Warning for some mentions of slashiness, language, and well, Shinji. Also, I'm RUSTY at writing the Vizard, so expect some OOC
Chapter Seventeen: Reunion
The first thing Ichigo sees when he steps out of the main room is the sight of Hirako Shinji pulling Aizen into a bear hug of epic proportions. Aizen, for his part, is frozen. The look on his face is a mixture of horror, surprise, and perhaps even a slight bit of fear. And Shinji seems utterly oblivious to the torrent of reactions he causes.
“Shinji?” Ichigo says, unable to hide his shock. “What the hell are you doing here? And for that matter… How? How are you here?”
“I invited him,” Kisuke answers before Shinji can, stepping into the hallway. “I figured no matter what we decided to do that we’d eventually need his help.”
Shinji finally releases his hold on Aizen. Leaving the former overlord to stare at him in obvious disbelief. He focuses on Ichigo.
“The minute Ki-chan told me the story, I knew I had ta come see fer myself.”
He looks at Aizen pointedly. Sharp gaze raking him up and down as though weighing and criticizing in the space of a second.
“I can see he wasn’t exaggerating.”
Ichigo whirls towards his lover. “You could’ve told me!”
Kisuke shrugs, a hint of sadism gleaming in his eyes. “And spoil the surprise?” he questions and then spreads his hands. “Besides, I wasn’t sure he would. Aizen’s not their favorite person either.”
Understatement of the century right there. Of course, they hate Aizen. The Shinigami aren’t the only ones to lose someone in the war. Ichigo isn’t the only one who has suffered the death of friends. He can see it even now, in the subtle tightening of the corners of Shinji’s lips and the darkness in his eyes. Mashiro and Kensei are still being grieved for. For a tight knit group that is more like the family, the loss of even one of their own was strongly mourned. Much less two.
“Mah, Ki-chan, you wound me,” Shinji says with a mock-pout.
Only to sling his arm over Kisuke and drag him into some sort of half-hug. And really, the two of them standing like that is a very odd sight indeed. They vaguely look like brothers. If brothers were both perverted lunatics with an odd habit of feeling up Ichigo at odd times. Though he can honestly say that Shinji probably didn’t mean anything by it.
“Have ya no faith in us?” Shinji adds a second later.
“I’ve plenty of faith,” Kisuke responds mildly but with twitching lips. “It’s your sanity that I worry about.”
Ichigo snorts and remembers making some sort of comment to that effect himself. He’s often thought of the Shinigami a bunch of overpowered weirdoes, but the Vizard have always taken the first place prize in that. What is it about reiatsu that seems to take away all sensibility? Or maybe it’s their Hollows’ influence. Ichigo can’t say either way, and really, he doesn’t want to know.
Shinji rolls his eyes and glances at Ichigo. “So now that I’m here, the real party can begin. What’s the plan, Ichigo?”
Plan? Does he even have one? Does he ever have one?
Sure, Ichigo has vague inklings of what he wants to do. What he thinks is best. He’s been in this house for long enough that he’s had nothing but time to think. But he has a feeling that what he wants and what he’ll end up doing aren’t going to be remotely related. Especially since what he wants most is to get his fucking life back.
And he can feel two sets of eyes boring into his skull, wondering which side he has taken. As though the fact Aizen and Kisuke standing at opposite sides of a bridge are making the choice any easier. He knows what they want him to do, and Ichigo knows what he should do. But choosing between the two is not easy. Nor would it be simple to voice them aloud. Ichigo swears he can already hearing the resulting argument.
Instead, he shakes his head and drags a hand over his hair. “I don’t know,” he hedges. Better to play it safe than annoyed. “I haven’t decided yet.”
By the narrowing of Shinji’s eyes, it’s obvious he doesn’t believe Ichigo for a second. His gaze skitters from Aizen to Kisuke before he suddenly darts forward and grabs Ichigo’s arm.
“Come along, Ichigo,” Shinji interrupts cheerfully but forcefully. “Time fer a father-son chat.”
