Arc: Twin Souls
Beta: incandescens, without her this wouldn't be possible.
Word Count: 3801
Summary: Shunsui goes on a mountain adventure with his classmates. They don't try to kill him, much.
Disclaimer: I don't own or make money off of Bleach. It's all fictional. Really.
Shunsui did think of Jyuushiro, when he was two days and fifty miles away from him. The snow blew horizontally in front of him. The wind whipped the breath out of his lungs. His back, butt, and thighs ached from the unaccustomed spread of his legs that using snowshoes required. His feet hurt, his throat felt like it had been sandpapered, and he was standing in front of a cliff while swearing, helplessly, at Shiba Kenshin who looked like he was about to faint.
Shunsui thought mostly about crying on Jyuushiro's shoulder for not being here to help talk the idiot up the damned cliff.
It was late in the day. They had to get up this stupid rock face to the camp site Daisuke-san had made their second day’s destination. They'd just found that Kenshin was afraid of heights. Not just drop of the stomach at looking down from a high place afraid of heights, or, gosh, that's a long way to fall afraid of heights, but a full-blown paralyzing terror of even stepping up to a rope that led not that much higher than their heads. No one had noticed until Kenshin had given a tearful confession that he had ducked the practice rounds of jumping onto a platform using shunpo.
Hawk-faced Ryuu Hayato bit his lip. “I’ll set the equipment into the cliff face and scout the path. Ito and Kuchiki are both strong enough and agile enough to be my anchors. Any of us can shunpo to good holds if necessary. You and Daisuke-san are the only ones strong enough to be Shiba’s anchor. Please put Shiba in the center and then you’ll just have to follow as best you’re able.”
Daisuke-san gave Hayato an acknowledging bow. “That sounds like an excellent plan to get up this face. Please put your plan into action.”
Shunsui noted that nearly everyone, other than Daisuke-san, had lost their honorifics in the march out to the mountain. Shunsui found that after the last two days, he'd added the honorific to the old man's name as a matter-of-course. That didn't happen often. It now felt comfortable to just call the other students by their family names.
Hayato attached harnesses to his group and then roped himself to Kuchiki Kaoru, and from Kaoru to Ito Kali. He then attached lines from Kenshin to both his anchors. Shunsui couldn't help but notice, though, that Hayato did not just tie a line around his waist. Instead, the young man tied a smaller length of rope around Shunsui's hips and between his legs. With some careful adjusting on Shunsui's part, Hayato pulled it all tight to rest against Shunsui's hip bones, not his waist, and then tied the longer rope to that rope harness.
As Hayato worked at the ropes, everyone took off their snowshoes with sighs of relief. They strapped the snowshoes to their packs. Hayato, Kaoru, and Kali moved over to the rock face and worked their way up the eighteen foot cliff. It didn’t seem that far. The rope, between the three, spanned two-thirds of the climb. A flash step could even have taken any single one of them most of the way up, but the trick would have been finding a foothold on that sheer face in the instant that step gave to get the next foothold. Neither Kenshin nor Shunsui himself were that good at shunpo to begin with.
So it meant that they had to get up that cliff the old-fashioned way, by climbing it. Shunsui was grateful that Hayato and the other good shunpo students went the slow way in order to make it possible for Kenshin and himself to get up to the target area. But now they had the additional problem of Kenshin’s fear.
When Shunsui saw that the first three had made it and left behind the anchor rope for them, he turned to Kenshin. “Shiba, come on," Shunsui began, using his most soothing tones. "It’s not that far...”
“You... you don’t get it. I... I just can’t!” Kenshin was white-knuckled and shaking. Each word sounded shakier.
Shunsui switched tactics. “You have to, Shiba. We have to get out of this wind or else we’re going to die." When that didn't get a response, Shunsui added, "If you stay here you’re going to kill all three of us.”
“But I caaaan’t,” Kenshin wailed.
