Characters/Pairings: Shuuhei/Yumichika, Iba, Ikkaku

Warnings: Spoilers through ch. 232 of the manga, and likely to be severely AU after that point.

Notes: Many thanks to aishuu, Jaina, Shelly, and Mei for acting as beta readers and/or sounding boards. Also, please be aware that while I do have a possible side-story in mind, this is meant as a one-shot.

This night will be bad. And tomorrow will be beyond imagining.

--Susan Cooper, "The Dark Is Rising"

The new stack of paperwork hit Hisagi's desk with a whumph! that sent papers flying from the tops of all the other stacks in a manner not unlike snow being blown from the tops of distant mountains.

"I don't know what got into you that you're volunteering to take on all this shit, but I gotta say--I ain't complaining. If you want to show everyone what a good little officer you are, then go right ahead. Be my guest." Iba theatrically wiped his hands together, indicating that the unsorted, unproofed incident reports were now Hisagi's problem and Hisagi's alone. "But when you start bitching about how much work's getting dumped on you--and you're going to bitch, don't tell me you won't--I'm just going to sit there and laugh."

Hisagi sighed and moved the new arrivals off the stack of completed reports and put them on the floor to join all the other paperwork that had been accumulating. Retrieving the papers that Iba's antics had scattered was something that could and would wait.

"Paperwork's a distraction," Hisagi explained wearily. "So's bitching about paperwork. Indulge me, okay?"

When he'd daydreamed about what it would be like to be promoted to a top seat in a respected division, he'd never imagined that ninety percent of each day would be spent bogged down in administrative work.

He'd certainly never imagined being grateful for it.

Iba shook his head at the reams of work that were lined up around the edges of Hisagi's desk like defensive fortifications. A few piles were probably tall enough for Hisagi to hide behind if he wanted.

"Hell, if you need distraction, there's more fun ways than this shit. Our duty shift's over in just a couple hours." He peered meaningfully at Hisagi over the top of his sunglasses. "There's this place, just opened out in third district South, s'posed to have decent beer and a couple of not-bad barmaids. What say we grab a couple of the guys and head out tonight--see if we can't get ourselves kicked out of a whole new joint."

Hisagi's smile was ragged and too thin. He appreciated the invitation, just like he appreciated all the others over the past few weeks, but...

"No thanks. Look, I know I keep blowing you off, but right now that's the kind of distraction that leads to more thinking, not less."

"Yeah, yeah. No big loss--you're a mopey drunk, anyhow," Iba said, dismissing the whole idea with a shrug.

"I am not mopey. You take that back right now!" Hisagi tried to sound indignant, but the laughter killed that impression stone dead. Iba's usual affectionate abuse was good to see after nearly two months of him treating Hisagi like he was about to break in half.

"Heh. Sure. Whatever." The look Iba gave him was pure, unrepentant evil, but then it was right back to oops, better be careful around poor, fragile Hisagi all over again. Someday real soon, Hisagi was going to wrangle his old pal into a sparring match and demonstrate in painstaking detail exactly how not fragile he was.

"Look," Iba said, the dark glasses making it impossible to tell if he was making or avoiding eye contact, "I know I keep telling you this, and you know I'm going to keep on telling you until it gets through that thick head of yours--no one blames you for Tousen. You think you knew him better than Komamura-taichou or something? Those two were pals for decades, and if Komamura couldn't tell the guy'd gone rotten, who the hell do you think you are that you should've? Hell, if you think about it, you got off real lucky. Coulda been a lot worse, you know. Shit, you coulda wound up a total nutcase like Kira or Hinamori. Count your lucky stars, pal. Or whatever the fuck it is you want to count."

Iba flicked his hand more than waved in farewell. "You know where to find me if you change your mind about tonight."

Hisagi waited until Iba left, then slumped down in his chair and dragged his hands roughly down his face.

"Lucky. Yeah."

Damn Iba for bringing up Kira and Hinamori! That was just one of far too many things Hisagi been trying to bury under these mountains of paperwork. Of course Hisagi knew he was damned lucky compared to those two. At least he was still functional. Mostly. For now, anyway.

Just a week ago, Kira--who honestly seemed to be getting better, everyone said so--had been taken away to the Fourth and would be there for no one knew how long. Complete nervous breakdown was what Hisagi had heard, along with a whole lot of vicious rumors about restraints and suicide watches and all kinds of unsavory things that had been going on in the Third under Ichimaru. Things so unimaginable that Hisagi had no choice but to believe they were at least partially true.

As for Hinamori, the scuttlebutt these days was that she'd be better off if she hadn't woken up. He couldn't say how much of that was true, but given how fast that opinion had spread throughout Seireitei, and how stridently Hinamori was still defending Aizen to anyone who went to visit her, he couldn't imagine any captain putting her in a position of command ever again.

Shit--a year ago, even just two months ago, he couldn't even have imagined any of this, but now here it was, real and unchangeable.

