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Bleach - The Beautiful Lie - Chapter 24: Conversation

Title: The 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-Four: Conversation
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Ichigo wakes with the bitter taste of blood and bile on the tip of his tongue, body bathed in sweat, and thrashing in his sheets. He battles with the clinging, soaked fabric as though it seeks to keep him trapped and finally flings the sheets away from him violently. His heart is hammering in his chest, his breath trying to claw its way from his chest and getting trapped in his throat.

He closes his eyes, drags fingers through his hair, and keeps them there. He wonders if that simple grip will be enough to keep himself together. He tries to force his breathing to even out, slow and deep breaths that’ll calm the sensations racing through his body. His reiatsu rattles the walls and the furniture, and Ichigo fights to reel it in before someone comes to investigate.

He’s never realized just how much sharing his bed with someone else had been instrumental in keeping the nightmares away. Though he supposes he could also blame the recent stress as well. It’s certainly not helping at any rate.

There’s also the startling truth that he misses Kisuke, though he won’t admit such a thing aloud. Not when his emotions are so ragged and when he’s still so furious. He can certainly feel Kisuke’s absence. They were friends before they were lovers after all, and Ichigo misses that relationship, that openness.

He could use that friendship right now.

His body trembles, but Ichigo tries to ignore it as he swings his legs over the end of the bed and sets his feet on the floor. One foot lands on cold wood, the other on the crumpled ends of his sweat-soaked sheets. He knows that there’s no chance for any more sleep tonight. The three or four hours he managed will work well enough. They have for the past few nights anyway.

Rolling his neck to ease the cramp in his muscles, Ichigo rises to his feet. His body is heavy with fatigue as he wanders out of his quiet bedroom and into an equally silent hallway. He heads for the bathroom down the hall and closes the door behind him.

The bright light makes his dark-accustomed eyes flinch, but Ichigo ignores that, leaning over the sink to splash some water over his face. Rinsing away the sweat and drool and chasing away the last vestiges of his nightmare. He scrubs his palms over his face, trying to ignore the unpleasant churns of his belly and bites back on surges of bile. The nightmares are gone, but their effects remain. He still can taste the blood and ash of months past.

Ichigo looks in the mirror because it’s there, even though he knows he won’t like the eyes that stare back at him. He’s young, but he doesn’t feel it, and sometimes, it doesn’t show in his face either. Lines of fatigue, pinched expression, wrinkles in his brow. He needs to shave, the stubble gracing his chin and cheeks oddly reminiscent of Kisuke. Not that Ichigo wants to think about the blond right now.

It’s a different face than the one Ichigo remembers wearing during the war. He’d been young then. Young enough that shaving hadn’t been a factor. Too young to be fighting. But really, who was counting? It wasn’t as though his age made any difference to the invading forces. If Ichigo had pretended ignorance, had shoved his head in the ground, he would’ve been exactly like Isshin.

No, best not to think about him either.

Ichigo shakes his head, scrubs a hand towel over the lingering drops of water on his skin, and leaves the bathroom. He isn’t keen on returning to bed. Tossing and turning and staring at a dark ceiling from an otherwise empty bed that still smells of Kisuke when he presses his head into the pillow. Things like that encourage him to forgive and forget when he’d rather cling to his anger right now, thank you very much.

He turns and notices that just down the hall, a light is on. This late, everyone should be asleep, even the more insomniac of the Vizard. Hachi might still be puttering around, but his room is on the other side of the warehouse. Curious, Ichigo follows the square of light to the kitchen, a second smaller entryway.

To his surprise, Aizen is sitting at the table. He is nursing a cup of something which smells like tea as he reads from a thick book, the title of which Ichigo can't read from his current spot. Aizen looks up at his entrance, surprise echoing in his expression.

“Why are you still awake?” Ichigo asks, inviting himself into the kitchen and taking a seat at the table, too.

“The only time this place is quiet is at night,” Aizen answers with a small, amused smile. He folds his book closed, carefully saving his place. The writing is still far too small for Ichigo to make out the title.

“What? You don’t like the daily noise and disorder?”

