Disclaimer: I do not own anything from Bleach.
General Warnings: AU, language, violence, time travel, extended Winter War
Summary: The first time around, they came together through a promise, through circumstance, through necessity, and bonded through trial and desperation. The second time around, they were inseparable. And they were going to change the world.
Five years after Kurosaki Masaki had died, Kurosaki Ichigo woke up on an average Tuesday morning in a bedroom he had not clapped eyes on in well over a decade, hand automatically reaching for a weapon even before his mind had completely caught up.
At the same time, all the way across town, Ishida Uryuu abruptly stumbled over the steps of a simple kata he had learned and perfected before he had even entered junior high school.
Simultaneously, near the Karasu River, Sado Yasutora dropped the pot of coffee he had been making in the kitchen of his modest flat.
And concurrently, several blocks away, Inoue Orihime sat up in bed, disoriented and anxious as she instinctively searched for her closest friends but could not find them.
All four took all of two minutes to gather their thoughts, their bearings, and their weapons before rushing out of their respective houses, the latter two not bothering to lock the door behind them while the former two ignored the startled calls of their parents.
None of them stopped running – each of them subconsciously heading for the relatively safe and abandoned location of the old Karakura train station – until they caught sight of each other at almost the exact same time.
They crashed together in a tangle of gangly teenage limbs and frantic we-made-its, all of them physically younger than the age their eyes reflected, and all of them home.
"Are we going to tell our parents?" Uryuu enquired from his sprawled position over Ichigo's legs, not actually caring much about the answer.
"It'll come out sooner or later," Ichigo said idly, using Chad's shoulder as a backrest. "Especially when they eventually catch me out of my body. But... not until we have to?"
His head tilted to the side, and his gaze encompassed all of them, silently asking for their opinion. Uryuu shrugged and nodded; it didn't matter to him either way. Ryuuken would understand. As much as anyone could understand their situation anyway.
Chad shrugged as well, signalling his lack of an opinion, while Orihime, curled up between Chad and Uryuu, agreed, "It would be best to wait before telling Ryuuken-san and Isshin-san. Ryuuken-san was always reluctant to let Uryuu-kun get himself involved in Shinigami business, and Isshin-san-"
"-is unpredictable enough that even I don't know if he'll go to Geta-boushi for help, check me into the loony bin, or let me do what I want," Ichigo finished with a nod. "Right, so no telling them for now. And my sisters are... ten? It'd be better if they're not in the thick of things."
They fell into another comfortable silence, content to cluster together in Chad's sitting room where they had all congregated after meeting up and making sure they were all okay.
Of course, Uryuu, being the most practical one of them, soon had to speak up, however reluctantly. "I believe we have school today. I remember I only woke up early to go through my katas on a school day. I slept in on weekends."
"Ishida Uryuu, sleeping in," Ichigo huffed a rare laugh. "Can't imagine it."
Orihime grinned a little, though the humour in it was equally matched with a shroud of sadness. "That's because we never wake up after six at the latest these days. Or, those days. And we took shifts."
"We won't have to do that anymore," Chad interjected, pausing for a moment before amending, "Though I don't think I'll be able to sleep more than five hours at a time."
Orihime murmured a wordless concurrence while Ichigo said nothing, eyes fixed on the morning sun peeking through a layer of mist outside.
Uryuu refrained from saying anything too. There was nothing to say; all of them were probably paranoid enough to suspect random strangers walking down the street. They had grown dependent on no one save each other.
That sort of thing happened when it was them against the world.
"I've been thinking," Orihime piped up again, and this time, she sounded tentative at best. "Will... Will we have to pretend not to know each other at school? I mean, Ichigo-kun and Chad-kun are fine, but Uryuu-kun and I..."
She trailed off, and there was a note in her voice that wasn't quite fear but close. Uryuu understood the sentiment. As much as he hated to admit it, he wasn't all that keen on returning to his old aloof self either, at least not around these three. The rest of the world could go screw themselves for all he cared, but the four of them had stuck together through thick, thin, and hell, through bitter hard-learned lessons of betrayal and the stark terror of being hunted; Uryuu had no desire to be without any of them when he didn't have to even here in this time.
But it would be Ichigo's call. This was his show after all, and Uryuu, along with the others, had long since accepted the Visored as their de facto leader.
"I don't see why we'd have to," Ichigo decided much to Uryuu's private relief. Beside him, Orihime visibly relaxed. "We'll just tell everybody we've been friends for a while and we just haven't hung out much, or we can bump into each other in the hall and go from there. Besides, we'll be seen together outside of school anyway."
Right. The Plan.
"We can use my apartment as a base," Chad offered. "I never invited people over here as a teenager anyway."
"Sounds good," Ichigo acknowledged, jostling one knee a bit, much to Uryuu's annoyance. With a scowl, Uryuu pulled himself up into a sitting position, instinctively rubbing a thumb across the blue and white metal strap around his wrist – his Quincy bow when reduced to a portable size. They had all been returned to the bodies of teenagers but their weapons, their strength, their reflexes, their experience, had all come back with them as well.
God bless the mad genius known as Urahara Kisuke.
"We're really going to do it then?" Orihime sat up as well, fingers fluttering momentarily along one of her hair clips. "Create an entire city?"
Ichigo shrugged, the movement somehow fluid and tired at the same time. "What choice do we have? We need a place to live, before Central 46 cracks down on us. Again."
And that was the crux of the matter.
Uryuu's lip curled into a sneer. Shinigami. The only ones he had ever remotely liked amounted to one hand with fingers left over. Ichigo didn't count; he was a Visored.
And even after so many years, Uryuu still resented the Shinigami in general and Central 46 in particular. After everything – invasions, criminals with grudges the size of Russia, war – Uryuu, Orihime, Chad, and especially Ichigo had done for those ungrateful bastards, Central 46 had turned around and stabbed them in the back, ordering their extermination.
The four of them hadn't even rated a proper execution. An assassin in the dead of night was good enough for a couple of freak Humans.
And it hadn't just been them either. Soul Society's government had decided that it would be for the best if the ones who didn't belong, didn't fit in to the Shinigami norm, didn't conform to their laws, were wiped out, eradicated, a chapter to be closed and forgotten so that their potential to cause harm to the Gotei 13 would become nonexistent.
It was – pardon his language, though Uryuu had long since stopped caring – utter bullshit. Ichigo had had friends up in Soul Society, people he would die for and had killed for; it made zero sense for any of them to go on a rampage and attack them. And while Urahara, Tessai, and the Visored had been wrongly accused, Uryuu hadn't been able to see any of them going to the trouble of plotting an assault against Soul Society when Aizen had already been dead. Their revenge had been settled.
So really, when it had come down to it, the only reason they had been hunted had been because Central 46 had gotten scared of a group of Humans, Visored, and exiled that they couldn't hope to control, partly because half of that group bowed to no one, especially not to a faction of corrupt idiots, and partly because Central 46 had screwed over the other half all by itself.
Hence, the order had gone out, and after Uryuu had rushed home from an interview at the local college due to an uncharacteristically near-hysterical phone call from Ichigo only to find that he had been too late and his house had been in ruins with his father's broken body amongst the rubble, he had sworn he'd never forgive the perpetrators for as long as he lived.
His grief however had been nothing compared to Ichigo's howl of anguish when not only his own father had been struck down but also his two sisters. Ichigo had snapped – for once, he and his Hollow had been in perfect sync – and not a single member of the squad of Shinigami sent to do the dirty work – comprised mainly of Onmitsukidou officers – had made it back to Seireitei alive that day. Uryuu's only regret had been the fact that he hadn't been fast enough to join Ichigo in the vengeful killing spree.
And then they had run.
They had been high school graduates at that point (and they had all graduated late because they had been busy fighting for the Shinigami in their thrice-damned war), and it was only luck that had seen Tatsuki, Keigo, and Mizuiro already off to university several hundred miles away from Karakura. They hadn't really been involved – had just been in the know and hadn't taken much more interest beyond that – so Central 46 had dismissed them, and for that, at least, Uryuu had been thankful.
