By the time Kisuke wakes from his brush with death by explosion, two weeks have passed, the war is over, Seireitei is in the midst of picking up its pieces again, and the Gotei 13 and Royal Guard have long since taken advantage of Ichigo's weakened state in the aftermath of defeating Yhwach to bind him to the Soul King's throne.
The only reason Kisuke doesn't take the new Captain-Commander's head is because he's still nursing multiple injuries when he storms the First Division, and even he can't go against Kyouraku Shunsui with anything less than his best.
"I had to do what was best for Soul Society," Kyouraku explains in weary tones, Zanpakutou drawn, three of his personal guards dead around them, more bleeding out in the hallway Kisuke had stormed through.
"You will regret this," Kisuke promises, the red of Benihime's wrath in his eyes, made worse by the crude scars now carved into his face, and he should've remembered - no matter how fond of Ichigo they were, they are still Shinigami, and none more so than the two students who'd been raised at Yamamoto's knee. Ukitake had liked Ichigo too, a living legacy - in a way - of the captain's own beloved lieutenant, but that hadn't stopped him from trying to collar Ichigo like a dog, had it?
Kisuke should've remembered that this is what Shinigami do best - sacrifice others for their greater good, guard their own power no matter the cost, and sweep all their sins under the rug so they can continue clinging to their tarnished pride.
Kisuke remembers now, but it is far too late.
He withdraws, and no one dares stop him, because even fresh out of a coma and limping, Urahara Kisuke is not a man one can attempt to kill without at least a dozen contingency plans lined up behind the first.
It's the last many of them see of the man. Kisuke disappears, his Shouten in Karakura Town goes with him, and life in Soul Society returns to normal just long enough for people to start forgetting the price that their peace had come by, a debt they've yet to repay.
They start forgetting, but not for long.
In the end, there is nothing even Kisuke can do. The metaphorical doors to the Soul King Palace have well and truly closed, and Ichigo would be first in line to gut Kisuke if he tries to do what Aizen did and forge an Ouken out of Karakura. Outside of that, the defenses around the Palace are not ones that can be breached on even the whims of a genius madman hellbent on restructuring the way the very universe has worked for millennia.
After all, there has only ever been one Kurosaki Ichigo, born to defy the gods themselves. Next to him, even Kisuke falls hopelessly short.
But, as it turns out, he doesn't have to do anything anyway.
(The Shinigami should perhaps have thought twice about chaining down a man whose soul housed the power to cleave the very heavens asunder.
They should've considered what would happen when even Kurosaki Ichigo's compassion ran out.
They should've known better than to gift-wrap their own downfall and leave it at the feet of a boy they'd disregarded one too many times.)
It starts slow, quiet and insidious as a plague, creeping into every nook and cranny of the Spiritual World.
First, the days get colder. Nobody takes much notice. Winter is around the corner. It would be strange if the temperature didn't drop.
But, winter passes, and spring does not arrive.
Next, Kidou spells come harder. People don't notice that at first either. Things are calm - too calm - in Soul Society these days, and so most Shinigami have no need for them most of the time, especially the higher-level ones that require more reiatsu and precision and in-depth knowledge of their workings. The only people who might notice are those at the Academy, with students practicing basic spells every day, but the teachers don't find it so strange when they fail and fail and fail again.
No Kidou prodigies this year, they think. What a shame. But even most Academy graduates take years to refine their technique. So long as the students reach the basic qualifications by graduation, that's all that anyone cares about.
Then, there are the Hollows. Or rather, the increasing lack of them. This is noted, but not many consider it a problem. But there are less sightings of them in both the Human World and Rukongai, Hell Gates appear more often for Togabito, before the soul in question even becomes a Hollow, and Pluses don't crop up as often on their radar.
Humans aren't dying as frequently, they think, and leave it at that. For a while.
But then, Senkaimon stop working, and nobody can miss that. The first time a team of Shinigami try to leave for a mission through the main gate and can't, even after the Kidou Corps swear up and down that it should be open, it doesn't take long for the higher-ups to realize it's a bigger problem than just one Senkaimon malfunctioning. Other Shinigami out on missions are forcibly bounced back into Soul Society, and none are allowed to leave after that. Soon, not a single officer is unaccounted for - even Shiba Isshin reappears in Seireitei, babbling about his daughters still in Karakura - and they are all essentially trapped in Soul Society.
There is some alarm, but no widespread panic. This is still Soul Society, the seat of their power, and they have all the resources Seireitei can provide to solve this issue. Except the Twelfth can find nothing wrong, only that the Senkaimon have stopped responding to both reiatsu and Zanpakutou, the Jigokuchou start dropping like flies, and even the Noble Families' private Senkaimon are little more than decoration at this point.
Emergency meetings are held, fingers are pointed, and accusations fly. Even with a gathering of all the Gotei captains, the noble family heads, and Central 46 - or maybe especially then - they can come to no concrete conclusions. No one has stood up and claimed the credit for it, and - at least for the time being - no rebel group or enemy faction has reared its head. The Gotei's monitoring equipment still work, but there aren't any large spikes of reiatsu activity in the Human World either.
Nobody says the name Urahara Kisuke, but anyone who'd heard of his confrontation with the Captain-Commander at least thinks it.
"You shoulda killed him when you had the chance," Shinji remarks once, when it's just him and Kyouraku in the latter's office, a tray of sake between them.
