Well, here we go: a final chapter! I'd like to thank you guys for sticking with this story, and as always for your reviews. I hope you enjoy!
Disclaimer: I own nothing.
After some time Kira finished his work and quietly rose to his feet, then gathering his instruments back into their neat bag and sliding it under the bed.
"Shall I send Urahara-san in now?"
Ichigo did not stir, though he muttered a pillow-muffled "Yeah."
Kira nodded and, with an unseen and half-hearted bow, left the boy to his thoughts, still lying face-down in bed.
Outside, the vice captain found Urahara wandering aimlessly among Unohana's flowers, touching the petals but not feeling them, staring blankly at nothing at all. He looked exhausted; he sported five-o-clock shadow long grown out from his typical stubble, and bore shadows beneath his eyes. Kira stood in the doorway to the garden, hand on the doorframe, embarrassed to interrupt the man.
"Urahara-san," he called gently. Immediately the other man came out of his trance, head snapping up and eyes flashing.
"Yeah, Kira?" he moved toward the door, hands tucked into his sleeves. Even in those days he tried to be pleasant, if only for Ichigo's sake.
"He's ready to see you now," the blond explained gently.
"Aah, then I'd better go in, eh?"
Kira nodded wordlessly with a vague and empty smile. Urahara brushed past him with a quick stride and lack of regard that belied his friendliness. His sandals fell quiet as he left the porch, slipping them off to retreat into Unohana's tidy home. Kira did not turn to watch him go.
"Knock knock," Urahara called.
"Come in," came the reply, this time slightly more enthusiastic.
"Ohayou, Ichigo," the blond greeted, his voice dropping a pitch automatically in the dark quiet of the room. Ichigo sat up in bed, watching him.
"Morning," he answered groggily.
"How are you feeling today?" He crouched down to sit on the floor, leaning back on his palms.
"Okay. I think I'm better."
Urahara perked up.
"Do you think you'd like to come back? Of course, you don't -
"What about my dad though?" Ichigo asked, glancing down at his lap.
"Aah, I suppose we could find some space for you at the shop."
There was a moment of quiet.
"You can stay as long as you like, Ichigo," the blond reminded him gently, levity low in his voice, "always."
The boy glanced about the room and then began to nod slowly.
"Yeah," he agreed. "I think...I wanna go back."
Returning Ichigo to the shop was not as difficult as Urahara had originally assumed. Byakuya offered them crossing through his estate, which was especially expansive and, moreover, private. Though Ichigo could walk with minimal effort, he did not want to be seen. Together they crossed the neatly manicured grass, stepping over carefully carved streams and skirting the borders of fine rock gardens.
No one was there to send them off.
Urahara had made it clear to Yoriuchi - via Soi Fon - that he did not want anyone hanging around the shop when they returned, at least for a couple of weeks. He figured that Ichigo did not need anyone hanging over him or prodding for details, nor stewing over the indignity and plotting revenge.
Naturally, Yoruichi was heartbroken and furious. Urahara did not know where she had disappeared to upon hearing the news, and he did not investigate. It was clear, when they arrived back at the shop, that Tessai had done something with the kids, as well. The doors were locked, lights off, silent throughout.
"Aah, it's good to be home," Urahara sighed, locking the doors again behind them. Ichigo said nothing, simply standing idly with his hands in the pockets of his jeans, looking around at the shelves and bins and countertops as though he had never seen them before.
"Maybe you're hungry?"
Ichigo shrugged noncommittally.
"A little, ah, well. I'm sure I have a little something around here. Ah, let's see..." Urahara rooted through his shelves, unsettlingly bare in the absence of Tessai's grocery shopping. Finally he came upon a few bags for tea, and a dried miso soup mix. "Not as fresh as I'd like, but - "
Urahara turned to regard the boy, but found him missing, only empty stillness in his absence. Somehow, on his impressively nimble sock feet, he had slipped off. The blond figured he deserved a moment of solitude, and turned back to his work, boiling a kettle of water and preparing some for the soup. He heard water begin to rush through the pipes - as he often did when Ichigo arrived at the shop after a long absence - and felt unusually comforted by it. Leaning on the stove, he listened to the sound of the passing water, and watched steam rise. Moments later, he had two cups of tea and two bowls of soup - both of suspect quality - settled on a tray and prepared for consumption.
