Links to prior chapters can be found here.
Title: A Beautiful Lie
Pairings: Urahara/Ichigo, Aizen/Ichigo
Warning: Spoilers for recent chapters, Character death, Yaoi-ness, Post-war fic, Violence
Description: Years after the painful end, the echoes of war still prove their influence, and Ichigo discovers a dead man in his kitchen.
Chapter Twenty-Two: Overshare
Shinji talks in his sleep.
Ichigo could have lived his entire life without knowing that, but circumstances as they are, he doesn’t have many options. He could continue to share his room – and a bed – with Kisuke, but Ichigo would rather not be anywhere near the bastard at the moment. Bunking with the other Vizard is even less appealing, and no way in hell will he share a room with Isshin.
Shinji it is then.
And Ichigo doesn’t even feel guilty about forcing Aizen out either. Between his and Kisuke’s bickering, Ichigo’s pretty annoyed with him, too. Granted, it is to a lesser extent… but still. Aizen can bunk with Kisuke for all Ichigo cares. And the two of them can bicker and snipe at each other all night long until their faces turn blue and their voices go hoarse.
At this point, he’s through with being the understanding one. The patient one who puts up with everything because he just doesn’t care anymore. And he’s damn tired of being the last one to know.
So fuck them.
The crunch of footsteps over soil and rock alerts Ichigo to the fact he is not alone. Though he’d also sensed familiar reiatsu approaching. Obviously, his visitor wanted him to know he’s coming.
Ichigo snorts and opens his eyes to see Shinji standing over him, expression unreadable. “Am not,” he counters and pulls himself into a sitting position. “And even if I was, could you blame me?”
“Oooh, defensive and denial all at once. See how I’m not believing ya?”
Rolling his eyes, Ichigo drags a hand through his hair, still in desperate need of a hair cut. He’s starting to look shaggier than usual. Not that he cares. And Kisuke did seem to like it. Not that Ichigo cares about that either. Not anymore.
“Did you come here just to mock me, or did you have something important to say?”
Shinji shrugs. “A little bit of both perhaps.” There’s a strange gleam to his eye that Ichigo’s sure he should be wary of. “Let me guess, two certain former Shinigami are occupying your thoughts at the moment?”
“Wow. How very astute of you,” Ichigo drawls, rising to his feet and brushing bits of dust from his clothes. “You must be a mind-reader.”
The blond arches a brow. “Don’t get smart with me, kid. I ain’t the one that lied to ya.”
His shoulders slump a little. He had been a bit too snappish he supposes.
“Sorry. I know,” he says bitterly. “That’s more Kisuke’s specialty. And Isshin even more than that.”
“Don’t worry about him.” An arm slings over his shoulder and drags him into an uninvited half-hug. “Ya have two father figures. Granted, they both want ta screw ya into the floor, but the point is, there really isn’t room for Isshin.” Shinji pauses, brow furrowing with fake concern as he looks at Ichigo in all seriousness. “He’s never touched ya in a bad place, has he?”
Disgusted, Ichigo elbows Shinji in the side and slips out from the half-embrace. “You’re such an idiot,” he mutters with another roll of his eyes. “Besides, you’re wrong about Aizen. He sees me as a tool. Not a potential bedmate.”
Shinji hums in amusement. “Oh, Ichigo, how very unaware you are.”
“Yes, but that obliviousness makes ya cute.” Shinji lifts his hands in a dismissing gesture. “Then again, I suppose Kisuke does make for a very distracting cockblocker.”
Ichigo’s eyes widen as he fights down a blush. ‘Shinji!” he hisses, reiatsu rattling through his body. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“Oh, nothing. Nothing.” The blond is far too smug for his own good as he tries to direct Ichigo toward the steps leading from the basement back to civilization. “Tell ya what. I have a surprise for ya.”
Understandably, Ichigo is wary. Especially with Shinji’s last surprise.
“I’m not sure I want it.”
The older man laughs, all but pushing Ichigo to go faster. “Something ta take yer mind off things.”
Somehow, that comment fails to relieve any of his concerns.
“Something like what?” Ichigo demands, finding it easier to move than resist Shinji’s efforts.
“Like dinner!” his friend announces cheerfully. “Ya like food, don’t cha?”
Why is Ichigo suddenly struck with the urge to run screaming into the night? Maybe it has something to do with Shinji’s shark-like grin. Or the unconscious shudder that grips his body at the thought of what the blond means by dinner. And the implications about the main course.
“Food, yes. Your suggested company? Probably not,” Ichigo retorts with a scowl and hopes to all the gods who hate him that Kisuke hadn’t been recruited to cook. He still likes living thanks very much.
Shinji laughs again. And Ichigo knows that he’s doomed.
A fact that is confirmed within two seconds of sitting down at the table. Dinner is awkward, and that’s putting it in a nice way. Ichigo doesn’t know why Shinji seems to think it’ll work. What with the tension that sizzles through the air like the sky charged from a thunderstorm. No one’s smiling. No one’s talking. Most of them are barely eating, and eyes dart surreptitiously this way and that.