"I didn't think you'd support that," Kyouraku says in mild tones that contradict the heavy darkness in his eyes.
Shinji laughs, and the sound is layered with the wild echo of his Hollow, equal parts genuine amusement and a rage so deep it loops right back around to a teetering cliff's-edge calm.
He'd been unconscious too, when they'd forced the Soul King's shackles onto Ichigo.
"Kyouraku, if I thought I could manage it, I'd kill you right here and now. But I can't, and I got seven other idiots to babysit, and unfortunately, they still have people they care about in this godforsaken city. That's not the same as me supportin' anything you backstabbin’ bastards up top keep comin' up with. But it's done." He pauses, staring into his sake, and then downs it in one gulp. His eyes are as dark as Kyouraku's when he puts it down again. "It's done. Nothin' I can do about it. Nothin' you can do about it either unless you have a handy Ouken lyin’ around? So it's done, but objectively speakin’, the next most sensible thing you shoulda made certain of once you put Ichigo on the throne was make sure that his most vindictive ally would never ever find out about it." He shrugs and pours himself another cup of alcohol. "But ya didn't. And he did. And now, here we are."
A long silence follows. Neither of them breaks it until most of the sake is gone.
"Well, I don't think it's him this time anyway, although I'm sure he's tryin' his best," Shinji finally mutters, and then he grins, all teeth and derision and a resigned sort of acceptance that makes him look exactly his age. "Cuz you feel it too, don't ya?"
He glances out the window at a city that - on the surface - still appears the same as it's always been, bustling with Shinigami and civilians alike, all going about their business the way they've always done, day after day after day, stagnant as the years are long.
"I can't hear Sakanade that well anymore," Shinji says almost conversationally. "And the other day, I finally stopped puttin' it off like a coward and tried to release my Bankai." His gaze slides back to meet Kyouraku's. He laughs again, soft and deprecating and just a touch manic. "I couldn't. What d'ya think of that?"
Kyouraku does not reply. Shinji does not expect him to. They finish off the alcohol and go their separate ways again.
Their reiatsu is next. Arguably, it's been trickling away like sand through an hourglass for a while now, gone unnoticed by most. But word gets out, of spirit voices that don't come through as clearly, even after hours of meditation, of Shikai that take just a little too much effort to wield, of Bankai that don't come at all.
That's when the panic hits. The Shinigami have never done well when their strength is threatened, and it only gets worse when neither the Fourth nor the Twelfth can come up with a solution or even an explanation.
And then, one day, the bodies start appearing.
The Divine Soldiers are first, scattered across the length of Seireitei, still masked with not a single injury on them, but very much not breathing, and their bodies disappear within hours of being found. Nobody knows how they're getting out of the Palace and into Soul Society. Nobody knows who's killing them.
(But at this point, they can all take a good guess.)
The first time one of the Royal Guard hits the Central Underground Assembly Hall's front steps as a corpse, the panic gives way to fear at last.
The days are getting colder. There's a fine layer of frost constantly covering everything, and it doesn't melt anymore even when the sun is at its zenith. Three months after that, it begins to snow, and that doesn't stop either.
No more Hollows appear. The monitoring devices connected to the Human World simply switch themselves off one night, and no amount of troubleshooting and frustration from the best minds at the Twelfth can figure out how to turn them back on, so they no longer know what the situation is like there, but if it's anything like Rukongai, then it should be a quiet place indeed, void of all spiritual interference. Pluses - now that they're looking for them - automatically appear in Rukongai, memories of their previous lives wiped but whole in every other way.
It should be a development worth celebrating, if not for the fact that the it renders the Gotei's purpose all but moot, never mind that the lack of Hollows is directly proportional to the Shinigami's rapid decline of power. Their reiatsu dwindles like a countdown, steady and unforgiving, and no amount of research or anger or pleas or prayers can halt it.
The Senkaimon remain inoperative. Efforts are made to locate Urahara - they reason that since all spiritual beings have been returned to Soul Society, whether they like it or not, then surely even Urahara should be in the Rukongai somewhere. But the Rukongai is vast, with the outer districts ever-expanding to accommodate incoming souls, and the majority of it is unmapped. Looking for one man - especially when that man is a former officer of the Onmitsukidou - is akin to attempting to find a single specific pebble at the bottom of the ocean.
And just like that, Soul Society is - to their gradual horrified realization - just a very large prison in which they are fast-becoming just another average inmate. Even those most vocal with their denials can see - sooner or later, they will all be reduced to just another soul in a world full of souls, with only enough spiritual power left to make life difficult.
"I dunno what you expected when you gave a man famed for overcomin’ the worst odds possible all the power in the universe," Shinji laughs mockingly from where he's leaning against the doorframe of Kyouraku's office. Once, it would've been the windowsill, but nobody can Shunpo anymore. "But you should've bet on him instead of the throne restrainin’ him."
Kyouraku heaves a sigh and doesn't move from where he's slumped in his chair, head tipped back to stare bleakly up at the ceiling. "You think I wanted any of this to happen?"
"I think," Shinji says, not unkindly, but no mercy left to spare either. "You are a Shinigami through and through."
Kyouraku huffs a laugh, brief and humourless and tired. He finally glances over, and there's no surprise in his expression when he finds that the other captain has shed his haori and Shinigami robes, opting for a more standard yukata instead. He also has a few bags piled at his feet, while his Zanpakutou remains at his hip, although they both know he'll never be able to unseal it again.
