Disclaimer: Bleach and every character in this story is owned by Tite Kubo.

AN: Just a strange little fanfic that popped into my head once. I promise I'll go back to the "Humble Shopkeeper" you all seem to appreciate. Meanwhile don't hesitate to click the Homepage button on my profile to run into my deviantART account, where I hold a blog and occasionally do fanfic requests. It's also the place where you can kick me into writing stuff :P


Mangaka

Ichigo had sneaked out for the night, dodging his sisters' curiosity and his father's questioning glance. The dance of prying and privacy, open and subtle questions versus changing the subject and dodging, had gone on for the past two months, since he'd first started spending an occasional night elsewhere. 'Out' had been his only described destination, carrying with it only one subtext - 'Don't ask me more'. And, thankfully, they'd respected his wishes. After all, in this enchanting era of technology, Ichigo had a phone. In the case of an emergency, he could be called. Otherwise, he would be gone for the night, maybe for the morning, too. Sometimes, for two nights in a row.

"You can tell me anything," Isshin had said a month and a half before. Ichigo had looked away, embarrassed. "But you don't have to." The old man had slipped him a package of condoms with a questioning glance. 'Is this what I think it is?' Isshin seemed to ask. 'Is this why you're going out?'

Ichigo had stared at it for awhile, then picked it up and discreetly put it into his pocket. Isshin had nodded. 'I trust you. Stay safe,' were the words he didn't need to say.

Isshin worried and Ichigo felt it as a pang of guilt and shame pulling him back whenever he would have spent even more time away. The old man let it slip, never asked openly any longer, but the glances were as bad. Yet Ichigo had grown up by now and even if he lived in the same house, he was twenty and it was well past the point when the boy needed to be kept in check (considering his life of fighting and his character, to do so would be somewhat of an insult).

That night, Ichigo drove away feeling as guilty as always. He didn't like not saying anything. But he couldn't reveal where he was heading, or why. Not yet. He hadn't worked out how to say it, how to explain, how to not get Gin killed through an indiscretion. He trusted his father, but not entirely. He trusted the old man to cheerfully welcome in any young person (shy, discreet, smart, with a dash of a blush, if possible) that Ichigo would bring home. What he did not trust was the old man being civil to a former captain, former traitor, never nice, never shy, always with a bite in his words who cared too little for morals or for keeping Ichigo happy.

After nearly getting killed by Aizen, Gin had slipped away from the shinigami by pretending he didn't exist, pretending he'd dissolved in death, vanishing into spirit particles. Instead, he'd remained in the real world, and had somehow managed to get Urahara to create a gigai for him in secret. And after that? Well, he'd started a new life as a mangaka.

Except he wasn't properly a mangaka. He had glanced at manga over people's shoulders, browsed it in bookstores, then had come to his own conclusions about what it entailed. He both understood and missed the point during those first encounters and ended up outisde the box, a vision he kept long after he'd found out the truth. He created stories told in both words and pictures, but without the usual conventions to hold them together. His books were like calligraphic doodles, elegant cranes lining the margins, picking up panels and placing them wherever they needed placing. The characters were drawn like old pictures of monks, their words obscure and interesting and strange, sometimes speaking in poetry, sometimes in prose. Sometimes the panels were done in detail, sometimes in elegant simplicity. Sometimes there were refined plot twists, characters half in shadows, their postures not changing for pages, but their drawing differing from panel to panel in a strange, dream-like manner. Or there was a page-large panel of a detailed shoji screen on which the shadow of two lovers fell. Ichigo had discovered the manga long before he had discovered the man and he had stopped, like many others, to wonder at them.

The stories were long, strange, realistic, surrealistic. Characters came and went and did nothing of what you expected of them. There was intrigue and love and longing and nostalgia and eventually a feeling that all of it made sense, but it was ephemeral, here today, gone tomorrow, people like leaves blown by the wind, beautiful to see, part of a greater multitude, forgotten except for the very special one. There were fleeting moments captured on paper, ever slipping between one's fingers to vanish in the night drizzle. It wasn't literature – it was life. It was a style influenced by old writings, by impressionism, by anything and everything. It was shifty, strange, unusual, dark, incomprehensible. It was Gin – undeniably, essentially, thoroughly Gin, but this only became evident after one got to know him, never before. The manga was born out of the deepest part of him, and he basked in it with a delight that had been impossible for him when he had been a shinigami. To love one was to love the other – not that Ichigo loved at all.

