2016 update: This is just a reupload of (most of?) what was here in 2012. To my horror I'm posting it largely unedited from that version. Parts of it was co-written with a friend of mine, though I'm not sure they want their name on it. (I also happen to have a google doc with a newer version that is very different, though it hasn't been edited in two years. Not posting that one any time soon.)

Kind of can't believe I'm reuploading, but I guess it's a bit of a disappointment if a 20K+ fic goes missing, so here you go.

Fandom/pairing: Bleach, HitsuGin
Word count: ~23K, incomplete fic written from 2007-2010 (ish?)
Warnings and stuff
- involves an unhealthy relationship between a teacher and a student
- nothing gets particularly explicit
- plotholes galore
- most of the formatting has been lost
- I've grown as a person since I wrote this.
- I learnt English mostly from reading high fantasy. At the time I wrote RN this was very obvious.
- This fic is probably not as good as some people might remember.


Ripped Normality
chapter one

Toshiro used to think people had matured some by the time they reached their last year of high school, but as he watches Grimmjow throw a ball of paper at Kurosaki, he thinks he couldn't possibly have been more wrong.

"Mr Aizen has taken some additional leave to finish his book," Mrs Ochi says. She doesn't look any more enthusiastic than her students: her eyes are drooping behind her glasses. "This means you're getting a substitute; he should be here any minute now. He's straight out of the university, so you guys had better behave…"

He doubts they'll ever grow up.

"His name is..."

Ichimaru Gin.

Toshiro was going to have private lessons with him in mathematics, as his schedule didn't match up to the regular classes. Karakura High was a tiny school, comparatively speaking, and weren't exactly flooded with teachers: most of them were elderly and about to resign. That was probably the reason why they were going to let a newly educated teacher try to handle the most restless group of students in school - wouldn't want anyone to resign prematurely, after all.

"And I implore you to treat him with respect."

There's a knock at the door in the back of the room - it's one of those odd corner classrooms, doorways and windows fitted in wherever there's room - and Miss Ochi stops her half-hearted nagging, replacing it with a stern look as she moves to open the door.

"Hello, class." The voice is light, airy. As Ichimaru walks towards the front of the room, the students seem to hold their collective breath, and Toshiro can't seem to decide why; there's just something about him, something in his presence that's titillating and disconcerting at once, that seems to capture his attention.

Toshiro wonders if he's the only one who's spellbound.

Then, the man turns around, and Toshiro almost jumps in his seat. He's not surprised, exactly; it's just that he didn't quite expect the inexplicable lurch in his stomach. He breaks out in a sweat, hands growing damp and creating folds in his notebook.

Toshiro mentally adds a point in Ichimaru's favour.

Ichimaru looks out across the room, eyes all but closed, but Toshiro feels his gaze travel across him nonetheless, making the hairs on his arms stand on end. "My name is Ichimaru Gin," he says, with that strange, light voice of his. "I'm twenty-one years old. Lived here until I was fourteen, on the off chance any of you should recognise me." There is an odd tint of amusement to his voice, as if he expects them to; and there is something about him that seems strangely familiar, but Toshiro can't pinpoint what. It's immensely frustrating. "I've spent the past three years studying mathematics and English, I enjoy moonlit walks on the beach and candlelit dinners, and that's all you need to know. Now, put those desks away and set your chairs in a circle."

Great, Toshiro thinks amidst the smattering of laughter, moving his chair to sit next to Hinamori. Introductory rounds. Brilliant.

"I want your name, age, and something else about you or your family," Ichimaru says, sounding uncannily like Toshiro's kindergarten teachers. "It could be anything; whatever you're comfortable sharing with us."

The girl who always sits by the window in the front row starts the introductions with a quiet, disinterested voice: "Yoshino Soma, nineteen, I like juggling torches, nice to meet you."

Toshiro drifts off, knowing all the names by heart already. Even though there's a new student – the Kuchiki girl – the school is small enough for her name to have circulated for ages, especially since she has a rich brother. Money talks, after all.

Kuchiki Enterprizes is an old empire as far as the business world is concerned; Toshiro had a project about it the year before, and he happens to know that Hinamori's beloved Mr Aizen has invested a lot of money in a competing company, something he still suspects reflected negatively on his grade. (He knows he deserved an A, not the minus behind it. It's only fair that Aizen's company-in-arms took a major hit when the Shihouin family business decided to ally itself with Kuchiki. The extended holiday stuff is bullshit, should anyone ask Toshiro; Aizen's doing damage control.)

Hinamori's voice brings him back from his mental walkabout. "I'm Hinamori Momo," she says, practically bouncing in her seat. "I'm eighteen years old, and my mother's a chef. Nice to meet you!"

He wishes her enthusiasm was more catching; maybe he'd manage to scrounge up some. People are already eyeing him with interest. He's been bumped up a couple of years, skipping the second year entirely: when the teachers figured out the subject matter was too easy for him, they let him study on his own, and he took two sets of exams at the end of the year. It seems he's a curiosity, still.

That only accounts for part of the attention, of course. His pale hair and complexion accounts for much of the rest, not to mention his height. He curses the fact that he looks like a fourteen-year-old too often for it to be healthy.

"And who might the gentleman next to Miss Hinamori be, then?"

The voice cuts through his defences and leaves him feeling naked, sending shivers down his spine. He lets his eyes swerve to meet Ichimaru's, and even though he'd be willing to swear that no one could see anything with eyes like that he can feel them on his skin like a cold breeze.

"Hitsugaya Toshiro," he says, cursing his voice for sounding breathless. "Sixteen." And I'm like you.

Ichimaru studies him carefully for a few more seconds, but doesn't press for more information. "Next," he says, and the loud red-head that's always fighting with Kurosaki introduces himself as Abarai Renji, almost eighteen years old (to sniggers from the rest of the class) and a lover of pineapple.

Apart from Hinamori, Abarai is one of the few who have ever made an effort to associate with him. Kurosaki does sometimes go out of his way to speak to him, even if he insists on being disrespectful and calling him by his first name, but he's intriguing enough as a conversationalist and treats everyone that way, so he can hardly complain.

It 's awkward to be almost two years ahead of everyone his own age. He'd been born late in December, and started school a year behind his age group, since his parents were worried about his development; he'd never been much of a conversationalist, unlike Kurosaki. Half a year later, he'd been declared healthy and clever, and even had a small gathering of friends - quite an achievement with his stern personality, though as the years grew, so did the distance between them.

The introduction circle finishes with nineteen-year-old Jaeger Jaques, but call me Grimmjow. "And if any of you dickheads call me Jaques, you'll be lucky if you survive the day," he says, face hidden under his turquoise hair as he stares at his phone, hidden half-assedly down by his thigh. Grimmjow had transferred in not long before last school year ended, and Toshiro was pretty sure everyone knew to call him Grimmjow by the end of it. Hinamori had spent two weeks wallowing in disapproval while Toshiro was surreptitiously delighted.

Ichimaru looks at the clock and announces, "Ten minute break," just as the bell sounds.

Hinamori bounces out of her seat and drags Toshiro out of the door by his arm, flanked by Abarai and Kira. "Did you hear?" she says excitedly. "Mr Ichimaru was recommended by Mr Aizen himself! I wonder what kind of person he has to be to be recommended by him?" On days like these, when Hinamori's hero-worship of Aizen is at its worst, Toshiro finds himself pitying Kira: he looks like someone's brutally murdered his favourite puppy right in front of his virgin eyes.

"He's twenty-one," Toshiro points out, however reluctantly. (Anything with the possibility of igniting hero-worship is a tender subject for anyone around Hinamori.) "He has to be passably intelligent if he's finished his studies."

Recess is usually uneventful; Toshiro can never decide if it's a blessing or a curse. Hinamori continues her rambling as they walk towards the Palm Tree, as the large artificial plant by the benches in a side corridor has been dubbed. Toshiro manages to catch the phrases "white hair, just like yours!" and "freaky eyes, hasn't he?", as even Hinamori's respect for authority figures is coloured by the concerns of a teenage girl, but he doesn't particularly try to keep up. He keeps enough attention on the conversation to give faint answers, but doesn't contribute, and they don't expect him to.

Recess is usually uneventful, but today something differs: when he looks down the corridor to his right, Kurosaki is talking to someone with a frown on his face, complete with violent hand gestures. Not that talking aggressively is a strange thing when it comes to Kurosaki, not at all: what catches his attention is that there's nobody else in the corridor.

Toshiro sighs, turning his head in the other direction. What he can't see shouldn't hurt him, and he has enough on his mind. In the corner of his eye, he sees Mr Turquoise Hair staring at Kurosaki from the other end of the hallway, leaning against a wall.

Seven minutes later he finds himself staring out the window by the third row of desks, the pattern of long-dried water droplets staining the thick glass. People are throwing crumpled paper at each other, inciting a full-out paper war, some going to such lengths as soaking the paper in water before throwing it at someone. One of these wet paper balls hits his desk, splashing him with water. Ooshima starts laughing, and another guy (Asano, his mind helpfully insists) clamps a hand over his mouth, afraid of the explosive temper Toshiro's occasionally demonstrated. He scoffs inwardly - it's just a silly piece of paper, for crying out loud; he can't be bothered to even care - and throws it at the waste bin by the door.

It doesn't hit its target, but it does it something; it hits the face of the young, lanky man just walking through the door.

The whole class is seized by inertia - it reminds him of the movie he saw last night, when he paused in the middle of a grand battle scene where the enemy's powerful triumph card was revealed, because he ran out of tea.

Ichimaru doesn't seem to be bothered; he looks at the piece of paper, then at the class, all the time smiling that disconcerting smile of his as his gaze seems to rest on each and every one of them. His squint doesn't seem comical at all, now; instead, it lends an air of mystery to him, and the question everyone is asking is, Where is he looking?

The last remains of laughter dies.

"Hello, class," Ichimaru greets them, picking the piece of paper up with a graceful bow. He holds it for a few seconds, giving it a calculating look, before he drops it in the waste bin. "Find your seats." His grin widens further. "Please."

Toshiro tries to keep his breathing steady and tells himself that he's not nervous. Hitsugaya Toshiro is never nervous.

Class seems neverending, but it does end, eventually, after an entire hour of minutes ticking by on the round clock above the sink, the one that tortures them through every test, as it never keeps time right. Ichimaru dismisses the class and starts cleaning the blackboard, and just as Toshiro lets his guard down, Ichimaru turns around to add one last thing: "Hitsugaya, stay behind."

The other students whisper as they go through the door, rather than break into the loud conversations typical of lunch break. Ooshima is of the few who seems jubilant, no doubt celebrating Toshiro's impending lecture on what happens to troublemakers.

"Close the door, would you?" Ichimaru says, directing what could be a friendly smile (or an evil smirk) at Ooshima, who shudders visibly as the triumphant grin falls from his face, shoving the door shut with a bang.

Not until then does Toshiro realise that he's all alone. With Ichimaru.

He frowns, tightening his hold on his blue pencil, still in his hand even though everything else is packed neatly into his satchel. He's not nervous. As if to prove it, he opens his mouth to have the first say. "I'm sorry I threw the paper, I didn't-"

"I know," Ichimaru interrupts, putting the swamp down on the sink and moving out from behind his desk, bringing them ever closer.

"How could you know?" Toshiro asks, feeling stupidly off-balance. "You weren't here when I threw it."

Ichimaru laughs, sitting down on top of Toshiro's desk. Toshiro folds his arms in front of his chest and leans back in his chair.

His instincts are telling him to run, his curiosity to stay. Most interesting.

"To be frank, ya looked like a deer caught in the headlights," Ichimaru says.

Hitsugaya finds himself willing a small blush to go away. "What happened to your accent?" he asks, eyebrows lifting ever so slightly. When Ichimaru laughs, he's surprised at how normal it sounds.

"Ah, nothin' much," Ichimaru says. "People jus' tend ta judge when you talk different, so I don't." He glances at Toshiro's hair. "You too, huh?" Hitsugaya frowns, and Ichimaru continues, gaze heavy even as his eyes remain invisible. "Just about the same type, I s'pose?"

He nods slowly, eyes flicking from Ichimaru's pale skin to his own. He's never really considered how lucky he is that his skin can develop pigments, but looking at Ichimaru, he wonders how much of a hell school had been for him; he's pale as a sheet. "I guess," Toshiro mumbles. If it's supposed to be an ice breaker, it's a shitty one.

"Let's get down to business," Ichimaru says. "We'll have private lessons in mathematics, some in English, but the other classes are regular, even if you'll end up doing some irregular classroom hopping."

Ichimaru hands him a sheet of paper, and Toshiro blinks; he could have sworn Ichimaru didn't have that piece of paper moments before.

At first glance, his timetable seems fine. Monday, he notices with a small grimace, is a full day - homeroom, physical education… and a bunch of private tutoring. He takes a closer look, noticing that private tutoring totals eight hours a week.

"Private tutoring?"

"Maths or English, whichever ya need most."

Toshiro nods, counting up the empty spaces. "I think I'm missing a few hours."

"Hmm." Ichimaru seems to stare in the general direction of his timetable. "History classes must have escaped." He fishes a purple pen out of nowhere, leans down and applies the necessary changes in a curvy, elegant handwriting. Toshiro is close enough see his eyelashes flutter. "Now that that's sorted out, I guess you'd like ta join yer classmates, right?" Ichimaru doesn't stand up, just looks at him.

Toshiro's frown deepens, but he doesn't say anything. Ichimaru isn't stupid enough to not notice how he feels about the majority of his classmates.

A sudden dislike for the man spreads through Toshiro, settling in his stomach like nausea, but he doesn't stop watching him until Ichimaru turns away. Toshiro snaps out of his daze, gathers his belongings and hurries toward the door as fast as his dignity will allow.

"Hitsugaya?"

Toshiro turns around, apprehension spreading through his body until it reaches his fingers, makes his hands warm and sweaty. Ichimaru's face is expressionless, and it's worse than that infernal smile, like he's divulging a secret, creating a bond between them. Toshiro doesn't want a bond with Ichimaru; doesn't want a bond with anyone.

"Ya could try, ya know," Ichimaru says, quietly.

Toshiro tears the door open and leaves without looking back.

When he gets to the dorms, he fishes through his satchel to find his key, wasting precious minutes he could be spending in his room, knocking his head against the wall where no one can see. When he finds the key's hiding beneath his folder, he wastes no time grabbing it before it can disappear again and unlocking the door.

"Hitsugaya!"

He looks up; Hinamori's running up to him, out of breath but ever cheerful.

"Hinamori," he says, passably enthusiastic.