By the time he arrived at the top of the stairs, tray precariously balanced, Ichigo's shower had ceased. He took special care to respect the boy's privacy, turning his back to the open door of the bathroom to settle the cups and bowls on his nightstand. He rose only when Ichigo emerged, one towel around his waist and another draped over his shoulders. Urahara grinned.
"Mediocre food, just for you, my prince."
Ichigo's eyebrows rose slightly and he shrugged.
"Better than nothing."
"That remains to be seen."
The blond moved aside and invited the boy to sit on the edge of his bed, and he pulled up a chair on the opposite side of his night stand.
"They're the same," Urahara remarked lightly, and Ichigo selected a cup and bowl.
For a time they ate and drank in silence. It seemed that Ichigo had discovered his hunger and thirst only when stimulating them; he had sucked down the bitter stale tea and salty soup, desiccated tofu and all, before Urahara had even finished half. After a few more quiet moments, the blond heaved a satisfied sigh.
"A little better than expected," he commented, though his tone was wry.
"Better than nothing," Ichigo sighed yet again, "thanks for this."
Urahara thought that might have been the longest string of words he had heard from the boy since the incident, and his heart leapt for it.
"I suspect you may be right," he agreed quickly, "and you are most welcome!"
He began to gather the dishes back onto the tray, preparing to return them to the kitchen.
"We will have to invite Ishida-kun to cook for us sometime," he suggested lightly, finally rediscovering some of his levity. Ichigo was still.
"Does he know?"
Urahara paused at the door, feeling those first blossoms of mirth wither.
"I don't - I'm not sure. I don't think so. Please try not to think about that." He hesitated. "No one will think the less of you for any of this, Ichigo."
But the words were hoarsely whispered, mere crests of breath, and Urahara was humming on his trip down the stairs by the time it was finished. With minimal noise he left the tea cups and bowls in the sink, returning the tray to its shelf. Satisfied with his housekeeping, he put the lights out behind him, and returned to his room, leaving the stairwell dark as well.
Urahara closed his door gingerly behind him, crossed the room to his bathroom and shut the lights off, peeled his socks off and removed his hat all before realizing that Ichigo was naked in their bed. A cold stun washed over him.
Of course they had always slept that way, nude, both of them. Urahara had teased him over it and received a few late night smacks over his playful pestering. But it occurred to him then that he had, in some subconscious region of his mind, supposed that he would not be seeing him nude, sleeping near him or so much as touching him any time soon. And he respected that, all of it.
He slid quietly out of his clothes and snuffed out the lamp. Standing at his bedside, he paused nervously.
"Do you mind if I sleep here?" he murmured gently.
"It's your bed," Ichigo mumbled.
"Aah, but you're my guest."
"I wish," Ichigo said softly, with remarkable clarity, "I wish people would stop asking me this stuff."
And Urahara hadn't even thought of it, in his haze of sorrow and apprehension, hadn't entertained the notion that the constant probing and suggestion of fragility had pained him, reminded him of the loss of a fundamental element of himself.
"I'm sorry, Ichigo," Urahara answered after a stretch of silence.
He slid into bed beside the boy then, again vaguely enraptured by the presence of his warmth, and lay down on his back. Ichigo turned away from him, laying on his side, facing the blank wall adjacent to the bed. And then there was a second of baited breath during which the blond contemplated draping his arm over the boy as he always had.
After careful consideration he supposed he should.
Slowly, as to provide the boy some measure of warning, he turned onto his side. When Ichigo did not shift or protest, he laid his arm over his narrow waist, bringing the boy's sharp shoulder blades to press gently against his chest. And he wanted to ask - is this alright, should I go on, shall I stop? But he was silent.
Ichigo did not flinch, though his body remained stiff and unyielding.
"Relax," Urahara murmured, lips grazing the nape of the boy's neck, "you must be exhausted. You haven't slept well in a while, hm?"
"No," he answered mutedly.
Urahara could hear the boy's voice weaken as he sank closer to sleep. And he thought then of telling him about his own nightmares, the ones that had persisted long after he had been banished from Sereitei. He wanted to tell him how helpless he had felt, how powerless, how furious and how incapable he had felt at that time of comprehending all of the meaningless cruelty in the world, how deeply he understood his feelings.
But for Ichigo's sake, he let him rest. He kissed the back of his neck and pulled him near as he always had, perhaps a little tighter, perhaps a little closer. After a short while, his body loosened and his breathing deepened, soothed by Urahara's familiar touch. And then he said the only thing he felt right about, something he believed.
"It'll be alright."
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