On the other hand, he, Orihime, Chad, and Ichigo, had all gone on the run, unwilling to stick around and wait for death, and they'd grabbed everyone connected to the Urahara Shouten as well as the Visored before Ichigo had opened a Garganta and whisked them all off to Hueco Mundo to hide.
As it had turned out, not even Hueco Mundo had been able to protect them for very long. The Shinigami had come after them anyway.
To this day, Uryuu still didn't know whether all of the Gotei 13 had been Central 46's obedient dogs or if some of them had attempted to find them to offer aid, but to be completely honest, he also didn't give half a damn.
Ichigo, softie that he was, had tried – at the beginning when they had set up their first camp in Hueco Mundo, and they'd all agreed to send the missive – to contact Rukia and Renji for both information and assistance.
Their camp had been found the very next day, a surprise assault launched on them before any of them had been ready. Hiyori had been killed in the ensuing skirmish.
Uryuu hadn't known whether the message had been intercepted or they had been betrayed, but Ichigo had stopped talking for an entire two weeks after that, hadn't been able to even look at any of the Visored until Hirako had beaten him into the ground and pounded the fact that it wasn't his fault into the idiot's head.
Needless to say, there had been no more suggestions for sending messages after that, and Uryuu had never quite forgiven Ichigo's so-called Shinigami best friends, even if there had been a possibility that they had had nothing to do with the ambush.
And over the next decade, they had run and kept on running, never staying in one place for long.
At first, Uryuu had thought that the Shinigami would give up sooner or later, within a few months, maybe a few years if they feared them that much.
But they hadn't stopped.
And one by one, they'd been picked off, their numbers dwindling until it had only been the four of them and Urahara left.
Oh, they had given as good as they'd gotten. Any of Uryuu's compunctions against killing so many people had died a swift and painful death early on in his teens when they'd been facing Aizen, and their group had left swathes of dead bodies in their wake. Even Orihime, the kindest of them all, had flung her morals out the proverbial window when Ichigo had been pinned down and almost skewered that one time in the first year. Orihime could be vicious.
They'd all learned how to be vicious.
Kill and run, never stop – it had become their way of life.
Along the way, they'd met a bunch of familiar faces, and Uryuu hadn't even been surprised when the Arrancar had gravitated into their misfit ranks, slotting themselves into the group and sticking around without giving any clear-cut reasons.
Neliel had been first, and as soon as she had spotted Ichigo, she'd opted to stay. She had died defending them in the end, six years after she had joined them, but Uryuu knew she hadn't regretted it for a single second.
People Ichigo drew in never did.
Then there had been Grimmjow, who had stuck around because – as he'd claimed – of all the Shinigami coming after them. The former Espada had greatly enjoyed having the freedom to kill as many of them as he'd wanted, and he'd only died after successfully eviscerating Kurotsuchi, Bankai and all (and, as a result, had also put a stop to the crazy weapons that the Twelfth had been whipping up like they'd been going out of style). For that alone, Uryuu would make sure that particular Espada would be out from under Aizen's thumb and safe with them this time around.
Harribel and her Fraccion had been next, and they'd lingered at the fringes – coming and going without warning – for two years before finally staying for good. They had lasted almost a full seven years before they had died in battle as well.
Ulquiorra had inserted himself sometime between the fourth and fifth year, and the Arrancar had taken it very personally when one of the new captains – Uryuu had never learned the man's name –had almost cleaved Orihime in half, leaving behind a scar that even her powers couldn't erase.
Starrk and Lilynette had drifted in sometime in their third year, wary, never staying for long, and never venturing further in than the border of their camp, but on one of the colder nights (thirty below, for god's sakes; Ichigo had had to make regular trips to the World of the Living for supplies, making everyone antsy whenever he had been gone because the Shinigami could track Ichigo directly in the Human World, while something about Hueco Mundo at least screwed with their equipment), Ichigo had dragged both of them into their fire-warmed campsite, forcibly sat them down, tossed two blankets at Starrk, tucked five blankets around Lilynette, and had proceeded to push food on them until they had been warm and full, and Lilynette had practically been nodding off on the spot.
After that, neither of them had left again until they had also been killed, brought down by two unknown captains and their squads while giving the rest of them time to escape.
Uryuu was fairly certain that Ichigo had never forgiven himself for that either, if only because Starrk had been a good friend and Lilynette had been like a sister to Ichigo, as precious as Karin and Yuzu by the end of it all.
But all of that was neither here nor there. Their numbers had diminished until only five of them remained, and Urahara had been dying of inhaled poison by that point anyway. Nothing the scientist had known or Orihime had tried had been able to draw the poison out.
But Urahara had had one more trick up his sleeve.
They had all known that they wouldn't be able to run forever.
Urahara had taught Ichigo as much Kidou seals as he could, and Ichigo had absorbed every lesson like a desperate sponge, but it had been a combined effort between Urahara, Tessai, and Hachi that had maintained the protective barriers around their campsite whenever they had had to rest and the Shinigami had essentially been on their doorstep. After losing Hachi, Ichigo had stepped up to take the Visored's place, and the Kidou needed had still been enough. After Tessai had gone the same way, Ichigo's massive reiatsu output had made up for the loss. However, after Urahara had been poisoned, with the former shopkeeper unable to muster up anything stronger than a simple Hadou spell, Ichigo hadn't had the centuries-old finesse and practice to maintain strong enough barriers by himself for very long.
They would've been able to run, but eventually, their hunters would've caught up with them, and even with Ichigo's immense strength, there would've simply been far too many Shinigami.
Urahara was nothing if not prepared though, and even on his literal deathbed, the scientist had walked them through one of the experiments he had still been working on while on the run.
If they couldn't run in the present, Urahara had reasoned. Then they could certainly run to the past.
The former shopkeeper had died shortly after, and following the burial (one last burial because the four of them weren't losing each other), they had thrown themselves into setting up the experiment properly, pouring over the notes and triple-checking everything.
Not for nothing had Uryuu and Orihime been the smartest students in all of Karakura, with Ichigo and Chad not far behind. What with even the steps already written out for them, it had been a lot less complicated than it could've been.
The energy needed to fuel the machine had come from Ichigo of course, the bright-haired Visored's reiatsu more than enough to boost them through time.
And they had made it, back to their teens, back to a Karakura that was still whole, back to people – allies and enemies, friends and foes – who were all still very much alive.
And they would fix everything. Urahara had probably intended for them to simply get new lives, a chance at freedom without needing to look over their shoulder all the time – or maybe more than that; one never knew with Urahara – but they had discussed it, long and in-depth, and really, it would be a waste if they went back and did nothing, especially when doing nothing would most likely result in the same manhunt as the first time around.
So they had decided on a course of action – they would give all the outcasts and veritable monsters a home, set up a place to live for those who had been thrown away or needed a safe haven, before Central 46 could once again condemn them.
"Come on," Ichigo was saying, and Uryuu levered himself to his feet along with the others, absently holding out a hand for Orihime. "We need to get home. Meet at the school gates at eight-ten?"
"We're still in junior high right now, aren't we?" Chad asked, glancing around his apartment as if looking for some sign of just how old they all were. "Last year?"
"Yes, I think so," Orihime nodded, smoothing out her skirt (which looked odd on her now even though she had once favoured them; Uryuu was used to seeing her in pants since dresses really weren't ideal in the desert). "I caught sight of some of my schoolbooks before I left my house. They were middle school texts."
"So we're all still going to Mashiba Middle then," Uryuu concluded, hiding a grimace. "And it's June, so we're all still fourteen."
"Chad's fifteen," Ichigo grunted. "His birthday's in April. Either way, eight-ten in front of Mashiba, alright?"
