dracoqueen22 (dracoqueen22) wrote,
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Bleach - The Beautiful Lie - Ch 16 - Fascination

For newbies, the previous chapters and a nice long description can be found here.


The Beautiful Lie
Chapter Sixteen: Fascination

Dinner that night is a trying affair. Sousuke pushes his food around his plate, refusing to watch as Urahara makes moony eyes at Kurosaki-kun. His mind keeps replaying their exchanges of affection – hardly subtle – that Urahara thoroughly enjoys throwing in Sousuke's face. As though he's after Kurosaki-kun's affection himself and Urahara prides himself in taking it first.

He is such a child at times, and Sousuke hates that he occasionally rises to the bait. And yes, it might have just been juvenile of him to throw his growing camaraderie with Kurosaki-kun in Urahara's face. The shopkeeper thinks he can restrict the boy with affection, but even Sousuke can see that Kurosaki-kun chafes under those tender bonds. Sousuke doesn't have to do much; Urahara's ruining things all on his own.

He only has to sit back and watch the fireworks.

“Okay, you got the letters,” Ichigo says around a mouthful of yakisoba, thankfully not Italian pasta. “What about disguises?”

Urahara looks apologetic, and Sousuke can't help but think that the blond bastard is purposefully delaying the arrival of those to keep the boy here in this house where Urahara can influence him. Sousuke wouldn’t put it past him. It’s exactly the sort of thing he’d do in Urahara’s place. Though admittedly, he be much more subtle and craft about it.

“Still working on that,” Urahara finally replies. “I'm not sure it's safe to leave even with a disguise.”

“You leave,” Ichigo points out, proving his own dissatisfaction with current events. Apparently, not even conversations and the occasional sparring is enough to occupy him.

Tilting his head to the side, Urahara shrugs. “I'm also not wanted for treason. Going into hiding was only a precaution.”

Sousuke just watches as they talk back and forth, not attempting to inject himself just yet. Urahara is digging himself into a hole all on his own. He knows nothing of the true value of words, can't twist them properly. And in front of Kurosaki-kun, he tends to lose some of his control. It's so easy to watch him screw things up for himself.

A sound of frustration leaves Kurosaki-kun’s lips. “It’s been over a month,” he says, as though that is a significant amount of time. “Nearly two months. And the most I’ve been outside is on the porch.”

Urahara arches a brow. “Two months is hardly enough time for Soul Society to abandon their pursuit of you. In fact, I’d doubt several years would be enough.”

“I know that.” Kurosaki-kun rolls his eyes and toys with a glass of water. “But by this point, they shouldn’t be looking this close to Karakura. They’re probably looking in other countries by now.”

“And you’re willing to take that chance?” the blond counters, voice rising of its own accord.

“Better that than sitting around here,” Kurosaki-kun mutters.

And Sousuke can see it, probably more than Urahara can.

Kurosaki-kun doesn’t like fighting, not anymore, but it’s also in his blood. It’s in his being. He no more likes sitting around and doing nothing than he likes being in this situation in the first place. It frustrates him that he can’t do anything more than wait.

Sousuke’s feels the corners of his lips tilt into a smile. In that, Urahara may be the one pushing Kurosaki-kun to accept Sousuke’s plans whether he knows it or not. The more frustrated the young man becomes, the more likely he is to decide. And Sousuke has the feeling it won’t be to go deeper underground and disappear. That is more Urahara and Shihouin-san’s style. Kurosaki-kun prefers to face his problems head on. Or at the very least to counterattack when dealt the first blow. He isn’t completely impatient, but Kurosaki-kun favors actions over words.

“On the bright side, we may not have to linger here for long,” Urahara comments, a brief glance Sousuke’s way before he looks at his young lover again. “At least one of those letters held good news.”

“Oh?”

Sousuke can’t help himself. He knows Urahara would prefer him to remain on the outside, nose pressed to the glass. But it’s never been Sousuke’s nature to let others decide his life for him.

“What sort of good news?”

Urahara smirks but focuses on Kurosaki-kun alone. Who in turn perks at this hint to a possible end to his boredom.

“Some key allies who are still on our side,” Urahara responds very obliquely and faces his former student. “They may be able to help.”

And Sousuke is forced to watch and endure as the two look at each other. Kurosaki-kun’s eyes narrow in thought, while Urahara smiles smugly. It’s like there is a telepathic conversation between them because Urahara doesn’t say anything, but realization seems to wash over the boy’s face. He snorts and viciously cuts into the chunk of peppered chicken on his plate.

“I’m not so sure they’d be good news,” Kurosaki-kun mutters with the voice of one long-suffering.

Urahara chuckles and digs into his meal with gusto. “You’d be surprised,” he shoots back. “You know they’ve always been quite taken with you.”

As is half of Soul Society. However, Sousuke doubts Kurosaki-kun has ever noticed that fact. And he probably thinks even now that he has few allies. But Sousuke knows better. He is certain that there are more on the boy’s side than he can ever realize. The moment Sousuke can convince him to return to Soul Society, their support will arrive. He’s sure of it.

