Ichigo was having trouble trying to figure out why his head was pounding. Everything around him was blackness. There was no sound beyond his own breathing. He felt no pain anywhere except for his head. But then, he hadn't actually tried to move yet...
As his mind emerged from the fuzziness of unconsciousness, he became aware that he was lying flat on his back on a hard surface. A light breeze was blowing into his face.
He must have been fighting and gotten knocked out. It was the only explanation that he could come up with.
Slowly, he opened his eyes, squinting in the bright light and trying to focus on his surroundings. Just as slowly, he lifted his head a small amount and looked around.
He blinked slowly as he recognized where he was. Blue buildings, sideways clouds... he seemed to be in his own mind...
"Oh, so you're not dead," came a voice from somewhere above him. "I had wondered."
Ichigo craned his neck upward to look at the speaker, his inner hollow. When he spotted him, he froze for a long moment, not quite believing his own eyes. Then he struggled to roll over so that he could actually look at the other right side up. "You..."
Pain lanced through his head at the sudden movement and he groaned, letting himself fall back to the ground.
"I wouldn't move much if I were you," his hollow said with a smirk. "You took a rather nasty blow to the head."
"What happened to you?" Ichigo managed to get out. For his hollow's appearance seemed to have changed drastically...
While he still had white, spiky hair and his usual white shinigami outfit, his skin tone had changed to match Ichigo's, and his eyes were no longer black and gold; they were a normal looking white and light brown.
His hollow smirked at him. "Give it a moment, you'll remember."
Ichigo frowned, letting his eyes fall shut as he thought. "I was fighting Aizen... It was a tough battle. And he..." Ichigo's frown deepened. "He stabbed me, didn't he...?"
His hollow nodded with a laugh. "Like I said, you took a rather nasty blow to the head!"
Ichigo's eyes flew open again in confusion. "He got around my defenses; broke my mask. He ran his sword through my head!" he remembered suddenly. "How in the world am I still alive?!"
"You're not. We died."
Ichigo scowled. "Don't give me that! What happened?"
His hollow grinned at him. "I'm completely serious. Aizen killed you. We died."
Ichigo let this sink in for a long moment, looking his hollow over with growing dread when he realized that the other did seem to be serious, despite his usual large smile.
"... I'm dead...?"
"Sort of." The hollow smirked again.
Ichigo blinked at this. "What happened?" he repeated again. "Why do you look so different?"
His hollow just laughed, changing the subject. "Ichigo, when you're out doing your shinigami duties and you kill a hollow, what happens to it?"
Ichigo scowled, irritated at the topic change, but he answered the question. "It dissolves. It gets sent to Soul Society."
"Mmhmm! And in order for it to get into Soul Society...?"
"The zanpakutou purifies them," Ichigo recited. "They're turned back into normal souls."
"Right!" His hollow smirked, holding his hands wide, gesturing to himself. "Ta Da!"
Ichigo blinked at him, staring for a long moment. "... I don't get it. What?"
His hollow's smirk disappeared, replaced by a look of annoyance. "You're so slow! Didn't I just explain it?" He grinned again. "Ichigo, the moment before you died, I forced control. So instead of you dying, like a shinigami would, I was purified!"
Ichigo stared. "Purified?"
"Is there an echo in here?" his hollow smirked. "Yes, purified. I'm no longer the 'hollow' side of you, and we are in Soul Society, waiting in a ridiculously long line to be assigned a Rukongai district."
"You're being incredibly slow today! Yes, when you die and go to Soul Society, they give you a number so they can send you into a Rukongai district!"
Ichigo scowled. "I know that! What I mean is, why am I waiting in line? If I'm still alive, I should be going back to help finish off Aizen! I've got to-"
"Hold it! Hold it! You don't seem to understand your situation, Ichigo!" the ex-hollow smirked. "First off, all of our hollow powers are gone. We wouldn't be able to do anything even if we wanted to. For another, what's with all this 'I' stuff? You're not doing a thing."
Ichigo's eyes narrowed. "What are you talking about?"
"I'm talking about our deal, of course! You were weak! You should be dead! The only reason you're not is because, being the other half of my soul, you got dragged along for the ride! Ichigo, this is my life now."
With a strangled noise, Ichigo attempted once again to roll over and get to his feet, ignoring the pounding in his head. "No! You can't! This is my body, this is-"
"We've always been one and the same person, Ichigo!" the ex-hollow frowned at him, planting one foot firmly on Ichigo's back and pinning him to the ground. "This has always been our body, and you're no longer fit to be in charge! You had your chance, and you died! It's my turn!"
Ichigo choked, struggling to get up. "You said yourself that you lost your hollow powers! I've still got my shinigami powers, I'm still more-"
"More powerful, nothing! A good flick to the head, and you'd be out like a light again." the ex-hollow smirked, pushing him down again. "Before, you got to tap into my powers in order to remain King. This time, it'll be the other way around. Learn your place, Horse."
Ichigo lay in stunned silence for a long time. When he looked up, his expression was one of pleading. "Just... just don't hurt my friends or family..." he whispered.
The ex-hollow watched him for a moment, and then sighed, removing his foot from Ichigo's back and sitting beside him. "You really don't get it, do you? Ichigo, in algebra, what happens if you take a number, square it, and then square root it?"
Ichigo stared. "What does that have to do with anything??"
