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no one is what they were before

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“Oh, I will be cruel to you, Marya Morevna. It will stop your breath, how cruel I can be. But you understand, don’t you? You are clever enough. I am a demanding creature. I am selfish and cruel and extremely unreasonable. But I am your servant. When you starve I will feed you; when you are sick I will tend you. I crawl at your feet; for before your love, your kisses, I am debased. For you alone I will be weak.”
― Catherynne M. Valente, Deathless

*

The moment those bright blue eyes landed on her, Utahime knew she was in trouble.

She skidded to a halt just a few feet before him, her heart skipping a beat under his gaze, but he stayed incredibly still, almost serene in a sense. It was foolish to think that way. Only danger could be written in the stars when he pulled the black band away from his eyes, and she could see it in them now. He must’ve seen the fear in her own eyes because the corners of his lips tugged upward into the facsimile of a smile.

“Hello, Utahime,” he greeted, almost fondly. “It’s been a while.”

Utahime forced herself not to react, somehow keeping her voice steady. “Hello, Gojo.”

As far as she was concerned, it hadn’t been long enough. (Or maybe it had been too long, that old familiar yearning for him echoing traitorously in the back of her mind.) The last time she’d seen him, she hadn’t been focused on the blue of his eyes so much as the red of blood everywhere. Why she had been one of the few spared was beyond her even to this day, but she was never given the chance to ask him.

She doubted he’d be so considerate a second time around.

Gojo tilted his head. “Did you miss me?”

Of course I missed you, her mind screamed.

Out loud, Utahime managed a simple, “No.”

He laid a hand over his heart. “Still eager to shoot me down. And when I was so happy to see you again. How cruel.”

Truth be told, she didn’t think he actually cared. If he had, he wouldn’t have left the way he did, leaving her nothing but devastation and a hole carved into her heart that felt the same size as the hole in the earth he’d created with his technique. Nothing had been the same since then. He was gone for so long, appearing randomly like a tornado of destruction only to vanish into thin air again. If he truly gave a damn about her, she didn’t think he’d be here now.

After all, everyone knew that no one survived meeting Gojo Satoru. If a sorcerer crossed paths with him, they started counting down the last seconds of their life. Utahime wouldn’t be foolish enough to think she was any different.

“What do you want?” Utahime asked tensely. It felt pointless, but other than keeping him talking, she didn’t know what else to do. He’d always enjoyed talking. Maybe she was prolonging the inevitable, but she’d do anything before getting on her knees and waiting for him to end it.

“I wanted to see how you were doing,” Gojo said.

Utahime’s fingers twitched at her side. “Come to mock me about how I’m still weak?”

“Well, you’re certainly not strong enough to stand against me, especially on your own,” Gojo pointed out with a laugh. For such a casual comment, his words struck her in the chest. No, of course she wasn’t. She hadn’t been strong enough back then and she definitely wasn’t now. Compared to him, her growth was at a careful crawl, and even then, the higher-ups didn’t expect much from her. No one did. The only reason she’d survived when so many others had died was sheer luck and maybe even pity on Gojo’s end.

He preferred to kill the strongest, after all. Leaving her alive didn’t affect him at all.

“Still following those idiots, I see,” Gojo continued, sighing in disappointment. “I almost didn’t come; it was too easy.”

Utahime furrowed her brow. “What?”

“Oh? You didn’t know?” Gojo took one step forward, and Utahime jumped back. That smile was at his lips again, but this time, it was cold. It didn’t even come close to reaching his eyes. He’d smiled mockingly before he turned, but the current disconnect unsettled her. “They used you as bait to bring me out into the open. I’d call it clever if I hadn’t anticipated it.”

It was true that she didn’t typically get assigned missions like this, but the sorcerer ranks were admittedly running ragged, so she’d assumed they had no other choice but to bring her on. Both Gojo and Geto had done a good job at thinning out society; their targets were mainly powerful and influential civilians or cities, but taking out the strongest jujutsu sorcerers was a part of the job as well. It didn’t matter what Shoko did to repair their damage; she could only do so much with her reverse techniques, and Gojo didn’t leave much behind to save.

If the higher-ups had really assigned her to this in an attempt to capture or kill Gojo, then they had signed her death certificate without even telling her, and she’d walked into it willingly.

Her heart sank into the pit of her stomach. “If you knew, then why are you here?”

“I told you,” Gojo replied. “I wanted to see you.”

In another time, that might’ve made her heart flutter. She would’ve folded her arms across her chest, turned away from him, and insisted with blushing cheeks that she didn’t care, but on the inside, she’d be giddy with excitement. Instead, she felt her heart sinking further, her stomach turning uncomfortably. When Gojo wanted to see people, it was never for a good reason. Megumi still wouldn’t talk about the last time he crossed paths with him, and Utahime doubted she would be any different if he let her live.

Because that was the key point – if he let her live. He could erase her from existence with a simple snap of his fingers before she could even retaliate or scream.

“Is that it then?” Utahime asked, the shakiness in her voice betraying her. She tried to swallow down the fear, but that unsettled feeling sank into her bones. “You’ve seen me. You can leave now.”

“No need to be so hasty,” Gojo told her. “We’ve got some time to kill.” His eyes flickered to the old house behind them. The windows were partially boarded up, the front door swinging open and banging against the wall in the wind. “The higher-ups didn’t lie to you about a job, but I finished it for you.”

Utahime startled, her eyes widening. “Gojo, you didn’t–”

“Oh, come now, Utahime, you don’t think I’m that much of a monster, do you?” Gojo teased. He waved a dismissive hand in the face of her horror. “Besides, Suguru is so soft when it comes to children. It might’ve been easier to kill the kids, but he was insistent on bringing them to our side. We couldn’t let those bastards snatch up two potential special grade sorcerers and their pet curses.”

Ah, then that meant Geto was here too – or least he had been at some point. For all she knew, Gojo had teleported them to wherever they were hiding and came back here when he’d sensed her curse energy. She’d gotten better about hiding it from other sorcerers, but there was only so much she could hide from him and his Six Eyes.

Gojo considered her, his expression going blank again. “You’re afraid.”

“Of course I’m–” Utahime bit her lip and reared back, her eyes dropping from him to the ground. It was a mistake to look away – god knows what he could do in a single second – but that old sense of humiliation crept back. He’d always known how to embarrass her or make her blurt whatever was on her mind. “You’re not an...easy person to deal with, and your track record isn’t exactly hopeful.”

He took that moment of weakness to appear right in front of her. She jerked back, but then he caught her by the wrist, pulling her forward so that she crashed into his chest. Tilting her head back, she stared up at him, struggling not to shiver under the cold gaze of his. There was nothing in those eyes – absolutely nothing that she remembered, nothing she’d loathed and secretly adored. It frightened her more than his grip on her. He could probably feel her heart thumping madly with their chests pressed together.

“Let me prove you wrong,” Gojo finally said.

The words were so unexpected that the fear swelling like a balloon popped, and she openly gawked at him in confusion. “What?”

“Come with me. I’ll prove you don’t have to be scared of me.” Still holding her wrist with one hand, Gojo gently trailed a finger up her neck, resting it just underneath her chin. This time, Utahime couldn’t fight back the urge to shiver, and she closed her eyes, taking in a deep breath. There was no scent of blood, not like she last remembered on him when he let her go.

She swallowed, but it didn’t help the constricting feeling in her throat. “I can’t– I–”

“You’re wasted on them,” Gojo told her, leaning over so he could murmur into her ear. “They might have thought you important enough to use as bait for me, but they don’t know the half of it. They don’t know you .”

When she slowly opened her eyes, she found his face closer to hers now. His eyes were so beautiful even when cold, absolutely mesmerizing. She thought to look away but couldn’t. Hell, she could barely breathe, and a part of her thought her pulse might’ve stopped in this moment. How many sorcerers got this close to him? He usually ripped them apart before they could even come close to laying a finger on him, their deaths so callous and impersonal.

This felt like anything but that.

“I can’t do that,” Utahime told him, even though she knew it might mean her death. People didn’t just say know to Gojo Satoru. Who was she to defy him?

Afraid as she was of his reaction, he didn’t seem angry. Disappointed, maybe. She caught a flicker of it on his face before he stood upright and let go of her wrist. He took a step back, a frown tugging at his lips, and she swallowed again. Her mouth was so dry. She couldn’t read him at all. Was he going to kill her since she’d turned him down? Would he simply leave? She didn’t know, and that minute of silence frightened her more than his hold on her.

“Suguru said you would make this difficult,” Gojo sighed.

Utahime held onto her wrist. “Have things ever been easy between us?”

“No, you’re right about that.” Gojo tapped his finger against his cheek and then held out his hands in front of himself. She tensed but then furrowed her brow when he angled himself away from her. She was positive that he was about to unleash his technique, and while he could probably strike her even from that angle, it didn’t make sense with him so close. “I didn’t want it to come to this.”

Without thinking, Utahime took a step forward, only stopping when he glanced back at her. “What are you doing?”

“You were bait, remember?” Gojo pointed out. “How many sorcerers do you think are out there, hm? How many do you think they spared to capture me?” Horror slowly encased Utahime as the terrible realization dawned upon her. The moment it did, Gojo smiled again, genuine humor glimmering on his face. “Enough to overwhelm me, definitely, but not enough that they won’t lose their main force. That would be devastating.”

Any sorcerer out there would be killed. She didn’t care what plan they had. Behind that smile was a rage she hadn’t caught onto before, something he’d been hiding just barely under the surface. He was furious with them – with the higher-ups, with jujutsu society, maybe even with her. He hated that they’d thought to use her as cannon fodder in order to capture him. And shouldn’t that make her hate them too? How many innocent men and women had they sacrificed so far? How many lives had been lost on both sides?

Gojo looked back toward the force. “I wonder if Megumi is out there. I can’t see him standing idle, no matter what he was told.”

“Wait–” Utahime tried to rush toward him, but she couldn’t get her body to move. She reached out to him, but he was too far. He had always been too far, always just out of her reach, so far beyond anyone else in the world, save for maybe Geto. He’d been Gojo’s grounding force, and when he had left, well… Gojo didn’t have much left to tether him to the world. Utahime couldn’t be that person, and Shoko had been too wounded herself to try.

And then it all went to hell, and they lost everything. She lost him.

“Maybe he’ll survive,” Gojo mused as he began to charge up his technique. Purple – he was going for purple, red and blue light crackling in the air between them.  “I hope he does. I’d like to see him again.”

“Stop!” Utahime shrieked, and the world seemingly halted around them.

Without even realizing that she’d moved, Utahime found herself grabbing onto one of Gojo’s forearms, the crown of her head pressed against his bicep. Her fingers dug into his black sleeves, clinging to him tightly as her entire body trembled. She couldn’t stop herself from shaking, pure terror soaking her to the bone.

“I’ll– I’ll come with you,” she managed weakly. God, it was so weak. He’d always teased her about that, even after they’d graduated. She closed her eyes in an attempt to stop a flood of tears, but a few slipped out anyways, dripping onto the dirt at her feet. “Please, just… Don’t kill them.”

“Why shouldn’t I?” Gojo asked her coldly. “I could kill them and take you anyway. There’s nothing stopping me.”

Please,” Utahime repeated, her voice bordering on begging. Did he want her to get on her knees? She would do it if it appeased his ego enough. “I won’t fight. I won’t even try to escape. I’ll– I’ll listen. I’ll try to understand.” Instead of falling to the ground, she lifted her head to look at him and reached up to touch his face. “Take me with you.”

Gojo hummed thoughtfully, the air crackling with dangerous energy. “You’re just saying that to save them. You don’t want to actually come with me. You’re only sacrificing yourself.”

“Maybe,” Utahime replied. “Maybe I’ve been with them too long. Maybe you can help me see.” Her hand slid around to the back of his neck, her fingertips brushing through his hair. “I lied. I did miss you, but you’re right as well. I’m scared. Show me otherwise.”

As he stared down at her once more, Utahime was almost positive he would shove her away from him and decimate the forest. Memories of that day two years ago flashed in her mind – the screams, the explosions, the breaking of concrete and metal, and then nothing but silence. She would’ve been caught in his devastating power had he not grabbed her by the back of her shirt at the last second.

She couldn’t stand to see something like that happen again. It really would destroy her, even if she wasn’t hit directly.

“Gojo, please, leave them. They’re not worth it.”

He let out a breath. “They’re not, which makes it so easy to just–”

“No,” Utahime cut in. “I want to go. I want to be with you. Please.”

After another long few seconds of consideration, Gojo slowly released the energy he’d been building up previously. With the lights gone, they faded into the darkness of the forest again, the sun having fallen behind the trees. He dropped his hands, and his body relaxed, a tension she hadn’t caught onto bleeding from him.

She didn’t have time to relax, not when he turned to face her and cupped her face in his hands. A smile lit up his face, bright and genuine. It reached his eyes and more. “I knew you’d see the truth and change your mind.”

It wasn’t like she’d had much of a choice, but Utahime didn’t argue with him, not when he pressed his lips against hers so sweetly. For a moment, she could pretend like everything else had been a nightmare, and she was experiencing something she’d only dreamed about in embarrassment. How many times had she imagined kissing Gojo even after they bickered and he teased her? Here she was now, holding onto him as his lips molded against hers. It could’ve been beautiful.

And then his grip on her tightened slightly, and he bit down on her lip, not hard enough to make her bleed, but just enough to make her flinch and remember who he was. This wasn’t the Gojo she had fantasized about. This was someone else, and with that one action, he made it known that she wasn’t just giving herself to him.

After all, she had asked – and he would take her, whether she knew what that all entailed or not.

Chapter Text

Whatever Utahime was expecting – however she had envisioned Gojo living in the past two years – nothing could have prepared her for what his life was actually like. To be honest, Utahime wasn’t sure what she’d pictured. It wasn’t like she had thought he was hiding out in caves, surviving on scraps, but she hadn’t expected something so strangely...normal.

Well, she supposed he couldn’t be evil all the time.

Terrifying as he was or perhaps because of it, Gojo was renowned throughout the world for his power. Geto had already amassed a large number of followers by the time Gojo turned on jujutsu society, and it had tripled almost overnight when Gojo joined his side. Entire countries had turned to follow them, deciding it would be easier and safer to fall in line instead of wage war against the two most powerful jujutsu sorcerers of their time.

That sort of power meant they could essentially hide in plain sight. Geto was the face of their movement to eradicate non-sorcerers. He was more charming than Gojo in the sense that he could cajole people into following them without the threat of violence or death. Even many non-sorcerers followed them in an attempt to be spared, running themselves ragged best to make themselves useful. Whether that was money or labor, they did their best

It made Utahime’s stomach turn.

She watched as non-sorcerers worked like servants, skittering about any sorcerers with fear. The young woman that had prepared her room had paled and actually apologized when Utahime had thanked her before promptly bolting out of the room. Utahime ran her hand over the silk and cotton duvet, somewhat amazed by the quality. It was a rather lovely design, the kind she’d look in the shops and want to make her quarters in Kyoto nicer but would never splurge on.

In fact, that was the sense of the entire room. It didn’t feel like a place one associate with a person who had killed god knew how many people – with the type of people that had broken the world in half with little care.

It wasn’t a room meant for a prisoner, which Utahime supposed was the point. Gojo had said he wanted to change her mind – prove her wrong. He wanted her comfortable, to trust him, to see him as good. He couldn’t do that if he threw her in some sort of cell in the basement with chains and bars locking her in place. However, she had no doubt in her mind that this was a cell, just of a  different kind. The prettiness of it couldn’t hide the sinister feeling underneath or make her forget why she had told him to take her with him.

The whole place was strange and confusing, normal with just enough surrealness to unsettle her. Upon first glance, it came off as a beautiful place – stunning, expansive, full of life. Utahime could see why even those with power and wealth could get tricked here. Even she had marveled over it and also the unexpected pleasantness of the place. Their stronghold didn’t look like anything she’d expected. It was more like a massive traditional Japanese house.

Still, while she hadn’t been here for long, she could tell there was something else simmering under the surface, a darkness that had weaved its way through the building and into people’s hearts like a treacherous vine. She’d passed a room where a man was frantically scrubbing at a stain on the floor, pulled away before she could get a better look. None of the non-sorcerers would look her in the eyes, and she’d even caught one getting viciously berated by a sorcerer. The only reason the man had stopped was because Utahime had grown uncomfortable and Gojo had told him to do something useful.

The sorcerers here themselves ranged from fervently devoted to dangerously arrogant. It was obvious that those who lived here or nearby were the most promising members. They were either the strongest or the most loyal. None of them seemed to come close to Gojo or Geto, which was probably how they managed to keep so many powerful sorcerers and strong personalities in line. Instead of fighting against one another, they worked together, pushing their egos if only for a moment when their leaders were around.

Still, even as she watched them work together, she knew that sense of loyalty only went so far with some people. The weaker sorcerers were clearly more of the devoted type, working hand in hand with each other to bring the goal to life. Geto found use in them when the higher-ups in jujutsu society would’ve ignored them. The stronger sorcerers tended to play nice, but she’d gotten the sense almost right away that many weren’t pleased to be on the same level as those with less curse energy or weaker techniques than them.

Nonetheless, if any sorcerer they passed was stronger than her, they hadn’t sneered in her direction, not with Gojo walking beside her, his hand on the small of her back. They all smiled politely and bowed their heads respectfully, even when Gojo ignored them. Underneath that devotion was also a sense of hatred and jealousy. After all, no matter how far they climbed, they would never be able to reach the same heights as their leaders.

It painted an interesting picture of a world that was more even, but in the end, wasn’t much different from the jujutsu world she had come from that Gojo had turned against. The strong would still trample the weak here if given the chance. She didn’t know why he couldn’t see that, or maybe he no longer cared. If so, then why had he saved her? She certainly wasn’t the strongest sorcerer out there. Even the higher-ups knew that.

“You like it?”

Utahime looked up to find Gojo standing in the doorway, one of his shoulders leaning against the threshold. He tossed her a tangerine, and she caught it against her chest. Looking down at the fruit, she rolled it in her hands, feeling the small bumps of imperfections in the smooth skin. She had felt too sick to her stomach to eat for nearly a day, but now her body’s needs betrayed her now, and she carefully began to peel it.

Gojo gestured around the room. “This whole place is like this – so pretty, expensive, and nice . It’s dumb, isn’t it?”

“What’s dumb?” Utahime asked.

“All of this.” Gojo popped a slice of tangerine in his mouth. He swallowed and continued, “It’s just a cover, a front, for the ugly truth. All those stupid fucking idiots pandering us with money in hopes that they’ll be spared.”

Utahime bit her lip, staring down at the half-peeled tangerine. “Will they?”

Gojo shrugged carelessly. “Maybe. Guess it depends on how useful they are. I’d rather kill the whole lot of them – put them out of their misery – but Suguru likes to bleed them dry before getting rid of them.”

The coldness of his words made Utahime shiver, which she covered up by taking a deep breath. Considering the way he was looking at her now, she hadn’t done a good job. He ate another piece of tangerine, rather thoughtfully, as if considering his next words. If he was trying to assuage her fears of him, he wasn’t doing a good job either, but...she appreciated the candidness more. She would much rather know how Gojo truly felt than have him hide behind charming words and fake smiles. That had always been more of Geto’s thing.

“It’s very…” Utahime struggled to find the right word. None of them would appease him entirely, so there was little point in hiding how she felt either. “Unsettling.”

“It is, isn’t it?” Gojo agreed, tilting his head so that the light glinted off his dark sunglasses. “It’s part of the design, I guess – more of Suguru’s planning.” That made sense. He was far more of the calculating type. Gojo could be as well, but he preferred a more head-on approach. She wasn’t sure who was more devastating. “But it’s ugly underneath. Everyone is either simpering for attention, begging for mercy, or delusional enough to believe they’re worth something.”

Kind of like you, Utahime almost said, but she managed to bite her tongue.

“If you don’t like it, then why are you here?” Utahime asked, setting the discarded peel aside.

“Because it’s broken either way,” Gojo said, “but I can at least do something here.”

Utahime settled a steady gaze on him. “Is that what you think you’re doing when you level cities or murder people?”

Gojo snorted. “You never fail to disappoint. Winning you over wouldn’t be as rewarding if you didn’t make it so damn difficult for me.” He flashed her a grin. “You always make things so sweet in the end.”

She frowned, annoyed with him and that stupid grin, and looked down. She pulled the tangerine in half and then peeled off a slice. The fruit was sweet in her mouth, sourness following soon after as the juices coated her tongue. A tornado of emotions swirled inside of her – anger at him for putting her in a terrible position, confused about this place, frightened if she had to be honest. Everything was so off, and she didn’t know how to react.

What if she said the wrong thing and Gojo killed her?

Would it even matter to anyone but herself and a handful of others? Would it matter to Gojo?

Even worse, a voice whispered in the back of her mind: Gojo isn’t the one you need to worry about.

Biting her lip, Utahime glanced up again. “So what does Geto think about you bringing me here?”

“Oh.” Gojo popped in the last slice and swallowed it down. “I’m not sure.”

Utahime blinked in surprise. “What do you mean?”

It was hard to say what she’d expected. She supposed Gojo tended to work on his own. Even when the two of them had been students at Jujutsu High, they had worked incredibly well together, but they’d also butted heads a lot of the time. The two of them were as close as friends as they were bitter as rivals. No one could rile Gojo up quite like Geto, and no one was allowed as near to Geto as Gojo was. They were two sides of the same coin, but sometimes she thought it was double-headed so no one could win but them.

“I didn’t really ask him,” Gojo explained. “He gets to have his toys, so why can’t I have mine?” When she opened her mouth to angrily protest, he held up his empty hands and grinned. “I’m kidding. You aren’t a toy. I know that. You’re more than that.”

Utahime pressed her lips into a thin line. Was she? To be perfectly fair, she probably was little more than a toy for Gojo, at least in Geto’s eyes. He hadn’t considered much of her before when they were students, even if she was older. Oh, sure, he’d been polite and even nice to a point, all smiles and flowery words in public, but there had been times when she caught him watching her whenever Gojo was teasing her. There had been absolutely nothing in his eyes, like he didn’t even see her as another sorcerer.

It had frightened her back then, although she hadn’t realized it until later on when it was too late.

“What am I then?” Utahime asked. “Your prisoner?”

“You tell me,” Gojo replied coolly. “You’re the one that asked me to bring you here.”

Utahime clenched down hard enough on the tangerine to cause fruits to spill down her fingers. “It wasn’t like I was given much of a choice.”

“I didn’t have to listen to you, you know,” Gojo pointed out. “But I’m capable of being kind and understanding. I can be merciful.”

It was true. He’d said as such, so perhaps she should act more grateful toward him. Nonetheless, she couldn’t get the words to come out of her mouth. What did he want her to say? Thank you for not ruthlessly murdering people. She couldn’t be grateful for that, not when he had once been the type of person that saved others.

(He’d saved her, hadn’t he?)

“Can you?” Utahime stood up and turned away from him. She set the rest of the tangerine on the table. As hungry as she was, she couldn’t force the food down right now. She couldn’t tell if her hands were shaking from the lack of food on her stomach or something else, but she gripped the edge of the table to still them.

“So stubborn,” Gojo sighed, though he didn’t sound disappointed.

She heard him walk further into the room and the door clicking shut behind him. Her heart skipped a beat, but even though she knew he was coming to her, she still jumped a little when one of hands settled on her hip. His other hand rested on the table, essentially caging her in, his chest brushing against her back. She wanted to lean back into him, try to pretend for a moment that he was his old self again, the young man that would playfully invade her space and wrap himself around her. She could almost feel it now, but his fingers dug into her hip a little harder than usual.

“You gotta trust me a bit if I’m gonna convince you otherwise,” Gojo murmured in her ear. “You did before, didn’t you?”

Utahime closed her eyes and let out a breath. “You know I did.”

“I waited for you,” Gojo continued, his thumb rubbing her hip over her clothes. “I thought you’d figure it out on your own – that the way things were going, there’d be nothing meant for you. And then you’d come to us – come to me – and see how much more you could have.”

“And what can I have?” Utahime asked. “What can I possibly have when there’s nothing left?”

“You’re acting like we’re gonna destroy everything, but we won’t. Sure, we’ve done a lot of damage, but it’s necessary if we’re gonna start from scratch.” Gojo dropped his chin on her shoulder, trapping her further against him. “Geto wants to rid the world of non-sorcerers completely, but I gotta be honest. I don’t think it’ll happen.”

Opening her eyes, Utahime asked, “Why not?”

“He thinks getting rid of non-sorcerers will eliminate curses, but I don’t think it’ll work. Curses will find a way to still be created. Maybe not as many, but…” When he shrugged, he moved her body, as if she was shrugging along with him. “It sounds nice, doesn’t it? A world with no curses, a world without selfish bastards telling us what to do. But it doesn’t work that way.” He wrinkled his nose in distaste. “I killed the higher-ups, and they were just replaced with new worse ones.”

Utahime couldn’t deny that. The sorcerers that had taken the places of the men and women that Gojo had killed shortly after turning were much harsher. They weren’t like Yaga, who had been firm in his ways but caring toward those underneath him. At least Gojo hadn’t killed him, but he had been punished with death for “failing” to teach Gojo and Geto properly. Utahime had witnessed the execution firsthand and then held Shoko’s hair back later after she drank too much and got sick from crying.

Since then, Utahime had done everything she could to stay in line and off their radar. How many times had she gotten on her hands and knees after Gojo’s first attack where she had been one of the few to survive? Shoko and Nanami had been forced to do much the same due to their history with Gojo, as if she had to apologize for surviving and they had to beg for forgiveness for simply knowing him prior. Sometimes, Utahime wondered if Shoko was still alive if only because of her technique.

It still didn’t make Gojo’s actions right, no matter what he thought. He’d abused his power just as much as they had.

Still, Utahime had to ask. “Why are you working with Geto if you don’t think his plan will work?”

Gojo was silent for a while. She couldn’t tell if he was considering his response or if he simply didn’t want to answer her. A lot of people assumed that Gojo’s goals were merely destruction itself. It didn’t take him much to cause chaos. Some saw him as merely Geto’s dog. He was more powerful, yes, but he seemed to attack at command wherever Geto planned it, and it was obvious when Geto was the mind behind an attack. Gojo’s slaughter of the higher-ups had been violent and brash, lashing out carelessly.

He never cared about collateral damage, never thought about the repercussions. He didn’t have to, as there was no one who could question him.

“I’m glad you’re not with them anymore,” Gojo said instead, nuzzling his nose against her throat. So he wouldn’t answer her then. That was fine. She hadn’t expected one, but she perhaps had time to pull an answer out of him still. He didn’t seem intent on letting her go any time soon. “I know you don’t see it now, but you will. It’s messy work, I’ll admit, but if something is broken, it’s better to throw it away and start fresh.”

“You make it sound so easy,” Utahime huffed.

“Well, it is, for me at least,” Gojo chuckled.

“Then how come you haven’t done it yet?”

Gojo tsked. “Because people are resilient if nothing else. I can admire that.”

Utahime turned her head slightly to look at him out of the corners of her eyes. “You’ve always enjoyed a good fight.”

“Nothing would be worth it if it wasn’t hard-won,” Gojo reasoned. “Like you.” Her heart jumped again. Even if she couldn’t see his eyes, she knew his were locked on hers. “You’ve always been so difficult. That was half the fun, of course. Suguru might not know if you’re worth the hassle or not, but I think you are.”

“Glad to know he’ll be so enthused you brought me here,” Utahime muttered under her breath.

She turned her head away from him again, but Gojo lifted his hand from the table to cup her cheek and turn her back to him. “It doesn’t matter what he thinks in the end. You’re here with me, and I know your full potential.” She rolled her eyes, and he shook his head. “You’ve managed to keep your head on despite those idiots weighing down on you, but it’s the sorcerers you’ve helped teach that really shows your worth. Maybe you aren’t as strong as others, but you’re an excellent teacher. We could do with that.”

At the mention of her students, Utahime’s pulse fluttered. She’d known early on that she would never be the sorcerer that Gojo was, not even Mei Mei or Nanami, but she could do something else. She could help others grow stronger. She’d become a teacher at Kyoto a few years after graduating, before Gojo had changed sides. With Jujutsu High in Tokyo laid to waste, Kyoto Tech alone remained, and even then, it was half of what it had been before. All she had were her students, as few and far between as they were.

Gojo, of course, knew Fushiguro, and he no doubt knew of Itadori, but apparently, he’d been keeping an eye on all of them. How long? How much did he know?

“The proof’s in the next generation,” Gojo said, “and you’re very good with kids.”

When his hand on her hip moved to suggestively roam over her stomach, she swatted at it, and he laughed, pulling her tighter against his chest. She felt little more than a doll in his arms, one for him to play and toy with at his leisure. Even though he was talking plenty, she couldn’t get a read on his exact feelings or state of mind. He kept switching from serious to casual at the drop of a hat, probably on purpose to keep her on her toes. That hadn’t changed, at least.

“You’d look good like that too,” Gojo hummed thoughtfully.

Utahime squirmed in his arms. “Stop being weirder than you already are.”

Gojo laughed again. “Look at you, mouthing off to the world’s most dangerous sorcerer.” He nuzzled against her again, so affectionately that Utahime’s heart ached. “I missed this. Besides Suguru, almost everyone here is so pathetic. Even the strong ones snivel around me.”

“It’s hard not to be afraid of what you’ll do,” Utahime admitted.

“And yet you aren’t falling to your knees.”

It didn’t mean they weren’t shaking. Her legs felt like jello, like she might actually collapse if Gojo let go of her. He must’ve sensed the fear simmering just underneath the surface, felt the frantic beat of her pulse in her neck. Her breathing stuttered when she felt him press his lips against her skin, featherlight, as if tasting the waters first. She shuddered, the feeling treacherously pleasant, which only encouraged him. He trailed up her neck, her jaw, then her cheek, kissing the corner of her lips.

“Uta,” he murmured like some sort of hopeful prayer, and she turned her head just a little more so he could capture her lips.

She allowed him to deepen it, going from chaste to demanding quite quickly, his tongue slipping past her lips and into her mouth. His hand moved from her cheek down to her neck, cradling it so that his thumb rested on her pulse point. She was acutely aware that he could squeeze at any second and kill her, which only made her heart race more. He could feel it, his thumb pressing down more, and she whimpered into his mouth, unable to stop the rather needy sound. His lips curled into a knowing grin against hers even as he continued to kiss her.

Bastard. She hated him. And yet...

It was shameful, letting him kiss her like this, and guilt flared sharply in her gut. She could tell herself it was because she was afraid of telling him no – and that had to be partly true – but it wasn’t just fear swirling inside her now. Ever since that first kiss, her mind continued to stray back to that moment, like a wounded puppy, thinking about how sweet it had tasted. Sweeter than the tangerine they both tasted like now. He’d ruined it in the end, but she still felt the urge to chase that feeling once more, almost desperate to pretend like things were fine.

He was here, with her, and she was with him. It was okay. They were okay.

But like this place, like their plans, it was just a lie wrapped in a pretty package.

She pulled away from him abruptly, practically ripping her lips from his, and took a shaky breath. Her hands hurt from gripping the table too tightly, the skin white around the knuckles. He really was determined to make her knees literally buckle so she could fall before him, but she refused to give him that satisfaction just yet. He’d have to work for it. He’d have to break her before she did that. Judging by the soft, amused snort, he knew that too.

