Author's Notes: Thanks to Gengkotsuya and Spren for encouragement and inspiration. Thanks to Liz and thdemonprist for beta- reading.

Umbral Embrace

By lyrebird



tsuka - sword handgrip
saya - scabbard
kata - training exercises
iaido - art of sword defence, practised alone
kendo - art of Japanese fencing, practised with an opponent
dojo - training hall


It was mid-afternoon when Hisoka entered the dojo change room. Sliding the door shut, he carried his traditional training clothes with him: split skirt hakama, heavyweight gi jacket, and obi belt.

He stripped off his jeans, hooded sweatshirt and tank top. He looked down at himself, regarding his slender build with a critical eye. He knew his body would never develop further, but he still expected to see some change in his musculature after two weeks of practice. A slight thickening of the biceps, greater definition of the shoulder muscles - some outward sign of his physical training.

Unfortunately, there was nothing. Nothing he could see, anyway.

The curse marks were absent as well, but Hisoka knew this was temporary. When the nightmares returned, they would glow red again.

With the familiarity of experience, he dressed for training. He folded the jacket across his chest, then tucked it into the hakama. The obi was tied as dictated by tradition, circling his narrow waist twice then tied at the front.

From childhood, Hisoka received instruction in several martial arts: kendo, aikido, iai, archery, and naginata. He had not been given a choice by his father - his own wishes were irrelevant in the matter. It was his duty as the seventeenth head of the Kurosaki clan to practise the ancient samurai arts, as befitting one who traced his lineage to samurai who served the Kamakura Shogunate.

Fortunately, he had been a reasonably adept pupil. What he lacked in stature, he made up with agility and dedication. He achieved sufficient competency to be an instructor - after all, he even taught Tsuzuki archery before the traditional New Year tournament.

But he did not enjoy the traditional arts. He focused on mastering the techniques, but the arts never touched his spirit. He practised them because it was his duty as a Kurosaki. They were a reminder of the millstone of familial obligations, nothing more.

What use did it serve? His years of training meant nothing the night he encountered Muraki.

Hisoka grimaced as the prickling sensation crept over his chest and arms. Impatiently he rubbed them away, willing his pounding heart to slow down. But it was impossible to clear his mind of the anger and hatred. Over the years, it still smouldered within him, ready to alight at the mere mention of Muraki's name.

He braced himself against the locker and took slow deep breaths to calm his mind. With each exhalation, he imagined himself expelling the negative energy. Such turbulent thoughts were inappropriate in the dojo.

Valour. Benevolence. Rectitude. Etiquette. Truth. Loyalty. Honour. The tenets of bushido. Without these virtues, he would never succeed in his quest.

When his mind was more settled a few minutes later, he opened his locker and packed away his clothes.

He saw no reason to practise the arts when he first became a shinigami. His healing powers were swift; his body could appear and disappear at will - what need did he have for the violent physicality of martial arts? So he focused on learning magical arts such as fuda and spell-casting. He strived to be as good as his partner who was, for all his goofiness, widely respected as EnmaCho's most powerful shinigami.

But the bloody encounter beneath the sakura of Kokakurou changed everything. For the first time, he was shown his true weakness by a master - a humbling but invaluable lesson.

He lacked focus and concentration. His mind was clouded, his body uncoordinated, and spiritually he was as weak as a child. He would never achieve victory when he was not at peace with himself.

Focusing his mind to find this inner peace was essential to master any skill, be it spiritual or physical. Out of all the arts, swordsmanship was widely regarded as the one that honed one's concentration to the fullest. The katana was more than a weapon - it embodied the ideal soul of a warrior: pure, straight and sharp.

Hisoka went inside the equipment room. He made his way past the rolled-up tatami mats, archery targets, and bows lining the wall. He didn't even glance at the bamboo swords he once used in training.

He stopped at a wooden chest of drawers by the far wall. Inside the top drawer was a silk swordbag bearing the pattern of gold filigree on a pearl grey background. He undid the wrapping cord and carefully removed the sheathed katana, measuring slightly less than one metre in length. Reverently he held it by the saya/scabbard in his right hand, blade hanging down, and tsuka/handgrip pointing up.

His katana. His soul.

If only a soul could be cleansed as easily.


The battle for his katana required much courage and tactical skill. Two weeks ago, he had braved a visit to the secretary's office.

"Excuse me, Tatsumi-san."

"Kurosaki-kun? Come in. Take a seat." Tatsumi didn't look up from a letter he was reading. "Can you believe these accountants? They've refused to increase our funding for the second year in a row! They know we're still paying off the library renovations and the recent damages to the main building and yet--"

"I request leave to improve my skills in kendo and iaido, Tatsumi-san."

Tatsumi put down the letter, its contents forgotten. "Why?"

Hisoka swallowed. There was something unnerving about those blue eyes - the way they could pin a person to the spot. "I-I want to improve my spiritual power by focusing my mental concentration. I think mastering the sword will help me to do this."

"There are many ways to improve spiritual power and concentration. If you wish to achieve this by practising a martial art, you could practise archery. We have excellent facilities and Terazuma-san can instruct you on the finer points--"

"I know archery already!" Hisoka winced at how rude he sounded. Rude...and desperate. "Forgive me, Tatsumi-san, but I don't need further training in archery. I practise regularly as it is on my own."

"I see." Tatsumi leaned back in his chair, his cool gaze never leaving Hisoka's face. "I assume that there is more to your request than a desire for mental and spiritual improvement."

"You saw the way I conducted myself during the fight with Oriya Mibu. I was outclassed, humiliated. I even used the katana as a crutch to lift myself up: the ultimate disgrace one can perform to a blade." He clenched his hands into fists in his lap and lowered his head. "I am trained in bushido, but my performance with the sword was atrocious. If my father had been watching, he would have disowned me. But worst of all, my weakness almost resulted in Tsuzuki's death--"

"Kurosaki-kun." Quietly spoken, but firm and compelling. "Do not take on more blame than is rightfully yours. You are the one who reminded Tsuzuki for his reason to live. You are the one who brought him back from oblivion."

He sounded so stern, and yet the words were kind. Hisoka blinked, trying to reconcile the anomaly. "But it was your kagetsu powers that protected Tsuzuki from Touda's flames. If anything, your role in saving Tsuzuki is greater than mine."

Tatsumi's gaze softened a fraction. "Have you forgotten your own life was also in danger?"

"I... no, of course not." Hisoka's cheeks burned with embarrassment. "Forgive me, Tatsumi-san. I never properly thanked you for saving my life as well."

"Enough, enough! Expressions of gratitude aren't necessary." Tatsumi straightened his shoulders, looking extremely uncomfortable. "I'm sure this isn't the reason for your visit here."

Hisoka shook his head.

"As far as I know, there is no one in EnmaCho with the skills to teach you. How would you train without a teacher?"

"I remember the kata exercises from my previous training. I can read up on them and practise alone to refine my technique."

"You will train without an opponent? How will you improve without competition?"

Oriya immediately came to mind. If circumstances had been different, Hisoka would have eagerly sought Oriya as a teacher. It was samurai tradition for the vanquished to become student to the victor. But he could hardly visit the land of the living for regular lessons, and his hatred of Muraki ran too deep. To be indebted to a friend of Muraki's was more than his pride could bear.

Pride. A violation of the bushido ethic. A weakness in a warrior.

"It is said...that the greatest enemy a swordsman face is himself. The aim of learning the art of the sword should be to cut the enemy within oneself." He looked up to meet Tatsumi's gaze. "I believe I already have a formidable rival to practise with."

Tatsumi lifted a quizzical brow, but let the comment pass. "Very well. How much leave will you need?"

"I'd only need a couple of hours each day. Kyushu has been quiet recently, so I don't think it will interfere with my shinigami duties. If the workload increases, I will reduce my training."

"Have you discussed this with Tsuzuki-san?"

Hisoka knew this was going to come up sooner or later. Tatsumi's universe revolved around two things: the accounts and Tsuzuki. It was a highly eccentric orbit at the best of times.

"He's been very supportive. He tells me I shouldn't work so hard all the time--"

"Did you tell him about Kokakurou?"

"No! That idiot beats himself with enough guilt as it is. He even feels guilt over what he did to Muraki! Guilt...for that bastard..." Hisoka looked away, battling with his anger. In a way, Tsuzuki's remorse was a personal betrayal that hurt more than any of the cuts from Oriya's sword. He had never revealed his feelings by word or deed, but Hisoka could feel the muted emanations, like a low bass note rumbling through the bubbling bright melody of his thoughts.

"He has always been like this," Tatsumi said quietly. "Whether demon or human, he mourns each death as if it were one of his own blood. Do not resent him for it. His capacity for understanding the pain of others is what makes him special to us all."

Hisoka nodded. Tatsumi spoke truth, but it was not one he was ready to accept yet. "I don't want him to feel more guilt, Tatsumi-san. He hasn't asked, and I haven't told him. He doesn't need to know the reasons behind my decision."

Tatsumi was silent for several seconds. "If your partner has no objection, then I have none either. Your request is granted, Kurosaki-kun." He looked down at his papers as if preparing to return to work.

"Thank you, Tatsumi-san." Hisoka took a deep breath in, then out. Now came the hard part. He took another deep breath in, ready to strike. "I will also need a proper katana to work with. I request permission to increase the limit on my expense account to cover the cost of purchasing a suitable weapon--"

Tatsumi almost fell out of his chair. "You want what? You want what??"

"I need funds to buy a ka--"

"I heard you the first time! Do you have any idea how much they cost?"

"Yes, Tatsumi-san." Hisoka whipped out the notepad from the backpocket of his jeans. "The price of a new katana depends on the grade of the swordsmith. A top grade craftsman may charge as much as three million yen for a shinken blade. The fittings are usually extra--"

"Three. Million. Yen," Tatsumi repeated, his eyes glazing over. The words made sense on their own, but together they were beyond his comprehension. "Three. Million. Yen."

"I probably won't need such a high quality blade for my first katana. A blade from a lower grade swordsmith for six hundred thousand yen should be sufficient--"

"Are you insane? Six hundred thousand, three may as well ask for the sun and the moon while you're at it!" Tatsumi snatched up the letter and held it before Hisoka's face. "They barely give me enough funding to cover the cost of running the Shoukanka. We are already two months behind on servicing our loans. How do you expect me to come up with that much money??"

Hisoka took the letter and placed it back on the desk. He had never borne the full brunt of Tatsumi's anger before, but he had seen him explode enough times to know the best way to deal with it. "I must have a katana to work with, Tatsumi-san. It is the only way--"

"Can't you use a bamboo sword? Or a sharpened wooden sword?"

"No. Practice with a bamboo sword is no substitute for handling a steel blade." He kept his voice even and his gaze unwavering. This was one battle he had to win. "If I am to improve as a swordsman, I must work with steel."

Tatsumi placed his elbows on the desk, rested his forehead in his hands, and began pulling at his hair. "I can't take this any longer. This job, these people. And now this." He glared at Hisoka, eyes spitting blue fire. "I thought you were the one person in the Shoukanka who understood the importance of prudence in financial matters. Tsuzuki-san's spending habits have been less extravagant since you joined us, and I attributed it to your restraining influence. But now I see the truth!" A maniacal gleam lit his eyes as he pointed a trembling finger at Hisoka. "You've been planning this all along! All this time, you were planning to ambush me and drive the Shoukanka to the wall with this outrageous request!"

Hisoka lifted his chin. "I am willing to take out a low interest loan. I have done a budget of my current financial status, and I think I can contribute half of my wages as repayment until the katana is paid off. I believe it will take me three to four years to pay off the principal."

Tatsumi sat back in his chair, stunned. He eyed Hisoka for several seconds, eyes narrowed, a hand over his mouth. Finally, as if coming to a decision, he sat up and steepled his fingers in front of him. "Does this katana mean so much to you?"

Hisoka took another deep breath in, and out. This was the critical stroke - everything hinged on this answer. "I am a Shinigami of Second Block, and Tsuzuki's partner. If I cannot protect my partner when he needs my help, then I am not worthy of my place here." He leaned forward, desperation getting the better of him. "Tsuzuki can't always be there to support me. At times he is so weak and helpless, so hopelessly vulnerable. It is my responsibility to help him! If he cannot bear to have his hands stained with more blood...then I will offer my katana in his stead!"

Tatsumi pushed his glasses up his nose. His hand was outstretched over his face, fingers touching the corners of the wire-rimmed frames. When he removed his hand, Hisoka saw the chill in his eyes.

The secretary was unmoved. Hisoka's heart fell, but he forced himself to remain focused. Breathe in and out, expel the negative thoughts. Think of something else to say...

"Meet me in my office at twelve p.m. tomorrow." Tatsumi picked up his pen and looked down at his ledger, effectively ending their meeting. "We will visit some swordsmiths during lunchtime to compare prices."


Tatsumi was true to his word. The next day they saw many swordsmiths, and Tatsumi haggled over prices like a buyer at a fish market. Hisoka watched on in tense silence, amazed at the secretary's tenacity. It seemed foolish to argue with someone who made such weapons of lethal beauty, but Tatsumi was fearless and persistent. There were moments when Hisoka feared for Tatsumi's life, so incensed were some of the tradesmen with his discounted offers.

Finally - after making fulsome promises of rewards in the afterlife - he reached a price that was to his grudging satisfaction. Before Hisoka knew it, he was being measured for a suitable blade. It was shorter than the one he'd used in Kyoto - apparently such a blade was far too long for someone of his height.

By some miracle, there was a blade available in the correct size. The next day, he began practising his kata in the dojo.

Two weeks on, he knew his technique had improved a little, but there was still a long way to go. It would take more than two weeks to mould his spirit.

Transferring the katana to his right hand, he pointed it downward in his saya as dictated by custom, and bowed at the entrance to the dojo. In bare feet, he padded to the centre of the training floor.

He carefully placed the katana on the floor in front of him, then stood up. With a quick movement, he snapped the left leg of his hakama between his legs, knelt on the left knee, followed by the right. Then he placed his hands on the floor, thumbs and index fingers outstretched to form a diamond, and bowed face down. A sign of respect, and joining of his soul to that of the sword.

Hisoka went through the warm-up. Neck rotations in all directions, then flexion and extension of the wrists and hands - common sites of injury. There was a trivial ache around his right elbow, a sign of his new training regimen. Next came shoulder rolls, side stretches and waist rotations to free up his torso. He did knee bends and ankle rotations, followed by jumping and stretches to his calf, thigh and groin muscles.

His body was flexible and supple, easily adapting to his demands. His joints would never be plagued by arthritis. His back would never know the nagging ache of lumbago or sciatica. One of the small mercies of being a young shinigami.

The silk cord of the saya needed to be tied to his obi, an elaborate knot of multiple loops. He positioned the katana so the tsuka rested over his navel and the katana slanted to the left, blade facing up.

Next came the sword exercises. He practised moving from the hips, then began with various cutting motions: down the centre, along the diagonal, horizontal cuts from standing and kneeling positions, and the big rolling cut. He went through the ritual of blood removal - swinging the sword forward and right, stabbing the rear then lifting the blade up to salute. Then with a twist of his wrist, the sword was snapped down, the edge moving up and over, the tip pointing beyond the imaginary opponent.

