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Retrograde

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The strangest thing about Seireitei is that half of the Shinigami can't fight.

This probably explains why Yumichika and Ikkaku were accepted immediately into the eleventh under Zaraki, who wears his district-given name proudly these days, it seems. Or maybe it was it was because Zaraki recognised them - or some other motivation of Zaraki’s that Yumichika isn’t going to try to understand.

After Zaraki makes his short speech, the officers are taken into a room, and when they come out again half of them have opted to change divisions. Some of the unseated follow; Yumichika's perception of the reiatsu in the room barely changes, though he's having trouble hearing much past the screaming of Zaraki's own. Even if it is more muted, more satisfied than it was when Yumichika heard it last.

Of the faces assembled, less than a quarter have killed a man and watched him die. Yumichika isn't sure how he knows that. It's not their job to kill men, he supposes. Perhaps killing hollows is easier. Yumichika expected to find impressive fighters here, people whose skill and taste would rival Ikkaku, but the only man here who does that is Zaraki, and to a lesser extent someone in the corner.

Yumichika can't feel the pink-haired girl even though she’s been sitting next to Zaraki the whole time, with no other explanation from Zaraki than, “This here’s Yachiru.” Yumichika remembers how strong she is, and wonders how she's hiding it, and why. The men look at her dismissively or not at all, and Yumichika would wonder what they think of him if he didn't already know. He's been in enough bars full of men like this to know that they think him weak, fragile, an easy target. Perhaps they wonder what he's doing here next to Ikkaku, who fits in seamlessly with a casual grip on his sheathed sword and a large grin. Everyone here looks like a Rukongai man (can women be shinigami? There's Yachiru, but she's also not even halfway to grown, and Yumichika can't imagine Zaraki being a stickler for the rules), even if lots of them have these strange identical swords, as if they were issued rather than won.

"All right, everyone outside: we're training. Just remember I don't have time for weaklings, and looks like I'm needing some more officers." Zaraki's voice is loud enough, but something about the force of his reiatsu is amplifying, and about half the assembled lean back every time he speaks.

The training yard is large and surprisingly well-kept for a training yard (and compared to the what he’s seen of the rest of the barracks), but the gleam in Ikkaku's eyes says he's looking forward to tearing it up. Yumichika and Ikkaku pair up reflexively, but as they face off, Yachiru intervenes. "Ken-chan says he wants you two to fight other people," she says, cheerfully. "I think it’s gonna be fun!"

Show them what we are .

Yumichika allows himself the faintest of smiles as he turns to his new opponent. He's nothing special: taller than Yumichika and broader, stance neither grounded enough for stability nor light enough for speed. He spits on the ground, and Yumichika conceals disgust.

"Just draw your sword, pretty boy. Let's get this over with so I can get a real opponent."

Yumichika refrains from rolling his eyes. There's no point in correcting him: clearly, this is a simple man who will respond best to demonstration. Yumichika draws his sword, and moves.

A moment later, he’s on the ground face down, with Yumichika's sword against his neck. "Shall we try again? That was unfair of me; I don't think you were quite ready." Yumichika removes the sword; it hums gently in his hand as he resheathes it.

The man sends a heavy glower in Yumichika's direction, but says nothing, recentering himself (incorrectly - he’s still slightly on his heels). The second fight lasts a little longer: he blocks Yumichika's first strike but leaves himself wide open with his attempt at a retaliation, and ends up on his back this time, red-faced and furious. Yumichika leaves him there, sword against his neck, as he looks over at Ikkaku, whose laughter he can hear from across the yard.

"I think that's enough for now," he says, letting the man up and turning to find another partner. Behind him, there's a feeling...he steps to the side and turns, narrowly avoiding the sword aimed between his shoulder blades. He blocks the man's primary sword hand with his forearm, strikes the fragile hand bones with his knuckles so the sword drops, and knees him in the floating ribs.

"Cheating bastard!" The man shouts, breathing heavily. "You didn't even go to the academy! Who'd you have to screw to learn this, huh?"

Yumichika swallows. But that's not his life anymore: they travelled up-district so fast that they didn't have time to stop, so Yumichika hasn't fucked anyone in more than a week. It's strange; his body is entirely his own, but it feels different, as if it isn't his. Not the body he's used to, anyway, always a little tender inside with scrapes and bruises on his skin in various stages of healing.

"I lost count years ago," Yumichika says, because it’s the truth and because there aren’t many replies to that  kind of brainless vitriol.

He walks away. Everyone seems to be paired except Ikkaku, who is surrounded by a ring of felled shinigami, wandering around and offering them a hand up.

"Ken-chan is gonna be happy," says a singsong voice from around his right hip. "I said you were just as good as baldy, and he wasn't sure, but he'll be so glad I was right! And now we can get rid of whiny red-face over there."

Yumichika looks down. Yachiru gives him a thoughtful expression. "You didn't see me fight," he observes.

"Oh, I know," she says, squirreling a sweet from up her sleeve into her mouth. "But I could tell anyways. You taste like you're strong, like Ken-chan and baldy and Tiger-tats."

She tastes, like we do .

And he's so very hungry. For a good fight, for pain, for blood, for being held down and scratched and bitten and fucked so hard he can't remember his name. It doesn't look as though any of these are likely, anytime soon; and soon, the dreams will come back. It takes less and less time these days for the dreams to come back. Not the dull ones, the ones where his mind replays his least favourite memories over and over with slight variations, but the ones full of hunger and death and jungle and the smell of rain, where he wakes half ready to claw off his own skin.

He shakes his head and takes a long inbreath.Then he's back in the training yard, and Yachiru is nowhere to be seen.

Yumichika keeps walking, looking for someone to fight.

-

He hasn't unpacked yet. This is mostly because his belongings amount to no more than five minutes worth of unpacking, and he wants to spend a night pretending the emptiness of the room is just because he hasn't unpacked yet.

It's been a long time since he had a room to himself. He surveys the futon tucked against one wall, low table in the corner, chest of drawers far too big to contain all the clothes he’s ever owned, never mind what he currently owns, and tries to think: mine. He should be happy about a proper bed, clean-ish room, well-built against the elements. He should be happy that he doesn’t have to walk miles, pack and unpack almost daily. He would try to summon the feeling of happiness, if he were exactly sure what it feels like.

He would change, but there isn't anything to change into, so he just wanders over to Ikkaku's room still in his (bland, shapeless, colourless) uniform. Ikkaku is only down the hall, hardly further than when they lived in the upstairs of Nakatoka's house. Noise comes from the room; he has company. It's not at all what Yumichika wants - he's been training all day, mostly with people at least a bit less useless than the first, who all looked at him the same way: what's someone like you doing here? He doesn't know if they mean because he was a whore or because he doesn't look like he can fight or because he doesn't fit in this division. Maybe they mean all three. But all he wants is to sit next to Ikkaku on his bed and maybe drink tea and ask him how his day of training went, and did he learn anything from the pile of floored trainees, and does he think this strange cold feeling in Yumichika's chest will go if he just hangs on.

He knocks and enters anyway. There's five men and bottles of beer in Ikkaku's room, and Yumichika stands uncomfortably in the doorway for a moment before remembering he knows how to do this. He smoothes a smile over his face and says, "Am I invited to the party?"

Ikkaku waves him over, and claps him on the shoulder heavily as he slips into seiza. A moment later he notices that everyone else is sitting cross-legged, and isn't sure what to do (always sit seiza in front of clients, cross-legged is acceptable with Ikkaku, but there's other people here who aren't clients because he doesn't have clients anymore). He stays in seiza; there's nothing in his rules about what to do.

"Guys, this is my friend Yumichika," Ikkaku says, and Yumichika allows himself another moment of leaning against Ikkaku's shoulder. He has to constantly remind himself not to just take , just lean on Ikkaku all the time. It was fine before they had sex - before he even knew what it is that makes his throat close every time he looks at Ikkaku, before he found out what kisses are for and how it feels to have your own name repeated in your ear like a prayer.

Now he knows what is possible, and...he wants .

They seem to be going back to normal. It must be easier for Ikkaku than it is for Yumichika, somehow. So Yumichika will just accept what is offered, as he's always done. He tilts his head in greeting, takes in the list of names (he's good at names) and accepts the proffered drink, hands in his lap because 7 people is really too many and he isn't trapped but he will feel like it if he keeps bumping elbows with strangers.  Then Ikkaku introduces, "And this here's Iba, you know, the lieutenant calls him Tiger-tats?"

Something clicks in Yumichika's brain: maybe it's "Tiger-tats" in combination with something else, like the way Iba is sitting or something about his expression, but immediately Yumichika thinks "Yakuza". He's amazed they let Iba in, if he's right - Yumichika used to hear all the time about Yakuza run-ins with Shinigami.

Then again, he doubts anyone here went to the academy. As far as Yumichika can tell, that place beats the Rukongai out of you as best it can: everyone he's heard here so far has a Rukongai accent of some sort, but you can tell the Academy folk by the odd way they walk, the muted accents, and the standard-issue swords. It gives Yumichika the creeps; he doesn't know what he's going to do when he encounters Shinigami who were actually born here.

At least there seems to be a shortage of those in the eleventh. And everyone here sounds like they came from the thirties at least, except Iba, whose Hiroshima lilt is more obviously Yakuza by the minute. It's hard to shake the impulse to flirt with him (with everyone, really), sit up straight and play with his hair - but he cut it off. He still isn't used to running his fingers through it and stopping just below his chin. Tension accrues in his hands resting in his lap as he squashes conflicting impulses, and another part of him is restless and wary, regretting that he left his sword in the other.

An elbow jabs him lightly in the ribs, and he digs nails into his thighs briefly to suppress his flinch. It's only Ikkaku; there's no need to jump three feet. "Oi, Yumi. You half asleep?"

"Sorry, I got distracted," he says.

"Ikaru got kicked out after you wiped the floor with him," says a man with a long black braid, in a cautious tone. Zoushiku , Yumichika thinks, reinforcing his memory.

Yumichika blinks. He hadn't realised the weeding out would be so...swift. "It would have been better for him if he hadn't assumed I can't fight because I look like a woman."

There's a long, uncomfortable silence. Everyone in the room - except Ikkaku, who has a small smile on his face - is suddenly looking at their hands, or the floor, or a wall. Yumichika knows he ought to say something, but he isn't sure what, or what he even said wrong in the first place.

And it's all wrong, because he's used to knowing exactly what to do, how to get the reactions he needs, and roughly what his clients are thinking. He'd assumed it would be easy with people who aren't his clients; he's even had Shinigami clients before, and became used to their ways well enough that he thought he'd know what to do. But they speak to him and look at him strangely, here, and it resembles how people used to look at him when his clothes and manner deliberately said whore , but it's not.

Maybe they don't know what to think of him. Maybe he's supposed to explain himself somehow, but he doesn't know what would be satisfactory.

"Is Zaraki-taichou going to try to review everyone personally then? Surely that will take a long time," he tries, because this division is his job now, and these men are coworkers. He tries that on mentally as a designation, and it's - better, because then they can talk about work, and that should be safe. There's a current of relief, so he must be right.

The room is suddenly full of shrugs and noncommittal headshakes. "I heard there's gonna be an announcement tomorrow," says a man who introduced himself as "Maki". "But who the fuck knows? I mean, Zaraki's crazy. Strong, but crazy. How the hell is he gonna run a division?"

"Oi," says Ikkaku, frowning. "It's not like he's dumb or anything. Besides, isn't the paperwork what the seated officers are for? I heard half the captains don't do shit around here."

There's a general round of agreement. Yumichika breathes a little easier, because no one is looking at him anymore (or worse, pointedly not looking at him), but he wonders how Ikkaku has heard abut the other divisions, how he met and got to know these men in the space of one day. Back in the Rukongai, Ikkaku was as distant with other people as Yumichika himself. Here, though, he seems as open as Yumichika has ever seen him around anyone else, and though his sword is in the corner and he's nearest the exit, the line of his shoulders isn’t wary at all. Yumichika breathes, and tries to make it look like he's following suit.

"We haven't got any officers right now though, and it's gonna be a while before we get any at this rate. We'll be fine for a week or two, but after that everything's gonna really go to hell if no one's organising things." Iba frowns and scratches his chin.

"Eh, weren't you an officer, Iba?" Zoushiku adds.

"19th seat," Iba says, shrugging one huge shoulder dismissively. "And you shoulda seen the paperwork."

Ikkaku blinks at him, incredulous. "...you can read?"

Iba shrugs. "If I got a kanji dictionary. But mostly I just had to sign stuff or pass it on to one of the higher-ups. I think..." Here he cracks his knuckles thoughtfully, and Yumichika keeps breathing, keeps forcing the tension inside to his core where it can't be seen in the tightening of hands or jaw or shoulders. "I think everyone that could write might've gone, from the officers anyway. So we're in deep shit. Any of you lot write?"

There's another round of head shakes, and the odd "can't really read, either."

Yumichika swallows. "I can read, and...it was a long time ago, but someone showed me how to write kana."

"You had time for writing out in the fuckin' 66th? Shit, I was in the 53rd and it was bad enough there." Maki says.

Yumichika reaches for his hair to push it over one shoulder, but it isn't there, so he just runs fingers through from root to tip. "Fucked a calligrapher a few times," he says. Ikkaku tenses beside him, and he pauses and turns to look.

"Right." But the word doesn’t agree with Maki’s expression, which looks more like what the hell? And everyone’s looking at him again, staring even, which is rude, surely, and people aren’t normally rude unless you shock them.

That was he wrong thing to say, again. There's no pattern that he can find, and he wants everyone to go away so that he can sit and talk to Ikkaku, figure out what he's doing wrong and why even Ikkaku is edging away from a little. If they're alone, will Ikkaku lean into him again?

"Are you coming to bed, Ikkaku?" He looks at Ikkaku, as if he can somehow communicate what he's thinking with his eyes: I'm tired, I don't understand anything, I need you.

But Ikkaku flinches and draws back further, and on his face is a strange smile that's not really a smile, and it's not like any expression Yumichika has ever seen on Ikkaku before. "Nah, we're gonna stay up, I think," he says, still wearing that smile. "I'll see you at breakfast though, yeah?"

Everyone is looking at them, silent. Clearly, he's done something really wrong this time because even Ikkaku is tense, uncomfortable - maybe even annoyed? Yumichika swallows; he swallows down I'm sorry I'm sorry I didn't mean it please don't look at me like that , that and worse, things he can't even think of saying when they're not alone and there's so many more things he shouldn't do. It takes him a whole second to compose himself, and mustering a polite goodbye of some sort is one of the rules, so he does. He has to look over everyone's shoulders instead of at their faces to get it out.

He turns and walks towards the door, insisting his body stay upright when his spine wants to curl protectively inwards. He probably looks stiff, ungainly, but he's not sure if any of those little cues matter anymore when he's already screwed up so badly.

Yumichika shuts his own door behind him moments later and locks it, telling himself that it’s fine, he hasn’t locked himself in, just everyone else out. He gives in, curls up on the floor with his back against the door.

He's fine. Will be fine, anyway. Everything is just new, and he'll get a chance to talk to Ikkaku alone later, and they'll sort everything out. He'll learn what the rules are here and people will stop looking at him - how they look at him. He's used to being looked at like a bag of expensive sweets, but this is...worse.

He'll get a chance to talk to Ikkaku. They've been friends for nearly a century; it's not as if one awkward social affair is going to be much of a problem. Maybe tomorrow they'll be so exhausted from training that they'll just pile into bed and not talk much, and Yumichika will know from Ikkaku's strong arms around him that he's okay.

He dreams of being back at Suzuruma's bar working for the Yakuza. Some of his regulars are here, and he knows how to give them what they want. Every step towards the back room is familiar: the smell of alcohol hangs everywhere as usual, and he's tipsy enough that he can just relax, allow, spread himself open and lick his lips and moan at the right times, easy as anything.

He wakes up cold, tasting bile, and panics because he's not anywhere he recognises. It takes him an hour to convince himself that he's supposed to be here, and another two to shake the thought that at least his tiny cupboard room at Suzuruma's was warm.

Chapter Text

Early mornings do not agree with Yumichika after so many years of late nights. And he has to get up extra early because he doesn’t know where anything is, or when he’s supposed to go to breakfast (a strange concept: food to start the day? He used to eat once before work and once when he got in, if he had the stomach for it). He has to ask a harried-looking man who obviously knows his way around where the mess hall is, because yesterday he just followed Ikkaku’s lead without thinking about it much; he didn’t have any remaining energy to make decisions after a day of keeping his chin raised against all the looks sent his way. Even the rushing man pauses for long enough to raise an eyebrow at Yumichika’s flower-patterned sleeping robe, the last item of nice clothing he has since he ripped up his last kimono to bandage up Ikkaku.

“Breakfast starts at 7.30,” he says, then rattles off a list of directions. Yumichika catches only half of them and so it’s 7.40 by the time he turns up in the mess hall.

The empty mess hall, and he feels his heartbeat crawling further up his chest into his throat - is he in the wrong place? - But no, this is definitely where he was yesterday, and there’s a stack of trays, chopsticks and small wooden ladles next to a line of food under glass.

Drawing on his memory of yesterday, he fetches a tray, and stares at the huge variety of food.

"You're early," Yumichika twitches a little in surprise: there's now a short woman in a hairnet and overalls standing behind the counter.

"I'm sorry," Yumichika says reflexively. "I thought breakfast was at 7.30." A pause as he decides whether he can ask: "Where is everyone?"

She smiles, revealing dimples and emphasising lines on her face. "Breakfast is from 7.30 till 9, but round here they lie in bed till half eight, shovel down some soup and rice and head to work. Not very good for you, if you ask me."

"Oh," he says, and returns to looking at the food, much of which he doesn't even recognise. There's soup (miso?) and rice and grilled fish (he's never eaten fish on its own, only seen it as they travelled through the upper districts: he can't possibly be allowed to just have some, can he?) and pickles, as well as colourful blends of vegetables with unfamiliar smells, onigiri with a mix of unidentifiable fillings, more natto than fifty men could possibly eat, a huge container of rice porridge, and a tray of bottles with various kinds of sauce in them. There's stacks of empty bowls and a ladle in the porridge, and the grilled fish is in hundreds of little individual plates. Is he supposed to just - help himself?

That...can't be right. Can it? Food costs lots of money, and he hasn't been paid yet. What did he do at dinner yesterday? Is he going to be asked to pay at some point?

"You look like you could use a bit more sleep yourself," the woman remarks amiably as if they've been chatting all along. "That's just like my husband, you know: up and about, but don't bother trying to get any sense out of him before his tea!" She smiles again, seemingly a constant state of affairs, but there is obvious fondness in her voice.

Maybe it's this, or maybe it's the fact that there’s only the two of them in the mess hall, that makes Yumichika whisper, "What am I supposed to have?" It's early in the morning, and he's surrounded by things he doesn't understand, so it's understandable, forgivable, if it comes out sounding confused and a little desperate. Still he finds himself tensed and braced, as if he's likely to have to run or fight. Stupid and irrational, here. The enemies they’re supposed to fight aren’t inside the walls.

"You're new, aren't you," she says. It isn't a question. "Don't you worry about that; the eleventh takes all comers, always has done. You just have whatever you please: you could use a bit of feeding up, looks like."

This...doesn't make his decision any easier. He has no parameters: how is he supposed to figure out what the safe choices are? There's no one to take a lead from. Take what he wants - what if he wanted too much? There must be a limit: not knowing where it is is not freedom, but a sickening uncertainty. There are always limits.

It's 7.50. He's been standing here staring for ten minutes at least, but he just - can't decide what to do. He's being ridiculous: it's just breakfast, it doesn't matter, and if he keeps this up he's just going to be standing here until everyone else arrives and he holds up the line and the server gets annoyed and -

He forces his hand to move, select a bowl of soup and a plate of fish, place it on his tray. Is this a normal amount of breakfast? On closer inspection the soup seems to be white miso, which he likes. He likes white miso, and that's enough for breakfast, probably. Should he put the fish back? Is that impolite?

"Would you like some rice?" He looks up, pulled out from his spiralling thoughts. The server finishes filling a small bowl with rice and holds it out to him.

"I - yes." He accepts it, and then realises he has no eating utensils. "Thank you," he adds, because he has manners, and if he isn’t paying for it then it’s a gift , and he has nothing to give in return. The rice bowl is about three quarters full, and a little bigger than the soup bowl. He has a benchmark, and there's no disapproval on her face as she glances at his tray. It's all right. It’s all right. There will be a price at some point, and he’ll pay it, and the edgy feeling of owing will go.

He notices, as he sits down, that the service woman has slipped an umeboshi and some pickles onto his tray.

He's alone when he sits down to eat, but at around ten past eight people begin to trickle in, looking bleary and confused. He eats his food, struggling to keep to his normal eating speed because the food is really very good, and because the trickle of people is becoming a flood of loud, uncoordinated Shinigami in rumpled black uniforms. One man seems to be wearing his inside out, and another has decided that a pair of hakama (tied incorrectly) and nothing else constitutes "dressed".

Yumichika's hakama are far too big; the eleventh's stock of uniform sizes ends at 'medium', and so he's drowning in cheap black fabric, feeling like a gangly teenager again, trying to do his job in a ragged green yukata that was half falling off him. He tries to hold on to the idea of his own strength, that his capability with a sword is the equal of almost anyone here, he knows it is. But the knowledge does nothing to ease the defensive tension of his body, so in the end he grits his teeth and makes himself stand, lost for a moment as he casts around for something to do with his half-full tray before he sees a cart with tray-shaped slots.

No one he passes has anything approaching table manners, sitting in wide-kneed seiza and spilling rice on the frayed tatami, and some of them seem to be eating more food than should plausibly fit, unless their whole torso is hollow.

Have more tomorrow. We are still hungry. Yumichika shakes his head, as if that will remove the voice that is not his from his head. It has never worked, and in any case he feels inside and what is more prominent is the other kind of hunger. Food will only sate him for so long; he has to hope the fighting will be enough. They'll be fighting monsters soon enough: maybe he can -

He wrenches his mind from the subject, but the nausea stays. Focus. Think about work. Fetch your sword, find your way to the training grounds. He thinks about the contact of his feet against the floor, and the route back to his new room.

 

And walks right into Ikkaku.

"Woah there," Ikkaku says, backing up. Then, much more softly, "Rough night?"

Yumichika rolls his shoulders back and down, and lengthens his neck. "I was trying to remember where the training grounds are," he says, which isn't an answer, to the asked question or the one in Ikkaku's eyes that he's seen a thousand times before. He would prefer not to say I woke up early , which is code for nightmares , or didn't sleep too well, which means I lay awake for hours trying not to feel trapped and afraid for no reason. He would prefer Ikkaku not to know that he sat on the floor curled up against the door for hours before making it to bed, would prefer Ikkaku not be reminded of how he can be sometimes. Ikkaku said it so many times: "it'll be different, in Seireitei." So far the inside of his head is no different; the difference is all on the outside, and how unfamiliar and unsettling his whole life has become.

"Okay," Ikkaku says, glancing over his shoulder to where some of the men from last night seem to be waiting. They're watching him again. He's used to being watched, so it’s okay, or it would be okay if he understood the expressions on their faces. There's a pause, and then Ikkaku says, "Look, can we talk? Just - later, I wanna grab some food."

"All right," Yumichika says. Ikkaku's arm hovers in the air between them, and a month ago Yumichika would have just stepped a little forward unthinkingly and lifted his own hand to make contact, but - he's not sure, now, what's allowed. He stays where he is. "You can find me after the end of shift."

Relief on Ikkaku's face. Has he finally said the right thing? He shares Ikkaku's relief even if he's not sure where it came from, and as he heads to his room to fetch his sword there's the beginning of lightness in his chest. There is one familiar thing in this strange new place and that’s Ikkaku, just across the hall like he always has been.

-

They call this game Ring of Death , even though no one has died yet and it doesn’t look like anyone is going to. The rules are like this: you make a circle of people, with one shinigami in the middle. Then the circle attack the person in the middle, one by one in quick succession, and don’t stop until he falls down and stays down.

All the while, Zaraki walks around saying very little, with Yachiru-fukutaichou on his shoulders. Zaraki’s habit of taking his child lieutenant with him everywhere has drawn more comment on this second day of training: Yumichika has heard confusion and slurs and jokes, but mostly bafflement. He wonders if any of them have properly working senses, that they could miss Yachiru’s sharp eyes and hint of concealed reiatsu; Yumichika can see/feel/taste her - though not hear her, when she chooses not to be heard.

Then again, a lot of them can’t feel him either. Perhaps it’s because he neglects to roar absurdly when attacking the current victim, but he always seems to end up with his sword at someone’s throat, minus any attempt of theirs to move or counter.

When it’s Yumichika’s turn in the middle, suddenly they wake up, and he has to concentrate for the first time. There’s murder on broken-nosed faces, and their blades are thrown too fast and too hard for practise, but it doesn’t matter: he ducks and dodges, gains a few grazes on his forearm and thigh, and his whole body shudders with the force of his sword blocking another. It’s almost, almost like fighting Ikkaku in some dusty alley in the Rukongai, and Yumichika himself wearing the faintest trace of a smile as his heart beats loud in his ears.

Then they come at him all at once. He doesn’t have any time to think: he gets out of the way and redirects, but he’s not fast enough, and a heel comes down on the centre of his foot. There’s a loud crunch, and nothing in existence can make him hold in the scream he lets out through gritted teeth. The pain is utterly, utterly overwhelming, and they aren’t backing off, and his vision is blurring, motions around him are slowing, and he knows he has to stand on his broken foot and defend.

He takes a deep breath, and places his foot on the ground. There’s a single instant of white hot agony, and then - nothing.

When he comes back to himself, he’s still standing, sword out, one eye painful and his vision red. There’s the smell of blood, and the members of the circle are still standing around him, staring. He’s panting; his face is contorted into a snarl; he’s aware of a throbbing sensation in his right foot, growing in intensity.

