Arc: Twin Souls
Beta: incandescens Without her this would not be possible.
Characters: Kyouraku, Ukitake
Rating: R for adult concepts of death
Word Count: 4,347 words
Summary: Shunsui helps with the grave digging. Jyuushiro and Kaoru help the healers. Their help does not go unnoticed.
Disclaimer: I do not own or make money off of Bleach. It's all fictional, really.
Shunsui cried. He knew he shouldn't be crying, because there was more to do. But he stood waist deep in the grave of someone whose name he didn't even know, and he cried.
As part of the aftermath, Jyuushiro had gone to check on Unohana again, and she'd asked all of them to start using the field healing kido they'd learned in the Academy. Even if they couldn't lend their strength to her directly, they might be able to help others. Jyuushiro and Shunsui had worked on Kaoru together first, as he couldn't apply reiatsu very well with a broken arm. They'd managed to get the bone patched up enough for him to help heal others, but had, in the process, exhausted Shunsui's small store kido.
Kaoru's arm was still too fragile for him to manage physical labor, and there was no way Shunsui was going to let Jyuushiro basically dig ditches when he could be healing people. He'd left them in the healers' tent with a long line of people with broken bones and open cuts. He followed Ito Rudra, the fourth son, and four other patrollers to go and bury the six people whom the adjucha had killed outright.
The job was simple enough. He had been handed a shovel and four stones to mark the corners, and told, "Dig until you can't see the surface of the ground when you stand upright."
Shunsui dug, using the shoulder he'd thought was beyond repair. For a long while he just reveled in the motion, the fluid strength of being able to push the wooden-bladed shovel into the rich earth with a foot, lift it with his arms and shoulders, and toss the dirt away. The physical labor itself occupied enough of his mind, at first, to shut out everything else.
Eventually his mind started to wander as his body worked. He replayed the confused shock of being hit and hitting the thing dead-on, and that feeling of possibly having fallen and died before he'd really gotten to do anything. He couldn't fault anything he'd done; but now he understood that there were things physically faster and stronger than him that were going to do their damnedest to kill him. That the Academy couldn't prepare him to do everything needed out in the rest of the world.
That was all right. Shunsui had known that for a while. Ever since his adventures in the bars of Rukongai, he'd known the world was wider and harsher than the Academy could ever entirely represent. He'd just have to get stronger and faster if he wanted to be even more effective against all the Hollows that wanted to kill every living soul. But...
Here he faltered. Jyuushiro had almost died. Shunsui had become entirely ineffective. If the Ito clan and Unohana hadn't been there, they'd have been dead meat. The Patrol had protected them as befitted students, but it was frustrating to come face-to-face with their own limitations, to see precisely what they lacked. They had impressive reiatsu for "not having shikai", but getting shikai, it seemed, wasn't just a matter of training. Especially if Unohana had got it in just one border patrol duty cycle. He wondered if she'd had to face one of the adjucha as well.
The adjucha's eyes haunted him as he dug even deeper. Its hunger was akin to that of the Hollows they'd faced up to this point, but it was intelligent in a way the others had not been. It had not stopped at eating to fill a void; it had destroyed the patrol member simply for the sake of the destruction itself. The killing intent had been human in origin. That bothered him. Real intent in a hollow, not just hunger, not just an unhealthy attachment to something or someone.
He dug and found half-frozen heavy clay mixed with sand under the dark top soil. It was harder going, and he heard soft grunts of effort on either side of him as the others hit the same layer.
It was odd not knowing people's names, to be unable to offer help or a word of encouragement. Cursing the hard ground felt utterly inappropriate for the final resting place of a human being. So he worked on in silence.
Figuring out the new technique for getting through the hardness occupied his mind again for a while. Pry here, push at a different angle, get leverage any way possible . . . and still there were those points where he just had to use brute force to push the edge of the shovel into the earth. Soon he was soaked in his own sweat. Remembering the lesson of layers of clothing from on the mountain, he shed two inner layers, but kept his coat. Then he felt someone's reiatsu flare. The others muttered in their holes, and two others, one right next to him, followed the lead of the first. He sighed, tired already: but, he thought, it might make it possible to get far enough down to decently cover the dead.
