Liralen Li (liralen) wrote,
Liralen Li

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Twin Souls: Chapter 20: Cuts

Title: Cuts
Arc: Twin Souls
Fandom: Bleach
Beta: incandescens, without her this wouldn't be possible.
Characters: Kyouraku, Ukitake
Rating: R -- nudity and man on man intimacy.
Warning: Man on man sensual intimacy, one character has self-injury problems.
Word Count: 8,558
Summary: Politics starts getting personal with the Tactics Team, and Jyuushiro and Shunsui learn a few things, together.
Kudos: Inspiration for how some of these plot points were provided by incandescens and lookingback on Y!Gallery. stark_black did a very important job of reality checking some of this. Thank you, so much.
Disclaimer: I do not own or make money off Bleach. Almost-sex is between consenting adults. It's all fictional, really.
Previous chapter

Shunsui thought about the feeling of Jyuushiro's hair, daydreamed about the scent of the skin of the girl he'd been with the previous night, and idly tried to fit the feeling he got from watching Unohana's hair swing into a poem with seven lines, five characters per line. Midnight silk flows bright/Unfurling ink/Meaning on void...

That he was in the middle of Yamamoto's Tactics and Strategy class didn't deter him quite as much as it probably should have.

But the banging on the door did catch his attention, and when five men came through that all seemed to share various features between them, an inner alarm went wild. It was the one that always rang at the sudden entrance of fathers, brothers, and big uncles of women he'd fallen in love with. Usually men who were less than pleased when Shunsui fell out of love with their siblings, daughters, or nieces.

Shunsui dove under his desk. Jyuushiro startled at the motion, but a quick flick of his eyes at Shunsui and he settled back down at his desk without a word.

That was when, of course, Kenshin started laughing. A big belly laugh, that made Yamamoto look up from the notes he'd been reading from out loud and frown. Kenshin winced in the force of that regard. The frown made its way to the five men at the doorway, along with the hard press of his reiatsu.

"Why are you interrupting my class?" Yamamoto asked, using a just-barely civil form of address, his reiatsu rising as he focused on the cause of the interruption. Shunsui had to concentrate in order to breathe, and he could feel all his classmates having to push back as well.

The smallest of the five men at the door opened his mouth. One of his brothers grabbed him from behind, and clapped a hand over his mouth. A third bowed a deep bow of apology from noble to noble, and all five of them left far more quietly than they'd come.

Shunsui pushed, as he had when he'd been flank for the winter exercise, trying to spread his sense of reiatsu to gauge the five men's strengths; but the heavy blanket of Yamamoto's power made it impossible.

Yamamoto frowned even more deeply. He scanned the desks. "Kyouraku-kun, where are you?"

Shunsui waved his hand and came up from under his desk. "Sorry sir. I just dropped... uhm... dropped my brush."

"Kyouraku-kun, your brush is on your desk," Yamamoto said gravely.

The idiot Kenshin just had to burst out laughing again. Shunsui cursed under his breath. At least the laughter caused Yamamoto to ease up on everyone. When he glanced at Jyuushiro, he wasn't quite sure if he was disappointed or relieved that he wasn't looking back at Shunsui. He was looking at Kali. Shunsui followed Jyuushiro's gaze with his other senses, and it was like getting punched in the gut.

Kali radiated... terror. She was as still as a statue, hardly breathing, and so frightened it hurt to sense.

Kaoru touched her lightly on her shoulder. She jumped as if stabbed. Kaoru froze as still as a statue, and his reiatsu went ice cold. Solid.

Shunsui hadn't thought Yamamoto could frown anymore, but his wrinkles grew even deeper. "Ito-kun and Kuchiki-kun, what is going on?"

Shunsui's eyes widened. He remembered the facial and build similarities. "They're your brothers," he said.

Kali's eyes got even bigger; for a moment she looked like she was going to bolt. Then something snapped, and the terror receded. She bowed her head, "They are."

Kenshin looked from Kali to Shunsui. "Oh! Then they aren't after you, Kyouraku. Damn. And here I was hoping you'd let me help out when they jumped you after class. I've been aching for a good old fist fight for a long time."

Kaoru said quietly, "I do not believe they would offer a fist fight..." He hesitated.

Kenshin blinked a few times, and then his forehead cleared. "Oh! Yeah! Hey, if they come after you, I'd be happy to..."

"They're going to offer duel," Kali said crisply, laying the words out like bared steel.

"Why the hell would they do that? It's not like you two are scr..." Kenshin clapped his hand to his mouth at the look he got from both Kaoru and Kali, and even Shunsui could feel the flood of killing intent that suddenly hit Kenshin from both directions.

There was a cough from the instructor's podium. Yamamoto eyed his students. "So. It finally catches up to us."

"Us?" Kali's voice shook.

Yamamoto sighed and nodded. "Daisuke-san?"

Daisuke-san looked up from where he stood. "Yes, sir?"

"I believe we have found the leaders for the two groups that will be going with the Kuchiki and Shihouin patrols at the beginning of next week," Yamamoto said quietly.

"Ah." Daisuke-san straightened and sighed. "Kuchiki-kun and Ito-kun, please come forward."

They looked away from each other as they rose and walked to the front of the classroom. Kaoru went to Daisuke-san's left, Kali to his right. Shunsui nearly shuddered at the cold reiatsu that rolled off Kaoru, and even this close, Shunsui couldn't tell if the bitterness was aimed at Kali or at Kaoru himself; it was so dense, so solid.

"Shiba-kun, please give me a report on what you believed the relationship between these two was before we were so rudely interrupted," Yamamoto commanded quietly.

"Uhm. Uh. Hey..." Kenshin stuttered to a halt as Kali's poison green gaze pinned him where he stood. Kaoru only looked at the floor.

