Sado has only heard Central 46 mentioned—not discussed, only mentioned—as an afterthought. Aizen's afterthought, condensed and minimized to an ineffective cavern filled with blood and death. Sado has no idea how it works, who or what Sereitei has filled it with, or even if it still exists when the doors open and he walks slowly behind his orange-haired friend into Soul Society. He knows only that if it does, his stay may be very short.
Ichigo walks tall and speaks but little—he never liked having his conversations interrupted and is prepared to be questioned. So when one of the guards posted at the gate steps forward, the captain winks at his friend and puts on an expression of bemused irritation. "What is the problem?"
The other guard places himself between Sado and the entrance. "Sado Yasutora, correct?"
"This is my friend," Ichigo states.
"Sado Yasutora?" The second guard, nearly as tall as Sado and a good deal broader, ignores the captain pointedly. "Sado-san, there have been arrangements. Ise-fukutaichou is waiting to accompany you to the Eighth Division compound."
As if on cue, she materializes. "Sado-kun," she says, adjusting her arm to straighten the book under it, "If you will?" She gestures with her free hand.
Sado glances at Ichigo, whose face is blooming into a grin. "I should have known. Nanao, what does he want?"
Nanao sniffs. "He wishes to speak with Sado-kun before he is processed. Alone."
Again, Sado looks at Ichigo, whose grin has disintegrated. "Don't tell me he's pulling rank."
"I don't know what you mean, Kurosaki-taichou," Nanao replies. "Kyouraku-taichou has always felt an affinity for Sado-kun and wishes to greet him."
"He has all the time in the world for that."
"I am inclined to agree with you. However, Kyouraku-taichou can be impatient. He says that he has waited long enough to have sake with Sado-kun and not even you can deter him. We'll see to it Sado-kun is delivered to the the Fifth Division compound when Kyouraku-taichou is satisfied."
Ichigo rocks back on his heels. "Chad, do you want to go?"
Sado smiles, even if the slightly crumpled expression wrenches his heart. It's too much like the face—the body, the smile—he has left behind. Looking at his brother-in-law is painful; the prospect of being in close quarters with him is not as comforting to Sado as Ichigo would like to believe. But Sado cannot say this. Not to Ichigo, not to anyone. He suspects Kyouraku-taichou, being the intuitive person he is, has considered this. Maybe he's been thinking on this day for decades. He'll have to thank him for the respite.
"Fine," Ichigo throws back at him as he walks away. "Just don't come to my door with alcohol poisoning."
"He's grown up some, that Kurosaki," Nanao says later, coolly. "He's finally learned to pick his battles. Not too long ago he might have put up a fight."
"Maybe," Sado nods. "I'll talk to him later. But Ise-san. . .Why does Kyouraku-taichou really want to see me?"
Nanao sighs a little. "He hasn't told me much of anything. You'll have to pardon him. He's not been. . . himself since Ukitake-taichou left us. Lonely, maybe. Although I suspect he's put some thought into securing you before you could be added to Kurosaki's fold."
"Ise-san, I'm not a sheep." Sado stops. Is that irritation buzzing under his skull? Is this not what he has feared all this time? Being examined, sorted, and filed away against his wishes? Even in those hoyden, chaotic days when he followed Ichigo to heaven and hell and back, it had always been his choice. He controlled his destiny. He lived his life the best way he could, the only way he knew how. And he had been happy. But at the back of his mind there had always been that dark space that represented a future he could not predict—no, he could predict it. What he knew of Sereitei, though little, spoke volumes to his fear: That he would not be able to follow Ichigo into Soul Society. When he said goodbye to his wife and children, it would be for good. Even here now, standing still and waiting for the cool and collected Eighth division vice captain to face him, his fear has not subsided. He cannot stay here. It is not his choice to make. There is no place for a hollow here. "Ise-san," he says.
Nanao stops, but does not turn. Her words are calm but somehow pained. "Kyouraku-taichou has been concerned with those arms of yours as well." Sado examines her back, and how her hands are balled into fists at her sides. Why would this affect her so? "We have known for some time that there may be no place for you in Sereitei. But Kyouraku-taichou chose to bypass the standard protocol in order to spare you any public exposure. This much I know. What he wishes to discuss with you is between you and him." When she starts forward, her steps are quick and hard.
He wants to grab her hand. There is something she is not saying. But he knows better. He maintains his stride behind her the rest of the way to the eighth division, right into Kyouraku's unkempt but homey office.
Where Kyouraku is already a little tipsy, according to the disgusted Nanao—a feat that has taken the help of more than a dozen bottles of sake. He has them stacked into a short glass wall. Apparently he's been waiting for longer than he thought he would, and when Sado steps foot inside the sliding door, Kyouraku knocks his masterpiece over to launch himself at the man.
But when Sado leans close to tap his shoulder, he cannot smell any alcohol. "Please sit," Kyouraku says. "You should be a little tired by now, no?"