So Shunsui flared.
"What the hell?" came from the gravedigger who had flared on the one side of him. That man's flare went out, perhaps from the force of Shunsui's flare. There was just a gentle thud from the other side.
Shunsui pulled in his flare, and levered himself out of his hole to find the man in the hole next to him passed out. Rudra had climbed out of his hole as well. He shook his head. "Help me get him out of there? Maybe you should work next to me, Kyouraku-kun, and we'll do the extra digging."
Both of them jumped in, Shunsui had to be careful in the narrow slot of a pit to not land on the sprawled man. Rudra managed to take the man under his armpits. Shunsui wasn't quite sure what to do.
"Try grabbing him under the knees?" Rudra said quietly. "His legs should bend so you can get a grip. Let's flash step to about six feet south and up out of the hole."
Shunsui nodded, and tried very hard to synchronise his motion with the older man's.
"Good," Rudra said. "Not that many people can go up and move a specific distance, especially not as young as you guys are. Let's put him here, not by the dead. That would make too rude an awakening."
They gently set the unconscious man under the shade of a tree not too far from the graves, but on the opposite side from the still bodies of the dead. The faces had been covered, the bodies composed as best they were able, especially the ones that were in multiple pieces. Rudra held out his dirt-crusted hand. "I’m Ito Rudra. Sorry to meet you under these circumstances."
Shunsui took the hand in his own, as work-marked as Rudra's. "I'm Kyouraku Shunsui. Equally sad to meet you this way."
Rudra chuckled. "Well, there's more pain to be had. You're pretty strong for not even having shikai yet."
Shunsui just ducked his head at that, not quite sure how to answer.
Rudra shrugged. "You guys did good. Can you finish Suzuki's digging?"
"Yeah," Shunsui said, and jumped into the grave. He flared and, with the flood of power, he dug through the clay nearly as quickly and easily as the top soil. It was too easy. It left him the room to think again, to think about just how far he'd come from the quiet, perfectly clean mansion on the hill with servants at his every beck and call, to be here, digging in the dirt and snow, shivering and sweating with effort.
Shunsui dug, and when he couldn't see the surface of the ground, he tried to climb out -- with some difficulty, until he remembered to use a shunpo step. Then he simply found the next grave that was too shallow, and jumped in and started digging, oblivious to the stares from the rest of the grave digging troop, who were taking a water break.
He thought about the dead. The dead he'd seen today, the hollow dead who had been released, and the dead that left this world for what was called the living world.
This was Shunsui's living world. The only one he'd known. For all that he knew that all the souls would continue, that their existence on the passages between life to death and death to life was guaranteed, there was still loss. For each one had to go through that transition alone, never knowing if they'd see the others they'd known again, losing all their memories, knowledge, feelings, love, and power.
He'd never seen loss this close up, never seen Jyuushiro's blood fly like it had done on the claws of the Gillian, never actually seen living, breathing, eating, hating, loving people become ragged dolls of broken flesh. He'd never dug a grave for what was left after being broken.
And then it all caught up to him. This strange new world of his, the pain in it, the strangeness of it, of all these things he'd never touched before, never known. Battles to be fought for people he might well hate. Mourning people he'd never known. Death that had touched him so closely he'd felt the shock of it in his bones.
The quiet power at the back of Shunsui's soul growled quietly, and suddenly he was in the midst of a deep summer garden filled with blossoms. Two graves yawned at his feet, one fully dug, the other only halfway done, cut through the rich soil, roots matting all the first two feet of the topsoil.
