Ichigo often made it a point to wander around Rukongai once or twice a month. Maybe it was because he hoped he would catch a glimpse of a familiar face. Perhaps he wanted to find some poor soul with spiritual powers and suffering from it and help them. Maybe he just liked being alone. Even decades after the war with Aizen, after dying and crossing over into Soul Society and becoming a captain all on his own merits, he still liked to find time for himself.
One hand swiped over his forehead, wiping away the sweat that had gathered from the heat of the afternoon sun. It was after lunchtime, or so his grumbling belly reminded him. Ichigo looked around, vaguely recognizing the area. If he was correct, he was near a cafe and bookshop that was pretty popular. He himself had never been there, but he had heard residents of Rukongai extol on its many virtues. Now seemed a good as time as any to check it out.
Stopping to ask for directions, Ichigo was pointed towards a nondescript but well-kept building a few streets over. In the twentieth district, while there was still danger, things were far better maintained than in the higher digits. The state of the shop reflected this very well. Or perhaps the owner was simply a very fearsome individual.
It stood about the size of two houses, the smaller building connected on the right likely the living quarters for the owner. Two windows with shutters thrust wide open decorated the front, and the door hung open as well, inviting customers. The sign hanging above depicted "Restaurante Verde" and pleasing smells emanated lightly on the breeze.
Ichigo's stomach gave another grumble. He stepped towards the door and entered the shop, welcoming the dimmer interior that was much, much cooler. His eyes immediately encountered a small dining area, two of the ten tables occupied. The floor here was tiled simply, and to his left, he could see the checkout counter, though no one currently manned it. Beyond the dining area, the tile abruptly ended in carpet where bookshelves were lined. They stood the height of a man, and a few customers were currently browsing the selection. It was quiet within, soft music playing from somewhere, and the low murmur of conversation wasn't distracting in the slightest.
A waiter, or perhaps one of the owners, was serving a customer at one of the tables and silently waved him towards an empty table. Ichigo took a seat in the corner, removing Zangetsu and leaning him against the wall behind him. The old man thrummed lightly before settling in a sort of peaceful content. There was a strange hum to the blade's reiatsu, however, as if he were sensing something. Ichigo wasn't quite sure what. Perhaps someone nearby had spiritual powers. He would check it out after getting lunch.
Relaxing into his seat, Ichigo took the opportunity to look around, even as he went over the schedule for his lower seats in his head. Yumichika did most of the shuffling of shifts, but Ichigo still liked to know when his officers were off-duty and when they were available.
By pure chance alone, his eyes found the waiter again, something in the man's movements seeming familiar. Zangetsu stirred inside him again, and Ichigo sat up straight, peering closer. Perhaps he had run into the man before, out in the street. Or maybe he just resembled someone.
Long, blond hair, tied back and draping down to the man's mid-back constantly fell forward into a face that was clean-shaven and somewhat youthful. Strands of hair escaped from the tie and shadowed his eyes, but Ichigo couldn't tell their color from the distance. Something light like green or blue perhaps but definitely not black or brown. He was around Ichigo's own height, perhaps a bit shorter. Carrying himself lightly, as though he were a man used to battle.
Brown eyes narrowed as Ichigo's suspicions rose. What would a man suited for battle be doing serving tea in Rukongai?
And then, the man turned more towards him, a better view than the distracted half-wave Ichigo had received earlier. And the captain of the fifth division felt his mouth literally drop. His eyes widened, and he was on his feet within seconds, though he didn't once reach for his blade.
The sound of several books thumping to the ground quickly joined the noise of crashing dishware. Ichigo's eyes flickered to his right, and he received his second shock of the evening. Aizen Sousuke, the most wanted man in all of Soul Society, stood before him, having emerged from the back of the store. One hand was clamped around the tiny fingers of a young girl, her vibrant green eyes visible even from the distance between them. The other hand dangled, and the scattered books at his feet proved to be the reason why.
His appearance had changed, enough so that at first glance Ichigo might have thought him a different man, but he knew Aizen's face. Knew it very well. He still had the same piercing brown eyes, so full of intelligence, but his hair was styled far differently, cut even longer than before. He held himself much as he did before revealing his betrayal, as an unassuming and kind man with nothing to hide. The glasses had even returned, though the frames were much smaller and thinner.
Well, this certainly explained some things. Zangetsu must have reacted to Urahara's reiatsu.
An unfamiliar voice pierced the tenuous silence, distracting Ichigo's attention momentarily. A young boy, appearing all of twelve, was stepping out from one of the back entrances which likely led to the kitchens. He was wiping his hands with a dish towel, face scrunched in confusion.
"Is everything alright? I heard a crash."
