Title: The Beautiful Lie
Pairings: Urahara/Ichigo, Aizen/Ichigo, Shinji/Nel
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-Eight: Confusion
That night, Ichigo dreams of his mother. It's not a memory from the past, something that has grown more distant and unfocused as of late. But the dream itself is familiar.
He's walking somewhere. The air is crisp and cool, the atmosphere dark but dimly lit by pale white globes; Ichigo doesn't know if it's electricity or something else. There's a subtle hum in the air, a buzzing sensation of reiatsu that licks over his skin. It's no one and nothing he can identify, but it's powerful. It drones in his ear and pulses to the same rhythm as his heart.
He's standing at the top of a staircase. It winds down and down, the landing opening up to a pool of water so deep he can't see the bottom. Something twinkles in the water, like fishy fireflies. There's a path to something in the middle of the cave's lake, nothing more than stepping stones of rock leading out.
Ichigo, dream!Ichigo anyway, doesn't hesitate. He crosses the water, easily stepping from one stone to the next. Until he stands on the center platform at the bottom of a small set of stairs. He climbs and finds himself on a dais, one lit by a corona of light above him. It's a soft light, white and clean, but when he looks up, he can't see where it's coming from.
His mother is standing in the middle of the light, smiling at him, little more than a transparent outline. Yet, he can also see her so clearly, down to the brightness of her brown eyes and the wave of her hair. Her lips are curled into a familiar smile, her hand reaching toward him in open invitation.
She's calling him.
He knows it’s a dream; he has nothing to fear. Ichigo goes to her, climbing the stairs without hesitation. The air smells of rain and flowers, and the hum of reiatsu goes stronger. It vibrates through the stone floor, echoes throughout Ichigo's very being.
He lifts his hand – his fingers are trembling – as he reaches for her. Misaki's expression doesn't change. Her eyes grow brighter, filled with love. Her mouth opens, like she's going to speak, and Ichigo reaches for her hand.
Their fingers brush.
Ichigo wakes, heart leaping into his throat. Not so much frightened as he is startled, thrust from a vibrant dream into the dull dark of his borrowed room. He is damp, body coated in sweat, and Ichigo throws the blanket back. His hand rubs the back of his neck as he closes his eyes; the mental images are still strong as they resonate in the back of his mind.
It felt so real. Too real. Almost as if Ichigo had actually been there, in that place, his mother waiting for him.
His chest throbs, and Ichigo's hand shifts to his sternum. Maybe this is the cause of those dreams. Maybe it's the stress. Ichigo can't even begin to guess.
He glances at the clock. Five in the morning. He's been asleep for less than three hours. It'll be dawn soon. Ichigo doesn't think he'll be able to get back to sleep. Not with his blood rushing through his veins and his reiatsu vibrating around him like an eager soldier.
Ichigo scrapes a hand down his face and rises to his feet, searching around the room for a shirt to tug over his head. It gets chilly in the warehouse sometimes, and Ichigo doesn't want to wander around half-dressed. It might give Lisa ideas.
The hallway is darkened, lit only by a nightlight, and Ichigo heads for the kitchen. He doesn't have a real destination in mind, just a determination to not lie in bed and stare up at the ceiling. No one's awake, not even Aizen, which comes as a surprise to Ichigo. Was he hoping the man was awake?
Ichigo grabs a bottle of water out of the fridge and chugs down half of it. The silence of the warehouse echoes around him. In the distance, there's the usual creaking of a building as it settles, and somewhere, a clock is ticking away the seconds. But otherwise, it's completely silent and still. It's stifling.
Ichigo can hear his heartbeat and every breath, and he doesn't like the way it echoes around him.
Bottle in hand, Ichigo abandons the kitchen and wanders down an equally silent corridor, heading for the sun room. Kisuke thinks going outside is still a bad idea, but Ichigo can't take any more of being cooped up within four walls, no matter how large the training room seems to be or how many more rooms there are in the warehouse. Besides, it's only the garden. If some Shinigami happens to spot Ichigo, well, maybe it's for the best. He's itching to do something.
He pushes open the sliding glass door and steps onto the engawa overlooking the garden. This early in the morning, it’s an interesting contrast of moonbeams and shadows. There's the quiet trickle of a man made stream and the sharp but steady noise of a sozu. It's cooler outside, and there's a light breeze. But it tastes fresh on Ichigo's tongue, a lot like freedom, and he breathes in deep. Something about it calms the restless tremors inside of him.
