Disclaimer: I do not own anything from Bleach.
General Warnings: AU, language, violence, Ichigo-centric, mostly canon up until end of Winter War.
Author's Notes: I might've said it before but this fic isn't as epically plot-y as some of my other fics so don't expect anything huge. It's just something I wrote for personal enjoyment in a what-if-Ichigo-left scenario.
[Four Years Later]
Sakai Arashi was a mostly ordinary man at twenty-eight. He ran the local bar with his beautiful, kind-hearted wife, had a daughter who was – in his opinion – the best thing to ever grace the face of this planet, and was generally quite happy with his lot in life.
Of course, Arashi was only mostly ordinary. He didn't quite make completely ordinary because... well.
Because he could see monsters.
Not very well, blurred shapes and flickers at the corner of his eye at most, but that didn't change the fact that he could see just a little more of the world than other people.
So it came as an overwhelming relief when, three years ago, when a monster had snatched his wife and two-year-old daughter, and Arashi had had absolutely no one to turn to, a complete stranger had turned up, a nineteen-year-old with ridiculously bright orange hair whom Arashi had bumped into by chance.
To be honest, Arashi had simply been running after the monster, trying to keep up with it as best he could down several deserted side streets. It hadn't even occurred to him to remain tight-lipped about seeing monsters – something that most people would either laugh at him or send him to the loony bin for – but the stranger had believed him without batting an eye, and within the next twenty minutes, the orange-haired barely-out-of-diapers (did that make Arashi sound old?) man had singlehandedly hunted the monster down and hurled an abandoned metal pole at the thing – and gotten three deep gashes in retaliation – before finishing it off with a downward strike that had Arashi suspecting that the younger man knew kendo.
And all of that, Kurosaki Ichigo – as the stranger had introduced – had done with only Arashi shouting directions at him. Apparently, Ichigo couldn't actually see the monsters (or Hollows, as Ichigo had explained to Arashi and his wife after they had all been safely bundled back inside the then-newly-opened bar).
In the end though, none of that truly mattered. It wasn't as if Arashi bumped into those Hollows on a daily basis – or even on a monthly basis really; just glimpses on occasion – and after Ichigo had told him that cracking open a Hollow's mask would get rid of them (and Arashi, while not a black belt, could still hold his own in most back alley fights), Arashi hadn't seen the need to be more paranoid about the world around him than he had ever been. He was the sort of person who took most things in stride; worrying himself to death over a situation that had been pretty much resolved was a waste of time and energy.
What he – and his family – did see the need to do however, was to keep one Kurosaki Ichigo in their lives. After all, the man had saved Arashi's wife and daughter; to him, there was nothing else anyone could do to effectively secure Arashi's eternal gratitude.
Ichigo had admitted that he was simply travelling with no actual destination in mind, only seeing the sights so to speak, and that he had left behind family and friends (who hadn't actually been much of a family or friends to him, as Arashi had guessed after catching the shadows darting through Ichigo's eyes) so Arashi had offered the younger man the guestroom above the bar as a place to come back to if he ever wanted to take a short break from wandering around all over the place. Ichigo could leave anytime he wanted, but he would always be welcome amongst their family.
(Not to mention little Keiko needed a godfather, and who better for the position than someone who had saved her life and hadn't expected or wanted anything in return?)
Ichigo had ended up staying for two months before taking off again, and over the course of those weeks, Arashi had gotten to know him better, had heard a handful of sparse words on the touchy subject of the people Ichigo had left behind, and to this day, he hadn't once regretted his decision on insisting that Ichigo stay in touch. Hotaru doted on the bright-haired youth like a younger brother, and Keiko adored her godfather, especially since Arashi's wife hadn't wasted any time telling their daughter of Ichigo's heroics the moment she was old enough to understand.
(It didn't hurt that Ichigo – when he came back to visit between his trips all across Japan – always brought a present and numerous stories of his travels along. Arashi might've been jealous if it weren't for the fact that Ichigo treated Keiko like gold.)
And after three years of having Ichigo in their lives, Arashi firmly considered the younger man to be part of his family, which meant he didn't take kindly to anyone who might prove to be a threat to Ichigo.
So it stood to reason that the three shady-looking characters currently trekking in through the bar door – one was decked out in a red jogging suit even though she didn't look like the sporty type (especially coupled with yellow flip-flops), another (he probably would've been the most normal if it wasn't for the somewhat unnerving smile on his face) was wearing trousers, a dress shirt, a tie, and a newsboy cap, and the last was sporting wooden sandals, a bucket hat, and, overall, a fairly traditional Japanese ensemble for god's sakes – instantly had Arashi on high alert.
Along with a general overview of the other world filled with Hollows and Shinigami and whatnot, Arashi and Hotaru had both managed to coax Ichigo into opening up enough for the younger man to reveal – reluctantly – that he had also once been a Shinigami of sorts, and later a Visored, but also a substitute who had fought for the Gotei 13 in a war against one of their own, a Shinigami-captain-turned-traitor, and had sacrificed all his reiatsu to defeat the madman, but had been unneeded – cast aside, Arashi had supplied scathingly in the privacy of his own mind while Hotaru had fumed angrily on Ichigo's behalf – once he had been stripped of his powers.
It had been a major factor in Ichigo's decision to leave his old life behind, and as sad as that was, as much as Arashi wanted to somehow go back in time and smack all of Ichigo's friends over the head for being stupid and self-centered enough to screw over someone as amazing as Ichigo, a part of him also – guiltily – didn't want to.
After all, if Ichigo hadn't been pushed to leave, then Arashi would never have met him, and he very much doubted that his wife and daughter would still be alive if that had been the case.
Nevertheless, despite the close friend he had inexplicably found in the twenty-two-year-old ex-Visored, Arashi had never managed to discover who exactly Ichigo's old family and friends were.
That didn't matter. Arashi didn't need a physical description. The three that had entered simply had a... an otherworldly air about them regardless of the fact that they looked human (with odd attire choices fit for the carnival). Even if they weren't Shinigami in Gigai, they were definitely related to that world in some way.
Arashi watched through narrowed eyes as the three newcomers stopped just inside the doorway and had an urgent whispered conversation between them. Or rather, the man with the newsboy cap and the girl were arguing with each other while the pale blond stood to the side, face half-hidden behind a paper fan as he waited patiently for the former two to finish.
All three, Arashi noticed, had bags under their eyes, their faces holding the slightest hints of strained exhaustion even though they hid it well, and their clothes, upon closer observation, were dusty as if they had been travelling quite a bit.
"Just shut it, Hiyori! Let me handle this, and whatever ya do, don't open your big mouth!"
Arashi arched an eyebrow as the short girl – Hiyori – growled something back and kicked the blond in the shin. The blond hissed out a string of swearwords that made Arashi very glad that Keiko was playing in the backyard and not within hearing distance. He'd strangle all three newcomers if his daughter ever picked up any cusses from this suspicious lot.
He cleared his expression of any distaste he was feeling and plastered on a smile as the blond that had been arguing stalked up to the bar table, closely followed by the other blond with the girl bringing up the rear. "Hello, welcome to Firefly House. What can I get you?"
The blond visibly shoved down whatever prior irritation he was still feeling before offering a sharp smile that didn't quite reach his eyes. It looked more grim than anything else. "We're not here for drinks, thanks. Word has it that you're pretty well-versed in the comin's and goin's o' this town."
Arashi let his smile fade a little but made an effort to remain friendly. "Word has it right then; I can point you to a number of popular tourist spots around town, though it's a bit early for vacationers to be coming through."
The girl huffed and rolled her eyes, but Arashi only stiffened when both the men he was facing pinned him with twin looks of shrewd intensity, calling him out on his bullshit in equal measure.
Arashi stood his ground. Like hell he was going to crack and give one of his closest friends away to a bunch of weird-looking strangers, especially since they seemed to be from Ichigo's past. He had sworn ages ago that people from Ichigo's past were not welcome anywhere near his family.
"That ain't what we're here for either," The blond looked frustrated now, voice a little rougher than before. "Look, I'll cut ta the chase; we have it on pretty good authority that a young man with orange hair – Japanese – has been seen hangin' at this place on and off for the past three years or so. Goes by the name of Kurosaki Ichigo. I'm sure ya know him."
Arashi offered a cautiously crafted, politely puzzled frown. "I'm afraid not. Orange hair? That's a bit strange for someone of Japanese desce-"
He was cut off when the blond released a huff of annoyance, and then had to blink when a photograph was abruptly thrust under his nose.
"That's him," The blond growled. "Ichigo. Jogged your memory yet? We're friends of his. We've been lookin' for him for goin' on four years now. We don't mean 'im any harm."
