Hey, everyone. Um, been a while, huh?
So, I've actually had this chapter completely finished for over half a year now. Originally, I was going to wait until someone offered to write more of the in between scenes, and then post up their work along with mine, but nobody offered and eventually I kind of forgot that I had this written already.
Within the last few weeks or so, though, I've been getting several reviews on this story urging me to continue so that they could see what happens to Shiro and Ichigo in the end. Today, I got a particularly urgent one (you know who you are) and so I remembered that I already had this scene and I decided to stop being a jerk and actually post it.
Just a quick reminder: this takes place seven years after Ichigo went missing, after defeating Aizen, so all of his friends and family (other than the Shinigami, who don't age the same way) are grown up now, and some of them are married. I apologize if you don't like the pairings; it isn't mentioned much.
Been a while, huh? Almost four months since I last got to send you letters. My compliments to everyone who put together that last doozy. I swear, Soi Fon's getting more and more intent on killing me every time I get through one.
It's always good to hear from you, though. Even if I do have to fight my way through flames and dart traps to hear it."
Ichigo sighed, tapping the back of Shiro's thin writing brush against the side of the desk as he thought, trying to decide if he really had anything to say to his father. He always responded to the letters that were in the box—it was tradition to, at this point—but he'd never been much of a letter writer anyway and sometimes there was just nothing that needed to be said. Especially since he couldn't really talk about anything that he was up to.
With a light sigh, he shook his head. He'd already read through every letter in his box, which had taken him a good couple of hours just by itself, and he was currently on his fifth letter written in answer.
Part of him was glad he only had to do this once every few months—the usual time it took him to figure out how to get through the maze of traps. He was repeating himself enough in his letter-writing as it was.
"You could tell him you recently got a better job," Shiro suggested. "He'll be pleased to know you're making yourself useful."
Ichigo snorted. 'You're the one who got the vice-captain position,' he returned. 'And if you hadn't gotten it, I'd have more time for letter writing. You're only still paying attention to this because you still have paperwork you're supposed to be doing, aren't you?'
Shiro shrugged a little. "You work, too," he reasoned cheerfully. "And I don't have that much paperwork left to do. Take your time. It's not like anyone's going to wander in here at three in the morning anyway."
A little surprised, Ichigo twisted around to stare at the clock. "It's not that late, is it?" he said aloud. "I knew we were pushing midnight, but I didn't realize..."
"Don't worry about it," Shiro laughed. "I'll just make you work in the morning. You staying up late doesn't bother me none."
Ichigo rolled his eyes. 'Thanks a lot.' Honestly, going out and doing vice-captain duties with Renji as his captain creeped Ichigo out even more than it did Shiro, regardless of the fact that they'd both been doing it for several months now. At least the ex-hollow had different reiatsu to hide him from his old friend.
It wasn't as though he didn't want to talk to him as Ichigo, but that's what the letters were supposed to be for.
Shaking his head a little, Ichigo went back to the letter to his dad, scowling thoughtfully down at it. Slowly, he began to write again.
"I'm glad things have been going well for you. Everything's fine for me, too. I recently got a new job, sort of. I was a little nervous about it at first, to be honest, but it's been working out better than I had expected.
I keep waiting for news abou—~"
Startled, Ichigo dropped the brush completely as the harsh noise echoed through the division headquarters. With wide eyes, suddenly very awake, he scrambled to his feet, grabbing as many of the letters as he could and gathering them to him in preparation for dumping them back into the box, which was on the floor by his feet.
Before he could get any further, the door leading from the main hallway into the captain's office opened and Renji—of all people!—came stumbling in, carrying what was obviously a bottle of sake.
"R-renji!" Ichigo stammered, trying to discreetly move the letters off to the side of the desk. Then, immediately, caught his mistake. "Er, I mean, Abarai-taichou! Um, you, uh... What are you doing here?"
Shiro hovered worriedly in the back of his mind, knowing full well that he couldn't just take over now. The change in reiatsu would be too obvious, and it was hard to claim that he "didn't notice" when it happened like that.
Renji blinked at him slowly. "Shiro? Didn't expect anyone to still be here. You know how late it is, right?"
Ichigo relaxed just a hair as it finally registered that Renji hadn't recognized him for who he was. A quick glance in a mirror that had been set up on a side wall confirmed that his hair was still white and tied back in its ponytail; he'd put it back that way so that getting through Seireitei after his successful raid would be easier for him. His "disguise" was in place.
