Arc: Twin Souls
Beta: incandescens, without her this wouldn't be possible.
Characters: Kyouraku, Ukitake
Rating: R -- for nudity
Word Count: 3895
Summary: Kyouraku helps Ukitake take a bath. Kali debriefs.
Disclaimer: I don't own or make money off of Bleach. It's all fictional. Really.
Jyuushiro awoke to see just the faintest light against the paper walls of the building. His eyes felt hot and swollen, and his mouth felt as if a mouse had taken up residence and died there. But he was awake and breathing, and not quite as congested as he'd been the night before. He took a slow and tentative deep breath and was relieved that he could breathe it out as well, with only a small cough at the end of it. Better. Definitely better.
Shunsui snored by Jyuushiro's ear, arms slack against the futon and supporting pillows. Remembering all those mornings when he couldn't wake the bigger man up to save his life, Jyuushiro thought about just getting up and cleaning out his mouth and, maybe, for the first time in a few days, getting a bath. The infirmary's baths were supplied hot water in the early mornings and evenings, unlike the student baths, which only had hot water in the evening. Cold water was good for waking up with, but not so good on convalescents.
But it was warm where he was, and the air in the room was chill from the night and the death of the heater's coals. They weren't usually replenished in the night. So Jyuushiro snuggled back in against Shunsui's warmth.
Then there was a knock on the door.
Shunsui's snores stopped and Jyuushiro felt his friend stir.
"Yes?" Jyuushiro asked.
"A message, Ukitake-san," a male voice said from the hallway.
"Uekiya-san is holding his debriefing of Ito-san at oh eight hundred in room 135 this morning. He requests your presence if it is at all possible. It is now oh seven hundred. The orderlies are ready to help you with your morning bath if you wish to clean up beforehand." The messenger's voice was crisp and clear.
Jyuushiro took a breath and coughed lightly three times. "Thank you for the message." He took another breath slowly. "Please tell the orderlies I can... I can take care of my own bath this morning."
Shunsui, whose eyes were now open, nodded at that.
Jyuushiro closed his eyes and thought about practicality rather than just show. "But have them make a... moveable chair ready... for after my bath... and breakfast for two."
"Certainly, sir," said the voice and quick footsteps moved back down the hallway.
Shunsui wordlessly supported Jyuushiro as they got up, and Jyuushiro was glad of it as he hadn't stood much for the last couple of days. From his foot locker Jyuushiro pulled on a quilted outer kimono in place of a more traditional yukata. He wanted the extra warmth on the cold winter morning. He pulled out his small tub of tooth-cleaning salt, a clean loin cloth, and the stack that made up a clean student uniform.
Shunsui picked up his own clothing; since he'd cleaned up the night before, it was all fairly fresh. He went over to the table and poured a cup of drinking water to take with them.
The infirmary's baths were all connected to a central boiler room, making the job of getting the hot water to the tubs easier on the staff. There were large, jointed bamboo pipes that ran to each of the rooms. When Shunsui got Jyuushiro to the nearest bath, the tub had already been filled that morning. The water steamed vigorously, and the small room was as humid and warm as his own room had been the evening before. It eased Jyuushiro's breathing.
They put their clothing on a shelf next to each other and peeled off their robes and loincloths. Shunsui then helped Jyuushiro to the washing bench by the room's drain. He set down the drinking water cup and started cleaning his own teeth.
Jyuushiro dipped a finger in the drinking water, and then in the salt, and scrubbed out his horrible-tasting mouth with the grit. It felt so good to just get all that out of there, especially when he used some of the cup of drinking water to rinse with. He spat into the drain. His mouth finally tasted like it might be his own again. He left the rest of the cup for Shunsui.
Shunsui dipped a bucket of hot water from the tub and brought it over. He started pouring the water on Jyuushiro's head, and Jyuushiro half thought about protesting that he could clean himself, but the blessing of the hot water all over his body and his sticky hair shut him up. Then strong fingers moved through his hair, rubbing in soap, and he leaned his head against Shunsui's hip as those big, muscular hands massaged the soap all through his itching, aching scalp. Shunsui rubbed at muscles Jyuushiro hadn't ever even known were on his head and neck. Jyuushiro coughed lightly as he groaned.