“It’s not appealing, no,” Aizen comments with a grimace of his own. He pauses, looking at Ichigo thoughtfully, those calm eyes quietly assessing. “You, however, are not normally found awake at this hour.”

“Neither are nightmares good for sleep,” Ichigo mutters, though ironically half the cause of his insomnia is sitting across the table from. He should have a surge of anger at that realization. Instead, he just feels tired.

Aizen doesn’t look embarrassed or ashamed, just inclines his head. “I imagine not considering recent circumstances.”

Ichigo winces. He folds his arms across the top of the table and lays his head on them, staring at the clock on the wall and watching the second hand tick by.

“When did my life become a really bad soap opera?”

From the corner of his eye, he catches Aizen’s lip twitch. As though the former overlord is amused and doesn’t want to show it.

“Knowing your father, could you expect any less?”

He turns his head, Ichigo catches Aizen’s gaze. “You knew he was a Shinigami, didn’t you?”

“I’m rather surprised no one else has noticed or even put two and two together.” Aizen folds his hands over his abandoned book as if that’s answer enough.

Ichigo doesn’t bother to ask why Aizen never said anything. Ichigo can guess. It would’ve been pointless and could Ichigo honestly say that he would’ve believed him? Oh, maybe now he would, but back then? Back when Aizen had first come to Ichigo all but begging for help? Not a damn chance. He would have just seen it as another form of manipulation.

“Guess I must be some kind of idiot for not figuring it out sooner.”

He buries his head back into his arms. The second hand continues to tick on, three am dragging slowly into four.

“You’ve had other things on your mind. Besides, you would’ve expected Kurosaki-san to tell you, correct?”

Ichigo snorts. “As opposed to lying all these years? Fuck yeah. That’s what fathers are supposed to do, if I’m not mistaken.”

“Then your ignorance is only logical,” Aizen assures him.

“That… really doesn’t make me feel better,” Ichigo retorts and shifts position, feeling like a petulant child complaining that he wasn’t allowed another hour of cartoons. He sits up then, eyes wandering, wanting to change the subject. “What are you reading?”

Aizen lifts the book to show the cover. “A last resort,” he explains as Ichigo struggles to decipher what is obviously an unusual and fancy font. “Hirako doesn’t stock my sort of literature.”

A small smile curls Ichigo’s lips at the thought of Shinji sitting down to quote Shakespeare.

“He doesn’t strike me as the classical literature type,” Ichigo agrees. “So what? You sit up by yourself late at night and read?”

“I also, on occasion, take the time to plot the demise of my enemies and detail my plans to regain my chance for godhood.”

Once again, Aizen’s lips twitch, and his eyes gleam with a rare humor. It takes Ichigo a moment to recognize Aizen’s words for a joke, but when he does, his mouth quirks into a sideways grin.

“Funny.”

“I try,” Aizen replies dryly.

Ichigo shakes his head and pushes the chair back with a noisy screech, rising to his feet to poke around in the cupboards. He’s not hungry but his hands need something to do.

“Do you even sleep?”

“You’ve shared quarters with Hirako. Do you honestly think I can?” Aizen returns almost rhetorically.

“Point taken.” Cupboards open and close just as quickly, nothing immediately appealing in sight. “He tried to grope you in your sleep?”

This time, genuine amusement reflects itself in Aizen’s tone. “He keeps reassuring me that it’s all an unconscious reflex to the--”

“--warm body in his bed,” Ichigo finishes for him. “Yeah, I’ve heard it all before. Shinji’s crazy.”

Success! He locates a box of cheese crackers and pulls it down, the weight informing him that it’s about half-full.

“You won’t find me disagreeing.”

“Hmm.” Ichigo pops a few of the fish-shaped crackers into his mouth and leans against the counter, watching Aizen sip his tea. “Kisuke was way off base, wasn’t he? About Ichimaru, I mean?”

Aizen blinks at him, obviously confused. “I… pardon?”

He’s dancing from topic to topic, Ichigo knows, but this is a little weird for him, all things considered. He and Aizen, sitting here and talking like they didn’t use to be mortal enemies. Like they are something closer to friends. Ichigo’s still not sure what he’s supposed to see when he looks at Aizen. He’s not even sure what Aizen sees when he looks at him in return.