"Please," said Yamamoto, and Kali's eyes fell as well.

Released, Kenshin sighed. "I thought... well, I thought they were just some stupid... well... childhood sweethearts. Didn't think they'd done anything yet. Didn't seem the type, ya know? Rich, royal, only a branch away from the Protector, worth a lotta money when the marriage contracts go through, didn't think they'd... well... you know."

Shunsui saw Kali's blush rising with each phrase.

"Shiba-kun, you have seen, spoken with, and interacted with these two nearly every day during school, yes?"

"Well, yes." Kenshin looked puzzled.

Yamamoto nodded, "Then I trust that their discretion has been thorough."

Both Kaoru and Kali looked at Yamamoto with surprise on their faces.

Shunsui saw Jyuushiro's eyebrows rise. Shunsui suddenly started thinking hard as well. If these two had been so discreet that Kenshin hadn't known… Well, okay, so even Shunsui hadn't actually known that the two had done any more than just moon over each other for the last several months, really. How in all the Seven Hells would the brothers have known enough, had proof enough to come and intend to offer duel?

Jyuushiro raised his hand. Yamamoto nodded at him.

"I'm... a little curious, sir, to know if Ito-kun knows if her brothers are going to be on one of the patrols?" Jyuushiro asked.

Kali gave a brief, hard nod.

"Then would it be all right if I volunteered to be on whichever group gets assigned to the Shihouin patrol? Or was there going to be some other selection criterion, sir?" Jyuushiro asked.

"Oy," said Kenshin in disgust. "Then if you and Kyouraku go you can convince 'em we're all gay, and then they won't think their sister is in any danger from Academy boys?"

Shunsui just couldn't help himself. This time he was the one that started laughing so hard even Yamamoto's polite coughs couldn't stop him.

Hayato's whack across the back of his head did get his attention.

"Why you, Ukitake-kun?" Hayato asked. "Couldn't any of us go to find out where they got their information from? If it wasn't even obvious to us here, who could have found out and gone to tell the people most likely to disrupt all the Clan relations?"

Jyuushiro spread his hands in a conciliatory manner.

Shunsui rubbed his head. "Hey, if it's going to disrupt things between Kuchiki and Shihouin, we could find out information in either camp as to who would be most angry about a reconciliation between the two."

The looks on the faces of both Kali and Kaoru at the exchange in front of them was priceless to Shunsui. Yes, he thought, it's not really about you, or not just about you.

Daisuke-san's cough brought everyone's attention to him. "You do know the other players, too, yes?"

It was Kaoru who sighed. "Probably Hatsuzora, sir, trying to disgrace or destroy the Academy as well. If I died or was displaced as the Kuchiki heir because of a scandal over a second cousin to the heir of Shihouin at the Academy, it would be reason enough for the high Families to keep their children out as well."

Shunsui saw the white hand guard tighten hard around a fist. Even as Kaoru's face was as placid and calm as deep water, his reiatsu was still ice cold. He glanced at Jyuushiro, who gave Shunsui a worried look in return.

"But... how could that be traced?" Hayato asked, a frown creasing his brow.

"Or even found?" Jyuushiro asked, puzzled.

"Ask the brothers who told them?" Kenshin said with a shrug. "How else?"

"But would they tell us?" Hayato asked Kenshin.

"Do they know we even exist as something other than just people that go to a class together?" Shunsui asked, thinking.

"Well, I didn't write about you guys at all when I wrote home. It was more about what was going on in the dorm. Uhm. So they might know about Kyouraku-kun's... reputation," said Kali, having the decency to blush a little.

"Ha. So much for gay," Shunsui said to Kenshin and was rewarded with a bark of laughter. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Jyuushiro put his face in his hands. Shunsui could only hope that was laughter shaking his shoulders.

"To answer Ukitake-kun's question,” Daisuke-san cut in, “the procedure is for the two group leaders to pick their groups. Members may petition one way or the other; however, the assignment hasn't been given to the leaders as of yet. So there is no way for you to know, much less choose, which assignment you will be given. You may only choose whom you wish to meet it with."

Kali and Kaoru’s gazes finally met. Clearly they weren't going to be able to do this together. Kaoru gave Kali a small nod.

Kali nodded in return and then faced the rest of the class with her head up. "Hayato. Kenshin. I want you two with me. Kenshin's bluntness will probably make my brothers see sense, and Hayato will be able to see what's behind that. Shunsui would only muddy the waters with my brothers. And, Jyuushiro... I really want the best fighters with Kaoru... if he needs protecting... if my idiot brothers jump him before we go on patrol, I wouldn't be able to forgive myself if he got hurt."

Shunsui, watching Kaoru, saw his white teeth bite right into his lower lip. A drop of bright red flowered and then disappeared.

That was when Shunsui realized Kali had just called everyone by their given names. Not their surnames. He was flattered to realize that it had felt right. They really were in this together.

"Kuchiki-kun, you are willing to take Ukitake-kun and Kyouraku-kun with you?"

Kaoru nodded and then drew a breath. "Yes, sir. I will take Shunsui and Jyuushiro as my team."

"Wait," Jyuushiro said quietly. "What if our assignments are reversed? What if Kaoru, Shunsui and I go with the Shihouin patrol?"

Shunsui tilted his head. "Well, separating both Kaoru and myself from Kali will keep the waters clear. They are probably well-behaved enough to not call out fellow patrol members right on the spot, though we'll have to look out before or after. I could play Kenshin's role in asking the brothers blunt questions, especially over a few friendly drinks, and Jyuushiro's good enough to play the weak lesser noble that doesn't like us, for the people that really hate us for our station."

Everyone stared at him and then looked at Jyuushiro, who smothered a cough that sounded suspiciously like laughter. Jyuushiro looked up with bright eyes, "Quite. Weak underling. Fragile and ill-used."

