A/N: My muse hit me with a three-ton idea it lifted from an old tale. If it looks familiar, it's probably because it's a rampant bit of plagiarism updated with yaoi-yumminess. I don't know if it counts as plagiarism: the author's been dead for centuries!
Adapted from the Strange Tales of Liaozhai, specifically Xiao Qian (or commonly known as A Chinese Ghost Story)
AU, teeny bitty bit of GinAi (yep, you read that right) and perhaps OOC-ness.
Red Sky in the Morning
The sun was buried behind a bank of heavy gray clouds, and before long heavy raindrops were splattering fatly onto the dusty path. Hurriedly Aizen hopped off his horse, aware that the old, faithful creature was unlikely to be able to carry him all through the night into town. No matter; there was a rundown old temple just down the road and plenty of grass for his old horse.
They plodded down to the ramshackle building. It looked secure enough, Aizen thought doubtfully, aware of the fallen windows and cracked plaster. As he unloaded his baggage from his horse, he heard a rustling. Glancing about he located the huge, twisting mass of a tree in the back, its dark, dead leaves brushing together in sinister whispers. It was the only tree set within a large circle of drying grass. Before he could contemplate further, lightning stabbed multiple points into the ground and thunder crashed.
The physician scanned the surrounds. They were only halfway down the hill to the next town. It was eerily deserted, but Aizen Sousuke had been a regular traveler since he was seventeen. Fifteen years on the road had trained his reflexes as well as his swordsmanship. Deftly securing his sword, Kyoka Suigetsu, to his hip, Aizen went into the temple. The horse took shelter in another roofed shelter, the fallen walls allowing it to peer out for danger.
The temple was dusty and dry inside, though there were a few places where the roof had broken through and rain puddled onto the floor. Aizen found a relatively dry spot, along with some dried grass and some kindling left there by a previous traveler – Aizen would need to prepare some before he left tomorrow – and he proceeded to start a small, cheerful blaze.
Bronze statues of the Goddess of Mercy stared down, the inscrutable gaze tinged with empathy and pity. Aizen bowed respectfully. In one of her guises she protected the travelers from harm, and it never hurt to thank any god that just might be looking over you. The physician stretched and untied his sword, laying it beside his bedroll. If it hadn't been for his friends bequest he would not be here looking for goddess-knew-what.
Still, it was imperative that they isolate the causative agent of the infection. Aizen sighed. He wished he was not the only one who was immune to most poisons and diseases, but then he had been inoculated since his childhood. That was to be expected for a child reared in a distinguished physician's family. If not for the slight mishap involving the mis-prescription, Aizen's father would never have been banished to this benightedly remote area. Then again, if they hadn't moved here, Aizen would never have met his two best friends, Urahara Kisuke and Kyouraku Shunsui.
The thunder rolled ominously again. Aizen felt a tremor pass through his body and hastily set up his bed. His heavy traveling cloak would do as a blanket. As a physician moving from town to town, he was used to such rough nights.
Aizen Sousuke woke to a gentle singing and a sinfully warm bed. He rubbed his eyes, certain that he was not dreaming, but this was surreal. He could not see what was outside; curtains obscured the view. A hint of jasmine hung in the air. Aizen pushed away the fleece blanket that covered him and swung his legs from the bed. The silken curtains, pushed aside, revealed a sumptuous feast laid out on a rich mahogany table, and off to the left there was a raised dais.
On the dais was the most exquisite creature Aizen had ever met.
She – or he? Aizen couldn't really tell – was partially hidden from his gaze by a curtain of red beads. The voice was low and melodious, almost too soft to make out the words, and Aizen decided that it belonged to a man. The zither sang in counterpoint to the mysterious man's voice. Aizen could see that he was fair, fairer than the various ladies Aizen had treated before, and he had a head of silver hair.
The song stopped abruptly.
"You're awake," said the person and languidly pushed the beaded curtain aside. Aizen's breath caught.
He was startlingly... different.
Not beautiful, no, but striking and unforgettable. Silver hair, like the sheen of the moon on a placid lake; thin, pointed face, his slitted eyes accented with sweeps of red powder at the edges; slender hands that gestured gracefully as if in a dance.
"What happened?"asked Aizen quietly, not daring to speak aloud lest he woke from this fantasy. "Who are you?"
The man smiled. "I suppose you are hungry," he commented, ignoring both of Aizen's questions. He stepped off the dais, and Aizen then noticed the thin scarlet robe the man wore. Did he not feel the chill?
Before he knew what he was doing, Aizen reached for the thick blanket on the bed behind and walked to the mysterious stranger, draping the warm fabric around thin shoulders.
The man appeared startled and pleased. "Thank you, sir."
"I'm not hungry, I had a good dinner," said Aizen in response to his earlier remark. "Who are you?"
The man tilted his head and placed a finger on Aizen's chin. Then he leaned in, his cool breath and the scent of jasmine a heady perfume. "Who do you want me to be?"
Aizen studied this odd creature and carefully took the pale, thin hands. They were cold, very cold. The fragrance increased in intensity and the dark-haired physician drew back.
"I do not wish to play games, sir," he stated. The man retreated slightly and pulled his hands from Aizen's hold. "Who are you?"
"I'm no one," answered the man, looking away.
Aizen sighed. He had faced such obstinacy in patients before and thus proceeded to treat this man the same way as he does all his stubborn patients. Reaching out, he turned the pale, pointed face towards himself.
"My name," said Aizen, gazing into the slitted eyes, "is Aizen Sousuke. I am a physician. My home is in a city seventeen miles from here. I am an orphan, but I have two sworn brothers. I travel from town to town, especially in the less populated ones which do not have access to proper medicine. Now, as a courtesy, what do people call you?"
The man smiled. The effect was slightly intimidating. "They call me whatever they wish to call me."
"What about your friends?"
"Friends?" The man appeared puzzled. "What are they"
"They are... well, they are people who care for each other." Aizen flicked a stray lock of silver hair from the man's face. "Can I be your friend then?"
The man hesitated. Then he asked, "Will it hurt?"
The query was so innocent and lost Aizen was touched and amused all at once. He grinned. "No, it won't."
The silver-haired creature brushed his nose. "If it won't hurt..." He nibbled at his lower lip and then gazed up at Aizen. "I guess you can be my friend."
"I'm glad of that," answered Aizen sincerely. He sat down on one of the chairs. "You have a lovely voice."
"I've often been told that."
There was a long pause. Aizen broke the silence by leaning forward. "What would you like for me to call you?"
The man looked up, and Aizen was surprised to see a glimmer of surprise in the narrow eyes. "Call me Gin. I like how it sounds."
"Gin," said Aizen. "Gin."
Gin looked down at his hands loosely resting in his lap. His shoulders sagged slightly. Aizen waited for a response but there was none forthcoming.
To his amazement and mortification, tears fell into the upturned palms, pooling in the fair hands before rolling through the gaps of slender fingers. Aizen lowered his right hand on Gin's right shoulder, but didn't speak until the tears slowed and stopped.
The silver-haired man eventually peered up. "Thank you," he whispered thickly. "I've never... never had a name for myself. No one... no one cared enough to-to let me choose."
