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 Thirty-Three: Beginnings
After taking up residence in the royal palace, Sousuke spends a week walking the long halls and corridors, peering into every room, wandering the multiple gardens, generally familiarizing himself with the layout. Even so, he still feels as if he hasn't seen everything, and if not for Gin's assistance, he’s quite certain he would have only found himself lost on several occasions.
It's easy enough to find his room and Ichigo's and even Urahara's. But sometimes, it's that much easier to get turned around, to find himself in the massive kitchens or one of more than a dozen fully outfitted bathrooms or even the libraries with so many books he doesn't think a lifetime is long enough to read them all.
It's a strange feeling, this peace that falls over his shoulders. Here, Sousuke is free to wander as he pleases. Ichigo hasn't even required that he have a bodyguard, nor did Kisuke try to convince him of the necessity. Which isn't to say that a fuss wasn't made about his existence.
When the dust settled and the light faded and the Shinigami finally accepted that Ichigo was their new king, some of them realized that their mortal enemy was there, too. And many of them weren't happy of this fact.
At worst, they called for an immediate execution. At best, imprisonment in the deepest levels of the Maggot's Nest. As though Sousuke is something to fear without an ounce of reiatsu to speak of.
He expected Urahara's voice to be loudest among them. To Sousuke's surprise, the man said nothing. He hadn't defended Sousuke, but he hadn't spoken against him either. Truly a marvel of restraint.
His allies, however, had held no such qualms.
“So the rumors were true,” Komamura says, voice booming louder than all the others, even as he towers above them “He is still alive.”
“Yes,” Ichigo replies, and there's a hard edge present as he tilts his chin, looking up at the much taller captain without an ounce of fear. “And he's going to stay that way.”
Sousuke, for his part, keeps his silence. There is no rationalizing with the irrational, and so long as Ichigo, the king, wants him alive he’s in no danger of sudden execution. And he has no worries for being hated for the rest of his existence either. If they are waiting for an apology, the world will end first.
He has no apologies to give. He has no regrets. Save for the lives he couldn't protect and the lives he hadn't wanted to take. Fate has seen fit to give him a chance to make those failures right. He can see Gin, even now standing on the other side of the room, cool and confident as he watches the bickering with amusement. He sees Shunsui as well next to Ichigo, equally amused, familiar hat sitting half-cocked on his head.
There is nothing the foolish Shinigami can do to Sousuke that will hurt any more than what’s already happened. And the opinions that matter most to him have already been made clear. If Shunsui and Gin have a problem with him, they’ve never hinted nor said anything outright. They actually seem relieved to see him. Happy even. And anything else is between the three of them alone.
“Yes, I knew!” Shihouin's voice rises above all the others, loud and angry, breaking through Sousuke's thought. “But I didn't do this for Aizen. I did it for Ichigo! We all did.”
“It doesn't bother you that he's alive?” Hisagi demands. He looks a little worse for wear, face red with exertion. “He's responsible for Soifon's death!”
Shihouin tilts her head, a wash of pain reflecting in her eyes. “If I thought killing him would make that easier to bear, he'd already be dead.”
Sousuke glances at Ichigo then, but the new king is saying nothing, merely watching as the Shinigami shout amongst themselves, trying to resign each other to Sousuke's existence. They can yell and bicker about it all they want, but the fact of the matter remains, Sousuke is here to say. Ichigo has already said as much.
“You can't have forgiven him,” Hisagi hisses, and he sounds more vindictive than Sousuke has ever heard from the normally level-headed man.
Gold eyes flash. “Never,” Yoruichi all but spits the word. “Not as long as I exist. But he's powerless right now. Helpless as a child. And that I can endure.”
“You're goin' ta miss th' meetin'.”
Sousuke turns away from the window to find that Gin is nearby, lounging against a wall.
“Yer lost again, aren't ya?” his former lieutenant adds, eyes sparkling with humor.
Despite himself, Sousuke feels the smile curling at his lips, still unable to fight the initial relief and happiness that surges through him upon sight of Gin. Alive – or something similar – and well.
“I know exactly where I am,” Sousuke replies smoothly.
“Really.” Gin rises, kimono falling around him in black waves of fabric streaked with silver. “And where's that?”