A third grave crumbled just beyond them. It had been covered in earth but was half-collapsed, as if something or someone had escaped burial. The edges of the grave looked charred somehow, and oddly familiar to Shunsui. The crumbling half-grave lay right under a slender young sakura tree in bloom, utterly incongruous next to a garden of summer flowers. The air was warm, moist, hot, rich with the scent of flowers. It was a shocking contrast to the ice and cold he'd left.
A voice whispered against the nape of his neck, "So. You've finally come."
Shunsui shivered, "Where am I?"
"In my domain, your inner world, young one," rasped a voice now familiar to him.
Shunsui turned. A creature of bone and night, flower petals and wind stood before him, studying him as he studied it. "Who are you?"
It opened its mouth, and Shunsui strained to hear, but there was only silence. It shook its head impatiently, "You still can't hear."
"I'm trying," Shunsui said, with sudden sorrow weighing hard on his heart.
It nodded. 'Yeah, you are. Or you wouldn't have been able to come here. I guess these opened the way." It gestured at the graves. "Whom are you burying?"
"I don't know."
It threw its head back in that bone-rasping howl of laughter Shunsui had heard up on the cliff. "That would be fitting, young one. That would be fitting. That those whom you most care to protect are the ones you know the least about. Given those you know..." The zanpakutou spirit shook its head. "They're not the ones that need protecting, are they?"
Shunsui thought about Jyuushiro, his family, his friends, and slowly nodded. "Yeah."
"Well then." The spirit made a shooing gesture. "Go on. Get to it then."
Shunsui swallowed sudden tears. "You'll always be here?"
The figure cocked its head. "Yeah, brother. I've always been with you, I always will. You're not losing me." It cackled, "Even when you might want to."
"Which way is out?" The spirit pointed and Shunsui, not exactly knowing how or where it was he went, left...
... and ended up on his knees in the half-dug grave of someone he'd never known, crying his heart out.
"Uhm... uh... Ukitake-kun?"
Jyuushiro swiped at his sweating forehead with the heel of his hand, as he finished using his reiatsu to stimulate more healing in a slash that had cut right through the big muscle of a patrolman's upper arm. "What?"
"Your friend, the big guy with the brown hair. He's... uhm... "
The patrolman bowed stiffly in thanks. Jyuushiro bowed back and then looked over at the second hesitation. One of the bigger Ito brothers was standing in front of him, wringing a tenugui between dirt-crusted hands. "What is he doing?"
"Crying," the man said, frowning. "Not sure why. We broke for water and a rest, and he hopped out of his grave and went into the last one that needed finishing, and then we just heard him break down and... well... cry. Not unusual after a first battle, but.." The big hands wrung the rag until it squeaked in protest.
Jyuushiro sighed. "It's not his first battle, but I'm just about tapped out here. One more healing? And then..." Jyuushiro shook his head, "I'm sorry, you have the advantage of me. You are?"
"Rudra, Ito Rudra. And Kyouraku said you were Ukitake Jyuushiro. Are there really fourteen sons in your family?" Rudra asked, bemused.
Jyuushiro laughed. "No. My father has a strange sense of humor. I'm actually the first of his sons, but the fourteenth grandson for my grandfather. So..." He shrugged. "Thank you, Ito-san."
"No no... call me Rudra... -san if you must, but it makes it a lot less confusing. Might have been better if we were numbered."
"I imagine it might be traditional, but far more boring. Right, Rudra-san. Just this one, it should be quick," Jyuushiro said placidly.
The woman coming into the tent eyed Jyuushiro cautiously. But when she saw Rudra there, she relaxed minutely. She had small cuts, scrapes, and bruises, but held out her left hand with a bruised and swollen finger that looked as if it might be broken.
"What happened?" Jyuushiro asked.
"I was killing one of the small Hollows when another attacked. I swung around to deal with it, but didn't see Kanta comin' from that side. He slammed into me as he killed the Hollow and I felt something crunch... I think it's broken, sir."
Jyuushiro nodded, and sighed. "I only have enough energy left to help it heal a little faster, but we might want to bandage it to a neighboring finger, afterwards, to give it support for all your other duties."