Ichigo takes up a seat on the edge, letting his feet dangle over the dew-damp grass below him. He takes another long drink of the water, half-considering that he should have grabbed sake instead. It would’ve better matched his mood. He braces his elbows on his knees, lets his head hang, and tries not to think. But trying is not the same thing as doing, and the thoughts swirl around anyway.
Kisuke and Goat-Face and Aizen and Soul Society. Until it all becomes a tangled, conflicted mess in the pit of his belly. So snarled that even the water sits like thunderstorm in his stomach. It's times like these that he regrets – even if only briefly – ever allowing Rukia to transfer her powers to him. He's glad he protected his family; that is one thing he'll never regret.
But the rest? Damn, sometimes Ichigo thinks he could have done without the rest.
It’d be easier to disappear. Pack his things, slip into the night, and never look back. Ichigo's English is passable. He could leave the country, travel somewhere, someplace Soul Society wouldn't think to look for him. Live out his life as a regular human without any Shinigami or Vizard or even Hollows around.
It isn't an impossibility.
Ichigo, however, has never been a coward; he's not about to start now. It's always been his way to leap straight into battle and damn the consequences. He's always faced his issues head on, and he's never taken the easy road, even when he should have. This moment, this battle on the horizon, is not so different. What's a few more nightmares? What's a few more sleepless nights?
“If you were seeking solitude, I can leave.”
Ichigo nearly jumps out of his skin at the unexpected voice. Damn Aizen and his lack of reiatsu. Not to mention that he’s naturally quiet. It makes him sneakier than Kisuke even. Sneakier than Shinji.
He doesn't look. Just raises his head and takes another sip from his bottle, the cold water going down with reluctance.
“Being alone is probably the last thing I want right now.”
Aizen doesn't reply. There's a moment of silence, broken only by the whistle of the wind through half-bloomed trees in the garden. Leaves rustle softly, and the sozu clanks again. Ichigo glances over his shoulder to catch sight of Aizen still standing there, dressed as if for sleep in a simple yukata.
“That was an invitation, by the way.”
The former overlord steps completely onto the veranda, sliding the door shut behind him. Perhaps Ichigo had been too deep in thought if he hadn't heard the noise of it opening in the first place.
“I didn't want to presume,” Aizen allows after a few heartbeats.
He walks silently across the wooden decking, his feet as bare as Ichigo’s own. If the chill bothers him, he shows no sign. But then, Aizen has always been inscrutable.
Ichigo lets out a sharp bark of laughter that could be taken as amused if one tilted their head to the side and squinted.
“Oh, really?” he asks before he can stop himself. “Then why come out here in the first place?”
Aizen tips his head, and his glasses shade his eyes. “You didn't look well.”
Ichigo snorts. “Understatement of the fucking century.” He lifts his free hand, raking it over his hair. “Why are you still awake?”
Aizen pauses beside him without managing to give the impression he's lording over Ichigo. His gaze seems locked on the garden, and the light fragrance of flowers that floats over them.
“The nights seem to curse me as much as they do everyone else,” he comments evenly enough, but there’s an undertone to his words.
“Oh?” Ichigo's brow lifts. He hadn't seen anyone else up, but there’s an implication in those words he can’t miss.
Aizen's hands clasp behind his back. “Urahara is awake as well,” he answers. “I passed him. We did not speak.”
“That’d be a first,” Ichigo mutters and hauls himself to his feet, standing next to Aizen on the engawa and stretching with a creak and crack of muscle and bone. “I guess that the plan to invade Soul Society’s putting everyone on edge.”
Dark eyes shift toward Ichigo, still half-hidden behind the gleam of his glasses. “Why are you doing it?
Ichigo cocks his head to the side. He shifts to face the former overlord but is silent for a moment.
“Haven't I answered this before?”
“I'm still not convinced,” Aizen counters.
And well, that makes two of them. Sometimes not even Ichigo is sure why he's doing this; he just knows he has to.
“You are risking your life for my goals,” the brunet continues. “I want to know why.”
“And you're not risking yourself?”
Aizen narrows his eyes, genuinely confused. “What do you mean?”
Ichigo gestures toward Aizen. Really, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out this one.
“No reiatsu. No zanpakutou. No means of protecting yourself,” Ichigo points out. “But you're determined to go with us into Soul Society. Who's going to watch your back?”