Arashi only needed a fraction of a second to identify his daughter's godfather amongst the crinkled family picture of three, though the Ichigo in the picture had shorter hair and was wearing a scowl that looked permanently etched onto his face, something Arashi had only seen on occasion ever since he had met the man. The younger Ichigo looked far more stressed too, shoulders slightly tense and features faintly creased with far too much age for a teenager even while the other two people in the picture – his sisters no doubt – beamed happily at the camera.
If Arashi had had any qualms about keeping Ichigo's whereabouts a secret from the three newcomers before, the unsmiling teenager in the photograph effortlessly threw them out the window.
"Might've seen him," Arashi shrugged, calmly pushing the picture away from his face. "I get a lot of customers all year round so he might've passed through once or twice. I couldn't tell you where he is now though."
Which was actually very true. Arashi only had the vaguest of ideas that Ichigo was somewhere in Taiwan at the moment, and that was merely because the younger man had sent a postcard home depicting Taipei 101 a few weeks back. For all he knew, Ichigo might not even be in that country anymore.
"You lying dumb- mmph!"
Arashi raised his eyebrows again when the girl was cut off by a paper fan to the face, and the pale blond who had so far remained silent on the side, letting his companions talk, finally stepped forward, a deceptively light, innocent-for-all-intents-and-purposes smile on his face.
Arashi didn't trust it for a second.
"I understand how this looks," The second man said in an appeasing manner as he moved to stand beside the darker blond. "I wouldn't trust us either if our positions were switched. However, it doesn't change the fact that we are old... acquaintances of Kurosaki-san, and we would very much like to talk to him. I believe he would want to at least hear what we have to say."
The blond paused, studying Arashi carefully, and Arashi had to fight to stay as stoic as before. Of the three, it was this man that made him feel like he was under a microscope, and while his words had been genial and serene thus far, the grey gaze that the pale blond – Shinigami? – had levelled on him felt like it was staring straight through Arashi's very soul.
And all of a sudden, his mouth felt dry, and it was almost as if he couldn't breathe, the oxygen still present around him but something else pressing in, closing around his throat and heart – his entire being – like a vice, and it took him a moment to realize that this was probably reiatsu, that energy stuff that Ichigo had explained to him, and it was coming from the pale blond, growing and growing until it was all but suffocating Arashi.
Arashi set his jaw and glared back, lips thinning despite the sweat beading his forehead. He may be Human but it would take more than a few intimidation tactics to force him to capitulate. And out of sight, one of his hands inched for the meat cleaver under the counter. These people were already dead; no one would miss them if he accidentally on purpose stabbed at least one of them if they decided to torture information out of him.
To his private perplexity, the pale blond merely released a quiet huff of unsurprised resignation, neatly reigning in his reiatsu once more as one hand reached up to tug at the brim of his bucket hat. Even the other two, while evidently still irritated, reacted rather peculiarly. The other blond man snorted, a flash of exasperation crossing his face, while the girl clicked her tongue, crossed her arms, and kicked half-heartedly at the wooden floor.
"Figures he'd make friends with a guy like this," The darker blond grumbled without any real heat. The annoyance seemed to ebb even further, exhaustion fast replacing it instead.
Arashi refused to feel any sympathy, glowering harshly at all three but focusing on the pale blond in particular.
The fan-wielding Shinigami raised his hands in the universal placating gesture, lips curving into an apologetic smile. "My apologies; consider that a test of sorts. Judging by your reaction, or lack thereof, I suppose it is safe to assume that you already know of reiatsu and what we are?"
The blond ended on an upward lilt but Arashi didn't bother replying; they both knew it wasn't really a question.
"That saves us some time then," The man continued after a pregnant pause. "As you've most likely already guessed, the three of us are Shinigami. Well, I am, and the other two are Visored. My name is Urahara Kisuke, and my friends here are Hirako Shinji and Sarugaki Hiyori."
"Who's your friend?" Arashi heard the girl – Sarugaki – mutter under her breath.
Urahara paid her no mind, studying Arashi instead with thoughtful eyes. "...Hmm, so Kurosaki-san hasn't spoken of us. Well, not unexpected, all things considered."
Arashi held back a scowl at the ease in which Urahara had read him. He really didn't like this guy.
"I've already told you," He maintained flatly. "I don't know this Kurosaki character. I suggest you look somewhere else if you want to find him."
Again, the girl opened her mouth, eyes blazing with indignant fury and impatience, but this time, it was the other blond – Hirako – who shut her up with a cuff to the head. Half a second later, Sarugaki had leapt forward, fists flying, and the two were soon – quite literally – at each other's throats, spitting increasingly worse insults.
"Maa, don't mind them," Urahara waved a dismissive hand in the scuffling pair's general direction. "They're always like that."
Again, Arashi was surveyed closely, and this time, he did scowl, bristling as he snapped, "If that's all, I think you should leave. I'm a bartender, not an information broker. If you're not here for a drink or a bite to eat, I'm going to have to ask you to take a hike."
His voice tightened into a scornful snarl near the end, his manners going on vacation without his permission as he scanned the gathered Shinigami with distaste, all three of whom looked to be gearing up for another argument.
As soon as they left, Arashi would have a phone call to make. While Ichigo preferred mostly dropping off the face of the planet on his trips around the world, and Arashi and Hotaru both respected this decision, the younger man had also – after two years of knowing them – gruffly given them an emergency phone number to contact him with just in case they needed him. Arashi hadn't used it so far but if this wasn't an emergency, he didn't know what was.
"Then could ya take a message?" It was the first blond – Hirako – who spoke this time, tone still snarky but suddenly – noticeably – stepping up as the leader of the group. Even Urahara seemed to defer to him just a little when Hirako had shaken his head minutely to stall any further attempts at persuasion from the pale blond.
"Ya know," Hirako added dryly. "Just in case some orange-haired guy happens ta wander in sometime between now and after we leave."
Arashi twitched and switched his glower onto Hirako. "Look, it sounds to me like you're just stalking the poor guy. If you haven't found him in four years, ever considered the thought that maybe he doesn't want to be found?"
All at once, Hirako's entire frame seemed to straighten from its previous half-slouch, and for the first time since they had arrived, Arashi caught a flash of the same subtle lethality that Ichigo had worn like a second skin when he had confronted that Hollow three years ago, except on Hirako, it was just a little older, even more matured than Ichigo's warrior countenance.
Was this one of the captains then? Arashi had to wonder with an inward shudder. Ichigo had outlined the hierarchy of the Gotei 13 for him. This man certainly felt like he had the bearing of one.
Still, Arashi stood his ground in spite of the chill running up his spine. His loyalty was to Ichigo in this, and he'd be damned if he was going to sell out Keiko's godfather. His wife and daughter would never forgive him. Heck, he'd never forgive himself.
However, to Arashi's surprise, just as abruptly, Hirako deflated, shoulder slumping in almost defeat.
"We owe 'im an apology," The blond confessed, and there was a tangle of emotions in that sparse handful of words, voice tight with a jagged ball of anger and guilt and who knew what else. "Not just us; a lot of other people too. And... well, that's between him and us but it involves his safety. Now, are ya willin' ta pass on a message or not?"
A steely edge had entered Hirako's voice now, and this time, there was no compromise in his expression.
Arashi gritted his teeth. Well, he supposed it wouldn't hurt. He knew that they knew that he knew who Kurosaki Ichigo was. "...I doubt this Kurosaki is going to magically appear in my bar but I'll take the message, if only to get rid of all of you as soon as possible. What is it?"
The three Shinigami traded a loaded glance before Urahara voiced smoothly, "If you see him, please tell him that the Onmitsukidou have been regularly dispatched throughout the Human World over the past four years, his whereabouts being their objective. That should be enough to draw his attention and hopefully have him agree to meet with us."
Arashi inwardly frowned. Onmitsukidou – he didn't know that term but it rang forebodingly in his ears.
"And remind him that we don't mean him any harm," The girl piped up next. She cocked her head before tacking on with a smirk, "'Course, that doesn't mean I won't be kickin' his ass when I see him. Puttin' me through four years on the damn road; that stupid strawberry has it comin'!"
Arashi eyed her small form dubiously. Ichigo might have lost his reiatsu and powers and whatnot, and this girl was, of course, a Shinigami, but Arashi had seen Ichigo fight; the younger man was deadly, and there were times when Arashi could swear that Ichigo's movements were faster than humanly possible.
When it came to hand-to-hand combat, Arashi sincerely doubted that this Sarugaki girl could ever best Ichigo.
"And one last thing," Urahara cut in, fan snapping shut with a soft click, and for the first time since Arashi had laid eyes on him, the sly, calculating edge in the blond's expression disappeared, leaving behind a startling honesty reflected in his eyes as he continued. "Please tell him we miss him, and remind him that his sisters will be graduating in three weeks' time."
Arashi stared in silence for a long moment (and in the back of his mind, he spared a second to feel deeply satisfied when Sarugaki began shifting edgily in place), before nodding once curtly. "Fine, if I see him, I'll pass it on. Now if you're not going to buy anything, I'm going to have to ask you to leave."