He relaxes the vice-like grip on his sword and lowers it: those expressions do not belong to men who are going to attack him. He knows what that looks like. Then he can’t stand anymore; dizzy and nauseous, he sits abruptly.

He doesn’t know what to do, now.

“What the fuck are you standing ‘round like morons for?” Yumichika turns his head, and regrets it immediately. Zaraki is standing behind him, and it looks like he’s glowering but Yumichika’s pretty sure that’s just his standard expression. The rest of the circle look intimidated, but Yumichika can’t summon much beyond dizziness and pain.

“Well...you said keep going till the guy in the middle can’t get up, and - uh, we ain’t sure if he’s gonna get up.” Yumichika doesn’t recognise the speaker, except as left handed/stiff lower back/fast strikes and feints.

“My foot is broken,” Yumichika says. He looks up at Zaraki. “What do I do now?”

“You fought with a broken foot? It’s training, you ain’t supposed to kill yourself.” Yumichika thinks this is maybe the man who stood on his foot; his friend next to him elbows him in the ribs and hisses, “ Idiot , didn’t ya hear the crack?”

Zaraki frowns at the group generally, then looks back at Yumichika. “You sure? You’re pretty fast for a guy with a broken foot.”

Yumichika pulls off his waraji and sock, swallowing another scream. His foot is...a mess, purple and swollen, with the bones in places they clearly shouldn’t be. “Yes,” he says.

Zaraki’s eyebrows raise. “Go to the fourth. They’ll patch you up.” He turns to go, which is fortunate, because at least one of the group is wobbling at the knees with the sheer tooth-stripping force of his reiatsu. Yumichika bathes in it; despite the undercurrent of blood and screaming, it distracts from the pain. he doesn’t bother trying to put his sock back on, just puts his foot back in his waraji and plants his good foot down, preparing to stand.

“Ken-chan!” And then Yachiru’s right behind him, without even a breeze from her swift arrival. “We should carry him! It’s not like he can walk, you know.” Zaraki shrugs, and before Yumichika can protest, reaches down, scoops him up with one arm and slings him carelessly over one shoulder.

Yumichika tenses and bites down against every instinct telling him that he’s trapped, he needs to fight and run, because he has a broken foot and Zaraki’s taking him to get it bandaged up and he’s not being taken anywhere he doesn’t want to go.

It doesn’t work; they get to the door of the fourth and suddenly he’s back at Suzuruma’s bar, being dragged to the cellar by two men twice his size, in pain everywhere and vision blurring and sick to his stomach. No, no, please no, please don’t make me, please... he’s babbling, and he’s not sure where he’s being taken except he doesn’t want to go , it’s going to hurt, it’s going to hurt even more that he already hurts, he’s crowded and in pain and he can’t escape, surrounded by strange tall people in black uniforms and they’re touching him; he kicks and flails but that hurts, and then he can’t move at all, can’t do anything except screw his eyes shut and float in agony, and not make a noise. He can’t remember why he’s not supposed to make any noise, but it’s important, it’s important that he’s quiet.

“I think he’s delirious.”

There’s a cool hand on his head. And then, briefly, nothing hurts at all.

He falls.

-

The first thing he sees when he opens his eyes is Ikkaku yawning. He relaxes a little, even though he doesn't know where he is, but nowhere in the Seireitei feels safe, so that makes no difference, really.

Ikkaku rubs his eyes, then looks at Yumichika. "Eh, you're awake! How's the foot?"

It takes Yumichika a moment to parse what he's saying. Then he frowns, because he can't feel anything. Cautiously, he attempts to move his toes. "I...it's fine," he says, slowly, trying to understand. "How long have I been asleep? And - where am I?"

"You're in the fourth," Ikkaku says. "Don't you remember? Zaraki picked you up like you were a bag of rice and carried you, then they fixed you up. You've been asleep all day, though."

Yumichika doesn't remember: he was picked up, easy as you please, thrown over Zaraki's shoulder, and then - flashbacks. The memory of pain, the expectation of pain, real as when he was there, so real he has no idea what actually happened. He swallows, and doesn't say anything to Ikkaku.

"I gotta tell you, though, you freaked the shit out of everyone," Ikkaku continues. "I didn't say anything, but Karu says Mikon stepped on your foot, and no one was sure what they should do and you just fucking lost it and fought your whole group at once with a broken foot." His face is impressed, but Yumichika doesn't find that at all reassuring. 'Freaked the shit out of everyone' doesn't exactly sound as if he's endeared himself much. And he doesn't really care - or wouldn't, except that Ikkaku clearly cares. And that means...

He hasn't worked it out yet. But Ikkaku promised they'd talk, and now they're talking, so it's going to be all right. Everything will work out once he knows what he needs to do.

"I don't... really remember," he says. "Everything went so fast, and my foot was so painful, and I just - I don't know. Thought they were all trying to fight me for real, or something."

We were magnificent. And now they are afraid of us, as it should be . There's a part of him that's fiercely proud, proud that he fended off a group with a broken foot entirely on instinct and adrenaline. Except - he isn't hungry anymore.

He isn't hungry anymore, and he doesn't remember what he did (except for a few flashes that taste like blood, disconnected and random: here the hilt of his sword connects with someone's neck, there he's kneeling to drive his elbow into soft flesh behind him, there he's driving all the force he has through both legs out to his sword, blocking a strike so firmly his opponent is unbalanced for an instant and that's all he needs), and this is - getting out of control.

What do they do to Shinigami who kill people instead of monsters?

We do not kill: we survive. The voice is fierce in his ears. Then, more softly, I would not see you harmed . It's comforting: he almost hates that he finds it comforting, because he has a voice in his head that tells him how to kill, and he isn't afraid of it. Of him.

"What did you want to talk about?" He says, redirecting his own thoughts.

Ikkaku's face hardens, like he's having to do something distasteful. "Look, there's some stuff you just shouldn't say, okay?"

Yumichika doesn't understand why this should be distasteful. He feels relief, almost anticipation: Ikkaku will tell him what he shouldn't say and why, how it is that he's slipped so easily into the social current of this place, and Yumichika will learn. "Like what?"

"Like..." Ikkaku winces. "Like that you fucked a calligrapher."

"Okay." This doesn't give him enough information. "Why?"

Ikkaku sighs, and rubs his forehead with one hand. "Because..." He looks up Yumichika properly. "Yumi, do you really want people to know? Like, what you used to do?"

Yumichika thinks about this for a minute. Iba used to be part of the Yakuza, several current members were expelled from the Academy, as near as he can tell, and - well, far out in the Rukongai, there aren't that many options. Some of the eleventh obviously used to be the kind of people he fucked in seedy bars for a living. This much is obvious, and yet, doesn't seem to be a problem. "I don't see that it matters," he says. "It's not polite to talk about it much, but...well, what am I supposed to do, instead? What should I have said when Maki asked where I learned to write?"

And he just wants to know, but now Ikkaku is frowning, frustrated. "I don't know! But, look, people aren't gonna react well if they know. I just - I don't want you to get shit for it."

Yumichika's eyebrows raise. "You don't want people to treat me badly, you mean." He pauses. "Ikkaku, people already do. I don't exactly know why - though it's at least something to do with the way I look - but people keep staring at me like they're waiting for me to fall so they can kick me and have a laugh about it. But there's people like that everywhere - I can take care of myself."

Ikkaku closes his eyes and breathes out, as if he's trying to find the right words. "I know you can, and I want you to be okay. All I'm saying is, you ain't making things any easier for yourself. Some stuff just makes people uncomfortable, and then they look at me like I got some sorta explanation, and just - "

Ikkaku doesn't finish his sentence, which isn't helpful because Yumichika has no idea what's going on. He and Ikkaku are never like this: they understand each other, or they always used to. He wants to reach for Ikkaku's arm and apologise, because he's clearly making things difficult for Ikkaku, even if he doesn't exactly understand how - I'm sorry, just tell me how to fix it, I'll fix it. I won't tell anyone I was a whore if you don't want me to, I won't talk about it at all -

Something like realisation creeps up on him, and for a moment he thinks painkillers must have worn off because there's just a sudden rush of pain deep in his stomach, and roiling nausea just like when his foot got smashed. The words pour out before he can contain them. "Does it shame you, that I was a whore? Am I supposed to feel ashamed too?"

Ikkaku's hands tighten, and he swallows. "That's not what I meant! You weren't - well, didn't they used to call you something else?"

Yumichika swallows. Kagema is the word Ikkaku is thinking of, but Yumichika wasn't: occasionally clients would call him that to flatter him, and it was usually the same ones who called him dirty slut later on. "Only in public."

Ikkaku flinches like he's been hit, and Yumichika realises he's facing Ikkaku like his opponents from earlier: spine straight and head high and jaw set. It hurts, but he holds Ikkaku's gaze, because if Ikkaku looks away then it means he really is ashamed of him. And he has to know.

They both look up at the sudden sliding open of the doors. A slim, blonde Shinigami with hair covering half of his face slips through the gap. His eyes flick over Ikkaku before settling on Yumichika. His head dips in greeting. “Hello, Ayasegawa-san. I’m here to make sure your treatment has gone well so you can go home.”

He approaches the end of Yumichika's bed and pauses. "May I take a look?" He asks, then waits.

Yumichika blinks for a minute, then realises a response is required. "Yes," he says.

The Shinigami gently lifts the bedcovers off Yumichika's feet and places one cool hand on his broken foot, closing his eyes. Yumichika shivers, because that's - someone else's reiatsu is inside him , and he doesn't know what to make of it. It might be awful, but it's just strange, maybe because this reiatsu doesn’t feel or taste like a person at all - it’s just...a soothing, green, faintly minty sort of thing. Feeling. There’s a lot of it, too, doing powerful work on his foot, making it tingle down to the bones.

He looks up at Yumichika. "Oh," he says. "You're feeling me.” The tiniest trace of a smile creeps onto his serious face. “Are you sure you're from the eleventh?" Yumichika doesn't know how to reply, and while he's still casting around for something to say the Shinigami continues, "Well, your foot's fine now, all set. It might hurt a little for the next few days, so please be careful while training."

"Can I go - " home sticks in his throat: the word still conjures up mental images of his bedroom at Nakatoka-san's house and Ikkaku's arms around him in the dark, even though they left months ago. " - back to the barracks?"

The Shinigami nods. “Of course. Let me check you out now.”

Ikkaku leaves with a mumbled goodbye while paperwork is filled in, and then Yumichika can go. Back to his room. He experiments with what happens when he tries to frame it as 'home': very little, except a sort of hollow, heavy sensation. None of the markers of home are there: most of his possessions are gone, and he's beginning to suspect that the privilege of those nighttime visits, where Ikkaku would slip into bed and hold him just a little too tight while he shook and tried to feel reality, is no longer his.

Predictably, his room is cold. He gets into bed, which against all logic is colder. He lies in it anyway, and his mind chews over the conversation with Ikkaku. Ikkaku doesn't want people to think badly of Yumichika. But - what of it? Some people have always thought badly of him. It doesn't matter , not unless they decide to make their displeasure known physically, and Yumichika can handle that. Ikkaku knows this.

Still, the opinions of other people in the eleventh are important to Ikkaku. And so Ikkaku wants him to misdirect and lie so no one ever finds out he was a whore, even though he's sure Ikkaku used to hate seeing him lie and evade for his clients. It used to be his job: make someone feel like the only man in the world, make them feel powerful and attractive and desired, and they'll pay you far more than they would for any skill of the body. But maybe that's not very important.

There's still so much he doesn't understand. But it doesn't look like Ikkaku is going to tell him what to do - or anyone else. It’d be better if they did; he knows they’re supposed to be an army, with orders and a hierarchy and rules and so on, and he’d thought to himself, I can do that . It sits uneasily in his mind, that he’s having to figure everything out for himself again, that all the answers he had before don’t work here.

Are you sure you’re from the eleventh?

Maybe he’s going to be kicked out soon. Maybe that would be a mercy.

Half an hour later, he slips out of bed, takes his sword in its saya from where it stands in the corner, and places it under the covers beside him, feeling a little ridiculous. Sleep comes to meet him then, perfume-scented with phantom touch of feathers against his back.

Chapter Text

The thing is, no one seems to know what's happening.

No one's going on any missions, and no one knows whether that's because the eleventh haven't been issued orders while they're still in upheaval or because the orders are being ignored. People are beginning to worry about getting paid - and mostly being shot down, because dude, calm down, Zaraki's only been officially running things for a few days, of course it's gonna be a mess.

Yumichika hears a lot of things, waiting small and silent in the lunch queue. He finds it’s easiest to ignore what Ikkaku said about everything being different, easiest to do what he knows. And sometimes that's making himself small, insignificant, invisible. There's safety there, and knowledge. He ducks smoothly out of the way as a shoving match just behind him gets overenthusiastic, holding his tray in front of his chest.

He finds an empty table in the corner, right at the edge. He sits and carefully consumes the food he selected, slow and measured against the part of him that thinks he might be back to starving, tomorrow. He hasn't starved in nearly a hundred years, not truly. He's the last one left in the dining hall, so when he's finished he picks up his tray to hand it to the lunch lady personally.

"You've settled in," she comments, and it's the same woman as before, still smiling. "But you still take your time with your food. This division could use a few more like you, I think."

"Thank you," he says, handing over his tray on which he has stacked his plates and utensils. He's not sure what prompts him to speak then: maybe it's just that he's hardly spoken to anyone lately. "What the division could really use is some organisation."

The smile slips from her face a little, then. "You're right about that. We should have passed our paperwork to one of the officers last week for renewal, but no one knows who to give it to anymore, and it's... difficult."

Yumichika frowns. "What will happen if it doesn't get sorted?"

She presses her lips together. "We won't get paid, and so we won't be able to come and make food, and someone will have to request new staff, but that could take a long time." She sighs. "It's not all like this, is it? You boys are still getting paid?"

"I...I don't know," Yumichika says. It doesn't feel entirely real: he still has food and a place to sleep, so he can't connect much to any distress at lack of pay. But if there's no food...

He swallows. Takes a deep breath. "I could fill in the paperwork. Well, I think I could."

She looks thoughtful. "I'm not sure if I'm supposed to hand it over to just anyone..."

The idea has caught in his head, though, and he can't seem to let go of it. "I don't know of anyone else who can write," he says. "And if no one's an officer, then I'm as good as anyone." He bites his lip after speaking; even if he knows how to get people to do what he wants, some things are still difficult to say. I'm as good as anyone. His own voice repeats in his head, damning. You'll regret that one .

He feels as though he has to try, even if it's been a long time since the soft-spoken older man taught him to hold a brush and "sweep, Yumichika, sweep across the paper!" He said he heard it was like swinging a sword, but having never done that he had no comparison. He held Yumichika's hips in skinny, uncallused fingers and brought him tea afterwards, paid him well, looked at him like he was beautiful and interesting and worth the money.

The lunch lady bounces on her heels, then seems to reach a decision. She leans over the counter conspiratorially. "All right," she says.

The next thing is to get his hands on a kanji dictionary: there's no point in pretending he's likely to know all the kanji used for official Gotei 13 paperwork. He definitely wouldn't recognise "payroll", for example. He spends the rest of the day's training (self training, forms and such, which he never learned much of, so he takes all the basic strokes that he knows and strings them together as many ways as he can) thinking, before he remembers that Iba has a kanji dictionary, from when he did paperwork himself.

Yumichika wonders if he ought to hand it over, really, but he's sure the forms Takashi-san gave him require a little writing. And perhaps he'll seem ridiculous, signing his name to a form written entirely in katakana, but there doesn't seem to be much choice, and at least he has kanji for his name. Anyway, when he first turned up at Suzuruma's bar, he didn't know what he was doing, and no one taught him how to flirt and please, but he learned anyway. It's worth it, for there still to be food for him and Ikkaku; he's done far more distasteful things for less.

He knocks on Iba's door, having followed him discreetly from training. "Come in."

Carefully, Yumichika slides open the door and enters. Iba's room is bigger than Yumichika's, which is no surprise because he used to be an officer and no one around here is organised enough to bother with rearranging rooms. A greater surprise is the cosy, personal air: a patterned laundry basket, soft lamplight, and a photo of Iba with an older woman on the bedside table that’s obviously been there for a while.

Iba looks up. “Oh - Yumichika, right?”

Yumichika nods. “I was wondering if I could borrow your kanji dictionary.”

Iba’s eyebrows raise. “Huh. What for?”

Yumichika lifts and releases one shoulder, smooth and easy. “There’s some reading I want to do,” he says. Iba’s expression is uncertain, which means that his chance is now. He knows how to do this: how to take a slow half-step forward, slight exaggeration in the cant of his hips. Head tucked a little, eyes up, which isn’t hard because Iba is much taller than him, like almost everyone in the eleventh. “There’s...a lot I can do for you in return, if you like,” he says, slowly, allowing his lips and tongue to luxuriate on the pronunciation.

(A regular at one of the classier bars in the 65th once dragged his thumb across Yumichika’s wet, reddened lips and told him he had a good mouth for a whore, he remembers, he knows the effect of tracing the bottom edge of his upper lip with the very tip of his tongue on a man fully clothed and sober, he has more skills with lips and tongue than he has names for.)

Iba stares at him. In the soft light, it’s a difficult to tell what he’s thinking, but Yumichika isn’t - afraid, or unhappy. Iba was an officer, and Yumichika doesn’t have a good assessment of his fighting ability, so he won’t let Iba tie him up, just in case. But still, it would be - a familiar thing, to have nails digging into his skin, making his back arch. Maybe he’d have to be quiet, for discretion; maybe Iba would prefer Yumichika to make noise, to show himself off.

Iba reaches into a drawer and pulls out a book. “Take it,” he says.

Yumichika freezes. He can’t just take it; he learnt that one with Ikkaku. He can’t take things that aren’t his. Everything must be paid for, and this is the most valuable thing he has ( he know this for certain, knows exactly what every single one of his skills are worth in every district below the 60th) . “But - “

“This conversation didn’t happen.” Iba thrusts the book at him, voice gruff and unreadable. “Take it.”

Yumichika does as instructed, clutches it to his chest in both hands. “...I don’t understand,” he says, quietly. Iba’s expression is ambiguous: it might be disapproving and it might be uncomfortable, but it’s not conflicted. Iba doesn’t want what he’s offering, but he’s giving him the book anyway , and it just - it doesn’t make any sense at all , so Yumichika clutches the book tighter and backs away in slow, small steps because suddenly he’s afraid. Afraid of nothing and afraid of everything, because he’s never had any encounter go like this and he has no idea what happens next, what the script is, what he’s supposed to do .

Being a Shinigami, so far, is a long exercise in not knowing what he’s supposed to do, and having to work it out (badly, wrongly - there’s too many things he doesn’t understand, like this, like not being wanted; he understands no but people usually say no with dark eyes and a hint of regret)

“Call it a favour,” he says, eventually. “We’re both in the eleventh, and that means we’re supposed to help each other out.”

We are? No one told Yumichika this, and it seems to have also been missed by everyone who keeps nearly trampling him at lunch and dinner, by the owners of those stares and none-too-quiet whispers, wrong in the head, that one, you didn’t see the way he flipped when Mikon stepped on his foot , and looks like a girl and fights like a bitch.

“Thank you,” he says, and it takes all his strength to stand and say it and not just run or apologise, because sorry isn’t right here even though it’s the first word to come to mind. Sorry, sorry I’m all wrong and I don’t know how to fix it. Thank you. Sorry. Sorry. He doesn’t say those. Is he allowed to leave yet?

Iba nods. “See you at training,” he says. That’s a dismissal, so Yumichika leaves.

It’s a relief to lock his own bedroom door behind him, and he lets out a long, shaky breath before curling up against the wall on his futon, duvet over his lap, with the forms in his hand and dictionary on his knee. Trying to read takes up all of his concentration, so he has no space to pay attention to anything else. He’ll have to fetch a brush and ink from somewhere. Mostly the forms require his signature (lots) and some dates and a few bits of basic squad information, and he can do that. He can do that.

He’s going to do it.

Yumichika reads until he’s so exhausted that he’s asleep almost the moment he lies down and closes his eyes, and there’s no time for the kind of thoughts he doesn’t want to have.

-

It’s the middle of the night still, the first time Yumichika wakes up, and he’s so, so cold.

-

The final time Yumichika wakes up, it's too early to go to breakfast, and too late to go back to sleep.

He gets out of bed, puts on his uniform, wanders around a bit; he doesn’t feel cold anymore, exactly, but he’s not warm either. It's as if there's a chill lodged deep in his bones, and really what he needs is a hot bath or to sit in front of a huge fire. He's been in the communal bathrooms, which have sinks and showers and baths like the one he used to share with Nakatoka-san and Ikkaku, but hasn't managed to get out of the habit of filling a bucket and using that. There must be an onsen somewhere, because everyone talks about it. It's just that there's always people there, and he's never liked being looked at while bathing.

Except - it's six thirty in the morning, and members of the eleventh seem to be constitutionally incapable of getting up before eight. He'll be alone, and even if some hopelessly bleary soul wanders in to take a piss, they won't notice him or perhaps he'll just glare until they look away.

He runs a bath steaming hot while he cleans off quickly in the shower - though it would have been quicker if he had any idea how to operate the thing - and then the scalding water is heavenly, turning his skin pink and sending heat all the way through him. Rigid muscles along his spine and shoulders soften a little, but the mind does not follow the body: it's better, but he's still looking over his shoulder and listening for movement. And without tension in his back and neck, he doesn't know how he’s going to hold his spine straight and head up.

Yumichika tenses at the sound of the door opening, but there's nothing he can do: leaping out would only be counterproductive. He curls arms round his knees and breathes quietly.

"What th'fuck're you doin' having a bath in the middle of the fuckin' night?" The voice and the black braid are familiar; it only takes a Yumichika a minute to call up a name and a memory of where he learnt it - in Ikkaku's bedroom, the time everything went wrong.

"It's ten to seven," he says quietly.

Zoushiku yawns, stretches out wiry shoulders. "Like I said, middle of the night." He takes a step closer, and Yumichika carefully controls his flinch, the urge to shrink away: there's nowhere to go, anyway. "No one else is awake, so it might as well be."

He's just standing there in a ragged grey sleeping robe that might once have been blue, and up close like this, though he's not as big as much of the eleventh, some sense of Yumichika's reads him as more dangerous. Maybe it's the way he's looking at Yumichika's body through the water, tongue pressed assessingly at the corner of his mouth, or maybe it's the way his gaze seems to slice through flesh, leaving hooks where it finds flaws.

Get out of here .

Yumichika holds his gaze, inhales and stands up. Zoushiku’s eyes flick up and down his body as he steps out of the bath and wraps himself in his towel, slowly. If he’s to be seen against his will then he will make a show of it; he is not ashamed of his nakedness, only of the way he looks at himself while rinsing off soap, over and over.

“You’re a whore, aren’t you.”

Completely certain. Zoushiku is the sort of man Yumichika used to fuck for money: maybe even did. It’s not the sort of thing he would remember. “Was,” he says.

He smiles. It’s a wide, thin smile, stretching across most of his face. “See, you say that like it’s nothin’, but I bet you don’t want it getting around.”

Yumichika stills, one hand on his towel.

Because the thing is - Ikkaku is right . He doesn’t really care what people think of him, and he’s just fine on his own, but. It’s been days since someone touched him. He doesn’t really speak to anyone except the lunch lady. Someday, he’d like not to be followed around by people muttering and looking away when he turns. He doesn’t want them expanded, anyway, to include I heard he’s a whore. Wonder how much he cost? You think he still does it, on the side?

He tried with Iba, who looked at him with some expression he still can’t identify, but he knows it didn’t go as expected, didn’t make Iba more likely to do what he wanted. Ikkaku, clearly, wouldn’t want him to do that anymore and - he’s right. He’s right. Yumichika doesn’t want to do it, not here, not the way people look at him.

He remembers being told he was beautiful. Remembers flattery, even if half of it was empty; at least it was backed up by money.

He looks back up to Zoushiku, and now the threat is apparent, delivered so casual and easy. “Not really, no.”

Zoushiku snorts once, and takes a step closer. “That how you got Ikkaku to bring you here? You must be good: he’s more into fighting than fucking, far as I can tell.”

Yumichika’s jaw clenches, and he shivers. “That’s not how it was,” he says, and if only he could sound more certain, less like a frightened animal, then maybe Zoushiku would believe it.  Maybe he’d believe it.

Leave , says the voice only he can hear, more insistent. Run, however you can, however you have to .

One more step, and then there’s a hand on his shoulder. Through long habit, Yumichika’s body stills, swallows his distaste and allows, and from then on he’s on autopilot. “Whatever you say,” Zoushiku says. “You fucked him, though, didn’t you. Don’t think he wants anyone to know that, either.”

Yumichika takes a breath. “No.”

This one is better at this game than you are; don’t try. Run. There is dignity even in running .

But it’s not about dignity. It’s about getting this man to leave him alone, to leave Ikkaku alone, to stop looking at them and pulling apart what he sees because Yumichika can’t stand it, can’t stand the idea that Zoushiku will walk up to Ikkaku tomorrow and say, so I spoke to your whore last night, and I was wondering: do you share?

“Bet you did it for free,” Zoushiku continues. “I’m not blind, you know. It’s how you look at him.” He shrugs. “Dunno what he thinks of it, though. He’s harder to get than you are. You practically paint a fucking picture .”

He wants to run. It’s too late, though: nausea coils in his stomach and his legs won’t move, so he stands straight and holds his shoulders back as Zoushiku trails the hand down his chest slowly to rest at his hip. “You’re not a shinigami; you’re just a whore with a crush.” The other hand reaches out and tilts up Yumichika’s chin, and maybe it’s the first time Yumichika has ever regretted his short stature, because he doesn’t want to look up at this man. He wants to pull away, tries to pull away, but his body betrays him, falls into its accustomed hip tilt and heavy lashes, tries to make him relax forcibly into the contact, so it’s all he can do to stay still.