Looking around, Sousuke tries to remember where he'd let his idle wanderings take him. He doesn't recognize this area of the palace, however, and resigns himself to the fact he'd once again discovered a new hall. He sighs, defeated.
“Very well,” Sousuke admits, much to Gin’s amusement. “Where am I?”
Gin chuckles, striding alongside Sousuke and gesturing him to the right. “Not far from where ya need ta be actually,” he comments. “And lucky fer ya, I'm goin' ta the meeting as well.”
Right. The meeting. The one Ichigo called in order to decide several things regarding Soul Society's rule. He'd let a week pass while hashing out the particulars, give the Shinigami some time to get used to the idea of him being king. But now is the time to get down to business.
Sousuke supposes he should consider himself lucky that Ichigo includes Sousuke in the short list of people debating their future.
Content to follow Gin's lead, he inclines his head. “Will any other... lingerers be making an appearance?”
Honestly, Sousuke has no idea what to call those like Gin and Shunsui. They aren't ghosts or spirits because they are more independent and free-thinking than the faceless, shifty forms that flit through the palace, performing the more domestic duties. They aren't Shinigami anymore either as they don't carry zanpakutou nor do they have a tangible reiatsu. They are, however, dead as Sousuke has seen them randomly appear and disappear, along with phasing through walls and such. And they cannot leave the palace.
“Lingerers?” Gin laughs, outright laughs at this, and Sousuke is torn. Unsure if he hates that Gin is dead or is relieved that death has brought some kind of peace to him. “We prefer guardians, but ya can call us that if ya want. And no, I don't think so. Got better things ta do, according to Shun-san.”
Shun-san. Sousuke didn't think he'd ever see the day when Gin and Shunsui would get along as two close friends as they do now. There been a distance before. One that Sousuke could admit now bothered him. Despite the fact that he’d tied them together, Gin has always been too wary of Shunsui, and Shunsui himself had always looked at Gin strangely, almost sad.
But death changes a lot of things. Sousuke should know. He's been as close to it without actually passing on that a Shinigami can get.
Still, Sousuke's curiosity is piqued.
Gin makes a gesture toward the palace around him.
“I'm not sure. Jes feels right. For a long time, we were waitin' though we didn't know why. Now that Ichigo's here... it's like we know what we're supposed ta do. Like it's been the plan all along.”
Sousuke folds his arms into his sleeves as he considers. He has the oddest feeling that had he succeeded in defeating the Gotei 13 and making his way to here, that he wouldn't have gained the throne. There's something about the world that is... sentient, he supposes is the correct term. He hates to admit it, but it stands to reason that Sousuke would’ve been rejected.
Ichigo, on the other hand, seems to have been the world's first choice.
Sousuke wonders how much of the circumstances were by designs he hadn't been privy to. How much of this was... fated. Sousuke has never been one to ascribe to the constraints of destiny, but something about the situation rings strongly of predetermination. He also supposes he'll never know. He could ask Ichigo, but he doubts even Ichigo will have the answer. It's something that will forever remain a mystery.
Besides, Sousuke doesn't think anyone will want to believe that what they suffered, the friends they lost, was supposed to happen. It's the sort of truth that could break a person. Sousuke himself isn't too happy with the theory. Best to leave it alone.
“Besides,” Gin’s voice cuts into his thoughts. “We like Ichigo, so it's not a hassle ta stick around fer him.”
‘Only for him?’ Sousuke wonders and nearly asks aloud, but he’s almost afraid to hear the answer.
He can see from the glint in Gin’s eyes though that he’s guessed Sousuke’s thoughts, and a warm shoulder brushes against his own in a manner that is both familiar and reassuring. It isn’t normal affection or even a broad declaration, but it’s as comfortable as either of them have ever been at such things. And if it makes Sousuke’s heart beat easier, then so much the better.
“Yes,” Sousuke allows with a smile, “it is hard to dislike him.”
Gin brushes against him again. “So I've noticed,” he observes with a distinct note of teasing, one that Sousuke had learned to be wary of and that he's ridiculously happy to hear once more. “Been spendin' a lot of late nights with him, haven't ya?”
