Dance with the Devil
Characters: Shuuhei, Kenpachi, Yachiru, mentions of others
Warnings: Zaraki's foul mouth
Description:Companion to Blind and Poisoned Rationality. Friendship deepens, and Shuuhei discovers the honesty of the eleventh division.
His waraji scraped across the hard-paced dirt as Shuuhei was shoved backwards, barely catching himself from hitting the ground. He stumbled under the sheer strength and force of Zaraki's attack and struggled to regain his balance. Panting, the vice-captain looked up, fingers tightening around the hilt of his zanpakutou.
He could feel it. The sweat trickling down his back and streaming his brow. His uniform was clinging to his skin, bathed in sweat and covered in dirt and bits of rock. His feet hurt, his muscles ached, and he was certain every blister on his hands had already popped.
But he had honestly never felt more alive.
As he struggled to keep his shaking legs from toppling beneath him, Zaraki-taichou laughed, idly balancing his zanpakutou on his shoulder. "That the best the ninth division has to offer?" he demanded with a feral grin.
Fighting to draw in a breath, Shuuhei blinked a bit of blood from his eye, the result of a lucky strike by the captain. Still, he knew for a fact that the man was holding back. He wasn't out to kill and maim, after all. Or at least not intentionally.
"Tousen was a pacifist."
'And maybe I was, too, once upon a time,' he added without feeling the need to say aloud.
Zaraki arched his brow, clearly unimpressed. "Got him far, didn't it now?" he asked, feeling no need to censor himself.
It was one of the reasons Shuuhei liked talking to him. And it didn't bother the vice-captain as much as it once had to hear how foolish he had been or how easily he had been swayed by Tousen. Instead, he was learning to accept the truth and think for himself, formulate his own opinions. He had been taking pains to reevaluate everything and was actually rather surprised how much actually coincided with Zaraki's sense of honor and battle.
Rather than argue against the captain, Shuuhei merely nodded and charged Zaraki again, despite the fatigue in his muscles screaming for rest. Their zanpakutou met with a fierce clang, the sound rattling through the air.
If he was going to overcome Tousen, he had to start somewhere.
He hadn't intended all those weeks ago to begin training and sparring with Zaraki-taichou, but somewhere along the way, they had inevitably fallen into that pattern. Shuuhei ended up visiting the eleventh often. Sometimes, it was to escape the dark cloud that hung around his own division and the piles of paperwork that a captain was supposed to sign; the same ones he inevitably had to now, even though he was only a vice-captain. Other times, it was because he wanted to be someplace where no one expected anything from him.
He had come to like that about Zaraki and his men. They didn't watch him, waiting for him to show the first signs of cracking or breaking. While Ikkaku and Yumichika were concerned, they didn't hover over him like relentless mother hens as did some of the others. Shuuhei didn't have to put up with stares or furrowed brows or whispers.
At the eleventh, he could just be, and that was what mattered most to him. He didn't even have to watch himself or his actions, catch himself from the occasional curse word that slipped out or turn down the next bowl of sake. He didn't have to pretend to be anything more than he was. None of the fake, overbearing politeness that had been thrust upon him which he never could stand but followed anyway. He didn't have to hide behind rules or a semblance of justice, which in retrospect wasn't really justice at all.
Nothing was expected from him; they demanded nothing. Except strength. Something basic and undefined. But it wasn't necessarily physical strength either. Yachiru was just a slip of a thing, but she was quick, and she was fearless. She could heft her captain over her shoulder, but there were others who were stronger. It was more like... a strength of being. Of understanding one's own self rather than following preset rules and guidelines.
Even if one's own self was just an idiot with overly large muscles.
All in all, it had the strange effect of freeing him in a manner he had never expected.
Honestly, the first time Zaraki suggested they have a match, Shuuhei had been just a little terrified. He had seen the man fight on more than one occasion. He liked Zaraki, but the captain was a demon on the battlefield. He wasn't certain he could come through such a session alive, much less unscathed.