"If you square a number and then square root it, you're left with the original number! From the beginning, what I have been is merely what you would have been had you turned completely into a hollow. Take out the hollow bit, and what are you left with? The original person! You don't want to hurt your friends? Well, as a hollow, I did, but now I don't either. I am you."
Ichigo frowned, puzzled. "So you're trying to say that you and me are exactly the same right now? I don't think so."
The ex-hollow grinned. "True. What happens if the original number is negative? Square it, square root it, you get the same number only positive!"
Ichigo coughed. "You've been thinking out this analogy for a really long time, haven't you?"
"I told you; it's a ridiculously long line..."
Ichigo couldn't help but smirk at the expression on his ex-hollow's face, but he quickly turned serious, pulling himself slowly to a sitting position. "So if you're not going to be out there doing... um... destructive things... What will you do?"
"Live my own life, of course. I'm not going to try to take over your old life; that would be boring, and I doubt your friends would be particularly thrilled to have me around. So, I figure, we're being sent to Rukongai anyway; I'll just start over."
Ichigo stared for a moment. Then he smirked. "Start over? Without my friends knowing about it? The name Kurosaki Ichigo is kind of going to stand out a bit. So is the orange hair."
"So I'll dye it," he said with a shrug. "And I already came up with a new name!"
"Already came up with... How long have I been unconscious?"
The ex-hollow smirked. "About five days."
"And we're still waiting-"
"I told you; it's a ridiculously long line... Although, last time I checked, we were finally getting pretty close..." the ex-hollow grinned again. "Anyway, so I'm thinking, 'Shirosaki Thanatos'. What do you think?"
Ichigo blinked slowly at him. "Okay, I get Shirosaki; it's a play on my name, Kurosaki... But where in the world did Thanatos come from?"
"Don't you pay attention in your own Psychology classes? Thanatos: the death instinct!" At Ichigo's blank look, he continued. "You know; man's natural instinct towards aggression and destruction? 'Deep, deep within us, there is a honed instinct to kill and to slaughter'? Ringing any bells?"
Ichigo stared. "But you said that you-"
Shirosaki waved him off. "Sure, sure, I know. Just a reminder of where I came from, you know? Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go check on that line..." he closed his eyes and disappeared from Ichigo's sight.
"Hey, wait a-" Ichigo also closed his eyes, forcing himself up and out of the sideways world.
Flying up through the darkness, he felt a mental pressure suddenly holding him in place. "You still don't get it, do you? You can watch from here, if you like, but don't try anything."
Shirosaki opened his eyes and looked around. Ichigo felt very disoriented as he could suddenly see, hear, and feel everything around him, even though he wasn't the one actually moving.
They appeared to be in what looked like a long hallway lined with chairs. The walls and floor were all a deep black color. The entire hallway was filled with people, all lined up, looking incredibly bored.
Most of them were dressed in modern clothing, and Ichigo noted that Shirosaki was also wearing simply jeans and a t-shirt instead of the Shinigami outfit.
"We're trying to get to that doorway," Shirosaki explained, looking towards it. There were a good fifty people in line in front of them.
"Has the line moved even a little yet today?" Shirosaki asked aloud.
Somebody near him shook their head. "Nope. News came a little earlier from further up the line. The Shinigami up there actually went AWOL; I guess they're trying to get more information about some war that's being fought."
"Really. Do we get to have any info on this war, or are we being left in the dark?"
"I honestly don't even care about some spirit war," another person spoke up in irritation. "It doesn't involve us, and it's apparently making us wait here for days on end..."
"I think we'd be waiting here for days on end anyway," another person put in, leaning boredly against the wall. "From what I've seen of the shinigami, they don't seem to be very organized."
Shirosaki laughed. "Funny, I got that impression too."
Suddenly there was a loud commotion from up ahead. All heads turned toward the doorway as a few shinigami poured into the hallway, pushing past a few people. One of them cleared his throat and shouted to the people as a whole.
"Sorry to keep you all waiting! There's something really huge going on in Seireitei right now, so we're going to try to get as many of you through here as possible. Everybody be ready to present their name and receive a token when you get up to the front of the line! Once you get your token, continue on through the gate with your number on it!"
One of the other shinigami put in, "If you want to see what's going on in Seireitei, they're letting commoners in briefly, so go to the 1st district gate if you're interested. Just make sure you report to your assigned district within the week. All right, let's go!" The shinigami all scrambled back into the room, and a few moments later, the line actually started to move.
"Finally!" Shirosaki muttered, getting to his feet and moving forward.
'What's going on in Seireitei? Is the war over? Did we win?' Ichigo worried to himself.
"I honestly don't care," Shirosaki informed him cheerily. The line finally moved enough so that he was through the doorway. He went quickly up to one of the desks.
"Shirosaki Thanatos," Shirosaki replied.
'You're actually going to go with that name, then?'
"Sure. I like it." The shinigami at the desk handed him a token, and he continued on towards the gates, scowling at the number he was given. "22nd district? I was hoping for a higher number."
'Higher? The higher districts are the poor, violent ones!' Ichigo protested.
Shirosaki merely smirked. "Seek out battles, remember? That's something even you still have. Oh well, I can always just travel to the higher districts later, I suppose."
As he passed the 1st district gate, he hesitated. Ichigo mentally pushed, trying to go that direction. 'I want to find out what happened with the war! I want to at least let my friends know I'm still alive!"