Just like he'd never imagined, all those years ago as he joked with Kanisawa and Aoga about what they could do to liven up the sheer boredom of chaperoning a first-year field trip, that two of them wouldn't be coming back. Or how he'd never imagined that the three of them wouldn't be storming up the ranks of the Gotei 13 together, pushing each other along in their careers until all three of them made vice captain or even--they hardly dared think it--captain.

But how was he supposed to imagine Hollows that couldn't be sensed, that could strike before you could see them?

He blinked a few times as stray thoughts clicked together and it finally dawned on him that his friends had been two of Aizen's first victims. And that on that very same day, he and Kira and Hinamori were already being neatly set up as Aizen's patsies. And how, in a sick sense, he'd once again been left as the only survivor. He clenched his teeth and tried to focus on his work. Once had been more than enough. Twice was a pattern.

Maybe that's why, as Yumichika waved cheerfully at him before practically jumping through the gate to the living world, Hisagi quietly filed the memory away as the last time I saw him.

Because, of course, the one unexpected thing to come out of this mess that was any good was likely to be taken away from him almost as soon as he had it. Which meant that in a sense, it wasn't any good at all.

So now, here he was just marking time and maintaining his sanity between each update from the living world. He kept telling himself that at least this time, he'd be ready for bad news if--when--it came. Because, as he reminded himself every day, the Eleventh Division never ran from a fight, not ever, even if it was against an enemy that was beginning to sound more and more unbeatable with every passing day. He kept telling himself that dying in battle was something that every shinigami faced, and that there was no excuse for being shocked when it happened.

Of course, he also kept telling himself that no, that rumble in his gut wasn't because the fucking waiting was eating a hole through his stomach.

Hell, maybe he should take Iba up on his offer and go out and get seriously shit-faced drunk. Unconsciousness was a valid coping mechanism, right?

Or, he thought, sitting up and stretching, he should do the responsible thing (he tried not to hear Tousen's voice telling him that), knock a few inches off some of these piles, and be a good little officer, just as Iba had said.

Most of what he had on his desk was mindless math, or scut work like making sure proper supporting documentation was attached to the proper items. It was hard to convince himself that any of this had any real purpose, but at least it was easy work. Mindless work.

In fact, it was so mindless it was rapidly ceasing to be a distraction. Hisagi's mind kept wandering, even after he had vowed to concentrate on the task at hand. Memories kept assaulting him when he least expected, jumping out from the shadows of his mind with no reason and even less warning.

While he was transcribing supply numbers, his pen shook as he relived willing his hand to remain steady holding his sword to Tousen's throat.

He checked usage reports against reported inventory and tasted salt and warmth as he ran his tongue along jaw and throat. Then, a low, luxuriant moan as his mouth moved down past throat to collarbone and lower, still lower, and refined and surprisingly strong hands clutched at his shoulder and the back of his head, pulling him in even closer.

Proofreading an official reprimand didn't keep him from feeling a lurch in his stomach like the one he'd felt when two of his division members were helping him to the Fourth, and Isane's message came out of nowhere, shattering everything with its revelation of truths he'd never dreamed of.

He stared at an unidentified bit of paper for fifteen minutes straight, not even reading the words, because he remembered a different kind of feeling deep in his gut when he said I'm curious--I want to know more and saw delicate brows rise skeptically before a smug but hopeful (and now so beloved) smile let him know that he was in for far more than he ever could have imagined.

Other memories, piling up faster and faster, finally overreaching the paperwork fortifications and threatening to overwhelm him:

...glowing vines reaching out to ensnare him and a strange sense of whimsical detachment as he wondered if this was what it was like to die...

...the man he trusted and admired above all else disappearing into a sundered sky and himself silently babbling an endless loop of this is really real, this is really happening, and any minute now I'll wake up please...

...being miserably drunk and sobbing until he threw up, while Matsumoto sat nearby (but not too nearby) and mercifully said nothing as he let himself break down just this once...

...skilled hands running along his sides and over his stomach and down to his groin, feather-light and all but unbearable as Yumichika's soft, teasing voice described everything he was going to do to him in a way that made the physical touch seem like nothing by comparison.

Hisagi slammed down his pen and shifted awkwardly in his seat. "Too much thinking," he snapped at no one in particular. "Stop it."

Easier said than done.

Earlier that morning, when thinking (and waiting) got to be too much, he wandered around on made-up errands that he couldn't even remember. He had a vague idea that he wanted to talk to somebody, but there really wasn't anyone he could talk to.

Talking with Kira or Hinamori sure as hell wasn't an option. Yeah, maybe they'd understand, but what kind of total prick would go whine to them after everything they'd been through? A tiny prickle of conscience urged him to go visit his old friends, but just the thought of seeing what they'd become added to the etching job the waiting was already doing in his gut.

Instead, he'd gone from division to division as he often had over the past month, adding more and more busy-work to his fortifications.