Aizen's heart thumped strongly and he was aware of an acceleration in his pulse. Gin's cheeks, which had been so pale they were white, were now lightly tinged with pink. Gin smiled weakly. "I was supposed to have you on that bed by now," he laughed shyly.
"Really?" Aizen observed the settings once more. "I must say, this is a much nicer place than where I fell asleep in."
Gin propped his head on one hand, the thick blanket falling from his shoulders. "It is the same place, just... different."
"An illusion? Who are you, Gin?"
Gin smiled wider. "You tell me, Aizen-san. You appear to be an intelligent man."
Aizen blinked once or twice. Then he matched the smile. "If I have to guess, I'd say fox spirit."
"Bingo." Gin tapped Aizen on the nose. His touch was still chilly. Aizen tried to hold back the shudder but his slight shiver wasn't unnoticed. Gin stood up and picked up the blanket from the floor. "You should go back to bed and sleep well, Aizen-san. When dawn breaks, leave this place and never come back. Ever."
The brunet stood up and strode to Gin. "Why can't I come back? I would like to meet my friend Gin once in a while."
The fox spirit did not turn around. "Aizen-san, I... I'm glad you think of me as a friend, but let's not kid ourselves. You need not care for me nor I you. When you wake, the best thing for you to do is leave immediately."
"I don't understand-"
"-and you're not expected to," finished Gin smoothly. "I will leave now – let go!"
Aizen gripped the thin wrist more tightly.
Gin stared at the taller man. "Aizen-san, let go of me."
"I refuse," said Aizen, his voice low. "Not until you explain yourself."
"I... I can't do that," stuttered Gin.
"Can't or won't?"
"Can't and won't." Gin bit his lower lip. "Let go, and forget this. I thank you for letting me name myself, but all I can do is to tell you what you ought to do." The fox spirit tugged his hand down, but it was as good as trying to dislocate his wrist. Gin knew it was almost midnight now, and he had to leave so as not to implicate Aizen. "Please let go."
"Let go! Let me go!"
Aizen's response was to press his mouth to Gin's lips. The silver-haired spirit reacted instantly, pushing at the physician's broad chest with his other hand. Instead of giving way Aizen grabbed hold of the other wrist and pulled Gin close. He slid his lips to Gin's ear. "You said something about supposedly having me on the bed now," he murmured. "If you won't tell me why, then I won't let you go."
With that said Aizen wrestled Gin to the bed. Pinned by firm hands, Gin could feel his ardor and anticipation rising. The physician loomed over him. "Talk to me, Gin. Why must I leave and never come back?"
"I can't tell you," breathed Gin. "I mustn't. It'd just get you into trouble. Aizen-san, let me go. Or else... or else I don't know what would happen to you."
"If I let you go, I'll never see you again," argued Aizen. "So I won't let go."
Aizen's warmth assaulted the fox spirit's senses. There was a faint smell of herbs and musk and firewood clinging to the other man, and despite his pacific vocation Aizen wasn't a weakling. Gin had noted the sword that the man held in his hand before plunging him into the illusion. And now Aizen appeared a far more dangerous man than Gin himself.
Gin's time sense prickled. It was too late. Midnight had just passed and he had to have something to show for this night. She knew there had been a visitor, so she would be expecting some human chi in the morning. And, if he was frank with himself, Gin – he loved having his own name! - Gin knew he did not want to leave.
He gave in. "All right, I promise not to leave."
"Good." Aizen let go of one wrist. Then he sat up beside Gin. "Why do you have to... have to have me in bed by that time?"
"I'm a fox spirit, and I need human chi to live," answered Gin softly. It wasn't the whole truth, but Aizen wasn't to know that. "I... after what you said, giving me the chance to choose a name and all, I don't want to kill you."
Aizen pondered over the fact for a bit. "Will you kill me after one night?"
"No," replied Gin, "but they usually stay and we... we do the same thing every night, and they die in the end."
The brunet's face was unreadable. He caressed the spirit's face and took hold of the pointed chin. "How many have you killed?"
"... I don't remember."
"I can tell you," said Aizen quietly. "Twenty-seven."
"How do you know?"
"I was the presiding medical officer at the autopsies." Aizen leaned forward. "I thought it had to be a disease, which was why I began traveling to see if I could isolate a source. I guess I've found it."
Gin bit his lower lips and his fingers curled. "I didn't mean to," he whispered, "but they... they insisted on staying, and I would be forced to-" He suddenly covered his mouth, aware that he had almost let slip a secret.
Aizen took the hand away and kissed the palm. "They forced you?"
"Earlier," Aizen interrupted, "you said something about being whoever I want you to be."
Gin lowered his gaze and turned away. "I can shape shift," he admitted.
Aizen pulled the slender fox spirit into his lap. "Really?"
Feeling numbed and resigned, Gin closed his eyes. "Who do you want me to be for you, Aizen-san?"
"I want you," murmured Aizen. Gin opened his blue-green eyes. The physician was smiling tenderly. "Can you be you for me?"
"I don't – I don't understand," stammered Gin. "You can have me be anybody, anyone. Name her or him, I can change my looks-"
"I want you," repeated Aizen, "to be you."
Gin was perplexed and thus didn't respond when Aizen kissed him again. The kiss deepened slowly, Aizen's tongue sliding along Gin's lips until the slender male opened his mouth and accepted the intrusion. Aizen explored his prize thoroughly and his arms embraced Gin against his torso.
Gin pulled away, panting. "Why?"
"Why?" Aizen's eyes were dancing with merriment and rising ardor. "Because the second you parted the red beaded curtain, I wanted you. And if I am not to see you ever again, I don't wish to have regrets."
The fox spirit focused and realized Aizen was speaking the truth. His mind was filled with thoughts about how good Gin smelled and how much he enjoyed the feel of the slim fox spirit's body held against himself.
Despite himself Gin was pleased. All the others had only used him as a vessel for their own unrequited desires. He bent his head and kissed Aizen. "Thank you."
"Again?" chuckled Aizen, nuzzling under the spirit's chin.
"For wanting me," muttered Gin. "Wanting me the way I am."
Aizen's flesh prickled as Gin began pressing kisses all over his body, pushing Aizen down. Gin discarded his scarlet robe, revealing moon-white skin and pale pink nipples. His erection was slightly smaller than Aizen's, but nonetheless the dark-haired man's mouth went dry immediately at the sight of it. Gin leisurely unwound Aizen's belt, parting the shirt and pants from the physician's body smoothly. Cool hands skated over heated skin and Aizen's eyes fluttered close.
The thrill of having a fox spirit adore him sent tingles down his spine. It was morbidly fascinating; Aizen knew how the men looked when they finally came to rest on the autopsy table, and he very possibly would be the next. And yet he understood why those men hadn't left: Gin was skilled, his fingers searching for every sensitive spot Aizen possessed.
As a warm and wet mouth slid over his erection Aizen suppressed a groan. This was bliss. When Gin began to lick and suck with greater fervor Aizen cried out with pleasure, willing the fox spirit not to stop. Gin's slitted gaze locked on Aizen's face, taking in the parted, panting mouth, the glazed brown eyes, the sheen of perspiration.
