The cigarette glowed briefly as he inhaled, pulling the smoke deep into his chest. The nicotine spread through his blood and he felt just a bit lighter as he sat on the rooftop of the random building he'd chosen. He flicked the ashes of his cigarette into the pile he'd started and then watched as the tip burned while he supported it on his bent knees. He licked the bitter taste from his dry lips as he took another slow drag from his cigarette. With his other hand he casually flicked open his pack and noticed that he only had 3 left. What an unlucky number, Ichigo mused.
The night was as dark as it been the night before, the moon was hidden behind a thick, suffocating layer of clouds that lent no light to the residents of Karakura Town, much less to Ichigo. His sneakers grated the cement of the rooftop and the coolness of it permeated his thin jeans and left him slightly cold. But this was better than home, better than an empty room, empty walls to stare at. Here, atop the roof, he had a view, a breeze, city noises and car horns. He had something here, even if it wasn't his own. It was better than nothing.
His job at the hospital was bearable to some degree. There were a few friends he'd made but had no inclination to spend time with away from the job. They weren't that good of friends. But he sometimes wished they were. They smile and joked with him, ate lunch with him in the small break room between shifts and they'd wish him happy birthday when it was marked on the staff calendar; but he could hardly say that they knew him.
He felt the heat on his lips and fingertips as he took the last pull of his cigarette, pinching it between his fingers like a small, poisonous bug. He lit another one up and started all over again. Two is a much better number.
He absently checked his watch for the time and realized that his next shift started in two hours.
The sun was still a few hours away and the morning city buzz wouldn't begin for at least an hour. He'd seen the early risers that tumbled sleepily out of their doors and donned their headset and running shoes for their morning jog; seen the creeping, pale smoke rise from the restaurants that served breakfast at 5AM and the mailmen and newspaper boys that carried their bundles of information like a well guarded secret.
He'd seen enough of the city from his various perches to know its inner working, but that didn't make him feel like he was a part of it – a member. He hadn't felt that way since he left college and started his job. His high school and college days were over and he'd slowly fallen into the hole he was now in. He felt completely lifeless some days.
But he had his nighttime smoking session to look forward to. Ichigo eyed his single cigarette hanging from the rumpled carton and decided it was time to go buy another pack.
He shoved the wrinkled duffel bag that held his clean scrubs into the small locker that each on-call employee had available to them and grabbed his I.D. tag from the side of his locker. He had noticed how some people put photos and stickers and other useless shit on the inside of their doors, but his was horribly void of anything. The bare metal was clean and shiny and Ichigo slammed the door before he could contemplate it anymore. He didn't need anything like.
"What hall do you have today?"
Ichigo looked up from tying his shoes to see his friend of some odd years pulling on his scrubs, "I've got it easy today," He grinned. "Alpha Ward."
"Shit, man! I've been on clinic for 3 days and I'm gonna go crazy if they don't switch me out!" Grimmjow Jaggerjack fussed, yanking the cord of his pants roughly. "It's Maggie – that stupid bitch is still pissed at me for dumping her. I mean…I told her nicely that we were through. What more could she want?"
Ichigo laughed at his friend, "Dude, that's why I don't date co-workers."
"Yeah, yeah…" Grimmjow grumbled. "See ya around."
The Alpha Ward was by far his favorite place in the hospital. The Ward was located on the 6th floor of the hospital and held coma patients, the physical therapy center, psychiatry department and it also had the best snack machines in the whole damn building. Ichigo was one of the only nurses to regularly request the Ward; he supposed other people couldn't handle all the families with loved ones in a coma or see the troubled people that visited the psych center. Ichigo didn't mind. Everyone was quiet and solemn up here and he seemed to find some sort of peace with the patients and workers here.
Ichigo pushed his I.D. into the reader that granted him access to the file room and began pulling the charts for the doctors that made their rounds at 8AM. The room was full of several 10' foot tall shelves that held all the patient files within the last 10 years and one or two of the shelves held even older files that the hospital was bound by law to keep. Ichigo stayed away from those.
The small file cart he pushed had a small squeak in it and he cringed as he hit the door frame and it gave a long whine.
"Hey, Ichigo." The secretary greeted. She waved him over and gave him a handful of files. "These are the new ones. And this one here is our John Doe of the day." She gave him a thin green folder and pointed across the hall. He nodded and began his daily duties.
He placed each updated patient file in the door slots for the doctors to find and then he entered the room and wrote his name on the staff board, indicating that he was the head nurse on duty for the day should any of the family need him. He checked the rooms equipment for problems and made sure the coma patients were correctly positioned and that no arms or legs where oddly placed. He finished the usual patients in a short amount of time because they'd been there so long and there was usually nothing new to report, but the families always check with him and the doctor for reports. He didn't blame them.
By 7:30 he reached the green folder in his cart, the John Doe patient. Ichigo fingered through the few pages that were there and made his way to the patient's room.
He looked up to find several people outside of his intended room.
"Ichigo, get a look at this."
He pushed through several people to get in the room.
"You gotta brother, Ichigo?"
"No." He uttered harshly under his breath. He looked behind him at the staff and he blushed slightly at all of them watching him check on the patient – man, in fact, as indicated by his files.
"You sure, Ichigo? He looks an awful lot like you."
Ichigo finally looked at the man lying on the bed. His hair was a soft white that nearly blended with the pillow beneath his head. His extremely pale skin looked softer than the gown he was dressed in and his thin, delicate hands were curled lightly atop his stomach. His face was one that Ichigo had often seem in his own mirror at him. But how…
Ichigo felt his mouth open as he gazed at the motionless man.
"See. Told ya," Someone giggled from the doorway. He heard then all speaking softly as they left and finally closed the door with a soft click.
His mind was river of activity as he contemplated how this was possible. He had no brothers, no cousins that he could think of that would explain the man in front of him. So how did they look so inconceivable alike?
He had no answers and neither did the file in his hands; this man was a John Doe and in a coma.
It was several hours later before the police arrived, asking for their John Doe patient. Two tall men in dark police uniforms walked awkwardly up to the information desk and spoke softly with Rina, the Alpha Ward Secretary.
Ichigo watched through the clear glass of one of the patient's room as they exchanged a few odd papers and photos with the her before they were ushered away to the waiting area. Rina turned casually in her chair behind the high counter and signaled Ichigo over with a small, brightly painted fingernail. He waited with curious eyes as the two officers made their way back down the hall to the waiting room before he slipped quietly and inconspicuously out of his patient's room.
"What can I do for you?" He asked Rina with a wary smile, not knowing what to expect.
"They want to know if your albino is one of their missing persons. Here are some photos." She shoved a stack into his hands. "And the Missing Persons report that was submitted. The rest, my friend, is up to you!" She shooed him way with a wink.
He waited until he was inside the patient's room before he opened the report and looked at the photos. It was him alright, though, much livelier and smiling. Ichigo grinned at the photos, flipping one after another of the man's bright smile and occasional frown. His eyes, he noticed, were a deep golden brown, nearly honey colored inside the pictures. Ichigo glanced at the man in the bed and tried to imagine him smiling and doing all the things he'd done in the photos; smiling and running and, most adorably, sleeping. He vaguely wondered who'd filed the report before he remembered the he had the Missing Persons report in hand.
26 year old Shirosaki Hakuba had been missing for 3 days and was reported missing by his employer. Ichigo continued to read the report as he sat in the chair closest to Shirosaki. A police report was attached to the other paper with flimsy piece of tape. Ichigo felt his eyes widen at what he read:
Suspect arrested after burglary. Confession received upon arrival. Suspect admits to throwing missing person out of second story window. Suspect also claims to have run from scene of crime up arrival of law enforcement agents, later being arrested as mentioned above. Search continues for missing person, as no body was found outside of building; though evident suggest that something was ejected from the window of the building.
Ichigo threw the report down and moved to look at Shirosaki. He hadn't noticed the small cuts on one side of the man's face and as he lifted the sheet and pulled his gown apart he saw an increasing amount of bruising and cuts. He was outraged to say the least. He covered the man back and brushed his fingers through his pale hair and gently rubbed the dark circles below his eyes, pulling the lid down to get a glimpse of that honey-colored iris he'd seen earlier. Ichigo blushed and removed his hands.
"You should wake up, you know. People are looking for you," he said softly to the sleeping man as he gathered up the papers and photos, heading toward the door. Ichigo was surprised to find that he was bothered when he received no answer.
"Gentlemen, if you could follow me please," Ichigo instructed the two officers. They rose stiffly without looking at him and followed him out of the waiting room. Ichigo could hear their boots fall heavily on the tile of the hospital floors; his own footsteps were soft and unhurried. He opened the patient's room and hailed them inside, shutting the door behind them.
"My name is Ichigo Kurosaki. I am the head nurse for the next week should you have any more questions." He stood back from the bed as the men looked at their files and then at the man in the bed.
They talked quietly as they inspected him, glancing briefly at Ichigo with confused looks. "Come here, please," the officer requested. Ichigo frowned as he joined them by the bed and witnessed their scowls deepened. Ichigo noticed their name tags: Jun and Takumi.
"Jesus! Look at the two of 'em. They're goddamn twins!" Jun, the taller of the two, exclaimed, taking his cap off to run his thick fingers through his short black hair.
"You two related?" The man called Takumi asked in a more collected manner. His height was lacking in comparison to his partner, but he seemed to be the more levelheaded of the two of them.
"No." Ichigo blushed. Ever since that morning he'd been getting all sorts of comments on his likeness with the new patient. He'd simply rolled his eyes and ignored them. They'd figure it out eventually, but this was getting out of hand.
"And this is our guy?" Takumi continued, flipping back and forth through his files.
Ichigo looked down at the recently discovered Shirosaki. Yes, this was him. The man, who'd been thrown from a second story window, lived, wandered off and fell into a coma. Ichigo nodded to the officers.
"If you say so, Doc," Takumi huffed carelessly.
"I'm a nurse," Ichigo deadpanned.
"Whatever. We'll contact the employer and let him know we've found him. You can keep all the paper work we gave the secretary earlier, for his personal records at the hospital. Here's our office number if you need anything."
Ichigo took the offered card, "I'm not a permanent resident here, I'll give this to the attending physician and he can handle it." Ichigo didn't like the situation at all, but it was the only thing he could think to say to the officers.
"Don't really care. We found the kid, our jobs done. Good day to you, sir." At that, Jun and Takumi left the room.
Throughout the day, Ichigo found himself constantly checking on Shirosaki's condition. He knew better than to get his hopes up when it came to a coma patient, but this man seemed different – familiar somehow. At least that was what he told himself throughout the day as he cared for the other patients but found himself in the albino's room time and time again.
During his lunch hour, he sat in the armchair beside Shriosaki's bed and simply watched him breathe and occasionally flutter his eyelids. The monitors beeped and hummed with his vitals, otherwise the room was silent.
Ichigo fell asleep to the sounds of Shirosaki's heartbeat, wondering what the other man was dreaming about.
Sometime later, Ichigo woke with a start as someone entered the room abruptly and shut the door none too softly behind them.
"Ichigo!" His teal haired friend, Grimmjow, announced to the room. "Where've ya been? You didn't make it to lunch. I saved ya my rice pudding and everything."
"Don't be so damn loud, you buffoon," Ichigo yawned, stretching awkwardly in the arm chair.
"So what?" Grimmjow laughed. "It's not like I'm gonna wake him up."
"You're so fucking loud, you just might," Ichigo snorted as he stood.
"Is this the guy everyone's talking about?" Grimmjow asked with interest. He walked closer to the bed and looked hard at him.
"For fucks sake, YES!" Ichigo barked, burying his head in his hands. If one more person asked, he was gonna…
Grimmjow ignored his outburst with seasoned ears, "What's his name then?"
Ichigo looked fondly at the albino, "Shirosaki."
"Not that I know of." Ichigo was torn as to whether that was a good thing or a bad thing. Bad, because it meant Shirosaki had no family and good because he could watch over Shirosaki as much as wanted to. It was just convenient this way. Creepy, but convenient.
For a moment, Ichigo scowled at the man who lay in a coma. What the hell was he thinking? This was not his job. This was…not something he should be worried about. Shirosaki was a patient and for him to have been watching over him was…uncalled for.
"Ichigo?" He heard Grimmjow say, but he was too caught up in his own thoughts.
He would be gone to another part of the hospital by the end of the week and for him to be getting so interested in a patient was troublesome. He needed to stop this…whatever it was he was doing.
"Ichigo," Grimmjow repeated, pulling Ichigo from his thoughts. "Come on, man. I think you need a smoke."
He looked at Shirosaki breathing peacefully, heard his steady heartbeat from the monitor and decided that, yes, he did need a smoke.
Ichigo look dejectedly at the newly posted staff schedule. His week on the Alpha Ward was over and there was nothing he could do about it. He'd begged Maggie, the Head of Nursing Staff, to extend his rotation in the Ward, but she'd already submitted the new schedule to the Hospital Administrator for the upcoming week. He suspected that she did it out of spite because of his friendship with Grimmjow. A woman scorned... blah, blah...
In other words, he was shit out of luck.
Ichigo turned from the large bulletin board and walked sluggishly to his locker, snatching the padlock off with more force than was necessary. The metal door slung open, revealing the mirror in the back of his locker where he was met with his own dark, sullen reflection. Ichigo couldn't decided if he looked like shit because he was tired, or if he was just pissed off now that he had to work another floor. He sighed and turned his face away, looking at the inside section of the locker door.
He'd taken one of Shirosaki's photos from his file and shoved it into the bottom section of his door where it was less likely to be seen. He felt stupid to put a picture of man whom he'd never even met in his locker, but oh well. The photo must have been taken in the late fall, early winter because the trees in the background were nearly bare and the clouds were low and grey. The man's bright red coat stood out sharply against his fair skin and hair. Ichigo could only imagine what made the man smile so brilliantly in the photo.
What bothered Ichigo the most was the idea that no one was missing the man at all. Shirosaki hadn't had one visitor aside from Ichigo himself and the two police officers. But that just gave Ichigo even more incentive to visit Shirosaki. Everyone needed a visitor, even if you weren't conscious of it.