"Rinsing," Shunsui warned, and more warm water cascaded all over Jyuushiro's head. Jyuushiro got his hands up and helped to rinse his hair, rubbing out every speck of soap he could feel.
A towel roughly wiped the water out of Jyuushiro's eyes, and he opened them to see Shunsui kneeling before him. Then before he even realized it, Jyuushiro was blurting out, "Do you love me?"
Shunsui snorted, even as he reached for the soap with a washcloth. "No. Of course not."
Jyuushiro told himself that he'd known that. He just... and then Shunsui's hand took the cloth and started rubbing soapy bliss against Jyuushiro's throat and tension-tight neck. Jyuushiro closed his eyes and lifted his chin. The rubbing moved along Jyuushiro's shoulders, strong and smooth and deep enough to make Jyuushiro gasp as Shunsui pushed at aching muscles as if to squeeze the aches and the tightness out of them.
Shunsui said, meditatively, as he made calming circles of suds down Jyuushiro's arms. "Love you. Never. Love is like wine, like a promise of jasmine brought on a spring night breeze. It's intoxicating, stirring the heart and loins, always pulling me into the next concealing shadow. It's a gorgeous mask, sparkling in candlelight, with ruby lips and pearl eyes."
Jyuushiro closed his eyes and listened to the poetry as those hands moved to his chest and stomach. Those strong, steady hands pressed and pushed and stroked the pain out of muscles made sore and hard from days of coughing. Here he was laid out completely before Shunsui, no secrets, certainly nothing hidden. No wonder...
"I chase love like a hind under moonlight. Chase her as if she's my last hope, my last chance. She's beautiful, breathtaking whenever I follow and hunt her with charm, smiles, poetry, laughter, and longing. Love is a dance of innuendo, of hopes lightly fed, of tit for tat. For me, love is the chase, the drinking, the divine beauty of the flower just starting to open, still chaste, still blushing, still hiding the so-raucous life-giving seriousness of the organs underneath."
Shunsui's hands kept moving, deftly and precisely cleaning totally obvious organs Jyuushiro made no move to hide or really, in his state, care about. Then Shunsui cleaned down Jyuushiro's legs, kneading the sliding soap against muscles and aching joints. Down again to Jyuushiro's feet where Jyuushiro groaned and coughed again, as Shunsui rubbed aching arches and sore heels.
Shunsui slid a steady touch up Jyuushiro's legs and hip, and then up his arm. The touch stayed on Jyuushiro's shoulder as Shunsui moved behind him, and Jyuushiro wordlessly leaned a little forward to give Shunsui full access to his back. He heard a quiet catch of breath, and Jyuushiro realized what Shunsui saw when he felt fingers tracing the still thin-skinned scars that laced across his back. His own throat closed on an emotion he could not name.
Shunsui's voice sounded as tight as Jyuushiro's throat felt, as he continued with a bitter tone to his voice. "Love, she captures, takes, intoxicates me until I can't see straight. She taints with bitter jealousy anything I do that does not have her at the center; caring not for my strength, my care, or the world around me. She scorns me at the first crack of my laughing mask, her first sighting of my failures, my weakness, or my ugliness. She pulls me in moaning, and then expels me scolding: I disappoint her, I don't live up to expectations, or what I should have known she wanted. Love, for me, blooms and withers in a moon's change."
Shunsui's touch with the cloth against his back was tender, gentle, almost reverent. Then Jyuushiro felt Shunsui suddenly lean against his back, arms coming around him. Jyuushiro automatically pulled those arms all the way around him, hugging them to himself, pulling Shunsui close enough that Shunsui's laughter and his next words caressed his ear.
"I will never tell you I love you, Ukitake Jyuushiro. I'd sooner tell my zanpakutou or my left arm I loved them than say something like that to you. I trust that they'd abandon me sooner than you."