“Are you going to keep me in here like some sort of doll on a shelf?” Utahime asked.

“No, that wouldn’t be very kind of me, now would it?” Gojo’s hand on her neck was gentle, but it was still there. She didn’t know if it was a warning, threat, or something else entirely. “As much as I’d love to keep you all for myself, I can’t change your mind if you don’t see things for yourself.”

“Still cocky as ever,” Utahime noted, unimpressed.

Gojo grinned. “If not worse.”

When he finally let go of her neck and took a step back, she tried not to react. She didn’t want him to see the relief flooding through her system. Instead, she tried her best to keep a passive expression on her face as she turned around to face him directly, but it didn’t work, not when she tensed up and folded her arms across her chest. There was something about the way he gazed at her so head-on that unsettled her too much.

“So how is this going to work?” Utahime asked. “Are you going to take me on little outings here and there? I didn’t picture you being the propaganda type.”

“No, that’s more Suguru’s thing as well,” Gojo agreed. “I don’t need to pretend I’m nice. Everyone knows I’m a monster, don’t they?”

Utahime opened her mouth, but nothing came out. He said it so matter-of-factly, maybe even a hint entertained by the idea. She found it terribly sad. Hadn’t he been a beacon of hope at one point, a focal point for everyone to look to when things were dark? Or had everyone always feared him deep down? Had that terrifying shadow he now cast always been following him?

Gojo held out a hand. “I can’t exactly let you wander around on your own, but I’ve got it covered.”

“Giving me a chaperone?” Utahime surmised blandly.

“More like a bodyguard,” Gojo replied with a wink. “You’re gonna break some hearts being here.” She lifted one hand from her bicep in a dismissive wave. “Plus, I’m still not sure if Suguru will want to kill you or not. He’ll probably consider you a distraction or a weakness.”

Utahime rolled her stiff shoulders. “That’s comforting.”

“He won’t,” Gojo reassured her, “but it won’t hurt to have a bit of insurance against him.”

“So a bodyguard then? One of your loyal-to-a-fault followers?”

Gojo nodded. “I guess you could call him that.” She huffed in irritation, already dreading dealing with someone that would throw themselves at Gojo’s feet. “Aw, don’t be like that. I think you’ll like him! He’s just your type – some wounded kid riddled with trauma and more power than he knows what to do with. Maybe you can help him out.”

Utahime furrowed her brow, but she decided against questioning him further. Gojo clearly had his reasons, but he didn’t seem keen on divulging them entirely, only in bits and pieces so she’d have to piece the puzzle on her own. He’d brought up her teaching, so it must’ve had something to do with that. Geto thought her useless, so if she could prove her worth, Gojo would be right about her – and then maybe Geto would kill her. No big deal.

Sucking it up, Utahime let out a sigh. “Fine. When can I leave?”

“Tomorrow,” Gojo told her. “It’s late.” He gestured to the half-eaten tangerine. “You should eat and get some rest.”

She didn’t feel like eating, and she was positive that no matter how comfortable that bed was, she would struggle to sleep. Like it or not, she’d have to get used to it. She nodded and picked up the tangerine again. It would make do until she was truly hungry again. Tomorrow, her body would need more whether she wanted to eat or not. Still, he looked pleased with her obedient behavior. It wasn’t much different than how she handled the higher-ups. If only he could see that.

“You’ll understand soon enough,” Gojo told her. “Maybe you’ll even grow to love it here.”

She didn’t really have much of a choice, now did she? Nonetheless, Utahime kept her mouth shut and swallowed down the fruit, the symbol of his potential to be kind. It didn’t taste as sweet as it had before.

Chapter Text

It turned out Utahime’s body didn’t care if her mind was racing. She fell asleep at some point during the night, waking up hours later at an unknown time. The lack of windows in the room threw her sense of time off, so she could only rely on her body’s internal clock. Judging by the time she usually woke up, it was probably around six in the morning.

After a minute of staring at the ceiling to confirm this wasn’t still a dream, Utahime pulled herself out of bed. She did her best to wash up, undoing the bow in her hair and retying it. Her clothes were rumpled, dirt still coating the bottom of her pants. She sighed at her reflection. At least she hadn’t cried. Her eyes would’ve been puffy and red, and Gojo would’ve no doubt brought it up.

At least, he would if she saw him today. She honestly wasn’t sure what the day had in store.

Not long after trying the door and finding it locked, there was a knock from the other side and then a tentative boy’s voice called out, “May I come in?”

Figuring it was probably one of the non-sorcerer servants, Utahime replied, “Yes.” She stood in the middle of the room, clasping her hands together in front of her, and waited as the door was unlocked and pulled open.

If she thought she looked tired, nothing could compare to the young man that stepped into the room. The dark circles under his eyes suggested he hadn’t slept properly since he was born. He was thin as well with messy black hair that hung in his pale face. His lips twitched upward into a nervous smile, his eyes darting to the ground as if he couldn’t look at her for long, and his hands were fidgeting before him. He looked like she could say “boo” and he’d skitter away.

And then he let out a breath and a powerful wave of curse energy swept over Utahime.

She stiffened, utterly shocked by the terrible feeling of dread that wafted from him. No, was it from him? It felt more like a curse. He didn’t seem to be in a position to fight, but she could tell upon further glance that he carried more curse energy in her body than anyone she’d ever met before, perhaps more than Gojo. The sensation reminded her more of Geto than him, however, the taint of a curse too strong to ignore.

“Sorry, sorry,” the boy mumbled, his eyes still trained on the ground. “Gojo says I let it out sometimes when I’m nervous.”

Utahime opened her mouth, but she wasn’t sure what to say. Her assumption about him being a servant was far off; if she had to guess, this was the person Gojo had told her about last night, her bodyguard so to speak. Physically speaking, he didn’t look like much, but any sorcerer would balk upon feeling that amount of powerful energy radiating from him.

It was strange though. How could someone with this much curse energy be as timid as a mouse? He could probably level a building with a single strike, but he didn’t seem capable of looking her in the eyes.

Lifting a hand, Utahime carefully said, “It’s okay. What’s there to be nervous about?”

“I’m not–” The boy fidgeted. “I don’t want to mess up. Gojo said you’re important to him, so I’m supposed to take you around, but I’m not good–” He gestured helplessly. “I’m not really good at that sort of stuff.”

“You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do,” Utahime told him.

The boy shook his head. “Gojo said he trusted me to do this.” He bit his lip, the skin already red from where he’d done it before, and then finally looked up. “Besides, this is– nicer than the jobs that Geto gives me.”

Utahime’s heart sank, but she tried her best not to let it show. Now she understood what Gojo had meant when he’d teased her about him being her type. The boy clearly had issues, just like most of her students. Curse him for putting her in this position. He’d know her bleeding heart would want to reach out to the kid, and she’d be more willing to cooperate as well.

“What’s your name?” Utahime asked.

He startled, as if he’d drifted off. “Oh, um, Okkotsu – Okkotsu Yuta. I, uh, I already know your name. Gojo told me.”

“Which would you prefer me to call you?”

“Yuta is fine.”

Utahime smiled gently. “Okay, Yuta it is.”

Blush dusted his cheeks, and he abruptly turned around to grab something from the hallway. As he did, she eyed the holder on his back. A katana of some sort. It must’ve had something to do with his technique or cursed energy. Many sorcerers used weapons in tandem with their abilities. Nanami used a dull cleaver most of the time. She wondered, with the amount of cursed energy he held, what this frightened boy could do with a sword.

When Yuta turned around, he held out a change of clothes, similar to the outfit she was wearing. “Gojo wanted you to have these. Um, he said to tell you that he bought them himself.”

Utahime rolled her eyes. “Of course he did. Annoying bastard.”

The shock on Yuta’s face was plain as day, but he didn’t question her as she took the clothes from him. “Just knock when you’re done.” He scurried out quickly, taking that dark feeling with him, but she couldn’t shake it as she stared at the closed door.

He must’ve been the victim of a horrific and powerful curse. Why hadn’t Geto done something about that?

Upon changing clothes, Utahime was dismayed to find that not only were they the correct size, but the outfit Gojo had given her was absolutely beautiful. The material felt almost comforting. She was positively livid over it and embarrassed as well. He should know better than to think he could buy her loyalty, so he was doing this to either prove a point or let everyone know something.

After seething over it, Utahime took a deep breath, schooled her face, and knocked on the door. The door unlocked and was opened again, Yuta asking, “Are you hungry?”

As much as she would’ve liked to continue fasting out of pettiness, Utahime knew she needed to eat, so she begrudgingly nodded. Yuta turned without another word and started down the hall. She hesitated only for a moment before following him. It was brighter than before, natural light spilling into the hallway. They went a different way than she’d walked with Gojo, traveling further into the building. They passed plenty of people, sorcerers and non-sorcerers alike.

Not a single one of them looked at either her or Yuta.

Perhaps catching her frowning after the tenth person to scurry past them without so much as a glance, Yuta apologized again. “Sorry, it’s me.”

Utahime glanced at him in surprise. “Why do you say that?”

“Well, it’s–” Yuta hesitated and looked ahead again. “It’s more of Rika. We scare people. I don’t mean to, but I can’t help it.”

“Rika?” Utahime’s eyes tried to follow his cursed energy. There was just so much. However, if she focused hard, she could see a thin trail of it leading away from him, through the wall. “Your curse?”

Yuta nodded, a shameful look crossing his face. “She’s just protective, is all.”

A protective curse – that was a first for her. She wouldn’t even say Geto’s curses were protective of him so much as tamed entirely. Still, it made sense. Considering his power, she could only imagine how strong the curse attached to him was. It had to be terrifying to those that didn’t come close to his level. How utterly bizarre. She couldn’t fathom why this boy wasn’t swimming in smugness. Aside from Geto and Gojo, he had to be the strongest sorcerer here.

“I don’t think you’re scary,” Utahime settled on saying.

Yuta froze, slowly looking back at her. “You...don’t?”

“Well, we’ve only just met, so I don’t know you well,” Utahime pointed out, “but you’ve only been considerate with me so far.” She looked out the window where she could see sorcerers practicing with their techniques, a variance of power easy to see. “And this must be an annoying job for someone with your strength. It’s below you.”

“Not-not at all!” Yuta exclaimed, waving his hands frantically. “If Gojo says you’re important, then this must be a very important job. I’m– I’m nervous, but I’m grateful he trusted me with it – with you, I mean.”

Utahime blew out some air. “I’m not that important.”

She was a fool, was what she was. Gojo had really played her, hadn’t he, giving her this sad-eyed, eager boy as a guard. Nonetheless, if she could help him, she would. It broke her heart to see such a seemingly kind boy on a side that ruthlessly murdered, and she couldn’t help but think of what he’d said about Geto. His other jobs. She could only imagine how much blood was already on his hands.

(She could only imagine how the higher-ups would’ve abused his abilities if he was on their side.)

The next door they went through opened up to a large, bustling kitchen. The room was brightly lit and warm, the smell of fresh food overwhelming her for a moment. She watched as people worked together at ease, all of them non-sorcerers. Yuta walked up to one of the girls. She startled upon seeing him, but at least she didn’t run away, listening as he explained they needed something to eat even though it was still early.

“Oh, Yuta, you’re back on guard dog duty again? I hadn’t thought Geto was done working you to the bone yet.”

The feminine voice was familiar, and Utahime spun around, her mouth dropping partly when she recognized the young woman lingering near a table. For a moment, she didn’t know what to say, at a complete loss at the sight before her.

“Mai!” Utahime gasped. She nearly tripped over her feet to reach her, stopping herself just inches away from grabbing her arms and pulling her into a hug. Mai had never been fond of physical touch, and Utahime wasn’t about to push that boundary now. Even then, tears welled in Utahime’s eyes at the sight of her former student. “I didn’t think… We haven’t heard from you in so long. We didn’t know what had happened to you.”

Folding her arms across her chest, Mai stiffly responded, “They thought it best to keep me out of sight for a while. Couldn’t have my lovely family getting their claws in me again.”

Utahime bit her lip and took a step back. “Right, of course.”

Mai smiled sharply. “How’s my sister? Still a total bitch?”

“She’s worried sick about you,” Utahime reprimanded softly.

“Not sick enough apparently since she’s alive and with those bastards,” Mai replied, sounding completely indifferent. The smile faded from her face, replaced with an expression that matched her tone. “Naoya is clearly having the time of his life. Can’t believe that bastard is still the head of the Zen’in clan. I thought he would’ve pissed someone off enough to kill him.” A genuinely wistful look glimmered in her eyes. “One day.”

Deciding that talk of her family would only push her away, Utahime changed tactics. “You look good. Are they...treating you well here?”

“Fishing for information so soon?” Mai teased. Before Utahime could argue, she shrugged and added, “For a couple of mass murderers advocating genocide, our two gracious leaders are quite considerate of those that work hard for the cause.”

Her cold description cut through the light, dry tone of her voice. Utahime fought back the urge to swallow, her throat tight. Even Yuta had grown very still as he looked away, the surrounding darkness tampered down. Most of the servants had overheard her and busied themselves as far away from them as possible, their nerves betraying them.

Mai must’ve sensed the tension because she sighed and waved a dismissive hand. “Geto can be a bit full of himself and Gojo is an idiot, but they don’t trample us down like the higher-ups did. They’re more generous than my uncle and Naoya ever were. I can actually live here without being spit on for breathing.”

At least a few of the non-sorcerers glanced their way, a flash of hate in their eyes, but then Mai looked back at them, catching their eyes, and the man rushed back to the task at hand. It must’ve felt nice for Mai to have someone else lay down on the chopping block. Utahime couldn’t help but wonder if she took any pleasure in that after years of being mercilessly beaten down by her own blood. It didn’t matter if she was considered a weak sorcerer with minimal curse energy; she would be treated equally and fairly among the other sorcerers here.

It sounded like a dream, save for the fact that it meant ruining the lives of others.

“You shouldn’t speak about them like that,” Yuta said, sounding abashed for her.

Mai rolled her eyes. “Well it’s true.” She gestured to the others in the room. “Sure, one of their little spies could tell on me, but they told me themselves to speak my mind, especially about them. It helps keep their egos in check or whatnot.”

Utahime snorted. “That’s impossible.”

“Thank you,” Mai replied, bowing slightly to Utahime. “See? She understands. No wonder Gojo brought her here. Geto’s ball-busting isn’t cutting it anymore.”

While Utahime blushed, Yuta actually choked on his tongue and stammered out, “That’s not– You shouldn’t– That’s... private.”

It seemed to pain him to even speak of something like that, his embarrassment so innocent that Utahime nearly laughed. Mai’s upfront words reminded her of Shoko, back when they were in school and she’d complain about Gojo and Geto’s weird form of flirting. Utahime used to react similarly to Yuta, flummoxed and shy, and then spend the next few hours watching them to see if they really were flirting with each other.

Mai’s grin was almost savage as she bore down upon Yuta. “Isn’t he so cute?” She pinched one of his cheeks, a little too hard, and he squirmed, one eye squinting in pain, but he didn’t push her away. “Don’t let that little, lost, sad boy routine fool you. Underneath that baby face is a ruthless killer.”

This time, Yuta did swat her hand away. “Mai!”

But she only laughed, bringing the fingers he’d struck to her lips. “Remind me: are you Geto’s or Gojo’s little pet?” A hard look came over Yuta’s face, much more intense than Utahime could’ve thought was possible, but strangely, that dark curse energy from before bubbling up again. The grin on Mai’s face transformed into something rather soft. “I’m teasing. You’re a good boy, Yuta, but you get riled up so easily. Gojo says you need to loosen up if you want to control yourself and Rika.”

Yuta glanced at Utahime and then down at the ground, mumbling, “I’m not a ruthless killer.”

“No, you aren’t,” Mai said, though Utahime honestly couldn’t tell if her soothing tone was genuine or mocking. From her own experience, she would’ve said it was mocking. “At any rate, I’m glad you’ve been given this position. You’re always so moody after one of Geto’s assignments.” She took a plate of food from a servant and handed it to Utahime. “Besides, simple as this is, you’re going to have your work cut out for you.”

“What do you mean?” Utahime asked, feeling rather dumb. Although she hadn’t given a lot of details about what life was like here, Utahime couldn’t help but get the sense that Mai knew more about the inner details and mechanisms of this place. She was familiar enough with Geto and Gojo to speak of them casually and the staff knew her well enough to bring her a plate of food without her even asking.

Mai examined the food with mild interest and then shrugged in approval. “You’ll have to watch out for Gojo’s little groupies.”

Utahime tsked in indifference. “He’s always had those, so it doesn’t matter.” It hadn’t mattered then when they were younger, and it wouldn’t matter now. Gojo had always been egotistical, so he’d flourished under the attention from all those girls trailing after him and Geto. “He can have his flings. It doesn’t involve me.”

Their presence might not matter to you, but your presence certainly bothers them,” Mai stated, rudely pointing a pair of chopsticks at her. “I’d watch your front while Yuta watches your back. If they catch wind that you’re Gojo’s new favorite, one of them is likely to kill you.”

“I’m not–”

“I believe those clothes speak for themselves,” Mai pointed out. “You were never one to splurge on material items, so it has to be a gift from him, a statement to let everyone know who you are.” Utahime pressed her lips together and stayed silent. It was better not to comment, especially with her suspicions being confirmed. “Oh, sure, we’re all equal here, but idiots will always get it in their heads that they’re worth more.” She tilted her head. “Gojo can be charming in his own way. I’m sure you’re familiar with that.”

Yes, she was, but she wasn’t about to talk of that with Mai, especially when it was obvious that the girl was the one fishing for information this time. She most certainly wasn’t one of Gojo’s little fangirls, but she was curious. What she lacked in power, she made up with knowledge. It was smart – and something Utahime had taught her.

“Yes, Gojo can be charming when he wants something,” Utahime replied dismissively. “I bet those girls were all too willing to throw themselves into his bed, but I doubt that man could ever love something more than himself.”

Mai outright laughed. “It’s true. If it wasn’t so funny watching those idiots cry about him, I’d almost feel sorry for how pathetic they are.”

Utahime couldn’t help but think about the previous night – how he’d trapped her against him, made her feel like he was the only thing in her world, how she’d opened herself up to him for just a moment and she could barely breathe, much less think. No, Mai had definitely never been the subject of Gojo’s charm. Otherwise, she might understand how easy it was to fall victim to his sole focus. It was a powerful thing, even when she seethed about it after.

Instead of continuing such an awkward topic, Utahime turned to Yuta. “Are you not eating?”

“Oh, no, I’m not hungry,” he replied quickly.

“Eat something,” Mai told him. “I know you’re hungry, so don’t lie. Your curse energy burns right through you. That’s why you’re so scrawny and weak.”

Utahime frowned. “If you’re hungry, you should eat.”

In the end, Yuta grabbed a piece of onigiri, and they left the kitchen. Utahime thanked the servants profusely, which seemed to confuse them more than anything, and then they left the room. Yuta watched her with a strange sort of interest, but he didn’t comment on her polite treatment of the non-sorcerers. Mai split ways with them, making some sort of vague excuse about work, and they went outside to eat.

Yuta let her pick where to sit, following her quietly like a ghost. Despite the energy wafting from him, it wasn’t uncomfortable. Gojo had done very well in picking a person for this job, but then again, he’d always had a knack for figuring out where people belonged. Utahime found a peaceful-looking spot under a tree on the outskirts of the grounds. From where they sat, she could see children of all things playing. Upon a closer inspection, she realized cursed energy radiated from all of them as well.

“What is this place?” Utahime couldn’t help but wonder out loud.

“It’s different for everyone,” Yuta replied, though she hadn’t really been asking him. He was watching the children too, a passive look on his face. She couldn’t tell if he was sad, happy, or wistful. A child shrieked with laughter in the distance, followed quickly by the sound of an adult reprimanding them. “A home, sanctuary, school, temple, base of operations – it’s whatever you want or need it to be.”

Utahime peered at him sideways. “What is it for you?”

Yuta shrugged. “Depends on what I’m here for.”

“Are you...happy?” Utahime asked hesitantly. She wasn’t how far she could press him. Mai would’ve switched tracks had she been asked such a direct question. She’d barely allowed Utahime to ask her if she was okay.

On the other hand, Yuta seemed to close up. His face was entirely devoid of emotion, although he didn’t look upset or angry. It was like he wasn’t sure how he felt, so he didn’t know the appropriate response to her question. Had he ever been asked something so simple or was it simply assumed that someone with his amount of power should be happy in this world?

“I’m...alive,” Yuta settled on saying. “Before Gojo found me, I was being hunted for execution. I’d been arrested by the police for murder, and the higher-ups in jujutsu society had worked out a deal to schedule my release so I could either be put down or leashed.”

Utahime touched her hand to her mouth, her eyes wide with shock. “I’m…”

“If not for Gojo, I’d be dead,” he explained, still looking out at the children playing. “But here, I’m needed. I have a purpose. I’ve got a reason to live and…and a family. That’s more than I had before – and more than I would’ve had if the other side took me.” He turned his head to look behind them. There was nothing there that Utahime could tell, but his gaze was focused, clear. Was that where his curse was lying in wait? “I couldn’t let them put another collar on Rika. I’ve tied her down too much as it is.”

Honestly, Utahime didn’t know what to say. It wasn’t an exact answer to her question, but it was more honest than she’d expected as well. He was so straightforward. When asked something so forward, the stammering shy boy had vanished, replaced by someone with direction. What had Mai teased him about? Him being Gojo’s or Geto’s pet? They had given him purpose, so when he had orders, he knew what to do and who to be without hesitation.

Once again, Utahime lost her appetite. 

Nonetheless, she pushed on. If this boy was going to be following her around for who knew how long, she needed to get her bearings straight. Instead of pressing him further about his life here or his relationship with Gojo, she tentatively asked, “Who was she?”

Yuta stared down at the rice ball in his hands. “She was...a friend. We were just kids when she–” He swallowed. “I was stupid. I couldn’t handle it – couldn’t handle losing her – so I…”

When Utahime laid a hand on his arm, he startled slightly, but he watched her without looking away as she spoke. “You weren’t stupid. You were a child – I’m guessing not much older than those children playing down there.” He blinked, wide-eyed and so innocent-looking. Damn Gojo. “And I don’t think she blames you either.”

“How can you say that?” Yuta asked. “I cursed her, and she’s a monster now instead of at peace.”

Because she would’ve killed you if she did, Utahime thought.

Out loud, she said, “She protects you, doesn’t she?” He nodded. “She must love you very much to watch over you even after death.”

After a moment of consideration, Yuta swallowed and looked away. He didn’t say anything else, but he did slowly start to eat the tuna onigiri he’d been holding in both hands. Utahime let out a breath and began to pick at her own food. She had to force herself to eat as well. The last thing she wanted was to be weak, woozy, and cloudy here. Considering what Mai had said and the lingering fear of Geto in the back of her mind, she’d have to be on her game.

If only this world wasn’t so confusing. Of course Gojo had a hand in building it.

Chapter Text

After nearly a week of being in the heart of Gojo and Geto’s stronghold, Utahime felt no closer to figuring out this place than when she’d arrived. It was much more massive than she’d realized, and she knew for a fact that she hadn’t seen all of it. There were times when Yuta had redirected her when she’d tried to go down a hall, only to cagily avoid her question when she asked why or mutter something about Gojo explaining it to her later.

Except Gojo hadn’t been around. It was as if he’d vanished entirely. When asked, Yuta had only said he was gone. Even Mai had shrugged and said something along the lines of, “Who knows what kind of mayhem that man is getting up to?” and Utahime learned not to ask again.

Yuta hadn’t been wrong about his description of this place: it seemed to be whatever someone needed it to be, the case depending on each person.

There were the devotees, the members most loyal to the cause. They ranged from weak to strong sorcerers, though only a handful seemed to come near Yuta’s level of curse energy. Either way, they were passionate, some to a near-deranged level, and would likely give their lives if asked. Fervent and bright-eyed, they were all too willing to tell Utahime about how incredible Geto and Gojo both were, how they were changing the world for the better. They truly believed in them – in the hope that everything would be brighter and better after this dark period.

She found it hard to speak with them, if only because she wasn’t about to grovel at Gojo’s feet. However, she did notice they tended to be nicer to Yuta whereas Mai turned her nose at them. She thought they were annoying and pathetic whereas he seemed to think more like them, truly hopeful about their end goals if not wary about the means.

A small subgroup also came out from the devotees – those that didn’t believe in the cause so much as they worshipped Geto and Gojo. The whole thing disgusted Utahime. As if their egos needed to be blown up any more than they already were. They were men, not gods, but it was impossible to argue with anyone that had such a delirious glow in their eyes. Mai had warned her to stay clear of them, as their fanaticism could border on dangerous, and even Yuta avoided them, clearly uneasy when they came sniffing around because of his similar strength.

Then there were those that were obviously in it for power or strength. Most of them were higher-grade sorcerers, reminding her of Naoya and the other clan leaders in terms of strength and ego. Those with lesser curse energy were fighting their way to the top, determined to improve with their technique if not inherent strength. They were the sorcerers that were given important jobs and missions, those with some work under their belt and blood on their hands, which made them even more arrogant.

Strangely, Mai fit in better with them, even if she was one of the weakest, but she also said they were more fun to manipulate. They picked on Yuta, and he avoided them whenever they came sniffing around Utahime. She did not like them at all. They reminded her of the higher-ups too much, questioning her with a simple unimpressed look, although none of them outright said anything.

In an unusual twist, there were teachers, reminding her of Jujutsu High and Kyoto Tech. They were the most knowledgeable, ready to remind everything that their leaders had done and also raise the next generation and those older sorcerers that had joined later in the cause. It was obviously structured differently, but it was similar as well. Whereas Gojo had often shrugged off school, much to everyone’s frustration, and Geto had sometimes thought it beneath him, Geto had at least placed an importance on learning. He’d want their followers to have brains about them, make them think they weren’t just following blindly.

This wouldn’t be a proper cult without some propaganda and educational manipulation.

She couldn’t help but wonder what they thought of their former teaching being executed because of them, if they cared at all. Even if they had broken the rules often, so absorbed in being above everyone else, hadn’t they at least respected Yaga a little?

Lastly, it wouldn’t be a place created by Gojo and Geto if not for the misfits, the ones that didn’t fit into either of the two main groups. That was where, in her opinion, Yuta and Mai belonged the most, though it wasn’t much of a group. They were still trying to find their place in this world the two powerful sorcerers had created. Whether it was adults who spent their lives trying to hide their abilities, teens who couldn’t control themselves, or children who had been subjected to abuse, they found a sanctuary here.

Utahime’s heart went out to them the most. Many of them had been wounded terribly by both the non-sorcerer world and jujutsu society, cast aside by both for various reasons. Whether it was their technique, cursed energy, or curses themselves, they hadn’t belonged anywhere. Of course Geto and Gojo would open their arms to them. After all, they’d been misfits themselves, two boys too powerful for their own good and feared and beloved for their abilities.

It hurt, seeing how many people had been hurt by a side she’d proclaimed to be on and knowing that she could very easily fit in here too.

“Are you okay?” Yuta asked, the concern in his voice cutting through her overthinking.

“Hm?” Utahime sat upright, pulling her thumbnail out from between her teeth. She glanced down at her nail. God, she hadn’t chewed her nails in so long. She’d forced herself out of the habit when she was eight and had been scolded about it being improper. Setting her hand down, she smoothed out the pages of the book lying before her. “Oh, I was just thinking. Who wrote this garbage?”

A smile flickered on Yuta’s face, but it vanished quickly. “One of the sorcerers here. They’re very highly regarded.”

Utahime snapped the book shut. “They’ve written Gojo and Geto as if they’re shining heroes heralding a new era, but I bet they’re still squabbling over trivial things.”

Yuta’s eyes darted around to make sure they were alone in the library, and then he begrudgingly admitted, “You’re...not wrong.” He shrugged. “Geto says their difference makes them a stronger team because they can see the big picture. They’re both highly intelligent and powerful, but their different mindsets help them.”

“A lovely sentiment,” Utahime replied dryly.

“You knew them before though, right?” Yuta asked curiously.

“Mm, yeah, we went to school together.” Utahime’s mind had begun to drift to those days more and more in the past week. She’d done her best to pretend they didn’t exist, especially after Gojo turned, but she couldn’t avoid it now. It was like she could see bits and pieces of their history together written in the walls of this place, its creation a direct correlation from the things they’d learned and encountered back then.

Yuta was bright-eyed like those obsessed devotees. “What were they like?”

“Obnoxious, egotistical, petty brats,” Utahime responded without missing a beat.

He shook his head, though he didn’t appear disappointed. At least he was no longer surprised like he’d been the first few times she’d badmouthed Gojo under her breath. “You sound like Mai.”

“They were your age,” Utahime said, running a finger along the title of the book cover. “Too young and too much of everything, the whole world at the tip of their fingers. They knew all they had to do was grasp it, one way or another, and it would change everything.”

And it had. Utahime had known nothing would ever be the same again when word broke out about what Geto had done to that village. She remembered Shoko blankly staring out a window, lighting cigarettes only to forget them and let them burn out on their own. Gojo had closed himself off from everyone, and no amount of knocking in his door could get him out. She still had no clue if he’d even been inside or if they’d been wasting their time.

Utahime cleared her throat and pushed the book aside. “And so they were too stupid boys with too big of heads and too much power, and all they did was make life hell for everyone around here by being snotty assholes about it. So no, it was nothing glamorous like this book about them suggests.”

Yuta pondered her words for a moment. “May I ask you something?”

“Of course,” Utahime responded quickly. “You don’t need to ask my permission for that.”

“You’re very forward about your hatred for Gojo and Geto,” Yuta pointed out, “so why did Gojo bring you here?”

Caught off guard, Utahime faltered. She hadn’t expected such a forward question, especially one she didn’t know how to answer. It was more complicated than she could explain, so she hesitated, chewing on her bottom lip in thought, long enough for Yuta to panic.

“I’m– I’m sorry! I shouldn’t have presumed–”

“No, I–” Utahime took a breath. “I’m not upset. It’s just...hard to explain…” She gazed down at the book at the edge of the table, thinking about that glorified history of Geto and Gojo that started with Gojo’s turn against jujutsu society. It hadn’t even sounded like their words. “I don’t hate them – either of them, to be honest. They were younger than me, so I was their senior, but they were also stronger than me and never let me forget that. Being around them was...difficult.”

Yuta shifted uncomfortably. “Did they mock you for your weakness?”

“Gojo more than Geto,” Utahime answered truthfully. A crestfallen look came over Yuta, the first sign of disappointment that she’d seen in him. “We were all young, foolish, arrogant. I let it get to me more than I should have. Gojo was all too eager to exploit it, and Geto enjoyed pushing him. It was a game, one I could never win, and they knew that too.”

It was still a game. Everything was like that with Gojo. She used to think Geto was different, but no, he simply played a different strategy. It had taken her too long to figure that out. By the time she had, it was too late. They were older now, wiser and stronger, but she wasn’t about to let herself forget that. There was still a game at hand, except she didn’t know the rules. Gojo had forced her into playing, but no doubt Geto would switch things up. That had always been their style.