Isshin, placed at one end of the table, alternates between glaring at Kisuke and watching his son like a man scorned. Kisuke, sitting across from Ichigo, keeps tossing apologetic looks his direction. Even as he twitches around in his seat to dodge Hiyori’s attempts to kick him under the table. Shinji is still far too smug for his own good with Aizen uncomfortable to be surrounded by so many potential enemies. Nel – or Neliel as she’s in her adult form – is worried but pretending hard that she isn’t.
And yeah, it was kind of weird to catch her and Shinji kissing earlier. That’s something Ichigo hadn’t ever wanted to see.
The food is good. With the smell enough to make Ichigo’s mouth water and for him to recognize it as Aizen’s creation. But he’s not hungry. He’s pushing the curry around on his plate, pretending to be interested, and wishing to be anywhere but there. Placed between Neliel and Aizen. Ichigo notices that they’ve all been artfully arranged, as childish as that sounds. He wouldn’t be surprised if Shinji actually sat down and created a seating arrangement.
Even the Vizard are uncomfortable. Save for Lisa. Who seems to be the only one able to eat without any problems.
“You know, for once, this isn’t Aizen’s fault,” Lisa murmurs, voice cutting through the silence and making half the attendants startle in surprise.
Ichigo looks up, the truth of her words nearly startling.
Shinji, however, sniggers. “You’re right.” He relaxes just a tad now that the immediate tension has been broken. “Sou-chan’s not involved in this one at all.”
“He’ll just use it to his advantage later,” Kisuke mutters with a snort. As always, never one to pass up being snide at Aizen’s expense.
Rolling his eyes, Ichigo sets down his chopsticks and rubs his fingers over his chest. Right over his sternum where it’s been aching rather unusually lately.
“Now, now, Ki-kun, let’s be honest about this,” Shinji says chidingly. “We all know that Sousuke wasn’t the one who took advantage here.”
Kisuke’s jaw all but drops. “You… you… but you agreed with me earlier!”
“Did I now? I don’t quite remember.” Shinji rolls his eyes away from his fellow blond and chews on his curry.
Kisuke looks as if he’s been smacked with a dead fish, and Ichigo’s hard pressed to say anything in his lover’s defense. He’s not in the mood to deal with any bickering, so he’s glad that Shinji nipped that right in the bud. But he doesn’t really want to have his dirty laundry aired either.
“What, Kisuke? No clever answer? No smooth denial?” Isshin inserts sharply, a hint of a smug grin curving at his lips. “I thought you were good at those.”
Ichigo watches as Kisuke’s fingers tighten around his chopsticks. A look of betrayal flashing over his features. Which are all too easy to see without the concealment of his hat.
“Not as good as everyone seems to think,” the shopkeeper answers with a touch of humility. “I know the things that I am and am not guilty of. I’d never purposefully hurt Ichigo.”
“Always a liar,” Goat-Face says sweetly and bares his teeth in a manner that could be taken as threatening.
Ichigo shakes his head. Very unwilling to let Isshin get away with that statement.
“That’s rich coming from you,” he puts in with a scowl.
Kisuke isn’t the only liar here. And Ichigo will be damned if he allows the blond to take all the blame. Even if he’s still mad at him.
“He’s got ya there, Isshin,” Shinji adds with a snicker, unable to resist. “Pots and kettles and all that.”
Ichigo, at this point, can’t tell whose side Shinji’s on. Or if he’s even on a side. He seems to be attacking from all directions. Not minding that the conversation is only increasing the tension at the table.
Isshin’s gaze focuses on Shinji with fire smoldering behind his eyes. “You stay out of this.”
“Ya were eager fer my help earlier,” Shinji retorts and gestures vaguely, never one to stick to polite behavior. “What’s changed since then? Don’t like getting chastised by a kid half your age.”
“More than half,” someone mutters under his breath.
It takes Ichigo a moment to track down the speaker, gazing at Love with narrowed eyes. Still, the older Vizard’s comment stirs something inside of him. Reminding Ichigo of several points that have yet to be made or answered. He straightens. Interest in the meal completely forgotten.
“You know, Shinji, you make a good point,” Ichigo says and looks at Isshin frostily. “How old are you, Dad? It’s not like I’d know since you’re as good as a stranger to me.” He pauses, considering. “And is Kurosaki even our name?”
He watches as the man stiffens. Two steps away from concocting another lie that’s sure to piss Ichigo off.
“We can talk family matters after dinner, son,” Goat-Face tries to deflect.
“It’s a private affair,” Kisuke agrees, sticking his nose in and only digging himself a deeper hole.
Ichigo feels his own reiatsu surge briefly. “You lost your chance at privacy,” he bites out. Since damn it, these two idiots haven’t learned a thing. He looks at Kisuke. “And you need to decide where you stand. Or just shut the fuck up now.”
