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Kisuke feels it. The moment Ichigo leaves Karakura behind.

Of course he already knew ahead of time what the Kurosaki siblings were planning, had been the one to help them make it possible in the first place, had gladly helped Ichigo and Yuzu gather everything they’d needed, unable to so much as hint at a refusal when Ichigo called him to ask for his help with arranging necessary papers – so as to make him taking his younger sibling to a different part of the country at least somewhat legal – and the like.

Ichigo had called, an uncharacteristic sort of careful caution in the teenager’s voice as he called to ‘ask for a favor’ – never mind that there is no such thing in Kisuke’s mind where Ichigo is concerned – and, of course, Kisuke had helped. Honestly, there isn’t much he wouldn’t do, as long Ichigo is the one asking.

He tilts his head in thought, absently gazing out across the Shoten’s back garden, lips turning up in a self-deprecating smile at that particular half-truth.

At least in his own mind he can be honest enough to admit that there is nothing – absolutely nothing – he wouldn’t do for Ichigo. Ichigo, who gave everything of himself for everyone else and asked not a single thing in return, who entrusted himself to Kisuke’s hands and let himself be led straight into an unbearable sacrifice, not even flinching away from the burden placed upon his shoulders even once he knew what was being asked of him, unwavering in his trust that Kisuke knew the best path forwards.

It got them their victory over Aizen. Though, the price…

The point is, Ichigo had called for assistance with arranging his and Yuzu’s move, their minds made up to leave Karakura behind, the obvious hesitation in his voice as he asked for his help as unfamiliar as it was painful to hear, Ichigo’s apparent lack of certainty whether Kisuke would agree to help at all feeling like a knife to his chest, the pain burrowing deepdeepdeep, to join the festering guilt from Kisuke’s role in the war and tearing Ichigo’s very soul asunder.

So, he had promptly done everything within his power to guarantee that everything Ichigo was asking for would come to pass. Easily. With no additional effort on either Kurosakis’ part.

It truly is the very least he can do.

Their entire conversation had lasted maybe a few minutes, just a couple, careful sentences on both their ends, just enough for vague pleasantries and Ichigo’s request and Kisuke’s cheerfully casual agreement to help with anything the two Kurosakis might need.

Admittedly, at the time, he hadn’t been able to help but think guiltily that, even just hearing Ichigo’s voice once more, Kisuke had felt like finally, finally being able to breathe after so long of barely managing a breath at all, like being able to breathe in fully for the first time in weeks, like a sort of pressure from around his chest releasing, a pressure that Kisuke hadn’t even been entirely aware of, like his lungs being slowly but steadily crushed into his chest..

Ever since Isshin carried his message of Ichigo wanting some distance from all things spirit world, as understandable as that wish might be, considering what his association with Soul Society has cost Ichigo.

The fact that Ichigo had sounded so calm and settled within himself on the phone, familiarly certain about the clear goal of leaving – if only because his sister asked him to – in mind, had only helped.

So, Kisuke provided him with anything and everything he might need. And then, he waited. For the inevitable.

It was barely weeks later when he felt it, felt it the moment Ichigo left, the moment that Karakura stopped being the teenager’s home. Like a shift in the very atmosphere, like something is suddenly missing. Something essential and ever-present that used to be all-encompassing but is suddenly gone.

Everything about the town suddenly seems just a little bit colder, a little sharper, brightness draining away so very quickly, from one moment to the next, the sudden lack of it is stark to Kisuke’s senses.

He gazes out across the pond in the Shoten’s garden, eyes unseeing, no thought spared to the beautifully clear and starry sky or the peaceful quiet all around.

Karakura doesn’t much feel like ‘home’ any longer.

Then again, with Ichigo now gone and the Visored already having returned to Seireitei… Maybe Kisuke really shouldn’t feel all that surprised by that fact.

Still, even with all of the reason why he ever settled so firmly in Karakura gone now, he has no interest in returning to Soul Society, has no loyalty left for anyone in Seireitei aside from the Visoreds themselves.

The Gotei were the ones to betray him the first time around. And Kisuke has never been one to forgive or to forget. He does not give his loyalty twice.

