twinsouls2

Twin Souls 38: Into the Fire

Title: Chapter 38: Into the Fire
Arc: Twin Souls
Characters: Kyouraku/Ukitake
Rating: PG-13 for violence
Summary: After the big fights, everyone has to deal with the aftermath, and just when they think the worst of it is over...
Author's Notes: Many thanks to incandescens's unceasing support, betaing skills, and knowledge of the Bleach Universe.
Standard Disclaimers: I do not own Bleach or its characters, nor do I make any money from these writings.

The First Chapter
The Previous Chapter: Not Alone



When Espejo was cleansed, Jyuushiro took his ready stance at Shunsui's back. Shunsui was bowed over the pile of dust, both hands on his enormous scimitars. The mass of Hollows filling the other half of the cavern were looking longingly at them and the two unconscious Ito brothers sprawled on the floor. The bridge was a small barrier, not exactly defensible when some of the Hollows could fly, but Jyuushiro hoped it would be enough. One bat-shaped Hollow clinging to the roof of the cave and an enormous crab-like one sidling through the rocks made Jyuushiro particularly nervous.

Power suddenly poured into the caves, cold and serene. Indra's light abruptly snuffed out like a pinched candle. The cave went utterly dark. Jyuushiro could hear the flap of wings, but thankfully they were moving away.

"Shit," Jyuushiro said and gripped his swords tighter.

"Oh, good," Shunsui said.

"What?!"

"Wait and see."

The rock shuddered beneath their feet. Stones rumbled and slid with a hiss. And then something creaked under impossible pressure. Jyuushiro ground his teeth and moved closer to Shunsui, where he felt the warm weight of Shunsui's shoulder lean against his thigh.

"Be still," Shunsui said. "There be dragons."

"Dragons?" Jyuushiro knew that from somewhere. Where? Then he had it. When they'd gone to visit Shunsui's family in the Kyouraku Castle, Jyuushiro had joked about going to meet Shunsui's parents as if they were dragons. "Dragons. Oh."

Calming himself was difficult in the dark, but Jyuushiro took deep, slow breaths, and concentrated on the sensation of Shunsui leaning against him. He spread his reiatsu senses, trying to figure out if they really were whom Shunsui thought they were. The reiatsu he found was as dark and weighty as the earth that pressed in upon them.

"That... is that your mother?" Jyuushiro asked.

"Aye."

Under the blanketing darkness crept a spreading force, source of sustenance and power, a clinging stability that held together all which it supported. Those same roots grew deep, finding hair-thin cracks, delving into and widening the spread between stones. The sharp snap of granite giving way was followed the thuds of something hitting ground and tumbling into the ravine.

"That's dear old Dad," Shunsui said with a laugh. "I think that they've got the horde where they want them."

"Why aren't the trapped Hollows attacking us?" Jyuushiro asked. "If your parents are pushing them..."

"Maybe they're more scared of us?" Shunsui said in a far too careless voice, but Jyuushiro couldn't hear any footsteps rushing toward them, nor could he feel or taste any Hollow reiatsu coming at them. "They say that shikai breakthrough can be pretty awesome."

Fingers of light crept through all the cracks, brightening like dawn stealing in between shades.

"Oh, damn it all, Shonetsu's going to make a mess," Shunsui muttered. His shikai blew out, and he sheathed his short and long sword. "Better get back to Indra and Rudra, now that we can see."

Jyuushiro looked at the two fish hooks in his hands, wondering how in the world he was going to stop shikai and put his swords away.

Ask us?

Oh. Please, then, I'd like to be able to put you away?

Sure!
said the twin voices. And the swords in his hands merged into the sword in his right hand, and then it flowed back into the shape of his old zanpakutou. Jyuushiro managed to sheath the sword before the cracks widened. Light poured through.

Jyuushiro and Shunsui scrambled back to the Itos and put themselves between the helpless men and the breaking walls. Pebbles cascaded down, the cracks trembled and widened, and then a huge mass of rock split from the rest and fell to shatter across the natural bridge. Any Hollows that hadn't run at the first sign of these reinforcements were crushed under the fall.

"I'm amazed it didn't break the bridge," Shunsui muttered.

The instant Shunsui finished speaking, cracks appeared in the slender span and the center gave way.

"Oops."

Figures appeared on the far side, backlit by deep summer sunlight, and Jyuushiro had to put a hand up to shield his eyes.

"Turn it down!" Shunsui yelled across the gap. "You showoff!!"

The light flare flickered and dimmed. "Who the hell is the showoff? Facing all this on your own?!"

The end of the sentence held true rage in it, and the glare of light heated.