They all nodded, and after bidding Chad a temporary goodbye (and even that made Uryuu uneasy; he didn't like having his closest companions out of sight, and if Ichigo and Orihime's expressions were anything to go by, he wasn't the only one), they accompanied Orihime home before he and Ichigo set off for their own houses.
"We should move into Chad's," Ichigo commented quietly as they walked across the bridge overlooking the Karasu River. "Or pool some money together to rent an apartment. All of us live too damn far away from each other, especially you."
"I live far away from everything," Uryuu grumbled. "Except Karakura High. That, I'm closest to."
He paused. "...I doubt our fathers are going to let us move out. Then again, Ryuuken just might, if I pay for it myself. What about yours?"
Ichigo offered a wry twist of a smile that faded before it fully formed. "Goat-Face would throw a fit and cry for hours to Kaa-san, and when he's done that, he'll probably put his serious face on and ask me why. Not to mention my sisters would be upset."
"Right, an apartment of our own isn't an option then," Uryuu concluded with a touch of wistfulness. It would've been nice to have a place to call their own. They'd had their own campsites for over ten years, and Uryuu was used to having some place to claim and defend, even if they had moved around a lot. Oh well. "I'll pack a bag after school, and we can all move to Chad's? We can have a few sleepovers every week. Ryuuken will think I've gone crazy but he won't stop me."
Ichigo snorted. "My family has always wanted me to be more social. They'll be shoving me out the front door."
Uryuu scoffed. From what he remembered, Ichigo had been a lot more social compared to Uryuu. At least Ichigo had had friends. Until he had been dragged into all things supernatural and insane, Uryuu had neither wanted nor known how to go about getting friends of his own.
"I turn down here," Ichigo cocked his head down intersection. "See you in a bit."
Uryuu nodded an affirmative before hurrying off. He had to travel the longest distance, though Hirenkyaku would certainly help.
And he'd better start making up a good excuse for rushing out of the house at seven in the morning.
And maybe another excuse – temporary insanity worked – for the hug he was probably going to give his long-dead father the minute he got back.
Kisuke's notes had said that Ichigo should aim for a date that he felt strongly about, and to him, there was no stronger date than June seventeenth, the day his mother had died. The time-travel machine had only allowed them to return between the ages of thirteen and fifteen though so Ichigo hadn't been able to jump even further back to save his mother.
At this point, he wasn't even sure if he truly wanted to. As much as he loved her, Ichigo had laid that ghost to rest long ago, and he had more than enough people to protect and look out for without adding a deceased mother to the equation as well. Besides, what he still remembered of Masaki told him that she was pretty perceptive, especially when it came to her kids, and she'd probably wonder why her supposed nine-year-old son had the mannerisms of a thirty-two-year-old war veteran.
He heaved a sigh, sparing a minute to sit down on his bed and take a break after going through everything in his room. He'd found his student id, and as it turned out, he really was only fourteen, fifteen come July.
He couldn't remember what it felt like to be fourteen. Hell, he couldn't even remember what it felt like to be a teenager.
And now he had to act like one.
Ichigo did remember that he was still friends with Mizuiro, Keigo, and even Tatsuki, though he was fairly certain he hadn't met the former two yet, wouldn't until high school.
In the future, he had taken a detour a couple of times to see how his old friends had been doing, never lingering for long in case he brought the Shinigami down on them. They had done well with their lives, moved on from the 'deaths' of Ichigo and the others, and Ichigo had been glad.
But he was back in the past now, and logic and practicality dictated that it would honestly be a mistake to continue interacting with them. For all that Tatsuki knew karate, and Mizuiro knew how to whip up a Molotov cocktail off the top of his head, and Keigo was a fast learner, they were still just kids, and really too immature at this point in time. And if everything went according to plan (or as close to it as possible anyway; no plan ever fully survived first contact), then Ichigo and the others would be leaving for good.
Unless they went with Ichigo.
Which wasn't going to happen. He knew Mizuiro had a bad relationship with his mother, but Tatsuki and Keigo had perfectly nice families, and Ichigo was not going to go through the headache of explaining and attempting to convince them to drop everything and leave with their children to an entirely different world. It wouldn't be fair for them anyway.
So no Mizuiro and no Keigo, and Tatsuki would most likely have to be slowly pushed away. Ichigo and Orihime could work on that; it was lucky Tatsuki had other friends too.
He sighed again and got up, grabbing his bag as he left the bedroom. Unsettlingly enough, he'd almost forgotten the layout of this house. When he'd bolted out earlier, he had nearly taken a wrong turn into the living room instead of down the hallway that led to the front door.
He paused in the hall, loitering outside his sisters' room. Easing the door open, he peered inside. Apparently, neither had classes today; their teachers had some sort of school-wide conference to attend, so both girls were seizing the opportunity to sleep in.
They were so young. Ichigo couldn't really get past that even as foreign wetness stung his eyes. It had been twelve years since he had last seen them, lying motionless beside their father, faces frozen in sheer terror, mouths slack as if they had been in the process of screaming for their brother to help them.
Or just screaming.
Ichigo never, ever wanted to go through that again. It would kill him.
He silently pulled the door closed without disturbing them, roughly running his sleeve over his eyes. He hadn't cried in years; he wasn't about to start now.
He took a second to compose himself before continuing on his way to the kitchen. Goat-Face had been in the shower earlier but Ichigo could already hear the telltale sounds of breakfast on the stove.
"GOOD MORNING, ICHIGO!"
Ichigo didn't even blink, battle-honed instincts and old reflexes taking over as he dodged Isshin's flying tackle, spun on his heel, and snapped a foot into the man's gut to toss him back, all without thinking.
Even he was surprised when Isshin flew across the kitchen like a homerun baseball, crashing into the opposite wall and tumbling to the ground in a heap.
Too much force.
Ichigo mentally swore, body now torn between rushing over to make sure his dad was alright and staying put so as not to blow his cover since the old Ichigo would've snarked an insult and carried on with whatever he was doing (granted, that would've been because the old Ichigo wouldn't have been able to use that much force in the first place).
On the ground, Isshin wheezed, righting himself and placing a hand against his stomach where a bruise was undoubtedly forming.
Screw it, Ichigo thought, and strode over. As crazy as his dad had been, Ichigo had missed him dearly. He could act a little out-of-character to make sure the man was at least alright.
"Jeez, Goat-Face, you getting old?" Ichigo huffed casually, hauling Isshin up as gently as he could without seeming to. "That was pathetic."
Isshin cracked a wry grin at that, but Ichigo spotted the puzzled speculation in his eyes even as the man waved the incident off. "You've gotten better, Ichigo. I'M SO PROUD!"
Ichigo rolled his eyes. Yeah, his dad would be just fine.
Five minutes later, they were seated around the dinner table, mostly keeping the noise level down so they wouldn't wake the twins.
Ichigo loved the food and hated it at the same time. Isshin wasn't as good a cook as Yuzu was (and call him biased but Ichigo would swear in court that no one was as good a cook as Yuzu was) but the food he made was still good, and Ichigo hadn't had a genuine home-cooked meal in so long.
At the beginning, when they had first gone on the run, they had lived off the cash that Urahara and the Visored had accumulated over the years (and had managed to grab before their homes had been destroyed), but that resource had quickly dried up what with the need to provide meals and extra clothing for so many people, and believe it or not, a life as an outlaw in a godforsaken desert didn't give you many opportunities to make money.
So Ichigo had had to make due. He went with the very cliché movie-esque option that all criminals seemed to get around to sooner or later.
He robbed a bank.
Actually, he robbed several banks.
Ichigo had never been certain whether or not everyone knew of his side-trips to various depositories all over the world, bypassing all security by opening a Garganta straight into the safe boxes or vaults, never grabbing more than he needed for his fugitive family, before getting out again. He knew that Kisuke had known, and Shinji, and probably Tessai and a few of the other Visored, but no one had ever said anything about it, never asked where Ichigo was getting the necessary money to supply them with their basic needs, and Ichigo never spoke of it.