Are they allies? Friends?

Ichigo doesn’t hate Aizen, not the same way that Kisuke loathes him. He doesn’t trust Aizen either, but that’s a different story. He finds himself strangely relaxed around the former captain, not quite as tense and battle-ready as he would’ve expected. At least, not anymore. There’s almost a level of comfort there. It’s weird, and Ichigo doesn’t know how to react to that.

He’s not sure he likes the occasional thoughts that occur to him. Thinking things like Aizen’s not as terrible as Ichigo always believed. That he’s just as human – dead man aside – as the rest of them. That even terrible, evil overlords have things they regret and people they miss and families and friends.

Honestly, Ichigo’s just not sure what to do when it comes to Aizen. He’s off-balance and not sure how to get it back. Aizen confuses him as much as Isshin pisses him off and Kisuke makes his chest tighten.

Ichigo licks his lips and clears his throat.

“Ichimaru wasn’t your lover,” he clarifies, wondering why it seems important to him. “He was something else. Not just a subordinate.”

For the first time, Aizen looks uneasy. Not the sort of uneasy that comes from someone caught in a lie. But an emotional disquiet, as though Ichimaru is a topic that Aizen isn’t ready to discuss. Ichigo knows topics like that. It’s still hard for him to bring up his mother except to certain people and remembering Renji’s death is a raw wound.

“Gin was…” And here, Aizen pauses, hesitates, working his mouth but no sound emerges. “He was my star pupil, you could say. I taught him everything I knew and then even more when his thirst for knowledge proved deeper than my own.”

Ichigo watches Aizen, surprised by the genuine affection he hears in the man’s tone. Affection and something else. Sorrow perhaps. With a twist of regret. Ichigo knows that Aizen regrets killing his own uncle, but he’s beginning to think Aizen regrets leading Ichimaru to his death, too.

“So… Ichimaru was pretty smart?” Ichigo asks then. Half-deflection, half-apology.

Fingers curl around Aizen’s cup as he considers the question. “He was a prodigy, like Hitsugaya,” the ex-captain explains and even seems to relax with the topic. “Graduated from the Academy after only a year and was immediately placed in the fifth division as an officer. He rose to a third-seat after only a few months.”

Ichigo inclines his head, throwing a couple more crackers into his mouth. “Impressive.”

He says that because it’s true. Ichigo knows that many people consider him a prodigy for his quick improvement, but for someone just a Shinigami, Ichimaru’s progression is pretty remarkable. Besides, talking about Ichimaru brings out something different in Aizen, something Ichigo’s pretty sure he’s never seen before.

Pride.

And not just in himself as Ichigo would expect, but pride in someone else. Not just for the fact that Aizen’s hand had helped to guide him; no, it’s something else. More like the pride a father has for a son. Which his kind of weird for Ichigo to think about, but he supposes it wouldn’t be that unusual.

Aizen snorts, rising to his feet and bringing his cup with him. “It would’ve been more impressive if they would have given his captaincy when he deserved it, rather than settling for him as a last resort.” He moves to the counter beside Ichigo and reaches for the teapot that still smells strongly of jasmine and oranges.

“What do you mean?” Ichigo questions, watching as Aizen pours the greenish liquid into his mug and then reaches for the small container of sugar.

“The third division had an opening three years before Gin was given the position. They passed him over in favor of a noble, some distant relative of the Shihouin. After all, Gin was nothing more than Rukongai trash who no one really liked besides.”

There’s resentment in Aizen’s tone, more than Ichigo would’ve expected. The Vizard turns and pulls a mug down from the cabinet.

“How’d he get it then?”

The corner of Aizen’s lips curl into a small smile. “The noble met an unfortunate end at the hands of a Hollow. He never did learn how to watch his back.”

How very convenient. Ichigo wonders if Aizen or Ichimaru had anything to do with it. But then, he’s also seen how very incompetent many of the Shinigami are. And they do seem to go through captains like tissue paper considering how powerful they are supposed to be and their life expectancy. After all, wasn’t the old fart like nearly three millennia old and Shunsui over two? Not to mention how old Jyuushiro and Unohana-san must be.

