dracoqueen22 (dracoqueen22) wrote,
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Bleach - The Beautiful Lie - Chapter 23: Ambush

a/n: Luck was with me. I was able to save my chapters so now, I finally bring an update. Please enjoy.
Links to prior chapters can be found here.

Title
: A Beautiful Lie
Pairings: Urahara/Ichigo, Aizen/Ichigo
Rating: M
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.

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Chapter Twenty-Three: Ambush
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“It’s not going to work.”

The voice slithers out of the shadows of an adjoining hallway; it causes Sousuke to pause and look. He knows who is there and half-considers ignoring him, save that he also knows it’ll do little good. Urahara will find some way to make his opinion known, and it’s better for Sousuke to humor him now as opposed to later where they might have an audience.

Urahara enjoys putting on a show for the crowd.

Sousuke just sighs very slightly.

“Pardon?”

The blond pushes himself off the wall of the corridor and steps into view. He’s sans hat and geta, which puts them at near even height. The look in his eyes is hardly welcoming. One might almost call it accusatory. Enormous surprise there.

“You think because he’s angry that he’s vulnerable,” Urahara says sharply, and that’s a pretty good indication of what direction the shopkeeper seeks to take. “It’s not going to work. Ichigo will never trust you.”

Sousuke inclines his head, amused but refusing to show it. “As you have effectively broken the trust he’s given you, I hardly see where you have room to judge.”

He watches as Urahara twitches, face losing some color in the wake of his words. Words that strike too close to home. Sousuke resists the urge to thank Urahara for providing so much fodder and all but clearing the way. Not that Sousuke needs the man’s help. Ichigo-kun has made the choice on his own; he didn’t even need Sousuke’s coaxing to choose the path to godhood. And perhaps that’s the most delicious part of this whole endeavor.

Urahara’s face hardens again. “Don’t play innocent with me. I know that you’re not.”

“I hardly think you are one to speak of innocence,” Sousuke counters, and he almost feels like smirking at the look shot his way.

“That isn’t the issue here,” the blond declares, and yes, there’s a twinge of angry red to his face. The color suits him; it highlights his general inferiority.

“Oh?” Sousuke questions, and his tone has a hint of wickedness that’d make Gin or Shunsui very proud indeed. “Isn’t it though?”

“No,” Urahara insists with a jerk of his hand. “The issue is Ichigo and what you’re trying to pull. He’s too smart to fall for it.”

“Kurosaki-kun is very intelligent,” the ex-overlord agrees.

“He isn’t Ichimaru,” Urahara retorts sharply. As though Sousuke should understand what exactly he means by that. “He won’t be lured by your charm and false promises.”

Ah, so he desires to take that route. Sousuke isn’t ill-armed for this argument. In fact, he should’ve expected it. Urahara is feeling territorial after all, even for something he has already lost by his own mismanagement.

“I’m well aware of that.” Sousuke inclines his head, and his next words strike true and deep. “At least, I haven’t made him a replacement for the woman I couldn’t have.”

He watches as Urahara’s face colors even more. His skin exchanges the faint pink he’d acquired earlier with a flush of anger, and his greyish eyes go dark.

“Replacement?” the shopkeeper repeats almost too softly. “No, you just want a new admirer. Someone to take Ichimaru’s place. In all things.” The last is nearly a hiss.

Brown eyes narrow, and Sousuke feels himself go completely still. He knows what they say of him. Of his past interactions with his lieutenant. But he won’t let this man drag Gin’s name through the mud. Gin already had enough of that in his life; he doesn’t need it in death.

“What does that mean?”

Nausea twists in his belly and rises into his throat, but his voice is somehow still even. There are certain things that Sousuke will tolerate, but he has a sudden feeling that Urahara is about to tread into the realm of completely unforgivable. Surely, he wouldn’t be that stupid, would he?

He scoffs at his own question. Yes, Urahara is most certainly that moronic.

