Some time ago, in a discussion about a chapter of another long running fanfiction I'm writing ("The Optimised Wish Project", for Dragon Ball), someone asked me if I planned to dig deeper into all the consequences and problems with the existence of an afterlife, and how it would affect the characters. I said that while it was going to be a part of the story, I wouldn't probably have the space to really expand on it in detail, and that if I had to write a story full of people talking and musing about the philosophical issues surrounding death or an afterlife, it would probably have to be a Bleach fanfiction.
This story started trying to be that, though I'm not sure if in the end it is. As I'm posting this, the whole story is almost complete - it's just five chapters, so expect it to be uploaded pretty regularly. There's certainly a lot of talking, thinking and wrangling with the issues which come with the afterlife, but there's also a plot behind it all, since in the end I still didn't feel like writing just a series of Socratic dialogues about death. There's some significant retcons from canon as I tried to fix the spirit world rules into a pattern that was consistent and made sense to me, but mostly, there is one point of divergence to the story, at the very beginning, and it all goes from that. Ichigo's pretty much in character; Rukia is however somewhat different from canon, and you could say her being different is the true divergence that kicks off the plot.
Regardless, my main goal in writing this story wasn't to either fix Bleach canon or to explore a specific "what if" question. It was to discuss the themes I wanted to, and I picked the setting and the plot twist that would give me the best starting point to do so. So to misquote a certain famous bio-exorcist in a certain musical (which has been a significant part of my soundtrack while writing this, together with the Blue Oyster Cult song the title references): just relax, have some fun, leave a review when you're done, and take a breath...
...welcome to a story about death.
I carry out a rapid analysis of the situation, the way we were trained to do at the Academy. Many of my colleagues, both then and now, always thought that all that makes a Shinigami is having a zanpakuto and knowing how to swing it around. Not me, though. I know that being a Shinigami is far more than that. It's discipline, quick thinking, the ability to determine the best path of action even in the worst of situations, and the skill and determination to carry it out.
I am a Shinigami.
The situation is unusual, to say the least. I am in the world of the living, hunting a Hollow. It's a low level specimen, just a freshly fallen soul looking to feast on its first meal. That is not the problem. Most Hollow hunts involve creatures like this one, and are not more complicated that honing onto a warning signal, swinging your sword once, and then congratulating yourself for a job well done as the - admittedly small - reward gets credited to your monthly earnings back in Soul Society. What makes the hunt unusual isn't the Hollow; Hollows aren't renowned for their intelligence, and if an area is well patrolled, they get caught quite quickly, while they still haven't had time or victims enough to build up their strength to a dangerous level.
What makes the hunt unusual is the human boy.
The human boy is likely what drew the Hollow in the first place. He's ridiculously spirit-attuned, has orange hair (probably unrelated but still noteworthy detail), and has done some of the most absurd things I've ever seen a human do. In order, he saw me, he broke my binding spell with brute strength, and he decided that the best way to protect his sister from a Hollow was to attack the thing head on. With a wooden bat. Which was probably the stupidest, most impulsive thing I've ever seen anyone do, and I've been dealing with Renji Abarai on a daily basis for years.
So, obviously, now he's about to be grabbed and eaten by the Hollow. He would deserve it in full too, but then again, Shinigami aren't in the business of meting out ironic justice. We're in the business of killing Hollows and peacefully sending Wholes to the afterlife; and right now, I don't see any Wholes. So, I better do my duty, as best as I can. Just like the Academy taught me to.
The obvious thing would be to jump ahead, toss myself in between the two, pushing away the boy, and then turn to quickly try and stab the Hollow in its open mouth. It would also be wrong. There is no way I could do that in time now. All that would happen is that I would push away the boy, get bitten by the Hollow, receive a mortal wound, and then either be eaten altogether or bleed out on the ground while the creature feasts on the boy's soul anyway. No one wins from such a scenario. So what's the next best thing?
The good thing is, I don't need to think too much about this stuff. The Academy has very clear procedures, for any possible situation. Many don't remember them after studying them once, but I do. And procedures speak quite clearly of what to do in this kind of situation.
