Renji wasn’t sure how he got volunteered to approach the famous Shūhei Hisagi. Actually, he did know. He took the bet, and everyone else was chicken shit.
He could sort of get his friends’ trepidation, though. The guy was an upperclassman, already accepted into the Thirteen Court Guard, and… dude had a tattoo on his face. Still, Renji figured he had a shot. Who could resist an invitation to party? Besides, the guy owed him. He, Izuru Kira, and Momo Hinamori had saved his life.
Technically, they’d all gotten their sorry asses rescued by Captain Aizen and his creepy lieutenant Ichimaru, but at least he and his friends hadn’t been entirely in the way.
Renji found Shūhei sitting in the corner of the student lounge by himself. His head bowed over that strange instrument he’d reputedly brought back from some foray into the human world—a guitar? He was mournfully plucking its strings. His black hair stuck up in spikes, and he wore the Academy uniform with the addition of that funky leather studded collar around his neck.
Word was he was still pretty broken up over the loss of his colleagues Kanisawa and Aoga from that fateful day when they all ended up ambushed by a horde of hollows. The bandages on his face had been removed several days ago, but the wounds were still puckered and red. He’d be scarred in more ways than one.
Even so, Renji thought Shūhei looked like a guy used to being left alone… and lonely.
“Hey,” Renji said, sitting down on the floor next to him.
Shūhei glanced up briefly, and then returned to his music.
“Listen,” Renji said, undaunted by the less than warm welcome. “Some of us freshmen are… well, we’re organizing a breakout. Want to come?”
“Abarai, isn’t it? Aren’t you part of the elite class? Shouldn’t you be studying or something, not making plans to go over the wall?”
“Hello,” Renji said. “Elite does not equal boring. Being top of the class just means we’re bright enough not to get caught. We’re serious masters of mischief. Smarties of parties. Genuises of Badassery.”
Shūhei set down the guitar. A slight smile tugged the corner of his mouth. “Badassery?”
“You should come. You’re pretty badass yourself.”
They made a brief stop to return the guitar to Shūhei ’s room, and then they started to make their way to where everyone was gathering for the escapade.
As they crossed the quad, Shūhei said, “Um, Abarai?”
“Those people are barking at us.”
“Not us. At me,” Renji looked to where Shūhei indicated and gave the group a big, friendly smile and wave. “They do that. A lot of people do that. You’d think they’d get tired of it. I hardly hear it any more. Frankly, I prefer the idiots who pant,” he said with a little chuckle. “I want to say ‘I don’t think that means what you think that means.’ But if I told them how gay they sounded panting after me, it would start a fight. And that’s what they’ve wanted from the beginning. Because if they started a fight, I’d fucking finish it. Then I’d be out, expelled.”
“Uh, I think I missed a step,” Shūhei admitted, scratching the back of his neck. “Why do they bark?”
Renji gave Shūhei a sidelong look. “You being serious?”
“Dude. I’m from Inuzuri, the Hang Dog District. Don’t tell me you can’t see it on me, hear it in the way I talk.”
“Oh, I suppose, now that you mention it,” Shūhei said with a lift of his shoulder. “I don’t tend to notice things like that.”
“I think I just fell in love with you a little bit.”
Shūhei rolled his eyes. “Shut up, Abarai.”
Kira shook his head in disbelief when he saw Renji and Shūhei walk in together. His bright blond hair hung into his face, obscuring his delicate, elfin features.
Renji bumped his friend with is elbow as he passed, “You owe me. I won the bet.”
“Crap,” Kira muttered dejectedly, fishing in his pockets to hand over the cash.
Renji took to the money, stashed in his own uniform. Touching his finger to his nose, he said, “What did I tell you?”
Kira sighed dramatically. “You always say you’re awesome, Renji, even when you’re not.”
“See, there’s your mistake right there, Izuru. There’s never a time when I’m not.”
“Please tell me that someone besides you two clowns is the organizer of this illegal outing,” Shūhei said disparagingly.
Renji pointed to the tiny figure of Momo. As usual, her jet black hair was pulled back in a tight bun, covered with a bit of lace. She was milling about the small group of gathered students, shaking hands like a politician, and giving out instructions and travel packs. Renji explained, “She’s the brains.”