She smiles at him, stepping through the door as she invites herself into his small room. "Why can't you live back home anymore? You could catch a ride with me, I'm sure my mom wouldn't mind the extra travel time." Her nose wrinkles at the sight of the gray walls. "It's not that much further, and I swear looks more like a prison in here every day."

He's compelled to agree with her. Gray walls, a single small window with the lovely view of a n arguably green cement wall, containing only a desk with a rickety chair and a bulky bed with a too-thin mattress.

"Still too far to travel every day, and I don't want to be an inconvenience."

Hinamori skips over to sit on his bed. There's nowhere else to sit except the rickety office chair, and they both avoid it like the plague; he thinks it might have been there since the seventies.

"Besides," he adds, "Living in the dormitory is much more practical."

Hinamori pouts, wrapping her arms around her legs.

"Even this thing is hard," she complains, poking the duvet. "Practicality is all you ever care about, huh?"

"Mm."

"Always the responsive one." She shakes her head, frowning. "We have to do something about those replies of yours. If you stopped doing that, you wouldn't chase away the few who..." Her voice, coloured by frustration, trails off in a heavy sigh.

"I wouldn't chase away the few who actually like me, I know."

"Then why? I want you to be happy."

He ignores her question, sitting down beside her. It's not like he likes people much, anyway. It's one of the few things Hinamori will never understand about him, as she loves being around people, warts and all.

There isn't much to see in his room. He reminds himself for the nth time to change that. The silence is much too awkward for him to not have anything to glare at.

"What do you think of our new teacher?" Hinamori asks eventually. "Did you get in trouble?"

Toshiro shrugs. "He seems all right; a little creepy, perhaps, but all right."

"What?" Hinamori stares at him, her eyes widening. "You never like new people!"

"I don't like him," Toshiro protests. "He's interesting enough, doesn't mean I like him."

"You don't hate him," Hinamori says, and there's a playful tone in her voice that makes him groan on the inside.

"Has he given me a reason to hate him?" Toshiro's not even trying at this point; she's not going to stop projecting false feelings from Toshiro upon other people no matter what he says.

"That creepy glare is reason enough!" Hinamori's eyes are lit up with mischief. "You like him."

He pinches the bridge of his nose, regretting that he ever told her about his orientation. "How can you know he's glaring when his eyes are nearly closed?" Honestly, Hinamori can give him a head ache in ten seconds flat.

She pouts, and he deems the conversation his win. "You didn't deny that it's creepy," she points out indignantly, and he rolls his eyes.

"Sorry for finding him interesting," he says, voice laced heavily with sarcasm.

Then, her mouth falls open and he realises just what he said and how it could be interpreted.

Hinamori, after her initial surprise, starts giggling. "Oh my gosh, you like him!"

"I most certainly do not," he says, warmth rushing across his face and down his chest. Her giggles turns into full-fletched laughter as Hitsugaya attempts to hide his blush behind his hands.

"I know," Hinamori cackles, nearly falling off the bed as she curls up around her stomach. "I-It's just the way y-you said interesting!"

He scowls, face still like a fire truck and ruining the effect as Hinamori laughs even harder. She releases a high-pitched shriek as he pushes her off the bed.

When her hurt pride and backside has healed enough for her to glare at him, she does. He just smirks.

"I'm sure Ichimaru is really handsome beneath that smile, deep, deep down," she says petulantly, and his smirk disappears.

"Shut up," he mutters, throwing his pillow at her. "You're never going to let that go, are you?"

"Never," Hinamori declares cheerfully. "I want ice cream."

"Of course you do." Toshiro sighs heavily, but when she smiles at him, he gives her a wry smile in return.


Ripped Normality
Chapter 02

The silver-haired man's smile receded. 'I know what you want.' He opened his eyes, and Hitsugaya found himself staring into orbs the colour of blood. Ichimaru placed a hand on his head, letting it run through his hair in a brotherly fashion before he lowered it, placing a finger on the fabric hiding Hitsugaya's belly button. 'You don't, do you?'

The red eyes faded to black.

Something had been nagging him ever since he got out of bed, and considering the fact that he was at school, the hazard of his violent history repeating itself increased. He did not have the faintest idea of what could have caused his bad morning: for him, sleep meant darkness.

The weekend had been awkward at best. His mother kept fussing about him even when he told her to stop, and every time she did something wrong - burned their pancakes, destroyed a (formerly) white shirt in the washing machine, broke a cup - she broke down and cried.

I'm such a bad mother, she would say before she broke into a sobbing mess.

As always, Hitsugaya would reply, It wasn't your fault.

Things hadn't been the same since his father died, but he wasn't sure whether it was for the better or the worse. That was one of the reasons why he chose to live away from home. He had to return during weekends, but it gave him the freedom he needed, and hopefully his mother wouldn't blame herself as much as she would with him around. (Hopefully he wouldn't blame her when she wasn't around, a small voice said, but he shoved it away, telling himself that it wasn't her fault.) She deserved happiness, and that couldn't be achieved with him in her proximity.

His new room wasn't all that bad after a few additions to the furnishing. The bed in the left corner by the window was the same as when he first arrived, but the pillow was his own, as was the small shelf between the bed and the sink. The top level only contained a few of his favourite books and an empty picture frame, but the middle was reserved for textbooks and school-related equipment. On the third (and last) level nothing but a white shoebox resided.

On the right side of the room there was a wardrobe much too large for his sparse amount of clothes. Closer to the door was a desk and a waste bin, and that was all there was. He didn't mind living in a simple, gray environment: it was preferred considering his domestic circumstances.

"Hitsugaya? Are you up?"

He glanced at the clock on his desk. 7:45 a.m., it said, assaulting his eyes with the most nauseating green colour he had ever seen. With a sigh, he rose from the chair by his desk and unlocked the door.

"Of course I am, Hinamori."

She opened the door without asking whether he was decent, as he expected: his habit of waking up at half past six was as annoying as ever, and it was well known to his long-time neighbour. He picked up his math book and closed it, placing it on the middle level in his tiny shelf before he went back to the desk.

"Why are you here so early?" he said.

She put herself down on the bed, sighing as she buried her face in his pillow. "The stupid buses are early," she muttered. "Can I sleep some more?"

He shrugged, well aware that she couldn't see him. Hinamori took his silence as a yes and turned her face to the gray wall. "Wake me up in fifteen minutes," she muttered.

He felt sure he would never meet someone who was as good at sleeping as Hinamori was. While she slept, he made sure his books were placed alphabetically after the author's last name, that his desk was properly organised and that his white box hadn't been touched while he was at home. He put the lid back on with careful hands after placing a single strand of white hair atop the box's contents to make sure nobody opened it without him knowing.

After nudging Hinamori awake and watching her fret over her "destroyed" hair for ten minutes (she still looked the same to him), Hitsugaya locked his room and led the way to classroom 2-16. Hinamori was much too tired to talk, so Hitsugaya didn't either. Half-asleep students littered the hallway when they went through the door from dormitory B to the school itself: there was a guy sleeping on the floor, causing many tired students to stumble and barely catch their balance on a wall (or another student, he mused, the domino effect playing out in his head). It was a wonder the guy was still asleep. A few girls occupied one of the three benches, clearly on a coffee high, and they giggled when he appeared, casting hurried glances at him. A grimace had to be suppressed as he refused to look at them and fuel their fire.

Worse than the bullies were the girls that found him cute. Honestly, they were a threat to his remaining sanity. And weren't those girls third years?

A left turn hid the girls and benches behind a wall, and they could already see the door to their new classroom. Most of the class was gathered outside, and the volume of their chatter was enough to encourage a headache. A tall, blonde guy greeted Hinamori cheerily, then gave a small nod to Hitsugaya.

"Hi, Izuru," Hinamori said with a sleepy smile. "What's going on?"

Izuru, or Kira Izuru, reddened slightly at the use of his first name, and Hitsugaya allowed an annoyed sigh to escape.

"The classroom is locked," Kira said.

"So it would seem," a voice said from behind them.

Hitsugaya whirled around. His face nearly hit Ichimaru's chest, and as he stumbled backwards long, thin arms curled around him and dragged him to fall against the very chest he had tried to avoid.

Ichimaru smelled nice.

His cheeks warmed at the thought, but he knew himself well enough to know that apart from his wide eyes, his face was stoic. In a passing moment, he thanked his father for teaching him at least something useful.

Upon realising that his arms were resting on Ichimaru's chest he jerked back, and the long arms let him. A few students sniggered at his flustered appearance, oblivious to what they had just witnessed. It felt as if there was something he was oblivious to as well, but that made no sense at all.

(He would have liked to say that that was when it changed, but it didn't. Ichimaru was still a curiosity, nothing more. Perhaps he knew that it wasn't a regular curiosity he felt, but even then...)

The door opened and Ichimaru's key disappeared into his sleeve. Hitsugaya stared at the current of students as they filed through the door.

"Are you all right?"

He looked up at Ichimaru's face, then at the hand on his shoulder. Shrugging it off, he looked away with a stubborn frown.

"I'm fine," he said, his voice nearly faltering. For what reason, he couldn't tell.

His class was a fairly normal class. It had twenty-three students, and though he would be hard pressed to admit it, the average intelligence was not at all bad. Nearly everyone seemed to be idiots, however. For instance, the air-head Inoue Orihime: she talked about futuristic robots and alien invasions and crap like that all the time, and no one in their right minds would have guessed that she was one of the brightest students at school. He guessed everyone was lucky she majored in scientific classes and not cooking (he saw one of her concoctions once, not to mention the results). Apart from that, he didn't really know much about her. She lived by herself, he seemed to remember, and she was always seen with the Arisawa girl, who majored in sports.

There was only one other thing he knew about Inoue. It was obvious from the way she looked at the guy, really, but the guy in question was ignorant of the power he held over her.

Inoue had a crush on Kurosaki. If Hitsugaya had bothered, he would have told her that Kurosaki was unstable - it was a wonder no one but him and the turquoise thug had noticed it - and that it would be unwise of her to approach him.

He honestly didn't care.

P.E. was a nightmare. Their teacher would fit perfectly into a madhouse: more specifically, an isolated asylum for threatening patients (though "threatening" could hardly begin to describe him). His name was Zaraki Kenpachi, and he looked like the spawn of an evil pirate, the Statue of Liberty and a Christmas tree. One look at the lunatic grin on his face was enough to keep the class running for an hour on end. If he heard the tinkle of small bells in the future, he was certain he would start running and not stop until he was far, far away. Who put bells in their hair anyway?

"Hitsugaya!"

He turned around, spotting Hinamori waving to him from the other side of the hallway. Her enthusiasm could be unnerving at times. It took some getting used to, but he had grown up with her, after all. He let his mouth twist to resemble a tiny smile while he waited for her to catch up with him.

"Hinamori," he said.

She rolled her eyes. "How about learning another way to greet people than using their names, eh? A simple "hi" would suffice."

"My way of greeting is much more practical. A "hi" can lead to confusion, while using a name always announces the supposed receiver."

"Tsk, tsk," said Hinamori, shaking a finger at him. "Give logic a break sometimes, won't you? Everything doesn't have to be logical to be all right, or even ingenious. Look at The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy."

"That's not even real. You need to think of something better than that."

Hinamori pouted. She seemed to do that a lot around him.

"Come on," she said, grabbing his arm. "I told Renji and Izuru we would meet them by the Palm Tree."

He shook her arm off. "I have to get lunch," he said. 'I live here, remember? It's not like my mother can make something for me."

"You're just jealous 'cause my mother is a cook."

"Shut up."

She grinned. "Let's go to the cafeteria, then."

His hair was still damp from his shower after P.E. as Ichimaru led him through the hallway to his regular classroom. They went past that room and took a left turn down a side hall before reaching room 2-20. It was a small room beside the principal's office, the kind of room often used during projects, tests or meetings with few participants. At either side of the door was a huge window, and the door itself was made of glass, or something resembling it.

"We'll use my office when it's ready," Ichimaru said. "Right now it still looks like shit."

Ichimaru felt significantly closer to his own age than the other teachers did. The way he talked, walked and dressed declared him to be a mature youth, not a pompous old fart. He could have been a third-year student: in fact, a teacher mistook him for one and had chased him from the staff room. The relationship between said teacher and Ichimaru had not recovered during the first week of school, and it was likely to stay that way.

Ichimaru told him that Aizen offered him a recommendation for the job, and he was hired on a very short notice: thus, not all of the old teachers even knew he was given a post before the first day of school. (He said he had forgiven the teacher who threw him out, but there was a glint in his eyes that suggested the teacher would suffer from certain mishaps in the future.) He was finishing his studies in English for teachers at Halda School of Literature, but his Bachelor Degree in Math had been finished in just two years at Forn University.

"Ever been to Forn, Hitsugaya?" he asked.

Hitsugaya nodded slowly. "A few times. My family has never travelled much, so it's been a while. Can't remember a thing."

"Hmm."

With a smile that seemed more genuine than usual, Ichimaru sat down, motioning for Hitsugaya to sit down beside him.

He took the seat awkwardly, inched his chair discreetly away – just a flicker of a glance his way, he felt it like a spike of electricity – and flipped his book open, pen ready in one hand. The silence settled like a heavy fog and Hitsugaya fought the urge to swallow, pressed the tip of his pen determinedly down on the paper.

The ticking from the clock dragged on endlessly. They sat in company for what seemed like hours, working separately. He gritted his teeth in frustration as his eyes refused to settle on the words, forced his foot to resist tapping, and made very good care not to look in Ichimaru's direction. He was all too aware of the teacher's presence beside him, the way he brushed his hair from his eyes – how could he possibly see through those narrow slices anyway? – and almost flinched when the paper rustled at the turn of a page.

He realized that he'd be staring at the same spot for far too long and scribbled something urgently down on the paper. Nonsense, really. He had no idea what he was reading.

This was ridiculous. Hitsugaya combed a hand through his hair and dared a peek at Ichimaru, who leaned back in his chair and checked his watch.

"Well," he said, "I think that'll do for now."

Hitsugaya managed a smile, barely restraining a sigh of relief, and packed his books into his bag. He felt like the tension had drained him for all energy, and yet ... he felt skittish, a weird mix of comfort and discomfort pooling inside his stomach. He rolled his shoulders, cracking free some stiff muscles, and nodded politely to Ichimaru as he was about to take his leave – just as the teacher gripped him by the shoulder.

He stiffened.

"Good work."

Ichimaru, with a smile as wide as ever, patted lightly him on the shoulder and turned back to his desk.

Even though that strange feeling might have been attraction, it had been shoved brutally and without thought to the back of his mind.

Hitsugaya swore he could still feel the hand on his shoulder, even hours later.


Ripped Normality
Chapter 03

A child sat in front of a large piano. By his side sat a young man with long, white-blonde hair, smiling gently.