If possible, save the body. If not possible, save the soul.
The boy stands in front of the Hollow, who is now clasping his body among his fangs. He's helplessly struggling, clearly unable to free himself, while the open maw of the spirit drools above him. I point my finger and spell out the words quickly.
"Bakudou Number Four: Byakurai."
It's a weak spell, as it was bound to be given that I didn't even use the full chant. It wouldn't even graze the Hollow, but for a weak, fleshy human it's sufficient. The thin beam of light pierces the air, and hits the boy right in his temple, passing his head side to side. When, one second later, the Hollow finally takes a bite, it's only empty flesh he munches. He spits it out, disappointed. The soul, its real meal, had been catapulted out in the instant of death, and is now lying, quite dumbfounded, a few metres back, the severed Chain of Fate dangling from his chest.
The Hollow charges, with an angry shriek, but now there's time and space for me to do what I know very well how to do. I flash step in, flanking the creature, and swing my sword upwards in a perfect semicircle. The resistance is minimal; the blade slices through mask and flesh, and the thing's severed head falls on the ground, gushing disgusting ichor for a moment. Then, with a last ghastly scream, the creature is purified; its soul passes on as body and head both evaporate in a dark mist. The Hollow is no more.
I turn to the boy - now a Whole, a pure soul still lingering in the world of the living. He seems confused and in shock. Without the Hollow to hold it any more, his body - the half that has not been bitten out, at least, from the chest down - falls to the ground in a pool of blood. The soul's eyes open in disbelief and horror at that sight and he turns to me, looking for answers.
"You have just died," I explain to him as calmly as possible. "I killed you."
DO (NOT) FEAR THE REAPER
1 - Acceptance
It doesn't hurt and that's weird, it's hard and heavy to breathe and that's weird, but most importantly, I can clearly see the lower half of myself lying on the asphalt with dangling intestines coming out of it and yet I don't even feel like puking because it's as if I don't have a stomach to do that any more and that's really fucking weird.
Also, this self-proclaimed Shinigami girl says she's killed me.
"What are you talking about?! I'm here, I'm alive and-"
I choke on my own words, gasping, because it's really, really hard to breathe. Like I'm on the top of mount Everest hard - not that I've ever tried, I've read what people who did say it's like though. Also, the heaviness on my chest is more than simply metaphorical. I look down to find out that there's a long, thick metal chain dangling from it. When I pull on it, I feel pain, like I'm trying to pull out my own skin.
The girl sighs and talks to me slowly like one would with a child. "You have just died," she insists. "That Hollow was about to devour your soul. I made a snap judgement and decided to save it by killing your body. Now if you stay still-"
She approaches me quickly, her sword raised. The butt of her sword starts glowing, like it did when she made that ghost in my bedroom pass on, only minutes ago, and I'm not having any of that shit.
"Hold on hold on hold on!"
I jump back by at least two metres in a single leap. Huh, turns out the heavy breathing thing has also improved a little, and once I got over that, this body feels pretty light.
"Stay still already," she says, with a hint of annoyance. "I will let you pass on to Soul Society."
"I'm not passing on to shit! I'm just - you just killed me, for fuck's sake! Weren't you trying to save me? What kind of saviour kills the person they've come to rescue?"
"My duty is to hunt Hollows, and protect the total sum of the inhabitants of this place; their souls before their bodies. Had I let you be devoured, your soul would have disintegrated, and then reconstituted itself as a new Hollow somewhere else near here. You would have been condemned to hunt your fellow human, a spectator behind your mask, prey of your own bestial instincts and in unbearable pain, until another Shinigami or myself came along to end your misery. Does that sound pleasant to you?"
No, it doesn't, I'll give her that.
"I took the best course of action with what time and room I had to act. Now your mortal body is dead, but at least your soul is safe and can pass on. Any more question, or can we get on with it?"