Kenshin frowned, "Well, if we go that way, there's going to be someone that hates us no matter what."

Shunsui grinned. "What better way to get them to show their colors than by rubbing us in their faces?"

"So what do we do if we're going on the Kuchiki patrol?" Hayato asked. "Just look for people who attack Kali?"

Kaoru's reiatsu flared with sudden, utter rage. Everyone winced, except for Yamamoto and Daisuke-san.

"Get a handle on that!" Daisuke-san barked.

Kaoru's fist clenched tight again, and his flaring reiatsu pulled in again, ragged at first, but then closed into that cold sheen of ice. "My Clan would not be so cowardly as to attack a woman who was in love with me,” he said flatly. “They might deny my right to wed her, they might slander her, but they would never physically attack her."

Kali closed her eyes. "And slander is not an attack, my love?"

Kaoru slumped. His reiatsu blew out like a candle in the wind.

"Perhaps we should end this now," Kali said softly. "If there is no hope, if they do deny our right to wed, then why do we persist in this when it endangers our Families, endangers the Academy, and endangers our friends?"

Shunsui drew in a shaking breath. He wasn't sure if Kaoru's rage had really been at the slander to his clan, or at the idea of someone harming Kali. He'd always envied the two their constancy, the longevity of their desire for each other. All the time they spent together had always astonished him. To see that end this way... something twisted in Shunsui.

He hid his own desperation by laughing softly, and saying, "There's always hope, Kali. Even from the most unexpected places. Don't... please... don't just end it because of something we don't even know, yet."

"You'll have some time apart, now,” Jyuushiro cut in. “Give yourselves that time and see how you feel afterward." He looked at Shunsui. "Sometimes that can make you understand what it is you really need from the one you're always with."

Kali looked at Kaoru, who simply looked back. "Can you say nothing?" she asked.

Kaoru's face was perfect, white porcelain. "I am not sure there is anything more to say. I love you; but, as you said, it is foolishness to throw away our honor, our responsibilities, our calling for an emotion."

"Idiot," Kenshin grunted.

Shunsui rolled his eyes. Hayato just slumped over his desk. Shunsui swore he heard a soft, muttered, "People..." from the hawk-faced man.

Jyuushiro shook his head a little and then shrugged at Kali, who sighed.

Daisuke-san looked around at all of them. "Well... what needs to be done with the Kuchiki patrol? You haven't quite settled that yet, I think."

"What do you think needs to be done, Daisuke-san?" asked Hayato.

Daisuke-san shifted and nodded at the question. "Both patrols are now acquainted with both the gillian and the smarter, smaller adjuchas. There are rumors of something even more powerful than them, but no one has encountered one to tell of what they are and how powerful they are. Both patrols are going to be swinging out into the Districts in the fifties this time through, so not quite as much wilderness, but a greater concentration of souls.

"Your job with either patrol will be to observe. Just observe how the patrols deal with these creatures when they run across them. If there are obvious methods that the patrols lack that you now have due to your training, please help them out. If there are methods that they use that you have not learned of, please request knowledge of their usage. If they refuse, do not pester them, but do write down the effects and bring them home. Is that clear?" Daisuke-san looked around the room.

Shunsui nodded when Daisuke-san's glance reached him, as did everyone else.

Yamamoto's cough got everyone's attention. "And if you happen across those who do not wish you there, Ito-kun, please do remember their names. If Ryuu-kun and Shiba-kun encounter those who incite such unpleasantness, it should be noted. Ryuu-kun will have the advantage of nobility and the Ryuu reputation of... practicality. Shiba-kun will have his clan's integrity and peaceful attitude for those that do not wish confrontation."

Yamamoto paused. "I believe you have just determined your assignments, children."

There were sighs all around the room, but no one was quite rude enough to groan.

"Sir? Sirs? How do we get Kaoru out of the building without the brothers offering duel?" Hayato asked with a wave of his hand.

Daisuke-san gave Shunsui a look. Shunsui looked right back and then sighed when the old man didn't back down. "There's access to the roof through an opening in the closet used to store extra desks, chairs, and equipment. The roof connects to the roof of the library, and it's just a short drop to the ground on the far side of that building."

"When have you had to escape without being seen from the lecture hall?" Jyuushiro asked.

"Uhm..." Shunsui said. "I'd... uhm... I'd rather not have to say."

Shunsui never did have to say. The other students diverted the brothers that were staked out around the building. Jyuushiro and Shunsui got Kaoru out along the roofline.

When they were on the crown of the roof, Jyuushiro heard Shunsui mutter, "Damn, I'm glad we don't have Kenshin with us."

Kaoru actually smiled at that, a brief, hard-pressed smile, but it was a smile and Jyuushiro relaxed just a fraction.

Jyuushiro took a few shunpo steps to Kaoru's room. It was clear; he signaled to the two other men, and they joined him. Then they all just stood there for an awkward moment.

"Did you have dinner plans?" Jyuushiro asked Kaoru.

"I was just going to eat in the cafeteria with everyone else," Kaoru answered. It was in his flat voice, the one that allowed no grip on either his emotions or what he might be thinking. "You two should go back to your rooms,” he added. “I am safe enough here with my dorm mates about me. They will protect me from attack."

"Maybe... we'll just eat with you?" Jyuushiro asked.

"No need. I need time alone," Kaoru said. He gave just the faintest of sighs as he looked at both of them, and Jyuushiro felt the slightest crack in the ice-hard reiatsu. "If you two are that concerned, get me my meal and I will eat in my room instead of in the public area. Will that ease your worry?"

"Let me," Shunsui said quietly.

Jyuushiro nodded, so Shunsui left. Jyuushiro thought about a few more questions, and just decided to not say anything at all. Kaoru simply stood there as still as stone, and they waited in silence. Shunsui returned so quickly he must have used his shunpo to get the food.