He knows that at least Shinji is the same, that the other former-and-once-again Captain had no interest in returning or rejoining the Gotei’s forces. But, despite his grumbling, Shinji had still followed the other Visored to Seireitei, loyal to the group who he claimed as his if only by circumstance, most of them so very eager to return to what they still considered their home, just as soon as they had been pardoned.

But even as he stepped through the Senkaimon a few months ago, with just a single, weighty glance in Kisuke’s direction, following the others to Seireitei, the ink on their pardons barely dry, Shinji’s eyes had remained sharp, expression placid, smile ever-present, but something immovably uncompromising curling at its very edges, his hand never quite leaving Sakanade’s hilt, no trust or loyalty left for Seireitei or the Gotei, for the people who threw him and his away and who are now daring to once more call themselves his friends, his allies.

Still, his loyalty had him follow after the other Visored all the same. If only to make sure there might not be an ambush awaiting them on the other side.

Kisuke even feels assured in the knowledge that, even while in Seireitei, Shinji will still be on the lookout, will take care of the other Visored, prepared to tear the entire Gotei to pieces if anyone so much as hints at bearing any ill will towards any of their group.

All the while Kisuke remained behind do the same for Ichigo. Just in case.

It was an agreement silently struck between him and Shinji, never actually discussed, but decided on all the same.

So, no, Kisuke never intended to return to Seireitei. And certainly not as long as Ichigo isn’t there.

Why would he? As long as Ichigo still wanders the mortal world, Kisuke has absolutely no interest in being anywhere else.

Then again, staying in Karakura just in case something happens that might require Kisuke to step in, if only because, with his powers gone – at least for now – Ichigo will not even be able to see some of the threats that might come for him, in no way changes that Kisuke had still been determined to stay away, to respect Ichigo’s wish to gain some distance from the spirit world. In his mind, it was the very least he could do for the teenager, respect his wishes irrespective of his own feelings on the matter.

He can even understand that Ichigo might have felt a need to withdraw from them, might have needed some time to recover from his losses, having given more than should reasonably be demanded of any one being. And Ichigo had done it so easily, almost gladly. Anything to protect.

As is his nature.

However, now…

Ichigo left, left Karakura.

Left me.

Kisuke quickly brushes that thought aside, knows he has no right to think anything along those lines, instead focuses on the thought of how Karakura has simply been… less ever since Ichigo left. Less bright, less warm, less welcoming, less lively.

Less home.

Kisuke doesn’t quite know where this strange but definitely real sense of less is coming from. But he does know the cause of it, can pinpoint the exact moment Ichigo and Yuzu cut their ties with Karakura, deciding to seek their home elsewhere.

A fact that Isshin, the utter moron, is delighted by, somehow talked around by his younger daughter to the entire ploy, convinced that Yuzu and Ichigo wanting to ‘see other parts of the country’ or ‘experience a school exchange’ or whatever drivel his children fed the man, is proof of how right his handling of the situation around Ichigo’s loss of powers has been. The man has been gloating about it, gloating about his children choosing to effectively cut ties with him. Of all things.

Not that Kisuke is in any position to claim to know better.

To the contrary. He has been entirely willing to bow to Isshin’s assertions about his own son’s needs, no matter how aware Kisuke is of the less-than-close relationship between Ichigo and his father. Still, Kisuke wouldn’t presume to know Ichigo better than his own family. He wouldn’t dare.

So, he would have stuck with the plan of leaving Ichigo to his own devices, even once the teenager decided to move away entirely. Kisuke would have kept his silence, would have kept up this new status quo.

He would have.

If it weren’t for Karin.

He doesn’t know what happened between the two Kurosaki girls, doesn’t know what Yuzu said to her twin – somewhere right in the middle of her and Ichigo’s preparation to leave town, after the decision had already been made, without the third Kurosaki sibling ever being included or asked for her opinion – Kisuke not having been around for that particular conversation. But he does recognize the frustrated, helpless sort of guilt that Karin has been carrying around with her ever since, something like shame, fully internalized to be ruminated over at one’s own leisure for maximum devastation, the way her glances at the others who stop by the Shoten suddenly far sharper, weightier, clearly assessing and finding them – collectively, even including herself – wanting.