His visit to the Seventh was a short one. Komamura always seemed willing enough to talk, but another conversation about how Komamura was going to drag Tousen back to sanity was the last thing Hisagi wanted to deal with right now. Besides, he had figured out pretty quickly that any counsel Komamura offered could usually be summed up as "suck it up and deal." This was about as helpful as Iba's "booze, broads, and brawls" approach to a cure-all.

He shouldn't have bothered stopping by the Eleventh. There were only two people in that division he wanted to see and he had to restrain himself from pummeling poor, sniveling Aramaki Makizou for not being one of them. At the Twelfth, Akon lazily told him that Kurotsuchi-taichou and fukutaichou were in the lab, and that Hisagi really didn't want to disturb them. Hisagi agreed. Nemu wasn't all that bad, if you could get her to talk, but her father? Three hours later, Hisagi still shivered in revulsion at the thought.

So, he'd moved on, and simple numerical progression brought him to the Thirteenth and Ukitake. They barely knew each other, but still Ukitake had greeted Hisagi as if he were sincerely pleased to see him and as if nothing in the world were wrong.

For a moment, Hisagi had pictured himself telling the man everything--everything. Like, how if one more person offered sympathy about Tousen, he was going to check himself into the Fourth right alongside Kira and Hinamori. Or about how he'd fallen so fast and so hard for Yumichika and how in some ways it was worse to have everything to live for instead of nothing to live for, because everything to live for meant everything to lose.

He hadn't. All he'd done was ramble on about all the work he had to do, because he'd never picked up the habit of talking about anything important.

Now here he was with the day almost spent, trying to lose himself in the challenge of too much to do in too little time. But he lost himself in other ways as the drumming of his fingers against his temple became the memory of a kiss on the forehead that was not chaste, a kiss on the tip of his nose that was not playful, and a kiss on the mouth that was pure foreplay.


Simply put, work wasn't working any more.

Hisagi stood up, adjusted his hakama, and headed out for a good long walk, and maybe a sparring match or five. He supposed he could go back to his room and see if jerking off would take the edge off the more insistent memories, but there was something sad and kind of pathetic about the whole idea that made it strangely unappealing. Maybe tonight, when he could take his time and indulge himself in fantasies and plans.

Not that he was planning on anything, of course. No, no, much better to be prepared for the worst. He wouldn't even think about the possibility of being pleasantly surprised when the worst didn't come to pass.

For now, a walk would have to do. A walk would help him not think about how even after an entire month apart and less than a month together before that, he was still startled and disoriented when he woke up and found he was alone.

It would be easier to find help, to find someone to talk to about Yumichika if he'd actually told someone about the relationship in the first place. It wasn't like they were keeping things a secret, but for some reason, he'd never gotten around to mentioning it to Iba, or Matsumoto, or Kira, or anyone else who might give a damn about who he was screwing.

Maybe it was because even at the beginning it had always been more than just screwing, and that was really fucking scary. Or maybe it was because he was afraid that talking about it, or bringing it to notice, would break the spell and he'd wake up and find that it was nothing but a dream.

Funny, how some things (the dark glow of a rip in the sky, Isane's voice ringing in his head) were like dreams you were desperate to wake up from, while others (a warm puff of air and soft laughter in his ear, the heat of a strong, slender back pressing against his chest then arching in ecstasy even as his own mind went blank and bright with pleasure) were like dreams you never wanted to end.

He'd never imagined how Tousen, of all people, could betray them. He'd never imagined what would happen when he went to the Eleventh, wanting to learn about the attack that had left him limp and breathless on some rooftop.

I'm curious--I want to know more, he'd said, and not knowing he was about to discover far more than he ever could have imagined.

I talked to Renji and Iba, he'd said, and they said they'd never been able to beat you in a fight. He'd been shocked to hear that, and even more shocked when Renji confided that he'd heard that Yumichika had been approached by Ukitake-taichou a few years back to transfer over to the Thirteenth as Shiba's replacement, and that Yumichika had flat-out rejected the offer. It made Hisagi feel just a little better about being beaten by the fifth-seat officer, but it also left him with even more questions about this strange and beautiful man.

You didn't use your shikai on them, did you? So why did you use it on me?

Yumichika's smile nearly knocked him off his feet. Maybe you're just that good, he'd said in tones that were almost ridiculously seductive.

Then Yumichika cocked his head to one side, and the smile changed to something more vulnerable and even more devastating. This time, when he spoke, there was a note of hesitation in his voice, and Hisagi knew he was doomed.

Or maybe I was hoping we'd be having this conversation, Yumichika had said. And here you are.

And there he was. He'd never imagined anything like this, and now he couldn't imagine it not happening.

By the time he reached the precincts of the Eighth Division, Hisagi had noticed that the walk that was supposed to keep him from thinking had done just the opposite. By the time he reached the Seventh, he'd stopped caring.