Gin moaned softly and swallowed around Aizen's length again. His tongue and throat worked rhythmically, earning yet another choked gasp of pleasure from the human. Carefully, slowly, Gin's fingers danced up Aizen's thighs and slid in little circles until they reached behind.
Aizen sat up on his elbows. "What are you doing?" he demanded hoarsely.
"If you... enter me, the traces will be stronger, and you will give too much chi to me," said Gin in between slurps and licks. "But I can make you feel good, Aizen-san. Trust me."
Aizen let out a shaky breath. "I don't think... heh, this is hard, letting someone else be in control."
Gin nuzzled into the base of Aizen's arousal. "It's your first time being bottom?"
"Yes," confessed Aizen, surprised to be embarrassed about it.
"I will make you feel good," promised the fox spirit, and as if to proved a point his tongue traced patterns over his testicles and then behind, flicking over soft skin, and then even lower. "I will please you, Aizen-san."
Aizen arched off the bed, shaking with the effort not to come. "Gin, my name... my name is Sousuke. Call me Sousuke."
"Sousuke-san," Gin complied, before deep throating Aizen and humming low in his throat. One finger slipped in, gently probing and curling.
It was too strange, the burning and stretching sensation one he had never experienced. Aizen had always been the person dominating his lovers, and to submit to another's exploration of his own body would have been humiliating, if it wasn't this lovely pale-skinned spirit conducting it. In fact, it wasn't humiliating at all; Aizen could feel Gin's careful consideration and gentle worship of his body with every kiss and touch.
His legs were shaking, he realized, with the effort of holding himself back. Gin seemed to sense his thoughts and maneuvered himself over the physician, their hips finally touching. Aizen groaned deep in his throat, arching his neck, his hands holding onto the frail shoulders above him. The fox spirit matched his soft cries as they rocked together a few times, before he muttered a reassurance and slid into Aizen.
It stung a little. Aizen took deep breaths to calm down, wondering how his previous partners had managed to bear this. The silver-haired spirit mumbled something into his knee, then dipped his head down to lick and bite a trail up to Aizen's neck. As Aizen's breathing steadied, Gin began moving his hips, sending sharp jolts through the brunet's body.
"Sousuke-san," panted Gin, "may I... may I come in you?"
Already past the point of coherent speech, Aizen nodded and choked back a gasp when he felt the fox spirit tense and a surge of warmth flooded Aizen. Gin continued to touch Aizen until the physician climaxed as well. Gin carefully slid out and got off the bed; Aizen considered calling him back but could not even move an arm. And his whole body ached – it had been a long time since he put himself through any such exertion.
The pale man returned and was soon cleaning off the stickiness from Aizen's belly, tender, loving strokes accompanied with a smile that did not hide the melancholy in Gin's lowered gaze.
Aizen didn't ask; he felt the same himself. As the fox spirit tossed the cloth to the floor Aizen took hold of Gin's arm and pulled him into a rough embrace. Gin was unresponsive at first, but then clung to Aizen's shoulders. His nails dug into skin and muscle. The pain brought an unforgiving reality to the scene, and Aizen buried his face in the slim man's neck.
"How much time?" asked Aizen.
"Until daybreak," said Gin. He rubbed his nose along Aizen's ear.
Aizen kissed Gin's neck, shoulder, earlobe, jaw... wherever he could reach. "That's not enough time," he murmured.
"It'll have to do," answered Gin. Aizen held him close enough that Gin could feel the pulse thrumming through his body, sense the heat of Aizen's chi tightly coiled about his solar plexus, read the minute twitches and motions of Aizen's muscles. Gin closed his eyes and breathed in Aizen's scent. "It must do."
The two men rested on the bed together, Gin tucked within Aizen's hold. It was as if the physician was terrified that the fox spirit would disappear as soon as physical contact ceased. Neither slept. Gin had wanted to soothe the abused muscles in Aizen's back, but Aizen had stopped him, saying that he wanted the memories.
The fox spirit couldn't remember how long it had been since anyone had held him like this. The other men – the victims – had only wanted sex, lots of it. If Aizen wanted it, Gin could go on all night. but to be this tenderly embraced... Gin could feel his mind drifting into the state of blissful near-sleep.
"Do you need a lot of chi to survive?" inquired the physician in a detached voice, though his caresses along Gin's back were still mild and affectionate.
Gin smiled. "Not really. I just collect the chi for madam; I need only the moonlight for another year or so..." His brain caught up with his tongue and Gin jerked upright. Aizen's gaze was awake and alert. Gin swallowed. "I said too much," he whispered. "I have to go."
"No you don't," said Aizen, grabbing hold of the slender spirit again and hugging him firmly. "Tell me everything."
"If I did you'll be in grave danger," argued Gin. "As of now you can still get out of this unscathed."
Aizen chuckled. "I'm already in love with you. Do you really think I can remain unscathed?"
Gin struggled and then froze. He twisted around and blinked at Aizen. "What... what did you say?"
"I said," Aizen repeated, touching noses with Gin, "I'm in love with you."
Gin stared at the physician, and then to Aizen's consternation, began laughing. His shoulders shook and he wrapped his thin arms about his middle, his knees drawn up and his toes curling into the sheets. The spirit laughed so hard he bowed and fell on the bed again. "You-you love me? We've only met, and you love me? I'm a fox spirit! Ever thought," here Gin's expression began to cloud over, "ever thought I fooled you into letting me enter you? Ever thought that this was a trick? How can you, a human, possibly love a fox spirit you've met for only a couple of hours?"
"If it was a trick," remarked Aizen and he brushed the flat of his palm over Gin's cheeks, "why are you crying?"
"Because you're stupid," replied Gin, weeping freely despite his faltering smile. "Because you are a total idiot. Because you are the densest moron and because I love you. Because I love you. I love you, and it's hopeless because you have to leave, forever, and I wish I could follow but I can't, because you are the only one who has ever made me cry - I'm not supposed to cry! - because..." Gin's smile shook as the tears fell. "Why did I have to meet you tonight? Why couldn't you have just taken me like all the others? Why couldn't you treat me the way they treated me? Why did you have to let me name myself? Why did you care?"
Aizen wiped the tears away and swept Gin up in his arms, their mouths meeting and tongues fighting for dominance while submitting to their partner's explorations.
"Why, Sousuke-san? Why me? Why now?" gasped Gin brokenly as they parted. Aizen didn't answer, resuming the kissing and caressing of his fox spirit.
They were still entwined, but not in the fantasy Gin had constructed. The fox spirit was snuggled against Aizen under his traveling cloak, his face pale as moonlight again. The red powder that had adorned his slitted eyes had long been wiped away following the tears, and they rested in a comfortable embrace.
Gin sat up and sniffed. "Sunrise soon," he told Aizen.
"Do you have to go?"
Gin managed a smile. "Yes."
Aizen brushed silver hair back from Gin's brow, taking in the pointed chin, the pale pink lips, the sweep of his smiling eyes. "And if you don't?"
"I die," answered Gin simply. He got up and pulled on the scarlet robe that was on the dusty ground. Aizen stood as well and hugged Gin again. Gin closed his eyes, relaxing in the warm embrace, before disengaging himself and planting a soft kiss on Aizen's cheek. "Don't come back."