"Getting... ok, hold on." I try to desperately think a way out of this. I was in my bedroom chilling out just, like, fifteen minutes ago, and now I'm about to be shipped to, what? The afterlife? What even is a Soul Society? In years of talking with ghosts, I've never heard it come up even once.
I try to reason with her.
"Listen, there must be a way to fix this, right? You have magic powers. Can't you resurrect me or something with your healing magic?"
She raises an eyebrow at me. "Healing Kidou exists, but it cannot repair that much damage to your body. And even if it could, your Chain of Fate is severed. Nothing in this world can fix that. All that's left for you is either passing on, or letting it corrode and eat your heart. Do you really want to hold a grudge? You've seen what happens to spirits who do that for long enough."
"I can't help but hold a grudge! I have a life! A family, friends! You can't just tell me that I need to leave all of them on a moment's notice for some... Soul Society, or whatever, without even saying goodbye!"
"Isn't that what death always is like? Did you think yourself immortal?"
I'm fucking fifteen. Of course I did.
Defeated, I lower my eyes to look at the chain dangling from my chest - must be what she was talking about earlier. I slump to the ground, taking my face in my hands. This isn't real. This can't be real.
Not-so-funny story. My dad has plenty of books on medicine on his shelves (makes sense, he's a doctor). I looked at many of those through the years, when I was little. Some of them mostly out of morbid curiosity. I couldn't take my eyes off all those pictures of organs bursting with tumours or bodies being cut open for autopsies, even though they grossed the hell out of me. But there also was this chapter I kept reading often, for similar reasons, even though it had no pictures at all. It was about end-of-life care. How to deal with a patient who knew they were 100% going to die very soon. Small detail, I stopped reading that after mom died, and never touched it again.
Well, the chapter mentioned five stages of grief that people tend to go through when they know that's their fate. It said they were denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance. I never thought about going through them - certainly not about doing it after I was dead. But all in all, in the last five minutes, I've gone through the first three real quick. I'd rather skip depression, that's never much use, and I know what the end point is going to be anyway.
I let out a grunt of frustration and pass my hands amidst my hair (neither of which are real solid matter any more, of course). Then I stand back up.
"Fine. I get it. I'm dead. There's no going back, no matter how much I complain. But I don't want to just go like this. Let me at least talk to my family one last time. Then you can come back and send me to Soul Society."
"You realise you're a spirit, right? You can't just talk to your family."
"My sisters can see ghosts. Karin especially. I think I can talk to them through her."
"A family of mediums. Convenient." The Shinigami shrugged. "Very well. I will accompany you while you talk to them. If my duty calls me elsewhere, I might have to leave. In that case, I expect to find you here when I come back. Remember, if you ever decide to stick around, that for every day you spend here in the mortal realm, your Chain of Fate will shorten a little. It will be quite painful. And when it reaches the end, you can guess what happens. So, it's in your best interest to not run."
"Come then, let's hurry up. By the way, I am Rukia Kuchiki, from the 13th Squad of the Gotei 13. Pleased to make your acquaintance."
She's not exactly trying to hide her sarcasm there. Still, it would be poor manners to not introduce myself to my own personal reaper.
"Ichigo Kurosaki. Nice to meetcha."
Let's go give the family the news.
Having agreed to fulfil the boy's last wish, we go back to his house. It's a waste of time, but at the moment, there's little harm in indulging him. I don't have any other upcoming jobs, and I still must take care of damage control here. The harm done to house and inhabitants has been significant. I can't repair it all, and some of it will be necessary to validate whatever cover story I can put together for Ichigo's death. Of course, this also means that once he's passed on, I will have to erase and rewrite the memories of his whole family, including whatever he's going to tell them. But he doesn't know that, and as long as it makes my job easier, it's better for us all if he moves to Soul Society unaware of that fact.
The Hollow has done a lot of damage; the kitchen's wall is straight up torn out, and everyone inside has been wounded one way or another. We take care of the black haired girl first. She's called Karin; the one the boy says has good spirit sense. I cast my healing Kidou over her, and she's fine enough to get up in a minute. She can't see me, but she does see Ichigo. She gasps at the sight of his chain though.
