by Fushigi Kismet
Dying was immaterial.
Oh, not all sorts of dying - there were at least two kinds that she did not want to have to face. One she had felt brush alongside her only to have it - no perhaps it was better to say herself, pulled away from it, and the other was another of those kinds that no one returned from, locked as they were behind those giant doors made from no earthly metals. And then there was that other death which still stalked through her dreams, a mixture of unbearable sadness and crushing pain. Three kinds, then. Never again.
The normal mortal type of death which most associated with "dying" - that was immaterial.
Ichigo had asked her once, lazily, what would you do were I to die? She had leant in close, her breath warm on his skin, and murmured, Abandon this world for the next. I would search all of Soul Society for you and once I found you I would beat you up for not waiting long enough for me to pack so we could go together.
Yes, she had replied. But you shan't until you're old and grey.
And shall you be as grey and wrinkled to match?
I never said anything about wrinkles, she had retorted, idly running her fingers through his hair. Perhaps you'll be bald. I will be your young trophy wife and people will marvel that I married you when I might have had all the world at my feet.
I will never go bald, he had said stubbornly. Then, with a touch of wistfulness, Shall you never grow old?
No, never. Not while you are alive.
I'll have a hard time of it, he had declared. Me in my infirm old age and you still young. Should I beat away the men eyeing you with my cane? Perhaps my walker?
Idiot, she had said tenderly, kissing his forehead. Just knit your eyebrows at them and they'll run away screaming.
What will you do with such an old husband in Soul Society?
Moron. You are going to die of old age. All those with a natural death may choose which age they start out with in Soul Society.
And if I forget how to be young? The corner of his mouth had twitched upwards in a teasing grin, and his eyes had taken their pleasure of roving over her bare skin.
She had rolled on top of him, and smiled so that her teeth showed. I will teach you . . . all over again.
So it was that she thought that death did not matter.
She would stare at the body that Ichigo took his pleasure from, turn the slim white arms back and forth and wonder at how closely they mirrored her real arms. How closely this faux body compared to her own. In fact, it might even be a case of the imitation outdoing the original. Damn Urahara for a pervert, she thought idly, burying her nose in the crook of her elbow and breathing in the warm scent of her skin.
Real things. False things. She no longer knew how much of herself was composed of truth and how much fiction. Perhaps there was no dividing line, and she was, as Urahara had said once from beneath the brim of his hat as he pretended to nap in an old lawn chair he had dug up in storage somewhere, intending her to hear, "A mixture of nothing and anything . . . which makes you as real as anyone else. Maybe more so because you acknowledge the lie."
She had turned away from him as he began to hum a song, low, with short snatches of words in the voice of an older man, ". . . all my darkling infinitudes . . . . one by one they fall away . . ." and she knew it to be nonsense. "All my darkling infinitudes," she repeated later, in the quiet of her closet, and wondered how words could haunt anyone when they had never lived.
She had no choice but to acknowledge the lie. Everything in her life had been built upon pretense. Others clung close to their old lives . . . they could remain the people they had once been. For them it was enough that they had once lived - they were content enough with the memories.
To be truthful, she held no memory of her past life. She had been young when she died, too young, perhaps. All she knew was that one morning she had opened her eyes and found herself lying in an alleyway in Rukongai.
An old man had found her and taken her in for those first crucial days. The rules had been simple to learn. No one hungers in Rukongai. You may partake of meals but the only souls that hunger are Hollows and Shinigami. Souls do not desire the pleasures of which flesh and blood partake. Those who thirst are only those few who possess spiritual power and they must bargain for their water. To lie, to cheat, to steal . . . to survive. There is no judgment after death. One may be cleansed of all sins. The ones to be honored and feared are those with the strongest spiritual power - the elite, living apart from the common rabble - the shinigami.