In a swift flash Gin faded from view. Aizen touched his cheek where Gin had kissed him. Then he packed up, the pain in his body a bittersweet reminder of last night.
It was no dream, he told himself, and located a single silver hair in his traveling cloak. With great reverence he put it in his special pouch, the one which held his treasured possessions, and he removed all the other items into another scrap pouch.
Then he mounted his horse. He was glad that the animal was old enough not to want to gallop, and settled for a steady trot down the hill.
Behind him, the tree rustled.
"You should find yourself a wife," said Urahara Kisuke, resident advisor to the magistrate. "You look pathetic, moping about."
"I am not moping," corrected Aizen as he unpacked the herbs he collected on his downhill journey.
Urahara cocked an eyebrow. "You are, my dear brother, and the sooner you marry the girl the better it is for all of us."
"Hear, hear," answered Kyoraku Shunsui. He was the magistrate of the county and a good friend to Aizen. He also happened to be a very efficient drunk. As in, he was able to clear many cases in the shortest possible time so he could go get drunk. His wife, Ise Nanao, was already despairing of having a sober husband, but Aizen knew they were still very much in love. "Anyway, why did you go over the hill instead of along the river?"
"I went through the records of those mysterious deaths again," said Aizen, tucking his notes together in a neat folder, "and all of them passed over the hill. I thought perhaps there was a clue."
"You mean you could have received some sort of infection?" Kyoraku jumped off his chair and ran to the other side of the room.
Aizen rolled his eyes. "I've been handling all the corpses. If there was an infection, I'd have caught it long ago."
"Did you find anything?" inquired Urahara, Aizen's sworn brother. He was surprised to note that Aizen stilled for a beat before he spoke.
"Nothing. Only a derelict old temple." Aizen folded a pouch into his belt. "Just an unused, rundown temple, nothing more."
Urahara cocked his head to the right. "You sure?"
Aizen stared into space a heartbeat longer than was comfortable. Then he turned to Urahara. "Do you still have access to the temple's main library?"
Someone was at the temple, reported a scout, gibbering with excitement. It was Gin's territory, so he proceeded to the location. In his left hand he held a scrap of fabric: the traveling cloak he and Aizen had slept under.
Gin called up the illusion again, but for the past three days his heart had not been in it. Whichever human was to fall now, he had no interest in letting them please themselves before Gin ripped his chi from their spirits. Previously it had not mattered, because Gin had no loyalty to anyone other than Madam, but now the fox spirit found it distasteful to let anyone touch him.
It was silly, because Aizen Sousuke would never come on this route again. He would get married, have children, grow old and die, never coming here again.
Why did the thought pain him?
"I don't need the illusion," said the man.
Gin's consciousness snapped into the present. He stepped forward and then covered his mouth in disbelief. "Sousuke-san?"
"That's me," said Aizen. He tilted his head to the left when Gin just stood gaping. "What's wrong?"
"You!" Gin dashed up and grabbed the front of Aizen's shirt. He started pounding on the physician's chest. "What are you doing here? I said, never come back! I said... I said..." The fox spirit wet his lips. Despite his admonitions he couldn't help the weak smile fluttering to his lips.
Aizen caught the flailing hands. "I never said I'd listen to that injunction," he said tenderly. Then his grin deepened. "Anyone might think you weren't happy about seeing me."
"You stupid, stubborn, crazy fool." Gin could feel his face getting hot. Despite his words and the initial burst of worry, he was ecstatic. That was the problem. With only one night and he had been captivated by this strangely caring man; what would happen after a second night?
Aizen bent and captured Gin's lips. It was only a pressure before the human slid his mouth to Gin's ear, nibbling on the sensitive lobe. "If I have to be a fool to get to see you, then I am one. I missed you."
"I missed you too," blurted the fox spirit. He clutched the shirt he had been gripping earlier, holding Aizen firmly. Then he backed away slightly. "What's the date?"
"Date? Twelfth," responded Aizen.
Gin chewed on his lower lip and then dazzled Aizen with a brilliant smile. "Come with me."
The fox spirit transported them to the entrance of a cave. "This is my hideout, when the sun is up," said Gin.
The taller physician had to duck when going in, but the cave within was immense, with a tall vaulted ceiling sparkling with crystals. There was also a clear pool in the center of the cave, with a thin stream feeding into it. Gin pulled Aizen's hand along with him and described his den. "There's a small outlet near the far end. When it rains the stream becomes a lot larger and more forceful. I sleep on higher ground behind, see?"
The place Gin showed Aizen was a simple place with a low mattress, a table, some cushions and a chest. Aizen went in first, fingertips brushing over the few items of furniture. The band around his heart had been very tight the instant he saw the illusion, knowing that Gin had again begun his trade, and then it had squeezed when he saw Gin running up to him, wearing the same red robe the night they met and made love. Now, Aizen could barely breathe. This was a place he wouldn't even offer to his own servants, but Gin took such pride and love in it.
Gin tugged on his sleeve. "Sousuke-san?"
"Gin," murmured Aizen, wrapping the slim man in a tight hug. "Gin, I love you. I love you."
"Sousuke-san..." Gin gulped and then his arms moved around the larger man. "I love you too."
The physician kissed Gin once more, hungry and demanding, urging a response from Gin. His large, clever hands undid Gin's belt and shoved the thin robe off his shoulders. Gin whimpered when strong fingers wrapped about his length. "Wait-"
"Sousuke-san, wait – ah!" Gin cried out when they fell onto the mattress. Aizen was kissing down his torso, down his abdomen, tracing each dip and curve with his tongue. Much as he was loath to, Gin pushed Aizen off him. They were both breathing heavily already, and Gin licked his lips as he studied Aizen before him. "Sousuke-san, you said it was the twelfth. Are you certain?"
Gin then smiled at Aizen. "Then we still have three nights. You'll have to leave on the day of the fifteenth though."
"Why?" asked Aizen, pretending he wasn't affected by Gin's hands sneakily undoing his belt. "What's so special about the fifteenth?"
"I don't need chi until the fifteenth," muttered Gin. Aizen knew Gin was lying about the pronoun, but let it slide. Gin was taking Aizen's shirt off now. Aizen laved kisses and nips all over Gin, and the fox spirit's voice became more ragged when Aizen nibbled on Gin's lower lip. "And it'll be safe; your traces can be washed off by then...or maybe we can do as we did that night..."
As they tangled together on the bed, Aizen made himself a mental note to find out who held such sway over his Gin.
It was soothing to sit together in the clear, cold pool just off to one side of the large central one. Aizen had Gin resting his head against his broad chest. With the physician's skillful hands wandering all over his body, kneading tension out of shoulders and waist, Gin felt his eyes drifting close.
"What's this?" queried Aizen, prodding at a scar on Gin's right thigh. "I saw it before but never had the chance to ask."
Gin traced it with his fingers. "It's an old wound from an arrow," he explained. "Madam took it out of me."
"Who is this Madam person you speak of?" Aizen asked, but before Gin could avoid the question they both heard a loud guffaw followed with a peal of delighted laughter.