I leave them to their explanations, and move on to her sister, Yuzu. Her wounds are more severe, and it takes a longer time to make her recover. I layer the healing spells with an additional series of enchantments to keep her asleep and ease her body into a more relaxed pose; it would not do if she were too stiff or woke up still in pain. These spells tend to induce pleasant dreams in the subject, usually involving the situation that makes them feel most at ease. I can see her relax, yet something else happens too. At one point, she starts crying in her sleep, and moaning something like 'please, please, don't go'. She tries to hug air, and even clasps one corner of my kimono. I put her hand back to her chest, gently, then quickly finish my job. When she wakes up, she startles us all with her first cry.
She blinks while she tries to get a sense of the situation, confused. She stares right through me at Karin, and squints in Ichigo's direction. As he said, she sees something too, clearly, but just isn't as good at this as her sister.
They're talking again, this time taking turns with one girl acting as an intermediary to relay Ichigo's words to the other. I already can see that this meeting is going to be annoying and slow, and may decide to go back on my decision after all. But next, the father. When I find him he's prone on the ground, splayed across the floor, arms and legs wide and three large gashes in his back, from which blood has poured that has completely drenched his shirt. I feel no spiritual presence from him, and for a moment I worry this mission report might have to include two casualties, not one. But when I actually start unfolding the Kidou, I realise the situation is stranger than that. There is something odd with the body itself. It is still definitely alive, barely, yet also definitely soulless. I've learned that extra-corporeal experiences are not unheard of following Hollow attacks, but in that case, there should be a Chain of Fate connecting this body with its soul, and I can not see any. This does not really correspond to any experience I've had or even studied about. There is only one kind of body that would behave this way, and this couldn't possibly be it.
Someone calls behind me. I turn around, and Ichigo turns around, but his sisters only stand confused, not having heard anything; then Karin follows her brother's eyes, and Yuzu follows her sister's, but both are clearly still staring at nothing. I'm not, but what I'm staring at still makes absolutely no sense to me in any way or form.
I'm seeing another version of the same exact man I'm trying to heal right now. His spiritual body. He wears a black kimono and has a zanpakuto tied to his waist. He's a Shinigami, like me.
If this evening was already the most surreal few hours in my life, now it's not even close. I say "in my life", but technically that's not right. Still.
Turns out, not only there are indeed Shinigami, good old school Death Gods, Soul Reapers walking around to harvest ghosts and lead them to the afterlife, yadda yadda, like in that classic rakugo play. But my dad is one of them. My dad.
My dad is a Shinigami.
I don't even know how to process this. My brain is just shutting down right now. It's crossed its arms and is on strike until the world decides to start making sense again.
We've gathered around the table in the living room, and my dad has gone back into his body (what am I even thinking. Why. How does this sentence make sense to me). Supposedly, a time for explanations will eventually come, though knowing him, I'm not holding my breath - actually I am because I'm dead, I'm not breathing any more, ha ha.
Right now he's consoling Karin and Yuzu. They took it pretty hard. I was worried Karin was going to break down at one point. I know she's always tried to keep it together after mum died, and I know it was a big ask to have her be my medium, but I really couldn't ask anyone else. Well, I could have asked my dad, apparently, but he's pretended to not be spirit sensitive for years in order to hide from his own family that he's a personification of Death itself, so yeah. I'm not mad or bitter at this, by the way, not one bit. He's going to explain himself, real good, and we're all going to be happy afterwards. He better.
"It's all right, it's all right," he's saying to Yuzu, who's broken into an ugly cry right into his lap. "Don't worry. Ichigo's going nowhere."
I'm sure Rukia would have something to object to that, but here's the other thing. Rukia is terrified of my dad. After seeing him, she was brusque at first, but then he introduced himself as Isshin Shiba, because apparently not even his name was real, and Kurosaki was mom's surname, and he said he was Captain of the so-and-so squad or something, at which point this girl started straight up shitting herself. I'm not kidding. She's walking on eggshells, even though my dad is acting as his usual goofy self. She tries to maintain a dignified demeanour, but you can tell that it's like she was juggling a live nuclear bomb. It looks like my dad used to be a big shot. Which is even more baffling; I have a God of Death who came to carry away my soul, and she's deathly afraid of my dad.