“Exactly what it sounds like.” The blond steps closer, not so much intimidating as to keep his voice low and accusatory. “Ichimaru was more than just your ally. He didn’t just stand by your side, did he? What else did he occupy?”

Sousuke nearly bristles. It’s not the first time Urahara has made such implications, but there’s something now that’s more malicious.

“You have no idea what you are talking about.”

“Don’t I?” Urahara’s eyes gleam as though he’s triumphantly stumbled upon some inherent truth. “Ichimaru all but worshipped you. Anyone could see it in his eyes. He would’ve done anything. Like father, like son, right?”

Something inside Sousuke snaps, something that he’s been clinging onto for the past several months. He feels it crack and crumble away, and he takes a single step forward, expression blank but eyes icy. Had he reiatsu, it would’ve rattled the walls, and Kyouka Suigetsu would’ve hissed for blood.

“Stop it.”

The sharp command breaks through the crawling atmosphere, through the tension that coils in Sousuke’s muscles and makes his hands pull into fists. The urge to commit violence, so sharp and clear, rises in him. However, it backs down at the interjection of a familiar voice.

Urahara pales, and Sousuke turns to see Ichigo-kun stalking toward them with a look of thunderous fury twisting his features and deepening the scowl on his lips. Reiatsu whips around him in a controlled burst of displeasure, one that surprisingly isn’t aimed at Sousuke but rather at Urahara.

“That’s enough,” the newcomer all but snarls, not resting until he’s come between the two as if a human barrier. His back is to Sousuke, but the former overlord can guess his expression by the reaction in Urahara’s face.

Ichigo-kun is not pleased.

Urahara has the grace to look abashed. As though even he has realized just what lines he has crossed.

“I--”

One hand cuts sharply through the air and interrupts whatever Urahara had planned to say. Apology? Sousuke doubts it. Some kind of defense for himself? Most likely. Though Sousuke isn’t sure that there’s something the shopkeeper can say to erase the anger rippling through the area.

The Vizard shakes his head, and Sousuke swears the temperature in the hallway drops by several degrees. Kuchiki-taichou would’ve been so proud.

“You’re not the man I thought you were, Kisuke,” he says, and his tone is full of so much reproach that Sousuke almost feels guilty by proxy. Fortunately, only Unohana-san has ever truly managed to perfect that technique. “I didn’t think you were the type to kick a man when he’s down.”

Urahara’s mouth opens and then closes just as quickly. He looks as though he wants to say something. His eyes flicker toward Sousuke in unconcealed hatred before softening as they return to Ichigo-kun.

“You know me better than anyone,” the shopkeeper says softly.

Sousuke’s surprised that he’s willing to show so much vulnerability where his worst enemy can witness it. Then again, it might all be carefully calculated on Urahara’s part. Though that would be giving the man far too much credit.

For a moment, the tension in Ichigo-kun’s shoulders lightens. Sousuke can’t see his face, but he can imagine the effect Urahara’s words would have.

“Do I?” He shakes his head. “I never knew this part of you, and I don’t know that I like it.”

Urahara’s eyes widen fractionally. “You don’t understand.”

“How can I? You’ve not told me enough to help me understand,” Ichigo-kun retorts, and there’s bitterness in his voice, enough to make even Urahara seem taken back. “Hate him all you want, but even I know when words can go too far.”

Urahara’s mouth clamps closed, as though he’s biting back a retort that won’t emerge in his favor. His eyes flicker once past Ichigo-kun to Sousuke before returning to his lover – or former one at this rate. Sousuke hasn’t asked if they’ve called things off, and he’s in no position to inquire. Truthfully, he isn’t certain he wants to know.

“You can forgive Aizen his war, but you can’t forgive me for my hesitation,” Urahara responds quietly and with obvious hurt. “I suppose it’s my fault that I don’t know why.”

He pauses another moment more before moving to edge past his lover in the hallway.