Nervously, he offered Renji a small smile. "Uh, yeah. Just finishing up some... some work." He shoved the letters a little further to the side, trying to make them less noticeable. As long as the red-haired captain didn't try to investigate them further, he'd still be safe.
And if his suspicions were right, hiding them could end up easier than it seemed. "What about you, taichou? Why are you here so late? Are you..." he paused, as though trying to figure out a way to put it politely. "Are you drunk?"
Renji waved him off. "A man can't go drink now and again?" he wondered huffily, wandering over and leaning heavily against the desk.
"Rukia kicked you out of the house again, so you decided to go out drinking?" Ichigo guessed, a hint of amusement crossing his expression despite the panic flooding through him as Renji planted his hand directly on top of the stack of letters he'd been writing.
With a huge sigh, Renji took a short swig from his bottle, and then offered it out towards Ichigo. "Don't ever get married," he advised him. "Want any?"
"I, uh... don't drink," Ichigo declined, inconspicuously sweeping several letters down into the box. Then, swiftly, he shoved the whole thing under the desk with his feet.
To Ichigo's horror, the movement attracted Renji's attention and he leaned over closer to him, trying to see what he was doing. "What are you working on that's so important?" he asked with a frown. "I mean, I know you're dedicated to your work and all, but it's really late. The only reason I'm here is cause there's a couch to crash on."
Ichigo shrugged, a little too quickly. "Just, uh... lost track of time? I really should head home, huh?" He bent over and started gathering the rest of the things on his desk, using his body to block Renji's view. "I'll just gather my things up and get out of your way and-"
"Hang on." The red-headed captain suddenly snatched something up out of Ichigo's hands, turning it over slowly. "This isn't one of the forms that you were working on earlier. It's not a third division form at all, it's..."
"A letter," Ichigo hastily clarified for him, grabbing it back. There was no hiding that fact, now. Drunk or not, Renji could see pretty clearly that it was in an envelope. "I was taking some time to write to family."
Renji frowned at him. "Really? To who?"
Ichigo wasn't sure how to answer. "Uh, my dad..." he said vaguely.
"I thought you said you didn't have any family." Renji raised an eyebrow, giving him a strange look. "Grew up in Rukongai, didn't you? Wandered a lot."
A jolt of fear ran through Ichigo as he mentally swore lightly. 'I screwed up! Crud, what am I supposed to do, now? What do I say?!' But Shiro seemed to be at a loss as well, looking on with trepidation.
Swallowing hard, his mouth feeling very dry, Ichigo slumped slightly. "You... pick up on a lot, considering you're drunk."
Renji snorted, holding up the bottle for Ichigo to see, though of course that showed him nothing since it was an unmarked clay thing. "It's iced tea," he admitted roughly. "Never much cared for sake, at least not what you can get around here. This stuff's better, especially since I won't get a hangover on top of everything else going on. Now, what are you trying so hard to hide from me? What are those letters?"
'I'm totally screwed,' Ichigo realized, his heart sinking as he stared up at his old friend. "N-nothing important," he tried one last time to blow it off. "Like I said, just writing some random letters..."
Renji clapped him roughly on the shoulder. "Riiight," he said knowingly, giving a short laugh. "Sure you are. Never mind, then. I won't ask. You know, I never would have thought you'd be into that. You're always so shy about that stuff."
Ichigo blinked. "Stuff like... what?" he asked slowly, aware that Renji had somehow picked up the wrong idea from all of this but unsure of what, exactly, that idea was.
The captain turned away with a snort. "Don't bother hiding it now. Look, don't worry about it. I honestly don't care if you get porn mailed to you; just don't let it affect your work."
Ichigo—and Shiro in the back of his mind—nearly choked, quickly turning bright red. "What?! T-that's not-! It isn't-!"
"Suuure," Renji laughed again. "I'll go ahead and leave you to yourself, then. There's a couch in the main hall I can use just as well as the one in here, so that I don't bother you."
Still red as a beet, Ichigo continued sputtering. "But! No, you've got it all-"
Renji glanced back at him with a half-smirk, about to shoot off another comment, but the red-head suddenly froze, his gaze caught by something down by Ichigo's feet. Slowly, he frowned, his eyes narrowing as he peered across the room.
A sinking feeling in his gut, Ichigo followed his gaze, looking down across the desk to the floor.