Now he was ready to begin kata - exercises practised to develop correct movement and maintain technical purity.

He sat on his knees in seiza position. Breathe in, breathe out. Breathe in.

"Ipponme, mae!"

He rose onto his knees, spine straight, hips thrust out. His arms flew in a blur of motion: right drawing the katana free, left pulling the saya back. The cut had to begin even before the blade was free - a horizontal line across the temple of the enemy, his right foot stepping forward to increase his reach. The tip of the blade ended a little past his shoulder, an error he would work on later.

Next came furkirabutte - swinging the sword above the head. Still on one knee, Hisoka swung the katana back to the left and lifted it high, the blade tip never lower than the tsuka, left hand joining the right in a two-handed grip. He slid his left knee forward so it was level with the right knee, moving closer to the fallen enemy.

He paused for a brief moment, making sure his grip was correct. The mark of a beginner - but grip was everything in iaido. The difference in grip was enough to distinguish students from masters.

Then came kirioroshi - the final cut to end suffering. He slid the right foot forward to make his hips square, the sword swinging down in a powerful vertical slash. His left knee moved forward a little, his entire body thrumming with the force of the strike. He took care to keep his back straight, resisting the temptation to lean forward and ruin his posture.


He swung the sword in the ritual for blood removal - right forward, stab right behind, then lifted the blade to salute. As the blade snapped down, he came to his feet, back straight, weight shifting from right to left foot. He kept his eyes focused on his imaginary opponent.

Finally, the resheathing of the blade. He circled the katana before him with his right hand and let the back of the blade rest against the mouth of the saya. Slowly he drew the blade along the mouth until the point dropped inside. He kept his eyes on a distant point across the room - to even glance at the saya was bad form. Then he raised and rotated the tsuka so the edge faced up. With his left hand holding the saya, fingers less than an inch from the cutting edge, he slid the blade inside.


Hisoka frowned. The movements felt uncoordinated and jerky to him, lacking grace and coordination. The drawing cut had been awkward and clumsy, lacking control. Furikabutte and kirioroshi did not flow smoothly from one to the other.

The katana was an entity he had yet to manipulate into obedience. The unity of mind, sword, and body was not yet in his reach.

All the more reason for him to practise again. And again. The blade left the saya, swung through the air, and returned home. Perspiration dewed his chest and forehead as he repeated the kata, his eyes never leaving his imaginary opponent. He shouted the name of the kata at the start of each exercise, doing his best to imbue them with determination and spirit.

Gradually the movements became easier, more confident and sure. His muscles fell into a rhythm of flowing motion, each action leading smoothly to the next. The blade gleamed as it sliced the air: pure, straight and sharp.

This is my sword. This is my spirit.

He sheathed the katana with his final exhalation. His body hummed pleasantly with adrenalin, and his ears rang with his last cry. The last few exercises had felt fluid yet focused and powerful. For a few brief seconds, the katana had become more than a piece of folded steel in his hands.

Unity of mind, sword and spirit. He could have sworn he'd glimpsed it.

A tendril of heat curled within him. It wasn't painful like tearing a muscle or spraining a ligament. On the contrary, it felt pleasant - an extension of the lassitude he normally felt after physical exertion. But where was it coming from?

He whirled around, his hands positioned for a drawing stroke.


"Kurosaki-kun." Tatsumi performed a stiff standing bow from the dojo entrance, dressed in his tan business suit. "Forgive me for wearing the inappropriate attire, but I wondered if I may enter."

"Of course." Hisoka stood up and bowed. He shifted the saya to his right, making it impossible to draw - a sign of trust and respect. "Do you require me to return to the Shoukanka? I thought Tsuzuki and I were up-to-date with our accounts--"

"You are. There is no need for you to return to the office." Tatsumi stepped inside with bare feet and looked around, his gaze openly curious as he studied his surroundings.

"Is Tsuzuki in any trouble? Has he done something wrong?"

"No, no." Annoyance flitted over Tatsumi's features. "He's acting as guinea-pig for Watari-san's latest version of the sex-change formula."

Tsuzuki's visits to Watari's lab were more frequent after Kyoto - something that didn't surprise Hisoka. They were both easy-going in temperament - perhaps a little too easy-going. But maybe this was what Tsuzuki needed to cheer him up.

"Is that wise, Tatsumi-san? Considering what happened the last time--"

"They are both adults. If they want to experiment on themselves, I have no authority to stop them...unless it interferes with the finances." Tatsumi stepped across the smooth floor of the dojo, movements swift yet surprisingly quiet for a man of his height. "As long as the damage is limited to themselves, it is none of my business." He walked past Hisoka to stare at the paper screen walls as if examining them for workmanship flaws.

Hisoka's brow puckered in a frown. Was Tatsumi the source of that strange feeling? He couldn't feel anything now.

"Are the training facilities here to your satisfaction?"

Hisoka blinked. "I have no complaints with them, Tatsumi-san. However, it may be best to ask Terazuma-san when he returns, as he often uses the facilities as well."

Tatsumi thrust his hands in his pockets and resumed walking in a slow circle around Hisoka. "No doubt he will have a long list of items requiring repair. Building maintenance costs have risen, but without a matching increase in funding it is impossible to give the facilities the care they deserve."

Hisoka watched, openly curious. Had Tatsumi come here merely to discuss the upkeep of the dojo?

Brilliant blue eyes fell on Hisoka, then skittered away. "Forgive me for interrupting your training. I wanted to make sure that the dojo and the equipment were being utilised appropriately. Any damage to Shoukanka assets must be recorded for account-keeping purposes."

"I understand, Tatsumi-san." He felt acutely conscious of the weight of the katana against his side - the most expensive piece of equipment within the dojo. Maybe Tatsumi was concerned with how he cared for it. "I found a suitable place to store the katana. I ensure it is locked at all times. I'm the only person who has the key."

"Good." Tatsumi folded his arms, and turned to face him. "The swordsmith recommended it be kept laid down in a dry place, didn't he?"

"Yes. I found a chest of drawers made of pawlownia wood. I inspect the wood weekly for insects or signs of moisture."

"What about the registration card?" Tatsumi's gaze flicked down at the katana. "Have you tied it to the saya?"

"I've sewn it into the swordbag." Hisoka couldn't quite keep out the defensive note in his voice. "It's also acceptable practice by law."

Tatsumi inclined his head. "I accept your judgement in this matter. I am sure you are much more familiar with the legal requirements."

That must be why Tatsumi was here - he wanted to ensure the katana received proper care. "When will the deductions from my pay start? I am still receiving the standard amount."

"There will be no deductions." Tatsumi pushed up his glasses and began walking again. "After discussion with the accounting department this morning, we have agreed to consider the katana an asset to the organisation. It will effectively be for your use alone, but in name it will be property of the Shoukanka."

What? Property of the Shoukanka...

He gripped the tsuka, but the surge of resentment receded as the words sank in. It was still his katana - for as long as he worked for the Shoukanka.

He traced his fingers over the silk-wrapped tsuka, and the simple wooden saya. This was more than a gift. This was material proof of his 'place'. In all his years as a shinigami, Hisoka never recalled the secretary granting such an expensive item to a single employee - even Konoe. Or Tsuzuki.

"I...I hope this decision doesn't displease you," Tatsumi began, an uncharacteristic hesitancy in his voice. "I thought this would be a more suitable financial arrangement."

"It is - very much so." Hisoka looked up, green eyes bright. "Thank you, Tatsumi-san. Thank you!"

"Think nothing of it." Tatsumi tilted his head, his expression grave. "Kurosaki-kun, this is the first time I've seen you smile."

"Is it?" A faint blush stained Hisoka's cheeks.

"You should do it more often."

Hisoka lowered his gaze, too embarrassed for words. "I...I'll keep that in mind."

Tatsumi straightened his shoulders and looked away. "Well, I should return to my office. Apologies again for interrupting you."

Hisoka watched his tall retreating back. Empathically, the secretary was a mirror-like lake that only whipped itself into a frenzy over past guilt or budgetary constraints. But this was different. There were ripples disturbing the surface, hinting at a powerful undertow surging beneath. Even now, Tatsumi seemed tense and uncertain, devoid of his customary no-nonsense bluntness.


Tatsumi paused, a few steps away from the entrance. "Yes?"

"Is there...anything else I can help you with?"

"Not at all." Tatsumi stepped down from the training floor. "I merely wanted to ensure that the facilities are in satisfactory condition. As secretary, it is my job to ensure that all Shoukanka assets are used appropriately and remain in good working order. I entrust the care of the katana to you, Kurosaki-kun. Please take good care of it."

Something did not seem right. Hisoka still sensed the nervous ripples, the sign of inner discord. Their conversation wasn't the only reason Tatsumi had come to the dojo.

"Would you...would you like to watch me practise iaido kata?"

Tatsumi froze in the middle of putting on one shoe. "Why?"

Hisoka inhaled sharply. The ripples in his mind's eye were gone. Tatsumi had transformed himself into a solid sheet of impenetrable ice. The barriers were well and truly up.

The truth came to him like a soft whisper. He came to watch.

"I...I wish to show you how I have improved, Tatsumi-san." Hisoka's heart thudded so hard he thought it would break out of his chest. How he kept his voice steady he would never know. "I want to prove that your investment has not been in vain."

Across the dojo, Tatsumi's eyes locked onto him. Such a brilliant penetrating blue - Hisoka had never experienced anything like it. He flushed under the challenging scrutiny.

It was Tatsumi who looked away first. "I have other things to do today. Will you practise here at the same time tomorrow?"

"Yes. Three o'clock."

"I will do my best to come on time." He bowed to Hisoka, then left the dojo.

It took Hisoka at least fifteen minutes of intense meditation to achieve the mental focus and calm required to continue the rest of his training session.


The next afternoon, Hisoka found Tatsumi waiting for him beneath the big maple tree outside the dojo.

The afternoon sunlight filtered through the brilliant red leaves, casting intricate patterns of dancing light and shifting shadows beneath its canopy. Just as the sakura trees in Meifu blossomed all year around, captured forever in their springtime splendour, so were the maple leaves eternally afire in autumn shades of crimson and copper. But Tatsumi seemed oblivious to their beauty as he paced back and forth, head slightly bowed, hands behind his back. He was unaware of the way the dappled sunlight crowned his bent head with highlights of deep russet, and splashed his sober suit with a riot of swirling shapes that wouldn't look out of place in a carnival.

Hisoka blinked at the incongruity. Tatsumi detested being idle - he thrived on hard work and activity, something Hisoka secretly admired. Such a solid work ethic was a pleasant change from Tsuzuki's layabout ways. But his restless pacing seemed so purposeless, as if he couldn't bear to be idle for a second.

He looked like a salaryman cast adrift in nature's beauty, lost outside the sterile confines of his office.

Hisoka checked his watch and grimaced. Five minutes past three. He quickened his pace, his feet crunching the dried leaves on the ground.

Tatsumi stopped and lifted his head. "Good afternoon, Kurosaki-kun."

"Good afternoon, Tatsumi-san." He executed a hasty bow. "I'm sorry for keeping you waiting. I lost track of the time and--"

"An apology is unnecessary. I only arrived here a few minutes earlier."

Hisoka fumbled for the keys to the dojo. "I had to finish proofing one of Tsuzuki's reports." He unlocked the door and slid it open. "Don't you have a set of keys?"

"I do, but I was under the impression that visitors must seek permission from the sensei before entering the dojo."

"Oh. But I'm the only one here. I hardly qualify as sensei."

Tatsumi bent down to untie his shoes. "You shouldn't underestimate yourself, Kurosaki-kun."

"I..." Hisoka flushed. Even when Tatsumi offered praise, he phrased it as a command. "Yes, Tatsumi-san. But really, there's no need for you to wait outside if I am late."

"As you wish." He bowed his head.

Hisoka bowed as well, an automatic gesture. "I need to change. Please excuse me."

Mindful of his lateness, Hisoka changed in double-quick time. He came out with the katana to find Tatsumi waiting for him. They bowed together to the dojo then stepped on to the training floor.

"Where would you like me to sit?"

"I..." Hisoka looked around, a little bewildered by Tatsumi's deference. "I work in the centre. As long as you're a safe distance away, you can sit anywhere you like."

Tatsumi chose to sit on his knees in seiza by the far wall. With his back to the sunlight filtering in from the paper screen behind him, his features were cast in shadow.

Hisoka bowed to the katana, then went through the stretches and movements of the warm-up. Even in such a mundane activity, his body hummed with the nervous anticipation of performing to an audience. He forced himself to focus on his body, on the way his muscles ached as he tested them. He found himself wishing he were taller, broader in the chest, thicker in the biceps and deltoids. Even with the clothing covering most of his body, he knew the gi hung loosely from his shoulders and upper arms.

If his physical limitations were noticeable to him, it must be even more obvious to the man observing him from the sidelines.

Was that why Tatsumi wanted to watch? Maybe the secretary doubted his ability to improve with the katana. Maybe he wanted to see with his own eyes if Hisoka could ever be a worthy partner for Tsuzuki.

Of course. It was the only logical reason. Tsuzuki was his favourite.

Hisoka went through the sword exercises with grim determination. He would prove himself worthy. He would slice Tatsumi's doubts to ribbons as he sliced the invisible opponents he faced in iaido.

"Iaido is an art that requires correct technique and movement," he began. "Unlike kendo, there is no combat with an opponent, no scoring of points against another. The aim is to develop movements with accuracy and agility. By disciplining the movements, the spirit is cultivated as well. Some have described it as meditation in motion." He paused, a little self-conscious at how he sounded. "Would you like me to explain further?"

"Please do."

"It is said that in iaido, victory lies with the sword in the saya. We only achieve true mastery over the sword when we cultivate our spirit and find inner peace. It also has a literal meaning as well - each kata begins and ends with the sword in the saya." He began tying the saya to his obi. "In practice, there are ten standard forms of iaido kata, each representing defensive manoeuvres in response to various types of attack. I will demonstrate."

He sat on his knees in seiza, and focused on his breathing. With each exhalation, he let out the fear and doubts. He could do it. He knew he could.

"Ipponme, mae!"

The drawing cut was smooth, his posture straight as he stepped forward on his right foot. The tip of the sword ended just inside his right shoulder, as it should. He swung the blade high, both hands holding the tsuka, left knee shifting forward. All his power went into kirioroshi - the blade was an arc of light as it fell forward, the tip stopping precisely below his right knee.

That was it!

He performed blood removal as dictated by custom, rising to his feet as he snapped the blade down. After a pause to focus his awareness, he resheathed the blade. His heart was pounding, his cry still rang in his ears, but all he could feel was an intense feeling of satisfaction. There was still that delay between lifting the blade and the final cut, but the rest had flowed easily from one step to the next.

It took him a few seconds to remember Tatsumi's silent presence, so preoccupied he was with his technique. "I will demonstrate the other kata now."

"Take as long as you wish, Kurosaki-kun." Tatsumi straightened his shoulders. "I have done my best to control my spiritual emanations so they do not disturb your concentration."

"You can do that?" Hisoka turned to look at him, but it was difficult to see his face. "How?"