Ichigo-kun doesn’t watch Urahara leave, and Sousuke barely spares the shopkeeper a glance as he slinks away with his tail between his legs. Still, Urahara’s words have had their intended effect. They have left his companion contemplative and silence descends in the corridor in his wake. The tension has not managed to discharge for all that Urahara is gone.

Sousuke knows he should say something, but he’s unsure what would be appropriate for this situation. Luckily though, Ichigo-kun saves him from witty commentary by whirling around and pinning him with a look.

“I wasn’t protecting you so stop thinking you need to tell me how you can take care of yourself.”

Oddly enough, Sousuke wasn’t thinking of such a thing, but Ichigo-kun doesn’t need to know that. It is the sort of thing he should have been wondering.

“How else should I interpret it?” Sousuke replies smoothly, glad that the vitriol formerly gleaming in Ichigo-kun’s eyes hadn’t been aimed at him. “I’m sure Urahara will see it the same way.”

“He can see it however the fuck he wants.” Ichigo-kun seethes noticeably. “There are certain lines you don’t cross, and he crossed them.”

Sousuke blinks before he can stop himself. “I should count myself lucky to have fallen into your sphere of protection then.”

“Hardly.” The other man snorts, sweeping a hand over his hair. That only serves to highlight just how tired he looks. “I know you’re not completely innocent either. You had to have done something to rile him. But that’s not the point. What he said was completely off base.”

“Perhaps.”

Ichigo-kun, however, is already moving ahead on his own. “He doesn’t know the truth,” the Vizard adds, moving by Sousuke as though he means the words for himself and not the man beside him. “He only knows rumor and his own conjecture. That doesn’t give him the right to imply things that simply aren’t true. Especially not that.”

“And you know the truth,” Sousuke inserts softly, head cocked to the side as he watches Ichigo-kun pace back and forth in the corridor, obviously agitated.

Ichigo-kun draws to a halt. “I know what Shunsui told me,” he explains with eyes narrowing. “It’s enough. And no, I don’t want a thank you.”

“He’ll see this as a defense of me.”

“Or maybe he’ll take it as a sign I’m not impressed right now and he’s only digging himself a deeper hole,” Ichigo-kun corrects, as always surprising Sousuke with his insight.

Intrigued, the brunet wonders how much else Ichigo-kun has noticed. “He wouldn’t have said such things if he knew you were listening.”

Ichigo-kun whirls toward him, suspicious and surprised. “You’re defending him now?”

Sousuke sniffs, the idea of doing such making his stomach churn. “Hardly. I just think it’d be better for you to keep things in context.”

“You’re trying to be fair,” Ichigo-kun says, unable to hide the incredulity in his tone. “A small indication of your fairness isn’t going to make me trust you.”

“I don’t presume to think that it would.”

“Hmph. Whatever.” Ichigo-kun makes a sound. “I can’t play word games like you and Kisuke can.”

He still calls Urahara by his given name. Sousuke doesn’t know why he finds this detail vitally important or why it makes something inside of him roil; it simply does. By all accounts, Ichigo-kun should want to abandon his familiarity with the shopkeeper. But he obviously hasn’t. He’s still… attached to Urahara.

“I’m just telling you how it is,” the younger man continues, dragging Sousuke from his contemplations. “If you cross the line, I’d say the same thing to you.”

The former captain barely refrains from snorting in derision. “I have better control of myself.”

“Ah, an insult. That sounds more familiar.” The tiniest traces of a smile curl Ichigo-kun’s lips. “It might be better if you stayed away from each other.”

He started it seems like such a childish thing to say, so Sousuke refrains. Even if it is the utter truth.

“I’ll make it a personal goal to do so.”

“Good.”

Ichigo-kun moves to step past Sousuke, obviously content on continuing on to wherever he’d been going in the first place. But he pauses to look at Sousuke once, a glance over his shoulder.

“I’ve never been a replacement for anyone,” he says then. “And I’m not about to start now.”