It’s obvious, now, what Zoushiku wants. Which is almost a relief: get it over with , Yumichika thinks. “A crush who isn’t fucking you, if I’m any judge. No idea why though - maybe he thinks all his new friends wouldn’t be so impressed if they knew he likes to fuck boys.” He tucks a strand of Yumichika’s hair behind his ear. “Well, you’re mostly a girl anyway. Turn you over and you’d hardly know the difference.”His hand reaches for Yumichika’s towel and tugs it a little, so it falls to the floor. Yumichika shivers; it’s cold, and he’s still damp. “I won’t, though. And you don’t need to worry: see, I’m good at keeping things to myself.”

The light pressure of his fingers on Yumichika’s shoulders is instruction enough: Yumichika’s knees bend and he slips into seiza as he has ten thousand times before, familiar, practised. Zoushiku’s hand stays in his hair, no pressure at all, just guiding and running his fingers through it as Yumichika works his mouth on his cock.

It’s not as if he even needs to concentrate much. His body knows how to do this, and mostly he leaves it to its own devices and just watches, as if it’s a dream, as if someone else is swallowing down their gag reflex and blinking away inconvenient water that builds in their eyes from pressure against their throat. His legs might be cold because he can’t exactly feel them.

Afterwards, Zoushiku’s eyes are glassy. He smiles down at Yumichika, hand still threaded loosely through his hair. “You are good.” Retying his robe, he cocks his head. “You know, that sounds like there’s people getting up.”

Yumichika can hear the sounds, and they slowly resolve into the little noises of the division waking up. How long has he been here? He can’t seem to get a handle for the passing of time. Probably he should stand, and go - somewhere else. He’ll just get in the way if he stays here, he thinks, and almost laughs. Useless first-thing-in-the-morning Shinigami would have to step over him, and probably at least a few would not notice him and trip - they’re good at not noticing him, here.

“Best put some clothes on,” Zoushiku says, padding towards the showers. “You’ll have a queue if you just sit there, and the eleventh aren’t good at patience.” He shuts himself in a cubicle, and it’s then that Yumichika’s legs register their existence again, in pins and needles as he reaches for his towel and robe.

His teeth are chattering by the time he makes it back into his bedroom, and it just seems stupid - he’s cold here all the time , and he can’t bring himself to care much about breakfast or decide whether he’s even hungry, so he rifles through his few clothes for his oldest, warmest jumper, now sad and ratty and so often repaired that he’s not sure why he didn’t just throw it away. Still, the high neck portion and one of the sleeves seems mostly unscathed, so he takes out his repair kit and chops them off, seams them, and pulls them on. The sleeve should go on his perpetually cold sword hand, and - yes, the neck piece will drape acceptably over his shihakusho if he just adjusts it...so.

He surveys himself in the tiny mirror on his wall, and - well, it’s an improvement over the drab black and white, which does nothing for his already black hair and pale skin. The bright orange colour is more like the sort of thing he used to wear, colours and patterns designed to make him stand out rather than fit in, and it’s pleasing enough that he flips through his remaining things idly till he finds some red and yellow feathers. Which is - strange; he would swear he didn’t keep anything so frivolous and unnecessary while they were travelling through the Rukongai. He doesn’t really remember buying these, either.

There’s a low laugh in the back of his head as he picks them up and tries to decide what to do with them. It isn’t even unnerving: it’s just there , like the floor and the knowledge that he has training in twenty minutes and the distant pain as he accidentally pokes himself in the eye while trying to attach the feathers to his lashes.

He’s so late for breakfast that he’s caught in the rush that usually happens just as he’s leaving, so there’s barely time to gulp down a bowl of soup. There’s no space to be by himself, so Yumichika ends up sitting between a grumpy quarter-millennium man with gray at his temples and a boy who transferred from the fourth the moment he heard the eleventh were open. He laughs when the others jeer. “I’m shit at kido, and I could never get the hang of that Jinzen crap, so I ended up at the goddamn fourth mopping buckets. I’m telling ya, the Academy ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.”

Yumichika can practically see the Academy sloughing off him as he eats and talks more roughly and laughs more freely and allows his posture to open and relax. Within a week he’ll cut off the hair that’s making him look younger. He fits in already, background in the fourth notwithstanding - Yumichika isn’t sure what’s so bad about the fourth, but everyone seems to agree they’re to be made fun of - and it’s all so obvious, so easy.

Yumichika wonders what’s wrong with him, that he can’t seem to relax his spine, can’t drop the habit of smoothing over his Rukongai accent or eating carefully or pretend he isn’t intrigued at the idea of kido , though he isn’t sure, exactly, what it’s about. He made himself learn to fit in at Suzuruma’s and in the 65th - could seamlessly move between the classiest parts of town and the roughest - and he doesn’t understand what’s so different about here. People are giving his outfit strange looks, but there’s no time between stuffing their faces and talking loudly to do more than that.

As he heads off to training, thumb on his sword, he wonders if this vague, floaty feeling is happy .

Chapter Text

The first feeling to come back, halfway through the afternoon, is annoyance .

The boy from the fourth - and he's not a boy, really, he's of an age with Yumichika, but there's something in the expression that makes Yumichika read him as much younger - is competent and enthusiastic, but has no idea what to do if you surprise him. It's not difficult to surprise him.

He takes to Yumichika's instructions with energy at first, but becomes frustrated and eventually despondent when he still doesn't get it. He kicks his sword. "I'm never going to fit in here if I can't fight!"

Yumichika just - suddenly wants to hit him. Hard. Much harder than is necessary for teaching purposes. He curls and releases his fingers, and doesn't hit him, because that won't achieve anything. "You already fit in. Stop worrying about being good enough for the eleventh and start worrying about being good enough not to get killed." He bites it out from between clenched teeth.

The boy - Najimane, which is a name that'll be shortened in days - blinks at him, frustration seemingly wiped away, which is not at all what Yumichika had expected. "I - okay," he says, wiping mud from his sword onto his hakama. "Can we try again, or are you getting fed up with me?"

It's like Najimane wants to train with him, which makes very little sense; if he wants to fit in, being seen with that fucking weirdo with feathers on his face is probably not the way to go about it. Even Ikkaku hasn't spoken to him except in passing in days, though that might be because of their conversation in the fourth. He thinks he remembers feeling upset about that, avoiding thinking about it, but he can't think why - now, when he examines himself, all he can find is this sortof hollow feeling, more holding the place for feelings that aren't there than a thing in itself. It's - not pleasant, and now he's noticed it niggles at him, sitting heavily in his chest for something that doesn't exist.

He blinks, and Najimane is staring. He must have got lost in thought for a minute. Then he remembers that he's supposed to respond, that Najimane is actually waiting for him to reply as if his reply is important. "Yes," he says. "I mean - no, I'm not fed up with you," that's a lie, he is fed up, fed up and finding it difficult to breathe through the strange heaviness in his chest. But he wants to fight, because it's the only thing he can think of that might help except if Ikkaku were to start speaking to him again,except warm familiar arms around him -

Don't think of Ikkaku.

"Ready?"

Najimane nods, a determined angle to his jaw, and grasps his sword more tightly in that strange Academy two-handed grip. Yumichika attacks, and Najimane moves and puts his sword out but there's not enough of each, so he just ends up with Yumichika's sword pushing his own sword against his shoulder. "Always dodge enough that they wouldn't hit you even if you didn't manage to block," he says. "This is not the moment you want to find out that my sword can cut yours." His fist clenches around his sword handle; he wants a proper fucking fight, not to have to stop at every strike to explain things.

He flips his sword in his hand and breathes in, forcing his mind to concentrate on the moment . He takes deep breaths but his pulse sounds loudly in his ears, strong and fast but not racing, not afraid, and when was the last time he wasn't afraid ?

"I'm not going to stop this time," he says, and his voice sounds strange, low and a little sing-song, and he wouldn't have thought it threatening but Najimane pales, swallows, re-grips his sword. "Your job is to stay upright and try not to get hit too hard."

He lunges with intent , and maybe it isn't fair to Najimane but he's not sure he cares anymore; he can stop, if the kid gets injured or things go too far. He will stop.

Najimane, face white, dodges Yumichika's first strike with a millisecond to spare, blocks the second with all his weight, then steps back. Yumichika feels his mouth pull back into a smile, because gods, this is much better. He keeps going ‘til they're both breathing heavily, 'til the hair by his face is getting damp and Najimane's hands are shaking. He lowers his sword, and fortunately keeps looking at Najimane, who takes his chance to lunge forward with a growl, sword out.

Yumichika deflects, and the sword brushes past his face and Najimane's shoulders crash into his side, and his smile as he looks right into Najimane's flashing eyes becomes a grin. "You love to fight," Najimane says, with something like comprehension.

"So do you," Yumichika says, and it's a compliment: they can fight for the whole rest of the day, fight like they're both mad with it, because they are, because the fourth division can heal a broken foot in a day and they don't have to be so excruciatingly careful, they can make each other hurt and bleed and snarl and even laugh.

"That's why we're here," Najimane says, calmly certain. Yumichika readjusts the feathers framing his face as Najimane reties his overlarge hakama, and wonders about that.

You are beautiful when you fight , coos the voice in his mind, softer than he's ever heard it.

It doesn't last, of course. He can't go as far as he'd like with Najimane, and though they sweat and their muscles burn, Najimane isn't good enough to actually hit him much. He ends the day tired and restless and digging his nails into his fists for the sensation of it. He leaves dinner hungry, belly full but somehow still empty somewhere.

Back in his room, he paces, and when that doesn't help he throws soft things at the wall to avoid making sounds, and when that doesn't work he ends up curling up in the corner, rocking back and forth, clawing at his scalp and pulling his hair and clenching his leg muscles in a precise rhythm. He knows exactly what he'd do if they were still in the Rukongai: he would carefully paint his face and braid his hair and put on his most durable kimono, then go to his favourite bar and find someone who wanted to destroy something beautiful. He'd end the night with his dirty kimono hanging off him and his hair everywhere, a creature of bite marks and bruises and overtaxed muscles and smudged makeup, the roiling, clawing sensation in his chest bled out or sated.

It's been such a long time since he felt that kind of sated, or any kind at all.

Yumichika flings himself face-first down on his bed and tries to think about something else - those forms he has yet to attempt, for example - but he's too edgy and frustrated for those. He wants - he wants to be fucked , wants it rough and painful, wants to drown in his own hunger for blood and be overwhelmed by orgasm and left so tired and used up that he can't think at all.

That isn't his life anymore. That isn't his life anymore and he's glad about that, he is, because he never wants to have to do anything like what he did with Zoushiku again. Doesn't he know that he didn't have to say all those things? Yumichika knows about mutually beneficial sexual relationships, and if that's what it had been - both of them burning out their physical need conveniently with each other - or if he'd even just been asked, without all the games and false assumptions blended with true until even Yumichika isn't sure anymore what he really felt, then. Then he would have said 'all right', he supposes. Would have even knelt on the bathroom floor at 7 in the morning, if that's what was required of him. It’s not as if he hasn’t done far worse, far more distasteful things than give a blowjob in a bathroom.

But when he thinks, now, about the idea that Zoushiku might not be done with him -

Fear, it turns out, is the next thing to come back; the wave of revulsion that accompanies this thought is so overwhelming that he curls up on the bed, clutching his stomach and swallowing repeatedly. It isn’t much help, but the very last thing he wants right now is to have to go to the bathroom to wash vomit off everything. The physical sensations bank, eventually, but his mind won’t leave him be, keeps circling round and round the idea, what if what if what if , offers him reminders and imagined scenes until he can’t bear the thought of being touched by another living thing.

Unfairly - he almost wants to laugh, but the impulse to laugh is dying - this doesn’t erase what he supposes he has to call arousal , so hunger and nausea coexist inside him, lurching and clashing. He realises he’s hitting his head softly against the wall, as if it will in some way stop this, because he can’t bear to exist in his own skin right now and maybe if he hit his head harder he’d pass out for a while, and not have to.  

He’s never going to be able to sleep like this.

A moment later he forces himself upright, shaky, having to force his muscles to unfurl outward when his body is fighting to be in the foetal position. But it’s no good: there’s only the options of waiting till it’s over or distracting himself until it’s over ( the light pressure on his shoulder feels like a threat, feels like the ghost of hands round his arms dragging him backwards down a set of stairs), and he’ll take the second ( the phantom sensation of bindings round his wrists and ankles, and he’s trapped ).

He can’t concentrate to read his paperwork, so he just fetches a scrap filched from an abandoned office and writes on it make it stop make it stop make it stop in shaky hirigana for a few lines, switching to I hate it I hate it I hate everything and I feel sick . He’s not very good at this ( pressure around his throat, and why is he always better at swallowing his gag reflex when the invasion is real? ) but, somehow, the motion is calming. He’s probably writing them the wrong way - the calligrapher told him the stroke order was important, but he's not sure he's remembering them correctly - but he steels himself with the thought that no one else in the eleventh has any idea how to do this.

It’s not - so difficult. He remembers some approximation of the correct grip, and how to move his hand and arm. Making the characters look correct is  more difficult: he finds, although he can easily recognise na , say, when he tries to write it he can’t seem to remember exactly what it looks like and has to turn to his forms to find it.

He would have to slow down to achieve decent legibility ( pain on the insides of his thighs, and a wet trickling sensation ), but when he does that he feels like snapping the pen, so he just continues writing sloppily. Fuck everything. Fuck everything. Fuck everything. I hate it here, I hate everything about it.

And once he's purged a few pages of illegible vitriol,

I don't hate Najimane. He's an okay kid. It was satisfying to fight him today, eventually. I do like to fight, and that's allowed here, that's encouraged here, and Ikkaku doesn't steal all the opponents.

And, finally,

I’m tired. I should go to bed .

-

He knows he's dreaming, because it's warm.

There's the impression of jungle, hot humid air and the smell of vegetation, slippery under his bare feet. Nothing more telling than that: the mist is so thick that when he  stretches out his arm, his forearm fades to invisible at the wrist. He looks down; he's wearing his favourite old peacock-feather patterned kimono. Then one he sold somewhere in the 69th because he had a few bad nights in a row, and Ikkaku asked him not to go to work for a while, 'til they'd gone. He doesn't like to remember how close Ikkaku had been to crossing over asked and into begged .

They won't go. They will never go, probably; nightmare versions of old memories and lying awake, unable to convince himself he's safe, are just part of the landscape of his head now, maybe indelibly. And a few nights in a row where he can't sleep at all are just - random, just something that happens. The incidence of flashbacks does not signify anything: he rarely had flashback dreams until Ikkaku came back (instead he had their waking version, sudden and unpredictable and more likely to result in a missed night of work than the dreams) and he knows he was better after Ikkaku came back.

It seems... Unimportant, here. This is not where the flashbacks live.

He rubs his face, a little surprised to find the feathers on his face. How vulgar , he thinks, not really believing it. Overkill is not attractive.

"Nonsense."

Yumichika has never heard the voice so clearly, as if the speaker is only feet away.

"You look beautiful today, after your fight."

He spins, searching for a point of origin of the sounds, and not finding one. "Where are you?" He steps in a random direction, hoping the mist will clear, or he will somehow bump into the voice that has been with him, more or less, since -

He doesn't remember. He remembers Open up your hungry heart and eat him alive , remembers obeying out of desperation, cutting Gaaran's throat like an animal, and watching him bleed to death on a cellar floor feeling nothing at all.

No. That's a lie, an unworthy lie: he remembers bright as day the things he felt. The briefest moment of nothing, true - then a vague sense of repulsion at the mess, and then, at the sight of his own bloody face in the mirror, when it finally sunk in that he'd killed a man with no more effort than braiding his hair, he was victorious .

He can't really braid his hair anymore, but he's learnt half a hundred new ways to kill.

"Who are you?" Seems a better question, since his first wasn't answered.

He notices that, though he can barely see two feet in front of him, he isn't afraid. There's the brief brush of air in motion against his cheek, soft, almost a caress without touch. He doesn't flinch. "I am you," he says, because the voice is definitely male. "I protect us."

Yumichika remembers hearing the voice in the bathroom, urging him to run. "I know," he says. "I know."

He closes his eyes, and reaches. There's warmth at his fingertips, and for just a moment something brushes softly at the side of his face, leaving behind some fragrant scent that he would bury himself in if he could, and then everything melts and lurches around him.

When he opens his eyes again, he's alone. Alone and cold and suddenly bereft , an emotion so sharp it hurts behind his breastbone. He still isn't used to these long empty hours at night, where before he would curl into Ikkaku's chest and just breathe till dawn, or he'd gone to bed so late that when he awoke, sweat-damp, the rest of the world was awake too and he could immerse himself in the crowd on their way to market.

He rummages for a candle and realises that 1) he's running out, 2) he doesn't know where to buy more, and 3) he doesn't have any Seireitei currency because he hasn't been paid yet. Which is - well. He assumes he will be paid monthly, and it's only been a week since he arrived. Which seems almost impossible: his old life feels years and miles away, and enough things have happened to fill months at least, surely. Or perhaps it's just because his days are long, since he gets so little sleep.

He's beginning to wonder when that will begin to take a toll. He doesn't look at himself in the mirror these days; surely, he has dark circles down to his cheekbones, but seeing them will only depress him since there's nothing he can do about it here. He doesn't even have any concealer, like he used to put on to cover bruises and bitemarks and make himself look like something pristine.

The candle is scented - which is strange, as he thought he'd used up all his expensive ones long ago, but welcome - and he takes a little quiet pleasure in getting out his needle and thread and many different scraps of fabric for mending. The scent reminds him of something, makes him close his eyes and touch his face and think of a warm, humid jungle, but he can't exactly put his finger on it; it makes him feel a little better, anyway.

Yumichika lights another candle and assesses what he has. There's fabric in bright azure blue, in different shades of green, patterned in black and white and brown and white, a few shades of purple, a few bits of his old orange jumper, thread in every colour there is, and a single scrap that's all that remains of his favourite old peacock feather-patterned kimono, that he loved so much he bought spare fabric to mend it, and then never needed to. He's not sure exactly what he's planning to do, it's just that he's craving the feeling of making something, the comforting rhythm of his hand moving in a set pattern. He sits and surveys his treasures for a while, laying them out on the floor (that he's still not quite convinced is clean, even though he's scrubbed it twice) and shifting them around experimentally, examining colours and imagining shapes.

His hand falls to the peacock patterned scrap, and then he knows exactly what to do. There's not enough fabric for a big one, but it'll be enough. Seized by his sudden idea, he doesn't stop sewing until the sky begins to lighten at the horizon, and even then it's only to cast around for something to stuff his creation with. In the end, he takes some of the stuffing out of his duvet and swiftly sews it up again: it's built for someone eleventh-sized, and he won't miss the few inches of duvet.

It's definitely time to get up by the time he's finished, but he doesn't. Instead, he crawls back into bed, and takes his peacock soft toy with him. "I'll need to stitch on some eyes, and a pattern for your tail," he says out loud, burying his face against its chest, where the fabric smells of his burned-out scented candle, and somehow that's right .

It's not as if he's even been able to sleep properly, recently. It'll be okay to doze for a while

-

He's late for training, and didn't have time for breakfast.

Dragging himself out of bed was much more difficult than usual: often it's a relief because his waking flashbacks are vanishingly rare these days, or at least fleeting and insubstantial. This morning, he thought of the day ahead, imagined forcing himself through busy meals and not-so-quiet remarks about how he looks, through training and swallowing flinches every time he's touched, through being touched over and over again in the dinner queue and in the bathroom and at training, through his customary wash in a bucket in his room where the water goes cold halfway through, and just...couldn't, for a while.

Everyone turned to look at him - though, in truth, he wasn't too much later than the last to shuffle in from breakfast - and he had to practise drills on his own in the corner for a while, since everyone else was already paired. Which, unless someone is ill, means that someone else has been kicked out - maybe more than one person.

Yumichika swallows, and tries to run through what he knows. It's surprisingly difficult: he knows how to fight, not how to perform drills. He runs through a few rounds with an imaginary opponent, but it's difficult to get right because without someone else the change in momentum has to be produced on his own. He's quite sure he looks ridiculous, but doesn't look up, though he can feel eyes on him. He can always feel eyes on him in public, here. It should be something he's used to: he was the centre of attention a lot, if he went to the right bar in the Rukongai where they appreciated all the wit and charm and beauty he could craft with enough money and sake. He's not used to insults - at least not on such a scale. There were always those even in the Rukongai who felt the need to tell him how degrading it was to be a whore. But he was wealthier and more beautiful and more free than them, and it was easy to pay them no attention.

Eventually, he begins to be grateful there's no one to train with: he brushes against the high fence around the training ground and shivers, swallowing around the urge to curl into himself, and realises he's not sure if he could bear the touch of another person. Well, that's a lie. He has borne worse, while feeling worse, and all it was was horribly unpleasant. He didn't go out of his mind, or try to hurt himself, as he's heard others say people do when bad things happen. He didn't go out of his mind; he only wished he would. But it seems that isn't the way he works, and instead he has to bear every moment of his horrors completely conscious, with nothing at all for release or separation from reality.

He wonders if there's alcohol here. There can be a little distance, if he gets drunk enough, but too much and everything hurts more instead of less. Trial and error. And here, no one will buy him drinks, so he supposes he'll have to wait till after he's paid, though he has no idea how much he'll be paid, whether almost everything will go on his room and food (and everyone eats so much here, he's sure it must cost a lot), or whether he'll be able to afford other things.

His mind is wandering. He pulls it back to focus on his training, and after some experimentation, tries breaking down techniques into single moves, then stringing them together in easy rhythms that are repetitive rather than battle-ready. It works well; it's easier, then, to think about his balance, momentum, position, speed. He discovers that he momentarily goes off-balance when shifting to an upwards diagonal strike, and spends some time repeating the movement until it offers no weakness. Until it is correct, perfect.

He only notices that everyone has stopped for lunch when Ikkaku stops next to him and puts a hand on his shoulder. He jumps, gritting his teeth around a shout of surprise.

"Ikkaku," he says, turning his head to look, and oh, that's a mistake. He hasn't spoken to Ikkaku in days, and survived those days by not looking at him, not thinking about him. Some ridiculous part of him wants to request things he is no longer allowed: another arm around him, for example; the rest is unsure and wary of his touch, less offensive than anyone else's, but even Ikkaku does not always feel entirely safe when he's like this. It used to be that Ikkaku had a sortof sixth sense about when Yumichika needed not to be touched, but maybe he's better at hiding it these days.

"Yumichika," he says, and there's something like pain on his face, as if he wants to say more, do more. There's still something comforting about hearing his name spoken by Ikkaku, even though the impulse to pull away is getting stronger. He does not deserve you , the voice says. It seems - louder somehow, closer, or perhaps just clearer.

Deserve?   He wonders, feeling the word around in his mind, trying to understand what it would be like for someone to deserve him. If Ikkaku does not, then no one he knows does, and this cannot logically be the case. If anything, I have never thought I deserved Ikkaku, and yet, there he was. 'Was' being the operative word. Now - what are they now?

Perhaps it is him who has ceased to deserve, or maybe he never did, and it's simply that his grace period is over. The impulse to offer Ikkaku a smile wars only briefly with his more recent instinct for reserve.

Ikkaku scratches the back of his neck, shifting his weight slowly from foot to foot. "Ah - I was wondering...there's going to be sortof a gathering, tomorrow night."

"Hmm," Yumichika hums acknowledgement. He's heard a little about it. He waits for Ikkaku to get to whatever point he's making.

"And I figured - maybe you'd wanna come?" Ikkaku looks at his hands, cracking his fingers one by one.  

Yes is almost out of his mouth before he even has time to think about it. Ikkaku wants him to come and therefore - but does Ikkaku really want him to come? He looks nervous, hesitant, which he normally never is. Is he still angry about their last conversation? Should Yumichika apologise? And yet - he never found out the answer to his question. Are you ashamed of me?

Maybe this is it. Would Ikkaku be inviting him to a party if he was ashamed of him? He has to know Yumichika wouldn't receive an invite otherwise. Is this some sort of apology?

Not exactly, he decides. Ikkaku says what he means, usually. It is something , though. "Well, who's going?"

"Loads of the eleventh," Ikkaku says, offering a small smile.  "Me an' Iba, Maki and Mikon and Najimane - he's bringing a friend from the fourth, hope he looks tough or that might go bad - Gehe and Sukemura and Zoushiku - " Ikkaku continues, but Yumichika's too busy standing straight and breathing and keeping his expression still to take in more names of people he's never spoken to. He's all right, alone with Ikkaku while everyone else has dashed to lunch at top speed as usual, and alone with Ikkaku used to mean safe .

He can't convince his body he's safe, so he stands and listens to his heart race and feels his breath come too fast, and tries to keep on top of it, tries to keep it quiet.

Yumichika wonders if his face gives anything away. Used to be, Ikkaku could just tell when things were going bad inside his head -

“...And I think Taichou might come, but - hey, are you okay?” Ikkaku interrupts himself, makes an unfinished movement of one hand which seems to serve no purpose, and Yumichika can’t seem to help the flinch. Ikkaku’s hands curl in, and he takes a long breath in through his nose.

“I’m fine,” Yumichika says, and he might as well acknowledge it, really: he’s lying through his teeth. He’s not anything like fine, though he will hold himself together come hell or high water. He will hold himself together in public, even in front of Ikkaku, who’s made it clear their relationship has changed, that he’s not someone to curl around when Yumichika has nightmares anymore. Still, he looks - worried, maybe, so Yumichika offers: “Okay. I’ll come.”

“You will?” Ikkaku’s voice is a little strained; maybe it’s all the shouting they seem to do, here. “I - okay, great. I’ll, uh, see you tomorrow night, then. That empty building by the barracks, yeah?”

Yumichika nods. “See you tomorrow.” he turns and heads to lunch; at least he won’t be as buffeted in the queue as usual, turning up late.

At least there will be alcohol, tomorrow night.

Chapter Text

The next morning, Yumichika...doesn’t get up.