Kurosaki-kun snorts. “They’re a bunch of crazies, and you know it, Kisuke,” he retorts, but there’s a note of fondness to his tone that hints he is not entirely indisposed to the arrival of these unnamed allies.

Sousuke wonders just whom the two men are talking about. He has his suspicions and has to fight a chill at the mere thought. Still, it’s obvious they don’t plan on sharing that information. Urahara is going to great pains to be vague, and Kurosaki-kun is following his lead. Or perhaps he simply wishes not to think of them either.

“Maybe,” Kisuke agrees with a chuckle.

A welcome silence descends. It is broken only by the sound of utensils across dishware. Sousuke surreptitiously watches the two, eyes on Kurosaki-kun far more than his companion of course. They have become… well, not friends perhaps. But Kurosaki-kun is no longer emitting an aura of hatred Sousuke’s direction. As such, he’ll consider that a step in the right direction. At least he hasn’t been kicked out or knifed in the back yet. Both of which Urahara so clearly wishes to do.

“Man, it feels like forever since I tasted Yuzu’s cooking,” Kurosaki-kun mutters after with a sigh a moment later. “She’s the best.”

“You’re not doing too bad yourself,” Urahara says teasingly.

Sousuke has to stifle his laughter. Clearly, the man has no idea who actually concocted his meal this evening.

Kurosaki-kun’s brow rises. “Is that what you think?” he asks, and the corners of his lips twitch. He purposefully pops a vegetable into his mouth and points at Sousuke with his chopstick. “I’ll have you know that he cooked this particular meal. Not me.”

For a moment, Sousuke is treated to the sight of Urahara’s surprise. Then, the man obviously twitches in annoyance. No doubt hating the fact that he just gave Aizen Sousuke a compliment. No matter how indirect.

“So maybe you should save the praise for him?” Ichigo adds as though amused by the prospect.

Urahara snorts, looking like he’s swallowed a bitter pill. “I only give praise where it’s due,” he states stiffly, purposefully not looking at anyone in particular.

“Jealousy does not become you,” Sousuke says mildly. He’s no longer interested in his meal so much as the way Urahara has been so effectively pinned.

The shopkeeper swells up like a puffer fish or a peacock with ruffled feathers. “Of what? The fact that you are useful only in a housekeeping sense?”

“Or the fact that I’m capable in the kitchen where you are not,” Sousuke comments lazily and wonders when the focus of the conversation had degenerated into a juvenile show of one-up-manship.

“I’m not without my uses,” Urahara argues, high spots of red painting his cheeks.

“Urahara, your tea is capable of killing a man in seconds,” Sousuke drawls, all interest in his dinner forgotten. “No doubt the second division could use it as a secret weapon. Perhaps they already have.”

The shopkeeper sniffs and gestures vaguely. “And you can’t kill anyone. What with lacking any reaitsu.”

Sousuke blinks in abject disbelief. “Are you comparing kidoh or zanjutsu with green tea?” he questions with astonishment.

Since really, Urahara couldn’t possibly have meant that the way he heard it. That would simply be absurd.

“Are you insulting my tea?” the blond counters, jaw set as his eyes flash with annoyance.

Sousuke all but gapes. Unable to think of a suitable response. To be honest, this discussion has approached the realm of ridiculousness. Not an unusual territory for Urahara Kisuke, but one that Sousuke mostly attempts to avoid. No thanks to the combined efforts of his uncle and Ukitake-san.

“Well?” Urahara demands after a moment of silence. “Are you?”

Sousuke just stares at him.

And to his surprise, laughter suddenly bursts free from across the table. Sousuke blinks and turns his head, finding that Kurosaki-kun nearly has his head in his hands to restrain himself. His chest is heaving from the effort, and his face is reddened. But this is the most carefree Sousuke has ever seen him. And for all of that, his mirth effectively kills the tension at the table.

“What?” Urahara huffs, puffing up again and managing to look indignant all at once.

Sousuke, for his part, is stunned. This is honestly the first time he’s heard Ichigo laugh in pure, unhindered amusement. And he has to admit, that look suits him well.

Kurosaki-kun leans back in his chair. “You know,” he begins, eyes darting between the two older men. “For all that you hate each other, you guys are really alike.”

Sousuke feels himself bristle almost instantly. There’s no need to be insulting.

“We are not.”

But to his unending horror, Urahara echoes the sentiment in the exact same tone and at the exact same time. Perfectly killing his point.

Both are treated to the sound of Kurosaki-kun’s repeated guffaws for several minutes. They can only stare as he manages to calm sufficiently to rise from the table and grab his dirty dishes for transport into the kitchen.

“I prove my point,” he comments and sweeps from the room.

Leaving Urahara and Sousuke to gaze in his wake.

The stunned silence lasts for all of a second before the blond narrows a glare his direction as though it’s his fault alone. Or perhaps he is just annoyed that Kurosaki-kun’s amusement has been won because of Sousuke as well as himself.