He straightens then. “I wasn't counting on that,” Aizen replies softly.
And for all that Ichigo can tell, it's pure honesty. Then again, should he expect anything less when it comes to Aizen?
Ichigo laughs then. But it's a sharp and bitter sound, lacking humor.
“No, I guess you wouldn't.” He pauses, his own questions dancing on the tip of his tongue. His mind has been awhirl all night, and Aizen is half to blame.
Why did he kiss Aizen? Why does he want to do it again? What does Aizen want from him? What does Ichigo want from himself?
He faces Aizen completely. Even as a breeze rises and tugs at his bare flesh, cool enough to make Ichigo's skin prickle.
“What do you want from me?” he questions, but it’s not quite an accusation.
Aizen reaches up, removes his glasses, making it that much easier for Ichigo to see his expression. Perhaps to highlight the honesty in his eyes. Perhaps to manipulate Ichigo. He can't even begin to guess. His head is spinning, and Aizen's not making things any easier. No one is.
“I am quite certain I've always made that abundantly clear,” Aizen says, voice soft. His fingers carefully wipe away dust from his lenses with the sleeve of his yukata.
Ichigo shrugs, failing to seem nonchalant. “In a way.” His eyes shift toward the moon, which is rapidly disappearing behind dark clouds that have appeared out of nowhere. “You wanted me to help take over the throne. I get that. But I don't know why you asked me in the first place. What made you think I'd agree?”
There's a moment of quiet where Ichigo waits for Aizen's response and Aizen's obviously trying to find the perfect words. It seems like such a thing for him to do. Kisuke's just as guilty of it. The both of them, always trying to find the perfect thing to say, the best way to twist Ichigo to their own end. He can't figure out why he keeps letting it happen, why it doesn't piss him off when it rightly should.
“I didn't know for sure,” Aizen finally admits slowly, carefully, as though letting the words unfurl from his mind with great caution. “It was a chance I had to take.”
“Unohana-san gave you a chance to start over, a chance at a new life,” Ichigo shoots back. “But instead, you're still focused on the war you lost. Why?”
From the corner of his eye, Ichigo can see Aizen working his jaw, obviously not expecting the question. But he should have. Perhaps Aizen isn’t as omniscient as he would like to think himself.
“I don't think I can give you the answers you're looking for,” Aizen answers, and the glasses return to his nose, making him seem the gentle and congenial man that had fooled everyone for so long.
Something burbles up inside of Ichigo though. An anger builds behind a quietly crumbling wall.
“You're not giving me any answers at all,” Ichigo retorts, throwing up one hand.
And if he wants to be completely honest with himself, Aizen's always been like this. Never a direct answer, always a vague declaration. As if Ichigo should be satisfied with just that.
“Just like everyone else. If you dance around it or ignore it or let me wallow in my ignorance, it's not lying. Not really. Right?” He can’t keep the accusation out of his tone this time, and Ichigo truthfully doesn’t try.
For once, Aizen looks startled. His brow furrows, his body leaning subtly away.
Another point of contention. Ichigo whirls toward the ex-captain. His heart beats a thousand miles of minute, and reiatsu dances over his skin.
“Stop calling me that!” he demands and roughly scrapes a hand over his head again.
He can't put it into words why he hates that address so much. Inoue – Orihime – used to call him that all the time, the only one in their little group of friends and allies who always treated him so formally. Sure, Ishida called him Kurosaki, but it was joke and mockery all at once. With Orihime, it had always meant something different.
Ichigo knows why now, and he hates that he never noticed before, that he couldn't spare her that pain. It's not his fault, but the guilt settles in anyway. Piling on top of all the other weight he lets sit on his shoulders and drag him down, down, down.
He thinks he can guess why Aizen does it, too. Whether because of the kiss or because of the war or because of Kisuke or because he doesn't want to see Ichigo as anything more than a convenient tool. Take his pick.
Aizen's looking at him now though. His expression is unreadable as always, only showing as much as he wants Ichigo to see.
“I wasn't aware that I had permission to call you anything else,” he comments evenly, but his posture isn’t quite so relaxed. Ichigo is very aware that Aizen’s powerless right now, and Aizen knows it, too.
“Permission,” Ichigo repeats dully and sucks in a breath. “You know, you dance a pretty good game. Everyone thinks I'm too stupid to see manipulation for what it is, but I'm not.”