It's also fun and about the only positive thing of this night. Seeing her squirm is a special pleasure.
"So, you said you're from the 13th?," asks dad to Rukia, who stiffens instantly. "How's Captain Ukitake doing? Feeling any better?"
"He's, ah, still ailing. But he manages. I'll let him know you say hello."
"Ah, maybe don't. He's a chill guy and all, but I'm a deserter after all."
I can't hold back. "You're a what?"
He turns to me, startled by my shout, then makes a serious face and scratches his beard. "Right, explanation time. Ichigo, Karin, Yuzu, I'm sorry I never talked about this before. I did not think it would do much good, and I did not know how to even make you believe me."
"Getting out of your body and appearing in front of us as a ghost could have been a start," I suggest.
"I couldn't do that. In fact, until tonight, and since meeting your mother, I had been effectively very little more than a normal human. When I met your mother, in order to remain here in the mortal realm, I renounced my powers and sealed them away, so that even I could not access them."
I look at Karin, and see her stare sharing the same disbelief as me. This is dad we're talking about. The most uncool being in the known universe. He wears T-shirts of terrible rock bands that no one except other lame old men has ever heard of and tries to dropkick me out of bed every morning because he's desperate for attention. And we're supposed to believe he's a God who literally renounced his powers out of love of a mortal, like in some ancient myth? Yeah, no way.
"What kept me that way was a certain spell. But tonight, that spell has been broken, and I found myself in full possession of my old powers again. I think what broke it was your death, Ichigo."
"Wait, so the spell had something to do with me?"
"We can talk about that another time." This would be infuriating if his eyes didn't quickly go to Rukia, and I get the drift. Not while she's here listening. Makes sense, I don't trust her either, she killed me only minutes ago. "The important thing is, don't you get the implication?"
I think about it for a moment. "No."
"You're not fully human, Ichigo. You're the son of a human and a Shinigami."
"So, you have something of the Shinigami in yourself."
And I saw him as Shinigami, and I look at Rukia's chest, and I understand. There's nothing there - and this is not a comment on her less than voluptuous body. She has no chain. She does not have this damn Chain of Fate that hangs from mine and is apparently a lit fuse waiting to turn me into a Hollow.
"You mean I can turn into a Shinigami," I say. "And then stay here as much as I want. I wouldn't need to go to Soul Society."
"Attaboy!," he says, clapping.
Rukia looks at us with a controlled but extremely alarmed expression. "Captain," she says, "this would be highly irregular. An unregistered Shinigami that has not received Academy training here on Earth is-"
He looks at her, smiles and pats her shoulder. "Miss Kuchiki, honestly. I think you might be a bit overly literal in the way you interpret rules. I mean, earlier too, with Ichigo, I know giving priority to his soul was by the book, but it was also so cold, it's almost heartless. I like soldiers to have a bit more oomph, more willingness to put themselves in harm's way for the sake of protecting others, blood pumping spirit, going above and beyond the call of duty, know what I mean?"
"I'm not sure," she objects. "But-"
"And while it was surely the right thing, you will also have to go through a formal inquiry once you report it, won't you? This is how these things go after all. They need to judge that you really made the right call. And sometimes these inquiries can be a real pain. Sometimes they can even get it wrong."
"Yes," she admits, "But-"
"And on the other hand, say my son here becomes a Shinigami. He won't interfere. He won't go around and kill Hollows. All he wants is to live the life he was living anyway. Who is that going to hurt? Who would even need to realise? No one. But if you let this little thing go our way, he gets to live, I get my son, you get to claim no one died in your report and don't undergo any inquiry. One little white lie, and everyone is happy. What do you say?"
To her credit, Rukia tries to resist, but you can see on her face the precise moment in which temptation and fear conspire to make her give up and break her seemingly incorruptible resolve.
