Title: The Beautiful Lie
Pairings: Urahara/Ichigo, Aizen/Ichigo
Warning: Spoilers for recent chapters, Character death, Yaoi-ness, Post-war fic, Violence
Description: Years after the painful end, the echoes of war still prove their influence, and Ichigo discovers a dead man in his kitchen.
Chapter Twenty-Six: Forgiveness
The blast of tired, aggravated reiatsu is Sousuke's first sign that he's no longer alone in the vast space of the underground training area. The sound of muttering is his second, and as he rounds a huge outcropping of boulders, he spies Ichigo-kun in a less than pleasant mood. There's a storm brewing above the Vizard's head, and Sousuke wonders how long it will be before Zangetsu starts pummeling at the landscape.
He wonders who it was this time. Urahara with his uncanny ability to say all the wrong things? Or the elder Kurosaki with his foolish persistence that none of this is his fault in any way?
Sousuke supposes it doesn't matter who's responsible; Ichigo-kun's the one paying the price.
Swiping a hand through his sweaty hair – he'd been practicing some hand to hand maneuvers – Sousuke wonders if he should quietly make himself scarce or linger on the off-chance Ichigo-kun might prefer some noncontentious company. The younger man looks to be in some need of stress relief, and Sousuke expects Zangetsu to be drawn at any second, in which case Sousuke doesn't want to be caught in the crossfire.
However, to his surprise, Ichigo-kun lays his blade aside, rolling his shoulders as though desiring to ease the burden of the zanpakutou's weight. His expression is serious. Brow furrowed tight, lips pressed to a thin line, eyes sharp and focused. Sousuke has but a heartbeat to wonder just what Ichigo-kun is up to before the Vizard's arm suddenly lifts and he whirls, aiming a violent blast of kidoh at the nearest cliff face.
Sousuke's jaw nearly drops at the impressive display of sheer power as the bright lightning strikes the rock and makes it splinter, spraying the ground in bits of stone. Ichigo-kun definitely has the power and the technique, some of which is pretty familiar. Sousuke remembers learning the very same tricks from his uncle.
Ichigo-kun mutters under his breath, something Sousuke can't make out due to the distance and the rumbling of the rocks. The Vizard’s brow furrows. He takes aim again.
For his safety, Sousuke decides it's best to reveal himself now, rather than have Ichigo-kun think him rude for standing by and watching. He steps into full view, clearing his throat to announce himself and having the unintended consequence of startling his companion.
Ichigo-kun's spell goes wide, careening off toward the blue, fake sky. It explodes a fair distance away, leaving behind a shower of sparks not unlike a fireworks display. He whirls toward the former captain as though ready to fly with violence. Until recognition dawns and his pressure of his reiatsu fades away in an instant. He really had made leaps and bounds of improvement in mastering his control.
“I apologize,” Sousuke says, waving away some of the dust that's rising in a cloud. “I didn't mean to startle you.”
“I didn't know anyone else was down here,” Ichigo-kun mutters as though embarrassed and turns away. He focuses intently on the charred rock wall some forty yards away.
Sousuke nods in understanding. It probably doesn't help that he has no reiatsu to speak of, leaving nothing for Ichigo-kun to sense.
“I can leave if you'd like.”
There's a pause, one where the brunet is certain Ichigo-kun is probably thinking of a polite way to agree and tell Sousuke to get lost. But just when he shifts toward the long ladder, Ichigo-kun shakes his head. He lifts his hands from where they are clenched at his side.
“No, you can stay,” he says instead and takes in a deep breath.
There's a moment, a swell of reiatsu. And then “Raikohou!” splits the air with a sharp crack of power and focus. It slams into the rock face and explodes outward with a bright concussive blast. If Sousuke hadn't been prepared, it would’ve knocked him from his feet. As it is, he has to shield his eyes from the wind that whips at him laced with fragmented bits of rock.
He lifts his brows. “Impressive,” Sousuke comments.
And it is a rare treat indeed to witness Ichigo-kun in action. He knows that the Vizard is highly skilled in both physical combat and with his sword, but he's never had opportunity to pay any attention to Ichigo-kun's kidoh abilities.