The late afternoon sunlight on the white walls lining the streets of Seireitei became the late afternoon sunlight on the walls of the Ninth's training grounds two months ago, and as Hisagi walked, he also sat beside Yumichika, feeling the warmth of the sunlit wall against his back. They were laughing and out of breath after a sparring match that had tested both their limits. It was only two days after that first conversation, and as they lazily dissected the match something shifted, and in that moment he knew he could be happy again just as he also knew he'd be taking Yumichika into his bed that night.

Why did he even try to bury these memories? It was a simple question, and it was answered the very next second when the clatter of the alarm went off all throughout Seireitei.

He stood there for several seconds, light-headed with dread. He'd been waiting for this for so long and now that it was happening, it didn't seem real. Nothing seemed real.

An unusually grim Kyouraku-taichou dropped out of shunpo right next to him and disappeared again without a word, but Hisagi didn't even blink.

A second later, Zaraki-taichou stormed past, Kusajishi-fukutaichou clinging to him and yammering a frantic and unanswered string of questions. One look at the pair, and Hisagi knew that whatever had happened, it was bad. Zaraki had looked furious, but that was nothing new.

What was new was the haunted look that was right there beneath the fury. It was easily the most frightening expression Hisagi had ever seen on Zaraki's face. It told him more than any alarm or hell butterfly ever could.

By the time Nanao dropped into sight a few feet from him, Hisagi had gathered his wits, and he grabbed at Nanao's sleeve. She shrieked and nearly tumbled backwards in surprise, but he didn't even think to apologize.

"What happened? What's going on?" he demanded.

Nanao pinned him with a steely glare as she pulled her top back to true. She seemed about to make one of her usual withering remarks, but she must have seen something in his face, because her expression softened a fraction. A faint tickle of insect feet told him that a hell butterfly had just alighted on his arm. Perfect timing.

He braced himself for a tongue-lashing but Nanao simply told him what she knew, and although her voice was calm, her eyes were wary. He wouldn't be surprised if she was thinking of Kira and Hinamori.

"There was another Arrancar attack in Karakura. It was big enough that they've gone ahead and sent in two squads from the Tenth," she said, even as the information passed to him from the butterfly on his arm. "The captains are being briefed, and in the meantime we're supposed to assemble and wait for more orders."

Two squads... yes. Details flowed into his mind. Hitsugaya's first and second squads had been on standby ever since their captain and vice-captain had gone to the living world.

"Wait--that's it?" The butterfly flew off again. "That's all you know?"

Nanao's lips were tight with frustration at her own ignorance. "Your butterfly found you--you know exactly as much as I do," she said with some asperity. But she apparently remembered she was supposed to be sympathetic, and her voice gentled again. Hisagi was sick and damned tired of sympathy, but he listened anyway.

"I believe Kyouraku-taichou received a more detailed message than I--and you--did, but he headed out without telling me a word of it. Reading between the lines, however, I gather that things..." she paused, took a breath, "did not go well. Now if you'll excuse me, I do not want to be late for our meeting."

She stepped into shunpo, vanishing once more. Hisagi was about to follow her example, but before he could move she fell back into sight at the far end of the street. She'd stopped to talk to someone. It was Ikkaku.

Hisagi held his breath, because Nanao was pointing back the way she'd come--pointing straight at him. He wasn't sure if he heard or imagined the "...right there," but he saw Ikkaku's curt nod with stark clarity.

Hisagi's stomach churned because he knew what would happen next, and it did, as inevitable as a recurring nightmare; Ikkaku came straight towards him.

He waited, still as ice. Ikkaku walked quickly despite a severe limp, eyes on the ground.

Look up, look up, look at me damn you, Hisagi thought. The fight had been bad--that much was obvious. Ikkaku's clothes were slashed and stained, and his right arm hung limp and awkward by his side. A swath of dried blood came down across his forehead and over one eye, but Hisagi had no idea if it was Ikkaku's blood or someone else's.

He could see all that, but he couldn't see the look in Ikkaku's eyes to know just what kind of news he'd be getting. But it didn't matter, because his imagination was more than happy to supply all the possibilities.

...hurt real bad, don't know if he's going to...

...wish to hell I didn't have to tell you this...

...over at the Fourth, wants to see you before...

...wanted you to hear this from me, an' not in some fuckin' meeting with everyone else...

...he wanted me to tell you... was a damned good fight--you woulda been real proud...

...I'm real sorry, pal. Real sorry.

Here it was, the moment he had spent a month preparing for and just as long dreading, and he was appalled to find that his stomach was settling and the dread was flowing away like water.

Strange, that what he should be feeling now was relief, and even peace.

The blow to his jaw damn near knocked him off his feet.

He staggered, blinking away white flashes of pain, and wondering what the hell just happened.

"Ikkaku, what the fuck--"

That was all he had time to say before he was shoved back and pinned against a wall, Ikkaku's forearm pressing hard against his throat. His face was inches from Hisagi's, eyes wide and wild, and his words came out in a cutting torrent.