Sousuke returns the vile glance with one of his own before following Kurosaki-kun’s lead, uninterested in continuing a verbal spat. He’s well aware that he and Urahara are acting like children, but better to bicker with words than attack each other physically. Kurosaki-kun certainly wouldn’t approve, and it is rather disturbing how the both of them curb their behavior for the sake a man who hadn’t even reached the age of thirty. Little more than a babe in the eyes of the Shinigami but still strong enough to rally dozens to his cause. Sousuke wonders if Ichigo even understands how much power he has over them.

But then, thinking back to the war, Sousuke is pretty certain Kurosaki-kun never realized how much sway he held over everyone. He has always thrown himself forward, head first, for the sake of one friend or another. Never recognizing that others would watch his back in a second’s notice. In some ways, it is admirable. In others, Sousuke always thought him foolish for not utilizing every resource available.

How very different they are.

In the kitchen, Kurosaki-kun has already started the water for the dishes. Sousuke sets his plate to the side and easily insinuates himself between the younger man and the sink so quietly that Kurosaki-kun gives him a startled glance. But when he sees that it is only Sousuke, he turns back to his task. Sidestepping and blocking when the newcomer reaches over to help.

“You cooked,” the boy reminds him. “It’s only fair that I clean.”

“It’s no great hardship,” Sousuke contradicts as he reaches out again. “Besides, it will go more quickly this way.”

That is very true, and he’s perfectly willing to volunteer. It’s only when Urahara demands anything that Sousuke balks. Not to mention that it’s good for Kurosaki-kun to realize he is amenable to helping out on occasion. And without an apparent ulterior motive.

Kurosaki-kun, for his part, eases out of the way. Seemingly unwilling to argue with someone volunteering to share a hated task. Instead, he simply continues his task without comment, occasionally glancing over.

“You know,” he begins after Sousuke has scrubbed both of their plates and started on the main baking pan. “Volunteering for chores doesn’t instantly make you a good guy.”

Sousuke chuckles. “Ah, but it’s a good start.”

He hopes that the other man can read the humor in his voice and know that he hasn’t taken offense. It’s not Kurosaki-kun’s fault he’s been poisoned by Urahara.

“True. It’s not like I’ve ever seen Kisuke volunteer to do dishes,” his companion drawls in a similarly amused tone.

Loathe to openly mock Urahara in front of his lover and even more loathe to compliment him, Sousuke decides to ignore Urahara’s presence in their conversation entirely. It’s not that difficult all told.

“Just don’t expect me to dust,” he says instead.

Kurosaki-kun arches one brow as he finishes the last glass and steps back. “Not into feather dusters, I take it?”

“Nor the maid outfit,” Sousuke says in a tone that is far too calm and deadpan for the topic at hand. “Ruffles and lace are very unflattering on me. As are skirts.”

That earns him another round of laughter as the younger man heads for the door. “Then, you’re on your own with your wardrobe. Not to mention your laundry.”

He slips out of the room before Sousuke can counter. And he marvels for a few heartbeats at the circumstances. Kurosaki-kun had been joking with him. Joking. With him. With Aizen Sousuke. Bane of Soul Society and Shinigami everywhere. His former enemy.

Clearly, things are looking up.

And somehow, that makes him feel that much lighter inside. Bright almost. Pleasant and warm in a way he hasn’t felt since the last cup of tea he and Ulquiorra shared the night before his Espada’s untimely death. Content even. Like an evening spent at his uncle’s house with the sound of snoring in the background as he flips the next page in his book. Like a gentle correction to Gin’s fighting form and the pleased gleam of red, red eyes gazing up at him when he gets it right the very next time. The sound of Shunsui’s laughter. The feel of Gin’s hair as he ruffles it with his hand. The view out his office window and the way Seireitei looks in the springtime.

Happier times. Days gone but never forgotten. Preserved perfectly in his mind for a time.

Shaking his head, Sousuke returns to his scrubbing. Doing chores doesn’t appeal to him overall. But there is something to be said for the mindlessness of it. For the opportunity to be busy and yet still have room to ponder. Besides, there is precious little else to do in this house.

The sound of a step in the doorway alerts him to the fact he’s not alone. His back stiffens, and he fights not to turn at the following clatter of dishware on the counter. He refuses to be intimidated. And certainly not by this man. Not by anyone ever again.

“I know what you’re doing,” Kisuke says tightly, anger and hatred practically wafting out from his pores.

Sousuke tilts his head to the side. “Oh? Of course you do. I am making no great effort to hide it.”

“Ichigo’s smarter than you give him credit,” the blond bites out. “He won’t fall for your tricks.”

“You should turn those words onto yourself,” Sousuke comments without looking up. “You continuously underestimate his abilities. Not to mention his intellect.”

That earns him a small flare of reiatsu. Not enough to hurt him as used to them as he’s become now. More like an Academy student whose honor has just been slighted. Or whose girlfriend has just dumped him for the smarter and more promising head of the class.