"I didn't mean to," Shunsui said contritely. "It just happened that way. Besides, I had Jyuushiro with me, so I don't think that counts as being alone."

The light flickered out.

"Oh, shit, I can't see, damn it," Shonetsu said from across the way. "Suntiger, can you...?"

The light came back, warm this time instead of hot. Shonetsu carefully walked onto the edge of the gap, holding his zanpakutou like a torch. He squinted at the fall and drew back. "This might be for you, Father."

"Aye."

Yori-dono stepped to the fore and planted his zanpakutou at the tip of the outcropping. Fat roots burst from the rock, entwined, and shot across the open space to sink deep into the stones under Jyuushiro and Shunsui's feet. They grew and knotted, and soon there was a bridge between them of gnarled roots. "There."

"Shunsui! Jyuushiro! You're alive!!" cried an entirely unexpected voice, and Kali came running over the bridge.

"Kali!" Shunsui caught the slender girl with both arms and swung her about him while Jyuushiro gaped.

"Kali... Kaoru thought you'd died."

"Idiot," Kali said, and then cried out. "Indra! Rudra! What are they doing here?!"

"I'd ask the same of you," Jyuushiro said, "But I suspect we're about to find out."

The entire Kyouraku family and their clan of warriors and reiatsu users were filing over the bridge, most of them quite careful about not looking over the sides. Miyako-dono brought up the rear, her battle fan in hand.

Kali pounced onto her brothers, and Rudra groaned, coming out of unconsciousness.

"Kali?" he whispered.

"What in the world happened?" Kali said.

Rudra squinted up at Jyuushiro and Shunsui.

"I have no idea," Rudra said. "I thought we were dead, so I'm rather surprised we're not."

Indra's reiatsu pulsed. Shonetsu shouted and sunfire met blaze and squashed it flat.

"Easy, easy, brother," Shunsui said. "He's not..."

There was a frustrated pulse of reiatsu, and Shonetsu was sent flying backwards as Indra's fires burst free.

"Indra!" Kali's fierce voice cut through the roar, which abruptly died.

"Sister?" Indra said, and fell over again.

Shonetsu came over the edge of the cliff, shouting imprecations and threats, but Kali's disgusted tsk stopped him in his tracks.

"Is it always this chaotic at the Academy?" Miyako-dono asked quietly as she stepped forward.

"Not always," Jyuushiro said. He thought for a moment. "But it often can be."

"Sounds like a wonderful learning experience," Miyako-dono said. She watched Kali slap Indra to wake him up again. Shonetsu was watching from a respectful distance behind her.

Shunsui chuckled. "It is, Mother, it is. Thank you for coming to save me."

"Well, dear," Miyako-dono said with studied patience. "It is only the first time you've ever asked for help."

"So you brought not just yourself, but your entire army," Shunsui said, looking over the now crowded cavern.

"I brought whom I thought appropriate," Miyako-dono said. "Since you so rarely call for help, I thought you were in real trouble." She turned from Shunsui. "Ah, my elder son, you are an idiot."

She caught Shonetsu by the back of his neck hem when Indra came roaring up again. Her fan flicked out in a quick whack and Indra's flames blew out.

"There, child. Stop flailing. It's dangerous."

Both Shonetsu and Indra blinked at her.

"But there were Hollows..." Indra looked all around them. "Oh. There aren't any anymore."

"No, you moron. Just give me a minute," Kali said. "You're hurt bad, and you need..."

Indra grabbed Kali. "And you're alive!" he crowed. "Your droopy-eyed boyfriend said you were dead, but you're an Ito so you're alive!"

"That's not quite why," Kali grumbled. "But close enough. Yes. I'm alive. Where's Kaoru?"

"I don't know," Indra said. "I just figured out where I am, myself, why would I be tracking Narrow Nose?"

"You're just coming up with more and more names for him, aren't you?" Kali said.

Indra grinned. "It's just 'cause I like him."

Kali punched him in the shoulder. He winced, and Jyuushiro hoped Kali hadn't reopened any wounds.

"Uhm. He's up in the caves with the farmers, holding off the surface army of Hollows, I think," Shunsui said.

"Why didn't you say so sooner?" Kali said. "We need to go rescue them!"

She charged into the rocks. Miyako-dono released Shonetsu, and he shook himself off like a dog and went after her, only to bump shoulders with Indra as he did the same. They stared at each other like two dogs over a bone, but Kali called Indra's name, and they hurried after her.

"Does she know which way to go?" Jyuushiro asked.

"I think there's only one way to go, and if she's anything like she usually is, she'll lead us right to where the greatest number of Hollows are," Rudra said ruefully from where he sat on the floor.