She nodded, and held out her hand again for him to take.
Jyuushiro took the battered, bruised, and fight-calloused hand in his own. He closed his eyes and gathered up his reiatsu, just as he'd seen it gathered so often in the infirmary. Then he sent it into her hand, and heard her gasp. Her breathing quickened, and he could feel the flow of blood within her hand quickening as well.
A few minutes later, Jyuushiro was tapped out. He let his control relax and his reiatsu fade with a sigh.
"Oh my," said the woman. She flexed the finger, very gently. All the swelling had gone down, and she smiled in delight at the motion she now had.
"I managed to get the bone knitted back together, but it's still fragile," Jyuushiro said tiredly, fighting against putting his head down on the table and going to sleep right there.
"Thank you very much. It feels much better," she said.
"You're very welcome, but I'd feel better if we still put a supporting bandage on that." Jyuushiro rummaged around and found a thin strip of cloth. She gave him her hand and he wrapped the bandage around the injured finger and its longer neighbor, then fastened the end.
"Thank you." She gave him a bow that was angled to include the Rudra brother.
"You're very welcome," Jyuushiro said quietly. When she had exited the tent, he slumped in his seat.
"You gonna make it?" Rudra asked, sounding uncertain.
"Make what?" Jyuushiro was confused by the words and the tone.
"Uhm... make it to your friend? You look kinda worn out," Rudra said.
"Thank you for your concern." Jyuushiro smiled up at the bigger man. "I am rather tired, but I can certainly walk somewhere."
"You're not that sick then?" Rudra asked, "The guys that saw you coughing said you'd coughed up blood."
Jyuushiro stilled at the details. "I am... well, healed of the cause of my illness; but there was still damage done that cannot be... reversed."
"What?" Rudra asked, wrinkling his nose.
Jyuushiro's tired brain scrambled for a different explanation. "I'm not sick right now. I cough up blood because my lungs got hurt."
Rudra frowned. "No need for the kid-talk. I'm not stupid, I just... didn't understand how you could get cured and not be healed."
"Oh," Jyuushiro said, chagrined. "I'm sorry. Uhm... it just damaged a lot of my lungs, left scarring everywhere when the actual disease, the thing killing my lungs, was killed. So the damaged parts still slough off blood and tissue when I get tired or agitated."
"Mmm... thanks," Rudra said.
Jyuushiro washed his hands in the basin in the healing tent. The more extensively injured Kaoru had run out of steam earlier, and had had to be ordered to rest by Ito-sama. He was lying down, resting for the first time. While Jyuushiro should report to Kaoru that he was going elsewhere, there was no way he was going to bother him now. He put on the quilted coat he'd originally bought for the winter exercise, and pulled the hood up to cover his head. Then he nodded to Rudra to show him the way,
Rudra grinned, and they started walking.
The snow-covered, sparsely forested area they crossed was chill with the deep dark cold of mid-winter; the sky had already gone nearly dark with the early dying of the day, and torches flickered near black gashes in the earth. Faltering light gleamed on white cloths just covering the faces of the dead, at the bottom of each opening. All of them were filled with the dead, except for one.
It was filled with Shunsui, who was curled on himself. It seemed that he'd stopped crying, but it looked like no one had tried to approach him, as his reiatsu was unfurled in the cold air, like giant wings of despair. Jyuushiro hadn't felt his friend's power be this black, this alone, since the beating, and then it had not been this strong.
"Please stand back," Jyuushiro warned quietly.
Rudra looked surprised, then stepped back two paces.
Jyuushiro shrugged: he'd know soon enough. He tried to raise his reiatsu, but found himself so completely tapped out that there was nothing left to raise.
Rudra asked, "Are you trying to approach your friend?"
"Then why not just do it? He'll know it's you, won't he?"