Besides, Tousen had never liked fighting for the sake of fighting, and a bit of his captain's words were still engraved inside of Shuuhei, stubbornly refusing to be erased. He had turned Zaraki down the first time, coming up with some lame excuse that no one believed, much less himself. It wasn't until he was sitting at Tousen's desk, all of the man's words soaking into his bones, staring at a paper that was asking for something he couldn't even begin to comprehend, that he realized why he had turned Zaraki down in the first place.
It occurred to him that maybe he had just gotten a little too complacent with himself. A little too pacifistic. Yumichika was strong, yes. But that complacency was probably the reason he got his ass handed to him by the pretty fifth-seat. Before then, he couldn't honestly remember the last time he had sparred for the sake of sparring or drilled for a reason more than "so I don't get too out of practice."
He had tromped to the eleventh the very next day and told Zaraki he had changed his mind. The captain had laughed at him, eye glinting dangerously, and lifted his sword. Told him to "get his pansy ass out in the courtyard."
From then on, every few days like clockwork, Shuuhei found himself getting wiped from end of the division to the other by the sheer force of Zaraki's zanpakutou. They sparred regularly now, and Shuuhei used the term spar lightly. It really consisted of him desperately trying to survive, while spending most of his time getting acquainted with the wall and the floor and the sharp end of Zaraki's nameless sword.
But every pull in his muscle, every bandaged wound, and every limp he walked home with made him feel just a bit stronger. It made him feel just a bit more like himself.
There were other reasons Shuuhei found himself drawn to the eleventh, outside of the sparring. Often, he and Zaraki would just talk. As strange as that sounded, sitting and sipping sake while having a conversation was actually pretty normal. Shuuhei knew that most of Seireitei would be surprised just how full of insight the eleventh division captain was. Zaraki noticed a lot more than he was given credit for.
It was easy to talk to Zaraki because the man didn't put on airs, didn't put up a wall between himself and others. He was honest and unforgiving, telling people the way something was rather than the way they would rather hear. The captain didn't expect anything out of Shuuhei in the conversation. He didn't prod for answers but let him formulate his own.
And the fact that Shuuhei was from a minor noble family and not Rukongai like the rest of his top and former top officers didn't seem to bother Zaraki. Alright, there was the exception of Iba and Sneaky-Beard, whose name Shuuhei still hadn't figured out despite the fact that the guy was always hanging around. Still, a person's origins had no bearing on Zaraki's acceptance. It was refreshing.
It wasn't just Zaraki that he was growing familiar with either, but Yachiru and the rest of the eleventh as well. Despite their supposed viciousness and lust for blood, they were ridiculously honest individuals. They even seemed to genuinely like each other, even when they were fighting, bickering, and pummeling one another's faces in just for the hell of it. It was vastly different from the polite acceptance of the ninth, where courtesy and civility prevented a person's real feelings from emerging.
He had been growing fond of Yachiru, too, which was rather surprising since he had never really known her before or really talked to her. Considering that they were both vice-captains, one would think they had at least exchanged words. He admitted to himself with some shame that he might have been biased then, a victim of his captain's silent warnings that he had nearly taken for gospel. But Shuuhei wanted to succeed; he had ambition. Therefore, he had rarely questioned Tousen.
Perhaps he should have.
Tousen had always been of the belief that Zaraki was ruining Yachiru, raising her in such an environment. He had also been certain that there was no saving the child; she would be forever tainted by Zaraki's callous and demonic being. Shuuhei had never formed his own opinion on the matter.
But Shuuhei would never forget the day he arrived a little earlier than usual and caught Zaraki-taichou, feared fiend of the eleventh division, playing dolls with his sort-of daughter. Admittedly, theywere attacking each other, and the dolls did appear to be victims of some gruesome war. They had missing limbs and streaks of red over their bodies, which Shuuhei thought might have been blood. But nevertheless, the two were playing together like any parent and child would, and they were playing with dolls. After seeing that, it became harder and harder to dismiss Zaraki as entirely fierce and bloodthirsty. Though he still was.