“I guess we could just knock him out and carry him to the top, sir,” Shunsui said wearily to Daisuke-san.
“No.” Daisuke-san eyed the big young man. “He’s too heavy for us to do that without endangering ourselves. Can you think of another approach, one that brings out his courage, his fighting spirit? Something that will make him want to go up that cliff?”
Shunsui eyed Daisuke-san. The older man returned the look, giving nothing back.
Shunsui sighed, and took off his pack to put his heavy, fur mitts in the top of his pack. He had knitted half-gloves underneath. He wanted a better grip for the rope. He put his pack back on. Then he said to Daisuke-san, “You ready to follow quickly, sir?”
“Yes, Kyouraku-kun, I can follow quickly.”
Shunsui walked up to Kenshin. He placed himself carefully between Kenshin and the rope at the bottom of the cliff. Then he yelled, “Kenshin! You're a stupid, fucking coward and your mother’s a whore in the 69th District!” He backhanded Kenshin’s cheek hard enough to rock Kenshin’s head to the side.
Kenshin’s head snapped back around. His eyes lit on fire, his reiatsu flared, and Shunsui ran for the cliff. He heard Kenshin's pounding footsteps behind him.
Shunsui grabbed the rope and started up the climb. Every time he felt Kenshin flag, he’d scream another insult he'd learned from the bars of Rukongai about the Shiba family or Kenshin himself. When he felt that blast of rage, he’d frantically look for another foothold. About a third of the way up, Shunsui’s reiatsu flared as well.
How about “Ape-faced, shit throwing screamer?” “Bakugami mothered you and you roll in mud and eat your own kind!” His zanpakutou sounded amused in the back of his brain.
You're laughing at me.
Well, it is funny, so long as he doesn't draw on you at the top of the cliff.
It's all funny until someone gets skewered?
No. Until you get threatened for real. Then I stop laughing. Oh! Try "You're no better than a desperate ugly pus hole who clobbers the diseased." or "Eat snot you wastrel brute!" or "You molest your sister and lift your leg at trees!"
You're having way too much fun. Why in seven hells can't you talk to me when I'm on the ground meditating, rather than when I'm being chased by someone trying to kill me!?
A rasping chuckle at the back of his mind was his only answer to that.
With Kenshin’s murderous rage coming after him, even when Shunsui missed a foothold, he found it remarkably easy to just scrabble with his feet on sheer rock while his burning arms pulled him further up the cliff.
Finally, when he got to the top of the cliff, eager hands helped him come up over the lip. He was still tied to Kenshin. He couldn't run very far away, but Shunsui nearly hauled Kenshin up the last few feet as he took as much advantage as he could of the rope's length. Kenshin, growling and spitting, managed to get up onto the cliff far enough to free his hands. There was a click and a hiss of steel, and the whole cliff top was flooded with the heavy earthquake rumble of Kenshin's reiatsu.
The other three stepped back. Shunsui, tired and aching beyond belief heard his zanpakutou howl, Draw me NOW, you fool. He didn't. He just stood there, and looked at Kenshin. Shunsui bet his life that Kenshin would not attack an unarmed man.
Then a voice that could not be ignored snapped, "Shiba-kun, at attention. Now!"
Kenshin snapped to attention automatically, sword automatically sheathed with a motion as reflexive as breathing.
"Look at where you are, Shiba-kun." That voice was coming from Daisuke-san, and everyone stared. It hadn't seemed possible, but the clarity and volume of Daisuke-san's voice cut through Kenshin's rage.
Kenshin faltered. His eyes cleared and he looked around himself.
Kenshin then fell to his knees.
Shunsui did the same, feeling like a puppet with his strings cut. He felt hands against his body, untying the rope binding him to Kenshin, and then working away at his harness. Then he heard a quiet chuckle near his ear.
It was Kaoru, face framed by black fur. "That is quite a vocabulary you have there, Kyouraku."
