Disclaimer: Kubo Tite created Bleach and the many dead characters who live in our hearts.
Description: PG13. A Shinigami captain doesn't need a human body, does he? The gang goes to Ichigo's funeral. Cremation ceremony, anyone?
Thank you to my lovely new beta, ray blu, lacegeisha, or nijinouta. What should I call her? My savior? You can check out her art at http://raiy-kun. the one who pushes people into the traincar and sends them on their way
"It's murder, Ichigo," Kon said. He lay, ankles crossed, on the Kurosaki couch. "A young handsome body roasted like a chicken! I can't believe you would even consider such a thing."
Kurosaki Ichigo, still not accustomed to the flowing white fabric over his black shihakushou, made sure that his new captain's robe didn't wrinkle when he sat on the couch arm. He smiled in a detached, confident way. "Don't even try," he said. "You can't make me feel guilty. You'd be one dead soul candy if it weren't for me--"
"Yes, yes, I know it was you who saved me from the abyss! Urahara is a wicked man, but you--you, Ichigo, are a good and generous boy. Please let me stay in this body."
Kon had dwelt in Ichigo's earthly body ever since the part-time Shinigami graduated from high school, but now that Ichigo was a permanent resident of Soul Society, there was no need for Kon to substitute for him.
"You're already giving me a bad name," Ichigo said. "You've been lying on this couch for years, and all my classmates are in college or getting good jobs."
"But I'm giving you a reputation with the ladies," Kon offered. "These fine strong muscles of yours get a fair amount of attention when I'm out. Hmm, I should apply for work at a host club."
That was exactly what Ichigo was afraid of--Kon ruining Ichigo's hard won reputation as a decent person. "Nope," he said to Kon. "You're cooked. I'm not going to let you go gigolo with my body."
After Kon, Ichigo informed his father of his decision and left Isshin to tell his sisters; Ichigo didn't want to be around when they screamed "gross!" at the prospect of cremating their older brother. He listened from the top of the stairs and steeled himself for Karin and Yuzu's responses. He expected them to take the news worse than Kon had.
The sisters, though, took the news with solemnity and skepticism. Did their father know what an ordeal a funeral could be? Why couldn't Ichigo save his body for when he visited the Living World? "There's always a gigai," Isshin told them. "Isn't my gigai like the real deal? All these years and you girls never knew I was a famous Shinigami!"
"We knew," said Karin, "that there was something strange about you." It was plain that she wasn't referring to her father's spirituality.
"We will have a beautiful wake," Isshin said. "We can hold it right here in the clinic. And people will come and pay their respects and give us big envelopes of cash."
"You're giving a funeral." Karin gasped, "in order to scam people?"
Isshin insisted that no, no, a wake in the clinic would be homey and sincere, and so what if it was cheaper than a hotel reception hall or funeral parlor? People would bring the traditional gift of cash, and Isshin still needed to pay for the priest, the flowers, the food--
"I can make Spam rolls, Daddy," Yuzu said.
Isshin continued. The costs would include the funeral car, a beautiful urn, the cremation--
"Roasted like chicken," said Kon mournfully. He still occupied the body that would be poured into the beautiful urn.
"Oh don't worry, my man," Isshin consoled him. "I promise you that the next time someone dies in the clinic and leaves a nice fresh body, you can have it."
"Gross! Daddy!" The girls fled the room, and on their way, they passed Ichigo.
"Is Kon going to stick around?" asked Karin. "Is there any way we can get rid of him for good?" Yuzu seemed appalled at the prospect of losing Kon; she'd always had a soft spot for the little mod-soul.
Ichigo shrugged and continued to eavesdrop.
"A nice fresh body, hmm?" The slouch-shouldered adolescent who looked like Ichigo but was really Kon considered Isshin's proposal. "Only if it's a good-looking person. Life itself is too miserable without good looks."
"I don't think you can be choosy." Isshin crossed his arms. "It's not every day people die at the Kurosaki Clinic. We treat mostly broken arms and sinus infections."
"Bah! I'm not living inside some ugly person who fell out of a tree and ended up here with a broken neck. I'd rather be a plushie." Kon lowered his voice to a grumble. "I'm surprised more people don't die here from a lack of proper medical attention."
And with that, Kon went upstairs to Ichigo's room to take a nap.
"The boy naps a lot," observed Isshin. "A dead son would move around more."
After his family, Ichigo told his best friends. A story needed to be concocted as to how the strong healthy young son of Dr. Kurosaki died, and Ichigo hoped that Keigo, the great master of untrue tales, could come up with something.
"Not a car accident," Keigo said. "Too common."
"Too sad," added Mizuiro. "People would be reminded of--" He glanced at Ichigo.
"It's alright," Ichigo said. "I'm going to be buried in the same place as my mom, so people are going to remember her anyway. I'm sure Dad will want to talk about her--"
"A tragic Yakuza knifing!" Keigo interrupted. "The reason you've been slacking since graduations is that you're a pimp. Then some dude tries to muscle into your territory--"
"I don't think so," said Ichigo.
"No one would believe it," Mizuiro said. "Ichigo and Chad can take on a dozen Yakuza and come out without a scratch. Everybody knows that."
Chad, who'd been picking a sad melody on his acoustic guitar for some time now, spoke up. "A heart attack," he said in his deep mournful voice. "The body won't have to look messed up."
It was decided that this death was genius. Because heart attacks are sudden, there wouldn't have to be a plot about an illness or an accident. People could be told that Ichigo had an enlarged heart, that his doctor father found him dead in bed and was unable to revive him. The death would not require dealing with the police like an accident would, and there would be no need to contact a hospital. Dr. Kurosaki could sign the death certificate himself.
"Simple but not common," was Keigo's assessment of Ichigo's demise. "You're brilliant, Sado. I think you're smarter than Ishida."
The Ishida family was informed next, and Ichigo was surprised that this pair of old friends didn't like the idea.
"It's dishonest, Kurosaki," Ishida said. "The funeral would require an enormous amount of pretense. Hiding your Shinigami identity from the public at large is one thing, but lying to acquaintances and distant family and causing them grief? Not ethical."
"It won't be a lie," Ichigo argued. "I'm already dead. We'll just be getting rid of the body is all."
Inoue was crying. "I can't believe it," she sniffled. "A funeral for Kurosaki-kun. I don't know if I would be able to go. I'd embarrass everyone. I'd either cry a river or I'd start laughing."
"Why?" asked Ichigo.
"Isn't it obvious?" Ishida seemed annoyed when people didn't understand his wife. "The deception--it would aggravate everyone's nerves. Your funeral would be one long morbid joke."
"Well," Ichigo rose from his chair and adjusted his robe so that a flourish of white fabric billowed under his arm. He liked showing off to Ishida that he'd made Shinigami captain. "I hope you can come, though. It would mean a lot to my family."
Ishida pushed up his glasses. "Of course, Kurosaki. I've always wanted to go to your funeral."
"Uryuu!" Inoue punched Ishida's arm. "Be nice."
Across the room, a pearly-skinned girl in a footed sleeper took her mother's gesture as a call to violence. She toddled to the low table, took a pear out of a basket and hurled it with all her might at Ichigo.
"Woah." Ichigo caught the fruit midair. "Quite a throwing arm."
"Tsuyu!" Ishida said. "Fruit is not for throwing."
Inoue collapsed in giggles on Ishida's shoulder. "At least she didn't hit him. She usually doesn't miss!"
"Stop it, Orihime. You're just encouraging her." Ishida looked embarrassed. "Stop laughing." Inoue buried her tear-streaked face in her hands and shook with laughter.
Ichigo got up to go, dodging apples and kumquats.
"Fast!" laughed the Ishida kid. She pointed at Ichigo. "He go fast!"
"She's a precocious talker," said Ishida proudly. Inoue was still cracking up.
"Get her to work on that aim, Ishida." Ichigo's head poked out from behind the front door. "See you guys at the funeral, okay?"
