Title: A Beautiful Lie

Pairings: Aizen/Ichigo, Urahara/Ichigo, others (yet to be decided)

Rating: M

Warning: Spoilers for recent chapters, Character death, Yaoi-ness, Post-war fic, Violence, AU a bit (I write with a complete knowledge of the manga in mind, picking and choosing which elements of canon I'll stick with, and which I will alter because Kubo hasn't fully explained. If you don't want any spoilers, I wouldn't recommend reading this fic at all)

Description: Years after the painful end, the echoes of war still prove their influence, and Ichigo discovers a dead man in his kitchen.

Disclaimer: All characters depicted in this fiction for sexual situations are of legal age. Also, I do not own Bleach or its characters. Nor do I make any money from the writing of this fic.

Thanks to the lovely Lady Azar for beta'ing!

A Beautiful Lie

Chapter One – Ghosts

When Ichigo comes home from classes that afternoon, there is a dead man sitting at his dining room table. He is not simply a spirit, a Shinigami, but an actual dead man. He is smiling and laughing with Ichigo's sisters, easily charming them as he did so many who had followed him.

Ichigo can only stop and stare because he remembers this man's death, remembers watching him fall with a smile on his face, remembers the end of the war. Remembers how remarkably anti-climatic everything was, how the battle had finished. Remembers wishing things had been different because a part of him deep down inside still feels that something is off in Soul Society, that one man's treachery might have had purpose after all.

His sisters wouldn't know what he looks like, wouldn't know the face of the man who threatened all of Seireitei and Karakura in his attempts at godhood. It had all happened so fast back then, fighting and desperately trying to stay alive. Saving Orihime and battling the Espada. Fight after fight after win after loss after coming out victorious, after struggling not to shed tears for a failure. After watching some people that he knew and cared about get cut down as if they were nothing, after wondering why he was the lucky one that gets to live another day.

After people telling him that he's a hero and all he knows is that he survived. And he never refutes them, never tells them otherwise because Ichigo knows they need that. They need someone to bear the weight of being hero, and who better than himself? They cast everything on him anyway; what would a little more matter in the end?

This dead man sits at Ichigo's table, a cup of tea before him and a plate of Yuzu's cookies, and smiles. Simply smiles, as if he has not a care in the world. His brown eyes are carefully shielded, and though Ichigo has become significantly better at sensing reiatsu recently, he cannot detect a smidgen of it on this man. Not a single flare or a tiny ripple, as if he has been completely stripped.

"Ichi-nii-san! You're home early," Yuzu chirps, having finally noticed his presence as he stands like a slack-jawed fool in the doorway.

She beams up at him, and he is reminded how much she looks like their mother when she does that. And then, Ichigo realizes he is on the verge of becoming an old man with thoughts like that and pushes it aside.

He rubs the back of his head, trying to be nonchalant. "Yeah, classes were out early."

His eyes, however, seem locked on the man who should be dead, but isn't. The man who is sitting there, calmly sipping from a teacup without even a slurp as if it were the most normal thing for a dead man to be doing.

Ichigo feels something tug inside of him, some kind of wondering mixes with a faint stirring of admiration. Even fighting against this man, standing up again and again with blood dripping from what seems like every limb, he had still wondered. He has never been the type to overly question his own choices, not when he knows what is right and what he must do. But in that battle, in that war, Ichigo had found himself wavering. Just for one split second, he had wondered if he was doing the right thing.

They had wanted him to join them after the war. They had asked Ichigo to become a captain, to take the place of one of the traitors. Ichigo had turned them down. He still had his own life, still had his schooling to finish, other things that he wanted to do with his future. He had everything ahead of him. And honestly, a part of him wanted nothing more to do with the Gotei 13.

"Oh," Yuzu responds just as cheerily as before. "That's good then. You can finish cooking, while I help tou-san in the clinic so that he can have a late lunch."

"Sure," Ichigo answers distractedly, unable to take his eyes at the real live dead man at his table.

Days worth of battle lie silently between them, and he almost swears he can smell the sharp scent of spilled blood and charred flesh. Can hear the echoes of screams of those he lost. Can feel the weight of Zangetsu in his grip and catches Shirosaki's constant nagging to be set free at the back of his mind. Sees again, Renji falling, his hair a bloody halo around his head to match the bloody spray on the ground around him. All the memories pass in a blink of an eye, and he somehow manages not to stagger.

"Nice to meet you, Aiiro-san," Yuzu says with a wide smile as she wipes her hands on a dishtowel and unwinds her apron from around her waist. She is nearly his height now, Ichigo notices, even though he has already had a growth spurt.