"You're going to tell me everything you know about Yumi's shikai you god-damned fucking son of a bitch and so help me you're going to tell me right now."

Hisagi's mind was blank. He was aware of a throbbing numbness in his jaw that was rapidly turning into throbbing pain, but that was it. He'd never imagined anything like this, and so he had no idea how to respond.

Ikkaku jerked his arm forward and up, gagging Hisagi and yanking him back to reality.

"An' don't tell me you don't know what I'm talking about, asshole, because he walked away from that fight with you without a fucking scratch, and I know you, I know how you fight, and you're too damned good to let that just happen, even with someone like Yumi."

Hisagi tried to push Ikkaku's arm away, tried to speak, but Ikkaku was too angry and didn't know or care that Hisagi's vision was graying around the edges.

"And another thing--Taichou saw 'im right after your fight, and the way he tells it, Yumi was higher than a fucking kite!"

"D-damn it!" Ikkaku's arm was like an iron bar at his throat. He was going to have to fight dirty to get out of this. Honor and friendship be damned--he needed to know what happened to Yumichika.

"What the fuck is it?" Blood and spittle flew from Ikkaku's mouth. "What the fuck does it do?"

Hisagi slammed the heel of his hand down hard on Ikkaku's wounded shoulder. Ikkaku stumbled back with a loud "god damn it!" as Hisagi gulped air.

"Can't talk if I can't breathe, jackass!" Hisagi's voice rasped as he tried to rub the soreness from his neck. "What the hell happened? Is he okay?"

He was pretty sure he knew the answer to that second question, but it wouldn't be real until he heard it. And why was Ikkaku asking about Yumichika's shikai? From what Yumichika had said, all Ikkaku knew of Fujikujaku was its first release.

"Sure he is," Ikkaku snarled. His good hand was clutching his wounded shoulder. Blood seeped between his fingers. "He's back in Karakura and it's all puppies and sunshine and fucking daisies, all right? Of course he ain't okay! Now will you just answer the fucking question, so maybe I can figure out just what the hell happened?"

Hisagi closed his eyes and concentrated on the pain in his jaw. From the feel of things, Ikkaku had loosened a couple of teeth. This was not how things were supposed to play out. He'd never imagined this... whatever 'this' was.

"Damn it, Hisagi..." A movement of air, a scuff of sandal on gravel as Ikkaku took a step towards him.

"He asked me not to tell anyone," he stated simply. Hisagi opened his eyes and stared at a point somewhere along the rooftops. It wasn't the same place where he was laid out flat by that strange attack, but it all looked the same. Memory came flooding back.

Ikkaku cocked his head sharply, eyes narrowed. "The hell?" He reached out and grabbed Hisagi's arm, and his hand was hot and slick with blood. "Well, Yumi ain't here right now and I am, and I'm asking you to spill, so you'd better start talking...pal. What the hell is it you're not supposed to tell me?"

Hisagi's face grew hot, anger burning out the ache in his jaw. "Would you stop being so damned cagey about what happened? I can't just tell you about his shikai unless you tell me why, damn it! I made a promise, and I don't know about you, but that means something to me."

It wasn't a blow to the jaw, but it might as well have been from the stricken look on Ikkaku's face. Hisagi had a vague idea he should apologize, but the thought got lost in everything else that was going on.

"That's lame, that's real lame." Ikkaku's voice was deadly calm. He tightened his grip on Hisagi's arm and didn't say anything for a few seconds. The muscles in his jaw clenched and unclenched as he glared at the ground and thought. It looked like he was thinking about a lot of different things.

"Look," Ikkaku said at last, not looking up, "I don't give a flying fuck if you promised Yumi or if you promised yourself. What I do give a damn about is that 'less you tell me what you know, there ain't much I can tell you or anyone else about what happened to Yumi. Now, the way I see it, you got two choices here--you can tell me, or I can just beat the answer out of you."

It sounded like he was hoping for option two, injuries or no injuries.

Hisagi's first impulse was to push back, maybe get in another physical blow, or maybe just say that after everything that had happened recently, there was no way he was going to betray someone he loved so easily.

Or would not telling be more of a betrayal?

"What's it gonna be, huh?"

He hadn't blamed Isane for bearing the news about Tousen. But then again, she hadn't decked him and followed that up by choking him and screaming in his face like a complete lunatic.

Put that aside, he told himself. Put aside your pride, put aside what Tousen told you about honor--lies, that's what it was in the end--and start thinking about what is right.

The grip on his arm was now painfully tight. "Well?"

Did he really have any other choice? Yes, perhaps he did, but there was only one that would get him the answers he needed.

"You know how it started," he said wearily. "You and Iba paired off to fight, and that left me against Yumichika."

He'd replayed that moment so many times, wondering if there was some hidden hint of what was to come for the two of them. He hadn't found any. "We'd fought, and I got the upper hand, or I thought I did."