Urahara seemed to start at the sound of the boy's voice, and he turned towards the kid, giving him a smile that Ichigo had long learned to recognize as fake. "I just dropped a tray, Kyuuji-kun. Would you please clean it up for me?" Those eyes, which Ichigo remembered to be gray-green, shifted briefly towards him. "I have an important customer that I must attend."
The boy, Kyuuji, nodded and slung his towel over his shoulder. "Of course." He turned back towards the kitchens, presumably to fetch something to clean with, leaving the other adults to continue their uneasy atmosphere.
Ichigo had not moved since first spying the two men. The two most wanted men in both this world and the next. He felt frozen in place, his feelings mixed and twisted.
Then, Urahara bustled his way, that same fake smile affixed to his lips. The other hand was already gesturing towards Aizen.
"Kurosaki-kun," he said hastily. "I certainly didn't expect to see you here."
Warily, Ichigo watched the man. Benihime was nowhere in sight. Zangetsu was within reach. Yet, he didn't feel the need for hostility. He was too confused. There was relief that the geta-boushi was still alive, even after not hearing from him for two decades. There was anger because Aizen was there in front of him, fingers still clutching onto a little girl, who had started to look between them all in concern. There was a hefty sense of hurt since his teacher had abandoned him without so much as a goodbye or warning.
"The same could be said for yourself," Ichigo answered flatly. He couldn't get over the change in his former teacher's face. What a good shave and growing one's hair out could do for a person's appearance.
Urahara gestured towards the seat Ichigo had abandoned. "Please. Be seated. We have a lot to talk about."
A moment passed before Ichigo did as asked. He had a lot of questions, after all. And since neither man was trying to make a run for it or attempting to fight him, he didn't think it would hurt. He remained on guard, however. They were two of the smartest Shinigami to have ever passed through the Academy. He wasn't going to take them lightly.
Urahara did appear resigned, the surprise already fading from his face. As if he had simply been waiting for this day to come and was only shocked because it had been Ichigo to find him and not someone else. His eyes flickered briefly to Aizen, and something unspoken passed between them because the traitor started to make his way towards Ichigo's table in that moment. Perhaps they had been waiting for Ichigo's reaction.
"I will make some tea for us," Urahara added in his most pleasant tone, though even Ichigo could tell that the man was on his own guard, off-balance because he wasn't certain what to expect. After all, he only remembered an Ichigo of decades ago, not the Ichigo that stood before him now.
Aizen's hand settled on Urahara's shoulder, stopping him before he could even turn. "Perhaps you should remain with Kurosaki-kun. We don't want to poison him, after all."
The smile on Urahara's lips was drawn and thin. "You're right as always."
Ichigo watched them interact, noticing the comfort they seemed to draw from the subtle touch. The way the little girl easily transferred her clinging hold from Aizen to Urahara. The silent communication between the two men. The understanding. Pieces of a puzzle that had long been confounding him began to click into place.
He said nothing, only observed as a few more words were exchanged and Aizen vanished into the kitchen. Urahara lowered himself onto a cushion, pulling the little girl into his lap. The bright green eyes watched Ichigo with their own intensity, and even Ichigo could tell that she held some measure of spiritual powers.
"Souheki," Urahara said softly, situating her on his lap. "Say hello to Ich--Kurosaki-taichou," the man corrected after another appraising glance of the orange-haired Shinigami. "He is one of your papa's old friends."
The little girl popped her thumb from her mouth and dipped her head. "Konnichiwa, Kurosaki-taichou," she said in a very sweet voice. "It is nice to meet you."
Ichigo, who was still reeling from the use of "papa" so casually from his mentor, could only blink and incline his head on automatic. "The same to you, Souheki-chan."
Eyes, once shadowed by a familiar and atrocious hat, turned towards Ichigo. "A captain, I see," Urahara said, beginning the conversation in an attempt to ease the tenseness of the atmosphere. "I should not be surprised."
Lifting a brow, Ichigo shifted in his seat. "Your information network must be slack this time around if you are."
"Ah, you have caught me, it seems." The tiniest edge of a true grin tugged at the corner of Urahara's mouth. "But not even my informants could have anticipated this. Why haven't you arrested us yet?"
To be honest, Ichigo wasn't sure himself.
It was a well-known fact amongst all the captains and those of high rank in Seireitei the size of the reward and the importance of the warrant for the capture of these two men. Aizen for his actions. Urahara for his own betrayal.
The war was over, had been for decades now, ever since Aizen had surrendered on that fateful day. Even now, Ichigo wasn't entirely sure why the man had done it then. He had been losing, true, but there was every chance that Aizen could still pull something from his sleeve. In fact, they had been suspecting it. Especially Urahara. He already had plans for the "just in case," something to fall back on depending on what new tactic their enemy would whip out next.