"Kagetsu magic." Tatsumi didn't elaborate further. "If you find my presence disruptive-"

"No, not at all." This was news to Hisoka. "I...I didn't know kagetsu could be used in this way."

"Why should you? You are not a practitioner of kagetsu." Tatsumi shifted a little, as if annoyed with the discussion.

Hisoka remained standing, unsure whether to be pleased by Tatsumi's thoughtfulness or disturbed by the implications. Did Tatsumi routinely use kagetsu to hide his emotions? Or was Tatsumi only hiding them now to spare his feelings? Gingerly he reached out, searching for a stray thought, a fleeting emotion with his empathic powers.

Emptiness. Not even the still lake.

"Does my use of kagetsu trouble you so much?"

"No. It's just...I can't sense anything." A barrier to his empathic powers - he never believed such a thing was possible. "If I didn't see and hear you, I wouldn't know you were here."

"Good. This is how it should be. Please continue your training, Kurosaki-kun."

Hisoka knelt back down in seiza position, still uneasy. How was he going to tell if Tatsumi was satisfied with him if he couldn't sense his emanations? He couldn't even rely on ordinary cues such as facial expressions because of the position Tatsumi had chosen for himself. How annoying. Hisoka had come to rely on his empathy to understand the people around him. As a child, his family had instilled in him a hatred for his talent. It was only as a shinigami that he discovered its true value in understanding and helping others. So to be bereft of it now, even temporarily, troubled him.

But there was nothing he could do, except demonstrate the kata. Tatsumi would come to his own conclusions. As to whether he would share them...only time would tell.

So he worked his way through each of them, calling out each one before performing the exercise.

"Nihonme, ushiro!" Similar to 'mae', except the enemy was behind him. He drew the katana as he turned counter-clockwise, left foot stepping out, delivering a horizontal cut, followed by the vertical cut of kirioroshi.

"Sanbonme, uke nagashi!" In response to a standing attack from the left, Hisoka deflected the strike using the flat of the blade, then cut diagonally down from the imaginary opponent's left shoulder to right hip.

And so it went. With 'Yonhon-me, Tsuka ate,' he fought off two enemies by striking one in the solar plexus with the hilt of the katana, stabbing the other behind, then vertically slicing the first one. In 'Gohon-me, Kesa giri' he faced an attack from the front while standing upright, and dispensed of the enemy with two diagonal cuts across the torso.

More opponents surrounded him from behind, in front, from left and right. Hisoka twisted to face each of them, light and graceful on his feet, using the hilt and blade to strike them down. The blade swung through the air, reflecting the sunlight, fast and sure as it moved from saya to cut the air and back to the saya.

By the final kata, 'Jyupponme, Shiho giri,' he faced four men diagonally placed around him. He struck the wrist of a man in front, drew his katana and stabbed one behind him, then dispensed of the remaining three with vertical kirioroshi cuts.

He stood still after he sheathed the blade, his chest rising and falling, a film of sweat over his brow and the centre of his chest. He knew he was getting careless towards the end, his precision lost as his muscles tired. Usually, he rested longer between kata, but he did not want to show a hint of weakness to his audience. He ignored the cramp in his calf, and the ache in his shoulders and arms.

Tatsumi was watching for weakness or fault, assessing the wisdom of his investment. Hisoka knew he couldn't show any failings now.

He turned to Tatsumi and bowed, shifting the saya to the right. "I still need to improve with the later kata. I know I sometimes pause when I shouldn't, so I need more practice in making my movements natural and flowing. My breathing also requires closer coordination to the movements. Sometimes my positioning is not quite correct, but I hope to improve over time."

Tatsumi said nothing for a long moment.

"Tatsumi-san?" Hisoka lifted a hand to shield his eyes from the sunlight, squinting to make out Tatsumi's face.

"Kurosaki-kun..." There was a husky catch in his voice. His gaze was lowered to the floor, making it impossible for Hisoka to see his eyes. "Have you completed all your exercises?"

"Yes." Hadn't he been watching?

"Good." Tatsumi pulled up the sleeve of his left wrist to check his watch. "I should return to the Shoukanka now. I have some important letters I hope to finish before the end of the day. Please excuse me."

"I...of course, Tatsumi-san." Was that it? Didn't he want to see more?

Tatsumi wouldn't even look his way, walking past Hisoka without so much as a second glance.

"I practise every afternoon here. You're more than welcome to come again."

"Thank you, but I wouldn't want to disrupt your training any further." Tatsumi was already at the entrance putting on his socks.

"But you haven't! Your presence hasn't troubled me in the slightest!" Hisoka felt again for any emanations, but came up empty. "Your kagetsu powers are very good."

"I'm glad you think so," Tatsumi replied, voice muffled as he tied up his shoelaces, his movements quick and impatient.

Hisoka watched him, bewildered at his rush to leave. Had his performance been so abysmal? Why wouldn't Tatsumi say something, anything? He never hesitated to criticise the other workers at the Shoukanka, freely chastising those who didn't meet his uncompromising standards.

"Are you trying to protect my feelings? Do you think I'm so dumb I can't work it out?"

Tatsumi's head shot up. "I beg your pardon?"

"I don't want to be treated differently to anyone else! I'm not a child anymore, even if I look like one to you!" Hisoka bowed his head, sick with humiliation. "If you think my iaido was bad, then say so."

"Kurosaki-kun." Tatsumi's voice was gruff. "I do not claim to be an expert on iaido. My knowledge comes from what little I've seen and read. My opinion is of no value to you."

"That's not true!" Hisoka strode quickly across the floor to where Tatsumi stood by the entrance. "You may only be a layman, but you can still perceive basics such as balance and flow and agility of movement. I want to hear what you have to say. I...I wouldn't have asked you to watch me if I didn't. I can take criticism without falling apart."

"I know you can."

"Tatsumi-san, if you were appalled or disgusted--"

"Not in the slightest." Tatsumi pushed his glasses up, his lips twisted in an ironic smile. "You have no idea, do you?"

"No idea of what?" Even standing close to him, Hisoka couldn't feel any emanations. He looked up, wishing he were a little taller so he could better see Tatsumi's eyes.

"You were beautiful. Fiercely graceful in motion, the katana was like an arc of light in your hands...but as I said, my knowledge of iaido is limited."

Hisoka gasped. Languid heat curled up along his spine, and down to pool in his groin. His muscles felt lazy, heavy, oddly lethargic.

"I must leave." Tatsumi's lips curled in disgust as he shook his head. "Forgive me."


He was out the door before Hisoka could even complete the sentence. The door slid behind him with a loud slam.


Hisoka clutched his arms, hugging himself. Tatsumi's praise resonated in his ears, but his mind was in too much turmoil to register the meaning. The heat and languor he had felt moments ago was gone. He felt cold and empty, deprived of something he didn't understand.

Numbly he walked back to centre of the dojo to meditate. It took him forty-five minutes before he could begin training again.


Watari and Tsuzuki were having afternoon tea outside when they saw Tatsumi striding back to the main building.

"Hey, Tatsumi!" Watari waved, mouth full of cake. "Come and join us!"

"Afternoon tea is over! Get back to work!"

"But we've just come outside."

"Did you watch Hisoka?" Tsuzuki asked eagerly, licking icing from his fingers. He hadn't bothered with the niceties of cutlery - or even crockery, judging by the crumbs he left on the table. "What do you think?"

"Go see for yourself! As his partner, you should be looking out for him!"

"He told me not to! He said I was a distraction because I fussed over him too much." He looked at Watari forlornly. "Can you believe he said such cruel things?"

Watari gulped down his mouthful and nodded. "That boy can be very tough."

"I don't blame him. The two of you are the laziest people in the Shoukanka! Get back to work or I'll cut both your salaries!" He stomped past them as he went inside.

Tsuzuki frowned as he picked up the teapot and cups. "I wonder what's happened to him. It's not like he's met with the accountants today. He doesn't see them again till next week, right?"

"You know him. He's probably working himself up in preparation." Watari picked up the plate of cake and stood up. "Let's go eat in my office."


The next week there was no one waiting under the maple tree.

At the Shoukanka, Tatsumi treated Hisoka with the usual formal politeness when they met in passing. He never mentioned his visit or abrupt departure from the dojo. Unfamiliar to such a curious situation, Hisoka deferred to Tatsumi's example.

Each afternoon Hisoka practised alone in the dojo. He focused on his kata and his breathing. His blade swept through the air, slicing imaginary opponents. Sometimes he imagined they were demons attacking from all sides. Other times he imagined it was Muraki, laughing like a maniac even as Hisoka cut his torso diagonally and sliced through his neck. Why Muraki found it so funny, Hisoka never knew.

He didn't see what Tsuzuki did to Muraki in the underground laboratory at Shion University. He had no idea if Muraki laughed or cried or squealed like a pig as Tsuzuki stabbed him. Asking for the blow-by-blow details didn't seem appropriate, especially when Tsuzuki was doing his best to forget it ever happened.

So in the absence of facts, his imagination was left to fill in the gaps. Hence, laughing Muraki who found every strike of the katana hilarious.

But even Muraki became a repetitious opponent who failed to hold his interest. Muraki wasn't the reason he practised iaido.

So Hisoka imagined a new opponent: a faceless entity clothed in darkness, lacking voice or expression or emotion. With each slice of the blade, he imagined cutting this mystery man open, hoping to find a motivation or reason behind his shadowy disguise.

He never did. But he kept trying.


One afternoon, Hisoka allowed Watari and Tsuzuki to observe him. They cheered and applauded every kata, blissfully ignorant of his true performance.

"Go, Bon!" Watari's blond hair flew about him as he punched his fist in the air. "That was excellent!"

"He's a master of the warrior arts, our Hisoka-chan!" Tsuzuki closed his eyes dreamily, a silly smile on his face. "Move over Terazuma! He won't be so high and mighty about his skill when he sees you in action!"

It was difficult to concentration with so much noise around him, so accustomed he was to solitude. Their emotions bombarded his mind like waves pounding the sand at the beach - all froth and bubble and mindless enthusiasm. He could have tripped over his hakama and sliced their heads off, and they would have kept cheering. Shinigami had near-immortal bodies, after all.

Nevertheless, he ploughed on for his adoring audience. They meant well by their breezy support and kindness.

But it wasn't kindness he sought.

Tatsumi came to mind unbidden, silent and reserved and severe, as stingy with his praise as he was with the Shoukanka's money.

You were beautiful...

He fumbled his footing, botching Morote Tsuki. His turns were clumsy, his thrusts and cuts lacking precision. If his imaginary enemies were men of flesh and blood, they would have struck him down in an instant.

Watari and Tsuzuki applauded loudly.

Hisoka's shoulders slumped as he sheathed the blade in the saya. He never felt so alone in his life.


A strong wind shook the glorious red maple tree, making the branches sway and creak. Crimson leaves swirled through the air, some pirouetting as the gusts lifted them up.

Hisoka squinted through his bangs and pulled his coat around him as he made his way to the dojo.

Usually the weather was pleasant all year in EnmaCho. There was the occasional rainfall, but most days were pleasant and sunny. But Hisoka couldn't remember a wind this strong before. The sun still shone brightly overhead. The sky was a clear blue. There were no clouds he could see.

Darkness engulfed him the moment he stepped under the maple tree. There was no dappled sunlight. The air was heavy and oppressive. Leaves drifted slowly to the ground, untroubled by any wind.

Hisoka stopped. How could it be? Outside the canopy, leaves still swirled around. It was as if the tree itself formed an enclosed space that operated independently of the laws of nature. No, not the tree, for the branches overhead swayed with the wind.

It was the shadows.

Hisoka whirled about.

Tatsumi leaned against the trunk of the tree, arms folded, completely motionless. He wore a rich brown overcoat over his customary tan suit, and the earthen colours made him blend into the grey-brown hues of the gnarled tree bark.

Hisoka's heart leapt in his chest. Unlike his previous appearance here, Tatsumi looked at complete ease, as if his home lay in the darkened hollows of the trunk itself. Camouflaged by his surroundings, his eerie stillness reminded Hisoka of a vigilant sentinel...or a predator waiting to strike.

Was Tatsumi here to test him again?

"Tatsumi-san. Good afternoon." He bowed his head in greeting.

Tatsumi inclined his head. "Good afternoon, Kurosaki-kun. Have you been well?"

Asking about his welfare - this was more words than Tatsumi spoke to him in their curt greetings at the Shoukanka.

"Yes, thank you. How have you been?"

"I am fine, thank you."

Neither of them spoke for a beat.

"The shadows here...are you controlling them?"

"Yes." Tatsumi pushed himself away from the tree to stand on his own two feet. "I don't use my powers regularly now that I am no longer an active Shinigami, but I practise now and then to maintain my skill." He made a sweeping gesture with one arm, instantly dissipating the shadowy darkness. Wind filled the air and leaves swirled around them. Sunlight streamed through the shaded canopy, dappling them both with light.

Hisoka looked around him, eyes wide with wonder. So this was kagetsu magic in action. He knew it had shielded him during the Shion University fire, but he had never seen it properly until now.

"Does it frighten you?" Tatsumi asked casually.

"No. Why should it?"

"I was merely asking, Kurosaki-kun."

Hisoka looked away. He didn't want to be patronised by anyone, especially Tatsumi. But to show his annoyance would only make him appear childish. "Why are you here?"

"I heard from Tsuzuki-san and Watari-san that you were progressing well with your iaido."

Hisoka flushed. What had those idiots been saying? "They know little of iaido, so they are probably exaggerating my progress. But I have been practising daily to improve my technique and focus my mind."

"I know. Even the Chief has commented on your dedication." Tatsumi looked toward the dojo. "Let us speak further indoors. This weather is not conducive to prolonged conversation."

Hisoka's mind buzzed with a million questions as they walked together to the dojo entrance. Why was he here? Did Chief Konoe order him to watch? Was he curious by the report he'd heard from Tsuzuki and Watari?

Inside, Hisoka slid the door shut, enclosing them both in the silence of the empty hall.

Tatsumi removed his shoes. "Have you had the opportunity to practise kendo?"

"Not really. I require a partner to spar with, but I don't know of anyone in our division with such knowledge."

"It's unfortunate there isn't anyone with complete bushido training in our division. I asked around the other divisions as well - no one could be found." Tatsumi sighed as he stood up. "Such skills are difficult to come by these well as individuals with the dedication to learn."

Hisoka bent to untie his sneakers. "It doesn't matter. Iaido is considered the foundation for kendo anyway. For now, I'll continue to work at my iaido until I am satisfied with my standard."

"Humans can't improve without the spirit of competition, Kurosaki-kun. You will learn faster with a sparring partner. This is why I am here." Tatsumi bowed his head. "I have done some reading, and I wish to offer my services in this matter."

Hisoka's jaw sagged. "You think you can fight me because you've read about kendo?? It's not as easy as it looks. You can't be an expert after looking at words and pictures!"

"I wasn't offering to spar with you myself," Tatsumi replied mildly. He extended one arm out to the deserted hall, clenched his hand into a fist and slowly lifted it up. "I offer you this."

Shadows raced towards him from every corner of the room, gathering and swirling beneath his fist in a seething dark mass. The shadows expanded to form a humanoid figure the same height as Tatsumi himself.