“I think I know him a little better than you do,” the other man snaps but then quiets afterwards.

“Or perhaps your opinion is biased by that belief.”

Sousuke shrugs nonchalantly, unable to stop the smug satisfaction from rising up within him. Urahara no longer presents much of a threat. Sousuke is fairly certain that the other man doesn’t realize how thin the walls in this house really are. Sure, he’s heard some things he’d rather not. Like low, lustful moans in the middle of the night or soft thumping. But he’s also heard other things. Quiet conversations. Sharp discussions. Proof of Kurosaki-kun’s growing displeasure and disquiet.

He watches Urahara from the corner of his eyes. “Does Kurosaki-kun know that you’re in here? Defending his honor from the big, bad wolf?”

Grey eyes narrow into angry slits. “Your word games don’t work on me.”

“They have before,” Sousuke reminds him and dumps a clean dish into the rinse water just because it gives his hands something to do. “And surely, even you have realized that playing house for the rest of your life is not the kind of existence that appeals to Kurosaki-kun. He wants a life. A real life. Not some fantasy, some escape from reality that you’ve concocted.”

Fury makes Urahara’s control weaker than usual. Reaitsu uncoils from his body, slapping weakly at Sousuke’s body and doing little more than irritating him. Really, he may not have his abilities anymore, but with as much reiatsu as Urahara constantly leaks – not to mention what Kurosaki-kun puts out in waves – he’s almost half-convinced that he’ll get them back. Just like the rest of the Karakura children exposed to Kurosaki-kun’s power.

But Urahara’s belligerent and grating voice drags him back to the present.

“I won’t let you use him,” he declares loftily and with eyes that practically spit fire.

As if he has the moral high ground.

He, Urahara Kisuke, the very same man who hid the Hougyoku in the soul of an innocent and then attempted to strip her of what little natural defense she had. The man who sent four human teenagers to rescue Kuchiki Rukia with nothing more than an irresponsible chaperone who had already slighted her duties before. The same man who served the second division for decades. Who saw to the continued incarceration of dozens of guiltless non-criminals and undoubtedly assassinated or disposed of countless more. The man who used his own student – former student – for sexual release and gratification after what was arguably the worst day of his life. And continues to use him even now.

This same man.

And people think that Sousuke is the villain.

“Use him?” Sousuke questions and inclines his head. “Maybe he wants to be used. He’s certainly letting you do whatever you wish.”

Smugly, he catches sight of Urahara’s hand curling into a fist. A physical sign of his growing irritation. But Urahara won’t try anything violent. Not with the possibility of Kurosaki-kun walking in at any moment. Pretenses must be kept after all. His young lover most certainly wouldn’t like the idea of Urahara striking an unarmed and seemingly powerless man. Especially not over words.

Nevertheless, physical restraint doesn’t stop Urahara’s reiatsu from thickening, pouring over Sousuke’s skin like stinging nettles. He hides his flinch and pretends that the weight of power doesn’t steal his breath. And he hates, hates, hates that Soul Society has weakened him to this point. That he has become this powerless again. As weak as he was as a child. As weak as he was before his father.

Only this time, there’s no Kyouraku Shunsui to ride to the rescue. No, Unohana Retsu to soothe his aches and rub his back until his falls asleep. Not even Ukitake Jyuushiro to give him candy and read him a story.

He has only himself. And perhaps Kurosaki-kun should he choose to appear.

“Manipulating him isn’t going to get you that throne or your zanpakutou, Sou-chan,” Urahara says in a tight but controlled voice that is laced with venom. “So simper and pretend and play the nice guy all you want; it makes no difference to me. You’ll still be the powerless failure that you are now. The sniveling idiot who got his almost-son killed and then murdered his good-as-father.”

The silence between them is dead. Not strained or tensed. Completely deceased. Filled with images of blood and Gin and things that he didn’t intend at all. Consequences he knew were possible and that he ultimately paid in full.

Urahara turns on his heel before Sousuke can even think to respond. To do more than be filled with a mocking sort of horror. The blond strides from the room as though winning some great battle. Sousuke, hands buried in sudsy water, returns his attention to the soaking dishes. Too stunned to even be furious that Urahara can affect him on such a level. Too busy slamming the door shut in his mind and focusing on the task at hand.

Yes, he has entertained hopes that placing Kurosaki Ichigo on Soul Society’s throne might regain some of his lost abilities. At least his beloved Kyouka Suigetsu. But it is not his sole purpose or intention. Sousuke has loftier ideals than just to return to his former glory. He wants to effect change; he wants to make a difference. His desires are not so selfish as Urahara claims.

He refuses to let the over-protective fool sway him.

-------


In one of many bored loops around the small house, Sousuke finds himself drawn towards the main room. Sounds of heavy breathing and light thumping attract his attention. He hesitates in the open doorway, not entirely certain that it’s wise to peek in until he discerns that there is only one person inside. That only makes curiosity eat at him that much more, and he steps up to glance around the doorframe.