He heard a splatting sound that could've been a peach, and walked down the apartment steps with a smile. Ishida and Inoue could be heard debating whether or not to bring a fruit-flinging toddler to a funeral.
"I forgot to tell you, Ishida--!" Ichigo called upstairs. "You're going to be one of pallbearers!"
"No fucking way, Kurosaki," came Ishida's voice from a window. "Orihime! Stop! You can't keep punching me in front of Tsuyu. She doesn't understand that you're just playing around."
"You shouldn't be saying bad words around her."
This was fun, Ichigo thought. Dying was like having a graduation party.
Tatsuki went to school a thousand miles out of Tokyo or else Ichigo would've gone to see her first. Tatsuki was Ichigo's oldest friend, and she had this way of making Ichigo feel at ease anywhere in the Living World. She was a reminder of pre-Shinigami days, of judo matches and English summer camps, blueberry chewing gum and fireworks displays and … Mom.
Tatsuki understood, even though many people still expected Ichigo to eventually go to medical school, why the twenty-two year old wouldn't be pursuing any profession in the Living World. His Shinigami identity took precedence over the person he'd been before Rukia had stabbed him, changing his world forever. She understood that Ichigo didn't need to protect his sisters anymore because his dad had vowed to stay in the Living World for the rest of his daughters' natural lives. Ichigo was free of human responsibilities.
Unlike Ichigo's other friends months ago, Tatsuki had easily accepted Ichigo's decision to leave for Soul Society. She'd listened patiently while Ichigo explained stuff about duty and purpose and destiny, and then, with one of those serious dark-eyed looks, she'd told him, "I know, Ichigo. Rukia belongs in Soul Society and you belong with Rukia."
And that was the truth.
Tatsuki threw her book-bag on the bed and smiled when the Shinigami captain appeared at her dormitory window. "Don't you have a parade you're supposed to be at? The Death March of the Soul Society Hot Shots or something?"
"The Officers' Show of Arms," said Ichigo. "That was last week. I'm not busy this week."
Tatsuki's smile faded as Ichigo explained how his human body had become a bothersome liability, and she took the news of the funeral with a blank face. Maybe Tatsuki was tired or maybe the idea of having to wear a dress to the affair disturbed her. She didn't say anything for a long while, and Ichigo frowned at the idea of explaining himself further. Maybe, like Ishida, the dishonesty of the event bothered her.
"C'mon," Ichigo said. "I expected my sisters to look sad, but not you. It'll be great. Free food, all your old friends, a sort of send-off party before I get too busy in Soul Society."
Tatsuki shook her head. "I'm not sad…."
Ichigo remembered his sisters and Inoue's reactions. "You don't think that burning the body is too awful, do you? That part seems to freak girls out."
"As long as no one makes me play around with your bone crumbs, I'm fine." Tatsuki shrugged. "I understand, Ichigo. I wouldn't want that little pervert walking around in my body either. It's your body. You can kill it if you want."
"I don't think of it as killing myself," Ichigo said. "I mean, I'm already dead."
The dorm room was silent. Outside dusk was approaching. Tatsuki seemed to be deep in thought and her dark eyes looked … mournful? Finally she spoke.
"It's going to be like losing you for good, you know."
"That's not true." Ichigo was distressed that Tatsuki was distressed. "I'll show up for peoples' weddings and college graduations and the big party Keigo's going to throw when he finally passes his driver's exam."
Tatsuki looked Ichigo in the eye. She seemed satisfied with what she saw there, but her happy face didn't return.
"There's going to be a wake? With food and beer and everything?"
Ichigo nodded. "Yeah."
"It's going to be hilarious to see you covered in flowers." One corner of Tatsuki's mouth attempted a resigned smile. "Kurosaki Ichigo surrounded by death daisies."
"I don't think my dad's going to go overboard with the flowers, but it'll be a weird sight for me too."
"You'll be there?" Tatsuki shook her head slowly. "Watching people feel sad about you? That seems wrong."
Ichigo took a defensive tone. "But a ghost is supposed to hang around the body for a while, you know."
"Right." Tatsuki pulled off the sneakers she'd forgotten to take off at the door and looked more amenable to Ichigo's funeral plans. "It's just going to be so--ugh. I'll have to talk to people I don't know. Or deal with Keigo's spazzing. And who knows what your dad might do. He might stand up and start singing an old Negro spiritual." Tatsuki snorted at the thought. "You're sure I don't have to go to the cremation ceremony?"
"That will be just family," Ichigo said.
"I'm sure Yuzu and Karin love the idea. Will Chad be there? He's almost family for you now."
Ichigo knotted his eyebrows. "Chad's like family, sure, but it's just my dad and sisters putting me in the urn … and…." Ichigo's voice softened in confusion. "Why would Chad…?" He blinked. "I wouldn't ask my friends to be involved in something so…." He stared at Tatsuki. "Weird…."
"Hmm." Tatsuki lay back on her narrow dormitory bed and gave the ceiling her dark-eyed look instead of Ichigo. "Chad might want to be there to support Karin in case she gets too upset."
Ichigo sat on the window ledge not comprehending. A breeze filled the sleeves of his captain's robe and he didn't think about how handsome and cool that might look. He scratched his head. He opened his mouth. He closed it again. At last he said, "Wait a minute…." His voice rose in pitch. "Karin and Chad?"
Ichigo's dismay made Tatsuki turn around. "Shit," was all she said.
"What? No, no. They're not--They are!" Ichigo jumped into Tatsuki's room and paced from one end to the other. He ran his hands through his hair. "Does everyone know about this except me?"
"First, calm down." Tatsuki's voice was the one she used to persuade her mom's cat to come down a tree. "Maybe Karin mentioned it real quick and you didn't listen."
Ichigo paused in his pacing long enough to give Tatsuki the glare of doom.
"I assumed you knew, Ichigo."
"How long? How long?"
"About a year now. Look, there's no room to pace in here--unless you're planning on kicking down the walls."
Ichigo sat on Tatsuki's bed. "No--no way. She was in high school a year ago."
"Karin's never been little-girly acting."
"She's not even of drinking age yet," Ichigo said. "You don't go around dating your brother's friends when you're not grown-up enough to--Hell, she can't even go in the bars where he plays guitar. How did something like this happen?" Ichigo's shoulders slumped. "And why hasn't Chad said anything? He should've said something to me."
"Chad's not a big talker?" It was a lame excuse and Tatsuki cleared her throat. "Calm down, okay? I'm sure they were going to tell you. They probably didn't want you freaking out until they knew for sure that they--"
"That they what?" Ichigo's voice sounded very un-captain like. "Are they engaged? Of course Dad doesn't care. He probably supplies the beer and cigarettes and condoms!" Ichigo squeezed his eyes shut. "No, no, I don't want to picture it."
Tatsuki lost her patience. She smacked a pillow with her karate hand. "Damn it, Ichigo, it's not the end of the world. People fucking date and get married and stuff. Chad's an awesome guy. He's probably the only person in the world who isn't scared of Karin. You should be happy for them."
Ichigo kept his eyes squeezed shut for a long moment. When he opened them again, Tatsuki seemed taken aback by his seriousness.
"This changes everything." Ichigo's voice was cold. "This is no time to die. This is no time for a big brother to die."
The idea is to die young as late as possible. Ashley Montagu
From the time of his mother's death, Ichigo had sworn to protect his sisters. Isshin was not a reliable parental figure. It was Ichigo who taught the girls to ride bikes; it was Ichigo made sure they did their homework. Not that Isshin didn't adore his daughters; as the large, exuberant man in a white lab coat bounded about the family home, he would twirl Yuzu around in an impromptu dance or throw a kick at Karin to see if she could block it. He would bake birthday cakes, but it was Ichigo who made sure the invitations got out to the girls' classmates.
On his way home, Ichigo stopped in front of the apartment that Chad shared with three other guys. One of them, dressed in an outrageous purple jacket with a green scarf, was leaving the building. Eleven p.m., Ichigo noted. The guy was off to enjoy the Karakura nightlife. Naturally, because Ichigo was in Shinigami form, the guy didn't see him. As the purple-jacketed loser checked his wallet for his rail pass, Ichigo stood very close and noticed the red eyes and slack expressions of someone who had already started drinking.