"Wonderful!" he gushed. "Think you can do it again?"

The child scowled at him, but there was a slight twitch by his lips, a suppressed a smile he was too proud to let show.

"Ukitake-san," he sighed, "I've done it three times already."

The man chuckled and ruffled the child's hair.

"You might be bright, kid, but genius can't make up for practice. One more time."

Another scale was played, followed by the first notes of the Moonlight Sonata.

A door slammed in the background, and the child's head jerked up. Ukitake looked over his shoulder.

"Gin?" he called. "Is that you?"

Something smashed into the door and broke – shattered glass sounded as it rained to the floor. Ukitake glanced at the child.

"Stay here, Toshiro," he said. Then he disappeared out through the door. Voices were shouting and something else was thrown to the ground.

Suddenly the door flew open and crashed against the wall as a boy strode in, anger twisting his face even as his steps faltered and stopped. Toshiro saw Ukitake's worried face in the background, but the man's gaze was focused on the boy.

His hair was smooth and silvery white, his eyes peered out from tiny cracks, and he looked absolutely stunned.

"Are you my angel?" the boy said. Toshiro blinked, and a dark blush crept across his face.

"I'm Toshiro," the child said. "I'm not an angel."

The boy walked towards child, coming to a stop only a few inches from him. A pale hand brushed the child's face, and Toshiro's eyes slid shut of their own volition. Cold lips brushed his brow and fingers stroked his bright, wild hair. When another door slammed shut and he opened his eyes again, the boy was gone, like a gust of wind. Ukitake was still visible in the other room, staring at him in astonishment.

"What?" the child said. Ukitake shook his head, his hair billowing around his shoulders, then he picked up a phone and dialled a number.

"It's Juushiro," he said, pausing. "Yes, he broke the plates again. Could you…" Another pause. "All right. Thank you." He put the phone back on the counter and strode back to the piano, careful not to step on the broken glass. "I called the maid," Ukitake explained. "One more time, then we're done, all right?"

Toshiro nodded slowly.

"All right."

The two first weeks of school went by quickly, and it wasn't long until Toshiro found himself with heaps of homework and lessons to otherwise digest. If he had been so inclined, he could have joined one of the few interest groups at school, but he wasn't terribly fond of knitting, swimming or basketball, though his only weakness in the latter was his height. (Yes, damn it, it was a bloody hindrance.)

The classrooms used for the third years were different than those for the first, even in another building, and he had barely even been there before. Still, the layout of the school was pretty logical - the three buildings were labelled with a letter (ranging from A to C), the floors were numbered and rooms were labelled in rising numbers, following the hallways in a circle. The dormitories were in building A and the gym in building B. Building C contained the strange art people – and was therefore avoided at all costs.

Ichimaru's tutoring sessions stayed the same, only varying in subject and degree of awkwardness. Ichimaru was difficult to get along with, even from a positive viewpoint (as the fan girls had to learn early on), and Toshiro sometimes wondered whether that was why he seemed to be set apart from the rest of the students. They were both different, and both of them understood what being different did to someone.

Hinamori had kept her distance during the last week. He had always found it strange that such an optimist was one to hold grudges. He couldn't even remember what they had argued about, though he guessed it had to do with Ichimaru, whom Hinamori had taken a strange (and unreasonable) dislike to. He could not bring himself to apologise; he had always been there for her, despite the times she abandoned him, and she knew it. She had apologised for what she had done two years earlier, but not before he graduated from Youth School with the highest grades possible in almost every class, and he still felt a bit uncomfortable around her, no matter that she was gullible to a fault.

And the way she fawned over Mr Aizen made infuriating look like a euphemism. Abarai found it amusing, while poor Kira had his heart broken day after day (no wonder he looked like a wreck) as Hinamori spoke of the doings of The Great Mr Aizen. (And people always thought Toshiro was jealous. Hah! He'd show them, with their indulgent smiles…) That was not to say that Toshiro didn't respect him, as he did. He just didn't want the entire day to revolve around the sod.

But the days were starting to involve Ichimaru in one or another way, as far as Toshiro was concerned. Even though he tried not to, he kept thinking of the man and his weird quirks; how he spoke, his eyes, how he pulled things out of nowhere (his schedule, that purple pen, a tissue, those small pieces of chocolate when he thought no one was looking)…

September disappeared in a flash of birthdays, arguments and renewals of friendship, and October was suddenly half gone.

Fourth period was over, and he was putting his History and Chemistry books in his locker when someone tapped his shoulder. Calmly, he closed the door, snapping the lock shut while memorising the random code before he switched the numbers. It wasn't until then he turned around, and found himself looking at a broad chest. As he looked up, he found a smirking face staring down at him. Toshiro found himself reciprocating with a tiny smile.

"We're moving the lessons to my office today," Ichimaru said, resting his shoulder against Toshiro's locker. He was wearing a shirt and blazers, yet managed to seem less formal than the other teachers. It might be his purple shirt, of course - it was slightly unbuttoned, showing a little of his pale chest and the edge of a clavicle.

Four seconds later, Toshiro realised that he was staring.

"I see," Toshiro said, trying to hide his embarrassment. Ichimaru smiled, pushing off from the lockers, and waved absentmindedly as he walked away.

"My office after break," he said, disappearing into the staff room. Toshiro's eyes lingered on the doorway until a buxom woman with blonde hair walked out - then, he hurried away, wondering what had made his heartbeat quicken.

Ichimaru's office was neither large nor small. It had an intimate atmosphere with its dark green walls and antique-inspired furniture, but it wasn't personal enough to disrupt the sense of formality that clung to schools. Toshiro found the old furniture fascinating, as he had expected Ichimaru to be more of the modern type. There was a single desk in the room, in dark, sturdy wood. The only modern objects were the lopsided aluminium file cabinet, the ceiling lamp and a laptop. He was surprised to find a comfy-looking sofa directly in front of the huge desk, the dark purple colour similar to the coatings on the chairs, but the sofa seemed almost brand new.

"Sit down," Ichimaru said, pointing to the chair opposite to his own with a violet pen he extracted from his sleeve. "We're doin' maths today. I s'pose you're done with the first chapter by now, yeah?"

He was smiling. Toshiro had rarely seen him without a smile during the two months he had known him, and the only change of expression he could remember was his strange face on the first day of school and the varying degree of his ever-present grin.

"Yes, I'm done," Toshiro said.

The back of the seat was slightly curved, allowing him to sit comfortably even though the fabric stopped directly below his protruding shoulder blades. Ichimaru flipped open the portable computer on the desk as Toshiro looked in his backpack.

Something lit up brilliantly, causing him to look up, and he barely restrained himself from lifting an eyebrow amusedly. The light from the computer screen made Ichimaru's bright, nearly white hair shine eerily, a tint of lilac on the silvery strands, and he could suddenly see why people would giggle when he himself was in front of a computer. Lilac was not quite his colour - though he had to admit, it went very well with Ichimaru's complexion. It was subject to his fascination as he watched Ichimaru (presumably) stare intently at the screen with his eyes hidden in a squint, hitting his pen lightly against the side of the keyboard as he waited for it to turn on. Toshiro wondered perhaps if the teacher needed glasses.

Ichimaru put a hand to his chin, tilting his head as if in deep thought.

"That's great," he concluded with another smirk. "Wanna look at the second one by yourself first?"

Toshiro nodded jerkily and hoped to be ignored for the next two hours.

Had he only known what awaited him.

I was drawn to him before I could realise what was happening to me: to us. We were never normal – a demeanour that made others disinclined to engage in voluntary contact with us made sure of that, not to mention our strange appearances – but I had never experienced something of this scale before. We were juxtaposed synonyms, yet antonyms. He was a winter's day, cool and clear, sickeningly chirpy; I was a winter's night, silent and imposing, filled with a peaceful darkness that made a minority of people feel at ease. The majority cared for neither of us. Is it strange, then, that our refuge was found in each other's company?

"Hitsugaya."

He stopped brushing his pen across his lips and tore his eyes from the equation he was trying to solve, and found Ichimaru to be looking in his direction.

"I think we'd better call it a day, eh?" Ichimaru sighed – an odd display of humanity for his standards. And that's when he noticed: Ichimaru's face wasn't twisted in that freaky grin. His eyes were still only the thinnest slices of indiscernible colour and white, his lips bore a forlorn smile, and he couldn't help but notice that the substitute was incredibly handso-

Blood rushed in his veins. Shock prevented him from suppressing the blush he felt sure was decorating his entire body.

Ichimaru stood, walking around the desk. Toshiro saw him moving, but was unable to react – he simply couldn't stand up. And while he was lost in his moments of silent terror, Ichimaru had already bent above his shoulder, placing a hand on either side of him, not quite touching as he looked through his notes. In his silent perusal, his shirt would sometimes brush Toshiro's hair as he turned the pages. Puffs of breath brushed the top of his ear, and just as the arms began to draw back, a whisper was carried by the composed, far too even breathing.

"Well done, Toshiro."

With a sense of ominous mortification, Toshiro wondered how on earth he was supposed to last through the next two hours of English with the image of Ichimaru's unmasked face seared into his brain.

And he would not go to the loo.


Ripped Normality
Chapter 04

Toshiro was ready to tear his hair out by the time he had emerged from Ichimaru's office. His heart was slamming against his ribcage and his cheeks were close to melting off. What was he thinking?

He was blind with images of his assistant teacher – the way his slim eyes cracked open just enough to give him that look, or the way he stood just half an inch too close – but he couldn't, no matter how much he analysed their encounters (over and over in his head, like a broken record player), manage to find any look, any touch, anything that made his body scream for him to get the hell away. More disturbingly, anything Ichimaru did made his body scream for him to get closer.

He rubbed his temples and groaned. Being a hormonal teenager was not helping the situation.

He stomped off through the corridor – then realized he stomped, cast a quick look around, and continued on with less of a show – and found that his hands were better kept deep inside his pockets. Otherwise they really were going to tear out his hair. His heart was still pounding furiously and just wouldn't give it a rest, and neither, he noticed with dismay, would the ache in his groin. He hurried off in a chant of curses and finally found salvation as he spotted the men's toilets. Toshiro sneaked in, felt quite proud when he managed to close it with a soft click, before he yanked the first door open, banged it shut, and locked himself inside. The toilet lid made an unsteady clatter as it took his weight.

For a second Toshiro's mind was completely blank, but his whole body was shivering and burning and begging for his attention. The traitorous blush was back, recalling images of Ichimaru, the smell of him, the smooth temples of his palms...

He hated being a teenager. Hated it.

Toshiro sat perfectly still, straining to hear above the thrumming in his ears. The toilet was empty, it seemed. Not a big surprise, considering most of the teachers were merciless during the lessons ("Well, why didn't you go during the break, hmm?"). He tipped his head back and let out a strained breath. Right. He was a coward, but he was a horny coward, and he couldn't imagine the embarrassment he would have to face if he returned to the classroom like this. It was completely out of question.

But then, getting caught masturbating in the toilet during class was pretty out of question too.

He sucked in a shaky breath, then unzipped his pants with trembling hands and pushed them down hurriedly so they hitched just below his knees. Releasing a soft moan, he slid his fingers beneath the soft material of his boxers, pulled them down as well, and began stroking his length urgently. The toilet lid bobbed in protest whenever he thrust into his hand, so he controlled himself, breathed, let his hand do the work. He spread his legs wider and squeezed gently, feeling the rush build up in his stomach as he increased the pace, struggling to keep control over his breathing...

His eyes rolled back as he succumbed to a last thrust, groaning as he came all over his pants. He slumped against the wall and allowed himself a moment to recover before he was level-headed enough to grimace at the mess – which hadn't previously been taken into account.

He rolled out long streams of toilet paper and began cleaning up while spread out awkwardly on the toilet, refusing to think of all the germs he was victim to. The blush kept on prickling in his cheeks as Toshiro cleaned up the last cum on his pants, still wary of any sounds of approaching footsteps.

Finally, he dumped the paper into the toilet and flushed down madly to make sure all evidence was destroyed, then unlocked the door, stepped out hesitantly, and walked over to the sinks. His mirror image glared sulkily at him, wild strands of hair dangling down over his face, and ... and he really did look like someone who had just jerked off in the school lavatory. He took several deep breaths through his nostrils, then turned the tap on its full capacity and splashed ice-cold water over his face.

Looking back at his own dripping self in the mirror, he was pleased to see that it had helped. Toshiro straightened himself up, smoothed out the wrinkles on his clothes, and squared his shoulders. Alright. Fine. Cool. He still looked a bit flustered but... well, he'd had to hurry to class, hadn't he? Yeah, that was it.

He gave himself a last, scrutinizing look, then turned and strode towards the door, opened it – and almost crashed into Kurosaki.

The trademark frown lifted in surprise as he looked down at Toshiro. Both of them stood frozen in the doorway.

Toshiro coughed. "Excuse me."

"Ah, yeah..." But Kurosaki made no move to unblock the doorway. Instead, he gave him a calculating look. Kurosaki was giving him a calculating look. Christ. "Aren't you supposed to be in class?" A smirk was worming its way to the corners of his mouth.

Toshiro was tempted to snap at him, but knew that being defensive would encourage scepticism ... and oh shit had he heard? Did he know? How long had he been there? No, he couldn't have been there, could he? Toshiro hadn't seen or heard anyone ...

"Stomach ache," he said. The sound of his voice rang strange and unreal to his own ears – it was bland and masked with a fake irritation. "Why aren't you in class?" Toshiro continued, barely keeping the heat out of his words.

"Nah." Kurosaki shrugged. "Got thrown out. That idiot Grimmjow kept egging me."

Ah. No surprise there. He inclined his head towards the door, impatience forming his lips into a thin line. Kurosaki was still looking at him with a strange glint in his eyes, but then seemed to make up his mind and stepped out of the way. Toshiro slid past him gratefully and headed off towards the classroom.

"Hey... You okay?"

At the genuine concern laced in Kurosaki's voice, Toshiro paused and turned around to see him still standing in the doorway, his brow unusually soft.

"Yes." Toshiro felt his lips quiver and bit down hard, turned back and continued towards the classroom. "Of course I am."

And if he kept repeating that to himself, he could almost believe it.

November was dark and soggy. Students huddled up inside the buildings at school hours and the poor, cheap lighting made it a generally depressing place. Not to mention how the teachers tried encouraging them to study for the upcoming exams, an enthusiasm that didn't quite do its job of brightening the atmosphere.

Toshiro felt like he was drowning in assignments and tests, and he would have gone down on his knees to thank God if he believed in his existence. Never before had he been so grateful for such a truckload of work – it gave him the perfect opportunity to abandon social acts altogether. Not only that, it also served to occupy his mind before it decided to return to rather ... stimulating ... fantasies of Ichimaru. But it didn't help him at night: when he wasn't dreaming of a thousand unfinished essays, he dreamt of his assistant teacher.