The fight had been surprisingly vicious, and despite his words to Yumichika about their difference in rank, they'd been more evenly matched than Hisagi was willing to admit at the time. Yumichika was damned fast, and he mixed deft swordplay with surgically placed punches and kicks. Hisagi had responded in kind, and had caught Yumichika across the forehead with the hilt of his sword. Just thinking about it now made him ill. "And you're right, I got in a couple of good blows. I drew first blood."

Yumichika had been smiling the entire time. It was infuriating at the time, but memory made it endearing. Hisagi didn't tell Ikkaku anything about that, or about how when he assumed the fight was over, Yumichika had prattled on, taking his defeat obnoxiously lightly and saying all kinds of strange things about numbers and the differences between the Ninth and the Eleventh. It was that as much as the attack to come that had made him wonder just what kind of person he was dealing with here.

What Hisagi did tell Ikkaku was how Yumichika had held his sword across his chest, and how the elegant little gesture he made sent glowing vines (or were they feathers? or feathery vines?) racing towards and around him.

"It didn't hurt. That was the weird part. I mean, it kinda hurt, but the pain was somewhere far away, if that makes any sense. It was like falling asleep, but literally falling, like I'd gone over a cliff or something. Next thing I knew, I was flat on my back, and I couldn't move, and I could hardly even breathe. Best I can tell you is that those vine things sucked my reiatsu, but I can't tell you how. Hell, I didn't even know about his wounds being healed right away until you told me just now. Yeah, I noticed the next day when I went to talk to him that they were healed over, but I figured he'd just gone to the Fourth."

Ikkaku blinked. "You went to talk to him? Why?"

There was something about Ikkaku's reaction that seemed off, but Hisagi just shrugged it away. "I was curious. I wanted to know what the hell he did to me." There was more to it than that, but that wasn't important right now. He shrugged. "He was always evasive, though, wouldn't give a straight answer."

It quickly became a joke between them, and Hisagi could hear Yumichika's mischievous laughter as he playfully ducked the question yet again. "You're his friend. You know how he can be--all coy and shit."

"Yeah... I'm gettin' that impression." Ikkaku's answer was slow and measured, and his brows drew together as if he were putting two and two together and trying to find some way for the answer not to be four. "So you knew about this freak-ass sword of his and you didn't say anything? To anyone? Why?"

"I told you! He asked me not to!" Hisagi snapped, flinging his arms wide and free of Ikkaku's grip. He hated being on the defensive, but in this case, it was Yumichika he was defending, not himself. "He said your division looked down on kidou-based attacks, that he thought you and Zaraki-taichou would look down on him or be mad or something."

Ikkaku's jaw went slack with shock, but the mad was back in an instant. "Hell yeah, I'd be pissed," he said slowly, dangerously, "but I'd rather've heard it straight from him than havin' to find out when the idiot went and used it on a couple of Arrancar."


Higher than a kite, Zaraki had said. And that was just from him. Another memory came flooding back, this one of a dry briefing on what they knew of this new enemy and their power levels. Hisagi remembered looking at the numbers being presented and knowing that they meant nothing to him, because he simply could not imagine something that powerful. And now, when he tried to imagine what would happen when that power slammed into Yumichika's slender body, he still couldn't. A couple of Arrancar, Ikkaku had said.

"He wouldn't have... would he?" This time, it was Hisagi's turn to grab on to Ikkaku. "Damn it, Ikkaku, what happened to him? You're not going to tell me you left him back there, are you? You said he wasn't okay, but you didn't say he was dead. So what the hell happened? Where is he?"

Hisagi knew he was ranting like an idiot--Yumichika would roll his eyes--but he didn't care.

Ikkaku didn't answer, not at first. The 'adding two and two' look was back, and then his eyes went wide as he looked at Hisagi as if seeing him for the first time. His face went pale, then red, then pale again.

"Oh, you gotta be shitting me!" he crowed. "I kinda figured he'd hooked up with someone not too long ago, but... no way. You? It was you?" Ikkaku stepped back, shaking his head in disbelief, and Hisagi had no idea if his friend was going to start laughing hysterically or take another swing at him. "Well, fuck," he said, and it sounded like hysterical laughter was about to win out. "Looks like I'm finding out all kinds of shit today!"

And here was just one more thing he'd never imagined. He'd always assumed Ikkaku had known, even from the very beginning.

"Hell of a way for you to find out," Hisagi muttered, shaking his head and staring at the ground. "Hell of a way. I can't believe he didn't tell you."

He also couldn't believe how much the idea gnawed at him. Okay, he hadn't told Iba, but that was different, right? He and Iba were buddies. They hung out together because their captains had hung out together. Yumichika and Ikkaku were best friends, had been for decades.

And now that he thought about it, he was really being a selfish asshole, wasn't he?

"I'm sorry," he said, because there was nothing else to say.

"So'm I," was the gruff response. "And I wish I could tell you more about what happened, but hell if I know. I was hopin' you knew something that could help me figure it out."