“You are not my father,” Ichigo responds automatically but allows himself be dragged along towards the hallway.
“Better than the one ya have,” Shinji mutters under his breath. “And much better looking.”
Ichigo shrugs that off. It’s nothing but the truth. Though he does wonder how Shinji knows what Goat-Face looks like. They haven’t met, have they?
He’s too busy wondering about that to care that Shinji has pulled him all the way to the doorway. Or that Kisuke is following after them.
But that is only until Shinji pauses to shoot him a look over his shoulder. “Not you, Ki-kun!”
The other blond frowns in confusion. “But--”
“Just us! Alone!” Shinji tosses back to him as Ichigo stumbles along in his wake.
As always. And still surprised by the amount of strength in Shinji’s grip. He’s one of the few who can keep up to Ichigo now, and he’d be wise to remember that.
Kisuke isn’t given another chance to protest. And wisely, Aizen doesn’t say a word. Ichigo doesn’t bother either, vaguely amused by Shinji’s usual way of taking over. By forcing himself in the middle and demanding that he be obeyed.
Shinji passes the kitchen. Head swinging left and right as he frowns deeply as he counts doors. Only three and the open one most likely identifies the bathroom.
“Two bedrooms?” he comments and studies at Ichigo with a raised brow.
Ichigo fights to keep the flush from his cheeks. “Kisuke and I share,” he answers, refusing to call that a mumble.
It could be taken as innocent, but he knows Shinji. The man jumps from innocent to thoroughly debauched without any reason whatsoever. In just the time Ichigo has known him, Shinji has proposed marriage and/or a sinful night of passion to no less than six women within his earshot.
Inoue. Twice. Rukia. Once with Byakuya glaring in the background. Matsumoto-san. Ise-san. But he’d only gotten hit with her book the last of the three tries. That freak Kurotsuchi’s daughter. Even Tatsuki. Though that had earned him a bloody nose.
A low chuckle snaps Ichigo back to reality. And he sees that Shinji’s eyebrows have crawled towards his hairline.
“I should’ve known,” he says, infinitely amused. “Alright. Which one’s your love nest?”
“Please don’t call it that.”
But when Shinji just leers at him, Ichigo sighs. He points to the door on the right. Shinji just laughs at him and pushes inside, all but tossing Ichigo in first before shutting the door behind him with a deafening bang. He looks around with eagle eyes, hands planted on his hips. As though determined to find some evidence of romantic liaisons. His nostrils flare as his mouth spreads into a wide grin and his lips pull back over his oh-so-white teeth. The better to eat him with and all that jazz.
“It smells like sex in here,” he announces brightly. As though pleased by that fact.
Ichigo doesn’t bother to fight it this time. His cheeks turn a flustered red.
“No, it doesn’t,” he protests because he ought to before Shinji thinks he has complete control of the situation. “And before we even start, go ahead and get all your mocking, teasing, or however else you want to embarrass me out of the way.”
Shinji rolls his eyes. He gestures widely as he strolls further into the room, purposefully examining the paintings on the walls and the objects adorning the top of the dresser.
“Now, Ichigo, what makes ya think I’d get any enjoyment out of embarrassing ya.”
He crosses his arms over his chest. Completely ignoring the fact that it could be seen as a sign of defense.
“Maybe because you do it every time I talk to you,” Ichigo grumbles and half-wonders if Kisuke and Aizen are crass enough to press their ears to the door outside. “What’s up with dragging me over here?”
“Maybe I wanted an honest answer,” Shinji replies, poking around the dresser and lingering over the framed portrait of Ichigo’s family – yes, even Isshin. “Since it was obvious ya weren’t going ta give me one in front of Sou-chan and Ki-kun.”
Sometimes, Ichigo hates how perceptive Shinji can be. It’s a blessing at times because it leaves less that he has to explain. Other times, it’s rather annoying. Like when he accurately guesses the new turn Ichigo’s relationship has taken with Kisuke.
He bites back another sigh. “I had no interest in listening to the argument afterwards,” Ichigo admits.