Shunsui gave Rudra an arm up from the floor. Jyuushiro slipped under Rudra's other arm. And the whole troop followed Kali into the tunnels.



The three Academy students looked down when the caves shook with power. Pebbles rained down, cracks widened, a scream of rage echoed down the long stone corridors, and the villagers looked around in bewilderment, catching each other for balance. Hayato realized they couldn't sense the reiatsu that was rolling over the students.

Kaoru's lips thinned. "It is them."

Hayato felt the desperate surge of Jyuushiro's sea power building to tsunami height, next to a vortex of cold power that fell into dark, crushing depths. It always surprised Hayato how Shunsui acted so carefree and friendly, when the man had that inside him. "Yeah. I think it is. Wow. What're they doing?"

Unohana's hands were red with Kaoru's blood. She bit her lower lip and held Kaoru's arm straight so that she could set it. "That feels like..."

The cave shook again.

Unohana raised her reiatsu higher, and Kaoru's arm glowed with her power. His muscles tensed, opening the slashes that Hollow fangs had scored, and sweat beaded on his skin.

The Hollows were milling about like confused cattle, filling the tunnel before him, but Hayato kept his ready stance. The cave that the farmers had made into a camp opened into the side of the main tunnel which connected the surface to the maze of tunnels Shunsui and Jyuushiro had disappeared into. The tunnels spread throughout the mountains, connecting the Kyouraku and Ryuu estates to the Shiba plains.

After Aunt Hinata left with the other nobles and Academy fighters, Hayato was pretty sure she was in no mood to help the students, so he'd sent a Hell Butterfly to his mother, telling her where he was and their circumstances. Forcing the Hollows back up to the surface was the only thing he and Kaoru could think of to both keep Jyuushiro and Shunsui safe and protect the helpless peasants. Both of them had made a stand in the tunnel, cleansing every Hollow that tried to get past them.

Thirty minutes into it, Kaoru's elbow was seized in the jaws of a giant bear-like Hollow. The bear Hollow charged Hayato, and with Kaoru basically used as a shield, Hayato couldn't swing. He was bowled over and they were both carried by the charging beast into the farmers' cave.

What startled the hell out of all three of them was that when the bear hit the entrance of the cave, it crumpled as if it had run into a wall. The two Academy students were thrown into the cave by the momentum and caught by farmers. Unohana ran out, zanpakutou in hand, and started slicing through the Hollow like a farmer's wife working her way through the spring chickens. Hayato had watched in amazement.

That's how they figured out that the ward that Jyuushiro and Shunsui had tacked so haphazardly over the door worked far better than anyone might have expected.

Hayato had waded back into the fray, gotten Unohana back into safety to heal Kaoru, and gone back to defending the tunnel for Shunsui's and Jyuushiro's sakes.

One Hollow rushed Hayato with a bellow. He stepped to the side: the Hollow was quick enough to change directions with him, but Hayato started his swing anyway. Claws swept forward. Hayato hit its mask and felt the tips score across his ribs before it blew to dust. Another Hollow filled the gap.

Unohana's reiatsu hit a fever pitch. Kaoru cried out. Hayato bit his lower lip: his slash was relatively minor compared to a smashed elbow, but he took a more defensive stance in the tunnel.

The sea and dark powers rose again, singing through the air. There was a roar in the tunnels below. The ground bucked and pitched, a scream echoed against the walls, and everything settled with a thump. The whirlwind of power blew out.

"What in all the Hells?" Hayato asked no one in particular.

The Hollow in the tunnel made a low, confused sound. It turned away from Hayato. Hayato heard dozens of feet shuffle on stone behind it. Faint light started to filter in from the entrance again.

"They're leaving," Hayato said, disbelieving.

"They're what?" It was little Yamada-san who asked.

"Leaving. Going. Getting out of the caves." Hayato blinked and followed his impulse and walked toward the exit.

"Hayato!" Kaoru called, but Hayato ignored him and kept going.

Outside was air so cold it burned. The sky was so blue and the sun so bright Hayato's eyes watered. He wiped them clear. Hollows were drifting away like the clouds around the peaks, tattered by a stiff wind. The snowstorm that had chased Hayato into the darkness was nowhere to be seen, but the rocks were dusted with white and scattered with the wandering forms of Hollows going in every direction.

They looked like nothing more than white sheep let loose to pasture.

Hayato gaped after them. A single figure stood at the top of the nearest mountain's peak, tiny but clear to Hayato's eagle eyes. Bone white, with a helm of leather, a coat of fur and brass, the Hollow was man-sized compared to the ones that wandered by it. The reiatsu the figure emanated made Hayato shiver. Hayato stepped out from the shadows of the cave, shading his eyes for an even better look.