Yuta glanced at the clock on the wall. “It’s late. You should return to your quarters.”

Utahime didn’t argue with him. She stood up, taking the book before he could and returning it to its place on a shelf. It hadn’t been that much of an interesting read anyway, but it gave her some prime ammo to throw in Gojo’s face later. Some of the descriptions of him had been far too flowery. They left the room, Yuta trailing behind her. She turned around to ask him about Mai, as she hadn’t seen her in the past two days, only to collide with someone and for tea to be spilled all over her front.

While Utahime stood stock still, hot tea dripping from her clothes, a young woman standing before her burst into tears. “I’m so sorry! I was rushing, and I didn’t see you when you rounded the corner, and I–” She dropped to her knees, laying herself face first down on the ground at Utahime’s feet, nearly clinging to them. “I’m sorry. Please forgive me. I–”

“It’s okay!” Utahime burst, suddenly getting her wits about her. She crouched down and took the girl by the arms, practically dragging her back to her feet. “I’m not mad. You’re not to blame. It was an accident. You’re okay.”

Tears spilled down the young woman’s red cheeks. “I’m sorry.”

“Apology accepted,” Utahime said gently. “Now, let’s get this cleaned up, shall we? Then, you can make some new tea, and it’ll be like nothing happened. We can say I made you late.” The woman hesitated, gawking at her as if she’d grown a third head, no doubt because she was a non-sorcerer and wasn’t used to sorcerers treating her this way. “Yuta, could you please get some towels? We’re near the kitchen, aren’t we?”

“I, um–” Yuta jumped into action. “Yes, of course.”

He disappeared around the corner the girl had come from. She was shaking into Utahime’s hands, absolutely terrified out of her mind. It pissed Utahime off. No one should’ve felt so scared about such a simple accident. What normally happened to people who made silly mistakes like this? Even Yuta, kind and shy as he was with her, hadn’t bothered to step in or say anything to soothe her. So much for their world being a more equal place.

“You’re not in trouble,” Utahime reassured her. “It was an accident. We’ll fix it up in no time.”

“But–” The girl’s voice warbled. “Your clothes are ruined.”

“They’re just clothes,” Utahime said. “Besides, it serves that idiot right for getting me something so expensive when I didn’t ask for them. I was half in mind to cut them up myself.”

Something akin to a smile began to appear on the woman’s face when a man’s voice quipped from behind her, “Being nice to the help? How humiliating. Gojo must be really lowering his standards if he’s letting someone this pathetic in his bed.”

The poor woman froze, fear written across her pale face, but Utahime simply took a deep breath. She gave the woman a comforting smile and held up a hand, letting her know to stay quiet. When she turned around, she found herself face-to-face with a tall man with a lean muscular build. There was a bandage over his right eye, pushing up his dark hair, but his visible eye was filled with mocking contempt.

The smile didn’t leave Utahime’s face. She’d suffered his type before far too many times.

“I’ve always found it rather pitiful when people pick on those with less strength and power than them,” she replied, her voice calm, almost polite. “It usually says something about their own strength more than anything.”

An ugly look crossed the man’s face. “You’ve no room to speak. You’re just another one of Gojo’s little whores–”

Before he could shove her aside, a katana sliced through the air, nearly chopping the man’s hand off. He jerked it back at the last second, and they both stared at the weapon that had cut through the wooden floor between them. Utahime lifted her eyes from the sword, to the hand holding it, and then up the arm to look Yuta in the eyes.

Except he wasn’t the sad, nervous boy she remembered from before.

Dark curse energy burned from him, so powerful that she almost staggered backward. There was a cold look on his face; it was so intense that the non-sorcerer shivered behind her. She couldn’t even sense the extent of Yuta’s curse energy, perhaps only a faint whiff of it, but that look said it all. Utahime had no doubt that if she asked Yuta to kill this man, he’d do it without blinking. Even the man had stilled, discomfort pouring from him as he held himself tensely.

“Negi,” Yuta simply said.

The man’s lips curled into a sneer in response. “Ah, Gojo has you playing guard duty for one of his bed warmers, huh? That’s pathetic.”

“If you so much as dare touch her, I’ll be forced to cut your arm off,” Yuta told him, his voice flat, entirely devoid of emotion. “That would probably be kinder than what Gojo would do if you knew what you said to her.”

Negi, the other sorcerer, spit at Yuta’s feet. “You’re a disgrace – you and that fucking curse. A waste of cursed energy and technique in a sad, little boy’s body.”

There was absolutely nothing in Yuta’s eyes. They were near-dead, unblinking, reminding Utahime of Gojo when he had considered killing those people in the forest right in front of her. She didn’t shiver, but it was hard not to react. Yes, this boy had most definitely been taught by Gojo. Suddenly, she was reminded of what Mai had said about him and Yuta’s description of this place.

He would be ruthless if that was required of him.

“Leave,” Yuta said. “You’re lucky I’m not forcing you to apologize, but I know Utahime wouldn’t want me to bring you to your knees. She’s very nice.”

Giving them one last withering look, Negi stalked off without another word, stomping down the hallway in a fury. Yuta watched him go, the darkness surrounding him only leaving once Negi had vanished around a corner. It seeped away from him, slithering back from where it came, and he casually slipped the katana into its sheath on his back. In a flash, he was back to the boy she’d become familiar with, nervously fiddling with his hair and unable to meet her eyes.

Was it embarrassment or shame this time? She didn’t know.

“Here are the towels,” Yuta mumbled, holding them out with his other hand. “I can help.”

Before Utahime could say anything, the woman snatched the towels from him, dropping to her knees and frantically cleaning up the mess. As much as Utahime wanted to help, she had a feeling the poor servant was at her limit, so she let Yuta take her arm and guide her away toward her room. The whole interaction hurt – the woman’s fear, the sorcerer’s condemnation, Yuta’s coldness. She wanted to scream, throw something against a wall, maybe even cry.

Yuta swallowed. “Are you angry?”

“Yes,” Utahime said. His shoulders fell, and he glanced away. “But not at you.” As shocked as she’d been by the sudden change in his demeanor, she knew he was only doing his job, going so far as to tailor it for her needs and not Gojo’s harsher demands. “But that woman… Will she get in trouble?”

“Probably,” Yuta admitted sheepishly. “Negi will likely come back and cause problems for her as payback for being humiliated.”

Utahime clenched her hands into fists. “I don’t want that to happen.”

Bowing his head, Yuta mumbled, “I’m sorry.”

She stopped in front of the door to her quarters and turned to him. Before Yuta could leave, she took his hands in her, and he stiffened instantly. She knew physical touch tended to startle him – apparently, Rika didn’t like it when other people touched him, and he wasn’t familiar with it either – but she did so anyway knowing the potential consequences. Sometimes, such rashness was necessary to get a point across. Having been taught by Gojo, surely he would understand that.

“Yuta, I need you to do something for me,” Utahime told him very seriously. “I need you to go back there and make sure she isn’t punished.”

Yuta shook his head jerkily. “I-I can’t do that. I–”

“Yes, you can,” Utahime insisted. “You have more power than many of these sorcerers combined. It doesn’t matter what they think. If they fear you, then they don’t understand you, but they’ll listen to you. And Gojo trusts you, doesn’t he? Isn’t that important?”

Blinking, Yuta hesitated, but then slowly muttered, “Yes…”

“You’re stronger than you think you are,” Utahime told him. “You’re important too. It’s… It’s important to take care of those weaker than us. You’re taking care of me, aren’t you?”

“But you aren’t weak.”

“In most people’s eyes, I am, but I’ll do whatever I can to protect those beneath me.”

Utahime could sense he was still struggling as he considered her request. So far, he’d done nearly everything she asked of him, obedient to a fault. He’d hesitated to help the servant clean up, and she had no doubt now that he’d killed non-sorcerers on command. He might’ve come off as indifferent to them, but defending a non-sorcerer, protecting one, was probably uncomfortable and difficult for him to understand.

“If she’s punished, I will be incredibly upset,” Utahime added. “Gojo doesn’t want me upset, does he? Didn’t he ask you to make sure I was taken care of?”

Yuta straightened, something registering finally. “Of-Of course. If you’re upset, then I’ll have failed Gojo. I don’t– I don’t want that.” He nodded, a bit to himself. “Okay, I’ll make sure she isn’t punished. It… It was an accident, after all, right?”

“Right, yes, it was an accident,” Utahima said quickly, squeezing his hands. “You didn’t mean to hurt those people with Rika before Gojo found you, right?” He nodded again, more emphatically this time, more aware. “You didn’t deserve to be punished for something out of your control. Neither does she. I wasn’t upset about the mess, but I will be devastated if she’s hurt over something as innocent as this.”

“Okay, I understand.” A determined look came over Yuta. When she let go of his hands, he turned on his heels and rushed away.

The moment he was gone, Utahime’s shoulders slumped, and then she slipped into her room. It was the first time she’d entered without the door being locked behind her, but she was too wound up to find any comfort in it. Yuta would do as he was asked, and no one would dare question him. If word got back to Geto or Gojo and they gave him hell, she would likely throttle one of them, leaders of this stupid cult be damned. She wasn’t certain she could actually do anything to Geto that wouldn’t make him mock her, but she could at least make Gojo suffer, and he’d in turn make Geto’s life annoying for a bit.

Things had always gone full circle with them.

Undoing the belt of her pants, she slid them down and stepped out of them, setting them aside in the room. She peeled her shirt off next, staring down at the tea stain that had spread across the white material. Considering how much blood they got on their clothes, whoever did the laundry here was probably used to washing out stains. It was a dark, dry thought that made her think of Nobara or Mai, both girls quick to say something that made others flinch.

She set it aside as well and sighed, moving to take off her bra, which was also wet, when a horribly familiar voice piped up in a pleasant tone, “I thought that boy would never stop haunting your shadows, but thankfully, you sent him away for me.”

Utahime jumped, letting out a tiny yelp, and spun around as she covered her front with her arms, locking eyes with Geto leaning against the door. So lost in her own thoughts, she hadn’t even heard the door open, and yet here he was, standing before her in the flesh. His dark eyes were focused on her, the lack of interest in them downright unsettling. He was looking at her as if she was nothing more than an ant he wanted to step on and squash, not even out of disgust or entertainment.

She was almost entirely laid bare – and meant absolutely nothing to him.

“Geto, I–”

“How are you finding it here?” he interrupted casually. “I was told you’ve been given a grand tour of the place and spent the past week learning as much as possible. You were always such an eager student, and you’ve proven to be a decent enough teacher.”

Neither his friendly tone nor the soft smile on his face reached his eyes, but he knew that. He’d always been an excellent liar, even with her, so if he wasn’t letting them reach, it was on purpose. He wanted her to be thrown off. He wanted her scared. And she was scared, truth be told, but she was also furious. Standing here naked before him, it was impossible to hide those emotions from him, which only made him smile more.

“You can stop with the fake pleasantries,” Utahime told him rather snippily. “I know you’re not happy to see me here.”

Geto laid a hand over his heart. “I’m always happy to see an old friend come to our side.”

“That’s not why I’m here, and you know that.”

For a brief moment, Geto didn’t do anything – he didn’t change his expression, didn’t say a word, didn’t even move – but then he let it all fade, and his demeanor changed to match his eyes. No, he wasn’t pleased with her presence, especially since he knew she hadn’t come here willingly. Gojo had taken her for his own entertainment and reasons whether Geto had agreed with them or not. The sight of her was just another slight against him, a petty act of disobedience from Gojo.

“I didn’t think he’d actually bring you here,” Geto said, contempt dripping from every word. “He couldn’t wait to rub it in my face that you’d begged him to take you with him.”

Utahime scoffed. “Yes, I just couldn’t live without him anymore.”

She did want to ask Geto where Gojo was, especially now, but she had a feeling that was what he wanted her to do, so he could rub it in her face. For whatever reason, Gojo was gone, and Geto very likely had something to do with it. After all, she highly doubted he would’ve risked sneaking into her room while she was changing with Gojo around.

“What do you want?” Utahime felt as if she was asking the same questions on repeat, but she honestly didn’t know their intentions with her. Perhaps Gojo simply wanted to have some fun with her. Maybe he’d grown bored with his little “groupies” here that flocked over him and desired someone that would actually make it a challenge.

As for Geto… He most likely just wanted to do away with her. She wasn’t worth the trouble.

“You’re in my home now,” Geto explained coldly. “I let you have your week so you could get settled and see things for yourself, so you could become acclimated to our rules.” He wrinkled his nose in distaste, just as Gojo had done when talking about the higher-ups. “But you’re still soft on those monkeys, I see. You were always weak about that, always too willing to help them even when they turned their backs on you for either being just a pretty girl or not beautiful enough.”

“They’re humans too,” Utahime snapped. “They have a right to live just as much as us.”

“They pollute the world with their uncontrollable negative energy, tainting everything they touch, bringing curses upon curses on us,” Geto pointed out harshly. “You’d give them something to feed even after they bite your hand so many times.” He scoffed and shook his head. “Even the higher-ups treat you like garbage, and yet you’re still willing to grovel at their feet as they whip you. It’s almost sad with how pathetic you allow yourself to be – how much you let them debase you when you’re worth more than them.”

He sneered at her, all those niceties gone. His unique curse energy flowed from him – powerful, dark, and smothering, making her feel sick. Ah, there was the boy she remembered, the one that could give her a simple look and she’d shiver as she looked away. She felt that way now, her body visibly trembling, but it was more with anger this time than fear. What did she have to fear? It wasn’t that she thought Gojo would fight for her or Yuta would return to rescue her. The worst he could do was kill her, right?

She’d grown comfortable with the concept of her own death. Be it against curses or curse users, jujutsu sorcerers risked their lives day in and day out, but after Gojo turned, it had felt inevitable that she would die at one of their hands.

“You’re such a bastard,” Utahime finally spit out.

Instead of insulting her further, Geto burst into laughter. She stiffened, startled by the reaction, but didn’t question him on it either. When he finally stopped, he grinned and said, “You haven’t lost your spirit to fight then. That’s good. I was genuinely worried the higher-ups might’ve fully stomped it out of you. They were so intent on turning you into a mindlessly loyal, pretty lapdog.”

Utahime folded her arms across her chest, still trying to cover herself up, and looked away, glaring at the wall. “You didn’t have to be so cruel to find out.”

“I wanted to see it for myself,” Geto admitted. “You were always so eager to fight back with Satoru back in the day, but you avoided me. I can’t recall ever being alone with you.”

“You never seemed interested in me either,” Utahime shot back.

“I wasn’t,” Geto replied coolly. “I’m not now, but Satoru just had to bring you. He was an annoying asshole about it.” He held out a dismissive hand. “He’s never questioned me about my desires, so who am I to deny him his fun in the end?” Casual as he was now, his eyes were still sharp. “I trust you won’t cause any problems or be a distraction to him and our goals.”

Utahime lifted one hand from her bicep. “You won’t even know I’m here.”

Geto sighed. “I’m afraid I won’t have a choice. Satoru likely won’t shut up until he’s done with you. I’ll just have to make do until then.”

His words shouldn’t have made Utahime’s heart sink, but they did. Until Gojo was done with her. Of course. In Geto’s eyes, she really was just a toy for his partner to play with until he either tired of her or broke her, and then he’d toss her aside for the next one. Whether that was the truth or not, she supposed she wouldn’t find out until it happened.

“Sorry to ruin your month,” Utahime grumbled.

“You are better than those other idiots that he entertains himself with from time to time when he’s being a petty brat,” Geto mused. She didn’t think it was much of a compliment, especially when he looked so unimpressed with her himself. “He’s positive you have potential to join our side, so I suppose I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. I promised not to kill you if you don’t provide results, at least.”

“How benevolent of you, oh great leader,” Utahime said dryly.

Geto tilted his head, considering her. “I can see what Satoru sees in you. All that pandering does get a little grating, but there’s none of that with you. It’s refreshing. In the beginning, it took such work to recruit and I hated having to go to lengths for idiot-minded people, but it’s rather nice to argue with someone again that isn’t Satoru. With him at my side now, most people either fall in line or just die.”

Oh, she knew. She’d seen far too many people fall victim to them in both ways. Mai had turned sides, vanishing into thin air. Mei Mei had as well, less than a month after Gojo had turned. She went where the money went, and so she left without looking back. That had stung. Nanami had even stated he didn’t blame any of them for switching sides, though he remained solidly on theirs despite privately disliking many of the higher-up’s decisions. He still didn’t agree with Gojo and Geto’s tactics, all the senseless murder, or the way they dragged things out.

“I hope I don’t disappoint you,” Utahime said in the same pleasant, saccharine voice she used on the higher-ups and clan leaders. She turned her back to him, acutely aware of the vulnerable position she’d put herself in, but she couldn’t stand to be under his gaze any longer. “Now, can you please leave so I can finish changing?”

“Hm, perhaps I can see something else he sees,” Geto considered thoughtfully. She tensed when she realized he’d stepped closer to her. Turning her back on him must’ve pushed him forward. She’d made the same mistake with Gojo her first night here. They really were alike in many ways, whether they wanted to admit it or not.

Instead of remaining still as she’d done with Gojo, Utahime huffed and raised one hand to undo her bow, continuing on as if he wasn’t in the room. “Oh? What’s that?”

Geto caught her by the wrist, stilling her hand in the air. Other than that, he kept his distance from her, a few inches between his chest and her back in between them. “Let me.”

With his other hand, he took the end of her bow and pulled on the ribbon, easily undoing it and allowing the rest of her hair to fall down. He held out the ribbon to her in his palm at her side. She looked at it for a second and then slowly took it from him, clutching it against her chest as her heart raced inside, willing it not to betray her to him. She couldn’t remember ever being this close to Geto. He was right: she had avoided him, even when others always commented about how much nicer he was than Gojo.

“It isn’t fair how the higher-ups have treated you, holding you back simply because of the scar on your face,” Geto told her. “They treated you worse than those–” When she tensed up, he caught himself and chuckled. “I won’t call them that around you. I know you don’t like the term, and I’m trying to be polite.” The tight hold he had on her wrist suggested otherwise. “They’re using you without letting you grow simply because you don’t fit their version of perfection. It’s unfair.”

Utahime frowned. “It doesn’t matter. That’s not–”

“But they’re wrong, as usual,” Geto cut in smoothly. “You’ve grown into a very beautiful woman.”

Flushing deeply, Utahime jerked her hand out of Geto’s grip, and he let it go. Gojo would’ve held on for longer, but Geto even took a step back to give her more space. It would’ve been a gallant gesture if she wasn’t still only in her bra and underwear. Even though he wasn’t touching her, he was still close enough to reach her should he change his mind, and her bare skin still seemed to burn under his gaze. It was dangerous .

Gojo, she thought deliriously, fear sinking its fangs into her as Geto’s curse energy crawled over her skin. I want Gojo.

But he wasn’t here, so she would have to take care of herself.

“Geto,” Utahime said in a tight voice. “Please leave. Now. I’m not in the mood to play your games.”

When she glanced back at him over her shoulder, Geto gave her a mildly disappointed look. “Kicking me out already? I was hoping to spend some more time with you to understand Satoru’s fascination.” A sheepish look crossed his face, and he politely bowed. “I know you pride yourself on your modesty, so you must be embarrassed. I apologize for intruding on you so rudely like this.”

She couldn’t tell if it was mocking or not. For all she knew, he was genuinely apologetic for unsettling her in such a way by walking in on her like this. He had no need to appease her. He could’ve come in here and mocked her the entire time, so it must’ve been some sort of game, most likely one with Gojo.

They’d shared so much of everything before. Was a little fun with her any different in their minds?

The room was filled with so much tension that when the door burst open, Utahime dropped the ribbon, but it was only Yuta, his face flushed, exclaiming, “Utahime, I–” His eyes widened at the state of her undress, and then he jerked his gaze to Geto. It shouldn’t have been possible for his face to go from red to pale so quickly.

For his part, Geto appeared completely unperturbed by the interruption. “Yuta.”

“Geto, I’m– I didn’t know you-you were here,” Yuta managed to stammer out, his focus entirely on the older man. It was as if Utahime wasn’t even in the room, the poor boy’s body stiff and alert. “I was– I was just returning to alert Utahime that I’d finished her request.”

“You didn’t even bother knocking before entering.” Geto tsked disapprovingly and gestured to Utahime. “Look at the state she’s in.” Yuta determinedly did not look in her direction, his eyes still locked on Geto. “You know, Gojo would hate you seeing her like this.”

Yuta looked torn between passing out, getting sick, or running. Instead, he closed his eyes, turned to her, and bowed very lowly. “I apologize.”

“It’s okay, Yuta,” Utahime forced out, as gently as possible. “We’re done here. Geto was just leaving, so you can as well.”

Standing upright, he nodded, his eyes still closed. They snapped open when Geto placed a hand on his shoulder and said, “You and Rika did very well on your last mission. I suppose you deserve a break.” He cast a smile in Utahime’s direction. “Not to worry. Utahime has always been obedient. She won’t give you any grief.”

Yuta nodded meekly and then slipped out of the room. Geto lifted a hand as if to say goodbye, and Utahime scowled furiously at him in return. The smile didn’t leave his face even as he shut the door behind himself. Luckily, she didn’t think Geto would punish Yuta; the humiliation was enough to sate his ego over being interrupted. She didn’t drop her arms from her chest until she heard the door click locked. Once she was fully alone, her legs buckled, and she crumpled to the floor next to her mat.

Slowly, that sickening energy faded from the room, but Utahime’s stomach still turned. She pulled her legs up to her chest and rested her mouth on top of her knees, hiding the bottom of her face. He just had to put her in her place, didn’t he? Had to make her aware that she was only alive under his roof in his temple because he allowed her to be. He didn’t want her here, and he wanted her to know that as well, but he’d tolerate her, so graciously, for Gojo’s sake.

Maybe it would make him more pliable if he was having fun. Gojo had been like that before – easier to work with and more willing to listen if he was in a good mood.

He would not be in a good mood if he found out about what Geto had done, a fact that was not lost on Utahime. Sometimes, pissing him off and pulling the rug out from under his feet was a good way to put him in his place as well.

Whatever the reason, Utahime didn’t feel good about it. Being Gojo’s source of entertainment was one thing, but she’d felt like a plaything in Geto’s hands, a toy he didn’t want for himself but also didn’t want anyone else to have either. She took a deep breath and forced herself to stretch out, blaming the cold air on the way her skin prickled.

Was that what his curses felt like?

Chapter Text

Not even twelve hours after Geto darkened her room with his intimidating presence, Gojo made his reappearance. He came in like a storm, violent and abrupt, sweeping her out to sea before she could even react.

Just as he had every morning, Yuta showed up at her door with a fresh change of clothes. They got something from the kitchen, found a place to sit, and ate their food in relative silence. After that, he would either take her around the place to grow familiar with other members or let her choose somewhere to go. Most of the time, she found herself wandering. Many of the higher ranked sorcerers seemed resentful of Yuta and lower ones were afraid of him, so she didn’t like the way he was treated. Only when Mai accompanied them did things feel lighter, even if she spent the majority of the time teasing Yuta or disparaging other people.

Today, however, she’d wanted to take a peek at the lessons. As a teacher herself, she couldn’t help but be curious about what they taught here, especially considering the wide variety of people that came here. There were different age groups, ranging from young children with newly manifested techniques to adults who were just now figuring out how to use their curse energy. There were also different levels, from grade four to first grade sorcerers.

From what she could tell, aside from Geto and Gojo, Yuta was the only special grade sorcerer that lived on the compound, but she doubted he was the only one. They visited as needed, when they were called back for a meeting or perhaps if both Geto and Gojo had to leave. Some of their strongest members, those that held commanding positions, were likely positioned in important places throughout the world. Such a role wasn’t what Yuta had been trained for, and so he was kept relatively close.

(After all, the most dangerous dogs were kept on a tight, short leash.)

Utahime had been watching over a younger class, the ages of the children ranging from about four to eight. There was a variance in strength already, but she thought they might be stronger than the typical children she was used to seeing. Perhaps it was from having practiced with their curse energy more or having survived in harsher environments due to the growing resentment against sorcerers. With Gojo and Geto so capable of laying waste, it was a rush to find and teach anyone with jujutsu abilities, as if they were trying to populate an army more than fill up a school.

A young boy and girl sat in the corner away from the others, shy and unused to the makeshift classroom setting. Utahime recognized them as the children she’d been assigned to take in. Of course, the mission itself had been a sham. They hadn’t expected her to actually rescue them, instead using the whole thing as bait. The children and curses for Geto and her for Gojo. The children were cleaned up now, wearing nice clothes, their hair cut and faces washed. They were still hoarding food, feeding scraps to two ugly, little, twin curses curled around their legs.

She couldn’t tell if they were possessive or protective, but the curses were theirs, the only thing in the world that had accepted them until now, having been rejected by non-sorcerers.

Focused on the children in the classroom, Utahime felt a wave of curse energy wash over her before she saw anything, so strong that she stiffened instinctually. Leaning against the wall, Yuta nearly crushed his cellphone in his hands, the energy powerful enough to startle him. Utahime barely had time to turn on her heels to face the source when Gojo came upon her, catching her in his whirlwind and dragging her into his world.

Without even saying a word of greeting, Gojo grabbed her arm and slid his other hand around the back of her head, pressing her back hard against the wall. She started to yelp in surprise, but he swallowed the sound with a kiss, bending down to capture her lips with his. It didn’t matter to him that they weren’t alone or anyone could happen upon them. He crowded her with his body, leaving her trapped between him and the wall, and kissed her so fiercely that she could barely breathe.

It would’ve been humiliating if not for the fact that Gojo didn’t allow her the time to think. He worked his lips against hers as if he needed to kiss her in order to survive, giving her just enough time to gasp a breath before kissing her again. It was demanding, furious, possessive, and her mind swirled at the implications. It was something she would never be able to explain to Mai – how Gojo could make her feel like she was the only thing in the world centering him. He made her feel like he needed her to keep from losing it entirely, and it was all she could do to match his energy.

By the time she realized she was kissing him back just as much, it was too late to stop herself or question why she’d responded without hesitation.

Only when she reached up to tentatively touch the side of his face did Gojo stop, pulling back just enough so he could rest his forehead against hers. Even he was panting as she struggled to catch her breath, her eyes closed so she could still pretend it was just them.

“Go, Yuta,” Gojo breathed out, a hint of coldness in his voice.

Utahime didn’t open her eyes to watch Yuta leave, but even though his footsteps were silent, she knew he’d made himself very scarce. She shifted against Gojo and frowned. “Don’t be so mean to him. He didn’t do anything wrong.”

His body was brimming with anger that she could actually feel, but then he let out a breath. That overwhelming curse energy slowly faded away as he let the rage bleed out. “You’re right. He didn’t.” She opened her eyes and leaned her head back against the wall, watching as annoyance flickered across his face. “Fucking Suguru. He did it on purpose – sent me halfway across the world on some bullshit business, even set up that accident with the tea. He needed you alone, so he got me away and he knew you’d want to protect a non-sorcerer, so you’d send Yuta to take care of her, and–”

“I’m fine,” Utahime told him. “Geto just wanted to talk. This is his place too.”

“Yeah, but you’re mine,” Gojo snapped without even thinking.

Utahime pulled on her arm, but he didn’t let go right away. When she pulled more insistently, he seemed to remember himself and released her, his hand hovering over her as if he wanted to grab her again. She took a deep breath and then raised her other hand so she could hold Gojo’s face. As much as she wanted to argue with him and berate him for daring to lay such a firm claim on her, she knew now wasn’t the time. She’d push back later if he brought it up again.

“I’m fine ,” Utahime repeated. “Geto didn’t hurt me. He wanted to make sure I knew where I stood here, maybe stir me up or intimidate me into being submissive.” Gojo shifted irritably, but he let her hold him. She could literally feel him calming down under her touch. “It doesn’t matter. He was just being a brat.”

Gojo snorted. “A brat. Isn’t that what I normally am?”

“Well, maybe you rubbed off on him too much.” Utahime slid one hand up, over the black bandana covering his eyes and into his hair. Her fingers dug through the locks, and then she gave a pointed tug to bring his mind back to her. “Don’t get so worked up, not here. It’ll unsettle the children. You know how sensitive they can be to curse energy. They can probably feel you from inside the classrooms and don’t know what’s going on.”

“Such a diligent teacher, even now,” Gojo teased. His voice sounded off, strained even, and she could tell he’d forced the joke. Even though he’d managed to calm down some, there was still tension in his body, his jaw tight under her hand. “C’mere.”

He stepped away from her, then took her by the wrist, dragging her down the hallway with him. His long legs forced her to nearly jog to keep up with his determined strides. She’d question him on where he was taking her, but she knew he wouldn’t answer her. He’d just grin back at her and wink at best, tell her the surprise would be worth it, so she might as well save her breath. She might need it. Her heart fluttered at the thought, even as her brain scolded her for it.

She couldn’t just let him have her. It didn’t matter who he was or what he was capable of doing. She shouldn’t let him have her at all. He would only demand more of her, and what else could she possibly give him?

After walking around long enough for her calves to burn from the awkward half-jog, Gojo came to a halt, causing her to slam into his side. He ignored it, jerking open a door and pulling her inside. She staggered again, only to be caught around the middle by one of his long arms. He kicked the door shut and leaned back against it, bringing her with him to rest against his chest.

“I wasn’t gonna keep you from him forever,” Gojo mumbled, resting the side of his face on the crown of her head. His arms were wrapped around her, keeping her in place. She held onto one of them, her fingers digging into his forearm. Squirming to get out of this hold would’ve been useless, so after a bit of fidgeting, she went still. “I just wanted for you a bit longer for myself – before he stuck his nose into my business. He’s always doing that. I’d almost say he’s jealous.”

“What’s there to be jealous of?” Utahime asked. “He thinks I’m just something for you to pass the time with until you grow bored again.”

He always went back to Geto, didn’t he? They had been like that as students and as young adults. As much as they fought each other, they always came back to each other as well. It was like Gojo couldn’t help himself. The only one that could match him was Geto, his only equal, so it was only natural for Gojo to gravitate towards him in the end. She was little more than a star, glittering in the distance, pretty to gaze at, but one that would fade under the glow of their sun and moon.

“He thinks he knows everything,” Gojo said, “but he doesn’t.”

“Then what am I to you? Why am I here?” Utahime didn’t want to ask it, but maybe Geto’s words had gotten under skin just a bit. He was good at that, little things he said exploding later like a timed bomb and wrecking everything in its wake. “Yuta said…” She chewed on her bottom lip. “Yuta said you told him I was important to you.”

Gojo nuzzled his nose in her hair. “You are.” He squeezed her tighter. “It didn’t feel right – you being on the other side. You’re stubborn and loyal to a fault, but I know you belong here.” He slowly loosened his hold on her, but his hands didn’t leave her. One of them slid further down her stomach, holding her in place against him, while the other moved up to her neck. He didn’t hold it like he had before, but it still made her pulse tick upward. “Besides, I couldn’t let anyone else have you.”

“Greedy much?” Utahime asked, her voice too breathy for her liking. One of her hands fell to his thigh, holding onto him as if to anchor herself.

