twinsouls2

Twin Souls: Chapter 33: Betrayal

Title: Chapter 33: Betrayal
Arc: Twin Souls
Characters:Academy Jyuushiro and Shunsui, Yamamoto
Rating: PG-13 for language and violence
Word Count: ~6580
Summary: Two hordes of Hollows, one army, a dozen nobles, and One Yamamoto all descend on the caverns.
Beta: incandescens, whose been amazingly helpful and patient with me through the whole series.
Author's Notes: I know it's been over a year, but I'm finally getting back into it just before Jyuushiro's birthday (laughs). Many thanks, too, to demented_dee for encouraging me to write my own stuff once again.
Disclaimers: I do not own Bleach nor the characters of Bleach, and I make no money from these writings.

The First Chapter
<<: The Previous Chapter



"Warn the villagers!" Jyuushiro yelled over his shoulder. Hayato's steps pelted in the opposite direction. Moments later, to Jyuushiro's relief, the clear tones of the village warning bell floated after them.

They sped through narrow tunnels, in the direction away from the Shiba lands. A long tunnel went into the rock from where they'd entered, and the Hollow reiatsu signatures were coming from further on, within the heart of the mountain. Striated rock walls slanted downward on either side of the stone-strewn path, and the illusion of a ceiling closing in on them made Jyuushiro very aware of the tons of rock over their heads. Lit torches stood in brackets, and Jyuushiro yanked one out of its socket. Shunsui glanced at him and followed suit.

The stink of Hollow energy lay ahead of them. Jyuushiro worried about the strength of the gathering, and the tattered, fluttering aspects of Kaoru's reiatsu flying ahead.

"May I go first?" Shunsui asked.

Daisuke-san nodded, and held out a hand for Shunsui's torch. "Don't look back at us, you'll be able to see better with the light behind you."

"Aye."

Shunsui strode forward. Jyuushiro and Daisuke-san followed. Jyuushiro wondered if there would be problems with Shunsui's shadow obscuring Shunsui's field of vision, but, with two light sources overlapping, Jyuushiro could see well into the darkness. A crisp clean autumn wind gusted, and Kaoru appeared, zanpakutou clenched in one fist.

"Behind me!" Shunsui barked.

Kaoru got just beyond Jyuushiro and Daisuke-san before he collapsed against a tunnel wall.

"Following..." Kaoru gasped.

"We can feel them, Kuchiki-kun," Daisuke-san said evenly. "Wait until...."

Kaoru shook his head, fighting for air. "There's too many. Thousands. Can't take them. Just run..."

"There are helpless villagers behind us," Daisuke-san said, pursing his lips. "We cannot allow the Hollows through, and this passage is narrow enough for one to hold."

Kaoru slumped and blood trickled to the stones. With a frown Jyuushiro knelt and found cuts on Kaoru's hip and side. He ripped two pieces of cloth from his robes, lay them on, and added pressure to stop the bleeding.

Three Hollows bounded into the torchlight, but, to Jyuushiro's surprise, they looked behind them, not at the warriors facing them. An enormous black hand shot into the tunnel, groped, and caught a Hollow. It yanked the screaming, white figure back and into a cavernous maw, easily mistaken for the tunnel itself. When the jaws closed down, Shunsui acted, stabbing at the mask of the bitten Hollow, and the lost soul went to dust. The Gillian sneezed, sending the torches into flickering spasms, and then bellowed in rage. A brilliant ball of light formed on its spindly black hands.

"Jump to the side!" Daisuke-san barked and fell away.

"Jump away!" Daisuke-san barked and fell away.

Jyuushiro fell on top of Kaoru, saw Shunsui sprawl the other way. A glowing green ball of energy shot down the center of the narrow cave and smashed into stone. Chips sprayed off in all directions, and a line of fire sliced across Jyuushiro's cheek. He shoved the handle of his torch into a crack in the wall, made sure it was firmly wedged in, stood up, and drew his sword. One of the escaping Hollows ran right at him, and a shimmering roil of motion rose in the back of Jyuushiro's head.

Is it time? The two voices, speaking synchronously in Jyuushiro's mind, were curious and eager. Shunsui reflected Jyuushiro's motions, and the two students cleansed the two remaining Hollows that were mad with fear.


Daisuke-san sprang forward. The enormous Hollow had to crawl to fit into the tunnel, so its head was well within Daisuke-san's reach, but its arms were longer than the naginata.

"Grow, Takekaze!" A brilliant green streak of power lashed out at the Gillian, and the naginata split open a gash in one enormous shoulder. The thing bellowed, and when Daisuke-san closed in, talons lashed out. Blood hit the walls, and Daisuke-san stumbled back.

Remembering the Shihouin battlefield, and that the big Gillian weren't particularly agile, just powerful when they hit, Jyuushiro raced forward. Shunsui's reiatsu and tread were close behind Jyuushiro, so he set himself to leap for the shoulder that was already injured.

