Title: Kings and Queens
Series: The Beautiful Lie
Characters: Kyouraku Shunsui, Hitsugaya Toushirou, Zaraki Kenpachi
Warnings: AU, Language, Implied Slash
Disclaimer: I do not own Bleach. That honor belongs to Tite Kubo.
Summary: Years after the painful end, the echoes of war still prove their influence. Ichigo comes home to find a dead man in his kitchen.
Part of The Beautiful Lie by .
My Dearest Nanao-chan,
I know you wonder why I left this for you and not Jyuushiro, my oldest and best friend, but he and I have already long spoken all the secrets between us. He knows me as well or better than I know myself. No, I want it for you because out of everyone else left with us now, you are undoubtedly the closest and dearest to me. More than anything, I want you to understand, to one day look back at this time with eyes wide open. To know the truth beneath all of the illusions and lies.
No father should have to outlive his son. I saw what it did to Jyuushiro. What it does to him even now. He'll remember it until his dying day. It will be the first thing he thinks of in the morning and the last at night. And has been for the last five decades. Only Ichigo-kun has ever managed to make him contemplate anything else. And I don't have the luxury and joy of such love anymore.
No father should outlive his son. And I have the feeling that I won't.
But I suppose that I brought this on myself. I suspected… Long have I suspected something, but I didn't do anything. I turned and looked the other way because this was Sousuke, and the only person I trusted more has been my friend for two thousand years. Because I know what we have become, what we have allowed Soul Society to be, and it's honestly not like he can do much worse. Because this boy who is now a grown man is the closest I will ever come to a son of my own, and the blood flowing through his veins is the same that ran in my beloved wife. And she more than anyone would understand, would realize the painful truth of this situation.
My Shuurei was barely older than you when we married. I was already a captain by then and had been for over a millennium. But she cared nothing for the difference in our ages or the prestige that came with being one of Yama-jii's chosen. Shuurei only ever saw me, and she loved me anyway. I still haven't figured out why.
She wasn't a Shinigami and held only the vaguest curiosity about us. Shuurei had always been more into books than boys or swords or fighting. Rather a bit like you in that. No, my precious flower was of all things the head librarian at the central building. Proper and prim with dark eyes glaring at me from behind her glasses when I knocked over an entire bookshelf. That was how we met, and in my defense, it was all Isshin's fault. And the sorry bastard only laughed while she berated me like a puppy who had tracked mud into the house. I was smitten instantly, and that only deepened when she made me pick up all the books by myself. But she gave me sake in her office afterwards and smirked as she told me a story about doing the same when she was younger. Though she'd at least been smart enough to blame someone else.
We were married just over a year later. She followed me home one night three months into our courtship and just never seemed to leave afterward. Her mother cried at her oldest daughter getting married, and I believe our wedding was the only time I ever saw her sister smile genuinely. Say what I want about Sakura, but she loved her sister at least, if not her son.
Shuurei was everything I'd always wanted and loved in a woman. Smart with a wicked tongue. Sweet and gentle when she wished but with steel underneath the silk. Both a proper lady and a raging tempest when angered. You berate me about my habits, Nanao-chan, but Shuurei could drink both me and Jyuu underneath the table and still be raring to go afterwards. That woman was a goddess.
She would've made a wonderful mother. And we wanted children, Shuurei and I. A daughter, beautiful and dainty as her mother. And a son, gentle but playful with her quick wit. Both with her glasses and laugh and love of life. And hopefully neither would have any of my more… let's say pestering traits.
We got neither. We tried. Oh, how we tried. Not that it was an onerous task by any means. But parenthood was beyond us both. I do not know if it was her fault or mine. Retsu-chan does, but we asked her not to tell us. It was better that way. Kept everyone blameless but still aching. It didn't make us feel better, but it kept us from feeling far worse. And I suspect though I never had the heart to tell her that the fault lay with me. I was very wild and impetuous in my youth, and yet, none of those unions ever resulted in a child despite my carelessness and levels of reiatsu even then.
But even without that, we were happy. I had my division, and it was filled with enough children for us both to love and nurture. She had her books, the only thing in her life that she cherished as much as me. And we had each other.
Yet, with all things, it didn't last. It was a ravaging sickness that spread through Seireitei from Rukongai. That cold spring took many. Isshin's youngest brother, Byakuya-bo's grandmother, and my wife.
But the following one gave me something back. A nephew. My second, yes. But this one all the dearer to my heart. I could see her fire behind his eyes the moment I first held him, the next one to do so after Retsu-chan. His own mother, my wife's haughty and pretentious sister, was already shoving him away even then. Cursing the boy she'd gotten when she had so wanted a girl.