So much taller than her, Gojo had to bend his body in a way that had to be uncomfortable, pushing her back away from his chest, but he leaned over her, kissing her neck. “Yes,” he admitted. “I didn’t want someone to take you. It pissed me off just thinking about it.”

“You’re so selfish,” Utahime huffed, even as she tilted her neck to the side to give him more room.

“Always, but with you, even more so,” Gojo said with a low laugh, his breath hot on her skin. “Did you want that? Were you looking to settle down with someone? Get married, start a family? It’s possible, even these days. A bit of light in the dark, right? Were you wishing to be some sorcerer’s obedient, little wife, the doting and loving mother to a handful of children you carried yourself?”

Utahime dug her fingers into his leg. “You’re being ridiculous.”

He ignored the insult, morphing into something almost as cruel as Geto and pettier as well, each word a knife digging further under her skin. “Gotta start popping out other little sorcerers like a proper woman, right?” He bit down on her neck, a little too hard, and she whimpered, jerking away from him slightly. He pulled her back, kissing the same spot soothingly, but it still hurt. “Did you want someone considerate – someone that would be respectful, loyal, empathetic? Someone that wouldn’t hurt you, no doubt. Nanami would’ve been good for that. He’s a grade one as well. The higher-ups would’ve approved of that match, and he wouldn’t fault you for what they do.”

“Stop it, Gojo,” Utahime snapped, squirming even more in his grasp.

His hand on her stomach slid up further, every inch making her breath hitch more in her throat. She wiggled, trying to slip out of his grasp, but then the hand on her neck tightened just a hair. All she could do was twist her head to look away, her chest rising and falling with every panting breath, as Gojo’s hand traveled up her body. When he finally ran it over her chest, his hand ghosting over her breasts, a little noise escaped her. His hips moved against hers almost instinctively, the feel of his arousal taking her by surprise.

“Or maybe they wouldn’t have given you a choice in the end,” Gojo said, darkly amused. “The clans are all in disarray. A temperamental teenager in charge of the Inumaki clan, an unwanted bastard heir to the Kamo clan, a despised monster leading the Zen’in clan and dominating the others.”

His hold on her was possessive, angry, even frightening. He tugged on her ear with his teeth, nearly making her wince. The more she struggled to pull away from him, the more his hands roved over her body, finding the hidden spots she didn’t tell anyone about that made her whimper and tremble, pleasure lighting up her body. With every noise she made, he grew more insistent, rocking himself against her in a way that made her mind spin. She wanted to slap him, kiss him, pull his hair, yell at him, beg him to stop toying with her and just do something already.

“Naoya might be arrogant enough to believe you’re damaged, but he knows how to use people,” he continued ruthlessly, making her bite her tongue almost hard enough to cause it to bleed. “The higher-ups could’ve decided you’d be more useful providing him whelps, let him use you until you had nothing left to give. He’s in desperate need of an heir, or he’s liable to lose the clan to Megumi, and you’re such a good teacher, all too willing to behave and do as you’re told.”

Tears burned at the edges of Utahime’s eyes. She closed them, willing the tears to go away, but a few managed to slide down her cheeks. She’d expected this kind of cruelty from Geto, but not from Gojo. It was as if he was punishing her – or maybe even punishing himself, bringing up all the things he hated the most. Touching and holding her in ways he’d dreamed of while speaking all sorts of nightmares to life.

His hand left her neck, and he brushed the tears away from her cheeks with his thumb. “That’s the kind of life you had waiting for you with them,” he told her, not meanly as before, wrapping his other arm around her waist. “You know it’s true. They would’ve used you up however way they could.”

“And what will you do, Gojo?” she asked.

What will Geto do? she wondered.

“I can give you what you need,” Gojo murmured in her ear. Not what she wanted, of course, because he knew better. She’d realized that one day, was what he left out. “I couldn’t let them have you – let you go to waste.”

“Because I’m not theirs?”

“No,” Gojo growled. She swallowed but managed not to squirm or make a sound. “And you’re not Suguru’s either. He did that on purpose. I hate that he saw you like that – he cornered you like a mouse – and he did it just to prove a point. That was mine, and he took it without even a hint of shame. Asshole. He knew I’d give you space, so he just–”

Utahime took in a shallow breath. “I didn’t take you for the jealous type.”

“I wasn’t,” Gojo said. “But it’s different with you.” He pressed his lips to her cheek, the kiss so chaste and innocent compared to the hold he had on her. “Maybe I wanted something that was my own. We share everything else. He was never interested in you or our games, so I didn’t think he’d throw such a fit.”

“Maybe he doesn’t want to share you ,” Utahime pointed out.

Gojo paused and went silent, both of his hands falling down to her hips. He held her there, her back pressed against his chest, his chin resting on the top of her head. She could feel him thinking, the cogs winding as he considered her words. For two people that shared so much, they certainly weren’t good about it. Maybe that was half the fun for them, except Gojo hadn’t wanted to play the game this time and Geto was trying to force his hand. It didn’t leave her much room between them for her own choice in the matter.

“He can play his stupid games,” Gojo decided. “You never suffered mine in the end, so you won’t entertain his either.”

Utahime shook her head, her hair brushing against him. “No, I won’t.”

Gojo turned her around to face him, keeping one hand on her hip while he held a finger under her chin, tilting her face up to his. “Such a good girl,” he sighed, the last of the tension bleeding from his body. Even a smile flickered on his face before he kissed her on the lips, so soft and warm. “ My girl.”

The pure affection that burned through the possessiveness of his words made her world spin. It irritated her, how much of an effect he could have on her when she’d spent the past two years telling herself that he was nothing but the enemy. A man to be knocked off his pedestal, a curse user who had turned his back on everything good and hurt countless people. And yet here she was, caving to his whims, letting him kiss her, letting him cling to her, allowing him to drag her into his world.

And for what? Was she that weak? Worn down? Pathetic? Was Geto right about her after all?

Gojo frowned against her lips. “If you’re thinking about what Suguru said to you–”

“I’m not,” Utahime said a touch too quickly.

I can see something else he sees, echoed in her mind.

Gojo pulled away. Even with the blindfold on, she could tell he was examining her face carefully for any signs of lying. “I’m here now,” he told her instead. His thumb brushed across her face again as if marking her. “Suguru won’t let it lie, but I’ll make sure he doesn’t overstep his boundaries again. He won’t harm you. He’ll probably continue being a bastard, but that’s nothing you’re not used to, and he’ll either get over it eventually or have to deal with it. He’s not the only one in control here.”

Utahime’s shoulders sank. She doubted even he would be capable of that, but that wasn’t what was worrying her. “Gojo… I don’t think I can meet your expectations. You know I don’t agree with your treatment of non-sorcerers.”

“I know, I know… This is new to you, but I think you’ll come to understand it, even like it.” Gojo stroked her hair, something that almost had her closing her eyes or keening. It was such a soft touch, one that hurt her as well. “You have a good, bleeding heart, but I’ll admit there isn’t much room for that in this world. You care so much that it hurts – more than most people are capable of even before.”

“Is that why you assigned Yuta to guard me?” Utahime asked.

Gojo shrugged. “Maybe – and maybe I wanted to get him away from Geto. He’s a bit obsessed with the idea of taking over Rika, but that would involve killing Yuta.” Utahime tensed, but Gojo was quick to casually add, “He won’t, of course, at least not directly. A part of him has to wonder if Rika would be as strong under his control since she’s so connected with Yuta. Love is a terrible and powerful curse, isn’t it?”

Yes, it was. Utahime didn’t have to speak for him to know she agreed. She’d gotten a few more details from Yuta about the curse following him. Even if Geto took control over it as he did his other curses, she wasn’t so sure Rika would be nearly as strong as she was with Yuta. She loved him; she would never love Geto.

Utahime could understand that quite well.

“Still,” Gojo continued with a noncommittal sigh. “I’m not...fond of the harsh missions Suguru puts him on, so…”

“So you gave him to me,” Utahime finished. “A broken boy with only a powerful curse as his family, feared by most and shunned by the rest. How thoughtful of you.”

How kind and merciful, taking Yuta away from something that he clearly struggled to reckon with. She’d seen the way he reacted to Geto’s presence. It had been nearly the same as the non-sorcerer that spilled tea on her.

“Can’t say I haven’t given you anything,” Gojo quipped. “And I thought, what better way to showcase your abilities than with him?”

Utahime rolled her eyes. “No wonder Geto did what he could to undermine you when you did the same thing with him. You two make quite the pair.”

Gojo played with the ribbon in her hair, but he didn’t pull it loose like Geto had. He tugged on the edges and let the silk slide between his fingers. “I guess so.” He huffed out a breath and let his head fall back against the door. “Sometimes I wonder if it was bad luck for us to be born in the same century. You probably think that.” Utahime opened her mouth to say something, then hesitated. However, Gojo caught it and nodded. “Go on. Speak whatever is on your mind.”

She chewed on her lip and carefully said, “I don’t know. I think you two were made for each other.” He eyed her blankly, his expression completely unreadable, so she shrugged. “I also think you drive each other mad. You could talk to each other instead of being so underhanded and mean.”

Gojo stuck out his tongue like a child. “That sounds boring.”

So much for being the most dangerous curse user in the world.

“I suppose the world would’ve been lost to you both if you did get along all the time,” Utahime muttered under her breath. It was just loud enough for him to hear, but his lips ticked upward in a slight smile anyway, unperturbed by the comment. His reaction made her stomach twist. It was the truth, wasn’t it? He must’ve known that, but that didn’t stop him from picking fights with Geto.

Sliding a hand down to take one of hers, Gojo stepped away to unlock the door and open it. “C’mon, you can spend the rest of the day with me.” He peeled his blindfold up over one eye and winked, making her flush, and he dropped it back down. “I’ll show you the outskirts. I told Yuta to stay close to the main building, so there’s a lot you haven’t seen yet.”

“Shouldn’t you be with Geto?” Utahime asked, even as she let him pull out of the room. “He’s probably waiting for you to storm a room and pick a fight with him.”

“He’s the one that made sure I was out of the way,” Gojo said without looking back. “He can stand to wait a little longer. It’ll be good for him to learn patience.”

Personally, Utahime thought that was a terrible idea, but she supposed that was the point for Gojo. Geto would likely be furious that he hadn’t come straight to him, but she wasn’t sure if he would be mad at Gojo or her. She wasn’t trying to be a distraction. Geto had probably anticipated that Gojo would either hunt him down to fight or search for her to check on her. He wouldn’t be pleased that Gojo had chosen the latter.

Stuck in between the two men, Utahime felt more like a game piece than a player in their twisted game, unable to move on her own. Geto had made his play with her the other night, and Gojo had countered with his own move today. Utahime was not looking forward to finding out how Geto would retaliate, but she doubted it would be kind.

Boys and their toys – they never changed, did they?

Chapter Text

The difference between when Utahime walked around with Yuta compared to being given a tour of sorts with Gojo was startling. She honestly hadn’t realized how much people avoided them (or at least Yuta) until she was at Gojo’s side. It wasn’t that people came flocking to them, but they did acknowledge Gojo a lot more. He wasn’t someone who could be ignored, his presence too bright and loud. Whereas Yuta kept to the shadows, Gojo strode forward confidently, causing people’s heads to turn to him instead of away.

It helped that he was in a much better mood, as if a switch had been flipped in his mind. Perhaps he’d gotten all his anger and frustration out back in that empty room. She was irritated that he’d used her to bleed it out, seeing as how he’d said some pretty shitty things, but she wouldn’t hold it against him for now. Normally, she would’ve fought with him more, but maybe her interaction with Geto had unsettled her more than she’d thought.

She didn’t want to fight with Gojo, not when she was unsure how exactly he’d react. After all, he wasn’t the man she remembered. Though there were still glimpses of the person she knew, the last few years had changed him too, shaping him into someone she was still struggling to understand.

The followers they interacted with varied in behavior as well, though she figured it had to do with who they were in the group. The devotees were excited and pleased by Gojo’s return, matching his energy with enthusiasm, though she did feel a few glares on her back as well. Many of them were much happier to speak with her now that Gojo was at her side instead, even expressing how happy they were to see someone else with them.

Still, after the tenth person took one of her hands in both of theirs and said something along the lines of, “Isn’t it wonderful to have been chosen personally by Gojo Satoru?” Utahime was ready to blow a gasket. No, it hadn’t been wonderful, especially since she’d been under the threat of a lot of deaths. Still, she smiled, very prettily, but she knew Gojo could sense her frustration by the cheeky grin on his face. It was taking everything in him not to laugh as she floundered with the people that spoke of him so gloriously.

Indeed, when an older man gave her a very low bow and said, “You are lucky to have been blessed by Gojo Satoru,” Utahime could no longer help herself and muttered, “More like been cursed by his existence for over a decade.”

The poor man jerked upright and gave her such a startled look that Gojo laughed. He waved the devotee away with a simple, “Aw, we’ve been friends for so long, so she’s just teasing,” and then set the old man on his way. He paused to glance back at them in confusion and then continued tending to the garden along with a few other workers.

“I swear,” Utahime huffed. “One would think you piss rainbows from the way some of these people talk about you.”

Gojo laughed again, genuinely gleeful. “So crass, Utahime!” He leaned down, getting in her face so suddenly that she barely avoided staggering backward. “Since when did you start speaking so out of turn like that?”

“Since you and Geto turned the world into hell,” Utahime shot back.

Instead of getting mad, Gojo gazed at her without moving, the bright look still on his face. “Did we now?” He spoke softly, as if he was considering it for the first time himself, but she knew that was a lie. If his Six Eyes could afford him anything, it was seeing the results of his destruction. He knew damn well how brutal he could be. Standing upright again, he scratched the back of his head. “I guess you’re right, and I don’t piss rainbows. In order to deal with this, some people have got it into their heads that we’re gods. Suguru likes to encourage the ideology, but I find it kind of annoying.”

Utahime snorted. “You don’t like people fawning over you?”

“Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the attention,” Gojo said carelessly, looking out at the garden and the people working in it. Here, it was a mixture of sorcerers and non-sorcerers, but it made sense. Some of the sorcerers likely carried techniques that helped grow the plants and create life, so it was natural to use them as well. “But it’s not real. They’ve come up with all these ideas about us, half of which aren’t even true. It’s pathetic.”

“Why do you say that?” Utahime asked.

“Because we’re not gods,” Gojo pointed out.

“No, you’re not,” Utahime agreed. “But you’ve got the egos of one.”

Gojo tilted his head in her direction. “You know, most people would be afraid of retribution or punishment for speaking to me like that.”

“Are you going to punish me?” Utahime retorted.

A grin tugged at Gojo’s lips. “I’d enjoy that a bit too much, I think.”

Utahime scoffed at him and started walking again. “You’re disgusting.”

She could feel Gojo’s amusement as he followed her, even though she had no real idea where she was going. They were reaching an area that she hadn’t gone before, the trees leading into a massive, wooded area. He let her lead as she wandered until she found herself in a clearing that overlooked everything. Despite being out in the open and large, this place was tucked away from everything else, like its own private world. It was all too easy to get lost in its beauty, but there was always something that brought her back to ground.

“What are you doing here, Gojo?” Utahime asked as she stared into the woods.

“I haven’t answered that well enough for you?”

Utahime dropped her gaze to the ground. “You know this isn’t real. You know it’s not going to work like Geto wants.” She turned around to face him, willing herself to remain firm even though she felt tired and weak. “You know this is wrong, don’t you? You know what you’ve done is terrible.”

“Is it?” Gojo asked.

“Don’t turn this back around on me again,” Utahime snapped. “You’ve murdered people in cold blood, destroyed lives, ruined families. You say you’re trying to rid the world of curses, but how many curses do you think were created as a consequence of your actions?”

Gojo stared back at her, his expression unreadable. She was glad for the blindfold covering his eyes; she wasn’t sure if she would’ve been able to look him in the eyes right now. As much as he irritated her and as obnoxious and stupid as he could be, she knew he wasn’t an idiot. Neither was Geto. Surely they knew this plan of theirs wasn’t foolproof. Even then, despite Gojo’s insistence that humans were resistant, they should’ve done more than this in the past two years. The world was broken, yes, but it wasn’t destroyed. It wasn’t cowed and hadn’t been forced to bend to their will, at least not entirely.

“I don’t think anything I’d say would satisfy you,” Gojo stated.

Utahime huffed. “You’re probably right.”

“I don’t enjoy this, if that’s what you want to know,” he continued, closing the space between them. She had, but for some reason, that wounded her even more. If he didn’t enjoy it and wasn’t even sure Geto’s plan would work, then why did he continue to destroy so many lives? Had he given up on fighting against jujutsu’s inherently cruel nature? “Killing people, even other sorcerers, is too easy, and it’s an easy way out. That’s not what either of us wants.”

“Could’ve had me fooled,” Utahime mumbled.

“If I wanted everyone dead, I would’ve done so a year ago,” Gojo pointed out matter-of-factly. “I could have killed the next round of higher-ups and done it again and again until those remaining were on their hands and knees begging us to spare them. It’d be faster that way, more efficient, with the least amount of collateral damage possible. Nanami might even approve of that method.”

Utahime folded her arms across her chest. “Then why don’t you do that?”

“Because killing everyone won’t solve anything, and it will only breed more curses in the end,” Gojo told her. “If I have to shoulder the blame, if I have to be hated and feared, if I have to be the monster in everyone’s eyes, the man who future generations are taught to shame, then I’ll do it, because I know it’ll be better than the world we had and the one we have now.”

“But you’re not a monster,” Utahime insisted, unfolding her arms. “You’re a bastard and an idiot and you’ve literally made me scream in frustration, but–”

“No, I am. Someone has to be hated for this. I don’t mind bearing that responsibility. I’ve carried it for as long as I can remember. Maybe it feels better to just...accept it.” Gojo let out a breath, but she could only frown. She couldn’t accept that, not of him. He was better than that. “If we’re going to truly do this, someone has to be the one to pull the trigger.”

Utahime stepped toward him. “So Geto’s the curse and you’re the technique?”

An almost amused smile touched his lips. “That’s such a teacher thing to say.” He shook his head, probably at them both. They were a pitiful pair right now, bickering back and forth like this wasn’t about the death of so many people. “I don’t want to hurt people. If we can avoid it, we’ll do it that way, but it is also impossible to avoid entirely.”

“Especially considering you’re talking about the genocide of countless people,” Utahime threw at him harshly.

“You’re not wrong,” Gojo admitted. He ran his fingers through his messy hair, the strands sticking up even more than usual. “But that’s how it is right now. I won’t sugarcoat it, and I won’t lie to you about it, but I want to do better. You can help me with that.”

“I can’t change anything when you refuse to see what’s right in front of you.” Utahime held up a hand and turned away from him, disgust overwhelming her for a moment. The urge to slap across the face roared inside her, but she held herself back. In private, she probably would’ve done it, but in public, where people could potentially see them arguing, she didn’t want to tempt it. She still didn’t know how he would react to being outright disrespected in front of his followers. “Arguing with you is pointless. You’re as delusional as your followers.”

With a huff, Gojo practically whined. “Why do you have to be so difficult?”

“You didn’t honestly expect me to bow to your whims after a week, did you?”

“True,” Gojo hummed. Besides, he probably got off on arguing, so he wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much if she’d jumped on board with him right away. What a brat. “You’re right. We’re breaking everything, doing a lot of damage, but if we can avoid that, we will. We’re able to take a more diplomatic approach these days.”

“Yeah, after terrorizing the world for two years.” Utahime dug her nails into her forearm. It was also true that they hadn’t carried out any large attacks in a few months. That had only made everyone nervous. The higher-ups talked amongst themselves, keeping an eye out as world leaders shifted, everyone watching each other like they might turn or die at any second.

As far as they knew, they were in the eye of the storm, and the worst was yet to come.

“I’m sure Geto is enjoying himself,” Utahime sighed in concession.

“He does love to captivate and intimidate a room,” Gojo mused. “I’ve never been one for politics myself. They’re kinda boring.”

Utahime shook her head. “You’d make for a terrible politician. It’s why you were never considered for a position as a higher-up despite your strength. You wouldn’t have done anything except lord about, and you do that enough as it is.”

At that, Gojo actually cackled. “Can you imagine? Me as one of those bastards? I might’ve taken them out sooner had they done that.”

She shot him a sideways glare. “Can you not speak about that so casually?”

Gojo held up his hands. “Sorry, sorry, no more casual remarks about murder, even if they damn well deserved it.” They hadn’t been the best people, no – Utahime could admit that – but she wouldn’t agree that they had deserved the cold deaths Gojo had given them. He’d practically erased them from existence. It still made her shiver just thinking about what he was capable of when he didn’t hold himself back.

No wonder so many of these people thought he was a god.

“You’re really good at getting people on your side,” Utahime muttered snidely.

“Eh, I suppose that’s Suguru’s forte, not mine,” Gojo admitted, “but I’d rather not resort to that just yet.” He rubbed the back of his neck and frowned at the building, his gaze locked on a specific location. Maybe it had something to do with Geto. She wasn’t sure. “I’ve never had to be convincing with my words.”

“No, you didn’t,” Utahime said, “and you’ve never been good with your words.”

Gojo wrinkled his nose. “It’s hard.”

“Poor boy, having to work for once,” Utahime mocked half-heartedly, standing on her tiptoes so she could reach up and ruffle his hair on the back of his head. It was foolish and stupid, and she hated how she could feel herself being pulled toward him even when she was furious and upset. She wanted to stay far away from him, but then again, the idea that she would have to deal with Geto was far worse. She didn’t want to know what that would entail, but she could tell Gojo was unwilling to let it happen too.

A faint smile ghosted his lips. “There’s some good here too, isn’t there?”

Utahime took a deep breath and begrudgingly said, “Yes.” She stepped away from the trees, back toward the main building. “There are things I will never agree with – methods I loathe and refuse to condone – but I’ll admit there are other things I might...prefer. You and Geto have clearly learned from the mistakes and missteps in jujutsu society.”

There was a sense of harmony here that even Utahime yearned for back home – not quite peace, but an understanding of jujutsu and its place in the world, in people. Instead of a constant power struggle, there was a desire to nurture, to grow, to support. She watched as young children were taught self-control, to appreciate their curse energy and techniques as gifts to cherish, the importance of working as a team, and more. She saw sorcerers that might’ve been shoved to the wayside actually making a difference and being treated fairly.

Yes, there were sorcerers that were strong that resented such a thing – that thought they deserved to be treated as more because of their curse energy or techniques – but largely due to Geto and Gojo’s combined strength, no one could dare question them. Utahime honestly wasn’t sure if it was more of Geto’s vision than Gojo’s, but it didn’t matter to the majority of their followers. They needed strong people at the top to enforce this idyllic vision, and so they did together.

It was the type of world where people like Mai could exist. Utahime saw that now. She wished she could tell Maki that her twin was okay, but she worried that might hurt her even more. In their world, with her family, Mai had been a burden, a curse, a waste. Utahime still burned on the inside whenever she saw the way Maki was treated, how she had to soothe wounds on her “weaker” students when they were berated or beaten down. It was a wonder more of them hadn’t turned; only their refusal to accept the other side’s methods kept them from doing so.

Because idyllic as it was, there was still the same cold hard brutality and disdain that jujutsu society had been born from.

“It’s strange,” Utahime admitted, “that you’re so feared for your destruction by the rest of the world, but here…” Her eyes roved over the garden, to the large greenhouse. It was beautiful, a complete and utter contrast to what Gojo and Geto represented to the world. There was no chaos here, no horror or death, only life. “You really do want to fix everything, don’t you – to break and rebuild, even if it means starting from scratch.”

“Burn the field to raise a new, stronger crop,” Gojo added, standing beside her. “That’s what Suguru says farmers have to do sometimes.”

“Sounds simple,” Utahime murmured. And so horrific. “Do you think you should just convince countries to load up all the non-sorcerers for slaughter? Make it quick and painless. I’m sure Geto could come up with a plan that would sound almost reasonable, and you could enact it. ”

Gojo furrowed his brow, but he didn’t respond. If they had considered something so cold and cruel before, he wouldn’t tell her, not when he was trying to win her over. He was doing a piss poor job of it, in her opinion, but he was being honest with her. She could appreciate that, even if it hurt her and made it harder for him. He wasn’t going to paint this place or their position with flowery words. She had also noticed that unlike many of the sorcerers, especially the stronger ones, he never belittled the non-sorcerer staff.

He wasn’t kind to them, but he didn’t treat them poorly either, making it very obvious where Yuta had learned that behavior from. They tended to be more at ease around him, or at least they didn’t tremble as she’d seen before, but they were quick to do their work and leave if he was in the room, his presence too strong for even non-sorcerers to ignore.

“Do you want to go home?” Gojo asked.

“I thought you didn’t want anyone else to have me,” Utahime responded. He didn’t say anything. Even though he’d asked her, he doubted he would actually let her leave. No, he wasn’t done with her yet, and she didn’t think Geto would allow it either now that she’d seen this place. “I haven’t given you enough time to convince me to join your side like I said I would.”

Gojo turned his head slightly in her direction. “Or have you not had enough time to convince me that it’s not too late to change my mind?”

Letting out a sigh, Utahime said, “Gojo, I don’t think anyone could convince you to do something you didn’t want to do. Geto might think he can – he might even think he controls you, and maybe he does on some level – but you’ve always made your own choices regardless of what other people think. I’m not anything special.”

Gojo reached out and brushed her hair over her shoulders. “You’re special to me.”

“Don’t try to be charming now,” Utahime told him, swatting at his hand. “It’s not going to work.”

“Fair enough.” Gojo tapped his chin thoughtfully. “It’s nearly sunset. I’ve made Suguru wait long enough. He’s probably ready to choke me senseless.”

Utahime pinched the bridge of her nose. “You think so? He’s going to blame me.”

“I’d blame you too,” Gojo teased, poking her in the side and making her yelp. “You’re too cute to resist. He’d understand if he wasn’t too busy being a petty bastard about this whole thing, but eh, maybe I’d rather he stays in the dark.”

She shot him a look that would’ve made anyone else cringe and step back, irritated that he could change moods so quickly, but it only seemed to humor him. One second they were serious, the next solemn, and angry after that – and then he was teasing, flirtatious, casual. It threw her off and frustrated her when she unwittingly followed him.

“He hates me,” Utahime told him. “He resents my presence here. I don’t think anything will change that.”

“Let him,” Gojo said carelessly. “The world doesn’t revolve around him.”

A mocking huff of laughter escaped Utahime. “Don’t tell him that – or any of his followers, for that matter. They’re even worse about him than they are about you.”

“Suguru is better at playing to the crowd than I am,” Gojo said in an indifferent tone. “He’s the diplomat and the cult leader, not me.”

Utahime didn’t think she could frown anymore, but she refrained from reacting. Gojo knew exactly what he was saying. He might’ve passed himself off as an unwilling leader, but she saw the way Yuta deferred to him, how other sorcerers were quick to listen to what he had to say. He was a leader in this as well. The cult comment was definitely a jab at what he knew she viewed this place as, just another way to show that he was aware of things.

“If you’re leaving to see Geto, I should return to my room,” Utahime sighed.

“Do you want to stay out here for longer? I wouldn’t blame you. It’s nicer out here than inside.”

The response took her aback, but after a moment of hesitation, she said, “Yes.”

“Okay.” His casual response caught her off guard even further. He wanted her to be happy, she had to remind herself. “Hm, I’d like to give Yuta a longer break. I know he’d drop anything to do what I ask him, but the kid deserves some time off. Have you seen the bags under his eyes? He needs a nap more than I do.” Gojo held up a finger as an idea struck him. “I’ll send Mai out here. You should be fine with her.”

“Mai?” Utahime wouldn’t have guessed he would choose her, considering her strength, but she had noticed that Mai seemed...uninhibited here. She might’ve lacked Yuta’s strength and her technique was not considered strong, but there was something about the way she moved and operated here that suggested some sort of power.

Gojo snorted. “If you thought everyone was scared of Yuta, you’ve not seen Mai at work yet.”

“Still don’t trust me to be alone?” Utahime asked, somewhat disappointed.

“I trust you not to leave,” Gojo said without missing a beat. “But I’d be a fool to trust everyone here. There’s always someone with an ulterior motive.” He placed a finger under her chin, tilting her head up just so. “I can’t have anyone messing with my girl for whatever foolish reason.”

“I can take care of myself, you know,” Utahime pointed out, though she didn’t move to shove his hand away from her.

“I know.” His finger moved along her jaw until his hand cupped her cheek, his thumb running across her lips. It shouldn’t have made her yearn the way it did, and she once again thought to curse Gojo for being such an obnoxious bastard. “But I like taking care of you.”

Or maybe he just liked thinking she was dependent on him.

“Fine,” Utahime said stiffly, trying her best not to lean into his touch. “But I want to do more than just walk around and look at things tomorrow. If you really want me to understand what you’re doing here, I need to become more involved.”

Gojo blessedly pulled his hand away. “Sure thing. What would you like to do?”

“I’m a teacher,” Utahime replied, planting her hands firmly on her hips. “You said as such. It’s who I am – what I’m good at. I want to see exactly what you’re teaching these kids – and the adults.”

“Sounds good to me,” Gojo said, as if he’d been waiting for her to bring it up this whole time. Perhaps he had. It was why he’d brought her here, wasn’t it? This was the potential he’d talked about. She was a good teacher, but she was very curious about what lessons were like here compared to Kyoto. They tended to be more brutal, if she had to admit, something she wasn’t fond of but knew was necessary. Things had felt so...peaceful in the classroom she’d looked in on this morning.

“Do you have to ask permission from Geto?” Utahime asked.

Gojo chuckled. “Maybe I should, and maybe I won’t.”

Utahime closed her eyes and rubbed her temple with two fingers, trying to rid herself of the headache she could feel building. “Why can’t you make things simple for once? Does everything have to be a game between you two? Doesn’t it get exhausting?”

“It’s fun,” Gojo insisted. “Keeps things interesting.”

“Maybe for you,” Utahime huffed. “I feel like a ball being passed back and forth.”

“I’d never give you to him,” Gojo told her, sounding very serious for once.

She believed him, honestly, but she wasn’t sure if he had a choice in the matter. Geto took what he wanted whether other people agreed to share or not. It was why Yuta was so wary about him, why Gojo didn’t want Geto near her. He knew that. Utahime would just have to make sure Geto knew she wasn’t like Gojo’s other pets.

Chapter Text

Just as he promised, Gojo took her to sit in on classes the following day. He showed up at her room instead of Yuta, an even nicer pair of clothes in hand and a new ribbon that he insisted on doing himself. She tried not to think about how it felt with his chest barely brushing her back or the way his nimble fingers felt tying up her hair. Upon catching her reflection in a window, she begrudgingly had to admit that he’d done a good job.

It was humiliating, the way her cheeks blushed at the sight.

He let her choose which class she wanted to watch, so she chose the one she’d been watching the day previously before Gojo showed up. She hadn’t taught jujutsu classes with children this young, so she was rather curious about how they handled it here. Back when they had been in school, they hadn’t been pulled in until high school, mostly left to fend for themselves until then. She liked the idea of starting younger if only to help guide them to not be as destructive, especially when many of them grew up struggling with their abilities from a young age, but she was still wary.

She didn’t want these children to be used by either side, so she had to see it for herself. It was too easy to take advantage of children and manipulate them.