He intends to get up. But then it's as if he just doesn't have the energy to overcome gravity and make himself do it; he lies in bed, expecting at any moment to feel awake enough and energetic enough to attempt upright, pull on some clothes, walk to training. It doesn't happen.

For a short while he's seized by panic: if he doesn't get up now, he'll have to run to breakfast, but the prospect of running is completely beyond him, so he lies in bed, pulling the covers over his head and holding on to his peacock, which has eyes now, large and friendly, sewed on last night in calming rhythm. If he doesn't get up now, he won't have time to grab an apple. If he doesn't get up now, he'll have to run to training. If he doesn't get up now, he'll be late for training again.

The panic is still there somewhere in the back of his head - what if they send me home? What if I have to go back to the Rukongai without Ikkaku or any money? What if they send me to another division? What if I have to go to the fourth and clean instead of fight? What if Ikkaku never speaks to me again? - but it's getting harder to feel, pushed down into his chest into a sort of heaviness, and then, he just...drifts, into no thoughts at all, and then into sleep.

He wakes up into a sudden panic because that’s the sound of the squad heading to lunch, which means he’s missed a whole morning of training - but really, there’s nothing he can do about it now. They've probably missed him by now if they're going to, and at least if he stays here all day and then goes back tomorrow he can say he was ill. Slowly, his heartbeat slows: there's a way of handling this, and maybe he is ill, after all: his body is strong, and no physical task is usually hard.

Though, it’s been a struggle to get out of bed before; he would count to three and force his tense muscles to propel him upwards, paint over his face till he was unrecognisable even to himself, and slide an extra knife into one of the hidden pockets of his kimono. There's no way to do that, here, no way to be disguised and armoured except to be invisible, and to do that he'd have to fit in.

He has no idea at all how to do that. He'd have to change...almost everything about himself. Have to learn to speak differently, move differently, eat differently, fight differently, and - maybe it's not possible. It took him years to get good at holding himself the way he does now, and he's had decades of practice. He's not sure the effort of trying to change all of that, now, would be worth it.

He's not sure that he wants to change.

Maybe he's just going to have to get used to dragging himself forcibly through some of his days. It's better to be here than the alternative, so he supposes he will have to. It's better to be here than the alternative, he thinks firmly, and eventually it will be more obvious than it is now. Eventually it will be true.

In the meantime, there's something useful he can do that doesn't involve leaving the room.

It would be easier, really, to stay in bed, but the promise that he won't have to go anywhere or see anyone is enough to make it possible to get up and put on some clothes and sit down at the small, squarish desk. He doesn't know if he'll be able to write, even, if he's not at a desk; half of him is saying, don't be a fool, you can't write, why are you pretending you can? But there's no one at the eleventh, as far as he knows, to challenge him: none of them can write either.

Most of the forms require only some numbers and a signature. He knows numbers, given that so many of them were written on market stalls and shop signs. He begins with this, carefully as he can. To his own eyes it looks sloppy and haphazard compared to the neat, flowing calligraphy  of whoever wrote the original form. But legible.

Signing his name is - more difficult. He knows the kanji for his name, or rather he picked them out with the calligrapher's help. 綾瀬川 弓親, he writes, even more carefully because to mess up the kanji of his own name seems a crime, somehow. He finishes with the ambiguous officer of the eleventh division in the space for Post, and reasons once again that if he doesn't do this it won't get done, and whatever the worst they can do to you for misfiled paperwork is, Yumichika is certain he's had worse.

It's comforting, in a way. He's had a whole lot of worse, and he's still here.

Or it would be, if he thought those experiences had made him - stronger, somehow, instead of...whatever he is. Weary , he thinks after a time. Used up. And the old certainty: broken .

Oh, Ikkaku, you used to make me feel like I could be fixed .

He has to go back to bed for a short while after that, because there’s no sense ruining his work by getting the forms damp. It ends up being more like a long while, because even with a running internal monologue of pull yourself together, this isn't the time, there's no point in this, stop it, get up, get up, get up, he - can't. Everything rushes in: Ikkaku's painfully careful interactions with him these days, each and every time they've walked past each other and said nothing, the look on Ikkaku's face that first night when he got everything wrong, the feeling of lying curled against Ikkaku's chest and the weight of his arm round Yumichika's shoulders and the smell of his skin and the taste of his mouth, and how somehow Yumichika ruined everything.

He can't seem to pinpoint when exactly everything got into this much of a mess. It doesn't - it's not as if there's one thing that he can apologise for; Ikkaku is still talking to him, and then there was that invitation earlier - but there's the distance. Every inch hurts. Yumichika has no idea what to do about it, except go to this party and hope they can talk then.

He doesn't know if Ikkaku even wants to fix things: as far as Yumichika can tell, watching him laugh with his friends, he's doing just fine. Maybe occasional conversations is all he wants. Why did you fuck me like you love me, Ikkaku, if you don't care at all? He used to - think there was affection there, both ways. Used to read it in the way Ikkaku's forearm would curl possessively around his chest, in the continual threats to kill anyone who hurt him. What changed? Can he change it back?

I’m not allowed to be this much of a mess .

The worst of it seems to be over, anyway. He can see, for one. His eyes hurt, and they’re probably red, but it’s not as if he has to look attractive these days. Yumichika takes careful, determinedly full breaths and gets up again, ruthlessly drawing his thoughts back to now: the wall against his back and cool air against his skin and the feeling of picking up his brush once more. He finds he can keep going with the forms, if he just fills his mind up with that’s an interesting kanji; is it supposed to be a person in a field? and I really ought to alter this uniform so it fits better and the feeling of his breath, mostly steady now. He tucks his stuffed peacock under one arm and persists.

A knock at his door startles him so much that he pitches his paperwork all over the bed and floor, just about managing to hold on to his brush and ink. Then - he has to decide whether to answer or not. Should he pretend not to be around? Should he pretend to be ill? It wouldn’t be that difficult, with how wrecked he must look. For the first time, he does not regret the lack of a mirror in his room.

"Yumi?" Ikkaku's voice is quiet, hesitant. He hasn't been called Yumi in a while.

Yumichika stands, looking towards the door and to his papers and back. He doesn't - he's not - he isn't sure he even wants to let Ikkaku in, not when he's such a state. Ikkaku has seen him in every sort of state, but not recently. Why is it that a few awkward, distant weeks overpower years of friendship in his memory?

"I know you're in there," Ikkaku says, and it could be a threat but it isn't; he sounds like he's only hoping Yumichika is in there.  And Yumichika has never been able to refuse Ikkaku anything.

He shoves his papers in a corner and opens the door a fraction. "Ikkaku?"

Ikkaku lets out a long breath. "You're here," he says, redundantly. Yumichika just looks at him and tries not to want things: it never goes well when he wants things.

There's an uncomfortable moment where they just stare at each other until Ikkaku says, "Uh - can I come in?"

Of course. That's what you're supposed to do when people turn up at your door: let them in. It's just never happened to him, here. Yumichika holds the door open just enough for Ikkaku to get through, then closes it.

Whole layers drop out of Ikkaku's expression, and suddenly he's openly worried. "How come you weren't at training?"

"I - " he begins, but there isn't really an end to that sentence, because he's not exactly clear on that himself. I couldn't get out of bed sounds...implausible, given that he's currently standing. He looks away. "I didn't feel well, this morning." It's almost true: what functional difference does it make, whether his body sabotages him or his mind?

Could he have gone to work - his old work - feeling the same? He thinks...he could have. He isn't used to his head feeling like this, in particular, but he remembers feeling just as awful, at Suzuruma's. The first day of work after Gaaran, for example.

He swallows down bile. This is not the time to think about Gaaran . No time is the right time to think about Gaaran, in any capacity except bleeding to death on the cellar floor . The rest of it is just horrors he sees no reason to uncover.

Even if they seem to be uncovering themselves, these days. He wants to put the cover back on, say no, stop, I don’t want to deal with this I never want to deal with this , but he doesn’t know how. He's going to have to learn, though. He can't just miss work like this. He would swear he used to be able to swallow it all down, one way or another.

Perhaps the only way out is through. The voice is soft, sad, which is understandable: even the idea of wading through his horrors is terrifying.

"Okay," Ikkaku says. "I thought maybe - " he begins, but then cuts himself off, pressing his lips together, and looks more closely at Yumichika. "One of...the bad mornings, huh?"

It's all he can do not to start crying again where he stands. Ikkaku gets it, or nearly so, no explanation necessary. "Yes," he says.

It's suddenly obvious: if Ikkaku would hold on hand, the wading would be possible, and even if he stepped on quicksand he would still be safe. Ikkaku still feels safe.

"Do you think you'll still come tonight?" Ikkaku's thumbs are tucked awkwardly into his hakama ties, fingers curled closed. There's still hope on his face, though, even if he makes no moves at all towards Yumichika

Yumichika is normally quite good at understanding body language, but Ikkaku is all over the place: body closed off and emotions plain on his face. It doesn't make any sense at all; Ikkaku was always expressive, expansive, always in Yumichika's space even when they didn't touch.

"I'm feeling a bit better," he says carefully, and watches Ikkaku's face. "I'll come."

It feels like the smile he gets in response, openly relieved and happy, ought to fix everything.  Ought to make him feel better, ought to make - something happen, like Yumichika smiling in response, perhaps a hand on his arm. It doesn't. Yumichika's answering smile is at least half empty. It's a start, he tells himself. He tries to feel happy about it, but there's too much in the way , and the only way he can imagine being happy - remember being happy - he was curled against Ikkaku's chest with sleepy fingers stroking his damp hair.

He would give anything to be back there. And that's not a comfortable thought, but it's a true one; he cannot think of a single thing he has that he wouldn't burn in a heartbeat in exchange for that. It's probably not...he probably shouldn't feel this way. But he shouldn't have waking nightmares, or a voice in his head, or phantom touches that nearly or actually make him sick, and he does. Worrying feelings about Ikkaku are not new; they're the least of his worrying feelings (like the ones where he wishes desperately to be held down and taken, like the ones where he wants it to hurt till he's screaming and crying with no respite, like the dreams where he slits throats and drinks the blood he spilt, thick and warm on his laughing tongue).

Ikkaku rubs the back of his neck and looks away. "Okay," he says. "I'll see you tonight, then."

And he's gone.

Yumichika steps backwards till his back hits a wall, then he slides down it slowly, curling in on himself. He's all right. Nothing bad is happening (even if he half wishes it would. Maybe because then the mess of his mind and heart would make more sense; maybe because he's just used to it that way, and keeps waiting for the other shoe to drop).

Would you abandon even me, for him? the voice is soft, a little reproachful.

"I didn't know I could," he says out loud, and probably he ought to have acknowledged that he isn't so together before now, but "talking back to the voices in your head" has got to be some definite indicator of madness, surely.

I will hold you through all the horrors that come the voice says with conviction. There is nothing you could do that would make me stop .

"But I've never even touched you," he says, and it comes out plaintive, but he's alone, and in the privacy of his own head and in his own room, it doesn't matter if he admits how much he would do for the friendly touch of another.

The answering brush of - feathers? - across his face isn't enough, but nevertheless, when he finally makes it to bed, he holds his stuffed peacock to the still-tingling skin there.

 

-

 

Fortunately, there's a lot of alcohol at the party.

He's done his best with his appearance: careful comb through his hair, cold damp cloth against his eyes to reduce the puffy redness, feathers arranged to frame his face. He knows they just get him more looks, but he tried to leave without them and felt - off, somehow. And anyway, reducing the looks and mean comments would require a much more concerted effort than not putting on his feathers.

Yumichika ignores the beer and heads straight for the sake. He knows how to discreetly knock a few back without looking vulgar, so he does that, and the slow uncoiling that begins in his belly and radiates outward is a profound relief. The fourth, he makes himself drink more slowly; he's barely been here ten minutes.

The pleasure on Ikkaku's face when he spots Yumichika is muted - purposefully, he's beginning to realise - but definitely there. "Yumichika," he says, wandering over and touching Yumichika's upper arm in greeting, and if he notices Yumichika's intake of breath and too-long blink, he says nothing about it.

Yumichika smiles at him, and at least half of the weight is gone so it comes out properly for once - which may not be a good thing, given the dazed expression Ikkaku returns. He hasn't had enough sake to be feeling so giddy, as they stand there and look at each other, the distance between them feeling suddenly bridgeable.

"You weren't at training today," someone says, and - oh, Najimane is standing by Ikkaku's left shoulder. His hair is cut, but not as Yumichika had expected: shaved sides, but the top is still hanging to his jaw.

"Wasn't feeling well this morning," he says, because I like your hair probably isn't the right response. At Najimane's slight frown, he continues, "Nothing a few drinks won't cure," and swallows the rest of his glass, attempting a smile afterwards. Najimane returns it and takes a drink of his own, a rough chug, looking like he's drinking more than he is. The precise and perfect opposite of what Yumichika is trying to achieve. He could laugh; he wonders if Najimane knows what he's doing.

Najimane turns to accept a drink from - a woman? Surely not from the eleventh: the division may be large, but Yumichika is certain he would have noticed if there were women, in the sea of men. Though perhaps not this woman - who is probably, he realises, Najimane’s friend from the fourth - given her short black hair, unimpressed expression, and proliferation of facial piercings.

“Hello,” Yumichika offers, taking in her sword-callused hands. Clearly, Ikkaku’s worry about her is entirely unfounded.

She raises an eyebrow at him. “Hello. I take it I’m not actually invisible, then?”

Yumichika’s set of planned replies dies, and nothing comes to mind to replace them. He blinks at her. “...No?” Then he takes in Najimane’s face - guilt? - and, oh, of course: everyone’s been ignoring her. He shrugs one shoulder. “I take it you’ve experienced the charming manners of the eleventh?”

She looks at him, then around at the rest of the room, then back. “Yeah. I take it you have, too?”

“Daily,” Yumichika says placidly, taking a sip of his drink. She’s nursing hers instead of drinking it.

Najimane turns to his friend. “It’s not that bad, Kaoru,” he says, and it sounds like more of a plea than anything. “Is it?” He addresses this last to Yumichika.

Yumichika...doesn’t say anything, barely. Apparently this is answer enough, because Najimane continues, “I mean, I know people give you a bit of stick sometimes - but it’s not serious , you know how it is...and you wear feathers on your face; you’ve got to admit that’s a bit weird.”

Yumichika swallows around sudden nausea. Maybe the seventh drink was one or two too many, or maybe a few weeks with none at all has just reduced his tolerance. He’s saved from having to formulate some sort of response when Kaoru shoves her untouched drink at Najimane. “Told you if you transferred here you’d be surrounded by assholes. Didn’t think you’d actually become one, though.” She turns to glance coolly at Yumichika. “Present company excepted.” Then she turns and makes for the exit, ignoring Najimane’s Kaoru!

Najimane turns back to Yumichika, shuffling awkwardly. “Eh, she can be a bit sensitive,” he says.

This doesn’t seem like a terribly accurate assessment to Yumichika, but he doesn’t comment: he wants to find Ikkaku, who’s wandered off somewhere.

He hasn't found him yet when a skinny hand clenches firmly around one of his shoulders. Yumichika jerks, and a cold shiver goes down his spine when Zoushiku says in his ear, "I wasn't sure you were gonna come." He snorts, as if he's made a joke.

Briefly, eight glasses of sake threaten to all come back up at once. Yumichika swallows, and makes himself turn around. Zoushiku is forced to drop his hand, but the way he looks at Yumichika is almost worse than the hand was.

Still, at least he can stop waiting for this to happen, because it's happening: he's following Zoushiku to one of the bathrooms, concentrating to avoid stumbling, and though the sake is definitely overwhelming his senses now, he can't say he regrets it. The unsteady lurching and sliding of the landscape is a small price to pay for the deadening of nerves.

Because it hurts . It hasn't hurt this much in a long time, cold hard stone digging into his stomach and pressed against his face and thin fingers gouging into his hips. He changes his assessment: clearly he hasn't had enough sake, because it all still feels real and immediate: the thing that hungers is asleep, and the blurring of pain edging into something like masochistic pleasure that he's used to doesn't happen. It's not - he's been feeling the pressure of the wanting thing for days, and now it's just gone, as though he can't get anything from Zoushiku.

He doesn't want anything from Zoushiku, not even to sate the hunger. Doesn't want this. Wishes this were not happening, that he could find some corner of his mind to hide in, but there isn't. It's like the very first time, when he was still stupid enough to fight back - and they shoved him down in the dirt and had him anyway, till everything hurt. At least this time he knows not to do that, knows that it's better to get away uninjured. If he's learnt anything since then, it's how to endure.

Time flows slowly. He stops swallowing pain noises, and Zoushiku covers his mouth with one hand. "Well, I like to hear you scream, but if that lot hear you they'll think there's a fight and come running," he says. He pushes two fingers into Yumichika's mouth, and Yumichika tries not to gag, though there's nothing in his throat to cause it. "Ah, that's what I should do: bring a friend to plug your mouth." He gives a short laugh. "Maybe I'll ask Ikkaku."

He'd gut you like a fish, Yumichika thinks distantly. Pain makes his eyes well up. He hopes he isn't going to be sick; he doesn't think Zoushiku would stop. It seems like it's going to be over soon; Zoushiku's breathing is getting heavier and his movements are erratic. He's given up covering Yumichika's mouth in favour of pressing his head against the countertop, and Yumichika tries to close his eyes, but without sight to ground him it feels like the world is lurching, and he's nearly sick again.

Then the door is opening, and he's looking into Ikkaku's horrified face. Is it horrified, or is he just reading that into the blur? He wants to say something - please , or I'm sorry , though he can't sort out what he's pleading or apologising for. But Ikkaku just quietly shuts the door, and after a moment it occurs to Yumichika to be grateful; he doesn't know what Zoushiku would do if he realised Ikkaku saw, and he doesn't want to.

Afterwards, Zoushiku holds him up by his hair and says - something. It sounds like they're underwater, and the pain is fading to a dull throb and taking every other sense with it. His legs give out when Zoushiku releases him, and he curls up on the floor and waits for the nausea to result in vomiting, or pass. Thankfully he's already in a bathroom: he probably can't move more than a few feet. Definitely can't walk. He drags himself to the toilet and throws up all the sake that's still in his stomach; there isn't much else to throw up. Did he forget to eat today?

He hears the door open behind him, but this time it doesn't matter because he's just throwing up, whoever it is will just think he drank too much.

"Fucking hell , Yumichika." Ikkaku's voice. For some reason, it makes him cry harder - when did he start crying? Ikkaku sounds...annoyed, maybe, but he kneels and brushes Yumichika's hair back from his face through another round of vomiting. Bile mostly, this time. It burns on the way up. He's shaking,but Ikkaku's hand makes smooth circles against his upper back, familiar, comforting. He wants to lean into Ikkaku but he's disgusting, covered in sweat and tears and come dripping down his thighs and smelling of sick. He's disgusting, and no wonder Ikkaku doesn't want to be around him much anymore.

Eventually, there's nothing more to throw up. Ikkaku hands him some tissue, and he wipes his face til it's not clean, exactly, but at least less wet. He looks at the floor.

Ikkaku looks at him and sighs. "I - what are you doing ?"

Yumichika stares at him. There just...isn't an answer. It's not as if he planned any of this - any of anything. Almost everything - his small paperwork endeavour aside - is mostly just happening to him, while he hangs on to whatever he can.

Ikkaku licks dry lips and continues. "I mean, we came here to get away from all this, didn't we?" Did they? Yumichika had been sure they'd come here because Ikkaku wanted to follow Zaraki, and Yumichika followed Ikkaku because nothing else was even an option. What "all this" does Ikkaku think they were getting away from? They'd had a good life in the 65th, plenty of money after rent and a clean pleasant house and enough food: things didn't start to go wrong till after they left Nakatoka-san's house.

There were always the bad days, of course. But they seemed more bearable, then.

Ikkaku is still talking. "And I mean - like, it'd be just fine and none of my business if you were...happy, but - you're drunk and sick and you don't look happy, and..."

Happy. Ikkaku is suggesting that - what, he sought this out? He has to swallow a little bit if compulsive giggling before he can say, "It's not like I wanted it."

It hurts his mouth to say it, somehow, but it's out before he can stop himself. He feels something shift, in the alcohol-muddled mess that is the inside of his head: maybe for Ikkaku, too, whose face drains entirely of tipsy colour. "You - " he begins, then swallows heavily, as if it's difficult. "Okay," he says. "Then why...what happened?" A pause. "How come you didn't just - tell him where to shove it? Not like he could get the better of you in a fight. Not many folk that could, even round here."

Yumichika tries to imagine himself standing in the bathroom last week, saying No, thank you to Zoushiku. He can't; the idea seems almost laughable. It hadn’t occurred to him at the time, as an option. He should have run, but then would Zoushiku have told the whole division what he said to Yumichika? Would he be any better off? He'll be hung over and sore tomorrow, with another unpleasant memory to add to his collection, but he's not sure whether that's better or worse than the alternative.

Ikkaku's still talking to him; maybe that makes it better. For Ikkaku, he can dredge up the whole unpleasant story. "I was in the bathroom, and he came in. Started talking to me. Said he could tell I was a whore, and he bet I didn't want that getting around." Ikkaku breathes in sharply, but doesn't say anything, so Yumichika keeps going, not sure he's making any sense. "I - lied, like you told me: said he was wrong, but he didn't believe me. He started - talking about you." Yumichika finds himself staring at his hands, pulling over and over at a loose thread on the seam of his shihakusho. "Said he bet that's how I got here, that I'm not a Shinigami at all, just a whore with a crush."

He dares to look at Ikkaku, whose hands are in fists in his lap. Ikkaku hands him another tissue, and - oh, that's where the lump in his throat has come from; he's crying again. Surely there's no more liquid left in his body, but it keeps happening , making it difficult to talk. "I'm not even - I'm not sure he's wrong," he manages in something like a whisper. "He made out like he'd tell people, all of it, if I didn't do what he wanted. And I just thought, you were right. I don't want people to think that we - that you bought me, or something.”

He looks at Ikkaku briefly, then has to look away, because he won’t finish if he has to keep meeting Ikkaku’s gaze. “You never bought me. You didn’t have to, that’s the point - that was always the whole fucking point .” He swallows, fruitlessly scrubs at his face, and continues. "That's why you don't talk to me when there's anyone else around, isn't it. And I - understand. I don’t want people to think badly of you because of me, either."

Ikkaku looks like he might be sick, or maybe like he wants to rip someone to pieces with his hands, which are clenching and unclenching in his lap. Yumichika flinches: he said too much, but he was only trying to tell the truth. Trying to make Ikkaku understand that he just wanted Ikkaku not to be angry at him. A hoarse whisper: "Did I do something wrong?" Again .

There's a single, horrible moment where it looks almost as if Ikkaku will fall to pieces, and then he rubs one hand over his mouth. "No," he says, voice barely working; it's gravelly and rough like he's just run a mile. " No . None of this is your fault." He frowns down at his clenched hands, makes them relax, then slowly shuffles closer to Yumichika. "Is this - do you want - " Ikkaku tries, stops, swallows. His hands are shaking: Yumichika looks closer, and sees that his eyes are red. "We should go somewhere else. Get you clean clothes, and stuff."

That makes more sense than none of this is your fault , because if it isn't his fault, then nothing makes any sense, then Zoushiku meeting him in that bathroom was just bad luck, and so was Gaaran coming to that particular bar, and so is the pretty face he was born with that brought him income and trouble in unequal measure. More trouble, these days. If it's all just bad luck, then he doesn't know if he can stand another week of this unlucky fucking life, and he might - something.

He doesn't know if he can stand being awake anymore, but he submits to Ikkaku's directions, and allows Ikkaku to sling one arm across his shoulder so he can propel them both vaguely forwards. Somewhere. He doesn't know where he's going.

"Let's get you clean, huh?" Ikkaku says, and then Yumichika realises where they are.

It's the middle of the night, and they're in the bathroom, and Yumichika's aching stomach muscles tense again; he's sure he would be sick if he had the strength for it, or if he had anything left in his stomach to throw up. "I...can't..." He manages, but then his jaw seizes up and all he can do is tug ineffectually away from Ikkaku, though it's more like flailing really, and Ikkaku holds on - is that Ikkaku? The moment he realises where they are, his knees lock. His face isn't right he's wearing a cold blank expression tugging painfully at Yumichika's arm trying to take him

Somewhere somewhere he doesn't know, all he knows is he can't do it again (I can't do this please please don't make me do this)

There's pain and shivering horrors down those steps, he knows. Cold hands on his hips and lizard voice in his ear and locked door/trapped/bound/can't get away/can't make it stop, he's not allowed to make it stop, he's someone else's sacrifice for someone else's amusement, they'll break his legs if he tries to run, but he's allowed to scream, he's allowed to cry - 

It won't do him any good.

They're still dragging him down the filthy/dark/nauseous stairs and the door opens and his throat hurts from, from, 

Use of some kind, he doesn't know, is he still crying/talking/pleading/screaming? Please don't make me please please but it's no good there's no point they'll just laugh and hurt him more - 

The door shuts.

...who is they ?

He hits the floor.

He blinks; the dark corridor in front of him can't seem to make up its mind what it is. It's the barracks, but - not, somehow. The walls are too high, or maybe there's some trick of perspective making it seem that it goes on for miles, and when he looks to the left, it feels like when he looks back it'll have shifted into the other corridor, the one it was a minute ago.

In front of him but a few feet away is Ikkaku. He has Ikkaku's face again, but the colours are still a bit wrong - everything's colours are a bit wrong: too much green-shift, or something, that makes everything look like one of his nightmares. Sometimes in those monsters wear Ikkaku's face, and though he's wearing an expression that isn't monstrous at all - is that fear? - that doesn't mean it's safe.

He finds he's sprawled on the floor, fingers curled against the floor, and his nails are ragged and bloody.