Were it not for looks, for the uncanny resemblance, I'd never have known that my wife and her sister were even related. But it was very obvious that Shuurei and Sousuke shared blood. In truth, he could've easily passed for her son were it not for the date of his birth. He was everything both of us had wanted in a child. Her intelligence and looks, my reiatsu and charm. And you will never understand how much it pained me in the early years, how much it was a stab to the chest to tell strangers that no, this wasn't my son. Just my nephew. But not just my nephew.
I know that he did not have an easy life in the beginning. That his father, may all the gods damn him eternally, was not a kind man. That all the attention went to the eldest, to the heir. And that Sousuke was often ignored and usually belittled when he wasn't.
If I were truly a good man, I would've done something sooner. I would've done something more. My only excuse is that the truth would've hurt Sousuke all the worse. That the accusation would've resulted in nothing but embarrassment for him and that his father was too powerful to get more than a verbal censure and a request to be more circumspect.
But in the end, I could only do what I thought best. To open my home and my life to him. To teach him all that I know. Only to have him use that knowledge against me. Against all of us.
And while part of me can understand why, another part never will. Will never be able to comprehend what could make him turn so completely against us. What could take him so far out of my reach.
They talk about the evils of Aizen, about how far he has fallen to consort with Hollows. To become one in everything but fact. How he cruelly slaughtered Chamber 46 and stabbed his own lieutenant. How he turned captain against captain and brother against sister.
And yet… Yet, all I can remember is the little boy who barely came above my knee. The child who needed help putting on his sandals. The boy Jyuu and I taught how to read, how he used to stumble over all the difficult words but was so completely pleased when he finally got them right. I still recall that his first crush was on a girl with blue eyes and a too short skirt who one day became my lieutenant. That he scrunches his nose just like Shuurei when he finds something funny but is too polite to laugh. That his smile is all her. And the gleam in his eyes is so familiar that I sometimes forget to breathe.
It may make me naïve; it may make me foolish. But I still want to believe the best of him. Believe that there is something inside worth saving. That it wasn't all a lie. That every lesson and shared meal and commiseration about being a captain was real and not part of the illusion.
I can only wish. Only pray. Only hope that it was real. I hope for a lot of things.
I hope that Jyuushiro and Ichigo have a long and happy life together. Filled with laughter and smiles and romance. Definitely that last one.
I hope that you remain as you are. You are perfect exactly that way, despite all teasing to the contrary. Don't let any man – or woman – tell you differently.
I hope for Ki-kun to stop blaming himself. And for Yoruichi to stop leading the poor boy on.
I hope to look at Retsu and not see her heart breaking.
I hope for Sousuke to wake up and realize what he has become. I hope for Gin-chan and Tousen to do the same.
I hope for this war to end and for us all to survive. Even though I know that will never happen.
I hope for peace and prosperity not just in Seireitei but Rukongai, too. For children to grow up with nothing but wonder.
I hope that my son somehow, someway lives. That he manages to escape. Even if it comes back to bite us in the ass a thousand years from now, I want him to live.
But most of all, most of all, I hope for forgiveness. From you. From him. From everyone. From myself.
Have a wonderful life, Nanao. Enjoy it to the fullest. I wish you the best of everything.
I give you and everyone all my love.
Your dear friend and captain,
I swear that I wasn't the one stealing your favorite tea all these years. I have a suspicion who it was, but you'll never catch him doing it. The white-haired sneak is too good for that.
Bile rises in his throat as he all but stomps through the streets of Seireitei. Passersby hasten out of his way or are frozen in place as he passes, but he can't bring himself to care. He's just too pissed off for it. Too pissed off to even think straight. To do more than throw the door to his office open with a snarl and stalk to his desk. It's already rimmed with ice before he can even sit, and that only grows as he throws himself down in his chair and brings his clenched fists to rest on top.
Furious doesn't even begin to describe his current mood. Nor do enraged or wrathful.
They had dared threaten her. Her! Karin! His… well, more-than-a-friend. Had made him go to the house she still shared with her sister, father, and occasionally her brother. Had made him question her about her brother's whereabouts. Had searched through not only Kurosaki's belongings but also hers. Seeking some hint of deception. Some miniscule sign that she's lying and does indeed know the location of Kurosaki Ichigo.