Hirako grinned, shark-like and sharp again, and looking more alive than when he had first entered the bar as he tilted his cap in acknowledgement and sauntered for the door. Sarugaki followed, making a face at Arashi before bounding out after Hirako.
Urahara on the other hand lingered, silver gaze focused disconcertingly on Arashi. And then he sighed, also turning for the door as he called back over his shoulder one more time in a far too cheery voice, "We'll be back tomorrow, Sakai-san! For food next time, of course. Have a good day!"
Arashi stared after the Shinigami in utter disbelief as the door swung shut, and then he groaned and leaned forward, resting his forehead on the cool surface of the bar table. It was lucky there were no customers at this time of day. He didn't feel like working at all.
So this was how those Shinigami were going to play it then? Come back every day until Ichigo showed up?
Well then. They were in for a long wait.
"You sure they said their names were Urahara Kisuke and Hirako Shinji?"
"Yeah, and Sarugaki Hiyori, I believe. Why?"
"...I didn't expect that. I actually didn't really expect anyone to come after me at all, much less still be trying to track me down after almost four years. And Shinji... and Hiyori, you say?"
"Yes, is that significant?"
"Mm, you could say that. They mentioned the Onmitsukidou, the Second Division. That's like the Gotei 13's elite assassination squad by the way-"
"Don't freak out, Arashi, it's not as bad as it sounds. I told you, it's ridiculous how backwards Soul Society is. Without reiatsu, they virtually can't track me down... unless the Twelfth... well, let's not get into that. Don't want to borrow trouble and all. Anyway, the only reason those three have caught up with me is probably because they've all spent over a century in the Human World. They'd be more familiar with how things work here, especially Urahara-san."
"Okay, but what does that have to do with the other two? Hirako and Sarugaki?"
"...Well, I wouldn't know for sure, but last I heard, Shinji and Hiyori, along with the rest of their group, had been pardoned and accepted back into Soul Society. That's all I managed to weasel out of Urahara-san though so I don't know if they're just living there now or if they've been integrated back into their respective squads or what. But if the Captain-Commander's sent the Onmitsukidou after me, I also don't know why Shinji and Hiyori have been allowed to search for me on their own. It's not like the Onmitsukidou's going to be asking me for tea or something if they find me. They're more likely to arrest me and march me back to Seireitei, though I have no idea why. I haven't done anything illegal lately."
"...Your mysterious past of criminal activity should probably worry me more than it actually does. Alright, so what are you going to do? I have a feeling those Shinigami are going to keep coming back for a long while. I could phone you again when I know for certain that they've left for good?"
"...No, I think... I have some things to wrap up here first, but then... Yeah, then I think I'll come home."
[Four Years Ago]
"Oh, Shinji-san, what an unexpected surprise-"
"Cut the bullshit, Kisuke!" Shinji barked as he marched right past the other blond, tossing his bag into a corner before storming onwards towards the front of the store. "Where's Isshin? At his house?"
"He left with Ryuuken-san a few minutes ago," Kisuke answered hurriedly, trailing after him, and for the first time in over an entire goddamned century, Shinji actually managed to pick up just a touch of that old nervousness that the scientist had often carried around with him all those years ago.
Huh. Shinji hadn't thought it would ever make an appearance again. Exile had hardened them after all.
He smiled grimly. "Don't look so worried, Kisuke. I'm not the one ya have ta worry about."
And before Kisuke could do more than blink, a blur of red and pale yellow dashed out after them, screeching at the top of her voice, "YOU'RE DEAD, DICKHEAD!"
As Kisuke yelped and collapsed under the double-footed kick to his face, courtesy of Hiyori as she began beating him up, Shinji smirked and left them to it. The idiot didn't deserve anything less.
And in the meantime, Shinji had his own grudges to settle.
They had both been captains once upon a time but Shinji had been one for far longer than Isshin had, not to mention out of the two of them, Shinji was the one who had kept up with his training despite the fact that Isshin had been exiled only around twenty years ago.
So it came as no surprise when Shinji managed to sneak up on Isshin – and Ryuuken – without either of them any the wiser, especially since the latter seemed to be giving the former the cold shoulder, and the Shinigami was looking too miserable to be all that aware of his surroundings anyway.
Shinji gave no warning. With a flex of his leg muscles, he had leapt forward and was practically on top of Isshin before the Shinigami had any inkling of his impending ass-kicking. There was no sun today, the skies overcast with storm clouds, so even Shinji's shadow was hidden from view.
Shinji drew back one foot and let his reiatsu spike.
Isshin stiffened and whirled.
Shinji grinned nastily and smashed his foot straight into the former Shiba Clan Head's face, feeling the man's nose crack under the force of his attack.
The blow propelled Isshin backwards and right off the pavement, sending the man soaring several dozen feet down the street as Shinji flipped neatly in the air and landed on the balls of his feet.
He watched with dispassionate eyes as Isshin crashed heavily back to the ground, and then spared a glance for Ryuuken who was watching the exchange, shoulders only slightly tense as the man no doubt readied himself to move in case Shinji rounded on him.
Shinji's lip curled. "I have no business with ya. Stay outta this, Quincy."
Ryuuken arched an eyebrow at the form of address but said nothing, obviously disinclined to interfere so long as Shinji wasn't going to lash out at him as well. Apparently, the senior Ishida was perfectly fine with the beat down that Isshin was about to receive.
Without further fanfare, Shinji stalked forward, each step swirling with restrained but potent reiatsu. He didn't give Isshin time to even sit up before he planted one heel against the man's chest, digging down hard enough to make the Shinigami wheeze.
"Hello, Isshin," Shinji grinned once more, humourless and dark. "Long time no see."
Isshin scowled up at him but seemed to have enough brain cells to realize that any attempts at getting up would be a bad idea. "What do you want, Shinji?"
Shinji huffed a short dry laugh. "What do I want? Well, if ya could turn back time and erase the last two years, I'd be much obliged, might even be inclined ta forgive ya, but seein' as that's not exactly possible, I'll settle for some answers." He leaned forward, smile dropping. "What the hell did ya think ya were playin' at, Shiba?"
The scowl on Isshin's face morphed into a glower. "That's none of your business. Ichigo's my son; you don't have any say in his life-"
"No say?!" Shinji snarled, pressing his foot down even harder. "No say?! Ya said nothin' when ya sent the kid ta Kisuke, said nothin' again when he was sent my way for trainin'! Ya put the boy's life in my hands, ta be dealt with as I saw fit, even ta end it if he couldn't overcome his inner Hollow. Ya gave him ta me, and in the end, he survived, and for all that he's still his own person, he's also mine now. Part of my family, just like all the other Visored. Ya know the kinda person I am, Isshin, ya know how I am when it comes ta the people I accept inta my home, and Ichigo was one of 'em the moment ya allowed him ta come ta me. And don't even give me any bullshit about there not bein' any other way. Ya could've come out with the truth any time, ya could've stopped him from bein' a Shinigami in the first place! That Hollow that the Kuchiki girl faced that night didn't have ta appear right outside your house! Even if it would've messed with his plans for Aizen, Kisuke was still willin' ta draw it away and kill it elsewhere! But ya insisted, and then when he became a Visored, as ya knew he had every chance of becomin' once Rukia broke the law and transferred her powers ta him, ya agreed with Kisuke that I was your best option. Ya knew what that entailed, so father or not, ya had no right keepin' the kid locked up and away from me and the others! Especially when he needed us!"
A rib gave way under Shinji's foot as his reiatsu raged, seething and roiling up and down the street as his anger rose to new heights.
"I didn't keep him locked up!" Isshin protested indignantly, grimacing even as his own reiatsu finally began pushing back to alleviate some of the pressure.
"That's what ya took away from that?!" Shinji barked in disbelief. Furious, he pushed off of the Shinigami only so he could reel in his reiatsu before he killed someone. "Ya fool! In a town filled with people and monsters from our world, what else would ya call isolatin' someone and keepin' them from everythin' he's ever known? He's been seein' spirits his whole life! It's hard enough that he can't anymore! Ta keep us from him as well-"
"I decided it was for his own good," Isshin growled harshly, heaving himself upright. "It's unhealthy to obsess so much over something he doesn't have any more. I know what's best for him; I'm his father-"
"Kisuke's a better father ta Ichigo than ya've ever been!" Shinji shouted, watching with vindictive satisfaction when Isshin flinched. "Don't even go there, Isshin; you're good with your daughters, I'll give ya that, but I knew ya messed up when it came ta Ichigo the moment I realized he didn't know anythin' about his heritage before he met the Kuchiki girl. Secrets breed lies, Taichou, ya should know that from experience, and lies only break people when they come ta light, as all lies do. Ichigo may have forgiven ya for keepin' what ya are, what he is, from him for most of his life, for not explainin' things ta him even when he blamed himself for his mom's death, but it also means he ain't gonna turn ta ya for help no matter what. He doesn't trust ya anymore. And ya don't talk ta him. From what Kisuke's told me, ya've never talked ta him, not properly. Ya think a relationship like that can last? Did ya even talk ta him about the war? It's no wonder he skipped town if ya've been neglectin' him all the time. He may be independent but no one can go at everythin' alone. By bannin' us from seein' him, ya forced him ta do just that. And the kid may be a bit of a loner but he thrives on havin' people around him, even just ta protect. I've known him for a quarter of the time ya've known him, and even I can understand that much."