Sado is not tired. But if that is what Kyouraku wants to believe, then so be it. He settles with this long legs crossed on a massive cushion that could only have been placed there for him. Kyouraku settles back down, across from him. The bottles are spread between them like a galaxy of earthen stars.
"I had to keep up appearances, you understand," Shunsui says, gesturing at the bottles. "Nanao-chan is so used to seeing me inebriated, it would only worry her if she thought I had gone sober."
"Has it been lonely for you lately?"
Shunsui rubs the back of his neck, grimacing. "Times like these make me extremely grateful my love for Juu-chan is platonic. I've imagined hearing from him from time to time. He's always chiding that for such a jovial person, I have few close friends. Which is true. But the rest of them together could never be as close to me as he was. It was a thousand years of fighting and drinking and trading hospital beds. It would take some time to have something like that again." He pauses, a faint smile coming onto his face. "I imagine Kurosaki has been looking forward to such a glorious future as that with you and all his little comrades at his side."
Sado smiles back at him. "I think he has. But he's earned it, hasn't he?"
"So he has. It still makes me sad."
"Because he'll be disappointed?"
"He may." Shunsui sighs. "I'm going to ask you something. You need not answer if you are not comfortable. Have you ever once attempted to summon a zanpaktou?"
Sado nods, just a little. It is not to tell Shunsui yes. It is to confirm to the captain that his suspicions are correct. Shunsui rakes a hand through his wavy dark hair. "Sado-kun. You don't think you can, do you."
"I have never believed myself capable of it. The arms have spirit, but not one that takes a form or speaks to me. To this day I believe I am stronger in Hueco Mundo. If that makes me some sort of badly-formed hollow—"
"No, Yasutora. You are not a hollow. You may have those elements, but if you were, you would have no control over any of your actions and a sizable hole in your chest. So what remains here is for you to decide what you want to do about that. There has never been a shinigami without a zanpaktou. I am prepared to put all of my energy into convincing Central 46 to make an exception. It will not be easy and if I am unsuccessful, Central 46 may exercise its right to demand a full demonstration and perhaps even a diagnosis of your skills, to be completed by Kurotsuchi Mayuri. But I believe this is a cause worth fighting for."
Sado blinks. "Kyouraku-san—will Ichigo be implicated in this as well?"
Shunsui scratches his beard. "Possibly. He'll most likely insist on being involved."
"Will it affect his position?"
"It is possible," Shunsui says with a grimace. "But I am certain this is a risk that he of all people will be willing to accept."
Sado examines his hands, frowning.
"Listen to this." Shunsui rises and walks the three short steps to his desk. It is cluttered with papers, an inkwell and an old-fashioned brush and blotter. Shunsui lifts a beautifully sculpted banzai tree and lifts the paper beneath it. "A remarkably dogged, determined, and powerful fighter, Sado Yasutora, fell to my sword today. It is the first time in a hundred years I have been both moved and impressed by an opponent. He is yet young but has a gravity one seldom notes in men ten times his age. I hope to see him again, to speak with him as a friend." Shunsui beamed at him over the aged paper. "The last time someone both moved and impressed me, it was Ukitake Juushirou."
"You are too generous to me," Sado says, shaking his head. "But I am honored. Thank you for your kindness, Kyouraku-san."
"I believe it would be a terrible loss to send you to Rukongai," Shunsui says quietly. "I believe you have earned your place here. I am sorry I cannot tell you this will be the general consensus among Central 46. But I also know that you will do what good you can wherever you are. I cannot force you to stay."
"Are you saying the choice is mine?"
"It has always been."
Sado takes a breath. He feels the weight slowly lifting, can feel the air fresh and new around him. The choice is his. He knows without considering it, knows what must be. And is content with it. "Thank you, Kyouraku-san."
"Never Kyouraku-taichou?" Shunsui will not hide his disappointment. "I'll commiserate with Kurosaki, then."
Later that night, as the denizens of the fifth division prepare for bed, a messenger arrives at the compound gate with a message for their captain. I cannot stay. I will contact you when I get settled. Do not worry and do not tell Karin. Give Rukia-san and Renji-kun my greetings. Ichigo frowns and clenches his fists. "I should have known," he growls. He can see the shaggy brown head of the Eighth division captain coming up the lane and it's instantly clear why Shunsui neglected to pass on the message himself. Under his arm flashes a sake bottle. The Fifth division captain shakes his head and prepares to greet his comrade. Tonight they'll drink together to drown their sorrows. They may even spill into one of the Rukongai bars after recruiting a few buddies. Then they'll have a toast to good friends who cannot be with them, each cursing and wishing Sado Yasutora well in the same breath.
The same Sado Yasutora who is passing into the sixtieth district as the sun comes up. He looks forward and smiles a little. There has been no confrontation, no reputations put at risk. His friends will go on without him for a while, and he will move forward without them. The path ahead of him is open, clear, and of his own making. He knows someday he'll return to Sereitei's gates. Until then, he is free to wander. I'll do some good, he thinks.