Ichigo was slowly starting to realize how different the Soul Reapers and their culture was.
It took years of course, for him to figure these things out. God forbid anyone ever sit down and explain their strange ways to Ichigo. Kisuke could try all he liked but even he couldn’t manage to explain some of the Shinigami weirdness to him clearly. In some ways, Kisuke was on the outside just like him and didn’t understand any better than him.
To be fair, Kisuke had never been a part of regular Shinigami culture. From his feral Rukongai-rat roots, to his service under the Onmitsu, to his brief stint as Captain of the reclusive and eccentric science division. He had never rubbed shoulders with any regular Shinigami long enough to know anything more in depth that what was required for infiltration and information gathering. He knew about the culture of Seireitei in a very detached way.
So, when Ichigo asked about their strange habits and stranger views on things, Kisuke tried his best to explain but it just left both of them more confused.
To be fair, Shinigami always were a crazy bunch, full of adrenaline junkies and nobles and street kids and wierdos. Aside from that, they were all technically dead people. They didn’t do ‘aging’ or ‘decay’ like the living world did. If they didn’t get killed or eaten by a hollow, even the lowest ranked Shinigami was going to live for hundreds of years, if they weren’t already hundreds of years old already.
Some of them didn’t even age correctly either. Toshiro had been stuck in a child form for a while from what he could gather from the others. Nobody quite knew why, not even the chibi himself. Yamamoto and Unohana were, if not the same age, then very close in age. Yet the physical age difference between them was staggering. There was frankly no marker for how old any of the Soul Reapers were.
And with that much time on their hands and an almost feudal society, it wasn’t a large stretch to realize that they had some weird customs. Like any being that was long lived they were set in their ways and slow to change.
The divisions themselves had their own unique customs. The Eleventh greeted and judged people through brawling head-on combat. The Sixth were polite to an almost ruthless degree, they talked in subtleties and doublespeak from long exposure to Seireitei nobles. The Fourth were picked on and not very well respected by most of the Gotei but Unohana was universally feared. The Thirteenth was known for being absolutely neurotic about their captain to the state of OCD level cleaning habits.
But aside from the division’s weird habits, Ichigo was starting to realize that all Soul Reapers had culture that was wildly different, not just ancient.
The first and most obvious indication of the mismatch was just from Rukia. Women were not treated any differently than the men in the Gotei. Progress and position were wholly based on power. Even in the cases of Noble-controlled divisions, no one could argue that Byakuya Kuchiki had gained his position through nepotism.
If they carried the same views from the era their dress and architecture indicated, such a thing would not be possible. It was an odd little bit of disconnect when Ichigo realized that a society that for all appearances looked like it was stuck several hundred years in the past, was probably more gender equal than modern society. Of course, Soul Society made up for it by being greatly discriminatory in multiple other matters instead. However, when one realizes that one of the founders of the Gotei 13 must have been Unohana, things suddenly become very clear.
The image of someone ordering Unohana to do anything, much less conform to gender roles, was enough to drive Ichigo to laughter.
The other disconnect was just from little snippets he overheard when walking among the divisions. Little odd turns of phrase and gossip he couldn’t quite make heads or tails of. Why was that trio of reapers squealing over the knife one of them had? It was a pretty knife, but the level of glee and squealing seemed excessive for just a knife, no matter how pretty. He once walked in on an absolute smashing brawl between two eleventh squad Shinigami only to see them arm in arm the next day with a pair of matching knives getting congratulated by the rest of the squad.
He really was starting to get the impression that he was missing something.
Then when heading out into the more leisurely districts there were shops that sold oddly specific collections of things. Why did they sell so many knives in a city where everyone had their own Zanpakuto? Why were the knives kept in the same shop with bolts of fabric and other oddly specific knick-knacks? He had so many questions, but he wasn’t sure if it was something he could just ask about.
It took him a while to realize that some of that odd behavior was tied up in the formal courting processes of Shinigami.
(To be precise it was in observing Toshiro’s interactions with Karin. When he found out, Kisuke had to stop him taking the midget’s head off)
Soul Reapers didn’t ‘date’, not in the modern meaning of the word. They didn’t go to the movies or arcade and make out in dark corners. When they were seeking a life partner, it was with full knowledge that ‘a lifetime’ would be for a very long time. They took courting very seriously.
It was a serious promise to support the other person, financially, emotionally and in battle.
From what he could tell, it involved multiple steps.
The first appeared to be proving your prowess and skills as a potential partner. Basically, it was an exercise in showing off. Those of the Eleventh Squad seemed to favour brawls, either against a high ranked member or against their love interest themselves. Fighting in general seemed to be a favoured method among most Shinigami, they were a military force, but it wasn’t exclusive. He had seen what could only be a Shihoin presenting another Shinigami with butterflies they had delicately plucked out of the air to demonstrate their speed and precision. It was all a show of how strong they were, how they could support their spouse etc.
Competence, Ichigo discovered, was highly attractive. And that meant that he, a very powerful newcomer to the game, was like finding brand new real estate on a small island where everyone already knew the other patches of land. He had proven his competence to a high degree with all his exploits, but the main problem came from people trying to show off to him. Point being that it didn’t really work out too well for them. After dealing with the very definition of hypercompetent, Urahara Kisuke, the Gotei 13 didn’t really measure up no matter how hard they tried. No level of hollow killing or ingenuity could possibly beat that wily bastard coming at him with something he invented an hour before in one hand and Benihime screaming for blood in the other and getting his ass kicked.