Shinji wasn't normally one to chew people out, but when he did, it was long and loud and always ended with injuries for the person he was yelling at. Isshin, while standing, had an arm wrapped around his torso, a broken bloody nose, and probably quite the sizeable bruises blooming on his chest and back.
The bastard deserved it in Shinji's humble opinion.
But now that Shinji had finished his tirade, the pouring rain took over, filling the ears of the three people crazy enough to still be out in this weather.
Shinji drew in a deep breath through his nose, tipping his head back as the buckets of water thundering down from the heavens above continued drenching him from head to toe. He tightened his already clenched hands before allowing them to relax, drawing on his centuries-polished control to tamp down on the rest of his ire.
Tilting his head to the side, he caught sight of Ryuuken through the sheets of rain, leaning against a wall on the side of the street and looking like he had been keeping himself upright with more than a little effort. Shinji couldn't blame him; his reiatsu – when completely uncontained – could floor anyone below the power levels of the strongest of captains. And Ichigo. For a Human, even a Quincy, Ishida Senior wasn't too shabby.
"…He's my son," Isshin's voice was quiet, barely audible above the torrential downpour. "He's my only son. I tried my best with him but he's so… He's difficult to connect with."
Shinji scoffed under his breath, exhaling shortly as he stuffed his hands into the pockets of his trousers. "Not that difficult, moron. I did fine with him. So did Kisuke."
"Neither of you are his father," Isshin dismissed in a hard tone.
Shinji snorted, meeting Isshin's gaze evenly. "And ya are? What have ya ever done for him? Ya can't even bring yourself ta tell him the truth about his own family."
To his credit, Isshin made no move to defend himself this time, shoulders slumping as he stared sightlessly off to the side.
Shinji shook his head and turned away. As much as he'd like to continue tearing Isshin a new one, this would have to do for now. It wouldn't be long before Shinigami were sent after him, and he had to get himself and Hiyori hidden away by the time that happened. Hopefully, Kisuke had a couple of reiatsu-suppressing Gigai lying around.
Shinji halted but didn't turn around.
"You'll find him?"
One of Shinji's eyebrows ticked up with irritation. "Givin' up on him already?"
A defeated sigh. "He wouldn't appreciate it if I go after him. He might be more… receptive if you and Kisuke went."
Shinji snorted once more and began moving up the street again. "Say what ya will, Isshin. All I see is someone who ain't willin' ta expend the effort for his only son. Even if he hates ya for followin' him, at least he'll know and you'll know that ya tried."
And with that parting shot, Shinji shunpoed away, flashing back across town towards the Urahara Shouten. He had work to do, and no more time to waste on Kurosaki Isshin.
Kisuke gazed idly into his cup of tea, not really seeing it as his mind half-dozed off to the clinking sounds of glass over at the bar, the quiet murmurs of conversation around them, and the lackluster bickering of yet another argument between his own travelling companions.
He was tired.
Four years on the road, pulling all-nighters more often than not, especially at the beginning (he hadn't seen many Shinigami these days, to the point where he had begun suspecting that the Gotei 13 had given up), and using every method at his disposal – contacts, inventions, and Kidou spells – to track down Ichigo and feed the Shinigami fake but feasible trails to places that Kisuke was certain that Ichigo wasn't in was no small feat.
It helped that 'Kurosaki' was a fairly common surname, and 'Ichigo' wasn't all that rare either even though the meaning behind it was unique to their Ichigo. Still, Kisuke was getting too old for this, or perhaps his Onmitsukidou training had gotten even rustier than he had realized, yet he couldn't bring himself to give up. Shinji was older and the blond was still powering forward with all the obstinate determination of a dog with a bone.
Absently, Kisuke glanced to the side at where the bartender was polishing a martini flute. And simultaneously giving them the evil eye. Kisuke smiled back wryly and raised his tea in a toast. The man glared back even harder.
Kisuke chuckled inwardly. He had known the moment he had stepped into this bar the first time that they had finally hit jackpot. Even just by talking to him, Kisuke had sensed that Sakai Arashi had that feel about him, the one that said that he had been touched by Ichigo's charisma, and would now go to hell and back for the bright-haired young man if need be. That had been clear enough when the bartender had flat-out refused to give away anything about Ichigo, and the last three times they had tried questioning him again, Arashi had verbally strung them up and cursed them out in a low heated tone, spewing swearwords and contemptuous insults at them that had made even Kisuke wince.
Most of Ichigo's acquaintances turned out that way – crazy, stubborn, and near-fanatical about dogging Ichigo's footsteps even into the most dangerous of situations, ignoring all warnings and common sense in the process.
Until those two years of course. That… hadn't been pretty to watch. Those bonds had unravelled without any of them realizing until it had been too late.
"More tea, sir?" A polite if slightly chilly voice interrupted his thoughts.
And then there was the wife, who was certainly far more than just a pretty face.
Kisuke smiled again, equally genial. "Yes, please."
If Sakai Arashi was fire and brimstone under his stiffly civil countenance, then Sakai Hotaru was ice and steel forged under the coldest of moonbeams.
"Thank you very much," Kisuke plastered on his most charming smile this time, only to receive a deceptively demure one in return that clearly told him 'if I knew how to hide your bodies, you would already be dead'.
Kisuke used to be an assassin; he could appreciate that kind of subtle venomous lethality in a woman. Sakai Arashi was a lucky man.
Hotaru swept away, gliding back towards the bar and her husband, and looking for all the world like a harmless woman who hadn't just gone completely mother-tiger on Kisuke with only her facial expression.
Kisuke shifted his gaze back to his tea. It figured that even away from Soul Society and all it entailed, Ichigo would pick up the most interesting characters living on the planet.
He took a sip of tea, sighing contentedly as the hot beverage warmed his insides. He wondered what Ichigo was doing now. Undoubtedly, Arashi had already contacted the former Visored two weeks ago after that first visit, but whether or not that meant that Ichigo was on his way back or on his way out of the Eastern Hemisphere was anybody's guess.
He was pulled out of his musings once more when his phone buzzed, signalling an incoming call that Kisuke automatically answered. There was only one person who even had this number these days, and Kisuke was always willing to talk to her.
Sometimes, he wondered – with a touch of guilt – whether or not he might just be projecting, seeing one in the other simply because he had failed the former so badly.
"Good afternoon, Yuzu-san," Kisuke greeted, ignoring the glances from both Hiyori and Shinji. "What can I do for you today?"
"Hello, Urahara-san, sorry to bother you. I wasn't sure whether or not to call but- well, in the end, my graduation is coming up, and I decided I should remind you of our agreement after all."
Kisuke quirked a rueful smile. To this day, Kurosaki Yuzu still possessed her kind and compassionate nature that she had inherited from her mother but the girl – practically a young woman now – had also taken on some of her brother's traits after that fiasco four years ago, gaining both a wilful streak a mile wide and the bullheaded tendency to do what she wished regardless of the opinions of the people around her. Of course, she hid those qualities quite well behind a gentle smile, more generous with her good manners than Ichigo had been, but they were still there, and the people who interacted with her on a regular basis knew it.
"Yes, the agreement," Kisuke acknowledged. "If Kurosaki-san has not returned by the time you graduate, you will join us on our search, correct?"
"Yes," Yuzu confirmed, a hint of diamond resolve entering her voice. "My graduation – along with Karin's – will take place in one week. If my brother has still not returned, then I do expect at least one of you to be meeting me at the bus station the moment the ceremony is over."
Kisuke internally sighed. Like brother, like sister. He had always assumed that it would be Karin who turned out most like Ichigo, but while the older of the twins had gone through a few changes of her own over the past several years, it had been Yuzu who now reminded everyone most of the still missing Kurosaki.
"Have you talked to your father about this, Yuzu-san?" Kisuke finally enquired. Again, he paid no attention to Hiyori's loud scoff or Shinji's stony expression.
A pregnant pause ballooned on the other end of the line. "...I do not understand what that has to do with anything. I have, of course, told Otou-san and Karin that I will not be applying to any universities or colleges yet, and that I will be travelling for a while. Otou-san was unhappy with this decision and is still trying to talk me out of it but it is none of his business. I am almost an adult, and he has no say in my post-secondary education or lack thereof. Now, do I have your promise that you will come pick me up on the day of the graduation should Onii-chan not make it back?"