He's not going to be embarrassed by Gin. He's just not. There’ve never been secrets between them. Not Gin as he awkwardly explored the physical aspects of being an adult. Not Sousuke as he had dalliances of his own.
“There are many particulars we've been discussing in depth,” Sousuke replies, but he tilts his head in a nod that he knows Gin will understand. His lieutenant processes that for a moment before his grin brightens even more.
“Is that so?” he questions, but it’s more rhetorical, and his face is too wicked “Does this mean it’s time fer another chat about where babies come from?”
Sousuke fights not to whip his head around, and he is thankfully saved from coming up with a suitable retort when they arrive at the double doors leading to Ichigo's “war room.” Such is the name that Hirako has given it, while Ichigo rolled his eyes and didn't argue against it. Basically, a smaller version of the massive throne room, where Ichigo feels less like a king on his throne and more like the average soldier.
Ignoring Gin's muffled laughter – face buried in his sleeve – Sousuke pulls open the door so that they can enter. He notices belatedly that they are the last to arrive. How long had he been wandering lost to his thoughts?
“Gin,” Ichigo greets, sitting at one side of the rectangular table, rather than at the head as any normal leader would do. “You found him.”
“I wasn't lost,” Sousuke replies almost indignantly. After all, Urahara had managed to find his way here for once, the shopkeeper now at Ichigo's right hand.
The corner of Ichigo's mouth tilts upward. “Of course not,” he says solicitously. “But now that you're here, we can get started.”
Hirako snickers from where he lounges at one end of the table, nearest to Urahara, sprawled across his high-backed chair. His Arrancar fiancée is missing though.
“Always like ta make an entrance, don't ya, Sou-chan?”
It's a sad state of affairs when Sousuke is so used to his former captain's teasing that it no longer irritates him. “I was making myself useful,” he retorts and takes his seat in the last available chair, which is to Ichigo's left as Gin has taken the one across from him, next to Jyuushiro-san.
On the captain-commander’s other side is Shihouin, and Unohana-san is just down from her. Across from Hirako, at the other head, is Kuchiki Byakuya, his lips pinched with displeasure at sight of Sousuke but saying nothing. He's not sure why Kuchiki is here, save that it had been Kuchiki and Shihouin leading the coup within Soul Society, aided and abetted as they were by Zaraki and Hitsugaya-kun. An interesting team up.
The table itself is covered in a massive map of Soul Society, a pretty accurate one actually as it shows the places that have been destroyed recently. Some parts of it are covered by various documents, however, whose contents Sousuke can't see yet. A few of the papers he recognizes as something he and Ichigo put together in the last week.
Hirako mock-gasps. “My heart, Sou-chan, you wound me. I’m plenty useful.”
“Not yet you aren't,” Ichigo inserts with rare humor. “But by the end of today, you will be.”
“I'm happy ta be of service,” Hirako says with fake solemnity as he places a hand on his chest.
Rolling his eyes, Ichigo rises to his feet and braces his palms on the table. “Drama queen,” he mutters before letting his eyes roam over the gathered men and women. “Now that everyone's here, we can get started.”
Shihouin plants one elbow on the table, propping her chin on her palm. “What's the first order of business, your highness?” she asks with a smirk that makes Ichigo simultaneously glare and turn pink.
“Don't call me that,” he growls, sounding like he's been saying reciting the same order over and over. “And we'll start at the top.”
“The top,” Jyuushiro-san repeats. He leans back in his chair and lets his fingers rap over the table. “You mean, Chamber 46.”
Ichigo nods. “Most of them aren't going to agree with the plans I have. That's fine. They can consider themselves retired. Their rules are outdated and counterproductive.”
“Big words there, boss.” Hirako smirks. “Been plannin’ with Sou-kun?”
“I'm so glad you think that,” Ichigo says, and he smirks, a calculating edge to his voice that amuses Sousuke greatly. “Because I've decided you are the best option to take over Chamber 46.”
Hirako's jaw drops. Sousuke himself feels considerably smug. It's a great decision, tactically, but an even better one in terms of payback. What better to give his slack captain than a job requiring enormous responsibility?
