Dust in the Light

Disclaimer: I do not own Bleach. That honor belongs to Tite Kubo.

Warnings: AU-ish, Speculation, Spoilers for recent chapters

AN: Originally, I gave this as a prompt for an AtLA fic, but I've now decided to use it myself.

They find him in the fifteenth district. Ichigo suspects they've been searching region by region for him over the last several months, which is why he's already moved several times. But it's nice here. Peaceful. Enough so that he lingers.

And the little shop where Ichigo now works is quiet, out of the way. The owner seems to understand that Ichigo's still reeling from his abrupt arrival in the afterlife. That he's still trying to process being here. She doesn't ask any questions, doesn't offer any advice, and for that, Ichigo is eternally grateful.

But like all good things, his solitude comes to an abrupt end.

It isn't Rukia or Renji or even any of his friends who finds him first.

Instead, it's Soifon, and really, Ichigo isn't surprised. For once, she's actually managed to do her job right. She just stomps up to him as he's wiping down tables, not caring that she's practically petrified all of the customers along the way, and demands that he follow her immediately.

A minute passes. Then, two.

Soifon is silent and still, but Ichigo can see from the corner of his vision as her eyes go from narrowed to something approaching worried. She thinks – if only for a moment – that he doesn't remember her.

That's not a surprise either. By all rights, he probably shouldn't. Most souls don't when they cross over. Either forgetting on purpose or because it's simply too traumatic.

But Ichigo remembers. He remembers everything. And maybe that's the real problem.

He remembers. He does, but it's more fun to pretend he doesn't. More fun to see Soifon fighting not to shift from foot to foot like an awkward little girl who's just come up to a stranger by mistake. Thankfully, she backpedals then and doesn't choose a more unfortunate course. Such as trying to take him back by force. Soifon instead beats a hasty retreat, undoubtedly to head for reinforcements. It shouldn't take them long.

In the meantime, Ichigo finishes cleaning the dirty tables. Helps pick up a few stray customers from the floor, where Soifon left them. Takes a ten minute break when his boss offers one. And starts organizing the bookshelves.

Rukia and Renji show up less than an hour later. Winded and looking to everyone and their brother as though they've run all the way there from Seireitei without missing a step in between. They both stand just inside the doorway, next to the large front window, and stare.

Ichigo greets them politely, distantly, and then gets back to organizing. He's still at work after all. On the clock. And he already had his break.

Neither of them seems to care. Not even when they finally get over themselves and their shock long enough to stumble over.

"Ichigo," Rukia breathes as she stops directly in front of him. Her bottom lip is between her teeth, nearly bloody as she chews on it.

"Hey," Ichigo greets, taking a second to look at them. "Long time no see, Rukia, Renji."

That earns him a sucked in breath.

"You recognize us?" Renji questions after a heartbeat or two of stunned silence.

Ichigo is already back to stacking books by then, but he can work and talk at the same time.

"Why wouldn't I?" he asks in return, nudging three more hardcovers into place.

They just stand there. Looking at him like he's grown another head, a few arms, and maybe some legs, too. Like their ears have suddenly stood up in revolt and decided to take a holiday.

"But… But…" Rukia tries, but her brain seems to have gone on vacation, too.

"But Soifon…" Renji offers instead. "Soifon said-"

Ichigo can't help but snort. That brings them up short, especially when he offers a wicked twist of his mouth and little chuckle.

"And what did she say?" he poses.

"That you didn't recognize her," Rukia throws in, and her voice is stronger now with an edge that isn't quite hysteria but is sure working that direction.

Ichigo shrugs and moves a shelf to the left. "She shouldn't assume things."

"You lied ta her," Renji realizes, and he sounds impressed for a second before he remembers himself.

"No," Ichigo corrects offhandedly, "I implied. Besides, I was busy."

"With what?" Rukia half-demands, half-shrieks. But she quiets a little when Renji puts a hand on her arm and she finally notices that everybody in the shop is staring. And has been for several minutes.

Ichigo glances at her before turning back to his shelf.

"With work."

Rukia and Renji gape at him. They're still gaping minutes later when he finishes and takes a second to look around the shop for something else to do. There are, of course, more tables for him to clear. Some dishes for him to wash. A few other odds and ends.

His friends keep staring as he turns to those tasks. Staring and staring and not understanding at all.