"Damn!" Gin swore softly and dragged Aizen out of the pool. Without wasting time he wrapped the man in a towel and shoved him towards the bedroom. Aizen didn't protest the treatment; if Gin was that panicked, he had to have his reasons.
Satisfied that Aizen had hidden out of sight, Gin sank back in the water, turned and faced the entryway. He forced his heartbeat to slow.
A red-haired man and a golden-haired youth walked into the cave. "Foxy!"
"Izuru-kun! Renji-san!" smiled Gin, "How good to see you both!"
"We came to say hi," said the golden-haired ermine spirit, Izuru. "Fox, you look good."
Izuru was a lucky one: he had received a name from when he was alive. The ermine's companion, the bastard offspring of a fire spirit and a snake demon, Renji, was a local minor demon drawn into helping Madam. Gin made himself smile.
"Thank you Izuru-kun," he drawled, running his hand through his wet hair. "It's rather inconvenient right now – you caught me just as I got into my bathing pool."
"We can see that," remarked Renji. As Izuru snuggled up to Gin, coyly demanding praise for his new kimono, Renji sniffed the air. Then he grinned wickedly. "Hey, fox, you hiding sumpin' from us?"
Izuru pouted. "Renji, don't bully my fox brother!"
Renji pushed his way in and sprinted for the steps. Gin, being aware of where the demon was headed, darted just in front of Renji and halted his progress.
"That happens to be my bedroom," he said icily.
Renji raised an eyebrow. "I kin smell him, y'know."
Izuru's blue gaze shifted from Gin's fixed smile to the demon's arrogant grin. Then he sniffed experimentally and his eyes widened. "Fox-nii-chan! You really are keeping someone?" Ignoring the deadly glares Gin threw at him, Izuru wriggled his way into Gin's sleeping quarters.
Aizen did not appear very startled by Izuru's appearance, though he did pause in the drying of his hair. He was still naked. "Hello."
Izuru took in the sculpted form and tanned skin, before breaking into a slow smile. "I see why fox-nii-chan has been hiding you," he declared, before turning around and hugging Gin.
The fox spirit seemed to be restraining his temper. A tall, tattooed redhead peered in and waved at the nude Aizen. Gin bristled at the blatantly seductive gaze Izuru was using on Aizen, who thankfully wasn't paying attention.
"All right, now you've seen him, please leave," said Gin curtly.
Renji wasn't budging. Instead he leaned down and whispered, "He's a good one. Make sure he stays in peak condition, fox. Madam would love to have him once she wakes up, and it wouldn't do to have you wearing him out before then, eh?"
"Leave, please," hissed Gin.
Izuru settled for one last hug before exiting the cave, while Renji followed Izuru after a victorious smirk thrown at Gin. The slender spirit sank to his knees, his heart hammering at his ribs, knowing that the time had grown desperate.
Aizen walked silently up to his silver-haired lover. "What is it?"
"Sousuke-san, we can't wait for the fifteenth," said Gin, not meeting his eyes. "You must leave as soon as it's light – else they would pursue you and capture you."
"If you're afraid for my life, Gin, there is no point in running," said Aizen, kneeling down and bringing Gin into his embrace. The fox spirit's shoulders were slumped and he did not look up. "Gin, now that they know I am here, if I disappear overnight they could harm you instead. And what's to say they can't track me the following night?" The physician kissed the top of Gin's head. "I wish to face this Madam as well."
"What?" Now Gin was astonished. He regarded Aizen's face. "You're serious."
Gin began shaking his head. "No, she'll kill you. She'll take all your chi and kill you. I can't let that happen."
"Then tell me about her, Gin," urged Aizen. "Tell me so I can prepare myself."
"She's..." Gin hesitated, then soldiered on, "she's the most powerful demon on this hill."
Aizen cradled Gin against his own body, relishing the fact that the fox spirit trusted him enough to let Aizen manhandle him. "What is she?"
"A tree demon," answered Gin honestly. Then he buried his face into Aizen's neck. "She wasn't like this before, Sousuke-san. When I first met her, she saved me."
"Tell me about it, love."
Gin moved away a little. "You called me love."
"I did," said Aizen, a glimmer of amusement in his eyes, "because you are."
Gin studied him, wondering if the physician was joking.
Aizen laughed softly. "I'm not kidding."
The slender fox spirit stood up and hauled Aizen to his feet also. "If we sit about naked and dripping, we'll both catch a cold," he stated, and proceeded to dry himself with a towel and threw on a different robe, this one of turquoise.
Aizen caught the robe thrown at him and pulled it on. The dark forest green was a little faded and fraying along the edges; this was one of Gin's own robes. Aizen inhaled deeply: it held a hint of jasmine.
Once they settled on the bed, Aizen propped against a corner and Gin captive in his arms, the fox spirit began his tale.
"A long time ago, I think almost a hundred years, there was a huge battle in the celestial realm. I was minding my own business when an arrow struck me in my leg. It had been from one of the celestial soldiers.
"If I had been an ordinary fox I would have died instantly, but I was a silver fox and thus had a smidgen of magical powers. Nonetheless I could not bear the pain of that blessed weapon; I collapsed in the temple here.
"Back then, the temple had just been abandoned. There had been a plague – I didn't know this but I found out much later – and it was left to rot on its own." Gin fiddled with Aizen's fingertips. "I crawled in and waited to die, but then Madam appeared and rescued me."
"Is that the place where the arrow hit?" asked Aizen, touching the inch-long mark.
"Yes. Madam nursed me back to health and helped my powers rise faster. Out of gratitude I asked her how I could help her for having helped me.
"She said, 'Can you help me find male chi to sustain my life?' And that was when I knew she wasn't a benevolent demon. Even so, she only needed one man's soul once a year. Then the duration shortened; I had to find her fresh chi every four months, then alternating months. Then weeks, days... The killings went up because she needed the chi." Gin had buried himself into Aizen's shoulder. "Sousuke-san, she needs the chi. I can't deny her that – she made me who I am!"
Aizen was wordless for a long moment. Then he kissed the top of the fox spirit's head and inquired, "If she wants my chi, will you offer me to her?"
"I-" Gin blinked. Then he squeezed his eyes shut and his hands gripped together convulsively. "I don't know."
The dark-haired man turned Gin to face him and fastened his mouth over the fox spirit's, his tongue demanding access and receiving it. Gin gladly submitted to Aizen's coaxing, soft, urgent moans uttered with greater abandon and then evolving to hungry yearning.
Aizen, however, did not press Gin down to the floor. He pulled away and kissed Gin on his brow, his cheeks, his nose. The silver-haired slender man was perplexed.
"Don't you want..." he asked, cheeks coloring with the implied rest of the sentence.
"I do," replied Aizen, and placed Gin's hand over his bulge. "But what you need is someone to hold you and not take advantage of you."
The spirit chuckled and hugged Aizen, nuzzling under a strong jaw. The brunet stroked silver-fine hair, fascinated by the texture. Gin hummed with contentment, his low voice slipping into an even lower pitch. Thus wrapped together, both men fell into a vigilant doze.
Gin woke up to an empty bed. He jolted upright, uneasy and afraid, but not daring to call out loud for Aizen. Pulling his red robe about his shoulders, Gin exited and padded noiselessly down to the main level with the large pool.
Aizen wasn't there.