The dead man whose real name is Aizen Sousuke dips his head at Ichigo's little sister. "Likewise, Yuzu-chan. I hope to try some of your cooking on another day."

"I hope you do, too."

And then Yuzu is gone, humming some energetic tune under her breath as she goes to wash up and help their father in the clinic.

Karin is still there, however, propped against the counter and eying Aizen with that peculiar gleam that Ichigo has learned to recognize. She is keener than her twin, and Ichigo is sure that she knows something is up. Crossing one arm over her chest and balancing an elbow on it, her eyes flicker between Ichigo and Aizen.

"Ichi-nii didn't mention having an older friend," she states challengingly, just shy of being her usual aggressive self. As if she is testing out this stranger and trying to decide whether he needs a pummeling.

Ichigo finds himself proud of her.

Aizen is neither surprised nor intimidated by Karin's statement. He simply keeps his smile and steeples his fingers together. "We are old acquaintances," he tells the younger Kurosaki. "It has been some time since I have been able to see him, however."

Karin definitely doesn't believe him. And Ichigo knows she is already planning more questions to fire at Aizen. He steps further into the kitchen, casting his sister a warning look.

"We have some things to talk about," he tells her, heading to the stove where whatever Yuzu is making continues to simmer. "Could you give us a minute?"

Critical eyes, always so clever, flicker between them before Karin snorts and heads towards the door. "Fine." One hand waves in a sort-of goodbye. "I'll be watching TV." For her, it is a subtle warning that she will be nearby in case of emergency, despite knowing that her brother can take care of himself.

Ichigo waits for her to be long gone, using the time to check on whatever is cooking. When he hears the sound of the television, he turns to face the dead man, who has been watching him with interest. Those dark eyes gleam with a certain knowledge, looking ever so harmless behind thin-framed glasses.

"You have adorable sisters," Aizen says in that pleasant tone of his, balancing his elbows on the table and tangling his fingers together. "Really, quite strong-willed, they are."

"They've had to be," Ichigo answers, feeling the fraternal pride swelling up in his chest. He eyes Aizen with no small amount of suspicion. "How are you here?" In the back of his mind, Zangetsu stirs warningly. Fully prepared to do battle at a moment's notice.

Aizen takes in a long, steadying breath. "It is a long story, and I would be putting others in danger if I revealed it."

He levels a stare at the former overlord. "You mean, you would be naming traitors."

The other man inclines his head obligingly. "If you want to put it that way, then yes." His fingers slide around the edge of the tea saucer, an almost nervous motion if it were anyone else.

Frustration begins to weave its way into Ichigo's tone, but he fights it down for the sake of getting answers. "Fine. Why are you here?"

A hint of a smile pulls at Aizen's lips, neither mocking nor sincere, just somehow... there. "That is indeed the question, Kurosaki-kun."

Ichigo feels his brow twitch. "I could kill you," he reminds the traitor, though he isn't sure why since he hasn't made the slightest hostile motion yet.

The smile fades away, becoming serious. "Indeed, you could. I'm sure you've already noticed, but I have nothing to guard myself. No zanpakutou, no kidoh, not a single spark of reiatsu." And there is a touch of disappointment, of regret in his tone. As well as fury. But it is so carefully hidden by the placidity of politeness that Ichigo is thrown for a moment.

He watches Aizen warily. "You came to me. Why?"

"I think you know the answer to that, too," Aizen replies and sips once at the tea that Yuzu has served him. "She certainly brews this well," he murmurs.

Ichigo feels his brow twitch, and one hand drops to his pocket, where his Shinigami badge is always present. There is an urge to draw it, to pull Zangetsu and to cut this murderer down. But another smaller part of him wants to hear what Aizen has to say. Wants to know just why the man who should be dead is sitting at his table, complimenting his sisters cooking abilities. And why he hasn't tried to do anything... well, evil in the past five minutes they've been chatting.

Shifting, Ichigo moves his attention to the pot, the wonderful smells emerging somewhat distracting. He stirs it again to give his hands something to do, though his senses remain ever aware of what should be considered an enemy sitting right behind him. The silence between them is perfectly placed amongst awkward, wary, and expectant.

He wonders why Aizen thinks he should know. But Ichigo remembers his own fleeting thoughts, those years ago, that maybe Aizen might have been right. Recalls watching Soul Society's methods with the taste of bile on the back of his tongue and finding himself harboring a hidden disgust for the old man at every shift in the tides of war.

"You want me to help you," Ichigo finally mutters, the realization coming slowly and laboriously. Seeping into his thought processes with sticky, painfully logical fingers.