"Picked it up in the finest of establishments," Shunsui said weakly.
"I am sure." The smooth voice was totally uninflected. "You did quite well with the fool. But you might wish to remove a few layers of clothing before you sweat after that exertion. Our stopping point is close and it would be dangerous to have wet clothing."
Shunsui closed his eyes. "I... I think... I'm going to need help with that." His body and voice shook with reaction. Reaction to the climb, reaction to the rage, reaction to the gutter of words that had spilled from his own mouth, and, perhaps most of all, reaction to getting drawn on by the man he'd been so desperate to help. "Please, Kuchiki, I don't think I can fasten or unfasten anything right now."
"Hai, Kyouraku. Certainly." Kaoru pulled his slender hands out of his fur mitts. He wore white hand guards instead of gloves underneath. He quickly and efficiently stripped off Shunsui's pack and obi. Shunsui felt silk-covered palms gently close on the sheath of his zanpakutou, and lay it lightly on top of the pack, loosely wrapped by the obi. Kaoru quickly stripped off the fur coat and then peeled away and up, out of his hakama, two layers of quilted kimono. The winter wind whipped at the damp under layers and Shunsui shivered even more.
"We might be a bit too late," Kaoru said softly. "But this should help slow the accumulation, and you will have a chance to dry out while we are making camp." Kaoru deftly slipped the fur coat back over Shunsui's shoulders, put the hood back on his head, redid the sparse obi, and put the zanpakutou back into Shunsui's belt. "Where are your mitts?"
"A-at the t-top of m-my p-pack."
Kaoru hefted Shunsui's pack back onto his back, and slid the mittens over Shunsui's hands. They didn't impart much relief, as they were as cold as his hands.
Kaoru frowned. He shed both handguards and put his hands in the right mitt. He rubbed Shunsui's right hand briskly in the insulation of the fur. Shunsui noticed something just a little odd; the hands that rubbed his were as calloused as his, but were those ridges on his palms? Shunsui couldn't tell as his hands were nearly numb. Kaoru did the same with his left hand, and Shunsui felt a hint of that odd texture again.
But Kaoru warmed both of Shunsui's hands until they were no longer aching with cold, so Shunsui kept his questions to himself.
"Th-thank you. I can j-ust about f-feel my hands n-now." Shunsui's teeth chattered around the words, but having his coat and hood back on cut the teeth of the wind. He'd exerted himself so much on the cliff that he was warming back up quickly.
Kaoru pushed Shunsui back so that he sat on his butt instead of kneeling. He lifted each of Shunsui’s feet and fitted the snowshoes back onto them.
"You will have to stand now. We still have a small distance to go and the motion should get you warmer again. Please give me your arm?" The dark gray eyes looked into Shunsui's. "Your arm."
Shunsui shook himself and lifted his right arm. Kaoru put it over his own shoulder and then, with surprising strength, lifted Shunsui onto his feet. Shunsui stumbled, but Kaoru's slender strength held him without difficulty until he found his feet again.
"Good," Kaoru said. Then they both stopped. Shunsui looked up.
It was Kenshin; a rather rigid and haggard looking Kenshin. Kenshin fell on his knees and bowed all the way to the snowy ground before Kaoru and Shunsui.
Shunsui made a pained noise, which made Kenshin flinch, but he stayed down and said, “I offer my formal apology, Kyouraku-san, for my behavior at the top of the cliff. I am deeply sorry for what I have done.”
Shunsui almost snorted, but Kenshin seemed so fervent. “It’s okay, Shiba.”
Kenshin looked up; there was relief on his face.
Shunsui grinned and said, “I almost would have felt better if you’d just clocked me one at the top. I said a lot of terrible things. I am sorry for that, too.”
Kenshin blushed and got up off his knees. Slowly, he said, “I should thank you for that, too.”
Kenshin chuckled, finally losing the rigid formality on his features. “Because I never could have gotten up that cliff any other way.”