There, lying in plain view, was a large envelope bearing an equally large sticker, which depicted the unmistakable, chibified face of Urahara Kisuke, his green and white striped bucket hat, and two cartoony hands open wide. The picture was something Hat and Clogs always stamped on all of his products, and most recently could be found on various security devices put up around the area guarding the mysterious box of letters.
Mentally, Ichigo swore to himself. He'd thought that he'd gotten rid of all of Urahara's tricks before he left this time! How had he missed this one? And why was it on the floor? Had he knocked it off the desk earlier?
But more importantly, Renji was now walking back towards him, crouching down to pick up the envelope from off of the floor. Ichigo quickly moved around the side of the desk, trying to come up with something that would distract the red-head from the letter, but it was too late. From that vantage point on the floor, the box under the desk was disturbingly obvious, even in the candle light.
Surprised, the captain looked up to Ichigo with wide eyes. He'd put letters in that box; he knew what it—and the Urahara stickers—looked like. "Hang on just a second. You got the box?! You?!"
Ichigo shifted his weight uncomfortably from one foot to the other, his gaze wandering to the unguarded, unblocked windows. He was in major trouble now. "Uh..."
"How did you manage that?" Renji demanded. "The alarms haven't even been set off, as far as I've been notified! A-and you're just Shiro! No way you're good enough to get past all of those traps!"
Shiro mentally gave a frown. "Hey..."
Ichigo just shrugged, trying to appear as small as possible.
Renji got swiftly to his feet, crossing the room and putting both hands on Ichigo's shoulders, as if sensing his desire to run. "That is amazing, Shiro! Heck, it's amazing enough that Ichigo gets to these things half the time with everything that gets piled into the defenses, but you're just a vice-captain! A brand new one, at that! That is absolutely unbelievable!"
With a nervous laugh, Ichigo tried to pull away from him. "Y-yeah. Amazing."
"You know, if you've got skill like this, you really ought to be getting paid way more than you are now. Seriously. Hey, can I take a look at that?" Without waiting for an answer, Renji released him and went around the desk so that he could pull the box out from under it. "I put my own letters into this every now and then, obviously, but I haven't seen the rest of what everyone puts in here."
Wincing a little, Ichigo could do nothing but watch as Renji began to sort through the letters. 'We're still screwed, aren't we?'
"Most likely," Shiro returned solemnly, his tone somewhat forlorn. "It won't take him long to find the ones you were just writing, and then..."
"What the...?" Sure enough, one of Ichigo's letters—standing out from the others since he hadn't bothered hunting down envelopes for them yet—quickly ended up in Renji's hands. The red-head stared at the strange, pinkish Rukongai paper that they had found somewhere, looking over the words written there with wonder. "How'd this... Did Ichigo...?
Ichigo looked quickly away, starting to inch closer to the windows. His mind raced as he tried desperately to figure out what to do.
This wasn't like getting caught while inside the trap-infested maze. He couldn't just wait for the next opportunity to run and then just go back to their normal life as Shirosaki Thanatos. This was their normal life being threatened, here!
Yet, he couldn't really justify running anymore, at this point. Even if he did, it wouldn't matter. He and Shiro couldn't exactly start over in Rukongai this time. They'd have nowhere to go.
Either way, running or staying, they were about to lose everything.
Renji didn't seem to have made the connection yet, but at the rate he was going, it wouldn't be too hard for him to make that final step. It looked as though they were finally going to have to come face to face with the truth they'd been trying to hide for the last seven years.
"I hate to say it, but I agree," Shiro seemed strangely calm about all of this, though Ichigo could tell he didn't like it any more than he did. "Though, maybe it's best after all..."
Finding one of Ichigo's letters had driven Renji to search through the rest of the pile, knowing that there'd be more than just one in the mass of paper. "Did you see these?" he asked Ichigo as he looked. "When you tried to shove everything back in, these must have gotten all mixed up, but there's letters from Ichigo in here. That's gotta mean he somehow managed to get the box and put it back, without tripping the alarms, all before you got in and..."
Renji trailed off as he came across the letter that Ichigo had been in the process of writing when he'd come barging in. Not only was it obviously unfinished, but a large streak of ink had spattered across it when Ichigo had jumped.
Slowly, the red-head looked up from the letter, his gaze going up to search Shiro's desk. He found what he was looking for: Shiro's writing supplies were out, strewn somewhat haphazardly across the desk, ink splattered across part of the surface. He'd only have to look two feet over to see that Ichigo's fingers were ink-stained as well from writing with the brushes.