"You're leaving then?" Kyouraku asks, but it isn't really a question.
Shinji shrugs lightly. "The Gotei is days from collapsin'. Only the old bags of wind still hangin' onto their titles like they're worth anything anymore can't see that. I've already dismissed my squad. Told 'em to go home, pack up, think about what they're gonna do from here on out cuz we've all been out of a job for months now. They gotta make a livin’ some other way, somehow, if they don't wanna go hungry, and the quicker they adapt, the better. I handed out some books, pointed them at some civilians who could help, spent the past few weeks gettin' them sorted out as much as I could. The other Visored have done the same. I think Yoruichi and Kuchiki - both of them - have too." He shrugs again, expression turning grim for a moment. "Whether everyone takes the advice or not… well. It's not my problem anymore. Dunno why I ever wanted it to be my problem again after Aizen." He snorts. "I don't regret anything as much as I do comin' back here. This place…" He smiles, and it doesn't reach his eyes. "It makes us take things for granted. It makes us cruel."
(He'd been unconscious when they'd locked Ichigo away in the Soul King Palace. But he'd been no such thing in the aftermath of the Winter War, he'd just… gotten distracted, with work, with reacquainting himself with old friends (who'd all done fuck-all when he'd needed them most and why did he forget that?), with basking in the freedom of no longer being a fugitive, and in the face of that, Ichigo had dropped in his list of priorities, and Shinji doesn't think he'd be at all surprised if he ever finds out that Ichigo believes he'd abandoned him a second time.)
He stoops to pick up his bags, slinging them over one shoulder. "Anyway, I figured I'd try my luck out in the rest of Soul Society before somethin' even worse hits Seireiei, and nobody makes it out alive. Maybe I'll even stumble over Kisuke." He meets Kyouraku's gaze once more. "You're not leavin', I assume?"
Kyouraku looks out the window again, then back, solemn and aged in a way captaincy had never managed. But his eyes burn with the same unwavering resolve that's carried him through almost a thousand years of being a Shinigami, and even now, it doesn't falter.
"I am the Captain-Commander," He says, steadfast and almost serene. "For better or for worse, I must be the last to go."
Shinji stares at him for a long moment, then turns away with a scoff. "Suit yourself. Goodbye, Kyouraku."
"Goodbye, Hirako," Kyouraku murmurs. "Make sure Lisa takes Nanao with her, would you?"
Shinji pauses but doesn't turn back. In the end, he nods once, sharply, and then walks away. There is nothing more to say.
Over the next six months, the residents of Seireitei leave in groups, in families, in nervous clusters. Not all, not even half, because there is little more terrifying than change, especially for a species long used to its own self-important stagnancy, but some do try.
Six months later, the final calamity strikes. The days are colder than ever. The former Shinigami - with not enough reiatsu to act as a buffer - must contend with the weather the same way as everyone else, by wearing more clothes and lighting more fires. But on a night that seems like any other, the skies grow darker than ever and the snowfall thickens as distant thunder rumbles. The weather plummets like a rock, and when morning comes, it is to a city frozen in its former glory, every roof and wall and cobblestone iced over, solid and unmelting even as weak sunlight splinters through the clouds. The once-flourishing capital looks beautiful from afar, glittering enchantingly in the day, radiating its own gentle light during the night, imposing and sublime the way eternal things are.
Anyone passing would never be able to tell at first glance - that this is a city turned graveyard, magnificent in its external grandeur, but as chilling as its frost-bound walls the moment one walks through the empty open gates and discovers the petrified faces staring back out of the ice, on the streets or in their beds, twisted in terror or collapsed in resignation.
Seireitei is a tomb constructed of ice and snow and hubris, the final resting place of a once-great army that attempted to enslave a weapon, a pawn, a monster, a man they thought too tame to bite back.
Their last mistake.
And so ends Soul Society's Shinigami.
And so begins a new era.
[One Year Later]
The world is a quieter place these days, for all that there are still countless people in it. But winter has become the norm, and the snow has a way of muffling all sounds that make everything seem a constant half-step away from slumber.
Still, morning comes as always, and Kisuke opens for business per usual. He'd been a shopkeeper in the Human World for over a century; he sees no reason to change that in a Soul Society that's not so different anymore.
His shop is one of the better ones in any district for miles around, three floors aboveground, two floors below, with a courtyard attached and a porch out back. He'd made sure to use the last of his reiatsu to build as sturdy and safe a house as he possibly could. His territory is small, but that just makes it easier to guard.
As he moves between the front of the store and the kitchen in the back, setting things up for the day and making himself some breakfast, he can hear Tessai and the kids moving about upstairs. He can't hear any of Yoruichi’s clansmen, but only because with or without reiatsu, they all still have the training of Shihouin born and bred.
Yoruichi had found him, after the Great Calamity. It's what everybody calls it these days, that, or the God-Slayer's Wrath, or the Final Judgement, or the Gods' Downfall. Probably a few others, depending on who you ask. Whatever you call it, Yoruichi had tracked him down in the aftermath with her entire clan and the Shiba Clan behind her, yelled at him for not waiting for her, and then promptly taken over all the surrounding buildings, renovating and outfitting them as she saw fit with Kuukaku's enthusiastic contribution.