It also didn’t help that more of the people on his level of power were already centuries old and definitively paired off. Which meant that most of his suitors were nowhere near his bracket. Not in strength or speed or sword skills. Not that they didn’t try.
He had to beat down every single eleventh squad member and some of the pairs who joined in for fun and send them away disqualified. Every time he visited Seireitei for any length of time, he ended up fighting at least two challengers from other divisions.
The second step involved food of some sort. A test of providing, something those of the Rukongai were far more meticulous about considering how most of them had nearly starved to death at one point or another. This was the closest thing they had to modern ‘dates’. It also seemed to continue well into the ‘married’ stage too.
He had been walking with Rukia and Renji to a place they had recommended when they had run in to Shunsui and Ukitake cozied up at a street stall all but feeding each other. They were being so sappy that they were probably giving everyone in eyesight diabetes. Rukia just made a face at them, the kind a person made when they caught their parents being overly romantic, and just shoved them along with a roll of her eyes.
There were other things that were kind of like modern dating too, like exchanging gifts. But these formal exchanges seemed to be full of meaning, they were tests of compatibility, of compromise. The gift you gave was not just a gift. Depending on multiple other factors like the person’s family, your own family and half a dozen other things, there was a lot of subtext going on with those gifts. It was a lot more intense than the exchanges in the living world.
The final step appeared to be the gifting of a personal weapon of some sort, though knives were the standard. It was a Shinigami’s equivalent to a ring. Rukia explained that it was meant to be something that was a cross of, ‘A blade to defend yourself with,’ and ‘a blade to kill me if I am ever unfaithful or hurt you’. Any sort of divorce was a messy and bloody thing in Shinigami culture. The style of blade gifted differed too and meant different things, from tantos to throwing knives to kunai to kukuri.
When he finally pieced it together, he spent some hours just voicing his thoughts about the whole thing at Kisuke while the man worked on something. On the one hand, the process was full of thoughtfulness and well-meaning and serious checking for compatibility. On the other hand, it was just so stuffy and constricting. Imagine getting run out by your date’s family just because you brought them a purple scarf instead of a blue one. Ichigo really didn’t get it. From the amused look Kisuke gave him, the man didn’t much understand it either. He was just quieter about his confusion.
Thoroughly invested now and intrigued despite himself, he went asking the Arrancar about their habits.
He took a day trip down to Las Noches to ask uncomfortably personal questions to souls whose first reaction to any sort of emotion was to fight until the weird feeling stopped. Hollows on their own didn’t have much a culture to begin with, with the nature of their brutal world and the consuming hunger. The more stable Arrancar were still in the stages of sorting out what they wanted to be.
On a whole they were much looser about their courting process, especially considering their dog-eat-dog world. Mating wasn’t less serious for them, they still lived for a long time and had to take the decision of a permanent partner seriously. However, there was always the chance that your partner would take advantage of the weakness to take a bite out of you so there was a greater amount of risk involved.
So, it came right back around to being very casual about sex since nearly everything was trying to kill you in Hueco Mundo anyway. Sex for Hollows involved fights and wrestles of dominance. Two courting individuals tried to beat down each other to show off their skills. Of course, if the fight was too disappointing then a weaker challenger might get pulverized and eaten but that was always a risk with any hollow interaction. Thankfully the Arrancar didn’t usually do the whole ‘eating the loser’ bit and were generally human shaped and much prettier to watch duking it out. Ichigo couldn’t deny that it was hot to watch. It was like very violent stripping. Or very sexy sparring. People lost clothes faster than Yoruichi and if you didn’t want to get an eyeful, staying away from that one sparring ground in Las Noches was advised.
Hollows didn’t really do ‘long term’ or ‘relationships’ either, more used to solitary living. The Arrancar on the other hand, seemed to be a bit more social and like gathering in packs. The Arrancars that were interested in a mate had a slow and steady approach not unlike any wild predator. They offered kills, they slowly integrated themselves in their prospective mate’s life until whoops they were sharing the same den. The level of sneakiness involved left him in awe. Grimmjow still didn’t realize he was the hollow equivalent of married and no one really wanted to tell him.
Of course, if the prospective mate was really unwilling, it was easy for an Arrancar to tell the difference between a courting fight and one of a furious murderous rejection fight. One tended to involve more showing off and the other tended to involve more screaming and blood.
The Arrancar did do gifts, but it was nothing like the incredible formal mess of the Shinigami. Arrancar gave gifts like cats gave gifts, there was nothing more flattering than getting a corpse dropped off at your doorstop.
Surprisingly, at the base level, the courting habits of Shinigami and Arrancar were much the same. They showed off their skills, they fought together, they gifted each other the fruit of their hunts.
Now that he thought about it, that kind of behavior sounded very familiar.
Ichigo Kurosaki, god killer extraordinaire, bolted up out of his bed in the Shoten with a swear. Kisuke, curled up on the other half of the futon, just grumbled at the jarring and resettled.
How long had he been Arrancar-married to Kisuke????