For once in his life, he actually appreciated the rumour of his crush on Hinamori.

The two of them had finally gotten back on terms after Hinamori decided to shuffle over and give him her awkward, half-hearted apology. And he was fine with her reluctance to admit all the fault – she clung faithfully to her dislike for Ichimaru, and if Toshiro weighed up their friendship and his pride, he concluded that it wasn't worth pushing it.

But while his and Hinamori's relationship had slipped back into some degree of normality, someone else was being a constant thorn in his back. He made a distinct effort to avoid Kurosaki's eyes ever since that day in the men's room, burying his nose in various books (and, after an embarrassing episode with the librarian, always checked that they were turned upright beforehand). Kurosaki must've been a fool to think that he didn't notice the prying eyes on the back of his head. Quite frankly, just the knowledge that the orange-haired punk held him in unusual interest was more than enough to trouble him. He had no idea what Kurosaki was thinking and thus didn't know what to suspect. Toshiro was quite aware of his intelligence, in addition to his slight craziness, but was completely at loss as to which was dominating him now. He'd run this analysis over in his head a thousand times before – no sound of footsteps (or had he just not noticed?), no one in the corridors as he went in (or had he just been too hurried?), he had barely made any sounds (or had he been without knowing it?) – and that only gave resulted in a headache.

But the memory of that all-too-knowing smirk kept trudging into his mind, tramping on whatever he was thinking and demanding his full attention. In all irony, Kurosaki had him by the balls. But what kind of gloating was it? Was it the knowledge of the smart kid having wanked in the toilet during class? Was it suspicion of his feelings for Ichimaru? Or was it seeing his flushed face and knowing that he'd caught him at something?

And so Toshiro settled for the best tactic: he had done nothing that was worth an all-too-knowing smirk, so there was nothing to be skittish about. No need for suspicion of any sort. No need for him to worry. Completely fine to notice Kurosaki's looks and shoot him an annoyed, inquiring look back.

Ichimaru, on another hand, was a very different matter. Direct interaction with the man was risky business, but nonetheless, painfully unavoidable. Toshiro wasn't sure if he was pleased or frustrated. Maybe a little mixture of both.

Even though he managed to keep his heart rate in check and could exhibit a certain amount of normal behaviour (as much as it was possible with Ichimaru), the tint in his cheeks would threaten to reappear at any time. It was difficult to say if their lessons were growing increasingly awkward or stayed more or less the same – at the very least, their content rarely changed.

Dedication to his work gave him advantage in this case as well; although it didn't save him entirely from Ichimaru, it could distract him as best it could. Unfortunately, it was not enough to keep his mind from raging a storm whenever said teacher came into close proximity.

Perhaps the discovery of his crush had heightened his senses or maybe his brain was attempting to drive him mad – either way, it was a miracle he kept himself from ogling at Ichimaru throughout the lessons. The way he brushed his fingers over his bottom lip as he thought, staring at the computer screen; the way he sighed softly whenever he took a satisfying sip of his coffee; the way his eyes, when slit upon ever so slightly, glowed as they looked approvingly at his work.

That alone was enough to wake him up at night, sweating and breathless, to release the blazing hot warmth in his throbbing erection.

Ichigo was avoided, Hinamori was ignored, Ichimaru was tolerated, and when the pile of books toppled over and half-buried him beneath them, Toshiro decided that he bloody well deserved a break.

It was Tuesday, and pebbles bounced along the pavement he kicked them out of his way. The sun glowed modestly behind a white cover of clouds and it felt strange to look up at it during this time of day, not from behind a classroom window, but alone in the streets on his way to catch the bus. He supposed he hadn't skipped class too often. In fact, he had difficulty remembering any time he had purposely avoided school.

The air was moist from the last flurry of rain, but the sky seemed to be opening up and a few rays of sunshine were breaking through. He paused for a moment, let his chest rise and fall with several deep breaths, and felt as though all his troubles fled with the last exhale.

It was a nice day.

The bus was late, as always, and he half expected someone to step out and demand what he was doing here instead of studying dutifully for his exams. He had to suppress a snort. The bus driver, a man with a droopy face and scruffy beard, took his money without question and let Toshiro find himself a window seat at the far back.

There was something that made the whole experience oddly distant, and it was enough to drive away all reminders of the troubles he'd left behind. He could return to them once he got back, but for now... For now, it was a nice day, and it needn't be disturbed. Memories of Hinamori drifted back to him, the way her concerned voice sounded from the other end of the line, but it was put aside easily. As much as he appreciated her sympathy, he couldn't be bothered to care. Toshiro was taking a break from himself as much as others. She might return to his room and find that he was gone, but that was a risk he was willing to take.

The bus came to a halt just a few blocks away from his favourite café. Glancing at his watch, Toshiro noted that it was just past eleven. A cup of coffee would do him good, considering the lack of proper sleep he'd gotten in the past few weeks – for which both school and Ichimaru were to blame.

It took him less than five minutes to reach his destination. The whiff of freshly baked bread welcomed him in, and with it came a fleeting feeling of nostalgia: the memory of warmth prickling his fingers as he cradled a steaming mug, while Ukitake sat right across the table with his ever-present smile. He smiled sadly as the scene replayed in his head. He rarely got the chance to play the piano any more and got to see his teacher even less.

Toshiro stepped inside the café, climbed to the upper level and approached the table in the corner. It was a comfy place, with walls of dark wood and old-fashioned furnishings. The chairs wore cream-coloured cushions that adjusted to your seat and the tables had smooth surfaces, decorated with elegant carvings. It wasn't a very classy establishment, but it held a certain charm.

The waiter sauntered over to his table with a bright smile and took his order. She attempted to initiate some small talk, but Toshiro deflected her questions with short, clipped answers. He wasn't in the mood – in fact, he was never in the mood – and fortunately, she took the hint pretty quickly. As soon as the coffee was served, Toshiro cradled the mug in his hands the same way he always did, slowly inhaling the bitter smell. There was something strangely soothing about the scent of coffee. That, combined with the soft hubbub in the background, was enough to put him at ease. Weeks of stress and worry gradually untangled from his neck and shoulders as he sipped from the cup, his eyes dipping closed. Finally, he could relax without paranoid thoughts simmering in the back of his mind. Finally, some time for himself where he could breathe.

He propped his head on one hand and stirred the hot liquid with the other, his eyes drifting over the view outside. There wasn't much to see, but he enjoyed watching people passing by. Sometimes it felt as if he stood still in time while they kept hurrying forwards. Good solutions, he thought distantly, came if you stood still and allowed them to come. He drank his coffee in silence, trailing circles in the table. That's right. He kept moving so fast that he didn't even have time to see where he was going...

"Hmm. Skippin' class are we?"

His heart jolted in his chest, and in one swift moment he managed to jerk his hand and spill burning coffee all over his lap. He cursed and stood, whirling around to glare at offending voice – Ichimaru's eyes were open just a crack, and his lips twisted amusedly.

Later, Toshiro would deny to himself that he had ever thought of Ichimaru as beautiful, covered in that golden light.


Ripped Normality
Chapter 05

Toshiro stared at the passing houses and trees, a slight frown on his face. His hands were fidgeting quietly as he listened to the humming of the engine, and he glanced sideways at Ichimaru, who was facing the road. He had no idea of how Ichimaru could even see it, as his face seemed stuck in that sick grin that made his eyes thin lines beneath his curved eyebrows, but he hadn't crashed the car. Yet.

Ichimaru had insisted on driving him back to the school, but Toshiro had refused. School was still in session, after all, and the parking lot was visible from the windows in the building he had most of his classes in. People would wonder if he arrived with Ichimaru, who had a day off to do who-knows-what, with coffee stains on half his shirt and trousers. As if Hinamori wasn't casting him strange looks already – though, to be fair, that could have to do with the fact that he had stopped clinging to her. Kurosaki's infernal smirking was far worse.

He couldn't walk around all day with coffee all over himself – though warm for early November, it was chilly enough to catch a cold – and Ichimaru insisted on driving him to his own apartment to change clothes. Toshiro failed to see the logic, but as Ichimaru was a teacher and could rat him out at any time, he acquiesced silently and hoped for the best.

And there they were: Ichimaru driving, Toshiro in the front seat, awkward silence filling the air between them. Neither had said anything since closing the doors, which was strange, as Ichimaru seemed to like unnerving people with words (though he did that just as well without them).

He glanced at Ichimaru again. A sliver of his eyes showed beneath his eyelids, and his mouth, though still curved in a disturbing grin, seemed more relaxed, as if he wanted to smile but didn't quite know how. His mask was not the prettiest there was – for Toshiro was convinced his expression was a mask – but the flashes of the face behind had him intrigued. No one could deny that Ichimaru was handsome, even if most found him scary enough to dismiss it, and Toshiro had time and again tried to do the same, without luck. Not enough that the man was – well, a man; he was several years his senior, not to mention his teacher. A passing thought insisted that he had an outrageously nice figure, too, but Toshiro convinced himself that was his imagination acting up.

Lots of people had a crush on a teacher at one point in their lives, Toshiro reminded himself. It didn't mean anything but the fact that for once, he was being normal. Even if it was a man. Well, lots of people had phases like that, too.

Ichimaru swerved to the right, and caught Toshiro's gaze as he glanced over. His smirk widened exponentially as Toshiro cursed and averted his eyes. Blood rushed to his cheeks, and he was sure his face was crimson, but Ichimaru made no comment.

"We're here," Ichimaru said as he swerved to the left, stopping in front of a one-storey house with a small garden out front. It was painted an unassuming blue, while the framework was green, and the roof was dark grey. The paint was a bit shabby, as if it hadn't been painted for many years – along the windy coast, regular paint jobs was a necessity.

"It's nice," Toshiro said. Ichimaru grinned at him.

"I've lived here since late August," he said. "Haven't had the time t' do much about anything, so…" He parked the car in the driveway and pulled out the key. "So…" he continued, "this is it."

Toshiro couldn't shake off the notion that Ichimaru's statement was an omen of what was to come.

As they crossed the doorstep and stepped into a dim, narrow hallway, Ichimaru put his long, bright coat on a coat rack to the left. After draping it carefully so that it wouldn't brush against the floor, he reached out, silently offering to take Toshiro's. As Ichimaru grabbed the jacket, their fingers brushed, but Ichimaru retracted his hand calmly and turned away to put the jacket on the hanger. Toshiro's heart pounded in his chest as a half-remembered dream slid across his conscious, but he squashed the memory down, trying to do the same with his blush. Ichimaru glanced back at him and lifted his eyebrows, as if to say, blushing, are you? His traitorous cheeks flamed up, and he looked down.

Ichimaru stepped through a door to the right, and Toshiro paused briefly by the coat rack. His dark blue jacket and the white coat next to each other seemed oddly appropriate. He shook his head, trailing Ichimaru uncertainly, and stepped into the oddest living room he had ever seen.

If he had thought the office was strange – well, the living room was stranger. Most of the furnishing seemed worn, if of good quality, and not one piece of furniture was similar to another. The walls were covered in yellow wallpaper, while all the articles of wood were in varying shades, though mostly very bright or very dark. The carpet beneath the two facing sofas – one brown, the other green – seemed new, as did the few lamps, and he could pick out a few other things. The light was dimmed; the curtains were drawn, but a few lamps cast a golden tint across the room.

He felt surprisingly comfortable.

A sound from the left of the room drew his attention. Ichimaru was watching his face with a tiny smile on his face, leaning against the doorway to what seemed to be a kitchen, only a few steps away from Toshiro.

"Like it?" Ichimaru said.

Toshiro opened his mouth, but words refused to come. Ichimaru was smiling. Not smirking, not grinning, but smiling, and it seemed so… genuine. He stared back as Ichimaru frowned slightly, and the older man crossed his arms loosely across his chest.

"You alright?" Ichimaru said, his voice barely more than a whisper.

And then he opened his eyes. Toshiro's breathing hitched.

Ichimaru's irises were bright blue around the iris, fading into pink along the edges. He was vaguely amused by how his eyes matched his lilac shirt, but could hardly register it. The eyes overshadowed any other colours as they seemed to grow closer, and he could see the individual tendrils of blue, spreading across the pink as a spider web, or fresh blood on skin.

"Toshiro?"

His eyes widened abruptly as he noticed that Ichimaru was closer, and his gaze jerked away. Long fingers brushed his chin, and a palm came to rest there. A thumb caressed his cheek, sliding almost to the top of his nose before turning, then brushing across his lips. Despite his screaming logical mind, Toshiro leaned into the touch, closing his eyes and relishing in the feel of soft skin against his own.

The caress slid down his neck, across his shoulder, halting on his arm.

"You look like you're about to fall 'sleep."

The voice was amused, and Toshiro's inner voice of caution was revived. He stepped to the right, away from the hand that was still brushing his arm. Ichimaru held on, but stopped the movement.

"We should get you some clothes, righ'?" he muttered, as if to himself.

And then he was gone. Toshiro glanced back to the hallway, watching Ichimaru's back as it vanished through the door on the opposite side of the hall. He came back a few minutes later, carrying a large shirt and a pair of soft cotton trousers.

"I'm not letting you into my room, 'cause it looks like hell," Ichimaru said, sounding very amused as he handed the clothes to Toshiro. "You'll have ta change 'ere."

Toshiro scowled at him, and Ichimaru laughed, ruffling Toshiro's hair as he moved past him and disappeared into the kitchen.

He was perfectly aware that it would be just like Ichimaru to return at any given moment, and he was not going to give him a show. He shuffled closer to the wall, hiding from the view of the kitchen, and unbuttoned the top buttons of his shirt. Then, he grabbed the ends of the shirt and dragged it over his head, folding it haphazardly and throwing it onto the green sofa.

Ichimaru's shirt reached the middle of his thighs. He sighed, noticing that the top button was almost at the same height as his nipples; the inner ends of his clavicles were visible, as was some of his chest, though his hands were completely hidden unless he folded the sleeves a few times.

He had just finished buttoning the shirt and divested himself of his trousers as he heard a car stopping outside. Dismissing the noise as a neighbour, as Ichimaru lived alone and it was the middle of a working day, he almost fell over when he heard the outer door open, hurried steps rushing through the hallway.

"Gin-"

The familiar voice stopped. Toshiro whirled around, staring at someone he would rather not have seen him without trousers in Ichimaru's house.

Ukitake stared back at him, wide-eyed and clutching his heart.

"Toshiro?" Ukitake said, taking in his state of undress. There was an air of apprehension about him, as if he thought – no way, Toshiro thought, he can't possibly believe-

But his eyes told him all he needed to know.