Shinji nods sagely. “Yeah, no more straddling the fence, Ki-kun.”
“I don’t need you sticking your nose in this, Kisuke,” Isshin adds. Expression thunderous and his food largely untouched.
Some dinner this turned out to be.
“You’ve done enough,” Goat-Face continues. “More than enough.”
“You’ve done his son enough,” Love mumbles into his cup.
And though it probably wasn’t meant to be heard, his comment attracts everyone’s attention. Shinji snickers, but some of the others have the grace to look mortified. Neliel seems torn. Like she can’t quite decide how to react. And Goat-Face is just plain pissed off.
“That one was actually really good,” Shinji inserts then. “Ya even made Sou-chan laugh.”
Next to him, Aizen shakes his head mutely. And leans back in his seat to get out of the line of fire.
“You think this is a joke,” Isshin snarls. There’s a dark cloud hanging over his head that looks thunderous. “It’s not funny, Hirako. We’re talking about my son here.”
Ichigo nearly hopes Goat-Face does do something as stupid as attacking one of his friends. That way Ichigo has an excuse to punch him again.
“I also happen to be sitting right here,” Ichigo states through clenched teeth. “And I don’t appreciate you pretending I’m not.”
“No one’s pretending anything,” Goat-Face insists, directing his attention at Ichigo now. “I want you to see that he’s not a good choice for you.”
“And now would be the part when you tell me who’d be better.” Ichigo’s stomach churns at the mere thought. “Spare me the bullshit. The last thing I want is advice from you.”
“Remember what Ki-kun told ya ‘bout that?” Shinji questions then, nearly sing-song. “Maybe ya shoulda listened.”
Goat-Face glowers at him. “It’s true, and everyone here knows it.” His attention flickers to Kisuke. “You’re not good for him.”
And if that isn’t a dare to argue, than Ichigo doesn’t know what is.
“You’re his father, Isshin. But this is a matter between us,” Kisuke reminds him with forced calm. “He’s old enough to decide for himself.”
“Is that how you justify it? Any of it?” Isshin’s eyes are slits, and his reiatsu rises around him to shimmer like a heat wave. “Using my son as a substitute for Yoruichi?” He sneers. “Tell me, did you imagine--”
“That’s enough.” It’s low and nearly a growl. Yet, Ichigo’s voice manages to cut through as if he’d shouted. “Do not finish that thought.”
He knows what Goat-Face would imply, and Ichigo hates that just a mention of it is enough to make something churn and tighten in his stomach. He hates that similar thoughts once crossed his own mind and were as quickly dismissed. Ichigo doesn’t want Isshin to bring up those old insecurities. He has enough problems already.
But wisely, Isshin clamps his mouth shut. And the uncomfortable silence returns to the dining room, hanging over everyone. It’s thicker and heavier than before. Now sizzling with bits of reiatsu. Ichigo wonders how Shinji could’ve ever thought this would work. And he ponders what he has to do to make a clever escape. He wants nothing more than to flee to a room and hide. Or perhaps head down to the basement where he can blast his annoyance and anger at the rocks.
Across the table, Lisa pops a bit of rice into her mouth and chews thoughtfully. Her eyes go from Isshin at the end. To Ichigo. And back in Kisuke’s direction. She takes a slow drink of water before turning by to the table at large.
“So…” she begins in a tone that somehow makes Ichigo apprehensive. “At least the sex is good. Or was.” She pauses. “But there are benefits to angry, make up sex, right?”
Ichigo’s chopsticks freeze midair. He’s not the only one who turns to stare at her with a mixture of disbelief and horror. And Ichigo knows that his cheeks are burning. This isn’t exactly appropriate dinner conversation. Not that the previous topics were any better.
“What… What are you…?”
Ichigo’s at a loss for words. Understandably so.
“It’s always better with a bit of passion,” Lisa continues, stirring her curry without thought. “Right? Like after you spar when you’re all hot and sweaty and filled with adrenaline. Trust me. I’ve heard you.” And then she winks, as though this were all some big secret.
Ichigo chokes on air. Unable to form a proper response. And Lisa’s boldness has pretty much shut up everyone else at the table, too. He wonders if this is something common with them.
“Though I guess you like it gentle, too. It’s nice to see that,” Lisa continues after a minute.
As though it doesn’t matter to her that Ichigo’s redder than a tomato and Kisuke looks like he’s forgotten how to breathe. Or that Isshin’s about ready to implode.
“What? Two men on equal terms?” Rose suggests with a snort. He doesn’t seem too bothered by the conversation.
“That’s one way of putting it.” Love lifts a brow, sunglasses perched on his nose and hiding the expression in his eyes.
Shinji sighs. The sort of sound a leader makes when he realizes his subordinates are not listening to him as well as he thought.
“Been installin’ those cameras again, haven’t ya?” he asks Lisa with a firm frown. “Didn’t we have a talk ‘bout that?”
Neliel decides now is the perfect time to add in her two cents. “Not this time. She was watching through the crack in the door.”