Jyuushiro flash-stepped, landed on a sloped shoulder slick with gore. He slid, compensated, and swung, two-handed, for the head that ponderously turned toward him.

I think it is, Jyuushiro's zanpakutou murmured like a wave hissing on the shore. Hear my name, Jyuushiro. You need my name.

It was damned distracting.

Jyuushiro followed through on his swing, and it was like hitting a brick wall with his blade. The rebound wrenched at shoulders, arms, and wrists. Wincing, Jyuushiro jumped, landed on the Gillian's back, took three quick steps to avoid reaching talons, and saw Shunsui follow with a two-bladed attack.

Shunsui's intent seemed tiny compared to the immense reiatsu of the huge Hollow, and the very logical part of Jyuushiro's mind added up all the numbers and said that the fight was impossible. But Shunsui's back arched, trained upper arms bunched and flexed, his will sharpened and grew more focused, and the keen edge of Shunsui's intent cut through the murk of Hollow reiatsu.

Jyuushiro's heart, his soul, his zanpakutou whispered Yes, that is the way of it. Hope is brightest when there is no reason.

Shunsui's blade bit. Jyuushiro whirled, leaped, and landed, using all his will in a foot strike against the unsharpened back of Shunsui's zanpakutou. The edge sank into the bone mask: cracks appeared and spread further.

"Wind strike, Takekaze!" Daisuke-san shouted. He jumped overhead and struck, driving the point of his naginata into the weakening bone. The mask shattered. Jyuushiro's footing gave way. Careful of the bared sword, Jyuushiro bounced off one tunnel wall before landing heavily on his ass and one knee in the corridor.

"Back to the torch," Daisuke-san said, hoarsely. They all felt a sudden rise of Hollow reiatsu.

"You're hurt." Shunsui's tone was tight. Daisuke-san just shook his head.

They trotted back to Kaoru, who had levered himself back up to sit against the wall. Kaoru leaned into an arm, which he had pressed tightly against the wad of cloth Jyuushiro had left on his hip. Jyuushiro jammed the other torch a bit above and to the left of Kaoru.

"It is just a scratch. It surprised me," Daisuke-san said evenly, but he held his side firmly with his left hand. His head went up on alert. "They're coming."

And they did.

A trickle at a time, like sand through an hourglass, the Hollows came. Shunsui went at them, and on seeing Shunsui deal with the first two easily, Jyuushiro tugged Daisuke-san back into the tunnel and ripped strips off his robe. Daisuke-san grunted and let Jyuushiro wind a pressure bandage over the bleeding slashes as Daisuke-san stood, watching and ready to back up Shunsui. Shunsui never needed it. He was smooth, fast, and efficient in his motions. Nothing wasted. Sixteen Hollows fell before he walked back to them in a lull.

"My turn," Jyuushiro stated.

Shunsui nodded and knelt by Kaoru to address his injuries.

Jyuushiro stepped forward and found the situation to be surprisingly akin to facing the tedious line exercises Yamamoto-sama had insisted everyone do. Each student took on every single other students, one at a time, each with their own styles, their own attacks, their own methods of defense. The exercise was as much about endurance as it was about being flexible against varying opponents.

One Hollow rushed Jyuushiro with the same lack of training and regard as any beginner. Given that its talons weren't as long as Jyuushiro's sword, he went with a simple overhead swing. It whispered away into dust.

Next was a slender insect-type armored Hollow that charged him so fiercely that Jyuushiro fell back. With a shout, he recovered both initiative and his balance in time to make a quick right to left slash that cut deep into the Hollow's throat. He followed up with the finishing cut to the mask. The next two tangled each other up, shoulder slamming into shoulder, foot tripping foot, and Jyuushiro quickly relieved them of this existence. The next paused, halting the others behind it. Then it rushed him, talons lowered. Just as it came near to him, it slapped at his blade with the bone lance, and tried to use the same weapon to skewer Jyuushiro.

It was the same trick Shiba Kenshin always tried, and Jyuushiro found himself smiling as he evaded the slap, ducked, and sliced through the Hollow's body. But that move brought Jyuushiro forward, away from the lights of the torches, and two more Hollows closed on him from either side using a move that looked frighteningly smooth and coordinated.

"Jyuushiro!"

Jyuushiro felt rather than saw Shunsui's long zanpakutou flying toward him. He turned and caught the warm silk-wrapped hilt as it appeared just over his left shoulder. Using the momentum of the thrown weapon, he swung it overhead and down into one Hollow even as his body pivoted to face both squarely. His right-hand blade followed, cutting horizontally through the mask of the one charging in on that side. Steel hit stone and struck sparks into the darkness, and both his opponents blew to dust.

A tap fell on Jyuushiro's shoulder, and he stepped back, allowing Daisuke-san to step forward. Wordlessly, Jyuushiro held Shunsui's sword out to the big man. Shunsui took it and slapped Jyuushiro on the shoulder, raising clouds of dust. Jyuushiro doubled up coughing, body shaking with adrenalin.

"Come back with me." Kaoru's voice was faint but sure.