Ichigo stirs sugar into his own cup and watches the little particles dissolve. “You’ve known him a long time then.”

“We were in the same division after all.” Aizen brings his cup to his lips, turning to put his back to the cabinets. “I saw his potential long before anyone else could.”

Again, that note of pride practically rings in Aizen’s tone.

Ichigo considers and takes a sip. He never thought he’d see the day when he and Aizen could be standing in a kitchen, bare inches of space between them, talking together as though there were nothing odd about the scene. Ichigo knows he should resent the man for any things. He doesn’t think his dislike will ever reach quite the same venom of Kisuke, and there are many things that Ichigo does blame Aizen for, but it’s hard to reconcile the evil overlord with the man standing next to him now.

“You know,” Ichigo begins, choosing his words carefully. “Kisuke might’ve been wrong about you and Ichimaru, but you weren’t entirely in the right either.”

He turns his head and looks directly at Aizen, surprisingly close to the other man. This close, he can see how brown Aizen’s eyes are, different than his own and with interesting striations of darker shades.

“Kisuke’s a lot of things, but he’d never think of using me like that.”

Confusion flickers in Aizen’s gaze, probably because he can’t fathom why Ichigo would bring up his arch nemesis at the moment. At this point, Ichigo thinks he’s more of a chance of getting Aizen to stop egging Kisuke on than he has of encouraging the blond to think of Aizen in a better light. Ichigo wants his plans to have an element of success after all, and he has to admit that most of the vitriol comes from Kisuke’s end.

Ichigo understands why. He knows enough about why Kisuke would hate Aizen. He knows about the Vizard and how that’s Aizen’s fault. He knows that Kisuke had been blamed for it and exiled because of it. And Ichigo understands. But Ichigo lost his patience with their bickering long ago.

A range of emotions flutter across Aizen’s face, too quick for Ichigo to identify. Then, he looks away, staring at the far wall.

“If you are attempting to encourage some reconciliation between that man and I, you’d be better off with speaking sense to the Shinigami or some other equally impossible feat.”

Ichigo shrugs. He takes another swallow of his tea – he made it too sweet, damn it – and turns to set the mug on the counter.

“I just think that if you guys actually paid attention, you’d realize how alike you are. Maybe that’s what pisses you two off so badly.”

“Friendship is an impossibility, Kurosaki-kun,” Aizen says as Ichigo pushes off the counter and heads for the door with the thoughts of wearing himself out in the basement. “At best, you might expect a glacial tolerance.”

“It’d be better than the childish squabbling,” Ichigo mutters to himself and then pauses in the doorway, addressing Aizen again. “Goodnight. Enjoy your book.”

Aizen’s returned goodbye follows Ichigo out the door, murmured as though the former overlord says it distractedly, already deep in thought.

o0o0o

“Ichigo.”

Well, this is certain to be an unpleasant encounter.

Ichigo cuts his eyes at Isshin before returning his attention to the book in front of him. His concentration has been shot, but at least it’ll show Isshin just where Ichigo considers him on a list of importance.

“What do you want?”

“To talk.”

“Color me surprised,” Ichigo says with a snort. “Now that it’s convenient for you, I suppose.”

He doesn’t have to look up to see Isshin flinch. He can feel the guilt vibrating in his father’s reiatsu.

“I deserved that,” Isshin allows.

And a hell of a lot more,’ Ichigo adds to himself, but he doesn’t say it aloud.

To do so would only make him sound like a sulking child, and even if he feels the part, he doesn’t want to show it. Ichigo knows he should be treating this like an adult, but apparently, Isshin has never considered him one, so what’s the point?

“So did you just leave Yuzu and Karin to fend for themselves, or did you actually bother to make sure they were being looked after this time?” Ichigo asks, turning a page he hasn’t actually read. He doesn’t want to look at his father, so staring at the black and white text in front of him suits his purposes just fine.

“Your sisters are old enough that they don’t need a babysitter,” Isshin counters, and when Ichigo finally looks at his old man with an outraged glare, Goat-Face quickly amends, “But they are with someone trustworthy.”

Ichigo twitches and slams his book closed. “Who?” he demands, sitting up in his chair. “Some human who knows nothing about our world?”