How Neliel knows that is almost as disturbing as the knowledge that Lisa was peeping in on them. And a part of Ichigo feels like sinking through his chair and then the floor to the basement beyond. And then possibly further. To the center of the earth and out the other side where people were sane.
Shinji pins Lisa down with a look that borders on exasperation. “I thought we talked ‘bout that, too.”
“You never actually said I couldn’t.” She flicks her hair over her shoulder. “Just that it wasn’t appropriate behavior and was frowned upon.”
Ichigo can tell that it’s actually a direct quote.
Across the table, Kisuke somehow fights through his mortification. “If I’d known, I would’ve charged a fee.”
It’s obviously a weak attempt at dissolving the tension. And it fails spectacularly.
Isshin nearly suffocates on either his next bite or his own tongue. To his right, Hachi reaches out to pat the him across the back. But really, Ichigo feels a bit like choking himself. And on Neliel’s other side, Hiyori makes a sound that’s a cross between a squeak and a squawk. Obviously wanting to be somewhere, anywhere else.
“You could probably make a tidy profit,” Lisa comments and then eyes Ichigo as if appraising his possible value. “Though I could’ve made a good bit from footage of him and Ukitake together, too.”
Shinji plants his chin on his palm and his elbow on the table. “Jyuushiro would’ve never allowed that ta happen. He’s too old-fashioned.”
“But a girl can dream.” Lisa shrugs and diverts her attention back to Ichigo again. “By the way, just how good was he? I never had a chance with him, so I’m curious. I bet he’s wonderful. A few thousand years old and undoubtedly very practiced.” She gives a sound like a girly sigh mixed with a purr.
“Nah,” Shinji corrects before Ichigo can recover from his horror. “They never went that far. Ya’re just listenin’ ta rumor there.”
“Though it wasn’t for lack of trying on Ichigo’s part,” Love puts in from a few seats down. “Or Shunsui’s I’d imagine.”
And how the fuck does he know something like that? Have they all been spying on him? Ichigo has never realized just how much his sex life – or just his life in general – is of interest to others. And he really needs to be more aware of his surroundings too now that he thinks about it. He hadn’t even noticed them watching him.
“Really?” Lisa ponders this until her eyes subtly widen; she stares at Ichigo, glasses glinting in the light over the table. “Don’t tell me Kisuke’s your first? You poor, poor boy.” She almost reaches across the table to give him a commiserating pat. “He’s certainly not the best I ever had. You should’ve gone for Ukitake first. Or even Shunsui. He would’ve taken one for the team for you.”
Ichigo wants to both die of embarrassment and just plain attack all at once. His face is hotter than Ryuujin Jakka, and the thudding in his chest has to be his heart trying to flee from sheer mortification.
“I’ve had a girlfriend!” he declares and defends at the same time. Trapped somewhere between furious and annoyed as he jabs out a finger. “I’m not that pathetic!”
Of course, he was in his twenties when he started dating Haruhi. But they don’t need to know that.
And either way, they completely ignore him.
“Wait a minute,” Shinji insists, an almost cruel smirk curling his lips. “Let’s go back to this he wasn’t the best you ever had.”
Lifting her shoulders, Lisa stirs her chopsticks around her curry. “He just wasn’t.” She plucks out some kind of sauce-drenched vegetable. “Isshin, on the other hand… He ranks pretty high up there.”
Ichigo sputters and coughs in quick succession.
That’s something he never, ever wanted to hear. And he swears that he can hear the sound of jaws collectively dropping around the table. Since really, the idea of Goat-Face and sex makes his soul want to curl up, quiver, and just die. He often pretends that his mom had him and his sisters through artificial means, which is the only way his sanity stays mostly intact.
“Ooo.” Love has a teasing grin of his own. “That has to burn.”
“Well, I guess he has to be better at something,” Rose adds, brushing hair from his face. “All things considered, there isn’t much left after smarts, power, and good looks.”
Something very horrible occurs to Ichigo then. A terrible and downright infuriating thought. And he shakes himself out of his shock as he glares at Isshin and puts the fury of both Zangetsu and Shirosaki behind his eyes.
“This better’ve been before you met my mom,” he warns. And if he finds out Goat-Face is a cheating bastard on top of being a lying asshole, violence will most definitely ensue.
Lisa waves a hand through the air. “Way before, kid. We hadn’t even left Soul Society, so don’t worry about it.” Her thumb and forefinger trace the curve of her lips as if wiping away some taste morsel. “Though back to the previous topic, even if Kisuke wasn’t your first, you can’t have too much experience. Would you like to try a woman?”
Ichigo can’t decide which is more mortifying. That his past experience is being dissected and debated at the dinner table. Or that a woman who made Kisuke and Isshin one of her past conquests is now expressing interest in him, too. If the gates of hell opened before him now, Ichigo might just jump in to escape. Really, it can’t possibly be worse punishment than this.