And not because he knows it’ll be a loud, screaming match. Quite the opposite in fact. It’s more likely to be a semi-polite, sniping fest with Kisuke cajoling as he subtly demeans Aizen at every opportunity. While Aizen tries his best to come off as the good guy while offhandedly scorning Kisuke in return.
In other words, the same thing Ichigo has been forced to endure for nearly the last two months or so. It’s like being around a bunch of kids. Or amusingly, the Shinigami.
That thought is enough to make Ichigo snigger to himself inside. Though he doubts either man will find the connection amusing.
“A difference of opinion, I gather?” Shinji inquires, moving on from the dresser to examine one of the frames on the wall.
It holds some kind of haiku in a flowery script. Ichigo’s stared at it often enough that he doesn’t pay much attention to it anymore.
“Something like that,” the younger man drawls and focuses on his friend. A man he has come to grudgingly respect over the years.
Sure, Shinji can be just as immature as Renji at times. But he’s also smart, perceptive, and loyal. Not to mention powerful. He’s never betrayed Ichigo, and for that, Ichigo trusts him.
“Kisuke won’t like the direction I’m leaning,” Ichigo elaborates, unfolding his arm and moving to sit in the one chair in the room not covered in unfolded laundry. “And Aizen won’t like how I mean to go about it.”
“Oh?” Shinji turns toward him, grinning broadly. “Do tell.” He rubs his hands together.
Ichigo leans an elbow against the arm of the chair. “I can’t go back,” he says quietly. “I mean, that’s pretty damn obvious. I can’t go back to my old life, and I can’t avoid involvement in Soul Society.”
Taking a seat on the neatly made futon – and yes, Ichigo is so damn glad that Kisuke changed the sheets this morning – Shinji inclines his head. Just to show that he’s listening.
“They’ve been known ta be tenacious if nothing else.”
“Their one redeemin’ quality,” Shirosaki comments with a snark in the back of Ichigo’s mind.
He’s taken to doing that lately. Sarcastic commentary. As bored by their circumstances as Ichigo. If not more than.
For the sake of the present conversation, however, Ichigo ignores him.
“I’m not interested in hiding for the rest of my life either. I don’t want to be too afraid to write my own sisters a letter,” Ichigo continues. Giving his logic as if to benefit Shinji more than himself. “And there’s no way in hell I’m just going to kill Aizen and dump his body in a back alley somewhere. Or turn him over to Soul Society.”
“Now that’s interesting,” Shinji interrupts. “Why, pray tell, won’t you hand him over for the traitorous, murderous, bastard that he is?”
Why? That’s a question Ichigo has asked himself time and time again.
Because he doesn’t believe in Soul Society’s justice. Because he doesn’t think it will be enough for them to let Ichigo roam free. Because he thinks Aizen is just their excuse to imprison him. Because maybe in some small way, he still thinks what Aizen intends is the only proper solution. Because they’ve come this far, and Ichigo no longer sees him as a mortal enemy.
The answers can’t be put into words. Not without embarrassing himself further. Or without Shinji insinuating other things that just aren’t true.
Ichigo shakes his head. “It wouldn’t be right.” Still unwilling to say all the other explanations that crop up in his brain. “I know what they intended for me. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. Not even him.”
“Not even Grimmjow?”
Ichigo twitches. Shinji damn well knows that’s a sore spot.
He leans forward. Balancing his elbows on his knees. Hands clasped in front of him. It’s safer to watch his fingers intertwine as the past swells inside of him. Blood and screams and guilt and blame.
“It was war,” Ichigo says. And damn if his voice doesn’t come out hoarse. “Both sides are equally guilty of murder.”
‘Even me,’ he adds silently.
If he condemns Grimmjow or Aizen or Ichimaru, then Ichigo must also condemn himself. It was war, and both sides were right, or both sides were wrong. It just depended on where one was standing when the battle began.
There’s no such thing as good or evil. Just different sides to the same story. That’s what one of his teachers once said. And the class had laughed at him at the time because to them everything was so black and white. So obvious. But now, Ichigo thinks he knows what his professor was talking about.