Kaoru accepted the tray and then remained standing, saying nothing. They had little choice but to leave.

He saw them out. At the very last instant, Shunsui said, "Take care. We'll be by in the morning to get you to class, right?"

"Ah. Right." That was all Kaoru said. "You should go. I am fine."

They both made their bows and left.

Jyuushiro was frowning, though, as they made their way back to their dorm and their cafeteria. He piled his tray high, as usual, and they made their way to a table together.

"Do you think..." Jyuushiro started.

"... that he's taking this way too calmly?" Shunsui finished. "Yes. He should be running around getting drunk or playing cards or picking a fight with someone. Even if it's with the brothers five. Not... so composed. Do you think Kali..."

"... is doing that? We could go check on her after dinner, too, but..."

"... she might kill us for leaving Kaoru, hm?"

Jyuushiro laughed. "Yes. Maybe we should check on him after homework."

"Just in case." Shunsui nodded and ate as Jyuushiro downed his meal.

They went to their room, and found that it was already occupied by half a dozen other students, just settling on the floor and starting the day's assignments. They joined them, and within an hour or two, they were all concentrating on their work.

Then steps came thundering down the hallway.

Right to their room.

Jyuushiro started as Shunsui leaned over to whisper, "It's Sato-kun, the medic." Jyuushiro blinked, Shunsui's ability to sense other people's reiatsu had grown since the winter exercise, but Jyuushiro hadn't known Shunsui could now identify close-by people by their regular levels of reiatsu.

The door slid open without even a knock and, indeed, it was Sato Saburou, one of the medics that was also a classmate. "Kyouraku-kun! Kuchiki-kun is... something weird is happening in his room and he won't let us in to see! We know you're... Oh! Hi, uhm... everyone. You're at his level of reiatsu and in that crazy class of yours together, so maybe you can talk him into letting me in?"

"Why can't you get in?" Shunsui asked, puzzled.

"There's some kind of locking kido or something on his door. I can't get through it or break it. But you're powerful enough... and... " Sato frowned now. "There's... I felt something in his reiatsu that bothered the heck out of me. I'm not sure, but I would feel much better if you came and helped me get in?"

"Something wrong, hm," Jyuushiro said and washed off his brush. "We're coming."

They all went. Nobody who was there for homework could resist the lure of a mystery like that.

They banged on the door and got no answer. They tried to just open it, and it wouldn't budge. Sato and Shunsui lent their full physical strength against the simple wooden frame and paper door and it didn't move. Jyuushiro studied the doorway as eight other students, women and men, milled out in the hallway. He knelt before the door and breathed deeply, and eyed the kido structure that had been overlaid on the door.

Locking mechanism. Bakudou number... hm... maybe... these binding kido were tricky to snap. They could all be broken by an overwhelming application of power, but it took a lot of power.

"Shunsui, do you have that small shinai on you?" Jyuushiro asked. "I'm not sure I want to risk our zanpakutou on this experiment, but... could we just push power into it and cut through the lock?"

"We? What do you mean we? I can do it," Shunsui said and flared his reiatsu.

There was an answering flare on the other side of the door. It was a flare that tasted of the cooling darkness of fall, the flame of the leaves of Kouyou, and the first frost of autumn, cold and sere and filled with the promise of death. Both Jyuushiro and Shunsui looked at each other. This was a real flare, not that ice-hard shell they'd both felt earlier in the classroom.

The kido shattered. The door slid open. "What are you doing?" Kaoru said, as calmly as a still pond, but the weight, the power of Kaoru's reiatsu all around them, made everyone but Jyuushiro and Shunsui edge away gasping. "Can a man not have a little privacy?"

Jyuushiro caught the flick of Shunsui's hand pointing at the palm of his other hand. He suddenly remembered Shunsui's stories of what had happened on the mountain, and he looked at what he could see of Kaoru's hands. They were in those pristinely white hand guards. But then he spotted a shadow. He frowned.

Shunsui moved towards the door, moving like a man wading through mud. Jyuushiro found it no easier. On seeing the two of them moving, everyone else started to follow.

"Kaoru, we're concerned about you. We're coming in." Jyuushiro said matter-of-factly.

"No." Kaoru's voice was flat again. "Not all of you."

"Then how about Sato-kun, Shunsui and I?" Jyuushiro asked.

"No." Kaoru closed his eyes. "I am not going to be rid of you, am I?"

"No." Both Jyuushiro and Shunsui said that as if with one voice. They looked at each other and then nodded.

"Besides," Shunsui added mildly, "you're our group leader now, and Kali would kill us if you got hurt."

"I do not..." Kaoru shook his head and they could hear him take a deep breath. "Shunsui, you need to stay outside, guard the door from everyone else. I will only be judged by Jyuushiro. He is... hard enough."

"But if you need healing?" Jyuushiro asked, doing his best to sound implacable; but he was confused by Kaoru's words. Hard enough?

"I do not need healing," Kaoru said. "On my word as a Kuchiki. I have no wound that must be seen to by a medic."

Jyuushiro took another breath. Shunsui gave him the nod. "We need to know," Shunsui said very softly, only for Jyuushiro to hear, and Jyuushiro nodded in acknowledgment.

Curious, cautious, and finally flaring his own reiatsu when Kaoru didn’t back down on the amount of reiatsu he was pouring out, Jyuushiro walked through the door. A presence flashed through the back of his head, a thrashing feeling of general agitation at going into an enclosed space with someone that was threatening him. He put one hand on his zanpakutou. When he did that the movement in the back of his head calmed, stilled.

Kaoru was standing by the paper panels that let in the daylight. He bent his head and took off the hand guards. Something started to drip from his hands.