It didn’t matter if the teacher knew who Utahime was or not when Gojo stepped into the room. He was on his best behavior when he entered the room, full of excitable energy and cheer. The children responded to him immediately, many of them jumping from their seats and rushing over to them despite their teacher’s weak pleas to stay sitting. They crowded around Gojo and Utahime, the smaller ones pawing at his legs while he grinned and stood over them like a tree.

“Do you have any candy?” one particularly determined kid demanded.

“Let’s see…” Gojo pat his pockets down, slipping his hands inside, only to pull them out and toss the candy in the air. “Surprise attack!”

The kids squealed gleefully, and chaos reigned over the classroom as they rushed to scoop up the two handfuls of candy he’d set loose on them. Utahime didn’t either bother resisting the urge to roll her eyes, figuring she could do it for her and the teacher, who seemed to be struggling to keep from losing their mind. Once all the candy had been picked up and stuffed into either pockets or greedy mouths, Gojo waved his hands at them and they scuttled back to their desks.

“This is Iori Utahime,” Gojo explained to the teacher. “She’s gonna sit in on some of the lessons over the next week or so.”

The teacher, a young man that reminded her of Ijichi, smiled nervously, although it didn’t reach his eyes. She couldn’t tell if it was because of Gojo’s presence or if he knew who she was. “Are you a teacher, Miss Iori?”

“I am,” Utahime responded calmly. “I’ll stay out of your hair and sit in the back if you don’t mind.”

“Not at all,” the teacher said quickly. “Um, is this...is this a report of some kind?”

A pleasant smile was also on Gojo's lips, though Utahime found it slightly mocking. “Should it be?”

Utahime smacked his arm. “Stop being so mean.”

“Aw, I was just teasing,” Gojo shot back playfully. Both of them ignored the outright stunned look on the teacher’s face. She shouldn’t have hit him like that, but the response had been so natural, just like the old days. “I’ll leave you to it. Don’t wanna disturb your evaluation . I’m curious to hear what you think later.”

Well, now he was just being cruel. Utahime would have to soothe the teacher’s worries after the class was over. She didn’t want him to think she was one of Gojo’s or Geto’s spies to make sure they were doing their job properly. They had enough of those around here. Considering the way Gojo had found her not long after Geto had confronted her, she had a feeling someone told him as soon as they found out. Word traveled fast here.

“Have fun,” Gojo said teasingly, right before leaning down to kiss her on the cheek.

Utahime burned bright red and swatted at him again, but he bounced out of her reach. She honestly could’ve throttled him in this moment, especially since the children made a mixture of sounds that ranged from “ew!” to “aw!” and made her blush even further. He waved to everyone and then gleefully bounded out of the room as she fumed.

Despite the fact that Gojo had clearly planted ideas of her relationship with him in the classroom’s minds – and no doubt, everyone would whisper about it after lessons were over, especially the children – Utahime forced herself to paint on a pleasant and professional smile. “I’ll sit over here. If I have any questions, I can wait until you’re finished. I won’t interrupt.”

The teacher was unsettled, awkwardly fidgeting behind their desk. “Are you planning on becoming a teacher here?”

“We’ll see,” was all Utahime would say. It was most likely what Gojo wanted, but she wasn’t about to say anything until she saw what was being taught. She’d gotten into enough trouble with a few of the higher-ups for the way she taught. If not for Yuki and the lack of good teachers, she might’ve been fired or replaced.

Or worse. Gojo’s words about her potential future had stung bitterly, but he hadn’t been far off.

During the rest of the lesson, Utahime could tell the teacher was too nervous to teach normally. His eyes kept glancing her way, and then he’d stumble over his words. The children picked up on his nerves and, perhaps because they were so young and willful, took advantage of it by acting out more and not listening as much. After the tenth time of glancing at her, she gestured with her hands for him to take a deep breath and calm down. He tried.

It didn’t work. At least one kid used his technique to launch a wad of paper across the room and hit another kid in the head, and the teacher sighed in dismay.

Utahime stood up and walked into the middle of the classroom between the desks, catching the next ball of paper in her hand. The students immediately went quiet and looked up at her, their eyes filled with curiosity and wariness. A few of them had old scars on their little bodies – faces, arms, hands, legs – signs of their treatment before they’d been taken in.

“Is now the time to play or learn?” Utahime asked calmly. None of the children responded, casting glances at each other. They didn’t know her. They didn’t trust her – and they didn’t have to. She wouldn’t expect that of them after just an hour of sitting in the same room. “You want to learn how to use your techniques more, right?”

“Well, yeah,” one brave kid barked out.

“You can figure it out on your own, sure,” Utahime said, tossing the paper ball back and forth between her hands. “It’ll take you longer, so the kids that do listen will learn faster and maybe even become stronger too.” She returned to the back of the class and dropped the paper into the trash. “I like to be fast and strong, don’t you?”

“I wanna be fast and strong!” a girl exclaimed.

Utahime sat back down. “Then you better listen.”

The tactic didn’t always work, especially on children this young when their attention spans weren’t the best, but it seemed to do the job for the most part. With the kids more settled down, the teacher managed to relax enough to finish the lesson. By the time lunch came around, his shoulders sagged in relief as he watched the kids break up into groups to eat their prepared meals.

Sensing his confusion about what to do, Utahime made her way to his desk. “Is it usually like this?” When he hesitated, she let out a sigh. “I’m not going to report to Gojo or Geto if that’s what you’re worried about. This is just for me. I don’t care about them.”

He was once again startled, but then he slowly admitted, “The younger students are harder to control, but that’s normal. We were never…”

“Taught at this age,” Utahime finished for him. “We just learned our techniques on our own.”

The man sighed in relief at being understood. “It’s more work than the other teachers realize. I’m starting from scratch, half the time with kids that have grown up in environments where they were abused for their abilities.” He sank in his seat, but she could tell by the way he looked at the kids that he truly cared about them. “Most of them are good, but the bad ones vary: they’re either out of control with their techniques or refuse to use them at all.”

Utahime gazed at the boy and girl sitting in the back of the classroom with their curses. “They’re the latter, aren’t they?”

“I don’t know what to do with them,” the teacher admitted. “They’re a bit like...that boy…”

“Yuta?” Utahime suggested.

He winced. “Ah, yes. It’s...hard to deal with the ones that work with actual curses.” He flushed and looked away in embarrassment. “I know our, ah, gracious leader Geto’s technique also involves curses, but it is very unusual. They’re attached to them like pets, so they won’t work without them and it makes the other kids nervous.”

“Hm, it’s a difficult decision,” Utahime agreed. “They need to acclimate with other sorcerers and become more socially involved with children their own age, but it doesn’t seem like the classroom environment is working for them.” She watched as the two kids talked amongst themselves, leaning forward to whisper into each other’s ears, the curses cooing at them hungrily. “I’m not a teacher here, but I do have experience with...troubled students. I could maybe take them aside for separate lessons, not without your curriculum, of course. Perhaps they need space.”

The teacher stared at her. “The curses don’t make you uncomfortable?”

“I’ve dealt with much worse,” Utahime reassured him with a light laugh. “This is only with your permission, of course. I don’t want to overstep any boundaries.”

“Well… Gojo seems...fond of you,” the teacher murmured, half to himself. Utahime kept the soft smile on her face, but she supposed despite her frustration, Gojo’s little stunt came in handy. “You could use the room connected to this one.” He gave her a weird look. “Um, I should perhaps clear this with Geto first.”

“Is he in charge of the lessons?” Utahime asked.

The teacher fumbled for a moment before answering, “He’s very involved with the children and their growth, especially the ones he’s personally taken in.” And likely these two in particular because of the way their techniques involved curses. Despite his fears about being possibly reported on, he had immediately deferred to Geto in this case. “They’re very important to him, so I don’t want to do anything that he might...disagree with.”

“Understandable.” Utahime considered the children and then the teacher. “I’ll ask him.” The poor man blinked, once again caught off guard. She really wasn’t trying to frazzle him so much. “I’m the one that suggested this, so I don’t mind speaking with him about it. Besides, I’ve known him for a while.”

“You’re friends with him?”

Utahime snorted. “Uh, I don’t know if I’d call us that.” She waved his concerns away as best as she could. There wasn’t really a simple way to describe her relationship with Geto. Enemies? Rivals when it came to Gojo? God, she hoped not. She didn’t want to fight him over that idiot. “Either way, I’ll take responsibility for this. You just focus on the rest of your lessons. If he says no, he says no.”

While he didn’t seem to know what to think, he was at least relieved not to have to speak with Geto directly himself about the request. Utahime wasn’t too thrilled either, but she wasn’t going to trick herself into believing that she could avoid Geto for however long she was here. Gojo knew that, too. Geto had made it very clear that he could impose himself on her time whenever he wanted, as this was his temple, his stronghold, his home.

So, instead of waiting for him to appear and catch her off guard, she would go to him. He could deal with her on her time.

Shortly after lunch, Gojo returned, having finished whatever he needed to do. He took her to one of the older classes, the age group the same as the kids she taught. It was different from the children’s class, out in the open so that they could freely use their techniques. She wasn’t surprised to see how well they were able to easily manipulate their cursed energy and also work with their techniques. It was more structured than her classes, but the teenagers were more comfortable as well. They responded to corrections better, although a few students that obviously had more energy than the teacher struggled to listen fully.

“What do you think?” Gojo asked as they watched the practical lesson.

Utahime sighed and admitted, “It makes me miss my students.”

Gojo glanced down at her. “They’re lucky to have had you.”

Had – as in, they didn’t have her anymore. Utahime tried not to dwell on it, but it was difficult as she watched two girls fight against one another. They looked to be about Nobara’s age, pretty and tough like her, though they lacked the same cold, cutting edge that Nobara had built around herself. She also thought they might be twins, their movements fluid and almost as one, a perfect balance and contrast with each other. What she noticed the most, however, were the smiles on their faces and the bright glimmers in their eyes.

She didn’t see that with her students often, not even Yuuji, who tried so hard to be warm and bright. There was a bleakness that hung over them no matter how hard she fought to make it better.

Although she tried to remain impassive, Utahime couldn’t hide the desolate cloud that had fallen over her as she watched the teenagers fight each other. Some of them were actually playing, slacking off when their teacher wasn’t looking. The sight made her heart ache. How much would she give to see her students behave like this regularly? To laugh and have fun while learning? To truly feel as if their abilities were their own?

It was a dream, one she found herself wanting more than anything. If her students were to see this, they would no doubt want it as well. Perhaps they knew it too, but none of them could wrap their minds about what it would cost them – what it would cost the world.

The thought of Megumi popped into her mind, how she had found him slumped on the stairs in the rain, a hand over his face while one visible eye looked down at his other. He’d crossed paths with Gojo a few days prior and barely escaped with his life, the other three sorcerers with him having lost theirs. He hadn’t told her what he was doing out there, but she imagined he’d hoped the rain would wash his friends’ blood from his hands.

That was what Gojo had really given her.

Unexpectedly overwhelmed, Utahime turned away from the class. She hadn’t thought it would hit her this hard, but she missed her students, her kids. There were days when she felt like it was all she could do to protect them – to be the wall between them and the world – but she wasn’t there for them anymore. She didn’t even know what was going on with them. News was filtered carefully into this place, and even though she’d tried to pry information out of Mai, Yuta, and a handful of others, they hadn’t given her much to work with other than her students were alive.

“Utahime?” Gojo’s voice was distant, drowned out by the rush of thoughts in her head. She had to get out of here, or at least away from where people could see her. From the way she’d suddenly gone silent and morose, she probably looked strange, but she felt too out of it to care about being embarrassed. By the time she managed to stagger to a tree, she placed one hand on the trunk to steady herself and lifted her other in an attempt to wave him away, but then he snatched her by the wrist to pull her back to him.

When she jerked on her wrist, he didn’t drop it, and Utahime snapped, “Let go of me,” but the demand was half-hearted at best. He pulled her closer to him instead, and she felt herself turn toward him more out of instinct than desire, allowing him to tuck her against his chest.

“Not gonna lie,” Gojo said casually as he ran his hand down her back. “I wasn’t expecting you to cry while watching a class in session.”

“They’re happy,” Utahime mumbled against his chest.

“That’s kind of the point.”

Utahime gripped his shirt tightly, balling the material in her fist. “What I would’ve given to see my students look like that. Here, they can at least pretend like there isn’t a war going on. They can have a childhood, if only for a little. Why couldn’t I–?” She pushed herself away from him, her grief transforming into anger. “This world might be idyllic for you here, but it can be hell for everyone else on the outside. You don’t even know what you’ve put them through.”

“You’re right,” Gojo admitted. “I don’t.”

“You and Geto have laid waste to so much that you don’t even know what you’ve destroyed or taken away from others,” Utahime spat.

Gojo pushed himself away from the tree and stood upright. “We’re trying to correct mistakes that have been standard for centuries. You’ve seen what we can be if we work together – what we’re capable of when we aren’t stuck working under the thumb of people that are either obsessed with power or don’t give a shit about those below them. We don’t want to keep this life here; we want to bring it to the rest of the world.”

“Are those your words or Geto’s?” Utahime shot back.

A dark look flashed across Gojo’s face, nearly making her step back, but then it was gone, replaced by something unreadable again. It was enough though. Her heart skipped a beat, and for a moment, she’d been afraid of him. Unable to hide her emotions as well as him, he’d seen the fear on her face, plain as day. Did he regret it or was he simply frustrated? It didn’t matter. She had clearly struck a nerve with that question.

“You know that some of what we’re doing is right,” Gojo said. “I can tell.” He gestured toward the group of teenagers, a few of them shouting while someone laughed. There was an explosion, and the teacher could be heard scolding them. “It’s not perfect, I know, but we’re creating something here that’s good. It’ll never make up for what I or Suguru had to do to make it happen, but at least future generations won’t be pushed to this edge like we were.”

“What about now?” Utahime asked. “Megumi is a shadow of who he used to be. Maki is suffering under the weight of her family, probably surviving out of sheer spite at this point. Yuuji knows his death is sealed, either by the higher-ups or yours.” She swallowed and shook her head. “Nobara’s entire village was destroyed by Geto and his curses. Do you know what she was like when we found her? The only survivor, simply because she was a sorcerer, alone and angry for almost two years.”

Gojo bowed his head in acquiesce. “I’ve read some intel on your students.”

“Of course you have,” Utahime huffed. “You two have to know everything, but you don’t know them like I do. That’s the world I know, not this place. That’s the world I had to teach in.” She pointed at the kids walking back to the main building together. One boy jumped on another guy’s back, and the two of them crashed into the grass. “You don’t think I want that? I want this for them so much that it hurts, but I’ve– I’ve abandoned them. They probably think I left them to fend for themselves and I turned my backs on them and–”

“Oi, oi, Utahime,” Gojo cut in, grabbing her by the arms and stilling her. “Believe me, that’s the last thing they think. Your students admire you – adore you even. They know you’d never leave them without a reason.”

Utahime was so mad that her lips startled to wobble, which only made her angrier. “How do you know that?”

“Look, we haven’t…” Gojo took a breath. “We haven’t made any big moves recently. Honestly, taking you was the biggest thing I’ve done in a while. Suguru is trying to take a more diplomatic approach so we can save more lives in the long run.” That made sense. Everyone was so wary, thinking that they had something truly terrifying planned. Maybe politics was more frightening. “Your students are incredibly strong and valuable. If we can avoid killing strong sorcerers, we will. Not that they give us much of an option – you and Nanami are quite the fierce teachers – but I know how valuable they are to you.”

“Are they okay?” Utahime asked, furious over how quiet and weak she sounded to her own ears.

“Yes, they’re fine. I know that for a fact.” There wasn’t a hint of lying or mocking in Gojo’s voice. She wished she could see his eyes to know if he was telling the truth, but maybe it was better with them covered. She always felt so exposed when he gazed at her without a blindfold or glasses. “Pissed off and ready to do something reckless? Hell yeah. You’re important to them. I think only their respect for Nanami is keeping them from doing something incredibly stupid, and even that’s hanging by a thread.”

A wet laugh bubbled from Utahime’s lips. “That sounds like them.”

“You’ve given so much of yourself to teach them,” Gojo told her. “That’s why I wanted you here – to show you how much more you could do without burning the candle at both ends. The higher-ups are tying your hands behind your back, shoving you onto your knees, and still demanding results. Yes, I’ll admit, we’ve pushed them into that corner, but… If they could see our vision, if you could see what’s right in front of you, maybe you could do more.”

“I want them to be happy,” Utahime said, suddenly feeling drained. “I want them to have this life too – not the endless cycle of exorcisms that is taken for granted, not the hierarchy that is based on strength and cursed energy and beats down those that don’t fit the mold, not this stupid and terrible world where it’s be saved and respected by damning your soul or fight for people that might fear or even hate you.”

Gojo slowly pulled her back to him, and she didn’t fight it. She was too tired. “You see it, don’t you? The possibilities.”

She didn’t understand how something that could cause so much death and destruction could also bring such light and happiness. It wasn’t right. Their joy shouldn’t be at the expense of others’ lives. Why couldn’t they see that? Why did they get the happy ending when the other side was trying so hard to save people? Was it wrong to want to try to protect and save everyone? Was it futile? That vicious cycle would never end, and sorcerers would be lost either way.

“I want to go back to my room,” Utahime stated in a flat tone.

She could feel Gojo swallow, sense the tension in his body as he held her. He wasn’t sure if he’d won this argument or not. Hell, she wasn’t sure. To be honest, it felt as if they’d both lost, leaving them in a strange and unsettled plain. A strong part of her wanted to curl up on her mattress and hide under her blankets for the rest of the day. An even weaker part of her wanted Gojo with her, his body pressed up against hers and holding her to tether her to one place.

She refused to ask that of him, however.

“Okay,” Gojo sighed. “I expected you to be difficult, but I forgot how emotional you could get.”

Utahime jabbed him in the stomach. “Not everyone is as cold and calculating as you and Geto.”

“No, I guess you’re right,” Gojo said, somewhat to himself. “It’s not always a good thing.”

It wasn’t. Maybe they had to be that way in order to get the job done, but without bringing a heart into the equation, a lot of terrible things could happen. Utahime had seen that firsthand.

Nonetheless, there had been a few long nights where she and other sorcerers had talked about Geto and Gojo’s vision for the world. A few drinks in, tongues lax, ties loosened, hair let down, they could sometimes admit that they understood why they were committing such atrocities. Yuki stated that the plan to eliminate curses by getting rid of non-sorcerers would work on some level, although she personally advocated and taught non-sorcerers how to control the flow of their cursed energy. Nanami had even said he didn’t blame Gojo for turning on the higher-ups – that their incompetence cost them a lot of lives and energy. As a higher-up herself, Yuki had laughed at that and heartily agreed without hesitation.

Shoko didn’t talk much about Gojo or Geto. She rarely did these days, typically locked away in either the morgue or the hospital, as if she was paying some imaginary penance.

“Could you…?” Utahime chewed on the inside of her cheek, Gojo waiting for her to finish. “Could you send Mai over later, if she isn’t busy and doesn’t mind? It’d just be...nice to be with her. I know she’s not my student anymore, but…”

“No, I get it,” Gojo replied lightly. “Need me out of your hair for a while, don’t you?”

And out of her mind. She couldn’t think clearly with him around her like this. He was all over her, all the time, making it difficult for her to see straight. She wasn’t sure if it was intentional or just how he was, his presence overwhelming even to the most resilient of them.

“Yeah, just a bit,” Utahime admitted.

Not to mention the fact that she needed to speak with Geto later, and Gojo would undoubtedly be displeased with that. She didn’t want to put Yuta through such an uncomfortable situation, especially when she could tell his loyalties lied closer with Gojo. Mai, on the other hand… While she might tell Gojo later, she wouldn’t hesitate to take her to see Geto. Utahime knew that from the way she spoke about him. She admired him, respected him – something she rarely did with men.

Gojo would find out later, whether from her or Geto, but he could deal with it. She wasn’t going to be just a pawn on the chessboard for them to play around with.

Chapter Text

Utahime had known that Mai would be caught off guard by the request, but she hadn’t expected the girl to actually laugh and exclaim, “You need me to do what?”

Letting out a sigh, Utahime pushed her half-eaten plate of food aside. It was good, but she didn’t know if she could handle a full stomach right now. “I need you to take me to see Geto.”

“Wow, okay, I heard you right then.” Mai leaned back on her hands propped up behind her, tilting her head as she looked back at her carefully. “So, Geto, huh – one cult leader isn’t enough for you?”

Utahime remained impassive, her eyes serious. She knew it was a tall order and perhaps even a difficult request, but she also knew Mai was much more perceptive than people gave her credit for. Maybe it had to do with her skill as a sharpshooter – or maybe it had been the only way she could survive growing up in the Zen’in clan. She also knew that Utahime had spent years under the thumb of those stronger than her, so she knew how to handle herself.

“Why do you want to talk with him?” Mai asked.

“Just something to do with two of the children in the youngest class,” Utahime answered honestly.

A smile flickered on Mai’s face, but it lacked the warmth most people showed. “Still a teacher no matter where you are, huh?”

“I’ll always consider you one of my students no matter what,” Utahime told her. “And I can admit that I failed you as a teacher.”

Mai shrugged. “You might be the only one to admit that, so gee, thanks.”

“Gojo thinks I can be useful as a teacher here,” Utahime explained matter-of-factly, “but I can’t do anything if I’m stuck observing with my hands tied behind my back, just like I was with the higher-ups.” She held out a hand. “Unfortunately for me, Geto is the one more involved in the lessons, so if I want to do anything, I have to go through him.”

“And it’ll appeal to his ego too if you skip going through Gojo,” Mai added.

Utahime smiled and nodded. “It will, and his ego has apparently gotten worse since I knew him.” She folded her hands into her lap, trying not to nervously fiddle with her fingers, but her stomach was tied up in knots. “It’s only been a week, and I’m already tired of being a toy for Gojo and Geto to fight over. Geto will never respect me if he continues to see me as Gojo’s plaything, which means I can’t hide behind him. To be honest, I doubt he ever will, but it’ll be better than him thinking I’m some weak, stupid floozy.”

“If he does,” Mai said, picking up a piece of food between her fingers, “he’s an idiot.” She plopped the food into her mouth, chewing and then swallowing it down. “You didn’t survive as our teacher for even that long without some skill. Every day was a battle for you, even before Gojo turned.”

Shaking her head, Utahime sighed, “Not that they would understand. The world was in the palm of their hands right from the beginning, ready for the taking.”

“And you as well,” Mai added teasingly. “How is that going with Gojo, by the way?”

Utahime rolled her eyes. “He’s an annoying, egotistical man. What do you think?”

“Some might say his fierce desire for you is romantic,” Mai pointed out. “I don’t know. I never got the obsession appeal, you know? And it must put a damper on things when you have to share him.”

Honestly, Utahime couldn’t picture anything else when it came to Gojo. Not a single person could fully have that man, not even Geto. Even though they were equals in many respects, Gojo was still on a completely different level from everyone else. A part of him would always belong to something else – to someone else – and to...care for him in any respect meant understanding that as well. He wanted her completely, but she would’ve had to share him no matter the circumstances.

“Well, if you wanna chat with Geto, he’s most likely in his office right now,” Mai said. “That’s his little hideaway from everyone, including Gojo.”

Utahime hummed, considering the younger girl carefully. “You know a lot about this place, don’t you?”

Mai simply looked back at her. “I know enough to survive. You taught me that.”

With their dinner finished, Utahime gathered their plates and piled them up, Mai assuring her that a servant would have them cleared by the time they returned. Utahime took one last look at the mess she’d left behind and then followed Mai out of her room.

Walking around the compound with Mai was much different than it was with Yuta or Gojo. She was familiar with the people here, but not in the way Gojo was. They didn’t flock to her and some didn’t bother with any sort of respect, but they did acknowledge her. She wasn’t cruel to the non-sorcerers either – or, at least, her tongue was as sharp with other sorcerers as it was with them – and she did not grovel or show deference to sorcerers with more cursed energy.

Mai was simply another part of the movement, a cog in the machine, although Utahime noticed that everyone seemed to perk up and started working harder when they saw her. She eyed sorcerers and non-sorcerers alike with mostly a bored look, thoroughly unimpressed with everyone here, but at least she was at ease, not a hint of tension in her body as she walked.

Once they reached an ornate wooden door, Mai stopped and gestured toward it. “And here we are. I’ll make your presence known, but I’m staying out here.” When Utahime gave her a questioning look, Mai wrinkled her nose. “He sometimes lets his curses wander around the room. It’s not very pleasant.”

“Right, of course.” Utahime rolled her eyes. “It’s his world.”

“Isn’t this all his world?” Mai asked right before she knocked sharply on the door. “Geto, if you’re in there, you have a visitor.”

A few seconds later, Geto’s muffled voice responded, “Unless it’s a dire situation, Mai, tell them I’m not interested.”

“Oh, I think you will be,” Mai replied in a singsong tone.

There was a pause where Geto was probably thinking about what to do and then, “Let them in.”

Mai twisted the knob without resistance – it hadn’t been locked – and then gave Utahime one last look as if to ask her whether she’d reconsidered her desire to see Geto. She didn’t want to see him, if she was being honest, but she needed to do this. Geto thought she was a useless distraction for Gojo, but she had chosen to be here. Yes, it had been under duress and certainly manipulation, but she would see this through. She nodded, let Mai open the door, and stepped inside.

Geto’s dark eyes instantly lit him the moment they fell upon her. “Utahime, this is interesting.”

“Glad I could meet your approval for once,” Utahime huffed as the door shut behind her.

Propping an elbow on his desk, Geto rested his cheek on his fist. “To what do I owe the pleasure of your company tonight?” His eyes glittered dangerously as a smile tugged at his lips. “I thought you’d be busy warming Gojo’s bed at this hour.”

“And I thought he’d be warming yours.”

The smile fell from Geto’s lips as he rolled his eyes. “He’s being a difficult brat, as usual. I don’t know why I expect anything different from him. I’m sure you can understand that.”

Yes, she could. If there was one constant in her life aside from jujutsu, it was that Gojo would always be a damn brat, no matter what side he was on. His power allowed him to be one and act however he wanted, and he so enjoyed driving people mad, even those closest to him. Despite leading a worldwide reformation with him, Geto was not exempt from this treatment.

“No matter,” Utahime sighed. She wasn’t about to start trying to figure out why Gojo did what he did, but it worked in her favor. She’d been worried that he might be with Geto, but it turned out he was still intent on torturing him a little longer. “I’m here to see you, not him.”

“Me?” Geto clicked his tongue. “I’m going to assume Gojo doesn’t know.”

“It doesn’t have anything to do with him, so no, he doesn’t,” Utahime responded evenly.

Curiosity was clearly evident in his eyes, but he kept his face passive. “I have to admit: I didn’t expect you to undermine him so quickly. Tired of him already? Want to go home?”

“Actually, I had some questions about the classes,” Utahime said. “I’ve been watching them the past week, but I was able to sit in on one today. It was very...enlightening.”

Geto leaned back in his chair behind his desk, eyeing her very intently, but Utahime didn’t move from her spot, even if she felt like he was trying to dissect her with his sharp gaze. His ego might have been different from Gojo’s, but it was just as easily affected. This group had started with him. He’d built it from scratch with Gojo’s help. To put it mildly, it was his passion project, every inch of it stamped with his involvement, but none more so than the lessons being taught to the young sorcerers in their group.

“What did you think?” Geto asked.

“I was jealous,” Utahime answered honestly. “The guidance, care, attention to detail, the ability to help them grow on a deeper level – I wish I could do that for my own students instead of pushing them into…soldiers.”

It was painful to admit something like that, but it was the truth. Before she had asked Mai to bring her here, Utahime had talked with her about her own experiences here. After all, she was the same age as those kids she’d been watching during a practical lesson. She could have (and perhaps should have) been out there with them. Mai had spoken about her firsthand experience in how different things were. While she’d genuinely not begrudged Utahime for how harsh things had been, she did say upfront that she much preferred it here.

Instead of being forced to grow – instead of being dragged to the edge every day – she could grow at her own pace, one that actually made her feel stronger in the end and more comfortable with her own ability. Utahime’s mind drifted to the dagger Mai had created and twirled between her fingers. It was bigger than anything she’d ever created with her technique that Utahime had seen.

“I especially appreciated the lessons with the younger groups,” Utahime continued, trying to remain as professional as possible. She wouldn’t get emotional in front of Geto like she had Gojo. That had been a blunder as it was, but she couldn’t afford to make the same mistake twice. She hated it enough when Gojo used her emotional outbursts against her. “It’s something we’ve only started doing recently, but it’s not nearly as structured as it is here. This felt like an actual class – not just the standard school lessons. Teaching them control and nurturing their abilities when they first start manifesting seems so logical and yet…”

“And yet we never did it,” Geto finished for her. “It was as if only those that were strong enough to survive on their own could attend school to further their training.” He drummed his fingers along the edge of his desk. “Do you ever wonder how many didn’t make it? The classes were small each year, but we both know there are far more people with cursed energy and techniques. It doesn’t make sense.”

Utahime let out a breath. “How many did we leave behind?”

"We were raised to just be tools – brought in when the higher-ups decided we could be of use to protect the status quo and protect people that would never acknowledge or appreciate us,” Geto said firmly. “We were just weapons with triggers to be pulled, to do what we were told, to never question.” He leaned forward, resting his forearms on his desk. “I won’t let that happen, not anymore.”

“Are they not weapons for your cause here?” Utahime countered, careful not to allow any anger to bleed into her voice.

“Only if they want to be,” Geto replied, thankfully not insulted. “You spoke with Mai, didn’t you?”

For the first time, Mai had been given a choice about what she wanted to do and how she wanted to live her life. She could progress with her abilities, but she didn’t have to push herself the way she would have had she stayed with them. She also didn’t have to be subservient and demean herself in order to survive as she had with her clan. Geto and Gojo really had begun to create a world in which so many people like Mai could grow at their own rate instead of being pushed.

“I noticed, in the class that I sat in on, it’s hard for the teacher to give individual attention to the children during lessons about their techniques,” Utahime continued. This wasn’t meant to be an argument with Geto, not like she’d done with Gojo. She couldn’t combat him. If she wanted to do something here, she’d have to work with Geto. She didn’t enjoy that prospect but also knew there wasn’t a way around it.

“Anyone you noticed in particular?” Geto asked, although judging by the look on his face, he already knew the answer.

“Jiro and Hifumi,” Utahime responded without hesitation.

Geto let out a little, amused huff. “Well, I suppose it’s only fitting that it’s the two children that had a hand in bringing you here to us.”

“I spoke with their teacher,” Utahime continued. “He’s been struggling to get them to respond to any sort of lessons, especially concerning cursed energy and techniques. They’re either completely non-responsive or act out, likely due to the...nature of their upbringing.”

“You mean lack thereof?” Geto shot back casually. “Their parents locked them up. It’s a wonder they even bothered feeding them.”

Utahime pressed her lips into a thin line. No doubt their parents were now dead. Geto wouldn’t have spared them for their horrible treatment. As non-sorcerers themselves, they would’ve been killed anyway for getting in his way, but she had a feeling that he’d spared even less mercy than usual for them. Had he done it in front of the children so they’d know their parents were for sure gone and would never hurt them again or had he thought sparing them such a brutal sight would be better?

