[Bleach] Equivalent Exchange

He’d been practicing for weeks in total secret and with no one the wiser. He was determined to do this and without anyone’s help. Ichigo was tired of being in the dark about certain things, and if sneaking around was the only way to get any answers, then he was going to learn stealth. On top of all that, he had to learn how to conceal his reiatsu, even if only for ten minutes or so. That would be all he would need.

Once a week, he’d come to learn, Urahara disappeared into the basement of his shop, and no one was allowed to follow him. Well, no one outside of his personal posse. Ichigo had discovered this about three months back when he’d wanted to ask the shopkeeper something and Tessai had informed him that he was otherwise occupied. Ichigo wasn’t stupid. Even he could feel the vibrations in the floor from whatever the geta-boushi was doing down there.

When asked, however, Urahara would just smile in that disarming away of his and give a flick of the wrist. It was irritating. They were supposed to be lovers, not people who kept secrets like that. And it definitely wasn’t fair. Urahara-san knew everything about him – his Vizard abilities, what happened to his mother, everything that was important! And Ichigo knew hardly anything about him at all. Where was the fairness in that?

If Urahara wasn’t going to tell him, Ichigo was going to find out the truth for himself. Thus, the practicing in secret. He could do it now, hide his reiatsu for at least fifteen minutes with concentration. And today was perfect for putting all of his efforts into use.

Ichigo crept silently into the shouten, aware that Ururu and Jinta were playing some game in the backyard. Renji was out patrolling the town, and the mod souls were visiting with Kon. Ichigo didn’t know how a bunch of mobile stuffed animals didn’t get noticed, but somehow, they were lucky like that. This left Tessai as the only possible guard in the house.

Sliding silently down the hall, Ichigo crept by the kitchen, where Tessai was whistling over a bubbling pot. He didn’t seem to notice Ichigo’s presence. Which meant that holding in his coiling reiatsu was working. He would actually be successful.

Ichigo forced himself to breathe shallowly, his heart thunderously loud in his chest. He really didn’t want to get caught. He was tired of being in the dark.

He made it to the entrance to the underground training arena without incident and thanked kami when the trapdoor didn’t squeak as he lifted it. With a small prayer for concealment, Ichigo dropped down, his eyes instantly searching out Urahara. Luckily for him, the shopkeeper was far from the entrance, nearly surrounded by a cloud of dust and debris. The sound of the ground rumbling ominously covered all traces of his movement, his feet barely crunching over rock. And the sense of power was overpowering, a thick ripple of it on the air.

So this was what Urahara’s reiatsu was like, unrestrained and free to fly. Yet, it was different somehow. From all the other Shinigami. In fact, it felt far more like something else Ichigo recognized. Something more like Shinji.

A sense of understanding and suspicion began to build inside of Ichigo. He held it in, however, preferring to draw closer. He had to be certain.

The ground rumbled more strongly the closer he drew in. He heard rocks explode, shattering into bits, and his lover’s voice, the same but also different. Carrying a strange and familiar sort of echo.

A flash of reddish-black reiatsu suddenly shot up into the air, brightening the sky and flashing against the high walls of the rock enclosing Urahara’s position. Ichigo used it to his advantage and cover, finally dropping down into a place where he could see his lover. Despite all the clues, he was still shocked when he caught sight of the man, swinging an unsheathed Benihime through the air with an unmistakable covering of white bone on his face.

In his surprise, all control on his reiatsu slithered through his fingers. And in an instant, it became obvious to Urahara. He whirled around, immediately pinpointing Ichigo’s location within seconds. Red-shaded eyes widened in the dark portals of the mask, and Benihime was lowered, the final bits of whatever he had destroyed crashing to the ground.

Ichigo rose to his feet, no longer needing stealth, feeling a vague sense of betrayal. Urahara – no, Kisuke – was a Vizard. And he’d never said anything at all. Never even hinted at it! Despite knowing what Ichigo had suffered through and the pain he had been felt, Kisuke hadn’t spoken a word. He’d kept that secret. And it made Ichigo furious as much as hurt. Was he not reliable enough? Or was he just too young? Old enough to fuck but not to trust.

A sigh, full of that Hollow reverberation, echoed across the expanse of ground as Kisuke moved towards Ichigo, one hand already reaching to pry off his mask. Benihime was returned to her sheath with the other hand as he raked fingers through his blond hair, sweeping it out of his eyes.

“Ichigo,” Kisuke began as he drew nearer, and there was a sense of regret in his tone. “You’ve gotten much better. I didn’t sense you at all.”

In any other situation, Ichigo would have felt a stirring of pride for that praise. At the moment, however, he just let it slide off his shoulders.

“You’re a Vizard,” he stated, voice full of accusation.

Kisuke’s eyes dropped before he inclined his head. “I am,” he replied, and without another word, he held out his mask, some of the edges of it already starting to flake away.