Theirs is a small territory, compared to the once-glamour of Seireitei, but these days, they're probably the largest rising powerhouse in East Rukongai, and word of them spreads farther every day. People come looking for work, for wares, for protection or information. Business is as stable as it's probably ever going to get, and a large part of that is due to the fact that Kisuke has a clan of former assassins with eyes and ears everywhere in his employ, and another clan skilled in carpentry, metalwork, pyrotechnics, and architecture also working for him. The Shiba Clan may be few, but nobody can say they aren't still formidable. And Kisuke himself still has his mind and his hands, and his interests didn't all lie in wishing stones and weapon babies, as Shinji likes to put it.
Speaking of whom, the front door slides open down the hall, letting in a blast of wind that makes Kisuke grimace. Even now, the cold weather is still a bit jarring. Intellectually, he'd known there were benefits - more than a fancy sword and superpowers - that Shinigami had over regular Pluses, but he'd never consciously realized just how big a difference it made, to have enough reiatsu to insulate the body from quite a few extremes.
They all realize it now.
The door slides shut, and Shinji comes trooping in, snowflakes still caught in his hair as he shrugs out of his jacket.
"Mornin'," The man mutters, making a beeline for the water that's just finished boiling. "Lisa's not openin' the dojo today cuz the weather's worse than usual, and she doesn't want the kids comin' in through that. She'll be by later to help with the shop instead."
Fantastic. That means Kisuke can foist his afternoon shift off on her.
Outwardly, he only nods as Shinji makes himself a cup of tea before settling down by the hearth. For a minute, neither of them speaks, watching the bits of snow Shinji had unavoidably brought in melt into the fire instead.
Eventually though, Shinji clears his throat and glances up. "Ichigo here today?"
Kisuke hums noncommittally, then glances to his left where a ghost of a shadow sits silent and still in the corner of his eye, almost easy to overlook if not for the flame-bright hair. "Yes."
In a manner of speaking anyway. Ichigo himself doesn't seem to know he's here, but that's nothing new.
A month after Kisuke had left Seireitei behind, he'd started seeing him. Glimpses only at first, gone the moment he'd turned to look, and he'd honestly thought he was finally losing his mind. For someone like him, it was probably bound to happen sooner or later, and of course, his hallucinations would take the form of his greatest creation and his greatest failure. It hadn't helped that Tessai and the kids couldn't see anything out of the ordinary.
The hallucination hadn't gone away, or at least it had kept coming back. At the beginning, it never spoke, not even when Kisuke had tried to get its attention, and half the time, it hadn't even seemed to notice Kisuke was there. On - debatably - good days, it would just sit to one side, translucent and pale like a faded photograph, staring off into the distance like its focus was on something else entirely, something Kisuke couldn't see. On bad days though, it would solidify, still vaguely see-through but with more colour. It wore its Shinigami form's Shihakushou, as tattered as they'd been the last time Kisuke had seen them, and it would draw close, hovering at his shoulder and freezing the air around him until his fingers were stiff and every breath he took felt like it would freeze in his lungs. Several times, he'd felt like he'd been on the verge of getting frostbite, but he also couldn't bring himself to tell this particular revenant - real or otherwise - to leave him alone.
He'd thought he was going insane. But he'd also thought, what if I'm not?
Nobody knows exactly what the Soul King can do if they could actually function without being paralyzed and drained by the cycle of souls that the Shinigami had forced them to preserve. All that power, infinite and consuming, life and death at their beck and call - something like that could… well. Change the very laws of the universe. And if anybody could find the resolve to control something so immensely omnipotent, Kisuke would put his money on Kurosaki Ichigo.
In the end, he'd figured if he was going crazy, he might as well embrace it, but if he wasn't, then that meant Ichigo had found a way out on his own, not all the way - some part of him was clearly still bound to the throne - but he hadn't been reduced to a catatonic battery like his predecessor, and that was enough for Kisuke. He'd treat him like he was real, and maybe one day, they'd be able to remove Ichigo from the Palace completely.
Eventually, his patience had even paid off. The first time Ichigo spoke to him, it had come out of the blue. He'd already been there for a half a day, curled up by the open window, unmoved by the breeze, while Kisuke tried to further his research on the defenses surrounding the Soul King Palace.
"'The world under heaven, after a long period of division, tends to unite; after a long period of union, tends to divide. This has been so since antiquity.'"
The quote makes Kisuke freeze as much as the voice itself. Ichigo had turned then to stare at him, and Kisuke had shuddered under that regard. Everything about this phantom projection of Ichigo felt like twilight on a barren moon; everything except that gaze, dark and detached and utterly inhuman, as if all the compassion had been burned out of him.
"I think," Ichigo had said with an indifference that had felt like a blow in and of itself. "It's long past time the Shinigami divided."
He hadn't said anything else on the matter after that, but it didn't exactly take a genius to at least grasp the general idea of what he'd meant. And Kisuke was a genius. He'd more or less understood. His depleting reiatsu levels were a bit hard to miss. He'd sensed the same in Tessai as well, and Ururu and Jinta, and he'd guessed what was happening.
Still, he'd said nothing. There was nothing he could do anyway, even if he was so inclined to get in Ichigo's way.
(They'd made him a king - directly or indirectly, purposefully or otherwise, they'd all had a hand in paving this road for him and making him walk. They'd made him a king, so the least they can do now is kneel.)