“Weirdly, that comforts me,” Shūhei said.
They ended up in an izakaya, a small tavern, not far from Inzuri. Actually, it was nearly two dozen districts away, but that was close enough for Renji. Meanwhile, Momo told him she’d actually planned to go this deep, since that meant that Renji’s accent wouldn’t stand out when ordering rounds for the table. As long as none of the others interacted with the locals, no one would suspect they were from Academy. She was so pleased with her cleverness that Renji didn’t have the heart to explain that he’d still sound plenty out-of-place and memorable to these folks.
Although, she was right in one regard: no one would think he was slumming.
He’d expected the bartender’s raised eyebrows when he spoke, but her sudden, instant solicitousness surprised him. When she slipped extra drinks into his order, Renji knew something was up. She touched the sleeve of the travel cloak Momo had provided them all, and said, “Be sure to tell your boss of my kindness.”
It was pretty clear she didn’t mean the Academy’s head instructor.
She must be mistaking him for someone, and from the clues, Renji would have to guess it was some Inuzuri yakuza soldier. So Renji just nodded, since there was no point trying to convince her otherwise. At least it meant they could get as rowdy as they wanted. She’d probably be too nervous to shut them down.
“Wow,” said Kira looking at the loaded down tray. “Our money really goes far here.”
“Well, what do you expect?” said a guy with an upper district accent. Renji didn’t know him, but either Momo or Kira must have vouched for him. “We could probably buy the whole place with what we have on us.”
Renji grabbed a bottle and sat down. He slammed it back in order to keep himself from killing anyone.
Luckily, the conversation drifted to other topics like up-coming exams and gossip about instructors and fellow students. Renji noticed that Shūhei didn’t join in much either. The two of them sat quietly, getting a good drunk on.
Soon it was time for another round, and Renji got up to get it.
“The landlady seems scared of you,” Shūhei noted quietly when Renji returned with the second loaded down tray. “Do you have some history here?”
Renji shook his head. Leaning in to keep their conversation private, he said, “She thinks I’m part of some Inuzuri gang. To be fair, I was, but not any she’s thinking of. I don’t imagine your tattoo helps.”
“Or these,” Shūhei added, lightly touching the side of his injured face.
Renji shrugged. Still pitching his voice lowly, he said, “Yeah, but you’d think one look at the rest of this lot would dissuade her. I mean, shit, this is the nerd herd on parade.”
Shūhei laughed, but then added thoughtfully, “Maybe she can sense our combined spiritual pressure?”
Renji shrugged. “Maybe, but most of the mob guys I knew didn’t have much of that--just a lot of attitude, tattoos, and… anger management issues.”
“You knew a lot of mob guys?”
“Only well enough not to get killed,” Renji took a long swallow of the beer. “You’ve got to recognize who not to piss off, you know?”
“Not really,” Shūhei admitted.
“Oh. Right.” Renji’s eyes flicked over to him for a second. He took another drink and looked away, watching the door. “Trust me, then. Rukia and I wouldn’t have lasted very long if we couldn’t identify the players. If you have to steal your bread, you don’t want to unknowingly lift it off a trained killer.”
Renji didn’t respond. Of course he was serious. It was all a fun games to Momo and the rest, but the depths of the Rukongai were far more dangerous than any of them realized. And Fifty-Two? Another couple districts down and this place would look like the Ritz!
Renji’s eyes kept drifting to the exits. At least it wasn’t likely any of the Inuzuri punks were already here. Otherwise, the bartender wouldn’t have pegged him and his friends as possible trouble.
Shūhei was apparently still thinking about what Renji had said earlier, “But if the mob guys don’t have much spiritual pressure, why do they have food to steal?”
“Because,” Renji said, still nursing his drink and scanning the room. “It’s a commodity, and a precious one, at that. Desperate enough people will do anything for it.”
“Damn,” Shūhei breathed.
“Hey, Momo,” Renji shouted over the conversation. “How long are we planning on staying here? You got another spot on the itinerary?”
“Aw,” whined one of the freshmen girls Renji didn’t recognize. “I like it here. The beer is good and, more importantly, cheap.”
“Indeed,” said the guy with the upper class accent. “And look at the place! It’s so charmingly… savage.”