The other man glances over his shoulder, noticeably grimacing. “It could be better,” he retorts and gestures vaguely toward the charred stone. “It's supposed to be stronger.”
Well, it is, but Sousuke hadn't wanted to say that.
“Perhaps,” Sousuke allows and takes a slow breath, hoping that he isn't crossing some invisible boundary line. “You rely too much on your reiatsu to direct the spell. You need to force more will into your incantations.”
Not that Sousuke has heard Ichigo-kun use much of an incantation.
Ichigo-kun though is thoughtful. “No one's ever explained it like that before,” he muses aloud like understanding has just dawned. “That makes perfect sense.”
He cracks a small grin. Something that is light years away from the dour expression he had on his initial arrival, and that shoots a lance of heat straight through Sousuke's innards.
Ichigo-kun really should smile more often, Sousuke realizes, and then surprises himself with that casual thought. He has always understood on a clinical level that Ichigo-kun is an attractive man, but for some reason, he is noticing Ichigo's true appeal now. The boy has grown into a man since the war and what he has become is quite fascinating.
“You also might want to consider using the incantations,” Sousuke adds, wondering how much help Ichigo-kun will allow before telling him to leave.
Ichigo-kun scowls, but it seems more humorous than annoyed.
“Who has the patience to memorize those long phrases?”
Sousuke's lips twitch. “Someone who wants to perfect his kidoh skills perhaps?”
“Maybe I just wanna blow off some steam. Maybe I don't care about my technique,” Ichigo-kun counters, and Sousuke can't tell if there's honest challenge in his words or if he's goading Sousuke for another reason altogether.
Funny how Sousuke, who prides himself on reading and understanding people in general, still finds himself baffled.
He takes off his glasses to clean off the dust that has accumulated before returning them to their proper place. “Now, if that were true, you wouldn't have considered my advice in the first place.”
“Maybe.” Ichigo-kun is grinning now, a sly sort of smile that chases away a few of the shadows from his eyes. “What other advice do you have to give, Mr. Middle School Teacher?”
Ichigo-kun is teasing him of all things. As though they are dear friends rather than allies borne by an uneasy truce.
Sousuke is nearly shocked. He swallows and then has to clear his throat over a sudden lump.
“I don't know,” he says carefully, daring to move closer. “Which ones cause you the most trouble?”
Ichigo scratches a hand over his chin. “Depends on what you mean by trouble.” He shrugs. “I can tell you one thing. I completely suck at bakudoh.”
“Your zanpakutou and innate talent seem to be focused on offense,” Sousuke muses aloud. “That makes sense.” He pauses, looking around them pointedly. “Unfortunately, we have no convenient target to practice such kidoh on down here.”
Lifting his arms over his head, Ichigo-kun stretches casually, but the movement causes his form-fitting shirt to rise up his abdomen. Sousuke tells himself he's not watching, even as he mentally notes the well-defined musculature.
By the gods, what is the matter with him? He hasn’t been so poorly focused since the days his bastard of a father still lived.
“Oh, I could think of a couple,” Ichigo comments, and there's a dark note to his voice, one that speaks of the frustration that has driven him there in the first place. “It wouldn't take much to lure either of them here.”
Sousuke's lips twitch again. “Indeed,” he says, not needing further elaboration. “They might even consider it a penance.”
The Vizard shoots him an odd look. Like Sousuke's suddenly become a curious specimen that needs analyzing.
Then, Ichigo-kun shakes his head. “Right. But since they aren't here, I'll have to try something else.”
Recognizing an immediate change in topic, Sousuke wisely reverts back to their original conversation. “How are your skills with Tenran?”
Ichigo-kun makes a face that on anyone else would’ve been immature and amusing.
“Dismal,” he admits with a sigh.
Sousuke suspects this has something to do with control. He inclines his head.
“I don't remember the incantation,” Ichigo-kun mutters, though it sounds more like an excuse.
The ex-captain arches one brow in disbelief.
“And Zangetsu doesn't like it,” Ichigo-kun adds, reaching back to pat the hilt of his zanpakutou in explanation.
Sousuke feels his lips twitch a third time in so many minutes.
“One does not necessarily need to use his zanpakutou to effectively control the spell,” he explains. “Your second hand is also a suitable catalyst.”