Shirosaki boredly pushed him back down. "I don't care what you want, idiot." And yet he still paused. "But I have to wonder if this is what I think it is..." He turned and headed towards the 1st district gate.
The streets in 1st district were crowded with people all trying to get into Seireitei for whatever it was that was going on. With a frown, Shirosaki shouldered his way through the crowd, trying to get through himself.
Finally, he got fed up and jumped up to the rooftops. Now free of the crowds, he flash stepped first into Seireitei itself, then towards Soukyoku hill, where most of the crowds seemed to be heading. He wasn't worried about people seeing him; his shunpo was fast enough to transform him into a vague blur to most people's vision.
The closer he got to Soukyoku hill, the less Rukongai peasants he saw. The crowds up here were more Shinigami than anything else. It was far more likely for people up here to see his shunpo, so he broke off, jumping back down to street level and continuing to push through the crowd.
Eventually, he managed to get himself to a point where he could actually see what was going on. The crowd had been sectioned off from the main streets up ahead, and there appeared to be a procession of some sort going by.
"That's what I thought... It's a funeral procession." Shirosaki noted, grinning. "Look, there's a group of people carrying a casket, followed by a procession of Shinigami... And after is another group with another casket... I'd say this is the military funeral for those who died in the Winter War."
Ichigo felt fear grip him. 'Who died? That's a lot of caskets...'
"Dunno. At least now, we know that the war's over. And we must have won if something like this is going on. The procession is heading up to the top of Soukyoku hill. There will probably be a memorial of some sort with all the names on it up there." Shirosaki paused, then grinned wider. "And here comes the fun part! Can you guess whose that one is?"
Ichigo looked with dread. The pallbearers of this particular casket were all familiar to him: Renji, Ishida, Chad, Hanatarou, Ganju, Ikkaku.
Following behind was a crowd of other familiar people. Rukia, clinging to Byakuya and sobbing as they walked; Inoue, looking lost, trying to comfort her friend; various people Ichigo recognized from 11th squad, fourth squad, and some others; even Karin and Yuzu had been brought from the living world to attend. Those in the group who weren't in tears all wore solemn, empty expressions.
'They all think I'm dead,' Ichigo said numbly.
Shirosaki laughed softly. "Of course they do. People tend to assume that when they watch you die." He smirked. "They're not wrong, either. Take a good look around, Ichigo. This is your funeral. Kurosaki Ichigo is dead. Now it's my turn to live!"
Ichigo felt hopelessness wash over him. He was right. The full implications of everything he'd been seeing finally started to hit him all at once. Shirosaki was right; he had lost the right to have control, and now there was nothing he could do about it. The rest of his life would now be spent merely watching the life of someone else...
He tried to retreat back to his mental world, (his mental world now, he realized bitterly), but Shirosaki held him where he was.
"Hang on; don't go emo on me just yet." There was suddenly no more laughter in Shirosaki's voice. Ichigo felt incredibly confused, watching as the other stared solemnly across at the approaching procession.
There was a long pause before Shirosaki abruptly sighed, and then addressed him again. "At executions, prisoners are allowed one final request before they die... Yours is for your friends and family to know you're still alive, right?"
Ichigo mentally frowned as he tried to figure out what Shirosaki was trying to say. Then a glimmer of hope appeared, mixed heavily with confusion. 'You're going to tell them...?'
Shirosaki remained silent for another long moment, before giving him a small nod. "It's going to make my life a bit more of a pain, but yes."
Shirosaki looked over at Karin and Yuzu, who were both crying. "I know for a fact that your friends and family won't accept me instead of you; it's why I decided to start over. However, they're still my family; I still care about them. I don't want to see them suffer any more than you do..."
With that, Shirosaki began pushing through the crowd again, trying to get closer. Ichigo watched in stunned silence.
As they got to where they were almost to the street where the crowd had been sectioned off, Shirosaki began issuing commands. "Our spirit energy is slightly different, so you'll have to do it, or they won't believe it. You will go out there, get their attention, and then run, you got it? Don't say a word, don't blow my cover, and don't get caught."
Ichigo just nodded dumbly, still amazed that Shirosaki was doing this at all. They reached the street, and Shirosaki pushed him into control.
Startled, Ichigo stumbled out into the street, almost directly in front of his own casket. Abruptly, the procession came to a halt as each of the pallbearers nearly dropped the casket in surprise. The whole crowd fell completely silent.
There was a very long moment where everyone simply stared.
Finally, Ichigo slowly raised a hand in greeting. "Hi?"
Rukia broke away from Byakuya and began storming towards him. "Ichigo, you... You...!" She looked absolutely murderous, tears still flowing from her eyes.
Ichigo took several startled steps backwards, then ducked his head, letting his hair shade his eyes. "Sorry," he whispered. He turned and pushed back into the crowd again, getting out of there as fast as he could.
Behind him, he heard Renji and several of the others call his name, as Rukia screamed, "Grab him! Don't let him leave!"
Before anyone in the crowd could react, Shirosaki took control again, jumping back up to the rooftops and flash stepping away at top speed.
One glance behind told him that he was being pursued. Byakuya was right on his tail, with Renji and Ishida not far behind. Coming up fast behind them was Yoruichi, with a very ticked expression on her face.
"Oh, crud!" Shirosaki upped his speed. Renji, Ishida, and even Byakuya he could outpace; Yoruichi, however... "I should have known this was a bad idea!"