His interest in the man was growing daily. Ichigo was imagining the man's life in his head, like he'd known him all along. He'd had other patients like him before, other patients who'd been in the Ward, awakened and then left. Moved on. Would Shirosaki wake? Go on living not knowing how he'd sparked a flame within Ichigo?
He would and Ichigo would deal with it.
Ichigo pulled his duffle bag out and switched out his clothes, hanging up his clean pair of scrubs in his locker for his next shift. He undressed slowly, wadding up each article of clothing before shoving them unceremoniously into the now empty duffle bad. He dressed just as slowly, though agitated, into his casual clothes.
Sitting heavily onto the bench, he ran his fingers roughly through his hair. What was he going to do for the next 10 hours? Sleep? Ichigo laughed at the thought. Sleeping meant getting into his bed into his is empty bed in his equally empty apartment. He loathed the thought of going home just now. But where to go?
The roof, he decided.
The hospital roof was very familiar to him, having visited it hundreds of times while he'd worked at the hospital. He'd often lain upon the helipad, watching the distant jets and more distant satellites roam the atmosphere, blinking and wandering the night sky, but still helplessly bound to Earth's gravity.
He was padding softly up the stairs to the roof entrance when he heard his name called. "Ichigo!" The sound echoed violently off the walls of the passage.
Turning and looking down the stairwell, Ichigo grinned as he saw Grimmjow taking two steps at a time to reach him.
Grimmjow's green scrubs glowed beneath the lights of the stairwell. "Wait up, man."
By the time the blue haired nurse reached him, the man was out of breath and flushed. Ichigo laughed and continued on his way to the roof. "Mind if I join you?" Grimmjow asked between deep breathes.
Ichigo shrugged his shoulders and held the door open for the man. Outside, the weather was cool, if not chilly and Ichigo laid his duffle bag behind him as a pillow. He watched as the other man plopped down beside him, pulling out his smokes and lighter, offering one to Ichigo as they settled.
"Thanks." Ichigo pulled the cigarette to his lips and lit it, feeling the heat of the flame lick at his palm.
Grimmjow did the same. "No problem."
They laid together, watching wisps of smoke curl into the winds, following the specks of ashes that fluttered away into nothingness; perhaps they were glued to the black of the night, becoming neighbors of the stars, forever fixed in the cosmos.
"You okay, man?" Grimmjow asked quietly beside him.
Ichigo took another deep drag of his cigarette, letting the smoke escape through the corner of his mouth. "I'm fine."
"Ichigo, if you got somethin' you need to say – I'll listen, man," Grimmjow offered, nudging his foot against Ichigo's.
Ichigo smiled around his cigarette, letting his foot rest against Grimmjow's ever so lightly in acknowledgment. Of all the lame ass people Ichigo worked with, Grimmjow was probably the most bearable. He was the kind of guy who really didn't give a shit and wouldn't hesitate to tell you. The man reminded him of himself... maybe that's why they got along as well as they did. Either way, Ichigo enjoyed the occasional reminder of their friendship.
"You know..." Ichigo started suddenly. "I don't even really like this city."
"Why's that?" Grimmjow chuckled.
Ichigo flicked his ashes away before he answered in a mellow tone. "It's too fucking empty... detached." It was to Ichigo at least. "Just because there are people on the street, someone in your bed or even someone across the hall doesn't mean you aren't lonely. The people around you don't really matter if you don't give a flying fuck about them. They're all placeholders for people you want to be there but aren't. People who should be there but you were to fucked up to ask to stay beside you and they slipped away..." Ichigo shivered at his own words. "Sometimes I just sit on my rooftop and watch people, see them get up in the morning and do their things..."
"And how's that working for ya?"
Ichigo rolled his eyes. "It sucks. Reminds of the life I don't have. I feel like other peoples lives are more important than mine and I only get to watch them live, while I have to...well..." Ichigo stumbled for words,"...live like this."
Grimmjow didn't speak for a moment, noticing how Ichigo got that far off look in his eyes and not just because he was staring at the stars either. "I know, man,"' he murmured softly. "It's just like this hospital. Patients, docs and RN's everywhere, people fumbling for their lives, all this craziness and it still feels empty at the end of the day." Grimmjow looked over at Ichigo who hadn't turned to look at him, but he saw the smile of the man's face.
"Yeah, something like that," Ichigo whispered as he exhaled another plume of smoke.
"How's your John Doe doin'?"
Ichigo tipped his head to the side to finally look at Grimmjow, a questioning look in his eyes. "What?"
Grimmjow shrugged. "Just asking. I heard you've been visiting him."
Ichigo snorted at that. "Goddamn gossips." He narrowed his eyes at Grimmjow. "Why? What's it to you?"
The blue haired man pushed himself up to rest on his elbows. "No reason, just curious," he said nonchalantly. "I know it's been a while since you visited anyone outside your shifts." Grimmjow's voice grew softer, hesitant. "Maggie told me you got shifted off the Ward."
Ichigo felt a blush rise on his face as Grimmjow spoke, pretty much calling him on all his little quirks he'd developed since Shiro had arrived in the Ward, quickly pointing out the reason for his sullen attitude. He was so transparent. That or Grimmjow was smarter than he gave him credit for. Probably not the latter.
"Well...he looks like me," Ichigo pronounced, "so he must be a cool dude. Yeah?"
Grimmjow simply laughed. "Yeah. He must be." A few moments later he added, "I'll ask Maggie to let you back on the Ward."
Ichigo didn't say anything, but bumped his foot against Grimmjow's again.
They were both silent after that, content with the quiet as the wind whistled teasingly above them, curling over and around the building, growing colder as time passed. Ichigo shivered lightly in his thin jacket, letting his cigarette hang from his dry lips as he tucked his hands beneath his arms.
Ichigo felt Grimmjow move closer to him, shifting his smoke to his other hand, allowing his newly unoccupied hand to slip under his neck, pushing away his duffle bag. The man's body aligned along his side and pressed closer, bringing with it warmth and closeness that Ichigo often craved.
Ichigo laughed when the man shivered against him and mumbled, "It's fucking cold out here." But the warmth Grimmjow offered was appreciated and welcome. Ichigo turned into it, letting his head slip further down Grimmjow's arm and into the crook of his neck. It wasn't snuggling, just... keeping warm.
"You're warm," Ichigo said against his friends neck.
"So are you, man," Grimmjow said, shivering again. "Just don't move."
It felt nice to be held once in a while. Ichigo had a hard time remembering the last time he'd been held like that, without wandering hands over his body, asking for things he did not often give. The man's neck was warm and inviting and his strong body was a solid source of heat against him.
The next few breathes Ichigo took were slow and deep, the sounds of man just before he drifts off into the world of dreams and blissful unconsciousness. He felt Grimmjow's fingers drift down the length of his upper arm, tips of fingers dragging against his cold clothing, just let him know he was there. The motion was comforting.
And there, on the roof of the hospital, curled gently against his friend's side, Ichigo fell asleep.
Ichigo blinked his eyes slowly open as a cool hand brushed against his warm cheek where it had been pressed against Grimmjow's chest.
"It's getting too cold to sleep out here," Grimmjow explained slowly, but he made no attempt to push Ichigo away from him.
Ichigo smiled slowly, snuggling back towards the heat of the body next to him. "Fuck...it felt good to sleep."
"Is that all I am?" The man snorted playfully, moving more to jostle Ichigo awake. "A damn pillow?"
"At least you're a warm pillow," Ichigo giggled as he sat up, quivering in the cold air of the night.
Grimmjow stood and offered his hand. Ichigo took it and noticed the red impression against the man's neck where he'd lain against him. Ichigo smiled as he rubbed his own face, still hot from the contact. "We should go." He bent back down to retrieve his duffle bag.
"Yeah. I'm sure it's quiet downstairs," Grimmjow observed, "you slept for freakin' ever."
"Few hours? I'm not sure." Grimmjow scratched his forehead in though, already walking to the stairwell. "I dozed off for a bit, myself."
"Grimmjow…" Ichigo stopped him.
Ichigo was still relaxed and drowsy as he spoke, "Thanks."
Grimmjow parted with him at the base of the stairwell, brushing his hand through Ichigo's messy orange hair in an affectionate gesture. "Go get some more sleep, idiot."
"See ya, man," Ichigo said warmly as the man continued to walked away, "and thanks again... really."
Grimmjow flicked a hand up in the air, waving off his thanks.
"...then she comes up here and tries to tell me that I have no authority to request patient transfers, like I'm some dumbass intern from the clinic. Fuck, man. I'd already dealt with all that bullshit when I started here. I'm not taking that shit from anybody anymore."
"Uh hu..." Ichigo nodded stupidly. He still wasn't sure what possessed him to come back up to the Ward during the red-eye shift after his brief nap with Grimmjow, but this just wasn't worth it anymore. This guy, Johnson, was flapping his mouth like someone gave him some crack and them some coffee and sat him down in front of Ichigo just to see how long it took until Ichigo punched the fucker.
Ichigo stood quickly when he realized the man was about to start rambling again and grabbed the closest chart he could find and excused himself. "I've gotta check on something real quick," he said hurriedly, escaping from the demon that was Johnson, closing the break room door behind him with a pleasant sounding thud.
Following his departure from Grimmjow, Ichigo had discovered that sleep, however brief it would be, was not coming again that night. He wondered how all these other idiots managed to get to sleep - he really wanted to know. His body apparently thought it needed a witness to watch him sleep. Ichigo considered asking Grimmjow over to his house just to get some shut eye but he didn't want to give the man the wrong idea.
Step by echoing step, Ichigo wandered around the Ward, looking in on patients even though he was technically off-duty. He really didn't mind, he practically lived at the hospital anyway.
A silver haired man nodded at him from inside one of the room, his feet propped up on one of the low dressers situated in the room for guests. Ichigo smiled at him and continued to walk.
Refusing to feel guilty or stupid, Ichigo finally approached the room he knew he would inevitably arrive at. Shiro's room. Inside, the windows were black from the night and only the lamp above the main bed was on, casting a pale, blue light on the bed and its occupant.
A weeks worth of healing was becoming apparent. The cuts that had littered one side of Shiro's body were shrinking in size and number, each little slice somehow sinking slowly back into the mans body, growing paler and paler until they would eventually disappear.
No one knew when he'd wake or if he would ever wake. But that was usual in the Alpha Ward – no guarantees, little hope, lots of prayer. Ichigo had a feeling this man didn't need praying for. He'd wake up. Ichigo knew he would.
Reaching for the lip balm that all coma patients had in their rooms, Ichigo uncapped the small tube and applied it to Shiro's dry lips. After re-capping the tube, he used his thumb to rub in the balm into the man's lips, taking care to moisten the corners of his lips.
Shiro looked so helpless...and beautiful.
"What the fuck am I doing here?" Ichigo berated himself, turning sharply to fall into the chair a few feet from the bed.
While cradling his face in this hands, Ichigo missed the small twitch of pale fingers.
Shiro was a natural runner. In high school, he'd been on the track team all four years and held the school record for the number of medals awarded to an individual student. He lived, breathed and dreamed track. The red-tartan surface of the track made his blood rush, sending excited shivers through his body. The feeling of running, steadily breathing as the ache settled into your muscles, was a feeling like none other.
Track is indeed a sport, but the fact that there is no physical contact with another human being is sometimes forgotten. It's just the runner and the road beneath them. For the hours and hours that Shiro ran – he was gone – somewhere off in his mind while his legs carried him methodically around the oval track.
But that had been in high school and now Shiro couldn't quite figure out why he was sitting in the bleachers of his old, abandoned high school, looking at the track that contained the overgrown football field.
Puzzled, Shiro stood and gazed around. The place looked...unused. Vines and weeds encroached up the siding of the bleachers and burrowed into to the red of the track, making deep cracks that sprouted weeds. Wildflowers occupied the center of the track. The small multicolored flowers swayed with the gentle breeze, concealing the yard marks of the previous field. Shiro could tell by memory just where the 50 yard line was and where the old in-zones were.
Shiro began making his way down the bleachers, noticing immediately that he was wearing his old track shoes. The spiked tips of his shoes scraped against the metal of the flooring. He smiled tentatively, unsure of what was happening. Soon the stands were behind him and the track stood before him, enclosing the field of flowers, looking momentarily like a mythical sporting arena. Shiro's shoes sunk soothingly into the soft track, inspiring him to bounce in place like he used to do before his matches, getting a feel for the running surface.
What was he doing here? How did he get here? Shiro looking worriedly across the field, having trouble remembering the last thing he'd done or the last person he'd talk to. His thoughts were strangely blank.
"You ready?" A voice asked.
Turning and catching his spiked shoes on the tartan, Shiro stumbled around and saw his old track coach, dressed in a blue track suit, holding his weathered clipboard and wearing his dull whistle around his neck. "Coach?"
The older man simply smiled. "We'll just warm up first. I suspect it's been a while since you ran."
Shiro was utterly confused. "Coach...what are we doing here? What's going on?"
"You, my friend," The coach said encouragingly, "just need to run this one off."
Shiro was comforted by the man's confidence, even if what he said still didn't make any sense whatsoever.
"Running..." Shiro said softly, feeling his gut tighten with old excitement. "I haven't ran in... forever."
His coach walked over to the starting line and kicked away some weeds and dirt, making the white line more visible. "You know the drill, Shiro. Just like old times."
Shiro walked slowly towards the line, not entirely convinced of the situation at hand. What was his old coach doing here? What the hell was going on! "Coach--"
"Stop asking question," the man said as he pulled his whistle up to his lips, shooting Shiro a pointed glare. "Get ready..."
Before Shiro could utter another word, the man took a deep breath and Shiro's old running instincts took over. He planted his feet firmly in the track, skimmed the surface with his fingertips until he settled into his take off position and took a deep breath, ready for the whistle.