Karin and Yuzu had entered their dating and mating years. They were going to encounter hundreds of guys like this loser.
Ichigo knew that Chad was a good guy. That Chad was strong, kind, and devoted. Chad didn't drink or smoke. He played various instruments in various bands because he loved music, not because he craved "the scene." He held a part-time day job as a radiology technician at Ishida's dad's hospital. Chad was smart. When he added experience to his recent technician certification, he would get a decent paying position. Chad was good husband material. He could punch anyone who dared bother Karin from here to the other side of the world.
Of course, Karin could do that herself, but that wasn't the point. Stinky-breathed lechers weren't the only threats a young woman could face. Ichigo knew that his family, because of their immense reiatsu, would always be a target for powers that wanted to destroy that power or use it to their own ends. Isshin, who for all his battle prowess could've served as a Soul Society general, had chosen to stay in the Living World. He'd said it was to watch his daughters grow up, but Ichigo knew that he'd stayed to protect them as well. And maybe Isshin knew that the only way his son's conscience would allow him to leave the Living World was if someone enormously powerful was looking out for Yuzu and Karin.
And now there were two strong men looking after Karin. What was the problem here?
Instead of resuming a light-paced shunpou to his house, Ichigo walked the streets. He knew perfectly well what the matter was. He didn't want anyone else usurping his role. Chad Chad of all people was the one who would be told Karin's confidences, who would fly off to buy her favorite juice when she was sick, who would hold back her arm when she tried to punch someone during Christmas gift-buying madness….
When did everybody grow up and get sexual? Chad wasn't supposed to ever have a girlfriend. Mizuiro was the ladies man, but he'd never seemed serious about any girl. Keigo was a lost case, and Ichigo himself--well, there was Rukia but there had always been Rukia since high school. No one had ever expected Ichigo to be apart from her.
Tatsuki was right--people date, partner off, have little fruit-throwing babies like Ishida's kid.
Damn it, Ichigo thought. People aren't supposed to change all of a sudden. They should've told me. I could've gotten used to the idea.
There was no moon tonight. Ichigo looked up in its direction to see if there was the tiniest sliver of a waxing moon, but no, it was dark there. He felt unhappy. Only hours before, he had been tremendously happy. Now there were people to talk to and emotional issues to be straightened out.
Dying was easier.
When he walked through the front door, Ichigo was bear-hugged by his father.
"My dead son!"
Karin sat on the sofa with a heavy nursing textbook. "That's not the dead one, Dad. That's Ichigo."
Ichigo looked around. "What do you mean? Where's Kon?"
"Dad killed you about an hour ago," Karin said.
Yuzu was coming down the stairs with a basket of laundry. "Don't say it like that."
"But weren't you going to wait until morning?" Ichigo sounded panicked. "You were supposed to find my dead body in the morning!"
"Tomorrow I've got too much to do," Isshin said. "I can't discover a dead son and plan a wake all in one day. Besides, I never check on you in the morning. Kon's been a lazy dog and sleeping past noon. My story's going to be that I went upstairs to talk to you about your responsibilities to society and how you needed to find a job--"
"I'm going to dress you in your dark blue dinner jacket." Yuzu looked to Ichigo with a wistful face. "Is that okay?"
"And lo and behold, my son was dead in the bed." Isshin wiped at his eyes. "And I cried bitter tears because the last thing I'd done was tell you to get your sorry ass off the couch so I could sit there to watch Desperate Housewives. I will regret that all my days."
"Dad, are you really crying?" Ichigo looked closer at his father's face. "You are! Why are crying?"
"He's been at it ever since he called the authorities," Karin said. "He got on the phone faking it and when he hung up, he wasn't." She returned her attention to her book. "He's going to be like this for days, you realize," she added. "It's his histrionic personality."
Yuzu looked at Ichigo with an eager face. "Should I cover you with a sheet in case the police come? That's more respectful than leaving you on the bed wearing jeans with holes in them."
"You called the authorities?" Ichigo's life was slipping away.
"I'm being very organized." Isshin sniffled and swallowed his tears. "My buddy at the registries has already picked up the Death certificate. Let's see, I've called your great aunt, I've placed an obituary--did you know you could contact the newspaper by email?"
Ichigo sat down, dazed. "You called Oba-chan? In the middle of the night?"
"Her dementia is worse, poor woman. She thought I was selling cakes for your school fundraiser."
"But what if…." Ichigo had no control over his death. And because the dead don't have any say about their exact time of demise or their funeral arrangements, the moments were following one another with chilling authenticity. "What if I'd changed my mind?" he asked weakly.
"Then go back upstairs and pop into your body." A ragged yellow plushie lion was walking down the stairs. "You're still fresh."
"That reminds me!" Isshin took out a notepad and pencil. "I have to order dry ice for the casket."
The Shinigami captain sat in his family living room and felt deader than he'd ever felt.
"If the viewing area is going to be in the clinic" said Kon, "someone's going to have to drag the body downstairs."
Yuzu pointed to a far wall. "I can set up a snack table there, put folding chairs around the couch…. People can go straight from viewing the body into the living room."
"Ichigo, want one last time in your body?" Kon seemed too enthusiastic about the offer.
"We need someone to walk it to the clinic."
"I don't want to get back in it," Ichigo said.
"Then can I?" Kon asked.
"No. Nuh-uh. You're not getting into it and running off somewhere. That's my body upstairs and it's dead."
"Such a waste," said Kon in a sorrowful voice. "Here goes this handsome boy into the oven, and I have to walk around as a dishrag. Yuzu, when's the last time you washed this plushie?"
Karin slammed her book shut. "I can't study here. You people are crazy."
Ichigo noticed the title on her textbook. "Karin, when do you sit for the nursing examination?"
Karin gave her brother a stunned look. "Since when do you care?"
Ichigo replied that he cared but he was always forgetting things. This was true, so Karin told him that she was graduating in the spring and then right away leaving for graduate school in Tagawa. "I want to be a psychiatric nurse." She cast a glance at Isshin. "I've already got lots of experience dealing with insane people."
"Tagawa?" Ichigo smiled.
Karin frowned. "What's the matter with you, Ichigo?"
"Tagawa," Ichigo said softly. "That's thousands of miles away."
"Ichigo's going to miss you, Karin," Yuzu said. "He said he'd come back for important family occasions but if you're so far away, then it might be hard for him to coordinate seeing you with seeing us."
"Oh no, not at all." Ichigo leaned back in his chair. He was in a sudden good mood. "I'm a Shinigami. I can go anywhere."
Kon had hopped on Isshin's shoulder. "How's about I give Ichigo's body one last stroll through the house? What do you say, Dr. Kurosaki? You don't want to drag the body down the stairs, do you?"
"No." Isshin let out a melodramatic sigh. "I myself am going to carry my only son in my arms. I will arrange his lifeless limbs on the best rolling examination table in the clinic."
"Dad." Ichigo stared at his father. "Do you have to be so serious about this?
"Tomorrow, my son!" Isshin pointed a finger in the air. "Tomorrow you will lie in the most beautiful wooden casket that money can rent!"
"He's not even renting it," said Karin who was halfway up the stairs. "One of his funeral parlor buddies is letting him have it for free. Now, if Yuzu serves Spam and candy bars, Dad should score a profit."
"Should've taken out a life insurance policy on me then," Ichigo said.
"Oh no," said Isshin. "That would've looked suspicious."
"Good night, insane people," Karin said at the top of the stairs. "I'm going to bed."
Ichigo smiled. Graduate programs were what--three or four years long? Plenty of time for Chad and Karin to break up. Karin would be far, far away from Chad next year, and a wedding was unlikely. Ichigo could forget the fact that his best friend hadn't mentioned dating Karin. There was no need for Ichigo to confront Karin about this little oversight, and there was no need for anyone to exhaust emotional energy at the wake tomorrow. In fact, Ichigo himself could just ignore the entire ritual of passage that was saying goodbye to his earthly body.