Shunsui leaned back against the far wall, narrowed eyes following Jyuushiro's movements with concern. Jyuushiro sheathed his sword and joined Kaoru on the floor. He found it that much easier to breathe. The singing snarl of steel continued. Kaoru sat up, watching Daisuke-san work with the reach of his released naginata.

"What happened to Kali?" Jyuushiro asked.

Kaoru frowned and shook his head.

Shunsui growled, and his irritation was clear through his reiatsu. "Tell us. It's not like she'd have left you."

Kaoru spat on the floor of the tunnel. "She discovered this horde of Hollows going through a pass near your family's castle. She came running to warn me, shouted across a ravine, and was overwhelmed before my eyes."

"How?" Jyuushiro tried to imagine how that could have happened.

"They were faster."

"But she can..."

"Flash step?" Kaoru's tone was so detached, Jyuushiro wondered if he'd shatter like ice if that distance broke. "There was one of those smaller Hollows who can travel just as quickly. It caught her on the bridge across. She fought. It was joined by dozens of lesser Hollows, and I arrived just in time to watch them cut the bridge before I could come to her rescue."

Shunsui opened his mouth.

Kaoru interrupted even before a word could come out. "No, I could not feel her reiatsu anywhere. I nearly jumped down after her; however, since I knew how and where that pass connected to the Shiba plains, I decided you could still be saved. She could not."

Shunsui winced.

Jyuushiro sighed, bowed his head, and said with full formality, "Thank you very much, Kuchiki-san."

Kaoru's eyes closed. "Do not thank me for leaving my love to die."

Jyuushiro swallowed apologies and heartache for silence.

Suddenly the Hollows started screaming, and the mass of them surged in a frantic press of bodies that physically shoved Daisuke-san backward into Shunsui. Shunsui grabbed a torch. "Get Kaoru on his feet!"

Jyuushiro hastily got under Kaoru's arm. They both barely made it to a standing position before the mass of Hollows picked them up like flotsam lifted by a wave, and bore them effortlessly along.

Jyuushiro struggled to keep both Kaoru and himself from being buried by the struggling mass of bodies. Behind the tangle of regular-sized Hollows, Jyuushiro finally discerned the bulk of a Gillian. It was scrabbling at the rock walls, pulling itself along by talon, teeth, and toenails, shoving itself through tunnels so narrow that its spirit flesh was being ripped off in tatters. It bellowed and strove harder.

Something immense was moving behind the Gillian, some Hollow so empty it sucked at all the power before it as a hurricane's whirlpool might suck down ships. Horrified, Jyuushiro watched as the Gillian thrashed and flailed, smashing smaller Hollows and sending others, along with the students, flying further up the tunnel. Shunsui's torch blew out. The shrieking continued, bouncing off the walls, disorienting Jyuushiro. The pitch blackness and the din made it impossible to figure out which way was which, and the writhing, twisting footing confused him further.

Kaoru began chanting a fire kido spell. Light grew between Kaoru's fingers. Jyuushiro's dark-adapted eyes were dazzled. Clear as day, Jyuushiro could see the tangle of limbs about them. The Hollows started to turn toward them. Kaoru loosed the ball of fire, and the trail half-blinded Jyuushiro. Flame splashed against a Hollow, and their footing started to slide away from under them, as all of the ghosts flinched away. Desperately, Jyuushiro tried to work both of them back in the direction he thought the camp was, but he came up against a wall.

Shunsui's voice came from next to Jyuushiro's elbow. "Jyuushiro?"

"Aye."

"You're stepping on my leg."

Hastily, Jyuushiro moved Kaoru and himself to the side.

"Thank you," Shunsui said, in calm conversational tones. "Do you feel it coming?"

"No?" Jyuushiro found it nearly impossible to concentrate as much as he needed for long distance sensing, and wondered at Shunsui's sensitivity in this mess, with the four of them and all the Hollows. "What is it?"

"Fire. Big fire, but clean and from the camp."

"Yamamoto-soutaichou." Daisuke-san's voice held hope.

"Soutaichou?" Shunsui sounded speculative, and Jyuushiro snorted.

"Only you would worry about titles when we're about to get..."

The Gillian bellowed, and a heavy impact shook the cave. Pebbles and rocks fell from the ceiling, clattering to the floor. A heavy impact hit his left arm, and it went numb. One of the Hollows he was standing on suddenly went lax. Jyuushiro started to fall, but Kaoru grunted and yanked, while Shunsui grabbed his other hand. Then all three of them started to slide down the pile.

"Jump toward Yamamoto-sama!" Daisuke-san called out.

Jyuushiro used his legs to shove away from the moving mountain and added flash step to the effort. It was easier when Jyuushiro oriented on Daisuke-san's reiatsu. With his eyes closed, he could even feel the spirit power that lay in the stones of the cave, in the same way that the energies wove together all of Soul Society. Jyuushiro pulled the other two with him, and his arm flared to life with pain. Jyuushiro grunted.