The Vizard works his jaw and wiggles a finger in his ear. “I don't think I heard ya correctly. Ya want me ta be in charge of Chamber 46?”
“Yep.” Ichigo levels a gaze on Hirako. “You might be a slacker and all that, but I trust you, and that's what's important here. Chamber 46 is your discretion. Fire who you want. Keep who you like. Fill the positions as you will.”
Kuchiki stares at Ichigo with something all too much like abject shock before he can compose himself. “You're serious,” he says too flatly. He looks like he’s been smacked with a dead fish.
Ichigo inclines his head. “I am. The only one higher than Shinji will be me. And I, at least, am fair.”
“I'm so acceptin' this,” Hirako says, an odd expression of mad glee on his face that makes Sousuke wonder if Ichigo is sure about this. “I already know who my first appointment will be, too.”
“Oh?” Sousuke arches a brow, but he already has a fair idea, and Hirako’s look only cements it.
Sousuke makes a thoughtful and approving sound.
In an odd way, it makes sense. Oh, sure, they'll bicker and fight for the rest of their existence, but if there's anyone who will make sure Hirako doesn't get too full of himself, it's Sarugaki.
Jyuushiro-san nods thoughtfully. “A sound decision, Ichigo-kun,” he says with no hint of the uneasy discomfort that had once been between he and Ichigo. Whatever tension had colored their interaction was gone now. Sousuke wonders when that happened.
“Thank you.” Ichigo looks a bit embarrassed, heat staining his cheeks and ears, but he clears his throat and manages to sound official nevertheless. “Which brings me to my next point: the Gotei 13.”
“Are you thinking about disbanding it?” Kuchiki questions, the only one in the room who is sitting ramrod straight, as though he's replaced his spine with an iron bar. Even Unohana-san is serene and relaxed, if quiet.
Ichigo shakes his head. “No. It's a good configuration with some minor changes of course.” His gaze shift to Jyuushiro-san. “There's no one I'd rather have as captain-commander.”
It's Jyuushiro-san’s turn to look a little uncomfortable. As though he doesn't feel he deserves to keep his position.
“Are you certain?” he asks very softly. “There are others who've proven their loyalty more than I.”
“But there are few people I know with the strength of character to admit they were wrong, something Yamamoto could never do,” Ichigo replies, meeting Jyuushiro-san’s gaze evenly, proving yet again that the years had matured him.
“Indeed,” Unohana-san adds then. “He was a man of many strengths, but that wasn’t one of them. I believe that without Chamber 46 confining you, that you will lead us again to the greatness we once held.”
She exchanges a look with Ichigo, who nods.
“Yeah,” he says. “I’m very certain.”
Jyuushiro-san lets out a slow breath. “Then I'm honored to accept.” His hands flatten on the tabletop, palms over a section of the map depicting the former Soukyoku Hill. “And the empty positions?”
“I'd like to hear your suggestions first,” Ichigo replies. “There are... seven leading positions open now. Right?”
“Yes.” Jyuushiro-san starts tapping the table with his fingers again. Nervous habit perhaps. “Neliel-chan has already asked for a division, and I'd like to give her the third.”
Ichigo smiles approvingly. “She's already asked me, too. Go for it.”
“The eighth is also in need of a captain. I hope to offer the position to Yadomaru-san,” Jyuushiro-san continues, the light in his eyes one of renewing strength. His shoulders straightening, his posture fixing itself, as though he's finally remembering what and who he is.
“Lisa?” Hirako snorts, leaning back in his chair with too much amusement. “With Rukia-chan as her second? That's going to be fun.”
“You don't think she'll accept?” Jyuushiro-san actually seems dismayed.
Laughing, Hirako shakes his head. “I know she will.”
“Good,” Ichigo interjects. “Who else?”
“Both positions in the fifth division need to be filled. I'm unsure who to draft as the lieutenant. In all likelihood, I'll leave that up to the captain whom I intend to be Ayasegawa-kun.”
“Yumichika?” Ichigo blinks. “He has bankai? Why wasn't he given one of the captaincies before then?”
“He achieved bankai during the war,” Kuchiki fills in, surprising Sousuke with the fact he's aware of such thing. Especially for a member of the eleventh. “Chamber 46 refused to accept his promotion on account of the fact he was more loyal to Zaraki than he was to them.”