Inside, all of the furniture has been pushed close to the walls. Which effectively leaves the space in the center free and clear. Kurosaki-kun is in the middle of what appears to be a martial arts kata, limbs moving with surprising agility as he shifts from one position to the next. And as he watches, Sousuke can recognize the patterns involved. Some are among those favored by the eleventh division, harsher and with more open aggression. While others are very similar to those utilized by the Kuchiki clan, fluid and with more subtle feints. There are even a few Sousuke remembers from his own childhood, moves taught to him by Shunsui and Ukitake-san. And he idly wonders if they also taught Kurosaki-kun. Or perhaps he learned them from Isshin or maybe even Kuchiki Byakuya.

He is hard-pressed to wander away as he ponders that mystery. Still watching as the young man goes into a kata he has never seen before, undoubtedly something of his own making or one taught in the living world alone. Kurosaki-kun is completely focused as he glides through the steps. The muscles in his arms and legs flex visibly as he twists and performs a block and counter that would undoubtedly devastating to a live opponent. The follow-up would be equally harsh and final, but somehow, he makes it seem effortless. Easy as he flows into the next part. Skin glistening with sweat and hair darkened by a coating of the same.

And Sousuke admits if only to himself that at least Urahara has taste. Kurosaki-kun is very attractive in his own way. Maturity has only deepened that, hardened teenage scowls and bluster into a serene and tempered sense of power. It also helps that he is in perfect form. Despite years away from battle, it is clear that Kurosaki-kun has not let his skills fade. That he has obviously practiced, even if only with himself.

A prudent decision. Or perhaps simply an instinctive one. A means to assuage his inner Hollow and keep control. Or maybe it merely allows him a chance to focus. Even with his maturity, he doesn’t seem the type to meditate or actively work at controlling his emotions and thoughts.

Kurosaki-kun turns, in the midst of another complicated pattern, when he finally seems to notice Sousuke in the doorway. He doesn’t falter. Just finishes the move before pulling up straight and swiping the back of his hand across his forehead.

“How long were you there?” the younger man asks, grabbing a bottle of water from a nearby dresser and drinking deeply.

“Not long,” Sousuke answers, taking a risk and stepping further into the room.

It’s strange how he finds himself itching to try his luck against Kurosaki-kun. Yes, he lacks reiatsu, but for this, it isn’t truly necessary. The skilled opponent can bring down a more powerful one just as easily as the reverse. And really, it’s been quite some time since he’s sparred with someone so skilled. Not since Gin was alive. Even those at the dojo by the school where he taught were not this good. But then, they hadn’t had to rely on their skills in life or death situations either.

“That is an interesting style you have,” Sousuke comments after a moment, hoping that will segue into what he truly wants.

The Vizard shrugs and lowers his bottle. “It’s a mix of everything I’ve been taught. I usually just go with it.”

“Anything to beat the boredom, I suppose,” Sousuke continues with a tilt of his head as he studies Kurosaki-kun closely.

There is a bite of tension to the air, but the former captain doesn’t believe it is directed at himself. Kurosaki-kun is strained. It’s painfully obvious, and he wonders if Urahara has even bothered to notice or if he’s too busy with seduction at every turn. The confinement and circumstances are taking their toll on the youngest member of the household. He needs an outlet more than Urahara’s suffocating attentions and one that doesn’t involve being molested. No matter how willing a participant he may be.

Those steady brown eyes are watching him now, evaluating. He puts down his water and pulls his arms over his head in a clear stretch.

“I don’t suppose school teachers really have much opportunity to train,” Kurosaki-kun says offhandedly, eyes flicking over Sousuke as though measuring and weighing his abilities. “You must be out of practice.”

Is that a challenge Sousuke hears?

One brow lifts as he feels his fingers twitch in interest. Kurosaki-kun is a capable fighter, and if there’s one thing that Sousuke laments, it is that he never had an opportunity to singularly face him across the battlefield. He never had the chance to test himself against Kurosaki-kun’s unique abilities and strength. At least not in a true fight. The incident on the Soukyoku Hill doesn’t even bare mentioning.

And he must admit that the prospect of doing so now intrigues him greatly. Even if he is far less powerful than he was before and this is in a strictly almost-friendly capacity.

“Not as much as one would think,” Sousuke says casually. “Teaching didn’t take up all of my free time, after all.”

“Really?” A cocky grin curves the other man’s face. “I thought you’d spend that plotting your next bid for world domination.”

Sousuke blinks, nearly astonished by the note of teasing, but he allows his own smile. “Well, there is only so much one can plot in a given day. It does become tiresome after a time.”

Something flashes through brown eyes. But then, Kurosaki-kun waves a hand Sousuke’s direction and then gestures pointedly to the empty space in the middle of the room.

“I’m just bored enough to spend a few minutes sparring you.”

“You’re so gracious,” Sousuke says in return.