"He will not possess your swordmanship skill, but he will move faster than any human. Landing a strike on him will be testing for even the most skilled swordsman." Tatsumi's cool gaze flicked to Hisoka. "Would you be interested in a match?"

It was the same shadowy man he sliced with each sweep of his katana. The tall narrow silhouette, the shifting darkness within...this was his iaido opponent come to life. To test himself against such an elusive phantom was an exercise in madness. But the thrill of matching wits with Tatsumi was too precious an opportunity to turn down.

For days he had gone through the motions of practice without purpose. Now he had a definite goal.

"I accept your challenge." Hisoka lifted his chin to meet Tatsumi's gaze. "I will change and return shortly."

Intent blue eyes searched his face, then slid away. "I will wait."

Hisoka hurriedly changed into his gi and hakama. It was only on his way back to the training area that it occurred to him: what weapon would his opponent use? He grabbed one of the wooden swords - it was all that was available.

Tatsumi waited for him at the entrance, his shadow servant on his other side. When Hisoka bowed to the dojo, they bowed with him before stepping onto the training floor.

"This isn't the same as a katana, but it's the closest thing we have available." Hisoka held out the wooden sword to Tatsumi.

"It will be fine," Tatsumi replied. He gave it to his shadow servant. The servant placed it on the ground and bowed to it.

Hisoka watched, impressed. No doubt the servant was merely following Tatsumi's commands, but it appeared to move independently of its own free will. He glanced back across Tatsumi to see if he was making any gestures to control it.

Tatsumi sat in seiza position by the window, hands in his lap. "Is there something wrong, Kurosaki-kun?"

"Nothing." Hastily Hisoka lay down his sword and bowed to it too.

He was allowing himself to be unnerved by Tatsumi's presence again. Damn.

Hisoka knew Tatsumi was here to test him. Driven by his guilt over his inability to care for his ex-partner, Tatsumi depended on him to take care of Tsuzuki. He still recalled Tatsumi's words to him when they were in Hakushaku's Castle of Candles:

The one who works as his partner from now on is you, Kurosaki-kun. Please take care of him. Please support him.

So the burden of responsibility now rested on him...and his katana.

Hisoka banished the thought from his mind as he went through his warm-up stretches. He couldn't fail. His place here at the Shoukanka depended on it. His place as Tsuzuki's partner depended on it.

The approval of Tatsumi Seiichiro, Shoukanka secretary, depended on it.

Preoccupied with his thoughts, he had no idea of the supple grace of his long limbs. He didn't see the how the sun brought out the reddish highlights in his chestnut hair, or the taut lineaments of his muscles as he sought to stretch them that little bit more.

From his position seated in seiza, Tatsumi saw no reason to inform him about such trifling details. He merely waited, head bowed to avoid further distraction. Beside him, the shadow servant obediently followed his example.

When Hisoka finished tying the saya of the katana to the obi, the shadow servant stood up to face him, wooden sword in hand. To Hisoka's surprise, Tatsumi remained in seiza by the wall.

"I can control the shadows from here without difficulty," Tatsumi told him.

"But you won't be able to prepare for my attack if you can't see me properly," Hisoka pointed out.

"Very well." Tatsumi stood behind the shadow servant. "Is this to your satisfaction?"

Tatsumi was now directly in his line of vision, a distracting presence looking over the shoulder of his opponent. But at least in this position, Tatsumi would have to take the match seriously.

"Yes." Hisoka refocused his gaze on the shadowy figure before him. "Please don't insult me by lowering your guard or limiting your blows." He unsheathed his katana with his right hand, the left holding the saya. "I want this to be a proper match."

"I see." Tatsumi pushed his glasses up. "As you wish, Kurosaki-kun. I will give you...a proper match."

The shadow servant performed a standing bow to Hisoka, the wooden sword held in its right hand.

Hisoka did the same in return, as dictated by custom. Then he attacked, running forward, katana raised over his head. "Men!"

The shadow servant took a single step forward. It angled its sword to the right, flat of the blade exposed to block Hisoka's attack. Wood eased under the strength of folded steel. But instead of resisting further, the shadow servant slid the sword forward - its target Hisoka's shoulder.

"Doh." Tatsumi's low voice - controlled, deadpan, and precise.

Hisoka sidestepped, aborting his attack and narrowly avoiding the sword in a single movement. He separated and whirled around, his back to Tatsumi.

The shadow servant turned to face him, sword upright. The katana had left a single sharp indentation over the wooden surface.

"Fast." Hisoka took a moment to catch his breath. "No hesitation."

"I see what it sees. I hear what it hears. I feel what it feels." Tatsumi began walking around him, arms folded, until he faced Hisoka again. "It wouldn't be a proper match otherwise, Kurosaki-kun."

"Good." Hisoka took deep breaths in and out. "That is should be." Adrenaline roared through his bloodstream, making his heart pound and his muscles twitch in nervous anticipation. His mind was a chaotic jumble of fractured thoughts and half-formed sensations. The mental state of 'zanshin' - the calm alertness expected of all practitioners - eluded him.

But he didn't care. For the first time in weeks, he felt alive.

The shadow servant lunged forward, swift and soundless, sword upraised.

"Kote," Tatsumi said quietly.

The blade sliced through the air over Hisoka's arm.

Hisoka stepped back and swung his katana up to deflect the attack. Steel and wood collided, but both remained intact.

His opponent was strong. With its height advantage, the shadow servant had leverage and reach in its favour. Hisoka gritted his teeth as he tried to swing the katana away.

Neither blade moved. Neither of them shifted their footing. They were locked together.

When it came to brute force, Hisoka knew he couldn't win. He had the superior weapon, but it was useless without the muscle power to wield it effectively. His physical body would never reach its full potential.

The tip of the wooden blade slanted forward an inch.

Hisoka stared into the faceless void of his opponent. Swirling shadows filled his vision, unnerving him. He saw no sign of exertion or fear or determination or triumph...none of the emotions possessed by an entity capable of independent thought. There was nothing to see but impenetrable nothingness.

The steel blade trembled as it fell further. From the corner of his eye, Hisoka saw the blade's gleam wink out as shadows fell across the katana, dulling its sheen.

His katana. His soul.

Hisoka stepped back, abruptly pushing his blade away and free. It gleamed as it reflected the rays of the afternoon sun. The shadow servant fell forward under its own momentum, blade down, body exposed.

Hisoka swung the blade across and lunged for the throat. "Tsuki!" His shout rang out in the dojo.

Wood slammed into steel, deflecting the near-strike.

"Kote," Tatsumi replied. He didn't even raise his voice.

The wooden sword swept forward to strike Hisoka's forearm.

Hisoka retreated, his wrist throbbing with pain, his mind seething with anger. He ignored the shadow servant as he glared at the master himself.

"Is there a problem, Kurosaki-kun?"

This was what he wanted - a proper match. He could hardly blame Tatsumi for giving it to him. But there was something about Tatsumi's detached manner that infuriated him. His suit was neat and immaculate. Every strand of hair remained neatly in place. He didn't have a drop of sweat on his skin.

Hisoka looked away, wrestling his temper under control. "The kiai should be spoken loudly. It's the vocalisation of your fighting spirit. But the way you say's like you're reading words on a page!"

"Forgive me. As I am not directly in combat with you myself, I didn't think an attacking cry was appropriate. However, I did wish to state my intended target to simulate proper match conditions." Tatsumi frowned as he looked at the shadow servant. "Kagetsu is an art conducted in silence."

"I see." Hisoka shook his sweat-damp hair out of his eyes. Tatsumi wasn't trained in martial arts - how was he to know?

"If you like, I can call out each target--"

"No. Hearing your shout from one direction while the shadows attacked from another is distracting enough." Hisoka flexed his wrist to test it. It was healing, the pain already fading to a trivial ache. "Silence will do."

"As you wish." With his hand over his face, Tatsumi pushed his glasses up his nose.

Hisoka seized the opportunity. He charged forward. "Men!"

The shadow servant lifted its blade to defend itself, but it was too late. The katana made contact with its forehead, then sliced through its blank face.

No resistance. The blade moved through the darkness as easily as a hot knife through melted butter.

Hisoka blinked at this revelation. Where was the solidity of mass, the source of its strength?

The shadow servant retreated, its movements as light and effortless as a leaf floating in the wind. The strike didn't affect it in the slightest.

Behind it, Tatsumi watched carefully, his blue eyes narrowed. "You attacked me before I was ready."

"You dropped your guard. I took advantage of it." Hisoka kept his gaze on his opponent, waiting for it to make a counter-attack.

It lifted its sword, but made no move. Waiting for him?

He wouldn't disappoint it. Hisoka raced forward, katana swinging up. "Doh!"

Wood crashed down on steel, aborting the attack. The wood struck Hisoka's wrist before he could avert it.

Hisoka retreated, teeth clenched against the pain. Why did he have to feel pain, but his opponent nothing? The blow to the head should have sent it reeling, but it remained standing before him, unmoved and unbowed.

"Men!" Hisoka charged again.

The shadow servant darted to the right. The wooden sword hit Hisoka's right shoulder.

Hisoka hissed and pivoted around. His opponent was insubstantial and evanescent as the shadows itself. It wasn't bound by the laws of physics that restrained Hisoka's all-too-human Shinigami form.

This wasn't a fair match. Then again, life had never been fair to him. Why would the afterlife be any different?

Hisoka lunged forward. He would heal soon enough. Pain shouldn't matter to a Shinigami. He struck the wooden sword, deflecting it to the left, then continued the swing upward and forward. "Men!"

The blade cleaved the faceless head a second time. The shadow servant slipped away.

Hisoka also retreated, taking some pleasure in watching his opponent retreat so quickly. He waited until it paused a safe distance away, then attacked again.

"Kote! Men! Doh!"

Wood and steel clashed in a fierce barrage of strikes and counter-strikes. Tiny splinters of wood fell from the shadow servant's sword. Hisoka dodged and pivoted as his opponent deflected his katana and responded with strikes of its own. For once, Hisoka found his stature an advantage - he could move faster on his feet than a larger man. He danced away as the sword swept by his head and shoulder. No mark was made - merely the feather-light brush of the air current over his flushed skin.

"Men!" Hisoka lunged forward again.

The shadow servant blocked him with a single blow to his katana. It stepped closer, locking their blades together. With the flat of the wooden blade, it pressed the katana down.

Hisoka's fingers tightened around the tsuka as he tried to bring his blade up. His injured wrist and shoulder protested, the muscles trembled to maintain resistance - they were still recovering from the previous hits.

But the strength of his opponent was relentless. The shadowy form seemed to tower over him, filling his vision, surrounding him in darkness. Such strength from a being without defied logic. Even the swordsman of Kokakurou , for all his speed, had a solid form that was vulnerable to attack.

How could he defeat an opponent that possessed no weakness?

A flash of light caught his eye in the darkness, something gleaming and bright. It was Tatsumi's glasses reflecting the sunlight, so bright it penetrated the shadows of his creation. Unmoving, remote, observing his performance.


Hisoka yanked his katana free and stepped back. The shadow servant thrust forward at Hisoka's chest. The wooden blade glanced off his shoulder as Hisoka sidestepped past it.

"Doh!" His blade sank into the swirling shadows of its torso.

The shadow servant slipped free, unfettered by physical restraint. Its wooden blade swerved and swung down.

No escape. Hisoka ducked and swung up his katana to shield himself.

The impact reverberated in the hall. Shockwaves of agony went through Hisoka's entire body, upsetting his balance. His arm and shoulder buckled in pain. The wooden blade slowed, but moved inexorably to Hisoka's throat as he fell backwards.

He wasn't strong enough to counteract it. He was too weak. Unable to protect himself, let alone anyone else - he was too weak to be of use to anyone. Even a servant of shadows would be more useful...

"NO!" He swung his katana in one desperate blind strike.

Wood splintered everywhere. Some of the splinters fell on his face as he hit the ground with a heavy thud. Shavings floated into the air like dust motes, sparkling as they caught the rays of sunlight.

Something clattered to the ground beside his head - a blade of the wooden sword, shattered two-thirds along its length.

The shadow servant looked down at Hisoka, then at the stump it held in his hand. Although without expression, its confused body language spoke for itself.

Saved by his katana. But as long as his opponent remained standing, the match wasn't over. He had to attack the source of its strength.

Hisoka lunged up and charged through the shadow servant, his katana leading the attack. The shadows dissipated around him, silently acquiescing to a superior will.

Tatsumi waited for him, arms folded. He made no attempt to shield or defend himself.

"Tsuki!" Hisoka held the tip of his katana inches from Tatsumi's throat.

Apart from mild surprise, Tatsumi showed little other emotion. Clear blue eyes regarded him steadily over the gleaming blade.

His remoteness made Hisoka's blood boil. "Tatsumi-san..." Hisoka lowered his gaze, but he didn't lower the blade. "I...I have something to say to you."

"By all means, speak." Tatsumi eyed the blade. "After you have put away your katana, of course."

Hisoka withdrew the katana and sheathed it in his saya. "Your shadow servant is an extremely skilled opponent."

Tatsumi acknowledged the praise with a nod of his head. "Thank you. I did a lot of research in my off-duty hours to understand the manoeuvres and technical aspects. I hope it was to your satisfaction."

" must care for Tsuzuki a great deal to go to all this trouble."

Tatsumi paused. "As Shoukanka secretary, I am responsible for the welfare of all Shinigami--"

"You don't fool anyone with such a lame excuse. We all know how you feel about Tsuzuki." His quiet voice held a trace of bitterness. "It must be the worst-kept secret in the Shoukanka."

Tatsumi's eyes narrowed. "This is news to me." He placed his hands behind his back and walked a few steps away to put distance between them. "So tell me, since you seem up-to-date with the latest gossip, what am I supposed to feel for Tsuzuki-san?"

Simmering anger radiated from Tatsumi. Hisoka didn't need empathic ability to identify it. And it made him glad. For one savage moment, he found joy in knowing he could disrupt Tatsumi's rigidly-held emotional restraint.

"You're still guilty about how you couldn't cope with Tsuzuki's emotions when you were his partner. You felt responsible each time he became upset and miserable. You wanted to protect him from everything out there in the big bad world and you failed." Hisoka saw no reason to hide the truth - he couldn't spare Tatsumi's feelings at the expense of his own any longer. "Well, what makes you think I'll do any better?"

"You've already been his partner much longer than I have. You could hardly be worse than I."

"But you saw how I performed in Kyoto - how hopeless I was in fighting Oriya Mibu. You agreed to help me get the katana because you wanted me to protect Tsuzuki. I understand this." Hisoka lowered his voice. "Really, I do." He held the saya firmly in his hands, reassuring himself of its weight and strength. "I want to help him too. But there's only so much I can do."

"As long as you are by his side, that is enough," Tatsumi said flatly.

"Is it? What if I fail to protect him from a rampaging demon? What if he sinks into black despair because of the nature of his work? Will you want the katana back plus depreciation costs?"

"I have already told you that the katana is for your use alone. Whether you choose to take it on assignment or use it only within the dojo is up to you." Tatsumi was patient and firm - like a teacher dealing with a quarrelsome student. "Your position as Tsuzuki-san's partner was not a factor in my decision to purchase the weapon for the Shoukanka."