“You’ve grown up.”
Ichigo’s gaze snaps up. “Of course I have,” he mutters. “I’m not fifteen anymore.”
“I’m not talking about your age.” The expression on Shinji’s face is hard to read, but it’s as though he’s looking at Ichigo in a new light. “But if ya aren’t gonna turn Sousuke in and ya aren’t gonna run, what are ya gonna do?”
Ichigo feels the corner of his lips tug towards a smirk. “What else?” And he straightens. “I hear there’s a vacancy for a certain throne. And Aizen seems to think I can fill it.”
“Oh? So you’re listening ta Sou-chan now?”
“He made some good points, but I didn’t need him to convince me.” Ichigo shrugs. “Who knows? Maybe I can prevent war from happening again.”
Shinji stares at him. “So you’re going to sacrifice what you want for the Shinigami. Again.”
“It’s what I’m good at,” the younger man admits.
Besides, even if he does run away, he has a feeling that won’t stop the wheels already in motion. Soul Society is slowly tearing itself apart. He can’t see it, but Ichigo can feel it. There’s a rift being drawn right down the center, and Ichigo knows he’s standing smack dab in the middle of it.
Shinji gives him a hard look. “Ichigo--”
“Look, it’s obvious I’m not going to be left alone. And to be honest, I’m never going to be normal again.”
Ichigo can fool himself only for so long. He’ll never be able to cultivate a normal life. He’ll never be able to not be a Shinigami. Or a Vizard. He’ll never not have a Hollow. Or be able to forget the war. What it’s like to watch a friend bleed to death. What it feels to take a life and the taste of blood and bile in his mouth afterwards.
“I might as well make the best of it,” he finishes.
Rising to his feet, Shinji shakes his head. “You’ve got bigger balls than me,” he comments and clasps a hand on Ichigo’s shoulder. “But we’re on your side, Ichigo. Always have been. You’re not gonna do this alone.”
Ichigo manages a tight smile. “Thanks.”
“No problem.” Shinji claps his hands together and straightens, looking pointedly around. “Now the first order of business is ta get ya out of this cramped house and into a place where you can spread your wings. Seriously, this place is tiny. You must be going batshit here.”
“You have no idea.” Ichigo barely suppresses a sigh.
Even Shirosaki perks at the thought of being able to leave the small house for once. Ichigo is desperate to draw out his abilities and blast away a few inanimate objects.
“There’s only one choice then,” Shinji says with some grand gesture. “You’ll have ta come back with me ta our hangout. Of course, Ki-kun and Sousuke can come, too. I wouldn’t think to separate ya from your love muffin.”
Ichigo shudders and makes a disgusted face. “Don’t call him that.”
“Why not?” Shinji’s grin widens to something mischievous and terrifying. “Does it embarrass ya or something?”
That question in itself is a trap, and Ichigo knows it. He shakes his head and moves past him, heading for the door.
“Let’s just go before Kisuke and Aizen start making up theories of their own about what we’re really doing in here.”
Shinji’s laughter follows him into the hallway, but it’s not quite loud enough to block out the noise of two voices involved in a heated discussion. Well, Ichigo better face the facts. Aizen and Kisuke are arguing. Only they don’t do it like any other argument Ichigo has ever witnessed. They snip and snipe and taunt and mock and insult. All in quiet, pleasant words that reek of intelligence and mind games. At least, Aizen’s words are usually pleasant. Kisuke’s, on the other hand, tend to become nasty after awhile.
The two are nearly nose to nose – how strange that they are almost reflections of each other. And their bodies are tense with restrained violence. Reaitsu ripples briefly down the hallway before Kisuke viciously reels it in.
“You simply can’t stand the fact that what I speak is truth. And that is merely because I am the one who says it,” Aizen is saying sharply.
Kisuke snorts. “Truth? Now for you, that’s a rather loose concept. Not correcting another’s assumption is the same thing as a lie!”
“So I am able to read minds then?” Aizen counters, one eyebrow twitching. “I see you must have perfected that ability already then. It seems to have worked so well for you.”