It takes every ounce of Sousuke’s self-control not to openly gape at his departure. Obviously, the Vizard was standing around and listening for longer than he originally implied. Sousuke wonders if Ichigo-kun hadn’t only heard the end of the altercation but the beginning as well.

The implications of that are troubling, but Sousuke can’t quite deduce why. He feels as though he has just missed something very important.

It’s… unsettling<. And it’s been a very long time since he was so troubled. It seems another gift of Ichigo-kun. To create chaos and confusion. To make him forget himself so easy.

But somehow, Sousuke feels more intrigued than anything.

o0o0o


The floors are vibrating beneath Sousuke’s feet, and not for the first time that afternoon either. It’s been scarcely an hour since that disastrous encounter with Urahara in the hallway, and in that time, Sousuke has felt the floorboards tremble three times, four including the most recent. As though, somewhere beneath him, someone is releasing an ungodly amount of rage and aggression.

Reiatsu accompanies the tremors, strong and telling. Sousuke may have lost Kyouka Suigetsu and all vestiges of power, but he can still sense reiatsu as well as he ever could. Hirako is one of those below him, blasting away at either rock or opponent. The other signature, muffled as it might be, Sousuke guesses to be Ichigo-kun. He’s not as familiar as Hirako, but there’s a certain vibrancy that makes it stand out. It’s a sensation that Sousuke can’t put into words. Just one that he can easily recognize. A subtle and distinct taste that is unique to Ichigo-kun and no one else. Something that’s resounds like the other Vizard but not quite the same. Perhaps a reflection of his status as a still living human or the result of how he gained his powers.

Suppressing a sigh, Sousuke puts his book aside. He can’t concentrate; there are too many outside factors interfering with his thought processes. Factors like his recent confrontation with Urahara, Ichigo-kun’s decision to aim for the throne of Soul Society, and Sousuke’s own growing fascination with the Vizard-Human hybrid. Or whatever it is that Ichigo-kun calls himself.

“They’re sparring,” Neliel informs him from her perch on a chair across the room. She’s sitting nearer to the sliding doors as though she wishes to soak up the sun.

Sousuke, ironically, is in the dimmest part of the room and furthest from the door. It’s a habit he can’t shake, one that requires he always watches his back.

“It doesn’t feel friendly,” he comments almost idly.

Her lips lift into a light smile. “I think Ichigo’s trying to work out some aggression. Understandable really.”

“I can imagine,” the brunet allows.

His head tilts to the side as he feels the floor quiver beneath his feet once again. It’s not as hard as a moment ago, but there is something different to the feel. It is more akin to kidoh than to anything, but oddly enough, it doesn’t seem as though it came from Hirako.

Very curious.

Across the room, Sousuke can feel the weight of Neliel’s eyes. She seems to be searching for something on his face, though it’s hard to tell what at present time. In child form, it’d be easy to find out, but the adult version can be so inscrutable. It’s difficult to know what she thinks at any given moment. She hides her true opinions as well as Gin or perhaps even Sousuke himself.

“He’s been a bit… frustrated, you could say,” she finally adds. “It’s his way of coping.”

Sousuke turns that over in his mind. The comment says more about Ichigo-kun, Neliel, and their relationship than he believes she currently realizes. Or perhaps she knows but doesn’t mind to tell him.

Even more curious.

His gaze flickers once more to the floor at the next rattle but then focuses on her. Neliel’s smile has since widened, and her eyes are a peculiar shade as she rises to her feet with a motion for him to follow. Curiosity more than anything compels him, and he trails along after her as she leads him to the trapdoor for the basement. A staircase enables Sousuke to climb down since he can’t simply drop into a shunpo like everyone else. A fact which only serves to remind him of the power he’s lost. He supposes he should resent Hirako for that, but he can’t blame his former captain. Sousuke would’ve done the same if the situation had been reversed. It’s probably one of the more intelligent things Hirako Shinji has ever done.