Gin didn't have crazy fans, or cosplayers. He didn't have fanfiction. But he had a following, critics who'd set their eyes on him, a small, but international audience. Imitators has shyly sprung up here and there, but none rising near his level of strangeness and depth.

Ichigo's first encounter with Gin after the war had happened accidentally, in a small supermarket during his first year of college.

After losing his powers, Ichigo had insisted to hell and back that he was fine. He had claimed he could easily return to his previous life, he could finish high school, get a job, live. He vehemently said he could pull things through, he would be ok. But he lied. Rukia visited him at night in dreams, Byakuya was there at the edge of his vision in spring, when the cherry blossoms withered away. Whenever there was red, he turned to see it wasn't Renji. Whenever he was afraid, he wondered if there was a hollow nearby, if maybe he could feel it. But nothing ever happened, which was only just this side of better than being attacked by unseen enemies. Or perheps just the other side.

So when he'd seen Gin, he'd frozen. Gin had been supposed dead, disintegrated, gone. But he was there, walking down the isle, purchasing rice like any normal man in Japan. Ichigo had stood rooted to the spot, frozen in disbelief, wondering if his longing had finally gotten the better of him. He'd been spotted, smiled at, and somehow dragged off to the man's studio apartment in a whirl of confusion, shock, desire for something he'd long lost and for something he'd yet to know. Logically, Ichigo knew it was a mistake to go, because Gin was infinitely stronger than him now and there was no telling what he could do and what revenge he would extract. In reality, it was a mistake because in the course of the night Ichigo drank just a bit too much wine, got nostalgic and opened up to the wrong man who took the chance to whisper things in his ear, make him long and want and finally seduced him into bed, deflowering him and never asking if Ichigo was sure he wanted it, because Ichigo was not.

The next morning, the young man had gotten up and walked away in a daze, deciding to treat it all as one of the weirdest things in his eventful life. He'd dated a few girls from college, slept with two of them, then had an affair with a guy. And every time he got too close to them he wanted more than they had to give, more understanding, more knowledge, more experience. He wanted quietness, not idless chatter, nor being dumped after in the favour of a cigarette. Maybe he didn't know what he wanted, but he cursed those first hands upon his body that had taken and given without comment, the teasing tongue, being attentively molested, sweetly coerced.

In a fit of nostalgia, wondering why nobody ever visited with a gigai, wondering if he was watched, half-wishing he was, Ichigo had unwisely gone back to Gin's place one night to rage and rant and curse the bastard for sleeping with him, for living, for being his first, for not being able to help him, for his friends never coming to visit. The silver-haired man had only smiled throughout it, had listened and not really interfered. When the rant was done, he'd offered Ichigo wine, but the young man had learned his lesson even if a great part of him desired the bottle and the excuse that came with it of making the same mistake twice.

Somehow, they'd talked. Not about Aizen and the war, not about Ichigo's lost powers, but about lost friends and small things that they'd enjoyed and couldn't have again. For Ichigo, the sound of Rukia's voice when she got mad and fiery; the way Zangetsu felt in his hand; the appreciation he'd gotten for Byakuya; Renji's clumsiness. For Gin, it was the pleasure of messing about with hollows' heads; Rangiku's easy nature and sometimes subtle smiles; getting up in the morning and knowing he was respected and obeyed by a division under his command and by Izuru, sweet Izuru who many people underestimated and almost all misunderstood.

Despite Ichigo's better judgment, they became friendly, then something akin to strange friends. Sometime after dawn and many shared stories, somehow, Gin had brought him back into his bed and claimed his body again, sweetly teasing and exploring, offering the peace, the care, the understanding that the younger man had craved for, while ruthlessly ignoring any sign of backing down, of better judgement. Had the white haired man desired more than an affair in mind since the beginning, or had he simply grown to like Ichigo better? It was hard to tell, especially with the smile that never left Gin's lips as he avoided surface defences to get his wicked way, amused at finding himself so strong, at being able to twist Ichigo's thoughts the way he wanted them to.