With a sigh, Ichigo reached up and pulled his hair out of the ponytail. Then, Renji's attention focused suspiciously on him now, he ran his hands through the long, wavy locks, activating the counter-kidou spell that would return them to their natural bright orange color.
"You... That can't..." Renji was struck speechless, one hand coming up to point dumbly at his vice-captain.
Ichigo gave him a hesitant half-grin. "Hey, Renji. Been a while, huh?"
Rukia pinched the bridge of her nose irritably, trying to convey in the simple gesture just how absolutely ticked she felt. "Renji, dear... Please tell me that you didn't actually handcuff your vice captain and put him in a division cell for no good reason."
"There is a good reason!" Renji insisted, halting his pacing and leaning forward with both hands on the table in front of him. "I'm telling you, he's not who he says he is!"
Rukia lounged in a chair across the table from him, still in her night clothes, her head propped up on one arm. She'd been dragged out of bed at a horrific hour of the morning, and she'd expected Renji's report to be something important. Not wild accusations about the Gotei 13's newest vice-captain.
"Look, Renji. I've met Shiro several times. We've worked together before. We all have. You're his captain." Rukia tried to speak slowly, so as to better get her point across. Renji moved to protest, but she kept going. "He's not Ichigo. And even if he was, why did you think—even for an instant—that this was grounds enough to arrest him?"
Renji gawked at her. "He always runs off!" he reasoned. "I was just making sure I could notify everyone before he had a chance to! I've already called the usual group, they should be coming soon. We should-"
"Renji, are you drunk?" Rukia asked in exasperation, giving him a knowing look. After the argument she'd had with him earlier, she had just known he'd go out with his friends and get himself into some sort of trouble.
The red-head's gawking grew more pronounced and he added some sputtering to it. "No! Well, maybe a little, but not like that! Rukia, this is serious!"
"It's serious, all right. Seriously going to wait until morning," she informed him matter-of-factly, pulling her robe more tightly around herself with annoyance. "Please let your vice-captain out of that cell and go to bed. Preferably not mine."
"He admitted it to me himself!" Renji insisted again. His voice suddenly became low and focused. "Rukia... I told you, I found him with the box. He was answering the letters. You didn't see him. Hear him! He is Ichigo."
Rukia let out a sigh. Deep inside her, she recognized that when Renji took on that serious tone, he usually knew what he was talking about and she should at least try to listen.
Unfortunately, the part of her that seemed to be in control right at the moment was the ticked-at-being-woken-up part of her that didn't want to listen to the bull-headed man she'd already had a stupid fight with earlier.
"Renji," she said slowly, getting to her feet and turning calmly to the doorway that would lead her back to their bedroom. "I am going back to sleep."
The red-head let out a frustrated growl as he stalked over to stand between her and the doorway, reaching out and grasping both of her shoulders firmly. "Please, Rukia." He spoke with a slightly strained tone now, giving her a stubborn frown. "At least go see for yourself."
For several moments, Rukia debated literally kicking him out the window for the second time that night, but eventually decided it wasn't worth the effort. Heaving another great sigh, she finally relented. "Fine. Give me a minute to change, then we'll go."
Renji's face lit up, but Rukia ignored it, moving past him into the bedroom. Honestly, it wouldn't take that long to get to Renji's division headquarters, and if that was what it took to appease her crazy husband, then so be it.
And if push came to shove, she would let poor Shiro out of that cell.
You seem... more okay with this than I thought you would be.' Ichigo sounded almost suspicious.
Shiro smiled, leaning back against the wall of the cell that Renji had put him in an hour ago, letting his shackled hands rest in his lap. Technically speaking, the restraints were all rather pointless. If he really wanted to, he wouldn't even have to use kidou to blow up the spirit energy-suppressing, wooden handcuffs, and getting out of the cell after that would be a cinch.
Still, as Ichigo had noted before, running now was rather pointless, too. Nowhere to go.
Closing his eyes lightly, Shiro finally answered his other self's comment. "I've been thinking about it a lot, lately," he admitted. "Ever since we graduated and joined the Gotei 13, really, but especially since we got promoted to Renji's vice captain. I've kind of been waiting for them to figure it out. Only a matter of time, really. We honestly didn't do that much to disguise ourselves in the first place."
Shiro could feel Ichigo's disgust at that. 'So you gave up?' he asked disappointedly. 'You figured they'd find you eventually, and that's that?'