"Fine," she says, with a sigh. "But I will have to keep an eye on him. If he were to become a Hollow under my watch-"
"Don't worry, not my son!"
Dad laughs without a care in the world. I don't know if I feel so confident.
"Dad, even if I can become a Shinigami, I would still be a ghost. Not even Karin could see me at that point. She can't see Rukia. My body has been - well, it's not in good shape."
"Not a problem. When I first arrived, I didn't have a body either. Do I look like a ghost to you? Let's go see a friend of mine. He's going to give you a hand. And all the rest that comes attached to it."
It's been a while since we went on a family shopping trip. Usually we would go all together on a weekend to some shopping mall, buy clothes for everyone, have a lunch at a fast food, and generally have a fun day. Then things changed, we grew up, and mom died. No more trips. Tonight, we do that again, sort of, but it's a very peculiar one. Well, I guess it kind of falls in the "buying clothes" category.
To begin with, the shop is not a mall, but some sort of strange bazaar that can only be found if you really squint in a particular way at what otherwise looks like a regular dead end back alley. Also, it's still night. This really couldn't wait. When we reach the place, dad rings the doorbell, and Rukia, who has been diligently coming with us, probably to make sure I don't escape or something, is fidgeting in a corner. A big, burly man with mirror glasses and a moustache shows up at the door. He only takes a look from a small window, grunts, slams it shut, and unlocks a ridiculous series of latches and bolts before opening.
Inside, it's more like a warehouse than a shop. A large room with no visible furniture - either it's not there, or it's buried under the mountain of merchandise that's piled up absolutely everywhere. Some of it is just clothes, or tools, or worryingly, weapons, other is still sealed in boxes, and other yet isn't but it's just things that I've never seen and I can't even begin to imagine what they are for. The burly man has turned on the light, an old flickering light bulb that however at least allows us to not trip on one of these knickknacks. In my incorporeal form, I can't feel smells or even temperature, but Karin and Yuzu's reaction tells me it must be cold, damp and dusty, as they're shivering a bit and rubbing their eyes.
"Howdy, mister Kurosaki!"
The guy that I must assume is the shopkeeper comes to welcome us from the back of the room. He's this weird, lanky man, with hair like straw, wooden sandals and a gaudy green and white striped hat on whose brim keeps his eyes hidden.
My dad greets him back, they shake hands and start laughing together like old buddies. The shopkeeper introduces himself as Urahara Kisuke and leads us through the shop to a back room that looks actually a lot more liveable and well kept than the rest. Rukia follows us very discreetly, always at the end of the line, but I can catch the guy eyeing both me and her - which is enough to tell me he's not a normal human being. If the shop wasn't proof enough of that, of course.
The room we're now in has a very old fashioned feel; you'd think we've travelled through a time portal to some corner of the Edo period. There's a low table and cushions, and Urahara offers them to us to kneel on while he goes to brew tea for his "esteemed guests," as he put it. Yuzu and Karin uncomfortably shift on their legs, unused to the position. I probably would have too, normally, but now I realise I don't feel any pain or discomfort at all. Rukia and my dad show real expertise at this and do it very casually while keeping perfect form, as if taking part in tea ceremonies was a long time hobby of theirs.
Finally, sandals-and-hat dude comes back, puts cups in front of each of us, and pours green tea in them. He leaves me last, and when he starts pouring, he spends a long time looking at me, which is all the more unnerving because I can't even see his eyes well under the brim of that hat.
"What are you looking at?," I end up snapping at him.
"Quite a bit, mister Kurosaki," replies the shopkeeper, unfazed. "Captain, I assume he is the reason you are here today? Your son?"
Dad nods. "Stuff happened, and now he's dead. He needs a gigai, and he needs training on how to become a Shinigami."
"Oh, so that he can stay here on the mortal plane. My, my, playing fast and loose with the law. And what are you doing in company of such a rascal, miss Kuchiki?"
This surprises dad, and he looks at the girl, bemused. "Wait, you two know each other?"