"I think I'll go back to Soul Society tomorrow," Ichigo said. "Go ahead and have the funeral without me."
"WHAT?" said everyone in unison.
Guilt filled Ichigo's spirit. "But--but why shouldn't I avoid Dad's crying if I can help it?"
"Son!" Isshin said, "Attending the funeral is the responsibility of the deceased!"
The responsibility card always worked with Ichigo. He threw up his hands and acquiesced to Death. There was no escaping it.
otsuya the transit evening and vigil
On the house front door, a rattan blind announced in ornamental kanji that the Kurosaki family was in mourning. Over the clinic front door hung the usual business placard that read "Closed." Incense burned, and the priest could be heard chanting a sutra. An occasional cry of "oh my Ichigo!" in Isshin's sob-heavy voice would sound from the viewing room, and the condolences of guests were a constant murmur.
"You're late," Ichigo said to Keigo. It was strange to see his old friend wearing such a dark suit.
"Where do I enter?" asked Keigo. "The house door or the clinic door?"
Ichigo crossed his arms and leaned against the clinic wall. "Over there--enter from the house. Yuzu is collecting cash at a table. It's like a freaking carnival show."
"Why aren't you inside?"
"Why do you think?"
Ichigo's face made Keigo not want to pursue the matter, and he headed towards the house.
A surprising number of Ichigo's former high school classmates were showing up. Some of them he didn't even remember. The girls were dressed in traditional black dresses with black hose and black shoes. Ichigo suspected that more than paying their respects they wanted to wear fancy funeral clothes with pearl necklaces and indulge in girlish drama over a young life snuffed out. They seemed to like gossiping about the dead as much as they enjoyed blabbering about the living. "He never even got a job after high school," one of them said. "I heard that the cause of death was cirrhosis of the liver because he drank so much in front of the television."
Many of Isshin's friends from the hospital had been seated since the beginning of the ceremony. It bothered Ichigo that older, wealthier people got to sit in the front and get their prayers, offerings, and sprinklings over with while Ichigo's friends didn't even have a folding chair. Ichigo didn't even know half these people, and they didn't seem the slightest bit sad. Ishida Ryuuken--who always managed to be the classiest dressed person at any event, formal or informal--had given Ichigo a bored look before going into the house. "Tragic," he'd said to the gentleman beside him. "Tragic indeed."
No one except Isshin, though, appeared attuned to the tragedy. Most people at this wake weren't remembering Kurosaki Ichigo with melancholy fondness; they were talking business, complimenting one another's clothes, or wondering aloud what snacks would be served.
The young people were milling around in the house. The exception was Ishida Uryuu who sat next to his father and was right now enduring the long ceremony. The snot, thought Ichigo. Who said he could get priority seating over my other friends? I hope his ass falls asleep.
Ichigo grew more irritated with each passing minute of monotonous sutra chanting.
Karin was somewhere in the house, but Chad hadn't even arrived yet. Ichigo dreaded seeing the two together. He wondered if there was going to be some passing look between the couple that said, I'll meet you in the bathroom for some heroin and demented sex.
"Tsuyu, these flowers are not for eating!" Inoue was trying to take a white orchid out of the hand of a fifteen-month-old.
"Is that a flower from the decorations?" Ichigo asked. He hadn't watched while the viewing room was set up.
"I'm sorry, Kurosaki-kun," Inoue said.
A mourner passing by glanced sadly at the beautiful girl who had already begun her praying to the dead Kurosaki boy.
"I had to take her out of there," Inoue went on to explain, "because she was grabbing at the wreaths people sent. It's not her fault. I make orchid salad all the time."
From inside the clinic came a wailing "You don't know how much I appreciate your coming tonight! Thank you for the envelope! Thank you for the prayers!" followed by Karin's sharp voice--"Pipe it down, Dad. This is a religious ceremony for some people."
Glancing at the Ishida kid, Ichigo noticed with some apprehension that even the baby wore a little black dress with black socks. Why should a baby be in mourning? The little thing didn't even know Ichigo.
"I brought a tray of Inari-zushi," the baby's mother said. "It's a good batch. Uryuu said so."
"Thank you, Inoue."
"It's Ishida Orihime now," said the pretty young mother. Her straight black skirt looked uncomfortable. Inoue usually wore flowy colorful clothes, and Ichigo felt a little guilty about his death requiring her to wear uncomfortable clothes.
Bells sounded. People shuffled around the floor, and their voices blended into the agitated hum of a crowd ready to snack.
"It's over," Inoue said. "I need to go inside and help Yuzu pour punch. Would you hold Tsuyu for me?"
"Inoue, I'm a spirit. It wouldn't look too good to have a baby floating in mid-air outside my funeral."
As Inoue and baby returned to the house, the baby cast Ichigo a happy, open-mouthed smile. The Ishida kid had been able to see spirits from the time she could recognize her own parents. "Fast!" she said, pointing to Ichigo. "Fast! Fast!" The baby's eyes gleamed with affection for the one person who could dodge her pears.
She remembers me!
At last Ichigo felt acknowledged at his own funeral.
I like that Ishida kid.
But he had to wonder if items on the reception table inside included fresh, hard fruit. Ichigo didn't want any guests being knocked unconscious.
Nah. Ichigo walked towards the front door. Inoue can heal them if that happens.
Mourners would come by throughout the night, some to light incense and some to drink a beer and some to do both. When Ichigo perceived a lull in the viewing activity, he slipped into the clinic where his body lay in repose. No one was there but the priest putting away his holy accoutrements.
His mother had lain in a nicer casket than this one, but then again, that had been Mom. She'd been loved by everyone, and Ichigo hadn't lived long enough to have that many people love him. All of Karakura must've pitched in for Kurosaki Masaki's funeral. Ichigo's funeral was low-key, but it seemed tasteful enough. There were about a dozen expensive looking wreaths here and there, and on a low altar, between two stately bronze urns, was a large picture of Ichigo Kurosaki in his high school graduation blue suit.
"I look terrible in that suit."
Ichigo expected the vision in the casket to look even more terrible, but it wasn't so bad. He'd talked Yuzu out of the blue suit, and Isshin had given the body a white silk kimono to wear, along with clogs just like Urahara's. "My best kimono," Isshin had said with regret, and Karin had smacked him and said he'd better not be thinking about changing the body's clothes before the trip to the crematorium.
Last night Yuzu had started to pull off the jeans that Kon had worn when last inhabiting the body, and Ichigo had flipped. "You're not supposed to see me naked! What kind of Buddhist bullshit is this? You're my sister!"
Yuzu had given her spirit brother a watery-eyed look and said, "but this is what I'm supposed to do. The temple I called said so." She'd gestured to a bowl of water and a dishcloth. "I'm supposed to give you a little bath too."
"No way. Just … no. I'll do it. Step away, Yuzu."
But when Ichigo had heard his little sister crying quietly behind him, he was forced to change his mind of course. "Alright, but I'm not watching this."
That was the last time Ichigo had seen his body before this moment.
The dead Ichigo didn't look half-bad--he was healthier looking than most corpses Ichigo had encountered as a Shinigami. The corpse's complexion looked its natural ruddy tan and the hair was bright orange as ever. In fact, this Ichigo didn't look very dead. He looked peaceful and asleep among what was a tasteful sprinkling of flower petals and….
"Someone put my Shakespeare in my coffin? Someone put my Shakespeare in my coffin?"
There it was. Ichigo's heavy volume of the poems and plays. He'd owned it since seventh grade, and even though he couldn't understand much of it then, he'd fallen in love with the language. English was the only class Ichigo was any good at in high school. Ichigo never failed to read every word of his Shakespeare assignments.
Maybe I still wanted that book? Did anyone consider that?
The priest left the room and Tatsuki walked in.