He rather likes this teasing, confident creature who stands before him. Like Gin in many ways but also not. No matter how old Gin became or how powerful, Sousuke always remembered the young boy so content and pleased to stand in his shadow. To follow after him with a blinding grin. Kurosaki-kun is not his former lieutenant and never will be. And Sousuke doesn’t even think of them in the same light at all. Gin was very much like his son. Kurosaki-kun is… not. Not a son at all. Perhaps an ally. Possibly a friend.

Sousuke moves into the room, briefly considering of the difficulties his current clothing will give him. The pants are not well-worn; they will hamper his movements. No matter. He knows how to overcome that hindrance.

“No reaitsu,” Sousuke reminds him. “Otherwise, it will be a victory before we even begin.”

Kurosaki-kun rolls his eyes. “I studied this stuff long before I became a Shinigami, you know. I won’t need it.”

“So you say.”

Though really, Sousuke does wonder about that. There is no telling what insanity or strange ideas Isshin put the boy through. Undoubtedly, it was bloody. Violent. Full of rampant stupidity. Without any real redeeming quality.

Yes, that does rather sound like Isshin, doesn’t it?

Anticipation pulses a steady beat through Sousuke’s veins then as he settles into the middle of the room. Waiting. Watching. He doesn’t know why a simple spar intrigues him so strongly, and it is something he will have to sit and ponder later. For now, however, he intends to enjoy the experience.

The corner of Kurosaki-kun’s lips quirk towards a smile but not quite there. “Then show me what you got,” he retorts cockily, shifting into an aggressive stance.

Sousuke has never been one to turn down such an obvious invitation.

Adrenaline pours through him, and he inclines his head in recognition of the challenge. Seconds later, he attacks. Not aggressively. Just a simple move meant to sound out Kurosaki-kun’s instincts, to test his mettle. He aims low, feet a mere wisp across the bare floor. He knows that his opponent won’t sidestep since his weight is distributed incorrectly for that, and Sousuke is pleased when he chooses to snap back instead before following up with a counter to the ribs. However, Sousuke has already moved by then. Dodged to the left. He quickly and sharply jabs Kurosaki-kun’s shoulder, steps underneath his elbow, and gives him a flat palm to the chest.

It connects. A flawless flow of movement that is executed perfectly.

Which earns him a fleeting eyebrow of surprise. It is evident that Kurosaki didn’t expect him to be so quick or agile without reiatsu to bolster him. But there is something to be said for years of training. He often spared Gin and even his uncle in much the same way they’re sparring now. Without kidoh or shunpo or any trace of reiatsu at all. Simply skill pitted against skill.

Kurosaki-kun is good, yes. Very good in fact. Superb. But even from just watching him and from these few seconds, Aizen already knows that he’s better. Not stronger. Not anymore. But better. He’s more practiced. He has far more experience. Decades. Centuries even. And unlike most of those the boy has beaten in the past, he knows better than to overestimate his own abilities and underestimate those of his adversary. And further, he didn’t train with just an eye towards becoming more powerful. Sousuke actually wanted to learn. To seek his limitations and surpass them. Which is why he didn’t limit his spars and bouts to the spiritually gifted. He fought against all manner of people in his younger days and then later when he led a division.

The strong. The weak. The skilled. The amateurs.

Knowledge can be gained from anywhere. Even from those who would never be a captain or a lieutenant or even a seat-officer. But who knew how to make the best of what they’d been given. Who knew how to take an unruly newcomer or Academy student and put them back in place. Even when they lacked the reiatsu normally needed to do so.

Just as he does now.

They circle one another for a moment. Kurosaki-kun’s eyes are no longer filled with shock. Just determination.

And Sousuke isn’t at all surprised when he is the first to move. Shifting from his deceptively causal stance to outright aggression. Almost a kata from the eleventh. One that slips into a sequence Sousuke’s seen the second division use, and he ducks under a fist and slides into a side kick. Kurosaki-kun merely steps away from that and follows with his own rendition of roundhouse.

They go back and forth like that for a full five minutes. Sousuke evading and countering. Kurosaki-kun the aggressor but then falling back. Until the young man shifts and goes into series of moves that are painfully familiar. Something borrowed from a kata that Sousuke remembers learning when he was still young. Before he was even a proper Shinigami.

It is one Shunsui taught him. Full of simple but effective techniques that he’s had turned on him many times. However, Sousuke has long known how to counter.

He simply waits for Kurosaki-kun to come to him. Waits and then feints to the side while actually stepping forward. Stepping up and in and beyond where his opponent can now reach. It is an easy thing to rest one hand on the young man’s shoulder. Just as effortless to use his other to block Kurosaki-kun’s second arm as he utilizes a leg to put him off balance. Then, he lets nature and momentum take their course. Guiding and directing him to the floor. Immediately following him down with a knee to the chest that is light and gentle and would’ve allowed him to finish the fight were this real life.

Kurosaki-kun does three things. He hits the floor. Groans. And finally acquiesces as his head drops back.

“Damn,” he pants after a second, though he can’t quite hide the burn of annoyance. “I yield.”

“If it makes you feel better, it was no easy task on my part.” Sousuke draws back and gives the younger man room to breathe.