Ichigo-kun suddenly looks embarrassed. He rubs the back of his head with his hand.
“It's harder to control that way.”
“Perhaps if you tried the incantation...?” Sousuke begins.
The sudden bluster of annoyed breath that Ichigo-kun releases is so juvenile that he feels the urge to chuckle coming again.
“You're seriously trying to encourage those incantations, aren't you?” the Vizard half-accuses.
Sousuke barely represses a sigh. “I suspect that someone had taught you shortcuts. Which though useful in a pinch will only inhibit you in the long run.”
And he can guess just who gave him those as well. Urahara seems like such the type to cut out hard work whenever possible.
A chuckle bursts through Sousuke's thoughts, and he casts a surprised look Ichigo-kun's direction.
“You really are a teacher,” his companion says, and he honestly sounds surprised.
Sousuke can’t tell if he should be offended or not. Instead, he settles for a question.
“You didn't believe me?”
Ichigo-kun shakes his head. His eyes flicker off to focus on the massive boulder outcropping that he was using for a target.
“It was just hard to imagine.” He rolls his shoulders, flexing his fingers. “You know, I actually wanted to be a teacher.”
Sousuke blinks, but he can’t quite help his curiosity. A teacher? Well, now… it’s that interesting?
“Oh?” he poses
Ichigo-kun’s brow wrinkles, and his reiatsu shifts and swells around him like the tide of an ocean Just strong enough to be uncomfortable but not harmful to Sousuke.
“Yeah,” he replies softly. “Not middle school like you. But younger. Grade school.”
Reiatsu flexes and pulses at Ichigo-kun's fingers, and he breathes in calmly. On his exhale, he casts. The spell spills smoothly from his hand and splits the air as seamless as the sharpest zanpakutou. There's a flash of blue fire as Soren Soukatsui streaks toward the cliff face, vaporizing stone on impact and sending the remnants flying in a hundred different directions.
Sousuke has to shield himself from the debris. But his mind is whirling just as haphazardly. He's torn between marveling at Ichigo-kun's skill and contemplating his words. He watches the triumph pour into Ichigo-kun's features before his curiosity overcomes him.
“Why didn't you?”
Ichigo-kun shrugs. “I'm not suited for it, I guess.”
Sousuke's not convinced that's the truth; there's something else, something in his tone that speaks of a different story. Ichigo-kun may seem to be all brash and bluster, but he has a unique ability to adapt himself to a situation properly. Sousuke thinks he would make a great teacher. That he would be excellent at anything he set his mind to or wanted to become.
No, perhaps Ichigo-kun's reasoning is something a bit more like the war. That sort of thing can have an effect on someone, leaving behind what many consider a stain. Maybe Ichigo-kun doesn't think someone like him should teach the young, considering his past actions. It could also explain his shift into the medical field – a position of healing and not harm. Like an odd form of penance.
“There is another spell you should try next,” Sousuke suggests.
He gives the name of a notoriously difficult spell instead of following their previous conversation. He doesn't think his opinion on just what Ichigo-kun is suited for will matter to the Vizard at all. Sousuke's just the unwelcome guest.
Ichigo-kun snorts. “Are you kidding?” he asks, turning back toward Sousuke with that haunted look again in his eyes. “I'm still having trouble controlling that last one, and you want me to try something that strong? No thank you.”
‘He underestimates his own abilities,’ Sousuke realizes then, and it’s such a strange thing really.
Though not knowing Ichigo-kun particularly well, he has always understood the Vizard to be supremely confident. He's certainly never thought twice about leaping into a battle with seemingly insurmountable odds. But now... not so much.
Sousuke supposes they have the war to thank for that as well.
“How about Soren Soukatsui again?” the brunet tries instead. “This time with the incantation.”
Ichigo-kun grimaces as though the mere effort of saying that is a nuisance to him. Odd. Gin never much liked saying the incantations either; he thought them ridiculous and convoluted and cheated at every opportunity to get out of it. How strange that Sousuke should be given the opportunity to teach two young men with the same opinion.
“You won't give up until I use one, will you?” Ichigo-kun questions, but there's a touch of humor in his voice.
“I consider it my civic duty,” Sousuke quips.