"Don't patronise me! Everything you do is for Tsuzuki! Your visits to inspect the dojo and observe my iaido, this match against your shadows - this is how you salve your conscience. You can't be with him, so you want me to be there in your place. You're trying to groom me to be your...your..."

Tatsumi's gaze glinted with icy anger. "Your what?"

Hisoka shook his head and turned away. He was repeating the same stupid pattern all over again - trying to prove himself equal to others who cared nothing for him.

"Idiot," he whispered. He hugged his arms around himself. "I'm such an idiot."

"Kurosaki-kun?" Tatsumi approached him, puzzled by the change in mood. "What is it?"

"Get away from me!" Hisoka pulled away and whirled around. "I'm not going to be a puppet any longer! Not my father's, not Muraki's...and not yours! I am my own person! I don't have to live up to anyone else's expectations but my own!"

Tatsumi blinked, stunned by this announcement. "Puppet?" he repeated slowly. "What...where did you get such a preposterous idea?"

"All my life I've been used by others! To my father, I was the one who would carry on the Kurosaki lineage. To Muraki, I was a doll he used to practise his magic and manipulate for his own twisted gratification. As for you, you want me to be a stand-in guardian for Tsuzuki. You want me to care for him, support him, give him the things you can't." He looked directly at Tatsumi, green eyes glittering. "You want me to be a version of you!"

"I never said such a thing, Kurosaki-kun," Tatsumi replied coldly. He pulled out his handkerchief, then took off his glasses to wipe the already-immaculate lenses clean. "Please don't put words in my mouth."

"What else can I do, Tatsumi-san? You reveal so little about your true feelings." Flippant, but Hisoka could afford to be reckless now. He had nothing else to lose. "I've always wondered - would you have bothered to save me from Touda's flames if you couldn't save Tsuzuki? But the answer is obvious. I'm only useful to you as long as Tsuzuki's around--"

"Quiet." Strong hands grabbed his shoulders. Tatsumi loomed over him, blue eyes narrowed to slits, his glasses absent. He looked different without them, somehow. More human. "You have no idea what you're talking about."

"Don't touch me!" Hisoka twisted, but was no match for Tatsumi's strength. Instinctively he grabbed the tsuka.

"You fool." Tatsumi's fingers tightened in his shoulders. "Tsuzuki-san wasn't the one I meant to save. When I saw the fire-snake's black flames, I understood the sincerity of his death wish. But when you ran in after him--so courageous and impulsive and foolhardy--how could I do nothing to protect you?"

Hisoka couldn't breathe. Heat filled his entire body, a wildfire that raged through his limbs, along his spine and down into the pit of his abdomen. His fingers loosened around the tsuka, filled with a strange lassitude. This feeling...he remembered it from before. He didn't understand what it meant then, either.

But as he looked up into Tatsumi's smouldering blue eyes, Hisoka knew what he wanted. "Tatsumi-san...please..."

Tatsumi seized his jaw with one hand, angling it up. His lips were merciless as they descended, forcing Hisoka's lips open, drinking from his mouth like a man dying of thirst. With his other hand, he pulled Hisoka against him, fingers tangling in the fluffy softness of chestnut hair.

Hisoka's fingers pulled clumsily at his tie, fumbling beneath the suit jacket to stroke the powerful muscles hidden by the shirt. He was trembling all over in reaction, desperately trying to assimilate the torrent of sensations flooding his mind and body. The graze of Tatsumi's teeth as he nibbled his lips, tracing a path from the corner of mouth, along his jaw, down his throat; the convulsive grip that held him so tight Hisoka could hardly draw breath...

Was this really all for him?

Tatsumi's teeth grazed the curve of his throat. "For so long I've wanted to do this..." He fell to his knees and pulled Hisoka to the floor with him. Yanking at the gi, he dragged it off one shoulder, and pressed open-mouthed kisses against the exposed white flesh.

"Ahh..." Hisoka shivered, fingers splaying over the expanse of Tatsumi's broad back. His entire body was afire. Liquid pleasure flowed from his shoulder where Tatsumi devoured him, making him squirm and writhe in response. Salty-sweet velvet filled his mouth. It took him several hazy seconds to register what it was - the taste of his skin on Tatsumi's tongue.

His pleasure, Tatsumi's pleasure - he couldn't tell where one ended and the other began. Such a miasma of erotic sensation bewildered him - but not enough to push Tatsumi away. He pressed himself full-length against lean muscle and bone, and lowered his flushed face to the solid warmth of Tatsumi's shoulder, blindly seeking an answer to a question he couldn't express in mere words.

Tatsumi tensed, then wrenched himself away, severing everything. His chest heaving, he staggered to his feet.

Hisoka was too stunned to protest. The warmth, the pleasure - all suddenly gone. All that remained was a yawning black void inside him, keening to be filled. It made no sense. Usually he was glad when he broke empathic links with another person. To be himself again, intact and whole was a relief.

So why did this ache so much? This horrible emptiness...where was it coming from?

"I...forgive me..." Tatsumi ran trembling fingers through his hair, which had fallen over his forehead into his eyes. "I didn't mean to engage in...such reprehensible conduct. I assure won't happen again."

The pain was everywhere, paralysing Hisoka. Even breathing hurt, as if he'd been physically beaten. But inside, his mind was in turmoil. He wanted to scream. He wanted to draw his katana and strike Tatsumi through the chest so he could feel a fraction of this terrible ache blossoming inside him. He wanted...

He shook his head wildly. Too much feeling. He couldn't think with so much emotion. He tried to reign in his empathic abilities, barricade his mind against all feeling... and was left with the dull ache of irretrievable loss.

Was this emotion Tatsumi's or his?

He stumbled to his feet. What a stupid question. He was an empath - any stray emotion he picked up automatically became his. This was his gift. This was his curse - the one he had carried all his life.

Tatsumi was gone. The door to the dojo was already open. A few maple leaves flew inside, scattered by the wind.

Tentatively he touched his shoulder, still wet from Tatsumi's mouth. His lips throbbed from the pressure of Tatsumi's hungry kisses. Muraki had touched him years ago...but it had never affected him like this. Muraki had repulsed and terrified him to the point of gut-wrenching nausea, playing on his helplessness and fear, finding sadistic pleasure in turning his body's involuntary responses against him.

But this was different. Hisoka wanted more. He needed more.

Why didn't Tatsumi? Was it something he did wrong? Did Tatsumi see something?

Hisoka stared down at himself. The curse marks weren't visible to him. But maybe Tatsumi, with his kagetsu powers, had seen the invisible brand. The mark of one who would always be under the thumb of another - an eternal puppet.

Blindly Hisoka went to the entrance and thrust his feet into his shoes. He didn't bother to change his clothes or return his katana or tie his shoelaces.

One way or another, he needed to know.

Leaves swirled around him, obscuring his vision. The gi tunic was flimsy protection against the elements. The wind bit into the bare skin of his arms and throat, raising goosebumps over his flesh. So cold...but he kept walking. He wanted to deaden his nerve-endings with the cold. He never wanted to feel anything again.

In a dream-like daze, he kept walking and walking. Past the maple trees with their tumbling leaves and shifting shadows, to the delicate pink sakura trees in the distance. Such a cold yet beautiful day.


Tsuzuki was running towards him, Watari a few steps behind.

Something crumbled inside him. "Tsuzuki..."

"What are you doing? You'll catch pneumonia dressed like that!" Tsuzuki tore off his black trenchcoat and wrapped it around Hisoka's shoulders.

Watari bent down to look into his eyes. "Are you all right, Bon?"

Hisoka stared at him blankly, then at Tsuzuki.

"Hisoka?" Tsuzuki's voice was soft with concern. "What happened?"

"Can you see them?"

Watari frowned. "See what?"

"My strings." Hisoka pulled up the sleeves and looked down at his arm. "They're here...and here..." He suddenly yanked at the opening to the gi robe, exposing his upper chest. "Here too. See the delicate handiwork?"

Tsuzuki's eyes darkened as he looked for himself. "There's nothing there, Hisoka."

"You're not looking close enough." He thrust his arm up to Tsuzuki. "The curse is everywhere! Muraki said it himself - it's in my cells, a living part of me. There's no escaping from what I am - a puppet! All my's all I'm good for."

"Bon, what are you talking about?" Watari looked from Hisoka to Tsuzuki and back again, hopelessly confused.

"You are not a puppet," Tsuzuki said, his voice low and serious. "Spells can be broken. Curses can be countered. Right, Watari?"

"Of course they can."

Hisoka studied the pale flesh of his arms. "To me, they're invisible most of the time, but I don't have your spiritual power. Maybe you've seen them all this time, but you didn't want to say anything to hurt my feelings." He looked up at Tsuzuki, lips twisted in a pained half-smile. "I know the type of person you are."

"Hisoka, I'm not lying to you. I can't see anything."

"But he saw them! He took one look and..." Unshed tears choked his throat - the ultimate humiliation. "He couldn't...bear to touch me. It disgusted much...he ran away..."

Tsuzuki held out his arms. "It's all right, Hisoka. Come here."

Warmth, comfort, unconditional acceptance stole into his mind - the pure unselfish love Tsuzuki had offered him from their very first meeting. Hisoka knew he didn't deserve it. But he took it anyway, hugging Tsuzuki tightly as he wept against his shoulder.

Tsuzuki's touch didn't fill the emptiness, but it eased the ache a little.

"I'll never be free of it...for as I have...this useless body..."

"Shhh. Don't say such foolish things." Tsuzuki rocked him gently. "Hush now."

The soothing words only made Hisoka more miserable. Reliable, dependable Tsuzuki who accepted him for who he was, curse and all. The idiot.

Over Hisoka's bent head, Tsuzuki and Watari exchanged meaningful looks. Watari shrugged and pointed at the table beneath the sakura.

"Let's sit down, Hisoka," Tsuzuki suggested brightly. "You're just in time for afternoon tea."


The dessert for the day was lemon meringue pie. Watari cut slices for each of them, taking care not to crush the fragile meringue topping. Tsuzuki poured tea and milk. Hisoka watched, strangely dissociated from his surroundings.

Why was he sitting here? He wasn't hungry. He wasn't thirsty. What did he feel? He didn't know anymore.

He swallowed down a mouthful of pie. Tangy-sweet lemon curd, delicate melt-in-the-mouth meringue. He normally didn't like sweets, but this wasn't too bad.

"Nice, huh?" Watari said as he cut a slice for himself. "I bought it from a patisserie in Kyoto. They make the most wonderful pastries."

"Next time get the apple tart," Tsuzuki told him. "We haven't had that in ages."

Watari sniffed. "We only had it last week. If you want it so much, then you go down and buy it yourself."

"You know I don't have the money! I'm still repaying the library reconstruction costs!"

Hisoka found comfort in their incessant bickering - the background noise helped distract his mind. He ate another mouthful of pie.

"Wait! Why don't we let Bon here decide?" Watari smiled at Hisoka. "Tell me what dessert you want for tomorrow's afternoon tea."

"There's no need to get me anything. In fact..." Hisoka adjusted the heavy weight of the sheathed katana hanging from his belt. "I should be practising in the dojo."

"But you haven't finished eating yet. You can't let it go to waste! There's still more pie here as well."

"That's right! You must keep your energy up!" Tsuzuki filled Hisoka's cup until it sloshed in the saucer. "Here, have more tea."

They both appeared so cheerful and energetic, overdoing everything in their desperation to please. Hisoka almost felt sorry for ruining their act, but he had to know. "Tsuzuki, did you know where to find me?"

They glanced at each other.

"Well..." Watari paused for a moment. "We know you practise there every day."

Hisoka cast him an impatient look. "I know you know. That's not what I meant." He lowered his gaze. "Did you see him?"

"We saw Tatsumi return," Tsuzuki said quietly. "He walked past us as if we didn't exist."

Watari nodded. "Usually he reprimands us for being lazy and orders us inside. But when he didn't even look our way, we knew something went wrong."

"I see." Hisoka took a sip of tea. He didn't want to tell them what had happened in the dojo. For all their silly antics, neither of them were stupid. They could figure it out for themselves.

Tsuzuki leaned forward, resting his elbows on the table. "He didn't see the curse, Hisoka. And even if he did, he would never reject you because of it. Deep down, Tatsumi isn't mean-spirited or cruel."

"Yeah. Beneath his stern, pedantic and miserly exterior is a stern, pedantic and miserly tortured soul."

Tsuzuki elbowed Watari in the ribs. "Tatsumi wasn't thinking of the curse. I'm sure of it."

"But Tatsumi-san has considerable spiritual power - I felt it when I fought his shadow servant. How can you be so sure--"

"Kagetsu magic is a Yin art of combat and disguise," Tsuzuki explained. "It doesn't improve one's perception. If anything, kagetsu impairs one's abilities to detect spiritual phenomena."

"It does?"

"Definitely," Watari agreed. "It's an inevitable side-effect of accumulating spiritual energy of any kind - you end up absorbing some of the characteristics of the energy into your psyche. Think about it, Bon. Why do you think Tsuzuki here is so destructive?"

"Hey! That's unfair, Watari!"

"I just assumed he was always like this," Hisoka replied.

Tsuzuki buried his face in his hands. "You're both so mean. I'm getting better at controlling it, I swear!"

"Having twelve shikigami under your command must be a lot of work." Watari grinned and patted his shoulder. "We all understand."

"I didn't know. I never knew spiritual power could rebound and affect the practitioner."

"It's not as bad as it sounds," Tsuzuki said. "We all find ways to deal with it as we become more experienced."

"Some of us, anyway," Watari added.

Hisoka's brow puckered as he thought of Tatsumi and his shadows, murky and thick as they swirled around him.

"Don't feel sorry for Tatsumi, Bon. This is the power he's chosen for himself. He knew what he was getting into."

"I think that's why he chose it," Tsuzuki said. "Unpleasant memories and painful thoughts can be wrapped in shadows and locked away. But it comes at a price. When you live among shadows, you can forget how to perceive the world around you. Practitioners sometimes develop a type of blindness - something like tunnel vision."

"That's Tatsumi for you." Watari chuckled and shook his head. "He sees what he wants, and he's become so skilled at disguising his deep emotions that he's spooked when a new one hits him upside on the head."

"Yes." Tsuzuki looked down at his teacup, lips curved in a wistful smile. "Tatsumi also has an over-developed sense of responsibility. He insists on being stoic and strong, and doesn't want to burden anyone else with his feelings."

Hisoka knew Tsuzuki spoke from personal experience. This was why Tatsumi broke up their partnership - he had cared too much, and the pain of failure was impossible for him to bear. So he ran away, hurting the person he cared for in the process.

Was Tatsumi 'spooked', as Watari described it? Could that be why he left so abruptly?

Running away again and again - repeating the same pattern of dysfunctional behaviour throughout his life. And afterlife.

Hisoka looked down at his half-eaten pie. Just like me.

Tsuzuki cast a sidelong look at Hisoka, eyes gleaming with mischief. "But you're a powerful empath, ne? He can't disguise anything from you." He rested his chin in one upraised hand and winked. "You'll figure out his true feelings no matter how fast he runs!"