Slowly, the white-haired teen shook his head, still keeping his smile in place. "I never said that," he scolded. "You know me better than that. I'm not giving up on living."
Ichigo frowned. 'They're not going to let you be,' he pointed out. 'If everyone else believes Renji, and they know I'm here, they're not going to just leave you alone. This is what we've been worried about for years, Shiro. Why are you so calm about it?'
"Why worry about something I can't change?" Shiro reasoned back cheerfully. "Aren't you the one who told me once: I've been Shirosaki Thanatos for over seven years, now. Maybe we've just been overly paranoid about it. Maybe your friends will actually just accept me."
Ichigo let out a snort. 'You know, even after all this time, Ishida is still convinced that I'm being held against my will. The fact that, at the beginning of all this, I was, sort of, doesn't help.'
Shiro gave a shrug, purposefully keeping his anxiety about the upcoming meeting hidden beneath his nonchalant attitude. They didn't both have to be uptight about this. "That's why we're going to talk to them. They'll understand."
His head-mate, of course, saw right through his charade, but, with a sigh, decided to let it drop.
Biting his lip a little, Shiro shrugged again. "I mean, worst case scenario, they all hate me. What are they going to do about it? Refuse to talk to me ever again? Try to get me kicked out of the Gotei 13, maybe? Like that'll work."
'Yeah. They bug the Soutaichou about it enough, and all they'll get out of him is an order to execute you or something,' Ichigo said, rolling his eyes.
Shiro chuckled lightly, but decided not to even get started on their usual string of complaints against the Soutaichou. "They can't kill me without killing you, too."
'Don't be so sure. If they sent us to Kurotsuchi, he might figure out a way to do it,' Ichigo suggested dryly.
That made the vice-captain physically shudder. "Thanks for that. Way to be cheery, Ichigo."
Ichigo smirked at him. 'Just doing my job. Can't have you smiling so pointlessly like that all the time.'
Of course, Shiro grinned just to spite him. "It's not so bad. You should try it sometime."
The grin was wiped off of his face a moment later as the sounds of doors opening and approaching footsteps interrupted their conversation. Shiro shifted uncomfortably, straightening to a slightly more dignified position as he tried to figure out who was entering.
'Do you want me to talk to them?' Ichigo's mental voice had become serious again.
The white-haired teen shook his head slightly, keeping his eyes on the room's only door. "I can handle this, to start with anyway," he reassured him.
Before Ichigo could comment on that, the door finally opened and Renji reentered the room, leading the way for Rukia, who did not look happy. As she came in, she looked him over critically, her eyes lingering for a moment on his still-orange hair, her scowl never leaving her face.
"Good morning, Rukia-san," Shiro greeted as cheerfully as he could manage, shrinking a little under her scrutiny.
Rukia redirected her glare at Renji, and Shiro almost laughed as he realized that she was mad at the red-head, not at him. "Okay, Renji. I've seen him. It's just Shiro. Now, what...?"
At the flustered look on Renji's face, Shiro couldn't help a chuckle anymore and he shook his head. Even with his natural hair color showing, his bizarre reiatsu and her unwillingness to believe Renji at this hour was still hiding him.
Renji started to fume about something, but Shiro lightly interrupted him. "How many others are coming, Renji-san? I'd really like to avoid having to say this multiple times..."
With a snort of frustration, the captain folded his arms. "Just the Ishidas," he grumbled, "and then only because you got to the box. Nobody else believes me."
"Because your accusation is insane," Rukia informed him dryly before turning to the captive vice-captain. "I'm sorry about this, Shiro. I don't know what's gotten into him."
Shiro laughed a little at that. "Don't worry about it. I deserve it. How long before Ishida shows up?"
Renji rolled his eyes. "He was already in Soul Society when I called him, investigating that security device of Urahara's that you missed. Knowing him, the Quincy's probably-"
"Already here, and wondering why you have your vice captain locked up, Abarai-san." Almost as though he'd been hovering in the doorway waiting for the perfect spot for an entrance, Ishida Uryuu came striding into the room, dressed impeccably in a simple white suit, one hand up to push his glasses further up onto his face.
Walking beside him, holding a sleepy-looking three-year-old, came an equally sleepy-looking Orihime. "Rukia-san," she greeted her friend. "We heard that Kurosaki-kun was..." she trailed off uncertainly as she looked Shiro over.