A sliver of hurt choked her voice for a moment, but there was resignation there too as if Yuzu was already reconciled with the fact that Ichigo would not return to see her graduate.
Kisuke really did sigh out loud this time. "We will be there, Yuzu-san. Though might I enquire about any extra guests in town?"
They'd arranged it long ago that 'extra guests' were synonymous to 'Shinigami' so that anyone – Human or otherwise – eavesdropping on them would be none the wiser.
"None," Yuzu denied. "I haven't seen anyone new coming or going for a good six months now. The same people are still doing the rounds, though there haven't been any major disturbances besides the usual."
Kisuke frowned thoughtfully. So Kuchiki Rukia, Abarai Renji, and a number of the other captains and lieutenants were still stationed in Karakura and taking turns patrolling the streets, with only minor Hollows to contend with. Two years ago, the uproar had finally started dying down, with the Onmitsukidou and some other unknowns being withdrawn from their high alert guard duty around Karakura, and not long after that, Yamamoto had begun sending the more familiar faces of the Gotei 13 down to patrol the town once again. From what Yuzu had reported to him, even Ukitake and Kyouraku had been seen a handful of times trekking across the rooftops and stopping by both the Shouten and the Kurosaki household.
Yuzu had given them all a wide berth each time, especially when Yoruichi had been dispatched. Kisuke was fairly certain that the youngest Kurosaki would never forgive his old friend since it had been she who had personally delivered the news of Ichigo's disappearance to the Captain-Commander.
"Alright," Kisuke continued amicably. "We will see you in a week, whether or not we find Kurosaki-san by then."
Judging by the subsequent sigh and subdued goodbye, Yuzu wasn't expecting any miracles.
"You didn't tell her," Hiyori observed after he hung up, watching him critically. "That we're pretty close this time."
"We were 'pretty close' quite a few other times in the past," Shinji pointed out testily. "And she was more disappointed every time we had ta tell her that we'd just hit another dead end. Better ta just produce her brother for her than give her false hope if this lead doesn't work out either."
"We're closer than we've ever been," Hiyori insisted huffily before dropping her head into her arms on top of the table with a wordless grumble. She'd calmed down a little over the last four years, still prone to yelling at Shinji and picking fights with the former captain but not as much. Kisuke deduced that it was probably too exhausting for even Hiyori to keep up a constant angry diatribe on the road.
Kisuke eyed his former lieutenant rather fondly before downing the rest of his tea and looking around. Most people had left, the lunch hour rush being over, and the last of the other customers was just shuffling out the door, leaving the three of them alone with the Sakais.
He stilled when he caught sight of Arashi stalking towards the door, Shinji and Hiyori turning to look as well when the bartender reached out and flipped the sign to Closed before heading in their direction, his wife joining him halfway.
"I'll make this short," Arashi told them bluntly without so much as a how-do-you-do. "You hurt him in any way, and Shinigami or not, I will find a way to hurt you. Badly."
Beside him, Hotaru smiled, sweet as poisoned honey. "Ichigo is part of our family, and we owe him more than we can ever say. If you attempt to make him do anything he doesn't want to do, then I can promise you that my husband won't have time to do anything before I finish dealing with you."
Kisuke stared a little wide-eyed, and he didn't have to look at his two companions to know that they were just as stunned with this turnabout play.
The couple was still watching them with expressions akin to a cat staring down a rat. Kisuke cleared his throat. "We understand. We are not here to harm Kurosaki-san. ...I take it that he is coming back today?"
A spark of anticipation shot through him at Arashi's curt affirmative nod, and for the first time in four years, Kisuke could actually see things looking up. Hiyori broke out into a toothy grin, and Shinji closed his eyes for a moment, a near-untraceable flicker of relief crossing his face now that they knew that their gamble with this family had paid off at last.
"His plane landed half an hour ago," Arashi said gruffly, though the hostility seemed to have receded a little, eyes turning contemplative now as he took in their respective expressions. "He'll be here in another ten. Sit tight. Don't accost him the moment he walks in through the door."
And with that said, the man swung an arm around Hotaru's shoulders and the two strode away, disappearing into the back where a flight of stairs most likely led up to the house built on top of the bar.
"Well, that was unexpected," Shinji drawled, leaning back in his seat. "Here I thought it would take at least a few more weeks and us gettin' chucked outta the bar before Ichigo came back."
"Don't go jinxin' it then!" Hiyori snapped, knee jittering up and down underneath the table as she kept half an eye on the door. "If either of you screws this up, and we end up havin' to start from scratch again, I'm gonna rip out your spines and feed them to you."
Shinji snorted and told her that he'd like to see her midget-self try, resulting in Hiyori launching herself over the table to tackle the blond with flying fists.
Kisuke mentally rolled his eyes. Honestly, they were like children sometimes.
He turned his attention to the clock on the wall, and then shifted his gaze to the door.
He didn't bother hurrying but his pace was steady and his strides were sure. Duffel bag slung over one shoulder, he rounded a corner and caught sight of Firefly House. The familiar building brought a smile to his lips.
It had been a little over three months since his last visit, and despite his love of travel, he still found himself missing two of his closest friends. And of course, there was his precious goddaughter whom he couldn't wait to see again. Even back when he had just been eighteen, if someone had told him that he would have a goddaughter at all before he had hit twenty, he would've laughed in their face. After all, who in their right mind would want to trust their kid to him when he spent more time hopping around the world than staying in one place?
But he had formed a very fast and very close friendship with Hotaru and Arashi even though the couple was, respectively, four and six years older than he was, and the two trusted him to be there for their daughter if anything happened to them, yet still gave him the freedom to go where he pleased, never nagging at him to stay and always welcoming him home with open arms. Over the years, the four of them had only grown closer as a family, and he'd do anything – even remain in town if they ever asked it of him (and they wouldn't, which was why Ichigo would) – for them.
It had been a long and fulfilling four years, and Ichigo couldn't possibly be happier.
So it figured that his past would take this time to barge back into his life at last.
In all honesty, Ichigo hadn't been lying when he had told Arashi over the phone two weeks ago that he hadn't expected anyone to come after him. It had been four years after all, and after the first few weeks when he had received nothing but frantic phone calls and text messages, those too had petered out until only Yuzu had sent the occasional hopeful text message every few months in the first year he had been away.
Even at the beginning, he had cherished those messages. Out of everyone back home, he had known it would be Yuzu who would miss him most even though she had been growing up at her own pace and spending less time around the house before he had left. He had, from time to time, been tempted to send something back, but he had promised himself that he would be cutting ties from his old life, and he hadn't wanted to give anyone even more ways to track him, especially after Yuzu had mentioned that she thought that the Shinigami might come after Ichigo, though for what reason, even Ichigo couldn't figure out.
Nonetheless, after a year, his phone bill had proven too much to keep up with, especially since he rarely used his cell in the first place, so he had gotten rid of it in the end, choosing to use a much cheaper pay-as-you-go phone instead, and only when he was away from Firefly House.
On the other hand, Ichigo had sent anonymous presents – one for Yuzu and one for Karin – each year on their birthday and for Chirstmas. Neither were stupid; the first time he had sent each of them a box of souvenirs from his travels for their fifteenth birthday, he had received two exceedingly relieved thank-yous and glad-you're-still-alives from both his sisters before he had cancelled his phone plan.
But other than that, he had refrained from contacting them, content in the knowledge that they were still growing up fine without him. Instead, he had planned on returning, for better or for worse, when they graduated, just for a short visit to attend the ceremony and maybe exchange a few words with them afterwards.
There had been no need for Urahara, Hirako, and Sarugaki to tell Arashi to remind Ichigo about that issue. It wasn't as if Ichigo was going to forget his own sisters' graduation.
His steps slowed as he reached the Firefly House at last, something in his chest easing as he produced his own key. In his peripheral vision, he caught sight of a fleeting shadow sprinting away from one of the upstairs window accompanied by the muffled sound of an excited squeal. A tiny smile quirked his lips. It looked like he would have quite the welcoming party.
He slipped inside without further ado, and his gaze was instantly drawn to the corner table. Three pairs of eyes stared right back at him, I-can't-believe-he's-really-here disbelief mixed with relief and a hint of its-been-four-years awkwardness.
Ichigo let the door swing shut behind him, locking it again without looking.
Ichigo's attention instantly shifted away from the three people from his past, a wide grin spreading across his face as he dropped his bag to the ground and opened his arms for the small girl that came racing out from the back of the bar, the hem of her long-sleeved white dress flapping behind her as she bounded towards him.
"Hey!" Ichigo scooped up the dark-haired, hazel-eyed child, the spitting image of her mother save for her eyes which she had inherited from her father. "How's my favourite goddaughter in the world?"
Delighted giggles erupted from the girl as Keiko half-strangled him with a hug, pulling back just enough to grin impishly back at him with adoring eyes. "Silly Ji-chan; I'm your only goddaughter!"