When it came less than 2 seconds later, Shiro shot from the starting line, faster than he thought he could considering how long it'd been since he last ran. The air rushed into his lungs as he breathed heavily, wiping his hair into his face and ruffling his clothing – it was a euphoric feeling. The stadium around him seemed to fade away, disappearing into the sunset.
In the distance, as he rounded his first corner, Shiro heard his coach yell to him, "Keep running, Shiro!"
And so Shiro ran and ran...
"You know," Rina said affectionately as she painted another fingernail a shocking shade of lime, "you're kind of pathetic."
Ichigo looked up from his paperwork in the nurses station. "What?" Ichigo snorted, rolling his eyes at the woman. "Why am I pathetic?"
Without looking at Ichigo, Rina continued to paint her nail. "Because...you are a hopeless romantic and you don't...even...know it." She accented her final words with three dramatic strokes of paint to her fingernail.
"What are you talking about?" Ichigo asked. He watched as Rina jerked her head towards one of the patients room. He didn't have to look to know which room she was referring to. "You're being ridiculous!" Ichigo said defensively.
"You want him to wake up so bad you can't stand it," she snickered as she finally closed the bottle of fingernail polish and began to blow gently across the wet paint on her nails. She raised them up to show Ichigo and wiggled them excitedly. "Want me to do yours next, lover-boy?"
Ichigo couldn't help the low, unamused growl that escaped his throat. "That's enough, Rina."
She smiled knowingly at him and continued to dry her nails.
The clock ticked away in the corner of the nurses station, its' hands moving steadily. Ichigo eyed the smaller hand of the clock, marking the seconds as they passed. The movement was hypnotic and Ichigo was surprised when he watched it just how fast time seemed to fly when you were only aware of the individual seconds that passed.
He slid his eyes heavily off the clock and he swiveled around in his high-back chair.
"Dad." Ichigo said, dumbfounded.
Ichigo watched as his father, Isshin Kurosaki, walk merrily into the Alpha Ward, shrugging out of his heavy coat, greeting orderlies and nurses as he passed with a pleasant smile on his scruffy face. Ichigo hated to admit it, but found himself looking more and more like his father each day. The stubble on his own face was almost unnoticeable, but it only served to remind him of his father. Not that it was a bad thing.
"My son, how are you?" Isshin asked warmly, arriving at the counter that Ichigo sat behind with a hard thump as his elbows made contact with the solid counter top.
"I've been - " Ichigo tried to respond, only to be interrupted by a squeal of womanly proportion.
"Mr. Kurosaki!" Rina yelled as she emerged from one of the patient's room across the room, a clipboard flailing in her arms.
"Now, now, Rina. How many times must I remind you?" Isshin said in a flirty voice. "Call me Isshin. Otherwise you'll make me feel old."
Rina blushed and the smile grew on her face. "Whatever you say, darling," she drawled with a wave of her hand, moving to another patient's room.
"Well?" Isshin prompted Ichigo, stretching his hand across the counted to ruffle Ichigo's already messy spikes. Ichigo had forgotten how good it felt to be around his father. His attitude was contagious.
"I'm good," Ichigo huffed warrily. "Tired, but good."
His father nodded amiably. "You should come home more. God knows the girls would love to see you. I haven't even rented your room out," Isshin said with an almost serious face.
Ichigo couldn't help but smile at his father antics. "You know I don't have time, but you're here now. Want to get something to eat?"
Isshin's face fell and his posture straightened. "Acutally, this isn't entirely a social visit."
"What do you mean?" Ichigo asked with a hint of worry in his voice.
"Friend of mine asked me to come by here," Isshin explained. "She's out of the country and couldn't come. Wasn't a big deal since you worked here. I figured I'll kill two birds with one stone."
"Come here for what?"
"Her son was in some kind of accident and she needed someone to see him, make sure he was okay. I'm just doing a friend a favor."
Ichigo was confused. "Did you visit him? Is he alright?"
Isshin scratched his prickly chin and looked around like he was lost. "Well, that's the thing, kid. They sent me up here."
Ichigo was apparently mistaken when he thought his father had come to visit him. "But this is the Alpha Ward. There's only coma patients here. Everyone else is here for appointments in physical therapy or the Psych Center."
"Oh," Isshin replied easily, apparently not worried.
Ichigo sighed and shook his head. "Well... who are you looking for exactly. I'll point you in the right direction." Ichigo rolled over the the computer, doing a small twirl in his chair on the way over. He heard his father give a small grunt before he began to dig in the pockets of his coat that he'd lain on the counter.
Isshin squinted his eyes and read a name off a small post-it. "Shirosaki Hakuba."
Ichigo was somewhat pleased that his father had been as dumbfounded as he himself had been at seeing Shiro. But the small, "Dear God," that his father had let slip upon entering his room made Ichigo's mind spin off in a thousand different directions.
He'd never considered his father being unfaithful. Isshin Kurosaki did not commit adultery. It wasn't possible. Was it?
Ichigo sat quietly in his high-back chair again as watched with curious eyes as his father paced back and forth in the waiting room as he yelled rather harshly into this poor cellphone, his eyes knitted together in confusion. Suddenly his father's eyes grew soft, eyes flicking quickly to Ichigo as he began to talk more softly, more gently into the phone. Something was wrong and Ichigo grew anxious as to the subject of the conversation his father was having with a mystery woman who had a son who looked like his own son.
Something was very wrong and Ichigo did not want to think about the implications of his fathers actions.
Ichigo, lost in his thoughts, nearly jumped as Isshin appeared before him, slightly flushed, "I'll be back, give me a few hours," and then proceeded to stalked out of the Alpha Ward without another word.
Well, that was encouraging.
By the time the night shift attendants arrived, Ichigo was a ball of frustrated nerves. He hadn't been able to follow his father when he'd abruptly left and was now left to sit and theorize. Shiro was undoubtably related to him, there was no denying it now (though he had tried feverishly). He could possibly be the son of an unknown uncle... or the result of a cloning experiment gone wrong. Ichigo smiled at himself. Cloning? Right.
With the impossible out of the way, that only left very few, if not one alternative. Ichigo had swallowed his heart, closed his eyes and admitted it to himself: Shiro was his brother, of some making. Brother. The word didn't fit well with Ichigo's mental image of Shiro. A brother was someone like Grimmjow. As crazy as the man was, he was, in a sense, Ichigo's brother. Shiro was something else... but not his brother.
That was as far as Ichigo dared to ponder.
Four hours had passed since Isshin had left and Ichigo doubted he would be returning during the night. He left instructions with the night shift, despite the late hour, directing his father to call his cellphone, no matter what time it was. This whole 'Hi there Ichigo, this might be your brother' thing was kind of a big deal and was worth being woken up in the middle of the night. Not that Ichigo was going to be sleeping anytime soon.
The city was winding down as Ichigo began walking toward his apartment that was located several blocks from the hospital. The four story loft-building was situated above Mr. Lee's Bookstore, full of dusty tombs and wrinkled, water-soaked manuscripts from back when Mr. Lee worked at the local publishing house. Ichigo found the smell of the place comforting. It reminded him of playing hide-and-seek in the public library with his father. His little sisters had been tiny little things back then.
Ichigo sifted through his coat pockets for his keys and looked around suspiciously before unlocking the dual entrance to the upstairs lofts and headed up. The building was quiet; it was always quiet. The lack of noise was one of the reasons Ichigo rarely stayed there. The haunting silence only served to reminded him of the loneliness he suffered on a day to day basis. Ichigo turned after hearing the lock click on his door and made his way to the bedroom, dumping the contents of his duffel bag into the laundry basket and setting his keys on one of the bedside tables.
His clothes seemed to slither right off his body with little aid from his hands as he undressed to take a shower. He felt disconnected somehow, like he was waiting for... of course he was waiting for something. Ichigo bent back down and retrieved his cellphone from the crumpled wad that his jeans had settled into and checked for calls: none. Placing the phone on the porcelain sink and grabbing a clean cloth, Ichigo stepped into his shower and turned the water on as hot as he could stand it. Steam filled the room and Ichigo breathed deeply and shuddered beneath spray from the shower-head. It did nothing to relieve the stress he felt.
What a mess.
His hair was so white, and just as soft as Ichigo's had been when was young. Isshin touched the soft skin of the man's inner arm and then rose to card through Shiro's hair again - so soft. He was pale and fragile looking. Had Ichigo ever been this fragile-looking? His son had always been strong, steadfast and reliable, but Isshin knew that Ichigo was secretly just as fragile on the inside as the man lying in the bed before him, always trying to make him proud. Isshin was incredibly proud of his son, but the lengths Ichigo took to be so weighed heavily on his heart.
What would Ichigo think of him now?
Isshin pulled out the slip of paper the orderlies had given him. Call me when you can, Ichigo.
Isshin was too shocked, too anxious to call an explain to his son that he now had a half-brother. What mystified him more was the fact that Shiro had already been on Ichigo's hall for more than 2 weeks, under his care. Had Ichigo already assumed that they were related? Had he instinctively known that Shiro was his blood? The shocked look on his son's face was a mixture of confusion, betrayal, relief and and sadness, each emotion passing over his face like stations on a television.
The paper crinkled in his palm as he balled up his fist in frustration, his unease growing with each moment. He wasn't entirely sure if his anxiety would disappear by talking to Ichigo. He had so much to lose.
He pulled out his cell and dialed the number.
Daylight slipped over the horizon, turning the sky a brilliant amber color mixed with dainty yellows and sweet pinks. The clouds were a soft blue due to the approaching darkness, but their edges remained bright as the sun escaped the sky. As Shiro ran and the sun descended, the red of the track faded to a maroon and then to a nearly black-crimson with the fading light. His breath began fog and his fingers grew cold but he continued to run. When it became difficult to see his shoes and the surface he was running on the large stadium lights flickered on, dim at first but growing brighter as he completed his next lap.
All the energy had left his body. The hours upon hours of running had left him sluggish and aching and just as confused as to why he was there in the first place. In the distance, Shiro saw his coach raise his whistle to his lips and give it a harsh, shrilling blow. Shiro drew his strength together and ran feverishly to complete the final lap.
At the finished line, Shiro fell to his knees, air burning in his lungs as he fought to steady his respiration. A heavy hand landed gently on his back, patting him as one would a loyal pet.
"How do you feel, boy?"
Drawing a deep breath and curling his fists into the material of his pant, Shiro choked out, "Why am I here? Why am I running?"
The man gave Shiro a pointed, knowing look. "The question isn't why are you running, but rather, what are running from?"
A deep, aching shudder passed through Shiro as he remembered his earlier thoughts. It was true that he hadn't ran since high school, but since then he'd been doing a different kind of running; running away from his past, searching desperately for a future that he didn't think existed. He been running all his life. His mother was a fading figure in his memory, entering and leaving his life at random interval, never a solid point in his life. She was businesswoman who ventured on infinite travels all over the globe, leaving a single object in her wake each time: Shiro and his lonely, golden eyes in tears. Thoughts of chasing after his mother amused him as a child, but as he grew older, he learned the more damaging, cruel knowledge that she didn't want to be chased.
His father was a gaping hole in his chest; an answer to a question that Shiro never had the courage to ask his mother. He had never known his father, but he didn't necessarily miss him either. His father was just a someone, a person who had existed with out him and his mother. Shiro often imagined what his father would be like, what color his hair was (which was impossible to determine since he himself was an albino). No pictures of him had existed in the house Shiro grew up in, and he had come to believe that his mother didn't have any of him either. Between the way his mother treated him and his lack of a father, Shiro concluded at an early age that he was an accident - a simple, yet un-fixable mistake.
There were heavy tears in his eyes as he stared, horrified at his coach. Oh God, Shiro thought, dread and alarm threatening him, I must be dead. He was dead and this was his punishment, punishment for running all his life and living a purposeless existence. This is my hell.
Ichigo sat in the shower long after he'd shut the water off. The porcelain grew cold and his hair began to dry against his face and neck. He could see his cellphone through the frosted shower curtain; a black smudge against the white of the sink. He finally convinced himself to move, climbing carefully out of the slick tub, wrapping a towel around his waist and grabbing his phone on his way back into his bedroom. After pulling on some track-pants and a clean white t-shirt, Ichigo took his phone and a fresh pack of cigarettes out onto his balcony.
The light wind finished drying his untamed hair and made it a bit difficult to light his cigarette, but he managed after his third match. The air was chilly and Ichigo had purposefully left his coat inside. He needed the cold to keep himself awake.
An hour past and so had most of his cigarettes when someone buzzed up to his apartment, the sound was dull and low across the room. Tossing his cigarette away and stuff his almost empty pack and his cellphone into his pants, he went to the front door and buzzed back down. "Who is it? What do you want?"
A crackle sounded over the intercom. "Ichigo. It's Grimm." The voice faded and then sounded again. "It's fuckin' cold out here!"
Ichigo laughed and pressed the door button, holding it long enough so that Grimmjow would have time to open the door. He waited in the hallway for him, leaning casually against his door frame, listening for the cadence of Grimmjow's heavy boots that he often wore after work. Teal hair emerged from the stairwell, succeeded by a black-clothed body and a heavy scarf.
"For Christ's sake man," Ichigo chastised, "you'd think it was below freezing out there the way you dress!" Grimmjow glared menacingly at him as he began trudging down the hall, unwinding his scarf and unbuttoning the first few buttons on his coat.
"Have you been out there?" Grimm asked incredulously.
Ichigo pulled away from the wall and held the door open for Grimm, beckoning him inside with a swish of his hand. "Of course, I was out there just now on the balcony. It's not that cold, you're just a fucking wimp."
Grimmjow smacked him on the chest as walked inside. "Smartass."
Once Ichigo closed the door, Grimmjow let the teasing fall away, pinning Ichigo with a concerned look. "You alright, man?"
Ichigo pulled out his cellphone and checked it. "Yeah."
"Not what I heard."
Ichigo frowned. Motherfucking gossips. He walked over, grabbed his glass ashtray and fell backwards on his bed, pulling out a cigarette to place between his lips. "And just what have you heard, Grimm?" Looking intently at the green-tinted ceiling, Ichigo lifted the match and matchbox into his view and struck a flame, puffing to get his cigarette going.