Yachiru somehow managed to sink beneath his skin with her constant pestering and smiles and nicknames. He was growing used to her occasional weight on his shoulder, just glad that she didn't chew on his head like Ikkaku or steal his stuff for a game of Keep Away like she did to Yumichika. And sometimes, she said the most peculiar things, which set him to brooding about any manner of things.
Namely, just where exactly Ukitake-taichou kept all that candy on him. And why a badass like Zaraki Kenpachi would ever willingly wear bells in his hair, even if it was to prolong a battle and make it more interesting.
And Shuuhei had finally broken down and knitted her a small scarf like she had been begging him to over the past few weeks. Shuuhei didn't know how she had found out about that little skill of his and wasn't about to ask. Yachiru could pretend innocence better than any child he had ever met, though occasionally the effect was lost when she was covered in blood-stains or chocolate stains or any manner of stains. Thus, Shuuhei had chosen a deep red for the color, figuring that it would be the least likely to show such things. Especially the particular stains that seemed to frequent the eleventh division.
It was amusing because she had taken to wearing the scarf around in a manner that suspiciously resembled Kuchiki-taichou. And when others asked, Yachiru told everyone that Pretty-chan had made it for her. They assumed she meant Yumichika, but the eleventh knew better. Since then, Renji had yet to stop teasing him on the matter. Izuru found it incredibly cute, and Shuuhei resolved to knit for one for the third division vice-captain as well. Perhaps a nice blue or a light green. Renji would be lucky if he got a kick to the head, however.
Slowly and surely, Shuuhei was finding himself merging into the eleventh. Not so much that he felt he should change divisions, but that he was learning something new. Making friends. A part of him was even coming to admire Zaraki-taichou. The man was open about everything he did, making no excuses for the way he was. It was significantly easier to approach him about anything, compared to the distance that had always been between Tousen and his squad. Shuuhei suspected that his former captain had done that on purpose, that it wasn't just his personality. It was easier to betray those one didn't truly care for or respect, after all.
Shuuhei was just now getting to the point that he could wonder if his captain had ever respected him at all. Had ever cared for him.
He couldn't help but find it ironic. From the moment Zaraki had stormed into Soul Society, defeated the eleventh division captain in a legitimate battle, and taken command of the squad, Tousen had called him a monster. He had claimed that Zaraki was a creature that served no purpose but to create chaos, that the fearsome man would eventually break the tenuous peace of Soul Society. And then, years later, Tousen himself was the first one to bring chaos. Even as Zaraki had fought to bring him down.
Shuuhei supposed that was true justice in its own way, not Tousen's idealized and selfish form of it.
He had never expected from the moment he took the first step that he and Zaraki Kenpachi would eventually become associates, friends even. Honestly, Shuuhei wasn't entirely sure what he had anticipated. But this easy camaraderie was above his expectations. Not that it was unwanted.
Their growing friendship hadn't been that apparent until the day Zaraki had actually asked him for help, though it wasn't a flat out plea for aid. Understandably so. The captain had his pride, after all.
They had been at the eleventh, sharing a bottle of sake and conversing as usual. Yachiru had been wreaking havoc, gone from her usual perch and leaving them to discuss more serious manners without her peppy input. It was then that Zaraki had brought up the topic of their respective zanpakutou.
"Tryin' to get your bankai, right?"
Shuuhei blinked, looking up from his drink. In the background, the noise of the eleventh division was a dull roar. It surprised him how quickly he had gotten used to the yelling and fighting and laughing.
It took him a moment to register that Zaraki had asked him a question since he had been deep in thought. But he finally nodded.
"If I'm going to take down Tousen, then I at least need to have that."
"You're close though," Zaraki pressed, sounding both curious and intrigued as he reached for the bottle, and it clinked as he refilled his own dish. "Able to see it now, can't ya?"