She could only hope it was the latter, if only because they were children. He was probably sad to have missed the opportunity to do something like that in front of her.

“On top of that, the other children are leery about their curses,” Utahime added warily. “They’re very attached to them and even only interact with them, speaking to them instead of their teacher when asked direct questions.”

Geto stopped tapping his fingers. “Do you think we should separate them so the other children are more comfortable?” He brought his fingers to his lips instead, dragging her attention to his mouth and bringing his own technique to mind. “They do seem co-dependent, perhaps in an unhealthy way. It might be hard for them to grow on their own if they continue with that relationship.”

“I think…” Utahime hesitated, then forced herself to continue. “I think that might hurt them more than help them right now. They’ve never had a life like this. They don’t know how to function.”

“Gojo was right about that bleeding heart of yours,” Geto teased. “You’ve been kidnapped by the other side, and here you are worrying about children.”

Utahime steeled herself and planted her hands on her hips. “Mock me all you want, Geto. I don’t care. I don’t like to see suffering on either side, especially when it comes to those who never had a choice or a chance.”

Geto waved a dismissive hand at her. “No need to get so worked up. I’m not insulting you.” She fought the urge to roll her eyes. She highly doubted that. “What do you want to do?”

“Well, I spoke with their teacher during lunch, and I thought I could, perhaps, work with them separately,” Utahime said. She shifted awkwardly on her feet and fiddled with her fingers in her sleeves, unable to hide her nerves. “With your permission, of course. This is your place, and I know that I’m still, well… I’m still the enemy, right? It’s not like I’m trying to influence them differently. I just want to do something worthwhile, and if I can help them…”

“If you help them, you’ll set aside your feelings against us?” Geto finished for her. He stood up from his chair and then walked around the desk, resting on the edge and folding his arms across his chest. “You’ll ignore the fact that we advocate the murder or slavery of non-sorcerers in order to teach them? How cold of you.”

Utahime dropped her hands to her sides. “They’re not the enemy here, and I will…” She swallowed and looked away in shame. “I will admit that their lives are better here than they would’ve been had I taken them in for my side. They have a chance here that I wouldn’t have been able to give them no matter what.”

“It’s not your fault,” Geto told her. “It’s not like you were allowed to teach the way you wanted or even given a chance to try.” He considered her once more, and Utahime knew she couldn’t squirm or falter now. She had to meet him head-on or he would never listen. “Can I trust you though? Who’s to say you won’t try to influence them against us?”

“As if I could do that right under your nose,” Utahime said flatly. “You can watch for all I care. How did they react when you took them? Are they comfortable with you?”

A strange look flickered across Geto’s face. “I don’t know if they’re comfortable with anyone. I hoped with my curses, but…”

“But they haven’t been given a reason to have faith or trust in anyone,” Utahime sighed. “I’d like to try, if you’re okay with it. There’s really not much else for me to do, and…” She gestured vaguely. “I guess I do have a bleeding heart. You can’t blame me for that. It’s been wounded enough in these past few years.”

“How sad,” Geto said, although he didn’t sound particularly sad about it. “I suppose I could give you a chance. I could at least find out for myself if you’re useful like Gojo insists. Everyone has their role here, so no matter your circumstances, you should strive to be more than Gojo’s flavor of the month.”

“Why do you think I’m here speaking with you and not going to him?” Utahime demanded. “And would you please stop describing me like that? I’m not just one of Gojo’s fangirls.”

Geto chuckled. “Of course not.”

Utahime scoffed. “Grown men and you’re still acting like boys with egos too big for their heads. I don’t want to be involved in one of your stupid games.”

“You don’t have much of a choice,” Geto pointed out. “It’s not fair, I’ll admit it. Gojo dragged you into this without really asking if you wanted to play, but then again…” He smiled, though it didn’t reach his eyes. “You’ve honestly been involved since he laid his eyes on you, whether you realized it or not.”

As loathed as she was to admit it, Geto probably wasn’t wrong. Anyone in Gojo’s life was dragged into his chaos no matter how far they tried to stay away. He was a tornado, leaving destruction and ruin in his wake, and everyone else was the debris he ripped from the ground, the collateral damage. Once you got too close to it, there was no avoiding the changes he’d have on your life. He was too powerful, too important, too much of everything.

No one could survive him unscathed, not even Geto.

“Do I have your permission to work with the children or not?” Utahime questioned. “You don’t have to trust me – and, if we’re being honest, I don’t trust you – but I’d like to think we could at least come to an understanding for their sakes.”

“You’ll have to work closely with their curses,” Geto told her. “It’s not just their techniques tied to them; their souls are tied to them as well.”

“I know that,” Utahime stated. “It doesn’t bother me.”

Geto raised an eyebrow. “It doesn’t?”

She opened her mouth to argue with him again, but then a cold, terrible feeling washed over her from behind, an overwhelming shadow of darkness creeping in on her. It was disgusting, and she struggled not to choke on the sensation. Her heart shot into her throat, and her fingers twitched nervously at her side as it grew even worse, an unnatural fear freezing her on the spot. She knew this sensation well. As a sorcerer, she’d encountered it many times.

It was a feeling she had long associated with Geto – that rotting, overwhelming darkness that came from one of his stronger curses.

A large hand – no, claw – planted itself on the ground at her side, the wood straining under the weight of the massive curse that Geto had allowed to come out from behind her. The low growl in her ear was threatening, her hair blowing over her shoulder as it let out of a huff. From the corners of her eyes, she caught a glimpse of sharp teeth that could cut through her just as easily as the nails scratching the floor.

“Are you sure?” Geto asked again, a little smile on his face.

Utahime closed her eyes and let out a shaky breath. Was she sure? Well, those childrens’ curses weren’t as big as this one, but there was a very high possibility that they could be one day, growing just as much as the curse users they were attached to. How much had she been willing to live with in order to teach her students? How much of herself had she given up and sacrificed just to stay with them a little longer in an attempt to protect them?

When she opened her eyes again, Utahime turned her head to face the curse. It was a monstrous thing that looked like a cross between a werewolf and a komodo dragon, its massive body covered in patches of fur and scales, ugly in a way that could only be described as nightmare-ish. She had to wonder how many sorcerers had died in its powerful jaw – how much havoc Geto had commanded it to wreak. It didn’t belong in a room like this, too overwhelming, too large for such a small, domestic space.

She lifted a delicate hand, the sleeve of her shirt rolling back to expose her thin, pale wrist, and scratched the curse under its jaw like she would a dog, and the curse almost purred.

“I think I’ll be okay,” Utahime mused.

When her eyes flickered back to Geto, she was caught off guard by the intense look on his face, catching herself at the last second to remain impassive. The only person she could ever remember him looking like that for was Gojo, and even then, it was only under extreme circumstances. Being under such an intense, unreadable gaze now was unsettling, and so she pulled her fingers away from the curse, her hand falling to her side. Maybe that had been a mistake. Had she crossed the line too far with him?

“Geto?” Utahime prompted warily.

Instead of responding to her, Geto waved a hand, and the curse went away, taking the powerful and sickening feelings with it. She kept her shoulders from sinking with relief. As calm as she’d pretended to be, her heart had been racing, and she had worried for a moment that he might command it to bite her hand off.

Turning his back on her and resting his hands on the desk, Geto said, “You have my permission to work with the children.”

Utahime bowed politely. “Thank you.”

Geto cast her a look over his shoulder. “I’ll be checking in on you, of course.”

“I expect nothing less from someone so involved in their followers,” Utahime responded, maybe a hint dryly.

“They won’t be used to kindness,” Geto told her, his tone strangely off. “They might even resent you for it – maybe think you believe them weak or you’re deceiving them.”

“Is that what it was like for you?” Utahime asked.

Geto’s eyes sharpened, warning flashing in his eyes. Ah, there was the line. “Get out.”

Utahime didn’t need to be told twice. She bowed once again, this time more apologetic, and then all but escaped the room. It felt like it was by the skin of her teeth, like Geto was close to cutting her down on the spot, Gojo be damned. She’d have to be extra careful around him the next time they crossed paths. It would be annoying as hell, but Utahime knew better than to speak and act with Geto the same way as she did with Gojo. They were different.

Gojo wanted her here. Geto wanted her gone.

Mai was leaning against the wall across from the door, her cellphone in her hands. “You okay?”

“Um, yes, I’m fine,” Utahime replied distractedly, her hands clenching and unclenching at her sides. She took a deep breath and shook her head. “Do you think we can stop by the kitchen and get some tea? I know it’s late, but...”

“Eh, they’re used to it,” Mai said, slipping her phone in her pocket. “You aren’t the only one struggling to sleep here. Yuta’s particularly fond of haunting the kitchen at this hour.”

Needing a distraction from what had just occurred, Utahime noted, “You two seem close.”

Mai didn’t look at her – didn’t even snort, scoff, or throw out a mocking comment. She just said, “We made a promise,” and that was that. It was about as honest of an admission as Utahime would ever get from her, so she appreciated it.

For the rest of the walk and even once they were in the kitchen, Utahime stayed relatively quiet. She could sense Mai’s curiosity in the way her eyes kept roving over her, but Utahime didn’t say a word. As powerful as it had been, no doubt Mai had sensed Geto’s curse from outside the office, so she had to know something had happened, especially since Utahime had practically rushed out of the room shortly after, but she didn’t ask either.

Instead, they sipped their tea, Utahime staring out the window blankly. Out here in the middle of nowhere, the moon and stars could easily be seen, so different from the city. It was beautiful, filled with a sort of innocent hope that she’d not felt since she was a child.

She wished she could feel it here, just like the children she’d watched today.

Chapter Text

When Utahime explained her plans for the day, Yuta’s eyes lit up with interest. It was a different emotion from him, making him look years younger – or, well, closer to his age. She’d grown used to his nervous, quiet nature or how he flushed with embarrassment or a blink in confusion, so it was nice to see him respond in a more positive manner.

“You’re going to teach?” Yuta asked as they walked towards the classrooms.

“Well, not exactly,” Utahime told him. “I’m just going to work with the two new students.”

“Oh, the ones that came the same day as you.”

Utahime opened her mouth, but then simply nodded. Geto had taken them in the same day Gojo had brought her here, yes, and Yuta’s knowledge of that must have meant he’d at least seen them. Maybe he’d grown curious due to the curses attached to them. It would make sense. He must have wondered about other sorcerers like him – other curse users. Geto worked with curses, used them, but he didn’t live with them in the same way as Yuta or those children.

“Have you met them?” Utahime asked.

“Um, no,” Yuta replied, averting his gaze. “Kids don’t really…”

“They’re afraid of Rika?” Utahime finished for him.

Yuta let out a sigh. “It’s not their fault. She’s...well, she’s big. Unless I need her, she stays out of sight, but kids are most sensitive to curse energy, so they can still sense her.” He reached up over his shoulder and fiddled with the sword case on his back, readjusting it slightly. “An-and my own. I still have trouble...controlling it.”

“You have quite a bit, that’s for sure.” Utahime gave him a soft smile and added, “But I find it more comforting than threatening.” He peered at her sideways. “You don’t wield your curse energy the same way Geto and Gojo do. It’s…protective.”

A confused look fell over Yuta’s face before it transformed into something appreciative and warm. Even a faint smile touched his lips as he stared at the ground ahead and continued to walk in silence. It must be hard on him, she couldn’t help but think, always being used as a weapon, a sword, a monster. Although she’d seen how cold he could be when he confronted that other curse user, she didn’t know just how dangerous he was. It was hard to reconcile both sides of him when she’d only really seen one.

But then there was the dead way he’d looked at Negi and Mai’s teasing words flashing in her mind: “Underneath that baby face is a ruthless killer.”

She didn’t think he was ruthless, however. It had to be chipping away at him, and if he didn’t turn himself into stone, it’d tear him apart.

“They might be interested in meeting you,” Utahime pointed out.

Yuta shook his head. “I don’t want to scare them any more than they already are.”

“So you have seen them.”

Realizing he’d exposed his hand, Yuta hesitated, his eyes flickering to her and then forward again. “I’ve...seen them around. Curses don’t walk around here freely unless Geto lets them, and they’re usually his then. They mostly patrol the perimeter, however, so when I saw the two curses following those kids…”

“You got curious.”

Shrugging, Yuta admitted, “Yeah, it was weird. Geto uses curses with his technique, but he doesn’t really…” He held out his hand. “Rika isn’t a tool or weapon to me. She’s a part of me, and I’m a part of her. When I saw those kids clinging to their curses, I felt like...like I understood them. That was me when I was a kid – scared, alone, confused.” He frowned, his dark eyes sad. “No one went near them. I watched at least ten other sorcerers just ignore them and give them more space than needed.”

Utahime put a hand on his shoulder. “Well, I’m not going to ignore them. I’m going to work with them – and their curses – and I think you might be able to help.”

Rubbing his arm, Yuta sighed, “I don’t know…”

“If you’re uncomfortable or they are, you can leave,” Utahime told him, “but even their teacher said they reminded him of you. Maybe they might feel better knowing they aren’t alone – and seeing what they can accomplish.”

She watched him consider her words and then looked ahead, giving him the space and time to think about it on his own. Yuta was isolated from so many of the other sorcerers here. Be it fear, hate, discomfort, misunderstanding, and even jealousy, she could sense how far removed he was from the others. Aside from Mai and Gojo, both of whom treated him as if he was perfectly normal, she worried that he didn’t have any friends. It wasn’t right, especially when she could sense he had a good, kind heart even after being alone for so long.

Yuta was incredibly strong – far stronger than almost all the sorcerers and curse users that she’d ever met – but he didn’t believe in himself or his strength. If she had to make this a lesson for him too, then she’d do it. Not that she wanted someone on the opposite side to be even stronger, but…

Oh, she didn’t know. She liked the kid and wanted him to smile more. She didn’t want him to feel like he was just a sword to cut down other people, not when she knew he could be better.

Once they reached the classroom, Utahime politely knocked on the door and waited until the teacher called for her to come in. Behind her, Yuta shifted on his feet, nervousness written all over his face. She gestured for him to breathe, and he did so. After he wiped his face clean of anxiety, she pushed the door open and stepped inside.

“Good morning, everyone!” Utahime greeted the class brightly.

“What do we say in return?” the teacher prompted.

A chorus of “Hello, Miss Iori” followed with varying degrees of enthusiasm. She didn’t have pockets full of sweets like Gojo, and the children knew she was here to work. A few of them eyed Yuta behind her, some kids squirming in their seats. He stared up at the ceiling, trying very hard to appear even smaller than he was.

The teacher gave him a wary look but then stopped at two desks in the back. “Do you remember what we talked about?”

The boy stared back blankly, petting the curse in his lap, while the girl huffed out a simple, “Yah.” Her curse dug its claws in the desk, scratching at the wood. The teacher didn’t hide their wince well enough, and a smile flickered on the girl’s face before she could hide it. Without any further discussion, they got up from their desks and walked through the open door into the side room, their sneakers scuffing along the floor.

“Thanks,” Utahime said as she followed them. “I’ll let you know if we need anything.” She waved at Yuta, who was still lingering at the door. “Come on.”

Taking another quick breath, Yuta finally moved and followed her into the room. It was spacious and bright, filled with natural light from the large windows on one wall. She watched the children drag the two desks and chairs to a dark corner of the room where their curses were hunkered down. Not that sunlight hurt curses, but they weren’t always fond of them. Plus, Geto wasn’t the only one that knew a little about their history.

Their parents had kept the children and their curses locked up in the basement where only a small window had provided natural light. It had been cold, wet, and dark down there, and they’d perhaps grown used to it, comfortable with it even, to the point where such brightness hindered them.

Without a word, Utahime turned to the windows and shut the curtains. They didn’t block out the sunlight entirely, but it did dim the room, and the children immediately stopped what they were doing and watched her with vague interest. Turning back to them, Utahime asked, “Is that better?”

Jiro and Hifumi glanced at each other, then their curses at their feet, and once again, Hifumi answered, “Yah.”

There was a small table and a chair where she could sit, probably placed here by the teacher, but Utahime ignored them. The structure of a classroom hadn’t been helping them before. Instead, she crouched down in the middle of the room, swept the floor with her hand, and then sat down. A little more than confused, the children looked at each other again. This time, Jiro moved first, although he sat down a little away from her. Hifumi frowned but then begrudgingly followed and sat down beside him.

“It didn’t look like you enjoyed the class much,” Utahime started, “so I’m here to help, okay?”

Hifumi folded her arms across her chest. “You our teacher now?”

“If you want me to be after today, yes,” Utahime replied. “I thought you and your curses might feel a little more comfortable outside of the classroom – with a little more space and privacy.” Sorcerers and curses weren’t meant for cages, and it was all they’d known so far in their young lives. They needed more freedom. “You haven’t used your curse techniques since you joined the class. Do you not want to show them in front of the other kids?”

Twisting her lips, Hifumi muttered, “They don’t like our curses.”

“Well, most people are afraid of curses, but people are often scared of things they don’t understand,” Utahime explained. Hifumi glanced at her for the first time, a strange look in her eyes. Recognition? “I’m here to understand, so I can help you.” She gestured to the curses that had crawled into their laps, both of which eyed her in a way that looked like hunger. They looked the part, all four of them – scrawny, pale things that knew starvation on a level most people could never comprehend. “What are their names?”

Hifumi’s hold on her curse tightened. “Their names?”

“Did you and your brother come up with something to call them?” Utahime prompted.

“They got their own names,” Hifumi snapped.

Utahime held up her hands. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know. I’m not as familiar with curses as you are.”

“We’re not tellin’ their names,” Hifumi told her tartly. “‘Cause you kill curses, right? And you gotta know somethin’s name to really kill ‘em.”

“I do,” Utahime admitted. Jiro buried his face into his curse, the thing squirming in his arms but not attacking him or whining to be let go. It wasn’t like a pet. No, just as Yuta said with Rika, the curses felt like they were part of the children. “When it’s necessary, of course, like when they hurt people or cause damage.”

“They haven’t hurt no one,” Jiro mumbled, the first words she’d heard him speak so far.

Hifumi’s lip curled into a sneer. “But they can if we ask ‘em too. Can’t we? They’re not weak.”

“And you aren’t either, are you?” Utahime asked. “It takes a lot of curse energy to” – not control, not like Geto – “work with curses. It’s hard to use your own, but to be able to use theirs as well, to work alongside them, is very hard to do. You have to be really strong to do that.”

A glimmer of pride crossed Hifumi’s face, and she muttered, “See,” while elbowing her brother’s side. The curse in her arms let out a strange warbling sound, almost as if it was agreeing with her. Maybe it was. Curses varied in intelligence, and special grade ones were capable of communicating with humans. These were young curses, almost infantile, but she could sense their intelligence in the way they watched her and responded to the children.

“Yuta can do that too,” Utahime added, gesturing to Yuta. He was leaning against the wall opposite of the door, as far from the classroom as he could be.

Jiro lifted his eyes but didn’t move his head from on top of his curse. “You can?”

“Duh.” Hifumi rolled her eyes. “He feels all weird, don’t he?”

“Like us,” Jiro mumbled.

“Where’s your curse?” Hifumi demanded, her tone and expression equally aggressive.

On the other hand, Yuta appeared startled, his eyes wide and mouth partially open. “Um…” He gestured vaguely. “She’s around. She doesn’t...normally come out unless I need her.”

“You just hide her all the time?” Hifumi sniffed and looked away. “That’s mean.”

“I-I don’t–” Yuta glanced down at his hands. “She’s too big to walk around like yours. I wish she could, but other people wouldn’t…” His shoulders dropped. “It’s safer to hide sometimes.”

“How big?” Hifumi asked.

Yuta held out his hands. “Taller than the building.”

Hifumi turned to Utahime. “Can ours get that big?”

“They can get bigger,” Utahime explained, “but not as big as Yuta’s curse. Yours are very special, but his curse is different.”

She had known that Yuta’s Rika was a massive curse, only having felt a part of her, but she honestly hadn’t realized Rika was that big. Judging by Yuta’s noncommittal response, Utahime had a feeling she was even more massive than he’d suggested, toned down to not scare the kids. Hifumi seemed to know he was downplaying his curse on some level, eyeing him with a mixture of curiosity and animosity, but that was normal. They’d never encountered anyone like them before.

“You said she,” Hifumi continued. “She got a name?”

Yuta nodded. “Rika – she was born with hers too, back when she...when she was a human.”

Jiro’s curse shifted in his arms and made a noise that almost sounded like a voice. He turned his head to press his ear closer to the curse’s mouth, unafraid of its sharp teeth. When the curse was done with whatever it had to say, Jiro lifted his head and said, “You cursed her?”

“Yes.” Yuta swallowed. “I was your age when it happened. My best friend died, and I…”

Jiro smoothed his hand down his curse’s rough back. “That’s sad.”

“We didn’t curse ours,” Hifumi stated.

“Then how did you come to be friends with them?” Utahime asked.

Hifumi shrugged. “Dunno. They just showed up when we were babies.” She wrinkled her nose, angry and petulant. “Mami said they crawled in our cribs and they thought they were gonna eat us, but they just slept next to us and never left. Always been by our sides, haven’t they, no matter what.” Tears burned at the edges of her eyes, and she looked away when she caught eyes with Utahime and knew she’d been caught. “They could’ve. They could’ve run away, but they didn’t.”

“They didn’t want to leave you behind,” Utahime said gently. “They care about you.”

“People think they’re scary,” Hifumi said angrily. “But they aren’t. They’re nicer than people. I never met a nice person. They’re mean and nasty and hurt us.”

“What about the man who found you and brought you here?” Utahime asked carefully.

Jiro clung to his curse tighter. “Geto.”

“Did he scare you?”

“He’s not just a person,” Hifumi stated matter-of-factly. “He told us he was a sorcerer, and we are too. That’s why people were mean to us. They’re monkeys and hate things they’re afraid of, but we’re special, so we had to come with him.”

Utahime frowned. “We don’t call non-sorcerers monkeys.”

“That’s what Geto called ‘em,” Hifumi said, sticking out her tongue. Her curse did the same, its tongue lolling out as its lips curled into a mocking grin. “Monkeys, monkeys, monkeys. That’s what Mami and Soma were, and that’s why Geto got rid of them. Monkeys don’t deserve to live unless they listen and do what they’re told.”

Jiro slapped his hands over his ears, his curse growing more agitated in his lap. “Stop it!”

“Stop,” Utahime told her. “You’re upsetting your brother.”

Instead of listening, Hijumi jumped to her feet, snarling at her twin. “You were too scared to watch, but I wasn’t. I watched. Geto’s curses got ‘em. Ate ‘em right up.” 

Horror dumped over Utahime like a bucket of cold water, but she kept a steady expression on her face. So her fears had been right. Geto had killed their parents in front of them – or maybe he had tried to shield them and Hifumi had taken a look anyway. Regardless, his actions and words had clearly left an impact on them, especially Hifumi, whose eyes were wild and bright. Her curse was standing up as well, the spikes standing up on its back and teeth bared.

“That’s enough, Hifumi.”

“And that’s what our curses can do,” Hifumi continued, turning on Utahime. She was panting, manic, her body trembling. “They can eat all the monkeys, and then no one will hurt us ever again! Never, never, never!”

Objects in the room began to rattle as her curse energy grew around her. Utahime didn’t move from her spot on the floor, her eyes on the two children, watching the flow of energy between them and the curses. No… It wasn’t Hifumi’s curse energy that was causing a disturbance in the room. Despite her agitated state and her curse growing in size, it was Jiro’s and his curse’s energy that was shaking everything in the room. A chair crashed into a wall, wooden shards flying everywhere. Yuta stirred from his spot, ready to do something, but Utahime held up a hand.

“We can make our curses do whatever we want,” Hifumi said decisively. “They’re gonna eat all the monkeys up and be big and strong. That’s what Geto told us, and my curse said he’ll do it. He’ll bite anyone that tries to hurt us and they’ll get sick and die! Die, die, die!”

Jiro’s curse whined loudly while he wailed, “Stop it!” A desk scraped loudly against the floor, crashing into the other. “Stop–”

Utahime took a breath. All things considered, her curse technique wasn’t that powerful. It wasn’t a force to be reckoned with in a battle; she couldn’t wield it like a weapon, not like Gojo could with Limitless. It couldn’t be seen in action like Megumi’s Ten Shadows or Nobara’s hammer and nail technique. She wasn’t inherently strong like Maki or Yuuji. Back when they were teenagers, Gojo used to call it “cute,” which she knew damn well wasn’t a compliment.

“You fighting a curse or practicing for karaoke night?” he’d teased with a mocking laugh.

People could be cruel in this world, non-sorcerers and sorcerers alike.

It used to bother her. People couldn’t help what type of techniques they were born with; all they could do was learn how to use them. She’d learned, grueling lessons drilled into her mind again and again, her body wounded when she struggled to use it in a fight. It wasn’t impressive by any means, but it did the job in a pinch, and so she opened her mouth and began to softly sing a song from before the world broke.

I look at you all, see the love there that’s sleeping, while my guitar gently weeps.

The objects in the room stopped shaking. When Hifumi and her curse stilled and went silent, Jiro pulled his hands away from his ears and looked up at her, his watery eyes wide and frightened. Hifumi stared at her with a strange look on her face, confused and unable to move. Utahime watched the flow of their curse energy, the way it flickered like two twin flames on a candle, connecting and then separating.

I look at the floor and I see it needs sleeping.” Utahime turned her head and swept a hand over the floor, both the twins and the curses captivated as they watched her every movement. “Still my guitar gently weeps.

The curse energy around them dimmed into dull flames. The curses swayed to the gentle notes of her voice, lulled into a complacent state. Her curse technique didn’t necessarily require her to sing an actual song, but she’d found it easier to maintain control if she did, especially depending on what she sang and how she sang it. Hifumi’s eyelids dropped, and she staggered forward, her knees bending until she was sitting on her legs near Utahime. Jiro let go of his curse, and the little thing slithered over, the boy following it clumsily on his hands and knees.

Utahime cupped Jiro’s cheek with one hand, taking in the dazed and peaceful look on his face. “I don’t know why nobody told you,” she sang to him warmly, “how to unfold your love.

Hifumi made a soft, protesting sound before she fell forward, resting her cheek on Utahime’s leg. Her curse curled up in a ball and pressed itself into her chest, allowing Hifumi to wrap her arms around it protectively. Even Yuta had gone still and silent, and she could sense that his own curse energy had faded.

Laying a gentle hand on Hifumi’s back, Utahime soothed, “I don’t know how someone controlled you; they bought and sold you.” Hifumi hiccuped in a tiny cry, and Jiro laid down as well, a mirror image of his sister with his curse in his arms. Utahime lowered her voice into little more than a whisper, her curse energy wafting over them like a breath of air or maybe a calming blanket. “I look at the world and I notice it’s turning, while my guitar gently weeps…

When she finished, the two children and their curses were calm, their breaths steady, eyes still open as they lay peacefully. Utahime hadn’t used the extent of her ability, or they would’ve fallen asleep a lot quicker, but that hadn’t been her intention. No, she’d only wanted to calm them down. They were completely unable to control their curse energy and, considering what Hifumi had said about her curse, it could perhaps cause their curses to lash out and hurt someone.

“I’m sorry for using my technique on you,” Utahime told the children as she rubbed their backs. They were staring at each other, but for the first time since she’d seen them (and maybe in their lives), they were at peace. “And I’m sorry for what you went through. I know words mean nothing. You were hurt, betrayed, and abandoned by people that should’ve loved you, and we can only do so much to make up for that, but I want to help you. I’m not afraid of you, and I won’t abandon you, I swear on my heart.”

Both children were silent for a while. Utahime let out a breath, her hands drawing gentle circles on their backs. Even their curses cooed, reminding her of baby birds. It was weird, being this close to curses without feeling any sort of animosity from them, but Utahime knew better than to try to touch them as she’d done Geto’s curse last night. She’d had to cross the line with him to get her point across, but it wouldn’t work the same here.

“His name is Kazuki,” Hifumi suddenly said, digging her fingers into her curse’s fur. She looked up to Utahime without moving her head, her eyes covered in a film of tears. “You promise you won’t take him away?”

“I promise,” Utahime said without hesitation. Jiro didn’t say anything, his face buried into his curse’s body, but he didn’t need to tell her yet if he wasn’t comfortable. She could be patient and wait as long as he needed to open up.

Behind her, Yuta stirred and walked over to them, crouching down to her level beside her. “That was…”

Utahime smiled weakly. “I know it’s not much, but…”

“No, I thought–” Yuta held out a hand and then carefully pat Hifumi on the head. “I thought it was beautiful.” Warmth blossomed in Utahime’s chest, but she could tell he wasn’t done, so she waited. He swallowed thickly. “I see myself in them – both sides, the fear and anger. It feels like I’m fighting them all the time, and I never win.”

“You’re not alone either, you know,” Utahime pointed out.

“No, I-I know.” Yuta took a breath. “Thank you for reminding me.”

“Miss Iori?” Jiro asked.

Utahime gazed back down at him. “Yes?”

Jiro reached out at the same time as Hifumi, their fingers interlocking. “Can we stay here a while? We don’t wanna go back to the classroom.”

“Of course you can,” Utahime told them. “We can come back here for lessons if you want – or maybe even go outside. Would you all like that?”

Hifumi’s lips twitched upward. “Yah, outside sounds nice.”

“Can you sing again?” Jiro asked. “They liked it. You have a pretty voice.”

Chuckling under her breath, Utahime nodded. “Okay.” She glanced at Yuta, who was still gazing down at the children. “Any requests?”

Yuta burned pink. “Oh, I don’t know. I think anything would be nice.”

It wasn’t quite the lesson that Utahime had expected, but then again, she hadn’t thought they would be able to have a proper one right off the bat. These children clearly needed more than that. She knew kids like that – she was familiar with them, taught them, loved them. Before they could actually start to work, they needed to break through the walls holding them back. Geto might have pulled them out of that cage, but they were still trapped.

It would take her a little while before proper lessons could begin, so hopefully Geto would give her some leeway or at least be understanding. She didn’t want to lie to them.

Chapter Text

Gojo and Geto must’ve been busy because she barely saw either one of them for the rest of the week. Besides a few glimpses of Geto around the compound and Gojo popping in on her randomly throughout the day, she was mostly left to her own devices, which meant she spent a lot of time with Jiro and Hifumi. After five days, they were a lot better than before, but she could tell they weren’t ready to join the class again. She was worried they’d grow dependent on her, so she’d have to ease them into it eventually, but for now, she was content to work with them.

As was the case with many twins, their curse energy was dependent on each other, growing as long as they both wanted it. Hifumi was clearly the more dominant twin, but Jiro didn’t want to displease her or be left behind, so he followed whatever she did. It reminded Utahime painfully of Maki and Mai, except Mai hadn’t wanted to grow at all and had forced her twin sister’s growth to stall. With these two, Hifumi pulled her brother by the hand, forcing him to grow with her.

An unusual thing was that their curse techniques seemed to be dependent on each other as well. At the least, they worked well together. Without each other, they might have been considered just grade three, but on top of the incredible and dangerous amount of curse energy they inherently possessed, their techniques combined provided a very interesting twist. Hifumi could take cursed energy from curses and even sorcerers, absorbing it into her body, while Jiro was a natural amplifier.