The Hollow's helm turned. The gaunt figure saluted Hayato and then moved over the ridge and vanished from sight.

Hayato turned and went back into the cavern to tell the rest what he had seen, and right as he got to the entrance of the farmers' cave, he saw Kali leading a crowd up the narrow tunnel.



Shunsui couldn't watch when Kali and Kaoru were reunited. He just walked away, and was grateful when he felt Jyuushiro's presence pacing behind him. Their intensity of emotions couldn't be avoided, but the rock insulated them a little.

"They seem all right," Jyuushiro said quietly.

"Yeah. I think they'll be all right, though what do you say to the idea of giving Kaoru a leash for next New Year?" Shunsui said.

"It might be easier to come up with a tracking kido," Jyuushiro said.

"Easier than a leash?"

"Well, it would certainly hurt less than trying to leash Kali."

Shunsui laughed at the look on Jyuushiro's face, and he kept laughing, and then he was crying, and he had absolutely no idea why. He dropped to one knee on the stone, and he found himself sobbing with Jyuushiro's arms around him and his face buried against Jyuushiro's throat.

"Wh-wh-what the hell?" Shunsui asked.

Jyuushiro didn't say anything, just held Shunsui while Shunsui clung to him.

"We're... oh..." Shunsui cried harder. "We're alive..." he finally managed to whisper. "I thought you were dead. I thought I was dead, but didn't mind so much..."

Jyuushiro hugged Shunsui harder. "I would have minded."

Shunsui shrugged. "I... you... I couldn't stand it when you were... I thought you were dead. I dreamed it, you know.... back in that hunter's cabin."

"I didn't," Jyuushiro said in that voice that was far too controlled and calm. "I had no idea."

Shunsui shook his head. "I dreamed of seeing you, just like that, half split open, bleeding everywhere, and I couldn't do a damned thing... "

But you didn't dream of us, said a far-too-familiar voice.

"No... no I didn't," Shunsui answered and saw Jyuushiro look quite confused. That made Shunsui smile amid his tears, made the sobs stop shaking his body. "Sorry... talking to... my gods, I can name her. Katen..."

Don't call my name, child, or you might get more than you bargained for.

"Oh."

Jyuushiro chuckled. "We were wondering if you were going to go shikai right here on the floor."

Shunsui frowned fiercely at the floor. "I can't quite believe that, either. Did you save me?"

"Or did you save me?" Jyuushiro asked. "I think we did a bit of both for each other. I wouldn't have found my moment if you hadn't called out."

"And I wouldn't have fought my way out if you hadn't," Shunsui said. "So, we did that together."

"And we'll never know who was first," Jyuushiro said with a smile.

Shunsui snorted. "As if that matters."

Jyuushiro nodded peacefully. He looked over to where Kali and Kaoru were crouched together, holding each other. "What matters is that we're all safe."



A few hours later, Shunsui's mother had organized everyone within an inch of their lives. The entire camp was packed up and on the move. Farmers, wounded, and medics were all plodding as best as they were able towards the Shiba Estate. Shiba Castle would be more defensible than the caves, and it was closer than Kyouraku Castle. Besides, Father had gotten the news that not only had the others made it through, but that more people from the Families were gathering to help defend Shiba Castle.

Dread and fear faded under clear winter sunshine. Seeing the entire Pass completely clear of Hollows only improved everyone's mood. Once everyone was underway and someone started to figure out that they'd won against the Hollows, the farmers broke out the booze. Shunsui happily partook. Yamada-san "found" a case of his best unfiltered sake and gave Shunsui bottles of the stuff as fast as Shunsui could get them down.

"You drunken idiot," Shonetsu said, in the passing.

"As you say!" Shunsui cheerfully waved at Shonetsu.

Shonetsu just shook his head and kept going to the head of the long line, to lead the small cavalcade with their father.

Mother stayed with Shunsui at the rear, nursing along the old and the infirm and making sure the stretcher bearers were in good shape. She darted in and snatched Shunsui's bottle. She took a swig of the primitive brew, swallowed, coughed, and then took another.

"That's quite good, Yamada-san," she called out.

"It'll put hair on your chest!" Yamada-san crowed, and then he caught himself, blushed, and averred, "Well... not for a fine lady like you..."

Mother laughed a laugh that made Jyuushiro do a double-take that nearly took his head off, and Shunsui had to laugh with his mother. For some odd reason, Shunsui didn't mind so much that their laughs were nearly the same. Instead, he shared his bottle with Mother, and they made their way through the rocky terrain with no more mishaps than a farmer or two getting stumbling drunk.

They reached the Shiba Estates at twilight.