Shiro smiled at them. "Nice to see you again, Ishida-san, Orihime-san. I see you brought your son along..."
With a light return smile, Orihime shifted the black-haired boy further up into her arms. "Yes. He was still awake when we were leaving and insisted on coming with us. I suspect he didn't realize how late we would be staying out."
As if in answer, the boy yawned widely, burrowing his face into Orihime's shoulder. She gave him a fond grin, and then returned her attention seriously to the cell's handcuffed inhabitant. "Shiro-san, what's going on? Why are you in there?"
"Good question," Ishida put in, giving Renji a hard look.
Renji scowled. "I locked him up so he wouldn't try to run from us again. I'm telling you, he's actually Ichigo. The whole thing is a disguise."
Frowning, Shiro opened his mouth to protest this, but surprisingly, Ishida got to it first, snorting loudly. "Abarai-san, you think I haven't been scanning the spirit energy in this place since I first got here? I'll admit that your vice-captain has many similarities to Kurosaki, especially with his hair that color..." he gave Shiro a critical look, and then continued, "but with that reiatsu, he's not Kurosaki."
Shiro smiled widely at him. "You're right, Ishida-san" he agreed amiably. "I'm not Ichigo. Sort of."
Renji sputtered at him. "But you just admitted to me earlier that you are! You can't just-!"
"However, Renji-san is also correct," Shiro added quickly. "We also are Kurosaki Ichigo. Or were, a long time ago." When they all froze and stared at him, he ducked his head a little in embarrassment, trying to think how to word this.
With a concerned frown, Rukia stepped closer, reaching a hand up to hold one of the bars of the cell, peering in at him. "Shiro, what are you talking about? You're not..."
Keeping his head down, Shiro shook his head. "Give me just a second, Rukia-san. Let me get Ichigo. He can explain better than me."
'You want me to take over?' Ichigo questioned, readying himself to do so.
Shiro shook his head again, tuning out the worried questions of the others and gathering up his spirit energy. "No, I have a better idea. I need them to realize that there are actually two of us here. Remember what happened while I was doing bankai training?"
Ichigo blinked. 'Wait... you want to try to materialize me? Just me, without Zangetsu?'
"I think it'll work. Want to try?"
For a moment, Ichigo hesitated, but then he nodded. 'Worth a shot.'
At his assent, Shiro channeled his spirit energy through his zanpakutou, focusing on bringing the spirit within—Ichigo, at the moment—out into the material world. The others in the room let out gasps as his whole body began to glow, and then, with a flash, Ichigo appeared, standing beside the cot where Shiro sat, his eyes closed.
His appearance was exactly the same as Shiro's in many ways: Long, bright orange hair that he'd long since gotten used to, black Shinigami robes, determined brown eyes. But two things stood out as being different, the first being their vastly different reiatsus. The second was a large, deep scar that stretched from the middle of Ichigo's forehead just down past the bridge of his nose between his eyes, which looked almost as though it had just barely finished being a scab.
Ichigo shook his head, giving Shiro a sideways scowl. "Right. This is just as weird as the first time you did this, Shiro."
Shiro chuckled, smirking up at him. "I'm just glad that worked. Can you guys see him?" he jerked a thumb at his other self.
He hadn't really needed to ask the question; all of them were staring at Ichigo with varying degrees of shock. Rukia had backed away from the cell, nearly running into Renji as she gawked. Ishida's mouth fell open as he looked back and forth between the two of them. Orihime slowly lowered the child in her arms to the floor, waking him up just enough for her to set him on his feet. Even Renji looked gob smacked.
"K... Kurosaki-kun..." Orihime's voice was filled with disbelief.
Ichigo sighed. "Um, hi. I suppose we've got some explaining to do..."
"I-I'll say you do, Kurosaki!"
Renji stepped suddenly up to the cell door, reaching his arms through the bars in an attempt to poke Ichigo's shoulder, to make sure he was real. He wasn't—Renji's hand went right through him, and Ichigo stepped backward out of reach, clearing his throat slightly.
"This form isn't solid," he said awkwardly. "Not unless I want it to be. It's a bankai manifestation technique, meant to manifest zanpakutous... and we figured out that it manifests alternate personalities, too."
"Alternate personalities?" Orihime asked in wonder, at the same time that Rukia wanted to know, "Why do you know a bankai manifestation technique? Don't you have bankai already?"