Down here, their power is thicker, more tangible. Sousuke can feel it pressing against his skin, tingling all over. It’s like bathing in pure energy, and something deep inside of him trembles with the possibility. He knows that Ichigo-kun is strong, but somehow, feeling the breadth of that brings the reality home.

He follows Neliel as she leads him across the flat, dry ground and toward a rising cloud of dust in the distance. Streaks of black and blue whip through the air, and the familiar explosive energy of thrown kidoh slices around them. Even from this far, Sousuke can hear the gravelly laughter of the Vizard – both Hirako and Ichigo-kun have their masks on. No wonder he could feel them through the floorboards. It’s only a miracle and years of spiritual control that allow him to breathe freely, even this far away.

They stop at what Sousuke considers a more than safe enough distance and watch the two battle both on the ground and in the air. At the moment, Hirako is giving chase to Ichigo-kun, who occasionally whips around to fire crescents of energy back. Getsuga Tenshou is what Sousuke believes the attack to be called. Gin would’ve known for certain; he always did have a knack for that sort of thing.

It’s difficult to keep up with their motions. Hirako on his own is abnormally quick, and amplified by his Hollow powers, he’s even faster. Ichigo-kun has already proven himself to be proficient at shunpo, and his bankai is built for speed. So to watch the pair of them spar is to see a blur of motion with the occasional burst of an attack careening away to pummel some defenseless rocks. If they were to take this seriously, Sousuke wonders which of them would actually emerge victorious.

“Ichigo’s pretty amazing, isn’t he?” Neliel comments a few minutes after they settle in to watch. There’s a hint of her childish veneration peeking through, and she observes everything with glittering eyes.

Sousuke inclines his head. “I thought you’d be cheering for Hirako-san.”

“I do sometimes. When he’s earned it,” Neliel replies with a particular smirk that Sousuke isn’t sure he wants to translate.

Sometimes, he’s pretty sure he doesn’t understand the relationship between Arrancar and Vizard. By all accounts, they should be bitter enemies, not almost-lovers. He isn’t certain how this ever came to pass.

“Ichigo’s different,” Neliel adds then, giving him the distinct sensation she’s watching him from the corner of her eyes. “He’s… special.”

There is fondness in her tone and admiration. Sousuke still wonders how one boy could attract the loyalty of so many. Ichigo-kun has always been charismatic – scowls and all – to turn his enemies into his friends and attract a vast array of devoted allies. Even now, that hasn’t changed. The Vizard are all his companions. Urahara would kill for him without hesitation; Sousuke is certain there are Shinigami in Soul Society who’d leap at the chance to come to Ichigo-kun’s aid.

He has no response to give to Neliel’s revealing statement, and Sousuke returns his attention to the duel. The exchange of blows and the sound of metal ringing against metal echoes in the air along with the reverberating noise of Hollow laughter. Hirako is powerful. There’s no doubt of that. But Sousuke’s eyes are drawn to Ichigo-kun every time.

He never had much opportunity to face Ichigo-kun in the war years ago, so Sousuke has few personal accounts of the other man’s skill, merely what he gleaned from Gin and his Espada. He still finds himself marveling, even to this day, the amount of power one simple teenager – not teenager anymore – can hold. A human turned Shinigami turned Vizard turned something else.

Sousuke can’t give it name, but there’s something different about Ichigo-kun’s reiatsu. Even more than the obvious. It’s a minor tremble of abnormality, an occasional spike or burst of power that seems incongruent with his normal energy. It feels familiar but foreign as well.

Sousuke frowns. He should know this, certain he’s felt it before. His brow furrows as he searches his memory, accurate and deep as always. There are perhaps two instances where he remembers feeling this odd energy, and both of them revolve around the same item. An item which should no longer exist if Urahara is to be believed.

An item which had once held residence within a certain female Kuchiki.

Sousuke’s eyes widen with almost comical disbelief.

‘No,’ he thinks. ‘They wouldn’t dare. It’d be too dangerous, too risky.