"Oh, great Heavens," Shunsui said when they caught sight of the great walled compound. One wall had been brought down into a great wreck of splintered wood and tossed stone. "Ouch."

"But it's still full of people," Jyuushiro said in amazement.

And it was. The partially enclosed area was filled with tents in a make-shift city. Torches and lamps were being lit with the coming of the darkness, and it was all motion ablaze with light. Dozens of tents had spilled out through the great rent, and people, like ants, seemed to be working on the walls as well as milling about throughout.

"Oh, look, over there! It's the rest of the school!" Hayato pointed at a corner of the compound, where the flag of the Academy flew high.

"There's a flag for every Family," Shunsui said more softly. "They've all come."

"Come to help," Mother said firmly. "When we got the students' calls for help were sent in all directions, the elders decided to throw in with you. The overall threat of an organized Hollow army was too much for anyone to ignore, especially one that can do this kind of damage and nearly wreck a high Family's seat of power."

"What about Shiba-san?" Shunsui asked curiously. "He seemed dead set against..."

"The fool," Mother said curtly. "Thinking of his own pride instead of the good of his own people. His selfishness nearly got all the mountain estates overrun. If you hadn't stopped them where and when you did, the hordes would have gone next to overrun Ryuu and Kyouraku."

"Can't have that," Shunsui breathed, thinking about the pride of Shiba compared to the pride of Ryuu and Kyouraku.

The rap of the fan on his shoulder startled him.

"What are you thinking, Shunsui?"

"What price hath pride," Shunsui said. "I didn't much like Shiba-sama, honestly, but he's certainly paid for it."

"And will keep paying for a while," Mother said. "Housing and feeding these troops is going to cost him."

"But wasn't he injured?" Jyuushiro asked. "He got hurt defending his people as best he could, didn't he?"

"No. It wasn't the best that he could do," Mother said. "He only did what he could when he was in charge and was the one ordering everyone around. If he'd called for help, there would have been fewer lives lost. You children showed him for the fool he was, when you called for help immediately, from all the resources you could call upon."

"We students proved more powerful than Shiba-sama?" Jyuushiro asked, incredulously.

"Yes," Mother said.

They both gaped at her, and she hit them with her fan.

"That's the lesson, children. You understand its effectiveness in your own blood and bone, and are both the more powerful for the knowledge, no?"

Shunsui thought about the caves, thought about what it was like to have Jyuushiro at his side, where he could count on someone no matter what thing he asked. He felt Mother's gaze on him and he sighed and nodded.

"Good. Now, let's go rub it in Shiba-sama's face, and see if he actually responds to the treatment," Mother said and strode on ahead.

Jyuushiro turned to Shunsui. "She really is your mother, isn't she?"

"Yes," Shunsui said, satisfaction welling up within him. "Yes. She is."



When they reached the encampment for the Academy, Jyuushiro and Shunsui looked for and found the tent under the Academy's standard. The Kyouraku Clan went their own way, to set up their camp where instructed, and Shunsui suspected that his mother and father went to obtain an audience with Lord Shiba and would give him an earful. Hayato, Unohana, Kali, and Kaoru went with Shunsui and Jyuushiro.

Shunsui took the lead, and he was the one that pushed aside the flaps of the entrance. In the tent lay Daisuke-san, and next to him lay Yamamoto-sama. Daisuke-san's wounds looked horrendous, knife and claw marks in profusion. Yamamoto seemed to be sleeping peacefully, without the flush of fever. Their reiatsu signatures felt weak but steady. Shunsui let out a sigh of relief he hadn't even known he was holding. They were both alive.

Nakamura Kiyoko and Sato Saburou were by Daisuke-san, both working healing kido on the open wounds. One nurse hung to the side, and Shunsui would have sworn that she had Fong's posture, but then the woman shifted, shoulders bowing, and she scurried off, in a very non-Fong like manner, to get bandages on Sasaki Osamu's orders. Chika-chan was gasping for breath by the wall, looking blown and as if she'd just come off one of the healing sessions. It seemed that the whole of the Academy's healing corps was out in the field.

Shiba Kenshin was standing at the heads of both pallets, with half a dozen retainers at his heels. He was ignoring all the healers and staring right at them.

Shunsui tried to duck the glare, but Kenshin's finger shot out.

"You."

"Me?" Shunsui said.

Kenshin got up, his reiatsu roiling in a mess of emotions that Shunsui couldn't read. Kenshin was too close, and the emotions too powerful.

"Not in here!" Kiyoko said, curtly. "Outside if you must. Damn it, we're trying to concentrate. Oh! Unohana-chan, you're here. Can you help us out, or are you tapped?"

"Do you have food?" Unohana asked.

