Chapter 4

The children ran away laughing when Ichigo waved a hand half-heartedly at them. He stood and landed his fists on his hips, thinking of all the things he would do to Urahara that would hurt when he saw him next.

He was sidetracked from his homicidal thoughts when he realized he could feel the abundance of spirit particles that surrounded him, seeming almost ridiculous compared to the living world. A tension he never acknowledged at the very core of his soul relaxed as he took a deep breath and for a moment Ichigo was overwhelmed with relief.

This is where he belonged.

"Oi," Ichigo heard, right before he felt a friendly hand on his shoulder. He turned and saw a man easily twice his 'age' grinning at him. He was of typical Japanese make: black hair, dark eyes, with a golden complexion that was half-covered in bandages.

"May I help you?" Ichigo asked and the man laughed at him.

"Seems I should be askin' ya that, yeah? Welcome to Rukongai, stranger, though it may no' be very welcomin' at the moment."

"Hmm," Ichigo hummed and drew back enough to offer his hand. "Name's Kurosaki Ichigo." The man took his hand and pumped it heartily.

"Oshiro Atsuo, nice to meet ya, now let's get ya situated. Follow me." So Ichigo learned the basics of life in Rukongai as they walked down the dirt path in the hot sun. The economy was mostly based on a bartering system; coin was still accepted, but it was so rare that most people in the higher districts never saw one.

Being a new arrival Ichigo had nothing to trade, so his best bet would be to go to one of the hostels that were scattered around the district. Atsuo mentioned some of the closest ones and said that they were easy to find, just look for a yellow cloth over the door. It was there that Ichigo would find friends and maybe family, since it was unlikely that he would find any relatives that he had known when he was alive.

"An' the more friends ya got, the better, Kurosaki-san! Never hurts ta have a friendly face 'round the corner when you need 'em most. There's b'n trouble brewin' lately, Hollows poppin' their ugly faces up where ya least expect 'em."

"Hollows?" inquired Ichigo, for appearances sake, and that set off Atsuo into a bemusing rant about Shinigami. It seemed they were tolerated here, but mostly they were seen as interlopers and never failed to bring trouble when they came.

Ichigo was hard-pressed to not burst into laughter, but he did learn some important details. Apparently there was a bi-monthly patrol, to make sure there was nothing too suspicious going on, and to take away the ones that had some measure of power.

"Oh! Tha' remind's me, if ya ge' hungry, that means ya got some power in ya. Normal folk don' ge' hungry, so tha's a sure-fire way a knowin'. We may eat it f'r taste, during festivals an' such, but we don' got the appetite f'r it."

"I'll keep that in mind." Ichigo didn't know how he was going to work that out. He needed to blend in with the 'normal folk' and to do that, he couldn't go around buying enough food for three meals a day. That would be the best way to get caught. He left that worrying thought for later.

"Okay! If ya follow this road 'til ya can't go no further and take a left, then you'll find one a them hostels I was tellin' ya 'bout. I'd take ya m'self, but I hafta ge' back ta my wife before she's got a reason to nag. Good luck, Kurosaki-san!"

"Thank you for everything, Oshiro-san." Ichigo gave the man a little bow of farewell and they parted ways. He thought for a moment and decided he had nothing better to do than find that hostel so he weaved his way through the crowd, turning left where he was bid.

The more he watched the people as he walked, the more he could see how tense and wary they were. Which made sense if this district was recently hit with the hollow appearances like Urahara and Byakuya had said, and Atsuo's bandages had more than hinted at. Though, now that he saw it, he remembered the stories that Rukia and Renji had told so long ago, about the little gang they had formed and stealing food when they were hungry.

That struck a chord with him and his own food predicament, and his thoughts whirled with half-made plans. If he could somehow bargain with one of the orphan gangs, bribe them or something, into buying food for him, then maybe then he could stay low-key and not starve to death. That would mean he needed money, and for that he needed to find a job to kick-start his little operation, and it would be totally useless if he couldn't find a group of kids to do this in the first place. Which would be a hard enough task on its own, but when he was virtually stranded in the middle of a maze?

He closed his eyes and massaged his temples, trying to ward off an impending headache. This kind of thinking just wasn't his style. The sooner he found this halfway house, the sooner at least one of his problems would be solved.

Which, ironically, landed him smack dab in the middle of a totally different, but much more immediate, problem of it's own.