Feeling the panic rise up behind his mouth, Gin let his senses expand carefully, foot by foot, until the cavern was mapped and yet... Gin was the only creature breathing in this space.
The fox spirit's heart thundered within his thin ribs. It had happened: Renji and Izuru must have told Madam about Aizen. He must be in her clutches now, his chi slowly being sucked dry and then... and then, a lifeless, dry husk, as if mummified and preserved.
"Oh merciful goddess," he murmured, his limbs refusing to hold him up. Gin folded limply to the ground, his body shaking. "Goddess, take my life, not his. Please."
Why, though? Gin's mind flashed treacherously. Why not him? He's merely human, nothing more.
He gave me a name.
So what? He's still human. He's mortal. You are a fox spirit – eternal and immortal.
I love him.
More fool you.
It doesn't matter if I am a fool. He is the only one who made me feel alive, for all the years I've existed. No one else even cared enough to name me.
It's just a name.
Precisely. No one else even bothered with such a small detail. Because of him, I know what it's like to belong. I can cry for him. I cen actually feel the sting of tears, the gut-wrenching, the aching, dry throat... I know how it feels to be hurt, how it feels to be loved.
Gin exhaled and covered his face. What was the use? Aizen was gone, gone forever. Now Gin wished he was human, really human, even with the attendant illnesses and pain and death... The tears did not come, no matter how much his gut twisted, how agonizingly his shattered heart cut into his body.
"Sousuke-san," he called softly, face still covered by thin, trembling hands. "Sousuke-san, Sousuke-san, Sousuke-san..." The fox spirit toppled sideways and curled into a fetal position, wishing in vain that he had tears, that somehow he could release the pain within. He screamed silently into his palms, his nails cutting into his skin. He screamed until he had no voice left, and was left gasping for breath. His forearms shielded his eyes from the harsh reality without.
"You'll catch a cold sleeping here, love," coaxed a tender voice.
The fox spirit froze. Slowly, infinitesimally slowly he lowered his arms, inch by excruciating inch.
Aizen squatted beside him and was peering at the fox spirit. "What are you doing outside the bedroom?" he asked, a finger drawing a line from Gin's brow to his chin.
Gin jumped up and hugged Aizen, before punching him in the shoulder. "Where were you?"
"Outside? You could have been taken by-" Gin was so relieved he hugged Aizen again. "I thought you had been captured and sent to her already," he confessed brokenly.
The physician returned the embrace, stroking Gin's back. "I had to go outside for the necessary. I was very careful, love."
The fox spirit refused to let go of Aizen. "You should have told me where you were headed," he chided, still shaken by the images that had coursed through his mind. Aizen planted butterfly kisses over Gin's face and neck as apology, and then swept up the slender spirit into his arms.
"You were worried," Aizen stated, then rubbed his nose along Gin's temple.
"I was," said Gin honestly. As they settled once more in the small alcove where Gin had his bed, the silver-haired man said, "Sousuke-san, please leave once day breaks. I cannot guarantee your safety for one more day."
"If I leave, they would tell this Madam of yours about me anyway," said Aizen, in a logical manner. "What will she do then?"
Gin lowered his eyelids, his long lashes dusting Aizen's skin where his face was pressed up against Aizen's neck. "She will send Izuru and Renji after you."
"I don't wish to go," added Aizen, "and I don't even want to think about what she would do to you if you set me free."
Gin shivered, this time from fear, and curled about Aizen's body. "I don't want to think about that either," he told the physician. Then his fingers scratched through thick dark waves of hair. "Make me forget, please."
"Since you ask so nicely..." Aizen proceeded to answer Gin's plea in the most satisfactory manner.
The fifteenth night of the month.
The full moon hung pregnant and ominous, low on the horizon, about to sink down and let the sun rise to herald a newborn day, while Gin died within, bit by bit. All through the past two days and nights he had tried persuading, coaxing, coercing, threatening; Aizen Sousuke refused to leave.
And truth be told, Gin didn't want him to leave either. In the space of three days – seventy-two hours – four hundred and thirty minutes – two hundred and fifty-nine thousand and two hundred seconds – Gin had fallen deeper and deeper into love. Aizen didn't want just sex. He made Gin laugh. He comforted Gin when he suffered from accidental daylight exposure. He told stories about his own life. He listened to Gin, as if Gin was a real person instead of a fox spirit.
He loved Gin, caring for Gin beyond all that Gin had ever experienced.
And it all ends tonight.
The fox spirit's hand was trembling where it gripped Aizen's wrist. The long sleeve of his best robe shook slightly, and Aizen smiled warmly.
"Relax, love," murmured Aizen, and caressed the thin cheek.
Gin inhaled, his breath shallow. He should be the one bolstering Aizen, because the latter was about to die. The man who gave Gin an identity and a name and an emotion was about to be devoured by Gin's savior.
Merciful goddess, prayed Gin quietly, when I end my life tonight, let me meet him on the Yellow Spring Road(1).
The fox spirit led his lover to a clearing that had one old tree standing in the center of a large round field. Aizen noted the temple where he met Gin not too far away, then realized that this was the same tree that had rustled eerily the first moment he stepped into the derelict building.
Already there were dozens gathered around, each with his or her own prisoner. Izuru was there, his hands linked with a black-haired soldier; Renji had with him a noble, the man's dark eyes dazed and his skin almost as pale as Gin's own.
The moon ascended steadily. As Aizen counted under his breath he noticed a few people shifting away from the center of the clearing where the solitary tree with huge, gnarled branches stood. Gin's fingers clenched and dug into Aizen's flesh, but the physician didn't pay the sudden shock any heed: like Gin, his attention was on the violently shaking earth and the quivering branches.
The tree's leaves uncurled with a shudder and fell off. In an instant it put forth verdant new growth, more luxuriant and glorious than ever. A sweet scent assaulted Aizen's nose: pale blossoms were blooming by the bunch, and shed onto the rising wind. Discreetly Aizen caught one and examined it.
A miniature Death's head grinned back at him: in the center of each flower were patches of black, arranged like a grinning skull.
Aizen crushed the flower in his hand and felt a slight sting in his palm. He opened his hand slightly and felt bile rise in the back of his throat: the sap of the crushed flower was dark as blood.
Some of the tree's blossoms swirled in one spot and then fell to the earth silently. In the same spot, a lady stood, her long black hair trailing to the ground in rich ink-black tresses. She surveyed the assembled demons and spirits, a graceful smile on her lips. Aizen had to admit the woman was beautiful: well-shaped nose, oval-shaped face, full lips. And large, vulnerable eyes. Her stature was small but imperious in posture.
"Madam Keiko," cried many of those gathered, and all fell to one knee. Aizen resisted Gin's pull as the fox spirit knelt, but at Gin's tugging the physician caved.
The woman they called Keiko smiled benignly. "My children," she crooned, though her voice was cold, "my loving family. What have you brought me?"
Renji darted forward, dragging his prize behind him. "Madam, this is Lord Kuchiki's son, Byakuya-dono."
"Kuchiki Byakuya," hummed Keiko. She sniffed the noble. "And he is... pure. My darling Renji, you pamper your Madam exceedingly."