Ichigo shook his head. "I do, yeah, but Shiro didn't until recently. Zangetsu told him that my training for bankai didn't count, so he had to do his own."
"Which was so unfair," Shiro added with a smirk at his other self.
Ishida held up a hand to get them to stop talking. "Kurosaki, Shirosaki, please just..." he paused, as though mentally hitting himself for never having seen the relationship between those two names, before he continued, "Just... start at the beginning, please."
Shiro and Ichigo gave each other frowns, each trying to decide what counted as the "beginning."
"Well," Ichigo finally said, "the weird stuff really started back during the final battle with Aizen, when he, ah..."
"Shishkabobed your head?" Shiro put in helpfully.
"Shut up." Ichigo scowled at him. "Yeah, that. Well... if I had been a normal Shinigami, then I would have died there. But I wasn't. I was a Vaizard—part Shinigami, part Hollow. Because the hollow half of me took control before I died, the hollow was purified and sent to Rukongai. The rest of me went with, and well," he jerked a thumb up at the scar on his face, "this never really healed."
Ishida, of course, made the logical jump from there. "You're trying to say that Shiro is the purified form of your hollow self?" He looked Shiro over incredulously. "But that's..."
Shiro only grinned at him. "Completely ridiculous, isn't it? But it's true. Tragically, I am one half of Ichigo's soul, made cheerful and then forced to live with the rest of him."
Ichigo rolled his eyes. "We figured out how to get along eventually, but we didn't at first."
"I don't understand..." Orihime had wandered up to the cell door, leaning against the bars as she stared at Ichigo. "It's the same question I've wondered for years, Ichigo... Why did you run away from us? Why didn't you come home?"
Ichigo dropped his head down, looking ashamed. "Because..."
"Because I told him to run away," Shiro interrupted. "And he didn't have any choice at the time. I wanted a chance at living my own life, away from his old life since I knew that none of you would accept me in his place. So I came to the funeral to let him say goodbye, and then-"
Rukia's head shot up at his words. "What do you mean, you knew none of us would accept you?" she snapped. "You mean to tell me that you took Ichigo away from us for seven years because of something stupid like that?"
Shiro's expression remained calm. "You didn't accept Kon continuing to live in Ichigo's human body afterwards. You kicked him out and made him get his own Gigai. Well, I don't have my own Gigai, or anything like that. I also wasn't going to try living Ichigo's life only to have you lot all glaring at me for not letting him be in control. So we left."
"And so you're the one," Ishida said softly, "who was keeping Ichigo away. I always suspected that there was somebody..."
Ichigo shifted uncomfortably. "Well, I also decided that starting a new life wasn't so bad, but that wasn't until much later. About when I started writing letters, actually."
"So the question now," Shiro said suddenly, looking away. "Disregarding all of the questions you might have about what we've been doing all this time, since most of that is pretty obvious by now... The question is, what do you plan on doing about this?"
Silence fell over the room.
Finally, Orihime bit her lip. "Well... nothing. Let Shiro-kun and Kurosaki-kun live their lives. They seem happy enough this way."
Renji looked baffled. "Happy? How can you be happy with a split personality, forced to watch someone else live their lives like that? No way, we've gotta figure out how to get Ichigo out of there, somehow."
Ichigo snorted. "Yes, because of course people will have lots of ideas on how to give someone's alternate personality their own body. Try suggesting it, and you'll get Shiro and I, and probably yourself, thrown into a loony bin."
"Well, Ichigo should still be able to go home," Rukia argued. "His friends and family miss him. He was first, so to speak. Shouldn't he have the rights to his own life?"
Ichigo interrupted her, looking slightly annoyed. "This is my own life! Shiro and I just got vice-captain position together. Look, you've gotta stop acting like Shiro is the bad guy, here!"
"Even though I totally am the bad guy, and you have every reason to hate me," Shiro piped up. He ignored Ichigo's otherwise withering glare, turning and smiling at him. "What? It's true."
With a growl, Ichigo turned back to Rukia. "Look, I can't go back to my old life now. Yeah, I miss the old man and my sisters, but it's not like I'd spend a lot of time with them anyway, now that Karin's in college and Yuzu is here. I write letters, which is better than a lot of guys do when they leave home."
"Stop talking about this like, like having a split personality and running away from home like you did is something completely normal!" she exclaimed.
"I didn't run away from home!"
"Yeah! I'm the one who did that for him!"
"Will you please shut up, Shiro?"