Ichigo doesn't see them leave. Else, he would've said goodbye.

Either way, he knows they'll be back. If not immediately with even more reinforcements. Then tomorrow.

He's right, sure enough. They try to talk. He lets them only because it's his break this time. However, their eyes are blank and confused when he refuses to come with them then and there. And Ichigo knows then that they don't get it at all.

Why would they?

This is Soul Society. This is their home. This is their life.

It isn't his. Not really. Not yet. His family is still in the living world, and Ichigo's half-convinced this is a mistake. A dream. A nightmare where he'll wake in his own bed. Where he'll get up in his own room and go downstairs. Have breakfast with his sisters and father. Go to his morning classes at the university and still be home in time for dinner.

This isn't real. It can't be.

And what the hell would he do in Seireitei if he went there? Go to the academy? Go straight into a division? Just hang out until they have need of him again?

He can't do that. Ichigo won't. Not yet. Not until he's figured this out. Worked it through his head.

That doesn't keep Renji and Rukia from trying. From coming by every damn day. From following him to the little apartment he's renting down the street. From stalking him as he buys groceries in the market.

They talk and cajole and beg. But they don't listen. They don't hear what he's trying to tell them.

The others don't seem to either when they show up, too. It doesn't take them long. Less than four days later.

Byakuya doesn't say anything when he arrives. He just sits at the corner table and sips his tea, looking out the window more than at Ichigo.

Yoruichi-san sniffs around in cat-form and then sits on the counter, watching Ichigo the entire time.

Kenpachi accosts him on the way back from work, and it's only luck that Ichigo manages to escape in the following confusion.

Toushirou shows up at his new apartment, face set in a scowl but eyes very, very green and concerned.

Hanatarou sends a fruit basket, but Ichigo only sees him from the back afterwards.

Ukitake-san and his pink friend buy a few books and linger around the shop, but Ichigo knows they aren't really there to read.

All of them come to him in captain's haori or Shinigami clothing. Like they've hopped right off the recruitment poster. Like they're there for Seireitei and the Gotei 13 and not for Ichigo himself.

Intellectually, he knows that isn't the case. That they're just worried about him in their own little ways, but he feels so disconnected from them. From this place. From everything here.

From his new neighbors, who are polite but distant. From his boss, who looks at his plethora of high-ranking and important visitors but says nothing. From his customers, who are just minding their own business and don't seem to realize anything's wrong. From each and every one of his friends, who have lived here for decades – centuries – and don't truly know anything different. Who don't miss the living world at all.

Not like Ichigo does.

Then, one day, there's Shinji.

Ichigo wondered when he'd finally turn up. He knew at least one of the Vizard eventually would, and his money had been on Shinji.

He isn't disappointed.

"Hey," the blond greets as Ichigo leaves work through the backdoor.

It's night, after closing, but there's no telling how long Shinji's been hanging out. He's dressed more smartly than most of Ichigo's visitors. No haori. No Shinigami black. Just a green yukata that blends in completely with the rest of the people milling about in the lingering summer warmth. The only thing out of place is the bag in his hand.

"Shinji," Ichigo greets back and thinks to add, "how've you been?"

That earns him a grin as Shinji matches pace.

"I'm good. What 'bout you?"

"Fine," Ichigo replies automatically.

Shinji gives something like a snort mixed with a laugh. "Liar," he accuses, but his tone is pleasant.

Like he comes by to see Ichigo every day as Renji and Rukia still do. Like he's just spent the entire afternoon at the corner table, as Byakuya did just today. Like he sat by the register yesterday with Yoruichi-san. Or came by on Monday to buy more books with Ukitake-san. Or sent him candy this time. Or roamed around his neighborhood, searching for his apartment and perhaps a fight to the death.

Like he doesn't care when Ichigo lies to his face.

Knowing Shinji, he probably doesn't.

"How do you know it's a lie?" Ichigo counters. "I really am fine."

"Sure, sure," Shinji dismisses and then shakes the bag in his hand. "Hungry?"

It's only then that Ichigo realizes he's smelled something really good for the last five minutes. And while he makes enough money to feed himself rather well, Ichigo does have spiritual powers. He has to eat.

"My treat," Shinji says just to sweeten the deal, as if he hadn't already brought dinner. "You can tell me about how yer really doing and about yer new job." His grin turns lecherous then. "Saw yer boss. She's hot!"