Jyuushiro closed his eyes at those words, at being given far more than he'd ever thought to hope for. The right hand and arm might guide a two-handed strike, but the true power came through the strength of the left. To be that necessary, equated to that part of Shunsui's strength...
Shunsui released Jyuushiro, and summarily emptied two buckets of hot water over his head.
Jyuushiro almost passed out when Shunsui helped him carefully lower himself into the big wooden tub of the bath itself. It was so hot and so good against all the aches he hadn't known his illness had given him. Instead, he just lay there, nerveless, for the few minutes he could. He was heated through when Shunsui nearly had to lift him out of the tub, and he sat on the edge of it, wavering, until Shunsui was out and gave him a shoulder to lean on to walk the short distance to the changing benches.
Shunsui rubbed him down with the big drying towels, and, finally tired of how helpless he felt, Jyuushiro tried to stand and get his own clothing. He had to sit down, but then, determined, got up again and when his head stopped spinning quite so much, he managed to find his loincloth and wrap the strip of cloth around himself. He managed the kimonos, both under and over; but he had to sit down to get his hakama on over the kimonos and then stood up to pull them over his hips. The folds and ties, so familiar, were slower to do than he liked; but he managed.
Shunsui nearly carried him back to the room, where their breakfast and a rolling chair was waiting for them. When Jyuushiro ate, he was relieved to find that it helped his energy immensely. But despite that, he sat down in the chair with the wheels on each leg, and let Shunsui tuck quilts around him.
"I look like Oba-san Akane," Jyuushiro said, chuckling.
"You are quite cute," Shunsui said, tilting his head to consider Jyuushiro. "All clean and shiny and hollow-eyed and totally worn out and..." Shunsui shook his head and ran his hand through his still-damp hair. "Never mind."
"Well, better I go in a chair than fall over in the middle of the debriefing," Jyuushiro said. Then he gave a few small coughs, half experimentally. No, it wasn't as bad at all.
"Instead, you'll interrupt everyone with your coughing. Charming," Shunsui sounded more amused than his words suggested.
Jyuushiro chuckled, coughed again, and rolled his eyes. "Please get some of the cloths, so I don't make a mess, too. That will have to do in place of charm, sorry."
"Sure," said Shunsui and pulled a few from the stack by the bed. Jyuushiro snagged them to hold in his lap.
Then they rolled off down the hallway, and up from the wing of the building into the corridor that led through the center of the infirmary. At Ito-kun's doorway, Shunsui knocked on the door frame.
"Come in." It was Daisuke-san's voice.
Jyuushiro slid open the door and Shunsui pushed his chair in. All eyes swung to him, and most of them went wide-eyed with whites showing. He looked that bad, hm? For an instant he almost wanted to just stand up and walk on his own, but that would just be stupid. Instead Jyuushiro assayed a cough, and it came obediently with a few relatives as well.
Hayato's nose wrinkled and he looked away. Kenshin looked embarrassed. Kaoru only had eyes for Kali; hardly surprising. Jyuushiro was surprised to find Daisuke-san looking at him with something close to approval.
"Good morning, sir," Jyuushiro said politely.
"Good morning," Daisuke-san answered.
"Doesn't look like that good a morning," Kenshin said frowning. "You look like someone pounded both your eyes and sucked out your marrow. What are you doing here? Shouldn't you be in bed?"
"I invited him," Daisuke-san said.
Jyuushiro was astonished when that shut Kenshin right up, and Hayato nodded and lost that pinched look. Kaoru even looked away from Kali and to Daisuke-san when he said that, and focused on Jyuushiro. Then Shunsui walked around Jyuushiro and exchanged a look with Hayato that made the hawk-faced young man relax and lean back against the wall behind him. Kenshin lightly punched Shunsui's shoulder and grinned.
Jyuushiro wondered if they even understood how much they'd changed in that week away. He swallowed his regret, and looked up to see Daisuke-san looking at him.
"You see it, don't you?" Daisuke-san asked.
Jyuushiro nodded. "Yes, sir."
"See what?" Hayato asked, raising one eyebrow in challenge.