"I shop here sometimes," admits Rukia, slightly embarrassed.
"Oh, what? So after all you're not above buying contraband-"
"It's just cheaper this way, okay? We're still required to pay supplies with our own money!"
I decide that's enough talking in riddles for now and raise my voice.
"Contraband? What's a gigai? Can you stop talking of Shinigami stuff you alone understand for five minutes?"
Sandals-and-hat dude turns to me.
"A gigai, mister Kurosaki, is an artificial body for Shinigami to pass as regular humans, simple as that. Same as what your father has been using for all these years."
Ok, that sounds interesting, and also insane. In fact, when I start thinking about what does that mean for how I and my sisters were conceived I decide to just shut down my brain for a while before I start screaming.
The shopkeeper comes closer and starts looking at me from different angles, and occasionally aligns his extended hand and fingers to parts of my body, like a tailor taking rough measures.
"Hm, yes, a pretty average boy for your age, bit on the tall side, nothing too hard. We can get working on it as soon as you'd like."
I look at the tea cup in front of me. I squint and try to focus on it very hard, then I extend my hand to grab it. The fingers pass right through, and I don't even feel them warmed by the steaming hot liquid inside.
"Right now is fine for me," I say, with a sigh. "You guys enjoy your tea."
"Come with me, let's get right to it then." says cheerfully sandals-and-hat, and he leads the way down a tight staircase.
"Are you a Shinigami too?," I end up asking the guy.
"Hm? Ah, yes, of course," he replies.
Right, of course he is.
The spiral staircase is long and steep, so at the end I have no idea how deep underground we are, but it feels like it must be a lot deeper than most shops' basements are. Of course, if for some miracle I couldn't touch the ground and had just sunk in the Earth like I ought to I'd be a lot deeper. Why don't I do that if I can't touch a simple teacup? Who the fuck knows, but right now I'm not about to complain.
Urahara leads me to a strange machine. It's another thing I can't name or give a purpose to. It has an intimidating amount of long, spindly mechanical arms terminating in needles, and room at the centre of them big enough for a human, so now I'm afraid I know what I'm supposed to do next.
"If you would please stand in there."
Yeah, figures. I step in, though this thing definitely worries me. When I'm in place, Urahara begins gesturing in the air. A console made of light lines draws itself in front of him. His fingers start playing with it, touching a button or turning a knob - all drawn by light impossibly floating mid-air, of course. The needles around me start moving; they get back to a position that forms an egg-like shape around me, then some start prodding by coming closer. They slow down and lightly touch me here and there, and when they do they give the tiniest prickly sensation, like a very low electrical current. That surprises me, as I hadn't felt anything like it since I became a soul yet. After a bit of touching they move around, either following the surfaces or jumping to some other spot without any obvious logic. They touch my skin or the fabric of my clothes without discriminating.
"The scan will take a while," announces Urahara, laying back on a chair. The machine keeps operating without input, now, silently weaving its web around me. "This must have been a strange experience, mister Kurosaki, and it's sure to get stranger still."
"All normal to you guys, I expect."
"You don't often realise the oddities in that which you're used to, I'll admit. But as a scientist, I'm more inclined than most to recognise how much mystery hides even in the most seemingly trivial things."
"You're a scientist? What are you doing running a dusty shop?"
"Call it downsizing," he laughs. "My personal life isn't that important in the grand scheme of things. Don't you have any more interesting questions for me?"
I look at him in the eye, and decide that, sure, I may as well give it a go.
I take a deep breath.
"What am I made of?," I start. "How come I can touch the floor, but not a cup of tea? How come these needles can touch me? How come I have clothes on me, and they're the same I had in my body before dying? Who's my dad? How do you know him? Why was he hiding here on Earth? What is a gigai? Is it like a robot or more like a clone body?"
He seems a bit overwhelmed. I renew my assault, I'm not letting him off this easy.