Ichigo panicked. 'The sewers! Maybe we can lose her there!'
"Right!" Shirosaki suddenly reversed direction, heading toward where he knew the nearest sewer entrance was. There was a large group of people standing on the entrance, so he quickly shoved them off, throwing it open with probably more force than was necessary and jumping inside.
Immediately, he began flash stepping again, taking as many quick, sudden turns as he could, noting that he could hear the Goddess of Flash enter almost right behind him.
Ichigo abruptly realized something. 'Dang it, why am I helping you?! I want them to catch you!'
"Beats me. Thanks, anyway!" Shirosaki said with a grin. Ichigo groaned, but Shirosaki just ignored him, continuing to flash step around corners. He was vaguely aware just how lost he was getting himself, but at this point, he really didn't care.
Several minutes later, he stopped, leaning up against a wall, trying to keep from breathing heavily. Holding his breath suddenly, he listened hard for signs of continued pursuit, but heard nothing.
He let out his breath sharply, and then began searching for a way out. "That was close..." Ichigo just scowled, saying nothing.
Shirosaki quickly located an exit, and attempted to push it open, frowning when he realized that there must be people standing on this one as well; he couldn't budge it.
He shoved up against it a few times, managing to move it maybe half a centimeter each time. Startled exclamations came from above.
"Did the ground just move?"
"I think it's the sewer system!"
"Is somebody down there?"
There was the sound of people moving above, and then the door opened up. Shirosaki blinked in the sudden light, then pulled himself up out of the sewer, ignoring the stares he was receiving. He quickly blended into the crowd.
"Well, if they're looking for us now, I'd better get something to cover up our hair," Shirosaki mused to himself. Spotting someone wearing a hat up ahead, he meandered over, snatched it off the guy's head, and took a single quick flash step away so that he wouldn't get caught.
He jammed the hat on his head, and not a moment too soon. A few short blocks away, several people suddenly went flying as a sewer entrance blasted open and a blur shot out.
Shirosaki grit his teeth and began to walk swiftly in the opposite direction, trying to keep both his head and his reiatsu low and hoping that the crowd would mask him.
Yoruichi jumped up to the rooftops and began scanning the crowd with a large scowl on her face.
Ichigo mentally frowned. With a crowd this large, there would be no way Yoruichi would be able to spot him unless he randomly took off the hat, flared up his spiritual energy, and started waving at her... Shirosaki was probably going to be able to get away at this rate...
Unless he could somehow get control again...
Abruptly, he shoved past Shirosaki, only succeeding because the ex-hollow was distracted, and flared up his spiritual energy as high as he could make it go. Yoruichi jumped, looking with wide eyes in his direction.
Shirosaki growled in frustration, knocking him back down again. "I try to be nice, and you do this to me?" Quickly, he reigned in his spiritual energy again and shoved harder through the crowd. "You're irritating!"
There was a sharp pain in Ichigo's head, and then he found himself falling, both into the mental world, and into unconsciousness.
The next time Ichigo woke up, he was lying sprawled across the window of a building, his head continuing to pound painfully. He groaned, holding his head in both hands, keeping his eyes firmly shut. "Ow..."
"Well, if you wouldn't make things difficult for me, I wouldn't hit you so hard," came the unexpected, sardonic response from Shirosaki.
Ichigo glanced around for a moment, trying to find the other, before realizing that he wasn't actually there; he was still in control.
Still trying to ignore his giant headache, Ichigo slowly pulled himself up out of the mental world to a point where he could see what was going on.
'Where are we?' Ichigo asked when he didn't immediately recognize the surroundings.
Shirosaki smirked, continuing what he had been doing before Ichigo woke up. "South 22nd district of Rukongai."
Ichigo groaned softly. 'You got away from Yoruichi.'
"No thanks to you, yes I did." Shirosaki said shortly. "Now be quiet a moment, I'm trying to talk here."
Ichigo blinked, then started actually paying attention to what was going on around them. They were in what appeared to be a clothing shop of some kind. There was a shopkeeper close by making various suggestions and Shirosaki was looking over a few different styles of Rukongai clothes.
"I don't think that color will go very well with your hair. How about this one?"
Shirosaki shrugged at her. "I don't care about color. I just want something durable and comfortable."
'You're clothes shopping?' Ichigo asked curiously.
Shirosaki frowned. "Brilliant deduction, genius. Be quiet."
'... It just seems strange to see you doing... well, normal things.'
"Just because you never paid any attention to me before doesn't mean I never do anything normal. Now shut up!"
"You know, if you don't need the clothes you're wearing, we can take them, and that'll reduce your cost a lot," the shopkeeper was informing him helpfully.
Shirosaki nodded. "How much will that reduce the price on these?"
'How are you paying for this stuff in the first place?'
Shirosaki rolled his eyes slightly. "When I turned in that token they gave us, they gave me some currency to work with. It's not a lot, but it'll get us some clothes at least. How many times do I have to tell you to quit talking to me?"
Ichigo stayed silent. Shirosaki frowned, then returned his attention to the shopkeeper. "Sorry, repeat that?"
She gave him a smile, then told him the prices again. Ichigo stopped paying attention, letting himself sink back down to the mental world.
Being wary of his head, Ichigo curled up in the frame of one of the windows with a sigh, closing his eyes and wishing the sky in here wasn't so bright and cheery.