The day before all souls had been sealed off from the Human World, Ichigo had told him, voice like wind on the tundra, hands on Kisuke's shoulders, so cold they'd stabbed into his bones like needles coated in poison.
"Pack up," He'd rasped, and his gaze had been difficult to meet, with the way his eyes had turned an abyssal black, like the void of deep space or the oblivion of true death. "No one is exempt. But you get a warning."
Kisuke hadn't known exactly what would happen, but he'd obeyed anyway. He'd already deconstructed his shop in Karakura and moved himself and Tessai and the children to another safehouse nobody knew of, but they hadn't fully unpacked so it didn't take much time to box everything away again. And then all there'd been left to do was wait.
It hadn't been hard to hide in Rukongai, especially when eyes had seemed to slide right off of them like water whenever Kisuke had wanted to go unnoticed. Ichigo had come and gone with no rhyme or reason. Sometimes he'd been silent. Other times, he'd whispered news of Seireitei, of the Shinigami, of their pride and their fear and their inevitable destruction. The weather had gotten colder too, not just when Ichigo was around, but Kisuke also received ample warning and could stock up on supplies.
Heaven's very own Great Flood. Perhaps they'd been overdue.
By the time Kisuke had only the strength and senses of any other Plus left, he and Tessai and the kids had finally put down roots in an outer district of East Rukongai. At this point, even without being there and seeing it for himself, he'd known that staying as far away from Seireitei as physically possible would only aid their continued wellbeing.
He'd spent the dawn of the new era on the roof of his new home, eyes on the distant horizon as the wind had howled and the snow had torn at his clothes and the skies had loomed high and ominous like the gaping maw of an eldritch beast, ready to devour them whole. The only reason he hadn't turned into an ice sculpture was - ironically enough - because of the shade crouched over his shoulders, still as cold as death but keeping the even colder elements at bay.
"Why me?" Kisuke had asked then, a question that had sat on the tip of his tongue for months, because for all his brilliance and all his accomplishments, he'd been no help at all in the end.
"You tried," Ichigo had whispered back, and for once, he'd sounded more like the boy who'd rushed off to save a girl he'd known for all of two months, who'd risked life and limb to stop a war that had nothing to do with him, and sacrificed his soul for a world that had never known gratitude.
"You tried," as if that was all that had ever mattered to Ichigo. For someone to try, on his behalf, when he needed them, just as he'd always tried for everyone who'd needed him.
Kisuke hadn't been able to say anything in response to that, couldn't find any words at all. But for a long moment afterwards, he'd through the shame might crush him.
Now, one year later, and Ichigo is still here, more often than not these days, as if the throne has less and less of a grip on him. Kisuke has never bothered to hide it. He's never flaunted it either, but Tessai has long since come to his own conclusions, the kids probably had thought he'd had some kind of breakdown overnight but they'd adjusted too, and everyone else who'd found their way to him and had known Ichigo have more or less figured it out at one point or another. They've all witnessed Kisuke talking to thin air, and even a mental break can't explain away some of the things Kisuke has passed on to them, like what's happened to so-and-so (Kyouraku sits frozen on the hill he and Ukitake used to spend whole afternoons on), or what's become of the Palace (still there, but empty, devoid of everything except a throne and a king whose shackles wear thinner every day), or even which of their old acquaintances would turn up on their doorstep next week.
Nobody ever actually asks about the hows or whys, although Isshin had, once, awkwardly asked Kisuke to ask Ichigo about the twins, and Ichigo had said they were fine, now under the care of the Ishidas.
(He'd said it like they were someone else's sisters. He'd said it like that part of his heart - the largest part that had cared for nothing and no one more than Karin and Yuzu - no longer existed.)
There are a few though who - like clockwork - come to Kisuke every few days to enquire after Ichigo.
(None of them ever asks about their reiatsu. No matter how young they look, they've all lived long enough to know better, especially when it's slapped them in the face so irrefutably.
Grow or wither. Change or die. This is their punishment, their just desserts, and they'll learn from it or get left behind. Some tasks are harder, less efficient, more of a struggle to achieve. But the amount of reiatsu one possesses is not the be all and end all of life after death; even without, they have always been perfectly capable of more. They'd forgotten that, somewhere along the way, or they'd left it by the wayside. Now they have no choice but to remember, and even if it's difficult, they’ll throw themselves into finding a way through all the same.
This is their death now. This is their life. And without the purpose and authority granted to them as Shinigami, they might as well make something else of themselves now that they have all the time - and all the need - in the world to do so.)
"Still can't see him?" Kisuke adds, as he always does, and Shinji scowls at him, as he always does too.
"You know I can't," The other man gripes irritably. "…Does he not want to or is it just that he still can't?"
Kisuke glances at Ichigo again, near-transparent and not paying any obvious attention to them. "Who knows," He says vaguely.
Shinji snorts and doesn't ask again, gulping down some tea instead. He drops that line of enquiry and starts grumbling about Mashiro putting a hole through a wall again, about the extension to their house that he's designing with Ganju, about the new patrols they've arranged, about the families they've settled into the western sector. It's a rambling report of gossip and news both that requires no input on Kisuke's part because they both know Shinji doesn't seek him out and say these things in his presence once a week for his benefit.