Cheeks reddening, Kisuke looks to be heading full tilt towards a physical retort.
Ichigo fights to keep another long and weary sigh from escaping his lips.
Beside him, Shinji raises both brows and elbows Ichigo in the side. “Are they always like this?” he asks quietly, unable to tear his eyes away from the bickering duo.
Much like someone would when observing a train wreck. Or the Shinigami in the midst of a Menos Grande attack.
“Yeah,” Ichigo mutter. He drags his hands through his hair and resists the urge to tug on it out of sheer frustration, but it’s also a reminder that he’s in need of a haircut. Badly. “Though they think I haven’t noticed.” He rolls his eyes. “It would take a blind, deaf, and dumb man not to notice that.”
Shinji gives him a sympathetic look. “Ya poor thing,” he says and pats Ichigo on the shoulder. “No wonder you’d rather take on Soul Society. They’re like a married couple. An old, married, ugly couple. I mean, they’re kids would be hideous.”
Despite himself, Ichigo manages a chuckle and watches as Shinji strides forward without a care in the world. The argument reaches a crescendo – Ichigo’s not even listening to it anymore – but Shinji doesn’t even slow down. His hands snap out, and to Ichigo’s astonishment, he slaps both upside the head as though they are a couple of grade-schoolers.
“Children,” Shinji drawls with a wide grin and blatantly ignores the twin looks of betrayal, surprise, and fury that are shot his direction. “I expected better of ya. Can’t we all just get along?”
This is accompanied by some grand gesture of peace.
Kisuke sniffs sullenly, half-resembling a brat who’s just been scolded. “I thought you of all people would understand my position.”
“And you claim I’m the manipulator,” Aizen murmurs more to himself, but it’s enough to garner a furious glare from Kisuke anyway.
Shinji blithely ignores most of that. “Course I do. Sousuke here’s evil incarnate. Everyone hates him.” Smirking, Shinji glances at Aizen from the corner of his eye as though sharing some private joke. “Except now he’s as helpless as a baby. And he’s so cute like this. Look at those cheeks! They’re so round now! You’ve been gaining weight.” He makes a pinching motion with his fingers.
Fire smolders behind thin-rimmed glasses. “Not entirely, Hirako-san,” Aizen says tightly.
“Eh, close enough.”
Shinji slings an arm over Aizen’s shoulder as though their camaraderie has not faded for the passing years and the betrayal that lies between them. Or maybe this is just his idea of revenge.
“It certainly makes it easier to like you again,” he continues blithely. “And really, Hirako-san? We’re too far into this relationship for that. Shinji, Sou-chan. It’s Shinji.” He squeezes Aizen closely and all but rubs their faces together.
“Did you finish your discussion,” Kisuke interjects with amusement as Ichigo finally joins the three.
Of course, he’s wondering if all of them are being led by the nose by Shinji or if it’s just his imagination.
Shinji grins again. “Of course. And we’ve come to a decision.”
“Oh? Care to share?”
Ichigo takes this as his cue to speak. “We’re leaving here and going with Shinji. At least, they have a lot more space, and we won’t be so… cramped.”
And if Ichigo’s lucky, he can somehow put some space between the terrible twosome to stop their unending disagreements.
Kisuke frowns. “Is that your only reason?”
Tossing him a look, Ichigo shakes his head. “No. But I’ve not made any final plans yet either. For now, it’s just a move. I’m tired of sitting here and waiting. I want to leave. Go somewhere else. Anywhere else.”
“And who wouldn’t?” Shinji inserts with a pointed look around, almost as though he were chastising Kisuke for their living arrangements. “Ya can hardly breathe in here. And see, poor Sousuke’s already suffering. He’s practically withering away.”
“As if that would be such a loss,” Kisuke mutters.
But then, he jumps at the sudden lash of reiatsu that Shinji all but smacks him with.
“None of that now,” the older man admonishes and gives Aizen another squeeze as if in comfort. “We’re all friends here.”