And that almost horrified squawk comes from Hachi’s direction. As if she’s finally crossed some line that he’s decided is too much for him.
She rolls her eyes. “What?” the brunette demands with an annoyed sniff. “I’ve had the father. Might as well try the son. Skill might be inherited. And I bet Shunsui showed him some good stuff for Ukitake.”
Ichigo, beyond mortified, is two steps away from running. No matter how much trouble Shinji went to organize this dinner, nothing can make him sit through this. Their friendship be damned.
However, an unexpected voice cuts through the amused titters and shocked silence. One that before this had remained quiet.
“That’s enough,” Aizen says, tone lacking any trace of mirth. “This isn’t an appropriate topic. Much less for the dinner table or about someone you claim as an ally and friend.”
Ichigo’s thoughts exactly. Did Lisa have no shame? No sense of modesty or suitable behavior?
But unfortunately for him, Aizen has just painted a target on his back. And Lisa’s eyes swivel his direction and narrow behind her glasses.
“You’re just worried I’ll start on you next,” she says with an edge of something behind her voice. Something sharp and furious that was missing from her previous, playful tone.
“Gods, Lisa, who hasn’t made it into your bed?” Neliel inserts with an exasperated tone.
Ichigo hopes beyond hoping that the question is rhetorical. Regrettably, whichever god is looking over him is not in a merciful mood. And must not like him much truth be told.
“I haven’t!” Shinji announces gleefully. Practically waving his hand in the air like he’s proud of that particular fact.
“And obviously not Jyuushiro,” Ichigo mutters to himself since he had to pick up that little tidbit whether he wanted to hear or not.
“Or Shunsui,” Lisa adds, adjusting her glasses with the tip of her finger in a manner that is strongly reminiscent of Ishida.
“A good thing, considering his relations to Sousuke,” Shinji throws out there a second later.
Ichigo blinks, having forgotten that piece of information. Something Shunsui had admitted to him years ago, during the war and before he died. Eyes sorrowful and downcast as he told Ichigo of the nephew he’d raised as a son. Only to have the same man turn on them all later on. Only for the same man to kill him.
Lisa sniffs. Though she can’t possibly be offended. Not after airing her dirty laundry without any hesitation whatsoever.
“I just like to try new things. And make a memorable first impression.” She says the last with an obvious leer Aizen’s direction.
Beside him, Aizen stiffens. It only takes Ichigo a few seconds to connect one insinuation to the next. And a part of him thinks he ought to stop her now before she really starts to embarrass all of them, but it’s too late. Lisa’s got malice and wrath both in her eyes, and it’s all directed at Aizen.
She purrs as she looks at the former overlord. Somehow sounding seductive and murderous all at once.
“Isn’t that right, Sousuke?” Her tone is pleasant and full of pure malice. “Being as you know from personal experience.”
Ichigo can’t find the appropriate words to fight back. But to his surprise, it’s actually Shinji who comes to Aizen’s rescue.
“Not all of us can be a revolvin’ door,” the blond cuts in then. “Some favor stability.”
“I think it’s sweet,” Neliel comments brightly, one of the few at the table who seems to have enjoyed her meal. “To wait like that. Very sweet.”
“Pathetic,” Kisuke coughs into his fist as though everyone at the table is stupid enough to believe that old trick. “Honestly, Sou-chan. How old were you?”
Shinji tosses him a disappointed look. Honestly, Ichigo’s in agreement.
“That’s a nasty cough you got there, Ki-kun.” Shinji’s eyes are narrowed and his grin almost nasty. “Ya should get it checked out.”
“Ichigo’s dad is a doctor, yes?” Neliel points out with a sincere smile. Happy to help.
And really, she should just stop while she’s ahead.
“Maybe he should look at Aizen. There’s certainly something wrong with him,” Hiyori suggests petulantly, proving that she hasn’t been completely destroyed by the mind-numbing conversation. Only temporarily silenced.
Ichigo, in the meantime, exhales. Lifting a hand to rub over his sternum where it feels like a vibrating throb is trying to push through his chest. It’s always worse with stress. And this certainly hasn’t helped.
He glances from one person to the next. Hearing the rise of their voices as they murmur amongst themselves. And finally, he’s had enough.
“I think an even better question would be how any of you expect us to get into Soul Society, find the Royal Key, and try to put someone new on the throne,” Ichigo inserts loudly enough to be heard over everyone.
The silence that sweeps through the room is largely contemplative and surprised. But mostly lacking the tension it previously held. And for that, Ichigo is grateful. So long as there’s no longer any sniping or sex talk.
Shinji sets down his chopsticks and pushes his plate away. “It won’t be easy.”
“Not easy?” Love puts his elbows on the table. “It’s kind of like hitting a bullet with a smaller bullet while riding a horse. Blindfolded.”
“It’ll certainly take careful planning,” Rose agrees, sitting back in his chair and pursing his lips. He, too, looks a bit relieved for the change in topic.
“There’s the Royal Guard to consider,” Hachi comments quietly and laces his fingers together. “Not to mention the Gotei 13.”