"What happened?" This time the question was not desperate. It was almost a statement.

Ikkaku shook his head, staring at the wall behind Hisagi as if watching events playing out back in the living world. "We got our asses handed to us, that's what happened. Hitsugaya'd gone for his bankai, and that Arrancar tore through it like it was nothing. And then he tore into the rest of us, just like we were nothing. Ain't never seen anything like it. And there was two more of the bastards, just waiting in the wings."

Hisagi tried to visualize something that could take out four of the most powerful shinigami he knew. It must have been huge.

"The one we were fighting was a scrawny little thing, smaller'n Yumi, even. The other one that was close by, enormous fucker, he was just watchin' the whole thing. Don't know much about the third. It was like he didn't even know what was going on. Anyhow, we're down for the count, and the big one's standing there, and he says something about how he's just going to pick us up and snap us in half, tear us up, toss us out like garbage. You know, shit like that."

Ikkaku's dull monotone was more chilling than hysteria could possibly be.

"So, he's standin' over me, and Matsumoto's just a couple a feet away. She landed bad--she was breathing, but she was unconscious. I'd done something to my leg and I couldn't get up. At that point, I'm thinkin' that we're pretty well fucked, you know? The smaller one's just eggin' him on--bastard had a hell of a mouth on him, that's the one thing I'll always remember about him. Least, I think it was a 'him.' Girlier than Yumi, if you can believe it."

There was part of Hisagi that wanted to tell Ikkaku to get on with it already, but there was another part that would have been just as happy to go on not knowing.

"And that's when Yumi gets up. I'm thinking there's no way he can take on the two of them, but I wasn't real surprised, either. That's the way we do things. It's the way we've always done things," he said, glaring at Hisagi as if daring him to challenge the notion. "So, anyhow, Yumi just stands there, and he holds his sword crosswise to his chest just like you described. And that's when everything got weird."

As Ikkaku described the glowing vines snaking out to the two Arrancar, Hisagi was once again on the rooftop, watching the vines reaching for him.

"I'd never seen anything like it." Ikkaku seemed like he didn't know whether to be awestruck or disgusted. "It was like the whole world was on fire or something. The two Arrancar were screaming, and they were crumbling to dust, like Hollows do, but it was slow, real slow. I don't know how it was supposed to go, but I could see in his face that something'd gone wrong, real wrong."

There was a moment's silence, with Ikkaku lost in memory and Hisagi holding his breath, not daring to break that silence.

But in the end, he did. "And then?"

"And then it wasn't Yumi anymore. It looked like him, mostly, but the eyes, the eyes were all wrong, like he wasn't even in there. Somehow I was able to get up, and of course I ran to check on him, 'cause it was Yumi, you know. Didn't see the damn mask until, well, let's just say it's a damn good thing Matsumoto woke up when she did."

As he spoke, Ikkaku's hand went back to the gash on his shoulder, not so much checking the wound as reminding himself that it had really happened. Hisagi took another look at it, a careful look this time, and knew that if the blow had struck just a fraction more to the left Ikkaku would have bled out before he knew what hit him.

"Funny thing is, right before he did... whatever... with his shikai, he looked right at me and said 'I'm sorry.' Just like that, like it was a joke. 'I'm sorry.'" Ikkaku shook his head and laughed. It was a horrible, bitter sound. "Seems like everyone's sorry today."

It was the rip in the sky all over again. Nothing could have prepared him for that. Nothing. How was he supposed prepare himself for something he never could have imagined in the first place?

He wasn't even going to try to imagine what might happen next.

"Next thing I know, the sky opens up again, and..." Ikkaku nervously ran a hand over his head, grimacing in disgust when he hit the patch of dried blood. "Well, someone came and dragged Yumi and the last Arrancar back. That's it."

Hisagi didn't ask who that someone was, because Ikkaku's evasiveness told him everything he needed to know.

"Anyhow, now you know as much as I do. For what that's worth, which ain't a whole hell of a lot. So, if you got any bright ideas on how to fix this without me having to kill the thing that used to be my best friend, you might want to speak up. Shit," he snarled, "now I got to go through the whole spiel again at that damned meeting. Lucky me."

Hisagi waited, silent, as everything Ikkaku said began to sink in. There might have been hope in there somewhere, some loophole that would bring Yumichika back to them, but he'd be a fool to count on it.

"There's just one thing. One thing you didn't tell me." He wasn't sure he should ask, but he needed to know. "What was..." He paused, swallowed. "What was he like?"

Ikkaku's eyes widened in surprise and remembrance, and then he flushed bright red as his gaze slid off to the side, awed and ashamed.

"Beautiful," he said at last. "He was... beautiful."

Just that, and nothing more. Was that all that was left?