Daisuke-san nodded at Jyuushiro, but Jyuushiro wasn't quite sure what to say or how to say it. "Uhm... you have all changed."
Shunsui blinked, "Changed?"
"You're... more... solid. You each trust each other more. Depend on each other more," Jyuushiro said, knowing he trusted Shunsui not to bait him.
"How can you see that?" Kenshin asked, his brow knotting.
Jyuushiro laughed, "Shiba, you have Kyouraku's back covered, and he yours. Ryuu has taken the line that covers the door when it opens. And Daisuke-san..."
"Yes?" prompted the old man.
"... everyone glances at you, sir, when they say anything. It's also very impressive when you can get Shiba to agree with you just by stating your case. Well, that and have Shunsui speak of you in glowing terms nearly every other sentence when he described what happened over the course of the trip."
"Every other sentence?" Shunsui looked surprised. "I didn't do that, did I?"
"Just about," Jyuushiro said.
Daisuke-san blinked at that. "Really?"
"Really, sir." Jyuushiro politely brought up a cloth and coughed into it. Then he asked, "How is Ito doing? Is she..."
"I'm awake," Kali said tiredly from her futon. "The second medical team did a good job last night after they shored up Hayato's work. Just some deep cuts. They say the blood loss was the worst part."
Hayato leaned in proprietarily at Kali's words, and Jyuushiro saw his eyes trace what he could see of his handiwork.
Shunsui came back and pushed Jyuushiro's chair in closer to Kali's futon, then knelt down next to her.
Hayato stayed where he was by the wall and no one objected. Daisuke-san and Kenshin drew closer.
"So. What happened?" Shunsui asked Kali. Jyuushiro stole a glance at Daisuke-san. He'd expected the older man to lead the questions, but there was no sign at all of surprise or dismay, just a nod to go ahead.
Kali pressed her lips together, paused, and then started her story. "It was just when the sun had come up and daylight had lightened the snow until I could almost see the colors of the trees. The trip line shivered. It didn't swing far enough to pull the line out of shelter the way it would if someone had just blundered through it, but it went far enough I saw the mark on the line move from the marks at the watch end. Then it did it again. Just a tiny movement.
"I wondered if it was a mouse trying to make off with a bit of line for food or a nest. Or some other beast looking for who knows what."
She shrugged, and then looked up at all those eyes fixed on her. She shrugged again, "I screwed up. I'm sorry I put you guys through all that. I know what I should have done."
"Which was..." Kaoru said, quietly.
"Oh, damnit, you're going to make me say it, aren't you?"
"I should have found it, and when I was in sight of it, I should have run like mad back to the camp and..." There were heads shaking all around the bed, and Jyuushiro couldn't help but grin.
Kali threw her left hand up in the air, as her right arm was thick with bandages. "Right. Okay. As soon as the damned line moved, I should have come and gotten you all."
"That wasn't so hard, now was it?" Shunsui asked with the sweetest of his smiles.
He only got a growl for his troubles.
"But what did you see that led you even further away?" asked Kenshin.
Kali wrinkled her nose. "I felt it more than saw it. Just that weird reiatsu of a hollow, but... weak. Almost like it was trying to hide, or was sick or injured or... agh." Kali made a face. "I'm not sure how to describe it, but it was like it was trying to keep my attention off it..."
"So, naturally, you followed it." Kaoru's tone was dry.
"Well, yeah. I had my zanpakutou, I didn't figure there could be something to be frightened of when it felt that weak. I followed it." Kali started to look angry. "You guys can't tell me you wouldn't have done that."
Kenshin raised his hand, "Well, I probably would have."
Shunsui nodded, "Me, too."
Kali's face relaxed. Jyuushiro sighed and sat back from where he'd leaned forward at the tension.
"But now?" Daisuke-san asked.
All four of the guys that went on the trip just shook their heads. It was Shunsui who laughed. "Now we can see what happens if we ignore your instructions, Daisuke-san. That won't happen."
Kali chuckled at that. "I promise it won't happen with me again. But I did the stupid thing and followed it's limping trail out into the woods. It was lucky that it was to the south, back towards home."