He found himself being stared at by three hulking brutes blocking his way. A quick peek around them and he could see that he had arrived at his destination. In the doorway, decorated with the yellow cloth he had been told about, a richly dressed man stood in front of a woman (he guessed the owner of the house) with a deep scowl on her face. She spared Ichigo a glance before turning that glare back toward the man.

"Come now, Kouki-san, there's no need for this," was all he heard before he was nearly stepped on by Mountain No. 1.

"Move on," he rumbled.

Ichigo tilted his chin up and said, "Sure, but I'm actually heading in there, so if you'll let me pass..." and tried to sidestep around No. 3, but was blocked. The others shifted to surround him in an attempt at intimidation.

"Come back later," said No. 2

Okay, so Ichigo knew he was being reckless. He'd arrived less than an hour ago and he was already getting into trouble. But if there was one thing Ichigo hated more than anything, it was bullies.

"You know, I'd really rather not. I'm kind of tired, just a little annoyed, and I'd like a room here. So. Maybe you wouldn't mind getting out of my way?" He tried to step the other way and then sighed when he was roughly shoved back into the growing audience, someone catching him and setting him on his feet.

Ichigo brushed imaginary dirt off his shoulders. "You're sure you won't let me pass?"

"No more warnings," said No. 1.

"That's fine," Ichigo said, and quicker than any eye could see he punched No. 1 in the stomach. The thug doubled over with a pained gasp, clutching his middle.

"Woah, friend, you aren't looking too good," mocked Ichigo. "Why don't you lie down. I'm sure you'll feel better soon." Ichigo 'helped' the thug to lie on the dirt road. The other two obviously didn't realize what was going on according to the confused looks they gave each other and Ichigo, but they rushed him anyway.

Ichigo bent down under the pretense of checking No. 1's temperature and as he predicted, they ran head first into each other and joined their cohort on the ground. Quick jabs to their heads ensured they wouldn't be getting up anytime soon.

"I think these three need to get to a clinic. Maybe it's something they ate?" The crowd did nothing to help them of course. He shrugged and stood straight.

Stepping over the mound of bodies to face the house's owner, Ichigo saw that the man had a scowl on his face, but that was quickly replaced with a wide smile when he noticed Ichigo looking. He strolled over, not sparing a glance for his bodyguards and presented himself with a small bow. Ichigo could recognize his type from a mile away. Rich, self-satisfied, prideful, hated being ignored and arrogant beyond reason; as soon as they don't get their way they lose the polite facade and their true nature comes out.

"Konnichiwa. My name is Hara Takuya-dono. Just call on me and anything you may need, I can deliver, for a price of course. Forgive me, however, I seem to have forgotten your name...?"

"You haven't. Excuse me," Ichigo said, and walked right past the arrogant bastard.

"What do yeh want, gaki," asked the woman impatiently. "I'm busy dealing wi' this."

"Hello, oba-san, do you have any rooms available?" He'd barely finished speaking before he heard the metallic 'shing' of a dagger being pulled from it's sheath, and the ex-shinigami decided he'd had enough of stealth for one day. He pivoted on his toes and crouched at the same time, which gave him all the space he needed to grab Takuya's wrist (really, an overhand stab?) and twisted sharply, forcing him to drop the knife.

As soon as that was taken care of, Ichigo pinned his wrist behind his back and swept his feet out from under him. They ended up on the dirt with Ichigo's knee in the whimpering man's spine, one hand holding his arms captive. He leaned over to murmur in Takuya's ear, so that no one could listen.

"I don't know who you are, and I don't care. But if you come back here and harrass this woman again, I will care. And you don't want that. So I suggest you run."

As soon as Ichigo let him up, he did.

"So, about that room?" he asked as he dusted off his hands.

She sent a hard stare his way before saying, "I don' want no trouble, gaki, so yeh better keep it to yerself, yeh hear?" At Ichigo's innocent nod, she harrumphed and jerked her head toward the door.

"C'mon then, there's a room fer yeh."

Disclaimer: Bleach is owned by Tite Kubo and his affiliates... written for fun, and not a cent was made

AN: Alrighty then, another chapter rolled out! I had a bit of trouble with this one, the second half did not want to cooperate at all. But I think it turned out okay. What do you think?

I don't know when the next chapter will be, I'll be super busy moving 900 miles across the US. But on a good note, I already know what I want to write, so that's a relief.

Also, thank you so much for all your awesome reviews! I have all your questions staring me in the face on my outline, and they will be answered.

Until next time!