Kisuke leans forward, cheeks still fighting off a blush though he presents a put together façade. “Current infighting suggests we may not have as many Shinigami to contend with as you think.”
“True,” Shinji agrees.
And finally, it’s a normal conversation. Granted, it’s more about war and invasion, but the topic isn’t sex. Ichigo couldn’t be more pleased.
“But there are still enough ta give us trouble,” Shinji continues after a short pause. “And not all of us are any use at this point.”
“And not everyone can enter Soul Society either,” Hachi adds, closing his eyes as he considers. “Though I might be able to think of a way to bypass that limitation given enough time.”
“How about a week?” Ichigo asks.
Hachi shakes his head. “Not that quickly, no. I’d need at least a month.”
“Well, we don’t have it.”
The restlessness inside of Ichigo demands an outlet. Secrets and lies, they leave him trapped. Coming to here from the house eased some of the tension, but Goat-Face’s appearance and the subsequent arguments leave Ichigo uneasy. Make him eager to get the hell out of here for just about any reason.
Shinji shifts to look at him with a raised brow. “Is there really that much of a hurry?”
“I’m tired of sitting around on my ass and waiting for something to happen,” Ichigo explains, fingers tapping against the table. “The sooner we move, the less time Soul Society has to think of what we might do.”
“But… less than a month?” Kisuke questions, voice thick with concern. Probably worried about his sanity, but hell, half of this is the blond’s fault anyway. “Exactly how soon are you meaning here, Ichigo?”
“Within two weeks,” he answers firmly, leaving no room for argument. If they disagree… well, he’ll just do this on his own; he has before. “That gives us enough time to plan and practice if need be.”
Shinji winces. “That’s cutting it pretty damn close.”
“At this point, things can’t possibly get any worse for me. Might as well give it what I got,” Ichigo puts in with a nonchalant shrug. Though from the vibrating in his reiatsu, they can probably read a different story out of him.
He watches as Shinji opens his mouth. Only to clamp it closed again. Obviously biting back an argument. But there’s a look in his eyes that clearly states the time line will be discussed later.
“So… what? You want to talk battle plans now?” Hiyori demands.
Ichigo shakes his head. The emotions flickering around the room and his own sense of fatigue make that damn near impossible.
“No. But tomorrow’s good.”
Hiyori nearly suffocates on her next breath. As if she hadn’t expected him to be that serious.
“Besides,” Ichigo adds. “The last time I tried to storm Soul Society I had even less time, less planning, and less help. And we turned out okay.”
He pointedly does not look at Kisuke while mentioning this. Though Goat-Face directs a glare the shopkeeper’s direction anyway.
“What about the Hougyoku?” Aizen asks from beside him.
Unconsciously, Ichigo feels himself stiffening. He hadn’t expected anyone to think of its existence. Why would they? It’d be logical to assume the damn thing was gone now.
“I destroyed it,” Kisuke replies instead.
He can’t resist trading a glance with Ichigo. Who only shakes his head in a minute gesture and pretends that his half-eaten, now-cold curry is the most fascinating thing he’s ever seen.
Aizen snorts with a small smirk curling his lip. He looks from Ichigo to Kisuke and back. Gaze unreadable behind his glasses.
Ichigo tenses further, reiatsu flickering around him involuntarily.
“Maybe so.” Kisuke is nonplussed by Aizen’s accusation and completely poker-faced. “But where it is, it’s safe. And that’s all anyone needs to know.”
Shinji’s eyes narrow into thin slits. “Why didn’t ya destroy it?”
“He can’t,” Aizen answers, sounding a touch too smug. “Not without causing a crater the size of Seireitei. The outpouring of energy would be too massive to contain or conceal.”
All things that Ichigo already knows.
Shinji turns towards Kisuke and pins him down with the force of his glare alone. “What do ya mean by ‘safe’ then?”
“As in someplace no one will ever be able to get a hold of it,” Kisuke returns firmly. But his gaze doesn’t quite meet Shinji’s own.
“Since that worked so well the first time.” Love casts a vague glance Aizen’s direction.
Kisuke sighs. A bit of steel enters his spine and chases away the lost-puppy look that so recently made a home on his face.
“The circumstances this time are different,” he insists. “Believe me when I say, the Hougyoku is safe. It won’t be used by the enemy. And we aren’t going to use it either. It’s better left forgotten.”
“Strange to hear such caution from you,” Shinji remarks, and his tone is contemplative rather than malicious. Almost… approving.
Kisuke’s eyes flicker to him as he rises to his feet. “Sometimes, people change,” he says and pauses as though planning to continue. But he just shakes his head. “Dinner was good. Thank you.”
He leaves without allowing anyone to protest his exit. Effectively ending the query about the Hougyoku. Ichigo bites back a sigh of relief. It’s better if no one thinks to ask him about the damn thing because Ichigo knows he’s not as good at hiding secrets as everyone else. Besides, Kisuke’s right. It’s better left forgotten and buried.