Shuuhei furrowed his brow, wondering how the captain had known he could manifest his zanpakutou's spirit. He had been working hard, but he had the feeling Amaterasu was disappointed with him. He could understand. He was a bit frustrated with himself, which directly translated to her. Nevertheless, Shuuhei wanted to believe that he was drawing closer and closer every day, the spars with Zaraki surprisingly helping him.
He didn't bother to ask how Zaraki had known.
"I can. Why?"
The man was unusually silent for a moment before he grinned and tapped the hilt of his sword. "He's got a name, and I wanna know what it is. It would be weird ta ask Yumichika or Ikkaku."
Needless to say, Shuuhei was quite surprised. It wasn't as if he were the foremost expert on the matter, but he supposed the captain had a point. He could just imagine either Ikkaku or Yumichika's advice, none of which would be helpful.
Shuuhei frowned in thought, pondering on the matter. "We'll need somewhere quiet," he mused aloud, not really noticing until then that he had left Zaraki without an answer for quite some time.
The captain grunted. "Quiet?"
Clearly the word was lost on him.
Shuuhei fought the urge to laugh outright and settled for a light chuckle. "So you can concentrate. You know... meditate," he explained with a vague gesture.
Zaraki looked skeptical. "Yer tryin' to tell me that idiot Abarai meditated?"
This time, he didn't even fight it. He laughed, nearly drowning his snickers in his sake. The idea of Renji sitting still for any amount of time, much less calm contemplation, was actually pretty amusing. Then again, Renji was awfully driven. Perhaps the two balanced each other out.
"I'm assuming," Shuuhei corrected, once he had regained his breath. "We'll try it first and see if that works. If not..." He paused to shrug. "We'll attempt something else."
The captain made a noncommittal sound in his throat, looking pointedly around them to the noise and bustle. "No use in meditatin' here," he commented, and just the way he said the word nearly set the vice-captain off again.
As if it were as bad as being forced to eat vegetables or scrub behind your ears or such things that were considered good but no one really enjoyed.
Trying to tone down his snickers, and staring pointedly into his dish wondering just how much of the alcohol he had drunk, Shuuhei shook his head. "No, not here. There's a place out in Rukongai that's pretty deserted. No one should bother you there. It's in the fifth district, out past the..." the vice-captain trailed off when he realized just whom he was giving directions to.
If he relied on Zaraki to get himself there, the captain wouldn't arrive until sometime next year. And while the idea was amusing, it was counter-productive.
Amending himself, Shuuhei changed his mind. "Never mind. I should probably just take you."
Moments later, he was surprised by Zaraki's laughter, that familiar tiger's roar. "That's usually the brat's fault," he declared through his guffaws. "I humor her cause it makes her happy." He grinned ferally. "And it draws out the chase."
It was a perfectly Zaraki answer. Shuuhei should have expected it.
Their swords met in a fierce clang, shoving Shuuhei backwards. He tried to regain his lost balance, but his feet encountered a small round rock and sent him flying. He landed harshly on his back, something pointed digging into his lower spine as his sword flew from his exhausted grip. The fall broke him out of his reminiscent reverie, especially when he came face to face with the jagged end of Zaraki's zanpakutou.
Struggling to draw in a breath, Shuuhei merely threw himself back against the ground, arms splayed to the sides. He had nothing left in him to spar with, all of his energy gone. He closed his eyes as he heard Zaraki's dark chuckle above him and waited for the energized hum of his body to cease.
"Yer getting' better," the captain rumbled as Shuuhei heard the distinct sound of a sword into its sheath. "Ya lasted fifteen minutes longer."
Shuuhei cracked open one eye, staring up at his formidable opponent. "My body is warring with itself, and all I've managed is another fifteen minutes?" he demanded, his voice coming out slightly raspy.
He still felt no urge to get up, his muscles screaming and burning with an agony that somehow managed to make him feel triumphant. Besides, the ground wasn't too rocky, even if something was digging into his ass in a decidedly uncomfortable location.