Jyuushiro walked quietly over to join him. Then his breath hissed out as he saw the ruin of Kaoru's hands.

"Kaoru..." Jyuushiro whispered as his own hand left his hilt. "What have you done to yourself?"

Kaoru never focused on his hands. Instead he looked calmly at Jyuushiro. He kept his voice quiet and low, so that the thin paper walls might still hold his secrets. "Nothing. I have cut no tendons, touched no veins, it is just skin and a little muscle. They will heal."

"How... how do you know that?" Jyuushiro asked.

Kaoru looked faintly surprised. "How do I know? I have done this before and retained my grip, strength, and capabilities in my hands."

Jyuushiro winced simply at the thought of doing kendo with hands like... even with the hand guards it could not be....

Jyuushiro stepped forward and took those dripping hands in his own. Kaoru started back at the touch, but then stilled. His reiatsu suddenly dropped, and Jyuushiro brought his down as well. They both looked at the slashes in the palms of Kaoru's hands. Jyuushiro got the sense that Kaoru was actually looking at his own wounds for the very first time.

"It hurts," Kaoru observed.

Jyuushiro took a deep breath and stopped himself from yelling. There was something about that tone of voice that reminded him of his little brother Haru when he'd gotten in trouble deliberately for some half-assed reason. Yelling never got him to open up about what it was that was really bothering him, and yelling would only serve to broadcast what Kaoru wanted to keep secret. He got control of his voice and said, "Of course it hurts. Are you sure I shouldn't get Sato..."

The cold wind of that fall reiatsu flared again. "No one else sees this."

Jyuushiro flinched at the power pressing against him. "Kaoru, stop that."

Jyuushiro felt Kaoru shiver through his grip on those long, bleeding hands.

Kaoru's reiatsu dropped again and he pulled his hands out of Jyuushiro's grip. "It feels better than... " His eyes closed. "I cannot... "

Jyuushiro took another breath. Then he asked, "What can you do?"

"Nothing," Kaoru said softly.

"You can at least let me close these wounds,” Jyuushiro said. “A healing kido?"

"No. Stitch them closed if you must, but I..." Those already-thin lips thinned a little more. "I need the pain. And that is my mistake. My sin. A Kuchiki should not need such pain to deal with... that. I should just move on with my duties. But I could not do so."

Jyuushiro frowned. Horror at the open wounds warred with the trust he knew he should have and should hold for his teammate. He considered those words. "Sin, hm? So you're not relying on my judgment, but your own?"

Those hooded eyes opened and, maybe for the first time, Jyuushiro saw that those dark eyes were a silvered pewter, fringed in lashes so long they seemed nearly impossible. Jyuushiro remembered his drunken comment to Shunsui after that first tactics class, and now nearly cursed his wish to know what was under that calm, that perfection. Kaoru was not calm. Kaoru was now focused entirely, fiercely, intently on Jyuushiro.

Then slow words came. "Shunsui probably said I should lose myself in wine, women, or other trash instead."

Jyuushiro nodded.

Kaoru gave a small smile. "He feels everything, does he not? He will woo any woman to get that sensation of being held, of being loved. He is so careless of his reputation, his pride. But you..."

Jyuushiro let his eyes narrow, as Kaoru gave him an appraising look before saying, "I have seen how you hide your feelings. How you keep your pride even in front of him. How you turn away from getting too close, especially when we are all together. You never touch him when someone is looking. You know. You understand why I cannot loosen my grip." Those lacerated hands tightened into fists on themselves, but Jyuushiro was the one that gave a sound of protest as blood dripped from that cruel grip.

Jyuushiro's eyes widened in shock. What was Kaoru talking about? He'd never... and he took a slow breath at the memory of crying so hard and helplessly in Shunsui's arms that one night, and being ashamed enough of it later to make that distance between them. And he hadn't ever touched the bigger man when with the rest of the class, preferring discretion, modesty, propriety. He remembered the odd mixture of cynical amusement and embarrassment at Kenshin's comment in the class that very day. He had been what Kaoru described. He didn't like it, but some of it was true. "Not... everything. And I feel..." Now it was Jyuushiro's turn to hesitate at a soft hiss in the back of his head. "You're turning this conversation, aren't you? Making it about me."

"About why I believe you are capable of judging me." Kaoru shrugged. "Though my own Clan would probably disown me for saying that any minor noble could judge the heir of Kuchiki, I believe you to be appropriate. So, tell me, Jyuushiro, how bad is my crime, what should I do in reparation for being this stupid, this weak?"

The shock of hearing his given name from the beautiful noble made Jyuushiro hesitate. He ended up shaking his head as his thoughts came up with nothing, and that voice in the back of his head remained silent as well. Instead, he just shook his head, and said, "You've partially disabled yourself for any potential action on patrol."

Kaoru shook his head as well. "No. I will be entirely able to fight. The pain will not bother me in battle, especially if you stitch the bigger ones closed. Now who is turning this conversation?"

Jyuushiro had the grace to blush. "Give me... can we get those closed? I'll probably be able to think while I work."

Kaoru snorted. "All you have to do is tell me that I am weak, that I should get out of the Academy, out of Kali's life, out of... all this and go back to being what I was raised to be. You should not have to think."

Jyuushiro couldn't help but remember what Kaoru had said. "You said you've cut yourself before. Was that before Kali?"

Kaoru's eyes widened. "I... I do not know." He bowed his head. "She and I have known each other for so long, and I know I cut when we were smaller. She cried over my hands. I refused to let her see them after that. But after she declared her feelings for me, then I knew we were so close she would know if I cut myself. So I did not."

"So you can stop it for someone else," Jyuushiro said quietly.

Kaoru spread his hands, the cuts gaping in the skin. Jyuushiro winced at the gesture, but Kaoru ignored the expression and asked, "But what of this?"