Ichigo had seen her pass by earlier but she hadn't noticed him. She, like Inoue, had been wearing one of those long straight dresses that looked impossible to walk in, but now the skirt's hem had been gathered with pins above her knees and Tatsuki was stepping around gracefully and speedily in opaque black hose. She put something into the coffin and slipped away. She hadn't seen or sensed Ichigo at all, but then her senses had always been on a par with his own. Any imminent danger Tatsuki and Ichigo could sense right away but a contemplative ghost standing at the foot of a coffin? Ichigo probably wouldn't have noticed himself either.
Ichigo peered back into the coffin.
DVD covers. Not the holders or the DVDs themselves, only the paper cover art. For a long minute Ichigo wondered why only the covers and then it struck him that DVDs wouldn't burn in the crematorium.
Tatsuki was putting Ichigo's favorite things in the casket.
The tradition wasn't unheard of. Lots of older people brought little paper charms to wakes. Sometimes an old guy was burned right along with his favorite brand of cigarette.
Ichigo saw one of his favorite jazz titles.
Hey, I might've wanted that cover. I'm never going to be able to sort my music now.
But when would that happen? When would Ichigo ever again sit in his room stacking DVDs?
The next time Tatsuki walked in, she noticed Ichigo. She was carrying Ichigo's Speaking is not Communication shirt.
"Yuzu said I could have it," Tatsuki said defensively. She looked the way she had in her dorm room--distant and inexplicably tense.
Ichigo couldn't remember the last time he'd worn that shirt. "Why are you doing this?"
Without any delicacy, Tatsuki stuffed the shirt next to the corpse's elbow. "Look, I'm entitled to my rituals, Mr. Dead Man. I figured I had to do something since I didn't offer incense or prayers."
"I don't believe in that stuff," Tatsuki said.
The irony of the remark didn't escape either her or Ichigo. Tatsuki was standing over an open casket and talking to a ghost.
"I don't understand, Tatsuki. What's the big deal about having a funeral?"
"It is a big deal," Tatsuki said.
"It's just a funeral. My body's no use to me any more and I'm going to live in Soul Society? What else should I have done with it?"
Tatsuki swallowed. She looked irritated, like she had somewhere else to be, and then her dark eyes narrowed. "What else should you have done, Ichigo? What else?"
Ichigo winced at Tatsuki's obvious anger. "Hey--" he began softly.
"Don't you hey me." Her eyes welled with tears but she blinked them back. "Maybe you should've stayed alive, Ichigo. Have you ever thought about how different things could be? If you hadn't become a Shinigami, right now you would be living out your stupid boring life here with all the rest of us stupid…." Her voice choked. "Boring humans."
She was out the door before Ichigo could say a word.
This was too much. Ichigo had already decided that he didn't need to make an emotional scene with either Chad or Karin, but Tatsuki needed talking to.
I never thought a funeral could be so hard on a dead person.
After the house ran out of beer, Isshin sent Chad to get some more. "One must get totally drunk at a wake," said Isshin. "This guarantees that you will be hung-over and solemn for the funeral the next morning."
"One can only hope." Karin sat on a folding chair with a paper plate of Spam biscuits. "I'd like to find a solemn father tomorrow but I'm predicting we'll have to drag him out of bed and drop him unconscious next to the priest."
The Shinigami captain sat cross-legged on the floor next to his sister. He sat on his white captain's robe and wasn't worried about wrinkling it. He was wondering which one of his family or friends would be the next to crack.
Chad and Karin had not said much to one another and seemed to be going out of their way to avoid meeting. When Karin was upstairs, Chad was down. Now that Chad had left to buy beer, Karin had conveniently emerged from the kitchen.
This annoyed Ichigo. When were they planning on telling him? The day of the wedding?
Tatsuki had locked herself in the sisters' bathroom where she knew Ichigo didn't have the indecency to enter Ichigo didn't hear crying when he listened at the door, so he went downstairs again and wondered if this was the end of it and he didn't need to talk to her.
But Tatsuki seemed to be secluding herself for an unnaturally long time. She stayed put as long it took for Isshin to drink most of the beer that Chad had fetched, and when she came out, it was only because Inoue screamed. Ichigo sensed her reiatsu bolting out the bathroom door.
"Orihime, what's the matter?" yelled Tatsuki.
Inoue had screamed because Chizuro's life partner spilled pale beer down the back of Inoue's dress.
"I'm so sorry." The lesbian stranger flapped her hands. "I'm so sorry. It was an accident."
"Oh that's alright." Inoue smiled brightly. "It was just cold, that's all. Look, it's mostly my hair that got wet. I'll just put it up in a bun like this. No problem. I don't even have to change."
"Look at that graceful neck," said Chizuro, "Hime's hair is lovely but her bare neck is even lovelier."
The life partner glowered from her folding chair.
"What the hell happened here?" Tatsuki glowered at the top of the stairs.
"Nothing, nothing," Inoue called up to her, but Chizuro threw back her head and laughed.
"Jealousy," Chizuro tittered. "Intrigue. Inexplicable urges of the heart."
"What the hell." Tatsuki looked over the scene of mourners. "Everyone's drunk."
"I'm not," said Karin flatly. She cocked her head towards Isshin. "Someone has to take care of him."
Ishida put his arm around his wife's shoulders and surveyed the dwindling party. "I think we should be going home now," he said. "Where's Tsuyu?"
"Tsuyu? She was right here…."
Inoue looked around. When she didn't spot her baby right away, Ichigo stood up to help her look. Everyone was looking around. It would be a very bad thing to lose the Ishida baby; at least a dozen people had been asked by Inoue to look after the baby while Inoue helped Yuzu with the reception.
Then, from the far end of the snack table flew a rain of strawberry mochi. Impressed by the distance Tsuyu threw them, the guests went "Ooh! Ah!" Oba-chan, settled in the most comfortable chair in the house, mumbled something about oh well, her strawberry mochi was expected to fetch a high price for the fund-raiser but if Tsuyu darling wanted to play with them, that was fine.
As Inoue ran to fetch her to strong-armed baby, another unexpected and rapid flurry of mochi came from another firing place. One mochi stopped dead in mid-air and dropped down. It had hit a Shinigami captain between the eyes.
"I'm sorry," Inoue squealed. "I'm so sorry, Kurosaki-kun."
"She keeps talking to him," said one of the girls in black. "She must really be upset over his death."
"He was the love of her life," Chizuro said. She looked tearfully into her beer. "No matter what I did, no matter how charming I was, Hime had eyes only for Kurosaki Ichigo."
This was news to Ichigo. He shot a puzzled look at Ishida and Inoue.
"Then the skinny guy came along." Chizuro nodded at Ishida, who was looking more than a little miffed. "And he stole her away from all of us. Poor Ichigo, though. He never knew how much Hime loved him." Chizuro burst into drunken crying, and the life partner put her arms around her. "He probably would've married her if he knew. He probably wouldn't have drunk himself into cirrhosis of the liver!"
"I'm sorry, Kurosaki-kun," Inoue said as she picked her baby, and Ishida ushered his family out the door. "It was a girlish first crush; you didn't need to know. You were meant for Rukia, and Uryuu was meant for me." She looked up at Ishida. "Do you think it's alright now? Maybe there are some things I need to explain to Kurosaki-kun."
Oba-chan shook her head. "The girl's more far gone than I am."
"See you at the cremation tomorrow, Kurosaki." Ishida shot Ichigo a farewell glance. "You burn at ten a.m., is that right?"
"Sweet boy indulging his crazy wife," mumbled Oba-chan. "Or maybe he's hallucinating as well." She called to Ishida, "So, young man, you're going to the barbecue?"
"Oh yes," said Ishida. "We were specifically requested to attend."
"What?" Ichigo didn't think that anyone but intimate family was going to be present at the cremation. He looked to Karin. "Did Dad invite more people?"
Karin looked guilty. She pretended to take a bite of Spam and whispered," Actually it was my idea. Don't you think that your closest friends have the right? It's such a meaningful occasion and--" She looked up and her eyes brightened. "Hey, Chad, how's it going?"
Ichigo's head was spinning.
"Not too bad," Chad said. "I need to be heading home now."