"Ukitake," Toshiro said, trying to keep the appearance of calm he had always taken pride in, "nice to see you."

Ukitake opened and closed his mouth a few times, until the sound of a drawer shutting in the kitchen caught his attention.

"Put some clothes on, Toshiro," he said sternly, "I'll go have a chat with Gin."

When Toshiro opened his mouth to protest, Ukitake shook his head and strode against the open door that hid Ichimaru from view.

Toshiro stomach felt heavy from trepidation, but he stepped into the cotton trousers without saying anything, fastening the strings tightly to keep them from falling down. He heard an angry voice from the kitchen, followed by Ichimaru's bright laughter, and Toshiro crept slowly towards the door.

"He's my student, Juushiro," Ichimaru's voice said – he sounded very amused. "I found 'im in town and made him spill coffee all over 'imself. Refused t' go back ta school, too, and I couldn' let him get a cold, now, could I?"

Toshiro stepped through the door, blushing faintly as Ukitake caught his eyes.

"Toshiro," Ukitake said, his voice gentle but stern, "is this true?"

Still horrified at having his old piano teacher literally catch him with his trousers down, Toshiro nodded, accepting a cup of tea from Ichimaru as he was ushered over to sit by the kitchen table. Ukitake sighed heavily, placing a hand over his eyes.

"I apologise, Gin," Ukitake said, looking genuinely regretful. "Though I must say, with your history of mischief, I can hardly be blamed."

Ichimaru smirked.

"Tea?" Ichimaru said, holding up a cup.

Ukitake shook his head. "I was just stopping by. I wondered if you had a book about Latin grammar…"

"Latin?" Toshiro asked once Ukitake had disappeared out the door and driven away.

"Mm." Ichimaru swirled his spoon around in his tea. "He signed up for evening classes this year. Who knows why…"

Toshiro wondered how they knew each other, but couldn't bring himself to ask. Were they past lovers? (Stop projecting your problems on others, an inner voice told him sternly.) Friends? Acquaintances?

"Juushiro's always been a responsible guy, but he still manages ta do whatever 'e wants," Ichimaru said, somewhat sullenly.

Wait – Ichimaru was jealous of Ukitake? Toshiro hid an amused grin behind his tea cup, refusing to adhere to the impulse of saying that even though Ukitake was good looking, Ichimaru was insanely handsome, so why the grumpy face?

"Our father wanted me ta be more like 'im, even though he wasn' very pleased with Juushiro when he didn' take maths."

"Your father?" Toshiro blinked. Well, not lovers, then. "You're brothers?"

"Half," Ichimaru said, a strange look on his face. He was still staring into his tea. "Father divorced Juushiro's mother – quite the family scandal, I've heard – and mine's dead." A faint frown creased his brow. "Father never liked me much, I think."

"How did Ukitake know you were home?" Toshiro asked, shifting in his seat. "It's a weekday, in the middle of working hours."

A wry grin spread across Ichimaru's face. "Father died four years ago," he said. "I usually take the day off. Celebrate."

Toshiro couldn't think of anything to say, so he didn't. Ichimaru's hand was lying on the table by his tea cup. Toshiro watched his own hand reach across the table, as if watching someone else's. Ichimaru's head lifted slightly when Toshiro's hand covered his, blue-and-pink eyes watching from an expressionless face as Ichimaru's hand turned over and linked their fingers together.

Later, as they occupied the two sofas in the living room, watching some inane movie on the telly, Toshiro ran the moment through his mind over and over again, occasionally casting glances at Ichimaru.

Something had – changed, between them. Something unmentionable.

He glanced over at Ichimaru again. He was spread out across the length of the brown sofa, his head and shoulders propped up with pillows against the sofa arm. His eyes were thin slivers, but his face was relaxed, and his expression seemed neutral, if not quite content. Toshiro imagined rising from his seat, approaching Ichimaru and lying down on top of him, letting his head rest on Ichimaru's defined chest, feeling himself rise and sink as Ichimaru breathed. It was a wonderful picture.

Ichimaru noticed him looking again. They held each other's gaze.

"It's getting late," Ichimaru said quietly.

"Can I stay?" Toshiro almost bit his tongue as the words slipped out. Ichimaru looked amused.

"I'm afraid not," he said; there was no hint of mockery in his voice, but he seemed oddly reluctant. He rose from the sofa, brushed a hand through his hair, and sighed. "I'll drive you back t' school. You should probably put on your own shirt."

Ichimaru went back to what Toshiro presumed was his room or bathroom, and returned with the coffee-stained shirt. He retreated to the kitchen to put away their cups, and when he came back, Toshiro had switched shirt and was ready to leave.

The five-minute drive back to the school was tense and quiet, filled with the humming of the engine and heavy thoughts. It was only half past five, but dark clouds had spread across the sky, hiding any hint of stars or the moon; street lamps cast a fluorescent light across everything, creating strange silhouettes at both sides of the road.

As he watched Ichimaru's car disappear after an awkward farewell, he wondered what on earth Hinamori would say about him skipping school.

He was definitely not telling her anything about Ichimaru.

He turned around, took a few steps towards the school building, and froze.

Kurosaki was leaning against the wall, grinning at him. There was a cigarette between his fingers, and Grimmjow was standing next to him. Toshiro felt like cursing, and it must have shown. Grimmjow smirked, stealing Kurosaki's cigarette. He looked like a predator.

"Well, well," Grimmjow said, snickering. "The squirt arriving in the teacher's car after skipping school, in a dirty shirt and someone else's trousers."

Kurosaki slapped the back of Grimmjow's head, snatching the cigarette back as he pushed off from the wall.

"Shut it, Grimm," Kurosaki muttered. Toshiro was surprised when the Turquoise Thug snorted, but let it go. Considering the circumstances, the both of them seemed strangely calm.

"Toshiro," Kurosaki said, insolent as always, "he's not… forcing you or anything, right?"

Toshiro turned bright red, bringing one of his hands up to his face as if to hide. "It's not like that," he mumbled. "I just…" He groaned, turning around so that he wouldn't have to face Grimmjow's gleeful smirk.

"Grimmjow," he heard Kurosaki say, "stop that shit!"

"What shit?"

"Looking like you're gonna eat him!"

Grimmjow laughed. Toshiro heard him walk towards them.

"Ichigo, Ichigo," he admonished. "As if I care what the squirt and the freaky guy does. Besides," Grimmjow's voice lowered, "freaky guy's got something on us, too."

Toshiro whirled around, and stopped, wide-eyed. Grimmjow had stopped directly behind Kurosaki, who seemed torn between leaning back and being crabby. A few seconds passed, until he seemed to settle for both. Grimmjow's arm wrapped roughly around his waist, and he huffed.

Toshiro blinked.

"He's just a big lug," Kurosaki muttered, scowling as Grimmjow snickered quietly into his ear.

Toshiro blinked again.

"I thought you were the one who hallucinates, Kurosaki," Toshiro said. "Is it contagious? I think I'm… Damn," he muttered. "This is confusing."

Kurosaki laughed. "No need to tell me," he said, a wry grin on his face. "It's still… weird. We were fighting, and then- well, we weren't."

Toshiro shuddered, shaking his head. "I don't want to know," he muttered. "Oh, please…"

"So, screwing the teacher?" Grimmjow interrupted. "And here I thought Ichi and I would be scandalous."

Kurosaki's eyebrows rose. "Scandalous?" He snorted. "I didn't know you even knew words like that."

God, Toshiro thought, they sound like a squabbling married couple. He shook his head, walking towards the entrance. Hopefully he could reach it before they noticed he was gone.

"Hey, squirt! Where d'ya think ye're going?"

Or not, he thought sullenly, wishing for a hole to sink into as he covered his face with his hands and groaned. Damn you, Ichimaru.


Ripped Normality
Chapter 06

There were two types of idiocy, Toshiro thought sourly: there was the idiocy of following your own stupid ideas, and the idiocy of following others'.

He had tried convincing himself that he had been forced to come along with the pair, dragged away while he fought bravely in protest – but the truth was, unfortunately, that he had joined Kurosaki and Grimmjow completely out of his own volition, and no amount of excuses were going to change that.

Grimmjow hammered his glass to the table so the liquid sloshed vigorously.

"Who woulda' thought, huh? The school genius, a queer!" He let out a bark of laughter and Kurosaki rolled his eyes.

"You'd think a rebel like yourself would at least know how to hold your alcohol." He huffed and took a careless swig of his whiskey, before turning to Toshiro with a devilish grin on his face. "So. When are you going to relieve your heart of its miseries and tell us how he started fucking you?"

Toshiro choked on his drink.

"You're, ehm, misunderstanding," he uttered through a scratchy voice, after the last of his coughing had died down. "We don't have that kind of relationship."

Kurosaki raised an eyebrow, his disbelief evident. "Really."

Toshiro felt the colour rise in his cheeks and inwardly cursed his own lack of self-control. He could have blamed the drink, but he'd hardly drunk much. It was the topic of Ichimaru that shattered his discipline into a million tiny pieces.

"It's true," he stated firmly, scowl set on his face. "Completely one-sided. Just a stupid crush that will blow over." He ignored the painful twist in his stomach and took another sip of his drink. What was this foul-tasting stuff anyway?

"Oh, I see." But the smirk still lingered on his face and there was a canny look in his eyes, far too similar to the one he'd worn after their bathroom meeting. Toshiro fought the urge to squirm under his gaze. Why could Kurosaki, of all people, read him so well? (Though, considering the topic and drink at hand, he supposed it wasn't too challenging.)

Toshiro lifted his glass, downed the drink in one gulp, and watched warily as Kurosaki signalled the waiter for another. The loose set of morals around this place was shocking, although fortunate for the three of them, as the employees seemed to have nothing against serving drinks to minors. Perhaps it had something to do with their giddy obedience to Grimmjow, who was now waving his glass around and telling the neighbour tables about the evil doings of squirrels.

Kurosaki had propped his head on his hand and was regarding him with silent curiosity. Toshiro felt the blush emerge again and diverted his eyes.

"Stop it," he mumbled.

"Huh?"

"I'm not in the mood."

"Not in the mood for what?"

"Talking with imbeciles."

Kurosaki snickered and raked a hand through his hair. "Well, you'll be in the mood soon."

Then he leaned back in his seat, his arms stretched out to the table, and proceeded to change the topic completely. And, despite how much it stung his pride to admit it, Kurosaki was right: it took no time at all for Toshiro's guard to crumble. A few drinks later, his heart could as well be on display for the whole world to see – as much as his words would allow him, with how they caught and stumbled in his sentences.

"Y'know," Kurosaki began, his face hovering just inches over the brim of the glass, "I had a crush on you once."

Toshiro made a little squawk of surprise, sounding similar to a chicken. "Wah-at?"

Grimmjow had drifted away from his seat and was making a spectacle at the other end of the bar, but Kurosaki had just shrugged it off as a commonality and paid no particular attention to it.

"Yeah." His grip around the glass tightened. "Yeah, I liked you really fucking much. And that's probably why I was the first one to notice your interest in Ichimaru. Not that I still liked you at that time," he shook his finger lazily, snorting in laughter. "Nah, I'd given up by then – but yeah, I just saw the signs, s'all. School's filled with idiots, they'd never see it even if you shoved it in their faces."

Toshiro caught himself envying Kurosaki's ability to speak in coherent sentences, until his words slowly began to sink in. For a moment, it felt as though someone had clogged him over the head with a bat; too much information was being forced into his brain all at once. He giggled a little at the thought of pieces of information hanging out of his ear. Kurosaki gave him a questionable look.

"Oh," he finally blurted out. Then, after a moment of silence, he raised his glass and said, "Here's to one-sided man-crushes-es... es."

Kurosaki shook his head heavily and grabbed his shoulder. "No, no, no, no..." He trailed off, and for a moment he seemed to have forgotten what he was going to say. Then he brightened up again, as if he remembered, and continued.

"No, you see, s'not one-sided... no, no, man, I can see it, even Grimmjow can see it, Christ, s'not one-sided at all..."

"'Ey, someone say my name?" Grimmjow appeared over his shoulder, his face darkly flushed, and seemed to have more important things to do than worry about his balance.

"I was jus' sayin'–"

"That's your problem, man." Grimmjow bent over and grabbed the hem of his jacket, nearly pulling him out of his chair. "Ya always talk and never shaddap!"

"Hah, I don't talk nearly as much as you do..."

"Bastard!"

Grimmjow was dangerously close to Kurosaki's face and for a moment Toshiro feared they'd start a snogging session right there, but instead he pulled away (with what seemed like a great effort) and turned to Toshiro.

"Listen, kid." He pointed, staggering until he managed to secure his weight on both feet, then took a a few wobbly steps towards him. With his hands planted on the armrests, Grimmjow leaned close, the stank of alcohol heavy in his moist breath. "Ya gotta' go for it, know what I mean? Ya gotta' take some risks! You're gonna' stay stuck in one place forever if ya don't do somethin', and all your life you'll look back and ask yourself why the fuck ya just stood there like an idiot–"

"Kinda' like Grimmjow's doing now."

"– Shaddap, Kurosaki! Anyway, s'I was sayin', ya gotta' go get 'im. Your face is pretty and he stares at your ass whenever he thinks he can get away with it, so–"

"Grimmjow, shut up, you're messing with his head."

"– m'talking from experience, ya know? Stop bein' a fuckin' idiot, if ya always keep a stick stuck up your ass–"

"Grimmjow, shut the fuck up."

He growled and wheeled around. "Stop fucking interrupting me! I'm givin' 'im some decent advice!"

"He doesn't need some decent advice," Kurosaki drawled, "He needs more drinks."

Grimmjow opened his mouth to protest, but hardly a moment passed before he stopped himself and nodded sharply in agreement.

"OY!" he bellowed towards the counter, snapping his fingers. The people behind it began scurrying around like a flock of birds and almost immediately appeared before them carrying several pints of ... of whatever that was. "Yeah, that's more like it," Grimmjow purred, his teeth baring. Toshiro was reminded of a lion stalking its prey, and judging from the look in the waiters' eyes, so were they.

Grimmjow plopped ungraciously down in his own chair and stared blankly into the air. "Yesh, s'I w's sayin'..." He blinked. "What was I sayin'?"

Toshiro sighed and accepted yet another glass. The pleasant buzz in his head kept droning on, promising him a long, hazy night.

The lights were still on. Toshiro frowned, squinted at his watch, and waited for the blurry lines to sharpen in focus. Two-thirty. Unease uncoiled in his stomach, alongside the nausea that had been following him all the way home – none of them good signs.