Ishida cleared his throat in an attempt to bring silence to the room again. Soon enough, he got it. "Orihime is right, everyone. Even were it possible to separate the two of them, Kurosaki couldn't just go back to his old life. For one, we cremated his human body. And besides, if he had to start here in Soul Society, I can't see that he'd live a life much different than the one they have now. They seem to have found a coexistence that works for them, let's just leave them be."
Orihime nodded enthusiastically. "We can be friends with both of them!"
Rukia gave Shiro a skeptical look at that. "We'll see."
Shiro shrugged lightly, his smile starting to look a little forced. "You don't have to try to be friends with me if you don't want to," he told all of them. "Renji can tell you: I'm not exactly the same as Ichigo. And I was the person responsible for taking him away, though I didn't think I had any other choice at the time..."
Orihime just smiled back at him. "Any good friend of Ichigo's is a friend of ours," she promised.
"So we're agreed, then," Renji said suddenly, holding up the key to the cell that Shiro still sat in. "We let them out of the cell... and then take them over to Kurotsuchi for examination. See what he can come up with."
The twin looks of horror that crossed Ichigo's and Shiro's faces were comedy gold. The look of rage upon Rukia's was not.
"It was a joke! A joke! Aaah, not the ear! Ow! Ooowww!"
Ishida managed to snag the key as they went by, and he deftly unlocked the cell door, throwing it open. "I recommend that we all get some rest," he said, adjusting his glasses. "We'll probably need it for tomorrow."
"Why?" Shiro asked, getting to his feet. "What's tomorrow?"
Ishida sighed. "With all the noise and commotion that Abarai was making? That's when the news that the hiding place of the Ghost of Kurosaki Ichigo has been discovered within the Gotei 13 will hit the papers."
Slumping, Shiro groaned. "I'm never going to hear the end of this, will I?"
Yamamoto Genryusai couldn't quite believe his eyes as he stared down at the piece of paper that had just been handed to him by Captain Abarai Renji. Slowly, he brought his gaze up to look around the gathered captains, trying to decide how many of them were in on this tremendous joke that was obviously taking place at his expense.
"I do not think this request even bears reading, much less spoken aloud," he said roughly, about to toss the joke aside. "It will not be considered by this counsel."
"I'm not kidding, sir," Abarai hastily informed him, standing up straighter and keeping his gaze on the ceiling, as he usually did when he was trying hard to be formal. "It's a serious request. At least let the others hear it."
Yamamoto sighed. "This is a recommendation for our as-of-yet still-unfilled captain position, submitted by one Captain Abarai Renji. He asks that Vice Captain Shirosaki Thanatos be considered for the position."
Murmurs broke out through the room as several of the captains turned to each other. They all recognized the name of the prodigy who had purposefully taken seven years to get through the academy despite his natural talents, and who had only graduated from it three months previously. He had been named vice captain only two months ago. A recommendation for captaincy this early was unheard of. Did the boy even have a bankai?
Yamamoto stopped the noise with a thump of his walking stick. "Explain yourself, Abarai."
Abarai stepped forward briefly, taking a deep breath. "I cannot yet, sir. You have not finished reading the recommendation." He stepped back.
Yamamoto's eyes narrowed, teeth gritting. "I will not read-"
"Please, sir." The request was stated with such pleading, that Yamamoto finally considered that this might not be simply an attempt by his subordinate to make him say something stupid.
With a low growl, he bent back to the paper. "A suggestion is made that Vice Captain Shirosaki should be given assistance with the position in the form of a co-captain. It is recommended that this co-captain position be given to one Kurosaki Ichigo, former Shinigami Representative."
Here is where he fully expected the laughter to begin. Instead, all he got was a stunned silence for several minutes. Apparently, he wasn't the only person this joke was being played on.
Then, surprisingly, Ukitake turned suddenly to Abarai, an excited gleam in his eye. "I'd heard rumors. Did you really find Ichigo-kun, then?"
The room erupted into a thousand questions, all aimed at Abarai. "Is he doing well?", "Can he still fight?", "How did you find him?", "Why do you suggest that he co-captain? I think he could handle himself quite well alone!", "Has he been injured?"
Yamamoto banged on the floor again to restore order, and reluctantly, his elite captains fell silent, though the looks on their faces all urged Abarai to go on, to explain. Finally, he gave the red-haired captain a nod, and the younger man stepped forward, a large grin on his face.
"Here's what happened last night."