"Here." Kenshin surprised the hell out of Shunsui by walking to a table that was set up next to the beds, picking up a tray of rice balls, and bringing them over to Unohana. "These are fresh. I brought them myself for the healers."

"Thank you, Shiba-san," Unohana said. The retainers were protesting that Kenshin shouldn't lower himself to servant status, but Unohana ignored them as Kenshin did. She took the platter from him and fell to ravenously.

Shunsui's stomach rumbled.

Kenshin shook his head, crooked one finger for the students to come with him, and walked to a cook tent not too much further away. Everyone followed. The steam of boiled rice wafted around them when Shunsui opened the flaps, and inside were four women preparing salted rice balls with dried seaweed wrappers. There were a few pickles and a dish of umeboshi on the side. Kenshin picked up two of the balls, and waved the rest of the students over.

Shunsui tucked three rice balls onto his forearm and was biting into a fourth before he even sat down at one of the tables. Over the heater in the center of the table was another pot of rice, simmering gently from the heat of the stove. Jyuushiro had taken three with an umeboshi, which he nibbled on between bites. It was very simple food, but nourishing, and Shunsui savored the chew and salt in the rice as he wolfed his down.

Kenshin ate his silently, and when he finished, he got up and poured cups of tea from the enormous hot urn and carried them over. There were more protests from his entourage, but they sounded half-hearted, as if they knew they had about as much effect on Kenshin's actions as birds calling from the trees. Shunsui took a sip of the bitter, refreshing brew, and sighed a sigh that turned into a contented burp.

Kenshin's mouth turned up at the edges, and the seethe of energies around him settled.

"What's up?" Shunsui asked Kenshin. "You seem.... tense."

Kenshin barked a laugh. "I should kill you," he said.

"What?" Shunsui frowned at Kenshin. "Why?"

"My father... you..." Kenshin's fists tightened and his reiatsu slammed high. All the kitchen workers fainted where they stood or sat. Kali shunpo jumped to catch one worker before she fell into one of the fires. Kaoru and Hayato caught others out of danger. No one bothered with the retainers, most of which just fell around the tables. They were safe enough.

"Kenshin. Shit." Shunsui grabbed Kenshin's wrist and dragged him out of the tent. Kenshin's reiatsu faltered and fell. Kenshin didn't fight Shunsui, and that worried Shunsui. "What the hell is going on with your Dad?"

"My Father nearly died," Kenshin said. "Thanks to you two."

"What?" Jyuushiro had followed close behind, as little fazed by the spiritual pressure as Shunsui himself. "We didn't have anything to do with..."

"He was shamed by you."

Jyuushiro's eyes went wide in shock. Shunsui snorted to hide Jyuushiro's reaction and tugged hard on Kenshin's wrist to make sure that Kenshin would focus solely on him.

"We only did the right thing," Shunsui said tightly. "That your father chose to do otherwise is not our fault."

"But if you hadn't..." Kenshin's self-control snapped under the pressure, and any control he had over his reiatsu went with it. Everyone brought theirs up in self-defense. "Shit! Shit! Shit! Shit... fucking demons on a fence, Shunsui."

"We had to do it," Shunsui said, implacably. "There wasn't any way we were going to handle those Hollows on our own. If we hadn't called for help the way we were taught, not only would we be dead, but the villagers would have all been wiped..."

"Fuck the peasants, all they do is die!" Kenshin shouted. "They're not worth the pride of the Shiba clan!"

Shunsui hauled back and hit Kenshin's rock-hard chin with his fist. Kenshin roared. His hands went to his sword belt, and all of Shunsui's senses sharpened. Time slowed. He saw every motion of Kenshin's hands as they untied the belt and flung sword, scabbard and all, away from them both. Shunsui grinned, and he shucked his swords as quickly.

"Shunsui! What are you..."

Shunsui and Kenshin started to pound the daylights out of each other. Shunsui was used to this kind of fighting. He and Shonetsu used to do it all the time, just getting out all their frustrations with the castle, with the strict regime, with being set aside from everyone else, on each other. Fists to faces felt good to do, but did little actual damage except to knuckles and noses and the rare black eye. Hits to big muscles like shoulders, chest, and the occasional shot to an open belly did little real damage, but they felt good to land and hurt enough to make blocking desirable when Shunsui felt too annoyed by the punches.

They weren't grabbing each other or wrestling, just standing nearly toe-to-toe and exchanging blows. They were of a size, and it was nice, after the whole reiatsu show in the caves, to just let loose and hit with all of Shunsui's physical might and not worry about what new power was going to pop out and bite him in the ass.

You have a very nice ass. Katen Kotsu's voice said with rather more consideration than Shunsui was comfortable with. Are you really okay with getting beaten up like this?