Hisoka blushed bright red. "Tsuzuki! It's not like that!"

"You could have fooled me," Watari retorted. "I know how much he spent on that katana. If buying that isn't a gesture of blatant favouritism, I don't know what is."

"Tsuzuki is his favourite, not me!"

"Are you sure?" Tsuzuki teased. "Why did he take time off from work to help you train?"

"Very suspicious," Watari agreed. "Tatsumi hardly ever takes breaks for anyone, let alone himself."

"He just wants me to be the best possible partner for Tsuzuki."

"Hisoka." Tsuzuki's voice was gentle but firm. "You are already the best partner for me. Your place is here, for as long as you want it. I am very proud to work with you as my partner."

"You are?"

Tsuzuki nodded. "But if you're going to continue to be my partner, you must promise not to worry so much about protecting me. I'm old enough to look after myself. You and Tatsumi mean well, but the two of you worry too much." He grinned, eyes crinkling at the corners. "Remember, I'm the most senior Shinigami here!"

"With twelve Divine Commanders at his beck and call." Watari lifted his teacup in a mock-toast.

The most senior Shinigami in EnmaCho. Looking into Tsuzuki's earnest violet eyes, it was easy to forget this.

"So you promise not to worry?"

"I'll try my best."

"Good. Your best is more than enough for me. Always remember that."

Hisoka nodded, too touched for words.

Tsuzuki smiled warmly as he went back to sipping his tea.

Watari cleared his throat. "I'm going to finish off the rest of the pie if no one wants it."

"Hey!" Tsuzuki almost banged his cup down. "You haven't even given me a slice yet! And weren't you going to give more to Hisoka?"

Within minutes, they were embroiled in another squabble over food.

Hisoka observed them. He'd always dismissed their behaviour as childish and absurd until now. Could it be that their craving for sweets and penchant for goofy antics was a by-product of their spiritual powers - a safety valve for them to release the excess energy they commanded? Arguing over food was much less damaging than destroying buildings and setting the library on fire.

But Tatsumi didn't indulge in such playful behaviour. It wasn't in his sober nature. So how did he cope with the lingering darkness of kagetsu? Arguing with accountants and watering the potted plant in his office were hardly adequate outlets for one with such power.

Hisoka frowned, brow furrowing as he thought of how formidable Tatsumi looked as he stood under the maple tree, manipulating matter and light with the shadows. And the mysterious shadow servant - as tricky to catch as any phantom or ghost.

A thought came to him. Was that what Tatsumi was doing under the maple tree...and inside the dojo, by offering the shadow servant as a rival in battle? Was he seeking a suitable outlet for the restless energy inside him?

Hisoka didn't know. Somehow he didn't think the others did either. Tatsumi wasn't the type to share confidences, and his kagetsu powers were formidable. But Hisoka knew he could work his way past the barrier Tatsumi placed around his emanations: there was the grief and guilt in the Castle of Candles, and the greedy desire that spilled over into Hisoka's own mind today, bewildering him with its intensity and focus...

He doubted Watari and Tsuzuki ever saw him so vulnerable and shaken - or so fiercely passionate. Tatsumi would never let them see such weakness if he could help it. But Hisoka knew how to sense emotions, even if he couldn't always interpret them properly. His gift and curse - maybe he could fashion it into a weapon against Tatsumi's shadows.

A weapon like his katana - pure, straight and sharp.

He quickly finished his pie and stood up. "Thank you for the afternoon tea." He bowed. "I'll go back and get changed, then I'll return your coat to you, Tsuzuki."

"No problem!"

"Take care, Bon!"

They waited until he was well out of earshot before speaking further.

"You shouldn't have lied to him about the curse."

"I didn't lie. A curse, like any spell, can be broken." Tsuzuki shifted in his seat. "But not by us."

"So you asked?"

"Of course I asked!" Tsuzuki snapped. "I asked after our first assignment together, the first time I knew of it." He looked away, embarrassed by his anger. "I was turned down."

"I see." Watari sat back in his chair and looked up at the sakura. "Well, I'm not surprised. The curse is his reason for being a Shinigami. The day the curse is lifted is the day he will leave us for good."

"Yes." Tsuzuki picked up a sakura petal that had fallen on the table and crushed it between his fingers. "Muraki isn't the only one who gains from Hisoka's curse."

Watari cast him a warning look. "Don't say such things."

"You're so fickle, Watari. First you warn me about lying, and now you wish me silent when I speak truth." Tsuzuki shrugged. "As you wish."

"There's no point wishing for something that cannot be. Anyway, is it so bad for Bon to be here with us? We've been more of a family to him that his blood relations ever were."

"I suppose." Tsuzuki picked up another petal. "Maybe Tatsumi can do something to help Hisoka. Perhaps a kagetsu spell to conceal the marks."

"While Bon cracks open his shell to reveal the flesh-and-blood person hiding underneath?" Watari chuckled. "I could tell you were having fun playing cupid."

"Yeah." A reluctant smile tugged at the corners of Tsuzuki's mouth. "Playing a god of love is a welcome change from working as a god of death." He crushed the second petal between his fingertips and let it fall to the table.

Watari eyed Tsuzuki over the rim of his glasses. "Are you all right with this?"

"I want them to be free of guilt and shame. They don't need to be weighed down by such oppressive emotions any longer." Tsuzuki withdrew a pair of velvet gloves from his trouser pocket and began to pull them on. "Don't you think they deserve to be happy after all they've suffered?"

"I agree - but I was asking about you."

"Don't meddle outside your speciality." Tsuzuki grinned at him, taking the sting out of the words. "There's only room for one empath in the Shoukanka, and it's not you." He adjusted the steel buckles around the cuffs, then began to pack up the plates. "Let's get back inside before Tatsumi takes out his frustration on us again."


That evening, Hisoka decided on a course of action.

He dressed in his hakama, gi robe and obi belt to prepare himself for the possibility of battle. Over them he wore his coat, for it was still windy outside. His katana was back at the dojo, inside the drawer of pawlonia wood. He wouldn't need it tonight.

His empathy would be his weapon tonight.

He slipped outside his house and went for a walk.

It was already dark, but a silver gibbous moon in the sky provided enough light for him to walk without trouble. As a child, he had never been afraid of the dark. Maybe it was because of the time he spent locked away as punishment by his parents for his empathic abilities. But there was something comforting about the darkness as well. One could blend in with the surroundings, find camouflage in the shadows. It could provide safety and shelter.

Despite what Tsuzuki and Watari said, shadows weren't all bad.

Hisoka could see why Tatsumi found it so appealing. He himself liked walking at night, free from the distractions of other people and their chaotic emotions. Alone, by himself, contemplating his own thoughts - it suited his introspective nature.

He kept walking, turning corners and crossing streets, following the map in his mind, until he came to a traditional house at the end of a cul-de-sac.

Tatsumi's residence.

He had never been inside Tatsumi's house, yet he had walked past it many times. Out of curiosity, he often wandered past the homes of his fellow shinigami. If they happened to see him, then they would invite him in - Tsuzuki often offered tea and some of his horrible cooking, which Hisoka always politely declined.

He never saw Tatsumi outside the front of his home. He assumed Tatsumi spent all his time inside, taking his work home with him. No one else in the Shoukanka was so devoted to their work like Tatsumi.

But maybe Tatsumi wasn't even at home. Maybe he had some hobby or vice he kept secret from everyone else. Tatsumi didn't reveal much about his life outside the Shoukanka. He guarded his privacy as closely as he guarded the Shoukanka's funding.

Doubt made Hisoka waver. Who knew what Tatsumi was doing inside? He might be busy. Maybe he would resent any interruption.

To presume that Tatsumi would want to see him after hours...what was he thinking?

Quietly he walked up the wooden veranda to the front door. Golden candlelight was visible through the paper screen windows, casting flickering shadows on the walls.

He reached out with his empathy, searching for a wisp of emotion or a fleeting thought. He didn't want Tatsumi to feel guilt or shame about what happened between them. If he could be sure Tatsumi was settled in mind and spirit, he would leave.

Nothing. It was as if no one was at home.

After much hesitation, Hisoka decided to step down from the veranda and follow the stone path that led to the rear of the house. Closer proximity improved his ability to sense emotions.

The wind ruffled his hair and made the trees overhead rustle and sigh. The wooden beams of the house creaked a little. He pulled his coat closer around him. The moonlight was too thin to penetrate the shadow cast by the house so he walked with small steps, waiting for his eyes to adapt to the darkness.

But there was a definite presence ahead. Hisoka could sense something - a seething restlessness that hinted at power tightly leashed.

The rear veranda was empty.

Hisoka sighed. He was so sure Tatsumi was here. He could have sworn he sensed something.

He turned to look at the rear courtyard...and found himself staring into inky blackness. There was no moonlight, no tiled courtyard, no plants or stone garden. The surrounding atmosphere was heavy and thick, unmoved by the wind.

There was nothing. It was like looking into a miniature black hole that swallowed everything up and let nothing out. The longer he stared at it, the more he seemed drawn to it...

Was it an illusion?

Hisoka pressed himself against the wall of the house. It felt solid and real against his back. This wasn't an illusion, as far as he could tell. He reached out with his empathic powers, feeling again for a sign of life. Nothing.

Something flickered in the darkness.

Hisoka didn't dare move from the wall, but he squinted to see it better.

It didn't move. It was too dim to be a light source. As he looked, he suddenly realised that there were dozens - no, hundreds of them - flickering in the inky blackness like faint stars on a clear night.

Curiosity pulled at him, proving stronger than fear. Hisoka began to walk towards the nearest one.

As he approached it, he saw it wasn't a light at all. It was a small grey moth. Its wings fluttered wildly, but it remained hovering in mid-air.

Above it was a big brown moth with spots as big as eyes on its lower wings.

Hisoka bent to study one flickering speck that appeared brighter than the others. It was a glowing firefly.

They were insects, every single one. All were alive, suspended in the thick motionless air, wings fluttering wildly in vain as they tried to escape. No strings or wires held them in place - Hisoka encountered no barrier or force field when he cupped a firefly in his hands.

He walked among them, a visitor in this living entomological exhibit, eyes wide with wonder, stepping around some and bending low to avoid others. He had never encountered anything like it before. They were all held by an invisible power strong enough to hold them fast, yet consummate enough to keep each of them very much alive.

Kagetsu magic. Each insect held by its own shadow.

Hisoka looked around. All he could see were insects surrounding him against the backdrop of darkness. The moon was barely visible as a faint grey disc hanging overhead. He couldn't see the house or even remember where it was - he had lost his sense of direction wandering among the trapped insects.

He looked down at his feet. A fine mist of shadows swirled around his ankles. They did not bind or restrain him in any way. So he was free to do as he wished. The shadows were not interested in him.

But as he watched a tendril of darkness curl around his calf then dissipate, he began to wonder.

Hisoka bent his head and closed his eyes. He threw out his empathic power, searching for Tatsumi's consciousness. When he encountered nothing, he extended his power further than he had ever dared before. He reached through the cloaking shadows, piercing the darkness with his own power. He was ready for the collision of emotions that would follow. Anything was better than this absence of feeling.

His empathy - pure, straight and sharp - would reveal all.

Shadows rippled, making the insects tremble around him. Tendrils of emotion stole into his mind - surprise, irritation. Behind him.

He moved towards it, taking care to avoid the insects in his path. But as he approached, they flew off into the night. The farther he walked, the more insects fluttered away, magically released from their imprisonment. The shadows raced away as well - some finding refuge at his feet and in the creases of his clothes, while others found shelter in the few plants and furnishings in the barren courtyard, lending them shape and definition. Silver moonlight lit the yard once more.

With the shadows in hiding, he could see the rear veranda again. The sliding doors were open wide, revealing Tatsumi sitting on his knees within the entrance, head bowed, hands in his lap. He was dressed in a traditional dark blue yukata decorated with a white checked pattern. The room behind him was awash with shifting light and shadows created by a single flickering candle flame.

Hisoka walked up to him and bowed. "Good evening, Tatsumi-san."

Tatsumi pushed his glasses up his nose, but didn't lift his head. "Good evening, Kurosaki-kun."

"I saw how you controlled the insects. It was amazing."

Tatsumi inclined his head, a simple action which shrouded most of his face in shadow. "Thank you."

"The way you trapped them in your shadows, like a spider with its web...I've never seen such a disciplined display of power before." Hisoka paused, wondering if he sounded too naïve and eager. "You hardly ever wield your powers, so it took me by surprise."

"It's just as well," Tatsumi replied brusquely. His fingers curled a fraction in his lap.


Tatsumi said nothing for several seconds. The shadows thickened around him.

Hisoka reached out with his empathy, and encountered nothing. "Tatsumi-san?"

"Shadows...spider web..." Tatsumi let out a soft grunt of rueful amusement. "The analogy is more accurate than you know."

"It is?" Hisoka leaned forward a little, trying to make out Tatsumi's features. He wanted to step up on the veranda, but it seemed rude to do so without permission.

"Shadows cling to everything. There is nothing so insidious yet possessive as a shadow." He lifted slanted eyes of brilliant blue to meet Hisoka's gaze. "Do you understand?"

A crackling awareness passed between them. Hisoka lowered his gaze, suddenly shy, as a warm lassitude spread through his limbs and into the very marrow of his bones. This teasing reminder of the sensations he'd experienced in the dojo unnerved and excited him. He knew what it meant now. He wanted Tatsumi to touch him again.

But he still couldn't feel Tatsumi's emanations. Empathically, he was alone. So these feelings were his, and no one else's. He flushed at the realisation.

"Tatsumi-san," he murmured. He stepped forward. "I--"

"Look at your wrists." Tatsumi's harsh voice halted him. "Look at your ankles. See for yourself."

Wisps of shadows swirled around his lower legs, around his calf and up to his knee, embracing the hakama he wore. More wisps wound around his wrists and forearm, enveloping the sleeves of his robe. But they didn't restrain him in the slightest as they twisted and danced around his limbs.

Hisoka watched, lips parted in wonder. He couldn't feel their touch, but the way they swept over him, almost playful and teasing - were they greeting him?

"Now do you understand?" Tatsumi swept his hand before him in a quick dismissive motion, and the shadows melted away. "Once you've caught their interest, they never let you go."

"I don't mind." The shadows weren't harming him. What was there to fear? He looked at Tatsumi, chin lifting in defiance. "I'm not afraid of the dark."

"I believe you." Tatsumi's gaze softened a little. "You have always shown such fearless tenacity against impossible odds. How I envied you your indomitable spirit."

"Me? I don't deserve such praise."

"Yes, you do." Tatsumi's tone of voice allowed no room for doubt. "You deserve them, and more." He straightened his shoulders. "I never intended to burden you with the expectations of my guilty conscience. I should have shielded my feelings more effectively on this matter."

"It's all right. I willingly took on the responsibility. I wanted to be useful to the Shoukanka. I needed to prove myself to Tsuzuki, and Chief Konoe, and Watari-san...and you."

"You have nothing to prove to us any more, Kurosaki-kun. Katana or no katana, you are now an irreplaceable member of our division."

"Thank you, Tatsumi-san." Hisoka blinked and bowed his head, humbled beyond measure. To hear Tatsumi speak so well of him with his own was more than he ever dreamed possible. "I...I don't know what to say."