There is a clink as Aizen replaces his cup into its saucer followed by a crunch as he splits a cookie in half, crumbs falling to the table. "I know you must wonder why I could possibly think that you, who fought so hard against me, would be willing to offer even a hand if I were drowning." There was a soft swish as he brushed the crumbs back onto the plate, ever so courteous and thoughtful.

"That is a start, yeah," Ichigo replies, and replacing the cover on the pan, he turns to regard Aizen with a lot of confusion and leans against the counter. His arms fold over his chest as he frowns. "Why me?"

Brown eyes meet his gaze steadily, and for a moment, Ichigo sees in them the echo of the loss that he too feels. He remembers that all of Aizen's former companions are either dead or scattered to the four winds. That Tousen had skewered himself on his own sword before facing Komamura. And that Gin had been ripped to pieces by Byakuya. His Espada, save the two or three they could never find, had been ruthlessly destroyed by the Shinigami as well.

It's rather human of Aizen, this terrorizing monster, to carry grief for his lost companions. Ichigo shifts uncomfortably in his stance, not liking this sudden bout of understanding that seeks to wash through him. He realizes that he only knows Soul Society's side of the tale, what Seireitei has ever told him and what they viewed as Aizen's plot. He finds himself wondering what a different tale the ghost in front of him might have to tell.

He watches as Aizen rises to his feet, very casually brushing down invisible wrinkles from his clothes. He is dressed like a human. Simple black slacks. Long-sleeved dress shirt worn buttoned but untucked. The simple square glasses give him a harmless look, and the tousled brown hair makes him seem completely so.

"I am sure that showing up unannounced in your home, where your sisters are present, has not made you amenable to my request," Aizen states simply, his tone carrying a hint of contrition. "But it was also my only choice of location where you would talk before attacking."

Ichigo inclines his head, though he is still suspicious. Aizen has yet to explain anything, and it is pretty obvious that he plans on leaving.

"Your point?"

A hint of a smile curves at Aizen's lips, likely amusement to Ichigo's still faintly hostile tone. "I will explain everything if you will meet with me. The ramen-ya near your university stays open late, yes?"

"You want me to agree to meet you?" Ichigo asks, feeling just a bit incredulous. It stinks of trap to him, but he also wonders what this Aizen can do to him.

No reiatsu and no allies, just how would he kill Ichigo? And for what purpose? Petty revenge? Aizen doesn't seem the type.

Aizen nods, and though he seems entirely confident, the faint slump to his shoulders shows a hint of uncertainty. "At eleven, if possible. Or you may pick the place and time, if it makes you more comfortable."

Ichigo could only stare at Aizen, unable to give either an affirmative or negative response. This definitely falls under some sort of traitor category, but who would he be betraying exactly? The Shinigami he has mostly abandoned? Or is it the echoes of those who fell fighting against this man?

The other man's gaze shifts past him, to the sickeningly bright gleam of the sun shining through the window. "You don't have to give me an answer now. I will be there regardless, and if you appear or of you do not, that will be answer enough."

There is a sense of hope there. And Ichigo finds it so ironic. This once powerful man – lord and master in his own rights, of a sandy and desolate plane called Hueco Mundo – is nearly begging for Ichigo's help, though in far less words. He is still proud, still a touch confident, but he is also weary and restrained. Sad. Perhaps lonely.

"Fine," Ichigo grounds out, through teeth grinding themselves hard enough to make his temple pulse with a new form of headache. Behind him, the lid rattles as whatever is simmering beneath it hits a low boil.

Aizen watches him for another long moment before seeming to come to his own inner conclusion. "Very well. Please, tell your sister once again that the tea was delicious and I appreciate her hospitality. Do not worry, I can find the door on my own."

And with that, he steps out of Ichigo's kitchen and into the hallway with a silent movement that belies his harmless appearance. Moments later, Ichigo hears the click of his door opening and shutting quietly as Aizen makes his exit. All Ichigo is left with is the impression of the man on his eyelids, the dishes carefully and considerately stacked on the table for easy transport to the sink.

The pot behind him gives an annoyed burble, and he hurriedly turns, lifting off the lid and turning the spoon a few quick times in the liquid. His free hand carefully lowers the heat so that it simmers, rather than boils, before he replaces the lid. Mindless, easy to accomplish task. Something he doesn't have to put any effort behind.

Not like this decision.

Sighing, Ichigo braces himself on the counter, heel of his palms digging into the cold edge. His shoulders feel ripe with tension even as he rolls his neck, trying to ease the stress that has gathered there. The choice sits heavily on top of them.

One hand lifts and reaches for the sink, turning it on to rinse out the spoon he has used to stir their lunch. No need to invite home invaders, after all.