Kenshin landed one on Shunsui's jaw while Shunsui was so distracted. Shunsui staggered, brought a forearm up on reflex, and got another fist into his gut for his pains. That bent him over, and rather than take the hit to the back of the head and neck, Shunsui just collapsed. Two feet landed on either side of him, and he looked up in surprise. It was Kali, her face right in Kenshin's.

"Stop that, you idiot!"

To Kenshin's credit, his hands weren't in fists anymore. Shunsui suspected that for all that Shunsui's bar reflexes had expected the finishing blow, Kenshin hadn't really been up to it. This was a way to let off steam, not real hatred. When Kenshin's miserable gaze met Shunsui's, Shunsui grinned up at him.

"Nice fight!" Shunsui said. "You really had me there."

Kenshin's look turned into pure surprise, jaw dropping and everything. Kali's foot stomped awfully close to Shunsui’s face.

"You're both idiots!" she cried.

Shunsui said nothing, just held out his hand to Kenshin. On reflex, Kenshin took his hand and hauled him up to a squeak from Kali. She had to jump out of Shunsui's way as he came up gracefully. Shunsui winced and touched his nose gently. It was tender, but not broken. He wiped the blood away.

"You okay, now?" Shunsui asked, panting.

Kenshin was looking at his hands and breathing hard. "Yeah. Feelin' kind of stupid..."

"Well, you both are!" Kali said.

"No," Kenshin said, looking at her. "Well, yes, but not in the way you mean it. We needed this." One hand gently probed at an angry red left eye that was probably going to blacken. Shunsui was especially proud of a knot that was forming under the right side of Kenshin's chin, because Shunsui had been working for quite some time on getting his left hand to be as quick as his right.

Kali snorted, a frown creasing her brow. "Then how do you mean?"

"I mean..." Kenshin gave an exasperated sigh. "You're going to make me say it, aren't you?"

Kali growled at him.

"It would help me if you vocalized your conclusion, because I have no idea what is going on in that granite head of yours," Kaoru said, putting one hand on Kali's shoulder. She backed up into his embrace.

"That's a compliment on Shiba grounds, you know," Kenshin said.

"Yes, I know," Kaoru said with the slightest of smiles. "Do go on."

"Damn you all," Kenshin said grumpily. "You're changing me. I used to think... King of Heaven. I used to think that all the peasants and villagers, the quaint little merchantmen and craftspeople, the servants and solders were all just to serve Shiba. Their lives were ours to control, be it on rice to feed the whole or their blood on the field of battle. It was their duty to do exactly as we wanted. But you guys... you're changing that. Changing me. Damn you."

Kenshin looked up at them all belligerently.

"What?" Shunsui asked, knowing that if he was going to try and fill in for Kenshin what it was Kenshin really wanted to say, he'd just get another set of knuckles in the face. All he could do was look at Kenshin expectantly, and to Shunsui's gratitude, everyone else in their class did the same.

Kenshin bit his lower lip. "Right... well.... so now I kind of see that it's not right for Dad to just send people to their deaths for his pride. You attacked me for a reason. It's gotta be for something better for everyone. He still believes..." Kenshin growled...

"You don't have to carry those beliefs on," Shunsui suggested helpfully, and got a baleful stare in return. "Even if you can't change his mind. I really wouldn't want to have to change his mind," Shunsui added fervently. "It'd be like having to change which way a mountain faces."

Kenshin's sour look was all the answer Shunsui needed. No one needed to tell Kenshin how stubborn his own father was.

"And you do not have to do everything the Clan traditions declare as meet and proper," Kaoru said, nuzzling Kali's hair gently. He held her close. They'd been inseparable ever since they'd found each other again in the caves.

"Kaoru. Damn." Kenshin's laugh sounded as if it had been forced out of him. "You're the most outrageous of us all, especially with those mincing words."

Kaoru cocked his head, one eyebrow going up.

"Hey!" Shunsui said plaintively, "I thought I was the most outrageous of us all."

"Well, given that Kaoru's about to be a settled married man, you might get your title back," Jyuushiro said peacefully, and to Shunsui's delight, Jyuushiro looked entirely surprised when everyone started laughing.

With the tension broken they all stood there, looking at each other, until Kali went up to Kenshin and hugged him. He hugged her back carefully, and then bowed his head. "Right. So now what do we do?"

Shunsui looked around.

"Maybe we should help rebuild that wall?" Jyuushiro said.

"Sure," Shunsui said with all the other students chiming in their agreement. "And then, if old Man Yamamoto and Daisuke-san have woken up, I want to talk with them."