Hollows trying to escape the madness of the Gillian, scrambled behind them, snarling, gnashing teeth and clashing talons, but there was no concerted attack. The Hollows were just desperate to get away. Jyuushiro felt Shunsui let go of his hand, then Kaoru sighed, and Jyuushiro felt Shunsui's arm against his own at the noble's back.

"Let's go."

They picked Kaoru up between them and ran. Daisuke-san moved behind them, intimidating enough that the Hollows didn't press too close. Suddenly, Jyuushiro saw the nearest Hollow backpedalling with frantic haste.

Yamamoto-sama appeared in the tunnel, bare from the waist up. He needed no torch with the naked flame of Ryuujin Jakka rising in lazy tongues from bared steel. The pressure of his reiatsu, along with the released power of the sword, made Jyuushiro tremble. Before he might have dropped Kaoru, Jyuushiro turned. Shunsui took the hint and all three of them leaned against the stone walls. Jyuushiro had to make a sincere effort to breathe.

Daisuke-san stood steady and bowed in greeting. Yamamoto-sama nodded gravely in acknowledgement and strode on. The scrabbling and cries from the Hollows grew more urgent, but now the mass of Hollows pushed to get away.

"Burn all existence to ash, Ryuujin Jakka," Yamamoto-sama intoned in a voice that resonated the very bedrock beneath Jyuushiro's feet. Yamamoto-sama pointed his sword at the writhing darkness, and the world dissolved in flame.

Kaoru fell to the cold stone floor, taking Jyuushiro and Shunsui down with his weight. Roaring destruction flowed in glowing backwash over the roof of the tunnel. A cloud of Hollow dust so thick as to choke rained down on them. When the worst of the heat blew by, the stone popped and crackled in its wake. A gentle patter of small stones fell to the tunnel floor, followed more rapidly by larger rocks, and finally the rumbling ruin of tons of earth collapsing.

Warily, Jyuushiro started a firebolt kido spell, the way Kaoru had, but instead of finishing it, he simply stopped speaking the words when he could see by the glow. Released from intent, the spell unraveled, but only after Jyuushiro could see that the walls above and about them were still solid.

"Come. There is much to do," Yamamoto-sama said, and strode back the way he'd come.

Shunsui got up from the ground, dusted off his butt, and gave Jyuushiro a hand up.

"Well," Shunsui said, looking at the last shifting pebbles in the wall of stone that now blocked the Hollow's way. "That'll hold them for a while."

"Yes," Jyuushiro said and tried to get his treacherously wobbly knees completely under his control. "Until we can figure out either how to get the helpless out of the way or how to get a force in here that could be effective."

"More effective than that?" Kaoru said incredulously, as Shunsui and Jyuushiro picked him up again between them.

"Cleansing the tunnels of every Hollow is impossible at this point," Daisuke-san said. "The myriad passages make that an endless task."

Jyuushiro thought of the maps of the tunnels Shunsui and he had seen at the Shiba compound: they ran through these mountains like a maze.

Something hit the other side of the blockage. The walls shook and stones rattled down from the pile.

"We should hurry," Yamamoto-sama said. "This will not hold forever, children, and we must have a plan before it fails."

"Aye, sir," Daisuke-san said calmly.

"Thank you for saving our asses, sir," Shunsui added.

"An overwhelmed position would have done our cause no favors," Yamamoto-sama said. His sword lit the way for them all. "I needed Daisuke-san to help me with tactics when so many were wounded on the Shiba plains. When I went looking for him, Ryuu-kun pointed out this troublesome invasion, and I came looking for all three of you."

"Four, now," Kaoru said, and Jyuushiro felt the other student strengthen.

"How are circumstances in the Kyouraku mountains, Kuchiki-kun?" Yamamoto-sama asked evenly.

"They were confused," Kaoru reported. "Kali stumbled on this horde of Hollows as part of our routine surveys of the area; however, the bulk of them were not headed toward Kyoraku's outposts, instead, they were trying, with all intent, to come here."

"My parents' holdings weren't rich enough with spirit power for them?" Shunsui sounded thoughtful. "That makes no sense whatsoever."

"Do your parents know of the invasion?" Yamamoto-sama interrupted.

"I don't know, sir," Shunsui answered frankly.

"We ran out of Hell Butterflies," Jyuushiro added.

Yamamoto-sama paused, and Daisuke-san produced a butterfly. Jyuushiro sighed in relief.

Shunsui took the creature, bent over it and murmured, "Mother, there is a horde of Hollows in the caves toward the Shiba Plains. Kali is lost in one of the crevices on the way. Please look for her and if you can deal with the Hollows as well, we'd be grateful. We're in the Shiba caves. Thank you very much."

The insect fluttered away, disappearing into the darkness.

Jyuushiro had to reflect on the fact that Shunsui still held hope for Kali when it was obvious that Kaoru could not.