“The eleventh has always been like that. It was one reason we could never convince Ikkaku-kun to accept a captaincy,” Jyuushiro-san says. “Ayasegawa-kun, however, is much more reasonable, and he has a fondness for Ichigo. It's possible that he might be willing to accept the position under Ichigo's request as opposed to the previous… ah, leadership.”
Ichigo nods slowly. “Offer it to him then. If he wants it, he can have it.” His gaze drops, roaming over what bits of the map of Soul Society he can see around scattered paperwork. “Who else?”
“The ninth needs a vice-captain, and the thirteenth needs a captain. Right now, I don't have anyone in mind for either of those positions,” Jyuushiro-san says. “It will be difficult to find someone else with bankai, and the list of those with shikai we can trust is a short one.”
“What about Love or Rose?” Shihouin suggests and lifts her shoulders in a shrug. “Both of them were captains once, and they’d fill in until you can find someone else.”
Sousuke shakes his head. “We have something else in mind for them.”
“Besides,” Hirako adds with a curious look at both Ichigo and Sousuke, “they don't want to lead divisions again.”
“There is another possibility,” Jyuushiro-san says, and here, he looks at Ichigo a little uneasily. “Your sister.”
“Karin?” Ichigo’s jaw drops. “She doesn't have shikai!”
Shihouin arches a brow. “Doesn't she?” she asks with a smug tone. “Oh, Ichigo, how little you know about your own sibling. Tsk, tsk.” She wags a finger. “And even if she doesn't at this very moment, she will. Soon. Arguably, before she graduates that living world school.”
“No. Absolutely not.” Ichigo shakes his head firmly. “I'm not getting either of them involved. They deserve a chance to be separate from Soul Society.”
Sousuke's lips thin. He wonders if that is the way Ichigo thinks. That he never had a chance and couldn't take that opportunity even if he wanted to.
“Newsflash,” Hirako drawls, tilting his head to the side as he props one foot on the table. “They're already involved. In case ya forgot, Karin was helpin' Shorty take down the eighth just a week ago. And Yuzu was quite the cute nurse with that Yamada kid in the fourth.”
Ichigo's shoulders slump, and finally, he returns to his seat. He slumps in it noticeably.
“I don't want them to be involved.” One hand rises, rubbing his forehead.
“I think they're a little old for you to be making that decision for them,” Jyuushiro-san puts in gently. “And knowing your sisters, they'd be angry if you didn't let them.”
“I know,” Ichigo says with an audible exhale. “But I don't like it.”
“You don't have to like it,” Shihouin points out.
Ichigo waves one hand in the air. “Alright, I get it. Moving on. Is there anything else?”
“Just the second division,” Jyuushiro-san says, and he points a look at Shihouin. “I'd be honored if you'd agree to take it once again.”
Shihouin grins. “Why, sir, I thought you'd never ask,” she purrs. “I'd be utterly delighted to do so.”
“Perfect,” Ichigo cuts in, and his face morphs with annoyance as one of the palace servants suddenly appears at his right, leaning toward him.
Sousuke can't hear what the nearly transparent individual says, only Ichigo can apparently. The spirits have been wandering in and out of the room all meeting but haven't spoken or made their presences apparent until just now.
“No, I'm busy right now,” Ichigo replies with a light frown, trying to wave away the servant. “Come back later.” A pause, the shade tilting its head to the side. “No, I don't need anything.”
Hirako chuckles. “You don't, but maybe we do.”
“Yer fine,” Gin says with an amused curl of his lips. “They don't care for yer comfort after all. Only the king's.”
Ichigo sighs. “And they bother me all the freakin' time.” He rubs his fingers across his forehead as the servant pops out of existence just like that. “I get that they're happy to finally have a king, but seriously, it's suffocating.”
“You should feel honored, your highness,” Shihouin teases.
Ichigo rolls his eyes. “Don't call me that,” he says, almost on automatic, and his brow furrows. “Where were we?”
“The second division,” Jyuushiro-san supplies.
“Which I accepted,” Shihouin adds.