He had almost been hoping that Shirosaki wouldn't be able to deal with real day-to-day life; after all, the only times he'd been out there before was during battles. And yet, once again, the other was displaying his extraordinary ability to do everything better than Ichigo himself could.
He certainly wouldn't have been thinking about clothes first thing... He wasn't even sure he'd be able to deal with such a thing, anyway; usually Yuzu worried about that sort of stuff for him...
Shirosaki had even managed to get away from Yoruichi somehow, even after Ichigo's dead giveaway of a reiatsu flare at close range. He had no idea how he'd managed that one...
Ichigo sighed. That would probably be the last time he would ever be able to see his friends and family again, though. Shirosaki had definitely made that rather clear.
He was going to start a new life; one that Ichigo wouldn't be able to participate in, in any way. One where Ichigo wouldn't even be somewhere familiar, much less with people he knew.
Not that all of the people Ichigo knew were necessarily still alive anyway. Ichigo frowned at the memory of all those caskets being carried by. So many people had died, himself included, apparently, and he hadn't been able to do a thing about it... He didn't even know who it was that had died, or even how many...
One hand clenched into a fist. If only he had been stronger. If only he had been able to protect them... But he hadn't even been able to protect himself... Now he was trapped inside his own mind, and everything he had ever known was being taken from him...
Ichigo was startled out of his thoughts by a hand on his shoulder shaking him lightly. "Ichigo, you awake?"
Ichigo opened his eyes and looked impassively up at Shirosaki. "What do you want?"
"Do you know how to fish?"
Slowly, Ichigo blinked, then pushed himself up onto his elbows. "Fish? Not really. I've gone fishing before, but I've never caught anything..." He paused, then gave him a suspicious look. "Why?"
Shirosaki frowned, folding his arms and sitting down heavily beside Ichigo. "I'm hungry. None of the places in this district sell food; just water. The only place to get food is fish from the river. And I don't know how to catch fish."
Ichigo watched him for a long moment, then shrugged and lay back down. "Not my problem."
"You're moping again," Shirosaki accused.
"Wouldn't you be?" Ichigo shot back. He rolled over so that he was facing away from him. "Leave me alone. I don't fish."
Shirosaki sighed loudly. Ichigo heard him getting up, and then he was suddenly being hauled to his feet and forcefully turned around. Ichigo groaned lightly as his headache protested the movement, but Shirosaki ignored this. "At least come watch me and give me suggestions or something."
Ichigo glared at him. "You sure talk to me a whole lot more than I ever talked to you. Why do my opinions matter? I'm just the horse, remember?"
"You never talked to me because you were a jerk who didn't understand just how boring it gets in here!" Shirosaki said with a smirk. "Well, also because I was a hollow. But this isn't the case here, and besides that, I don't waste my resources. If I think you can help me, then you're going to help!"
"Well, what if I don't want to help?" Ichigo scowled.
Shirosaki scowled right back. "You're coming whether you want to or not. I don't like seeing you sitting here pouting in a corner. It's pathetic."
"What reason do I have to do anything else? You just took everything from me. You're even going to use my Shinigami powers once you're settled in. Why should I help you at all?"
"One might think that the whole 'I die, you die' thing would be enough," Shirosaki said dryly. "What, are you giving up and turning suicidal on me, on top of being hugely depressing?"
Shirosaki smirked. "Oh really? Prove it!"
Ichigo growled and launched himself at Shirosaki, aiming a punch at his head. He very swiftly found himself sprawled on his back, his vision swimming in front of his eyes dizzyingly and his head pounding.
"Good, see, you do have some fight left in you! Now, come on, I'm going to go make a fool out of myself attempting to fish, and you're going to watch. It'll cheer you up, at any rate." Shirosaki grabbed one of his wrists and pulled him up out of the mental world. Ichigo was too dazed to resist.
Shirosaki was sitting on the bank of a river, removing his new sandals so that he could wade into the water. This completed, he sat watching fish swim by for a moment. Then he frowned. "It occurs to me; fish have really sucky lives."
Ichigo blinked at the sudden topic change, but said nothing.
"Seriously, I mean... They're born. They live long, difficult lives. Then they get eaten," Shirosaki continued."Then they come to Soul Society. They live even longer, more difficult lives. Then they get eaten. Thus is the life of a fish."
There was a pause. '...So?'
"How do the fish get here, anyway? I mean, do you have to soul burial fish? Do fish become hollows?" Shirosaki paused in thought."Do they have, like, Shinigami fish to take care of this? What kind of a fish would a Shinigami fish be, anyway? Like, a trout or something?"
Ichigo frowned. 'It'd have to be something that could survive in both salt water and fresh water...'
"Oh, right. So, a salmon, then?"
'I suppo...' Ichigo suddenly stopped, scowling in annoyance. 'Wait, why are we talking about fish? I thought you were going to go try catching them!'
There was a short pause, then Shirosaki got quickly to his feet. "Oh, yeah... I keep forgetting I'm the one who has to do stuff..." He grinned, tying his new Rukongai yukata up out of the way and wading out into the river. He shivered at the freezing cold water.
Ichigo sighed. 'Don't you need a fishing pole or something?'
"I thought about that, but I don't have anything I can use as a hook. I figure, we've got shinigami reflexes; we should be able to just grab them as they swim by, right?"