It occurs to him that they are here, having a casual conversation, as though it were the most normal thing in the world. There's no tension, no underlying current of hostility. Like they are nothing more than two friends without a bitter past between them. Like there's a certain measure of trust, and Sousuke nearly reels at the sudden realization. Ichigo-kun is treating him like an ally, a friend. Why else would he allow Sousuke to speak with him like this? Allow him to offer pointers and tips, allow him to stand so close when he could be possibly considered vulnerable?
Sousuke's mouth goes dry with comprehension, and Ichigo-kun turns to look at him. His forehead wrinkles in confusion at his companion’s sudden silence. Sousuke is glad he cannot see his face, certain the look there must be close to dumbstruck.
He swallows and formulates his words carefully. With trust comes other things, other understandings. Ichigo-kun would never be this open with someone he still hated. Someone he still blamed for a bloody war and the deaths of his friends.
Sousuke looks at Ichigo – how can he not? – and the question burns on his tongue. All but begging to be spoken.
“Have you forgiven me, Ichigo?” he asks and doesn't fail to notice he's left off an honorific of any kind.
If Ichigo notices, he doesn't make an objection. His expression shifts from confused to contemplative but not annoyed. Though Sousuke is no closer to reading Ichigo's every expression than he has been from the moment he first asked for help.
“Urahara seems to think so,” Sousuke adds quietly, wondering why he needs to know this.
It won't fix anything; it won't absolve him. Sousuke doesn't need forgiveness from anyone.
Except... maybe he does.
Ichigo finally shakes his head as though stirring from an odd stupor. “I'm not going to kill you or let anyone else do it, but I don't know if I forgive you,” he finally admits and lifts his gaze, now focused on Sousuke alone. “I don't know if there's something I have to forgive.”
What an odd statement to make. Sousuke's brow crinkles in an effort to decipher it's meaning, but he draws a blank.
“I… I’m not certain I understand.”
Sighing, Ichigo shakes his head again. “Your attacks were never aimed at me personally. At best, I can hate you on the behalf of other people.”
Sousuke blinks. He’s stunned. Once again, Ichigo has surprised him with his insight and moral character. Sousuke wonders if he'll ever cease being astounded.
“That's... unexpectedly reasonable.”
Ichigo snorts, fingers curling into tight fists. “What else do you expect me to be?” he demands, reiatsu a sharp pulse through the air that’d be enough to take Sousuke's breath away if it were aimed at him. “Bitter and homicidal like Kisuke? Abnormally cheerful like Shinji? It's obviously not done either of them any good.”
There's something else here, something deeper that speaks of more than just their current conversation. Something that's been eating away at Ichigo for a long time, and Sousuke considers his words very carefully.
“I don't expect you to be anything,” he responds quietly, hoping to calm the sheer vehemence in Ichigo's voice. “You’ve enough on your shoulders as it is.”
Ichigo laughs, but it's bitter. It displays nothing of humor.
“I would’ve never been in this position if not for you.”
It’s not quite an accusation but close enough.
“Can you say that your life before I reappeared was what you wanted?” Sousuke returns evenly.
“That's not the point,” Ichigo retorts, rubbing a hand over his arm as though he's suddenly grown cold. “At least it was my life, my choice.”
Sousuke just looks at him. “Was it?”
Ichigo doesn't answer. Sousuke can see him working his jaw, as though biting back an inappropriate report.
It's not his right to ask. Sousuke knows this, but he feels like he's standing on the edge of something. That he's on the brink of obtaining something special. That it's within his grasp, and all he has to do is reach out and accept it.
“Is that what you want to go back to?”
Frustration darkens Ichigo's eyes to an earthy brown. “I'm tired of fighting, and it seems that's all I ever do,” he confesses. He stares off into space as though directing his accusation at someone in particular. “It's all you and Kisuke want me to do.”
Sousuke can't think of a proper rebuttal to that because Ichigo is right. Sousuke does want him to fight. He wants to see Ichigo seated on the throne. He can't think of anyone – save perhaps himself – who’d be better suited.
“Then why agree to my plan?” Sousuke asks, tucking his hands into his pockets because he doesn't know what else to do with them. “I know it wasn't just to spite Urahara.”