His friend's coat found its way onto his bar stool and his scarf on the top of the bar. Grimmjow wore a grayish-green Henley; his wife beater just barely visible through the thin fabric. A simple silver chain hung from his heck, sinking into the pronounced dip between his collar bones. His black jeans were loose and gathered over and around his heavy boots. The man turned and made his way over to Ichigo's bed and sat gently on the edge, fixing his eyes across the room.
"I heard that your dad came up to the Ward today."
"What did he say?"
"You don't know?" Ichigo snorted, but still nudged Grimm's leg and offered him a smoke.
"They just said he came in fine, but later he was arguing with someone on the phone and left in a rush," Grimmjow explained as he pulled a lighter out and lit his smoke up.
Ichigo idly watched the smoke crawl from his friends mouth, rising to mix with Ichigo's own smoke. "Sounds about right."
"Ichigo, just tell me what the hell happened. You don't need be so damn defensive around me."
Ichigo didn't know why he was going to tell Grimmjow what happened. It wasn't that the ordeal was a big secret, it was just unexpected and, quite frankly, a bit mind-blowing on Ichigo's part (and perhaps his fathers as well). He just didn't want to admit to another living soul that, through a series of unfortunate circumstances, he'd become attached/attracted to a coma patient - who was also his brother of sorts.
Grimmjow fell back beside him on the bed, cigarette in hand, his necklace twisting and settling around his neck. Ichigo turned his head just as Grimmjow did and they stared at each other, seemingly communicating through their eyes alone. It was a sobering moment for Ichigo as he realized how dependent he'd become on Grimmjow and his sporadic company. The man was abrupt, wild-eyed, outwardly aloof, but secretly caring and generous when he wanted to be. Ichigo was glad to able to call him a friend - the only one he really had.
"He's your brother, isn't he?" Grimmjow asked somberly; his eyes kind and gentle.
"Dad didn't know," Ichigo whispered. "He came in to check on someone for a friend and he told me his name. I thought it was a joke. But then he saw him with his own eyes and he just... flipped out. He would look at him, then look at me like one of us wasn't real or something. A ghost maybe." Ichigo closed his eyes tightly under Grimmjow's good natured scrutiny.
With a flick of his wrists, Grimmjow's ashes fell into the glass tray. "Did you know?"
That very moment, Ichigo's cell phone began to ring and he almost wanted to scream. "I don't want to know."
Ichigo let his phone ring and ring, making no move to answer it. He knew that when he did, something would happen that could not be undone. He would learn things he could not forget or blame on other people. The truth was on the other side of that phone call and it was a struggle to convince himself to pick up the phone.
Grimmjow wiggled uncomfortably beside him, becoming agitated by the ringing. "Who is it?"
Ichigo grinned at his friend, but it was an empty smile; one of those ‘grin and bear it’ smiles a person wore to comfort other people. By the look in his friend’s eyes, Grimmjow was not fooled.
"It’s my dad. I told him to call me whenever he got the chance."
"Are you gonna answer it?"
"Would you think I was crazy if I said no?” Ichigo whispered to his friend.
“No. But you should answer it,” Grimmjow instructed softly, pulling the phone from Ichigo’s cold hands and opening it and placing it to his friend’s ear. “Say something, Ichigo.”
“Hello?” Ichigo’s voice was steadier than he thought it would be, but it also helped that Grimmjow was right beside him, pressed against him as he spoke.
“Ichigo, it’s Dad. You got time to talk?”
Ichigo flicked his eyes up to Grimmjow’s as he answered. “Yeah, Dad. I’m free for a while.”
Grimmjow smiled that crazy smile of his and made to get off the bed and leave but Ichigo stopped him, pinning his legs to the bed with his own and grabbing his arm. Stay, Ichigo mouthed to him, silently asking him to stay. His spirits lifted as Grimmjow settled back down and listened in on their conversation.
“I guess I’ve got some explaining to do,” Isshin said sheepishly.
“Dad, you don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to. I won’t ask any difficult questions,” Ichigo offered. This was going to be difficult for both of them and he wanted to have given both of them a chance to just stop right there before things got... sensitive.
Ichigo’s effort was in vain.
“You don’t need to ask, I’ll tell you everything. I need to tell you everything.”
Ichigo curled closer to Grimmjow.
“As you know, I used to be an on-call general practitioner, moving from commission to commission that clinics offered me. I made good money that way and I was able to travel.” Isshin paused in his speech and gave a soft cough as though he were admitting something difficult. It turned out to be just a name.
“Her name was Mara...”
Isshin pulled another chart from his bin, flipping the pages and scanning the documents. His workload was beginning to increase as he became more comfortable with the hospital and the staff. His nurses grew accustomed to his workflow and preferences and things had finally become steady and familiar.
After a few scribbles here and there on a patient’s chart, Isshin waved his nurse down and instructed her to find a referral sheet for another specialist. “He’s going to need to see a specialist for this. I can’t do much for him here besides talk about it. Would you please prepare that for me?” Isshin asked sweetly. The nurse batted her large green eyes at the doctor and turned with a quick glance back as she sauntered away. Not another one, Isshin whined internally. He was apparently a ladies' man and, his reputation unfortunately preceded him. Now, all of the single nurses (and a few patients) had their eye on him. But he’d been to many other clinics over the years and he’d yet to be caught!
Later in the day as he sat in his office, his secretary buzzed him. “Sir, you’ve got a representative here who would like a moment of your time.”
Isshin looked up from his paperwork with a deep sigh and glance at his clock. “Thank you. Send them in.”
Isshin could hear the person’s shoes before they entered; a clack! clack! clack! that echoed down the hall. Expecting a knock, Isshin called, “Come on in!” and sat back in his chair.
From behind a thick mahogany door emerged the longest pair of legs he’d ever seen on any woman before. The woman’s black stilettos clicked to a stop just behind the chair on the other side of his desk and he had to tear his eyes away from her thighs, just under her pleated black skirt.
“Dr. Kurosaki?” she questioned in a cool, confident voice.
“Y-yes,” Isshin stuttered, sitting a bit straighter in his desk and reaching up to adjust his wayward tie. “And you are, Miss?”
“You can call me Mara, Doctor.”
Isshin smiled. “Mara...”
“We were only together three months,” Isshin insisted. “After that she was transferred to a higher branch in her company and she moved on to bigger and better things. We’ve kept in touch as friends over the years. She even met your mother once.”
Ichigo heard his father exhale sharply into his phone. “So do you think she just didn’t know, or she just didn’t want to tell you that she was pregnant?”
Isshin was slow in his response. “It was a year before I saw her again, by then I was already with your mother. She never said anything and she seemed happy that I was happy. God, I can’t believe she never told me.”
“She sounds like the kind of woman who can handle things on her own,” Ichigo assured his father.
“She was,” his father agreed. “But I couldn’t have imagined that she’d hide this from me.”
“What are you going to do now?”
“I don’t know. I’ve already called her,” Isshin said exasperatedly. “Can you believe she won’t even come to see her son? He could die!”
“He’s been stable for several weeks, but that doesn’t reflect his mental condition. There’s always a chance he’ll never wake up.”
“He’ll wake up. He’s a Kurosaki,” Isshin said firmly, stubborn confidence echoing in his words.
Ichigo smiled at Grimmjow. “Yes, he is.”
After the conversation with his father, Ichigo spoke with Grimmjow for a few more moments and then his friend bid himself goodnight and goodbye, promising to visit him in the Alpha Ward on his next break from clinic. Ichigo offered him a cursory fuss, just because he could, as his friend descended the stairs. “You owe me cigarettes, you bastard!” Then he slammed the door, laughing.
Ichigo slept fitfully that night, alternating between dreams and a slight mania as he woke, fearing the worst as he open his eyes, breathing erratic and pained. After his third panicked awakening, Ichigo gave up and returned to his balcony, prepared to soak up the night for all it was worth (or whatever it had to offer).
As the twilight hours passed, he guiltily amused himself by daydreaming (or was it night-dreaming?) about Shiro; what he was like, where he lived, his habits and his relationships. It all was oddly fascinating to Ichigo, imagining the life of another, like a guessing game where he hoped he would soon have the correct answers. If only you’d wake up, if only...
Sleep continued to evade him and soon his alarm was ringing, tell him to get ready for work. His routine kicked in and Ichigo found himself entering the Ward and hour later, the roots of his hair still damp and chilled from his walk to work.
Ichigo found the Alpha Ward a slow, quiet and somber place that morning, as though it was still clinging to sleep in a way that Ichigo had never been able to. Rina gave him a tired smile as he rolled his cart up to the counter, a hand already open and waiting for the new files she had for him. She held them out for Ichigo, but as he grabbed them she held on. “He’s here, Ichigo.”
Ichigo was momentarily confused. “Who’s here?”
“You’re father. He’s in Shiro’s room, just sitting there. The orderlies told me he’d been there all night,” Rina said softly, if not wearily.
Ichigo glanced at Shiro’s closed door and then back to Rina, deciding how to handle things. “Let me do my rounds and then I’ll go talk to him, okay?”
Rina smiled and turned back to her coffee. “He’s your father. Do whatever you want with him.”
Shiro had felt hopelessness before. It was a deep, gaping hole in his chest, a gripping fist around his throat, strangling him and leaving him choking and paralyzed. That same plunging feeling ripped through his body as he realized his situation - the horrifying ordeal he was going through.
A choked sob left his lips. “Am I dead?”
“No, my boy, you are not.”
Looking up and blinking through his ebbing tears, Shiro gazed, stupefied, at his former coach. “I’m not dead?” he said in disbelief and relief. “Then where am I?”
The larger man dropped to his knees, offering up his clipboard for inspection. He pointed a thick, burly finger to a graph with Shiro’s name by it. “This here,” he explained, “is your game-plan. It tells you what you need to do to get the most points and win.” The graph had a thick line, changing rapidly from point to point like on a heart monitor; Shiro noticed how there were more low points than high ones. His coach traced the line, moving up and down along its path until it reached the end marked with large grey dot labeled ‘intermission’.
“What’s that mean?” Shiro asked, raising his eyebrows with genuine curiosity.
The man rose and left Shiro crumpled on the track. “It means it’s only halftime and you need to get your shit together and start living properly!” he shouted without looking back.
Then the lights of the stadium shut off and Shiro saw only darkness.
After his rounds were finished and charts filed, Ichigo headed towards Shiro’s room, ever mindful of Rina’s gaze from her station. The doorknob clicked softly as he opened it and with a quick glance and a smile to Rina, he entered.
Isshin was sleeping soundly, his head titled back against the armchair, mouth parted with his slow, even breaths. Ichigo loathed to wake him, but he’d told himself that he’d send his father home or wherever he was staying in town for some proper sleep. Isshin wasn’t the only one responsible for Shiro now. Ichigo was more than willing to look after him, just as he’d been doing for the past few weeks. He only needed to convince his father of that.
“Dad,” he said softly with gentle shake to his father’s shoulder.
Isshin mumbled unintelligent slurs in his slumber, tossing his head in an unconscious attempt to ward off Ichigo’s efforts to wake him.
“Dad, wake up,” Ichigo tried again.
Isshin’s eyes slid opened revealing large, heavy brown eyes, unfocused and sleepy. “Ichigo...”
He squeezed his father’s shoulder, helping to rouse the man from his sleep. “You need to go home and get some sleep, Dad. Rina says you’ve been here all night. We’ve got orderlies around here to watch Shiro.”
“I know, I know,” Isshin huffed, sitting forward in the armchair, rubbing his face. He yawned and looked up at Ichigo and then over to a comatose Shiro. “Shit. It’s crazy how much you two look alike. I can’t get over it. It’s like another you walking around.”
“Yeah,” Ichigo muttered. “Another me.”
Ichigo felt his father grab his hand and squeeze it. “Ichigo...” he sighed. “How are you, really?”
The floor seemed like a good place to sit, so Ichigo sunk to the ground, still holding his father‘s large, firm hand, like a child held on to their parent when they were too scared to let go.
“I’m... tired and just...” Ichigo told Isshin, his free hand scratching his hair, embarrassed by the things he was revealing to his father, “... it’s lonely here - if that even makes sense.”
Isshin squeezed his hand. “Keep going.”
“I keep thinking thing will get better, that I’ll meet more people or that I’ll live a better life,” Ichigo professed, “but so far I’ve only made one friend - a good one - but still only one. I can’t sleep anymore and I’m so lonely I don’t know what to do. I don't know how I got this way.”
Ichigo looked up longingly to his father, pleading to the one man he knew he could rely on for some kind of help or resolution to his problems. He’d kidded himself all these years during and after college that he could make due without his father to support him. He needed to prove to him that he was not reliant upon anyone but himself, that he was independent and successful just like his father had been. But the things he needed to prove came at a high price it seemed. His empty, sparse apartment, the empty cartons of cigarettes, his insomnia and his loneliness were just a few of the things he dealt with. Looking back, Ichigo had forgotten what it was like to be genuinely happy.
“Son,” Isshin said solemnly, “I can’t tell you what to do with your life and I can’t tell you how to make yourself happy. But I can tell you this: I’m proud of everything you’ve done and everything you will ever do. I know you’re a good man, a hard worker and a kind person. You chase after the things you want and I can’t imagine what you’re chasing that led you to be in such a mess, but you need to get your head on straight and live the life you want to be living - no excuses.”
By the end of his speech, Isshin was gripping Ichigo’s hand firmly and looking at him with fierce determination in his eyes. “Do you hear what I’m saying, Ichigo?”
Tears welled up and threatened to spill as Ichigo hung his head between his shoulders, cheeks tinted red from embarrassment and shame, but also in simple pleasure at hearing his father’s words about how proud he was of him; of everything he did, of everything he would ever do. Ichigo realized that by separating himself from his father and his family, that he had effectively cut himself off from the support, encouragement and love that he’d received before he went to college. Why had he done such a foolish thing? Why did he ever think he needed to give anything up to make his father proud of him?