He abandoned the idea of sleeping on the pavement and took to the challenge of climbing the stairs. His steps rang soundly in the empty neighbourhood, an unsteady clack, clack, clack that thundered in the silence. He tripped several times, puzzled over the fact that the steps had moved beneath him, but somehow managed to end up at the top.

Hah. No stairs could stop the mighty Hitsugaya Toshiro. He cackled, punched the air, and tripped again.

He prayed that the (far too bright) lights were a result of his mother being tardy and forgetting to turn them off before going to bed, but it was a foolish hope. She was as much of a neat freak as he was. Approaching the door, Toshiro straightened himself up to the best of his ability and brushed his hair back in hope that he looked decent. A quick glance at his image in the window revealed it to be a lost case.

He pushed the handle down carefully and swung the door open, pausing to listen for any sounds. Perhaps he was in luck? He stepped inside, treading softly, and supported himself by the wall as he unlaced his shoes (it wasn't worth putting faith into his balance, the treacherous ground always caught him unaware) and slid his jacket off.

The floors creaked. Toshiro froze.

"Where have you been?"

Turning his head, he spotted his mother in the doorway to the hall, dressed in her usual nightgown. Her hair was pulled up in a messy bun, locks of disarrayed hair shadowing her face, and her jaw was clenched tightly.

"Where have you been!?" Her voice rose into a shrill, breaking at the highest tones. "I've told you, always be back before twelve, always! Where have you been!?"

He cringed, frantically scanning his mind to figure out the most tactical reaction – he was always insecure on how to handle her when she was in this mood – but the wheels in his mind were clogged and he couldn't get himself to think properly.

"S'none of your business," he muttered, and failed to choke his hiccup.

Her brow furrowed deeper. "Have you been drinking?" She strode over the floor and grabbed him by his hair, jerking his head back. "Tell me, have you been drinking!?"

"Mum, just..." He winced as she tightened her hold.

"I can't believe this," she sneered. "How dare you go behind my back and do something like this!"

With a violent yank, she let him go. Toshiro rubbed the sore spot, chancing a look in her eyes – and, at seeing her expression, realized what a stupid mistake that was. He was barely able to register the movement of her hand, and by the time Toshiro could react, the pain was already burning in his left cheek. The force of her slap sent him to the ground.

"Get up!" she cried.

Toshiro's head was spinning as he struggled to get his body to obey, but before he even managed to fully rise, the nausea swelled in his chest with a bare moment of warning. His whole body convulsed painfully and he doubled over, emptying his stomach with a violent hurl and watching, teary-eyed, as the liquid formed into a pool at his feet. His mother's voice had dwindled into a soft white noise in the background and his surroundings were blurred; the sharp bouts of pain in his body felt almost surreal, as if they were happening to someone other than him.

His breath was fast and shallow, hitching in his throat. He spat out the vile taste in his mouth and wiped away the line of spit left on his face. There was a low summing in his ears, the dull beat of blood in his veins, and he could sense his body taking a beating but was unable to connect fully to it. His cheek pulsed angrily, and with dry humour, he noted how his mother was way more fit than he was.

It would soon be over, anyway. His mother would run out of energy, and she would leave him there, and in the morning she would cry and apologize and make him his favourite dish. And he would let her hug him as she whispered her 'I'm sorry's and stroked his hair, and he would tell her that it was alright, it was alright, it was alright...

As the chilly autumn wind stung his face, Toshiro was surprised to discover that his cheeks were wet.

The cloudy sky above rumbled warningly, and mere moments later he could feel the first thick drops of rain hammer down on his head and shoulders. Toshiro wrapped the thin jacket tighter around himself and increased the pace, but his body was sluggish and uncooperative, forcing him to settle back into a slower gait. His fingers ached with cold and he tucked them into his armpits.

He wasn't sure what had driven him to leave the empty hall and the tear-spotted floor – he had never felt the urge to before, and his exhausted body would certainly gain more from resting there than to set out on a long walk in the shadowed streets. His head had cleared up to some degree, but still not enough to help him navigate very well – and although he knew his destination, he'd rather not think about it. Thinking twice would call for doubt. Doubt would call for insecurity. Insecurity would leave him stuck. Therefore, the rain soaking through his hair and clothes was a much preferred focus.

Thoughts swam in his head, blurry and muddled. There was only one image that was clear to him, one that glowed brighter than others, and for once he allowed himself to embrace it. There was no one was around to steal a glance through his unguarded eyes, nor see the leak of salty water rushing down his cheeks. His feet carried him on, dragging the rest of his body after, knowing exactly where they were going. He clung to the image like his life depended on it.

It took years, hours, minutes, no time at all: then, focused in the centre of his vision, he was faced with a door. Ichimaru's door. He watched himself raise a shivering hand and rap his knuckles against the wood, hear the loud hollow noise resound through the house. There was a moment of silence, longer than an eternity, and Toshiro swore he had never felt more empty than right there in that moment. Finally there were steps, followed by the clicking of locks being undone. The door swung open, revealing Ichimaru, whose normally pale skin turned golden by the meek glow of the outdoor lamp.

Toshiro sniffed and said something. Ichimaru's eyebrows shot up. He heard himself continue, rambling on and on, unable to control his words, "'Dunno, 'dunno, I mean, yeah, fuck, why 'm I here anyway, shit-"

"Are you drunk?"

Toshiro blinked blearily up at him, chuckled. "'Dunno, I guess, yeah, a little bit..." He rubbed the back of his head, momentarily surprised to feel that his hair was wet, until he remembered that, oh yeah, it was raining.

Ichimaru was peering down at him with a carefully blank expression. Silence stretched between them, strained with tension. Finally, he nodded curtly, almost business-like, without giving away a single display of emotion. "Come in."

Toshiro stepped inside, and it wasn't until he had moved in further along the hall that he noted how the lights were still off. He wondered why, but was too tired to think too closely about it.

Ichimaru disappeared into the house and reappeared shortly with a bundle of towels. "Here."

Toshiro regarded the outstretched hand offering him one of the towels and took it without further hesitation. His arm felt leaden and weighed down heavily.

"Thanks," he said. There was a weird, humoured look in Ichimaru's eyes, though the smirk was still absent, and he watched carefully as Toshiro wiped his face and hair. Then, with what seemed like a sudden decision, Ichimaru stepped around him and draped another towel over his shoulders, cautiously, as if he was afraid of touching him.

"Come."

Toshiro felt like he was in a dream; Ichimaru brought him into the sitting room, easily dodging the faintly outlined furniture in the darkness, and gestured for Toshiro to seat himself on the couch. He was vaguely aware of the fact that he was still talking, but to stop would demand a huge effort out of him, and frankly, he was completely exhausted. Most of his words were mumbled and indistinguishable anyway, often melting into a long set of babbling. Ichimaru remained silent as he fetched water and dry clothes, even as he helped Toshiro peel the wet clothes off himself. He continued to fill that silence dutifully.

"Tch, anyway, s'all Kurosaki and Grimmjow's fault ... faults?... fault... punks, both of 'em... oh, that's a nice lamp..."

He finally managed to wring his shirt off and, standing shivering in his underwear, he soon became conscious of how exposed he was. Right in front of Ichimaru.

"I'm too drunk to be awkward," Toshiro mumbled, and it took a second for him to realize that he'd said it out loud. He clamped his mouth shut, blush spreading rapidly across his cheeks. Ichimaru fixed him with an intense stare, eyes narrowly open, and then – unexpectedly – his mouth twisted into a smirk and he hummed lowly in his throat. It hit him like a slap in the face (he'd had enough slaps for one night) and Toshiro could feel warmth rushing through him and pool into the lower of his stomach.

'Goddamnit,' he thought (hopefully without saying it aloud) and quickly snatched the too-big white shirt Ichimaru had lent him. This was not the time to get aroused, no matter how drunk he was. He fumbled with the buttons on his shirt, looking down at himself. It effectively covered the modest bulge in his boxers, but in turn, it also covered his knees, hanging on him like a dress. Toshiro felt his cheeks grow even warmer at the thought of how childish he appeared.

"Feelin' a bit more sober?"

Ichimaru was still wearing a smirk; he looked ghostly in the dark, the colour of his face drained by the grey morning light streaming in from the windows. Toshiro felt nervousness grab hold of him for no apparent reason – suddenly it was easy to identify with the hushed whispers in the school yard centred around the assistant teacher's "creepiness".

But his smirk gradually softened into a smile, and the peculiar nervousness was gone in a flash. Ichimaru placed a hand on his shoulder and made sign for him to stand, then steered him into a small room which was illuminated by the soft glow of a reading lamp. The sheets were tangled, and it didn't take a genius to realize that this was Ichimaru's bedroom. Toshiro turned to him, opening his mouth to protest about occupying his bed, but he was silenced by a finger to his lips. He was almost completely drained for energy and didn't have the willpower to resist as he was pushed down to the mattress, his eyelids growing unbearably heavy. Sleep settled over him like a warm numbness, and he welcomed it gratefully.

He awoke as bright rays of morning sunshine hit him straight in the face, forcing his eyes open and insisting on keeping him awake. For several long seconds he was unsure of where he was, and then, through the pounding headache, he made out the shape of Ichimaru sitting by his bedside.

"Good mornin'," he said.

What followed was what Toshiro would later vehemently deny as girly screams, then a loud groan as pain shot through his skull the moment he bolted upright in his bed.

"I... uhm... what?"

Pathetic. Absolutely pathetic. Toshiro's pride would soon crack under the enormous weight of his stupidity.

Ichimaru tutted softly and handed him a glass of water, along with a pair of small, chalk-white pills. "Painkillers," he explained.

Toshiro swallowed his embarrassment and reached out to take them. Freaking out would do him no good – acting calm and collected was the best he could do. "Thank you."

"You're welcome."

Ichimaru watched him as Toshiro gulped down the pills and he fought not to squirm under the unwanted attention. It seemed as if he was waiting for him to say something, which was fair enough. It wasn't every day a childless teacher had to deal with drunken teenagers knocking at their door in the middle of the night.

"I'm sorry about this," Toshiro said, summoning enough courage to look him squarely in the eye. "I was really drunk, as you may have noticed, and it wasn't my intention to drag you into my troubles. Thank you for the help anyway."

Ichimaru's lips lengthened further into his smirk and he made a thoughtful 'hmm', which Toshiro wasn't quite sure what to make of, then he stood and stretched languidly. Toshiro wondered how long he'd been sitting there.

"I have nothin' against helpin' someone who needs it. To be honest, I'm flattered you came to me. Though I suppose you don't have to many friends to go to," he added silkily. His ever-present smirk changed into a small, sly grin, and Toshiro swore he heard a vein pop up on his forehead.

"Well, you're not one to talk," he said, sounding more wounded than intended.

"No, I suppose not. I rather enjoy frightening little children, and that doesn't give people very high thoughts of me."

Toshiro tried in vain to fuel his anger – it was much easier to deal with than insecurity, considering the situation he'd been thrown into – but the smile wriggled its way to his mouth and he was unable to resist a laugh. Ichimaru looked rather pleased with himself for a moment, then his face turned solemn and he said, "You don't think your parents are worried?"

His eyes flicked to the bruise on Toshiro's cheek. Despite himself, Toshiro dropped his eyes and watched his hands fingering the bedsheets nervously.

"She'll be fine," he lied. There was a short pause in which Toshiro could feel the intensity of Ichimaru's calculating gaze.

"You think so?" Ichimaru sounded doubtful, but his voice was void of any accusation.

"I think I know my mother pretty well," he replied, barely containing an edge of hostility. Toshiro looked up to meet – well, not his eyes, but his squint. Ichimaru seemed on the verge of saying something, but then appeared to think better of it and made his leave. He called back, "Breakfast downstairs, clean clothes on the floor."

And sure enough, as Toshiro peered over the edge of his bed he spotted a pair of neatly folded jeans under a black shirt. He felt a stab of guilt at the thought of everything Ichimaru did for him, but reasoned with himself that it would be more appropriate to be thankful. He could make it up to him sometime. At that thought, Toshiro struggled to keep the fantasies at bay.

He slipped out of the shirt (Ichimaru's, his head reminded him) and tried in new, creative ways to keep the new, still-too-big clothes from falling off. They were hardly successful, but he managed to avoid tripping in them during his journey to the kitchen.

Toshiro stepped into the kitchen, stopped, and stepped out again.

Ichimaru. In an apron. If he didn't have such a headache and an image to maintain, he would have died laughing.

"I assume you like bacon?"

"Yeah." He hated bacon, actually. But somehow it didn't seem like an appropriate thing to say.

Ichimaru's chuckle sounded from within the kitchen. "Liar. How do you like my apron, by the way? Latest fashion, I've heard."

Toshiro barely managed to hold in his laughter this time. He re-entered the kitchen and walked up to where Ichimaru was standing by the stone, schooling his features into a serious expression. By the look on the teacher's face, he wasn't fooled.

"Can I help you with anything?" Toshiro asked, looking around him. The kitchen was relatively small; the tapestry on the walls were a creamy white colour and the floors were made up of light, wooden tiles. By the right wall was an oval-shaped table with a set of chairs placed under a broad window, which revealed a small backyard.

"Set the table." Ichimaru nodded towards the plates and glasses stacked up next to him. Toshiro carried them over, moving with care to prevent irritating the soreness in his body. He could feel Ichimaru's eyes on his back, but felt he did a decent job at ignoring it as he lay out the dishes. Toshiro knew that the questions were at the tip of his tongue, and he was impressed with Ichimaru's resistance at asking them thus far.

Soon they were both seated and Ichimaru dealt him a decent amount of bread and eggs, but kept from giving him any bacon. All his life Toshiro had been so impressed with his own ability to hide his feelings, and here Ichimaru was reading him with obvious ease. His pride mewled in pain.

They ate in comfortable silence, the clinking of cutlery serving as a pleasant background noise.

"Ya know..." The peace was broken as Ichimaru put down his fork, no longer feigning nonchalance. His eyes found Toshiro's, sharp with intention. "Runnin' away never solved any problems. Don't you think it's best to talk to her?"

Toshiro put down his fork as well and swallowed down the bile in his throat.

"I think," he said through gritted teeth, "That you should be careful to give opinions on something you know nothing about." He almost winced at the chill in his own voice. Raw, irrational hurt was building up in him – Ichimaru was just trying to help, he reminded himself. Although it was a touchy subject that not even Hinamori breeched lightly, it was silly of him to demand no questions after barging, drunk and beaten, into his house. Somehow he had hoped that Ichimaru would understand, that he wouldn't push him (which he hadn't, not really, his mind scolded).

Ichimaru sighed and looked out the window. For a moment Toshiro thought he looked pained. "I know you don't want me to meddle with your affairs, and I won't, but you can't keep comin' here."