“Because that's the only way to make things right,” Ichigo says sharply and looks at him, suddenly closer now, a bare foot away that Sousuke is acutely aware of. “To stop this kind of thing from happening again. If this is the only way to end the fighting, if all it takes is one last battle, then that's what I'll do. It's what I'm supposed to do.”
Sousuke is taken aback. What he’s supposed to do? What have these Shinigami done to Ichigo-kun, to make him think he has to be a hero? That it’s his responsibility and his responsibility alone?
And for a moment, Sousuke is hit with a startling amount of guilt. This is as much his fault as it is Urahara’s and all the rest. He’s driven Ichigo to this corner. He’s the one that came to Ichigo, asking him for help and painting a target on his back.
Sousuke swallows over an unidentifiable lump in his throat.
“And what do you want to do?” he asks. “Not what you’re supposed to do, but what you want to do?”
Ichigo shifts his body until they are facing one another completely. “I don’t know anymore.” He gazes at Sousuke with eyes a deep and unfathomable color. “But maybe this is somewhere to start.”
Before Sousuke can think to question or even begin to translate in the back of his mind, Ichigo closes the space between them. His hands come up, and Sousuke doesn’t think to move out of the way or retaliate. He’s too surprised to do more than stand and stare as hands cup his face and draw him in.
Ichigo’s lips are warm and soft, firm as they press against Sousuke’s mouth, and he smells of pine and metal. Sousuke is too stunned to react properly, and his brain misfires on all cylinders. But then, instinct takes over, and he kisses back, mouth opening. The hands that grasp Sousuke's face are warm and calloused, requesting and guiding but not demanding. Ichigo's lips are skilled but hesitant.
The kiss ends before Sousuke can fully appreciate the taste, and he finds himself looking into Ichigo’s eyes. They swim with confusion that matches Sousuke’s own. But he’s startled by his own pressing desire to close the distance between them and have a longer taste. To memorize the feel of Ichigo's lips and run his hands through the wild strands of orangish hair.
“That… was a surprise,” Sousuke says in a struggle to form coherent words and almost embarrassed at himself for how inarticulate he has suddenly become.
Ichigo blinks. Then, he flushes and abruptly drops his fingers from Sousuke’s face. One hand runs through his hair almost violently.
“Fuck,” he hisses, half-turning away as he stares at the ground. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean… Dammit. I shouldn’t have done that. You don’t… I shouldn’t have done that.” He looks up briefly, obviously troubled. “That was… I’m sorry.”
And then, Ichigo is gone. He leaves behind a pulse of reiatsu that lingers long after he's gone and the taste of him on Sousuke's lips. The former overlord just watches him depart, a black flash against the seemingly endless roof of the training room
It occurs to Sousuke as he continues to stare long after Ichigo’s gone that he never once resisted. Never once thought to shove him off. That he never stepped back and away. That had he more notice, he would’ve leaned in further.
Sousuke’s not stupid by any means though. If anything, all this meant is that Ichigo is still furious with Urahara and has no other outlet for that anger. Sousuke is a convenient scapegoat. The means to an end. The person who just happened to be there.
He struggles to pretend that such a thought doesn't sting. Even as another emotion bubbles in his belly. One that is a bit too close to desire.
Damn Hirako Shinji. Damn him for being right. There’s nothing more humiliating than that.
Sousuke can’t help but laugh at the irony. And the fact that it isn’t at all bitter should be his first warning about his mental stability.
“I saw that, Sou-chan.”
A voice slithers out of the startled silence directly behind him then. Sousuke whirls around in an unbecoming manner and then curses at himself for showing his reaction too plainly. It's the sort of thing that Hirako would use as ammunition against him, were he not playing this odd game of acceptance and forgiveness. Sousuke still doesn't understand exactly what the man is after with that one.
Sousuke straightens and schools his face. “And how long have you been lurking down here?”
Hirako smirks. He’s far too smug and amused for Sousuke's comfort.
“Long enough.” He shrugs. “Things’re certainly changin’ ‘round here, aren't they?”
Sousuke has no idea how he's supposed to respond to that. Does this mean Hirako's... happy for him?
He idly adjusts his clothing, unrolling his sleeves and trying to look well put together. “Kurosaki-kun is looking for an outlet to his anger. I happened to be convenient.”