Maybe it was what Ichigo wanted, the wrongness imposed on him too sweetly to refuse, the gentle ravishment that somehow made it alright to give in to this man – of all men. He could abandon himself to another's wishes now, relinquish himself in soft defeat, a mutual agreement somewhere deep underneath. Gin had all the power, so it was Ichigo who set the limits, who showed through subtle signs how far it was alright to go.

After awhile, he'd started spending the night, giving his family signals not to ask for more information. Thankfully, they didn't. And he betrayed their trust again and again.

When he reached Gin's apartment block, Ichigo looked around, his eyes searching for unseen threats. He wouldn't like to accidentally give away his lover. What if Rukia was watching? Renji? Maybe they came to see him sometimes. For Gin's sake, he hoped they didn't.

A part of Ichigo hoped they did, to be truthful. That they watched over him, that they kept hollows away, threw him a glance every now and then. But if they did, they weren't showing the least sign of it. No gigai, no writings on the wall, no crappy drawings, no strangeness. Everything was normal. They weren't there.

"I know you're there," he said, loudly. "Now go away. I won't be stalked."

He didn't know anything. He had no clue whether there was anybody around, shinigami or hollow. He couldn't sense reiatsu, couldn't see friends or enemies. But if there was nobody there, then nobody would give a damn that he was speaking to himself.

He let himself into the building and climbed up as normally as he could, not letting the addict's tremor show in his step. He knocked - and the silver-haired man instantly opened the door to pull him in. Gin could still sense reiatsu, could still tell when there was danger around. It was a small blessing.

"I wasn' sure ya were comin'," Gin said against his lips, throwing him on the extended couch of the studio apartment. The sheets were ruffled, just like the entire place was. The desk, in the corner, was possibly the only empty horizontal space. Otherwise there were papers scattered all over, maybe doodles, maybe parts of his new works. Books opened everywhere for historical or mythological reference. A half-finished poster of a peculiar and sexy god. It was a mess, but an artistic mess, a flutter of paper taking over an apartment. It smelled clean and fresh. The window was open, letting in the night air.

"I needed to," Ichigo answered.

The papers on the couch and the sheets were pushed away, thrown off to make way for Ichigo, whom Gin's long, cold fingers undressed quickly and quietly. There was a click and then there was music, some rock meant more for the neighbors than for themselves ("How many men have died", it repeated, again and again). Ichigo recognized it as Gin's playlist for working, but ceased paying attention to it when the silver hair brushed the tip of his nose and his lips and ceased registering it altogether when Gin's tongue brushed his own.

Gin hadn't bothered removing his black button-up shirt, but it was open, allowing Ichigo to touch and caress at will, to feel the man on top of him. It brushed over his stomach softly, silkily, smoothly when Gin breached him. One of the young man's hands tangled in silver strands, pulling down his lover for another kiss.

Intimate, given over to pleasure, shuddering, Gin didn't smile. Half-opened eyes devoured Ichigo with a patient hunger that could wait for the universe to end before being sated. If he were wise, Ichigo would be afraid. But now, his legs curling up against Gin's, there was not an ounce of wisdom left in him. With a hand wiping away sweat from his forehead, brushing through orange hair, he groaned and shouted and sunk his fingers into his lover's skin.

It was addictive, dark, wrong. There was no name for it, no clear space in which they were doing this. More than an affair, not a relationship. Not friendship, not sex for the sake of sex, not love. Not closeness, not lack of understanding, not understanding. As if they had taken a wrong step, they'd fallen off the beaten paths and rolled down into the wilderness. They could return, sometime, start it for real, end it, but not yet.

Ichigo was loud. He struggled, he arched, he let himself go. He buckled up, reached up and bit the exposed neck above him, clung to the thin frame hovering over his.

Gin never lost control, but he navigated from intensity to intensity like a wild dancer, rising higher and higher on peaks on pleasure, gasping with desire when teeth sunk into his skin.