On paper, it didn’t seem like much, but Utahime realized after a few times that their techniques didn’t affect just them. Jiro had unintentionally amplified Utahime’s technique when she used it to calm them down, and Hifumi had absorbed part of it while she was singing. Even more interesting was the way it affected the curses drawn to them. The more curse energy Hifumi drew in, the stronger Jiro amplified it, and because of their deep connection to their curses, their techniques bled into them through touch.

In a sense, Hifumi could draw in massive amounts of curse energy, Jiro could amplify it, and she could pour the excess into their curses, making them impossibly strong. Even Yuta had been forced to put his foot down when Hifumi’s curse caused a strong gust of wind amplified by Jiro’s technique.

Needless to say, after the second day when a chair exploded, Utahime moved their lessons outside.

It took some convincing. Both the children and curses were leery about the outside, especially since everything was so bright. She found a very private and open space with a tree they could hide under should they get too overwhelmed. By the end of the week, Hifumi and Jiro were freely running around outside, excited even when Utahime pushed the doors, and their curses had begun to lay outside of the shade as if sunbathing.

They’d grown terribly fond of Yuta too. Fortunately, he was a good sport about it. Utahime couldn’t help but laugh as Hifumi hung from his arm and kicked her legs in the air while her Kazuki climbed up his back, forcing his head to tilt back when its claws dug into his hair. Yuta winced a little, but that didn’t stop him from laughing as Hifumi tried her best to kick him.

“Show her!” Hifumi demanded. “Or I’ll beat ya up!”

“You’re gonna beat me up?” Yuta asked, unable to hide his amusement.

“Yah, me and Kazuki both!”

“What do you think?” Utahime asked, looking at Jiro, who was laying on his back in the grass, his curse plopped on his stomach. He hadn’t told her his curse’s name yet, but she hadn’t pushed him either. He was much less open than his sister, a near-perfect reflection of her. They had to be two sides of the same coin in order to survive.

Jiro sat up and admitted, “We wanna see her too.”

Yuta hesitated, the humor fading from his face. “Are you sure?”

Hifumi nodded frantically. “Yah!”

Swallowing a lump in his throat, Yuta took a deep breath and nodded. “I can’t… She can’t come out all the way. She’s too big. It’ll startle everyone here.”

Upon letting go of Yuta’s arm, Hifumi dropped to her feet and stated, “Who cares about ‘em? They can be chickens!”

Well, it was better than monkeys, she supposed. It was hard to break Hifumi's habit of calling non-sorcerers “monkeys,” but she was getting better. Geto had made an incredible impression on them both. They’d absorbed everything he had said to them since taking them in, but being so young, they weren’t able to fully understand what Geto meant. Hifumi had at least gotten the basics.

Non-sorcerers deserved to either die or be used.

“Yuta is right,” Utahime told them calmly. “It’s important to consider other people and their feelings – and also the consequences of your actions.”

His eyes turned to her, and Utahime nodded, giving him the all-clear. She would be lying if she didn’t admit that these lessons were partly for Yuta as well. He needed to learn how to open himself up to others, to trust them, and, as had been brought up multiple times, to control his curse energy when he wasn’t using it. His curse energy reflected his emotions, just as it did with the twins’, and also affected the curse attached to him.

Plus, Utahime couldn’t deny her curiosity. Yuta talked about the curse following him as if it was a friend, perhaps his only one for years, but she could still recall the overwhelmingly sickening and dark feeling she’d felt upon first meeting him and when he’d confronted Negi. Bigger than a building didn’t feel like a description that even scratched the surface.

Taking a deep breath, Yuta turned around and smiled. “It’s okay, Rika. You can come out.”

One second, they were sitting outside on a beautiful day, the sun bathing them in its warmth, the sky blue as it could be – and then she felt as if she was swamped in curse energy. Utahime watched in muted horror and fascination as a long claw seemingly tore through the fabric of space, making the space wider so that an entire hand could push through. It was massive, bigger than Yuta, and could easily snatch the two children up in one grasp.

When the second arm pushed itself out from the void, Jiro and his curse stirred, shuffling backward a little, but Hifumi stood stock still, her mouth gaping wide open. Her curse trilled strangely, and she held out a hand, allowing it to curl underneath her touch. Utahime’s eyes flickered to Jiro, watching his control over his curse energy, but he didn’t seem to be activating his technique. No, this was Rika’s natural size – or perhaps even smaller since Yuta was keeping a lid on his energy.

Utahime nearly jumped to her feet when the curse pushed its head into view. It was only the tip, just enough for it to see them, but she felt as if she couldn’t breathe, the sheer extent of its curse energy pressing down on her like a heavy weight. This was far stronger than any of the curses in Geto’s arsenal. Rika made the one he’d tried to use to intimidate her look like a puppy. This was… She was beyond anything Utahime could’ve imagined.

The only time she had ever felt something akin to this power was when Sukuna had been in control of Yuuji’s body briefly. And anyone dared to mock Yuta or question him with such power at his behest? She couldn’t imagine it. No wonder Gojo and Geto favored him so much.

“Wow,” Hifumi breathed. “You feel that Kazuki? She’s strong.”

Yu-ta,” the curse croaked, reaching out to him.

Without any hesitation, Yuta stepped into the curse’s reach and lifted a hand to touch its face. “You see them? They’re kind of like us.”

The curse’s gaze roved over the children and their little curses and then to Utahime, landing on her firmly. Utahime couldn’t read it at all. She knew in that instant that the curse could’ve killed her on the spot before she could even react. It was a bit like standing before Gojo when he was at his strongest. All you knew was your death.

Pro-tect?”

Yuta smiled and fondly patted the curse’s face. “Yes, protect.”

Even though her face was sweaty with the effort to control herself, Hifumi inched forward, her curse protesting softly. “Can I…?” Her eyes were lit up, manic and awed. “Can I touch her?”

“Don’t–” Utahime’s voice caught in her throat, and Yuta and Hifumi glanced back at her. “Don’t activate your technique.”

Hifumi pressed her lips together. “I won’t.”

Yuta bent down and picked Hifumi up by her waist. He wasn’t physically strong like Yuuji or built like Todo, but the massive amount of curse energy in his body allowed him to pick her up with relative ease. With a tentative hand, Hifumi reached out and then touched one of Rika’s fingers, not even coming close to wrapping her hand around it. The curse only reacted by tilting its head slightly, as if confused by the gesture.

“She’s warm,” Hifumi noted in a distant voice. “What can she do?”

“She… She can help me copy techniques,” Yuta explained.

Hifumi turned her head to look at him. “Even mine?”

Yuta nodded. “Yup, even yours.”

“What about Miss Iori’s?”

A sheepish smile crossed Yuta’s face. “Yes, but I wouldn’t sound as nice.” Upon setting Hifumi back down, her curse nervously ran about her legs, twisting its lithe body between them and curling around her. Yuta grasped the same finger as Hifumi had and said, “You can go back now. We’ll play later, okay?”

The curse dissolved back into that tear until finally it disappeared as if it had never been there to begin with. Utahime stared at the empty space, not even seeing the trees behind it, until she finally managed to snap herself out of it. With Rika gone, that powerful sense of dread went away with her, and Utahime took in a deep breath. She didn’t know what to say or even think. That had only been a portion of the curse, and she’d felt overwhelmed entirely.

No wonder Geto wanted Rika.

Yuta peered at her nervously. “Utahime?”

Although her stomach was still turning, Utahime forced a smile onto her face. “I’m fine.”

She turned to the children. Jiro wore an impassive expression on his face, playing with a blade of grass while his curse was curled up in his lap, making itself as small as possible. The curses attached to them were a reflection of their souls as well. She had to wonder if it was their actual behavior or if it had been molded by their time with the kids.

“I think we’re done for the day,” Utahime told them.

Hifumi cheered and did a cartwheel, flopping onto her back instead of landing properly, her curse jumping on her and the two of them rolling around in the grass. Utahime giggled behind her hand. She was a wild thing. Being locked up, by her parents and that classroom, must have been terrible for her. Meanwhile, Jiro offered her a small smile and, after whispering to the curse in his lap, the curse hopped off to stretch and he stood up as well.

As the kids and their curses played, Utahime stood up and smoothed out her clothes, brushing grass and dirt off her pants. Today had been a good day, a solid ending to their week of lessons. She could really feel the first hints of hope. They were truly making progress. It was small, but the difference in their behavior was already staggering. They weren’t hiding in the shadows anymore and even their curses got closer to her.

Utahime really felt like she was doing something.

“This seems a bit unruly for a lesson, doesn’t it?” an unfortunately familiar voice called.

Calmly turning around, Utahime watched as both Geto and Gojo walked over to them. It was the first time she’d seen them together in years. Strangely, it didn’t look that much different from when she knew them before. Both of them exuded power and strength even without showing off the full extent of their curse energy, but Gojo’s step was bouncier and more energetic whereas Geto’s was filled with purpose.

“We’re done for lessons today,” Utahime told Geto. “They deserve some playtime before going back inside to wash up for dinner.”

Geto’s eyes flickered to the children spinning around in circles with each other, their curses slipping between their legs without tripping them up. “You seem to have a handle on them.”

Gojo bumped shoulders with him, a playful grin on his face. “See? I told you she was good.”

“Mm, yes,” Geto said, sounding vaguely unimpressed. Strangely, Utahime felt as if he was simply putting on a show. Maybe he wasn’t the only one that liked being difficult sometimes, but no doubt, he wouldn’t want to let Gojo know he was right. She didn’t care: she knew what she was doing and she knew she was doing it well. “You’re doing better than I expected.”

“Thank you, Geto,” Utahime replied, only a hint dry.

A pout crossed Gojo’s lips. “Where’s my thanks? I believed in you first.”

Yeah, and he'd also kidnapped her and kind of forced her into this position. Nonetheless, Utahime gave him a smile and, in a much drier tone, added, “And thank you, Gojo, for having faith in me.”

Despite her tone, Gojo seemed appeased, the pout flipping into a grin again, as if he was some sort of puppy and flourished under praise. “I knew you’d do well.”

“They’ve been using their curse techniques?” Geto asked.

“Yes, although they’re still very much tied to their emotions,” Utahime responded, turning to look at the children again. Having noticed Geto and Gojo, they’d become much more subdued, their eyes flickering to the men every now and then, and she noticed the way Jiro clung to his curse a little tighter. “They lack the basic control and ability to subdue their techniques if they get too riled up.”

“Dangerous?” Geto asked.

Utahime gestured vaguely. “If they’re both activating their techniques at the same time, then it could be. They feed off each other.”

“Which one is more troublesome?” Geto pressed.

Gojo pointed to Hifumi, who was watching them more openly. “I’m betting on the girl.”

“Don’t point at her,” Utahime scolded. “That’s rude. It’ll make her uncomfortable.” With a shrug, Gojo dropped his hand. She took a breath and continued, “It’s hard to say. I think Jiro could potentially cause more collateral damage with his amplification technique, but Hifumi’s ability to absorb curse energy could be very problematic if she takes too much. She doesn’t have Gojo’s Limitless capabilities, so she’ll have a cap and could go over.”

As she spoke, Geto watched her carefully, only speaking when she was finished. “You’ve thought a lot about this.”

“I’m here to help them, aren’t I?” Utahime held out a hand. “Besides, I’m used to working with children with difficult techniques – and that includes both of you.”

At that, a faint smile flickered onto Geto’s face. “We weren’t that difficult, were we?”

“The worst,” Utahime sniffed.

“Aw, no, we weren’t.” Gojo stepped to the side around her and bumped shoulders with Yuta, who nearly jumped at the action. Quiet as he was, she hadn’t noticed him walk up behind them. “She’s only teasing. She loved us back then, especially me. I was her favorite kohai.”

“No, that was definitely Shoko,” Utahime shot back.

The mention of Shoko changed the air abruptly, and she struggled not to wince. The smile fell from Geto’s face and even Gojo became a bit more distant. It was hard not to ask them about their feelings about Shoko, but she knew she wouldn’t get an answer. Shoko hadn’t wanted to talk about them much either.

In an attempt to quickly move past the awkwardness, Utahime stated, “I should get the kids inside. They’ve expended enough energy where they should be okay during dinner with the other children.”

“It’s only been five days, and you’re already attached,” Geto said in a strange tone.

A suspicious frown tugged at Utahime’s lips. “It’s hard not to get attached, especially when it is so difficult to gain their trust.”

“You’ve done well with the time given,” Geto replied.

Gojo huffed. “Enough with the third degree. She’s proven herself capable and useful. She’s not the weak girl you remember.” Utahime shot Gojo a glare, and he shrugged. “Well, you were. It was adorable. I always felt like I had to protect you.”

Unlike Gojo, Geto wasn’t flippant or entertained. He gazed down at her, unblinking and impassive. “You truly care about them, don’t you?”

Utahime folded her arms across her chest. “Of course I do. I care about all my students.”

The grin that cut across Geto’s face was more mocking than warm, especially when he reached out to cup her chin in one of his hands. “Well, aren’t you sweet, Utahime? Are you going to mother all these lost children who have no one else to turn to?”

Flushing hotly, Utahime slapped Geto’s hand away and snapped, “Stop being such an ass. I’m only trying to help.”

Instead of getting insulted, Geto laughed. “You’re right. She really is amusing to rile up.”

Gojo suddenly threw an arm over her shoulder, knocking her off balance, and pulled her against his side. “Yeah, I wasn’t telling you to try it out. Asshole.”

Although he appeared mostly casual, Utahime could sense the anger simmering underneath the surface. His body was stiff against her, his muscles tense as he held her. She knew without even attempting that if she tried to pull away, he wouldn’t let her go, at least not with Geto around. Seeing them interact together was...interesting. They fed off each other as well, but she could see where they butted heads too, the two of them pushing one another.

Geto snorted, his eyes moving away from them. “Careful, Gojo, I think your pup might be becoming more loyal to Utahime than you.”

Gojo’s head turned slightly. “Yuta? You think so?”

When Utahime caught eyes with him, Yuta flushed and lowered his gaze. He shifted awkwardly on his feet and scratched the back of his head. So distracted by Geto and Gojo, she hadn’t caught onto the fact that Yuta’s curse energy had swelled again, but it was undeniably there, on par with both Geto and Gojo. It was startling to see someone on the same level as them. She hadn’t thought it possible.

“Yuta, can you take Jiro and Hifumi back to the dorms?” Utahime asked.

“I–” Yuta looked up. “Are you–?” His eyes bounced from all three of them. “Are you sure you want me to leave?”

Geto chuckled. “How adorable.”

Utahime scowled at them, then smoothed over her expression and looked back at Yuta. “Yes, I’ll be fine. I can handle these two.”

“Mm, can you?” Gojo teased, toying with the front of her kosode.

Utahime squirmed under Gojo’s arm, twisting away from him as much as possible, and he laughed. Yuta gave her one last look, a pitifully torn one, and then did as he was told. She watched him herd Hifumi, Jiro, and their curses. Jiro even grabbed his hand, which startled Yuta, but he didn’t pull away. Utahime let out a breath. It was progress. That was all she could hope for some days.

“Don’t be so moody, Hime,” Gojo said. “We were only joking.”

“And you were the only ones laughing,” Utahime pointed out, jerking away from him. He let her go, though judging from the tense lines around his mouth, he wasn’t pleased. Maybe she’d embarrassed him in front of Geto by not molding to his whims. Whatever. That was his problem. “Now, are you two done? I’d like to wash up as well before I make dinner.”

Geto raised an eyebrow. “You cook your own dinner?”

“I’m not the spoiled kings of jujutsu here,” Utahime replied tartly. “And I enjoy it.”

“She’s actually pretty decent,” Gojo quipped, back to being playful. “I had some of her katsu curry the other night.”

Utahime twisted her lips. “That was for the kitchen staff.”

“Oh, Utahime,” Gojo said with a fond chuckle. “They wouldn’t eat something a sorcerer prepared. That’s backward for them, and they’d be afraid of getting in trouble for you doing their job.” He moved his head in a way that let her know he was glancing in Geto’s direction despite wearing his blindfold. “They’re trained well.”

“How charming,” Utahime grumbled, feeling her stomach turn. Maybe she wouldn’t cook dinner tonight. If it was that much of a bother, she might’ve been creating more stress instead, and she didn’t want to do that. Such simple things could be so damn frustrating.

“Actually, that’s what we’re here to speak with you about,” Geto said.

She looked to him, but it was Gojo that continued, “Join us for dinner.”

Utahime furrowed her brow. “What?”

“It won’t be just us,” Geto explained, eyeing Gojo with an air of disappointment. “Gojo is misleading on purpose.” Well, if that wasn’t par for the course. True to his nature, he simply shrugged in response, uncaring of the callout. “We’re having dinner with some of the other commanders, those in higher positions in our following. It’s not a formal meeting, so don’t worry, we won’t divulge classified information for you to hear, just a dinner to catch up.”

“That sounds…” Utahime tried to find a word that wouldn’t sound as if she hated the idea but couldn’t find one. “Quaint.”

Gojo grinned. “There’s usually at least one argument. Someone got stabbed last time. It was a lot of fun.”

An alarmed expression flashed across Utahime’s face. “And you just let it happen?”

Geto let out a sigh that suggested he hadn’t found it as entertaining as Gojo. “To be fair, there was cheating involved, so better to air it out where we can contain the situation and resolve it than let it blow up in the field.”

Utahime rubbed her temple. “Why do you want me there?”

“What if I said I wanna show you off?” Gojo asked, his grin taking a sharp turn.

She stopped rubbing and narrowed her eyes at him. “I’d say you were full of it.”

“That is definitely what he wants to do,” Geto said. “However, since Gojo is so intent about you being here and since you’re essentially teaching now, I only thought it fair that the others meet you. Plus, you’ve been on your own or with Mai and Yuta.” He wrinkled his nose. “I think you’ve spent more time with the servants than other sorcerers besides them.”

“Well, pardon me, but the few sorcerers I did meet either had their noses stuck up Gojo’s ass or they hated me,” Utahime replied dryly, folding her arms across her chest. “They know who I am. I doubt a dinner will smooth things over.”

“They were all on the other side before joining us,” Geto pointed out.

Maybe so, but just as he wasn’t keen on her, many of the other stronger sorcerers she’d crossed paths with seemed irritated by her presence as well. Not to mention there was that group of people that Mai had warned her about – Gojo’s little fan club. She’d caught strangers outright glaring at her as if she was a cockroach in the kitchen.

Gojo fingered a strand of her hair hanging over the front of her shoulder. “Don’t worry. No one will try to mess with you while we’re there. I’ll protect you.”

“Fabulous,” Utahime grumbled, her gaze dropping to his fingers.

Geto looked her over. “If it makes you feel better, Yuta could come too.”

Utahime opened her mouth, then closed it. Honestly, Yuta being there would make her feel better, but she didn’t think he would be comfortable. The more powerful the sorcerer, the more he tended to avoid them – and the more they seemed to resent him. With his curse energy and technique, he should’ve been a commander, but he didn’t seem to hold any position of power. However, there was one person she thought might do well in a situation like this.

“What about Mai?” Utahime asked hesitantly.

Gojo clapped his hands together. “They can both come!”

Shaking his head, Geto rolled his eyes. “You just want them there because you know it’ll unsettle the others. I suppose it could work to our benefit.”

“Unsettle them?” That wasn’t what Utahime wanted.

“You’ll see,” Gojo replied cheekily, right before taking her wrist and tugging her toward the building. “Now, c’mon, let’s get you ready. I meant it when I said that I wanna show you off.”

“Satoru,” Geto snapped. “Don’t be late.”

Unfortunately for all of them, Gojo used his free hand to wave dismissively at Geto without looking back, tossing a vague, “Yeah, yeah,” at him.

All Utahime could do was follow, pulled away by Gojo’s energy. She glanced back at Geto, although she wasn’t sure why (to give him an apologetic look, to ask for his interference, to gauge his feelings?), but he’d turned his back on them, eyeing the area where Hifumi and Jiro had been playing with their curses – where Rika had manifested.

Utahime’s stomach flipped. For some reason, it felt like it meant something, but she didn’t know what. That pretty much summed up all her thoughts about Geto, and she couldn’t deny that she was a little relieved to be taken away by Gojo again.

Chapter Text

Her relief over Gojo taking her away from Geto was short-lived. Upon whisking her away to her quarters, she was swiftly reminded that Gojo either didn’t understand the concept of personal space or he didn’t care. The latter was much more likely, because as soon as the door shut, he was all over her.

“Honestly, Gojo,” Utahime sighed as she walked into her room, “if you’re inviting me to cause trouble–”

She cut herself off with a yelp when Gojo spun around by her shoulder and then cupped her cheek so he could tilt her head up and press his lips against hers. Her first thought was to push him away, but then she laid her hands on his chest and just...didn’t. It was hard fighting him, and she didn’t want to always do it, especially when he was so strong. His affection and desire were overwhelming, sweeping her off her feet.

He pulled his lips away from hers just enough to say, “You’re better than I imagined.”

Utahime furrowed her brow and leaned back further. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Gojo tilted his head. “You really think we haven’t been keeping an eye on you this whole week?”

Pressing her lips into a frown, Utahime mumbled, “I guess that was too much to ask.”

“Suguru was so insistent and nosy about it,” Gojo huffed in a dismissive tone, gesturing vaguely with his free hand, “but I can’t deny that I was curious.” He smiled and kissed her again, as if he couldn’t help himself and was drawn to her. “You did so well; even Suguru had to admit that they’ve already shown marked improvement.”

“Glad to know I can do my job to your satisfaction.” As if she hadn’t been doing it for years and under much more difficult circumstances, no thanks to them.

“I knew you could do it,” Gojo pointed out. “It was Suguru you had to impress.”

Utahime huffed irritably. “Of course, your cult’s gracious leader, Geto Suguru. I hope I was able to meet his high standards.” If she heard someone else refer to him or Gojo as gracious, it would be too soon.

“You did.” Gojo rubbed a thumb across the scar on her cheek, a strange look on his face. She eyed him warily, unsure of what he was thinking. “Can’t deny you looked good like that. You were in your element with them. Those kids really adore you, and you even looked happy to be with them. Tugging at your hands, clinging to your legs, smiling whenever they met your approval – it was cute.”

Rolling her eyes, Utahime pulled away from him slightly. “Stop.”

“You’re gonna give a man ideas,” Gojo continued playfully, lifting up the blindfold to reveal one of his bright blue eyes.

Utahime flushed and pulled out of his grip. “Stop it. You’re being weird.”

“I know it affected Suguru.” He dropped his blindfold back in place, and a grin pulled at his lips, but it didn’t look amused. There was some tension in it, like he wasn’t entirely pleased. “He’ll never admit it, of course, but ever since he took in Nanako and Mimiko all those years ago, he's like putty when it comes to kids. He was worried about Hifumi and Jiro since they didn’t take to him as well as he thought, but you’ve put his concerns at ease.”

“Well–” Utahime folded her arms across her chest and turned away. “Good.”

She didn’t know what else to say. Had she been nervous about living up to their expectations? Yes, if she had to be honest. She wasn’t sure what would happen to her if she didn’t. She’d told herself that it didn’t matter – that her only concern was the children – but that had been just a lie to placate herself and stop from losing focus. Maybe she had been a little worried that she would disappoint Gojo and he would…

He would hurt her or get rid of her. She’d seen him callously kill former comrades before.

“Can I get ready now?” Utahime asked, not looking at him. “Geto said not to be late.”

“Being late is kind of the point,” Gojo said, which only made Utahime scowl back at him.

“Is everything a chance for a power play with you two?”

Gojo shrugged. “It’s not just him. It’s the others as well. Gotta make sure they don’t get too arrogant. Geto talks them up so they feel important and do as they’re told, and I keep them on the level so they don’t try for more.”

Maybe it had to be a game, what with how complex this whole thing was, but Utahime found it rather exhausting. She hated dealing with the politics of jujutsu society and dealing with the higher-ups that made it clear they didn’t think she was worth much. This felt just as bad to her, but Gojo seemed to enjoy it, practically flourishing. Maybe it was different since he was at the top here and no one challenged him.

Or maybe he was just a bastard.

A second later, Gojo was on her again, dropping his chin on her shoulder and wrapping an arm around her to tug at her shirt again. “I can help you get ready.”

“I’m a grown woman, not a child,” Utahime told him. “I can do that myself.”

Gojo snorted. “I can help you get undressed then.”

Utahime did her best not to squirm too much. “No.”

“Suguru got to see you nearly naked,” Gojo pointed out. His tone was off. She had expected him to sound whiny like he sometimes did to cajole her into doing as he wished, but instead, she thought he sounded...angry. “That’s not fair.”

“It’s not like I had any choice in that,” Utahime shot back tartly, even as her stomach flipped. She couldn’t see his face, so she didn’t know what expression he was wearing, but she could imagine it – the slight downward tilt of his lips, his brow furrowed just enough to show he was displeased.

Gojo’s hold on her tightened just a hair, and his hand slipped through the opening of her kosode to rest on her stomach. “And then he had to go and fucking pull that bullshit out there. He did it on purpose, and I knew it yet I still–”

And yet he still reacted poorly. Geto’s only interest in her probably laid in Gojo’s interest in her – and maybe if she could prove herself useful while she was here. Unlike Gojo, Geto knew she’d never truly be on their side – how could she? – but he’d use her if he could, just like he would anyone else. If he could teach Gojo a lesson in the process and put him in his place at his unruliest as well?

It’d kill two birds with one stone.

Still, Geto had to have known pushing Gojo’s buttons like that would unsettle him and even piss him off into acting out, hence his warning about not being late. It hadn’t been for Gojo, not really; it had been for her.

Utahime swallowed, trying not to let herself get distracted by Gojo’s fingertips ghosting over her bare stomach. “It didn’t mean anything. He was just trying to intimidate me again and throw you off-balance. Don’t let him win.”

“I know that,” Gojo muttered, nuzzling her neck with his nose, “but I still don’t like it.”

“Well, I’m here with you now, aren’t I?” Utahime stated. “Doesn’t that count for something?”

“No, I want more,” Gojo said, a little needier this time, his breath hot against her neck. “C’mon, Hime, you gotta give me something.”

She didn’t want to give Geto more reason to hate her, especially when it came to Gojo, and she really didn’t want to give into Gojo either, but her body shivered from his words, a hint of pleasure burning inside of her over his desire for her, and that was all the confirmation he seemed to need to push forward.

He kissed her neck, biting down and sucking on the vulnerable skin so intensely that she was afraid he would leave a mark. His lips trailed up and over her jaw, and he began to undo her kosode. Somewhere in the back of her mind, a part of her wanted to push him away, but instead, she turned her head toward him when he kissed her cheek.

Turning her around to face him again, he captured her lips once more, molding them to fit his, and slid one of his hands over her exposed side with her shirt pushed open. She tried hard not to tremble under his touch, especially as his thumb rubbed circles over her skin, but Gojo was relentless, tugging on her sleeves to pull the garment completely off and making her whimper.

“Much better,” Gojo sighed against her lips, his hand roaming over her.

“This isn’t helping me,” Utahime mumbled.

“Isn’t it?” Gojo pushed until her back was pressed against the wall and then leaned back so he could pull his blindfold up and look over her body. She blushed under the intense scrutiny. It was different from when Geto had walked in on her while she was changing. She could see the hunger in Gojo’s blue eyes, his pupils darker and more blown out than normal, reminding her of a storm.

It would’ve been easy to just ride out the storm. She couldn’t deny that a part of her wanted to do it – maybe in part to skip the dinner and maybe to just get it over with and let him have her the way she knew they both wanted. His hand drifted over body slowly, as if he was mapping her by touch alone, his fingers tracing every scar that had marked her. Some of them were old, back from her time in school. Others were new, created during fights with curse users under his command.

He’d left his mark on her too, even if it wasn’t visible to the naked eye. Maybe he could see it with his Six Eyes.

Resisting the urge to fold her arms across her chest in an attempt to hide (because she knew Gojo wouldn’t let her do that), Utahime once again forced out a tense, “Can I get ready now?”

“Maybe we should skip the dinner,” Gojo said instead, still staring at her openly.

Utahime scoffed. “Don’t be ridiculous. Geto would just come here to drag you there himself.”

Gojo frowned. “Good point. I don’t want him interrupting us.” He leaned down to kiss her again, softly at first, and then bit her bottom lip as if to make a point. “We’ll have some time to ourselves soon, I promise. You’re so mean, getting me worked up like this when we have things to do.”

His fingers trailed over her side, pressing against the bones of her ribcage as if playing the piano. She wouldn’t have been surprised if he could feel her heart thumping in her chest. Being in his hands like this always made her heart race. It was still difficult not to be afraid of him when she’d seen what brutal atrocities he was capable of doing, but it was more than that too. Stupid man. She hated the way she played right into his whims even now.

“I didn’t do anything,” Utahime insisted irritably.

“Oh, Utahime, you have no idea what that innocent act does to me,” Gojo said with a laugh, pulling away from her. “I’m not a patient man, but I’ll wait for you a bit longer.”

When Gojo let go of her and stepped back, Utahime swallowed and slumped against the wall. He pulled his blindfold back down in place and left her to get ready, a fresh pair of clothes folded on the dresser. The outfit was even nicer than the ones before, not the typical miko she wore and definitely meant to show her off, but she got dressed quickly with shaky hands. She didn’t have it in her to argue with him, especially when she had a feeling she’d need her strength for this dinner.

It wouldn’t end well – it couldn’t – but for whatever reasons, they wanted her there. She could more or less figure out Gojo’s, seeing as how she could honestly believe he wanted to parade her about, but she didn’t understand Geto’s reasoning. Maybe he could show off – give her an exact view of his power and strength with those that worked directly under them. He was capable of arrogance too, after all.

After she was finished changing, Utahime stepped up to the door. She grabbed the handle and then paused, staring at it for a moment before letting go to knock on the door instead. It clicked, unlocking, and she let out a breath. Still not taking any chances then. Either that, or he just liked her locked inside.

As soon as Gojo’s eyes landed on her, she saw them spark up, and he opened his mouth, but she pressed a finger against his lips and snapped, “Don’t.”

Gojo didn’t seem bothered, even when she walked past him, taking only two steps to catch up with her. “I think you might be the only woman who doesn’t like compliments.”

“It’s not much of a compliment when it feels like you’re dressing me up like a doll,” Utahime grumbled irritably, refusing to look at him.

That wasn’t a problem for him either, not when he could simply jump to walk in front of her, turning around so that he was walking backward with ease. He could dodge anyone, but he didn’t have to, not with the way people stepped to the side to avoid him. An ocean would probably part for him.

“You are beautiful, Utahime,” Gojo told her, his voice softer than usual, more genuine.

Utahime’s cheeks burned, and she glanced away, trying to look around him and stay focused on the hallway. Truth be told, she didn’t know where she was going, but at least this way, she could pretend like she wasn’t following him. She had no way to gauge what this dinner would be like. Chaotic? Aggressive? Awkward? She’d only spoken to one commander, and Yuta had nearly cut his hand off because of his behavior toward her. Would the others be like that?

She was the enemy, after all, no matter Gojo’s reasons for bringing her here. Geto wouldn’t let her forget that, and she doubted the others under their command would either.