Shirosaki got out a good ways into the water, then stopped and bent low, his hands poised impatiently just above the surface. For a long time, he waited for a fish to swim within range.
There! He lunged at it, plunged his hands into the cold water, and caused a huge spray of water to splatter over his face and clothing. Despite his efforts, he missed spectacularly. With a frown of irritation, Shirosaki went still again, waiting for another to go by.
The next one swam almost right up to him. He grabbed at it, but his hands merely closed around water once again. He lunged quickly at it again, but all this resulted in was a large splash that got him soaked. Shirosaki scowled and waited for another.
He missed the next one. And the next. And the one after that, too. With each attempt, he became more and more wet, more and more cold, and less and less sure he'd ever be able to actually get anything to eat this way.
After a long time, he finally managed to get his hands on one. It slipped immediately out of his hands with hardly any effort and dropped back into the river with more wet splashes, swimming far out of his range in a matter of seconds.
Shirosaki gave a cry of frustration. "What are they, freaking shunpo fish?!"
'Well, they could be Shinigami fish,' Ichigo commented sarcastically.
A young voice suddenly interrupted their conversation. "Ano... do you need some help?"
Shirosaki looked up in slight surprise to find that there was a boy standing on the bank, watching him with an amused look on his face.
"I... um..." Shirosaki sighed. "Yes... You wouldn't happen to know how to catch these things, would you?"
The little boy grinned at him.
In a much shorter time than Shirosaki would have thought possible, he and the boy, whose name, he'd learned, was Akira, were headed to the boy's home, carrying several fish between them.
Shirosaki was happy that they'd been able to catch as many as they had, but he couldn't stop himself from shaking violently; it was a cold, mid-winter evening, and he was soaked.
The door to the house opened as they approached and a motherly looking woman looked out at them, having obviously been awaiting Akira's return. The moment she saw Shirosaki, her eyes widened and she immediately pulled him inside. "Oh, you poor dear. You look frozen. Akira, go get blankets and some dry clothes for him. Come on, we've got a fire going in here."
Shirosaki let her guide him into the next room and push him down into a low chair by a fireplace. Akira came back with his arms full of the things he'd been told to get, and the woman took them from him, wrapping a blanket around Shirosaki and using it to dry him off briskly.
"T-thanks," Shirosaki said, his teeth chattering from the cold.
"Not a problem. My name's Hanako, by the way."
"I'm Shirosaki Thanatos."
Hanako nodded. "What in the world were you thinking, swimming in the river in the winter?" she asked him. "You'll be lucky if you don't catch hypothermia."
Shirosaki just shivered in response. "I-I'll be okay."
"He was trying to catch fish. He'd never done it before. I found him and taught him how!" Akira added proudly.
"Trying to catch fish?" the woman blinked at him. "What for?"
"I was h-hungry," Shirosaki answered dryly through his shivering. "I h-haven't eaten for a while and n-no one sells food around here."
Hanako's eyes widened with understanding. "Oh, I see; you have spirit energy." Quickly, she pushed the dry clothing into Shirosaki's arms. "Here. Change into these and get yourself warm. I'll get those fish prepared."
Hanako waved off his thanks and left the room, taking Akira with her so that he could have some privacy.
Shirosaki pulled himself to his feet and peeled off the wet clothes, quickly replacing them with the dry ones he had been given. "It's a good thing the people here are nice," he commented cheerfully to Ichigo. "If we'd been in some of the higher districts, we'd probably have just been ignored."
Ichigo was only half paying attention. He had wanted to go back to the mental world for a while now, but Shirosaki still wouldn't let him. 'Why do you keep saying 'we'?' he asked dully.
"We're both here, aren't we?" Shirosaki answered in slight confusion, as if this were the most obvious thing in the world.
'But I don't matter... You're the only one actually doing anything...'
Shirosaki sighed in irritation. "If I didn't think it'd knock you out again, I'd hit you. Quit with the 'oh, woe is me' attitude, Ichigo. You're even making me feel depressed."
Ichigo scowled. 'Well, good.'
Shirosaki rolled his eyes and wrapped himself in one of the blankets, curling up in the chair next to the fire. "I can't wait till that fish gets done. I think we'll both feel better once we're not starving anymore..."
'... You, not we.'
Ichigo scowled, but said nothing. For a long time, Shirosaki sat there in silence, staring into the flames, trying to keep warm.
Finally, Akira knocked lightly on the door, then entered a split second later. "Shiro, food's ready!"
"Thanks!" Shirosaki smiled at him and got to his feet, keeping the blanket wrapped around him as he went to follow the boy out of the room. After a moment, he hesitated. "Shiro?"
Akira grinned. "Yup! It's a nickname!"
Shirosaki laughed. "I like it. You can call me that if you want."
"Yay! Shiro's so much cooler than Shirosaki, right?"
"Well, I wouldn't go that far..." Shirosaki laughed again. "Hey, does this make you 'Kuro', Ichigo?" Ichigo rolled his eyes.
Akira led Shirosaki to a table, which held only a shallow pan with fried fish, one empty plate and eating utensils. "Here! Eat up!"
Shirosaki grinned and sat down, putting a large amount of the fish onto the plate. This completed, he began to eat rapidly.
After a moment, Ichigo shuddered. 'Gah! That's really weird!'
Shirosaki paused, swallowing a mouthful of fish and licking oil off of one finger. "Huh? What is?"