Ichigo nods sharply. “Right.” He clears his throat. “Which reminds me... the Maggot's Nest. I want it gone. Shut down. Whatever. Just get rid of it.”
“And what do you propose we do with those imprisoned?” Kuchiki asks a touch frostily, but then, that seems to be his default setting. Sousuke honestly doesn’t know what Nanao sees in him.
“Either charge them with a crime or let them go. Watch them if you have to. I don't care.” There's a harshness to Ichigo’s tone, his fingers scraping across the map-covered table. “What's been done to them is inhumane and wrong, no matter what justification Chamber 46 tried to give.”
Shihouin twists her jaw. “It will be difficult,” she says, but when Ichigo stares at her, waiting for her to deny him, her voice shifts. “But not impossible. They are, as you know, largely innocent of actual crimes. I think a parole of some kind will ease everyone's concerns, while still granting them freedom.”
“Good enough for me,” Ichigo responds, and his fingers rap across the tabletop. “And on that note: Hollows.”
Kuchiki goes rigid. “Are you implying we need to stop purifying the Hollow as well?” He sounds aghast, horrified, and with good reason. If the Shinigami aren't to battle the Hollow, then what good are they?
“No, that's not it,” Ichigo counters. “Hollows need to be cleansed. They’re a threat to Pluses and to Shinigami. I'm referring rather to sapient Hollows. Those like Neliel and her companions. The Arrancar we could’ve won to our side.”
“What about them?” Kuchiki demands.
“They should be reasoned with, if at all possible,” Ichigo says, not at all intimidated by the increasing frost in Kuchiki's tone. “Not to the detriment of a Shinigami's life, but I no longer want them killed on sight. To that end, it's also not a crime for a Shinigami to become a Vizard.”
Hirako laughs, the sound ringing through the war room. “You didn't make that rule. I can tell. It has Sou-chan written all over it.”
The tip of Ichigo's ears burn red. “He just changed the wording. The law was your fiancée’s suggestion.”
“Surely, you understand a need for it,” Sousuke inserts smoothly, glancing pointedly at Hirako.
“Not quite what I meant, Sou-chan, and ya know it,” Hirako loses none of his humor. In fact, he looks as if he might start teasing then and there. Though this is hardly the place for it.
Sousuke twitches. “I know what you meant.”
“There are many that will not approve of your changes, Kurosaki Ichigo,” Kuchiki says, his voice carrying over their tete-a-tete. “Not everyone is loyal to you.”
Ichigo sighs. “I know, but they'll have to get over it. They don't have to serve in the Gotei 13 or Chamber 46. They're more than welcome to leave if they don't like my rules. It's not like I'm being unfair.”
“I don't like this.” Shihouin frowns. “Bya-bo's right. Some people won't either. They might even try something stupid.”
“Like try ta assassinate their new king?” Gin puts in with a solemn face.
The leader of the Onmitsukidoh inclines her head. “Exactly. They might think they can do better. They might get something like war inside their head.”
“I'd hope that they wouldn't think of me like Chamber 46,” Ichigo says quietly. “That's why I'm not closing off the palace or going into hiding. That's why I'm not considering myself removed from Soul Society.”
Shihouin rolls her eyes. “Well, that's just stupid. It's an open invitation for anyone to come strolling in.”
“That's kinda the point, Yoruichi,” Hirako retorts. “Ichigo's not trying to be someone hidden on his throne. Though I don't think he wants an assassin ta kill him in his sleep.”
“No, that would be kind of counterproductive,” Gin says with a smirk now. “Which is why he's got the guard. Or did ya'll forget?”
“You mean the zero division.” Jyuushiro-san gives a slow nod. “I haven’t seen any evidence of their continued existence, which is probably why it didn't occur to us.”
“You wish to reinstate them?” Kuchiki asks, and his eyes are unreadable, but there’s a hint of something to his shift in posture.
Sousuke balances his elbow on the arm of his chair. “As powerful as Ichigo is, there are times when he is vulnerable. There’s a reason for the Royal Guard after all.”
“I'm guessing you already have someone in mind to fill the open positions,” Jyuushiro-san comments.
“Yeah,” Ichigo answers. “I was going to ask Love and Rose. And my father has already... volunteered.”