Dinner is pretty much a bust after that. Everybody exchanges a glance, and they slowly start to get up afterwards. Or not so slowly in other cases. Hiyori is the first out the door, and Ichigo can’t decide if she’s chasing after Kisuke or just running away. Love and Rose are next, leaving together. Hachi sneaks away in the meantime, while Lisa stretches, yawns, and then walks away without a care in the world. Goat-Face lingers, as if hoping to corner Ichigo, but a look from Shinji and a flare of reiatsu send him out with his tail between his legs. Neliel slides from her seat but stops by the door, and it takes Ichigo a second to realize that she’s waiting for Shinji. Who’s come up behind Ichigo’s chair with an obvious mind to talk.
“Ya’ve got ta sleep somewhere else tonight,” Shinji says without preamble.
“You’re kicking me out?” Ichigo demands and accuses both. Rising to his feet in a huff.
Shinji just looks at him. “Sousuke was there first. And ya kick in yer sleep. So either all three of us share – with him in the middle, mind ya – or ya go find somewhere else.”
Ichigo can’t believe it. But then, this is Shinji. And nothing he does ever makes sense. And well… alright. Aizen was there first. Not that he’ll admit that aloud.
“Where should I go then?” he asks. Now more tired than anything.
“I dunno. Maybe back ta yer room,” the blond suggests, and he holds his hands up when Ichigo nearly growls. “Kick Kisuke out if ya want. He won’t fight ya over it. And he’ll think that it’ll earn him brownie points ta be so agreeable. Maybe it actually will. Besides, he and Isshin need to work things out, and this’ll be a good opportunity.”
That… That is actually a good suggestion now that Ichigo thinks about it. It’s his room too dammit! He has just as much right to be there. Why the hell did he even leave in the first place when Kisuke was the one who fucked up?
So yeah, Ichigo’s taking it back.
Shinji grins at him. As if reading his mind. He pats Ichigo once and then puts his hands in his pockets.
“There now. See? Ya’ve got it all covered.” He turns for the door and Neliel still waiting for him. “Oh, I added yer name to the chore calendar. Yer on dish duty tonight, Ichigo,” Shinji calls over his shoulder as he leaves.
Ichigo scowls at his back as he walks through the door. Bastard should’ve told him that earlier. The conversation about sleeping arrangements was probably just a cover for it. Which is so like Shinji, too. And Kisuke, truth be told. Always dancing around the issue at hand.
He frowns at that and rolls his shoulder before turning back to the table. Only to stop short. Aizen’s still there, in the room. And he’s actually in the process of clearing the table. Which he really shouldn’t have to do since he made dinner. But the other Vizard can be jerks that way, and Aizen is smart enough not to argue.
In fact, he barely even glances up as Ichigo goes over to help him. And the two of them work together without comment. Going back and forth between the table and the kitchen in an amicable sort of silence. Not strained like it was before, during dinner.
And soon, the table is clear and all the dishes are clean. And the two of them are just standing quietly in the kitchen by the counter. Not really inclined to leave and once more embrace the insanity.
But soon enough, Ichigo’s voice cuts through the silence.
“Thanks,” he says then with a nod of his head. “For earlier. With Lisa.”
Aizen glances at him. Weighing and measuring. Until he decides that Ichigo is sincere and not using it as a lead in for mockery.
“She was out of line,” the older man comments as he sets down a dish towel. “She had no right to say those things to you. Or anyone else for that matter.”
“Yeah,” Ichigo agrees and rubs a hand over his head, “tell me about it. She doesn’t know when to shut up. None of them do. It’s so aggravating.”
“Very true.” And Aizen actually chuckles. “A common problem among those from Soul Society and Seireitei in particular. Or so I’ve noticed.”
“Were they always like that? The Vizard? Kisuke? Isshin?” Ichigo questions and waves a vague hand. “Like they are now. All up in other people’s business. Watching them. Spying on them.” The last part is said with a shudder.
Aizen tilts his head back as if recalling, but he frowns at the specks of water dotting his glasses. “For the most part, yes. Gossip is still a favored pastime in Seireitei and has been since long before I was born. Undoubtedly, it still will be long after we’re both gone. As for the Vizard themselves…” He gives an elegant shrug. “They’re far more like the Shinigami than they care to think.”
“Well,” Ichigo acknowledges, “they were all once Shinigami themselves, right? That’s what Shunsui told me. That Lisa,” and yes, he mostly keeps the distaste out of his voice as he says her name, “was in his squad. I think he said that Kensei was head of the ninth, too.”
“Yes, they all were once Shinigami,” Aizen replies after a second, pulling out a cloth from his pocket. “In fact, I once served under Hirako-san. As his fukutaichou.”
“Shinji was your boss?” Ichigo repeats incredulously, and he can’t quite hold in the sniggers that follow. “Oh… man. I feel sorry for you. He was horrible, wasn’t he?”