"She's old enough to be my mother," Ichigo almost squawks as they reach his apartment.

"Everyone here's old enough ta be yer mother," the blond points out.

But he's already steering them inside as soon as Ichigo gets the door open. He glances around for a second before making a beeline for the nearby table and immediately pulling out takeaway boxes. Ichigo sighs, closes the door, and goes to fetch some dishware. The next several minutes are spent quietly and only with the sounds of eating.

"Nice place," Shinji comments around a mouthful of noodles sometime later. "That hot boss of yers must pay well."

Ichigo shrugs and keeps eating.

It isn't bad. But it definitely isn't home either.

"What else would I spend my money on?" Ichigo asks, but it's more to himself than anyone else.

Shinji laughs. "I don't know. Ya could date or somethin'. Spruce up yer wardrobe."

Ichigo scowls. He looks from his own clothes to Shinji's and actually realizes that he's better dressed.

Shinji laughs again. But he isn't smiling when that laughter fades. Instead, he almost looks solemn, contemplative.

"It's good ta see ya like this. Like yer old self," the older man clarifies. "I was worried that you'd forgotten him. Especially with what everyone's been saying."

Ichigo stills. "And what have they been saying?" He can't quite keep his voice under control. "That I've lost my damn mind?"

"Nope. Just that yer lost." Shinji tilts his head. "That's what Byakuya-bo said at any rate. That yer trying to find yerself again."

Ichigo's mouth is suddenly dry. He wants to say something, but he doesn't know what. And he isn't sure what his face shows, but it can't be anything good.

Shinji lets out a breath. "It's alright, ya know."

"Alright?" Ichigo echoes in a rasp.

"To be upset," the blond explains. "To miss yer family. Yer home. Yer life." His eyes are unblinking and see too much. "But yer not completely dead. Not yet."

Ichigo doesn't bristle then. Doesn't have the energy for it.

"I know that," he retorts, but there isn't any real heat.

"No." Shinji shakes his head. "I don't think ya do. I think that ya don't really know what ta do with yourself right now. What ta feel."

It's the truth. Shinji might as well have smacked him in the face with it. Screamed it from the rooftops.

It's nothing but the truth. One that Ichigo's already admitted to himself. He might as well say it aloud.

"I just…"

But he can't. It's never that easy.

Ichigo shakes his head and looks away.

"You need time," Shinji says, and his voice is unexpectedly soft. Gentle even. Accent all but forgotten. "Time to get yer head together. To get used to this. Yer just not ready. It's not every day that you die, after all. And maybe… just maybe, you need ta mourn that for a while."

Ichigo swallows, and his hands tighten to keep from shaking.

"Yeah," he finally admits, but the word sticks in his throat.

Shinji just nods. Toys with his chopsticks before setting them next to his now empty plate.

"We'll still be here when yer ready," the blond states. "Me. The others. We'll wait. No matter how long it takes."

Ichigo breathes out then. Once. Twice. Lets himself relax. Lets himself feel. Tired. Scared even. Sad.

He looks at Shinji after several long moments and jerks his head. "I… Thanks, Shinji."

"Ah…" The blond waves it away. "Don't thank me too hard. I'll blush." Shinji's suddenly there, slinging an arm around his shoulders and squeezing. "Besides, it's what friends do."

Ichigo lets out a choked laugh. He can't help himself.

Shinji gives him a manly pat on the back before standing, and he's actually nice enough to start clearing the table. Something that's undoubtedly a first for him. Ichigo eventually joins him, and they work in comfortable quiet.

The silence afterwards is just as comfortable, but it's interrupted when Ichigo unexpectedly yawns.

"Turning into an old man already," Shinji quips.

"Or maybe you just wear me out," the younger man shoots back before he can stop himself.

Shinji sniggers then. His grin stretches across his entire face.

"There he is. That's the man I know. It's good ta see him again." Shinji offers a bow then and moves for door. "Thanks fer having me over. We'll have ta do this again."

"Only if you keep buying dinner," Ichigo adds. He doesn't feel tired now so much as amused.

"Sure thing," Shinji calls over his shoulder, but he turns to give a salute in farewell. "Don't be a stranger."

Ichigo smiles then and means it.

"I won't."

Ever Hopeful,