And, for all that he swore to give Ichigo however much time he needed to heal, however much distance he wanted from all things spirit, swore he wouldn’t interfere… If there is one thing he knows to be immutably true it’s that his sisters come before anything else to Ichigo, nothing else even coming close.

So, Kisuke, aware that letting Karin be eaten alive by her guilt would be against everything Ichigo would ever want, had waited a few days until a chance presented itself, when it had just been him and Karin at the Shoten, and then proceeded to cheerfully poke and prod at her– as he is wont to do – until everything had spilled out of the girl.

And the story she told, of her twin being so furious with everyone, furious with their dad and Soul Society as a whole and all the people daring to call themselves their Ichi-nii’s friends and even Karin herself, furious at them all for abandoning Ichigo, for leaving him to struggle through everything on his own with no help in sight. Stories of screaming nightmares and empty eyes at the breakfast table and not even enough of Ichigo left, of the bright and unbendable and so very kind teenager Kisuke knows, the strongest person he has ever met in all his centuries of life, to spare either of his sisters the barest of smiles.

The fact that Karin hadn’t even really noticed. Maybe at the beginning, right after Ichi-nii’s return, but soon too distracted by the changes in her own life to really check in with either of her siblings all that often.

Not until Yuzu mercilessly pointed it out to her, accusation soft in the youngest Kurosaki’s voice but all the harsher for it in its effect on Karin.

Yuzu who had noticed. Who got her brother back, but got him back in pieces.

And she was furious at the world for no one evidently caring enough to help her put him back together. So much so that, at some point, she decided, if everyone in her Ichi-nii’s life was going to be that utterly useless in taking care of him – the one time where he might actually need being taken care of instead of doing just that for everyone else in turn – then she would be the one to put Ichigo first, above all else, even above her own twin if need be.

Because, for once, her Ichi-nii needed her, and after so many years of him doing everything within his power to always be there for his sisters – still a child himself when he took on the role of mother and father for them in addition to being their older brother, if only for lack of anyone else up to either job – forever protecting them, taking care of them… And Yuzu was more than prepared to return his devotion in the exact same manner now that he needed it.

So, she decided she had simply had it with Karakura and the spirits lurking about and that she might as well try to get Ichigo to leave with her, to try their luck elsewhere.

Maybe it really shouldn’t come as a surprise that, while Karin might – consciously or unconsciously –copy almost all of her brother’s outward mannerisms, Yuzu might have chosen to emulate his spirit, the very essence of him, his loyalty and unwavering, uncompromising devotion, instead.

By that point of her story, Karin had been crying, so similar to her brother in most things, but apparently too torn apart by her twin’s likely rather harsh accusations to keep up her immovable countenance for once.

And while Kisuke had made sure to keep his face calm if sympathetic throughout Karin’s uncharacteristic meltdown, inside he had felt himself stop breathing entirely, everything frozen at the unbearable thought of apparently having made yet another mistake.

I should never have listened to Isshin.

Because, as much as he had been willing to take Isshin’s word regarding what would be best for Ichigo, had been willing to take the man’s assessment above his own. But between listening to Isshin or either of the Kurosaki girls? Ichigo’s sisters?

Yeah, that’s not even a contest.

And, with Karin having been so clearly distracted with the world of spirits and Shinigami, Yuzu is definitely the one whose word Kisuke is willing trust without question in this.

If Yuzu thinks that leaving Ichigo to heal from his losses in peace was the wrong thing to do, that, if anything, they managed to make it worse on Ichigo with their absence…

He feels the guilt writhing harshly in his chest, clawing painfully hot at his insides.

If Isshin lied, if Ichigo never mentioned wishing to get some distance from the spirit world, surrounded by once-friends and used-to-be-allies, all of them owing him their lives but none of them seeming to care enough to seek him out, if Ichigo might actually have been waiting for someone from his old life to stop by, to show him that they still cared…

He is suddenly so very glad that he helped the two Kurosakis get away, so very glad he gave Ichigo all the help he could in leaving this place behind. If only because Ichigo calling him for assistance should mean the teenager knew that Kisuke cared, at least enough to always be willing to help with anything Ichigo might ever need.