Ichigo smirked, shifting his arms so that he could carry her more comfortably with one arm. "So you are, but if I had more, you'd still be my favourite."
Keiko beamed at him, hugging him once more before squirming a little to settle herself, making absolutely no move to get back down on the ground as she perched imperiously on his forearm like he was her throne. Ichigo snorted softly, running an affectionate hand through her wavy black curls. "Still a princess, huh? Your daddy's been spoiling you again."
"Indeed he has," Another voice rang out, amused and long-suffering at the same time. "But he's a softie like that, so what can we do? Welcome home, Ichigo."
Ichigo smiled, striding forward to accept a warm hug from Hotaru that engulfed both him and Keiko, who grinned happily and mimicked her mother with another hug of her own around them as best she could with her shorter limbs.
"Gorgeous as ever, Hotaru," Ichigo flashed a playful grin when he was released, ducking down to press a kiss to the older woman's cheek before drawing back. "Arashi doesn't deserve you."
Hotaru laughed, a chime-like sound that lit up her blue eyes. "You're a charmer, Ichigo. Don't let my husband hear you say that."
"Too late," The final member of their family grumbled from the doorway with mock indignity before walking over to join them. "Are you trying to steal my wife from me again, Kurosaki?"
"Well, she could certainly do better than an old man like you," Ichigo taunted back, keeping his face straight as Hotaru smiled with helpless mirth beside him. "Now I on the other hand – prime of my youth, good looks, good grades, good- ouch!"
Ichigo snickered even as Arashi smacked him over the head with a roll of his eyes.
"You're a brat, Ichigo," Arashi informed him before clapping him on the shoulder. "Good to have you home."
"Good to be home," Ichigo agreed, straightening and turning back to Keiko who had been watching them with avid curiosity. Being only five but still very intelligent, she had probably comprehended most of the byplay, especially since Ichigo and Arashi always pulled something like this every time he came home, but she wasn't quite old enough to understand every nuance of the conversation yet.
Seeing that their exchange was over though, Keiko tugged insistently at Ichigo's shirt, batting innocent eyes at him that always worked like a charm. "Did you bring me a present this time, Ichi-ji-chan?"
Ichigo laughed, tousling her hair before smoothing out the strands again. "Yes, yes, of course I did, Keiko-hime. Down you get, and I'll dig it out for you."
Keiko pouted a little at having to stand on her own feet again but soon broke out into a grin once more as she wriggled back to the ground, immediately latching onto his hand instead. Ichigo rolled his eyes and bent down to rifle one-handed through his duffel bag before producing a package wrapped in sky blue paper. It was her favourite colour.
Like all children, a mysterious present was enough to distract her from everything else, and Keiko finally let go of Ichigo to bounce forward and carefully accept the gift with barely contained enthusiasm.
"Thank you, Ji-chan!" Keiko chirped, dragging her gaze up long enough to thank him before going back to eyeing the package with a kitten's inquisitive interest. "Can I open it now?"
"How about you open it upstairs, sweetheart?" Hotaru interjected gently, dropping a hand on her daughter's shoulder. "Your godfather has some extra business to deal with before he can join you."
Both of Keiko's parents were naturally clever people, and it was clear that the girl had inherited their brains as her gaze sharpened and her eyes darted over to where the other occupants of the bar were sitting, all three clearly eavesdropping while pretending not to.
"I'll wait for Ichi-ji-chan to finish," Keiko decided stoutly as she turned back to Ichigo, a wide smile dimpling her cheeks. "I always love Ji-chan's presents anyway, but none of the presents are as nice as spending time with Ji-chan, so, I can wait."
Ichigo softened, and he dropped to one knee to wrap her in a hug again. Damn, he loved this girl. "I'll finish up as quick as I can, Keiko, and then I'm all yours."
"Okay!" Keiko cheered brightly, waving at him before letting her mother lead her back upstairs.
Arashi stayed behind, waiting until both were out of sight before the good humour faded from his features and a hard glare replaced it, one that was directed at the far table. "You want me to stay?"
Ichigo shook his head, a wry smile curving his lips. "It's fine, Arashi, I can handle it."
Arashi sighed but nodded, picking up Ichigo's bag before moving towards the stairs as well. "I'll take this up to your room. Call if you need anything."
And that was that. Ichigo watched him leave, and then, sucking in a silent fortifying breath, he squared his shoulders and turned to face his old acquaintances.
He looked good.
That was the first thought that struck Shinji when the former Visored stepped in through the door, and he didn't mean in appearance alone, though Ichigo had certainly matured into an attractive young man, all sleek subtle muscles and lean slender-limbed frame that told Shinji that Ichigo had kept up with his training despite his lack of powers. The kid had grown more into his mother's looks than his father's in the physical aspect, nowhere near as bulky as Isshin, and he now sported hair that fell to the nape of his neck in a slightly wind-swept mess of orange locks, along with – Shinji was certain – about half a foot taller in height than the last time Shinji had laid eyes on him, probably matching if not surpassing Kisuke's six feet now.
But more than that, it was the manner in which Ichigo carried himself, posture relaxed in a way that said that he was comfortable in his own skin, and confident without any of it being faked or forced, the way it had sometimes been back when the young man had still been a teen leading a bunch of other teens who had all looked to him for guidance.
And his face.
Shinji hadn't known that Ichigo could actually live without a perpetual scowl creasing his brow, always frowning even when he smiled, and yet here he was, features smooth and unstressed, and when his goddaughter – goddaughter! – had come rushing in, Ichigo had grinned and laughed without holding anything back as the Sakais folded him into their midst with the natural ease of long familiarity.
It was obvious to anyone with eyes that the girl – Keiko – thought her godfather hung the moon and stars, and her parents were equally accepting, welcoming Ichigo back with the effortless air of family greeting family. And in return, one would have to be blind, deaf, and dumb not to notice the affection glowing in Ichigo's eyes and thrumming in his voice as he interacted with the three Humans.
Shinji had never, not once, seen Ichigo this happy, and wasn't that just fucking sad.
He smiled sardonically to himself. Not surprising considering the fact that they had been going through a war for most of the time Shinji had known Ichigo, and save for the brief visit he and the other Visored had made back when Ichigo had first been born, and then one more time when he had been a year old, none of them had had anything to do with the kid's childhood either.
He glanced across the table. Hiyori was gawking unabashedly at the reunion across the room with all the inconspicuousness of Zaraki on a rampage. Kisuke on the other hand wasn't staring at all, eyes glued to his teacup instead, his expression about as unreadable as a face could get.
Shinji looked around again when the last Sakai's footsteps retreated into the back, and all of a sudden, Ichigo was approaching them, gait unfaltering as he loped over to their table.
A stilted silence pervaded the air. Neither Hiyori nor Kisuke seemed to know what to do next.
Shinji mentally made a face. He was too old for this shit.
With one foot, he kicked out the remaining seat beside him. "It's been a while, Ichigo."
A pause, and then a crooked smile as Ichigo dropped into the seat with casual grace (Shinji had been right; the former Visored had grown taller than him now, though to be fair, Shinji had never been a particularly tall man at five-foot-nine). "Yeah, it has. Good to see you again, Hirako, Sarugaki, Urahara-san."
Shinji frowned a bit. Hiyori made a strangled noise that sounded like she was holding back the urge to kick Ichigo in the face. She scowled instead, fierce and sullen.
"Since when do you call me by my last name?" She demanded broodingly. Under normal circumstances, Shinji was sure that she wouldn't care less what Ichigo called her (so long as it had nothing to do with her lack of height), but it had been four years, and the fact that Ichigo had referred to her by her surname, something he had never done before for the simple reason of it being longer than her first name, most likely meant that Ichigo was instinctively distancing himself from them, and it evidently didn't sit well with Hiyori.
Ichigo blinked at her, a flash of puzzlement flitting across his features before his expression cleared and a teasing smirk appeared. "You want me to call you Hiyori then? Or Hiyori-chan?"
Hiyori's mouth dropped open before her face reddened and she began spluttering. "You- You-! No I don't wanna be called that, dickhead!"
If anything, Ichigo's smirk just grew more pronounced. "Well what do you know? You can blush after all. It's a good look on you, Hiyori-cha-"
He had to duck when Hiyori shrieked with outrage and chucked a fork at his face, one that he caught before it embedded itself into the wall behind him. The former Visored righted himself, chuckling with amusement as he tossed the eating utensil back on the table. "Sorry, sorry, I'm only joking. Just Hiyori then; don't be mad, okay?"
Hiyori huffed and glowered even harder but she settled down again, crossing her arms sulkily as the flush in her cheeks slowly died away. Ichigo just grinned before turning back to the rest of them.
"So," He looked between Shinji and Kisuke. "Down to business then. I hear you've got some things to tell me about the Onmitsukidou trying to find me. What I want to know before that though is why you three are looking for me in the first place."