Jyuushiro remembered the difference in reiatsu between the ice cold hardness in the classroom, and the full-out power of what had met him and Shunsui at the door. Quietly, he asked, "Has it made you more effective?"

Kaoru gave Jyuushiro an assessing look. "Yes."

Jyuushiro simply nodded. "If this is what you need to fight, I can accept it."

Kaoru went very still. "What do you see as my mistake, my failure, then?"

Jyuushiro sighed. "If we hadn't pushed, hadn't come, you'd have suffered all this by yourself due to your lack of respect, trust, and faith in your teammates, your classmates, and myself in particular. I don't think you can sew those up and be effective again on your own."

Kaoru nodded very slowly. Jyuushiro could see things shift behind the gray eyes, and suddenly Kaoru knelt before Jyuushiro. "What price need I pay for my transgression?"

Jyuushiro puffed a small breath out. "You're just going to have to suffer my ministrations in sewing together those cuts. You're going to have apologize for locking Sato-kun and Shunsui out, even if you don't say exactly what happened to them. And you'll promise me you'll talk to me when you feel the urge to do this again. You're going to have to suffer my thanking you for pointing out my own failures."

"I will so promise." Kaoru looked up, one eyebrow raised. "You took that as a failure?"

Jyuushiro had to laugh this time. "Yes. I do." He paused a moment. "My family taught me to do better than that."

"Allowing emotional reactions to override necessity is better?" Kaoru asked, obviously puzzled.

"No. Showing those that I love that I care about them is far more important than politeness, appropriate behavior, or even obedience," Jyuushiro said placidly. "Do you have needle and thread?"

"Yes." Kaoru got up without touching the ground, went over to a chest against the wall, and frowned a little at his hands. "I think you probably should open this, as I do not wish to stain everything within."

Jyuushiro went over, lifted the lid and followed Kaoru's instructions to find the small sewing kit with steel needle and silk thread. He found a wider strip of cloth, tore it in half, and put the two pieces into the cup with the needle and thread. He poured clean drinking water into the cup, and used a very carefully controlled fire kido to make the contents boil hard.

The kido provoked knocking on the door. "You okay in there?" Shunsui asked urgently.

Jyuushiro said, more loudly than anything they'd said to that point, "We're fine, Shunsui. I needed some... tea."

Shunsui's laughter caused Jyuushiro to chuckle, and something lightened in Kaoru's eyes.

Together they sat down at Kaoru's desk, and Jyuushiro cleaned up, stitched, and then bandaged Kaoru's hands with the clean lengths of cloth he'd boiled with the needle and thread. Jyuushiro did his best to work quickly and neatly and let Kaoru manage every involuntary flinch, hiss of breath, or tightening of muscle. There were very few of those, given how inexperienced Jyuushiro was at doing this.

After one particularly deep miss on Jyuushiro's part, Sato-kun called from the hallway, "You guys. Are you... what are you doing? It feels like..."

The two young men looked at each other.

Jyuushiro said softly, "Sato knew that you'd done something; he can sense pain better than most, I think."

"A good gift for a medic in the field, but it is troublesome in this case," Kaoru said as quietly back. Then he raised his voice. "We are satisfactory, Sato-kun, I simply spilled some tea on my hands. It is quite... hot."

The noise Sato made was not convinced, but he subsided.

Jyuushiro saw a smile tug at the corner of Kaoru's mouth. That made it easier to keep going.

Jyuushiro finished with a sigh, wrapping the cloth around his work with fingers that trembled now that he no longer needed them to be still.

One bandaged hand suddenly caught his.

He looked up from his handiwork and met Kaoru's gaze. Jyuushiro didn't hold back this time; he let all his aching concern, his worry, his horror at the wounds, and his frustration at not really getting to fix things come to the forefront of his mind. His reiatsu, through that touch between them, would probably show some of that; maybe his expression as well. He wasn't sure.

But Kaoru's breath caught on meeting Jyuushiro's eyes, and he said very quietly, "You, Jyuushiro, are quick to redress what you feel is a wrong."

Jyuushiro merely bowed his head.

"Thank you," Kaoru said. "Thank you very much."

"You are very welcome, Kaoru. And thank you for trusting me." He gently pressed the hand around his own, and along with it came the rest of Kaoru's tentative smile.

Shunsui started when Jyuushiro finally came out. Most of the rest of the students had dispersed, but Saburou was sitting seiza against the wall opposite the door, and looked up wearily.

"Hey, handsome," Shunsui said with an evil grin.

Jyuushiro rolled his eyes, making Shunsui grin just a bit more widely, but then Jyuushiro stepped in close to Shunsui and surprised him with a hug.

"How is he?" asked Saburou.

"He can tell you: he'll be out in a bit," Jyuushiro said, and leaned against Shunsui.

Shunsui wasn't at all sure what he was supposed to do, but then he felt Jyuushiro trembling, so he put his arm around the white-haired man and hugged him back.

Kaoru stepped out of the room as well and gave Saburou a stiff-backed but low bow. Then he turned to Shunsui and did the same. "I apologize for troubling you so much with my display of cowardice. Jyuushiro has been kind enough to bandage up my lightly burnt hands." He displayed his hands, which showed just the edges of the bandages around a fresh pair of hand guards.

Saburou frowned, rose to his feet, and approached Kaoru, "But you were hurt before we came, not just with the tea."

"Thank you for your concern, Sato-kun, but, as you can see, I am in good health otherwise," Kaoru said. He waited very quietly as Saburou studied him.

Shunsui's eyes narrowed. This wasn't right: it didn't quite fit what he'd seen, what he'd felt when they'd first gotten there. He bit his lower lip.