Other demons, seeing that the fire half-breed received her lavish praise, began ushering their hostage forward. Although Keiko accepted their tribute, Aizen could see in her eyes that, thus far, none matched up to the Kuchiki lordling.
The one Gin pointed out as Izuru was pouting. Shoving Renji aside, he said loudly, "Fox-nii-chan has a better one than Renji-kun!"
"Really?" inquired the lady. She slowly turned to regard Gin, who had a fixed smile on his face. Aizen could feel Gin's grip tightening: it was heartbreaking, seeing how the fox spirit smiled more cheerfully as he led Aizen forward, and sense how each step led to a tighter grasp of Aizen's hand.
Keiko studied Aizen carefully and then sniffed delicately. "This one... has been tainted."
"Of course, Madam," answered Gin in a lilting voice. "After all, I am your fox."
"Of course," beamed Keiko, a slender hand stroking Gin's cheek. And then she regarded Aizen again. "I like it when he seasons my food before I take them."
Aizen blinked once, neither responding nor ignoring the woman. Keiko tilted her head almost invitingly and then gestures for Renji to lean in. "Renji, darling, open the gates."
Renji did so with a series of complicated gestures. Then he hollered, "Oi! The rest of ya losers! Toss in your tribute and git your arses outta here!"
The other demons and spirits did as told. Keiko didn't seem to mind Renji's crudeness – she was too intent on Aizen and Byakuya. "Fox?"
"Yes, Madam?" asked Gin, his voice steady. Aizen believed he was the only one who noticed the trembling fingertips just barely visible beyond the crimson-leaves-on-gold sleeves.
"Is he good?"
Gin's smile widened. "Extremely."
Keiko placed a finger to her lips. After a few beats she moved her hands in a half-circle over the ground and a series of steps sank into the ground. Gin followed Renji and Byakuya, keeping Aizen before him, and Keiko was the last to enter. She sealed the entrance but the flight of stairs went on until a faint green and gold glow could be seen.
Aizen followed the pair before him into a large hall with many branching corridors. The spacious corridors were tiled and the walls were off-white, but everything was shot with a faintly green light that pulsed slowly, like a heartbeat.
The lady took the seat in the center. "Come," she commanded silkily, her fingers curling. Renji dragged his captive forward, and the noble stumbled until he was kneeling before Keiko. She took his chin and turned him to face left and right, before she smiled at Renji. "He is exquisite. What did you do?"
"A small spell to keep him dazed, Madam," answered the red-haired demon. "He fought like a man possessed."
"That would be most delicious," hissed the woman with delight. Then she looked at Gin. "Bring yours, fox."
The fox spirit didn't move until Aizen did, and soon the physician was standing before Keiko. She stood up. Gin's fingers curled into Aizen's, and the human squeezed his lover's grip in reassurance.
"This one is not under your control," commented Keiko, examining Aizen's gaze. Then she laughed. "You must have some really good skills to have him here of his own will." She returned to her seat. "I like that. I like that very much, fox."
Gin let go of Aizen's hand and sauntered to Keiko, casually draping himself by the left arm of her chair. "What can I say? I exist to serve Madam. Having someone here against his will-" here Gin sneered at Renji and the noble lordling "-and someone here because he wants to be here... they just taste different."
"That they do."
Aizen gazed dispassionately at Keiko. She leaned down and murmured something to Gin. The fox spirit burst out laughing, so merrily that tears shimmered at the corners of his eyes. "In love? In love with a human? A mortal who reeks of dying every single second? You must be kidding me, Madam. I am a fox spirit, an immortal. How can I possibly be in love with something like that? When I can have my pick of immortals, why would I choose something that will pass away like the breeze?"
Keiko smiled more widely. "You're right, fox. There is no reason at all for you to love that."
"You told me you loved me," said Aizen, knowing he had to carry the charade."You said... you said you loved me, that if I came, I can pledge myself to you, forever."
"My darling Sousuke-san," drawled Gin, getting to his feet and sliding his hand through Aizen's hair, "I told you what you wanted to hear. Those words... they're only words. It's like a name is just another way of identifying something. Those words were said because you wanted to hear them." He leaned in, his cool, sweet breath and light jasmine fragrance wafting over Aizen. The physician couldn't resist reaching up and caressing silver hair, which clung to his skin as he lowered his palm to cup Gin's face.
The fox spirit leaned into the touch for a split second before turning away. Aizen swallowed. "I am a fool. I am such a fool."
"Yes you are," answered Gin with a brilliant grin. "A stupid, stubborn, crazy fool."
Keiko clapped her hands. "All right then. Renji, fox, be quiet. I wish to enjoy dinner and supper."
"What will you have first?" asked Renji, having kept quiet all the while. He was apparently in awe of Keiko – his demeanor was restrained and docile, much unlike his swagger when he barged into Gin's cave the other time.
The woman tapped a lacquered fingernail on her chin. "I think I'll have the fool first. I don't want him running away while I take my time breaking in the noble."
Renji cast a superior smirk at Gin who didn't even acknowledge it. The fox spirit found himself a place in the corner and settled in, knowing that Keiko always wanted her courtiers to watch what she did, so that they know her power. He used to be able to admire her abilities, and then he began to fear her appetite. Now he just felt sick at heart.
Nevertheless, the smile on his face did not fade.
Aizen stood tall and proud, but his eyes were clouded with emotion. Keiko cocked her head at him. "Are you sad that he deceived you?"
"He is a fox spirit," said Aizen dully. "I should not expect more from him."
"But it hurts?"
"Yes, it does," replied Aizen and he swallowed again. "It hurts – because I love him."
Keiko ran her finger over his lower lip. "And how does love taste?"
Aizen finally matched gazes with the lady. Her dark green eyes swirled with lust and excitement. Aizen's bile rose in his throat. "Like hell and like heaven."
"I like that," crooned Keiko. "You must be in agony, having come here of your own accord and discovering it is nothing but a trap. I wish I could sense what you are feeling, and drown in those feelings. They must be so rich in pain and hate."
"You want to feel them?" asked Aizen, grabbing Keiko's wrist and leaning in. "You're about to."
There was a sudden shaking of the entire hall. Aizen shoved Keiko down and dashed for Gin, who grabbed the physician's hand and both sprinted for the stairwell. Renji snarled and tried to stop them.
"Hana-bi!" shouted Gin, directing a spell right at Renji. A blue-white blossom of flame exploded right before the demon's face, and Renji blocked his eyes from the flames.
"They can't hurt me, moron!" Renji yelled as the two fled up the stairs. "I'm a fire demon!"
Gin chuckled. "I wasn't targeting you," he muttered. Aizen smiled. The shaking grew stronger and Gin stumbled. Before Aizen could help the fox spirit up tree roots burst out of the walls and blocked their exit. A bud swelled and opened, allowing Keiko to step out.
"How dare you," she enunciated, her fury evident in her large eyes. "How DARE you!"
Aizen stood in front of Gin. Keiko raised a hand and thick branches twined around his body, slowly squeezing like pythons. "You – lowborn – human! How dare you violate my right!"
"Let go of him!" screamed Gin from behind the caught Aizen. He was pulling on the branches, yanking with all his might.