“Scared?” Gojo asked, still walking ahead of her.

Utahime bit her lip and begrudgingly admitted, “Yes.”

“You won’t be alone. If anyone has a problem, they’re free to speak up, but no one will do anything to harm you.” Gojo scratched the back of his head, a rather thoughtful expression on his face. “I doubt even I’d have to lift a finger. Geto was probably right about Yuta. You haven’t even been here a month, and I’m pretty sure that boy would do anything for you.”

Her lips dipped into a frown. “I don’t want him to feel like he has to do that.”

“He knows that – or, at the least, he’s figuring it out,” Gojo reassured her. “Suguru might be worried, but I think it’s good. He needs to learn he can make his own choices.”

“It wouldn’t be so difficult if you and Geto didn’t treat him like a game piece,” Utahime muttered under her breath. She understood how he felt, but Gojo wouldn’t get it. He didn’t know what it was like to be trapped between two powerful players – to feel as if you might be knocked off if one thought sacrificing you was worth the price or if the other no longer thought you useful.

Even she felt as if she had to prove her worth in order to stay on the board, and she didn’t want to work under them.

Gojo stopped in front of a large door where a servant stood outside, but before they could move to slide open the door and let them inside, he pushed her against the opposite wall, putting her in place with his body. He placed a finger under her chin, lifting her head up, and she stared up at him, trying her hardest to steady her heartbeat.

“You’re fine,” Gojo told her. “Someone is bound to say something, but it doesn’t matter.”

Utahime sighed. “Look, I don’t care what anyone else here thinks. I’m the enemy either way, so it’s not like I expect or want them to like me.” Plus, as she had told Geto when he first confronted her, it wasn’t as if she’d asked to be here. She was simply trying to survive. “I’m used to being looked down upon. It’s nothing new, so anything they say won’t hurt me.”

“If it gets too much, just look at me,” Gojo told her. “Suguru is bound to play his little games with you, but as long as you don’t fall for his traps, he won’t cross the line.”

Shaking her head, Utahime pointed out, “You say that, but it’s different here, and I’m not you. I don’t want Geto to hate me.”

“I dunno,” Gojo hummed. “It’d be nicer if he did.”

Utahime frowned. “Perhaps for you, but I’d rather him not want me dead, and I think insulting or humiliating him in front of his commanders would do just that.”

Gojo bent down so that his lips were only a few inches away from hers. “Just remember: you’re here with me – in every way. I chose you.”

Unable to help herself, Utahime rolled her eyes. “Oh, trust me, I know, although I’m still not sure why.”

Instead of getting irritated or mad at her for dismissing him, Gojo grinned. “For that right there. You don’t know how much I missed that attitude of yours.” He closed the space between them, guiding her lips to his. There was a sense of yearning in the kiss, catching Utahime off guard, as if he’d understood the whole time that she didn’t belong to him yet. He pulled back before she could think about it longer. “Now, c’mon, let’s get this show on the road. I’m positive at least one argument will break out, but I’m dying to see who will start it.”

When Gojo turned around, the servants standing at the door quickly slid it open without being asked and bowed so low that they were nearly horizontal with the ground. Gojo took Utahime’s wrist and pulled her inside with him, the door shutting before Utahime could thank them.

And so the dinner began.

Chapter Text

The moment the sliding door shut behind them, Utahime tried not to wince, everyone’s eyes flickering to them. Geto was already sitting at the table, sipping on a cup of tea. “You’re on time. I’m genuinely shocked, but at least someone is obedient enough to appreciate a schedule.”

Whereas Gojo simply responded with a cheeky grin, Utahime gritted her teeth and decided against responding. Maybe she should’ve allowed Gojo to make them late, after all. She had hoped Geto would– Well, not be impressed but at least be a little pleased that they were on time, but no, he’d taken the opportunity to make a dig at her instead.

“Step aside, Gojo – or are you going to hog Utahime to yourself?”

Utahime stiffened at the familiar voice and spun around, her heart shooting into her chest when she recognized the woman standing before her. “Mei Mei, I–” Tears welled up in Utahime’s eyes before she could even realize what was going on, and she looked away from the others, using the back of her hand to get rid of them.

“You didn’t cry when you saw me,” Gojo said rather petulantly.

At least not at first. He’d had to threaten people’s lives before she did that.

“That’s because you’re a terrible man and you probably acted out in order to get her to come with you,” Mei Mei replied smoothly, stepping in between them and running her hand along Utahime’s arm. “Now leave so I can catch up with an old friend before this boring meeting.”

Gojo let go of her wrist and stepped back, although Utahime could sense his reluctance. She caught a glimpse of his face before he walked away, but then Mei Mei moved just enough to block him from her view.

Utahime cleared her throat. “It’s been a while.”

Mei Mei softly smiled at her. “It has been.”

“You’ve done well though, I presume.” Utahime gestured at her awkwardly with her free hand. She didn’t know what else to say. Unlike Mai, whose status had been up in the air for so long after she’d run away bleeding to join the other side, Mei Mei had made her stance very clear. She had read the signs the day Gojo snapped and the moment Gojo’s siding with Geto became obvious, she joined them.

Utahime could still remember trying to argue with her, although she’d known it was useless. Mei Mei was kind and warm, but she was a practical woman and could be calculating in the coldest of manners when it came down to the wire. For her, as soon as Gojo and Geto joined forces, the writing had been on the wall.

“Is this really just about money?” Utahime had demanded furiously. “Are human lives worth so little to you?”

“They make a convincing argument,” Mei Mei had told her, “and they’re of more use to me than non-sorcerers.”

It didn’t hurt any less now, two years later. Mei Mei did look well – more than well. Her dress was beautiful, and she looked better than ever. Gojo might not have liked it, but he’d stepped aside when she walked up to them, so he clearly respected her more than most people. Her curse technique must have been incredibly useful to them, so Utahime could only imagine how much she was being paid for her effort in their cause.

“I can’t complain,” Mei Mei said instead of directly answering her. It was fine. She was good about keeping her personal life from mixing up with her business. Unlike Gojo and perhaps even Geto, she could separate the two so that one didn’t affect the other within her and she never felt conflicted. Utahime couldn’t understand how anyone could compartmentalize so much. “I would’ve visited you sooner, but I was away on business. Gojo hasn’t been smothering you with his affection too much, has he?”

Utahime folded her arms across her chest. “What do you think?”

“He’s such a spoiled brat,” Mei Mei said, tossing a playful look at him over her shoulder. Gojo stuck his tongue out in response, even with the room filled with people. “Don’t let him take too much of you on his own time. Make him wait.”

There wasn’t even a suggestion of resisting him. Utahime’s heart sank into the pit of her stomach, but she nodded anyway. Geto had said that she’d been involved in this game with Gojo for years, and while she might’ve tried her best to ignore it, perhaps their friends had been aware of it too. Mei Mei, Shoko, maybe even Nanami and the other sorcerers they’d worked with all those years ago.

Maybe she’d always been destined to be one of Gojo’s playthings, too weak to be anything more, unlike the others.

“Oi, what are you doing here?” someone barked.

At first, Utahime thought the question was directed toward her, but then Mai, who had just walked into the room, smiled politely and responded, “We were invited.”

Behind her, Yuta already held the side of his face with one hand, shielding himself from the accusing glares and looks of distaste. From his spot against the wall on the other side of the table, Gojo snickered, and Geto, sitting in front of him, sighed. Yes, Mai and Yuta’s presence had definitely unsettled the others.

The only one that didn’t seem bothered was Mei Mei, which made sense. She even gave Mai a warm look and said, “So good to see you’ve grown sharper.”

“Good to see you’ve grown richer,” Mai quipped.

“Come, sit down with me, and I’ll catch you up,” Mei Mei said, placing a hand on her arm and guiding the younger woman to the table. Mai grabbed hold of Yuta’s sleeve and jerked on him to follow her, making him stumble a little since he hadn’t been paying attention. “You too, Utahime.”

She wasn’t sure where to sit, and so she hesitated. She wanted to sit with them, but she knew damn well that Gojo wouldn’t like that. Even though it pained her, a fact that she couldn’t hide from her frustrated expression, she walked around the table to be on the same side as Gojo and Geto, across from Mei Mei and the others. She glanced at the chairs, thinking to sit down two spaces over from Geto. After all, Gojo would likely sit next to him, so–

“Here,” Geto said, grabbing her wrist and giving it a tug. “You can sit beside me.”

Utahime blushed, staggering slightly at the sudden pull, but then came down to awkwardly sit in the chair beside Geto. She glanced back at Gojo before she could stop herself, catching the unreadable expression on his face, and then let out a breath. Maybe she could try Mei Mei’s tactic. Just because she was involved in their personal game did not mean it had to affect her all the time. That was their business, and their feelings weren’t her problem.

Mei Mei propped her elbow on the table and leaned forward with her chin in her hand, tilting her head to the side. “I didn’t know you were back, Yuta, but then again, you’re always so quick about your work.”

Yuta rubbed the back of his neck, “Uh, yeah, I’ve been here for a few weeks…”

“A few weeks?” Mei Mei raised her eyebrows. “Taking a vacation?”

“He’s working with me,” Utahime cut in quickly.

Mai leaned back in her chair. “Gojo has him on guard duty.”

“It’s not just that,” Utahime insisted. “He’s been helping me with a lot of things, not just guarding me from Gojo’s groupies.” And the other stronger members of their little cult, but she wasn’t about to say that out loud while in their presence. Judging from the way Mei Mei’s eyes slid around the room, she knew anyway. “He’s good with the kids.”

“Ah, yes,” Mei Mei said, nodding. “Gojo said something about you teaching.” She tilted her head in the other direction. “Have you considered turning it into a more...permanent position? They pay handsomely.” Her eyes flickered up and down Utahime. “That might not matter much to you, of course.”

Geto eyed her sideways, his smile openly amused. “He sure does know how to dress you.”

Utahime flushed but determinedly ignored Geto and his comment. “We’ll see.”

“She’s proving difficult to sway,” Gojo said teasingly as he sat down on her other side. “But since when has winning over Utahime ever been easy, right?”

“If only your tactics weren’t so immature and brutish,” Mei Mei returned, an amused glimmer in her eyes. “Have you ever considered a more sophisticated take?”

Utahime scoffed. “I’m not sure he’s capable.”

“I can be persuasive when I want to be,” Gojo countered easily. She was at least grateful that he no longer seemed annoyed even though they were teasing him. He was relaxed in his chair, leaning precariously on the back two legs, one hand behind his head. With him at ease, the others in the room relaxed as well.

And then she felt his hand on her thigh, and she nearly choked on her tongue.

Mei Mei brushed her large braid out of her eyes. “Is everything okay, Utahime?”

“Yes, I’m–” Utahime forced herself to relax, even as Gojo’s thumb dragged back and forth over her thigh. “I’m fine.”

Fortunately for her, more people entered the room right after that, so she was blessedly given a break from the attention. She shot Gojo a glare out of the corners of her eyes, but he only smiled in return. What an ass. Still, she used the distraction to her advantage, going quiet and bowing her head slightly so that she didn’t meet other people’s eyes. If she did look up, it was when Mei Mei spoke to her, but mostly she was content to watch and listen.

And also try not to get distracted by the way Gojo’s hand didn’t leave her. He squeezed her leg whenever he seemed to think she forgot.

Like everything else with this place and group, Utahime hadn’t been sure what to expect when Geto and Gojo had “invited” her to dinner. (She wasn’t going to bother pretending that she’d had a choice in attending.) It did have a strange sort of family feel to it, people greeting each other warmly, multiple conversations flowing effortlessly around the room, while there was also a slight divide as well. It was obvious that not everyone liked each other, but they remained civil and put aside those differences here.

After all, they were home.

Most everyone came up to formally greet Geto and Gojo. Utahime found it interesting that Geto was warmer and closer with them. It even felt genuine, the smile on his face easy and his body relaxed. Gojo wasn’t exactly cold, but he wasn’t as open either. Most of the sorcerers she recognized as commanders from her side’s intel tended to defer to Geto or at least look to him, sometimes even casting sideways glances in Gojo’s direction that he didn’t seem to care about.

They determinedly did not acknowledge her, and she was fine with that as well.

As if sensing her wariness, Mei Mei leaned forward and said, “No need to be so tense. Even if most of the people in the room want you dead, they’ll never cross the line here.”

Utahime let out a beleaguered breath. “Right, of course.”

She glanced to Mei Mei’s left where Yuta and Mai were having a quiet but seemingly tense discussion. Their heads were close together, Yuta’s lips turned downward as Mai said something to him. They didn’t even stop when the food was brought in by (non-sorcerer) servants, only growing a little more tense until Mai took a breath and then flicked Yuta in the temple, making him flinch back.

“Eat,” Mai told him in a low voice as she picked up her chopsticks.

Yuta sighed and did the same, keeping his eyes trained on his food as Mai turned to speak with Mei Mei, a much more passive expression on her face. Utahime watched Yuta for a moment, the way he slowly picked at his food. It wasn’t the first time she’d seen Mai scold him about eating, but whatever she’d said to him seemed to have had an effect. He wasn’t nearly as tense as he’d been before.

“Interesting relationship they have,” Gojo murmured in her ear. “Don’t you think?”

Utahime pulled away slightly and turned to look at him. “That’s their business.”

“Yeah, but you worry about them,” Gojo pointed out. “They’re your students, right?” He leaned back in his seat, his hand still resting comfortably on her thigh. It had never left. “And they’ve admittedly been through a lot, more than most of the others here. Mai is the weakest one here, but you wouldn’t know from the way others speak to her. Meanwhile, aside from us, Yuta is the strongest, but he’s often belittled. It’s strange.”

A troubled look fell over Utahime’s face. “It doesn’t...feel right. Yuta does so much for you two, but it’s almost like he’s hated.”

Gojo shrugged. “It’s jealousy and probably fear, as well. They know if Yuta wanted to take their place, he could in a heartbeat.”

“But he doesn’t.”

“No, he doesn’t,” Gojo sighed, sounding almost apathetic. “Kind of a shame, I think, but Geto prefers him this way. It’s easier to keep him tamed.”

Before Utahime could quietly protest, Geto leaned forward, an elbow on the table, startling her and making her press her back against the chair. “He does better with direction.” There was a faint smile on his face, suggesting that he wasn’t insulted by Gojo’s implicating words, but she didn’t miss the hard look in his dark eyes. “Perhaps you’ll be able to help him grow on his own, and he can take his proper place at the table instead of the corner.”

Utahime wasn’t sure what to say, so she returned to the bowl of food in front of her. She wasn’t hungry, especially with Geto making her so nervous, but she had to eat something. The last thing she wanted was for someone to accuse her of being ungrateful or wasteful. She could already sense the snide comments coming her way. At the least, they would no doubt talk about her behind her back, which she honestly didn’t care about. Not being very strong herself, she was used to the pettiness that came with power.

As if sensing her lack of desire to eat, Geto asked, “Do you not like it?”

“No, it’s good,” Utahime reassured him quickly. She fought back the urge to wince over the tone of her own voice – high-pitched, too sweet. It was the tone a person used when they wanted to please someone or, at the very least, not displease them. It annoyed her. She hated how she felt like she had to placate Geto, and judging from the way Gojo’s grip on her thigh tightened, he didn’t like it either.

That was annoying as well. It was hard to please one difficult man, much less two, especially when they seemed to contradict each other just as much as they complemented each other. 

Besides, she didn’t want to please them. She didn’t think they would hurt her, but she was no longer certain of what they would do if she angered them. If there was one thing she did know about them, it was that they could be particularly cruel when they wanted to be. 

“Don’t mind him,” Gojo huffed as he idly picked up a piece of food. “He’s just trying to put on a nice face for the others. He likes being liked, even if he doesn't like them. This is his family though, so he wants to make an impression.”

“Perhaps, unlike you, I’m concerned with our guests’ comforts,” Geto shot back.

Gojo swallowed a mouthful of food and grinned. “Yeah, because intimidating someone is very comforting.”

Geto shook his head. “As if you have room to talk.”

Utahime closed her eyes and counted to five. It was like she was stuck between two children fighting over a toy. And they were the most feared curse users in the world. She almost wanted to laugh – or maybe slap them upside the head.

“Here, Utahime,” Geto said. She opened her eyes to look at him, finding him holding a piece of food for her. “Try this.”

She reacted more out of instinct than anything else, opening her mouth so she could taste the food Geto was offering her. She didn’t want to turn him down and insult him in front of his top commanders, potentially embarrassing him. Still, she blushed as Geto held a hand just under her chin while gently placing the food on her tongue, his expression rather soft as he watched her take it willingly.

Damn him. Damn him to Hell. She must’ve looked like such a pliant fool to everyone else in the room, and she hated it.

“What do you think?” Geto asked, his focus entirely on her.

Utahime swallowed and averted her gaze. “It’s very good.”

“Do you want more?”

“No, I’m– You can have it.”

Her heart was thundering in her chest, mostly from humiliation. She knew damn well that he’d done it on purpose to unsettle her, and it had worked. If she looked up, she’d no doubt catch a mixture of looks being thrown her way – amusement, disgust, annoyance, mocking. Geto had made her look like an obedient, little dog.

“Remind me again,” someone at the table joked. “Is Iori Gojo’s pet or Geto’s?”

Even though Gojo had warned her, she’d still fallen into one of Geto’s stupid traps.

Utahime gritted her teeth and determinedly kept her head turned, even when she heard Geto laugh. She could sense Gojo’s irritation, which made her feel as if she’d messed up, and her heart flipped when she glanced up at him and realized he was looking over her head at Geto. However, it was a snapping sound from across the table that finally pulled Utahime out of her humiliation, and she looked up to see a flummoxed Yuta, who was holding onto a single broken chopstick.

“Ah, I didn’t–” Yuta shook his head at himself and then leaned over to pick up the other half of his broken chopstick and the other one to match it. Bent over, he jerked in his seat, banging his head on the table, and then sat up abruptly. His face was red as he rubbed the back of his head with one hand and held the broken chopsticks in the other. A servant teetered nervously behind him, knees already bent as if they’d been on their way to pick up the broken pieces. “Sorry. I wasn’t paying attention. Here, um, you can take this, I guess. I’m finished eating anyway. Uh, right.”

After awkwardly dropping the broken chopsticks in the servant’s hands, Yuta picked up his bowl and gave it to them as well. The servant looked a little confused, but Yuta was too distracted to notice, his eyes darting around the room as he struggled to concentrate on something, as if he was embarrassed.

“What are you doing, Okkotsu?” a young blonde-haired woman scoffed. “Are you actually being kind to those monkeys? After you’ve killed so many?”

Yuta’s eyes darted from the woman to Utahime, and then he looked back down at the table, his cheeks still flushed. He opened his mouth briefly, but then he closed it again, pressing his lips together. She didn’t think he’d even known what to say. Mai continued eating, but she was watching him closely. His curse energy hadn’t flared up like it normally did when he was confronted, but his discomfort was obvious.

It wasn’t fear or nervousness though. It felt more like...confusion.

“I don’t…” Yuta chewed on his lip. “I don’t see the point in being needlessly mean.”

“Needlessly mean?” the woman questioned. “It’s their role to serve us.”

Yuta raised his eyes to meet hers, his expression a little firmer. “And it’s our role to be cruel to them because of that, Suda?”

“Cruel?” The woman, Suda, twisted her lips into a sneer.

“Maybe he’s getting soft from not being in the field for so long,” the man beside her said. It was the man that Yuta had confronted in the hallway after the tea incident, Negi from what Utahime remembered. He leaned back in his chair, folding his arms across his chest as he watched the conversation play out. Meanwhile, neither Geto nor Gojo seemed to care, Gojo talking to the person sitting on his left while Geto continued to eat. “I heard he’s just been playing with kids.”

Suda clicked her tongue in disapproval. “Perhaps he needs a reminder of what these pitiful creatures are then.”

Without looking away from Yuta, Suda picked up her own chopsticks, held them out away from the table, and then released them to fall onto the floor. They’d barely finished clattering before another non-sorcerer rushed to pick them up and then provide Suda with a new pair, which she promptly dropped again. The servant picked those up as well and then another showed up to provide her with a third pair.

“See,” Suda said. “That’s what they’re good for. That’s what they do. Monkeys are nothing but–”

“Thank you!” Utahime cut in loudly, her gaze focused on the two non-sorcerer servants that had cleaned up after Suda. They both stiffened against the wall, clearly confused about why she was thanking them, but Utahime didn’t hesitate, not even when everyone’s eyes landed on her sharply. “Thank you for your help. I appreciate it.”

An uncomfortable silence fell over the room. Utahime connected eyes with Suda, undeterred by the ugly look on her otherwise beautiful face, challenging her outright. If her suspicions were correct, then this woman was responsible for a lot of crimes against non-sorcerers. Utahime had crossed paths with other curse users under Geto and Gojo’s command, but there were a few that she was considered too weak to fight against. Yuki and Nanami might’ve known her.

But they weren’t here. It was Utahime, and she didn’t care how weak she was. That kind of arrogant behavior disgusted her.

“Are you really wasting your time with someone as pathetic as her, Gojo?” Suda finally asked, her sharp eyes still locked on Utahime.

Gojo took a sip of his drink. “Why do you care?”

“You could’ve taken someone stronger – should’ve taken someone stronger,” Suda pointed out. “What does she have to offer anyway? Iori Utahime – too weak to be a sorcerer worth a damn, so she’s just a little teacher that the higher-ups can boss around to fill out their canon fodder.” She propped her elbow on the table and leaned forward, placing her chin in her palm. “Tell me, Iori, how does it feel to watch your students either fail, die, or turn?”

Utahime had to bite her tongue to keep from snapping. Maybe she was too weak, but this woman didn’t know shit about her students. She could just picture Nobara’s reaction now: a feral smile tugging at her lips as her grip tightened around a glass before launching herself over the table to snatch Suda’s hair and smash her head into the table. Maki wouldn’t even consider her, choosing to give her a simple knowing look before continuing to eat. Megumi would roll his eyes in distaste and mutter something snide under his breath.

So high in their castle, so full of themselves, believing they were superior to others – they had no fucking clue what others were capable of, especially when they’d been pushed into a corner time and time again.

Taking in a breath, Utahime resumed eating and asked, “How does it feel to be jealous of a woman with half your curse energy? I didn’t realize you were one of their little fangirls too. Did I oust you from Gojo’s bed?”

Things turned ugly fast, both Suda and Negi jumping to their feet and Suda yelling, “You conniving, little bitch!” A few others got to their feet as well, trying to calm them down. Mei Mei smiled and shook her head while Mai giggled behind her hand and someone actually howled with laughter.

However, when Suda pointed at Utahime, her curse energy flaring, Yuta stood up as well. The energy radiating from him overwhelmed everyone else’s, practically smothering them, dark and powerful, to the point where a handful of people held a hand over their mouth and nose. Even the non-sorcerers in the room grew silent and stiff, their faces paling.

“Sit down,” Yuta said coldly.

Negi sneered at him. “Or what?”

“I’d do as he says,” Mai said, looking up at him calmly, “before Rika makes you.”

“You don’t even belong here, so I don’t know why you see fit to speak,” Negi snapped.

Although it hadn’t seemed possible, the curse energy field surrounding Yuta grew even stronger. “Don’t talk to her like that.”

Mai held out a hand. “You’re only here because you’re useful, Negi. I’ll freely admit that everyone here is stronger than me – even Utahime – but don’t think for a moment that your time isn’t borrowed. Everyone’s use either runs its course or” – her eyes swept to Utahime and then Yuta – “someone more useful, stronger, or simply better comes along.”

“What is that supposed to mean, brat?” Suda demanded.

“It means that Yuta is three times the sorcerer than half of you combined, and you’re all lucky he’s such a nice, loyal boy or he would’ve replaced you a while ago,” Mai replied, her tone growing colder with every word. She let out a quiet laugh. “And you could only hope to get into Gojo’s bed, Suda, or did you give up on trying to worm your way into Geto’s, hm?”

Suda seethed. “You’re such a pitiful, vindictive, little shit.”

“What can I say?” Mai smiled. “It’s in my blood.”

Pressing her hands flat on the table, Suda leaned forward and said, “When Geto and Gojo stop being entertained by you, we can just throw you back to your family. Maybe they’ll find some use for you since you’ve nothing to contribute here.”

“Take that back!” Yuta demanded.

Utahime startled in her seat, especially when she realized that Yuta had grabbed a knife. She hadn’t even seen him pick it up, but then again, she’d been too focused on Mai. Looking back to Gojo, she tried to urge him to do something, but he only tapped her leg with his fingers and shrugged, looking more amused than anything else. At least Geto looked tired of the bickering, but he didn’t seem too keen to stop it himself.

Better to hash things out here than in the field, as they said.

But Utahime was fairly certain that this hashing out might actually progress to a full-blown fight and maybe even murder.

“Why don’t we just sit down and finish our meal?” an unknown curse user told Suda. “We've still got business to discuss.”

Suda gestured violently at Utahime. “As if we’re going to discuss anything serious with the enemy in the room. She’s that before she’s Gojo’s new plaything.”

“Stop talking about Utahime like that,” Yuta snapped furiously.

“And as if you have any room to talk,” Suda shot back. “All you’re good at is taking orders.”

While Yuta gritted his teeth, his anger nearly potent, Negi scoffed. “Who exactly are you loyal to again? Because it’s starting to feel like you’re no longer devoted to the cause. You’re too busy pandering after a pair of weak whores–”

Everything snapped, and the room erupted into an argument. Mai had to jump to her feet in order to press her hands against Yuta’s chest and hold him back, and Utahime was certain that the only reason he hadn’t attacked was he was still aware enough not to hurt her. A few curse users on Suda and Negi’s side stood as well, shouting back, everyone’s voices blending in and becoming unintelligible. Mei Mei slammed down her glass of wine, almost spilling the red liquid, a tired and aggravated look on her face. Even Gojo tensed up, but she could tell he was holding himself back and letting things play out.

It was too much. With so much cursed energy in the room, things were boiling over too quickly. Glasses and silverware rattled on the table. The lights flickered. It was even becoming harder to breathe. The non-sorcerers in the room flattened themselves against the walls, struggling to make sense of the curse energy even they could feel.

Finally, Geto appeared to have had enough, pushing himself away from the table and moving to stand up, but Utahime couldn’t stand it any longer. She didn’t care what the others thought about her, and she knew Mai didn’t give a shit either. They’d both suffered worse from people that were supposed to help them. But a line had been crossed, and she could sense Yuta’s loss of control, something that had only been brought up vaguely a few times.

Dropping everything, Utahime got to her feet and rang out, “ Stop !” activating her technique so that a wave of her own cursed energy spread across the room. Even a simple word could be a part of a song, depending on how she said it, and she used an octave so high that a glass of water exploded over the table.

It hit everyone, including Yuta, shocking them out of the escalating fight. Even Suda and Negi went silent, shock written on their faces. Her curse technique was probably one of the weakest here by far, and its effect depended on what she used it against. People, as it turned out, even other jujutsu sorcerers, were more susceptible to it than curses, perhaps because people were more easily influenced. The effect only lasted a second or two, but it was just enough to slice through the tension and break up the spiraling momentum.

“Since you’re so uncomfortable with my presence here tonight, I’ll leave,” Utahime said in the following silence. She threw down a napkin and shoved the chair away from the table. “It’s not like I wanted to be here, so my apologies for offending you. I hadn’t realized the commanders of this fearsome army held such fragile egos that my weak status would upset you so much.”

Without another word or even sparing a look in either Gojo’s or Geto’s directions, Utahime stormed out of the room, her heart thundering in her chest. She wasn’t sure what this dinner had accomplished, but maybe they’d needed to throw her in front of the other commanders in order for them to get over their own feelings. She didn’t know and she didn’t care, too angry with both men for being such children.

So caught up in her own fury, it took Utahime a few minutes before she realized that she didn’t even know where she was walking, and only when she stopped to assess where she was did she realize that she wasn’t alone.

Turning around, she expected to find Gojo, but she wasn’t too surprised to find Yuta instead. Her heart sank in her chest when she saw how exhausted he looked, his eyes trained on the ground. The last time she’d seen him look this bad had been the first day they met.

Laying a hesitant hand on his shoulder, Utahime waited for him to speak. She watched him breathe quietly, his body barely moving, until he finally said, “I couldn’t be in there any longer. I didn’t– They’re not wrong. I don’t belong there.”

“Why not?” Utahime asked.

“I don’t know,” Yuta admitted, shrugging weakly. “Everyone talks about how strong I am, but maybe I’m too weak. I can’t–” He furrowed his brow, a troubled expression on his face. “It’s easy to follow orders. I don’t have to think about how I don’t like them because I’m doing what I’m told and– Geto and Gojo know better than me, so I trust them. It’s easy to protect people too, and I...I like that. It feels right.” He swallowed. “Things are...confusing.”

“You’re thinking more for yourself,” Utahime said carefully, “and things aren’t lining up.”

Yuta put a hand to the side of his head. “I’m sorry for losing control like that. I just– You’ve been very nice, very kind, more so than anyone else here. You’re... good . And Mai…”

Utahime searched his face, but it was hard to say what he was thinking, especially when he seemed so confused himself. “Mai is important to you.”

“She saved my life,” Yuta said in such a matter-of-fact tone that Utahime blinked. He brought his eyes up to hers, looking more fervent than before. “She’s not weak like everyone says – and neither are you. I don’t care what the others say. Gojo knows that too. It’s why he didn’t argue with them, and I should’ve– I should’ve trusted you to handle it.”

Letting out a breath, Utahime sighed, “Well, I did in the end, although I’m not too sure how well I did. They probably hate me even more after I used my curse technique on them.” She gestured vaguely and rolled her eyes. “Honestly, I’m not trying to get in their way.”

“I don’t think it matters,” Yuta said. “It’s obvious that Gojo genuinely likes you.”

“It’s almost a curse,” Utahime grumbled under her breath.

A distant but thoughtful look crossed Yuta’s face. “It...kind of is, isn’t it? Being liked by him.”

“We’ll survive,” Utahime told him. “Now, after that whole mess, I was thinking… Tea?”

Yuta’s shoulders sank with relief. “Please.”

“Good, because I need something to take off the edge, and I don’t know where they keep the alcohol here,” Utahime sighed. Not that drinking to cope was a proper defense mechanism, but she hadn’t felt this frazzled since Gojo had first brought her here. A beer or two would really help her just calm down and drift off tonight. “Plus, I’ll be lucky if I’m left alone tonight. Gojo’s going to be in an annoying ass mood.”

“Yeah, he is,” Yuta admitted sheepishly, “I’m sorry.” He gave her a weak smile. “Maybe he’ll be too busy by the meeting and Geto will keep him back?”

One could only hope, but she found herself annoyed by that prospect too.

It was so nice that everybody in this damn place knew everything whereas she felt like she was balancing precariously on one foot in a wire attached to two high rises. One wrong move, and she’d plummet to her doom, but she couldn’t make a move either. On one side was her side – a side she knew was wrong on some level and couldn’t fix – and on the other was Gojo and Geto – a side she knew had some good in it but was stained with too much blood.

All she could do was stand her ground, but the wind grew stronger every day, and she wasn’t sure how much longer she could carry on this balancing act.