"Yumichika," Ikkaku says, and his voice is right (shaking, but right), so Yumichika doesn't have to run away yet. He tries to stand, falls back onto his knees, then flinches when Ikkaku moves. To help you, some shred of rationality says, but the sudden movement towards him still registers as frightening and potential threat. Ikkaku freezes and draws back. "What happened?"

He tries to figure out the route back to his own room, but he can't hang on to it. His mind shifts and lurches; it feels like a maze in his head, through dark corridors. The dark corridors are frightening. He shuffles towards the wall, and uses it to stabilise himself so he can stand.

He backs away from Ikkaku down the long corridor, hands pressed against the wall.

Ikkaku stands too, and Yumichika wants to run. His legs won't let him, he knows already. "I'm gonna go to my room. I'll be there if you want me - if you need me. Okay?"

Ikkaku will go to his room and Yumichika can go to his own room and if he can get there then the door locks. The door locks and there's a lamp and blankets and his bed is tucked into a corner behind the wardrobe.

Yumichika nods. He can't speak - can't. Bad things will happen if he speaks: maybe they'll notice him. If he keeps quiet and gets back to his room it won't be so bad. He keeps walking, keeps watching Ikkaku in case of sudden movement, keeping his back to the wall, and Ikkaku doesn't move and eventually he's out of sight and the journey to Yumichika's room seems to take forever, but finally he's there, locking the door and putting on all three of the lights and huddling in the corner under a blanket. And then, it's all right as long as he keeps his eyes open.

A while later, a knock at the door makes him jump and hide under the covers. A moment later, there's a voice: "I got you a bucket of water and some soap, okay? I'm just gonna leave it there. You know where I am." Ikkaku.

Yumichika waits till he's sure Ikkaku is gone, and then it's a long time till he can gather the courage to get up, open the door, and pull it inside. Wherever he faces, he feels like there's something behind him, watching, about to approach, and he finds himself turning his head abruptly this way and that, rushing panicked through the motions that are normally calming, washing blood and sweat and come off his body. His hair, he leaves for another day, and then he grabs a ratty sleep robe and goes back to bed, and stares at the light until exhaustion takes over.

-

It's still dark when he jolts awake again, more sober this time. The room is back to the right colour, though the unease is still there.

He thinks of Ikkaku's worried face, and it's not frightening anymore. He wants - remembers another night like this, different but just as bad, where he went to Ikkaku's room and curled up beside him, and Ikkaku held him, and he wants to go. But this isn't Nakatoka-san's familiar house, and Ikkaku's room is further away than the next room, and he can't go. It's too dark still.

He lies and holds his peacock and tries to recall the horror of touch, to see if it will stave off the desire to be held.

Chapter Text

The next morning, his head aches, he's ravenous, and the whole of yesterday feels like a dream.

He can't remember his actual dreams, and both of those things are a mercy, are what lets him get up and put on clothes and sip water and turn up at breakfast, where he slowly introduces his sore stomach to the idea of miso soup despite his hunger.

Almost everyone is hung over: Najimane is sitting with his forehead pressed against his arms, ignoring his steaming pile of rice and mackerel, Iba is wearing much larger sunglasses than usual while he determinedly shovels rice porridge into his mouth, and Ikkaku looks grey and exhausted as he prods a lonely umeboshi with one chopstick. Zoushiku is nowhere to be found, but the breakfast table isn't over-full anyway; lots of the division seem to be sleeping it off.

He isn’t much use at training that day - though of course some he can do without thinking, and if there were an emergency he knows well-trained reflexes and adrenaline would take over. But no one else is much use either, so he doesn’t stand out. Iba’s precise swordwork is heavier than usual as they spar, though neither of them says anything. It’s a relief, and so is the knowledge that Iba will not touch him.

It’s a relief, he thinks to himself deliberately. He looks around, and Zoushiku is still absent, though now it’s nearly lunchtime. He’s been looking over his shoulder all morning: has he been doing this for weeks, and not known? Perhaps it’s his own fault, for daring to want things, and then he got them - after a fashion - and dared to think, not like this. It seems petty and childish, as if he had scorned food back when he was starving.

Refusing that first crust of bread thrown at him in payment had not even occurred to him. It would have been pointless, stupid and suicidal, and so it hadn’t even entered his mind. The only thing he’d been able to think of, then, was the steady drumbeat somewhere at the base of his spine that urged: survive. Continue. Any means necessary.

Yumichika misses the simplicity of all his choices, then. He went to Suzuruma’s bar because the other option was starving in the street; he left because Gaaran would have killed him, and he knew by then how to get by on his own. He selected his clothes and his sword because he liked them, and which places to go by how rough a time he wanted, or how much money he needed.

All the choices here are complicated. Should he hand the paperwork back to Takashi-san, so nearly complete? Should he speak to Ikkaku, whose colour has not improved while he grits his teeth and looks determinedly ahead? He can’t predict the results of doing either one any better than he can predict the results of not doing them.

Yumichika slips away from the lunch crowd and heads to his own room, where he proofreads his paperwork and puts it in the correct order. He’s still so slow, and there’s only ten minutes of their bizarrely long lunch hour left by the time he’s done, but he heads to the canteen and selects an onigiri and a tiny plate of pickles, then presents the forms to Takashi-san.

She smiles at him in her sunny way, and somehow it’s shocking, a little painful. “You’re just in time, Ayasegawa-san! The deadline is tomorrow.”

He ducks his head and tucks a lock of hair behind his ear. “Yumichika,” he offers.

Her smile lingers, and she secrets the papers under the counter somewhere. “Yumichika-san. Well, would you like the reward for a job done well?”

He opens his mouth, then closes it again. Reward? He didn’t - that doesn’t - you get paid for doing work, or doing favours makes someone more likely to do you one in return, but rewards are for...other people. For turning thieves over to the Yakuza. “I - don’t understand,” he begins, but she shakes her head.

“The reward for a job done well is another job, don’t you know?” Her impish smile invites him to smile back, so he tries.

It’s a choice, he realises, and takes a breath. “All right,” he says. “What do you want me to do?”

-

What he has to do, this time, is find a requisition form, write this ingredients order on it, and submit it to the resources department - wherever and whoever the resources department is. Is there some sort of central office for what Yumichika is beginning to realise must be a metric ton of organisational paperwork and procedures? People to organise food, cleaning rotas, staff, the payroll, room assignments, equipment orders - and that’s all before you get to the technical work that the division is supposed to do.

Which the eleventh currently...isn’t doing, and hasn’t for several weeks now. Are orders still being received, or are the other divisions just giving the eleventh a reprieve while they recover from the recent upheaval? At the end of the month, is everyone going to get paid, and if they don’t, who will sort out the riot?

Or - given that this is the eleventh - how long will it take them all to notice?

Lots of questions and no answers; it all makes Yumichika’s head hurt, so he stops thinking about it. Right now, there’s training. He focuses, dodges Iba’s standard attack and offers a nonstandard counter, then they switch.

“Oi, guys!” Arimaki waves to get their attention, looking dubiously at Yumichika as though rethinking his greeting. “Either of you seen Zou?”

Iba shrugs. “Not this morning. You checked his room? He didn’t seem that drunk last night, but you never know.”

Yumichika frowns. Zou? A nickname, but not one he’s familiar with. Maki sighs and says, “Zoushiku. Lean guy, blonde braid, you know - saw him talking to you last night and all.”

Yumichika’s stomach heaves, and he has to grit his teeth and swallow any reaction. “Yes. I haven’t seen him today, either,” he makes himself say, then turns back to training. Iba gives him a long look, but says nothing.

There’s a bizarre hush at lunch; no one laughs, and people are carrying on muttered conversations in between stuffing their faces. It lasts only half as long as usual, and people drift back to the training yard afterwards, unsure what to do. Then, Iba stands on a table and shouts for attention. He doesn’t need to shout much; everyone’s already mostly quiet.

“We just received word that Aramuke Zoushiku was found dead this morning in Rukongai,” he says flatly, in a voice loud enough to carry.

Yumichika nearly drops his sword. He feels - he feels -

He doesn’t know. There’s something knotting or maybe un knotting in his chest, and. Zoushiku dead? He can still feel the tension and fear deep in his gut, but now he’s afraid of nothing. Zoushiku is dead. Will there be another Zoushiku? Does it matter?

He waits to be glad, and isn’t.  

“We don’t know exactly what happened yet, but it looks like he left the party last night, headed to a bar outside the walls, and got into trouble.” A long pause, and people mutter, but to Yumichika’s surprise no one shouts anything. “Training is cancelled for the rest of the day.”

Talking starts loudly and in earnest then, as if the disruption of routine is some kind of last straw - or as if that’s the only thing they can find anything to say about. Yumichika looks around as he stumbles towards his room, and thinks, some of these people liked Zoushiku. Cared about him. Are sad he died .

Perhaps Yumichika ought to be sad, but all he feels when he thinks about Zoushiku is a sort of distant nausea.

We should have killed him, the voice says. We deserved to kill him.

Which implies he deserved to die, Yumichika thinks, flopping down on his bed. People don’t deserve to die; they just die. He’s seen hundreds of people die, especially back in District 66; people who died of exposure or cold or thirst in back-alleys, people who got into fights, people who got mugged, people who were just in the wrong place at the wrong time when a fire broke out or a building collapsed.

People Ikkaku killed. People Yumichika killed.

Gaaran, for example - and it’s true, he felt victorious then. Felt powerful and free, because it meant he could leave, no one could control him or stop him or make him do anything anymore. But that was then, and now it seems people can make him do things he doesn’t want to do again; this whole place is a minefield of things he shouldn’t do or say that seem trivial, but then he steps on them and everything goes wrong and he’s - he’s - he’s

miserable and alone, and -

It seems he’s subject to everyone else again. Crushed underfoot, thrown around and told to dance like a toy, and he even will. There’s another choice, but it’s horrible , and he seems to be stuck between them because he can’t be a toy again; it nearly killed him and he can’t/won’t die .

Maybe it would’ve been better if Yumichika had killed Zoushiku himself. Maybe it would’ve been like - saving himself, or something. Taking back something that was his. But now Zoushiku is just gone , and all there is is emptiness. Some sense that he took something of Yumichika’s with him, but Yumichika isn’t sure what.

He lies on his bed and stares at the ceiling until the growling of his empty stomach prompts him to propel himself to dinner.

-

In his dreams he kills Zoushiku and drinks his blood.

He wakes up abruptly, scream muffled reflexively into the pillow, heart pounding, flushed, nauseous, aroused, starving .

Getting out of bed isn’t hard, but the calming motions of normal routine don’t feel as grounding as they should. The world blurs uneasily in his peripheral vision. He gives up halfway through and goes for an early breakfast, still in his sleeping robe. Very few people are up; one obvious insomniac nurses a large pot of tea at the end of one of the long tables, and there’s a cleaner in the corner weilding a mop and an ‘it’s too early for this nonsense’ expression.

 

Yumichika doesn’t know what sort of food he wants so he takes one of everything. Takashi-san smiles at him. “It’s good to see you feed yourself properly,” she says, and he carefully does not allow their fingers to touch when she passes him a set of chopsticks and a spoon; her normality and cheer are comforting, but it feels as if he might drain it away or swallow it up if he touched her, and then everything would be unnerving again.

He tries to smile but keeps it small, because the movement of the muscles feels more unnatural than the feathers glued to his face, and he might - frighten her, or something.

He sits down, and finds himself eating much faster than usual - so fast that it’s disgusting, he’s disgusted with himself, and his stomach is beginning to protest. But he’s still so hungry , and none of the food tastes right, none of it’s the right thing to make himself less hungry, and if he doesn’t stop eating he’s going to be sick.

He puts his chopsticks down, stares at the empty bowls and plates in front of him, and he would like to ask for some ginger tea or something to help it all go down, but he’s too ashamed of - he doesn’t even know what that was. His insides hurt as he walks back to his bedroom, then to the bathroom to fetch some wash-water. Looking in the mirror, it feels as if his reflection ought to be grotesque, somehow, but he just looks like himself - pale and tired, but himself.

You are starving yourself , says the voice, and Yumichika searches for admonishment but finds only sadness in the tone.

I am not, he thinks. I just ate far too much food, and I’m fine. He’s been thinner than this before.

Look again. Make your gaze soft, and look again.

That doesn’t even make any sense , but curious, he stands and tries. Soft? He tries to relax his eyes, and that’s no good, his vision just falls a little out of focus, but - no, there’s something. he tries again, resisting the urge to snap everything back into focus, and then looks around his reflection.

It’s - it’s vile . Overlaid on top of his ordinary reflection is another version, warped and sickly, as if built out of candlelight. There, he’s skeletally thin, eyes sunken and hair falling out, and when he opens his mouth his teeth are long and thin and carnivorous. He’s bathed in some sort of greenish light, and though he isn’t moving, bony hands grasp at nothing.

Yumichika shakes his head, steps back and trips, sending his bucket of water everywhere, and then he’s sitting in a puddle of water and laughing , head in hands, because he’s seeing things and he can’t even wash himself without everything going wrong.

It’s real , says the voice, sounding peeved, and that’s even funnier - the voice in his head telling him his creepy hallucinations are real. Of course Ikkaku just left him - he was out of his mind, seeing things, screaming at nothing. Ikkaku hasn’t so much as looked at him since the night of the party, in fact, though he’d hoped - against hope, given the way things had ended - that they’d be a little better. That they understood each other a little better.

Maybe they even do, but it hasn’t helped anything.

His shoulders stop shaking, eventually, and he gets up - and the stupid thing is, he still feels hungry and weak and wobbly even though his stomach hurts, and that must mean that either his hallucinations are in his body too, or - it’s real. Something is real.

So hungry .

He makes it back to his room somehow and curls up against the door. Then he addresses the voice. How do I make it stop?

He knows the answer before it arrives, really. He was just hoping that it wouldn’t be blood/pain/sex/death , delivered sickeningly in a combination of memories and memories of dreams. If he’s honest, he is old friends with this feeling, though he hoped that its absence would not be temporary, because what can he do about it here?

And why did Zoushiku not help in that regard, even if it was unpleasant in all others? The part of Yumichika that is not hungry is sick to death of pain, sick to death of forcing down meals and being forced to take other people inside himself. He almost wishes he could make himself throw up his too-large dinner, and relax into the sensation of emptiness, and then he can feel less like a sack of skin, to be filled with whatever everyone else cares to put there. In the emptiness, surely he will find some small scrap that has been there all along.

That is why you did not take from Zoushiku , the voice says. It is far calmer than he is, though he doesn’t know how that’s possible. 

Maybe it’s better, that there isn’t anything of Zoushiku inside him. That’s a comforting thought. But it doesn’t help him, really, and that is more important than unreliable comfort. The fact that he has to go to work soon is important too, though like everything else outside himself, it feels far away and only partially real.

A solution will present itself , the voice declares.

Yumichika wishes he believed it.

-

He picks up a practise sword, and it’s strange to be holding a wooden sword and smelling blood. He doesn’t know who he’s fighting today, nor is he doing a very good job, because in between one strike and the next his mind keeps offering visions of what he could do - jam hilt into solar plexus until blood comes out of mouth, take advantage of block to end up behind and break neck, hook fingers in eye and throw . They last long seconds, but when he comes back to himself there’s still plenty of time to dodge the next blow.

He doesn’t know who he’s fighting today, or what they look like, because he keeps seeing a dense reddish glow - though it’s not very bright - overlaid/beside them, counterpoint to his own greenish hands. And that, his mind has decided, is more important than what their features are.

It’s not Ikkaku, though. He’d know in a minute if it were Ikkaku.

After lunch - and lunch is strange again, though he finds the impulse to overeat entirely resistable, and instead fidgets with a bowl of noodle soup - there’s some sort of announcement. It’s the Captain making it, and he is - vast, black and swirling, menacing, screaming.

Screaming? It’s Zaraki’s reiatsu that screams. Is this...this hallucination some sort of visual rendering of reiatsu?

Yumichika thinks about what he saw in the mirror, and something cold and dense takes up residence in his stomach.

“There’s gonna be a tournament,” is all he manages to get out, before the din of excitement and approval breaks out. Even Yumichika, still reeling and trying not to look at his hands in case there’s an ugly, bony image over them, feels his heart begin to beat faster.

“I figure there’s gotta be officers, and the officers are gonna be the guys who can beat the shit out of everyone else.” Nods all around; this seems sensible enough. Zaraki grins. “Even when they’re bleeding.”

Yachiru hops onto Zaraki’s shoulders to shout, “And there’s gonna be candy! But not for the losers!” And maybe everyone’s got used to her when Yumichika wasn’t looking, but though this gets a few weird looks, no one says much about it. Yachiru, though - Yachiru is...strange. Pink around the edges, black as Zaraki everywhere else, and her big eyes glow though the black veil. Her reiatsu-body is as dense as Zaraki's, too, and they bleed together at the edges, all a dark blur except for two pairs of eyes and two smiles.

To be fair, this is mostly because the minute Zaraki starts striding through the crowd, background noise reaches a roar of Do you think we’re gonna get to use our zanpakuto? and First blood, or to the death? - Neither, you idiot, it’ll be somewhere in between, like unconsciousness maybe and God it’s been forever since I had a good fight and You assholes are going DOWN!

I told you ! Is the shout that only he can hear, triumphant in his mind. We will be spectacular , it declares, and Yumichika’s hand reaches eagerly for the sword in his belt.

He bumps into Arimaki (who looks...a little pale and twitchy?), who says, “Are you lookin’ forward to this thing, too?”

Yumichika smiles, and this time it comes easily, feeling like baring his teeth more than pleasure (though, oh, he is pleased ). “ Yes, ” he says, and his voice comes out unusually low and hissing to his own ears. He’s not sure what’s on his face, but whatever it is, Arimaki recoils an inch and frowns.

“Cool,” he says. His words don’t match his voice or his face. “Yeah, that’s - yeah.” He’s staring, for some reason, as if Yumichika’s just revealed an unexpected extra arm.

Yumichika keeps walking, and his smile keeps tugging at his mouth through his whole day of training.

It stays with him till the next day, even though the nights are always bad at present. Stays through breakfast where everyone’s on time for once and eating either more or less than usual (Yumichika eats just as he usually does, and why not?), stays through the announcement of the first set of matches. A few people are beginning to look ill; even if they win - and Yumichika supposes they might, since he once cut a man’s throat after at least an hour of sobbing and begging for the pain to stop - they won’t last here. They will go elsewhere, somewhere the love of a fight is not so important.

(The ability to get paperwork done efficiently and on time, say.)

He wonders what the division will be like when they’re gone, when everyone in the whole barracks gleefully anticipates tournaments and dangerous missions. Will he feel less like an aberration, or more? He fit in at Suzuruma’s bar, even though he was unlike anyone else there. He had a place and a job.

Here he is supposed to have a job, but it doesn’t feel at all like he has a place. He doesn't know where to stand, and though the collective rush of adrenaline and anticipation and joy runs through him, too, tomorrow he will drift again, trying not to take up too much space.

Yumichika dispatches his first opponent swiftly; afterwards, he isn’t even breathing hard. The next is a little more effort, and though he wins - why do they always have that look of disbelief on their faces when he wins? - afterwards he’s...hungry again. He grabs an onigiri, and though his body revives, the hunger is soul-deep.

Wasn’t it supposed to go, if he fought?

The second is more difficult, and he finds himself struggling with his own exhaustion, his own mistakes. His body will not obey him, and though there are no forbidden moves, killing one’s opponent too readily is frowned upon, so his reflexes of desperation are swallowed.

Finally, he’s almost pinned, and all he can think is, not like this . He doesn’t want to leave in shame: there’s been so much of that lately, he could choke on it. Shame, a word he used not to know the meaning of, till he came here. He wasn’t ashamed of his job or his naked body or his love for Ikkaku or any of the supposedly-degrading things people have paid him to do. He’s had other people’s come everywhere on his body, he’s been kicked and called vile things and spat on and thrown around and once, that summer with the visitors that he remembers only poorly, they stripped his clothes off and put a collar round his neck, and dragged him round the streets with bitch written on his skin. He remembers being tired after, just tired.

There’s a weight on his back, and he doesn’t know if he has the strength to shift it. He was never ashamed of any of it, but somehow here, they’ve made him ashamed. He doesn’t talk about his job and he covers his body and doesn’t talk to Ikkaku or even about him, but still they look at him like he’s gutter trash, and he just lets them , and -

In District 66, he’d have done anything but let someone get the better of him in a fight.

He opens his eyes - when did he close them? - and lashes backwards with his sword, aiming for the face. He hits his mark, feels the instant when surprise and pain causes the grip to loosen, and flips them. The man’s bleeding badly, sliced from forehead to throat, long but not too deep, and with the smell of blood in the air and blood on his hands and wrists and uniform it’s nothing at all to use his sword hilt as a bar and wait, wait until the struggling stops.

He lets go immediately. The man isn’t dead yet. He flicks the blood off his sword and resheathes it, lifts his reddened hand and laps at it with his tongue while he swipes it across his mouth and brow, as if trying to wipe off sweat. As if he hasn’t noticed the blood dripping into his mouth, copper-sweet.

The whole makeshift arena is silent.

He manages to keep the grin that splits his face from turning into a laugh, or at least a vocal one. His shoulders shake anyway. Is blood the only thing they respect? He’ll bathe himself in it, wash away all his shame, if that’s what they want.

Walking back towards the changing room, he realises he isn’t hungry anymore.

Chapter Text

He defeats everyone .

After his defeat of the man who turns out to be named Doraiko, his fights are tougher; his opponents underestimate him less. Perhaps word is getting around. He can imagine it: don’t mess with the pretty one, he’s fucking deadly . He thinks, didn’t they learn their lesson before? But apparently people can continue to fool themselves for a surprisingly long time.

Yumichika ruthlessly takes advantage of moments of weakness, where it looks like he is cornered and beaten; perhaps if he wins, he will be left alone.

Is that what he wants?

He’d certainly rather Zoushiku had left him alone. But really, people already leave him alone, they just also feel the need to furnish him with the odd disparaging comment as they’re passing. That would likely stop. Or would it? The eleventh seem to be able to make a joke out of anything and anyone. And it’s not as if it honestly matters.

He... wants to win the tournament. But he can’t think of a single other thing that he wants, beyond basic necessities - there’s a few frivolous things he’d like to have, but nothing he’s really invested in.

Nothing, except for things about Ikkaku - oh , the things he wants that involve Ikkaku. But it hurts to think about that, and anyway it won’t help him win his next match -

Against Iba. But that means - somehow, he’s made it to the last four. At some point, in the haze of opponents and quick meals and a night of abrupt, dreamless sleep, he’s worked his way through most of the division.

He unsheathes his sword, slowly, and smiles at Iba as he swings it in one hand, loosening off his wrist.

Iba nods at him, serious. “You can’t win this one.”

Yumichika considers. Perhaps he’s right; victory, however, isn’t what Yumichika really wants, here. So many of his opponents wanted to dominate him, seeking his humiliation as much as a win, and Yumichika’s goal was not to let them. So. He has won. He has won, because a loss against Iba would not be a humiliation. Iba is - not like that.

He nods. Smiles, because here he can finally learn something . “Perhaps,” he says.

A gong - really a piece of scrap metal - is hit, and the fight begins.

Iba still hasn’t drawn his sword - where is Iba’s sword? Yumichika attacks anyway; there’s no point standing around waiting for him to pull it out. Iba dodges: he’s light on his feet for someone so large.

It’s only because Yumichika spent so long in the Rukongai that he manages to interpret Iba’s reaching-into-his-uniform gesture as drawing a knife , and he responds before his mind can tell him it’s ridiculous, turning sideways and raising his sword flat up the centre of his torso. The knife skitters past, and Yumichika wishes he had a knife, or even that he wasn’t encumbered by his sword, light as it is: to fight a knife-wielder you need all the speed you can get, and Yumichika is good at hand-to-hand.

He dodges and ducks around more swift attacks, and it’s never been more obvious that Iba, too, was born in Rukongai. The knife grazes his skin and catches against his clothes, but staying close enough to let the knife skitter past you is the only real way to avoid getting stabbed. Yumichika struggles to manoeuvre his sword swiftly enough to have a prayer of getting in a strike, but Iba’s attacks come in bursts, and eventually he finds an opening, and takes it.

Iba dodges as best he can, but still, blood streams down his right arm and wets the hilt of his knife. Yumichika feels his lips pull back, exposing teeth, and wonders for an instant how it looks to those watching - and the crowd is huge , maybe the whole division, even.

There isn’t time to think much else: Iba holds his knife up (and the knife looks/feels strange , like the feel of Iba is in it too, like it’s more than just an object and has reiatsu of its own that’s tied to Iba’s somehow) and says words that make no sense: “Slice the wind, Inzensouri!”

And then suddenly he has a huge strangely-shaped sword in his hand, still light and flexible, with a long pick-like protrusion near the end, and Yumichika’s so shocked he almost doesn’t dodge the first strike.

He has to keep dodging as he desperately tries to think , because this isn’t an ordinary weapon: both its and Iba’s reiatsu have changed, heightened, and it’s as if that’s what caused the sword to morph. As if somehow Iba can control it with his reiatsu - like the thing Yumichika has heard only whispers of : Kido . What else might the sword do?

He rolls to the left, then has to fling his hand out to shorten it to avoid another impossibly swift sword strike. There’s a little pain - more a sensation, really, than anything unpleasant - telling him he’s injured, and then he’s on his feet again, eyes on Iba and other senses spreading out to hear and feel his surroundings, and then he’s dropping to his knees to dodge three tiny blades that have detached from Iba’s sword with a flick of Iba’s wrist, leaving small jagged gaps in the edge.

We are better , says the voice in his head, and he - understands -

feels a surge of something, so powerful he almost falls to his knees -

desperately tries to fling himself sideways out of range of Iba’s sword -

and then Iba’s foot is on his instep, and he’s falling into the path of the sword-swing. There’s an instant where it seems as if he has all the time in the world: he looks up at Iba’s calm, concentrating face and thinks of three ways he could kill Iba right now, and none at all that he can win without killing him. He turns his sword in his hand and aims it up; if he had to, he’d turn into Iba’s strike, accept a serious wound on his left shoulder to achieve a killing strike. He looks up at Iba and holds his sword still, and waits.