They neared the villagers' caves far more quickly than Jyuushiro had anticipated. Once within sight, Hayato sprang to his feet, relief plain on his face as he joined them as they turned into the living caves. Apparently after having waited a few hours for his friends to come out of the catacombs of tunnels, the close caves where all the villagers dwelled was now more acceptable to the mountain-born prince.

"Come to the command tent after Kuchiki-kun has been seen to, I think that the medics have setup in the second cave," Yamamoto directed. "Ryuu-kun, you're with me."

Hayato and Daisuke-san followed the striding figure of Yamamoto into the main cave, while Shunsui and Jyuushiro took Kaoru as directed.




Looking into the cave where the injured lay, Shunsui realized that the Hollows between here and Shiba's lands must have taken their toll of the fighters. The cave Yamada Itsuke had set his little tent in was covered in tatami mats spread to the stone walls. Wounded lay in every possible space.

In the midst of the groaning lake of pain, stood the gorgeous and serene Unohana-senpai. With her black hair bound at the nape of her neck and flowing down her back, Unohana-senpai calmly directed the villagers to help with the wounded. Half a dozen children and women rewrapped dressings, washed feverish faces, and tucked blankets about sleeping forms. Yamada-ji hopped about like a crane stabbing at fish. Fires had been built to warm everyone, and with this many of the reiatsu-gifted, there were cook pots on every fire.

Jyuushiro frowned at the orderly scene, and turned to Shunsui and Kaoru. "Will you be all right bringing Kaoru to the tent? I have to go get something."

Shunsui nodded. "Your ward?" It was far too easy to see the rows and rows of injured as nothing more than a buffet for the Hollows they'd just turned away.

Jyuushiro nodded helplessly. "It's something, not nearly enough but..."

"A warding?" Kaoru asked as Jyuushiro ran off in the direction of their bedrolls.

"Aye. Something his family made him."

"How quaint," Kaoru said shortly, but his sneer was diluted by a quaver of pain.

Shunsui couldn't see an open space to deposit Kaoru, so he headed toward Unohana-senpai. She was kneeling by an unconscious woman, checking pulse and temperature. The dressings had bled through, and Unohana-senpai started to change them. This close, Shunsui saw the hollows under her dark eyes, the shake in her fingertips. Unohana-senpai had been stretched well beyond her considerable resources and was still doing her utmost to heal those around her. Shunsui sighed in sheer admiration.

Five minutes later, Unohana-senpai finished the dressing. She sat back and closed her eyes.

Kaoru coughed politely.

Unohana-senpai blinked, looked up at them, and got to her feet with the faintest of smiles. She didn't even speak to them, just gestured for them to follow her. She want to Yamada-ji's tent and opened the flap. There was one empty pallet on the floor. "Here," she said. "Lie here."

Shunsui squatted to let Kaoru down gently onto the covered pad. Unohana-senpai settled next to Kaoru and lifted torn clothing.

"These are grave injuries, Kuchiki-kun. I shall have to sew some of these up, as I haven't the energy to do kido healing. You understand the implications?" Unohana-senpai's voice was more clipped than Shunsui expected, her tiredness making her curt where she'd always been gracious.

Kaoru nodded. "It shall be a longer recovery period, with the possibility of scarring."

"It's also going to hurt," Unohana-senpai said frankly. "One of the Hatsuzora clan refused to let me go on after two stitches."

"I am Kuchiki," Kaoru said firmly. "I will not flinch."

Unohana-senpai frowned and then nodded. "Then I shall move forward with what I need to do."

"As you will." Kaoru settled, as composed as an ivory statue, on the mat.

Shunsui kept to himself the thought that Unohana-senpai had played it perfectly. She couldn't have gotten a more enthusiastic patient if she'd tried. Heck, any noble would probably have run screaming if she's tried to cajole them into the operation. This way, she'd made it a matter of Kuchiki pride.

Unohana-senpai turned away to get her equipment.

"Take care, Kaoru. I should go to the meeting," Shunsui said.

"Aye. Good luck."

"Unohana-senpai?" Unohana turned back to Shunsui with a quirk of an eyebrow. Heartened by a tired smile, Shunsui continued, "I'm glad you're here. Thank you for taking care of so many."

She bowed to him in acknowledgement, and he bowed back.

That was when Jyuushiro arrived with a single red, embroidered ribbon. Shunsui stepped out of the tent. Looking at the slip of silk dubiously, Jyuushiro asked Shunsui, "Do you think it'll be enough?"

"What's it supposed to do?" Shunsui asked.

"I actually don't know," Jyuushiro said quietly. "I think we're supposed to hang it up where it can be seen or where it can see what's coming."

"There's a crack up near the top of the arch: maybe you can drive a splinter or something through the ribbon into that?" Shunsui walked toward the tall arch to get a better view. Along the way was one of the push carts that the farmers had brought to carry things. He grabbed the handles and brought it under the arch. "Try this."

Jyuushiro climbed into the bed of the thing, while Shunsui held it steady. With the butt of his sword, Jyuushiro pounded a wood splinter through the top of the ribbon into the crack in the rock below. The ribbon fluttered in an unseen breath of air, fixed above the entrance, on the outside, facing whatever might be coming.