Aizen lifts a hand, but then seems to think better of it.
He stutters, as though trapped between his own decisions and what he wants. For once, not even Aizen is sure, and Ichigo is somewhat mollified by that.
“Don't hurt yourself,” he snaps, and everything is starting to crowd in on him.
Expectations and responsibilities and impending war and growing emotions that pile over the feelings that are already there...
Aizen's going to bear the brunt of it, but that's okay. Maybe it’s what Aizen deserves for once. Maybe it's time Ichigo shows a little honesty himself.
His words come out sharp and accusing, more attack than conversation. “You may not be twisting me around, but I'm not blind.” Each phrase deserves a sharp gesture. “The perfect things. The right words to say. It all works in your favor because I'm pushing Kisuke away and I barely tolerate my father.”
Ichigo doesn't know what he's saying anymore, but he's tired of not getting it. Of being surrounded by inscrutable men who tiptoe around issues and refuse to answer questions and pretend that if Ichigo doesn't notice, it's okay. It's not lying, not really. It's Ichigo's own fault if he's too stupid to play their words games, to get the answers he really wants. Right?
Aizen looks at him, utterly confused. Ichigo feels a small amount of triumph in leaving the normally composed man at a loss for words.
“I honestly don't know what to say.”
“Another first. Tonight seems to be the time for then.” Ichigo shakes his head as he looks at Aizen, and something inside of him trembles. Not with fear or anger but something else he can't quite name. “What do you want from me?”
Aizen works his jaw. “That is a complicated question.”
“No, it's not,” Ichigo hisses, and he moves closer until there's barely a foot between them, and Aizen has no choice but to look at him, see him, and nothing else. “You're making it complicated because you're trying to think of what I want to hear, whatever will best serve your goals.”
Aizen's expression is unreadable. Save for a trickle of something that pools in his eyes, an emotion that Ichigo doesn't dare name.
“In that regard, then everything I say is suspect.” He shifts almost imperceptibly but doesn’t move away. “My words will never be taken as truth.”
How can he be so fucking calm?
A harsh exhale escapes Ichigo’s mouth. “For the love of-- Can't you just answer my damn questions without playing word games?” Ichigo demands, struggling to keep his composure. “Is it too much to ask for some fucking honesty?”
Aizen looks startled, his lips parting as though he wants to answer but is unsure of the actual question. And that's a surprise there, Aizen being unsure about anything. The little moment of uncertainty, it makes him that much more human, and sometimes, Ichigo resents that he can see this side of Aizen when no one else – save perhaps Shinji – is allowed to witness.
“Ask me again,” Aizen says quietly then, and there's a determination in his voice, one that hadn't been there before.
“What am I to you?” Ichigo demands perhaps bit wildly, but he has to know. He needs someone to answer this for once. “What do you see? A way out? A way back? Something that can give you the power you crave? A tool? What?”
He swears to all that is holy that he will hurt Aizen if the words “It's not that simple” emerge from the former overlord's lips.
But Aizen looks at him, as though he's seeing Ichigo for the first time. And this time, there's no pretense.
“All I see is you.”
Something inside Ichigo stutters, grounds to a halt. His chest rises and falls in sharp staccato, and his pulse is a rush in his ears.
All I see is you.
The words echo in the back of his mind. It could be another manipulation on Aizen's part, the perfect words for the perfect question. Another way for Ichigo to fall further into Aizen's perfect charisma. But Ichigo can't be bothered to give a damn, not anymore.
He wants this. He needs this. So he lifts his hands, tangles his fingers in the folded layer of Aizen's yukata and pulls him closer. He seals their lips together in a messy, unplanned kiss that's as rough as it is wonderful. There's a moment of startled surprise before Aizen's arm curls around Ichigo’s back and drags him closer.
Aizen's lips move in gentle exploration, his tongue sliding into Ichigo's mouth, tasting faintly of coffee and cream. His fingers press against Ichigo's shoulder blade, a faint pressure that pushes them closer together until Ichigo's arms are squashed between them, his fingers twisted in soft cotton.
Ichigo swallows down a groan, swallows the taste of Aizen on his lips, and reluctantly withdraws from yet another unplanned kiss. He can't deny it this time. He wanted to kiss Aizen, and he wants to do it again if the low heat curling in his belly and the frantic thump of his heart is any indication.