Chad's long bangs covered his eyes, so Ichigo couldn't tell if he was looking at Karin with affection or with lechery. Ichigo attempted to be as casual as possible. "See you, man," he waved to Chad.
Chad nodded in the Shinigami's direction.
"You're a big shy idiot," Karin said to Chad. "You hardly talked to anyone tonight."
Chad nodded again.
"There are meds for social anxiety, you know."
Ichigo's attention was drawn away by a pitiful sound. Chizuro was still having a drunk sobbing fit but her crying seemed genuinely mournful. Ichigo felt bad that his death had actually made a girl cry. Keigo and Mizuiro had taken off their black jackets and were talking to two giggling girls in black dresses. Tatsuki, who was heading back up the stairs, shot Ichigo a "don't you dare follow me" look. Then Karin followed Chad to the front door and the two whispered about something. Yuzu hummed as she collected Styrofoam punch cups, and as the room quieted and more guests left, Ichigo became aware that no one was paying attention to the Shinigami captain in the middle of the room.
Ichigo didn't know what to do next; it was as if he couldn't do anything.
Life was going on without him.
ososhiki funeral ceremony
Custom required family members to sleep in the same room as the corpse the night before the funeral. Of the Kurosaki family, only Isshin did that, and Karin locked Kon in a drawer just in case he wanted to re-occupy Ichigo's body and run off with it.
The next morning, Karin complained about having to wear the stupid dress again, but Isshin popped up, didn't bother to shower, and seemed perfectly at ease in his wrinkled suit.
There were significantly fewer people at the morning service. Business acquaintances went to work instead of to the funeral proper, and Ishida Ryuuken (in a different suit, this one classier than the first) read aloud notices of regret from hospital employees who could not attend. Then Karin read aloud telegrams from distant relatives who could not attend. The perfunctory condolences made Ichigo squirm, but the heartfelt messages sunk Ichigo's spirits.
He was a kind and beautiful boy.
You could tell how much he cared for his sisters.
Those attending looked at one another nervously because the time for testimonials was approaching. In the Chief Mourner's chair, Isshin sat bleary-eyed and significantly subdued from the night before. And leaning against a wall of a triage room turned funeral room, Ichigo felt more uncomfortable in this death than he ever had in his life. Being a death god wasn't like being a dead human. As a substitute Shinigami, Ichigo had enjoyed freedom from the Living World while still maintaining a strong connection to it. Now people thought he was dead. Now Oba-chan wouldn't send money and chocolates for his birthday. Now people would forget that Kurosaki Ichigo ever existed.
More chanting, more incense. There were plenty folding chairs today, and it was more than a little amazing to recall that last night over a hundred people had passed through the Kurosaki clinic and home. Ichigo regretted not having helped Yuzu clean up.
Why did their family treat this daughter like a maid? Why was it that Yuzu's ambition in life than went no further working at the clinic answering phones and stocking medicines?
Not Ichigo's problem. Shinigami captains didn't worry about human families.
All the previous night, Ichigo had stood next to his casket like a dutiful ghost. His father, also a spirit, had slept on a futon nearby and snored heartily. A gigai, Ichigo had thought. All he would need was a gigai--one that looked different from his Kurosaki self, so people wouldn't think that he'd risen from the dead. He could live in the Living World again.
"My wife," began Isshin as the first one to testify, "was a faultless mother and the center of our family life. She sacrificed her life for Ichigo's life. What greater act of love is there for a mother? After she was gone, my Yuzu and Karin became little women and my Ichigo became a little man. This was necessary because their father would always be a big child."
Oba-chan started weeping. Maybe she was remembering Masaki, but something about the tone of her sobs told Ichigo that his aunt had just realized where she was.
"Life is crying and life is laughing," Isshin went on. His eyes were dry and his face was perfectly composed. "Ichigo missed out on a lot of his youth because he was busy being our protector. He was my hero, my son. His sacrifice was like his mother's. He didn't laugh like many children over foolish things or cry like many teenagers over foolish things."
Now it was Yuzu's turn to break down. Karin put her sister's head on her shoulder and patted it.
"Ichigo," said Isshin and he looked directly at his Shinigami son. "Masaki liked big hugs. Do you remember how you used to wrap your arms around her neck until we thought you were going to choke her? Sooooo…." Here Isshin winked. "If you see her, son, give her a hug for each of us."
Keigo's speech was too long and had people looking at their watches, but when Keigo told the story about Ichigo saving him from the bully, even Ichigo's eyes got moist. "No one ever did things like that for me before," said Keigo. "Without Ichigo, I would've been an all-out sniveling loser instead of the confident young man you see today!"
That's it, Ichigo thought. I have to stay in the Living World to take care of Keigo too.
There was a long pause while people waited for someone else to step forward. The hesitation was beating like an irregular heartbeat in the group's collective soul. "Now or never, people," said Isshin and he folded his arms and looked sleepy.
Ishida got up.
"Kurosaki Ichigo was a decent person who I'm proud to say … was my friend."
There was a collective gasp from Ichigo's friends.
"I didn't like him at first," Ishida continued, "and to tell you the truth, there were always things about him that tried my patience. He, too, made it clear that there were things about me that he didn't like." Ishida looked at his wife and his expression softened. "But it was an honest friendship. Who among us doesn't know the value of that?"
Everyone nodded. Tatsuki looked away when Ichigo looked at her.
"Finally," Ishida said, "I have to thank Kurosaki Ichigo for my life. The details aren't important, but let's just say that if weren't for his stupid bravery and greatly misplaced self-confidence, I wouldn't be standing here today … and that little girl about to knock over that wreath would never have been born. If only for that, Kurosaki has my deepest gratitude."
Everyone thought that Inoue was rushing from the room in tears, but Ichigo saw that she was holding a handkerchief to her face and giggling madly. Ishida didn't say more because he had to pick up his kid who was crawling towards the smoking incense.
Chad's testimonial was characteristically brief. "Ichigo was a good friend. What better thing can you say of a man?"
Chizuro, for a moment, seemed like she was going to get up, but her eye caught the heaving bosom of a sobbing young lady. Chizuro seemed to forget what she was going to do and sat transfixed, staring at breasts.
Tatsuki looked uncomfortable. "I'm going to check on Orihime," she said to Mizuiro in a stage whisper. "Um, we'll be back soon."
But they weren't back soon, and Isshin cued Yuzu to bring out the basket of flowers. Ichigo's eyes widened. The large picnic-sized basket was full of flowers that even Ichigo recognized as expensive. Orchids, the wide-petaled pretty white kind that Mom had liked so much. Dad bought her an orchid corsage every birthday and Ichigo knew that the one flower cost plenty.
Once, Isshin had bragged that each rare orchid cost as much as dinner for eight in a fancy restaurant with two bottles of the best wine. Ichigo didn't know if that was true, but in the basket were hundreds of orchids.
The flowers were handed in bunches to the guests, and one by one, people approached the casket to lay flowers inside and say a final goodbye.
Ichigo stared at his father. Why? Why spend all the gift money on flowers? The funeral could've been held in a real funeral parlor, the food could've been catered, there could've been nice sake instead of just beer at the wake.
Isshin was the last to place his flowers inside. "There you go, Ichigo," he said. "From Masaki with love."
Only the face of Ichigo's dead body was visible--there were that many white flowers in the casket.
"And now, ladies and gentlemen," said Isshin, "let us go back to the house for a final toast to the departing soul. Everyone is invited to follow the funeral car to the crematorium, but in keeping with the family's wishes, only those designated will come inside to witness the ritual. Then we'll come back here, have a little rice ball, have a little coca-a-cola, have some chit-chat. After that, if the weather's nice, my daughters and I will take the urn to our family grave."
It was at this point, as people were politely folding their own chairs and stacking them, that Ichigo noticed a lion plushie under Yuzu's chair. Yuzu picked it up and put it under her arm. So Kon had seen some of the funeral? Ichigo thought that was only fair.