What?

"Why?" His voice had been reduced to a soft whisper. Ichimaru still wouldn't look him in the eye.

"It's best if we don't meet outside of school hours, or that you rely on me. I'm not blind, you know."

At first Toshiro wondered if he'd heard him wrong, or if he'd misinterpreted his words, or if Ichimaru had actually said anything at all. But then he turned back to him, his eyes stripped of the warmth he'd previously displayed, and Toshiro knew that he'd read his words correctly. They weighed down in his stomach like heavy, black stones, churning painfully as they echoed in his head, over and over again.

I'm not blind, you know.

He knew. He knew. Fuck, he really was an idiot. Toshiro realized now that he'd actually been hoping to see his feelings returned, hoping that Kurosaki and Grimmjow's reassurances hadn't been empty – but that small flicker of hope was crushed without mercy. He took another glance at Ichimaru, whose face was now drawn into a mocking smirk, his eyes fully closed, and he seemed to be enjoying himself immensely. Everything came crashing down on him all at once.

"Yes, of course." His voice was papery thin and quivering, but he didn't care. "Sorry, and thanks again. I won't bother you any more."

Toshiro stood up and left. Ichimaru didn't stop him.


Ripped Normality
Chapter 07

He was unaware of how he eventually found his way home. Hours had been lost in between, and even his drunken wandering the night before had brought him to Ichimaru's house in barely more than an hour.

He stepped up onto the porch, hesitating with a hand on the door handle.

It wasn't locked.

That was a measure of his mother's forgiveness, if a small one, but he still had no idea what was hidden behind the gesture. Perhaps she was lulling him into a false sense of security, wanting to catch him unaware and inflict guilt and self-hatred upon him. He knew it was horrible of him to speculate about everything she did, but anything that distracted from the sting in his chest would suffice, even if it brought on an entirely different set of baggage. The weight of family was something he had long since become accustomed to, and though it was a painful subject, it was rooted so deeply within him that it added to the welcome sense of normality.

He calmly folded his jacket and stepped out of his shoes, inspecting his eyes in the mirror to see if they were red.

Ichimaru's eyes shone red in the dark.

He jerked himself away, not being able to stand the sight of his white hair – Ichimaru's hair, softer, but equally bright – his pale skin – like Ichimaru's skin, though not as pale – and the large shirt he still wore…

And then his thoughts were chased away by the opening kitchen door; his mother stepped into the hallway, her tear-streaked face relieved as she saw him, and then he was clutched in her bony arms, listening to her chant of "I'm sorry" and "bad mother" and "forgive me" that seemed to have no end. He absently noticed that she had tried to clean the carpet where he'd been sick – a flash of blood, a fist, a mop – but there was a large, uneven stain that even a bottle of bleach couldn't remove (it stood by the wall, empty). He couldn't help but think that the stain was a lot like his crush on Ichimaru – a dark spot on a white carpet, doomed to be cut apart and scorned, crushed in the jaws of a merciless machine or burned on a stake (hell if he knew where ruined carpets ended up).

So fitting that he'd called it his crush.

He didn't tell her that it was all right this time. This time, he stepped out of her arms and left her crying in the hallway, deviating from his path only to filch the water boiler and a bag of crisps from the kitchen. As he walked up the stairs, he didn't look back once, ignoring the harsh sobs intruding on the quiet morning.

He couldn't stand the sight of her.

He ended up skipping his tutoring sessions the entire week, like he had barricaded himself in his room over the weekend. Instead, he spent his time hiding in a corner of the library, or the cantina – even in his room in the dorms, if he was particularly irate. Ichimaru hadn't approached him. Kurosaki had tried to speak with him on several occasions, sensing something wrong, but inevitably some acquaintance would step by, making any sort of inconspicuousness impossible. Suddenly it was Thursday night, then Friday morning, and classes trailed by, taunting him with Ichimaru's hidden eyes and thoughts of what could have been if what could never be was possible.

Someone knocked on his dorm door.

"It's open," he said. He was supposed to have packed his things for the weekend, as all dorm students had to go home. It was four o'clock, and the buses left at half past. His bag lay empty on the floor.

A tuft of orange hair appeared, followed by a frowning face.
Toshiro lay still on his bed, looking at his visitor with detached curiosity. "Kurosaki," he said in greeting, voice gritty and lifeless.

"Toshiro," Kurosaki nodded at him, closing the door softly. He approached the bed with quiet steps, for some reason not wearing shoes (he had two different socks, too), and sat down by Toshiro's head. Kurosaki's hand brushed through his hair, and he closed his eyes, leaning into the comforting touch.

"Why couldn't I just have fallen in love with you?" Toshiro said, sighing.

"And have you fight Grimm?" Ichigo chuckled, messing up his hair. "No way, kiddo. I prefer ya alive."

"Hn. Still unfair."

The sound of rushed packing permeated the walls, and he thought he heard Kira's frantic voice over the background noise, climbing into a tone register that couldn't possibly be considered male as a sudden crash shook the floor. Abarai's laugh was loud, even through wood and insulation.

Tch. Unorganised idiots.

"What did he say?" Kurosaki didn't give the impression of caring very much, but that was fine: exaggerated concern was annoying.

Toshiro didn't know whether it was because of his mother, Ichimaru's rejection or his disputes with Hinamori – but it all rushed out in a soliloquy worthy of Shakespeare. Kurosaki kept brushing through his hair absently, listening silently with the occasional nod or sound of agreement.

It was oddly freeing, having a 'partner in crime'. Kurosaki was a decent guy, not the delinquent he appeared to be, and Toshiro was relieved to have ended up with a… friend like him. (He wasn't entirely sure what to call them, what with Ichimaru and strange crushes and the whole private gay community thing. God, he sounded like a pillock…)

"I don't want to go home," Toshiro said at last. "Every time it happens she'll cry, say that it's the last time she loses it, but every single time… she just… Damn, I don't know." He sighed. "We never really talk about anything. Hinamori told me that my mother's seeing someone again yesterday. Asked me what I thought of him, said he sounded like a nice guy, though she didn't know much. I told her I wasn't sure, and she got really angry, said I didn't have to be such a bastard all the time. I didn't even know, for fuck's sake."

Kurosaki's hand kept on brushing through his hair absently, the other caressing his brow to ease his headache. Toshiro wondered whether he often comforted his sisters in the same way, and his nose twitched slightly. (He had really fallen far, comparing himself to post-nightmare crying girls barely into their teens.)

"I don't know – perhaps she thinks I won't be such a nuisance if she ignores me, that she won't have to remember my… father." Toshiro hesitated briefly, but pushed on, knowing that the words would stay in his mind like a festering wound until he let it bleed out. "Forgetting what happened. What she did…" Again and again. His breathing hitched, but kept its rhythm, painstakingly controlled.

Kurosaki made him sit up and slung an arm around his shoulder, squeezing Toshiro slightly closer to his side.

"Hey," Kurosaki said. "It's all right. You've got us now, me and Grimm." His voice took on a playful tone. "We might not be the best parental figures, but I'm sure you can be our adoptive lil' brother. Or sister."

Toshiro gave a strangled laugh, hitting Kurosaki's arm weakly. "As if my mental age isn't years beyond the both of you together, which you just proved," he muttered obstinately, only serving to make Kurosaki smile, ruffling his hair yet again. "Stop that!"

"I made you laugh, didn't I?"

Toshiro sent him a wan smile, flopping back down on the bed. The evil digital clock's numbers blinked 04:23.

"I still don't want to go home…"

Kurosaki studied him speculatively, before he got a determined look on his face and stood up, holding out his hand.

"Come on," he said, grinning. "We're gonna go find Grimm."

"Ya kiddin' me?"

"But Grimm-"

"No fuckin' way!"

"Grimm!"

"I'm no hotel or any-"

"Couch."

"-thing… Wait a – what?" Kurosaki grinned, looking anything but innocent. "You wouldn't…" Grimmjow began.

"Hell yes, I would! And you know me…" Kurosaki stepped closer to Grimmjow, "persistent," step, "determined," step, "outrageously good fuck, in your own words…"

Grimmjow had never looked as predatory before, which said quite a lot – but he seemed to be contemplating Kurosaki's suggestion. Toshiro coughed uncomfortably.

"I top for two months," Grimmjow said suddenly. Toshiro choked.

"Two weeks," Kurosaki said.

"Five."

"Three."

"A month."

"Deal," Kurosaki said, grinning devilishly, muttering something that sounded suspiciously like "as if I mind anyway".

Toshiro shook his head, closing his eyes as he rubbed the bridge of his nose. I did not need to know that, he thought, shaking his head as Kurosaki and Grimmjow squabbled in the background.

"Hey! Give me that!"

He sighed.

What did I get myself into this time?

Grimmjow's apartment was in the middle of Halda, in an old townhouse – Toshiro wouldn't have reached the ceiling even if he stood on Grimmjow's shoulders with his hands in the air. It had three rooms: a bathroom, a bedroom and the kitchen-slash-living room.

The window sills were gigantic and their paint was cracked, but all in all, it was nice enough. There was a mattress on the floor in the "living room", as well as a blue second-hand sofa. The TV seemed relatively new, though it was not the largest, but what surprised him the most was how everything fit together so well. (Who knew Grimmjow had such a talent for interior design?) There were even a few plants. Some of the leaves and flowers were sagging, but they were in a rather good condition, considering their home.

The flat was tiny, but sleek and charming – not at all like Grimmjow.

"How come you have an apartment?" Toshiro said. People didn't usually move to Halda to go to school: considering that the courses were standard pretty much at every intermediate school, it was not the most logical course of action.

"You call this tiny thing an apartment?" Grimmjow snorted. "More like a piece of shit."

"At least it's stylish shit," Kurosaki said, slapping the top of Grimmjow's head. "And that wasn't his question."

Grimmjow grumbled, tossing his bag to the floor as he whirled around, putting his arms around Ichigo's hips and throwing him over his shoulder.

"You stupid- OAF! Put me down, put me down!"

Grimmjow ignored him, turning to face Toshiro.

"I got into a bit of trouble where my father lives - bad publicity for his company, y'know, so I was removed from the area and ended up here." Grimmjow winced as Ichigo stopped squirming, apparently having found that other techniques were more persuasive. "Have to work to afford it, but- GODDAMNIT! WILL YOU STOP THAT?"

"Not till you put me down!"

"Bite my- FINE, JUST STOP THAT! Fuck…"

Ichigo was unceremoniously heaved onto the sofa, head hitting the arm rest. He scowled at Grimmjow, who was rubbing his arse with a sour face.

"See if you get any tonight…" Ichigo muttered.

"I'm working tonight, Strawberry."

"Asshole."

"That's your job, dear."

Toshiro was starting to reconsider not going home, but dismissed the notion almost immediately. He could handle this. His insane friends-of-sorts had nothing on his mentally unstable parent.

"Think the two of you could keep it quiet for a bit?" Toshiro said, gesturing to his phone. "I have to call my mother."

Ichigo gave him a sympathetic grin and dragged Grimmjow to the kitchen corner, opening the freezer to have a look. Grimmjow gestured to his bedroom, muttering, "If you'd like some privacy…"

Toshiro nodded in thanks, and made his way into Grimmjow's clean, but very messy, bedroom. There were no chairs, and he didn't dare sit on the bed, so he moved towards the window, eyeing the rumpled sheets distrustfully.

He took a deep breath, dialling the number before he could chicken out. The dialling tone cut through the voices from the other room, heralding the imminent phone call of doom.

"Hitsugaya residence."

He bit his lip.

"Hello, mother."

He could hear her breath hitch.

"Toshiro?" her voice whispered, gaining a little strength as she spoke. "Is that you? What's the matter?"

He sighed, staring out of the window at the traffic down below.

"I'm not coming home today."

Silence.

"I'm staying at a friend's place. Don't think I'll be over for a while."

"But what about clothes, and food?" she said, pausing. "It costs a lot of money to-"

"I know," he interrupted. He couldn't pretend to be unaffected by her agitation, but he simply couldn't deal with her problems any longer. "I'll call, some time. All right?"

He didn't wait for her to say good bye before he ended the call.

A car honked in the street. He closed his eyes and let his forehead hit the cold glass.

Grimmjow was easier to live with than he had imagined, presuming one could ignore the noises; Ichigo seemed to be more pleased than Grimmjow with their negotiations, something Toshiro would gladly have stayed ignorant of. (He had also arrived at the conclusion that using someone's first name was less conflicting with his code of privacy than knowing the basics of someone's sexual activities, which he'd sourly told Ichigo the following morning – upon which he'd jokingly been given an invitation to join them.)

Ichigo and Grimmjow were both cacophonic hell-raisers when put together, but oddly enough, when separated they were rather calm (compared to other people) and serious (though grumpy was a more fitting description).

It was a Saturday. Grimmjow was at work – a nearby convenience store, apparently – and Ichigo was keeping Toshiro company, coincidentally having brought his math book. When Toshiro sent him a look, he was gifted with a sheepish grin and a shrug. He snorted, shaking his head: far be it from him to deny Ichigo help with maths. He was already in his debt.

Math was unable to keep their attention for long, no matter the intricacies of Pythagoras' theorem, cosines and tangents. Ichigo didn't seem to be very fond of it, if his frown was any indication. When Ichigo threw his textbook across the room, he figured they deserved a break and fled the couch to search for food and a movie.

A little while later, they were parked on the sofa with a bag of crisps by their side and brownies on a plate on the table. Toshiro had reluctantly agreed to Lord of the Rings, if only because the elf-boy was handsome. (How would Ichimaru look with long hair, he wondered…)

Ichigo had been switching between watching the screen and Toshiro, and frankly, it was beginning to get quite annoying. He was just going to confront him when Ichigo finally decided to speak up.

"Ichimaru's a bastard, yeah?" Ichigo said, looking away from the screen yet again. "Perhaps he's just scared."

"Your words are poison," Éowyn said on the screen, voice quivering as she stared hatefully at Grima.

Toshiro's laugh was hollow and dark.

"Trying to be funny?"

"I think he's afraid of what could happen."

"Ichimaru tends to inspire fear, not feel it."

"And that's where I think you're wrong," Ichigo said pointedly, with a stern glare that demanded he listen. "I've heard things, y'know. From before he left. He was a mess. I think he's so afraid of being hurt that he's shut himself away, and is terrified that you'll find out what he's really like, 'cause we still think he likes ya."

Toshiro couldn't help but stare at him, gaping. He absently noted the constant use of "we" – Grimmjow and Ichigo were getting quite serious, it seemed.

"Since when were you so damned perceptive?"