(Two or three times, he'd caught Kisuke or Shinji giving him weary grim looks when they had thought he hadn't been looking, but that had only fuelled Ichigo's determination to keep his criminal activities away from them. He had been the only one who could open Gargantas – the Arrancar could too but it wasn't as if they knew how to navigate a bank or pick out the right food and clothes without attracting attention – so it had been his job to bring back the provisions.)
And then, several years in, when trips to the Human world almost always meant that the Shinigami would be on his tail mere minutes after he had arrived, Ichigo had skipped robbing banks and went right on to simply nicking food and clothes from the stores. There just hadn't been enough time to steal money, use a Gigai to shop, and then flee when the Gotei 13 had appeared, and Ichigo was always careful not to hit the same place more than twice at most, both to throw off the Shinigami and so that the store wouldn't go bankrupt or whatever.
Sometimes, he had wondered what his mother would have to say about his life as a genuine criminal, but he had figured that if anyone would understand and accept it, it would've been Masaki.
But in the most recent year, after Urahara had died ten months before they had hopped back in time, Ichigo had only spared enough minutes to snatch fruit and protein bars and basically things that hadn't required more than opening a package and stuffing it into their mouths. They had been busy, and since Ichigo had been solely responsible for maintaining the seals that had hid their presences, he also hadn't wanted to leave his friends alone for longer than absolutely necessary.
So a home-cooked meal was heavenly, and painfully nostalgic at the same time. The eggs got stuck in his throat, and he had to swallow hard to get it down. He made a mental note to invite his friends over; Chad and Orihime would have to make their own food right now, and knowing them, well, Chad would probably live off of cereal and water despite being the best cook out of all of them, and Orihime couldn't cook (nothing healthy and humanly edible anyway). Uryuu was almost as good as Chad, but he doubted even the Quincy would go to the trouble of making anything elaborate after they had fallen into the habit of simply eating whatever was on hand.
"Oyaji," Ichigo started, blinking when he found his father already watching him. "Can I invite some friends over for dinner?"
Isshin looked gobsmacked, like he couldn't believe his ears. Ichigo didn't blame him; this was probably the first time that he had ever voluntarily invited anyone over. Even for school projects, Ichigo tended to work at school or at the library.
"Of course!" Isshin recovered, still eyeing Ichigo oddly. "I'll tell Yuzu to make extra tonight. How many should she be expecting?"
"Three," Ichigo ticked off promptly. "Chad, Hime, and Uryuu."
...And if Isshin looked any more shocked than he currently did, Ichigo should probably have an ambulance on standby, just in case the idiot had a stroke.
"Right, I'm off then," Ichigo swept his empty plate up and dropped it off in the sink before heading for the door. "See ya later, Goat-Face."
He was out the front door and down the street before Isshin could call him back.
Orihime had a conundrum.
Tatsuki was ringing the doorbell. Orihime had forgotten that they had used to take turns meeting up at each other's house before walking to school together.
Orihime had no idea what to do.
She checked her watch for the fifth time in the past minute. It wasn't that she didn't want to see Tatsuki; the other teen had been her best friend! But it was also true that Orihime hadn't seen Tatsuki in over ten years, hadn't even heard about her except for the few occasions when Ichigo had brought back news of her life.
Not to mention that had been then; Orihime was mentally thirty-two years old now, almost thirty-three, and Tatsuki hadn't computed into her life in a very long time.
But she had to keep up appearances.
Taking a deep breath, she nailed a smile on her face, threw open the door, and bounced out. "Good morning, Tatsuki-chan!"
Tatsuki blinked, obviously a bit taken aback, but grinned back all the same, slinging an arm around Orihime's shoulder. It made her tense up, and she did her best to calm down. Tatsuki was still her friend even if she wasn't Ichigo or Uryuu or Chad.
"'Morning, Orihime!" Tatsuki greeted cheerfully as they headed out for the day. "Did you understand yesterday's math assignment?"
Yesterday's math assignment? Orihime hadn't looked through her homework yet since she knew her past self had had the tendency to finish everything the day it had been assigned, so she hadn't bothered. She had been more focused on swallowing down a granola bar and packing her bag so she could meet up with Ichigo and the others as soon as possible. She didn't like being away from them; it made her nervous even though her brain told her that they were all safe, that there would be no danger coming for at least another year.
"Uh, yes," Orihime offered blindly. "It was pretty easy. How did you do on it?"
"Ugh," Tatsuki made a face. "I didn't understand the last three. Mind going over them with me when we get to school?"
Orihime nodded. "Of course! I'm sure you'll get it once we do a quick review."
The rest of the journey was spent making small talk, with Tatsuki doing most of the talking. Orihime responded as best she could, but most of her conversations could be classified under 'Do We Have Enough Food for the Upcoming Week', 'How Should We Plan This Next Assault', 'We Need More Than One Escape Plan', and 'How Many People Can We Kill Using This Tactic'.
Not exactly what your average teenager discussed in their free time.
"You're kinda quiet today, Orihime," Tatsuki remarked as they finally turned a corner and the school came into sight.
Orihime shrugged uncomfortably. "I didn't sleep much last night."
True enough. She had barely gotten three hours of sleep in the past week.
Orihime all but deflated with relief, spinning around and beaming at Chad as he walked up, his steps contrastingly light and ready to move at a moment's notice.
"Chad-kun!" Orihime greeted for the second time that morning as she scooted over to his side.
"You two... know each other?" Tatsuki looked perplexed.
"Um, yes, we're friends," Orihime claimed, hoping Ichigo and Uryuu would be saying the same thing. "We met through Ichigo-kun."
"Ichigo?" Tatsuki looked even more dumbfounded. "Last time I checked, which was last week by the way, you couldn't even look him in the eye without turning red!"
Orihime shifted awkwardly. This wasn't turning out the way she had imagined it, though granted, her imagined scenario hadn't turned out much better. "We bumped into each other and got to talking. We're friends now!"
She hoped Tatsuki focused on that last point and stopped asking the hows and whys. She didn't have a silly little crush on Ichigo anymore, she genuinely loved him, but that love extended to all her boys. They'd gone through too much together for her to not love them now.
Before anyone could say anything more though, Ichigo swept up out of nowhere, a reassuring hand resting fleetingly against her back before he shouldered forward, scowling at everyone in sight like he usually did.
Personally, Orihime found it very sad that even while wearing a teenager's face, she could still pick out the faint lines of age and stress that had permanently creased the face of the older Ichigo since they had gone on the run. How that was possible, she didn't know.
"Yo, Tatsuki," Ichigo jerked his head towards the school. "We should be heading in."
"Uh, yeah," Tatsuki shook his head, still bewildered. "Since when'd you become friends with Orihime, Ichigo? And why didn't you tell me?"
"Haven't had the chance," Ichigo said shortly as they headed for the school gates. "We just got to talking a while ago."
Nothing concrete, but still smooth enough that Tatsuki seemed satisfied. It was a little scary sometimes to witness just how many of Kisuke's mannerisms Ichigo had adopted over the years.
There was a smatter of laughter several feet away, and a moment later, Uryuu rounded the corner at a brisk pace, ignoring everyone around him.
His tie was clenched in one hand, and from what Orihime remembered of the immaculately dressed boy in their teens, Uryuu actually looked a bit rumpled today.
She fought down the itch to snap at the sniggering students; that would be very uncharacteristic of her at this age. Still, they had no right. Uryuu had been an antisocial teenager who had been cold and distant towards pretty much everyone at school. He had come across as arrogant, and coupled with his top marks in class, kids generally hadn't liked him.
Orihime glanced at Ichigo, whose scowl had darkened, and the students who caught sight of that expression aimed at them hastily quieted. Ichigo's reputation preceded him.
"'Morning, Uryuu," Ichigo called out, voice hard, and a tide of murmurs rippled over everyone within earshot. Orihime knew that Ichigo had basically just claimed the Quincy as one of his friends, and everybody in the entire town knew that you didn't mess with Kurosaki Ichigo's friends. Not unless you wanted a one-way ticket to the hospital anyway. "What's with the tie?"