He closes his eyes, unwilling to see whatever might be glinting behind Aizen's glasses and exhales quietly. Aizen is only an or two inches taller than him. At most. But it feels like more as Ichigo rests his forehead on the man’s shoulder, trying to calm the roil of emotions inside of him. He can't remember the last time he felt so confused.
He can feel Aizen's breathing and hear his heartbeat like this. The sudden question of what the hell he's doing crops up again, but the overwhelming need to flee isn't present this time. Ichigo's not sure why. Maybe because he's not actually sorry.
“Why did you kiss me?”
It’s soft. Gentle. Puzzled. But at the same time, it’s not.
Ichigo sighs, lifting his head. “I don't know,” he admits honestly and uncurls his fingers from Aizen's yukata. “Do you want me to stop?”
“No.” There's no hesitation in Aizen's voice, and he looks at Ichigo, searching his expression for something. An answer perhaps. “What now?”
“I don't know that either. I just...” Ichigo takes in a deep breath, tries to focus, but all he has are flittering thoughts that dance out of his reach. “I don't want to think right now.”
The sun is slowly rising on the horizon, lightening the sky behind them. Aizen's fingers trek down his back, a careful walk that presses against his spine in a way that makes Ichigo's insides trickle with warmth. And all he wants to do is lean forward again.
“What do you want?” Aizen asks, and Ichigo forces himself not to stare as his mouth forms the words.
There are so many ways to answer that question with truth or cruelty or anger. But oddly enough, the answer Ichigo gives first comes easier than expected. Before he can even think to say something otherwise.
“Right now?” He shakes his head. “Just you.”
Aizen is evil incarnate, but right now, he's the only one listening, and Ichigo will take what he can get. If he's being completely honest with himself, he can even admit to enjoying Aizen's company.
Aizen's lips tilt in a light smile. “I think I can manage that.”
This time, he's the one who leans forward, bringing their mouths together. The kiss is soft, tentative, more exploring than anything else. They are still feeling out their boundaries. There's unknown territory here, and Ichigo will be the first to admit he has no idea what he's doing, why he's doing it, or where they're going to go from here.
They break apart sometime later to Aizen looking at him strangely.
Ichigo blinks at the strange request. “What? Why?”
“Because you look like you need it,” Aizen says quietly; his breath brushes warmly across Ichigo's lips.
“That and a good night's sleep,” Ichigo agrees with a chuckle and turns to do as Aizen asks. He doubts that the man intends to stab him in the back now, and he's curious.
He lowers himself down to the edge of the porch, legs dangling over and facing the garden. The sky is growing lighter and lighter, night chased away by the rising sun and a wash of pale colors on the horizon. The chill doesn't bother Ichigo, not anymore. Especially when Aizen chooses to sit right behind him, close enough that Ichigo can feel the warmth radiating to his back.
He doesn't know what to expect until hands settle firmly on his shoulders and fingers dig into tense muscles. Thumbs push into the knots in Ichigo's upper back, and Aizen's talented hands seem to know exactly where the worst of the stress lingers. Ichigo groans, head sagging in defeat. It's an agony that feels too much like relief for him to complain, however.
Aizen chuckles then. Tone rich and dark and just a bit sinful. Ichigo shivers, and it isn’t from the cold.
“That feels good I take it?” he inquires, not quite smug.
“Yes.” Ichigo closes his eyes, tries to breathe evenly, to take the moment for what it is. Quiet, undisturbed, requiring no intense thinking on his part.
It's weird how comfortable he is right now. With a man who should be his greatest enemy but has become something else in the past few months. Ichigo doesn't know what to do or say about that, about this. But he needs it, and for once, Ichigo feels like being selfish.
His stomach does a little warm flip at the mere sound of his name. “Hmm?”
“How should I take this?”
He rolls his neck as Aizen's fingers move down. Digging into his back and pressing firmly on his spine.
“I don't know,” he answers honestly. “One day at a time?”
“That’s the sort of answer I would give,” Aizen replies.
“I know.” Ichigo's hands dangle between his knees, and he tangles his fingers together, letting the massage work through the knots in his muscles.
Aizen's hands brace on his shoulders as he leans forward, his voice a warm whisper on Ichigo's ear. “Should I take this to mean that you trust me?”
Ichigo fights back a wince and the urge to stiffen. “I'm willing to consider you an ally,” he says cautiously.