Keiko waved her hand again and more branches shot out to capture the fox spirit. "You too," she spat. "You betrayed me. Me! Your savior! I rescued you from death!"
"He... has repaid you... many times... over," panted Aizen. "And you... didn't even... give... him a name!"
"A name? A name? Would you name a tool, an instrument? Would you name a worthless piece of trash?" Keiko jeered, her lovely features contorting. Another shudder shook the stairway.
"Gin... Gin is not... worthless," breathed Aizen. "And you... will die... very soon."
"Die? I am eternal!"
"Men, many... men... digging..." And Aizen could say no more, his body being squeezed out of his last breath.
Gin's eyes blazed. "Let him go, or I will-"
"You will what?" snapped Keiko. "I just have to kill him and you will submit to me again. If you won't serve me out of love and respect, then you will serve me in fear and despair!"
Gin managed to move his fingers. "Hana-bi," he croaked again. Fire consumed the branches surrounding him and then caught on his robe's sleeves. The branches flailed and a terrible keening filled the walkway. Keiko herself doubled over. Gin stumbled to Aizen and wrapped his burning arms about the trapping branches. Again the wood started to burn and crack, before letting go of Aizen and the keening doubled in intensity.
Aizen choked as he fell, trying to inhale. Gin ripped himself out of his robes and dashed to his lover, lifting him as best as he could. Aizen threw one arm over the fox spirit's shoulder and both staggered forward. Keiko grabbed at Gin's ankles but missed.
At the entryway Aizen hesitated. "It's daylight," he croaked. "You'll be... you'll..."
"There's still the other one inside," said Gin, ignoring Aizen. "I'll get him. You go outside and tell the men to pick up their pace, before she recovers." He turned and dashed down the steps, much faster than their ascent. Aizen had his hand on the doorway but paused.
He had counted to forty-eight when Gin led an uninjured Kuchiki Byakuya to the door. "You're still here?!" Gin exclaimed. "She's coming!"
"I couldn't go without knowing if you were safe," said Aizen.
Byakuya ignored their exchange and shoved the door with both hands. His left hand was smoking and charred, Aizen saw; that had been what Gin was aiming for with the spell. The pain must have broke through the haze Renji put on the noble.
"Renji?" inquired the physician.
"Dead," said Gin. "Kuchiki-dono slew him." The door was inching open. Gin hurried up and put his weight to the opening, and Aizen followed suit. As the doorway slid open thick, snakelike branches shot out of the walls.
Kuchiki scrambled out and pulled Aizen out as well. Gin didn't exit.
"Goodbye," said the fox spirit.
Aizen grabbed the silver-haired spirit's hand. "Gin, Gin!"
"I can't, the sun!"
Kuchiki shook himself out of the long robe he wore. "Shade yourself."
Aizen wrapped the robe about Gin and pulled him out before the branches trapped him. The keening within grew louder and more desperate before the door slammed shut. Aizen, his arms about his lover, dashed for the temple.
Inside, Urahara and Kyouraku were enjoying an early morning tea.
"Ah, Sousuke!" greeted Urahara. "I didn't want to believe you, but the tree behind was diseased. The roots are deep though; my men are finding it hard to dig it all up."
"You have to," panted the physician. "Otherwise the infection will reoccur."
"Who is this?" asked Kyouraku. Gin was huddled within the lordling's robe, and Kuchiki was just stepping into the temple. Immediately Kyouraku's head advisor went to him and provided the noble with a seat. "Silver-hair? That's quite unusual."
"Don't touch him." Aizen smacked Kyouraku's hand away. The magistrate, appearing to be hurt by the rejection, went off to talk with Kuchiki.
Urahara tilted his head and examined both Aizen and Gin. Then he smiled. "You're very striking, young sir."
"Please, call me Gin," answered the fox spirit. He was shivering; Aizen could feel the thin frame shaking. "What... what have you done?"
"Well, Aizen told me that the probable cause of those men dying all dehydrated and in varying states of dessication was due to a pollen carried by the tree behind. He's seldom wrong, and when we cross-checked the men's traveling routes, they all passed through this place." Urahara fanned himself.
Kyouraku returned with the captain of his guards with him. "We'll sow the ground with salt, just in case," he ordered his men. Then he said to his friends, "They've dug out as much of the tree as possible. Some of them say they could hear it shrieking. We're going to burn it now."
"Good," remarked Kuchiki fiercely. He nodded his thanks at Gin and resumed sipping the tea that had been offered him.
Aizen shook his head. "We've had enough of that tree to last us two lifetimes."
Urahara frowned and then whispered in Aizen's ear, "You will tell me all about it one day so I can publish the story."
"I will," muttered Aizen. "But you have to ensure that the tree is reduced to ash."
"Not a problem."
Kuchiki got up. "I wish to see the burning too."
"But your hand has to be treated," said Urahara, gesturing.
Kuchiki pulled out a glove from some recess of his clothes and tugged it over his left hand, wincing a little but not displaying any pain otherwise. "It will be treated after the tree is cremated."
Then only Aizen and Gin were left in the temple.
Gin buried his face in Aizen's chest. "I don't feel good," he confessed.
"You just helped to kill someone you have always regarded as a savior, so it's understandable."
"I mean," said Gin with a small smile, "I feel weak and strange."
Aizen put a hand over Gin's brow. "You're clammy," he said, beginning to worry. "Why?"
"You're the doctor, you tell me," answered Gin. Then he closed his eyes and rolled closer to Aizen. "I think... I think I need to sleep for a long while."
"Yes," said Gin. "I feel so drained. It will be fine, Sousuke-san. I just need to recover my strength. I've never used Hana-bi more than once before. Let me lie down and you can get me some food."
Aizen forced his panic down. It would be fine if Gin believed it so. As the silver-haired spirit curled on the floor, Aizen laid the robe over him and went to get a pot of tea with some snacks. When he returned, the robe was on the floor and there was a lump beneath it. Gin had disappeared.
The pot and snack dish smashed on the floor.
"It's a very cute pet you have," remarked Nanao as she jiggled her newest baby on her hip. Her other six were tearing around in Aizen's yard. "What's its name?"
"His name," corrected Aizen, "is Gin." He bent down and scooped the white fox from the floor and it draped itself over Aizen's shoulders. "Thanks for coming by."
Nanao laughed. "I should be the one thanking you," she said, gesturing with her free hand to gather her brood. "They did enjoy building these snowmen for you. We have to get home now, it'll be dark soon."
"Of course," answered Aizen. "Do take care."
Nanao waved a farewell as she shooed her six children into their carriage. Aizen stroked the fox's fur gently and then let it jump from his shoulders to the snow. It padded to the snowmen and sniffed at all of them before leaping to the sheltered porch. Aizen grinned and walked over, seating himself beside the fox which then walked into his lap. The physician took the scarlet robe folded nearby and shook it out, wrapping the fox with it.
The sun set and the moon rose.
"Hey," said Aizen with a gentle smile.
Sliding his arms into the sleeves and tying his belt, Gin smiled at his lover and kissed Aizen on the lips. "Hey. Can we make a snowman too?"
(1) Yellow Spring Road: Ancient Chinese lore states that all souls must travel this road to get to Hades to be judged.