Shinji scoffed, swirling the half-empty glass of whiskey he was still holding. "Ya didn't really think ya could up and leave without any of us comin' after ya, did ya?"
This earned him a blank look. Shinji grimaced. "Okay, so ya did. ...Sorry."
Ichigo cocked his head, eyeing Shinji with a strange expression. "Why are you sorry? It isn't as if you were charged with watching over me or something. We all had our own lives. From what Urahara-san told me, I managed to figure out that you and Hiyori and the other Visored were pardoned and welcomed back into Soul Society. I didn't have my powers anymore so it wasn't exactly rocket science to realize that we would all go our separate ways."
Shinji's lips thinned. He tossed a glare over at Kisuke who was tugging at his hat to shadow his eyes even further.
"As if we cared about that, moron," Hiyori butted in with a look of disgust. "We thought you didn't want us to come see you because this dumbass over here is a lyin', schemin', manipulative son-of-a-bitch!"
Shinji snorted at her choice of insults even as Kisuke grimaced before offering a sheepish smile in Ichigo's direction.
Ichigo just looked from one to the other, a frown marring his features at last. "What are you talking about?"
Kisuke coughed, putting down his teacup before picking it up again. Shinji watched as the man steeled himself before looking his former student square in the eye. Well, at least the shopkeeper had backbone.
"Shinji-san, Hiyori-san, and the other Visored did want to come see you, Kurosaki-san, even after they were respectively reinstated as captains and lieutenants in Soul Society," Kisuke admitted carefully. "However, as you might or might not know, Yamamoto-soutaichou had given the order for the Gotei 13 to stay away from you. Even with that command, they had fully planned on ignoring it, but in addition to that, your father did not want anyone connected to the Spiritual World interacting with you so that you could move on, and in the end, a lie was constructed to keep everyone away."
Shinji stayed silent as Kisuke reiterated every last detail of the idiotic plan that had been hatched six years ago after the end of the Winter War. Instead, he opted to study Ichigo's expression, looking for angry betrayal or righteous fury or even loathing.
He didn't find any.
As Kisuke spoke, Ichigo remained calm and quietly attentive, eyes sharp and never shifting from Kisuke's face as the shopkeeper admitted his and the others' wrongdoings, all the secrets that they had crept around with while shutting Ichigo out all those years ago.
The kid really had grown up, Shinji thought with some nostalgia. Without any input or influence from them. Ichigo had found his own way out in the world, and he hadn't let his past drag him down.
There was a touch of resignation in Ichigo's expression as if the former Visored had pretty much expected something along these lines (or at least wasn't surprised with the way things had turned out), and there was perhaps a hint of hurt there as well once Kisuke had wound the story to a close, but overall, Ichigo didn't look too affected, as he probably would've been as a teenager. Heck, Shinji could practically picture a younger Ichigo on his feet, temper high, scowling for all he was worth, and snapping heatedly at those who had wronged him.
This Ichigo merely nodded contemplatively after Kisuke finished, mouth curling into a slightly lopsided smile before he released a soft sigh. "...Sounds like something Goat-Face would do. Well, it's in the past, and I'm more than over it, so you can stop beating yourself up about it, Geta-boushi."
Kisuke looked startled for a split second, evidently not expecting Ichigo to have picked up on that. Ichigo just smiled somewhat lazily, flipping a dismissive hand in the air. "Is that why you've been looking for me? Guilty conscience? Waste of four years if you ask me. I forgave you for the incident with Rukia; this issue is miniscule in comparison. You were only doing what Goat-Face wanted, and he is my dad after all, not to mention I was still a minor back then."
"He had no right," Shinji interrupted with an involuntarily dangerous pitch to his voice, because while he was glad that Ichigo didn't seem to hold a grudge against them, it was another matter entirely to simply wave aside the whole situation. "He had no right keepin' ya from us."
Ichigo side-eyed him thoughtfully before shrugging freely and offering a faint smile. "I'm touched, Hirako. Never knew I meant that much to you guys, what with you beating me into the ground every time we sparred."
Despite the original subject of conversation, Shinji couldn't help grinning at that reminder. "Ya needed the trainin'."
Some of the tension between them lifted as Ichigo rolled his eyes good-naturedly, but the former Visored pressed on in a more serious tone of voice. "So what's this I hear about the Onmitsukidou? And if they're tracking me, why did the old man let you guys come after me to warn me?"
"He didn't let us," Shinji summarized succinctly with a grim smirk. "Hiyori and I slipped out before they could catch us, after your sister's boyfriend came ta me ta confess all. Ya could say we've been unofficially convicted and exiled. Again."
Astonishment surfaced on Ichigo's face at last, quickly followed by a concerned frown as he glanced between Shinji and Hiyori. "You shouldn't have done that, Hirako. You two and the others have been wanting to return to Seireitei ever since you had to leave the first time, right? And now that you two are on the run, what about Kensei and the others? Are they okay? What if the old man tries to use them as leverage or something?"
Shinji eyed him for a long moment before sharing a glance with Hiyori, who snorted with half-hearted derision.
So Ichigo hadn't changed that much after all.
"Don't worry about it," Shinji assured assertively. "It ain't as if we have ta return ta Soul Society; we like the Human World well enough, and Kisuke here was given the choice but didn't return either. And the others can take care of themselves, plus the Captain-Commander isn't that stupid; he's not gonna get rid of half his captains and lieutenants again, especially after the shitstorm Aizen kicked up. Worse comes to worst, well, I know Kyouraku for one won't stand by again and let his lieutenant take the fall. Ukitake will follow him, and that's two of the Gotei 13's strongest captains right there. Yamamoto won't want ta turn them against him so he'll have no choice but ta back down on that front."
He paused as Ichigo nodded slowly, his troubled expression ebbing away a little. "Okay, well, you'd know better than I would. What about the Onmitsukidou then?"
"Mostly, the gist of it is that they want you where they can keep an eye on you," Kisuke explained this time. "The Onmitsukidou was dispatched to apprehend you and return you to Karakura. Had you chosen to leave your hometown to go to a university elsewhere, they would've most likely allowed that since you would still be somewhere known to them. However, had you, say, opted for schooling overseas, then they would've probably stopped you. Likewise, since you left to travel the world, both the Captain-Commander and Central 46 have wanted you found. The search has eased up over the past two years, and most of the patrols stationed in Karakura in case you ever contacted anyone there have been lifted, but there has still been the occasional small squad sent out after you."
Ichigo's gaze narrowed, and for the first time since Ichigo had arrived at the bar, quicksilver anger unfurled in his eyes, turning the brown irises to a smouldering amber. But the younger man's control over his temper had obviously gotten much better, and Ichigo didn't allow his irritation to flare outwardly.
"But why do they want to keep an eye on me in the first place?" Ichigo demanded, voice hard but still even and relatively normal in volume. "What, do they think I can somehow magically get my powers back? I'm basically useless to them now."
Shinji gritted his teeth, shoving down hard on the desire to storm back to Karakura and wring Isshin's neck. Maybe curb stomp Ichigo's old friends into the ground as well. And see how Yoruichi liked having catnip stuffed down her throat when she was in Human form. And discover whether or not Hitsugaya could have his balls frozen off even with an ice-affiliated Zanpakutou. Revenge all around; Shinji wasn't picky.
Across the table, Hiyori held nothing back and socked Kisuke on the shoulder hard enough to leave a sizeable bruise. Kisuke himself winced even before Hiyori's punch landed.
"Powers or no, Kurosaki-san," Kisuke spoke up quietly, grey eyes all the more intent when he removed his hat. "It was... shameful of us to isolate you as we did, especially after everything you had given up to win the war for us. You could never be considered useless to us. For my part in making you believe as much, I am truly sorry."
It was odd, Shinji mused as he watched Hiyori gape at her former captain when the scientist bowed his head.
Urahara Kisuke, for all that he pretended to be otherwise, was a proud man who had only ever really yielded to one person in his lifetime – Shihouin Yoruichi. Even commands from the Captain-Commander himself had been cheerfully and unrepentantly bent and circumnavigated to their fullest extent, sometimes even borderline broken if it suited the scientist's purposes. Kisuke had always hidden behind cunning words or playful mockery, with more and more success as the years had passed by, and in the many, many decades that Shinji had known him, Kisuke had never expressed sincere regret of any kind towards anyone for any deed, with the possible exceptions of Yoruichi and perhaps Tessai in private.
Yet from what Shinji had heard and seen, Kurosaki Ichigo had miraculously managed to humble the shopkeeper enough to the point where Kisuke had and would willingly shuck his pride, bow his head in remorse, and apologize, and not just once but twice in the comparatively short time that the shopkeeper had known Ichigo.
And perhaps this had also – subconsciously – played into the cause for Shinji's wrath when he had learned of the truth, though the former Visored being part of his misfit family had been the main reason.