The captain laughed at him, though it was all good-natured. "Can't be helped. That blind bastard ruined ya." He paused, grin turning slightly mischievous as he gleefully added. "Ya even let Yumichika beat ya, remember?"
Shuuhei groaned. "I try not to."
Zaraki sniggered, crossing his arms over his chest. "He says he's more than willing to teach ya a few tricks." He guffawed and then abruptly cut off, face taking on a disturbed look. "Ah, dammit. He might have been talkin' about somethin' else. Forget I said that."
He looked so positively disconcerted that Shuuhei, despite his fatigue, just closed his eye once more and laughed. He knew very well that Yumichika unnerved his captain with his frilly and rather womanly ways.
The call reverberated through the air seconds before Shuuhei felt the wave of reiatsu hurtling their direction. He looked up just in time to see a streak of pink, red, and black immediately glomp onto Zaraki's shoulder. The captain didn't even budge, though the attack must have felt like a small boulder to the back.
"Yachiru," he grunted by way of greeting.
The bubbly girl grinned, kicking her feet excitedly. "Ken-chan won again!" she declared like she had for every spar session. Around her neck fluttered a very familiar scarlet scarf, so Shuuhei wasn't too disappointed. "Now, he can come play!" Yachiru added as if there were to be no argument, further confirming in Shuuhei's mind that it was actually she who called the shots and not Zaraki.
The captain snorted dismissively, but the look he gave her was fond. "Not likely, brat. Go find Ikkaku to chew on or somethin'."
He then unfolded his arms and offered a hand down to Shuuhei. The vice-captain took the aid and allowed Zaraki to haul him to his feet, where he wobbled a bit unsteadily. His legs quivered in their fatigue but somehow managed to maintain his weight. Shuuhei idly wiped beads of sweat and blood from his brow, inwardly remarking that he needed a bath.
Zaraki tilted his head, looking up at the sky to gauge the hour. "Dinner time," he grunted. "Ya headin' back with us, Hisagi?"
Despite the grumbling in his belly, Shuuhei sighed. "I can't," he replied, mournfully as he reached down to grab his zanpakutou and slide it into his sheath. "I've got a stack of paperwork I've been ignoring, and my third-seat's been frantic about something or other."
He didn't really want to decline. Mealtimes at the eleventh division were invariably more amusing than what he spent most of his days doing. It was getting increasingly frustrating, how much work he was expected to do as a stand-in captain. And Soul Society didn't seem to be in any hurry to appoint a new one or give him some aid. Yet another reason he valued Zaraki's sparring sessions. It gave him a place to vent his anger.
"Same time Friday?" Shuuhei posed instead, calculating that after a good soak and two days rest he would be ready to face Zaraki again. Hopefully for more than fifteen minutes longer.
Zaraki grinned as Yachiru bounced on his shoulder. "Maybe I should let Yumichika kick yer ass for once, ne?"
It took all Shuuhei had to keep from flushing in embarrassment. Damned Zaraki had a point.
"I don't think that's necessary," he replied, knowing that the captain was poking fun at him. "Later."
He gave a vague wave of his hand and flash stepped away, leaving Zaraki to find his way back to Seireitei. With Yachiru at his side, the captain was certain to get lost until well-past dinnertime.
It was a small bit of revenge for all those wisecracks.
Shuuhei fought to keep the grin off his face as he headed back to his division, well aware of the sun falling in the sky above him. He did feel as if he were improving, getting stronger in some way. He wasn't sure when he had made the resolution to become skilled enough to beat Tousen, but now, it was his goal. He wanted to be the one to defeat his former captain, to show him true justice. Even if he had to dance with the so-called devil to do it.
AN: Amaterasu is a Japanese sun goddess, whose name means "(That Which) Illuminates Heaven" or also "Shining Heaven." It is also the name I've selected for Shuuhei's zanpakutou. She is considered the most important of the Shinto deities. In her released state, Amaterasu resembles a dual-bladed polearm.
Thanks for reading! This is a ONESHOT. It can be read by itself or with the others. I would appreciate any feedback you have to offer me!