Jyuushiro's green eyes met Shunsui's gaze. "Yes, we do need to do that, don't we?"

"Okay, guys, what are you not telling us?" Kali broke in.

Jyuushiro nodded. Shunsui sighed and gathered them all close. These were their companions, people they'd fought with, talked with, defended, and lived with for the last year. Trusting them was a matter of course, and Shunsui knew in his bones and gut that trusting these people with what they'd learned would be the only way they could all change it. So Jyuushiro and Shunsui told them what had happened down in the depths with the adjucha, Espejo Par, and what they'd learned about Kuchiki Ren and Ryuu Hinata.

Hayato growled when Ryuu Hinata's name left Shunsui's lips. He started on a run toward the Ryuu encampment.

Jyuushiro flash-stepped to tackle Hayato into the ground. "No, you can't go confront her!"

"Why not?!" Hayato cried. "She betrayed us all!"

"We don't have proof!" Jyuushiro said. "The Hollow could have been trying to sow seeds of discord among us. It originally implicated all of the Kuchiki and Ryuu clans."

Kaoru cleared his throat. "Regrettably, I believe that Ren-san has all sorts of reasons to do exactly as the Hollow has said, but also, regrettably, I think Jyuushiro and Shunsui are right to hold this secret until we understand exactly the kind of power we have by knowing that everyone else does not know. I believe that Kuchiki Ren is being hailed a hero in the run from the mountain to here, and to accuse him without proof would be politically ineffective."

Hayato struggled, but Jyuushiro sat firmly in the small of his back. "But they're evil! Making Hollows attack..."

"I'm not really sure they were controlling them so much as giving them information about potential prey," Shunsui said. "I really wish Daisuke-san was awake. He'd have a much better political view of what to do. Or, better yet, Miss Fong."

"Who is she?" Kali asked curiously.

"Damn it all. Let me up!" Hayato said. "I promise not to run off, now. I want to hear this. Shunsui let her hold his sword."

Kali and Kenshin snickered. Shunsui rolled his eyes. Jyuushiro got off Hayato and the whole group got treated to the story of the mysterious woman they'd found up in the mountains.

"Oh!" Kenshin said, when they were done. "She's here. She came in with Daisuke-san, practically carried him into camp."

"So that was her," Shunsui muttered, thinking of the not-quite-a-nurse in the infirmary.

There was the thud of a body hitting the ground. Then another close after.

"Yes, that was me," Fong said with amusement in her tone, while she dragged two unconscious men out from behind a nearby tent. She was dressed as the nurse Shunsui had seen earlier, but once again, she was carrying herself the way she had in the fights in the caves.

"You children are amazingly innocent and stupid," Fong said. "Talking out in the open like this, you're making more work for me. Good thing I have a drug that'll erase their near memories."

Shunsui blinked. "Really?"

Fong's eyes flickered to his. "Well, it's a lot better than killing them."

That silenced Shunsui.

"Is there a better place for us?" Jyuushiro asked.

"The mess tent certainly wasn't it," Fong said with a sigh. "Everyone now knows and can say that Kyouraku-kun is indeed at fault for Shiba-sama's fall. There are two squads of your men, Shiba-kun, who are swearing up and down that they'll avenge their lord on Kyouraku-kun's bones. Of course, they'll have to wait until they're conscious again."

"What?" Shunsui asked. "What happened to them?"

"I believe that your mother heard them declaring their intent, from what I heard about a Dragon Lady with a fan that blocked all light from the sky."

"That's mother for you," Shunsui said with a small grin. "But she didn't really hurt them too badly?"

"Just their pride, which you would think might teach them something," Fong said thoughtfully. "Especially since the entire servant force of the Shiba Estate seems to remember you two and how you treated them. The lord's personal retainers are finding it difficult to find food, clothing, and even their own weapons. It's been rather remarkable."

"Well, then what about..."

"Not here!" Fong said sharply. "Come. This way, there's one place I know that's secure enough. Take these."

Kenshin and Shunsui shouldered the unconscious men for her, and they all followed Fong into the stone heart of Shiba Castle.

TBC
>> Next Chapter
*flailing* I'm so thrilled to read this.
What an amazing chapter. I simply loved Shunsui's mother. That's just how I imagined her being.
*beams happily* Thank you!! Yes, I do love Shunsui's mother. <3 Very very happy that you do, too!!
This is delicious. I adore Shunsui's mother, and as always, I adore how you address all the politics.

I think I'm going to treat myself to a re-read of this from the beginning, but for now, on to the next chapter.
*beams*

Thank you so much!! Having you compliment me on the politics has just made my day.

And it's so fun seeing that my enjoyment of Shunsui's mother does show through.