Hirako snickers. “You mean, he told ya he was gonna become a member and yer mom backed him up.”
“Something like that,” Ichigo dismisses with a wave.
“Kurosaki-san will be equivalent to the lieutenant,” Sousuke explains, leaning his chin on his knuckles.
Gin tilts his chin up, eyes gleaming slits of blue. “And as steward of this here palace, I'm makin' it my duty ta be th' captain. I like ta see assassins try ta kill me now.”
Sousuke fights a laugh. That would be hideously redundant, wouldn’t it? Killing a twice dead man.
Predictably, however, Kuchiki stiffens. “I am not certain that's the best of ideas,” he says in an emotionless but almost disdainful tone, and his lips press in a thin line. “You were our enemy.”
“The key word, Byakuya, is were.” Ichigo says, and he plants both hands firmly on the table as he leans forward and pins the Kuchiki noble with an unnerving, hard-edged look.
Sousuke's breath catches in his throat.
The power emanating from Ichigo is damn near tangible. The latent tingle of reiatsu in the room is Ichigo's alone, completely overriding everyone else. And yet... comfortable, not painful like the brush of Urahara's had been so many months ago.
“Things are going to be different, starting now, and here, I'm appointing Gin as the captain of the Royal Guard. You don't have to like it.”
Kuchiki twitches. “I see.” His head dips by a fraction, a show of acquiescence and perhaps of respect. “Then I hope your trust is not misplaced.”
“It's not,” Ichigo counters flatly.
Though honestly, Sousuke is surprised as well. Ichigo barely knows Gin, but he's willing to trust him now.
Is this what becoming king has done for Ichigo? Is this how much that power has changed him? Is it a good thing?
Ichigo's gaze shifts away from Kuchiki as he relaxes back into his chair. “Last order of business,” he says. “The gate. Kisuke?”
Sousuke blinks. He'd damn near forgotten Urahara was present. The shopkeeper hadn't spoken a word for the entire meeting, quietly observing and offering little. Further proof that he had no place at Ichigo's side.
The blond inclines his head. “Should be ready within the week.” Urahara visibly stirs. “I've programmed it so that it can seal shut in the event of an emergency, but otherwise, it will allow free movement between Soul Society and here.”
“Where's the entrance?” Shihouin asks in such a way that Sousuke wonders if she’s already making plans to post guards. Visible and otherwise.
“In the first division.” Urahara tips his head to hide under his hat. “I've restructured the fountain to accommodate the gate.”
Ichigo's gaze softens as he looks at the man – his former lover. Or are they really through? Sousuke's convinced of nothing anymore.
“Good idea,” the new king says. “It'll be easier to find that way.”
“I still maintain open access is dangerous,” Shihouin mutters, and her feet wriggle where they are still propped on the tabletop. “But hell, whatever his highness wants, I guess.”
“Was there anything else?” Jyuushiro-san inquires in a clear redirection. His gaze drops to sweep over Seireitei's map, as if looking for another topic.
Hirako rises to his feet. “If there is, we can save it fer another time. This meetin' has gone on long enough.” His arms stretch over his head, bones popping audibly.
“Agreed.” Ichigo taps his fingers on the table. “I suppose we’re done here for now.”
As if he’d ordered everyone to stand, they all rise as one. Sousuke isn’t sure if it’s due to his subtle command or if they’d all been simply tired of sitting there. Either way, he knows that he isn’t the only one to notice. Gin is too smug as he comes up to Sousuke’s side, and Unohana-san’s eyes are too shrewd. Shihouin and Kuchiki exchange a subtle glance and move to stand together, while Urahara’s face is unreadable beneath his hat. Jyuushiro-san simply smiles, but his posture is a tad too forced, and Hirako won’t stop smirking.
The only one who doesn’t seem to have realized is Ichigo himself.
Sousuke can’t decide if that’s a good sign or a bad one. Or perhaps it just means that Ichigo isn’t letting his new position go to his head. That he’ll be not only the kind of king they desperately need but one they’ll never have cause to hate or fear.
One can only hope.
a/n:Still more chapters to come! We have to solve that little love triangle problem, don't we?
Feedback is welcome and appreciated!
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