He’s only on the floor, Iba’s sword at his throat, for an instant, and then Iba’s kneeling next to him. “You could have killed me,” Iba says quietly.

“I know,” says Yumichika.

Iba looks at him some more, gaze poring over Yumichika in a way that’s totally unfamiliar. It’s nothing to do with how he looks, nothing to do with his body or his clothes or what’s under them, and there’s nothing on Iba’s face but a strange, careful thoughtfulness. Yumichika lies there and waits. Eventually, Iba stands, and offers his hand to Yumichika.

Yumichika pauses for a moment, and takes it.

 

-

 

I know who you are.

There’s silence in his mind as he mechanically sheds his shredded uniform and gets into bed, but it’s a listening sort of silence. He lies down and closes his eyes, consciously deepening his breath and waiting for sleep, even though that never works for him: long breaths don’t slow his heavy, racing heartbeat. It’s best if he just tries not to think about it, or if he gets into bed too exhausted to do anything but sleep.

Falling asleep doesn’t feel like falling asleep: it feels like he’s falling out of his body in some way, and then he opens his eyes and knows he’s dreaming.

The jungle is familiar by now; he’s been here so many times in dreams that he can’t always remember while awake. There’s still the smell of warm rain and wet vegetation, brushing past him as he takes careful steps forward, geta keeping his feet dry, but this time there’s no mist. He walks down the path - there isn’t a path, but he knows where he’s going anyway, as if he’s walked this way so many times there’s a path written into his mind.

The only thing missing is the sound of any animal at all.

Yumichika feels him before he sees him: a peacock perched on a tree root, a man perched on a tree root. Smiling and almost naked with feathers in his hair, and a braid draping down his chest and pooling at the crease of his hip like Yumichika’s used to, he looks directly at Yumichika, smiles, and gets up to walk towards him. He moves gracefully, but not exactly like a human, as if he’s only wearing a human skin.

When he’s close enough, he reaches out and cups Yumichika’s jaw in his hand. “You made it,” he says. “I knew you would.” One corner of his mouth turns up a little, and then he leans close and kisses Yumichika once, and it’s so soft that Yumichika doesn’t have the words to parse how it feels before it’s over. Yumichika has to tilt his head up to meet his zanpakuto’s eyes, older and stranger than the rest of him. It strikes him as odd that he isn’t afraid: he’s so often afraid these days, and this creature should scare him. This creature is dangerous, all his senses say, is not-human, full of secrets, know a hundred or thousand ways to kill him - and he isn’t afraid. He looks up into eyes the same colour as his own, and asks: “Made it?”

“Yes,” says his zanpakuto. “Made it this far. To find me.” His gaze lowers briefly, long eyelashes sweeping down. They’re attached to his eyes like feathers rather than hairs, thick and long. “It was difficult to watch you, sometimes.”

“You were there,” Yumichika says. “With - Gaaran.” Open your hungry heart and eat him alive . The memory is as strong as it ever was, playing again now just as if he’s there: head swimming and so much pain , ropes scratching against his wrists, and then, a voice. A touch, the smell of perfume.

When he comes back to himself, this time, the touch is till there against his face, and he can still smell the perfume. He can’t identify the expression on his zanpakuto’s face, and it’s not only because his vision is blurring.

“I have always been here,” he says, and reaches forward to lap at Yumichika’s damp face. “I will always be here.”

He drops soft kisses everywhere, on Yumichika’s face and the top of his head as his hands stroke ever so gently through Yumichika’s hair. His senses aren’t used to such a light touch, and he shivers as he struggles to process the sensation, shivers and begins to shake, strange sounds coming out of his mouth until they’re muffled in a kiss. And even though all they’re doing is gently touching lips, close-mouthed, it’s soon very wet, and Yumichika’s knees refuse to support him any longer.

Then they’re both in seiza, somehow. “I’m sorry,” he says, not sure what he’s sorry for. His zanpakuto’s hands are still, one on his shoulder and one on his waist, and so warm. It’s been weeks since anyone touched him with warmth, and weeks since he was kissed last - weeks since he and Ikkaku kissed, clumsy now he thinks on it, not knowing what he was doing. He still doesn’t know what he’s doing.

“I remember,” his zanpakuto says. “I remember him. It’s all right.”

And Yumichika finds himself falling against his zanpakuto, whose shoulders and chest are wider than his own, whose skin radiates heat. Arms curl round him. Something clenches tightly in his chest and then dissolves, and he takes the deepest breath he’s taken in months. “There,”  his zanpakuto says, and his voice is low and crooning. “You were so beautiful today. So strong.”

Every moment of warm contact is waking sections of nerves and layers of feeling, and the most prominent of those is something like hunger - so like that at first he rejects it, but it’s not...it’s not blood/fight/pain hunger, and it’s not shiveringcoldalleyway/soweak/nofood hunger. It’s warmth seeping into him, bone-deep, hot currents flowing through places he’d thought frozen entirely. It’s iron coils of tension liquefying right in his core, and the impulse to curl tightly into a ball is entirely washed away. He’s not entirely sure what to do, what it’s for . He unfurls from the defensive position he’s in, shifts around to find some other way of sitting such that he can stay close and held, and either impulse or reflex finds him with his legs wrapping around his zanpakuto’s hips.

It’s comfortable and natural, even more so to tilt his hips forward, and of course it’s then that he figures out what this feeling is for. Yumichika leans forward for another kiss, slowly because perhaps there’s a limit, or perhaps he’s not allowed but he doesn’t know what else to do, caught up in tiny imagined sensations, like if he were to place one hand in the indent of his zanpakuto’s waist, if he were to undo the braid with his fingers.

He’s allowed one brief kiss, and then his zanpakuto puts one hand on his shoulder and holds him back. “Are you sure this is what you want?” His words are slow and careful, eyes intent.

Want . Yes, that’s the word, but he hadn’t known it could feel like this - untouched by need, unencumbered by hunger. Wanting things with his mind is easy, but futile; when his body wants things for him it’s creeping then tearing unpleasantness, swallowing pain to feed, but this is...mutual. Warmth and arousal and anticipation and pleasure , like the first time he had grilled miso sea bass in the dining hall rather than like a hot meal after a hungry week.

Is he sure? That makes no sense. Even the other kinds of wanting are unmistakable. Why would he be unsure about his thoughts and feelings? “Yes,” he says, because it’s the only answer he can give, but it’s obviously not the right answer.

His zanpakuto tilts his head suddenly, examining Yumichika.. “This is a choice,” he says, after a long moment of staring and only a single blink. “You must decide what is best. I would wait, if you wished it.” A crease appears between his eyebrows, looking out of face on his unnervingly calm face. “I would wait for ever, if you wished it. There are other ways.”

Yumichika swallows, frowns, trying to consider through the haze of I would wait for ever reverberating in his mind. “Other ways?”

“To connect. To feel.” His zanpakuto waits. Then he reaches up to brush Yumichika’s forehead, and there’s an imagined scene in his head: they’re both undressed, and he can see himself wrapped around his zanpakuto, flushed and arching, and then - he tenses, jumps as if struck, and hurriedly disentangles himself. His zanpakuto reaches out (and he’s so sad , heavy and dark as deep water) but Yumichika flinches, and then he’s obviously upset but his zanpakuto can do nothing but watch and call his name as he stumbles to his feet and runs away, fading into sudden mist.

He blinks, and then is there again, large steadying hands at his waist. He leans a little closer.

“I don’t want to - ” His zanpakuto blinks once, slowly. “ Distress you. Do you understand?”

Yumichika has never seen his own face while experiencing a flashback before. He didn’t expect it to be such an ugly affair. But he thinks...he might, finally, understand. “Yes,” he says. “I don’t…” care about that. “I’ll be all right.”

He might be lying. He doesn’t really know what all right feels like, but his zanpakuto is running a smooth hand up and down his back, and his body produces a contented sigh without his input, and he’s not sure he could bear it to turn down this kind of pleasure, any kind of pleasure. His zanpakuto is beautiful and the jungle is beautiful, and he wants to surround himself with beautiful things to blot out the ugliness just as long as he can.

He still isn’t entirely sure how kissing works. He’d call it ‘out of practise’, but the only memory that comes up when he thinks about it is kissing Ikkaku, tipsy enough that his body fell into some accidental rhythm. It hurts to think of, but for the first time in memory the hurt and even the thought fades as his zanpakuto sucks on his lower lip.

His zanpakuto is so careful as he removes Yumichika’s kimono one piece of fabric at a time, and Yumichika shivers, but not from cold: they’re outside, but the air is warm and humid. A line of soft kisses trails down his neck and across his shoulder, to no purpose at all that he can see except that it makes his breath come in gasps. His zanpakuto’s fingertips trail everywhere, down his back and across his ribs and round the insides of his wrists and knees, finding strange sensitive places that feel almost untouched. He’s had ropes round his wrists but never kisses; his legs have been held in place but no one has ever run their thumbs down the back of his calves and smoothed out the tense muscle there.

His arms find their way around his zanpakuto’s neck, and his hips move in response instead of to provoke. Yumichika doesn’t know why any of this is the way it is, what it is he’s doing that brings a low hum of contentment from the throat he suddenly discovers he’s allowed to kiss. He’s beginning to wonder if anything familiar is going to happen here when his zanpakuto reaches into the pocket of the kimono on the ground and removes a glass jar full of oil. He tips Yumichika’s jaw up and looks intently at him as he slides two slicked fingers inside, slow and easy and confusingly painless, without even a slight comforting ache.

He curls and twists his fingers, deliberate and unhurried, and it’s like there’s too much sensation for Yumichika’s body to contain because he’s shaking again, sounds and maybe words tumbling out of his mouth and he isn’t in control of a single one. Too much pleasure, only it feels frightening to call it that because surely he doesn’t deserve this much. It doesn’t stop: his zanpakuto watches him through black eyes, cradling the back of his neck in one hand, as overwhelm approaches. He should - this isn’t -

“I shouldn’t tease you so,” his zanpakuto says with the slightest of smiles, as though apologising for an indulgence. It makes no sense. He lifts Yumichika’s whole weight with one arm around his hips and holds him there for a moment, then ever so slowly lowers him onto his cock. It’s so - it’s - Yumichika didn’t know sensations other than pain could be this strong; he’s thrashed and cried and screamed through unbearable pain, but it feels almost as if there’s such a thing as unbearable pleasure. It might almost be pain, the way every nerve he has flares sharply at every touch. He clings to his zanpakuto’s shoulders as his zanpakuto tips his head back, eyes closed, and a deep shudder courses through his whole body.

Then he’s looking at Yumichika again, face flushed and pieces of hair falling out of his braid. He pulls Yumichika forward a little and wraps both arms around him, and then they’re moving, a slow, rocking rhythm that makes Yumichika a little nervous, because he’s never done this before and he’s not exactly sure how - but the movement has a wavelike momentum that carries him along, and anyway, he might be losing his mind .  

He buries his face in the crook of his zanpakuto’s neck, and the smell of perfume and jungle and brush of braid-end against his shoulder is as familiar as a recurring dream, but stronger, solid and real. The voice that’s been in his mind for years is a person , and they’re holding him tight and murmuring something, just a hair’s breadth too quiet to comprehend. Yumichika wants to save this, and he feels his hands clutching tighter because this will be over soon, and maybe he only gets one chance, maybe it’ll all be over after this; isn’t that the way of things, for everything he holds on to to be taken away?

“I am in you,” his zanpakuto says. “There is no way to separate us.”

Yumichika hangs on as tightly as he can anyway, and presses his forehead against his zanpakuto’s, taking deep, heaving breaths, as if that’ll help. His legs are beginning to shake, anyway, a pre-orgasm habit that he was never able to overcome even when his legs were more used to this. His zanpakuto holds him in turn, bodies meshing together so he’s not exactly sure whose limbs are whose, and anyway it doesn’t matter; he wants to bury himself completely inside his zanpakuto so there’s nothing between them, not even skin, and then he won’t exactly be him anymore, and maybe everything won’t be so hard, and maybe his zanpakuto’s breathless encouragements as he cries out one last time and makes a mess between them are everything he’s been looking for, anyway.

He can’t move, as his zanpakuto holds onto his hips and breathes harshly and follows. He can’t seem to unlatch his limbs afterwards, though some instinct tells him that surely he has to.

Yumichika ignores it. His zanpakuto is dropping strange dry kisses all down the back of his neck, is manoeuvring them both till they’re lying curled around each other on the ground, is draping layers of soft fabric over them, even though it’s not cold. Is murmuring something in his ear, voice soothing like a bubbling stream.

“Tell me my name,” he says, stroking Yumichika’s hair. “Tell me my name.”

Yumichika thinks only us before he falls asleep, marveling in the feel of welcome arms wrapped protectively around him.

 

-

 

It’s almost a surprise to wake up in his room at the eleventh.

The moment the surprise is over, it’s replaced with disappointment - whether at the fact that he’s not in the jungle or that he woke up at all, he’s not sure. The sight of the beige walls, empty wardrobe and untidy desk makes him long for unconsciousness again. He rolls over, and finds that his sheathed sword is beside him. Had he slung his sword on the bed before falling onto it, last night? He doesn’t recall.

He does recall his Zanpakuto, though. His skin is still tingling, warm in places he usually pays no attention to, and though he fervently wishes to be back in the forest, the memory of arms around him and skin against his skin carries over just enough that the prospect of getting up and going to breakfast doesn’t seem so impossible. The day can only last so many hours, and perhaps he will have pleasant dreams again, or at least he can lie in bed and try to listen for his zanpakuto’s voice. At least it’s a day off today.

When he walks into the breakfast hall, the background noise drops in half, and everyone who’s not falling asleep into their breakfast tray tries not to stare at him. Which is strange, because up till now people have been staring at him pointedly , as if that makes any difference to him whatsoever. Yumichika selects breakfast as usual, finds a corner to sit in as usual, and ignores everyone as usual.

He only looks up when Najimane sits across from him. “Where were you yesterday?” He says through a mouthful of rice, then takes a long slurp of green tea.

Yumichika blinks. “Fighting my final two matches,” he says. He thought Najimane might have been in the crowd, which looked so big that all of the eleventh had to be in it, surely. But then...he didn’t spend that much time looking at the crowd.

He remembers the expression on Iba’s face, remembers licking blood off his hands, and wonders if this new odd silence and downturned eyes is respect . He waits to feel something about it.

“I know about that - half of Seireitei saw your match with Iba!” Najimane continues cheerfully. “I mean, where were you when Ikkaku-san beat Iba-san?”

Yumichika puts his chopsticks down. Of course - they were the final four, and Ikkaku had already defeated his opponent, so - yes. “In my room,” he says. It’s obvious this wasn’t enough. “I was very tired after my match with Iba-san.” He’s tired now; he’s going to finish his breakfast, find the resources department, hand in his requisition form, and...go back to bed, probably. Actually - he’s not going to finish his breakfast.

People make space for him as he heads towards the exit, almost making an empty path in front for him to follow. At least, until a cheer goes up, then a kind of shouting and banging of utensils that’s got to be approval

( for half a second it’s like being punched in the gut, ears ringing with noise and body aching everywhere )

and then progress becomes more difficult. Yumichika can’t see a thing because most of the division is taller than him, but after a moment he realises he can feel Ikkaku standing near the entrance, and - yes, interspersed in the shouting is Ikkaku’s name. Yumichika keeps walking, and of course there’s no way around bumping into Ikkaku, who’s surrounded by people hitting him on the shoulder and shouting about his victory in the tournament. He’s also sporting a huge bruise on one side of his mouth, which doesn’t appear to be hindering his grin one bit. He turns it on Yumichika.

“Congratulations,” Yumichika says, and he’s a little regretful that he didn’t get to see: watching Ikkaku fight always used to be one of his greatest pleasures.

“Couldn’t have done it without you; that Shikai would’ve knocked me flat if I hadn’t seen you fight it,” Ikkaku says. He frowns for a minute and says, “You coulda beat him, though. Saw you had an opening, and I know you saw it too - why didn’t you?”

Yumichika shakes his head. “I didn’t. Not without killing him.” Like Zoushiku, for example, dead in a gutter and Yumichika didn’t even get the satisfaction of doing it himself, wasn’t even allowed to save himself the way he always has done. Ikkaku stole that victory, stole the chance for them to stand together in victory, and a sudden sharp sensation has Yumichika saying, “And I get the idea that it’s probably frowned upon to kill your squadmates,” before he can even think about it.

Ikkaku’s eyes widen, and Yumichika doesn’t wait for a response before turning to push his way out of the canteen.

Chapter Text

There’s a piece of paper on his desk that wasn’t there the last time he checked.

A chill creeps its way down his neck, and he scans the rest of the room carefully, but everything else is exactly where it should be.

Please come to the Chrysanthemum Tea Shop on 68th Street (by the 3rd) at 3pm on Monday

There are calligraphic kanji at the bottom which are presumably a signature, but Yumichika has no idea how they ought to be read. There’s nothing to the message - no indication of who, or why, or what they might want with him at a tea shop in the middle of the afternoon. If he wants to find out, he’ll have to go. And - there might be trouble, if he doesn’t. There might be trouble if he does, of course, but it’s likely to be the sort of trouble he can handle.

First, he has to take this list to the resources department, which he eventually finds by walking towards the centre of Seireitei until encounters a member of the fourth, blond and no bigger than Yumichika himself.

“Excuse me,” he says, and the blond shinigami turns hooded grey eyes towards him, and it’s the same one who pushed reiatsu into his broken foot and said, you’re feeling me, aren’t you, with something like wonder. For a moment, Yumichika has no idea what he was going to say.

The shinigami waits, and eventually Yumichika pulls himself together. “I’m looking for the resources department,” he says, brandishing his scroll as if in self-defence. It’s strange not to be carrying his sword; everyone at the eleventh carries theirs everywhere, at least around the division, and there’s a weight missing at Yumichika’s hip.

There’s a reassuring murmur in Yumichika’s ear, I am always here , in a voice that’s sleepy and faraway and makes Yumichika think of lips on his neck and an arm round his shoulders while he looks into darting grey eyes.

“In the administrative buildings, by the first,” he says. “There’s a sign outside; you can’t miss it.” Yumichika nods, and he continues, “Didn’t you go on the tour at the academy?”

Yumichika swallows, and says, “I didn’t go to the Academy.”

Tilt of a blond head. “You didn’t…oh, I remember you. You’re from the eleventh, right?” He brushes blonde hair away from his eyes, but it falls back almost immediately. “Are you settling in over there? You’re allowed to change squad, you know: that’s what I’m doing.”

Yumichika tries to parse all of this. Leave the eleventh? Is he settling in - is ‘settling in’ when your squad members stop muttering slurs when they think you’re out of earshot? There’s too much there , so he offers instead, “I’ve ended up doing paperwork.” It’s true, though probably only until he gets caught, and...well. He isn’t sure why the thought of getting caught makes his muscles tense without his permission, why any attempt to relax them results in shaking. Surely they want someone to do paperwork, and so he is, and if they find someone better then he’ll stop. He’ll stop and no one will be angry and it’ll be all right.

(It’s no one will be angry that he’s having trouble with; he knows that’s never a given)

The shinigami smiles. “I suppose it makes sense. I hope they pay you well, then! It’s hard to persuade people who can organise things to stay on when they’re not appreciated.” There’s a flash of something across his face then - his jaw sets and his eyes narrow briefly, before the calm expression comes back.

Pay, Yumichika thinks. I need to sort out the payroll. Somehow.

“Anyway, there’s this inter-division mixer you should come to. For - you know, new people.” He hands Yumichika a generic invitation slip in hard-to-read calligraphy.

“Thank you,” Yumichika says, accepting with both hands and bowing, because he knows how to do that, at least, and the blond shinigami responds with another soft smile and reciprocal bow. Which is how it’s supposed to go, but Yumichika has almost forgotten because interaction in the eleventh is full of awkwardness and confusion, and - maybe it’s not all his fault.

Maybe, he thinks as he walks off in what he hopes is the direction of the Resources Department, he just needs to meet more people who aren’t in the eleventh.

-

The Resources Department secretary furnishes him with a long list of unfiled paperwork from the eleventh and then, taking another look at his face, underlines the most important ones.

“I really do need an updated squad roster, though,” she says, with a hint of pity. “Names and addresses. But if you can get one of those, Haruya over at Personnel can authorize a temporary schedule of base wages for everyone, until the new Captain decides to give out assignments.”

Yumichika nods his understanding, and tries not to drown in the enormity of the task. How is he supposed to get a list of names of everyone in the division - particularly without telling people what he’s doing? He thanks her, anyway, and she offers a tiny smile over the large glasses that sit on the bottom of her nose, a chain tied to either arm.

It’s a sunny day outside, matching the sparkling white interior of the Resources Department, giving him a headache where the light bounces off the white buildings round here. When was the last time it was sunny? Or - when was the last time he noticed? He should try harder to notice things outside of himself, to stop getting lost in his own head. It’s just, he knows his way around, there. There’s plenty of places to avoid, dangerous sorts of places like black quicksand, but mostly he knows where those are.  

Out here, it’s all new. The Chrysanthemum Tea Shop might look like a better version of what the classiest places in the 65th were trying to be, tiny cakes dusted with icing sugar in the windows, but the last thing he does is judge by appearances. He’s painted beauty over black eyes and bruises so many times, after all, hoping it isn’t too much of a lie. People see what they want to see, and maybe he’s beautiful underneath the bruises, too. He only wishes it were the kind of beauty that’s worth more than making people want to hurt him.

He’s not going to let himself be hurt again; that , he knows, is ugly. Everything about Zoushiku was ugly, and even in the 65th he decided who was allowed to fuck him. It feels as if he had more power, there; all anyone had to do to have him was give him money and only take what they’d paid for, and Zoushiku didn’t do either of those things. It is, Yumichika thinks, easier to be a whore. Sex is simple as a transaction, and when Zoushiku fucked him it felt like he was taking something away. And he can’t seem to stop thinking about it, which is why he’s standing outside the tea shop staring into space instead of - whatever he’s supposed to be doing.

Whatever was taken, he wants it back.

“Ayasegawa-sama?” One of the attendants bows low and addresses him, and for a moment Yumichika doesn’t recognise his own name. “This way, please.”

 

Yumichika follows her to a table in the corner where an astonishingly beautiful man with white hair is sitting in a demure seiza. A tray of tea already sits on the wooden table, and Yumichika wonders with a stab of anxiety if he is late, if he has caused offence in some way. The white-haired man looks up as Yumichika approaches,  and on closer inspection the pallor of his skin is blue-toned and there are dark smudges under his soft green eyes.

 

"Hello," he says, gesturing with one slim hand to the other side of the table for Yumichika to sit. "My name is Juushirou. Pleased to meet you, Yumichika-san."

 

Yumichika slides into seiza and returns the pleasantries. First names, he thinks, uneasily. This  man could be anyone . He doesn't look like just anyone; he looks nothing like Yumichika, really, but Yumichika hasn't seen another man so feminine since he left the 65th, and even there he was an oddity. He would almost consider himself a different sex, neither woman nor man, having more in common with the women he saw but only superficially interacted with, but obviously male in actual construction. He would, if there'd been the time or space to ever think these thoughts before, or anyone at all like himself that he knew.

 

Perhaps it's simply that there's more than one way of being male - or perhaps there's a kind of person who is like himself, neither one thing nor the other, and this stranger is one of them. The stranger, he reflects, is old , reflected in the surety of his movements and the complex taste of the reiatsu that subtly surrounds him. Subtly, and yet -

 

"Why did you invite me here?" Yumichika picks up the pot of tea and begins to pour, for politeness and for something to do with his hands. There's not anyone like him in the eleventh, but Juushirou wears shinigami robes, and even the blond man from the fourth is small and smooth-skinned and nothing like the men Yumichika is used to.

 

Juushiro smiles, and it's a gentle smile, likeable. "I saw you at the eleventh division tournament, and I wanted to talk to you."

 

Yumichika is used to catching the interest of strangers, but not for his conversation. "I don't understand," he says. Juushiro is probably taller than him, maybe much taller, but he folds in on himself deceptively. A server returns with a tray of tiny pastries, bows low to Juushirou, and...he's someone important. The staff constantly flick their eyes in his direction, and there's something about the smooth, sweet reiatsu that's putting Yumichika on edge. Old and important... "Who are you really? A lieutenant? A...captain?" Yumichika's mouth dries: has he done something wrong? The list of reasons he can think for someone important to take an interest in him is short and disconcerting. He takes a sip of his tea, and is almost upset by how delicious it is.

 

Juushirou's eyelashes sweep downwards. “Ah, I see I can’t fool you.” He looks up. “Ukitake Juushirou, Captain of the thirteenth division. But I really would prefer for you to call me Juushirou.”

 

“I see,” Yumichika says, managing somehow not to choke on his tea. He doesn’t see. If he just knew what was wanted of him, or what he’d done wrong , he could - do something. But right now, he’s treading water in the dark, hoping there aren’t going to be waves. He presses his lips together, then tries, “What do you want to talk about ?”

 

Ukitake-taichou looks back at him, and his gaze is so sharp Yumichika clenches his teeth around a flinch. “I like to take an interest,” he says, mild voice a strange counterpoint to his expression. “In you, in this case. For example - you are very good at fighting. How did you learn? I know you didn’t go to the academy.”

 

Yumichika pours more tea to cover his confusion. “You want to hear about how I ended up at the eleventh,” he says. “Here.”

 

Ukitake-taichou smiles. “Why not here? Do have a pastry, if you like,” he says, reaching for one himself. “I have a terrible sweet tooth,” he confides.