“I hear you, Dad.”
The next few moments were silent but not awkward. It was the reflective and calm aftermath of a revealing ordeal and Ichigo took full advantage it by collecting himself and blinking back his tears. “Thank you,” he whispered, squeezing his father’s hand again. “Really, Dad. Thank you.”
“I know, I know,” Isshin grinned and then released Ichigo’s hand. “I think I’ll head to the hotel and get some more sleep.”
“Good idea.” Ichigo stayed in his spot on the floor, cross-legged and pitiful looking and watched his father glance back at him and Shiro before leaving. “I’ll look after him, Dad.”
Isshin smiled. “I know you will.”
This chapter was originally posted in two parts, but they were short chapter, so I decided to combine them. You'll notice the originally chapter change when the POV changes to Ichigo.
"I want everything you've got."
The tip of the gun was as cold and piercing as it was horrifying. All of his equipment was still spread out - prints, pencils, markers, computer up and running, a work lamp casting a warm light on his designs.
Was this really happening?
Shiro's heart pounded painfully against his ribs and he nearly fainted from the shock and fear he felt. The muzzle of the gun moved against his neck until it was pushing into the back of his skull; the tip growing warm from his body heat.
"Please don't do this," Shiro pleaded, feeling even more helpless as his voice broke, the syllables falling apart in his throat.
He had been leaning over his work table, pencil held loosely in his hand, making notes and sketching new ideas into his sketchbook. He hadn't heard the door click open, hadn't heard the man's boots cross the titled floor, but Shiro had heard him cock the gun behind him. It was arguably one of the loudest sounds he could ever recall hearing. Click! Like the annoying tick of a clock, marking the time - saying this is right now, this is the present.
Shiro thought of several things all at once. He remembered that he'd left some paperwork in the taxi he'd taken that morning. His boss would be expecting the files for their current project (which he'd probably never get now). Sara was out of cat food and he'd never get the chance to buy her more, or watch her slurp messily at her milk bowl. He wanted to laugh at the absurdity of it all. Most of all, he wanted to cry because if he was shot, no one would really even miss him, save Sara, his playful white tabby cat.
"I said to give me all you've got. I want your wallet, your keys, anything! And if you're a good boy you'll help me take all this fancy equipment down."
Shiro nearly did laugh at that. A burglar asking him to help move stolen equipment downstairs. How utterly pathetic. In the space of only a few seconds, since the man placed a cold gun at his neck, Shiro had come to the conclusion that if he was going to die or be robbed, this was not how he wanted it to happen. This guy would not boss him around, gun or not. Shiro would not be bullied or forced. He would not be told what to do.
A staple gun gleamed on the desk, its heavy black metallic sheen catching Shiro's eye from the desk. Heart pounding, mouth sticky dry, palms sweating, Shiro grabbed the staple gun and ducked from beneath the gun, bringing his arm around as hard as he could. The metal object connected with the man's ribs and he gave a breathy grunt, gun lifting and firing into the ceiling, leaving Shiro's ears ringing.
Shiro made for the door of the office, turning to dash for the exit when a boot entered his vision. The kick was hard and heavy into his shoulder and Shiro knew something horrible was about to happen because the window was --
Glass. Shards of the city falling with him. Down. Plummeting.
Don't wish for things you can't have
Save them for dreaming, if you even can.
I'd say don't tell me, those dreams.
But perhaps I want to know,
Maybe I can make them come true.
Like most times Shiro had ever woken up, he was awake before he actually knew that he was. It was hard to think about much else other than how heavy he felt or how he didn't quite remember how to move, how to blink, how to breath (how can you breath when you feel this heavy?). His body felt like a block of clay, settled firmly and unwilling to move until it had been pried from whatever surface it was stuck to. Something was tapping against his arm, fuzzy, warm and exerting pressure that he could hardly feel. His muddled brain was unwilling to provide him with anymore clues as to where he was, how he got there, or how long he had been wherever he was.
"...iro?" A name that might have belonged to him was being yelled, or whispered. He couldn't quite tell. The sound, a buzz in his ear, was persistent and made no sense to him whatsoever.
"Shiro, are you with us?"
Everything was black and it took Shiro a while before he remembered that it shouldn't be and that he was actually able to open his eyes. Come to think of it, he felt quite stupid that it took him to so long to think about opening his eyes. Maybe the blackness was comforting, maybe it was pleasant not to have to see anything or anyone. Ignorance can be blissful.
He wasn't expecting the brightness and he quickly shut his eyes. The returning blackness when he closed them was truly comforting. But it was gone just as quickly when someone pried his lids apart and it's all to bright for him to make anything out.
"Li-" Shiro tried to say but there was dust in his throat, dry like old sandpaper and sticky cotton.
"Take it easy, one thing at a time."
The light slithered away as he was allowed to shut his eyes and he tried to speak, licking his lips that tasted oddly like cherry and Shiro almost laughed at how pleased he was by that. "The... light... too bright," he managed to softly choke out but it seemed he got his message across when he heard people scramble and the light dimmed. It's easier to see when the lights are low, to see all the people scattered around him. "Where am I?"
"Can you tell me your name?" Someone asked and Shiro could feel cool fingers on his wrist, taking his pulse.
The doctors told him he'd been in a coma and that he had been pushed out of the two story building where he worked. Shiro's just grateful that he didn't remember it. He could see the still healing scars on his body where the glass and impact had cut him up pretty bad. Yeah, not remembering was a good thing at this point. The general consensus was that he would never wake up. His attending doctor kept reminding him how lucky he was and all thisgarbage about percentages and the possibility of memory loss and coordination problems.
Shiro's just glad he's alive, because he doesn't remember the fall, but he remembered the gun against his skull. The feeling of losing everything in those brief seconds could change a man. Who cared if his mother didn't love him? He would find someone to love him. So what if he lived alone with his cat? He'd find another cat and they could have tea parties. What if he never met his father? Shiro was happy to just be alive, his father be damned. He was going to get his shit together and start living.
It felt corny to think it, much less say it, but the sunrise was strangely beautiful. Shiro couldn't remember the last sunrise he had paid attention to. It was surprising to see the all the colors and clouds, twining together and painting the sky. He knew this sunrise was special - it was the first one he'd been conscious for in weeks. He didn't have anyone to share it with, but that was okay, he would see many more after this and hopefully he'd find someone to share them with.
Just as the yellows were beginning to fade into blue, someone knocked none to gently on his door. It was man in scrubs who's hair was so blue is nearly matched his clothes. And tall. He was ridiculously tall with a toothy grin. Wolfish, almost. Shiro liked him instantly.
"Hi," Shiro offered to the man as he drew closer to his bed.
"Hey back at you." And there was that grin again that Shiro could help but respond to with an equally wide grin. "It's good to see you awake!"
"Yeah, I guess I'm pretty lucky." Shiro still had trouble adjusting to the fact that most of these people had been around him for weeks and had grown accustomed to seeing him on a daily basis. Aside from the fact that no one really even knew him, Shiro had to deal with the one-sided familiarity that he couldn't reciprocate.
The man just smiled and said, "No way, dude. Ichi and me, we knew you'd wake up. It was just a matter of time." His confidence was flattering and Shiro was secretly delighted that at least someone had held out some hope for him. He wasn't just a percentage or a lost case. This man, whoever he was, had faith in him.
"I'm Grimmjow, by the way," he said, leaning forward to offer his large hand for a handshake.
Shiro happily shook his hand and couldn't seem to wipe the smile off his face. "I'm Shiro, but I think you already knew that."
"Who doesn't know your name?" Grimmjow said teasingly, pulling back his hand and letting is rest on the edge of Shiro's bed.
Shiro was confused. "What do you mean by that?"
"Erm," the man floundered for words. "That's a story for another time, I think. You should get some rest."
"Okay." That was weird.
Grimmjow shuffled backwards to the door (escaping, really). "I've got to go. But I'll be back with someone you have to meet. Alright?"
"Who am I meeting?"
"My friend. Ichigo," Grimmjow said with a huge ass smile. "He's been waiting to meet you for a long time, Shiro."
Back in grade school, Ichigo had a few good friends, but they were just that - friends. He was never the type to get attached to people. Ichigo knew how to let people go. On some occasions, he even knew how to intentionally make people let go of him. A quick remark here, a cold shoulder there and one icy look from Ichigo Kurosaki and suddenly there was space to breath again. He didn't like doing it, but it always seemed like the wrong kind of people were trying to get close to him. Call him picky or whatever, he just knew what kind of people he liked. Like Chad, whom he'd known since he was too small to kick anyone's ass or even know what it meant to want to hurt someone that much. Chad got close enough and Ichigo let him because it felt right, felt like they matched up on some level.
Ichigo wondered if maybe growing up that way set him up for this kind of life, this lonely life he was currently living; being too picky, too selective about his company. It wasn't that he was above everyone else's company, Ichigo just didn't like fake, inconsiderate people.
Sadly, that left Ichigo with few friends. He had Grimmjow and he was most definitely not fake.
Now he had a brother who didn't feel like a brother. Ichigo had placed Shiro in a category all his own when he'd first seen him. He wasn't 'brother' then and he wasn't 'brother' now, no matter how hard Ichigo tried to change how he felt about it. It just wasn't happening.
He sometimes wished he'd never seen Shiro. Then he wouldn't be so confused.
If Shiro ever woke then maybe Ichigo would learn to see him as a brother. Maybe it would take time.
Snapping out of his thoughts, Ichigo nearly flipped his chair as he heard his name screamed across the hall of clinic.
"WHAT!" Ichigo yelled back, equally annoyed.
It was only Grimmjow, but there was something different, his expressions was strange. Then a long arm rose in the air, clutching a photograph. Ichigo recognized the photo as the one from his locker. The thieving bastard! Ichigo thought as he looked at the picture, but before he could voice it he saw Grimmjow's lips move. "He's awake."
He felt himself move in slow motion, like those cheesy Indie films where the light flickered through the trees and some chick's hair was floating in the breeze, or the moment just before a kiss when you swear you could feel the breath pass from one mouth to another.
Yeah. It was that slow.
He was suddenly in front of Grimmjow and the photo was between his fingers because this was it. The moment he'd been dreaming of, waiting for, praying for. There would be life in those golden eyes, just like in the picture. Shiro's lips would curve up in a smile and fingers would curl around his own as they shook hands.
Oh, but to hear you speak.
Grimmjow told him that Shiro was awake, had been for a few hours but Ichigo hadn't been contacted since the family information wasn't updated yet. Shiro had met with the doctors and he was fully conscious and aware. He showed no signs of memory loss, aside from the actual accident. He'd be expected to pass a physical to determine whether or not physical therapy would be needed. Grimmjow assured him he would be fine.
Ichigo just needed to see him. To meet him. To say something to him.
He convinced Grimmjow to let him go alone, saying that this was a private moment. Grimmjow more than understood and said that he'd be wandering around the Ward (not looking like a stalker), just in case.
He stopped by the gift shop and picked up the brightest flowers he could find - yellow ones. It was only after he'd bought them did he realize how utterly sad they looked.
The Ward was quiet, which surprised Ichigo, even though there was no real reason why it shouldn't be quiet. Shiro's door was closed and no one seemed to be in a rush and life was going on like it should be and Ichigo wondered why he felt so disappointed that the world hadn't stopped turning because Shiro was awake.
No one paid him any attention as he walked up to the door and knocked but there was no answer. He looked around suspiciously and decided to go in and the click of the doorknob turning may have only seems horrendously loud to him.
But everything was quiet because...
Shiro was asleep. Not 'coma' asleep, but really asleep and Ichigo could see that. His pale face was slack with sleep but he looked content. Before he had looked dead, gone and still, chest rising and falling without purpose.
Ichigo walked over to the bed, sitting down the flowers beside the bed and just watching, seeing how Shiro's fingers twitched and curled, how his lips parted as he breathed deep lungfuls of sun-warmed air. In and out, with more purpose than Ichigo could ever remember having.
Those lips, moistened by Shiro's own tongue and not the cherry lip balm. Hair tousled by his own fingers, running through his white locks in frustration and relief.
Ichigo took in a ragged breath and it was all Shiro; sunshine and liquid blue light, cherry flavored lips and pale, silky skin.
He pulled Shiro's photo from his pocket and sat it beneath the vase of flowers. How can you be my brother when I feel like this?
The Ward was still silent as he left and maybe the world had stopped turning just for a second.
Shiro tried to stay awake for Grimmjow and his friend, he really did, but the lure of sleep and the warmth from the morning sun were too hard to resist. A person might think that someone who'd woken from a coma wouldn't want to sleep as much has he did, but oh well. He had a feeling that whatever had gone on in his head during the coma, it wasn't resting, wasn't peaceful. So when Shiro let his eyes slip shut, smooth and heavy, he knew that it was the beginning of a restful sleep.
He dreamt of ruby sunsets, wildflowers that never died and days that washed by like waves, crashing against the beaches of his mind. The foam from the waves flew into the wild sunset and became clouds on the horizon. They were meaningless dreams - normal dreams, thank God. And so what if he could still taste cherry on his lips, it was only a dream.
There were flowers in his room when he awoke. Just sitting there like normal flowers, except, Shiro couldn't think of whom would have even given him flowers. Yellow daffodils spilled out of their vase, drooping stems letting the golden head of each flower hang longingly, sadly, desperate for attention. Caught beneath the bottom edge of the vase was a photo of him. It was a fairly recent photo that his neighbor had taken. The crimson coat he wore made his pale skin shine like fresh snow. Shiro picked up the photo and turned it over - nothing was written there. Who would have left him a photo of himself?
"Shiro?" A nurse peeked into the room with a warm smile on her face. "You've got a visitor?"
"Okay, I guess," Shiro said, perplexed and curious.
The nurse retreated and allowed a tall, imposing man into the room. Their eyes met and something shifted inside Shiro, like a door snapping open after years of being locked. He was tall with neatly cropped hair and a strong, stubbled chin. Shiro blinked as he took in the bright Hawaiian shirt he wore, but it seemed fitting somehow.