Kaoru gave him a look that didn't particularly reassure him, as it was a far more intense look than he'd gotten in some time. But then Kaoru said, "Thank you, Shunsui. Please look after Jyuushiro: I have given him a bigger burden, I think, than is absolutely fair."

Shunsui looked down at Jyuushiro, who looked up at him with a look that made him nearly weak in the knees. "Jyuushiro?"

Jyuushiro sighed and put his head on Shunsui's shoulder, "Can we go back to our room? I am tired. We'll be back in the morning, Kaoru?"

"Correct. This time I promise that there will be nothing from me to pull you away," Kaoru said quietly. "Rest well."

"I will," Jyuushiro said and coughed twice. He sighed and rummaged around in his sleeve, but didn't find a cloth before the next coughs caught up with him and shook him. Blood appeared between his fingers.

"Damnit," Shunsui said quietly. He slipped his own hand into Jyuushiro's sleeve, and found one of the cloths and gave it to the slender man, before just picking him up and settling Jyuushiro in his own lap as he sat on the floor. Shunsui was relieved when he felt Jyuushiro relax into his hold.

Saburou, looking concerned, crouched by the two of them and ran a ripple of reiatsu over Jyuushiro. "I don't think I can help that much with this, either."

"It's... it's okay..." Jyuushiro whispered and coughed again, but with less ferocity than before. Kaoru surprised the hell out of Shunsui by crouching down on their other side and gently touched Jyuushiro on the shoulder with one bandaged hand.

Jyuushiro looked surprised, too.

"I would not want one of my men to be disabled because of me," Kaoru said quietly. "I shall be more..."

Jyuushiro shook his head, and half-rasped, half-whispered, "No. Do not..."

Kaoru simply continued, "... more forthcoming next time, so you do not have to go to such lengths."

Jyuushiro's eyebrows went up and Shunsui was just dying to know why and what the hell the two men were talking about. Then Jyuushiro gave Kaoru a slow nod. "Good, then." And the white-haired man sighed and coughed again, but it slowed, and his breathing deepened and slowed, and eventually there were no more coughs. Just a bloody cloth.

"Just a small one," Jyuushiro sighed, and leaned against Shunsui. The other two men backed off.

"Can I just carry you back, Jyuushiro?" Shunsui asked.

Jyuushiro nodded against Shunsui's shoulder, and Shunsui took him at his word and just lifted him as he stood up. He gave a nod to both Saburou and Kaoru and then shunpo'ed away. His reiatsu powered his body the way it did during combat, and as it enabled blows harder and faster than any normal man's, it now made it possible for him to carry Jyuushiro as lightly as a bird or a flower.

Shunsui took him back to their room, which was now empty of people; but someone had left a note with the last of the homework, explaining how to solve the problem. Jyuushiro studied the note, and the two of them sat side by side at a single desk and got through it together. They took a quick tired wash and bath together, each scrubbing down the other's back, and if Jyuushiro rinsed and cleaned his teeth an extra time, Shunsui didn't begrudge it.

When they got back to the room, they both stripped down: Shunsui was again surprised as Jyuushiro made to get into his futon with him.

Shunsui just stopped getting into his own bed. "What's going on?"

Jyuushiro looked up at him with a tired, confused look. "I... hm..."

Shunsui sighed, then wrapped Jyuushiro in another hug. The feeling of the slender man's smooth skin over hard muscle drew a thrill out of him that he firmly tamped down. "You should sleep, you're exhausted."

Jyuushiro clung tight to the bigger man, and Shunsui stroked his hair. Jyuushiro sighed at that. "Shunsui, is there... are there ways to... enjoy each other’s company that don't involve..."

Shunsui frowned, trying to decipher what Jyuushiro was trying to say. "You mean sex?"

"Kind of. I..." Jyuushiro closed his eyes as his hands and arms dropped again to Shunsui's waist. "I want... I want to not just sleep with you, but... to do something with you, but not... that, yet."

"Why?" Shunsui asked, bemused. "You're exhausted and we haven't even been sleeping together for a while."

"Because I... because I'm sorry for pushing you away. I needed some space after being so ill; but now, after seeing Kali and Kaoru being ripped apart, I don't want to make a mistake by ripping us apart before we've even really been together," Jyuushiro said. Shunsui could feel that hurt through Jyuushiro's sea-reiatsu, the ripples that echoed his own feelings in the classroom when he was watching everything unfold.

Shunsui stroked Jyuushiro's narrow back. "But you were coughing..."

Jyuushiro sagged against him. Then he whispered so quietly Shunsui had to hold him even closer to hear the words, "Please don't... don't reject me because of my illness again. Please don't."

Shunsui blinked. "Reject you again?"

Jyuushiro shook his head. "Those are the wrong words, perhaps. I... I'm not really that fragile. It was a small coughing fit this afternoon..."

"From being tired, right, and you're pretty tired, now," Shunsui said quietly.

"Please." Jyuushiro's tone was so helpless that Shunsui sighed in frustration.

Finally, Shunsui murmured, "Okay." He felt the slighter man take a deep, slow breath. "I need this, too, after class and this afternoon. I'm assuming you can't tell me what happened between you and Kaoru, or else you'd have told me already."

Jyuushiro nodded his head against Shunsui's shoulder. The silken slide of white hair against Shunsui's skin made him close his eyes again.

"I trust your judgment in that," Shunsui said.

Jyuushiro looked up at those words, green eyes wide. His reiatsu suddenly rose and wrapped around Shunsui, even as Jyuushiro's strong arms wrapped tight around Shunsui, slender hands caressing his shoulder blades.

Shunsui shuddered at what he could now feel was held deep within that power; an abiding regard of him, a trust of him that seemed criminal and idiotic to him, and all around it, an aching desire for him.

And that was when slender fingers slid into his hair and brought his head down.