Kisuke twitches. Aizen looks torn between severe agony and being smug for his own good. But that’s only briefly. Ichigo supposes that he’s realized that he is at the bottom of the food chain. And his presence is tolerated and not necessarily warranted. At least by most of them. Shinji just seems so damn glad to see him.
“Don’t worry, Sousuke!” Shinji chimes in, as though reading the other man’s mind. “We wouldn’t think ta leave ya behind.”
“We could,” Kisuke puts in petulantly.
Ichigo pretends that he didn’t hear that. Sometimes, he marvels at how much he really is the more mature one here. For all their lifespan and power, the Shinigami have always surprised him with how very juvenile they are.
“We aren’t,” Ichigo corrects and suppresses a weary rub of his head. “Like it or not, Aizen’s a part of this.” He shifts his attention to Shinji, pointedly ignoring the shocked widening of his lover’s eyes. “Can we leave now or are we waiting for something?”
Something gleams in Shinji’s gaze that Ichigo can’t quite recognize.
“Just waiting on ya ta pack your things,” Shinji announces, only to turn and sniff Aizen, who is still wedged beneath his arm. “And for ya and Sousuke ta shower, Ichigo. You both stink.”
Ichigo hastens to obey. Snagging the bathroom before Aizen can. And leaving the three men to glare and snipe and tease each other all they want without his interference.
Ichigo has mere seconds to register the threat before a tan and green blur races across the room and tackles him. Off balance, Ichigo tumbles, arms automatically wrapping around the warm attacker to prevent her from hitting the ground first.
“Itsygo! I missed ya so much!” Neliel wails, slobbering all over him as she clutches onto his shirt and tries to hug him into submission.
Staring up at the ceiling, Ichigo calmly pats her on the back. “Hi, Neliel,” he greets. Swearing that he sometimes has the patience of a saint. “It’s nice to see you, too.”
Bright eyes sparkle down at him from a face no longer trapped in a child’s body. Well, at least, not at this present time. Neliel’s transformations are still a little unstable, and she can randomly switch from one--
--to the next.
Grinning cheekily, Nel all but wriggles atop him. Not unlike a puppy greeting her master come home.
“It’s been forever. Nel thought ya had forgot ‘bout her by now!”
Chuckling, Kisuke steps up beside them and ruffles the Arrancar’s messy green hair. “Hello, Nel-chan. It’s nice to see that you’re doing so well.”
With another happy squeal, Nel leaps from her perch at Ichigo to assault Kisuke with one of her monster hugs. Ichigo, finally feeling that he can breathe, attempts to rise and is surprised when a hand suddenly appears in his line of sight. He takes Aizen’s offer gratefully, letting the former overlord pull him to his feet. Nel hits like a champion wrestler but with the force of a bullet train. In his human body, she would’ve crushed him. And that would’ve made him very, very unhappy.
“Still haven’t managed to control those transformations I take it,” Ichigo says to Shinji with a sidelong look.
The blond shrugs, scratching at his chin. “Nel’s a work in progress,” he responds with a grin. “She’s getting better at it though. But too much excitement makes it harder.”
Ichigo can’t help himself. He laughs.
“Makes things a little difficult in the bedroom I suppose,” he says and nearly crows when Shinji’s cheeks stain pink. A little revenge on his part.
“I kicked her out,” Shinji mumbles as Nel coos over Kisuke and he tickles her in return. “Until she can control everything, I mean.”
Which is probably a good thing. No doubt it’s rather… discomfiting to be in the midst of a passionate embrace. Only for your full-figured partner to suddenly pop back to toddler size. Major turn off.
Ichigo shakes his head. “Good luck.” He pats Shinji on the shoulder almost consolingly and takes the moment to roll his shoulders, ease the kink, and look around him.
After the war, the Vizard ran. Unwilling to be easily found by Soul Society. Ichigo expected them to embrace common sense and move into an apartment complex or share a large house or something else sensible. Or perhaps just not stick to each other like glue.