His eyes, though - windows to the soul and all that. Shiro could see right into them and far beyond. Each step that the man took closer to the bed allowed Shiro to look deeper. Ochre eyes swallowed him up and left him at peace and calm.
They each blinked and the hospital room was back and the daffodils still looked melancholy and Shiro was still wondering what the hell he was going to say to this dude.
"Um. Hi," was all that he could really come up with.
"Hi," the man said with a goofy smile and that moment was special because Shiro felt like meeting this man was something remarkable; something profound.
"Do I know you?" Shiro asked.
The man gave a soft sigh, letting his shoulders slump despondently. "I... umm..." After a scratch to the back of his head, he finally just sat on the bottom corner of Shiro's bed and looked him straight in they eye. Steadfast. "I'm not sure if your mother ever told you, but, I'm your father, Shiro."
When Shiro didn't speak (another brain trauma, perhaps?), the man carried on without encouragement from him.
"I'm Isshin Kurosaki. I'm a doctor and I live in the next town over. I didn't know you existed until a few days ago and I can honestly it's one of the most unexpected and..." he babbled excitedly, "awesome surprises of my life!"
Okay. He was an awesome surprise. That was good. Wasn't it?
"Shiro, you okay?" Isshin asked cautiously.
"I'm..." and there were no other words because everything became heavy and just, "I'm..."
"Are you mad at me? I wouldn't blame you if you were."
That snapped Shiro out of his meltdown. "No! It's just... a lot to take in. I didn't know you existed either. I'm mean, yeah, I obliviously had a father, but this, you being here, saying this stuff. I've never even dreamed of this happening, and now it is and God, it's... pretty amazing."
"So, your mother..."
"You've never existed," Shiro explained with a hint of regret. "I wasn't told you were dead, or married to someone else or just a goddam bum who got her knocked up and couldn't pay. You were no one, nothing, unmentioned."
Isshin grabbed his pale hand squeezed it hard. His hand was warm and strong and Shiro was suddenly so much more grateful for waking up and having this chance. But then...
"How did you even find me?" And shit, there were tears in his eyes. Happy fucking tears because this was just too fucking unreal.
Isshin gave his hand another reassuring squeeze and said, "Your mother and I remained friends after we'd broken up. After your accident she called me from out of the country and asked if I could check up on someone in the hospital for her. I said I would. My son, Ichigo, was here when I came to see you and then we just... knew. I've talked with your mother and we've straightened everything out."
But all Shiro really heard was 'brother'. He had a brother. He had family. A real family. And if the rest of the Kurosaki's were anything like Isshin then Shiro wanted to know all of them.
This was too good, too fantastic...
"Shiro, it's alright," Isshin said soothingly, patting Shiro's thigh through the blanket like any normal father would do. "Everything will be alright."
And then Shiro cried.
Shiro was sobbing and Isshin couldn't help but smile because clearly the boy was happy about what he'd told him and so relieved that he couldn't contain himself, hence the tears. Isshin didn't blame him, he was getting a bit teary eyed himself.
Another son. Wow. The twins would have another brother and Ichigo would...
Ichigo needed this, needed someone like Shiro. His son was clearly depressed and struggling with dealing with his new life. People didn't adjust to loneliness, not really, they avoided admitting it and made excuses as to why they were lonely, but no one really just dealt with it.
Ichigo was not dealing well. He'd seemed fine when he left for college and even when he moved into the city to live closer to the hospital, but after that, things went downhill. Isshin suspected it was because Ichigo had no one to care for. At home he'd taken care of the girls, hell, had taken care of Isshin. But now, Ichigo went home to nothing, to no one but himself and Isshin knew that one of the hardest people to live with was yourself; inner demons and regrets and all that.
He wanted Ichigo to be happy, wanted both of his boys to be happy.
"I see someone brought you flowers," he commented as Shiro dried his eyes.
"I don't know who they're from. There's no card or anything, just a picture of me."
Isshin picked up the photo and examined it. "Maybe it's from the hospital."
Shiro didn't look so sure. "Yeah, maybe."
It's Wednesday. The time was 4:15 in the evening and Ichigo was nervous.
Shiro was meeting with his doctors and they were instructing him on the final days he would spend in the hospital. They'll ask if there would be a caregiver available to him for assistance and Shiro would nod his head and say, "Yeah, I've got family now." And damn, that just broke Ichigo's heart to think about this guy who hasn't really had a family like Ichigo's had.
Isshin said his brother was so happy he cried - happy to have been found by his father, or maybe just to have been found by anyone at all, Ichigo doesn't know. It's sad and tragic all the same.
Ichigo was disturbed by all the lost people he kept running into. It's kinda of selfish to think he was the only one lost in the world. Feels like it though.
The plastic chair that was once cold is now body-warm beneath him. Smooth edges molded around him and held him while he waited. The clock ticked by like it was nobody's business, hung carelessly above the station desk. A few globs of blue nail polish are speckled across the wall next to it, courtesy of Rina and one Friday that ran a bit too long for her liking. She claimed it's artistic now. Ichigo simply doesn't want to clean it. Whatever.
It's now 4:45 and the turn of a doorknob caught Ichigo's attention like a gunshot; a quick click! followed by the soft swoooosh of the door gliding open. The doctors stepped out, casting a friendly smile back into the room that said, Trust us, you'll be fine. Ichigo wished for a moment that they'd give him that look. He needed that kind of encouragement right about now. They turned in the opposite direction, talking quietly amongst themselves, leaving Ichigo debating with himself on whether he should go in or not.
An obnoxious cough made Ichigo look up to find Rina glaring daggers at him, mouthing the words, "Get your ass in there!" and that's all Ichigo needed to get moving.
Ichigo stopped at the door and glanced back at Rina, mainly for more encouragement, and found most of the staff there looking at him supportively, smiling and ushering him on. He could do this. He knocked on the door like any normal person would do and waited.
Shiro's tentative voice sounded from inside, like he still wasn't used to people coming into his room. "Erm... come in?"
The door felt as though it weighed a thousand pounds and Ichigo found that pushing it open was harder that it should be. But he's waited weeks for this - for those eyes and that voice. The door swung gently open and a thrill ran through Ichigo's body, chasing away the inky taste in his mouth and leaving brilliant butterflies in his stomach.
Shiro was sitting innocently in his bed, knees pulled up to his chest, hospital gown replaced by baby blue scrub pants and a plain white t-shirt, nearly matching Ichigo's apparel. Ichigo observed the wrinkled sheets and signs of movement, distinct motions of a man that was alive and conscious. Shiro's fingers were resting atop his knees, his fingernails long and delicate after his long sleep and in much need a trimming.
The door shut behind Ichigo with a thud and he finally met Shiro's eyes. The honey-yellow of his irises flicked over Ichigo's body with barely concealed surprised and disbelief. Pink lips were slightly parted in awe and damn, Ichigo hated that he knew they would taste like cherry lip balm.
"Hi," Ichigo said from across the room, neither retreating or approaching Shiro's bed. The dude looked a bit confused.
"How...?" Shiro muttered and his tone was amazed and overwhelmed. He slid from his bed and Ichigo saw he was barefoot, his pale feet tacky against the cold floor of the hospital. Ichigo stood motionless as Shiro paced, side to side, stalking like a golden-eyed lion. Ichigo didn't mind being stared at. The same thing happened the first time he saw Shiro. It was only fair.
For a moment, Ichigo felt like he was eight again, meeting a new friends that he was not sure about. They picked and prodded at each other, digging for worms and holding them up for inspection. Testing each other out.
Shiro's gaze was white-hot, gold eyes blazing with curiousness. "Who are you?" Shiro asked after a few moments of eyeing Ichigo.
Ichigo breathed and prepared to try out the whole brother business. "I'm your brother… well, half-brother, Ichigo." So what if it came out a bit too quick and high pitched? He said it and it's over with. Fact established.
"My brother?" Shiro said like he'd never heard anything so amazing in his life and Ichigo felt tears bead in his eyes as Shiro walked forward and looked him right in the eye. "You’re my brother?"
A tear fell and Ichigo whispered, "Yeah, dude. Your brother."
When Shiro was twelve he met a pair of twins. They looked to be maybe seven or eight years old, two young, lanky little boys. Their mother had held their tiny hands, one twin on either side of her, leading them to the park that Shiro often visited by himself. They were something different, Shiro noticed as he watched them dart from her upon their arrival to the park. The boys ran around sporadically, but never strayed far from each other. Little hands helped each other up when they fell, pulled and tugged, led and supported each other as they played. It was strange to see two boys so entwined with each other, as if they knew how far away the other one was at all times. Magnets.
Shiro, only twelve years old, had never wanted something so badly in his life. A twin. A brother. A home. Someone who would never leave him, would never want to leave him.
And now, standing not five feet from him is a miracle. As if someone had made a copy of Shiro and painted him with fine watercolors: fiery red for his hair and cream as his skin, mixed with just the right amount defensiveness.
Because his brother was being defensive, holding something very tight against his chest, fearful of letting even the slightest bit show through. His smile was genuine, but his eyes were sad and guilty, like he wasn't sure where to let his eyes rest on Shiro.
"How old are you?" Shiro's still trying to figure this whole thing out and maybe if the facts were straight this would seem more real and less likely to be stripped away from him.
"I'm 24," Ichigo fired back, obviously grateful for questions that were easily answered. "And you're Shirosaki Hakuba, 24 years old, graphic designer. With a cat named Sara," Ichigo finishes with a wicked grin.
"How do you know about my cat?"
"After the accident I went over to your apartment and had your neighbor look after her. She's a beautiful cat."
Shiro physically deflated as Ichigo mentioned his cat, his apartment, his fucking life - that's been put on hold because some stupid asshole decided to kick him out of a window. His boss had probably written him off by now and hired someone new. He was counting on that paycheck and he'd probably get evicted from his apartment, and his neighbor who's taking care of Sara, hates him and would probably never give her back.
"You okay?" Ichigo stepped forward, hands raised to help support Shiro if he should need it. And that just made Shiro more upset because he had just met his brother and now he's got to leave him and take care of his horrendously screwed up life.
"I... I've got... God... Ichigo," he said shakily, stepping back to sit on the hospital bed, knees suddenly unable to support him.
"Whatever it is, man, we'll take care of it, okay?"
"I probably lost my job by now."
"And I've been evicted from my place and I'll never see Sara again because my neighbor hates me!" Shiro vented, fingers tangling in his hair in frustration. "God! Why did I work late that night?"
Ichigo was suddenly in his face, pulling his fingers from his hair and holding his pale hands between his own. "Breath, Shirosaki." So, Shiro does.
It didn't help at first and his breathe came out in a strangled huff of air, useless in his lungs. Ichigo kept reminding him to breath, hands gentle and soothing around his own.
"We'll fix it," Ichigo kept saying, to Shiro and maybe himself. "We can fix everything. Together."
And that was one of the best thing Shiro's heard all day.
"Ichigo?" Shiro said, calmer than a moment before.
"Call me Shiro."
“He’s weak,” Shiro’s doctor remarked, “due to muscle and weight loss. That’s easily reversible considering his age. A few sessions of physical therapy and a meal plan have been arranged for him until he recovers. Our other concern is brain damage.”
Isshin was already aware of what the doctor was telling him. Being a doctor himself, he understood the ramification of a coma, the outpatient care routine and the need for family to understand exactly what they’re dealing with. So for the doctor’s sake, Isshin was acting none the wiser, pretending to be the worried parent because that’s what Shiro needed right now. Not a father who argued with his doctor because he thought he knew what was best for his child.
Besides, Isshin was awesome at playing dumb.
“What kind of brain damage, Doc?”
“Depending on the severity of his injury, which is still yet to be determined, he could suffer from short or long term memory loss, speech impediments such as slurring, dyslexia or word loss. Acute migraines, insomnia, depression and vision problems. We will keep close watch on him for the next few months with regular checkups, as well as reports you, the family, as well.”
“How much longer will he be in the hospital?”
“We can discharge him this afternoon after he finishes his psych evaluations for our records,” the man said with a grin, pleased to have successful recovered a coma patient and sent him back into the world. “I understand you’ve recently met your son, Mr. Kurosaki?”
“Yes, it was quite a shock, but a pleasant one.”
“Quite so. You should have heard the commotion Shiro caused upon his arrival,” he said jokingly with a deep laugh. “No one knew what to make of him, but we all knew he belonged to Ichigo.”
“They are quite the pair aren’t they. I hope they’ll be great friends once this is all settled.”
The doctor nodded his head in agreement and then slipped into a serious tone and said, “I’m not a specialist, Mr. Kurosaki, but I must warn you. Having rejoined a family so very soon after his awakening, I worry for Shirosaki’s mental stability. Please be careful in the following months to be a stable and supportive household for him, until he fully recovers. A hectic, unsteady environment is not good for him at this point.”
Isshin heartily agreed. “Yes, of course.”
“Have arrangements been made for him?”
“Yes. He will be staying with Ichigo, here in the city. All his appointments will be here and I live in the next town over.” Isshin had no problem with entrusting Shiro’s health to Ichigo. The boy could take care of just about anything, from a goldfish up to an entire family. He could definitely handle his brother. “It’s better if he stays with Ichigo.”
“I agree. Ichigo is very attentive and understanding. He interacts well with the families of our patients and seems to enjoy his job very much. No only will living with Ichigo be beneficial to Shiro, but also to me as a doctor - with Ichigo’s medical knowledge, we can diagnose Shiro more quickly should a problem arise.”
“That’s good to hear,” Isshin responded, grinning at the praise from the doctor on behalf of his son.
“Unless you have anymore question, that is all that I require of your time, Mr. Kurosaki. Please feel free to contact me or my staff if you need to. We’re here to help.”
Ichigo had never had a guest sleep over at his apartment, not even his father. Which left the problem of sleeping arrangements, because he only had one bed and no furniture that would hold a grown man comfortably. He might have to go with Shiro to his apartment to gather his things for his stay with Ichigo. He couldn’t remember if Shiro had a bed or a futon in his apartment.