“At least it's a step up from evil incarnate.” Aizen doesn't sound angry, but if there’s a touch of disappointment in his tone, Ichigo chooses not to comment on it.
He chews on his lip and then considers honesty.
“Anything more feels like a betrayal,” Ichigo explains softly, almost hoarsely.
Aizen, mercifully, does not ask Ichigo to elaborate, and they fall into an uneasy quiet. One that not even the comfort of Aizen's skilled hands can chase away. Aizen has effectively reminded Ichigo of the things he’s been trying to forget. Namely that Ichigo has no business thinking of Aizen as anything more than the devil's advocate and closest associate.
In the end, Aizen is the reason for all of the shitstorm that Ichigo's life has become. He knows he should be furious about that, but part of Ichigo just doesn't care anymore.
Sometime later, after Ichigo is certain he’s about to turn into a puddle of goo, the sound of the sliding door opening makes him startle. He all but leaps to his feet, away from Aizen's touch with the jumpy reaction of a kid caught with their hands in the cookie jar. His cheeks are burning as he whirls to see Neliel stepping out onto the veranda, Shinji on her heels. The latter of the pair looks quite amused.
Only Shinji would be so rude as to interrupt. Ichigo’s certain Neliel would’ve quietly turned away and left them alone, but Shinji has always been a nosy bastard.
“Well, ya two are up early,” Shinji says with a lewd waggle of his eyebrows that makes Ichigo want to hurt him. Badly.
He even catches his hands clenching into fists before he forces himself to calm down. Luckily though, Aizen is the one to speak, rising to his feet and turning to face his former captain.
“As are you,” he inserts smoothly. “I've rarely known you to rise before noon, Hirako-san.”
Neliel grins at what is an obvious dig at Shinji's no doubt slacker ways. Meanwhile, Ichigo edges toward the doorway that would let him escape.
“It's more my fault than a choice of his own,” Neliel replies, eyes flicking once to Ichigo before she focuses on distracting her lover. “Right, Shin?”
Shinji's eyes narrow, and he looks torn between commenting on the obviously embarrassing situation and letting things lie.
“So it would seem,” he drawls.
Ichigo can feel Aizen's eyes boring between his shoulder blades as he makes his escape through the door then. It’s probably the least chivalrous thing to do, abandoning Aizen to Shinji's endless humiliation, but at least Neliel’s there to provide some sort of buffer. Frankly, Ichigo just doesn't want to hear it right now. He's confused enough as it is.
Still, Ichigo has no desire to go back to his room and toss and turn on a cold bed. He doesn't have an interest in anything else either, but returning to his room is last on the list of his priorities. He scrubs a hand down his face and considers the kitchen, a hastily grabbed breakfast the first on the menu. And then, perhaps, he can see if Love or Rose – perhaps even both at once – would be interested in a spar. If there's one thing that’ll successfully distract him it’d be a spar against two well-trained Vizard.
As Ichigo passes by the library, however, he notices that the door is open. That usually means that someone’s inside; the windowless room tends to get stuffy without the air flow of an open door. Curiosity has him glance inside, an unexpected nostalgia causes him to linger, just outside the doorway without entering.
Kisuke's sitting at one of the small tables, papers spread out across the top and a few open books, too. His taps one of the books with his pen, and Ichigo can only see his profile, but it's enough. Kisuke looks tired, probably as tired as Ichigo does. With dark circles ringing his eyes and a pinched look to his face that ages him by several years. His reiatsu, usually a calm and steady flow beneath the surface, is tangibly rattled.
Another night filled with nightmares? Ichigo knows Kisuke has them from time to time. Anyone who lived through Aizen's war does. Perhaps there’s something in the water.
Ichigo chews on his bottom lip, debating. To speak or not to speak? Kisuke hasn't noticed him yet. It’d be a simple matter to turn away, pretend he hadn't seen, and keep his distance. Continue giving the shopkeeper the cold silence he deserves. Ichigo's not at all impressed with Kisuke lately, but he misses their conversations, the things they actually had shared. He just misses Kisuke, and that's the truth.
He doesn't know what to say, and once again, Ichigo considers just walking away. Turning around and pretending he hadn't stood here for well over a minute watching the man who was his lover. But he must’ve made some sound or let his controlled reiatsu slip because Kisuke turns slowly and notices him the doorway.