"How does it look?" Jyuushiro asked.

Shunsui craned his neck. "It looks like it's centered and solid."

"Good."

A bell ran in the depths of the caverns. Shunsui recognized it as the village bell they'd managed to haul down here on one of the ox-carts. It was funny what villagers thought was important, but the thing had proven useful more than once.

Jyuushiro's head went up, and he looked in the direction of the sound before putting one hand on Shunsui's shoulder and gracefully alighting on the ground. "Meeting?"

"Aye." Shunsui took the cart back to where he'd gotten it from. "Yamamoto-soutaichou must have something to say."




Yamamoto was standing by Arai's tent with the village elders about him. Daisuke-san was surrounded by a group of students that Shunsui recognized, and they stood apart from representatives from the Ryuu, Shihouin, and Kuchiki clans. The nobles all clustered about Yamamoto as well, but a small group of Hatsuzora clan members watched them, while standing apart. Hatsuzora's blues clashed with the austere black of the Academy's troops, and Shunsui couldn't help but admire the elegance of simplicity.

Shunsui remembered Hayato saying something about Hatsuzora observing but being a pain in the ass about orders. Seeing the Kuchiki folk in full regalia, Shunsui was wondering if he should report Kaoru's condition to the Kuchiki members, when Ito Indra suddenly popped up by Shunsui.

"Hey, you're here!" Indra grabbed Shunsui and started wrestling with him. The wiry youngster nearly brought Shunsui down through sheer surprise, but Shunsui managed to get his feet under himself. With a grunt, Shunsui twisted, and Indra gave a shout of a laugh as Shunsui lifted Indra with a shoulder. "Nice!"

"Yeah?" Shunsui grinned his lazy grin as he set Indra lightly back down on the cave floor. Everyone was staring at them.

"Good ta see you, Soma sends this." Indra dragged out a sake bottle. "And his sincere regrets that he couldn't be here to help."

"Any more of your brothers here?" Shunsui asked, scanning the crowd. He saw Jyuushiro's white shock of hair bent by the ear of Kuchiki Ren. A flick of an elegant fingertip, and one of the Kuchiki retainers sped away, so Jyuushiro must have taken care of informing them of their heir's condition.

"Rudra's being his usual wet blanket here, but the others are home. How's Kali doing?"

Shunsui pursed his lips, and Indra went very still.

"I don't know exactly how she's doing," Shunsui said truthfully. "But she and Kaoru ran into trouble near my parents' castle. Kaoru made it here, but Kali..."

Indra flared.

Everyone who didn't fall down ducked. Other than Yamamoto, who looked up, took one flash-step, and put an enormous, scarred hand over Indra's head. To Shunsui's surprise there was absolutely no indication of power being used, but Indra's eyes rolled up, and the youth slumped. Shunsui caught Indra, dragged him to the edge of the crowd, and laid him down gently. Jyuushiro came running, and right beside Jyuushiro's mix of lightning and sea came a reiatsu that tasted of tears and rain.

"Kali's in trouble?" Ito Rudra's voice held no hint of inflection.

"Aye," Shunsui started when Yamamoto-soutaichou answered before he could.

"Which way?"

"Through a sea of Hollows that clog the tunnels between here and there," Yamamoto-soutaichou said evenly.

"Is she dead?"

"Not that I know." Shunsui said strictly what was true, and half-despised himself for not being able to say what Kaoru thought was true.

"Then we shall have to cleanse them and find out," Rudra said in exactly the same tones, and somehow, Shunsui could see in his mind's eye the two brothers fighting step-by-step through the tunnels that even Yamamoto-soutaichou had just abandoned.

"Are you saying that we have a horde of Hollows coming in from the Kyouraku mountains that is even larger than the one that we went through coming here from the Shiba Estate?" It was Hayato's cousin, Ryuu Hinata, the characteristic hawk nose of her clan high in the air. She was dressed in full battle regalia, her armor reminiscent of dragon scales, and her reiatsu nearly as weighty as that of Ryuu Kurogane, the sword instructor at the Academy. Shunsui took an instant dislike to her, as she seemed cut from the same cloth as his own brother: capable, disdainful, and superior to everyone about her.

"Aye. It's true," Yamamoto-soutaichou said.

A murmur of dismay rippled through the gathering.

"How in the world are you going to deal with that? You lost hundreds in the march from the Estates to here, there aren't that many people left." Hatsuzora Kaito sounded nervous, even in the midst of his bodyguard and counselors.

Shunsui watched the Hatsuzora lord curiously. This was the man that had ascended to the second slot in the Hatsuzora clan hierarchy after the duels Kenshin had so bloodthirstily enjoyed earlier in the year. To Shunsui's disappointment the man looked merely harried and uncomfortable, even in the midst of his own people. Some part of Shunsui wanted the price in lives to show, but it didn't; thinking that evil might show itself in such an ordinary form disconcerted Shunsui.