Uryuu strode right up, paying absolutely no mind to the apparently inconsequential teenagers all around them. The Quincy fell into step beside Ichigo, glancing once at Orihime and Chad before admitting with a grimace, "I'm having a bit of trouble with it."
Orihime blinked once, and then hid a giggle. It had been twelve years since any of them had worn anything like a uniform. She herself had had some difficulty knotting her bowtie earlier, but for someone like Uryuu to forget how to tie a tie...
Although, now that she was looking, neither Ichigo nor Chad had bothered with a tie today.
Orihime wondered if it was too late to take her own off. The thing constricted around her neck a little too much. It reminded her of a Shinigami officer's hands around her throat when one of them had gotten close enough to try and choke her to death.
"Don't wear it then," Ichigo dismissed before giving Uryuu an incredulous look. "I hope you're not asking me how to tie it. If you've forgotten, how would I have remembered?"
Uryuu looked downright disgruntled, but after a moment of internal debate, he stuffed the tie away in his bag. "Whatever. I never liked ties anyway."
"Could've fooled me," Ichigo muttered, receiving an elbow in the ribs courtesy of the Quincy.
Orihime smiled fondly at them. Those two were as close as brothers but some things never changed, and that included the banter that had always played between them.
"...I feel like I've stepped into the twilight zone," Tatsuki complained, looking at each of them as they trekked inside the school. "Not that I've got anything against it but when did any of you make friends with... er, Ishida, right?"
Uryuu shot Tatsuki an utterly unimpressed look before proceeding to ignore her. Orihime knew that this was Uryuu's default attitude to anyone who wasn't them these days so she didn't hold it against him.
"Recently," Orihime chimed in as they changed their shoes. "Don't worry so much about it, Tatsuki-chan. Uryuu-kun is a good person."
Uryuu snorted at that even as he marched off, staying two steps behind Ichigo in a subconscious move to cover the Visored's back in case anyone attacked them. Chad had already drifted over to Ichigo's right, and Orihime's feet automatically took her to Ichigo's left.
They were a spectacularly damaged bunch, but at least they were still alive.
That, Orihime figured with a wry sense of humour, had to count for something.
Chad was a quiet person by nature, and for all that he was the biggest student in several year groups, most people tended to overlook him, or at least avoid looking at him at all (as if meeting his eyes meant that Chad was going to beat them up or something), which meant that it wasn't very hard for him to pretend to be his regular self in junior high. All he really had to do was sit in class and mind his own business.
On the other hand, Orihime had never been good at lying or good at acting (sometimes, those two professions crossed paths and even shook hands), and judging by the handful of confused – borderline worried – looks Arisawa was sending her, Orihime wasn't completely fooling her once-closest friend even when discussing something as simple as math homework.
Uryuu was moderately better, mostly because nobody really approached him anyway. However, he was getting quite a few strange looks since the Quincy had taken the empty seat beside Ichigo, and the two were currently debating over something that was more sketches on paper and hand signs than actual verbal words. Chad was willing to bet that they were getting started on finding a good place to build their city.
He glanced back at Orihime. He wanted to join Ichigo and Uryuu, and evidently, so did Orihime, but Tatsuki was keeping her busy, and Chad was positioned neatly between the healer and the windows. Even though they were all in the same classroom, he stayed where he was, one seat over from Orihime.
Just in case.
He looked back at Ichigo and Uryuu, heads bent together, shoulders brushing as they outlined something on a fresh piece of paper.
Chad could see it in his mind, a city just for them where they wouldn't have to worry about running out of food or freezing to death or getting attacked every time they turned around. It would be slow work – they'd need houses, plumbing, electricity, and much more, and all that would be doubly hard to set up what with their city being in Hueco Mundo. They'd have to get Tessai and Hachi to mess around with Kidou seals that would generate power, while Uryuu would insist on a library, and Orihime would want a hospital.
Ichigo... well, Ichigo would just want everyone protected and happy for once. They'd have to take Karin and Yuzu out of school, but Urahara could whip up reiryoku-hiding Gigai for them, and Ichigo could open a Garganta for them every morning to attend classes in the Human World if they didn't want to be homeschooled.
Not in Karakura though. This town was a hellmouth; just being back here made Chad want to grab his friends and run for the hills. He kept expecting the Shinigami to swoop down and blast them all to kingdom come.
After all, that's what they had done to Ichigo and Uryuu's homes once upon a time. And they had been Onmitsukidou; so much for assassins being covert and stealthy.
Still, they had approximately a year to at least set up the skeleton of their city before Aizen made his move and the madness began. A year in which they would have to eventually sit Isshin and Ryuuken down to explain, talk to Urahara and Tessai and Yoruichi about the terrible future they had come back from, extend an open invitation for the Visored to join them, and convince everyone that staying out in the Human World was equivalent to painting a bright red target on their foreheads for Central 46 to aim at.
They didn't want more war either; Ichigo had been firm on that point, and while Chad was certain that Uryuu would be perfectly willing and sadistically happy to drop an atomic bomb on Soul Society and even laugh about it afterwards, even the Quincy had reluctantly agreed that – if it wasn't necessary – there was no sense in borrowing trouble. The fact of it was, the Gotei 13 outnumbered them a thousand to one, and even Ichigo, strongest of them all, probably measuring up to the oldest captains in Seireitei, couldn't fend off all the Shinigami forever.
So if they couldn't stay safe out in the open, then they'd create a safe place to live in, one surrounded by anchored barriers that no one would be able to break through, and while they were a small group now, even accounting for the Arrancar that Chad knew Ichigo was planning on offering a place for them as well, they might also be able to expand one day, enough for the addition of shopping districts or schools or restaurants.
Chad wondered how mad Soul Society's government would be if they decided to open their doors for the outer districts of Rukongai. As he understood it, the Gotei 13 left those areas impoverished and largely unsafe anyway. They'd be doing them a favour by absorbing those districts into their city.
And if Soul Society could produce an organization like the Gotei 13, supposedly righteous, dedicated to dispatching Hollows, protecting Humans, and performing Konso, why couldn't they?
"I hate school," Uryuu announced as he dumped his bag on the roof, manoeuvring himself so that he was seated between Ichigo and the railing of the roof because the Visored could be clueless like that, and long-ranged attacks still sometimes caught him by surprise even after a decade (Uryuu still remembered the heart attack he had almost had when fucking Sui-Feng's Bankai had almost taken Ichigo with it in the resulting explosion). Uryuu however practically redefined long-ranged attacks so he always sensed them coming and knew how to handle them.
"I second that opinion," Orihime said with atypical vehemence. "Tatsuki-chan kept asking if I was alright. It's difficult to act so- so bubbly all the time. Some girl – I don't even remember her name – asked me why I wasn't as ditzy today as usual!"
Uryuu wondered if anyone would mind if he pulled that girl aside to give her a... stern talking-to. Chad caught his eye and gave him a look. Uryuu grudgingly reeled in the urge.
He was more than likely a little unhinged. Not his fault. They were all a little unhinged. Chad could go from gentle giant to rampaging monster in the blink of an eye. Orihime was frighteningly good at hiding how effortlessly she could take apart a Shinigami – she could literally reject their very souls and strip their powers and reiatsu until they were less than an average vulnerable Plus – if given the incentive.
And Ichigo could rain the wrath of Hell down on their enemies without turning a hair. Uryuu had personally seen the Visored cleave in half a Shinigami who had nearly taken Muguruma's head off, and then, when that particular ambush had been over, go right back to eating his dinner.
Uryuu could readily say that he could and had done the same on several occasions, though he preferred turning their enemies into pincushions.
So there was something wrong with all of them, in one form or another, and they could probably be clinically diagnosed as sociopaths at this point, but Uryuu couldn't care less. It was them against the world, and you had to be at least a little crazy to succeed in doing that.