 

Yumichika hasn’t given much thought to what food he prefers . “I just mean,” he says, obediently selecting a pastry and taking a bite. “I’m told there are aspects of my life which are not polite to discuss.” It’s sticky-sweet; with the thought of preference in mind, Yumichika thinks he might prefer something savoury and filling. He had his fill of treats masquerading as food at Suzuruma’s.

 

Ukitake-taichou’s eyebrows raise. “Oh? Such as?”

 

Yumichika swallows his pastry. “Before I came here, I was a whore in District 66, and later 65,” he says. “I was starving, and I ended up working at a yakuza bar, until I left.”

 

It’s a little vindictive, but he almost enjoys the scandalised expression on Ukitake-taichou’s face. You asked. Ukitake-taichou blinks rapidly and swallows, but is otherwise reasonably contained; clearly, there are some people capable of biting their tongues on rude remarks. “Go on,” Ukitake-taichou says.

 

And so he does. He talks about how he ended up at Suzuruma’s bar in the first place - and it’s strange, because he was so young . If he could look at himself as he was, now, he wouldn’t think sex - he’d think...oh, that kid needs a decent meal , or something. He’s not sure how they decide when a child becomes an adult, here, but he suspects that by Seireitei standards he was still a child when he was first sold.

 

He talks about how he was given a place to sleep and plenty of water and tips, enough to buy food and clothes if he was careful. He talks with distaste about Gaaran, and realises abruptly that he’s never told this story to another soul, has never so much as said it out loud - not all at once, anyway. Ikkaku has almost the whole of it, in bits and pieces over the years, but when Yumichika begins to talk about Gaaran his throat tries to close, and he has to take deep, measured breaths to force himself to continue. Every muscle in his body is tensing and he can’t make them relax, but he’ll make do with forcing his shoulders back down from his ears and unclenching his hands and jaw.

 

Ukitake-Taichou looks increasingly alarmed, and some part of Yumichika finds this honestly hilarious. “You - you don’t have to,” he says, and Yumichika thinks about stopping, but there’s no point: he’s already said enough to cause problems, and the story has almost a life of its own, as if he’s clinging to a life raft down the rapids, not steering at all, only hoping to arrive at the bottom in one piece.

 

He’s more certain than ever that Gaaran would have killed him eventually, or maybe someone else at Suzuruma’s. Maybe they would all have got a bit too drunk and decided it’d be fun to mess him up a bit more than usual, and maybe they’d have kicked him too hard in the wrong place and he’d have just got sick and died like that regular who came back after a fight looking no more roughed up than usual. Maybe he’d have got cut in the wrong place and bled out before they realised what they were doing. Either way, he was headed for the gutter.

 

He doesn’t realise any of this speculation has actually made it out of his mouth until he realises that Ukitake-Taichou has gone even paler and started coughing. At least three of the attendants begin flailing in the background until a tissue is procured, at which point they hover nervously, as if they want to pat his back to assist but don’t dare. Yumichika watches uncomfortably and offers, “We can talk about something else, if you like.”

 

Ukitake-taichou gives a wobbly smile and waves him off. “No, no, nothing personal. I’m just a little unwell at the moment.”

 

Yumichika scans him again, takes in his gaunt face and bloodless hands, and thinks a lot unwell for a long time, you mean . What he says is, “So that’s how I learned to fight, at first. The regulars would teach me things here and there, and as long as I ate enough I was fast and stronger than I looked.” He pauses to select another pastry, mindful suddenly that it’s never sensible to turn down an opportunity to eat. “Which is how I escaped, in the end.”

 

He talks about the 65th, a little; it was better there, and that’s really where he learned to fight. He talks about finding his sword, and training with Ikkaku, and standing back to watch Ikkaku fight Zaraki, patching him up afterwards, and following him to Seireitei.

 

(If he doesn’t talk about everything to do with Ikkaku, then it’s because there are some things that are for the ears of no one at all, not even Ikkaku - like that he used to wonder why did you fuck me like you love me , when the answer isn’t even relevant, because Yumichika knows exactly nothing about love or how to recognise it in others. He only knows that he doesn’t love Ikkaku because he doesn’t love his own head, still wouldn’t love it if it were ripped off, still can’t quite work out why he’s still alive even though he and Ikkaku aren’t exactly speaking. But he is, and he’s on his own again, and it doesn’t even feel like his biggest problem anymore.)

 

By the time he runs out of breath, he finds he’s vomited up some sizeable portion of the inside of his head, even if he stuck almost exclusively to facts. He’s breathing as heavily as he would be  after a training session, hot and full of so much desperate, leftover momentum that he feels some kind of manically intoxicated. A smile tugs at the edge of his mouth, and he tries not to let it show; Ukitake’s wide eyes and slightly open mouth mean that this definitely isn’t the time for smiling, even if Yumichika finds himself reminded of his own blood-soaked grin in the mirror after he cut Gaaran’s throat. He doesn’t need a mirror to understand the feelings that are written on his face anymore.

 

Ukitake-taichou’s mouth makes a few experimental movements before he finally comments, “And are you going to prosecute?”

 

Yumichika waits to see if this is going to make more sense if he repeats it to himself. It doesn’t. “Prosecute what ?”

 

“Zoushiku. The man who - ah, raped you.” Ukitake-taichou pauses, and after a moment of silence he continues, “That’s the word for - ”

 

“I know.” It’s a word he’s only heard associated with Yakuza territory wars. How does it count if he went along with it? Not that he wouldn’t rather have done almost anything else, but those were Zoushiku’s terms, and Yumichika could have told him to go to hell, it’s just that that would have been a really stupid idea when he could just put up with it. “I don’t know what prosecute is, though.”

 

“Report it to a member of the police department at the second,” Ukitake-taichou replies, and that’s a rote reply, as if he can’t summon a more detailed answer. “Well, that’s the first thing.”

 

Yumichika frowns. “Why would I do that?”

 

“So that he can be punished.” Ukitake-taichou’s face is disconcertingly open, and Yumichika can read much of what he’s feeling right off it - distress, confusion, sadness. This is a strange response, and not the one Ikkaku had been worried about, Yumichika thinks.

 

“Oh,” Yumichika says. “You mean, because it’s against regulations? There aren’t exactly a plethora of rulebooks at the eleventh. Not everyone can read, for a start.”

 

Ukitake-taichou inhales and exhales deeply, coughs a little, and then gets himself under control. “It’s not just that. Rape is considered one of the most reprehensible crimes, even for non-shinigami.”

 

Yumichika is pretty much left with just saying whatever comes into his head; this conversation has lost him. What is the point of any of this? So he just says, “Oh,” and, “But the bruises only lasted a day or two - I’ve been hurt worse in training,” and, “Anyway, you can’t punish him, because he’s dead.”

 

Ukitake-taichou goes absolutely still. “Is that so,” he says. The mild expression is back on his face, tinged with a touch of all the previous emotions, and Yumichika can relax at last, because this he knows to be a fiction, designed to encourage him to keep talking unguardedly. Incriminate himself, he supposes.

 

“Yes,” Yumichika says. “Took a broken bottle to the guts in a bar fight one evening in Rukongai.” He holds Ukitake-taichou’s gaze calmly. He has no wish to incriminate Ikkaku, but he has nothing except suspicion that Ikkaku did it, and is quite certain that he didn’t; even if this Captain has some way of detecting lies, Yumichika tends not to tell them. He tends to find there is more mileage in varying quantities of truthfulness.

 

“I see,” says Ukitake-taichou, brushing hair back from his face. “Well. That’s certainly a colourful story.” And just like that, he’s back to soft smiles and the interrogative atmosphere lifts.

 

The rest of the conversation is a blur: Yumichika is vaguely aware that they exchange pleasantries, agree to have tea again soon (which may or may not be a pleasantry), before he’s staggering back to his own bed, inexplicably worn out.

 

He falls asleep thinking about paperwork. It feels like a mercy.

 

-

 

And what does it matter if his dreams are full of killing Zoushiku, slicing his throat like Gaaran, hitting him on the head to break a bottle then shoving it through his stomach, slicing him apart from shoulder to opposite hip in one swift stroke of his sword.

 

What does it matter if Zoushiku drools blood and smiles and says in that chilly voice of his, “You can’t kill me; I’m already dead.”

 

He wanders aimlessly through the Rukongai in his mind, and nomatter how far he walks he never finds the border crossing that will let him leave District 66

 

-


Yumichika is grateful that Shinigami uniforms are considered appropriate dress everywhere , parties included - or so it says on the invitation. He does have one last dress yukata, but it’s not warm enough to wear it in the evenings yet, so he does his best with the single palette of concealer and stick of black kohl that he would have sold over his dead body : they’re the last of what used to be a sizeable collection of face paint. Mostly he wore only touches here and there, black around the eyes and perhaps a little colour on his eyelids, concealer to cover last night’s bruises, but sometimes he would go somewhere classy and do himself up like a Maiko, swoops of white at the nape of his neck and red on his lips that must have looked appealing when he was on his knees.

 

They looked appealing to himself in the mirror, too, regardless of any outside approval.

 

He makes do with the tiny hand mirror he’s stuck to the wall because the bathroom mirror is effort (and he doesn’t like to linger) and then applies his feathers, arranges his hair with his fingers, realises his nails need filed but he doesn’t have time, and departs, satisfied. He has less hair to play with than he used to, but the ritual is still comforting.

 

It's a lot classier than the last party he went to, but that's almost a given. He selects a flute of some sort of alcoholic fruit drink from a tray and cradles it, eyes scanning for the blond shinigami who invited him - whose name, he realises, he does not know.

 

He does know how to insinuate himself into groups, though. He makes some remark about the (surprisingly strong) punch to a short black-haired shinigami with large nervous eyes, and then they’re making vague polite conversation, and then she turns back to whoever she was speaking to before and -

“Momo!” There’s a loud, brash voice behind them, and the black-haired woman (Momo?) squeaks and jumps at the huge hands suddenly on her shoulders, and it neatly camouflages Yumichika’s own flinch. He didn’t hear anyone come up behind them; the tall, flame-haired owner of the hands and voice made very little sound, or Yumichika wasn’t paying enough attention, and - he has tattoos on his face. Bold black ones, explicitly not the artstyle favoured by the yakuza, but altogether darker and fiercer. His spiky red hair is fierce, his amber eyes are fierce, and so is the set of his jaw, and every single one of Yumichika’s joints abruptly turns to jelly.

 

Those hands would fit nearly all the way around my waist , he thinks, faintly.

 

“Who’s this?” The redhead turns his gaze on Yumichika; Yumichika tries to remember how to make words. His throat doesn’t seem to want to work, but he is rescued from horrific impoliteness.

“Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t ask for your name yet. I’m Hinamori Momo,” she says. Pink spots appear on her soft cheekbones, as if she’s the rude one.

“Ayasegawa Yumichika,” Yumichika says, directing this to both Hinamori and the redhead.

 

“Abarai Renji,” he says, all wide cocky grin and wider shoulders. The grin falls away to a pensive expression, though, and he continues, “Hey, you’re from the eleventh?”

 

Yumichika tries not to sigh. “Yes, I’m from the eleventh. And it’s not actually a hell-hole, you know? I’ve been in worse places.”

 

Abarai’s face does something complicated. “I believe you, but that doesn’t mean it’s nice . Where’re you from? Somewhere in the thirties maybe?”

 

Rukongai accent - somewhere in the seventies , Yumichika realises with a lurch in his stomach, and takes another sip of his miscellaneous alcoholic fruit drink. “No,” Yumichika says, and finds his eyes focusing on Renji’s left shoulder instead of his face. “The 66th.”

 

He needs another drink. This is - he can feel himself wanting to blurt out, I was a whore and now I’m at the eleventh, and actually I liked being a whore better half the time, thanks, so maybe I’ll do you all a favour and go back to where I came from, and you can go back to thinking everyone from the eleventh is a stupid thug . And it doesn’t make any sense - if anything, Abarai probably knows what it’s like to be looked at as if he’s a stupid thug, or something lesser because of his place of birth; there’s probably a reason his 5th division pin is so prominently displayed.

 

Abarai hands him another flute of pink liquid and says, “Huh. Guess it makes sense you’re at the eleventh, then; you must know how to handle yourself.”  

 

Yumichika opens his mouth, but no reply materialises, and his face feels suddenly and strangely warm. He takes another drink, and risks a glance at Abarai’s face, where the grin has been replaced with a softer quirk of one corner of his mouth. I can handle myself , Yumichika thinks. It doesn’t...exactly feel like it, but he’s still here, and - more sane than he could be, nightmares notwithstanding, and he got to the semi-finals of the eleventh tournament, and he’s currently holding his division together with luck and bits of paper. He tries for a smile, because Abarai deserves a reply even though Yumichika’s not sure what to say, and it materialises wider and more sincere than Yumichika had intended.

 

It’s been a while since he bothered trying for sincerity in his smiles, but this one is just happening to him as he looks at Abarai, whose expression has brightened at some point in the last few seconds. Breathing is inexplicably difficult, even though he’s not panicking.

 

“What is the eleventh like, Ayasegawa-san?” Yumichika had almost forgotten Hinamori was there .

 

He pauses for a moment, and tries to summon something appropriate to say. “Please, call me Yumichika,” he extemporizes, because no one ever calls him by his second name and it feels strange. “Well, everything is a bit disorganised because of the new captain, but the lunch lady is very kind, and I have my own room, and,” he pauses, considering. “Everyone there loves to fight.” It’s probably true, by now. He hopes the squad roster remains stable for a while, however, because otherwise trying to organise a payroll is going to be a nightmare.

 

“That doesn’t sound half bad,” Abarai says. “There’s a lot of stiff old sticks at the fifth. They keep getting mad at me for blowing up the training yard while I’m tryin’ to learn kido. I mean, isn’t that what the training yard’s for ?”

 

“You’re supposed to have learned how not to char the whole lawn at the academy,” Hinamori says with a laugh, and swats him on the arm, still looking at Yumichika as though letting him in on the joke. Yumichika only knows it’s not a dream because his dreams are never like this. Abarai growls a bit but he’s grinning and fending her off ineffectually, and then he’s backing into Yumichika’s space. He smells like unscented soap and outdoors and tastes of sweet spices, the kind you get in cinnamon blends for tea and dessert. He tastes of spices and fireworks and smoke, reiatsu spiking and swirling, as if there’s a lot more in there that he hasn’t got a handle on yet.

 

Abarai didn’t get close enough to touch, but the warm sensations everywhere and shortness of breath and sudden thirst catch up to him, and he recalls that the word for this feeling is want , is arousal , or at least the half of the feeling that he gets when he isn’t also hungry and desperate and clawing his way out of freezing dreams. It’s a little like with his zanpakuto -

 

- who offers a soft, pleased Hmmm in the back of his mind -

 

with a layer of...anxiety, he supposes, inherent in the fact that he doesn’t know Abarai, he just wants -

 

(to be dragged to the nearest enclosed space and picked up and fucked against a wall, or whatever piece of furniture is nearest, and it looks as though Abarai would have no trouble at all picking him up, he looks like the sort who would bite and growl and dig nails into Yumichika’s hips)

 

- and Yumichika has no idea how to do this. He knows how to subtly suggest that, for the right price, he’ll do (almost) anything that can be done while naked and in private. He doesn’t know how to communicate that he just - is willing, payment or not, and in any case the idea of being paid is unappealing. He wants it to be like - something else. Mutual; he’s heard about mutual sexual relationships, even if he doesn’t really know what they look like. He wants to know what they look like.

 

He knows what desire looks like; it sits surprisingly subtly on Renji, but there’s no mistaking the dilated pupils and tendency to move into Yumichika’s space increasingly as they get through these really very pleasant glasses of alcoholic fruit whatever - very alcoholic, looks like. Feels like. And his body remembers how to respond; how to lean slightly towards Renji and expose the vulnerable parts of his himself, inner wrist and neck and thigh, by changing the way he holds himself; how to smile and wet his lips and hold Abarai’s gaze for an extra half-second while thinking about Abarai’s long hand around his neck.

 

And at one point Abarai knocks his shoulder gently and says, “Eh, call me Renji,” and there’s a whole array of filthy things that Yumichika could say to him, that used to work wonderfully well, but he isn’t sure if that’s what people do when they’re looking for sex without money involved.

 

So all he says is, “All right, Renji,” and keeps smiling, and yes he is drunk but Renji was right, he can handle himself. Is slightly better at handling himself drunk, actually, as long as he doesn’t completely overdo it and start throwing up. That’s always a bad idea; anything that makes him throw up is a bad idea, in fact, because all he can do is think about being new to having his throat fucked by strangers who didn’t care much if he wasn’t in control of his gag reflex yet. These days he’s in perfect control of his gag reflex, but he's still sick sometimes after the worst kinds of nightmares.

 

“You came,” is the first thing the familiar blond shinigami says, smiling a little.

 

“Kira-kun!” Hinamori turns to him with a drink. “You’re late!”

 

“I was packing,” he tells her with a slightly larger smile, then turns back to Yumichika. “You have the better of me; I never did catch your name.”

 

“Yumichika,” he says, not bothering with his last name because he doesn’t really want Kira using it anyway.

 

“Hey, Kira, how do you guys know each other?” Renji interrupts, clapping Kira on the shoulder with enough force to make him sway slightly.

 

“He fixed my broken foot at the fourth,” Yumichika says. The single friendly touch is prominent in his memory, when the rest of that week - conversation with Ikkaku aside - is mostly a grey haze he doesn’t want to examine too much.

 

Kira’s half-smile drops, and his jaw stiffens a little. “Yes, well,” he says. “I left.” He hasn’t touched his drink, and his eyes are darting back and forth between Yumichika and Renji, at the way Renji’s arm is brushing Yumichika’s shoulder.

 

“I heard,” Renji says, non-committal. “To the third, right?”

 

Kira nods.

 

Hinamori is looking around worriedly, eyes sympathetic - is this some sort of old argument? Renji shifts a little at Yumichika’s left, and offers, “You think you’ll be happier there?”

 

“Of course ,” Kira says - almost snaps , really -  and then swallows on nothing. “I have no idea why I was in the fourth in the first place; my zanpakuto really isn’t suited for it.”

 

“You don’t need a healing zanpakuto to be at the fourth, Kira-kun,” Hinamori puts in, but this helps not at all. Yumichika could have told her that.

 

Kira’s back to looking at Renji, who in the interim has moved closer to Yumichika and put himself almost between Yumichika and Kira, as if Kira might snap under all the tension that’s obviously inside him and injure bystanders. “I see you’re wasting no time,” he says, with a nod at Yumichika, and though his mouth is just barely turned up at one corner, the expression isn’t friendly.

 

“Kira,” Renji says. “Look, that hasn’t got anything to do with it - and can we not talk about this now?” His eyes flick back to Yumichika, who has lost the thread of the conversation. Clearly, they are no longer talking about the fourth; equally clearly, Kira has so many things that he’s unhappy about that he can’t decide which one to focus on. “You know I didn’t mean to - ”

 

“But you did.” And Kira looks calmer, all of a sudden, but looking at his face Yumichika couldn’t say that’s a good thing.

 

Renji sighs, and tugs on his ponytail; Kira turns to leave. “Look...uh, don’t go anywhere,” Renji says to Yumichika. “I’m just gonna - ” he waves after Kira.

 

Yumichika frowns. “I don’t think that’s a good idea. He’s just going to stay upset about everything.” If  I looked like that, I'd want to be left to get drunk in peace.

 

Renji bites his lip with a sharp incisor, and Yumichika wonders if this is an inappropriate time to imagine those incisors digging into his shoulder. Too late, if so. “You think? Anyway, he’s just   upset because we - well, we broke up.” He scans Yumichika’s face for a response; Yumichika nods.

 

“That makes sense,” he says, and for some reason this draws a wide, relieved smile from Renji. Yumichika finishes his somethingth glass of punch and smiles back, and then Renji’s smile turns into an outright laugh, and...Yumichika finds himself joining in, and not stopping, and it doesn’t take long before his stomach and throat start to actually hurt .

 

“People,” he wheezes, looking around, “Are starting to stare at us.”

 

Renji presses his lips together until his laughter is only coming out as a few muffled snorts. “Eh, that’s probably just because you’re hot.”

 

Yumichika chokes. Renji abruptly turns scarlet, and looks down at his empty glass as if it might contain his salvation, or possibly just more alcohol to drown his embarrassment. He clashes with his own hair, and Yumichika has to take deep breaths to avoid the laughter coming back. People have told him he’s attractive before - though pretty is a more common descriptor - but generally they weren’t embarrassed about it. Is it because Renji isn’t sure how he’ll take it? Has he been unclear? Probably; he wasn't nearly so explicit as usual, worried he would say the wrong thing.

 

He leans forward, tilts his head up till he’s speaking as close to Renji’s ear as he can, and says quietly, “I want you to fuck me.”

 

A swift indrawn breath from Renji is impossibly loud, this close, and Yumichika draws back to see that Renji’s gone even redder . He licks lips that are already wet, and says, “You wanna come back to mine?”

 

Yumichika lets out a breath he didn’t know he was holding, and it feels like it takes several miles of coiled tension with it. He smiles a little, the kind only Renji is close enough to see. “Yes.”

Chapter Text

Renji’s room is nicer than Yumichika’s, but not as tidy, and that’s all Yumichika gets to take in before he’s being lifted onto some bit of furniture or other and kissed breathless. It’s nothing like kissing his zanpakuto, but he’s grateful for the experience anyway, because being kissed by Renji is like being caught in a thunderstorm. There’s hands in his hair and Renji’s hips between his thighs and he’s clutching at Renji’s upper back, and for a moment he worries that it’s not the right thing to do, but Renji is breathing heavily and gripping his hips, so he’s probably in the clear. Renji is clear; Renji will tell him if he does something wrong.

How do you know he’s safe?

Shut up. Shut up.

This can be our thing, kisses. They’ve taken everything else, but they can’t have this.

Nothing in Yumichika’s mind is making any sense, and the words sound like memories but they aren’t in a voice he recognises, so he ignores it, keeps sucking Renji’s tongue into his mouth. Says, “I want you,” into Renji’s ear, shivering and hungry, meaning it.

We can’t trust anyone who’s not us.

He means it, he means it, he could murmur a hundred of the filthiest things he’s ever said into Renji’s ear and mean every single one of them. He means it, maybe for the first time in his life, and it’s completely irrelevant and completely the wrong time for the sense of unease to be creeping out of his head and down into his body. He thought he’d mapped and traversed all the unpleasant places in his head, but apparently he’s wrong, because there’s a singsong voice in his head and he feels fine but the way his breath is beginning to come too fast and tight means that he’s wrong about that. Yumichika squeezes his eyes shut tight and kisses Renji back but he’s beginning to shake, he knows, and this isn’t professional -

It isn’t; is it.

And that’s why he can’t, that’s why the shaking is getting worse, and the knowledge that he’s pinned against whatever piece of furniture this is begins to settle in his stomach in a chilly sort of way, and he still doesn’t feel much of anything except that his body is doing the panicking for   him, entirely on instinct.

Renji pulls back, steps back. “Hey, are you okay?” His voice is softer than Yumichika has yet heard.

“I - ” Yumichika says, and not only is speaking difficult, he has no idea what to say . Clearly the correct answer is “no” but he doesn’t know why, and he can’t just give no explanation so he says, “I - don’t know,” instead.

“What’s wrong?” Renji presses, except he’s not pressing - in fact, without moving much he’s managed to break almost all points of contact and allow a clear route from Yumichika to the door. His hand is still resting on Yumichika’s hand, and Yumichika is prepared for wanting to pull away but completely unprepared for the fact that it’s actually a little comforting, the radiating warmth of Renji’s hands which are so much bigger than his own. A touch which is just there , with no intent behind it to advance or withdraw. Renji is waiting, and listening.

Yumichika presses his lips together, and searches for something to say that’s not the whole story again. That’d take too long, and he’s still hoping that maybe he hasn’t totally screwed things up. “The inside of my head is...not always the nicest place,” he says. “I’m sorry, it’s not anything to do with you, it’s just. I don’t know what it is this time, actually.” The pleasant effects of drunkenness have worn off but he hasn’t magically sobered up or anything, and it’s difficult to think and feel at the same time: his thoughts are shouting in the wrong order, his feelings are spilling everywhere, and he can’t catch them in his hand to see what they are. He massages his temples, electing not to rub his lined and feathered eyes. Except - his face is wet. Probably there are black streaks all down his face, and he’s sitting on Renji’s desk with smeared makeup and dishevelled hair and untied, rumpled uniform, and he doesn’t know what to do , because the whole world doesn’t feel real but it does feel frightening and he’s not sure he can handle the walk home - where even is he? - or really anything except curling up somewhere inconspicuous and hoping that at least something is easier in the morning.

“Okay,” Renji says, which makes no sense. “I’m going to get you a blanket and some water, hang on.” He turns, and doesn’t make any mention of the fact that he has to disentangle his hand from Yumichika’s grip.

Yumichika uses his sword-hand sleeve to remove the black smudges from his face as best he can, then rolls it up and puts it in his pocket. When Renji returns he is, indeed, holding a worn but soft blanket and a wooden mug full of water, and he drapes the blanket cautiously around Yumichika’s shoulders before retreating again. “I can walk you home, if you like,” he offers.

Yumichika can think of only a few things less appealing than the idea of walking all the way to the eleventh at this time of night. He’s already cold, and given the shifting unreality that seems to be colouring everything, he’s not certain he’d make it without clutching Renji’s arm the whole way home, which seems like overkill when he barely knows him.

“Or, um, you can stay if you like. I mean I get it if you don’t want to - but you can have the bed and I’ll take the floor, no problem.”

Yumichika sips water. “Don’t do that,” he says, trying to prevent his teeth from chattering. “I mean - you don’t have to do that. This is your place; I’m not kicking you out of your own bed.”

Renji undoes his ponytail, and Yumichika observes distantly that this action makes astonishingly red, shiny hair fall down his shoulders in a tousled sheet; it’s quite amazingly striking. “Fuck no, I ain’t letting a guest sleep on the floor! Uh, unless you really want to,” he adds, and chews his lip. “We could both take the bed, if you like.”