"Or else it planned it that way? To make you feel... safer?" Jyuushiro said quietly.
Kali blinked at that, "I hadn't thought of that, but that makes sense. Some part of me, I guess, was thinking you were going to follow me eventually. It led me on for a bit, slowly enough to keep me interested. Lucky for me, it was also slow enough for you to catch up. That was when those bloody Hollow reiatsues all popped out all at once.
"I turned and shunpo'ed away as fast as I could, but then one Hollow popped up right in front of me. One of the really big ones. I managed to get my zanpakutou out, but only did limb damage before it hit me hard enough to knock the wind out of me and then a number of the small ones jumped me all at once.
"I got one of them before it could tear my arm off; but then the big one swept them all off me and picked me up and hit a tree with me. That's the last thing I remember before waking up here." Kali frowned at all of them. "You must have been fast following me. I had a feeling they were just going to have a picnic right then and there."
If Kali's words shook at the end, no one commented.
"So it led you into a whole group of Hollows?" Daisuke-san asked quietly.
"What have the texts said about Hollow groups?" Daisuke-san said, patiently.
"That they do not happen with any great frequency," Kaoru said. "They are more likely to eat each other than live peacefully in the same space."
Shunsui frowned, "But..."
"The penned Hollows," Jyuushiro said. Everyone looked at Shunsui and then at him. "The gangster had four Hollows in a single pen."
"But he fed them souls," Shunsui said quietly. "I wonder if they'd acquired a taste for easy food so didn't eat each other because there was something tastier to be had together?"
"They are learning to hunt in packs," Hayato said, frowning. "This is dangerous."
Daisuke-san nodded. "The Shihouin Clan has requested the coordinates of the attack and submitted a request to the central ruling committee to exercise their rights of retribution."
"But that is Ryuu land," Hayato said, eyes widening.
"That is why it is a request, Ryuu-kun. They have applied to your Family, and I'm sure that they will not only get permission, but may even be offered an outrider troop from your uncle's forces." Daisuke-san said quietly. "I believe the Clans are gathering in the face of what may be a larger threat than merely what was offered to a group of student."
"Will we march with them? Since we were the ones that were involved?" Hayato asked, eagerly.
"No. You are students, not yet solders," Daisuke-san said firmly. "There will be a time for it, and Yamamoto has asked for regular sweeps through the lands of Soul Society. Your training may extend to accompanying those troops. But you will not be in on whatever strike there is for the nest that we stumbled upon."
"And ran from," Kenshin said bitterly.
"All the way home," Shunsui said in the cadences of a child's rhyme.
There was silence for a moment.
Then Jyuushiro raised his hand quietly. Everyone blinked at him. The old classroom manners suddenly felt completely out of place to Jyuushiro, but he hadn't quite known what else to do.
"Sorry. Uhm. From what I heard you cleansed them all the way home, not just ran." Jyuushiro persisted in an even more deadly silence. "And... apologies in advance as this may be the most stupid question ever. But, sir, I was wondering why you didn't use Hell butterflies after you'd secured Ito-kun and started back. Then you might have gotten backup along the way?"
Everyone stared at him even harder.
It was Hayato who surprised everyone by suddenly breaking into laughter. "That is why Shunsui wants you in. Damnit. Why didn't we do that?"
"Because we didn't think of it?" Daisuke-san said, his amusement and rue clearly evident. "Because I'm an old warhorse used to the limitations of the living world, not one born to this one? Whatever the reason, I would be glad to include you and your not-quite-so-stupid questions in our next excursion, Ukitake-kun."
Jyuushiro blushed and coughed.
Kali laughed, "Aww... so cute."
Everyone laughed, and the tension in the room broke for good. Jyuushiro sighed and caught his coughing in another cloth. It was going to be work to catch up, to fit into this group that had experienced something together without him. Shunsui's hand dropped lightly on his shoulder. But he had a stronghold within it, and he was now sure Shunsui wouldn't just leave him behind.
Well, life without a goal would be boring, so he might as well get used to it.