"I was just bored," Ichigo shrugged, tucking an arm under his head as he lay on his back and stared up at the sky. Uryuu wasn't fooled; he knew the Visored could be up and on the offensive the moment he needed to be. "The material came back pretty quickly."
"It's middle school," Uryuu reminded him dryly. "What did you expect? We all had high enough marks to go to Todai; we were just stupidly naive back then and decided to attend the local college so we'd be nearby when the next disaster struck Soul Society. So we could help those incompetent morons. Fuck."
Uryuu swallowed his next words before they deteriorated any further. He had picked up more than a few cusses from Ichigo, and his speech was no longer as... refined as it used to be. Especially when it came to the topic of Shinigami.
"...We could still go this time around," Chad eventually spoke up. "Urahara-san could give us fake backgrounds and credentials, and we could take classes online. I mean after everything of course. That's going to take a while."
"A thought to keep in mind," Ichigo approved. "Speaking of which, when should we bring Kisuke in? He's pretty key in all this."
"Not until later," Uryuu said firmly. "We know the future him, the one who fought beside us and trusted us, the one who dropped everything on the spot and trusted you to get him and his oddball group out safely when the Shinigami first came for us, Ichigo. This Urahara would want to do things his way; he's been planning it for a century after all. We're gonna have to give him something before he'd be willing to consider working with us, some sort of proof that our plan is good and will continue being good in the long run."
Ichigo grunted, unhappy but in agreement. They all knew how shrewdly calculating Urahara's mind worked, and no one knew it better than Ichigo.
"Great," Ichigo checked his watch. "So who wants to skip the afternoon classes and just get started on what we came back here to do?"
Uryuu exchanged glances with Orihime and Chad before all three of them chorused, "When are we leaving?"
Ichigo quirked a brief crooked smile. "Let's go now. I didn't bring a lunch anyway, and I don't want to buy anything from the cafeteria. By the way, you're all invited over for dinner. Yuzu's cooking for seven tonight."
"I've forgotten what Yuzu-chan's cooking tastes like," Orihime sighed ruefully.
"That makes all of us," Chad assured her as Uryuu nodded. All he remembered was that Ichigo's youngest sister was a genius in the kitchen. The last time he'd had her food though was when he had been twenty. It had been a congratulatory dinner for all of them getting out of the war alive and finishing senior high. A couple months after that, their lives had been shot to hell.
"Can I bring Ryuuken?" Uryuu asked abruptly. "We might as well start getting our fathers used to the idea of us being friends."
"And we can watch them pretend not to know each other," Ichigo added with a brief smirk, pulling out his phone and presumably texting his sister. "Could be entertaining."
"Did Ryuuken-san suspect anything, Uryuu-kun?" Orihime enquired curiously.
Uryuu twitched, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose. "...I almost hugged him when I got back this morning but he probably would've shot me, thinking I was a Hollow in disguise or something, so I didn't. I made him breakfast instead so he only looked like he wanted to drive me to the hospital, not fire an arrow at me. He ate the meal though."
Orihime laughed, and Chad chuckled, something Uryuu had been partially aiming for. Ichigo watched them all, a faded smile tugging at his lips.
They were going to be okay, Uryuu decided fiercely, meeting Ichigo's gaze. They were broken and ragged at the edges but they would make things okay.
"Alright," Orihime began in a down-to-business tone as Chad spread a large piece of blank paper over the dining table. "If we're going to make a city, we're going to need a foundation. We can't have sand as our floor, and some Hollows can burrow under sand too. We don't want them getting into our city that way."
"If it comes to that," Ichigo pointed out. "The barrier we'll be setting up will stop them. I plan to anchor the seals around the entire city, top, bottom, and all around."
"Still," Orihime insisted, because honestly, if she left it to the boys, they'd be sleeping on sand dunes. "We need to flatten an area and make sure it's smooth before we lay down a floor. Strong wood maybe, of varying types, at least for the buildings. Vinyl, concrete, ceramic tile, and linoleum are also up for debate. And chemical flooring for labs because Kisuke-san will go on strike if we don't include labs. I suppose, when we carve out the streets, we can just make sure that the sand is packed together tight enough that nobody would sink when they walk on it."
"Problem," Uryuu held up a finger. "Where are we going to get the money for this? Or are we just going to steal it all?"
Orihime glanced to the side in time to catch a wince cross Ichigo's face, and she quickly reached over to give the Visored's hand a squeeze. They had all known – or at least guessed – of the multiple robberies that Ichigo must've pulled to get them food and clothes and blankets. Nobody had made any mention of it both because they had been ashamed that they couldn't take some of that burden from Ichigo's shoulders (Ichigo had always maintained that it was too dangerous for more than one to go since they might be split up and he was the only one who could open a Garganta to make a quick getaway), and also because they had known it was necessary, and none of them had had any problems with it. Theft had been the least of their problems at that point.
"Even with Urahara-san and the Visored's money pooled together," Chad picked up evenly. "We won't have enough, and we won't have that money to begin with anyway, not to mention I'd rather we weren't broke by the time we finish building the city. If we have to steal, so be it. We'll rob a few billionaires; it won't be much loss to them."
Uryuu shrugged and nodded, completely unconcerned with the criminal act. Orihime felt Ichigo relax. Honestly, the Visored got hung up over the strangest things.
"We'll have to study up on how to construct buildings then," Orihime moved on, tapping a pen against her chin as she scanned the notes she had made in her notebook. "It isn't as if we can hire people."
"Kidou, reiatsu, and reishi can only help us to an extent with putting everything together," Ichigo mused. "But we'll need to know how to lay down the foundation, as well as the framing carpentry and plumbing at the very least. We can cheat with the electricity by using seals to power everything, but there's also the drywall, the ventilation, the insulation, the water mains, etcetera, etcetera. There are only four of us, and a year to get at least the main housing buildings up and running. And to top it all off, we have to keep up appearances here in the Human World, go to school, go home, be here."
"Your optimism astounds me," Uryuu drawled sarcastically.
Ichigo rolled his eyes at the Quincy. "Shut up. What I'm saying is – we need something to speed this shit up or we're not gonna make it. If we have to be both here and there, well, there aren't that many hours in a day, and we do actually need to sleep."
Orihime frowned, absently chewing on her lip. Ichigo was right. With four people, there was just no way.
"So what do you have in mind then?" Uryuu prompted, and they all turned to look at the Visored again.
There was a gleam in Ichigo's eyes that always preceded something ingeniously simple, and Orihime knew she was going to be slapping herself in a moment.
"We hire Humans to do it," Ichigo explained, holding up a hand to stall their objections. "We hire them to do it, here. In the Human World. We'll find some deserted countryside area and pay them to start building houses and whatever else we need. And then... you remember that Tenkai Kecchu Kisuke used to swap Karakura Town with a fake one?"
Orihime's mouth dropped open. "Oh," She breathed, excitement rising inside her as Ichigo's plan came together in her mind.
"Exactly," Ichigo grinned, sharp and brilliant and so like his old self for a moment that Orihime's fingers itched for a camera. "It won't be precisely like that time, but I know the seals that can make the switch. After the construction workers are finished, we can set up the linked points around each building, I'll work the destination seals into whatever patch of land in Hueco Mundo that we'll have cleared out, activate them, and voila – we'll have our buildings right where we want them, intact, professionally made, and not a single minute of our time wasted."
There was a long silence.
"There are instances when I'm convinced you're an incurable idiot," Uryuu announced at last. "And then you say something like this and I end up having to hold off on that opinion until the next time you pull some reckless stunt. Not bad, Ichigo."
Ichigo smirked, trading a fist-bump with Chad that had never seemed to grow old even as they had, and Orihime grinned back, all but bouncing on the spot. This could work, and how could she not have thought of this?
"And we can use a Kikanshinki to alter the workers' memories," Chad suggested. "So they'll remember doing a job, and they'll have their money, but they won't ask questions when all the buildings just disappear from the Human World."