One blond brow arches in a manner that Sousuke has only ever found aggravating. “Is that why ya sound so disappointed?” he asks slyly, hands clasped behind his back as he circles like a predatory cat. “Just don't let Isshin find out. Otherwise, Kisuke won't be the only one worryin’ ‘bout his safety.”
Hirako has a point. Kurosaki the Elder does not need another reason to hate Sousuke, and without reiatsu or friends, he has no means to defend himself. Though... he wonders if perhaps he has a defender anyway. If perhaps Ichigo might step in himself.
The thought sends a flurry of odd warmth through his stomach.
“There's nothing for Isshin-san to discover,” Sousuke corrects smoothly, slowly regaining his equilibrium. “It was one encounter, which hardly puts me on the level of Urahara's depravity.”
“Is that so?” Hirako sounds on the edge of glee, as though any moment he's going to start cackling madly. “Well, that's a pity, Sou-chan. I never took ya fer a man who lived in denial.”
It takes all Sousuke has not to repeat Hirako on a splutter. Is it denial if someone is being rational?
Sousuke isn’t an idiot. Urahara and Ichigo are fighting right now, yes. But there is still pain in Ichigo's eyes when he talks about the man or even thinks about him. Sousuke's not about to make that fool’s same mistakes.
He steps away from Hirako with intentions of heading upstairs. Perhaps sneaking into a bath and finding a quiet place away from everyone else.
“I can't tell what it is that you want from me,” Sousuke comments with almost a last minute addendum to the conversation. “By all rights, you should loathe me as much as Urahara. Instead, you've become my personal cheerleader. Why is that?”
“Maybe I’ve better things ta do than drown myself in bitterness,” Hirako replies to his back. “It's certainly not doin’ Kisuke any good, now is it?”
Sousuke doesn't think Hirako is lying. Falsities have never been his former captain's style. But it still makes little sense. Yet, when has Hirako ever done that?
He glances over his shoulder. “You’d be happy then if I pursued the course that you glimpsed earlier?”
Hirako's eyes twinkle in a way that Sousuke has always found himself unable to interpret. “What? You mean that I haven't been obvious enough about it yet?”
Turning completely, Sousuke stares at the older man. “Just whose side are you on?” he demands and knows that if Urahara had been standing right there he would’ve asked the same thing.
The blond gives a laugh that echoes in the empty space around them.
“No one's,” he shoots back mischievously. “Though if ya wanna get technical, then I'm on the side of whoever makes Ichigo happy. ‘Cause if there's one kid who deserves a break, it's him.”
“And you think I could help with that?” Sousuke questions in a skeptical voice.
Hirako shrugs. “Who knows? At this point, ya can't do any worse than anyone else. Not Jyuushiro or Kisuke or even Ichigo’s own father.”
He has a point. But that’s hardly a ringing endorsement, and Sousuke says as much.
“What do ya expect?” Hirako returns with a momentary sharp edge to his words. “Ya used ta be the kid's enemy. Sure, Ichigo knows how ta forgive and forget, but this is a little different than friendship.”
A little different? Understatement of the century.
Sousuke can't tell which surprises him more. That Hirako is encouraging him, all but shoving him in Ichigo's direction. Or that he’s actually considering it. That his first instinct is not to back away slowly but pursue this seemingly impossible course.
Sousuke shakes his head. Some part of him hopes the small movement will return sanity and logic where Ichigo's actions had effectively knocked them loose.
“I think you are underestimating Kurosaki-kun's relationship with Urahara. As much as I loathe to admit it.”
Hirako's stare burns between his shoulder blades as he starts to turn away,but Sousuke can't fathom why.
“Is that so? Well, I guess we'll have ta see, won't we?”
Sousuke stops, a question on his lips, but Hirako is gone in a whisper of shunpo, leaving him behind. He suspects that Hirako is no doubt amused with himself, proud of leading everyone around like some sort of master manipulator. Sousuke frowns, eyes narrowing.
Part of him longs to chase after Ichigo, to demand an explanation. Another part of him fears the rejection that will immediately follow.
And yet, a third part of him wonders why that should even be something to fear.
a/n: The plot moves along, every slowly but surely. From here on, things start to get a little more challenging.
As always, feedback is welcome and appreciated!