He was looking forward to Shiro’s stay with him. It would be awkward, definitely, but just being with Shiro would outweigh any discomfort he might have felt. He’d have to cook meals again, like a normal person and go to bed at a decent hour (even if he didn’t sleep). Ichigo couldn’t have Shiro thinking he was a freak who never slept and had no personal life to speak of.
Ichigo had to hide, just until things settled in Shiro’s life and things go back to normal.
Ichigo waited outside the hospital after having procured a taxi, knowing that Shiro wouldn’t be up for the long walk to Ichigo’s apartment. The sun was out full force, bright and warm against Ichigo’s face, heating the metal of the taxi as he leaned against it.
His brother emerged soon after, still dressed in scrubs and slippers and Ichigo’s felt like an idiot for not offering to go fetch him some normal clothes. Shiro walked from beneath the overhang of the building and the sun hit his pale skin. He turned his face towards the sky, basking in the natural warmth, breathing the city air, spreading his fingers across his chest and the soft cotton of his shirt.
He looked happy to be alive.
Minutes passed with Shiro just standing in the sun, eyes closed and face relaxed. Ichigo walked up to him and patted him on the arm. “Shiro, man, you okay?”
Golden eyes blinked open, forcing Ichigo to take a deep breath.
“Just feels to good to be... here,” Shiro said earnestly. “And I’m really glad you’re with me, Ichigo.”
“Wouldn’t be anywhere else.” For once, Ichigo meant it.
It wasn’t often that Ichigo saw the city during the day, preferring to slink along it’s gritty pavement and abandoned rooftops during the night when the moon was hidden behind clouds - when the city sank a bit into itself. Now, the suns rays seemed to soften the world and Ichigo swore that the buildings looked taller, less brutal in the day. Next to him in the taxi, Shiro watched the world pass with the gentle, appreciative eyes that a survivor looks at the world with.
Nothing was really different, but the view had changed all the same.
“Where are we going?” Shiro asked a few blocks into their journey.
“My place...” Ichigo began but gave a glance at Shiro’s clothes. “But on second thought, we need to get you some normal clothes.”
Shiro pinched the white cotton shirt at his belly and laughed. “It’s pretty comfortable, but I would like to wear something of my own.”
“So your place then?”
They rode to Shiro’s place in a lazy silence, but as they arrived at the building, Shiro became agitated, taking deep breathes to calm himself.
“What’s wrong?” Ichigo asked, turning to Shiro.
Shiro gritted his teeth and rubbed at his eyes. “It’s stupid....I.... I’ve been sleeping away at that hospital and my whole life was falling apart. There wasn’t even anyone to miss me.”
Ichigo’s stomach tightened and he felt ill because this was his Shiro, feeling like this, feeling worthless and lonely. It’s not what Ichigo expected his brother to be like. He was supposed to be happy and everything Ichigo wasn’t.
“You’re wrong. Your employer reported you missing and your mother called my father to check on you. And even if they hadn’t, you were in my hospital, my ward. I would have done anything for you.”
Heat bloomed across Ichigo’s face with his admission, but Shiro was too distraught to understand it’s meaning.
“My boss hardly comes in to see me and my mother... well...” Shiro’s voice fell away as they arrived at the apartment building.
“None of that matters anymore,” Ichigo tried to reassure Shiro. “I’m here and you’ve never had a brother before, have you?
“You don’t even know me, Ichigo. We’ve only just met,” Shiro said sadly, turning away from Ichigo.
Ichigo got out of the taxi, telling the cab driver to wait while they fetched a few things. On the other side of the car, Shiro crawled unsteadily out and into the sun warmed sidewalk, stubbornly quiet and refusing to look Ichigo in the face.
On the elevator ride up, Ichigo wondered if that’s what he looked like when he was pissed off at someone. He had a new appreciation for Grimmjow putting up with him. He could, admittedly, be quite an asshole at times.
Ichigo let Shiro make his way slowly up to the apartment door and go inside to collect what he needed. Ichigo went a few doors down, knocked and waited.
An elderly woman wearing an old, tattered green bathrobe answered the door, her hair pulled in a bun atop her head. “You again.”
“Ms. Johnson,” Ichigo stated calmly, carefully. “Shiro is out of the hospital and we’ve been so grateful that could watch over his cat. I’ll be taking him and Sara to my house for now.”
She looked skeptical and poked her head out of the doorway to look towards Shiro’s door. “Going with you, eh?”
“Yes, Miss Johnson, with me.”
“Fine,” she grunted, turning and coming back with curious white and gray tabby in her hands.
“Sara!” Ichigo greeted that cat, pulling her into his arms, scratching behind her ears as she purred and flicked her tail against his chest. She squirmed momentarily, confused by the excitement, before she settled against him.
The woman glared at him as he headed back to the apartment, Ichigo darted inside the door to avoid her piercing gaze.
“Sara!” Shiro was barefoot and wearing loose fitting jeans and a thin long-sleeve red shirt, the buttons still undone across the top of his chest. He was even more pale against the vivid red of the shirt, his hair sticking wildly up in all directions. Ichigo could see the weight he’d lost and desperately needed to gain back. His fingers looked spider-like and his cheeks, flushed with exertion were sunken.
Sara sniffed the air, ears twitching, realizing she was home. She jumped daintily from Ichigo’s arms and padded across the floor to Shiro, twirling happily around his legs before he could pick her up. He held her tightly, brushing his cheek against her head, curling his thin fingers into the warmth of her fur. She must have felt like home, if nothing else did.
Shiro laughed against her soft neck. “I can’t believe she gave her back so easily. I was sure Miss Johnson would never give her up. She thinks I’m weird.”
Ichigo smiled at Shiro’s delight. “She seemed okay.”
Shiro raised his eyebrow and flashed his teeth at Ichigo.
“If it makes you feel better, she thinks I’m weird too,” Ichigo revealed with a grin.
And this - this - is what Ichigo had been waiting for: Shiro alive and talking, being with Ichigo like this. Being happy together after everything they’d been through, separately, and now, moving forward together like they always should have been.
Sara gained Shiro’s attention again, butting her head against his jaw, purring loudly enough for Ichigo to hear. His brother curled her against him and carried her back into his bedroom, emerging with a duffle back slung over his shoulder and Sara caught in the crook of his elbow.
Shiro declared with a shy smile, “We’re ready.”
Ichigo was different; quiet and curious, worried but unassuming. Shiro could’t really find the nerve to ask his brother more personal questions, because he really didn’t have the right to ask. The boundaries between them hadn’t been established; rules hadn’t been settled upon and it was difficult to tell where they stood with each other.
The taxi dropped them off at a four story building with a bookstore nestled at it’s base. The inside was dark and crowded with shelves, smelling of ancient, musky paper and mold. Dust drifted aimlessly like it had never been cleaned before and it probably hadn’t. Ichigo led the way to a stairwell entrance, weaving his way to the back wall of the store. Shiro could only follow and attempt to hold onto Sara, whom was twitching and fighting to leave the grip of his arms to explore and be generally devious.
The building’s stairwell was painted a mint green color and smelled like lemons, though the odor became less prominent the higher they climbed. His brother lived on the second floor, but another flight of stairs continued upward and beyond. Ichigo told him that no one lived up there because the roof was busted and Mr. Lee didn’t care enough to fix it right then and his neighbors downstairs were hardly ever home.
Ichigo’s door had a number 19 on it and he shrugged and laughed, “I have no idea. You should ask Mr. Lee someday.”
Once inside, his brother threw his arms up and waved the bags around, proclaiming, “Welcome to my home,” and then proceeded to give Shiro the short, albeit necessary tour. It was a comfy one bedroom, one bath apartment. Past the nonexistent foyer was the living room with an adjacent kitchen, attached by a bar top, upon which Ichigo sat his bags.
“Kitchen, living room, balcony,” Ichigo identified with a nod, flinging his head sideways to indicate the sliding glass doors that led to the balcony. Through the glass, across the road, Shiro could see a neon sign blinking and smoke rising from an unknown source.
Ichigo ushered him to a door in the back corner of the living room which opened to his brother’s bedroom with an full bath attached, leaving Shiro to ask him the most obvious question. “Where will I be sleeping?”
“Here, in my bed,” Ichigo answered, hiding his eyes from Shiro. “I really don’t use it much.”
“I couldn’t possibly take your bed,” Shiro pleaded, embarrassed to be causing his brother so much trouble. “I can sleep on the couch. I don’t want to inconvenience you.”
“Shiro,” his brother said sternly. “You’ve got a head injury and you’re still incredibly weak. There is no way I would ever let you sleep on a couch when there is a perfectly fine bed here. What kind of nurse would I be if I let you to do that?”
“But where will you sleep?”
“I sleep wherever sleeps find me.”
Shiro was mystified by Ichigo’s answer. “What do you mean?”
“I’ll be fine, you just worry about yourself for now.”
Soon after the tour, Shiro succumbed to his fatigue and grudgingly accepted Ichigo’s offer to use his bed for a nap. He rebelled by sleeping atop the sheets instead of underneath them. Ichigo simply waited for him to fall asleep and then tossed a quilt over his brother and left the bedroom. He tried not to let his eyes linger on his brother, feeling twice as guilty now that they were in his own home.
A list of things to do began to form in his mind. His brother would need regular meals, which Ichigo hadn’t had since before his college days; a place for him to exercise and keep his clothes during his stay, however long that would be.
Ichigo headed to the balcony and lit a cigarette, leaving the door ajar if Shiro needed him.
Need. Someone needed him again. What a novel thought.
Ichigo pulled deep drag from the cigarette and held it in his lungs before exhaling thick clouds of smoke into the blue sky. Hiding his lifestyle would be difficult, if not impossible, with Shiro around. Ichigo wanted to be strong and relatively normal, dependable and patient for his brother, but he might have been too fucked up to do even that. He was going to try his best though.
The afternoon faded into late evening and Shiro slept on.
“So, tell me about yourself?” Ichigo inquired over a simple dinner of rice and fish. Shiro poked his rice with his chopstick, noticing the odd consistency of it. Ichigo added something to help him gain weight. Shiro disliked the way it tasted, but he devourd it nonetheless.
“What do you want to know?” Shiro replied, picking apart his fish and mixing it with his strange rice. His eyes met Ichigo’s across the counter and something seemed strange between them. Hesitant, almost.
“I think...” his brother trailed off. “I think we’ve been missing each other our whole lives.”
The remark was unexpected and so honest that Shiro didn’t answer for a few uncomfortable moments, in which Ichigo stared pointedly at his food.
It was true. It hurt how true it was and Shiro’s heart thumped against the back of his ribs at the thought of how different his life would have been with his brother in it.
Maybe he wouldn’t be this broken thing he had become. Maybe Ichigo was thinking the same thing.
“I think you’re right.” Shiro set his chopsticks down and reached across the bar to grasp Ichigo’s wrist. “I’m happy to be here now, though.”
Ichigo twisted his arm and gripped Shiro’s wrists, looking so scared and hopeful at the same time that it both worried and soothed him because he was not alone in this. “Yeah,” Ichigo whisperd, fingers dancing across the pulse in Shiro’s arm. “I’m glad you’re here too.”
This was surreal, Shiro thought, tracing his thumb across his brothers wrist.
The moment ended as they release each other, returning their focus to their food and normal dinner conversation. Ichigo snapped his chopsticks together and fetched another piece of fish.
“Where did you grow up?” Ichigo asked, eyes wide open and interested, hungry for information.
“Not far from here,” Shiro replied, glad to have moved to an easier subject. Ichigo started with a deep topic that Shiro was not prepared for so early in their meeting. “My mother traveled a lot, but never had a permanent residence besides our home here. She has been to many places,” Shiro said wistfully.
“And you’ve not been to many places?”
Shiro shrugged. “She never took me with her if that's what you mean...”
“She left you behind?” Ichigo questioned.
“Something like that.”
His brother’s eyes moved over Shiro’s face, looking for something. Shiro didn’t know if he found what he was looking for when his asked his next question.
“You’re a graphic designer. Did you attend college or something for that?”
“Yes. My Mother recommended an online college program. It only look two years for me to complete. That’s was several years ago. I’ve been working for Mr. Tzan for many years. I’m surprised he...” Shiro began to say, but choked as the words came out. “I’m surprised he hasn’t call me yet and told me that... that I’m fired or that... he no longer needs my services.” Breathing became difficult suddenly.
“Shiro, calm down.”
Shiro placed his chopsticks down and turned away from his brother, too upset to make eye contact. He took an unsteady breath and he felt his chest quiver. Why was everything about his life becoming a touchy subject? Why were there always problem with every aspect of his life, and why had he continued to let himself live so unhappily all this time?
“Shiro,” Ichigo prodded gently.
“I’m fine.” I’m really not.
“No, you’re not, and you don't need to be getting upset about thing that you couldn't control.”
But Shiro couldn’t stop thinking about all the things he had left unfinished, things that need answering, bills to pay. His whole life put on hold, but no one had even missed him. He’d wanted to start fresh with Ichigo, but things were not going well at all.
“I told you that I’d taken care of everything,” Ichigo insisted, hoping to catching his brothers eye and reassure him that things would be okay. “Shiro, my father trusted me to take care of you, and I’m trying to do that.”
Shiro blinked through his unshed tears. “What do you mean you’ve taken care of everything?”
His brother smiled at having caught Shiro’s attention. “Yes, everything,” he replied. “Your apartment, Mr. Tzan, the hospital, your bills, your office in the city. All of it.”
“Ichigo - ” Shiro was shocked at his brother’s actions.
“I told you that I’d take care of you, and I meant that,” Ichigo said fiercely. “I want you to feel safe here and just worry about yourself and getting better.”
Shiro’s chest ached at his brother’s words and he shook his head at no one in particular because it hurt to need someone like this. The one person he had ever needed in his life had always found a way to avoid him; traveling with no thought of leaving her son behind. He didn’t know what it felt like to rely on someone like Ichigo, someone who was willing to be there for him. To have someone to call his own and have them take care of you. No questions asked. Shiro looked up at his brother, (his own living, breathing, brother), and realized Ichigo wanted him to belong here, at least for a little while.