He twitches again because it’s still a kick in the gut to him. Isshin is a Shinigami and always has been. It’s not just Ichigo’s world that no one else will understand. It’s a world that has always belonged to Isshin, too. Even if Ichigo didn’t know it.

It’d be just like Goat-Face to think some human would be capable of protecting Yuzu and Karin. Sometimes, Ichigo thinks his father lives in a happy land of denial. Where if he just closes his eyes, pretends it’s not happening, and hopes it’ll all go away.

“No, a Shinigami.”

“That’s no better!” Ichigo growls, praying to some unknown deity that this kind of stupidity isn’t inherited. “Did you conveniently forget that the Shinigami are the reason I’m here in the first place?”

Isshin shifts, a motion that Ichigo would’ve taken for discomfort in anyone else. But no, Goat-Face is too stupid to be uncomfortable. Too stupid to realize that the rising tension in the room is only getting worse.

“And Shinigami helped you escape,” Isshin says through what sounds like gritted teeth, like he’s trying his hardest to approach this calmly and rationally. Tough for him, Ichigo’s tired of being calm and rational. “They’re not all your enemy, and as much as I hate the little bastard, he’ll die before he lets something happen to Karin.”

Possibilities swirl inside Ichigo’s mind before he has to clamp down on a visible sign of his relief. Isshin’s right. At least, in this.

A bitter smile curls Ichigo’s lips. “And how long did it take you to figure that one out, huh? Or did Karin even get to tell you? Do they even know who you are?”

“They know now,” Isshin says, and this time, when he shifts, it’s out of discomfort. “Even leaving Soul Society, it’s still managed to find me. I don’t like the Shinigami, but he’s better than the alternative.”

“Hitsugaya Toushirou,” Ichigo snaps as something inside of him twists sharply. “That’s his name, and don’t you damn forget it.”

The idea of Toushirou dating his sister has always been cute and amusing, and Ichigo’s always vowed to himself that he’ll rip the brat to pieces if he hurts Karin. But he also knows Toushirou, knows the kind of man that the captain is and knows that such a threat won’t even be necessary. He fought next to Toushirou in Aizen’s war, watched the captain lose friends and suffer physically. Which is a hell of a lot more than Isshin can claim.

So yeah, Ichigo will defend Toushirou. He’ll make sure that Isshin doesn’t forget who Toushirou is or accord him the proper respect. At least, Toushirou had the balls to fight and stand up for his own convictions. At least, Toushirou doesn’t lie about who he is to the people who care about him.

Isshin sighs, looking for all the world as though he’s the one who hurts the most. “I haven’t forgotten his name. And don’t use that tone with me. I’m your father, Ichigo.”

He snorts again. “It’s too late to apply for that job. The position’s been filled.”

“By who? Kisuke?”

Isshin sneers, and this time, he doesn’t even bother to hide the disgust in his face. How quickly friends have gone to enemies, it seems. This is what Kisuke wanted to protect so badly?

“Great choice there, son.”

Ichigo growls, throwing himself from his chair and rising to his feet. “Drop it, Isshin. We are none of your business.”

“There are things you don’t know about him, Ichigo,” Isshin starts to defend, but he’s cut off.

“Yeah? Well, that much was made pretty clear when you ambushed me,” Ichigo shoots back, agitation coiling in his limbs. “Great job, by the way. Nice to see you still cause chaos everywhere you go.”

Isshin works his jaw before making a frustrated sound. As if Ichigo’s the one acting without reason here.

“Ichigo, he’s not the man you think he is.”

“Neither are you!” The Vizard snarls, hands forming fists at his side as he tries to rein in his reiatsu; Hiyori gets pissy when he makes the walls shake. “Idiotic. Clumsy. Unaware. Just a human. Just a doctor. Some guy who spouts love poems to the huge picture of his wife. Someone who genuinely cares about his kids, even if he has no clue what’s going on. That’s who I thought Kurosaki Isshin was.” He jabs a hand towards the man’s chest. “You… you’re just a stranger to me.”

Goat-Face flinches. But the bastard still holds his ground, so wrapped up in his own righteousness he can’t see that he’s standing over a bottomless pit.