When Ichigo came, it was like a wave, a tsunami smashing everything away; he felt a hundred twisting passions rise within him, tear him to pieces. Gin, in his passion, leaped – and flew, floating above the world in still, calm, loud perfection, drowning out the world for a single second.

They lay together afterwards, Gin's head on Ichigo's shoulder, a sheet draped over them to protect their moist bodies from the coolness of the evening.

"Is it true you did it for Matsumoto?" Ichigo asked, lazily. Was the entire game, the betrayal of Aizen for her, he wondered.

"Yes."

"Then why am I here? In your life, in your bed."

"She's my sister."

Ichigo turned towards him. "Sister?"

"Not by blood. But in Rukongai, she was tha' for me. An' yer here 'cause I wanted ya to be."

Ichigo didn't ask about love. He didn't dare find out if the reason he was wanted was related to Gin's heart; he knew better than to demand an answer that could only be painful regardless of what it was. Instead he got up and seeked the revelation of his own feelings through Gin's manga papers strewn all over the place. He picked them up, arranged them in a pile, covered the desk in them – calligraphy, sketches, doodles, colors, black and white. His eyes caught on red splotches and he dug out a detailed, picture-like drawing of a woman in shades of grey with red stains of blood all over her clothes. She seemed extatic – but she was not real even in the manga, being a drawing of a drawing, a grafitti on a wall between piles of debris in what seemed to be an abandoned black and white terrace represented on a piece of paper.

"I love," Ichigo said, scanning the lines with the softest of smiles on his lips, "the contrast. She's beautiful. Death and extasy, the height of feeling, hidden away."

"It's copied from a terrace on th' other side o' town," Gin said lazily. "I liked her, too."

A character from outside the page spoke about her in a long pergament. 'Our lady of ruin floated from window to window beneath the moonlight. Where her toe touched floors, a deep black fragment of her shadow leaked into the world, seeping into wood and concrete, into earth and glass alike. Sometimes, it was a blotch. At others, it was a howling wolf. And sometimes it was the Angel of Death, beautiful and terrible as it grinned down upon the ruined city.'

"There are times when I wonder if you're being symbolic," Ichigo said.

"Why, wha' makes ya think that? Am I ever not?"

Then Gin was behind him, insatiable, covering his neck in nibbles, running his hand down his sides. Ichigo found himself jerking as usual, caught between pleasure and a ticklish sensation, then driving himself back towards Gin for more. Their bodies fit together perfectly, wonderfully, enticingly.

The younger man smiled from the corner of his lips, wanting to say something about seduction, wanting to ask Gin to play with him, drive him against the wall, tie his hands up, claim him. But suddenly Gin was gone.

"Get dressed. Get dressed!"

There was a rush of clothes, a flurry of sleeves and pants as Ichigo followed Gin's sudden, frantic cry. What was happening? Who was coming? Oh, he knew. He knew it in the pit of his stomach, felt it in the flutter of his heart. He didn't want to admit it to himself, but he understood from the slight opening of usually slanted eyes, from the rush, from the fact that he himself wasn't able to see, hear, feel a thing. From the fact that Gin had lost composure, that he was doing everything to get Ichigo all dressed fast.

"It's time, Ichi," Gin said when they were done, a suddenly quiet moment in which they caught their breaths like children who had just managed to hide from their parents only to realize that the wolves were coming to eat them. No escape.

"Run."

"Not fast enough."

"Kiss me."

"No time." Was that sorrow? For a second, maybe there was. Denied the last kiss, Ichigo felt the breeze pick up slightly, no more than the barest of winds. "Hello, Soifon. Ah, Kuchiki-san."

"Rukia?"

"Byakuya," Gin corrected him. Not that it mattered. "They're surprised ta see ya here."

Ichigo just stood there, watching the emptiness, feeling all alone in the world. More came, announced by the smiling Gin. Ukitake and Kyouraku. Rukia, too, got there, so close – but Ichigo was blind, not even bothering to stare around, just looking down at the picture of the woman with a mouth as dry as deserts after a century lacking in rain. "Don't take him," he murmured, unsure if even he could hear himself.