"Are you going?"

Karin's voice makes him startle, and he drops the spoon into the sink with a loud clink of metal on metal. He turns to look at her.

"You were listening?"

His younger sister is leaning in the doorway, arms crossed over her chest as she regards him with too much knowledge for her age. "Did you really think I was watching a show meant for five-year-olds?" she counters, every inch of her smile filled with sarcasm.

Honestly, Ichigo hadn't been paying attention to whatever she had been watching. His entire focus had been on Aizen and whatever the man wanted from him. Karin looks at him, her dark eyes eerily focused and curious.

"What do you think is going on?"

Ichigo shrugs, tries to go for nonchalance as he turns back towards the sink and cuts off the water with a squeak of the knob. "I don't know."

"Are you going?"

He avoids the question for a moment as he moves to the table, scooping up the dishes Aizen left behind and placing them in the sink. The cupboards then rattle as he opens them, searching out what they would need for lunch in the next ten minutes.

"I probably should," Ichigo finally answers as Karin moves to help him, pulling out the necessary plates and utensils. "I don't think he wants to kill me."

In that moment, he is glad for Karin's maturity. As her outlook on many things often gives him a point of view he might not have considered.

Karin snorts. "Even I can see that," she states, but her eyes darken, as though recalling some horrific memory. "He has no reiatsu."

"They took it from him," Ichigo automatically points out, something churning in his gut at remembering that scene. Remembering watching the zanpakutou stabbing through Aizen's chest without killing him.

The look of defeat in the overlord's eyes had been the most apparent then. He had retained his arrogance, his assurance, up until the moment right before Ukitake-soutaichou's zanpakutou had skewered him. Ichigo remembers the bright flare of reiatsu, so compelling and choking as it had swept through the crowd and knocking some of the weaker Shinigami from their feet. And then, it had abruptly died, vanishing to nothing, leaving them staggering in the encompassing wake.

He remembers Aizen looking more like a corpse alive than he would have had he died in that very moment.

Ichigo sighs, sliding the last of the dishware onto the table with a faint thump. "Or at least, I thought they did."

His sister scoffs, rolling her eyes. "Yeah, and we thought he was dead."

Her words carry absolute truth, and a moment of silence settles between them. The scowl on Ichigo's face is a mixture of contemplation and curiosity. He tries to remember if he ever actually saw Aizen die, and if there had been anyone present who would have cared to mourn at the overlord's death.

"You're going, aren't you?" Karin asks.

And Ichigo honestly doesn't have an answer for her. At least, not one he is willing to admit aloud.

The door connecting the clinic and the home chooses that moment to burst open, slamming against the opposite wall with a harsh bang that echoes through the house. Loud enough to be heard, even in the kitchen.

"I'm staaaaaarving!" Isshin practically sings as he flitters his way into the kitchen, only to see Ichigo and throw his arms out wide. "My son! How wonderful to--"

His words and subsequent leap-kick across the table are cut off as Ichigo ever-so calmly tosses him against the pantry door, leaving yet another good sized dent in the wood.

Behind him, Yuzu makes a sound of exclamation. "Ichi-nii!" she chastises, opening the drawer to reach for a spoon. "You let it boil!"

Ichigo winces, hating to let Yuzu down in anything. "Sorry, Yuzu. I was distracted. I didn't ruin it, did I?"

She sparkles up at him, making him wish that everything was as easy to fix as an accidentally boiled pot. "The rice will be a bit too soft, but it's still edible."

The familiar banter of the Kurosaki family and all its craziness washes over Ichigo, and he finds himself breathing just a little easier. And as they sit around the table, chatting amicably over the meal Yuzu so carefully prepared for them, he feels a few steps closer to normal. He doesn't initially think about Aizen's request, though it lingers in the back of his mind.

He catches Karin's eye once, and he reads the wordless question there. Is he going?

The look she receives in return isn't an answer, but Ichigo has the feeling he has probably made up his mind. Curiosity perhaps or his own goddamned hero complex is driving his choice at the moment.

He only hopes that he isn't foolishly falling into Aizen's clutches.

a/n: And so I begin another story, this one more like an actual fic than the disjointed bits and pieces that was Minutes to Midnight.

All questions will be answered in time, I promise. I'm rather excited about this piece, though I know I will be seeing some complaints about characterization. Ichigo here is a bit different, as is Aizen because this fic takes place after the war and well, people change because of horrific events like that. Either way, I'm going to keep writing it as I think it should be written.

I hope you enjoyed it, and I look forward to your feedback! Chapter Two: Answers will arrive soon enough.