“And Kisuke isn’t.”

Ichigo takes a step toward his father, knowing he shouldn’t attack the man, but oh, how he wants to. There’s a limit to being this stubborn, this damned full of himself.

“This isn’t about him! This is about you! You and your lies.” He jabs out again, and it nearly connects this time. “Yes, Kisuke lied to me, and yes, part of the reason was to protect you. He’ll have to answer for that. But you put him in that position in the first place. You are the one who trapped him in the corner.”

“It’s my fault he couldn’t keep his hands off my son?” Isshin hisses. Incredulous. Offended. Reiatsu climbing in the room until the walls rattle and objects teeter precariously in their shelves.

“Stop it! Argh. Just shut the fuck up, okay?” Ichigo shouts, hands whipping through the air. “I’m not going to sit here and let you throw blame on Kisuke like none of this is your problem.” He jerks a pointed finger out to keep from punching him. “You think he took advantage. Fine. But how did I get there in the first place, Isshin? Where else was I supposed to go, Dad?” He wonders if Isshin the Oblivious can read the acid in his tone, see it for the vitriolic sarcasm that his words actually are.

“Not to him.”

“Well, I certainly couldn’t go to normal Kurosaki-sensei now could I?” Ichigo says, and suddenly, he’s tired. It’s too exhausting talking to Isshin. “You want to figure out who to blame? Start looking in the mirror.”

He holds Isshin’s gaze for the length of a second, ignoring the blaze of hurt he sees in his father’s eyes. Ichigo doesn’t feel guilty for that. If Isshin could feel just an iota of the rage and disquiet that’s storming through Ichigo, maybe then he’ll understand.

Uninterested in anything else Goat-Face might have to say, Ichigo pushes past his father and leaves the room. Swearing that if he follows, violence might just ensue. Ichigo’s pissed at Kisuke as much as he’s pissed at Isshin, but he’ll be damned if he sits there and lets Isshin continue to act like none of this is his fault. Ichigo wants answers, wants explanations, not more of this self-righteous blame game.

He’s surprised that their altercation hadn’t gained an audience. The hall is empty when Ichigo storms into it, struggling to bridle in reiatsu that seeks out a target, any target. Something to ease the tightening tension in his belly. The warehouse might be larger than Kisuke’s bungalow, but it still feels like a prison. Ichigo can’t go outside for his own sake. But he’s sorely tempted to do so just to relieve some tension. Facing off against a few Shinigami could only help him at this point.

Ichigo sighs, and without a destination in mind, he turns down a random corridor. A startled sound, and his quick reflexes are all that save him from all but bowling Neliel over. In fact, her hands shoot out, grasping his shoulders and drawing the both of them to a halt.

“Sorry,” Ichigo says and winces. An ache already grows in his skull, pulsing at his temples and making his head throb.

“It’s fine.” Neliel smiles at him, but it’s a light one, her eyes roaming over him in concern. “Are you all right?”

Ichigo feels a bitter laugh burble up inside of him at the question, but Neliel doesn’t deserve an acerbic response. He just shakes his head and lifts a hand to press the heel of it against his brow.

“Never mind, that’s a stupid question,” she corrects herself and squeezes his shoulders warmly before dropping her hands. “I was heading into the kitchen. Care to join me?”

“Is there a bottle of aspirin in there?”

She chuckles. “I think so.”

If anything, Neliel’s company is preferable to anyone else’s, Ichigo decides. He nods and follows her down the hall, putting as much distance between himself and Isshin as possible. He dearly hopes he doesn’t run into Kisuke either. Ichigo can’t promise he’ll be civil, and he’s still not overly impressed with the shopkeeper’s behavior as of late. He understands, but that doesn’t mean he condones it.

Shinji’s kitchen – well, it belongs to all of the Vizard, but it’s easier for Ichigo if he just calls it Shinji’s – is huge. It would have to be to feed as many people as it does, and it’s stocked enough that most professional chefs would salivate over the pots, pans, and counter space. Yet, the Vizard eat a surprising amount of takeout. Yuzu would consider it such a waste; Ichigo just wonders how the hell they pay for it.