Ichigo shuddered again. 'That! I can smell it, and taste it, and feel you swallowing it, but I'm not doing anything; it's creepy!'
Shirosaki just grinned, shoving more fish in his mouth. "It tastes good, doesn't it? She must have added some spices and things to it; it's great!"
Ichigo groaned. It did taste good, but this was possibly the strangest thing he had ever experienced, and the fact that he liked the taste only made it worse.
When Shirosaki's plate was empty, he piled more fish onto it from the pan and began eating that too.
"You eat a lot, Shiro!" Akira commented, sitting in a chair across from him and watching him eat.
Shirosaki blinked at him, then glanced up at Hanako, who was watching them from the door with an amused look on her face.
"Am I going to need to cook the other fish you boys caught as well?" she asked warmly.
Shirosaki gave her an embarrassed smile. "I'm sorry, I don't mean to impose. You really don't have to-"
Hanako waved off his apologies and smiled at him. "When was the last time you had something to eat?"
"Um... I'm not entirely sure how to calculate the time. I just got here earlier today, but I've been waiting in that line for about five days, and I hadn't eaten for maybe a day or so before that, so..."
She raised an eyebrow at him. "Waiting in line? You mean you're new to Rukongai?"
Shirosaki nodded, continuing to eat. "Yeah. Like I said, about five days..."
"You must have lots of spirit energy," Akira remarked. "Usually, it takes people a long time to get hungry here, even with spirit energy. The last time I ate was a few weeks ago, and I'm not hungry yet..."
Shirosaki frowned slightly. "Really? Don't the shinigami eat a regular three meals a day?"
"Shinigami? Well, I suppose they do, yes, but they actually use their spirit energy on a regular basis; of course they get hungrier faster," Hanako explained, coming over and joining them at the table. "Akira is right, you probably have quite a lot of spiritual energy."
Akira, meanwhile, had caught the word shinigami. "Hang on, you know about shinigami, and you've only been here a day? How come?"
"Uh..." Shirosaki frowned, thinking fast. "I could see them in the town I lived in before. They mostly ignored me, but I talked with them sometimes."
"Cool!" Akira grinned at him. "I want to meet a shinigami! I'm gunna be a shinigami when I grow up!"
Shirosaki smiled. "Oh, really?"
Ichigo scowled. 'How did you manage to come up with that off the top of your head?'
"Think about it; it's technically true." Shirosaki returned good-naturedly.
Something dawned on the small boy suddenly. "You know, you could probably be a shinigami now, Shiro! You've got enough spirit energy, you could pass the Academy's entrance exam easy!"
There was a pause as Shirosaki considered this before shaking his head. "No, I'm not going to become a shinigami."
Akira looked disappointed. "Why not? I bet you'd be awesome at it!"
"Joining the Shinigami Academy would be a good way for you to actually get enough food to eat," Hanako added. "You can't live on fish forever; not if you have to eat that often..."
Shirosaki just shook his head again. "Me going near shinigami at all right now would be a bad idea. They, uh... They don't like me much."
She frowned at him in concern. "Why?"
"I'm not exactly sure. I got through all the normal registration stuff, but when I got into Rukongai, some shinigami just started chasing me."
Akira's eyes were wide. "You got chased by shinigami? Why?"
Shirosaki shrugged. "Dunno. I didn't exactly stop to ask them, you know. They looked really mad for some reason, and I've learned not to mess with mad shinigami. They did keep shouting some name at me; I think they must have thought I was somebody else..."
'They thought you were somebody else?' Ichigo frowned again. 'You're going to go with that lame of a story?'
"It's true, though. They thought I was you!" Shirosaki pointed out smugly. Ichigo just groaned.
Shirosaki realized suddenly that Ichigo's comments hadn't actually interrupted Akira or his mother attempting to talk, and he returned his attention to them. Akira was watching him with awe, his mother with vague skepticism. There was a slightly awkward silence in the room.
At first, Shirosaki was confused by their expressions, and then he realized that what he'd just told them was that he was effectively running from the law, and that they weren't sure how to respond to this.
Slowly, he brought his hands up defensively. "I'm not a criminal, honest. I didn't actually do anything."
His words seemed to break them out of their indecision. Akira grinned and opened his mouth to start asking questions, but was interrupted by Hanako, who quickly looked down at her watch.
"Akira, I think it's time for you to go to bed," she said briskly.
Akira stared up at her with pleading eyes. "But, but, but!"
"No buts, it's bed time."
"But I wanna talk to Shiro!"
She sighed and got to her feet, pulling the boy gently out of his seat. "You can talk with him in the morning. Bed now."
"Awwww!" he protested; but he did as his mother asked, allowing her to lead him out of the room.
Hanako paused at the door and looked back over her shoulder at Shirosaki. "You finish eating. I'll talk to you after I put Akira to bed."
Shirosaki nodded to her, and the two left, leaving Shirosaki feeling anxious. She obviously didn't believe his story... With a frown, he continued eating, not sure exactly what he would say to her when she got back.
All too soon, Hanako returned and sat down at the table across from him. He slowly finished his food, then put the plate aside and stared down at the table.
"I understand that you're in need of a place to stay," Hanako said finally, "and I am willing to provide that for tonight. However, I will not allow you to stay if doing so creates any trouble for us with the Shinigami."