But instead, Aizen had surprised them all by surrendering.
Ichigo had long suspected and still did to this day that Ichimaru's death had much to do with it. As well as Ulquiorra's defeat and subsequent death at Ukitake's hands. The tone of the war had changed after Ichimaru fell in battle against Toushirou. It was as if Aizen's attacks became more desperate, became less gathered and controlled. Almost as if he were only fighting back for the sake of it. And then, in the end, he simply capitulated.
Just like that, after a grueling three years' worth of battles and blood and wins and losses and tears, the war was over. Somehow, it felt hollow. Even then.
Justice was handled quietly and discreetly. Ichigo was there the day Aizen was sentenced. Death was too good for the traitor, as Chamber 46 and the elders had decreed. He was to suffer the worst punishment. To strip him of the power he had so desperately sought. It had been a unanimous decision to sever Aizen's saketsu, and just like that, Aizen was left powerless.
The very next day he was due to be transferred to a deep, dark prison, far from the light which he would be lucky to ever catch a glimpse of again. But that night, Aizen disappeared. The guards around both the guardhouse and his cell, all eight of them, were found unconscious but unharmed. The lock had been opened with the key, as if Aizen had been invited out.
That night, Urahara Kisuke disappeared as well. His exile had been lifted the very same day as Aizen's sentencing, so he could be present for what was considered a momentous event that he had helped to bring about. Urahara had been noticeably silent and still throughout the whole affair, and it was only afterwards that everyone understood why.
Ichigo never would have suspected that sort of betrayal. That his mentor had been planning to free Aizen and flee with him never would have crossed his mind. He supposed that had he known that were once lovers, he might have been the slightest bit suspicious. But it appeared no one was aware. And even though Yoruichi had known about their relationship, not even she was gifted with their location. They simply disappeared, almost as if it spirited away by kami himself.
The two hadn't been seen in nearly a century. Despite the fact that both the Living World and Soul Society had been searched extensively. Ichigo couldn't help but be curious how they had managed to hide themselves. Aizen's lack of reiatsu must have helped, not to mention their combined intelligence. He wondered when they decided to settle down in Rukongai and how Souheki fit into everything.
He drummed his fingers on the table with a heavy sigh, lifting his gaze back to Urahara. "I would hate to cause a scene," he explained finally, casting his eyes purposefully around the bookshop.
"How kind of you."
The rattle of porcelain on a tray signified Aizen's arrival, something Ichigo half-expected to never occur. A part of him had expected the man to slip out some back entrance and flee into the woods for his own safety. It seemed the only logical thing to do. And yet, here he was, calmly serving out tea with deft, skilled movements.
"I've told Kyuuji-kun to watch the front for you," Aizen informed the former shopkeeper as he poured the hot liquid into waiting cups.
"Thank you, Sousuke."
Ichigo waited until the man was seated and stirring two spoonfuls of sugar into his hot drink before speaking. "Not so good at hiding, are you?" he asked, paying close attention to the continued hum of Zangetsu nearby. Ossan was just as intrigued as he was.
Urahara's lips quirked into an amused grin. "Where better to hide than in plain sight?" he answered, casually reaching around the little girl and fixing up her drink for her. The movement was so practiced, so second nature to him. As if he didn't even have to think about it.
The girl continued to watch Ichigo, as if expecting him to do something at any moment. He wasn't sure. She didn't seem afraid just... cautious, he supposed was the right word.
"Nor could we hide forever," Aizen added, finally speaking directly to Ichigo. "We thought it was better to just... try and live rather than spend the rest concealing ourselves."
The continued use of "we" and "our" really struck Ichigo for some reason. He was so used to hearing Aizen refer to "I" and "myself," talking about his own plans, his own reasons. His own war. Sure, there had been others he shared his goals with, but Ichigo had always had the impression that the truth behind it all really belonged to Aizen. And that was how everyone referred to it. The War With Aizen. The War Against Aizen. It was never The War With Aizen and Ichimaru. Or the War of Three Traitors. It was always about Aizen.
But not, it seemed, anymore.
It was all so surreal to Ichigo. There, he sat with Aizen and Urahara, sipping tea that Aizen had brewed because apparently, Urahara's tea was akin to poison. A little girl, whom Ichigo was strongly starting to suspect was their adopted daughter, sat perched rather comfortably on Urahara's lap. And yet, he was making no moves to arrest either of them. Something kept holding him back. Maybe it was the family atmosphere that surrounded the two. He felt, somehow, that he would be the one in the wrong if he even thought to break them apart.
He should hate Aizen; he knew this. For everything the man had done. For the pain he had put everyone through. Ichigo was well aware of that. But he also knew something that everyone else didn't.