"I go willin'ly," Gin said. Ichigo could feel the smile like a cruel knife sticking into him again and again. He wanted to ask Gin to stop smiling, but he couldn't demand the man to leave his defense away. "Jus' one thin'. Rukia-san, Ichigo was wonderin' why ya never came to visit."

"I wasn't."

"She says that she can't bare to see ya so distraught and not be able to talk to ya," Gin translated, not caring about Ichigo's input. "Coulda gotten one o' these fake bodies, though, if ya ask me."

"I didn't ask." Ichigo had dreamt about this moment and now that it was here, he felt nothing. He didn't want to know about Rukia. Or Byakuya. Or anyone. Even if a part of him told him it was probably his last shot of communicating with anybody from Seireitei.

"They're wonderin' why ya're here with me... Oh, Kuchiki's sayin' I coulda answered tha' myself."

"I was sleeping with Gin."

"And tha' answers both questions, don' it?"

The room was empty to Ichigo, devoid of anybody except Gin, allowing him to deny the reality of what was going on, to pretend it was a strange game they were playing, a make-believe of something he'd wanted and dreaded at the same time. Shinigami friends coming back for him, here to save him from a life gone wrong and insipid. But they weren't, were they? Not here to save, but to damn, not to give, but to take.

"Ya wouldn' wanna know wha' they're sayin'," Gin chuckled, "Why, they're-" He suddenly flew to the floor, landing on his back, nose bleeding. Ichigo turned and jumped to him, trying to kick away anybody there, wondering if he could still touch them, if they would even care that he was trying to stop them, if he could in fact do anything to them at all. If anybody gave a damn. And all the time, the room felt cruelly, wrongly empty.

"I won't let you take him!" he said, snarling in an imitation of his younger self. "I'll fight you. I'll fight you all and I'll..."

"Ya're so pathetic, Ichi," Gin told him, his voice serious for once, deadly serious, too damned honest. Ichigo wanted the smile back now that it was gone and hated himself for never being happy with what he got. Oh, why couldn't they play at lies anymore, maybe it was a lie, maybe there was nobody there... "Ya're not savin' me. Not this time. Not this person."

Ichigo looked at Gin's face, cocked his head, felt fury climb through his veins. "You're bullshitting me. There's nobody there. You're tricking me, fox. You're doing this to hurt me. You're sick and twisted again – do you want to see me cry, Ichimaru? Is that it? Do you want to know if I'd cry for you, or if I'd cry for Rukia and Byakuya and all the other bastards that didn't come?"

"Ichi..."

"'Cause you're getting there, Gin. This once, you're getting to me." Ichigo grabbed his arm, gritted his teeth, feeling his eyes sting, but there were no tears there. He was leaning over the white-haired man, almost embracing him, their faces close. "This time you'll make me cry, so enjoy it."

Gin opened his mouth to reply, but then his eyes opened wide, turned in what seemed to be slow motion. Fear marred his features, revolt. He grabbed Ichigo tight, his fists against the fabric of his shirt, clinging, holding on for dear life, battling them through sheer will alone to get his answer in there. "Not ye-"

He fell like a sack, the fists spasming and letting go. He slid away from Ichigo, collapsing on the floor, eyes open and lifeless. Ichigo couldn't catch him as he slipped away, but picked him back up, embracing him, his lover's name on his lips, a flurry of something cold in his heart. Gin was warm and soft, like he'd been before, but there was no heart beat, no life, no breath. Ichigo's lungs did a strange thing, they spasmed, he found himself sobbing, gasping for air, disbelieving that it had happened. It couldn't be. Couldn't. But here he was and this was a gigai, he told himself, a doll, a lifeless thing, Gin might still be there, he might still hear him, so could the others. They would hear and see, even if he couldn't see or hear them.

"The manga!" he cried, then, hanging on to the stupidest of things. "Let him draw! Bring it... bring it to me." He couldn't even tell if they'd left. If he was talking alone. Yet he kept going, hoping to keep Gin for just a few more minutes, even if just in his imagination. "It's wonderful beyond anything you've seen. It's all about brokenness and subtlety and beauty in the most unlikely places. I love it. Let him draw. Let me publish it. Let me have something, anything, please!"