"What is Soul Society? Who decides who goes there? Does everyone go there? Who appointed Shinigami? Were Shinigami previously human? Can Shinigami die? What comes after a soul's death? In fact, how can a soul die? What are Hollows? Did they always exist? Are there other humans who know of them? Is there a God? If yes, do they care for humanity? Why do people need to die? Do people need to die at all? Do Shinigami care? What's the point of all this goddamned nonsense, and what am I supposed to do now that I'm in the middle of it?"
I would be out of breath if I was breathing. Instead I just stare at him defiantly, and feel a bit better for getting all of that off my chest.
Sandals-and-hat dude remains in silence for a while, thoughtful, then he stares at me, in absolute seriousness.
"Forty-two," he says.
I swear, if I get the chance, I'm fucking killing him.
"Well, I asked if you had any questions, I never said I would answer them," he continues, shrugging, with a sly smile, as if reading my thoughts. "Some of what you asked, you should ask your father, as he has a greater right to answer it than me. Some would take way too long to explain now. Some you will have to learn by yourself. But we can talk about gigais, which, as you might imagine, are my main preoccupation right now."
Better than nothing, I guess. To him, I just grunt and nod, though.
"Gigai are indeed more biological than mechanical. You might have already surmised that since your father has been using one for his whole time in the world of the living, you have been-"
"I surmised," I interrupt him. "Let's move on."
"Right, right. What the machine is doing is probing your soul for information necessary to build the gigai. This gives it its exterior appearance, and a basic template that fits your soul's shape. It will still need to adapt fully to it, and that will be a natural process during the first days. It will be a bit like a shoe adapting to your foot."
"But it's not a real body, right? I can't stay in it forever."
"If it was just for the gigai itself, you could. It even comes with some convenient functionalities to simulate the appearance of growing and ageing. The problem is your Chain of Fate. Being in a gigai won't stop its erosion. How much it lasts is subjective, but for most souls, left alone, it should be a month or so. You will suffer periodic corrosion episodes, probably once every two or three days. They will be very painful, even though while inside your gigai you will not see them, which removes some of the horror most souls experience at them."
Well, that sure sounds like a lot of fun. "So what am I supposed to do to not turn into a Hollow?"
"As I'm sure your father has already told you, your best shot is to become a Shinigami. You surely have the potential - it's in your blood, so to speak. But this is one of the things where you have to mostly go it alone."
"And where should I start? How do I even become a Shinigami? Do I just go around fighting Hollows?"
"Surely not, mister Kurosaki! That's just a recipe to become a Hollow yourself. No, a Shinigami is made by one and one thing only: their zanpakuto."
"Then I need to get myself a sword?"
"Not necessarily a literal sword," explains Urahara. "A zanpakuto is a specific expression of one's own soul. For most Shinigami it is a sword because they mostly imagine it being a sword, see? But it's more like a metaphor. Do you understand?"
"Not one bit."
"You will. Or you will turn into a Hollow, I guess, but I have faith in you. However, I can't help you any more; the process itself of discovering what a zanpakuto is, for someone, shapes their zanpakuto. And one's zanpakuto could be different simply based on that. If I were to say anything more, I could just clip your wings."
"Oh, no problem. I love riddles, especially when my life is on the line," I say. I am being sarcastic, of course.
The machine goes ping!, and its spidery legs all contract a bit and leave me enough room to step out.
Urahara smirks, satisfied. "And that's it! Mister Kurosaki, now I need to go to work on your gigai. I will have it ready in a couple of hours, so please, rejoin your family. This was a most enlightening conversation."
"At least it was for one of us, I guess," I grumble, while walking towards the staircase. I'm annoyed with this guy, annoyed with everyone right now, but what I can do? I can't even punch a wall properly.
"Don't worry, mister Kurosaki. I have taken your measure quite well, I think," says sandal-and-hat behind me. "Trust me, you will find your new body fits you better than the old one."
Bizarre news from the realm of the living; it seems the Kuchiki girl did not suffer any injuries. Instead, the human boy did. An interesting development, but not one that matters much. I still have my pieces at the right places. No one suspects anything. The trap is laid, the bait placed.
Everything is under control.
Everything proceeds according to plan.