Curiosity reigned for a few heartbeats, and Ichigo took the offering, running his fingers over what still felt warm to his touch. Power seemed to radiate within the mask, and he realized that it was very much like holding another person’s zanpakutou. He could feel Kisuke in the mask, and it was an odd sensation.

It was much more complicated than his own. Ichigo’s fingers brushed lightly against the bone, tracing the dark blue teardrops markings beneath the empty eye sockets. It appeared to be three pieces, a helmet sort that crested to form a pointed nose with blue markings. A second piece in the middle with jagged spines sticking out on either side, the bottom curved like an owl’s beak. And the third piece was just the jaw with the usual Hollow’s teeth. Ichigo had another moment to admire the shape before it crumpled completely in his hands. The pieces dropped to the ground, joining the rest of the dust.

Ichigo’s fingers curled into fists. “You couldn’t have told me?” he asked, voice gone soft and unable to hide the hurt. He was just so frustrated in that moment. Pained in a way that only betrayal can do.

His lover sighed again, and there were decades of carefully hidden pain in that simple sound. “Come with me. I promise I’ll explain.”

Though he wanted to protest loudly, a newfound sense of maturity had Ichigo clamping down on his irritation. So long as he was going to get some explanations, he would save an explosion of annoyance for later.

It occurred to Ichigo, as they used bursts of shunpo to head towards the ladder and out of the basement, that this was the first time he’d seen his lover in such dress. Like a Shinigami in fact, all black with a white haori. A white captain’s haori, to be more precise. As if Kisuke only allowed reminiscence of the past in those moments when he blocked himself off in the basement with no interference. Hiding his pain and keeping it to himself.

Ichigo wondered how much of the secret was his fault. He knew that he was reckless and – considering that Kisuke had been a Shinigami for at least a hundred years – noticeably less knowledgeable than his lover. Could Kisuke hide the truth that well, or had he just been too blind to notice?

Upstairs, they were nearly blind-sided by an apologetic Tessai who immediately noticed Ichigo trailing along after his boss. “I apologize, Urahara-san. I don’t know how he slipped by me.”

Kisuke waved him off with a small smile. “I’m not angry, Tessai. We both know how determined he can be. It was inevitable.”

Ichigo refused to feel guilty for his actions. Not when the truth had stared him so obviously in the face. When he had touched it with his fingers and felt it crumble away from him. He wanted and needed answers, and he was going to get them.

“Still…” Tessai broke off, his gaze darting between master and student before he inclined his head. “I’ll keep Jinta and Ururu occupied” was all that he said, turning away and granting the two their privacy as he moved down the hall.

“I think a bath is necessary,” Kisuke stated into the quiet between them, his footsteps unnaturally soft in the corridor as Ichigo followed.

“Sure. Whatever,” Ichigo agreed because he honestly couldn’t think to argue, flurrying emotions bringing a sense of numbness. It might have sounded immature, but it was difficult to stomach that someone he had trusted had lied to him so thoroughly.

Urahara as a Vizard was almost like finding out that his mom was Aizen’s sister. Or that Goat Face was really a Shinigami. Not that the last two were true or anything.

The silence unnerved him. And as they walked, he tried to sense out Kisuke, to see what his lover might have been feeling. As always, he was a tightly closed box, barriers difficult to penetrate. All Ichigo could sense was that the older man was just as uneasy as he, if not more. It made him feel better about his own anger.

Kisuke kept his quiet until they were actually in the baths, his hands soaped up and running softly over Ichigo’s back. The atmosphere was tense, filled with anticipation, and Ichigo was two steps from demanding an answer.

“I apologize for not telling you,” Kisuke said. For once admitting his mistake and sounding honestly contrite.

That in itself was enough to cool about a fourth of Ichigo’s anger. But not all of it. Just because Kisuke could bite his pride and apologize didn’t mean Ichigo was going to immediately forgive him. It irked him for reasons he could very easily explain. He’d struggled with his Hollow for months, and this man had only given him dubious advice. He’d fought and thrashed, nearly died. Had been on the brink of completely losing himself. Had been so desperate at times, desperate enough to come to the shouten. He’d been so alone throughout it all. Alone until he had met the others, had met Shinji. And all that time, Kisuke had just watched him struggle. Watched as Ichigo tried to understand what was happening to him, what he had become through no fault of his own.

“Why didn’t you?” Ichigo demanded, forcing himself not to be lulled by the comfort of hands across his skin.

“It wasn’t that I didn’t trust you, if that’s what you’re thinking,” Kisuke replied quietly, words slow and measured. As though thinking each response through thoroughly. “I am so accustomed to keeping the secret that I could not share it.”

It made sense in a small way. Ichigo had gotten used to the fact that Kisuke carried secrets like no one else he knew. Kisuke always had a plot or two of some kind going on somewhere, and he collected knowledge as though each piece of information were a rare treasure. Vizard abilities aside, there were still facets to Kisuke’s personality he didn’t understand.