More alcohol but it was only a toast this time. Tatsuki still hadn't re-appeared but Inoue was there, holding a sleepy little mochi-thrower in her arms. "She's tired," Inoue said to Ishida. "I'll take her home."
"Can't you bring her? I know things like this are important to you."
"No, Uryuu." Inoue spoke gently. "I already know what it's like to say goodbye to Ichigo. Tsuyu and I both need a little nap."
Ishida kissed his wife and then his daughter on their respective foreheads, and Ichigo wondered how in the hell it ever was that Inoue had a crush on him. Had Ishida known about it? No wonder he was always so cranky and competitive with Ichigo.
The pallbearers were Chad, Keigo, Mizuiro, and Ishida, and they did their job with the required silent reverence. Ichigo followed the coffin alongside them. Stray flower petals blew into the air. Chad's height seemed to throw the coffin off-balance, and he kept hunching over to keep the load from shifting.
Where was Tatsuki? Wasn't she supposed to ride with the casket too?
Karin said she'd fetch her. "Listen, if she's freaking or something I'll just talk her down and catch up with you guys later."
"I'll stay too," Chad said.
The Shinigami standing outside the funeral car gave his best friend a tragic look that didn't have anything to do with speeches or orchids.
Karin went back into the house, and after an awkward moment, Chad said, "I love her Ichigo."
"From the way you kept looking at me last night I thought someone must've told you. I apologize. Karin and I expected you to go crazy but you didn't. I should've told you."
What's there to tell? Isn't Karin going away to graduate school far away? Why did you have to mention it to me, Chad? I was trying to pretend it wasn't happening.
"She wants to get engaged," Chad said.
"It will be a long engagement because she'll be in school for four more years, but there's no one else for me, Ichigo. You understand that."
Yes he did.
"I suppose," Ichigo said, "the next time we're all at a big serious gathering like this one will be when you two get married."
Chad looked at Ichigo through his long brown bangs.
"Congratulations," said Ichigo.
Chad nodded in acknowledgement and then he got into the car. Ichigo got in too and sat next to Chad.
"We're ready to go, driver," said Isshin. "Next stop, the bone-crusher palace!"
gan-modoshi every wish has been granted; all petitions are hereby dismissed
The word "palace" wasn't far off the mark when it came to describing the Karakura crematorium. Miles into the countryside, there was an expansive red-tiled building with large windows that let in the sun and reflected the surrounding garden. Parts of the outer building were veined marble and all the inside walls were marble as well. There were many rooms, some for receptions, some for funeral parties to wait until family members emerged from the last ritual, and some that were "quiet places" for different religions and types of Buddhist sects. There was a soba shop. There was a coffee shop. This morning the shops were empty of people.
The floors were shiny dark green. Ichigo expected to hear his funeral gang to make at least a little noise as they walked through the building, but no, their shoe-less feet padded along and no one spoke a word, not even Kon who was hanging limply under Yuzu's arm.
The body rode on a ceramic platform pushed by an attendant now, but the pallbearers instinctively kept their places.
"Is everyone here?" the attendant asked.
Ichigo felt anxious. He was going to be burned and Chad, Tatsuki, and Karin weren't here. He hadn't wanted people to come and be yucked out by the cremation ceremony, but he wondered if he should shunpou back to the house, grab everybody and shunpou back.
Behind the oven door rumbled a growing fire.
"Everyone's here," said Isshin, and for the first time since the whole funeral event had started, he looked uncertain. "We should go ahead with the first part."
Neither Ichigo nor his friends had ever watched a corpse go down a metal slide into an oven, but Isshin had. Maybe that's why he looked so strange. Ichigo couldn't remember ever having been in this place, so he figured that someone must've taken him and his sisters home after Mom's funeral.
The casket was opened and down went the young handsome body and all the flowers. There was a glimpse of white kimono reflecting red-orange as the oven door opened. The roar of the fire was loud for a moment, and then the door closed and the fire sounds were muted.
Everyone bowed. Sayonara, Ichigo.
"The body will be ready for the ritual in a half hour," the attendant said. "If you follow the signs, you should find the room easily. Until then, please feel free to enjoy our atrium, walk in our gardens, or have refreshments from our vending machines."
"I don't know about you people," Isshin bellowed, "but I could do with a bag of pretzels!"
Ishida looked a little ill. Keigo asked, "People really eat in the soba shop here?" And Mizuiro stood staring at the shut oven door.
Ichigo realized what the matter was. Everyone was going to grow old, but he wasn't. In the years ahead, he would see all the people standing here, with the exception of his Shinigami father, go down that slide.
There was a comfort in knowing that Isshin would follow him to the Gotei Thirteen. Those friends gathered here thought that they were losing Ichigo, but the reality was that he was losing them. Ichigo could come back as many times as he wanted, and his strong Shinigami spirit would survive for hundreds, maybe thousands of years.
He would live in Death, and they would die in Life.
How many more years did he have to see these people he cared for? After their deaths, they would be scattered apart. Gone, like Mom.
Everyone was having coffee when Chad and Karin showed up. "I'm glad we missed it," Karin said. "Do we have to do the rest? I don't really see how any more of this morbidity is psychologically healing."
Ichigo looked around for Tatsuki.
"She's here," Karin said. "She said she'd do it, but only because she missed the flower business."
"I've never been to one of these before," Mizuiro said. "Is there something I should know beforehand?"
"The crematorium people should tell us what to do." Keigo hadn't drunken a sip of his coffee. "Why exactly are we doing this again?"
"Tradition," said Ishida. "You can't argue with tradition."
The clouds covered the sun, and the huge hallway windows turned the color of an impending rainstorm.
"Just great," said Karin. "Rain."
Ichigo startled at the word.
"This means we might not be able to go to see Mom," Karin added.
"I can't understand these signs," Ishida said. "They aren't very specific. I figure that if we keep going around the main corridor, though, we'll reach the right room."
The right room was a well-lit place with a long ceramic platform near the floor. The staff were lining up large bones that had been separated from the ash when Ichigo's party showed up.
"Kurosaki Ichigo?" asked Isshin. "Is that him?" There was no reiatsu, no mark on the skull and bones that distinguished his son from any other skeleton.
Yuzu was holding her plushie close to her chest and no one could tell that Kon was shaking with sobs.
Ichigo kept his distance from his remains this time. I can't believe I ever thought this would be a good idea.
An attendant handed out beautiful bamboo chopsticks. "Does everyone know what to do?"
"Not really," said Isshin, "but it's simple enough that you don't have to explain."
Isshin knelt before the bones, and the attendant handed him the urn full of ashes. It was a pretty urn, a dark blue one guilded with gold crescent moons.
"Hey, all of you--over here," said Isshin. "No particular order. I'm not fussy."
One by one they came to the low ceramic table. Ishida knelt next to Isshin. Chad knelt next to Ishida. Then Mizuiro and Keigo. Keigo kept looking from Ichigo to the display of bones and back to Ichigo again. Karin and Yuzu sat down together at the end of the line.
"Ah," said Isshin. "You girls thought because you came last that you would be farthest from the urn. Doesn't work that way." He gave the urn to Ishida. "Here, pass it down. I'm the chief mourner so I get to pick up the bones first. You there, Yuzu. You're at the end of the line so you put them in."
Yuzu put her plushie on her lap. She was a small, delicate girl who seemed the type to carry a plushie into a crematorium. The attendants didn't look twice at the yellow lion convulsing with grief.
"Daddy," said Yuzu. "It smells funny."
"That would be because," Isshin told her with no gentleness at all, "there are burned things inside that urn." He picked up a bone with his chopsticks and passed it to Ishida. Ishida examined the bone with detached curiosity. Chad took the bone and passed it down. When the bone got to Yuzu, she put it into the urn. Then the attendant came over and with a pestle crushed the bone into the ash. It was an innocent sound--like gravel being turned over with a spoon.
The process kept repeating itself. Ishida kept examining each piece. "Ball and socket of the femur," he whispered at one point. No one else said a word.
Then an attendant opened the door and addressed Isshin. "A young lady named Arisawa Tatsuki says that she is a member of your group?"