But Toushirou is willing to bet an entire year's salary that she doesn't. That the hurt and pain and fear gleaming in her eyes are nothing if not genuine. That she honestly doesn't have a clue, and that frightens her. Terrifies her in the way of someone who has lost in the past. Who knows the realities of death in an intimate way.
His only saving grace of the day is that his own division was the one to do the search, and that they were smart enough not to do a very thorough job of it. They obviously didn't find the stack of papers she keeps in the vent in her closet, letters sent from Toushirou himself both during and after the war. She keeps other things there, too. Other far more incriminating things that would certainly get him severely reprimanded if not outright fired. Consorting with a still living human is grounds for dismissal. Not that it stopped her father. Karin and her siblings are clear evidence of that.
Toushirou sighs then and puts his head in his hands, trying to ignore the throbbing behind his eyes. He won't get anything done today, and he knows it. He's too frustrated for paperwork, and he's not a bully to take it out on his division either. He just sighs again and pushes himself to his feet, striding for the door.
Matsumoto, for once at her desk, takes a single look at him before giving a firm nod and motioning for him to go on. And her hand trails across his shoulder as he walks by, a gesture of comfort and solidarity. All that she dares show even here, his inner sanctum. No telling who might be watching.
He exits the building and strides through the compound like a man on a mission. Which he is of sorts. But his destination is actually the division next door. Toushirou isn't an odd sight at the eleventh, not these days. He and Zaraki have reached an understanding of sorts, a type of respect and almost friendship born from blood and sweat shed together. It doesn't hurt that their divisions are neighboring and were paired together during the war. Toushirou himself spent a significant part of it in and around the upper-seats of the eleventh, Ayasegawa and Madarame before his death. The fact that he kept Kusajishi Yachiru from meeting a similar fate while nearly suffering it himself bought him their respect.
But that's only Zaraki's half of the equation, just half of the reason for being friendlier. For Toushirou, it's a lot simpler. Zaraki Kenpachi doesn't treat him like a kid. Never has. Never will. The war only cemented that between them.
It's easy to get into the eleventh division compound; he just walks through the front door with a nod to the guards. The main building is out front, and a few people even call out greetings when he passes them on his way to the captain's office. Ayasegawa is seated at the lieutenant's desk and glances up at him with his lips twitching. The closest he comes to smiling these days, the scar on his face standing out in sharp contrast to the rest of his even features.
Kusajishi waves at him as he walks up to her just outside the office door. "Hey, Toushou!" she chirps, moving in for the glomp.
Which he allows if only because he knows that avoiding it will lead to something worse later on. He doesn't even comment on her insufferable nickname that still manages to be better than Shirou-chan ever was. Not that anyone calls him Shirou-chan anymore. Ukitake's too busy to see him outside of meetings, and Hinamori is beyond speaking. Not dead… but she might as well be.
The girl eventually has her fill of assaulting him and steps back to peer at his face. "You don't look happy either. Ken-chan's been frowny today too, Toushou," she informs him, grin faltering for a moment as her eyes dart around surreptitiously. "They're still lookin' for Ichi, and that stuffy bitch-lady from the eighth's been snoopin' around 'gain."
If anything, that only makes his scowl deepen. He doesn't say anything as he heads into Zaraki's office and more specifically the porch behind it that faces the training grounds. He knows that Zaraki is there by the swell of reiatsu in the air, but it's subdued enough to let him know that the man can't be doing anything more strenuous than drinking sake.
Which he is in fact doing when Toushirou steps out. Zaraki doesn't even turn to see who it is and just waves him over. The man might not be able to spiritually sense his way out of a paper bag, but there are only so many people willing to come by his division. Much less barge through his office without so much as a by-your-leave. And Zaraki just offers the sake jug as Toushirou sits beside him. But he declines, knowing that it is far too early in the day for that. No matter how tempting.
He's not Matsumoto, after all. Not Kyouraku Shunsui. And Chamber 46 would have his head on a pike if they found him sloshed on the job. Particularly at his physical age.
Zaraki takes one look at him, a fine layer of frost still coating his haori, and shakes his head.
"Sent ya to Karakura, didn't they?" the older captain questions with a deceptively light tone as his fingers fiddle with the cup in his hand.
"Yeah." Toushirou flicks a piece of ice from his sock. "But Kurosaki wasn't there. Not that I thought he'd be. He's not an idiot. Not completely," he adds just because he can.
Zaraki snorts. "He's smarter than most people realize. Had ta be ta get into that school of his and ta live as long as he did. But they only see a dumb kid. One they think they can manipulate."