Ichigo inclined his head. “How long?” he asked, voice echoing in the stark quiet of the bathroom, part of him wishing he could see the man’s face. The other part of him was relieved he couldn’t because he was still angry and hurt and didn’t want his emotions seen.

“It’s a century-old story,” the blond replied after a long pause, atmosphere heavy and charged with emotion. “But suffice it to say, I was one of the first. I tested the Hougyoku on myself.”

Nearly speechless, Ichigo could only sit in silence as he listened, unable to comprehend such dedication. He’d heard enough of the Hougyoku to understand the danger it presented. And Kisuke had tested it on himself?

Foolish. Brave but very foolish.

“Curse or blessing, I don’t know,” Kisuke continued, his tone taking on a regretful melancholy as he recalled some past event that happened long before Ichigo had even been thought about. “But thanks to that, I was able to help Hirako-san and the others when Aizen performed some experiments of his own.”

“Wait, Aizen?” Ichigo was shocked, and he turned in his surprise, catching Kisuke’s eyes.

Grey had darkened with remembered events, and the blond’s gaze focused on the soapy floor before he looked up to meet Ichigo’s. “That’s probably a story for another time. It’s a long one. But in the short of it, yes, what happened to them is entirely Aizen’s doing. I merely tried to correct it and failed miserably.”

Ichigo shifted position, the bath forgotten as he looked at his lover. He thought of Shinji in that moment, and though he was a Vizard, he didn’t seem too troubled. He might have been exiled, but at least, he was alive. There was still a chance. And he thought that it in itself wasn’t quite a failure.

He did, however, doubt that his assurances would help Kisuke at all. His lover had been harboring guilt and regret for the better part of a century. It would take more than a genuine reassurance on Ichigo’s part to suture that wound. And he thought he understood in that moment why Kisuke had not told him.

For Kisuke, the fact that he was a Vizard was an open wound. Not so much because it was forbidden or because he didn’t want to be but because of what else it meant. Because of whatever Aizen had done in that century past and of what Shinji and his friends had become. To Kisuke, it represented several failures on his part, a reminder of everything that had been lost and had yet to be regained. It was a wound still raw and bleeding, and time was not an effective enough salve.

It wasn’t something that could easily be said, cheerfully explained, happily spoken. Revealing that he was a Vizard meant that there was so much more Kisuke would have to explain. He was right; it had nothing to do with trust. And everything to do with pain.

In that moment, Ichigo felt just a tad annoyed with himself. “You don’t have to tell me,” he finally said, apologetically ducking his head and letting the tense atmosphere wash over him.

There was a moment of silence before he heard Kisuke take in a slow, quiet breath. A hand settled on his head, smoothing water and soap over his hair.

“Sometimes, you are more mature than I give you credit.”

Ichigo snorted lightly, the sound piercing the faint unease. “Of course. Who do you think I am? Renji?”

The slightest smile curled on Kisuke’s lips. “Kami forbid,” he returned, lightly teasing. “If you ever show up covered in tattoos, I may have to worry.”

“That’s not going to happen,” Ichigo said, but it came out more of a fervent vow.

It wasn’t that Renji’s tattoos weren’t cool, not that he’d ever admit that to the pineapple-headed idiot. He just didn’t want to cover his own body in all that black ink. He had more sense than that. Those things were permanent!

Kisuke’s fingers rubbed gently over his scalp for all of a second before Ichigo found himself pulled into the other man’s embrace, their bodies pressed together with only the barrier of soapy foam between them. Ichigo nearly squawked at the unexpected motion but recognized it for what it was. Who would have known that the perverted shopkeeper was actually a secret cuddler?

He allowed the affection because it was warranted and just a bit wanted on his part. Kisuke was warm if not a bit soapy-slick, and he could feel it now, the slow and subtle pulse of his reiatsu. It thrummed over Kisuke’s skin, no doubt because he’d been interrupted in the middle of a rather destructive fight with a boulder.

His cheek was pressed to Kisuke’s chest, and he could hear the shopkeeper’s heartbeat, strangely off-beat as though he’d recovered from a difficult situation. “So… that boulder was pretty dangerous, huh?”

“I can’t exactly go outside and pick a fight with a Hollow, can I?” Kisuke countered, though there was humor in his voice. “My Hollow gets restless because I rarely fight. If I don’t let him out now and then, he becomes more difficult to handle.”

Ichigo considered. “You could always spar with me,” he suggested, and the idea had a lot of appeal to him. “In fact, do it anyway. You owe me some better training now that I know you actually do know what you’re doing.”

“And I didn’t before? Ichigo! You wound me!”

Ichigo felt a small smile coming to his lips, his anger pretty much dissipated. Maybe he wasn’t as mature as he thought since he hadn’t thought it through. But that was okay. In the end, he felt he understood his lover better. The gap that he’d always seen between them had lessened. And in a way, he felt more connected, knowing that they had something else in common.

He supposed that was all that really mattered.

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