Shinji had always known, at the back of his mind, that Ichigo's strength had never laid in the teenager's overwhelming potential for growth or his astronomical amount of reiatsu or even his inability to give up when a situation seemed impossible. All those things had contributed of course, very much so, but to Shinji, it had been the kid's natural talent for attracting others to his latest cause, no matter how insane or unattainable, to reel other people in and have them gladly, unwaveringly, faithfully, follow him into the deepest depths of hell and back, that had told Shinji just how dangerous Kurosaki Ichigo could be.
And it had been infuriating to realize that almost no one else had been able to recognize this, that Ichigo's own father had measured his son's value by Ichigo's spiritual strength alone, and none of them had seen just how amazing it had been for three teenagers – one of them a Quincy to boot – to risk their lives for a Shinigami they hadn't really known just because Ichigo had wanted to save her.
That it was astounding for one Human teenager to turn half of the Gotei 13's upper echelon against their own laws just because Ichigo had convinced them through his actions that saving Rukia might not be the easiest thing to do but was still the right thing to do.
That it was downright mind-boggling for all of Ichigo's closest friends to storm Hueco Mundo and throw themselves headlong into a war against a megalomaniac without so much as half a thought for their own safety just because Ichigo had resolved to fight against Aizen and everyone else who stood in his way. Some could speculate, but Shinji knew that at least Abarai Renji and Kuchiki Rukia had entered the Winter War for Ichigo, not for the organization they worked for.
There were other examples Shinji could pick out from all the stories Kisuke had told him – and Isshin – of the orange-haired former Substitute Shinigami, all the terrorists and rebels that had tried to one-up the Gotei 13 in the wake of Aizen's betrayal that Ichigo had assisted in stopping, but if anyone had seen the same thing Shinji had, then it was probably Kisuke. The shopkeeper had been Ichigo's teacher, but the respect between them went both ways. Ichigo listened to Kisuke's advice no matter how much he probably wanted to violently strangle the scientist sometimes, but at the same time, from what Shinji had gleaned, Kisuke had almost always allowed Ichigo to do what he wanted, even if it went directly against the shopkeeper's own plans.
"Would you stop doing that?"
Shinji blinked out of his thoughts at the sound of Ichigo's exasperated voice. To his amusement, the former Visored actually reached across the table and plucked Kisuke's hat out of the shopkeeper's hand before whacking the blond over the head with it.
Kisuke jolted, looking torn between indignant at having his precious hat taken from him and wary of Ichigo's reactions even as the scientist's genius mind undoubtedly cycled through all the possible actions that the former Visored could take next.
"You're an idiot," Ichigo proclaimed bluntly. "I told you – I'm over it, and I definitely don't blame you. Why would I? Besides, time away from Karakura's done me good, and I probably would have left even earlier if you people had coddled me or something back when I had first lost my powers."
He paused, head tilting in consideration as he took in all of them, hands absently fiddling with the hat he had stolen. "...Kukaku told me a long time ago, back when we had just entered Soul Society and were hiding out at her place, that I'm a lot like her older brother used to be."
Shinji stiffened, and then looked sharply at the younger man. Ichigo shrugged. "Apparently, Kaien was the same before he settled down in Seireitei, always wandering with Kukaku and Ganju out in Rukongai, happiest when he was on the move. I've always been like that, for as long as I can remember, but I stayed, first because I had my mom and she was enough, and then because I had to raise my sisters, and then the whole fiasco with Shinigami and Soul Society and the war. But I've always wanted to leave, to travel; I hated being stuck in one place."
A short silence followed that revelation.
"...You're related to the Shibas, you know," Kisuke revealed abruptly. Shinji could almost see the scientist's thought of screw Isshin and his secrets, which was ridiculously ironic considering Kisuke's personality. "I don't believe anyone actually ever confirmed that for you. Your sisters already knew, even back before you left."
Ichigo didn't look all that shocked. "Yeah, I figured. Tou-san never said but Kukaku pretty much implied it when I asked her, and Karin had mentioned that she was spending time in Seireitei."
"Ya inherited the Shiba wanderlust though, unlike your sisters or even father," Shinji commented, eyeing Ichigo critically. "Most of the Shibas I've met over the years have never been good at staying in one place for very long."
"I always thought the wanderlust was just a rumour," Hiyori piped up, brow scrunching. "It actually exists?"
"Of course it does," Shinji snorted, and then dodged when Hiyori threw the napkin dispenser at him.
Ichigo snagged it out of the air before conking Shinji over the head with it, much to Hiyori's delight. Shinji elbowed him in the ribs in retaliation.
"Anyway," Ichigo scowled at him as Shinji smirked back unashamedly. "After I lost my powers, I didn't have the same responsibilities anymore. Yuzu and Karin were growing up, and nobody else really needed me around, so I decided to leave. It's turned out to be one of my best decisions so, seriously, don't apologize. I won't accept it. I'm happy with how my life's turned out, trust me."
No one could argue with that, and Kisuke heaved a sigh before the barely noticeable edge of self-incrimination that had haunted his expression for four years dwindled at last. A somewhat amused smile took its place as his gaze flicked to the doorway at the back of the bar. "You do seem happy, Kurosaki-san. You're a godfather now?"
Ichigo grinned, and pride and affection shone through with the brightness of a thousand suns. "Yeah, Arashi and Hotaru named me godfather three years ago when Keiko was two. She's great; couldn't ask for a better kid."
Shinji said nothing in response for a few seconds as he ruthlessly squashed the burn of envy in his chest. Ichigo was still one of his; the kid just had his own family now.
"You three can talk about kids and reminisce on the good old days later," Hiyori blared loudly, scowling indiscriminately at all of them. "What are you gonna do about the Onmitsukidou, you stupid strawberry?"
All at once, something darker snaked into Ichigo's features, grim and cold, and it reminded Shinji of what Ichigo had sometimes looked like during the war, the expression too old for a face that young.
"I may not have my powers anymore," Ichigo said coolly. "But I won't let anyone cage me. I'd rather die."
Shinji believed him. He fired a warning look at Hiyori when she opened his mouth before speaking up himself. "Ya've got more allies than ya think. I'm on your side, so is Hiyori and Kisuke, as well as the other Visored, officers or not. And no matter how much they fucked up, your friends in both Karakura and Soul Society will still stand with ya. That might actually be why the old man's stopped sendin' out as many of his Shinigami ta track ya down. He's seen where the lines have been drawn and they're not in his favour."
Ichigo glanced at him before quirking a smile. "Odds are in my favour for once, huh?"
Shinji scoffed. "From what I've heard, ya've never lost even when they weren't."
A familiar cocky smirk curled at Ichigo's mouth but he corrected, "I have lost before. I just got back up and kept moving on afterwards."
Shinji got the feeling that the former Visored was talking about losing Zangetsu and his inner Hollow this time.
"And what of your sisters' graduation?" Kisuke enquired, cutting in smoothly as he leaned forward and snatched his hat back from Ichigo's unsuspecting hands. "Will you come back for that? They've missed you very much, especially Yuzu-san."
"Of course," Ichigo instantly confirmed. "I can't believe you thought I wouldn't, telling Arashi to remind me about that. I'll be there next week; I want to surprise them."
"Then I'll hold off on telling Yuzu-san that we've found you," Kisuke agreed, dropping his hat back on his head. "Will you... stay afterwards?"
Ichigo scrutinized him, and then glanced at Hiyori before moving on to Shinji. "...You know I won't. I don't belong in Karakura anymore; I don't think I ever have. Besides, if I had to pick a place, I'd say Firefly House is my home now. I applied to Toudai two and a half years ago and was accepted, and I've been doing all my courses online, so I can travel as much as I want."
Shinji nudged Kisuke's leg under the table when it looked like the shopkeeper was going to say something along the lines of Ichigo staying in Karakura for a while. Kisuke didn't look at him but subsided all the same.
"What are ya takin' in university then?" Shinji asked lightly.
"Art and writing courses," Ichigo announced with a pleased expression. "Believe it or not, I can actually paint, and I've always wanted to become a writer, so I've decided to do both. The artwork I send in through the mail, and one of the professors is a friend of mine so he lets me sit in on his classes whenever I'm around. The art department's pretty lax in that aspect."
As Ichigo launched into a more detailed description about the artwork he had done thus far, and how far along he was with his studies, and even some of the places he had been in his travels, Shinji eyed the quiet joy in the younger man's features, and he swore right then and there that he'd personally kill the Captain-Commander himself, even take a leaf out of Aizen's book and slaughter Central 46 if it came down to it, if any of those old bastards tried to take this away from Ichigo.
Ichigo goddamn deserved what he had managed to make for himself.
Shinji leaned his head against one hand, catching Kisuke's eye in the process as Hiyori drilled Ichigo about Paris.
Kisuke nodded discreetly before focusing on Ichigo again, a slight smile playing on his lips.
Shinji smirked to himself. He certainly wouldn't be alone in his rather criminal endeavours.
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