Toushirou inclines his head. It's nothing but the truth. Chamber 46 only sees a human when they look at Kurosaki, only see a boy. A dangerous boy, yes. But just a boy. They don't see the man he's become. The man who fought and bled and sacrificed so much for his friends. Who wouldn't let Toushirou face his past and his personal demons by himself. Who believed in him even when most of the Gotei 13 thought that he'd joined Kusaka and stolen the King's Seal.
"They probably think the same 'bout his family, too," Zaraki adds. "What'd yer girl say?"
There's no point in protesting the implication inherent in that sentence. At least not to this man. Zaraki Kenpachi probably has a better grasp of the goings-on in Seireitei and among the Shinigami than just about anyone. After all, he's one of the few who spotted Aizen, Tousen, and Ichimaru for what they were. He just hadn't been able to convince anyone else.
"She hasn't seen him since before we dragged him off," Toushirou continues after a moment. "She's-"
Scared. Lost. Confused.
"-worried," he decides. "She thinks they'll do something to her or Yuzu in an attempt to flush him out. But she's more worried about her brother."
Zaraki takes a sip. "Che. She has a right ta be. No tellin' what they'll do if they find him."
And that is the key word, isn't it?
Toushirou has his doubts that the new head of the eighth can find her ass with both hands and a squad full of helpers. Kyouraku was many things, but at least competent was one of them. He can't say as much for the new captains. It looks like Chamber 46 went for mindless obedience over actual aptitude and skill. Not that he'd ever say that aloud. Seireitei is just one giant mess. Filled with corruption and greed and a captain-commander who is too weak to put a stop to it. To even stand up for the man who was almost his lover and would've been more if given half the chance.
"Fuckin' shit. That's what this is," Zaraki mutters then. As if he's read Toushirou's mind. "Trumped up evidence. Farce trial. Not that I was even allowed in fer it." His face darkens at the reminder. "If I didn't know better, I'd say that they made this up, too. That they still have Ichigo and are only playin' that they don't."
Toushirou's eyes widen in surprise. He can certainly see the possibility now that it's been brought up. But that would be too easy, too convenient. And he doesn't even want to contemplate Karin's reaction.
"But I don't really believe that," Zaraki puts in after taking a long draw from his cup. "Ichigo deserves better, and he's got a lot of friends. Wouldn't be too hard fer them ta arrange somethin'. Those Vizard 'specially. They were never exiled like Urahara. They can still come and go as they please. And they really hate us at the moment. Would probably free Ichigo if only to spite us."
"I'm not sure if it was them though." Toushirou fingers the hem of his shihakushou absentmindedly. "There are plenty of others in the city who weren't happy with the ruling."
The older captain rolls his shoulders. "Like Kuchiki-hime."
And there's something to his tone of voice. Something both vaguely amused and a bit intrigued. Like there's a puzzle laid out before him and Zaraki can't help but put some of the pieces together. Toushirou already knows his theories about Kuchiki Byakuya and Kurosaki's possible connection. He himself saw the way Kuchiki watched out for the loudmouthed substitute, looked after him the same way he does his sister and did Abarai when he was still around. Almost proprietary. Like he felt some sort of responsibility for him. A strange thing indeed since Ukitake was the one to sponsor Kurosaki into the ranks and to almost date him.
"Oh?" Toushirou lifts an eyebrow and wonders where Zaraki will go with this. "What about him?"
Zaraki tips his head back. "Just seems ta be takin' it personal. 'Specially when he learned that his sister was the one ta tattle on Ichigo in the first place. Haven't seen her 'round lately. Hasn't dared show her face. Not after Yachiru got through with her." He gives a predatory smile then. "Kuchiki-hime still ain't too pleased 'bout that, but he's got other stuff on his mind. He's been throwin' around some mighty pointed questions lately. He and that Shihouin cat-woman. I think they're both out for blood."
"They're not the only ones," Toushirou mumbles, catching Zaraki's eye. "Are they?"
There is a silent exchange then. One they don't dare put into words, even here. Even with Zaraki's reiatsu enough to knock out a Menos Grande and to obscure their words to any eavesdroppers. An exchange that says they are among those already mentioned. That they know something is rotten to the core in Soul Society. That they didn't fight a war and almost lose everything just to have themselves shackled down. And that there are people in good need of a lesson if not outright killing.
"Nope," Zaraki agrees, and he pulls out another cup and fills it full of sake.
This time Toushirou takes it. And their cups make a dull sound as they clink together in salute.
AN: Credit for Hitsugaya's nickname goes to Lala to the power of 2.