“Yeah,” another chimed in. “It’s like shabby chic. Glamshackle”
Everyone seemed to find this ridiculously funny.
Shūhei put a light hand on Renji’s elbow. Renji hadn’t even realized his fists were clenching. He uncurled them with effort.
Momo, at least, had the sense to look concerned. “Why? Is something wrong?”
Not yet , Renji thought, so he shook his head. It was just a feeling, anyway, right? He’d probably be this uncomfortable no matter where they ended up, and it was true-- the beer was surprisingly good for such a dive.
Shūhei tipped back his drink, and then slammed the empty bottle on the table. He stood up, heading for the door.
“Where’re you going, Hisagi?” Kira asked. “We only just started.”
He stopped and turned. Shūhei stared down each and everyone at the table in turn as he spoke: “If the guy from Inuzuri is uncomfortable here, I, for one, trust his instincts. We’re leaving.”
As no one wanted to leave a drop of paid-for alcohol behind, they all slammed whatever they could grab before they left. The lightweights, like Kira, were already slurring and weaving through the streets. Even Renji had a bit of a buzz on. Especially since, once they saw he could handle it, people offered him whatever they couldn’t. He’d had far more than his share and the sun wasn’t even down yet.
Luckily, the next place Momo led them wasn’t far away, and half a district up. People in this neighborhood seemed more irritated than nervous to see a rowdy group of youths all traveling together.
Shūhei came up beside Renji, “Better?”
He nodded. “You didn’t have to do that. We probably would have been all right.”
“‘Probably’,” Shūhei said with a little nod. “Exactly. How long did you survive on your own?”
Renji grunted. Embarrassed, he shrugged, “Long enough. But I wasn’t alone.”
Shūhei put a hand on his shoulder. “Which means you not only took care of yourself, but someone else too.”
Renji shook his head. “Don’t insult my friends. The weakest of them were stronger than some of these jokers. And, Rukia… she took care of me as much, if not more, than I took care of her. We were doing okay before she came along, but she turned surviving into thriving. I would never have made it to Academy without her.”
“Wow, I think I’d like to meet this girl. Which one is she?” Shūhei looked through the crowd, as if expecting to be able to identify the toughest female.
Renji watched him with an amused expression, “You’d never pick her out. She’s nothing like me. She’s tiny and looks… kind of breakable.”
“So show me,” Shūhei said.
“She didn’t come,” Renji sighed. “Ironically, she’s the one studying. Plus, just between you and me, she’s not adjusting well. Those assholes who bark at me have a lot worse to say to her.”
“Hmmm,” Shūhei’s mouth formed a thin line. “I can imagine.”
“Yeah,” Renji muttered, frowning to himself. Truth was, he’d had to put some distance between them or the next time some jerk called Rukia his bitch, there would be blood. She’d kill him if he got them both expelled over something so stupid. But he couldn’t stand how much it hurt her. Turns out she wasn’t nearly as tough in Academy as she was on the streets. Rukia sucked at acting like all the insults didn’t bother her. He’d learned to let most of it roll off, even laugh at it—but she… she just seemed to shrink, crumble deeper into herself.
It was killing him.
They’d arrived at the new tavern; it was a slightly more up-scale akachōchin. There were red paper lanterns hung on the eaves and a menu posted in the window. At least they’d have the option of having more than edamame, boiled and salted soybean pods, to munch on. Which was a good thing. Some of these guys needed to soak some of it up, or they’d never sneak back into the Academy grounds without getting caught.
“I’m tired of following these kids around,” Shūhei said, holding Renji at the door with a tug on his sleeve. “Why don’t you and I get a bottle to go?”
They ended up perched on a tiled roof overlooking someone’s private garden. It wasn’t a terribly large area, but its owner had made good use of the space available. There were artfully placed boulders, cedar topiary, and even an artificial waterfall. Water gurgled over flat rocks. Tree frogs peeped in the carefully manicured grasses. Tiny lighted paper lanterns illuminated a crooked path, and dragonflies skimmed along the water’s edge in the fading light.
Half the bottle of sake was gone, and Renji was feeling pretty happy… and little frisky. “So that sixty-nine,” Renji asked, sloppily pointing to the spot on his own cheek where Shūhei ’s tattoo was and giving him a toothy smile, “That some kind of perpetual come on?”