Ichigo-kun would’ve never consented, and Urahara might be a judgmental bastard and idiot besides. But even Sousuke will admit that he wouldn’t choose to do such a thing against Ichigo-kun’s will. Urahara might hide secrets from his lover and conceal truths out of cowardice, but he wouldn’t do this.

Or would he?

Sousuke doesn’t have a chance to consider his revelation further because in the next instant, both Hirako and Ichigo-kun come to a skidding halt less than ten feet from his position. The both of them are covered in dust and rock. Their clothes are in tatters, but nothing beats Hirako’s laughter and the fact that Ichigo-kun’s shoulders look less weighted down.

“Spyin’ on us, Sou-chan?” Hirako asks with that odd Hollow echo before he lifts a hand and dissolves the pharaoh-like mask obscuring his face. There’s an enormous grin that curves his lips, one that speaks of endless teasing in Sousuke’s near future.

“We were just curious,” Neliel says before Sousuke can get a word out. She’s still smiling, as though amused, and her eyes keep darting from Ichigo-kun to Hirako to Sousuke like she’s puzzling out some hidden mystery.

The air vibrates as Ichigo-kun shifts out of bankai. He pulls the mask off his face and lets it crumble from his fingers.

“Like it’s nothing you’ve not seen before,” he retorts with a snort.

“Yeah, but Sou-chan hasn’t had the chance fer an up close and personal view, right?” Hirako puts in with a snicker, leaning close to elbow Sousuke in the side as though there’s some private joke between them.

“No, I’ve not had the pleasure of facing Kurosaki-kun on the battlefield,” Sousuke concedes, if only to prevent Hirako from continuing with more absurd insinuations. That and a part of him regrets missing that opportunity. Kyouka Suigetsu would’ve loved to cross with Zangetsu; power and mystery always intrigued her so.

The fact that such a thing would never happen, could never happen, is a resounding ping that echoes on the emptiness inside of him. As if he needed the reminder.

“Well, you’ll have plenty of chance ta see it soon enough,” Hirako says with another one of those shark-like grins.

See it but not join. Be nothing more than a witness on the sidelines, watching as someone else takes the throne that should have been his. He tries not to be bitter, but the thoughts crop up nonetheless.

“We should probably all get a little practice in,” Neliel comments, her voice thoughtful as she tips her head to the side. “I see that you’re getting a little rusty, too, Shinji.”

Hirako grins. As though this were an insult he'd heard plenty of times before and is perfectly willing to prove her wrong.

“Oh? Care ta take this ta the sky, darling?”

“Only if you're not too tired,” Neliel returns with a sickly sweet smile that impresses even Sousuke. He never knew she could sound so conniving.

Laughing, Hirako tears off his ragged tie and tosses it to the ground, whipping Sakanade through the air in a skilled gesture. “I'm not. But do ya think ya can stay adult long enough ta be a challenge?”

“We shall have to see, won't we?” Neliel draws her own blade, which is both broader and longer than Hirako's own.

Then, she leaps into the sky.

Sousuke can only watch as Hirako and Neliel cross blades, the latter with unexpected seriousness in her expression. Reiatsu fills the air, vibrating in opposite frequencies, and it strikes Sousuke how reflective Hirako and Neliel are of each other. One a Shinigami turned Hollow, another a Hollow turned Shinigami. If there is ever truly a case of opposites attracting, Sousuke is looking at that now.

“Do you miss it?” Ichigo-kun asks then, breaking the quiet between them. His voice is soft, almost sad.

Sousuke doesn’t even need to ask what he means.

“Yes, actually,” he responds with complete and utter honesty. “How could I not miss part of myself? Miss something and someone I’ve known for longer than you’ve been alive?”

Ichigo-kun shifts, rubs idly at one of the scratches on his arm. “Is that why you’re doing this? Do you think you’ll get it back?”