"You know Ichigo can probably find out anything he wants on any plane of existence, if he wishes to," Kisuke had once pointed out after cottoning on to what Shinji was doing.
Shinji had shrugged fatalistically. "I'm sure he won't be shy if he wants me to shut up, and in the meanwhile, ya know I've always liked to hear myself talk." He'd paused, as if recalling something, and it must've struck a chord because a sardonically amused grin had crossed his face. "Maybe I've got too much Shinigami left in me too."
After that, Shinji had kept up with the briefings, and Kisuke hadn't stopped him. Whatever Hirako Shinji thinks of their world's new normal, he's kept it to himself. But several months after Yoruichi had arrived, he'd shown up at Kisuke's door with the rest of the Visored and a handful of Shinigami in tow, moved into one of the buildings, and then taken over security of their gradually expanding borders like that had been the plan all along.
For all that they've been equals for decades and acquaintances for even longer, Kisuke has never quite figured out how to manage the other man, so he'd let Shinji loose on the local populace of ruffians and criminals and hadn't looked back. He'd had no particular objections to either the person or his competency, and as far as he'd been concerned, it'd been one less job for him to worry about.
Besides, back then, the very fact that Shinji had managed to track Kisuke down at all had meant that - knowingly or not - he'd had Ichigo's stamp of approval, so who was Kisuke to refuse him?
"It's been a slow week," Shinji eventually concludes, and even Kisuke glances out a nearby window at the snow drifting silently to the ground. It almost looks peaceful, certainly beautiful, but a lot of deadly things are. It's rare for things to be slow though. Without Hollows, one would think life would be less exciting, and maybe it is. There aren't any battles with massive amounts of reiatsu being thrown around anymore. But at the same time, there are other threats and complications they have to contend with. More mundane, but no less important, not to them, not anymore.
"Think we'll get spring anytime soon?" Shinji tacks on like he knows no fear, gaze slanting over to where Kisuke had focused on earlier. "I don't think I'm the only one who's gettin' pretty sick of the snow."
Kisuke says nothing, but he tenses a little as Ichigo actually seems to react to the question. An unnatural chill sweeps through the room despite the thick sturdy walls, and it takes a few seconds, but Ichigo's outline gains both colour and density bit by bit, until he could almost pass for a soul again. Deceptively harmless brown eyes turn to stare a Shinji, who still can't see him but seems to sense the scrutiny anyway, if the way he holds himself almost perfectly still is anything to go by. In contrast, an odd smile curls at his lips, and he stares back at the empty patch of space like he isn’t aware that Ichigo could probably snuff him out of existence with a thought.
A minute ticks by, two, and the tension ratchets higher with every passing second. Finally, Ichigo makes a noise that could pass for amusement as much as mockery before he unfolds from the bench he'd been half-perched, half-floating on. Kisuke remains motionless even as a thin film of frost creeps along the floorboards in every direction, and a few feet away, Shinji glances down, then back up, chin lifting, one eyebrow cocked. "That's a no then?"
"Not a no," Ichigo says hoarsely, and Kisuke's own eyebrows go up when he sees Shinji twitch, clearly having heard the answer.
Ichigo smiles, and when he steps past the window, the weak sunshine filtering through it cuts into him like light through crystal, scattering rainbows everywhere. He reaches Shinji, who still can't see him but can definitely feel him when pale fingers pluck the teacup from Shinji's hands. Shinji jerks a little, then forcibly stills himself again, eyes unblinking as he follows the cup's gravity-defying trajectory upwards.
The liquid is tipped out, raining into the hearth in a shower of wet snow, and then a tea leaf is taken from the bottom. A moment later, between one blink and the next, it unfurls into a small branch of a tea plant, vividly green in a way no one has seen in a good twelve months, if not more.
It doesn't last though. Seconds after that, the leaves wilt, the branch turns brittle, and a flash of ice robs it of all life again in the space of moments.
Ichigo's sigh rustles through the room. "Not yet," He says this time. The teacup is set down on the floor beside Shinji, and then he's gone from the room entirely, taking some of the cold out with him as the temperature gradually rises once more.
"…Well, looks like I'll have to shovel the front path again tomorrow," Shinji says in mournful tones, picking up the cup again to pour himself more tea.
Kisuke blows out an exasperated breath. "Why do you keep doing that? Are you not afraid he might take offense one day?"
Shinji scoffs. "What's the use of tiptoein' around him? It ain't like I'm even insultin' him; I'm just askin' questions, holdin' a conversation, complainin' about the weather, like normal people do." He shoots Kisuke a flat look. "You talk to him just fine. We've all heard ya."
Well, he supposes that's fair. But then, for Kisuke, it's not really a matter of whether he's afraid of overstepping or not. It's just that it's Ichigo, and after everything Kisuke has moulded him into, every enemy he's pointed him at, every battle Ichigo has had to fight against an ambitious would-be god because nobody else could stop him, and every hard-won victory Ichigo has clawed back for the world with his own blood and sweat and tears - all that history between them, all that debt, all in the span of a mere few years, and Kisuke has long since decided that whatever is left of this bloodstained life of his would be Ichigo's to do with as he pleases.
(It's why he'd raged when he'd woken up and found out what had happened in the wake of the Quincy War. Late again, always late, never able to protect anything of worth, and the price as always had fallen to Ichigo to bear.)