"Those that are left are the capable and the strong," Yamamoto-soutaichou intoned. "The rest were here for training and to gain experience. We have plenty here to deal with the threat. My man here has a map, and we should be able to discern the way from it."

Daisuke-san spread out a large sheet of paper with the tunnels spidery lines across the mountains. The map looked familiar to Shunsui, it was the same one the students of the Tactics and Strategy class had been given, so he stepped back, tugging Jyuushiro and Hayato with him to make room for those who hadn't seen the maze. Hatsuzora-sama and the other Clan leaders bent over the sheet of paper together.

With a jangled chord of sound, a Hollow sprang into existence in the midst of them all. Hungry, malevolent, and displaying a terrifying strength of spirit power, a laughing, bony gorilla fell onto the map. It slashed the paper into ribbons with curved claws, and then whirled on those nearest to it. Hatsuzora Kaito's throat was opened in an instant and he fell, looking bewildered. More blood flew, but most had reacted well enough not to be instantly killed. Half a dozen noble reiatsu signatures flared into life. Swords were drawn in the melee, and there were shouts of dismay as the close quarters made the edges more of a threat than the single Hollow.

There was a pop of flash-step and the clot of struggling humanity broke apart.

To Shunsui's horror, the only one left standing right next to the Hollow was Yamamoto, who inexplicably staggered and fell.

Daisuke-san screamed a kiai, and Takekaze, released, swept a blow at the beast, but the gorilla sneered, and blocked the blow with one bony forearm. Shunsui was reminded of the adjucha they'd seen on the Shihouin field of combat. Deliberately, the monster stomped one big foot on the prone figure of Yamamoto to the sound of snapping bones. It caught another of Daisuke-san's attacks before launching itself, tusks bared, at Daisuke-san. It knocked him over and proceeded to tear at him.

Three different blasts of energy coincided at once on the back of the bony beast. One was Jyuushiro, loosing a kido spell, one came from a half-balding blond man from the Hatsuzora camp, and the last...

Shunsui blinked. It was Fong Jin Wei, her small face fierce with concentration and something akin to horror. The combination of blows knocked the thing back half a step, and Daisuke-san took advantage of the opening, bringing Takekaze back and striking with all his considerable strength. Shunsui saw most of the Clan delegates take another step away, in amazement, surprise, or just self-preservation, he wasn't sure which. He noted, with some amusement that Ryuu Hinata did not, nor did Kuchiki Ren. Reputations to uphold, Shunsui thought, and had it confirmed when the two glanced at each other and charged while the adjucha swayed, still upright.

With a welling of power akin to a sunflower seeking light and a lotus bursting from the mud, the two nobles struck at the Hollow. Shunsui winced in the teeth of that power. Hinata took the high route, her intent as brilliant as the sun, while Ren struck from below, and the thing bellowed, flailed, and then burst into dust.

Silence fell.

Daisuke-san staggered up, shoulder and throat a bloody mess, eyes searching. He blinked at Fong, and said, incredulously, "Soi Ma Yi, what the hell are you doing here?"

Fong's eyes were wide, whites showing, but she coughed and then laughed bitterly. "Saving your ass again, Gardener. Damn everything." Daisuke-san collapsed, and for an instant, she hesitated, but then ran toward the fallen man.

Shunsui grabbed Jyuushiro, "Find Unohana-senpai? Your flash step is..."

Jyuushiro disappeared.

Shunsui completed the distance to Yamamoto, and knelt by the still form. The jagged end of a broken bone shone through Yamamoto's upper arm, but the old man was breathing; however, there was a catch and rasp that Shunsui didn't like. Even in the soup of reiatsu that sloshed about the cavern, Shunsui felt it when Unohana dropped into it with Jyuushiro's moonlit calm. She knelt by Shunsui, her hands quick to find the breaks.

"Hold his shoulder," Unohana said, firmly, and Shunsui did so. She yanked on the elbow and the bone disappeared; another quick pull and she signed in satisfaction even as she applied pressure to the now-bleeding flesh. "That should do it. I need a splint, and bandages."

The balding Hatsuzora retainer, who had also thought to use kido, held out a scabbard. "Will this do?"

"For now, yes." Unohana took it and bound it into place. "There's something else..." She hesitated. "This shouldn't have affected Yamamoto-sama enough to render him unconscious. His body is shaking and he's having difficulty breathing, but none of his ribs are broken and while there is trauma to his torso, none of it should be affecting his breathing. Help me roll him over?"

Putting Yamamoto on his back, Unohana searched with creased eyebrows, and then she had Shunsui move the old teacher to his front. Various Clan members moved in closer, though Shunsui was grateful when Ryuu Hinata and Kuchiki Ren moved away: the oppressive pressure of their reiatsu made it difficult to concentrate.

"There." It was Ito Rudra. "A small slit in the cloth."

"Oh." Unohana sat back on her heels. "What in the world?" She peeled back the kimono.