There's a moment of silence that speaks volumes to the tension between them before Kisuke smiles. Something tentative that doesn't quite reach his eyes.
“Ichigo,” he says.
And even Ichigo isn't sure how to respond. There's hope in Kisuke's tone but resignation and guilt as well. There are all kinds of things that Ichigo doesn't know what to do with.
He doesn't move from the doorway. “You're up late.”
Kisuke holds up a document of some kind, the words blurred to Ichigo at this distance. “There's not much time before you leave for Soul Society. I can't go with you, but I can help in other ways.”
“What are you working on?” Ichigo questions before he can help himself.
And he thinks that this is okay; he can handle this. It's a normal conversation that doesn't at all reference the unanswered questions and the unspoken truths.
Kisuke's eyes skip back to the paper, as though he doesn't dare hold Ichigo's gaze. “If it works, it'll temporarily bind people with strong reiatsu.”
“Like a member of the Royal Guard.”
Kisuke inclines his head. “Yes.” He takes in a slow breath and sets down the paper. “It won't last forever, but it'll last long enough to get by them and head for the throne.”
He's being awfully helpful. Ichigo can't help finding it suspect. Not when he knows Kisuke has always been against any idea that was closely related to Aizen. Does he think it's some kind of penance, or does he honestly believe in their course of action?
He looks at Kisuke and folds his arms over his chest. “Why aren't you protesting this?” Ichigo half-demands, but his voice softer than he'd intended. “You are the last person I thought would try to help.”
Kisuke flinches and tries to hide the fact that he did. “I didn't think I had the right anymore. The decision is yours.”
“But you would have before?”
“Yes,” Kisuke answers, but before Ichigo can ask him to elaborate, the blond does of his own accord. “But not for the reasons you suspect.”
Ichigo straightens against the doorframe. “What do you mean?”
“Anyone would assume that I'm against this because of Aizen, and I can hardly fault them for that. It makes sense. But it's not the truth,” Kisuke says and looks him square in the eyes. “At least, not in part.”
Kisuke's hand clenches around the arm of his chair. “Because I don't want to see you hurt anymore,” he answers quietly, and the look he gives Ichigo makes something inside him clench with hurt of his own “I've seen you broken and bleeding more than anyone else in this warehouse. In Karakura even. Is it wrong of me to hope for something different?”
Ichigo shifts restlessly. His jaws works for a second before he can get it to obey.
“You'd rather run and hide for the rest of your life then?” he asks, and some part of him already knows the answer.
The smile that curls Kisuke's lips is bitter, echoing a past that Ichigo still can't fathom. One that is the entire reason for Kisuke's loathing of Aizen.
“Eventually, Soul Society stops looking,” he says lightly, casually, like it doesn’t even hurt anymore. “Besides, it's not like I'm unaccustomed to it.”
“I'm not.” Ichigo shakes his head. “I can't do that.”
“I know. Which is why I haven't protested,” Kisuke replies, and without the shading of his hat, his gaze is that much more open. “You're not that sort of coward.”
Ichigo works his jaw again. “No, I'm not. And neither are you,” he insists.
That earns him a dark chuckle.
“I think recent circumstances would prove contrary to that.”
Anger rises up in Ichigo again. He hates that defeatist look in Kisuke's eyes. Hates that gleams that says Seireitei is right, that Kisuke really is useless and a monster and worth killing. Hates that even though he’s still angry, Ichigo still wants to step into the room and offer reassurance.
He doesn’t. But it’s a near thing.
“You're only as much as a coward as you allow yourself to be,” he says instead.
A part of him wants to ask again, see if Kisuke wants to speak now. He wants his lover back, damn it.
How Aizen fits into this, Ichigo doesn't exactly know. He wants Kisuke back. He wants Aizen, too. He wants them both. He wants neither.
Ichigo doesn't know what the hell he wants.
Kisuke looks at him. Startled. Surprised. Almost hopeful.
But Ichigo turns away, stomach twisting into knots. He doesn't want to listen if there's not an explanation or an answer. Ichigo can't and won’t ever understand that secretive mindset. He can't understand the desire to keep everything hidden, to run rather than fight.
But he'll have to figure this out sooner or later. Ichigo can't afford the distraction, and his emotions can't handle the stress. Someone has to bend before he snaps. Something has to break before he loses his mind.
That's all there is to it.
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