Shūhei almost choked on the sake he was drinking.
“What?” Renji said to his glare. “What am I supposed to think? If it’s not your favorite position, what’s it about?”
“It’s a memorial,” Shūhei said, “To the man who saved my life.”
“No, damn it, not with sex!” Shūhei’s cheeks were bright red with a blush, “The regular way, with a sword and fighting and stuff.”
“Uh-huh,” Renji nodded slowly, as if disbelieving. “So… it’s for a guy?”
“Yes! He had it tattooed on his chest.”
“Very manly,” Renji said with another nod. “How did you happen to see it when he was… uh, saving your life?”
“His shirt came open.”
“Hmmm,” Renji said, giving Shūhei a sly smile, “How lucky for you.”
“Shut the fuck up, Abarai.”
Renji laughed. “Alright, but it’s ‘shut the fuck up, Renji.’ Hardly anyone calls me Abarai.”
Shūhei still blushed furiously, his eyes focus on something in the garden. “I don’t think we know each other that well.”
“Loosen up, would you? We’re drunk and I already awkwardly tried to come on to you. I think we’re pretty friendly.”
“It wasn’t that awkward,” Shūhei muttered quietly.
“No, it was,” Renji said sadly, taking another long swallow of sake, before lying down on the roof to stare up at the night sky. The moon was new, so the stars shone brightly. He tucked his arms under his head. “If it wasn’t now, it will be tomorrow when we’re sober. I mean, if you’re not into it…”
“I didn’t say that.”
“…you’re going to be looking at me like… wait, what?”
Shūhei answered him with a kiss. Though Shūhei leaned over him aggressively with a hand on either side of Reni’s face, the kiss itself was tentative, curious, and almost… timid. Renji smiled beneath it. He looks so tough, but it’s an act.
Reaching up, Renji slid his arms around Shūhei’s shoulders. He pulled him down into a stronger kiss. When Shūhei started to pull away, as if uncertain what to do with this sudden passion, Renji held him tighter. He teased open Shūhei’s mouth and thrust his tongue inside.
It was pretty clear to Renji that Shūhei had never been kissed like this before. Shūhei fumbled at first, going completely still. But then, at Renji’s urging, Shūhei began to follow Renji’s lead, chasing his tongue around. They both tasted of beer and sake and something forbidden, an intoxicating combination.
When Shūhei pulled away again, Renji let him go.
“I’ve never….” Shūhei admitted breathlessly.
“It’s cool,” Renji said, his hands drifting Shūhei’s sides, near his hips. Even though Renji wasn’t usually the one on his back, he found he enjoyed having Shūhei over him. He sort of wished he could convince Shūhei to straddle him, but that would probably be too much for such a shy guy. “You’re a good kisser. We could just kiss.”
Shūhei seemed relieved by the suggestion. “That would be nice. I just… the way you talked about that girl, I thought….”
“I like girls too.”
Renji tried to decide if Shūhei sounded surprised or disappointed or both. It was hard to read his expression the moonless night, though Shūhei still leaned over him—he hadn’t completely pulled away. Renji let his hands slowly caress Shūhei’s sides, up along his ribcage. “Do you have a problem with that?”
“No, it’s just that I was hoping…. I’ve never really met anyone else that, you know, understands.”
Poor guy. Renji’s first impression was right: Shūhei was lonely, but not just because he was such a badass, but also because he was totally gay. Renji’s heart melted a little, and he felt an overwhelming desire to take care of Shūhei and mentor him in the ways of love and make everything okay. But, if there was one thing Renji knew about himself, it was that he wasn’t good boyfriend material. No, he was a much better playmate, good time lay… a fuck buddy.
Renji could say he understood. But it was so clear how desperately Shūhei wanted to hear it, Renji would only be taking advantage, playing him. Tugging at Shūhei’s kosode a little to encourage him, Renji said, instead, “You should kiss me some more.”
“We should head back,” Shūhei said, untangling himself from Renji’s embrace.
Bummer, Renji thought with a sigh, this was going to be awkward in the morning. “Sure. That’s probably a good idea.”
Renji let Shūhei stay silent the whole way back to campus. As they went over the wall, however, Renji couldn’t resist a parting tease: “You know, I am a little disappointed. I wanted to show you my tattoos.”