Another memory slid in through the fog of disbelief. He saw Yumichika, face twisted amusingly in a wry smile, one eyebrow cocked as Hisagi asked him what would you do if I kissed you right now? Then the gray eyes glinted with mischief, a broad grin creased his face (Yumichika professed to be appalled at the wrinkles this produced), and then Hisagi found himself pushed back against the wall of the training ground and being kissed most thoroughly. It wasn't a great kiss--they'd both been laughing too hard for it to be that--but he wouldn't have changed a single thing.

When he jerked himself back out of his reverie, Ikkaku was still standing there, cradling his injured arm to his chest. The anger and adrenaline had run their course, and he was so unsteady on his feet it was a miracle he was standing. When he finally looked up at Hisagi, his face was ashen. "How the fuck did all this happen, Hisagi?"

"I don't know."

And they weren't just talking about Yumichika, but Kira, and Hinamori, and Tousen, and Aizen, and Center 46, and dozens of Menos looking down on Seireitei from a rip in the sky.

It was so unbelievable, no one had even had nightmares about it.

"This morning, I was doing paperwork," he said in disbelief. "I did my job and then I went for a walk. That's all."

There should have been something to tell him what to expect, but all his planning and all his imagination had failed him.

And maybe he hadn't been doing his job, not really.

"Whatever. Anyways, let's go get this over with." Ikkaku turned and headed down the street, then looked back over his shoulder. "C'mon - they'll need your sorry ass in the meeting. We're going back tomorrow. You're coming, right?"

"Yeah. I'm coming. Just give me a minute, okay?" He'd be at the meeting, and he'd make damned sure he'd be going along to the living world as well. But then he thought of one last thing he needed to ask.

"Ikkaku!" The other man paused, but didn't turn around. "This isn't a rescue mission we're talking about. Is it?"

There was a moment's silence, then:


If he felt a twinge of guilt as he watched Ikkaku limp down the road, that was only to be expected. After all, Hisagi had already broken one promise today, and now here he was, getting ready to stab a good friend in the back right in front of their captains and fellow officers.

No, it wasn't honorable, not by any stretch of the imagination, but it was what had to be done.

His argument was already falling into place in his mind. He could already hear Iba ragging on him for volunteering to take on yet another task.

The logic was simple. He was uninjured. He was fresh and ready to fight. He was a career officer--one of the Gotei 13's best. He was the only one of the traitors' vice-captains who'd escaped with his sanity and his honor intact. He was the only one of a trio of sixth-year students to survive an encounter with Aizen's Hollows.

Ikkaku, on the other hand, had been on a high-risk mission for over a month. He'd been severely injured not just once, but twice. Oh, and since he'd achieved bankai--amazing he'd kept it a secret for that long--shouldn't he be kept in reserve for this winter, when things were bound to be really bad?

If he had to, he'd gently imply that perhaps Ikkaku was too close to the situation to do what needed to be done. After all, everyone knew that he and Yumichika were the best of friends.

By that time, he imagined, Ikkaku would be so apoplectic with anger that he couldn't say a damned thing about what he'd just learned about Hisagi's relationship with Yumichika. Plus, if he was this worked up now, Hisagi would say with all the self-discipline he'd learned in the Academy and from Tousen, was it really a good idea to send him on this mission?

Oh, Zaraki would very likely insist that it was Ikkaku's fight, and who the hell was Hisagi to take that away from him, but in the end, Zaraki was only one captain among nine.

Let Ikkaku rage all he wanted. Hisagi was determined that he would be the one to face Yumichika--or whatever it was he'd become.

Maybe there wasn't anything he could do to bring his lover back. Maybe there wasn't even anything left to bring back. The point was, he was going to try, and he was going to give it everything he had. Everything.

If he succeeded, then he could worry about begging Ikkaku's forgiveness. Of course, if he failed, none of that would matter. All that would matter was that he'd have bought Ikkaku enough time to recover his strength and to become pissed off enough to do some real damage when it was needed.

He wondered if this was what Tousen felt at the end, as he disappeared into the sky: this sense of guilt, this wanting to be understood, even if it meant he would never be forgiven.

In any case, Ikkaku was strong enough to survive, if survival was what it came down to in the end. Hisagi knew it was a crappy thing to do to a friend, but two times down that road had been enough; he couldn't imagine a third.

It was for the best, he told himself, and wondered if maybe he'd learned more from Tousen than he thought.

He took a moment to compose himself, then set off after Ikkaku. Yes, the meeting was going to be bad. He didn't need imagination to tell him that much.

After the meeting, he would head back to his rooms. He wouldn't be doing any paperwork, though. It could burn for all he cared. It had nothing to do with the real work of a shinigami, and it never had.

No, he would forget about paperwork and about being the perfect little officer. Tonight, he would sit back and wait for his memories to assault him from all sides. He wouldn't even pretend to put up a fight. Tonight, he could allow himself to give in to hope, and rage, and grief. Not just for Yumichika, but for himself, and for every unimaginable, unchangeable thing that had happened.

It would be bad, yes, but tomorrow would be beyond imagining.