And at first appearance, Ichigo thought they’d done that very thing. From the outside, the building resembles a three-story apartment building complete with glinting windows, laundry lines, and a milling house cat in the nearby alley. Upon climbing the front steps and entering the door, however, Ichigo found himself stepping into a brief entryway. Just beyond it, a wide open space identifies the innards of another warehouse.
He should’ve known.
If Kisuke had any hand in helping them find this place, no doubt there is a secret underground training area somewhere in the warehouse. Ichigo looks forward to seeing it. Along the walls he spies a few doorways, no doubt leading to other rooms. He suspects Shinji will give them all the full tour later.
Nel calls his name again seconds before Ichigo feels her weight fall on his shoulder with legs kicking out behind her. She settles on him easily. Like he last saw her yesterday and not years ago. And Nel all but rubs her face up against his cheek in her excitement.
But then, Nel stills and turns to look at him with confused eyes.
“Ya feel different,” she says softly. “Kinda tingly.”
Ichigo freezes. “I do?” he questions and tries to keep his voice steady.
“Yeah… Not bad though.” Nel shrugs and perks up then. “And yer stayin’ awhile dis time, right? Right?”
Ichigo gives a smile and pats her head, inwardly relieved. She reminds him so much of his sisters that it sends a pang through his heart.
“Yeah. For a little while at least.”
Nel pumps her fist in the air in celebration. And promptly loses her hold on his shoulder, sliding to the floor with a little bounce.
Ichigo wishes he had that much energy. Instead, he just feels more and more tired lately. He’s too young to feel this way. Maybe what he needs is to let Shirosaki loose and rage on inanimate objects. It may refresh him. But he doubts it.
The other Vizard make an appearance then, perhaps drawn by the noise. And Ichigo smiles again at the sight of them. Familiar and friendly and largely unchanged. Except for the fact that they’re missing two of their own. That fact results in a lingering pall over the usually rowdy group, but Ichigo can’t blame them. The echoes of his own losses weigh heavily on him, too.
Rose, for reasons unknown to any of them, has cut his hair to just above his shoulders. And while it looks good on him, it’s a startling change. Maybe it has something to do with mourning for Kensei and Mashiro. Or the fact that his hair had been used against him during the war as a grip for one of the Espada. Ichigo doesn’t know, and he doesn’t ask. It’d be like prying open an old wound.
Beside Rose, as always, is Love. He looks largely the same. The shape of his sunglasses has changed, and he walks with a defined limp – something Inoue had been unable to cure before the Shinigami stole her powers from her. But he greets Ichigo with a grin nonetheless and watches Nel with an amused air.
Hachi arrives at his usual, sedate pace. He’s a little older looking, a little more stressed, but essentially the same. He’s taken Kensei and Mashiro’s deaths the hardest. Believing he could have been stronger, faster, more skilled… anything to have saved their lives. Ichigo understands; he lives those thoughts every night in his sleep and every time he thinks about those he failed to save.
Lisa appears, emerging from one of the doors and calmly adjusting her glasses with a motion that strongly reminds him of Ishida. Her hair is no longer in those restricting braids, rather flowing loosely down her back with the left side falling into her face. Yet, her bangs can’t quite hide the puckered, marred skin where she’d been caught in a fierce cero. Ichigo knows that the burns stretch even further, going down the side of her neck and the entire length of her arm. Most of the time, it’s completely useless. But Lisa can on occasion wriggle her fingers. Another causality from the war and Inoue’s loss of power.
These are the Vizard. Now Ichigo’s closest friends outside his classmates from Karakura and a select few from Soul Society. He’s bled with them and cried with them and fought with them. They’ve helped him tame Shirosaki. And he’s stood at their sides as they mourned their own. And they are the only ones who understand.
Maybe they’re a little strange. But consider the source. Former Shinigami now with Hollows living in their souls. That’s enough to change anyone. Besides, he suspects they were strange to begin with anyway.
A red and blonde smudge rips through the air. And Ichigo watches, amused, as Hiyori greets Kisuke with her foot. His lover doesn’t even bother to move. Just scratches his chin as Hiyori collides with his groin with a dull thunk. Seconds later, she drops back with a scowl still twisting her face as she bites her lip to hide the pain.