He chuckles, but it contains only a hint of amusement. “It doesn’t actually, but I’ll keep that in mind,” Kurosaki-kun mutters and shakes his head. “I can admit that I didn’t think you’d be this good. Though I probably should have.”

Sousuke merely smiles at him. But some part of him is secretly pleased by the praise.

“I did head a division for quite some time,” he demures, taking a moment to wipe at his glasses that have fogged up.

“And you gave Soul Society a run for their money, too,” Kurosaki-kun adds, still lying there on the floor and making no move to get up.

Sousuke isn’t certain how to best respond to that. So he keeps it simple.

“Indeed.”

But the younger man just shrugs it off. “It’s true,” he insists and wipes at his glistening forehead. “But that last part… Damn. I thought it’d work. Jyuushiro and Shunsui both used it on me a dozen times. Always worked for them, too. Thought I’d try it out on you.”

Sousuke smiles again. But inside, his thoughts are racing. He doesn’t know how much Kurosaki-kun understands about the interconnectedness of the Shinigami or their bloodlines. He’s sure that the boy has no idea who his father really is or who else he can call family, and he is fairly certain that Kurosaki-kun has no clue that one of his beloved teachers and mentors is none other than the uncle of Aizen Sousuke. Through marriage, yes. But uncle still. Kurosaki-kun probably thinks he slithered out from beneath some rock. Was hatched in a cave somewhere. Or perhaps that he spontaneously appeared out of nothingness.

Fortunately though, Sousuke doesn’t even have to formulate a question and answer session to that. Not since Kurosaki-kun chooses that moment to sigh heavily and rub his temples. Then, he drags a hand through his sweat-soaked hair. A flush of exertion brightens his cheeks to a firm red, and his eyes haven’t yet lost that adrenaline rush.

“Haven’t sparred like that in awhile. No reiatsu at all. Not even a trickle,” Kurosaki-kun comments. “I’d forgotten what it was like. How tiring. Tatsuki’d be kicking my ass about it.”

And his hand drifts down to trail over his muscle as if expecting bruises. Sousuke can’t help but watch those fingers as they slide through sweat.

For all his foibles and follies, Urahara does in fact have excellent taste. But Sousuke will never speak of such a thing aloud. Ever. Since that’d give Kurosaki-kun more reason to imply that he and Urahara are in any way alike. Perhaps superficially. However, Sousuke considers himself a far better man than Urahara Kisuke and always will.

Sousuke is every bit as intelligent and capable though far more circumspect about it. Not prone to fits of seeming insanity interspersed with almost self-hatred and general uselessness. Not bent on a woman who’d much rather ignore him until needed and then his own former student in the midst of a crisis. Not determined to press the boundaries of science and good sense with no real goal in mind aside from chaos.

Not to mention he was a captain longer than Urahara could ever dream of being, and unlike his blond nemesis, he didn’t cheat his way to bankai either. Didn’t use a device to shortcut his path there. He practiced and learned and came to an understanding about his own inner nature that Urahara Kisuke never did. Came to accept himself and Kyouka Suigetsu in a way that Urahara has never accepted himself. And the truth of that fact is evident even now. Apparent in the way Urahara denies and lies to himself so very easily.

Bankai is not just a hurdle to jump or a boundary to pass. It is more than that in the way that shikai is more than just a nifty phrase to change a zanpakutou’s shape. For some, it is a quintessential comprehension of self. Of one’s true nature and soul. Which in many ways explains why Sousuke is still surprised Kuchiki Byakuya ever managed it. If anyone is good at self-deception, it is that man. Though there’s much to be said about force of will. About forcing oneself to reach shikai and even bankai through determination alone without self-study and understanding. That secondary method undoubtedly explains Soifon as well. Not to mention Tousen Kaname and even Komamura-kun. Possibly even the captain-commander. Another man excellent at self-deception and wrapping his actions in the blanket of the so-called greater good.

And though he understands that Kurosaki-kun used the same method as Urahara to reach bankai, Aizen has no doubt that if given enough time he could’ve attained it through sheer willpower. If there is anything that the young man has in spades it’s determination. Not to mention the fact that an inner Hollow and the knowledge gained from one if applied properly is practically a recipe for bankai. Though he does wonder why nearly half of the Vizard never attained it. Perhaps general laziness. Or maybe they didn’t wish to stare that deeply inside.

Either way, Urahara didn’t even have that option. Nor does he have Kurosaki-kun’s resolve. And it shows. It is clear in his words and actions. In his pining after Shihouin-san for decades. In the ease with which he diverts to Kurosaki-kun. In the way he glosses over the truth of that action and its implications. And in reality, it’s not so much that he lies to Sousuke about it. More that Urahara lies to himself.

Sousuke thinks all of this in a matter of seconds. In the time it takes Kurosaki-kun to sit up. Immensely pleased that he hasn’t completely lost his fighting touch, Sousuke sticks out a hand to pull him to his feet.