"Empty vessels make the most noise," Tatsumi replied, his tone warm. "There is nothing shameful in silence."

"Yes, Tatsumi-san." At his feet, the shadows began to shift and lick at his ankles.

"It's getting late, and I have an early start tomorrow." Tatsumi rose to his feet. Shadows enfolded him as he stepped away from the entrance. "You should return home and get a good night's rest."

Home - his sanctuary from the chaotic emotions of others. For the first time, Hisoka saw it in a different light. Isolated. Lonely.

Why did he now yearn for the company of this stern, repressed man before him? Tatsumi didn't have Tsuzuki's friendly and cheerful disposition. More comfortable with the minutiae of the accounts than the complexities of human interaction, he would never admit to needing anyone. Dealing with such a proud person wouldn't be easy at the best of times.

But Hisoka stood his ground. He remembered the maelstrom of sensations and emotions he felt in the dojo - they were Tatsumi's as well as his. They were too strong to ignore. Even his pride, which counselled aloof indifference, couldn't change his mind.

There was no place for pride in the soul of a warrior.

Hisoka knew what he had to do. He didn't want to live a life of regret.

He kept his head lowered. "May I have some tea before I go?"

Tatsumi blinked at such a presumptuous request. "Perhaps another time. Caffeine would be unwise this late at night, Kurosaki-kun."

"Not necessarily, Tatsumi-san." Hisoka lifted his gaze to regard Tatsumi through his overlong bangs. "It may be extremely useful if one has...other activities planned before retiring for the night." He hoped the darkness hid the heated colour suffusing his cheeks. "May I at least come in for a little while?"

"You may not." Curt, cool - the voice of the Shoukanka secretary. "It's best you leave now. Good night." He turned away, not even sparing Hisoka a glance.

Hisoka threw out his empathic powers, searching for even a glimpse of emotion. Still nothing. But he saw the tendrils of shadows curling around his calves, brushing over the hakama. A few threads began to curl around his wrists again.

"I don't want to leave!" He stepped onto the veranda and lifted his wrists, now encircled by diaphanous manacles of thickening shadows. "See? They don't want me to leave either."

Tatsumi swung around. He eyed the shadows for a long moment, his jaw clenched tight. "Traitors," he muttered. He passed his hand before Hisoka, dispersing them all with a single movement.

Without warning, sizzling heat rushed through Hisoka's body, accompanied by a surge of longing so intense it scattered all reason from his mind. It tore through adolescent diffidence and fear to awaken a matching answer within him. His body came to life, his cock stiffening beneath the folds of his hakama.

"There are limits to my restraint." Tatsumi's voice was thick and husky, the words indistinct. "If you value your freedom, leave now." He seized the sliding door.

"No!" Hisoka grabbed it, forcing it open. "It's unhealthy to hold back all the time! You need to have an outlet!"

"An outlet?" Tatsumi repeated harshly, one brow raised. "Is that why you're here?"

Thick shadows leapt out to curl around his wrists and ankles once more, tugging at him like an insistent child eager to play. Surprised, he slipped off his shoes and followed them inside.

Tatsumi hissed in annoyance as he turned away and folded his arms. The movement made the yukata gape open, exposing his broad chest. But with his blue eyes eclipsed by the metallic glint of wire-framed glasses, there was nothing welcoming or hospitable in his demeanour. Even his emanations were absent, wrestled under control yet again. Etiquette was probably the only factor preventing Tatsumi from shoving him out the door.

But the shadows wanted him here. So Hisoka stayed.

"Did Tsuzuki-san or Watari-san put you up to this? To provide me with an 'outlet,' as you so delicately phrase it?"

"They didn't put me up to anything."

"Really?" Tatsumi stepped closer, looming over him. Hisoka had to lift his chin to meet his gaze. "Then why did you come?"

"I wanted to see you. I...I wanted to make sure you were all right."

"As you can see, I am perfectly well. I have no use for your pity." Bleak sarcasm edged his voice as he gestured towards the doorway. "Please leave now."

"I don't pity you!" Hisoka yanked the door shut, enclosing them both in flickering candlelight and restless shadow. He took Tatsumi's hand and lifted it palm-up to his cheek. "If you had my power, I could make you understand how I feel about you." He closed his eyes as he tried to project his feelings, willing Tatsumi to sense them through his touch. "I don't care if you have no use for me. It doesn't matter." He trembled as he felt the fingertips shift over his face, along his brow, against the sensitive skin beneath his jaw. "Don't send me away."

Tatsumi said nothing. His touch was tentative, gentle, as if he held something so delicate it would break if he exerted the slightest pressure. Lightly the pads of his fingers caressed Hisoka's scalp, lingering over the delicate skin behind his ear, ghosting over his cheekbone. His thumb dared to tease the edge of his lower lip, stroking the sensitive flesh again and again until Hisoka tried to catch it with his teeth.

"Reckless fool," Tatsumi muttered. He hooked his thumb beneath Hisoka's chin and lifted his jaw up. "Open your eyes. If you're going to be so impetuous in everything you do, then you should see the consequences of your actions."

Hisoka obeyed, heart pounding, parted lips tingling from Tatsumi's touch. It was impossible to clearly see Tatsumi's features as he bent over him. All he could see was half of his face gilded by candlelight, uncompromising and remote like a statue. The same flickering light reflected from his glasses, obscuring his eyes.

"So noble and self-sacrificing in spite of everything that's happened to you. You were willing to risk your very existence for Tsuzuki, and now you're offering to sacrifice your liberty for me." He lowered his head until they touched forehead to forehead. "I should warn you, Kurosaki-kun, such generosity of spirit will surely be your downfall." Up close, the shadows blocked out the light, revealing Tatsumi's gaze - slitted and glittering with hunger as he searched Hisoka's features.

"I'm not generous or noble or self-sacrificing. I'm here because I want to be." Hisoka tilted his head and leaned up, his fingers sliding along Tatsumi's yukata for support, until their lips touched. He tried to initiate a kiss, longing for a repeat of the kiss in the dojo. His lips were tentative as they slanted over Tatsumi's unmoving mouth.

Tatsumi froze, neither resisting nor inviting. His hand fell away from Hisoka's face.

Hisoka played with Tatsumi's lips, cataloguing the sensations for the first time. Tatsumi's lips were thin and firm, with a subtle hint of salt. Different to the taste of his own flesh. Hisoka used the tip of his tongue to tease them, trying to coax them apart. Their noses bumped as he became bolder, curiosity overcoming caution. The cold frame of the metal-rimmed glasses pressed his cheek. The lens of the glasses began to fog with the steam of his breath.

Tatsumi's mouth clamped shut in a grim line. But he also shuddered, revealing a crack in his wall of self-discipline.

Emboldened, Hisoka stood on tiptoe, pressing himself closer. His hands slid around Tatsumi's neck to play with the fine hairs at his nape.

A low growl left Tatsumi's throat. He seized Hisoka like a rag doll, one arm around his waist, the other clutching the back of his head, almost lifting him off his feet. His mouth was voracious as he punished Hisoka for his playful teasing.

Hisoka pressed closer, dizzy with triumph, his willow-slim frame pliant against Tatsumi's broad torso. Mutual need acknowledged at long last. He eagerly tilted his head to one side as Tatsumi guided him to deepen the kiss, uncaring of the glasses pressing into his cheek and nose. He clasped Tatsumi's face as he probed his emotions again. That incredible moment of psychic union, in which he experienced Tatsumi's sensations as his own...he wanted that too.

Tatsumi shivered and broke free. "Stop. I can't think when you do that."

"I don't care." Hisoka clutched his shoulders so he couldn't escape. "Don't run away from me again. Do you know how much it hurt when you left me in the dojo?" His voice trembled with the memory of the pain. "It felt so good until you snatched it all away. Why?"

"Forgive me." Tatsumi's face was averted in shadow, but he caressed Hisoka's back in slow circles, soothing and reassuring. "I should have realised this would happen. You distracted me so much I forgot the sensitivity of your empathic powers."

"What...what do you mean?" Hisoka reached up to touch Tatsumi's face, but Tatsumi pushed his hand away.

"Tell me, Kurosaki-kun, how do you know that the emotions you're acting on are yours alone?"

"I feel them, therefore they are mine. It's as simple as that."

Tatsumi stared at Hisoka as if he were mad. "How do you know I'm not flooding your mind with my feelings and desires, influencing you to come here? How can you be sure that I'm not manipulating you now, making you into the puppet you despise?"

"No! You're not like that!" Hisoka shook his head and clung tighter to the yukata, almost pulling it open. "What I said before - I spoke in anger. I was thinking about my behaviour, not yours."

"But you spoke truth. As an empath, you take on the emotions of others, sometimes against your will. The pain you felt in the dojo, your eagerness to touch me now - they are merely the echoes of my feelings inside your mind."

"Is that why you're blocking your feelings from me?" Anger stirred inside him. "Is that why you're being arrogant?"

"Arrogant?" Tatsumi blinked down at him.

"Yes! How dare you censor your emotions in front of me! How can I ever understand you if you're always hiding yourself? You may as well plug my ears and shield my eyes, for my empathy is just as important to me!" His voice shook with the force of his feelings. "I've been an empath all my life. You think my mind can be manipulated so easily? It knows how to shut down when faced with strong emotions. But with you, it's different. Your emotions awakened something inside me. It's not an echo - these are my own feelings responding to yours. So I don't care if they weren't mine to start with - because they are mine now." He reached out, his fingers sliding over Tatsumi's chest, sweeping across the broad swell of pectoral muscles with deliberate intent - enjoying their satin smoothness as he probed for emanations. A tendril of desire stole into his mind.

Tatsumi grasped his wrists, his grip brutal, eyes glittering like a snake. "Get out, Kurosaki-kun."

Equal parts anger and desire tumbled through him - a stormy sea of chaotic violence. Hisoka felt it resonate inside him, gathering his courage, building his determination. He almost wanted to laugh as its energy carried him along, sweeping aside fear and uncertainty.

"Make me, Tatsumi-san." Hisoka surged forward, forcing himself into the circle of Tatsumi's arms. He bent his head to press kisses along the centre of his chest.

Tatsumi trembled. He released Hisoka's wrists to grasp his head...but his fingers seemed to tangle in the soft strands, unable to find purchase. Instead they pressed him closer, caressing his scalp, urging him on.

Hisoka was all too eager to do so. He pulled at the sash, his hands restless as they moulded the contours and planes of lean muscles to bone. His lips drifted up to trace the graceful line of a collarbone, the hollow of a shoulder, tasting and enjoying everything he found. Excitement twisted within him, fuelling his efforts - a quicksilver flash that soothed the edge off his anger, and flared his desire into a conflagration.

"Tatsumi-san..." Hisoka pulled the yukata off one shoulder, revealing the broad bulk of Tatsumi's shoulder. He knew he would never develop such a powerful musculature, but he felt no envy - only a wondering admiration at such masculine beauty. Impatiently he pulled the material off the other shoulder too. His fingers fumbled over the sash as he tried to loosen it. Images assailed his mind, vague and dreamlike, of bodies twisting together in the darkness...

"Damn you." Tatsumi shook his head, as if trying to wake himself from a dream. But he was already pulling Hisoka close, lifting his face to kiss him again. His lips were demanding, teasing Hisoka with their drugging, insistent wet caresses over his tongue, against the roof of his mouth, setting him afire.

Hisoka moaned, everything else forgotten. The images melted away along with the buffeting emotions. The heated immediacy of Tatsumi's touch bewitched him as effectively as any spell - all that was left were these sensations, and this man, and the sweet languor invading every muscle of his body.

The shadows closed in around them. They pulled buttons free with invisible fingers. The obi belt fell away, the complicated knot collapsing in on itself; the hakama slid off and the gi robe fell away without any conscious movement by either of them. Hisoka didn't have to facilitate his own disrobing, his limbs were gently manipulated by the inhuman light-fingered caress of shadows. Vaguely he was aware of Tatsumi's robe being pulled free too, leaving them both nude, lit only by candlelight.

It was just as well, for Hisoka's entire world had narrowed to Tatsumi's insatiable mouth. He would release Hisoka for brief seconds before claiming him again in another kiss.

"I warned you, didn't I?" he whispered. "The shadows are animated by my feelings. They are willing servants to my whims. They act on my desires, on the urges I would rather keep hidden." His large hands stroked down the curvature of his spine, past narrow hips, to massage Hisoka's lean buttocks. "They are bewitched by you, Kurosaki-kun."

Hisoka quivered like a withered leaf tossed aloft in a breeze. "They...they are?" His hands clutched broad shoulders for support, his nails leaving small indentations into firm flesh.

"Yes. They've been watching you in my place, my little emissaries. Waiting for you to notice them." Tatsumi bent his head to nibble a narrow shoulder. "Now that you're here, they will never let you go. Is this what you want?"

Hisoka couldn't answer. His insides twisted with desire, fuelled by the heat of Tatsumi's mouth and the possessive grasp of his hands. He arched closer, shamelessly rubbing his body against the heated bulk of Tatsumi's frame, craving the contact of skin against skin. He reached out with his fingers, sliding them along the long column of his throat, striving to explore Tatsumi's mind with the same desperate greed.

Tatsumi nipped at his shoulder. "Don't do that. Focus on yourself."

Hisoka ignored him, eyes glazing over as conflicting sensations inundated him. He could feel the firmness of his own ass, taste his shoulder and throat...

Tatsumi growled. He pushed away Hisoka's hips to put a little distance between them, then wrapped his fingers around Hisoka's cock. His hand began to slam up and down along its length, while his thumb stroked the delicate head in circles.

Hisoka cried out, a thick choked sound of helpless pleasure. Tatsumi's sensations vanished, now replaced by the immediacy of the aching throb in his groin. Ashamed of the sounds he made, he bit his lip so hard he drew blood from his lower lip.

"There," Tatsumi murmured, eyes glowing as he supported Hisoka with a hand around his waist, his other hand unwavering as it pumped his cock. "This pleasure is yours, and yours alone. Focus on it. Give it voice and let me hear it."

"Tatsumi-san..." His legs were like jelly; only his grip around Tatsumi's neck kept him upright. "'s too much..."

"Trust your body, Kurosaki-kun. Let it decide how much it will take." Gently Tatsumi guided Hisoka around so that he lay against Tatsumi's chest, chestnut hair brushing his jaw and throat. With one capable hand, Tatsumi worked in ceaseless motion over the shaft, making it harden and swell, teasing the head that peeked out through the cowl of foreskin with his thumb. His other arm was slung over Hisoka's heaving chest, preventing his escape.

Hisoka trembled against him, eyelids heavy, perspiration breaking out over his forehead. The metallic taste of blood lingered on his tongue, but his lip was healing thanks to his Shinigami powers. He watched Tatsumi's hand, the flexing and extending of his forearm muscles as he worked with metronomic precision. He felt the ripples of shimmering pleasure spreading from his groin to encompass his entire being. The sight and sensations fed on each other, hypnotising him, driving him mad. He was a puppet once more, this time trapped by erotic sensation, his body held under thrall to a different master.