Still, Kisuke acknowledges the point with a nod before murmuring, "I imagine destroying something is easier than rebuilding." Shinji's snort of agreement makes him smile. Story of a Shinigami's career. "Perhaps Ichigo needs to… consolidate more power. At the very least, it doesn't seem like he plans for this winter to last forever."
"It better not; I'll become an icicle at this rate," Shinji mutters, then sighs and polishes off the rest of his tea before clambering to his feet. "Alright, I better get goin', I got a patrol to run. Lisa will be around this afternoon, and Kira's almost finished settin' up the first of the greenhouses so he'll probably want those gardening tools soon; make sure ya pick them up from the Shibas before he gets here. And Yoruichi's team should be back with news from Zaraki's base by tomorrow or the day after. Don't forget. Ya know how she gets."
And with that said, the former captain saunters out as abruptly as he'd come in, pulling his jacket tight around him and shoving his feet back into the boots he'd left by the door before trekking back outside and into the cold.
Kisuke watches him go, then sighs and returns to getting ready for the day. With the storm that's most likely rolling in, he doubts there'll be many customers, but he has delivery orders to fill too, and Ururu and Jinta have been complaining about how boring doing inventory over the past few days has been. Kisuke shouldn't let them down.
He should also send Tessai over to the Shibas for those tools, and prepare for Yoruichi's return. She's been gone for nearly two months now - travel is so much slower without Shunpo - but it'll be worth it for any news she can bring back. From what he's heard, the Eleventh Division left Seireitei even earlier than Yoruichi and Shinji, and a good portion of North Rukongai belongs to them these days. Kisuke's hoping to get some trade agreements and maybe a proper alliance set up, but those details will most likely take at least several more months to hammer out. For now, he'll settle for some indication of goodwill and a desire for further negotiations.
There's always so much to do nowadays, so very different from the long idle years of being a Shinigami when it was always the same routine of hunting Hollows and doing paperwork for hunting Hollows, quelling insurgences and doing paperwork for quelling insurgences, and quietly removing people Central 46 deemed to be threats and not doing paperwork for that; different too from his exile in Karakura where he had his labs and machines and reiatsu, and all the research and experiments he'd enjoyed immersing himself in, but as a result, he’d done little else outside them. A Shinigami's world revolved around being a Shinigami; the breaks in-between were spent training or waiting for their next mission. And it says a lot that - in a thousand years and change of the Gotei's existence - the SRDI had already been the most controversial outlier that none of the higher-ups had really approved of, right up until Kisuke had started producing weapons and other equipment to strengthen Soul Society's military might.
It's different now. Figuring out how to live and how they want to live takes a surprising amount of effort and creativity when it isn't provided for them, and all they have to depend on are their own hands and feet and ingenuity.
But it's what they have, and - Kisuke likes to think - what they've managed so far hasn't been too shabby.
Footsteps thunder down the stairs, followed by Jinta's voice cutting through the tranquil morning. Kisuke heads back into the kitchen to check on the food and fetch some plates down. There's time for breakfast, and then he can put his employees to work like the slave-driver they like to accuse him of being. After all, he'd hate to disappoint.
Hours later, dusk has fallen and a storm rumbles in the distance. The windows rattle with the force of the gales outside, but the frames are sturdy and the glass holds firm. It's familiar background noise to Kisuke these days as he reviews various reports for the past week.
He only looks up when an invisible breeze wings through the room, and the fire from braziers around the room flicker agitatedly like they might go out. As expected, he finds Ichigo seated by the futon Kisuke hadn't bothered rolling up, almost-solid and leaning back on his hands, head turned in the direction of the window. With the warm glow of the fire putting colour in his cheeks and amber in his eyes and something almost like contentment in his usually indifferent features, he doesn't look at all like the advent of an apocalypse.
Kisuke watches him for a moment, but when nothing else is forthcoming, he goes back to his reports. Apparently, not being a Shinigami doesn't mean no more paperwork, it just means more variety of the stuff.
For a while, only the rustle of paper and the muted croon of the wind can be heard. The temperature's dropped a bit with Ichigo's arrival, but Kisuke is used to it, used to layering up as well almost all the time nowadays, so it doesn't bother him. He barely even notices until the chill settles directly at his back, peering over his shoulder at the open report on the table.
Kisuke's pen pauses, and he only shifts minutely to accommodate the wintry bite sinking through his clothes. Sometimes, he thinks he might have ice for bones now. "May I help you, Ichigo?"
Ichigo hums something vaguely negative-sounding, but he also reaches over and places something on the table.
Kisuke blinks. It's-
It looks exactly like his old one, striped green and white, but pristine in a way his original no longer would be after it had died a sad death in his battle against that Quincy. He hadn't even known if any of it had survived the fight after he'd woken up at the Fourth, hadn't exactly been in the frame of mind to care about it either, and then he'd just never had the time to find and buy another one before every spirit had been sealed off from the Human World.
He picks it up almost gingerly, rubbing at the fabric between his fingers before casting a bemused glance over his shoulder. "What's the occasion?"
Ichigo shrugs, slumping against Kisuke's back with more weight than usual but not as much as someone of Ichigo's stature should have. "None. But it's been almost two years, and you still keep reaching for it."
Ah. Well, habits are hard to quit. Kisuke could always find a different hat, but he hasn't liked the looks of any of the ones he's come across. In the end, he'd set the minor annoyance aside for more important matters.