Ichigo plops himself down at the table, resting his chin on his palm as he watches Neliel putter around with a purpose. She’s even kind enough to bring him a glass of water and a bottle of aspirin. He grunts his gratitude and swallows three of the pills, hoping that they’ll chase away the pounding in his brain. He doubts it though. Human medicines just don’t work the same way on him anymore. Not when most of his problems are spiritual in nature. He’d give his sword arm to have Unohana-san or Hanatarou here right now. Even better, Inoue with her powers; nothing works better than that.

“So… Shinji’s not lurking around anywhere?” he questions as Neliel pulls out a pan and some ingredients from the cupboard. He thinks he sees a carton of cocoa powder but can’t be sure.

“Lurking?” the Arrancar repeats and laughs again, moving smoothly around the kitchen. “That’s a strange thing to call it. And no, last I checked, he, Love, and Rose were talking strategy in the sun room.”

Strategy. For the invasion Ichigo is supposed to be leading against Soul Society. Right. Ichigo probably should join them. But later. After his head has stopped aching and the churning in his belly settles to a more manageable level.

“I see.”

Ichigo closes his eyes, attempting to breathe slowly. One hand lifts, rubbing at his sternum, aching painfully and always worse with the onset of stress.

Quiet settles in the kitchen as whatever Neliel is making begins to take shape, bubbling on the stovetop. The sweet smell of milk and chocolate fill the room, and Ichigo raises his brow.

“Are you making hot chocolate?” he asks, unable to hide his surprise. Isn’t that more of a drink for kids? She’s not about to change back, is she?

Neliel grins as she pulls two mugs down from a cabinet and fishes a bag of marshmallows from who knows where.

“Don’t you like it?”

To be honest, Ichigo hasn’t had it since his mother died. She, like Neliel, always made it from scratch. As though the powdered stuff offended her or something.

“I haven’t had it in years,” he answers, rubbing at his chin.

He watches as she pours the thick brown liquid into mugs and plops a couple of large marshmallows into the top of each one. She leaves the rest of it on the stove to keep warm while she brings the cups to the table and sets one down in front of him.

“Hachi taught me how to make it,” Neliel explains, perching in a chair beside Ichigo and bringing her mug to her lips. She blows across the surface to cool it down. “I was surprised how much I liked it. And around here, it disappears quickly.”

Ichigo curls both hands around the warm mug, staring down at the offered drink. It smells good, just like his mother used to make, threatening to drag him down into nostalgia.

“My mom used to make it all the time,” Ichigo says quietly. It’s not something he usually tells people, but Neliel isn’t just anyone. She’ll understand. “Especially when one of us needed to cheer up.”

“A wise woman,” Neliel comments, sipping carefully.

Ichigo nods and stares at a melting marshmallow. “I wonder if she knew what Isshin is. I wonder if she knew what I was seeing that day.”

‘I wonder if she’d still be alive if I had known to be wary of that little girl? If Isshin had bothered to explain things, would I have known better?’

A warm hand falls over his wrist then.

“I think that your mom was only doing what all moms must do – protect their children,” Neliel says, and though she doesn’t know the story, not all or even in part, Ichigo feels like she understands.

That doesn’t make it hurt any less. Ichigo can ask himself these questions now. Why hadn’t Isshin told him? Why had Isshin lied? What did he think that would accomplish? Why couldn’t he just open his big, fat mouth?

“Yeah,” Ichigo agrees and lifts the cocoa to his lips, breathing in the aroma. He sips cautiously, pleased to find that it resembles his mother’s greatly. “This is good, Nel.”

Hazel eyes sparkle at him. “Thanks. Though I will admit an ulterior motive.”

Ichigo’s brow crinkles. “What do you mean?”

“You looked in need of a calm moment.” She leans back in her chair, holding her mug with both hands. “And maybe an open ear, too.”

“That obvious, huh?”

Her lips quirk into a smile. On the surface, she and Shinji can be so different, but deep down, they’re the same. They both have the same way of looking at people and seeing what they try so hard to hide.

“Any more agitated and your reiatsu would’ve rattled the pictures off the wall.” Neliel cocks her head to the side. “Between your father and Kisuke-san, things are difficult, yes?”