But this was different. He was here of his own free will in Tatsumi's house, enfolded in his arms and the shadows he commanded. The sensations Tatsumi wrung from his body - pleasure beyond his comprehension - it felt like liberation in servitude. A most intimate and loving servitude.

In a corner of the room, a white futon roll unfurled on the floor, guided by flickering shadows.

"That's it," Tatsumi murmured against his ear. "You're getting used to it now."

"I...I am?" His voice was breathless to his own ears.

Tatsumi chuckled. "You are." He guided him to the futon and pulled him down with him. "You don't need your empathy for this. Your senses tell you more than enough." He pulled off his glasses, revealing wide blue eyes that were heated and animated with passion. "You are so beautiful. Every inch of you...perfect." Suddenly he reached out, his hands possessive and sure as they caressed Hisoka with rough urgency. His mouth pressed biting kisses against his nipples as he moved from one to the other, marking a wet path across his chest.

Hisoka twisted against him, trapped between the futon and the glorious weight of Tatsumi's body. Self-consciousness about the curse marks vanished before Tatsumi's urgent hunger. He felt perfect at that moment, moulded and shaped by strong hands, his nerve endings firing at every caress. He sought to reciprocate as best he could, stroking the long planes of Tatsumi's back with nerveless fingers, thrusting his slick hard cock against Tatsumi's weight - a frenzied plea for his touch.

Tatsumi kissed his sweaty forehead, and obliged once again. "I can't deny you anything. Such is the power you have over me."

"Ahhh...Tatsumi-san..." Hisoka thrust blindly into the tightening tunnel of fingers. "Please..."

"I know." Tatsumi held out one hand, and the shadows complied by bringing a bottle of oil to him.

Uncertainty gripped Hisoka. Memories of Muraki looming over him, using him as he pleased, laughing as he bent him to his sent a wave of nausea through him. He knew Tatsumi was completely opposite to Muraki in character - but the memories clung to him, refusing to leave. He reached up for Tatsumi's face again, searching.

Tatsumi froze, the shadow barriers blocking his emanations. "Kurosaki-kun..."

"Forgive me for doing this," Hisoka whispered. "You aren't him. I know you're nothing like him. But I can't forget--" He pulled Tatsumi to him before he could leave. "Please share your feelings with me. I know it annoys you to do this--"

"It never annoyed me." Tatsumi gazed at him for a long moment, thin lips twisting in bitter amusement. "On the contrary, I enjoyed it...too much." He looked away, his expression remote. "I don't want to manipulate you in any way. I want you to be free to feel and act under your own volition."

Hisoka turned his face towards him. "I know. And now I choose to feel what you feel." He probed with his empathy. "Let me experience...everything."

There was nothing at first - an absence of emotion or thought. Tatsumi's kagetsu barriers were impenetrable.

"Very well."

A torrent of emotion flooded Hisoka, taking him by surprise. Shame and desire, pain and fear...a whole kaleidoscope of feelings he had no hope of identifying. He searched wildly through the flood, searching for something recognizable...

Tatsumi kissed him, slowly, sweetly...melting his fear and resistance. Oiled fingers stroked his cock, reawakening desire. His knees were lifted up, strong hands possessive as they caressed his thighs and buttocks, long fingers tracing every contour as if memorising him by touch alone.

Hisoka welcomed every touch. He focused on their purity and sureness, and the delicious pleasure they elicited within him. The way Tatsumi touched him, so tender yet fierce, so sure yet hesitant, opened Hisoka's mind to a simple truth. This chaotic mess of turbulent emotions spilling over from Tatsumi's mind into his...

This was love.

Tatsumi seated himself between Hisoka's legs and pressed his mouth against the inside of one thigh. He cast Hisoka a sidelong look from beneath thick lashes as he swirled his tongue along the taut flesh.

Velvet warmth filled Hisoka's mouth, salty-sweet in taste. He flushed and looked away, unable to withstand the fierce blue heat of Tatsumi's gaze. But it was no use, for the flames were already kindling within him. A wispy image filled his mind: himself, naked and exposed, his body flushed, limbs carelessly flung over the futon, cock arrowing up as it gleamed with precome.

"Maybe I am no better than him," Tatsumi murmured. "Before I could claim the moral high ground by virtue of my self-control. But now..." He bared his teeth and bit the flesh he held, making Hisoka gasp. "...I have nothing left."

Hisoka shook his head in denial at the words, and in anticipation of what Tatsumi would do next.

Tatsumi poured oil on his fingers. "Like the shadows under my command, when I take hold I never let go." He slid them between the cleft to enter Hisoka in one smooth stroke.

Hisoka arched off the futon, eyes scrunched shut. Pain and shock galvanised his body.

Tatsumi held his hips, murmuring soothing words, yet watching him with a hawk-like intensity. His fingers slid in again and again, insistent, relentless as it pressed against delicate nerve endings, setting off sparks of pleasure that made Hisoka pant and tremble.

Lust coiled into Hisoka's mind, a sinuous black snake whispering promises of more to come. Be patient, it counselled. Wait.

As Hisoka found himself rocking in time to Tatsumi's strokes, sharp bolts of pleasure surging between his cock and newly-sensitised prostate, he could do little else. His fingers clutched the bedding as he tried to find something solid amidst the sensations and emotions buffeting him back and forth.

Tatsumi suddenly left him, making him moan and twitch at the absence. "I was jealous of you when you first came to the Shoukanka because you succeeded with Tsuzuki where I failed. And then I was jealous of Tsuzuki because he had you by his side, loyal and steadfast and brave." He pried Hisoka's hands from the futon then placed them on his shoulders. "Such terrible feelings...are best hidden away."

Hisoka could feel it too, a sickening twist within his chest - an oddly familiar sensation. "I felt the same way too," he murmured. He caressed the shoulders he held, a gesture of comfort. "When I saw you with Tsuzuki, sometimes I felt like leaving the room so you could both be alone. It was so obvious you still cared about him."

"I do...but not in the way you mean." He lifted Hisoka's hips, guiding his legs up and around his waist. As he loomed over Hisoka in the darkness, his entire face was cast in shadow. "I care for Tsuzuki...but I need you." Tatsumi pressed close, the snub head of his unyielding cock sliding against his cleft. "Remember that."

Lust danced around him in ever tightening coils, sinuous and graceful, little tongue darting out for a taste. Yes, it hissed. It reared back, fangs exposed, ready to strike.

One single thrust, and that was it.

Hisoka cried out, his hoarse groan echoing in the room. Tatsumi stretched him, filling him up, flooding his overwrought nerve endings with such white-hot sensation that he came on the spot. It blinded his empathy, incinerating all emotion and thought. All he could do was quiver in the aftermath, while he clutched Tatsumi close like a lifeline.

When he opened his eyes, he found Tatsumi stroking his face, blue eyes wide as saucers.

"'s been so long for me. Forgive my haste."

"There's forgive." Hisoka was still gasping, trying to catch his breath. His limbs felt deliciously lethargic, heavy, free of tension. "It felt...amazing."

"Did it?" Humour lightened his voice as he kissed Hisoka's forehead. "I thought we were only beginning." He began to rock his hips.

Hisoka flushed. Tatsumi was still inside him, his cock as hard as ever. Filling him up, rubbing against his prostate, sending jolts of sharp pleasure to his reawakening erection.

"The advantages of having a youthful body," Tatsumi murmured with sardonic amusement, lips against his throat. "We should make use of your special abilities."

Hisoka let out a soft moan as Tatsumi picked up the pace. With his body relaxed from orgasm, he was better able to accommodate Tatsumi's bulk. He yielded willingly as it slid deeper inside him, and found himself clinging as it slid out, only to repeat the same hypnotic pattern again and again. Lust and pleasure spiralled within him, urging him to keep up with the inexorable pace. How could he resist? He clung to Tatsumi's shoulders, his entire body heated and flushed with renewed exertion as he obeyed its irresistible command.

Tatsumi's hands were everywhere - gripping one leg to open him up, cupping his buttock, caressing his bony hip. He buried his face against the curve of Hisoka's shoulder with the humility of a sinner seeking redemption, but there was nothing humble about the teeth marks he left against the smooth flesh. The movement of his hips continued without rest, a steady fucking that threatened to tear Hisoka's world apart with its bursts of brutal sweetness inside him.

Demanding, possessive...just as he promised.

Hisoka was so overwhelmed that exploring Tatsumi's mind was beyond him. All he could do was cling to his shoulders, wind his legs around narrow hips, and rock in matching counterpoint. He had already come once...that was more than enough. Surely it wasn't possible to come so soon a second time.

Was it?

A few minutes later, shuddering in the grip of almost unbearable ecstasy, Hisoka discovered he was wrong in the best way possible. Exhausted and weary, he fell into a deep sleep, nestled against Tatsumi's chest.


By the light of the flickering flame, Tatsumi examined Hisoka's torso. He squinted at the flawless velvet-smooth skin, searching it for any flaw with his myopic eyes. He gave the arms - long and gangly with a coltish grace - the same close attention.

Unblemished skin - apart from the marks left by his own enthusiastic lovemaking. There were no vermillion lines, no ugly scars. None that he could see, anyway. Such was the fate of a kagetsu master - so accustomed to the dark, he would never possess the clarity of vision of one who worked with light.

Tsuzuki described the curse marks to him that afternoon. A little after working hours were officially over, he had abruptly entered his office without permission. He had been serious, his voice low and intense, nothing like the puppy who begged for cakes and holiday trips.

Tatsumi had listened, filled with simmering anger at Muraki - and at himself for his own insensitivity - as well as growing embarrassment.

"Tsuzuki-san, why are you telling me this?"

"Because sometimes you forget how vulnerable he is. He's stronger than he looks...but not as strong as he thinks he is. He still has many issues he won't discuss with me, but I know the curse markings still haunt him. Maybe you can help him there, like you have with his swordsmanship." Then he had smiled and winked. "And maybe he can show you how to embrace your emotions again - if you let him."

Tatsumi sighed. Meddling was one of Tsuzuki's many annoying habits, but this time he couldn't complain about the outcome.

He studied Hisoka's face. With thick dark lashes against his cheeks, and chestnut hair tumbling over the sheets, he looked so peaceful and at ease. Even his lips, normally drawn in a frown when awake, were tilted upwards in the most infinitesimal of smiles.

From the beginning, Tatsumi had been drawn to Hisoka's spirit. Even though he could appreciate beauty as much as the next man, he didn't judge people by appearance alone. Marked or unmarked - Tatsumi knew it wouldn't alter his feelings.

But if the shame of bearing the curse, even a hidden one, could cause Hisoka so much pain...

Tatsumi held his outstretched hand above Hisoka's chest, then drew it up into a fist. Shadows raced towards him to form a swirling ball beneath his fingers. He looked down at Hisoka's bare flesh again, eyes narrowed to slits.

He could not see anything. And from now on, no one else would see anything either.

He opened his fist. The shadows fell over Hisoka's chest, spreading over his torso and around to his back, others running down his arms. They curled and twisted over his skin like gauzy dark ribbons, caressing his flesh, cocooning him in its embrace.

"Look after him," he whispered. "Never let him go."

A pucker formed between Hisoka's brows. He began to rub his chest, dissipating the shadows, then opened his eyes as he realised he was exposed. "Tatsumi-san...what are you doing?" He looked down at himself, immediately self-conscious about the curse marks - a gesture that made Tatsumi's heart ache.

"Admiring you, Kurosaki-kun." He lay back against the futon and gathered Hisoka close. "Go to sleep."


At dawn they made love one more time, bathed in light from the morning sun as its rays streamed through a nearby window. Hisoka enjoyed the chance to feast on Tatsumi's body with his eyes, his gaze wide and wondering as he traced long lines, sharp angles, and flat planes with his fingers. He took care not to intrude on Tatsumi's mind with his empathic powers. Instead he used his senses - listening to Tatsumi's voice as he growled his name, watching the blue eyes gleam with amusement and pleasure as they roamed over him...and the incredible sensations Tatsumi evoked from his body, both within and without.

Hisoka could hardly believe the evidence of his senses. He had to be in the grip of a wonderful dream. Such happiness wasn't meant for people like him. But to be permitted to share such intimacy with was more than Hisoka ever hoped to experience. So he remained silent as he lay against Tatsumi's chest, bound together by sweat and semen and the sweet exhaustion of sexual exertion. He knew he had no reason to complain.

Later, Hisoka had taken care to remain neutral and polite, and Tatsumi had done the same. After accepting a cup of tea, he had dressed and made his way back to his house to shower and prepare for work. The mundanity of his daily routine only served to convince him of how fantastic last night's - and this morning's - events had been.

The workday was much like any other. He worked with Tsuzuki on reports in the morning. Tsuzuki didn't ask about Tatsumi, for which Hisoka was grateful. He knew he wouldn't be able to hide the flush of embarrassed pleasure at the mention of Tatsumi's name.

As he practised his iaido kata in the afternoon, Hisoka thought about his battle with Tatsumi's shadow servant. It had been so frustrating to deal with such an elusive and tricky opponent...but perhaps such a challenge was exactly what he needed. It was through such humbling experiences that one was moulded into a warrior. Maybe he could persuade Tatsumi to purchase another katana for his servant to use. Hisoka knew he was pushing his luck, but he was willing to try. He felt unusually optimistic about his chances.

In the evening, he locked up the dojo and returned home. There was no reason for him to return to the Shoukanka. Tatsumi had mentioned something about meeting with JuOhCho accountants that evening - Hisoka had interpreted it as a suggestion not to visit him that night. As for other nights, Hisoka didn't dare ask. He didn't want to appear presumptuous or rude a second time - his intrusion into Tatsumi's home last night was already a shocking breach of etiquette.

If Tatsumi wanted to see him, he would invite him.

In the meantime, he would wait. He still had his memories. No one could take them away from him.

And if Tatsumi never invited him after a week or so, Hisoka decided he would pay him another evening visit - this time brandishing his katana.

With that reassuring plan in mind, he spent the night reading in bed.

A few hours later, soft knocking awoke him from a light doze. The book was lying on his chest, the bedside lamp still on. Rubbing bleary eyes with the back of one hand, Hisoka stumbled to his feet to open the door.

Dressed in his tan business suit, tie loosened and collar button undone, Tatsumi looked more discomfited than pleased by Hisoka's rumpled appearance.


"Kurosaki-kun, forgive me for waking you," he said brusquely. He half-turned, as if preparing to leave. "I should have known you would be asleep at such a late hour."

"I...I don't mind." Hisoka blinked and rubbed his eyes again. Was he dreaming?

Then he noticed Tatsumi's white-knuckled grip on his briefcase. In his other hand, he held a little ornate canister of tea.

Hisoka didn't waste time with words of greeting, for his joy could never be conveyed in a medium as inadequate as human speech. He pulled Tatsumi inside and hauled him down for a kiss.

Tatsumi's fervent response was answer enough.


Transit umbra, lux permanet - Shadow passes, light remains

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nate canister of tea.

Hisoka didn't waste time with words of greeting, for his joy could never be conveyed in a medium as inadequate as human speech. He pulled Tatsumi inside and hauled him down for a kiss.

Tatsumi's fervent response was answer enough.


Transit umbra, lux permanet - Shadow passes, light remains

Return to Archive