Which sounds like it might be an objectively stupid idea - what if he has nightmares and wakes Renji up? What if the offer is...conditional? Except the idea of lying in a bed next to Renji, who feels warm and safer than anything has in a long time, is the most appealing of all the possible ways this night could end. Before he can say yes, Renji adds, “It’s not - I mean, I’ve got spare pyjamas,” he says, so Yumichika says “Thank you,” and “Yes,” and pulls on the clothes Renji hands to him before padding off to the bathroom down the hall.

They’re very worn, and whatever pattern used to be on them has faded to a sortof dull bluish gray, but they’re comfortable. Just the right kind of too big, like the way Yumichika used to think about wearing Ikkaku’s clothes, and though he’s still cold he’s sure he won’t be once he’s in bed.

When Renji gets back (wearing a long belted sleep robe), he takes a long look at Yumichika, who’s still standing in the centre of the room. Then he stretches, says, “Want anything?”, waits for Yumichika’s head shake, then gets into bed and shuffles to the side that’s against the wall. Which takes care of the very last thing that Yumichika was worried about, and so he throws out a generalised thank you to the universe for small coincidences, like which side of the bed Renji prefers to sleep on.

Yumichika gets in next to him, and whether it’s the alcohol or Renji’s body heat or just the fact that he’s exhausted , he falls asleep almost immediately.

 

-

 

The first thing he’s aware of is the warmth that’s surrounding him, and that during the night it’s burrowed bone-deep, released some of the persistent chill that’s been lodged there. There’s arms wrapped around him and a foot hooked around his ankle, and with still-closed eyes he relaxes into Ikkaku’s hold.

But - no. This can’t be Ikkaku: that doesn’t happen anymore, and anyway -

He opens his eyes and tenses immediately at the unfamiliarity of the room, before he remembers that he’s at Renji’s. Renji’s arms have crept around him in the night, and his sleep-self apparently had no problem with this, for all that Renji carefully turned onto his stomach to go to sleep last night.

Yumichika lets out a breath, and all the momentary tension with it; he lets his eyelids slip closed again and luxuriates, because it might be a long time before this happens again and he wants to drench his skin in the feeling of being held.

Renji is stirring, though. He yawns, rolls onto his back, and arches into an expansive stretch. Then his eyes open, and he looks at Yumichika with a sleepy expression. “Hi,” he says. His left arm is still behind Yumichika’s neck, and he doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.

Yumichika finds that his hand is reaching towards Renji’s face, and he places it softly against Renji’s jaw mostly because it’d be silly to leave it hanging in midair. He can feel Renji’s breath against his wrist. And maybe it isn’t so far-fetched that Renji still likes him, this morning. “Can I?” He says.

Renji nods, and Yumichika scoots forward and kisses him softly, because the action is unfamiliar; he’s been kissed, some, but not... initiated , and it’s hard to believe he’s allowed, but he did ask. He kisses Renji, and climbs on top, and Renji’s hand finds a place through the hair at the back of his head again. “Hey,” Renji says, pulling back a bit. “We don’t have to, or anything. I could make breakfast.”

His hands are still resting on Yumichika’s neck and thigh. Yumichika takes a deep breath. “I want to,” he says, firmly, and has to swallow a small burst of slightly hysterical laughter. He’s been saying that a lot, lately - in the past twelve hours - and every time there’s a breathless, giddy sort of feeling, as though he’s caught in the moment between jumping off a precipice and hitting the water.

Renji’s kisses are still soft, maybe because it’s the morning and they’re still sleepy. It’s making Yumichika’s hands fist in the sheets beside Renji’s shoulders, tension without release, and it almost makes no sense that Renji also does this kind of gentle. So far, he’s been taking his zanpakuto as an obvious exception to the rest of the world, but the way Renji slides his fingers through Yumichika’s hair reminds Yumichika of his zanpakuto’s lips against the insides of his wrists. And it’s not that it’s weird or that he doesn’t like it, but...he’s not made of glass .

“Do you like it like this?” Renji says between kisses, “Or,” and doesn’t finish his question; instead he tightens the hand in Yumichika’s hair and levers him down, sinks his teeth into Yumichika’s shoulder.

Yumichika clutches Renji’s shoulders, and shudders, and doesn’t even try to hold back his moan; maybe Renji will take it as the encouragement it definitely is. Renji gets the message, and flips them both over with a growl, as if it takes almost no effort to casually fling Yumichika’s weight around.

“You like it like this? You like it to hurt?” Renji asks, and bites him again.

“Yes,” Yumichika says.

Renji pins one hand over his throat, with enough pressure to hold him there. “You like to be held down?”

“Yes,” Yumichika gasps out. “ Please .”

Renji swallows. “You like to beg? You want me to make you beg for it?”

Yumichika arches against him. “I don’t think you’re going to have to.”

Renji squeezes his eyes shut for a second and says, “ Fuck ,” with impressive sincerity; then he kisses Yumichika again, hard enough to bruise, biting at Yumichika’s mouth.

There’s no sleepiness or hesitation to Renji’s movements now; he makes short work of their clothes, scratches the skin of Yumichika’s sides and hips raw with short but sharp nails, and then fetches a jar out of his bedside table.

Two fingers makes Yumichika swear unexpectedly; clearly he’s out of practise, but there’s little to no actual pain, or if there is it’s sublimating into pleasure. Renji knows what he’s doing: he fucks Yumichika with his fingers, watches his face, and curls them carefully to find places inside that Yumichika knows exist, of course, but no one has ever made any effort to find them. (He feels a twinge of guilt, thinking about his zanpakuto, but that experience doesn’t even feel like sex; it feels like a different category of experience all together, one so strange that sex was the only thing his mind was able to dream up as comparison.)

Yumichika does beg, and eventually curses because it turns out that Renji grins toothily every time he does. He swears some more when Renji is finally inside him, because he has exactly zero patience left and Renji seems to be holding back just a little to make sure he’s adjusted, and that’s totally ridiculous because he’s ridden two men at once and got off before. But Renji has one hand holding his crossed wrists and one pressing down on his hip, so he can’t push up against Renji and fuck himself as he’d like to.

“You know,” Renji says, as Yumichika pulls his legs up and out for a better angle, “You can struggle, if you like. I ain’t one of those guys who gets all weird about disobedience or some shit.” Another flash of teeth. “And I’ve been known to like being scratched, if you’re feeling enthusiastic.”

It sounds - well, Yumichika’s first thought is, what if I win? Which would be - confusing, maybe sortof a disaster, and anyway he’s not in danger so he’s not going to do what he would if he were, which is: plant his feet down, headbutt renji’s nose, dislodge Renji with his hips, pin his heels into the backs of Renji’s knees and flip them both over, kick the back of his head and run. But obviously he’s missing the point - maybe if he just tried to get his hands free to fulfil Renji’s request -

He tries to move under Renji’s hands. Renji pushes down harder, forcing him to resist harder, although he can feel that Renji’s holding back some of his strength to allow him to move a little. It’s like a fight, some kind of wrestling match gone wrong, and then even their kisses are competitive, and whenever Yumichika gets a bit too much leverage Renji just snaps his hips at just the right angle and Yumichika can’t think for a few seconds.

He does manage to get his hands free to dig nails into Renji’s shoulders, when Renji abandons holding down his wrists for holding down his throat. Renji growls when Yumichika scrapes across his shoulders, so he does it again and again and again, holding off his orgasm without request because he doesn’t want this to end . But he might pass out if he stays on the edge any longer, so he gasps, “Please can I come, please - ” before his breath gives out entirely.

Renji’s eyes snap open. “Oh my god ,” he says, “Fuck,” he says, and, “Yeah, come, come on ,” so Yumichika lets himself go and it seems to last ages ; a moan tears its way out of his throat and he shakes hard for another half-second, almost afraid he’s going to fly apart as Renji watches and follows.

He’s twitching and panting for breath afterwards, and Renji is breathing hard next to him, blinking up at the ceiling. Renji turns his head, looking a bit dazed and a lot blissfully satisfied.

The first thing he says, when he has enough breath to speak, is, “Hey, you wanna go get ramen sometime?”

 

-

 

Yumichika learns that guests are allowed in the canteen of the fifth by turning up with Renji and having no one bat an eyelid.

It’s much like the one at the eleventh - if a bit less generally worn and bereft of all the little indications that the place sees more than its fair share of group wrestling matches. Yumichika sits and eats breakfast, watches while Renji casually puts away enough food for three men, and says that he will go out for ramen with Renji but only if Renji pays, if that’s how much he eats. 

Renji laughs, and his thigh touches Yumichika’s where they’re sitting together. A woman from another table rolls her eyes at them, and Renji sticks his tongue out in reply.

After breakfast they end up in Renji’s room, kissing again, and Renji says, “So...you got anywhere to be today?” Yumichika hasn’t, so he says, “No,” and, “Do you have something in mind?”

Renji has a lot of things in mind, and so they pretty much just don’t leave Renji’s room all weekend except to eat in the canteen, and once at the ramen shop by the fifth, both wearing Renji’s clothes. Renji shoves Yumichika down onto the futon and fucks him senseless, holds him up against a wall, bends him over the shabby desk.

Afterwards, lying on his back and floating on pleasure-pain-orgasm sorts of sensations, Yumichika doesn’t feel uncomfortable at all, or sick, or anything much that isn’t a good, relaxed sort of sensation that he doesn’t have a word for. The feeling of wanting desperately - and he does, every time he looks at Renji - and of getting it so thoroughly that it takes a few minutes before he can stand again after.

“Do you always, you know, come like that?” Renji asks once, post-coital and still breathing roughly.

“Like what?” And it’s a pleasure to come again - more of one than he remembers from when it was just another feature of his job.

“I mean - I don’t even have to help you, or anything. You come just from being fucked,” he explains, and Yumichika isn’t exactly sure what he’s supposed to say. Perhaps his confusion shows, because Renji adds, “And oh my god, it’s amazing. I was just wondering.”

“Not in the beginning,” Yumichika says carefully, pulling the blanket over himself. In the beginning, he’d cried in pain, but no one had paid much attention to that, or else he’d been gagged, and then there were hands on him, dragging him to orgasm through a haze of pain, and eventually he’d got used to it. “Now? Yes, most of the time.”

He hadn’t come for Zoushiku. It makes very little sense that he’s glad about that given that it doesn’t really mean anything, but he is. Most people, generally, haven’t cared about Yumichika’s orgasm much, though the response to asking permission was always good. Earned him tips, that sort of thing.

Renji cares about his orgasm. Renji stares at him, or kisses him through it, or bites down hard just after saying yes , like he wants it to be good. It’s a little strange, strange like the way he throws Yumichika around but hasn’t fucked his mouth yet, like the way he kisses Yumichika everywhere he can reach as they’re dressing to leave Renji’s room for food again, though it’s getting him nothing but a swift taste of Yumichika’s lips or skin or hair.

They’re too tired on sunday morning for anything energetic, so Yumichika crawls into Renji’s lap and kisses him because it’s allowed, because Renji combs his fingers through Yumichika’s hair and wraps one arm around his waist and they don’t move much, and Renji breaks off every so often to press kisses under Yumichika’s jaw and down his bruised neck, strokes the small of Yumichika’s back under his borrowed pyjamas, cups the sides of Yumichika’s face in his hand.  

It seems only natural to slide backwards so he can reach down, pull Renji’s cock free of his sleeping robe and take it into his mouth. Yumichika knows exactly how to do this, and he draws it out half for the lazy atmosphere of the morning and half because he likes to, likes the taste of Renji and the full feeling in his mouth and throat and the way Renji’s stomach and thighs twitch in tension. In an effort to keep still, Yumichika realises eventually, puzzled - perhaps it’s so Yumichika can do all the work of swallowing Renji’s cock then pulling back to suck on the head, over and over. It’s not all that much of an effort, really; he’s lying comfortably on his forearms and he has perfect control over his gag reflex, such that he can gently nudge Renji’s stomach with the tip of his nose and slide his tongue out to lave at the base of his cock.

It’s strange. He’s used to feeling powerless his hair in someone’s fist as they hold him in place while they come down his throat, and there’s a certain kind of satisfaction there, a certain kind of thing that he must have, at some stage, grown to crave. But this is - he’s pulling Renji into incoherent messy pieces, and it feels like the power is his. He’s given slow blowjobs for clients before, that being what they paid for, but that’s not what people would pay for after he left the 65th, and anyway it was never like this . No one’s voice ever broke over the syllables of his name - always his full name, even if Renji can barely pronounce it just now, no abbreviation - and no one’s hand held his hair back from his face this gently.

Renji’s thighs shake, and he makes slurred, breathy versions of the sounds Yumichika is now used to hearing during sex. He knows he’s doing a good job, of course, but - well, it doesn’t usually please him, to hear and feel the results. And if there’s a part of them that’s expecting - even hoping for - Renji to grab the back of his head and fuck his mouth, slap his face and call him names and finish down his throat, or maybe on his face, then it’s all right because, probably, they’ll do this again.

Yumichika doesn’t like to hope, in general. But Renji’s fucked him five times and hasn’t tired of him yet, so perhaps he has a while. No way to know how long, but he’s sure there will be enough time to give another blowjob, and maybe it can be a rough, messy one if he begs prettily. Renji likes it, Yumichika has noticed, when he begs. Yumichika notices all the things Renji likes - can’t help it, really - and does exactly those things, and he doesn’t get paid in money but he does get thrown around and bitten and scratched bloody and all the things he’s been craving for he doesn’t even know how long, so it seems a fair enough exchange. And that’s how Renji likes sex to be it seems, so it all works out.

So he works his throat around Renji’s cock, keeps him close to the edge for much longer than he ever would have before, mostly because he can and because Renji swears and grasps the sheets and still, for some reason, tries to stay mostly still, though his whole body is shaking and sweating by now. When Renji comes it’s with a long groan, and he runs out of breath before he runs out of orgasm.

“Hnnnn...mmmmbrrr.” Renji flops back on the bed, twitching once or twice before going completely lax. “You. That. Things.”

Yumichika crawls back up the bed and arrange himself next to Renji. Just next to, at first, and then he curls against Renji’s side. Renji turns his head, aims to kiss Yumichika and misses, then says, “C’mere,” with a movement of one shoulder that’s probably supposed to be an encouragement, but isn’t really committed or directional enough.

Yumichika swallows and curls closer to kiss Renji, close-mouthed because he can’t imagine that Renji wants to taste himself, but Renji keep kissing him, and eventually he relaxes his jaw and allows Renji to open his mouth. Both of them have morning breath, and Yumichika has never cared less about anything.

Renji offers him to stay another night, but Yumichika knows he definitely won’t get to work on time if he’s all the way over at the fifth, doesn’t exactly know where he’s going, and has even less motivation than usual to get out of bed, so he declines, and Renji walks with him most of the way back to the eleventh until Yumichika knows where he is again.

Yumichika walks the rest of the way back to his room at the eleventh barracks feeling just as strange as he has all weekend: slightly dizzy, a little confused, with a tendency to laugh at nothing in particular.

There’s some off-duty shinigami leaning against the fence surrounded by empty beer bottles just past the entrance, and Yumichika was planning on ignoring them, but one of them shouts, “The hell? You spent the weekend in a whorehouse or somethin’?”

By which he supposes he must be covered in bite marks, and - yes, his orange neckpiece is in his pocket, because it desperately needs a wash. He bites down on more laughter and says, “No. Just someone else’s bedroom.” A strange compulsive smile spreads across his face before he can bite down on it, and he suspects he’s half baring his teeth but he doesn’t care . Drunken babble follows him, and he doesn’t really listen but it sounds half mocking and half...congratulatory, maybe. Walking away is easy. His hair needs a wash and most of his body aches a bit and he can smile and walk on as lewd things are shouted at him.

It’s familiar and it’s not, exactly like his bedroom. As usual, he washes carefully and has something to eat before slipping into bed, though it isn’t quite the grounding, comforting ritual he remembers. He’s actually hungry, for a start, instead of nauseous and exhausted. After he’s washed Renji’s smell from his body and hair with a little regret, he climbs into bed, presses the bruises and remembers their creation as he drifts off to sleep.

 

-

 

Of course, the world being what it is, he finally wakes up just before dawn covered in cold sweat, and has to do four different dream tests to verify that he's awake. The previous three awakenings were from a nightmare into a dream of wakefulness that turned into another nightmare, and all of them started with him awake just before dawn, cold and damp, taking several long slow breaths to persuade himself out of bed before pulling on his uniform.

Yumichika repeats this sequence one last time. He'd try to vary it for his own sanity, but whatever his body was doing while he was dreaming, it apparently didn't count as sleep because he's exhausted and achy. There's a small basket sitting on top of the dilapidated chest of drawers, though, which wasn't in any of his dreams. It's then that he remembers - Renji, who covered him in ecstatic bruises and walked him home, sent him off with a long kiss and this basket, no bigger than his hand.

For a sudden, lurching moment, he's sure he must be dreaming again; one of his mornings must have been real, he's asleep halfway through breakfast and is dreaming up memories that don't fit at all with the rest of his thoughts. He remembers laughing as Renji spilled tea all down his clothes, and laughing harder when Renji tossed the remainder on Yumichika in revenge. He remembers Renji mumbling sleepy nonsense words into his ear in the mornings between neck kisses.

He knows, now, that he likes to have his neck kissed just on the pulse point. If he's going to be stuck in dreams, he'd prefer to be stuck in this one.

Yumichika opens the basket and eats the green tea mochi inside, then pulls on his uniform and puts on his sword. It's almost a relief when the first person he sees gives him a long, disapproving stare, and mutters something under his breath, because he's got further into his morning than he managed in the other dreams, and he was trying not to hope this one was real. This one is real. He spent a whole weekend with strong arms wrapping around him while he slept, with lips against his skin and aching, arcing pleasure wiping out everything else he could think or feel. He might -

He might be better off if he showed up at training.

He isn't, though. He's not performing well, and it seems he's only one missed block from crows of victory and relentless attempts to get him to falter, again, again, again. He gets hit on the cheekbone, hard, and it's not as if he isn't used to getting hit, even getting hit in the face, but he can't stop flinching after that, can't stop cringing away from strikes instead of executing a proper block.

He feels himself close his eyes just before impact, hoping his block was correct, but unable to watch in case wasn't, and though he isn't surprised at more pain - his chest this time - his body begins to shake. Why is he here ? He can take care of himself in an emergency - has learnt all the relevant skills for not dying - but one of those was knowing when to run instead of fight, or when to hide or smile and flirt and please. Today would have been a day for one of those, but instead he has to stand here and continue to fight when he has no will for it and block when all he wants to do is drop his sword and run. He knows this division too well to assume he would get anywhere, throwing himself on his opponent's mercy.

He would swear that being raped on a dirty floor was less hard than this, that all he had to do was close his eyes and endure, but this is not a test of endurance. Here, he has to keep his eyes open, and watch his own failure.

Yumichika is not afraid of pain, but he is afraid of this. He's afraid of this, and he's sick to his stomach of having to pick himself up over and over and present himself as a target , and he's not sure if it's helping that he can recall exactly the feel of Renji's fingers stroking the hair off his forehead as he fell asleep two nights ago. He can't hear his zanpakuto, or feel any of the drive that kept him moving during the tournament, and the sword in his hands feels more like a hindrance than a useful tool.

He looks at the sword instead of his opponent as he lifts it to block, wrist unstable. It’s just a sword, and he has no idea how to make it do whatever Iba’s sword did. I’m sorry, he thinks, image of his Zanpakuto’s calm and beautiful face in his head. I don’t know your name, I can’t do this, I’m sorry .

It feels like the final insult of this godforsaken place, that he can't even make himself fight anymore. If he's honest, it's been getting harder and harder for weeks, to summon up the will to raise his sword. To summon up the will to do anything at all.

In the end, he shatters his own wrist by putting it in the way of a sword strike, exerts a heroic effort not to throw up on the floor or scream, announces that he's going to the fourth, and leaves without waiting to hear the response.



-

 

A small, polite member of the fourth attends to his wrist, and it’s a relief to have walked through the doors under his own power - although he supposes that Zaraki did him a kindness, by carrying him. The thought’s a little alarming, and he’s not sure whether he’s in Zaraki’s debt, or whether he intended it like the small handful of people who have, at one time or other, done something for Yumichika without expecting anything in return.

“There’s a lot of people from the eleventh here lately,” the small shinigami says, neutrally. 

Yumichika shrugs his free shoulder. “We had a tournament.”

The tiniest nose wrinkle, and it’s almost cute. His reiatsu is soft, cool, bland to the taste. “I heard. We had some new recruits, people who left.”

“It’s for the best,” Yumichika says. “The eleventh doesn’t need people who don’t belong there.”

It’s out of his mouth before he thinks about it, and he thinks about how Kira is leaving, is angry he was even in the fourth at all, and thinks to himself: I could leave. Why don’t I leave?

He gets only a mildly displeased hum. “Being a shinigami is only a job, you know. You don’t need to belong . We always need people who can do everyday things, who can run the place, because it’s not as if killing hollows does the laundry or sorts the payroll.”

It doesn’t, does it. They’re doing all this fighting and it’s no good at all because none of them are getting paid, none of them even have assignments. The sickening anxiety about not having any money is catching up with him, for all that he seems to have food to eat and somewhere to sleep. How long will that stability last when everyone realises they aren’t getting paid? 

He’s only been here 3 weeks. It feels like months . But - even if his wrist is going to be unstable for another few days, he can do something about the fucking payroll. The eleventh needs someone who can sort out the payroll, and it’s going to be him.

It's not a hardship to relax his posture and smoothly ask the small shinigami where Kira might be. "Oh, it's his last day, so he'll be in the general office making sure everything's sorted, probably." He finishes wrapping Yumichika’s wrist in a supportive bandage and looks up.

Yumichika pulls out his best smile and leans back a little. "And where can I find the general office? I want to thank him, you see," he adds. The other swallows once and his hand twitches, as if to reach for Yumichika again, as if now he’s not thinking like a busy medic, he’s seeing something he likes. There's no victory in it, really - he couldn't hold one of Yumichika's limbs down with all his strength, and that wouldn't work for Yumichika at all.

"Down the corridor, turn left. It's right there, you can't miss it," he says, composed but a little pink across the cheekbones. Yumichika nods and smiles because he just has to keep smiling until he’s out of sight;  he slides off the chair and heads for the indicated corridor, offering a tiny bow as he leaves.

Kira is there, and Yumichika observes him carefully through the open doorway. He's sorting through a cabinet full of miscellaneous objects and placing some in a small satchel. Every movement is brittle, tense almost to snapping pointh. He doesn't have his sword, like everyone else in the fourth it would seem, but Yumichika takes a second look and there is a sword propped against the wall behind him.

"Excuse me," he says quietly. Kira looks up, face angry until he sees Yumichika. After that, he seems more...resigned. It's not much of an improvement, which is a shame, because his face is quite beautiful.

"Oh," Kira says. "It's you."

Yumichika blinks. "Yes," he says, politely. "I came to thank you."

Kira's expression flattens then. "Oh," he says. "What for?"

Yumichika takes his lower lips between his teeth and tugs, because he isn't entirely sure. He just thinks - he wants to talk to Kira, some more. He wants to find out why he’s so angry, why he’s leaving the fourth, and why he invited Yumichika to a party. "For remembering me," he says eventually. "And for the invitation.”

Kira presses his lips together. “Did you...leave with Renji, in the end?” His voice is level, but it’s still a loaded question.

“Yes,” Yumichika says, having no idea how this interaction is supposed to go. It’s not as if he ever met any of his clients’ wives or partners, and Kira and Renji aren’t together, and even if they were that doesn’t usually seem to bother people who want him. It’s never occurred to Yumichika to worry about it before.

“And?” Kira presses.

Yumichika has no idea what he wants. “We had sex,” he says, wishing he had something else to offer.

Kira’s tense, guarded expression twitches. “Yes, I gathered ,” he says. “Renji isn’t subtle. What I meant was - what’s happening now? I suppose I could just ask Renji, but that’s a little...awkward right now.” A tiny flicker of a smile. “Then again, I’m not sure this is any less awkward, because I really didn’t intend for you to think I’m interrogating you about your sex life. Sorry.”

“It’s fine,” Yumichika says. “I - I don’t know what happens now.” He was hoping, he supposes, that they’d have sex again, eat food some more, that Renji would maybe come to the eleventh and lie on his bed and he could feel warm arms wrapped around him again.

"Oh, the lout. Always forgetting to sort out the details." Kira rolls his eyes, but he seems suddenly more friendly and open, as if despite his scorn he's in some way relieved.

Yumichika doesn’t know what to say to that - the implication that Renji is somehow at fault for not sorting something out makes no sense, so he changes tack to the other reason he wanted to speak to Kira. "How come you're still here? At the party you said you'd be finishing last week."

Kira sighs. "I had to switch a shift. What a pain. I..." A muscle in his jaw tightens. "I don't mean to discredit the fourth, I just - never really felt like I fitted in, here."

Yumichika tilts his head, because that makes sense, but it doesn’t explain why Kira is angry. So maybe that’s not the whole story. Still, it’s close enough to the strange morass of feelings about being in the eleventh that Yumichika wants to... squeeze him, or something. "I know the feeling," he says, offering a smile that isn’t happy but is at least sincere this time. "Somehow I have to get a list of everyone in the eleventh for the payroll, which is going to be a challenge because I’m pretty sure they all hate paperwork and I don’t think most of them can write.”

Kira covers his eyes with one hand. "I hope they pay you well for putting up with that."

Yumichika sighs. "They aren't paying anyone at the moment, because none of the paperwork has been done."

Kira's mouth opens, then closes again without any sound coming out. "Right," he says, picking up his bag, walking to the door and taking Yumichika's arm in a gentle but decisive grasp at the elbow. "We're going out, and I'm going to get you a cup of tea and a nice - meal. What time is it?"