"Right," Ichigo nodded. "So, that aside, we still have to draw up the blueprints. Uryuu?"
"I'll handle it," Uryuu confirmed, rifling through his bag for a pencil and a ruler. "Give me some input later on where you want everything to go though. If you change your mind about something, I can make adjustments as I draft the whole thing."
"Good," Ichigo turned to Chad next. "Next step – we need to scope out a suitable area in Hueco Mundo for our city, and start changing the landscape to fit it. Nowhere near where Las Noches is though; preferably far away from pretty much everything, but close to a large water source. Not many of those around but we should build the city near one."
"It's Hueco Mundo; I'll find some place," Chad guaranteed, already frowning in thought. "You'll have to drop me off, and a couple Denreishinki between us to keep an open line of communication won't hurt."
"Right," Ichigo grimaced and ran a hand through his hair. "Stealing from Kisuke; always fun. I can tinker with the Denreishinki so that they'll only connect between us, but I'll put that off for a few weeks since it's not urgent. In the meantime, scroll through the internet and find a deserted area for the construction workers to build on. It doesn't have to be very big; in the end, we can transport the buildings to wherever we want, so the workers can build them side by side if they have to."
Chad nodded, reaching for his laptop. "Got it."
"And Hime," Ichigo turned to Orihime, and she straightened attentively. "The workers will put in the indoor plumbing for each building, but find out everything you can about connecting the pipes between them since we'll be the ones who'll have to do that. Hydraulics would be a good subject to learn as well because in a desert, water is a main problem, even with some sort of oasis nearby. Also, wires. How do we run them, how do we connect them, and so on and so forth. Kidou seals can power them but we need to know how to hook up the entire electrical system."
Orihime nodded determinedly, mentally trying to remember how many books one was allowed to borrow from the library. "I'll be an expert by the time I finish."
"Great," Ichigo blew out a short breath. "And the rest of us will read up on those subjects when we can, but you'll be ordering us around when the time comes, Hime."
Orihime huffed a laugh, pulling out her own laptop to see what the internet offered in terms of Plumbing 101.
"And what will you be doing?" Uryuu glanced up from where he had started sketching out a border with a steady hand.
"Me?" Ichigo smiled sardonically at them, leaning back in his chair and opening his laptop as well. "I'm searching up the richest men in the world, since apparently, I'll be robbing them blind within the next few months."
A pause, and then Uryuu snorted with laughter. "Kurosaki Ichigo, thief extraordinaire."
Ichigo flipped him the bird, promptly setting Orihime and Chad off, and the kitchen resounded with quiet laughter as they went to work, all of them content in the knowledge that they were building a safer world.
"Thanks for having us over!"
Ichigo had to stifle the slightly demented laughter threatening to bubble up out of his throat as Chad, Uryuu, Uryuu's father, and Orihime entered the house. He met Uryuu's eyes, and both of them immediately had to look away when they almost set each other off.
Isshin looked like someone had slapped him with a dead fish, completely flummoxed while Ryuuken seemed to be trying to figure out why he had agreed to come at all.
"Hello!" Yuzu popped out of the kitchen, bounding forward with her own cheerful brand of enthusiasm. "Welcome to our home! Onii-chan's never invited any friends over before!"
Ichigo smiled wryly, heart thudding painfully against his ribcage as Yuzu beamed at him. He reached out and tousled her hair before pulling her into a hug. "Brat, don't embarrass me. Is dinner ready?"
"Yup!" Yuzu returned the hug, and something in Ichigo's chest settled. "Karin's just setting the table." She turned back to the new arrivals. "I'm Kurosaki Yuzu; it's nice to meet you! Please, come through. Otou-san, stop standing around; help show our guests in!"
And with that said, the girl bustled back into the kitchen. Ichigo watched with tolerant amusement as his father snapped out of his funk and promptly threw himself at the blown-up picture of his wife in the living room.
"OH MASAKI! OUR SON FINALLY HAS FRIENDS! AND ONE OF THEM'S A GIRL! HE'S VENTURING INTO THE WORLD OF ADULTHOOD AT LAST!"
Ichigo pinched the bridge of his nose as Orihime did her best to smother her giggles, and Chad's smile couldn't quite be hidden from view. Ryuuken looked like he had fully expected this to happen before he had even stepped through the door, and now simply seemed to be regretting all the life choices he had ever made that had led him up to this point.
Beside him, Uryuu leaned over to Ichigo, voice barely audible above Isshin's dramatic wails. "There are times when I could swear you were adopted. This is one of those times."
Ichigo snorted, waving a hand at the kitchen. "Come on, he'll stop eventually."
Karin met them at the doorway and greeted him with a grin. "Welcome home, Ichi-nii. Yuzu's made curry."
"I can smell it," Ichigo nodded, quirking a smile as he pulled Karin into a hug as well. She gave him a puzzled look but hugged him back as if she sensed that he needed it, and then grabbed his hand and led him to the table, scanning the newcomers in the process like she was assessing how trustworthy they were.
Apparently, they passed her test because she nodded brusquely at them and gestured at the seats around the dinner table. "Have a seat. Yuzu and I will have the food out in a minute."
"I can help-" Ichigo started to offer.
"No, you sit too," Karin tugged at him insistently until he conceded and sat down in his usual chair. "You just got home, plus..." His sister cocked her head, examining him critically for a moment. "You look kinda tired today, Ichi-nii."
"Just had a late night," Ichigo said lightly. He'd forgotten how scarily perceptive Karin could be. "Don't worry about it."
Karin hummed, giving him a last searching look before hurrying away to help Yuzu.
Ichigo turned back, making a mental note to make sure he at least tried to look less like he had been on the run for the past twelve years. Maybe turning in early tonight? Then again, that would just mean he'd wake up at three in the morning instead.
Uryuu slid into the seat on his left, Ryuuken occupied the one on the other side of his son, and Chad and Orihime sat down across from them, leaving three consecutive seats for Ichigo's family.
And as if on cue, Isshin ambled into the kitchen, still looking sulky that everyone had abandoned him, but Ichigo would count it as a win since the man didn't move on to attacking him next.
Of course, Ichigo didn't put it past any of his family members not to grill him about his sudden abundance of friends.
"This is delicious, Yuzu-chan!" Orihime exclaimed almost before she had finished her first bite of the meal. Ichigo didn't miss the fact that the healer looked to be near tears. It had been a long time since any of them had eaten Yuzu's cooking.
Yuzu practically glowed, cheeks pinking with pleasure when Uryuu and Chad added their own compliments. "Thank you! Chicken curry is Onii-chan's favourite so I've had lots of practice."
Ichigo met Orihime's troubled gaze over his rice bowl. During their first few years in Hueco Mundo, he had always brought back the ingredients for a good pot of curry but their makeshift stove over a fire wasn't the ideal place to make it, plus no one had been able to make it like Yuzu's anyway, so Ichigo had eventually gone with practicality instead of preference when choosing food. It had been eight years since he had last eaten curry.
"So how'd you become friends anyway?" Karin piped up next, glancing between them with undisguised curiosity. "I mean, Ichi-nii's mentioned Sado-san and even Inoue-san as Tatsuki-san's best friend, but he's never talked about Ishida-san before."
Ichigo swallowed a mouthful of rice, glancing sideways at Uryuu who tilted his head in Ichigo's direction before deadpanning, "You don't talk about me, Kurosaki? I'm hurt."
Ichigo rolled his eyes. "Shut up, Ishida. Who'd want to talk about you?"
"His fangirls," Orihime chimed in at once.
"I don't have fangirls!" Uryuu looked horrified.
"Yes, you do!" Ichigo chorused together with Orihime and Chad. They exchanged amused looks as Uryuu glowered at all of them indiscriminately behind ominously flashing glasses.
Ichigo smirked. Uryuu may not have had friends but he had certainly had admirers.