Words poured out of him for what seemed like forever. He begged to have something of the living Gin, begged to be written a note detailing what would happen to the man, begged to have one of Rukia's drawings, one of Byakuya's glares, begged to be hit so he could feel them and know he wasn't insane, begged to have Gin – he went on and on, long after they were sure to have gone, long after they would have answered, long after they'd have taken pity if they'd known. He didn't even register most of what he said, just went on, on, on, as if to stop speaking would be to break off.

Eventually, he had to stop, helpless, breathless, lost. He left the gigai on the floor, wondering if it decomposed, if it were just like a corpse, wiltering away into nothingness through putrified decay. He had no pictures of Gin alive, just memories. He almost wanted to arrange it in a chair, make him look as if he were sleeping, snap a photo now to have something – but this was a gigai, a fake thing, dead. He'd know when he saw the picture, he'd always know that he never had any real picture of Gin. But he had the manga. He collected the papers, looked through them again, touched them. The Lady of Destruction, flying through town, two street rats in Hiroshima, the goddess Amaterasu waking with the dawn and weeping light over the children who died of cancer not long after the events. A dog demon licking its burnt paws and hiding in the earth, away from humans, dying and moving on to heaven. The faceless emperor bowing his head while the king in the sky looked on impassively and farmers went on as they usually did, not affording to stop their chores for a single day. All the while two lovers found themselves and married secretly in a remote corner of Japan, passing by a young man who Ichigo recognized from a former volume, who had finally found a man to whom he could confess his lust for men and discovered in him a lover. He looked downcast and cursed the sky with its imovable ways.

Ichigo stayed there all night, perched on top of the bed, in his very own wake, still disbelieving it had happened at all – Gin being there, Gin meaning so much, Gin being... And then not being any longer. It seemed like a cruel dream fading away with the morning light.

After dawn, the door opened, bringing a sleepy Ichigo back to alertness. He hoped he'd see Gin – but it was his own father, Isshin, looking as if he had not slept at all, either. "Dad?"

Isshin surveyed the mess, the corpse on the floor, the manga pages, the ruffled bed, the stains on the sheet that the two had not bothered to clean the previous night. Ichigo didn't have it in him to be embarrassed.

"Rukia stopped by. She told me..." Isshin stopped. There was nothing to add to that. "You didn't come home for so long."

"We'll have a funeral," Ichigo said. "A big one." He saw the look in his father's eyes. "Not for me. For the fans. I... Will they leave me the manga? Will he write more? Will he draw more?" Was there anything of Gin left for him?

"Manga?..."

Ichigo pointed towards the desk, the drawings, the pens, the brushes, the pencils. "He had a living here... Aside from having me." Isshin's face darkened like the night before dawn. Ichigo caught it. "Are you ashamed? Shocked? Disgusted, dad, to know where I was spending my nights?"

Isshin looked away, his gaze falling on Gin's body. "Do you need to take care of the gigai yourself? Or can I do it?"

"You do it. Big funeral. For the fans. He had fans. For the manga. I'll publish what he's left posthumously. Can you say it was a heart attack?"

"Yes."

"Are you disgusted with me dad?" Ichigo repeated. "I need to know."

"I trusted you." The words were studied, neutral, not answering. They spoke more than they should have. Isshin tried to understand, but couldn't, not yet. Like Ichigo, he couldn't accept what happened yet, couldn't get his mind around it.

"Tell them he was a traitor and he didn't kill me when he could've," Ichigo said, slowly. "Tell them I was free to come and go. Tell them he's a genius and I love his work. Tell them he was a bastard who seduced me and had his way with me and gave more of a damn than all of them in doing it. Tell them he's the only thing I have left of myself and of them. Tell them I never got him, but I need him, physically, I need to feel him and touch him and be with him, so give him back because he's mine."

He put the manga pages together again, under his father's gaze, eyes dark with a quiet, patient determination. Then he said, again, "Gin's mine."

Isshin felt the slightest flicker of reiatsu rising against his own.


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