He hesitates. Since yes, Sousuke has considered that possibility, but it’s always been largely outweighed by the reality that such a thing would never happen. Sousuke’s come to terms with that, but there is still a small part of him that clings to the hope he won’t have to be powerless forever. That someday, he’ll taste that feeling of greatness again. That he’ll feel Kyouka Suigetsu’s weight in his hand and see her smile in his mind.

“It’d be a miracle to have her returned to me,” Sousuke replies, as always opting for honesty because Ichigo-kun is one of the few who will appreciate it. “But I am not an unrealistic man. I do this because it must be done. I already know that I'll never have that again.”

“But you wouldn't turn it down if it were offered.”

Sousuke inclines his head. “Only a fool would deny that gift. I'm not so noble as to think I'm better off without it.”

There's a moment of startled silence. Ichigo-kun has probably expected Sousuke to claim he doesn't want power, that he'd give it up out of some sense of right and wrong. But that would be a lie, and Sousuke wants to be better than that fool Urahara. He doesn't want to give Ichigo-kun reason to mistrust him. So long as Ichigo-kun asks, Sousuke will answer.

It's up to Ichigo-kun to ask the right questions.

“What’s it like?” the younger man questions, and when Sousuke glances at him, he adds, “To be… well, normal again after being a Shinigami?”

It should almost be a cruel question, but somehow, it isn’t. Somehow, perhaps the wording or the tone, actually makes Sousuke chuckle.

“As though being a Shinigami isn’t normal?” he inquires ironically but shakes his head. “It is… different. There was never a time when I didn’t have reiatsu. When I couldn’t call it forth. When I couldn’t hear Kyouka Suigetsu even distantly.” He taps his fingers on his leg in thought and remembrance both, perhaps even in mourning. “I suppose it’s like having one’s reiatsu sealed or blocked. Only much deeper. Much farther reaching.”

Something in Ichigo-kun’s face twists, contorts with pained remembrance. It is a feeling he knows all too well then. It is a feeling Sousuke wouldn’t wish on anyone, a feeling he can’t quite explain. It’s like a piece of himself is missing, a piece he can never regain.

Above them, Hirako and Neliel clash in a brilliant collision of reiatsu that sparks in all directions. They look to be having far too much fun, twisting the air around them into a frenzy. Blades ring together in a familiar threnody that burns in Sousuke's blood to join.

“I used to think about going back in time, forgetting I'd ever had need to wield Zangetsu, forgetting I'd ever met the old man,” Ichigo-kun says, and his voice is so quiet Sousuke wonders if the Vizard is merely talking to himself. “But now, I can't imagine how I'd react if someone took him from me permanently. I think I'd go a little crazy.” A half-smile quirks at the corner of his mouth.

Sousuke remembers waking to that emptiness inside of him. He knows exactly what Ichigo-kun means. For years, he wasn't sure he hadn't lost his mind.

“They are so much a part of us that it’s difficult to imagine an existence without them,” the brunet agrees. “I've learned to live with it, but there will always be a side of me that despises Hirako-san for taking her away.”

“Do you blame him?”

“I can't,” Sousuke retorts, trying to bite back the edge of bitterness and failing miserably. “That's what any wise man would do given the situation. Frankly, that's what I would’ve done.”

Ichigo-kun runs a hand through his hair, disturbing bits of dust and flakes of drying blood. “Yeah, maybe.” He quiets for a moment and just watches as Neliel and Hirako strike with enough energy to make the air rattle. “What about Seireitei? Did you hate having to leave it, too? I mean, it was your home, wasn't it?”

“Home is relative,” Sousuke responds but pauses thoughtfully. “And Soul Society is so corrupt that it's hard to miss something you never particularly liked in the first place.”

Ichigo-kun lifts a brow of disbelief. “You like being stuck in the living world?”