Ichigo pokes at the marshmallow. He watches it bob up and down, turning the dark chocolate into a creamy brown color.

“That’s putting it lightly, but yeah.”

“Have you tried talking to Kisuke-san?” she inquires gently.

Snorting, Ichigo takes a sip of his cocoa. “No.”

Neliel nods, a contemplative hum emerging from her throat. “Why not?”

“Because I’m not in the mood to get lied to again?” Ichigo says, but it comes out more of a question. He leans forward, sets the cup on the counter, hands curled around it as he stares at the swirling marshmallow.

“How do you know Kisuke-san won’t try to tell you the truth? To apologize?” Nel asks, voice full of logic that Ichigo doesn’t want to acknowledge.

It’s a childish part of him that wants to keep ignoring Kisuke because if it causes the man the same pain that Kisuke caused him, Ichigo won’t be upset. He’ll consider it justified.

Ichigo buries his face in the mug, drinks deeply of the significantly cooled mixture, and gets a big gulp of the last of the marshmallow. As the sweet chocolate spills over his tongue, he pretends to consider her suggestion.

“Are you on his side?”

Neliel shakes her head, a touch of sadness darkening her eyes. “I’m not on anyone’s side, Ichigo. I just want to see everyone happy. The connection that you and Kisuke-san have… I don’t want to see it lost.” She smiles, but it’s missing the usual sparkle, dimmed by incredible sorrow.

It’s a reminder to Ichigo that Nel understands that loss all too well herself. Her own Fraccion, her closest companions for so many years, are dead. Killed by a Shinigami who either hadn’t known better or had and thought that the loss of two Hollows wouldn’t matter in the long run no matter what side they claimed.

Ichigo exhales sharply and focuses on his mug. “I don’t think things will be the same again.”

“Maybe. Maybe not,” Nel agrees, her fingers tapping a nonsense rhythm against the outside of her mug. “But you’ll never know if you don’t give him the chance to try, Ichigo. That much is certain.”

She has a point. Ichigo knows this, as much as he knows he’s just not ready to hear it. Kisuke can apologize until his face turns blue, that doesn’t mean Ichigo’s ready to forgive him. And with Isshin clinging to his self-righteous certainty, Ichigo really doesn’t want anything to do with either of them right now.

“Is that hot chocolate?”

An excited voice pierces the contemplative atmosphere between Ichigo and Neliel. They both turn to see Lisa strolling into the kitchen, making a beeline for the stove as if she were some bloodhound following a scent.

Neliel chuckles. “It is. Help yourself.”

Not that Lisa needs the invitation. She’s already pulling a mug from the cabinet and tipping the pan to fill it and grabbing a handful of marshmallows from the bag.

“Did someone make hot chocolate?”

Love this time, his voice curious as he strides into the kitchen without even glancing at the table.

“Stuff it, Love. There’s only enough for one more,” Lisa says, pushing the pan out of his reach.

“And you’re saving it for who exactly?” Love demands, making a grab for the pan. Something Ichigo really doesn’t think is wise considering that it’s still hot and if they ended up dropping it no one would get whatever was left.

Shaking his head, Ichigo quickly finishes off his mug and rises to his feet to drop it into the sink. The last thing he wants to do is find himself in the middle of a Vizard scuffle over the last bit of cocoa. Neliel seems more amused by the situation, and as Ichigo leaves the room, there’s a defining pop as she slides back into child form.

It’s a miracle she held onto it for that long.

Unsure if he should be amused or disturbed by the sibling-like scuffle over the last of the hot chocolate, Ichigo makes his escape feeling cheerier than he had before. He’s still rather pissed with Isshin and in no mood to hear Kisuke’s excuses, but the pain in his chest has vanished, and he’s lost the urge to hit things.

Perhaps he ought to share hot chocolate with Neliel more often.

*****

a/n: And the plot crawls along as always. *grins* Still, I hope you liked anyway. Feedback is always welcome and appreciated.

Also, mandalee1013 has written a lovely oneshot from Kisuke's POV based on The Beautiful Lie. It's called Better That We Break. I think it's hauntingly beautiful so give it a looksee!
Tags: bleach, the beautiful lie
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