"Cut the wound open. Now." Jyuushiro said, leaning in close to study the small puckered slit. "It's small like a dagger wound, but the edges act as if it were like a beaked sea snake bite, see the way the edges of the wound have gone brown? That snake's venom destroys the flesh like that and then stops the breathings of its victim."

There was the click of a zanpakutou being released from a scabbard, and suddenly Jyuushiro had the attention of every person there. Oblivious to the gasps, Jyuushiro drew his sword, wrapped his sleeve about the edge, and before anyone could move, Jyuushiro flared his reiatsu and sank the tip into the dark-edge wound. "We have to bleed it, get the poison out of there. If there's someone that knows how to burn out poisons..." Jyuushiro looked around at them all and, to Shunsui, his terror was palpable.

"Poison?" Kuchiki Ren sounded incredulous. "How the hell could someone stick anything through Yamamoto-sama's reiatsu, much less something poisoned?"

Shunsui recalled the reiatsu flash of the Hollow coming in, and realized that anyone with enough reiatsu could have used that as cover for the strike.

"There is no time!" Jyuushiro cried. "Who here has an antidote or can burn out poisons?"

Shunsui turned to Unohana-senpai, but she shook her head. "I have no experience with..." she began.

"You do." Daisuke-san's thread-thin whisper cut through Shunsui's words like a blade through grass. He had his hand wrapped about Fong's wrist, and he shook it gently. "Go on. Do it."

"I don't know if I can," Fong said, pained. "And someone will have to support his breathing and his heart."

"That I can do," Unohana-senpai said firmly even as Shunsui made a sound of protest. She just looked at him, dark eyes full, and Shunsui shut up. Keeping Yamamoto alive, even when drained dry by others, was Unohana-senpai's type of battle, not Shunsui's. "Bandage Daisuke-san's wounds, Shunsui, or get him to Yamada-san," she added, and Shunsui nodded.

"Just try," Daisuke-san rasped urgently to Fong. "I know you have plenty of experience with poisons." Daisuke-san's tone was as dry as desert sands.

Fong winced, but her shoulders squared.

"You owe me, Soi Ma Yi," Daisuke-san said.

At the naming, Shunsui saw Fong frown again and Rudra startle. The woman knelt by Yamamoto-soutaichou's still form.

"I need water, now," she said with a frown. One of the Academy students proffered a bamboo flask. She took it, bowed and put her lips to the wound and sucked and spat blood and blackness onto the stone floor. She rinsed her mouth, and did it two more times before all she spat was clear, red blood. Another thorough rinsing, and she closed her eyes, brow furrowed in concentration. A glow grew on her fingertips that tasted more of fire and burning than healing, but Daisuke-san closed his eyes and slumped back in what looked like relief.

Unohana-senpai bent to Yamamoto's chest, and under her glowing palms his breathing eased.

"They're ignoring me, aren't they?" Kuchiki Ren said, voice frosty.

"No, sir," Shunsui replied. "They're just paying attention to what matters."

Kuchiki Ren shook his head. "No, boy, all of this is just the distraction. The real problem is that we don't know who the hell just put that dagger into Yamamoto-soutaichou. Which of us is the murderer?"

Next Chapter >>

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Author's Note: Many thanks to Cecil Adams for writing The Straight Dope on the effectiveness of certain poisons and Wikipedia for detailing how things worked with the various types.

And also, many many thanks to any and all of you who have stuck with me to this point, and patiently waited and waited and waited for the next chapter. I hope you have a very good holiday, and I have half the next chapter already written from what happened in this, so I hope that the Year of the Dragon will bring the last of this story to a close before its fourth anniversary. *laughs*

Thank you so much.

Awwww...
Many thanks to the anonymous comment person for saving me from a mistake that I was able to correct across two sites and three communities. *laughs* I appreciate your bravery and appreciate even more the fact that you're following this story here.

And I am following your wishes and not showing either comment. I'm not going to delete them, because I can always use the encouragement. *laughs* However, they won't show for general consumption.

Thank you!!! ♥

Edited at 2011-12-21 04:24 am (UTC)
i was thrilled beyond belief that this was up.
wonderful chapter. i've throughly enjoyed reading it. keep up the fantastic work.
*Beams* YAY! Thank you so much! I'm very glad you enjoyed it, and I shall do my best. ♥
Had to read up a bit before fully appreciating this, but... So glad to have the next peace! Heart in my throat, and then you stop. Can't wait for the next bit! :D Thank you for continuing this.
*hugs you solidly*

I had to reread quite a bit in order to write this again. *laughs* So happy that you enjoyed it! Another piece is now with incandesens and I think I'm GOING to FINISH. Ahem. <3

Thank you for staying with this. So very much!
I'm pretty sure the boys are looking. *grins* *dances about*

Thank you so much for reading!!
Oh, wow! I was not expecting the twist with Yamamoto being poisoned. Nicely played. I'm loving the politics in this.

"Thank you for saving our asses, sir," Shunsui added.

That's just so perfectly Shunsui. Love it.