“In some ways, it’s rather refreshing,” Sousuke confesses. “It’s easier being this way. Being out among the living humans. There were expectations but not nearly as many. I could be and do whatever I wished and not have to worry about whether I had enough power or political connections. I’m less restricted now; I don’t have to go or grow at some arbitrary pace that I’ve no say in setting. Don’t have to cage myself to fit in some pre-formed mold.” He casts a look at his companion with a tilt of his head. “In case you haven’t noticed, they’re rather intolerant of anyone with reiatsu even a flicker different.”

The Vizard snorts at that. “Yeah, I got that part.”

“They’ve never made a larger mistake than the one they made with you,” Sousuke comments before he can stop himself. “To so easily cast aside a friend and fellow warrior for a perceived possibility of threat? They are the fools who do not realize the value of what they’ve destroyed.”

Ichigo-kun stares at him without blinking. There's a slight flush in his cheeks that Sousuke thinks he should attribute to recent exertion because there's no way Ichigo would be embarrassed by his words.

Cocking his head to the side, Ichigo-kun studies Sousuke with an almost eerie intensity. “You want me on the throne,” he says. “I know this. You can't tell me you'd be satisfied watching me sit where you've always wanted to be.”

“If you think power was my only intention, then I've obviously not done my part to explain what I wanted,” Sousuke replies, thinking he must have mistaken that moment of softness given to him. “Soul Society needs a proper king, even if I'm not the one on the throne. I want change before I want revenge.”

Ichigo-kun whirls toward him with something bright in his eyes. “Revenge,” he repeats, latching onto that one word as though it has revealed something intrinsic. “For Kouichi, you mean.”

Despite himself, Sousuke can't stop the loss of color in his face. He tucks his hands into his sleeves and forces a slow, steady breath.

“Unohana-san told you, I assume?”

“I know that he was her son and your friend.” Ichigo-kun gives a slow nod. “And I know that he’d become a Vizard and Soul Society killed him for it.” He pauses, as though fighting with his own feelings of anger. “And I know that they made his family disappear. That’d be reason enough to hate Seireitei.”

Sousuke's gaze shifts to the sky, where Hirako has called his mask and Neliel's clothes lie in attractive tatters around her body. It's safer than looking at Ichigo. Sousuke's not sure he's ready to reveal this weakness yet.

“If you want to imply that my war against Soul Society was only personal, I can't stop you,” he murmurs.

Ichigo-kun moves toward him; Sousuke can hear his steps crunch over the rocky ground.

“Unohana-san doesn't think that,” he shoots back. “She believes you had the right intentions. She just thinks that you lost sight of your goals along the way. That you became lost in your need for revenge.”

“And what do you think?”

The Vizard makes a soft, thoughtful sound in the back of his throat. Strangely, he doesn't sound angry or argumentative. Just considerate. Like he's making an actual attempt to understand Sousuke without relying on anyone else's opinion.

“If I thought it was just revenge, I never would’ve agreed in the first place,” Ichigo-kun responds and then sighs. “I think that your method was too bloody and full of unnecessary sacrifices. But Soul Society is corrupt, and things need to change. So I'm still going to do it.”

Sousuke doesn't bother to hide his surprise as he turns to look at Ichigo-kun, but the Vizard has already whirled away from him, moving to meet Hirako who's dropping to the ground dripping with sweat and looking quite exhausted. Neliel is grinning triumphantly – more for having maintained her adult form than a victory over Hirako no doubt. They both look far too satisfied and greet Ichigo-kun with equally pleased expressions.

Sousuke though is just intrigued. Ichigo continues to surprise him. Just when he thinks he understands everything there is to know, the Vizard turns his theories upside down. Leaving Sousuke flustered and confused.

It’s an odd sensation. But not altogether an unpleasant one. Something that Gin could and did do often. But Ichigo isn’t Gin, and Sousuke doesn’t think of him in the same terms.

And perhaps that’s what discomforts him most of all.

*****

a/n: Bit by bit, I will get this story finished. Yes, I will! I estimate about fifteen more chapters, give or take a couple, remain in this story.

As always, feedback is welcome and appreciated.
Tags: bleach, the beautiful lie
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