Of course, the moment they touch is the perfect chance for Urahara to stroll in. His whistles falling flat as he sees how close his precious, innocent student and the super-evil Aizen Sousuke are. The way his eyes widen and nearly pop out of his skull is almost comical. Though the fact they narrow heartbeats later isn’t nearly so amusing.

“Well, isn’t this cozy?” he says, an edge of steel in his voice.

His gaze is shadowed by that damned hat again. Which effectively makes it difficult for Sousuke to read his possible intent to attack. Though he doubts Urahara will do so where Kurosaki-kun could see. Still, he does often doubt Urahara’s self-restraint. Not to mention his good sense.

Nodding, Kurosaki-kun rolls his arms. He simply ignores the sudden tension as his fingers massaging his left shoulder where Sousuke remembers placing a lucky strike.

“Something like that,” the younger man grunts, eyes flicking between them noticeably.

Kurosaki-kun is neither stupid nor naïve. He knows that were he not there something very unfortunate indeed would likely occur. Perhaps he doesn’t know how venomous the poison actually is, but he’s well aware of the vitriol.

“Enjoy your nap?” Kurosaki-kun continues, moving to grab his earlier discarded towel and swipe it over his face and neck.

Ah, so that explains Urahara’s absence. Not that Sousuke had been looking for him. He had simply assumed that the shopkeeper was out on business. Doing whatever it is he does during the day that leaves Ichigo and Sousuke to entertain themselves.

Still, to Sousuke’s surprise and well-hidden revulsion, Urahara’s cheeks stain a brief pink as though he has something to be embarrassed over. He doubts the reasoning is a mid-day nap, something all three of them are guilty of indulging in. No, Sousuke is pretty damn certain that Urahara’s flush has everything to do with the smug grin on Kurosaki-kun’s face. Though Sousuke would prefer to never learn any details. Ever. It’s bad enough that he has to hear it all unwillingly. It was bad enough hearing such things in the Academy and in places that weren’t so well hidden throughout his division. But at least his subordinates were mortified enough to never to be caught by him a second time.

Urahara says something nauseatingly manipulative to his lover in response, and Sousuke tunes him out, grimacing down at his own sweat-sticky body. With Kurosaki-kun otherwise occupied, Sousuke plans to snag the shower first. The pride over his brief victory fades all too quickly, reminding him in the end that this fatigue and the ache he can already feel building in his muscles are proofs of his return to mere humanity. Or a facsimile of one at any rate. Especially since by all definitions, Sousuke is still a spirit and therefore dead.

Semantics.

Sousuke steps into the hallway and turns towards the bathroom, but an unusual sound makes him stop in his tracks. Knocking. Someone is knocking on the front door. He isn’t aware that anyone could notice the building enough to attempt speaking with the residents. Isn’t it supposed to resemble an empty, abandoned house?

Not for the first time, Sousuke despises his weaknesses. He can’t sense reiatsu anymore. And that particular ability would be incredibly useful at the moment. Is it the Shinigami? He can’t tell. Not that he thinks they’d ever knock. Most of them are unmannered ingrates. And those aren’t even the ones in the eleventh. Zaraki Kenpachi is many things, but at least his division has enough sense not to barge into a stranger’s house. Most of the time. When alcohol or a fight isn’t involved. Though truly, that is all to be blamed on Ayasegawa-san’s influence.

Regardless, neither Urahara nor Kurosaki-kun seem to have noticed. Even if there’s a strange gleam to the blond’s eyes that Sousuke doesn’t trust. But since the shopkeeper is too busy cooing sweet nothings at Kurosaki-kun, Sousuke doesn’t feel inclined to invite his attention. Though uneasy, Sousuke approaches the front door. He may not have his abilities, but he hasn’t suddenly become a coward either. If an enemy were to intrude, they would not find Sousuke easy to subdue.

More knocking. Louder than before. How have the others not noticed this racket?

A series of possibilities dances before Sousuke’s conscious. A mere human, out for a midday stroll and curious about the strangely abandoned house. A door to door salesman. Someone come to check the meter. A unit of Shinigami decisively chasing after their prey, though Sousuke would be thoroughly surprised if that were the case. For any Shinigami to have found them means they would’ve had to extract their heads of their asses long enough to think logically.

Sousuke snorts. A highly unlikely scenario.

The knob turns, and the door itself bursts open before Sousuke gets within three feet. He is struck with the briefest realization that it hadn’t been locked before their unwelcome visitor strides in as though he owns the place. Knowing Urahara, it is quite possible that he does.

“Got tired of waiting,” he announces confidently and suddenly spies Sousuke standing there.

Staring at their visitor with a perplexed mixture of surprise and horror.

Lips break into a wide smile over enormous and gleaming teeth. The better to eat him with. Or possibly just bite him. Or maybe he really is glad to see Sousuke.

Which only horrifies him all that much more.

“Hey, Sousuke,” Hirako Shinji grins and gives a little wave. “Long time no see.”

* * * *


a/n: Surprise! Well, who saw this coming? Hee. I hope you enjoyed!
Tags: bleach, the beautiful lie
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