“Dammit,” she growls, hands bunches into fists before pointing one shaking finger. “That’s not playing by the rules!”
“Still wearing the cup I see,” Shinji comments before shoving his hands into his pockets and strolling further inside.
“It was the first thing I packed,” Kisuke returns solemnly and gazes down at his former subordinate. “Nice to see you, too, Hiyori. And as I recall, you always said that there were no rules.”
She sniffs, turning her nose up at him as her arms cross her chest. “Maybe for you.”
Ichigo just hopes that he’s slid under her radar. If there is one person who hasn’t changed for the war, it’s Hiyori. She’s still loud, obnoxious, and violent. Quite the charmer really. She should meet Goat-Face; Ichigo bets they’d get on like a house on fire.
“Come on, Nel,” Shinji says, grabbing the small Arrancar’s fingers. “Let’s show Ichigo where he’s gonna sleep.”
She cheers, and with a pop, a full-grown woman now stands in her place. Ample assets jiggling as Nel embraces Shinji wholeheartedly. Shinji, too full of himself to be embarrassed, gamely heads further into the warehouse. Likely assuming that Ichigo will follow.
Ichigo simply moves to follow and hears Kisuke step up beside him. Making a beeline for Love and Rose as though planning to catch up on old pastimes. Hiyori dogs his steps, a glint of revenge in her eyes.
“Your Hollow is restless,” Lisa comments to Ichigo as he passes, giving him a once-over. “He’ll break loose if you’re not careful.”
Ichigo shakes his head. “We’ve come to an understanding,” he reassures her and glances around pointedly. “But just in case, where can I let off some steam? I know there’s a nearly indestructible room here somewhere.”
Smirking, Lisa jerks a thumb from her unscarred hand over her shoulder, towards one of the doors tucked away in a corner. “You’d be right. Through there and down the rabbit hole.”
Ichigo nearly has a bounce in his step. He feels so goddamn free it’s like he can breathe again. The feeling of a vice closing about his chest is loosening now, and Ichigo suspects it’ll get even better once he can finally bear Zangetsu again. Feel his zanpakutou in his hand and allow his reiatsu to flow free.
It takes Ichigo a minute to realize that he’s heard little from Aizen since they arrived. Or to be more precise, he hasn’t heard anything from the man at all.
He turns, finding that Aizen’s lingering at the back of the crowd. He is completely composed, shoulders straight, standing tall. But there’s a wariness in his eyes that proves Aizen is very much aware that he’s surrounded by those who do not consider him a friend. Or even an ally.
The Vizard give him a mixture of annoyed and skittish looks. Clearly not pleased by his presence. Nel stares at him, curious. Kisuke is doing a fantastic job of pretending that Aizen doesn’t exist. And Shinji has an almost frightening gleam in his eye.
But Aizen catches him looking then. Ichigo pauses, letting the mixed crowd pass by until he and Aizen are in speaking range.
“Are you certain this move was necessary?” Aizen asks, perhaps his only outward sign of discomfort.
Ichigo arches one brow. “If you want to put me on a throne, you’re going to need power to do it. And despite what everyone thinks, I’m not enough on my own.”
“I wasn’t aware that you had accepted my goals,” Aizen returns smoothly.
Ichigo shrugs. “I haven’t. I’m just doing what I have to do.” He smiles, crooked and maybe a little mischievous on its own. “Try not to antagonize them too much. We really do need their help.”
Then, he turns and walks away. Following in Shinji’s wake as though he hasn’t a care in the world. And the entire time it takes him to walk across the room, he feels Aizen’s eyes staring after him.
/n: I still don't know how much longer this thing will be. I have up to chapter 22 written and there's at least ten more chapters to cover after that. Yes, it's a slow-paced, character-driven story. Guess I should've warned for that. My bad.
Well, I hope you enjoyed anyway. The plot starts to pick up now, as relationships shift, truth emerges, and decisions are made. Thanks!