Shunsui sighed, a sigh that was a little too tired to be entirely mockery. “I was afraid of that.”
“Because we’re both going to have to remember that when we try and get you back down that cliff.”
They didn’t stop at what Shunsui considered a really prime clearing at the base of another cliff. It was sheltered from the wind by the rock and trees. There was underbrush and trees everywhere to gather branches for ground cover.
Instead, they kept going up and around and up some more. Finally, they were just in front of the summit of one of the foothills before the mountain really began. There, just below the summit, was a clearing in the trees. The mountain itself provided some shelter from the wind, and when Shunsui turned to look down the slope, he could see all the forest they’d just walked through and the sheer line of the cliff they’d come up. The view was gorgeous.
Hayato stood next to a drift that was resting against one group of trees. He looked wan and a little sick. The drift was nearly as tall as Shunsui, and it had a hole in it. Every once in a while, snow would come flying out along with a few choice curses in Kali's voice.
Shunsui went over and grasped the thin young man’s shoulder. “Hey. You doing okay?”
“Not really, but Kali’s giving me a break.” Hayato shuddered quietly. “It presses on me when it’s still that small. Climbs, mountain cliffs, summits, no problem. Caves, tents, tight tunnels... still a big problem.”
“Yeah, I’m just glad you told us before we left.” Shunsui ducked down to look into the tunnel. “Why don’t you go build the windbreak for the night watch station? The rest of us are here, now. We can do the building.”
Hayato gave them both a small bow of gratitude and trotted over to Daisuke-san to get help on where to place their watch and the campfire.
Kaoru nodded and bent down to call into the tunnel. “Ito, would you like me to relieve you?”
A shower of snow greeted him, as Kali threw more snow out with her shovel. Shunsui laughed and handed Kaoru one of the group's cooking pots. Kaoru used it to start pulling that flying snow out of the tunnel, and build a wind break in front of the door to the snow cave.
"Let’s go start another one." Shunsui nodded to Kenshin, who picked up a shovel. The two of them looked for another drift.
The trees had built another drift only a few feet away. They figured out where the wind was coming from, and Kenshin started digging down into the side of the drift away from the wind. He made the tunnel wide enough for himself or Shunsui. As snow came out of the tunnel, Shunsui used it to build a wind break in front of what would be the door.
Eventually, Kenshin came wiggling out of the tunnel, breathing heavily. "Your turn. I got the tunnel to turn up, but only started on the sleeping platform."
Shunsui wiggled into the tunnel, and had more sympathy for Hayato than he'd had for Kenshin. It was tight in there, dark, close, and the weight of the snow pressed on the mind as much as the flesh. He had to wiggle down the tunnel, and then up towards the main sleeping chamber. Having part of the entrance tunnel lie lower than the platform meant that all the cold air from where they would be staying could move down into the tunnel rather than stay trapped with them. Kenshin had poked an air hole out of the top of the tunnel, so the air in the cave, while still, was fresh and sweet.
In the cramped tunnel, Shunsui knelt on the bottom of the bend and brought the shovel up as far as he could to start carving out the sleeping area. It looked like the air hole was still several feet long, so there was plenty of snow above them to hold the roof.
He started digging sideways. It was hard going at first, trying to turn the tunnel that drastically and not ram the handle of the shovel into one wall of the tunnel while trying to use the blade on the other. He managed to cover his feet with snow from what he'd dug out of the platform. He then tried to move so that he could shovel the snow at his feet back up the tunnel he'd come down. This was the hard part, where he didn't have enough room to turn around to push snow back out of the tunnel and there was still plenty of material to go. He tried to use his feet to push as much of the loose stuff back up the tunnel, and then he suddenly heard and saw Kenshin's hands scooping the snow away from his feet.
"Thanks!" Shunsui called.
Muffled by the snow, Kenshin answered, "No problem."