Out of the corner of his eye, he caught Isshin and Ryuuken trading – for lack of any better words – what-the-fuck looks. He caught Uryuu's eye again and they both buried their snickers in their food.
Across the table, Yuzu giggled and Karin grinned a little, both clearly enjoying their banter. Ichigo was just glad that that little bout of comedy had successfully redirected attention away from Karin's question.
The rest of dinner sailed by smoothly, with most of the chatter moving between Ichigo's sisters, his father, and Orihime. Chad interjected with a comment now and then, while Ichigo and Uryuu alternated between listening and conversing silently in coded sign language about how large the perimeter of their city should be.
They hadn't been able to come to an agreement earlier; Uryuu had argued that allowing any Shinigami into their city was a disaster just waiting to happen, while Ichigo had pointed out that Rukongai civilians weren't Shinigami at all, and that if they wanted an actual city and not just a hideout for outcasts, they'd need people to start up shops and restaurants and whatever else eventually. They had to think about the bigger picture.
However, that also brought up the question of what would happen if and when they took in Rukongai civilians. All of them had agreed that the Gotei 13 probably wasn't going to take that lying down despite doing such a piss-poor job at protecting the outer districts.
:It should be like moving countries,: Uryuu signed beside his leg. :The citizens should be able to move so long as we give them permission to enter.:
:Soul Society's not a democracy,: Ichigo returned dryly. :The Gotei 13 kills them without even saying sorry when they need to correct the balance of souls.:
:Shinigami,: Uryuu grumbled, dark disdain temporarily marring his features. :What do we do then? I'd like to have it on record first that I strongly disagree with any plan involving peace contracts between us and them. Give them an inch and they'll take fifty miles. Fuckers.:
:Language,: Ichigo signed half-heartedly, inwardly sighing at the glint of teetering lunacy in the Quincy's eyes, one push away from going completely batshit insane. Uryuu was always like this when it came to Shinigami, but it wasn't as if Ichigo could blame the guy. The archer had lost his entire race to the Shinigami, his grandfather and father in particular.
And Ichigo could relate; there were times in the heat of battle when he lost himself too, not able – or wanting – to regain a foothold in his sanity until their last enemy had fallen at the end of his blade.
Even Orihime had, on occasion, spent entire battles screaming profanities at the Shinigami, and tearing into them like a rabid dog.
And Chad had sometimes lost it as well, barrelling into their enemies' midst like a homicidal maniac, not stopping – unable to stop – until Ichigo himself had physically held him down and talked the guy back to himself.
But Ichigo could usually keep a lid on his own brand of psychosis; he had more control than the others simply because he had a Hollow to contend with, and while Shiro had mellowed – slightly – over the years and had stopped trying to fight Ichigo for control, the Hollow also thoroughly enjoyed goading Ichigo's rage to new heights, which was just plain deadly for everyone involved if Ichigo truly flipped his shit.
It was rather depressing, now that he thought about it. Four unhinged people undertaking the venture of building a safe haven – there was seriously something wrong with that.
But it wasn't as if anyone else was doing anything about it, or even had the future knowledge and means to push this endeavour forward.
:It's too bad we can't bomb the shit out of them,: Uryuu was signing now with far too much absent tranquillity to pass for a normal person.
:Uryuu,: Ichigo warned, knocking his knee against the Quincy's to further emphasize his admonishment. There were two doctors at the table, enough said. If Uryuu began muttering to himself (as he was prone to do right after a particularly awful nightmare or an exceptionally bloody battle), it would take more than distraction to ward off Ryuuken.
Uryuu's shoulders hunched before forcibly relaxing again just as Yuzu turned to the Quincy with a question about his sewing abilities. Uryuu adjusted his glasses before launching into a lecture on the finer points of needlework, never giving anything away.
They acted normal for the most part, Ichigo observed somewhat wearily even as he eyed the slightly brittle edge that remained in Orihime's smile despite how genuine it was, as well as the subconscious way Chad irregularly clenched and unclenched the hand that wasn't holding his chopsticks as if readying himself to transform for a fight at any time.
But, Ichigo concluded with no small amount of bitterness. Being hunted for so damn long had left its scars.
How could it not?
He shook his head a little and focused on the voices all around him. He shouldn't dwell, especially not now. They had a second chance, and that was all that mattered.
Chad didn't need to ask to know that Orihime would want to stay at his place for the night, and without a word, he waved her in when they reached his apartment.
"You can have the shower first," He offered, and Orihime smiled tiredly at him before ducking into the bathroom. Chad continued on to his bedroom to dig out a spare pair of pajamas for her.
Dinner had been... nice. He had missed Ichigo's sisters, and even Isshin's antics and Ryuuken's cold silences had been nostalgic to him. He could only guess at the depth of emotion Ichigo and Uryuu were feeling.
He paused in front of his desk, booting up his laptop. Might as well get some more work done since he was taking first watch toni-
Right. Not on the run anymore.
He heaved a sigh and returned to the bathroom to drop off the spare clothes. He spared a second to imagine what it would be like if the four of them all signed up for therapy sessions.
He huffed a laugh. The poor therapist.
Ten minutes later found Chad sitting in front of his laptop and pulling up satellite pictures of Okinawa. He wasn't going to sleep until his guard shift was over anyway.
"I'm finished, Chad-kun," Orihime announced as she walked in wearing grey sweatpants and an oversized shirt. She made a face as she pulled out the hair tie holding up her hair. "I wonder if Yuzu-chan will cut my hair for me if I ask. I could pay her."
Chad shrugged, clambering to his feet and picking up his own nightclothes. "Yuzu will do it without payment. Are you sure you want to cut it?"
Orihime fingered the ends of her long orange tresses, a wry smile curling her lips. "When I see myself in the mirror, all I can think about is someone grabbing my hair and using it against me. I'm sure."
Chad just nodded before exiting the room. Orihime had shorn her hair to jaw-length after that exact scenario had played out five months into their renegade life, though at the time, it had been Tessai who had cut it for her. The former Kidou Corps captain had made a surprisingly good barber.
As he stepped into the shower, Chad let himself relax minutely, keeping Orihime's reiatsu signature within his senses at all times. He rubbed thoughtfully at his unmarked forearm where a scar should've been. It was still a little odd to be back into his teenage body. He couldn't wait until Ichigo gave the go-ahead and dropped him off in Hueco Mundo; he wanted to test all his powers as soon as possible even though he could still feel all his strength inside this much younger body. It wouldn't do to get out of shape either.
Dunking his head under the showerhead, Chad decided he'd text Ichigo later to discuss their training menu. It wasn't as if he could pull out his powers in the park, and none of them could afford to be weak.
Not now, not ever.
"Since when did my son become friends with your son?"
"How would I know? I don't keep track of Uryuu's social life."
"Well something happened, and recently too. Ichigo's been acting weird all day."
"...I could say the same for my son. He made me breakfast this morning."
"...Aren't you on bad terms with your son?"
"Well. Maybe he decided you weren't so bad after all."
"Don't patronize me. What about Ichigo-kun?"
"He ran out of the house this morning like the Kushanaada of Hell were after him. And he looked like he honestly wanted to cry when he was eating the breakfast I made for him."
"I didn't know your cooking was that bad."
"Your words are daggers to my heart! It wasn't that kind of crying!"
"Hm. Well, Uryuu also ran out of the house this morning. And I don't believe in coincidence."
"...Maybe they saw a Hollow together? And Uryuu-kun told Ichigo about... all that?"
"Perhaps. I will keep an eye on Uryuu. I suggest you do the same with your son, Isshin."
"Yeah, yeah, don't have to tell me twice. But! This means you can come visit more often!"
"Why would I want to?"
"We're friends, Ryuuken! Friends spend time with each other and drink each other under the table! And you don't know anything about my adorable daughters! I can tell you all about-"
*Click. ...Dial tone...*
"Ryuuken? Ryuuken? ...Heartless bastard."
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