He turns the hat over in his hands, then puts it on. It fits just as well as his old one too. He looks at Ichigo again and smiles. "Thank you."
Ichigo hums again and doesn't say anything else. He does hook his chin over Kisuke's shoulder though, and the radiant spill of his hair - unruly and long enough to fall past his shoulders now - brushes against Kisuke's cheek as he drapes more of his weight across Kisuke's back. Sometimes, Kisuke wonders if this is Ichigo's way of seeking heat. As cold as it is for Kisuke, Ichigo must be infinitely colder.
Kisuke shoves his work aside and twists around, smiling faintly when Ichigo is dislodged with a disgruntled sound, but like this, he has more room to pile a few quilts over Ichigo's shoulders before raising an arm expectantly. Ichigo immediately curls into his side. The chill is like a knife through the ribs at first, but it quickly ebbs again to something more manageable. He wants to pull one of the braziers closer, but he knows from experience that that would just extinguish the fire or freeze it completely.
So instead, Kisuke lowers his hand to Ichigo's back, and not for the first time, his gaze roams over the shredded remains of Ichigo's Shihakushou, still stained with the wounds he'd sustained in his fight against Yhwach. Kisuke's jaw clenches briefly, but as always, all he can do is breathe through the anger and curl a hand around the back of Ichigo's neck instead. The touch numbs his fingers, but Ichigo always presses into it, and this time is no different.
"…When will you be able to leave?" Kisuke asks, and hates that he has to at all. In a fairer world, he would've torn down the Palace's defenses months ago. In an ideal world, he would've been awake to slaughter anyone who so much as thought about binding Ichigo to the throne.
Ichigo sighs, and he doesn't answer right away. Words too take energy out of him. Instead, after a moment of absolute stillness, he wriggles around until he's half-sprawled across Kisuke's lap, eyes dark and focused and present in a way they rarely get.
"Not soon," He says in flat matter-of-fact tones. "Need to make sure nothing collapses when I take myself out of the equation." He pauses, looking like he's mulling over how to explain. "It's… not as heavy anymore. Hueco Mundo is empty, and the Human World doesn't need as much… managing. Without souls absorbing as much reiatsu, more of it is allotted back into the world too, and that makes things…" He sketches out a nonsensical shape in the air with his hands. "Stronger. More durable? Independent?"
He drops his hands and shrugs again, giving up, but Kisuke is more occupied with several wayward puzzle pieces slotting together in his head.
He'd never questioned Ichigo's right to enact his vengeance, to administer his justice. But he'd wondered why this way. It was poetic, he'd supposed, for Shinigami to lose the very thing that made them Shinigami, the power they clung so tightly to because it made them special, made them gods. But Ichigo could've just as well done it without sealing off all access from the Human World, could've done it without getting rid of Hollows, without creating a system that could potentially exist entirely on its own, a closed-circuit setup of rebirth that could power itself without outside intervention.
He'd wondered. And now he knows.
Ichigo blinks owlishly up at him when Kisuke chuckles.
"I should've known it wasn't just vengeance you were after," He clarifies.
Ichigo blinks again, then waves a dismissive hand. "Vengeance doesn't get me out. But since the system needs a King to function, then I'll just break the system." He smiles, sharp and hard and void of humanity. "I'm good at breaking things. They should've remembered that."
Kisuke lowers his gaze, then reaches out to comb fingers through Ichigo's hair. Ichigo startles, then relaxes into it. He feels a little lighter now, but Kisuke can still see him clearly.
"Work hard," He murmurs. "And if there's anything I can do, you know you only have to ask."
Ichigo stares at him, and there's a warmth in them now that seems to chase away the cold, if only temporarily. "I know."
Kisuke smiles and pulls the quilts up higher over Ichigo's shoulders. "Good. Then, once you're out, you must come find me first. I'll be terribly hurt if you go off looking for someone else before your favourite shopkeeper."
Ichigo snorts, and his face comes alive with as much humour as it does a rare genuine affection that makes Kisuke want to keep him here, make him stay, no matter how cold it might get.
"Who says you're my favourite?" Ichigo retorts, as if he hasn't well and truly shown his hand. But then he smiles, a little crooked, and a little awkward like his muscles have forgotten how to fit it on his face, but it's one that's free of the stress and shadows that betrayal had flayed into him, one that Kisuke once thought had been lost forever.
"I'll always come find you first," Ichigo murmurs, and Kisuke's hand stills, winding flame-bright hair around his fingers almost without thought.
"Because I tried," Kisuke says quietly, ruefully.
"Because you waited," Ichigo corrects. "Because when I need you, you're always there. And because even when you can't help, you stay."
He reaches up and wraps icy fingers around Kisuke's wrist. Kisuke doesn't flinch.
"Wait for me this time too," Ichigo says, something fierce and hopeful gilding his voice. "I'll get out even if I have to tear the whole universe down to do it. You just have to-"
"-wait," Kisuke finishes, and his own fingers tighten in Ichigo's hair. He draws a careful breath, then releases it on a soft exhale. "Well, that goes without saying."
Ichigo's eyes glitter like starlight in the light of the fire. "Yeah?"
Kisuke stares back, unblinking, unwavering. "On my blade, on my soul, so I swear." He smiles. "I told you - all you have to do is ask."