Shirosaki nodded, keeping his gaze fixed on the table. "I don't mean to cause trouble. I told you, I-"
She shook her head. "I know what you said. However, I don't think you're telling me the whole story. Why are the Shinigami really after you?"
Shirosaki hesitated, glancing up at her. "I was telling the truth..."
"But not the whole truth," Hanako noted. "Why not just tell them who you really are? I can believe that they could mistake a person for someone they're not, but I also know that they don't just kill without asking questions."
"I know the person that they think I am," Shirosaki said finally.
Ichigo almost choked in surprise, but Shirosaki ignored this and continued. "We're... well, almost twins; there are only vague differences between us. Not many people know about me, though, and I'm almost afraid they'd be more angry to find that I'm not him than they'd be if I was."
Hanako raised an eyebrow at him. "Why?"
"I dunno. Because they're looking for him and not for me. They won't exactly be happy to find me," Shirosaki said with a shrug.
"But they still wouldn't do anything to you," she pointed out. "Disappointed they may be, but if you didn't do anything, they'll just let you go."
Shirosaki shook his head. "Not if they think that by holding me, they can make him come. They don't know I exist, but he definitely does..."
Hanako frowned, watching him carefully, but she didn't say anything.
Hesitantly, he continued. "I don't want to spend the rest of my life locked away... and that's what they'll do if they catch me."
She continued to watch him for a long moment, then sighed. "Your story has become, if anything, even more unbelievable."
Shirosaki winced slightly, but nodded. "I know. I..."
"But I can see it's true," Hanako admitted. Shirosaki looked up at her in surprise and she gave him a half smile. "I must be crazy, I know, but for some reason I believe you. You're still not telling me everything, but what you have told me is true, and that's all I need to know."
Ichigo groaned. With that, even if the Shinigami came through this area looking for him, Hanako wasn't going to tell them about Shirosaki even if they asked her directly.
Slowly, Shirosaki smiled. "Thank you. For everything."
She waved off his thanks again and stood. "The room I took you to before has a couch that you can sleep on. The other blankets Akira brought you are still in there, of course. I'll see you in the morning."
Shirosaki nodded his understanding, and Hanako left the room.
He waited a few long seconds after she exited, and then he let out a sigh of relief. "It's a good thing I ran into such nice people," he remarked again cheerfully.
Ichigo didn't respond, instead moodily making another attempt to retreat back to the mental world. Shirosaki sighed, shaking his head with a small smirk, but he let him go.
Shirosaki got up from the table and headed back to the room with the couch where he'd been before, feeling highly optimistic about his new life. Ichigo may not like it, but for Shirosaki, things were finally starting to look up.
Daricio: This is an example of a plot bunny gone way out of control. Katie and I were discussing Bleach one day, and the topic "what happens if a Vaizard dies" came up. I decided I wanted to actually write it out, and before we knew it, we had a huge story idea on our hands.
Random note about Shiro's name, by the way... I decided to call him Shirosaki Thanatos in this story, for the reasons that he explained to Ichigo. Later, (probably next chapter), this will get shortened to just Shiro, since Shirosaki is kind of weird and nobody can pronounce Thanatos... (Including the characters in the story XD)
But he's only going to be Shiro in this story, not in any of my others. (Unless I decide to write out my "Twins" plotbunny, which I probably won't). This is mostly to distinguish him from Hichigo in my Feeling Hollow story. Shiro has been purified, so he's got a completely different personality than Hichigo does...
One thing that is the same about him, though, is his tendency to use analogies to explain things. XD I can imagine Ichigo: "Oh great, first I was compared to some riddle, now I'm being compared to a math problem... What next? A Rubik's Cube?!"
XD and the shunpo fish and Shiro's fish rant. Seriously, fish have horrible lives. The 'do fish become hollows' question is a reference to an awesome crack fic called "PS Do Goldfish Become Hollows". Look it up, it's hilarious.
By the way, there's a reason the line into Rukongai was ridiculously long. XD So Ichigo is proof of what happens when you kill a Vaizard... But what happens when you kill a Menos? Aren't they made up of, like, thousands of hollows? Especially the Vasto Lords, which are made up of hundreds of Gillians... Do all of those hollows get purified all at once? Yeah. Long line.
Random note about the dialogue: It was mentioned to me in a review on Feeling Hollow once that I should have both Ichigo and Hichigo speak using regular double quotes... And this story kinda displays why I didn't do that. In Feeling Hollow, Ichigo was in control, so he got the regular double quotes while Hichigo was left with single quotes. In this story, Shiro's in control, so he gets the regular double quotes while Ichigo is left with single quotes... Make sense? Kay...
Anyway, there's going to be some serious craziness in this story if I ever get it written out as far as we've talked about it. This includes, but is not limited to: dealing with Rukongai life, figuring out where Zangetsu went, the shinigami academy, dealing with odd room mates and girls, strange experiences with a box, heavily guarded by Soifon and her ninjas, Kenpachi problems, joining the Gotei 13, and more!
... Yeah, it's going to be weird. And looooong. Seriously, this chapter is short, but the story as a whole is going to be really huge...
Oh, yeah, and thanks to Bakageta for betaing for me. Sorry to B/k, I got tired of waiting. (sweatdrop)
And one last random note: I am really growing to hate Quickedit very very much, especially the dividers. Exactly what about the backspace key says "go to the beginning of the document" to you? Stupid, buggy program...