, damp mattress, that Isshin realizes that someone has taken the liberty of turning the A/C on. It is a small relief, one he takes into blank, black unconsciousness, where the images are painted in black and white and never judge him for the mistakes he has made.