He also knew that once upon a time, he actually believed in what Aizen was doing. It had been fleeting, and it had been short. The thought had died not long after Orihime was rescued, and he watched the results of whatever poison Aizen had released, causing many Shinigami to fall. But it had been there. He had understood just what the traitor had been aiming for, and he had agreed.
Soul Society did need to change; it had grown corrupted. Perhaps beginning a war and causing the deaths of hundreds was not the best way to go about it. Still, Ichigo had faltered once, the same as he was doing now. And he was never the type to follow along with everyone simply because they said so. If he had, Rukia would be dead by now. And Orihime might have never gained her freedom.
Ichigo walked by his own pace, and that was how he had always been.
He shifted in his seat and still didn't touch his tea. "I probably should be arresting you," Ichigo commented, fingers fiddling with the cup. "My rank demands that I do."
"But...?" Urahara prompted.
A short smirk worked its way onto Ichigo's lips. "But when have I ever followed everyone else's rules?"
Relief spread quickly across his former mentor's face. He had grown slack in hiding his reactions. Or maybe it was the loss of the hat that made them all the more telling. Ichigo couldn't be sure.
"Why?" Aizen asked, despite his partner's obvious relief. He watched Ichigo intently. "I don't deserve your mercy."
Ichigo arched one brow. "No, you don't," he replied bluntly, fingers tapping a steady rhythm against the table. "But you're not a threat anymore." He watched Aizen flinch at that reminder, knowing the loss of his power probably still hurt the man.
He paused, looking around. Brown eyes took in the sight of the customers, happily enjoying their light lunch. Others browsed the shelves, finding books to their liking. The atmosphere was light and cheery. It was far from a place of evil plotting. His eyes glanced over Souheki, noticing the girl's ease in their presence. Even he could see the love she felt for her two caretakers, despite her relentless quiet and staring, which reminded him too eerily of Ulquiorra.
"Besides..." He smirked. "I'd hate to break up such a cute family."
Amusement sparkled in gray-green eyes. "Why, Kurosaki-kun, I never expected such civility from you," Urahara countered, losing some of the overly-polite edge he had been emanating since laying eyes on his student-turned-Shinigami captain. "I dare say, these decades have done you justice."
Ichigo snorted and rose to his feet, his grumbling belly making its presence known. But he wanted real food. And the longer he lingered in this place, the more attention would be drawn. There would be no point in him keeping his silence if someone else found out just as quickly.
"And they haven't changed you a damn bit," he smarted back, only to pause and quickly amend. "I mean, not a darn bit." He inwardly berated himself for cursing in front of the kid. Even if she was Urahara's brat.
Ichigo reached behind him for Zangetsu, returning the old man to his back. He settled in place with an amused hum, as though also pleased to have seen Urahara once again as well.
"What are you going to tell Soul Society?" Aizen asked, standing as well. His eyes held nothing but concern.
The captain of the fifth division, entirely ironic in Ichigo's point of view, shrugged noncommittally. "There's nothing to tell. Don't make me regret this." He turned away from the two men and their daughter, planning to leave, but he hesitated. "Have a good life. And… look after yourselves," he said over his shoulder before continuing on his way, leaving without another word.
He sincerely hoped no one ever expected him to explain himself because he was pretty sure he couldn't put it into words. A part of him strongly wished that no other Shinigami stumbled upon that place. For that little girl's sake if no one else's. She deserved to grow up happy and with both of her parents.
Ichigo stepped out into the wet heat of the afternoon and briefly shielded his eyes against the painful brightness. He mused where to eat his lunch and even considered returning to Seireitei. Sometimes, Yumichika brought some of his homemade bento. His flirty vice-captain was surprisingly good in the kitchen.
Something tugged on the sleeve of his shihakushou. Blinking, Ichigo turned and looked down to find vivid green eyes staring back at him. She held up a box, wrapped in a pale blue fabric with a bow for a handle.
"For you," Souheki put in softly, pushing it towards him. "From otou-san and papa."
Ichigo took the offering, the smell of something freshly cooked and delicious wafting to his nose. His stomach grumbled in appreciation.
"Arigatou," Ichigo replied, giving her a small bow. "You are kind."
The smile she gave him in return reminded him instantly of young Yuzu and Karin before Souheki turned and disappeared back into the cafe. Ichigo watched her go, fingers wrapped around the bento, and reminded himself that it had been a good decision, after all.
He would tell no one what he had seen, pretending that nothing out of the usual had happened.
Tucking the bento under his arm, Ichigo flitted to the nearest roof and then made for Seireitei in flits of shunpo.
No need to linger, after all. No need at all.