“Can’t we try to be brothers?” Ichigo pleaded.
Shiro’s smile is full of relief. “Of course.”
They finished their meal, more comfortable with each other than when they had arrived. Afterwards, Shiro unpacked what little he brought with him, while Sara snooped around the apartment and made herself at home. Ichigo helped him get settled, if only by directing him were he could put things, assuring Shiro that he was not inconveniencing him. His brother hovered while Shiro fiddled around the apartment, watching his every move like a hawk. The mere presence of his brother excited Shiro and he couldn’t help but watch him in return. They performed an odd dance around each other as the night continued, Shiro following Ichigo to his balcony and likewise when Shiro crawled on Ichigo’s bed to read through some of the mental tests that were sent home with him from the hospital.
“Just read the instructions,” Ichigo encouraged, pointing a finger to a guide inside the cover of the booklet. “You shouldn’t skip around, just go page by page until you’re done.”
They laughed at each other, legs crossed and books lain open between them as Shiro made his way through the first section of reading exercises meant to gauge his post-coma comprehension and verbal skills.
Shiro read aloud, snippets of great literature, their classic tone only catching him off guard when a grouping of words seemed odd to him. He slowed his speech to process the text and then moved forward quickly. Ichigo was pleased with his progress. No obvious cognitive issues had arisen and Shiro spoke well enough for Ichigo to check the symptoms off the list.
Ichigo saw the first sign of fatigue from his brother several pages into the book, watching as his brother’s eyes slowed their tracking across the page, eyelids drooping with each passing sentence until Ichigo could no longer bear it.
“Shiro,” he interjected, his hand against the edge of the book, lowering it to the bed. “I think you’ve done enough for tonight. You’ve got plenty of time to do more tomorrow, and the day after that...,” he ended with a smile.
“When will I be able to go home?” Shiro asked sleepily, turning to gather the various books and lay them on Ichigo’s night stand.
“When you’re better, of course.”
“When will I get better?”
Ichigo’s smile faltered and his words were choppy. “When you gain some weight and muscle back - when you can eat properly again.” Shiro’s eyes tracked his mouth as he floundered on. “And when you’re ready to go back to work. I can’t imagine you’re very inspired to design right now, are you?”
“No, you’re right.” Shiro shrugged a shoulder as he settled into the pillows, his socked feet brushing against Ichigo’s shins. “I’m not inspired at all.”
“Don’t worry,” Ichigo declared with pat against his brother’s leg. “It’ll come back to you.”
But Shiro was already dropping off into a doze, his hands curled over his stomach protectively.
Ichigo looked affectionately at him, rising from the bed to turn off the bedside lamp that they had read by, plunging the room into darkness, save the light creeping in from the doorway. Shiro shuffled on the bed, pulling the cover around him. “Goodnight, Ichigo.”
Ichigo smiled, knowing his brother couldn’t see him and stepped along side the bed to ruffle Shiro’s hair. “Goodnight, brother.”
Sleep evaded Ichigo again that night and many nights after.
It occurred to Ichigo that time didn’t pass like it used to when it was spent by himself. Mornings seemed to linger in the sunlight that fell over his brother’s bed - lost somewhere in the halo of light that filled the apartment. Shiro woke with his hair in a big mess, pillow marks pressed into his pale, still gaunt cheeks, and it made Ichigo smile and his heart felt like it was bursting. He wanted to press kisses into his brother's cheeks and flop down into the bed with him and make him laugh over something stupid and ask him what he wanted for breakfast. Time seems to wrap around his brother, slowing it to something akin to molasses, sticky sweet and languorous.
Ichigo loved it.
Ichigo's face heated with a guilty blush and he retreated to the balcony as Shiro rolled over, unaware of his audience. When he came back inside, Shiro had migrated to the couch, feet tucked neatly beneath him, the heels of his palms digging into his eyes, still bleary with sleep.
"Sleep well?" Ichigo inquired politely, keeping his eyes anywhere but on his brother as he glided into the kitchen. He could see Shiro's white hair sticking up over the bar. He looked like a fucking dandelion.
"Alright, I guess," Shiro croaked. "Considering I haven't slept in my own bed in a while."
Ichigo peered into the scantly stocked fridge. He seriously needed to go shopping. "True. No bed like your own. Sorry 'bout that."
"I think something weird is going on." A disembodied voice floated over the bar.
The eggs hadn't expired yet and, miraculously, none of them were cracked. Eggs it was. "What do you mean weird?" The milk smelt a bit off. Trash it. "Like, creepy weird or medical weird?"
"Both?" Shiro offered.
"Hang on, let me get you something to eat and then we'll talk."
The omelets were slightly mushy but edible. Shiro accepted his plate from Ichigo with a sheepish grin, thanking him again for cooking. They both ate quietly and Ichigo took the opportunity look at this brother's body again. His face was less gaunt than it had been three days ago and his ribs and vertebrae were less noticeable through his shirts. Thickener added to his food helped with the calorie intake required to make Shiro gain weight, but he didn’t always want it added to his meals. Ichigo had tried it once and it was weird. Shiro rarely mentioned it again after their first meal together.
After Ichigo put their plates away, he settled back on the couch by Shiro and asked him what had been strange.
"I mean, I don't think it’s bad, just...I expected...," Shiro tried to explain. "I thought I'd be dreaming again by now."
Ichigo could understand his concern. "It could be a number of things affecting your dreaming. You may not be entering REM sleep during the night, or you may be dreaming and not remembering. Do you remember the last time you dreamed?"
Ichigo noticed Shiro look away and rub gently at his temple, taking a few deep breathes like it was difficult to think about.
"I think I was dreaming or something when I was in the coma."
"What do you mean or something?"
His brother pressed his fingers harder against his forehead. "I was running, for a really long time and the sun was going down. There were flowers -- wildflowers in a field."
The daffodils that Ichigo had bought were sitting on Shiro's bedside table, withering and dying, but still there. Shiro still didn't know that Ichigo had bought them. His brother asked him whom they came from. He said he didn't know.
"And before that I guess I had stupid, normal dreams I guess." His head lolled against the couch dejectedly, turning to look at Ichigo with trusting eyes.
"Either way," Ichigo explained. "I'll ask the doctor to refer you to have a sleep study done to check your sleep cycles and breathing. Just to be safe."
Shiro smiled unexpectedly. "Tomorrow is your off day, right?"
"Yeah, did you want to do something?"
"Yeah. If you don't mind I need a few more things from my apartment and we need to do some shopping."
"Shopping?" Ichigo deadpanned.
Shiro gave him a smug grin. "Your shampoo is crappy and the fridge and cupboard are getting kinda bare. And I need shoes."
"You've got shoes."
"I wanted some running shoes."
"Okay,” Ichigo agreed easily and then quickly added. “If you wanna talk about your coma anymore, I’m here and willing to listen. Okay?”
Shiro nodded solemnly.
“How’s it going?”
Grimmjow was after him again, constantly catching his eyes from across the hall and during lunch when Ichigo purposely evaded him. He knew what Grimmjow was going to ask and Ichigo did not even want to go there just yet with him.
He rolled his shoulders and cut his eyes sharply towards the man, giving off his best ‘leave-me-the-fuck-alone’ vibe. Grimmjow was not buying it and plowed forward with his questions.
“Is Shiro doing okay? How does feel having a brother now? Has your dad said anything to you?”
Ichigo was so not amused. “Cut it out, Grimm.”
He didn’t want to be honest with himself, much less someone else. There were feelings rolling around in his head he couldn’t - wouldn’t acknowledge; did not want to admit how even after a week of living together it still hadn’t changed how he felt about his newly acquired relative.
He was terrified of what other people would think, even Grimmjow.
His friend was waiting patiently for Ichigo’s response. “He’s fine - I’m fine. We’re doing fine.”
“Have you talked about anything?”
“Come on, man. He's been home a week. I really don’t want to do this now. Okay?” Ichigo nearly snarled.
Grimmjow looked at him oddly and give a small nod of acquiescence. "Later then?"
"Later," Ichigo confirmed. Much later...more like never.
Nighttime was typically quiet inside their apartment. Shiro inevitably fell asleep before Ichigo and the whole place became transfixed during his brother's slumber. All the energy Shiro had radiated seemed to settle and burn out in his sleep, leaving Ichigo with a lethargic feeling - like crashing from a sugar high.
A lungful of smoke escaped his lips, sick with his own feelings as the night grew colder.
Their relationship was a struggle for Ichigo. He wanted Shiro to feel comfortable with him, confide in him, but the effort Ichigo expended keeping his conflicted feelings hidden was draining him and giving Shiro mixed messages.
Shiro always asked when Ichigo went to sleep and how long he slept and Ichigo always replied, “Enough.” He avoided all other mentions of his own sleeping habits that Shiro might have inquired about. It was important to Ichigo that his brother knew he was the priority here, not Ichigo. Food was made for his brother, not himself. Money set aside for Shiro, not himself. Ichigo was the caregiver in this situation, not Shiro.
He couldn't see Shiro trying to reach out to him. Couldn’t see him long for the connection with his brother that Ichigo was not allowing them to have because he was so very scared of being utterly rejected by him brother.
Utterly fucking rejected by everyone.
Something was bothering Ichigo, Shiro could tell. The strange looks and clenched fists were the first thing he noticed. There was a sad fog that hung around his brother. It kept him from smiling completely and brilliantly, though, Shiro had come close to seeing that smile, but something was still holding him back. Ichigo rarely touched him, if ever. He kept his hands to himself if he could help it. Shiro hated it sometimes, hated that Ichigo wasn't being open with him. The first night they had dinner was promising, but none of their time together had revealed anything else about his brother. Perhaps Ichigo's family could tell him more about his new brother.
After his next doctor's appointment he'd be able to travel. The chance to meet his stepsisters and his father excited him beyond reason. Family waiting for him. For him. Shiro flipped through another page of his book and bit his lip in both silent elation and frustration.
"What'cha smiling about?"
"Our father. Our sisters. You." Shiro grinned.
"The girls are really excited to meet you,” Ichigo beamed, flipping through a magazine at the bar. “Karin and Yuzu haven’t visited me out here, I just don’t have the time or the space for them.”
Shiro’s smile fell at Ichigo’s words. If he had the family Ichigo had, he’d visit as often as he could, call them everyday, love them like they deserved. A sob escaped from his chest without his permission and his blush ran wild across his face.
“Shiro, what—“ Ichigo said worriedly.
“Sorry, I just...” he fumbled as he jumped up and ran to hide in the bedroom, locking the door behind him because Ichigo would come after him.
He burrowed in the bed, hiding his face as he sobbed into the pillows. He was so lucky to have this; so, so lucky. He had been alone for such a long time, that it didn’t seem like this could be something he could have. Those twins on the playground he envied were suddenly not that far away, their hands reaching for each without looking because they knew the other was never far away. Heat filled his chest as he cried uncontrollably.
Outside the door, Ichigo pressed his head against the door, chastising himself. Stupid, so stupid. Think about what comes out of your damn mouth, idiot. What he’d said was careless, ungrateful and mocking in light of what Shiro had gone through. Ichigo felt disgusted with himself. He heard his brother crying through the door, small hitches of breath and shuddering exhales. Idiot, idiot, you fucking idiot, Ichigo said to himself.
Ichigo didn’t say anything, just waited, dropping down to press his back against the door. He’d wait for Shiro to let him in, or not. He just wanted to be here.
Shiro was embarrassed by the time he’d cried himself out. His brother must have thought him an invalid. Bursting into tears over a simple conversation. He was so pathetic and needy, such a burden to his wonderful brother. To face him would be mortifying.
Through the space beneath the door, Shiro could see Ichigo’s shadow. He was waiting outside the door. He hadn’t once tried to get in, or to ask to be let in. He was just waiting Shiro out. Shiro got out of bed and unlocked the door and gave Ichigo a chance to get up from the door.
Shiro peered through the crack in the door, sheepish and red-faced. “Ichigo?”
His brother was sitting just outside the door, but not leaning against it. Shiro opened the door the rest of the way and dropped back down to his knees, folding his arms around Ichigo’s shoulders, hugging him from behind. “I’m so sorry.” He murmured into Ichigo’s shoulder blade.
“God, don’t be,” Ichigo signed, letting his head drop between his shoulders. “I didn’t think - I wasn’t trying to sound...”
Shiro let a whine escape his chest, pressing his cheek into the warm cloth of Ichigo’s shirt. “You didn’t. You didn’t, Ichigo. I know you love them,” Shiro gasped. “I fucking know.”
“Yeah, I just meant -” Ichigo paused. He raised his head and leaned back into his brother, his fingers finding Shiro’s arms around his chest and clinging to him desperately. Shiro squeezed him tightly. “I’ve had my family my whole life. I’ve never had to second guess that. Never had to look for that kind of love. But Shiro,” Ichigo said softly. “You’re always going to have us now, no matter what. You belong to our family now - you belong to me. I’m always going to be yours and you’ll always be mine.”
“Ichi-” Shiro quietly sobbed, holding his brother closer than ever before. The heat of him radiated into Shiro’s chest and arms. This man was his brother and he’d never held someone so close before and still felt the need to be closer somehow.
Ichigo’s hand came up and carded through Shiro’s hair, so very careful and reverently. “I know what you’re thinking. After you get well this will all change and go back to how it was before. Well that ain’t fucking happening. We’re always going to be together now; be in each other’s lives.”
Shiro wanted to laugh and cry at the same time. “I want that. That’s what I’ve always wanted.”
This was a completely new chapter (not posted anywhere previously). All previous chapter were revised (nearly all revised) prior to posting on AO3. Most of this chapter was already written prior to adding the story to this website, but a large portion was new writing, which I have not done in quite some time. Thank you for taking the time to read this fossil, as I am literally no longer active in this fandom aside from this. <3