The kiss was just a dry, slow meeting of the lips, but Jyuushiro's breathing picked up, and the hunger he managed to convey as his lips moved hard and insistent on Shunsui's made Shunsui sway before he could catch his balance again. "Shit, Jyuushiro, you've been celibate for a while, haven't you?"

"Since before the whipping," Jyuushiro murmured against Shunsui's lips. His eyes suddenly lit in humor. "So whatever we do it'll probably be quick."

Shunsui laughed, and deliberately mingled his reiatsu with Jyuushiro's. Both of them were practiced enough now at controlling their reiatsu that they kept it within their room; no use startling dorm-mates. He pushed his own desire for Jyuushiro, his trust in the slender man's strength, and that odd ache that happened in his chest when Jyuushiro had accepted his kiss that morning, all of it into his power. He heard the slender man gasp and almost moan. He had to taste that sound, and he gently bit-kissed Jyuushiro's lips before running just the tip of his tongue against the insides of those sweet lips, into the faintly salty mouth, and then deep, along the warm strength of the tongue that met his own. Then he ran his tongue lightly along the edges of Jyuushiro's teeth, before coming up for breath and another slow, sweet surface kiss.

It was Jyuushiro that broke the kiss. But they were both breathing hard. "What... what do we do now?" Jyuushiro asked.

Shunsui laughed and then pulled the quilt and sheets down on his futon. "Maybe get in?"

"What do you mean maybe?" Jyuushiro asked, head tilted a little. "I thought you'd done this before?"

"Well..." Shunsui shook his head. "Not this way... not.... with all this..." He sighed quietly and felt an old pang that accompanied a flood of memories. "Artists and poets... most of my experience with other men was just... what my friends or my brother's friends..." His hands were suddenly fists and he wasn't quite sure why.

He'd wanted them, had been flattered by their regard, by their desire and intensity. He was bemused by being tongue-tied with Jyuushiro about something that he'd just thought of as a part of his growing up. But it suddenly struck him how different this felt in contrast to those quick hard wrestles with lust and the need for release: all the things that he'd always thought of as being with another man.

Jyuushiro's hands slid around Shunsui, running gentle touches up his belly and chest, and he pressed his body up against Shunsui from behind.

Shunsui nearly cried out at the feeling, something aching hard in his gut. He hugged Jyuushiro's arms and finally managed to whisper around a tight throat, "Maybe this is a first for both of us."

Jyuushiro sighed, and hugged Shunsui tight in acknowledgment. "Uhm... then..." He went over to his futon and got his covers and pillows as well, and made a mound at the head of Shunsui's futon. "If I'm propped up, it's easier for me to breathe, like when you held me that night."

Shunsui nodded, considered a moment, and then grabbed a few of Jyuushiro's coughing cloths as well. "These will come in handy later, too."

Jyuushiro blushed as he settled back against the mound, and Shunsui grinned; this he was more familiar with. He took his time studying the body before him -- that muscle over hard bone, the strength he'd felt strike through the steel of his own mask. He ran his hands over solidly muscled calves and thighs, sliding up Jyuushiro's legs to undo his loincloth and unveil the very real evidence of his desire. He looked up to meet matcha green eyes that were studying him just as closely. Calloused hands ran down his sides, and deftly untied Shunsui's loincloth as well.

He sighed at the release. Then he bent down again, and this time deliberately pressed his body all along the length of his friend's. Skin against skin, hard muscle against muscle, belly against sucked-in shivering belly, silk-sheathed hot hardness against hardness. Jyuushiro gasped and arched up against him, his head falling back with a gasp, hands falling away as he tried to support himself. Shunsui groaned softly at the reaction, and tasted the skin of Jyuushiro's throat as his own arms went around Jyuushiro, pulling him even closer.

They moved against each other, strength against strength, hardness against hardness. Their combined reiatsu twined about them both, touching on senses closer to Shunsui's heart than even the contact against his skin. Sweat made all their motions liquid, smooth and powerful. When Jyuushiro's breathing grew harsh and he was closing his mouth on cries that would go right through the paper walls, Shunsui helped by kissing him hard, and they suddenly both shuddered in release.

They hadn't practiced that with their reiatsu.

The yelps and cries all around them made Shunsui laugh shakily. "Well, so much for being... uhm... quiet."

Jyuushiro was still trying to get his breath back, but he chuckled as well. Shunsui found the cloths and with a few practiced swipes got both of them cleaned up. There was no pounding on the door, no running footsteps.

"Well... I guess they're polite enough to not press the issue," Jyuushiro murmured, as Shunsui settled himself against Jyuushiro's side and pillowed his head on a welcoming shoulder. Jyuushiro wrapped his arm around Shunsui and pulled him close. Shunsui pulled his covers over both of them.

"They know better than to press it with us," Shunsui said with a satisfaction that surprised him.

Jyuushiro laced his fingers with Shunsui's and said the word as if tasting it, "Us." He nodded and kissed Shunsui's hair. "Yes."

And the two of them fell asleep entwined together.

>> The next chapter >>
Author's Notes

This one took so long just because there was so much in it. Sorry about that. But between all the springkink things I finally finished at the end of June, and all the elements I wanted to get into this, this chapter just took a long time. No real block on it. And the next couple will have a few things, but nothing quite like this.

The lovely inspiration from lookingback on Y!Gallery may be found here. She allowed me to load the beauty into my livejournal account. It is NOT worksafe.

When I first wrote the lines on Kaoru's hands, it was Self-Injury Awareness Day, and I wanted to incorporate that somehow, though it was more subtle and took me a lot longer than I thought to get to the point. incandescens wrote a lovely Ukitake/Byakuya fic called Judgment that mentions Kuchiki Kaoru and brings in some of the aspects called out here and some of the things she and I had discussed about them.

Tags: bleach, fanfic, kyouraku, ukitake, writing

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