Right?

The thought that Ichigo might ever doubt that is rather unbearable.

He thinks of his preparations for getting Ichigo’s powers back, the endless nights of research and inventing, injuries sustained, haggling and more-or-less begging some of the Gotei’s most powerful to aid him, still knowing full well even that will never be enough to erase the debt he holds where Ichigo is concerned. And now, something else to add on top of that.

He feels his lips tilt down, eyes hidden in the shadow of his hat, guilt gnawing at his insides.

Yet another misstep. Yet another bad choice made where Ichigo is concerned, once more leaving the teenager to bear the brunt of everyone’s mistakes.

He thinks back to that brief moment where he had seen Ichigo, mere days before he and Yuzu left, when Kisuke had stopped by to hand over the things Ichigo had asked for in preparation of his move. Well, that and a couple of things beyond that, but Ichigo should really have expected that when he asked Kisuke for help.

Seeing him again, just those few bare moments, had been everything. Like warmth returning to his world, as ridiculous as that might sound.

Strangely enough, Kisuke felt even more bereft after they parted ways again, despite being so very glad to have gotten to see Ichigo at all. Still, he had made sure to make himself scarce right after handing everything over to Ichigo, not wanting to cross the boundary he thought the teenager had drawn between himself and everything spirit world-related. If anything, Kisuke had thought Ichigo’s plan to leave Karakura was only confirmation of his wish to stay away, a confirmation of Isshin’s words…

Now, of course, he knows better.

So, what are you going to do about it? Benihime’s voice cuts through his thoughts, imperiously demanding as always.

However… Good question.

Kisuke never quite asked where exactly Ichigo and Yuzu were planning to move to, only knows that they were intending to stay in Japan in general and vaguely aiming for another smaller city, maybe similar to Karakura in size.

Then again, it’s not like he wouldn’t be able to find Ichigo. No longer leaking reiatsu everywhere or not, it’s been a long time since Kisuke hasn’t been able to pinpoint exactly where Ichigo was at any given point in time.

He always knows, his senses so very attuned to the teenager.

Not really a teenager any longer, is he? Benihime croons at him, voice smooth as silk as she needles at one of his weak spots with perfect accuracy as usual. He has seen a little too much to still be called that, wouldn’t you say?

Kisuke ignores her for lack of any reply to her words, instead thinks back to the one time he and Ichigo had spoken on the phone, barely a week after the two Kurosakis left, a brief check-in for Kisuke’s sake, now already several weeks past.

‘You’d like it here,’ Ichigo had said.

A call he hadn’t expected but that had been so very very welcome, if only for the reassurance of knowing that Ichigo had found another place to settle, somewhere to feel happy. Away from them all.

As much as that last bit might not be as true as he had thought at the time.

Kisuke has been holding on to that one small sentence for the past couple of weeks since Ichigo left town and took all of Karakura’s warmth with him.

‘You’d like it here.’

Just four words. Said calmly, warmly, without any expectation. Like a simple fact. Just making conversation.

At least that’s how Kisuke had taken it at the time.

However, now… Now that he knows that Ichigo might never have wanted everyone to keep their distance… Now that he knows better… Now, this innocuous little sentence is starting to sound far more like something almost resembling an invitation instead.

‘You’d like it here.’

Still, those same four words circling through his mind. Still, that same calm and warm tone of voice. But suddenly, the implication of that short sentence, the implication of, even after moving to a different part of the country, Ichigo maybe still having been thinking of Kisuke, having been looking at his new home in relation to whether he thinks Kisuke might like it there as well…

Like Ichigo wouldn’t mind if Kisuke were to stop by to see for himself.

He feels the corners of his lips tilting upwards as he gazes up at the clear, starry sky, a near-physical weight lifting off his chest at the thought, Benihime humming in agreeing contentment in his mind.

Because, if that’s the case, if Ichigo is willing to welcome him – in his town, in his home, in his life, in any way at all – then there is nothing in this world or the next that could possibly keep Kisuke from following.