Ichigo threw a pillow at him, trying to suppress a smile. (Toshiro was surprised Grimmjow even had pillows, though on the other hand, Ichigo seemed to be rather fond of them…)

"You'll find more cheer in a graveyard," Gimli the dwarf said.

"Pillow-biter," Toshiro muttered, and Ichigo grinned.

"And proud of it," he said. "As long as my dad doesn't find out quite yet, I'm good."

Toshiro's eyebrows lifted in a silent question.

"He's barking mad," Ichigo said. "Would give me an endless stream of brochures and talks and fuss about it like hell. And Grimmjow's still in the closet, believe it or not. Thinks it will harm his manliness, some shit like that." Ichigo sighed, stretching as he stood up. "Like anything to drink?"

"Tea?"

"Sure," Ichigo said. A few steps brought him to the "kitchen" – a small part of the same room – and he put the kettle on and started diving into the cupboards for tea, obviously familiar with using Grimmjow's things. "Told your mum yet?"

"Told her about what?"

"That you're… well, not about Ichimaru, 'course, but that you're gay."

"No. She'd freak."

Ichigo stuck his head out of the cupboard, accidentally hitting the top edge.

"Ouch," he said wryly, rubbing his head. "Why?"

"She's practically been planning my wedding to Hinamori since we were kids."

Ichigo whistled, turning back to the cupboard. He blinked. Then, he made a triumphant noise as he picked up a box of tea bags from the top of the fridge.

When Ichigo handed him an elegant cup of Earl Grey, he smiled weakly.

"There's no mistaking who's the wife around here," Toshiro said.

Ichigo scowled. "For that comment, no cookies for you."

Toshiro looked at Ichigo over the rim of his cup. "Of course, Mrs Grimm," he said. "The missus of the house knows best."

"Shut it. If you weren't holding that cup…"

"It wouldn't do to waste perfectly nice tea."

"Indeed, Mrs Teacher."

"Fuck off."

They sat there in silence for a while, watching the film and sipping their tea. Ichigo relented and let Toshiro have a cookie ("though just one, Miss").

"Open war is upon you, whether you would risk it or not," Aragorn told Théoden. Toshiro sighed, not having the proper attention span to appreciate any movie at the moment, much less the second Lord of the Rings movie.

He glanced over at Ichigo. Something he'd said earlier…

"What happened to Ichimaru before he left?" Toshiro said.

Ichigo kept his eyes firmly on the screen, mouth tightening as he shifted in his seat.

"That's Ichimaru's business," he admonished, sounding strangely compassionate. "Don't mess with it unless Ichimaru says something himself." After a few seconds, he added, "And don't believe in everything people say."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Sometimes people get the wrong end of the stick, that's all."

"But-"

"Ichimaru didn't deserve what happened. Let's leave it at that."

"Does this have anything to do with why you're sure he's interested?"

"Back off, Toshiro," Ichigo said sternly. "This really is none of your business."

"Apparently it is, considering that I'm in the middle of it!"

Ichigo looked at him.

"No," he said. "Ask Ichimaru, if anyone. Now watch the film, or I'm gonna leave."

Life without Ichimaru went on. Remnants of his devastation would catch up with him from time to time, but classes took on the air of normality once more, even though he still hid behind lockers rather than meet the assistant teacher. His biggest problem was that his life couldn't stay without Ichimaru for much longer – Toshiro was quite good at maths, but without any sort of instruction he was falling behind. He couldn't ask anyone else, either, as Ichimaru was supposed to help him during tutoring classes, and he still couldn't bring himself to talk to him.

He understood perfectly where Ichimaru was coming from by rejecting him, though it still hurt. If he had been in the opposite position, he would have tried to restrict their time together and made it obvious that he wasn't interested. It would threaten Ichimaru's job, Toshiro's grades, their social standing in the local community, even Ichimaru's freedom: having an illicit affair simply wouldn't be worth the cost.

Yet, some part of Toshiro was sure it would have been, though perhaps that was a hope better fitted for dreams. Toshiro usually didn't bother with childish fantasies, but he held on to it for a little longer, knowing reality would crash down upon him soon enough.

It had only been a question of time. The time came the following Tuesday, November 18th, a few minutes past noon, with a single sentence of doom.

"Hitsugaya, stay after class."

Toshiro slowly gathered his things as the other students left the classroom. As Hinamori walked past, she kept her eyes firmly on the door. The door closed behind her with a loud click, and he sighed, oddly relieved that she chose not to confront him on his friendship with Ichigo and his beau quite yet. Ichimaru's eyes felt heavy on his shoulders.

"I hope you realise that I've been lenient with you," Ichimaru began, voice sharp and reprimanding. "I had also hoped you'd realise that it couldn't continue." Ichimaru's chair scraped against the floor as he stood up, but Toshiro kept his eyes on his hands, resting on the desk beside his books. "I won't let you ruin your life over this. It's not worth it."

At this, Toshiro lifted his head to glare at him.

"It could have been," he muttered icily. Ichimaru shook his head.

"You're allowin' your weakness to get the upper hand of you."

"I'm not weak!"

Ichimaru smirked maliciously.

"Then, what do you call it? Moping about your silly crush?" He gave a short laugh. "Don't delude yerself, 'Gaya. It's unbecoming." His voice softened, almost imperceptibly. "You hardly know me, much less love me."

Toshiro recognised the truth in his words, however unwillingly. Could he truly love someone he had known for mere months? He shook his head mentally – he had never claimed anything but to be in love, even to himself. Ichimaru had no right to put words into his mouth.

"I'm not weak," he insisted, yet again. "If I was weak, I would have broken years ago."

"Yet you bend so easily." Ichimaru leered at him.

The annoyance that had been bubbling in his chest boiled to a molten rage, firing lightning through his synapses, making his hands tingle with the desire to hurt. "How dare you," he hissed, almost standing up, but the desk was in the way. "I wasn't the one who addressed this issue. Why didn't you just leave me be?!"

Ichimaru ignored his rage, smirking almost indulgently.

"So you won't deny it?"Ichimaru walked up to Toshiro's desk, leaning on his hands to bring his eyes level with Toshiro's. "Admit it, 'Gaya. You would bend over for me in a heartbeat."

Toshiro struggled to put his books in his bag, but his hands were shaking too much to let them fit, and his mind kept shouting –Why does he say that? How can he know? Why this torture?

"I hate you," he whispered, refusing to look up at Ichimaru's face. In the corner of his eye, he could see Ichimaru smirk as he stumbled from his seat, rushing toward the exit.

"Quarter to one, my office," Ichimaru said. "Don't be late."

Toshiro slammed the door as he left, making Grimmjow, who was reclining "inconspicuously" against the wall, jump and curse, almost dropping the cigarette in his hand. A trail of smoke hovered in the air from his small bout of arm-waving. Toshiro glanced at it as Grimmjow fell into step with him, watching the smoke dissipate as they walked through it.

"Smoking in the hallways?" he said, more out of rule-abiding habit than a reprimand. "Not something you should do if you want to graduate this year."

Grimmjow scoffed. "I'd like to see them stop me."

After a very conspicuous glance from behind his blue fringe, Grimmjow seemingly decided to let Ichigo deal with things later. The smallest trace of amusement filtered through his anger: Ichigo and Grimmjow, in some weird, twisted way, complimented each other perfectly. He briefly tried to imagine one of them with a girl like Hinamori – it was a laughable picture.

Instead of confronting Toshiro's temper head-on, Grimmjow lifted his cigarette slightly, waving it at Toshiro. He frowned at him, glancing around the hall. Really, one would think Grimmjow would develop a sense of self-preservation… Self-preservation? Grimmjow? Toshiro shook his head. Who was he kidding? Grimmjow chuckled – it was one of those dark, amused chuckles that said, 'you're just a scared little shit'. Toshiro fleetingly wondered whether he had missed the class called Predator 101, for Grimmjow and Ichimaru seemed to have aced it.

"Where's Ichigo?" Toshiro said.

"Said he had something to do today." Grimmjow shrugged. "I ain't his babysitter, kiddo."

"You're his boyfriend."

Grimmjow's eyebrow twitched as his eyes flicked from side to side, looking for anyone close enough to hear, before he turned to face Toshiro, looming above him with at least ten inches.

"Don't say that," Grimmjow growled. "Not here. It sounds…" He trailed off, unable to explain what horrors went through his mind. From his expression, it wasn't anything nice. "Just shut up!" he snapped, marching down the hall while his hands clenched and unclenched jerkily.

Toshiro looked after him, puzzled, yet amused.

Who knew Grimmjow could feel concern for anyone but himself?

He had not a doubt that it was concern that brought Grimmjow to wait outside the classroom. What bemused him was whether it was of his own volition, or Ichigo's.

From the corner of his eye, he could see the fiery red hair of Abarai, and by his side, a frowning Hinamori and smitten Kira. Hinamori caught his eyes for a moment, and seemed to plead with him – for what, he couldn't fathom.

Toshiro smiled darkly to himself and turned down the hall, following the faint scent of cigarette smoke.

He found Grimmjow at the corner where he and Ichigo usually smoked. It felt strange to see him there on his own, all of a sudden, and it struck him that he was the only one who recognised this. Ichigo and Grimmjow were grouped together in his mind, inseparable and invincible. Had one of them suddenly disappeared, they would never have been anything in the eyes of others. Such was the curse of secrecy, he pondered, and in the wake of this, he couldn't help but think…

Could it really be worth the consequences to have the same thing with Ichimaru? Secrets and lies traded into small kisses where nobody could see?

Surely he couldn't compare his own situation with that of Grimmjow and Ichigo. Ichimaru was a creepy bastard who loved… creeping people out. Grimmjow and Ichigo belonged to each other.

His inner romantic melted into a puddle on the ground. The remaining ninety percent of his personality scowled and jumped on top of it, howling about silly notions of love and stupid brains.

"What's gotten into you?"

Toshiro looked up, surprised to see that he had already reached the corner of the building, and even passed it by ten yards. He flushed, moving back to lean against the concrete wall beside Grimmjow.

"I'm fine," Toshiro muttered. "Just a lot on my mind."

Grimmjow offered him a smoke – this time, he took it. He struggled to light it until Grimmjow laughingly told him to inhale while keeping the flame by the end.

"Shut it," Toshiro said, scowling. Grimmjow grinned, but seemed to sense his mood; there would be no more teasing today. Another day, however, he wouldn't be as lucky.

Toshiro inhaled deeply with his lips around the end of his cigarette – and coughed violently, despite his mental preparation. He gave Grimmjow a deadly glare when he saw his lips twitch, but he made no comment. When he finally caught his breath he inhaled once more, briefly. He felt a slight itch in his chest, urging him to cough, but ignored the reflex stubbornly, casting another dark look at Grimmjow. He was taking far too much amusement from Toshiro's first try at smoking.

The clock was barely half past noon when he looked at his phone display. He took a deep breath.

"Say we skip school and go get some stuff from my mother's house?"

Grimmjow looked at him. "No."

"But-" Toshiro cut himself off, afraid of sounding like a child. He composed himself, hiding his expression behind a cold front. "Why not?"

Grimmjow took one last drag of his cigarette and threw it onto the ground, grinding it into a dirty mess beneath his shoe. The ground was moist from last night's rain, and made the brown leaf fragments and paper look severely unappetising.

It wasn't until a car drove past that Grimmjow lifted his gaze.

"I skip whenever I feel like it," Grimmjow said. "But you wanna do it 'cause you're afraid. I know that Mr Creepy asked you to meet up today, and I ain't joining in on any skipping just because you're a coward."

"I'm not a coward," Toshiro said sullenly, getting the sensation of déjà vu.

"Stop lying to yourself," Grimmjow said as he started walking back to the main entrance. "It's stupid."

The bell rang.

Toshiro conceded defeat and trailed after him, looking longingly at the bus stop down the road.

Ichimaru smirked as Toshiro stepped into the room and closed the door a tiny bit too forcefully. "Aww, you came," he said mockingly. "And here I thought you'd run out on me."

Toshiro scowled, but refrained from answering. Ichimaru suddenly looked far more sinister.

"I'm disappointed," he said. "I'll admit crushes are hard things, but I didn' think you'd let it control your life like this."

"And have you mock me at every corner?"

Ichimaru sighed dramatically.

"Alas, I've been exposed!" He laughed brightly: falsely. Ichimaru circled around him, and Toshiro, refusing to turn with him, lost sight of his position. His heart beat heavily in his throat.

"It's amusing, isn't it?" a voice whispered in his ear. "Everyone calls ya ice prince, yet you have such a hot temper…"

The office door opened, and Ichimaru jumped away. Toshiro twirled around, only to come face to face with – the biggest boobs he had ever seen.

"Gin!" the owner of the boobs said, though there was a glimmer of laughter in her eyes when he looked up at her face. "What did I say about scaring the kids?"

Ichimaru scratched his head, looking like the epitome of innocence. It was a startling transformation. "Not to do it?" he said, lips curling in a half-smirk, half-smile.

She shook her head, making her blonde hair dance around her shoulders.

"Hisagi called," she said. "He didn't know you were back. I thought you were going to talk to-"

Ichimaru stopped her with a stern gaze, casting a glance at Toshiro. She seemed to understand that it wasn't the right time, and her blue eyes turned to him, twinkling. Toshiro knew she was the reception lady, but he couldn't for the life of him remember her name.

"Hello!" she said brightly, almost bouncing. Her breasts jiggled nauseatingly, and he wrinkled his nose. "Matsumoto Rangiku, at your service!" She made a mocking salute, and Toshiro snorted.

"Hitsugaya Toshiro," he replied, lifting an eyebrow. "And what services might that be?" Damn it. He'd spent too much time around Ichigo and Grimmjow.

Matsumoto's laugh was loud and exuberant. "I like this one," she told Ichimaru in a stage whisper. "Can't you keep him?"

The both of them must have turned a rather peculiar shade of white, for her eyes widened almost immediately. "Gin!" she exclaimed. "Don't tell me you-"

"No!" Ichimaru said – too quickly. He put a hand on Toshiro's shoulder, squeezing slightly. His breath sounded carefully controlled. "I think we should postpone this till tomorrow," he said. "After hours?"

Toshiro nodded, transfixed by their proximity.

For some time, they simply stared at each other. They were so close – if only Ichimaru had leant forward, their lips would have touched.

Ichimaru let his hand fall from his shoulder, and reality seemed to knock again. Matsumoto was watching them silently.

As Toshiro closed the door behind himself, he rested his back against it and closed his eyes.

"Gin," Matsumoto's voice said, dulled by the wooden door.

"Don't wanna talk 'bout it."

"And Hisagi? He's-"

"That's years ago-"

Toshiro took off down the hall, deciding that it would be a good time to skip school anyway.

That's it.