"What?" came an impatient voice from the corridor. "You don't believe me? Do I look like the kind of person who crashes crematorium ceremonies for kicks?"
"Tatsuki-chan!" Isshin smiled and waved her over. "Here, sit next to me. There are still a lot of good parts left. Attendant-san, can we have some chopsticks for the lady?"
Ichigo walked closer to the urn and folded his arms. He was disappointed that Tatsuki hadn't looked at him. He was truly sorry that this was all so hard for her and he considered saying something to her right in front of everyone … but he didn't.
After Tatsuki's appearance, the ritual took on a change. Tatsuki, unlike everyone else, talked with irreverence--she was even more casual about the bone-passing than Isshin. "I feel like I'm in a Halloween haunted house and the next thing I'm going to do is fondle some eyeballs that are really grapes."
People laughed at that. Even Keigo who had looked on the verge of crying for a moment.
"The skull," said Isshin and picked up a piece of jagged cranium. "This part goes last, children. The lady there doesn't crunch it up, and we put it in the urn so that the face of the skull looks upwards."
"I'm not going to ask why," Tatsuki said.
A cheekbone with part of an eye-socket was handed to her, and she dropped it. "Uh oh. Bad luck, right?"
"Not at all," said Isshin. "It's just like dropping some rice on the table. You apologize to the hostess."
Tatsuki pinched her chopsticks together and looked confused.
"In this case, you apologize to Ichigo," said Isshin.
"You're making this up," said Tatsuki, and she brought the bone close to her face. "This isn't Ichigo at all," she said. Her voice became angry. "You know, I don't see the point in any of this when Ichigo--"" She waved the bone around--"he isn't here. You can't take who he is, put him in an urn, and carry him around with you."
"That could be the point here," offered Ishida. "Maybe we're supposed to understand that the real Ichigo is somewhere else."
"Like right behind you." Ichigo said. "Damn it, Tatsuki. Why aren't you even looking at me?"
She must've sensed him before he touched her, but even so she let out a little gasp. Ichigo's arms were around her neck and his face was pressed against her cheek. Ishida scooted away from the pair, and everyone else looked stunned.
"I thought you understood," Ichigo said. His voice was desperate. "I thought you were cool with letting me go."
Tatsuki allowed Ichigo to cling to her. She looked straight ahead. She seemed to have forgotten that she was holding a piece of skull in her chopsticks.
The bone-passing ritual had stopped dead in its tracks.
Ichigo hadn't touched someone like this for years. He embraced Rukia but in a different way. This embrace was almost a choke-hold, and Ichigo remembered that this was the way he'd hug Mom.
A few more moments and the tears were rolling down Tatsuki's cheeks. Ichigo felt the wetness against his own face.
"Talk to me," said Ichigo. It didn't matter that everyone was staring at him and that the attendants, used to peculiar demonstrations of emotion, had turned their eyes downward, waiting for the bone-passing to resume.
"I'm not cool with letting you go," Tatsuki said sharply, and she pulled out of Ichigo's hold. "I'm sorry, Ichigo. There, does that count as an apology to the dead?"
"Technically," said Isshin. "But it's a close call."
"It doesn't count," said Ichigo, and in one brisk movement he yanked Tatsuki to her feet. The skull piece fell with a brittle clack-clack against another bone.
"What the fuck are you doing, Ichigo?" Tatsuki was trying to keep up with him as he walked her across the room.
Now this the attendants weren't used to. "As you were," said Ichigo to their faces as he took Tatsuki into the corridor. "Go on with your little ceremony now. I've got something to talk about here with this disrespectful girl."
To the attendants it must've sounded like one girl having a psychotic tantrum in the hall, but Isshin must've convinced them not to call security, because Ichigo and Tatsuki weren't interrupted. Ichigo didn't even know what they were yelling about, exactly. All he knew was that it felt good to yell.
"What do you mean I'm as much a friend to you as Chad? Why didn't I get to be pallbearer, then--tell me that."
"I don't make the rules. I don't even know if there's such a thing as girl pallbearers."
"Was this all a big game for you, Ichigo? Did you want to make everybody cry just so you could feel important? Ever since you made captain, you've been a real dick. Why can't you just act like a normal person?"
"I am a normal person."
"No you're not. You're a freaking freak who's half dead and half not."
"You're contradicting yourself."
"Why did you hug me like that? That's the most embarrassed I've ever been in my whole life. All the people who work here must think I'm freaking out over you because I'm your girlfriend."
"Oh stop it. Since when have you ever cared about stuff like that?"
The yelling went on for a good while, and by the time Isshin and company emerged from their room, Tatsuki and Ichigo were sitting on the shiny floor and arguing more quietly.
"Why didn't you tell me about Inoue?" Ichigo asked.
"It couldn't have been any plainer than day," Tatsuki said. "I assumed you knew."
"You assume a lot of things. I'm not as smart as you think."
Isshin was hugging the urn. "Are things all better now?"
"Yes," said Tatsuki. She gave Ichigo a scowl. "No thanks to you, though." She got up and adjusted the black skirt she obviously despised wearing. "Well, a little thanks to you maybe."
Karin looked up at Chad. "That's the way some people resolve things. For those two, fighting will always be more psychologically satisfying than crying."
Ichigo didn't know what happened on the ride back to the house, because he'd decided to flash-step ahead and avoid further intimacy in the close quarters of the car. Maybe everyone had gotten psychologically purged; maybe not. All Ichigo knew was that it hurt to think of leaving his earthly life. It hurt to think that his friends, all purged and at peace with the concept of mortality, might go on with their lives, forgetting Kurosaki Ichigo.
When he got to the house, everything was pretty much as it had been before the funeral. Even the folding chairs were gone, but there was a vague smell of incense and beer. Someone must've cleaned up. Did Dad hire a maid too?
"Yo," came a husky voice behind him. Ichigo turned around and it was Rukia.
"A Shinigami has come to collect my soul," said Ichigo.
"Not exactly," said Rukia. "I thought you might like a little company to your mother's grave."
Ichigo stuck his hand under the lampshade and turned the switch to low. It was dark in the house, but he didn't want to make the room completely bright either.
"The weather's bad," Ichigo said. "We're probably not going until tomorrow."
Rukia sat on the couch where Kon had spent most of the last few years. "Welcome to Death, Ichigo," she said. "You think you've gone through a big change? There are more changes to come. Believe me. I've been dead longer than you."
Ichigo was looking at the window at the gray skies. "You know what I remembered today?"
"How much I miss my mom."
"Well, that's good," said Rukia.
Ichigo turned away from the window to give her a puzzled look.
"Your friends," Rukia said. "They won't forget you, Ichigo. Love is not something the soul forgets."
Ichigo looked down. He would have to think about that one.
"Hey," said Rukia.
"Look behind you. The rain has stopped."
He thought she was joking about a line that was part of their romantic history because he and Rukia must've made a thousand jokes about rain in the past couple years. When Ichigo looked out the window, though, he saw that she was right. There was no longer a single trace of gray in the sky. The large clouds must've blown away. The small ones left looked white and harmless.
Ichigo smiled. He turned back to face a brightening room and Rukia's playful expression. "It wasn't raining," Ichigo said, "It was just dark."
"Nooooo," argued Rukia. "I felt some raindrops outside--didn't you? It was … sprinkling rain."
"Okay, okay. I get it. The rain has stopped."
Rukia opened her arms. "I have a talent for making it do that."
A/N: I researched how so many different types of funerals were held during Japan's history, and I didn't get to use 99 of my information. Most of the practices in this story are typical of a modern Buddhist funeral in Japan. Practices vary from region to region, so I played with different ones and made up a tiny thing here and there.
What I like most about a traditional Japanese funeral is that bodies are not embalmed; they're lain on dry ice and they don't get that sunken look of embalmed corpses. Also, the bone-passing ceremony. I always thought that viewing a body was the best way to understand the finality of death, but this ritual beats that. Like Ishida says in the story, maybe the point is to understand that the soul is somewhere else.