Aizen removes his glasses to wipe them off. “Not as bad as he could’ve been,” he responds cryptically. “And certainly, better than others.”
“But still not as good as some,” Ichigo needles as he turns to look at the brunet fully. “Made you do all the paperwork, didn’t he? Made you do all the hard work while he lounged around?”
Aizen offers another shrug. Still cleaning his glasses and occasionally inspecting them for streaks.
Ichigo can admit that it’s odd seeing him like this. Without his glasses but with his hair not slicked back like it was during the war. It makes him seem different. Less dangerous and homicidal. And really, he’s not bad looking either. Not at all and certainly not plain, despite that fact that his hair and eyes aren’t some of the more eccentric shades present in Soul Society.
He almost looks like Shunsui is this light. Not harmless, no. But… easier, Ichigo supposes. Gentler maybe. More trustworthy. Like someone he could believe in and like and perhaps even follow. Someone worthy of the faith others placed in him.
Ichigo can see why it was so easy for him to fool people. If he’s this good of an actor, why they fell for it hook, line, and sinker. The Shinigami aren’t exactly geniuses to begin with, and it wouldn’t have been hard to pull the wool over their eyes. To fool them with such a performance.
“It’s not,” Aizen inserts then as he slips his glasses back on. “An act,” the man clarifies.
And Ichigo belatedly realizes that he must’ve said at least part of that aloud. A fact that is confirmed when Aizen offers him a small smile.
“This isn’t an illusion, Ichigo-kun,” the brunet informs him. “This is me just as much as the man from the war. A different aspect, yes. But it’s the truth as well.” He pauses to let that sink in. “You’ll find that the best lie – the best mask – is the one that isn’t even a lie at all. One that is the complete and utter truth.”
Ichigo turns that over in his head. “I’ll give you that one. But you’ve got to admit that your zanpakutou certainly made it easier. That you wouldn’t have gotten nearly as far without mind fucking everybody.”
And part of him wonders what kind of past and childhood would shape Aizen’s soul in such a way. To give him that power. To be able to distort reality as people know it and make them see anything he desires. To let him conceal himself and his plans so easily.
Ichigo wonders. And thinks about the things Shunsui didn’t say. About Aizen’s parents. His other family members. What he was like as a kid. And Ichigo doesn’t at all like the conclusions he makes.
Aizen just nods though, not privy to his thoughts. “Indeed. Though I’ll point out something else in return, and that is why would I go to such trouble? To such lengths in the first place? People rarely decide to do something without good reason, Ichigo-kun,” he comments with an odd inflection. “I simply didn’t wake up one day and decide to take over.”
“Didn’t you?” Ichigo questions, and it’s actually not an accusation. More like genuine curiosity. “Didn’t you care about anyone in Soul Society and what would happen to them? Your family? Your friends? Your division?”
“Did I care about my division; did I want the best for them?” Aizen repeats thoughtfully. “Yes, I did. But I also knew that they’d never have it. Not with the way things were. And that isn’t an excuse. Merely a fact.” He studies Ichigo for a long moment. “I did things. Terrible to some. Horrible even. And there is no excuse for them. Nor is there regret. I’m adult enough to own up to my actions, but I don’t believe I was wrong.”
Years ago, this would’ve set Ichigo off. Even months ago, he’d be furious by this point and at the line of civil conversation. But time has a way of changing people. Of forcing them to grow up. To change. And Ichigo finds himself still listening.
“Even with Shunsui?” he asks after a few heartbeats. “Even though he’s your uncle, and you fought against him?”
Aizen blinks. And Ichigo can tell he’s nearly taken aback. That he dearly wants to ask how Ichigo knows that.
“He told me,” the Vizard states, deciding to be nice this time. “One day when Jyuushiro was gone. He told me that he’d looked after you since you were little. He told me a lot about you. At least, what he thought was genuine.”
Aizen is silent for a long time. Long enough that Ichigo thinks he just seriously fucked up. That he actually managed to offend the guy. But when Aizen finally does speak, his voice is very soft. Eyes distant and looking at something – someone – not there.
“All of it was genuine. I never lied to him.”
There’s something about the way he says it. Something to his tone and the look to his face. To his eyes and the fact that they are still visible behind his glasses. Ichigo thinks that he’s actually looking at the real Aizen Sousuke. Not the overlord. Or the traitor. Not even the captain. No illusions. No masks. Just the person beneath it all. Flawed but not weak. Imperfect. Human.
And a part of him wonders why this man is so strangely familiar.
a/n: So... this chapter is the last of what I had written before my computer crashed. Right now, chapters 23 through 26 which I had in progress are trapped on my busted harddrive. I have a techie trying to recover them, but I don't know how long that's going to take. I refuse to rewrite them until I'm absolutely certain that they can't be recovered, therefore, it may be some time before we see another update. BUT! If it drags on for too long, I'll shift my focus to The Butterfly Effect so you guys can finally see an update in that. Promise!
As always, feedback is welcome and appreciated.