Shunsui brought out a great deal more snow, and Kenshin kept up with him in the first part of the tunnel. Eventually he cleared enough out that he could get into the sleeping chamber and turn around. His arms were burning by this point, and he carefully pushed as much snow out of the tunnel as he could. He was definitely warmed up again. When he got back out, the wind lashed at his face.
"Ow," Shunsui said, and put his hood and scarf back up. "You want a turn inside?"
Kenshin nodded and took the shovel from Shunsui. Soon, they were done, and the inside was tall enough for them both to sit upright. It was warm and snug against the wind, and with the extra height it didn't press so badly. There was plenty of room for their blanket rolls and some insulating boughs they cut from evergreens further down the slope they'd come up.
They brought extras for the other shelters, and Kali nodded in approval. She beckoned to Hayato. "Ryuu, I need you to check it out and see if it's deep enough for you to rest," Kali said. "And you might as well take these and your stuff in there, too."
"Aye, Ito-san," Hayato said nervously. He took the branches and his bag and started down their tunnel.
Kali stood with arms akimbo as she waited. Sounds of a low moan and then a soft curse made her smile as the boughs gradually disappeared, along with Hayato’s narrow feet, into the dark hole.
“I left a candle lit in there,” she said, looking up at Shunsui. “It should help him with the darkness, and will probably drive him crazy a different way as a waste of resources and a potential fire hazard.”
“Ito! Are you trying to get me to burn myself to death?” came out of the tunnel.
“See?” she said with a grin. “Told you.”
Shunsui laughed and hugged her. She elbowed him, but smiled up at him. “Not quite that close, lover boy.”
Shunsui chuckled and raised his hands in the air. “My reputation precedes me.”
“Your reputation is all over you,” she said, eyeing him.
He shrugged, too tired to think of what to say. He suddenly felt vulnerable without the energy to keep his usual banter and play going. So he pulled his hood down over his eyes, and gave an exaggerated sigh, "Well, can't help that."
"When was the last time you saw Takahashi-chan, Kyouraku?" Kali's tone was very neutral.
"She's been crying all over the girls' dorms for the last couple of weeks. Everyone's been telling her she shouldn't have expected any more than that," Kali said dryly.
Shunsui felt his head bow a little under the weight of that knowledge. "She probably shouldn't have expected any more than that."
Kali hmphed softly. "Men. The interesting thing is that none of the other girls seem to notice that you haven't actually picked up a heart's desire for the month, unlike last year, where you had a new squeeze pretty much every other week."
Shunsui peeked out from under his hood. Kali's was watching him as closely as a hawk watching a mouse.
Finally she said, "You seem different, Kyouraku. I'm still not sure how different, but you should go at least talk with Takahashi-chan when you get back. Give her a reason, or at least a decent ending, rather than just disappearing like you did."
Shunsui sighed and nodded. "All right. I'll do that. She does deserve that." He hesitated. "Thank you, very much, Ito-san."
She laughed. "So formal! What happened to the Kyouraku I know?" She punched him in the shoulder. "Don't look so down. She's doing okay, everyone knows what they're getting into when they get involved with you, and we all catch them when they fall."
Shunsui chuckled and shook his head. "I had no idea."
"Well, now you know," Kali said. Then she went and poked her head into the tunnel, "Hey, Ryuu, you dead, yet?"
A growl came out of the shelter. She laughed and straightened. "I wonder how Daisuke-san is doing with dinner."
"Dinner?" Shunsui's stomach growled, long and low. They both laughed, this time.
"I guess when Ryuu gets out we'll go check, won't we?" Kali rubbed her own stomach. "I'm starving."
"Me, too." Hayato said as he crawled out of the tunnel, with a quenched candle in one hand. "Thank you, Ito, it is big enough for me to actually rest, especially if I put my head right next to the exit."
Kali nodded. "Good. Let's get to dinner." And the three of them crunched over the snow in their snow shoes toward the glow of the fire, brightening in the gathering dark.