Living on those streets alone was a frugal, hand-to-mouth existence she soon learned. She had no means with which to purchase water, without water she would surely suffer. A soul could not die from thirst or hunger, but it would grow weaker and more desperate. It might be driven to unconscionable acts. She had once seen two young boys bashing in the back of a young woman's head with a rock so as to steal her flask of water. The woman had no spiritual power herself - perhaps she had been hoarding it to sell or had a "family" member who needed it.
People died. Everyday. Most often those living on the edges with no other place to go. Sometimes souls died from accidents. Sometimes they were killed. She had seen people die. Again and again and again . . . She had buried comrades and mourned friends. She wanted to believe what the shinigami said - that they were reborn, that life, real life, was waiting for them.
The closer one lived to the center, the cleaner and quieter the streets, the happier the people. The further one strayed . . . the more miserable the circumstances.
She tried always to send souls to the center, but in the end she had no control over their destinations. So instead she smiled and told them calmly and with great conviction - Soul Society is not Hell. It is a nice place.
For most, it was.
Besides, it was better to lie than to leave them to slowly decay into Hollows. That was a greater truth, wasn't it? Better to exist as yourself than as a corruption of all that you once were. That was the decision she had made for the sake of those lost souls' existences.
What was happiness? Not this, nor that . . . her happiness was in her memories of a time when she had run freely through the dirty streets, her friends laughing at her side, in the rare instances when her brother looked at her with a some emotion shy of contempt, a little less grating than distaste, when she sat on a swaying branch of a tree and felt the wind fly past her, heading for some unknown country.
Eating leftovers from Yuzu's homemade meals, laughing at Inoue's bright and sparkling pronouncements, failing math, trying all the flavors of juicebox, one by one, making scary pronouncements to Kon, walking in the sun, sitting in the shade of an oak and watching others live . . .
. . . knowing that somewhere Ichigo was smiling.
These thoughts were not new to her.
She had known it then and she knew it now. This life she was living was nothing more than a well-constructed fraud.
So what? Ichigo had said, with a self-righteous sort of selfishness she rather thought that, but would never dare tell him, he had inherited from his father. Real life or an imitation - who cares! It allowed us to meet, didn't it? So, do what you have to - be grateful and live out this life as best you can!
There were times when she wondered why she loved Ichigo, then she recalled his idiot logic and realized it was because they were both fools. Why else would she ever ask him for his opinion? So that, too, was a truth. In their foolishness and stubbornness they had found another sort of happiness. How else could they ever stand to be around one another?
So now she was faced with the prospect of not being able to stand being without him, even, especially, in death.
She trudged along, the handles of a plastic bag draped over one arm as she rubbed her hands together to ward off the sharp cold air. Convenience store onigiri. Sometimes she had such strange cravings she could only laugh at the ridiculousness of herself . . . hungering for anything.
The crystal glint of the clear jewels lining the branches and leaves of the hedges along the sidewalk caught her eye. She reached out a hand, causing tremors to riffle through the twigs and leaves, and the droplets burst like tiny stars against her fingertips and dribbled down the side of her palm.
Quite abruptly, a warm hand clapped onto her shoulder and a shadow fell over her. She craned her neck back to look up at him, looming ominously overhead with a dark umbrella and a displeased expression.
"What are you doing?" he said, cross. She wondered if he had been worried when he woke up and found her gone. Really, how troublesome. "It's starting to rain again. You'll catch a cold."
She opened her mouth to voice any one of a number of snappish replies, but shut it quickly and smiled instead - which disturbed him quite a bit more, a devilish corner of her brain whispered, as his eyes narrowed and he took half a step back.
"You're right," she said, and twined her arm under and around the one he had free.
"Hey!" he said, fighting what might have been a blush or her hold on his arm or the mere closeness of her in public. The umbrella rocked a bit unsteadily. But after a token display of resistance, he gave up and they started walking.
Glancing over and away at his expression, she hid a smile and clung on tighter, the bag smacking against her side with a crinkle of plastic. This was the process of living, wasn't it? Listening to the slow pelting of the rain against the umbrella canvas and feeling the warmth of Ichigo's arm beneath her fingers, she let herself suppose that even an imitation of life was better than nothing at all.