Jyuushiro thought about it, and realized there was no reason why Shunsui's reiatsu should actively harm him. It would simply be hard to walk through if Shunsui chose to keep it up. He bowed his head to Rudra, and stepped forward into Shunsui's reiatsu. It was like walking into deep water, cold, icy, numbing him to his bones.
It didn't stop.
"Shunsui," Jyuushiro said. He had nothing left to pull on. His knees were starting to buckle, when suddenly the force of Shunsui's reiatsu dropped.
"Jyuushiro?" Shunsui asked, as if he'd suddenly woken up.
"Yes," he said, stepped forward, and stumbled. Rudra caught him before he pitched into the grave at his feet.
"Hey..." Shunsui hesitated and looked up at them from out of his hole. He wiped tears, sweat, and dirt from his eyes with his forearm. "What are you doing here?"
"Trying to reach you, Shunsui," Jyuushiro said quietly.
Shunsui frowned for a moment and then quirked a smile up at Jyuushiro. Jyuushiro found himself relaxing.
"Can we help you out?" Rudra called down over Jyuushiro's shoulder. "We need to put the body in before it freezes to the ground in the dark."
Shunsui shook his head. "Stand back just a minute. I have to finish first."
Jyuushiro moved back as quickly as he could, which was not nearly as fast as he wanted to move. When Shunsui's reiatsu slammed up again, it was Rudra's hand on Jyuushiro's elbow that pulled him back out of range. This time Shunsui's reiatsu was just as dark, but the edge of despair had worn off it: honed down to something no less hard, but no longer turned inward. Rudra pulled Jyuushiro back a few more yards to stand clear of the dirt that flew from the grave.
"He's relentless," Rudra breathed. "He frightened the other men, which is why they sent me for you."
Shunsui relentless? Jyuushiro thought, surprised. And then he remembered Shunsui on the hilltop, threatening Kaoru because this was happening. People had died during their wait, their inaction. Maybe even the one Shunsui was burying. Jyuushiro got a much better idea about why Shunsui was suddenly so driven.
Jyuushiro watched Shunsui dig. When the big man had reached the point that his head was beneath with the surface, he stopped. It didn't take very long. After a final shovelful and a sigh, Shunsui flash-stepped out of the hole, right to the lip of the grave. His body steamed in the cold air, sweat and heat pouring off him like mist off a mountain.
Jyuushiro shivered at the sight.
Shunsui walked towards them, dark eyes hooded. "Where's the body? And, Rudra-san, could you please tell me who it was?"
Rudra cocked his head a little and then nodded. They walked to the last of the crumpled forms. Only his face was covered with a ritual, white funeral cloth. The mangled body below had been rearranged by someone who had thoughtfully put the arms over the gaping chest, and straightened the legs before rigor mortis set in.
"This was Nakamura Shin, born to the clan one hundred years ago. He fathered five, fostered seven of us, and trained and worked with the Cloud patrol for the last thirty years. He loved a good rice stew, hated tiny dogs, took good care of his weapons, and was good and level-headed in a fight. He was one of our fighting healers, as their family is well-known for their healing abilities..."
Jyuushiro swallowed and interrupted. "He wasn't related to Nakamura Kiyoko, was he? She's one of the trainers at the Academy infirmary. She... we're good friends."
Rudra shrugged. "I don't know. Aki or Toro, his cousins might know. I knew he had family, but not all their names or occupations. I'm sorry."
Shunsui met Jyuushiro's gaze with a worried look of his own. It was going to be hard to carry back the news of a relative's death to the cheerful medic. Jyuushiro was glad when it was Shunsui that said, "We'll ask around, then. Thank you, Rudra-san."
Shunsui and Rudra bent to pick up the stiffened body. They set it on a sheet, which they used to lower it into the grave. Jyuushiro watched, and wondered how anyone could mistake a dead body for a sleeping one. Admittedly, this one was covered in wounds and blood, stiff and waxen, but it had no breath, had none of the warm flexibility of a sleeping person. The body was as far from a person as an empty-eyed doll.
It went into the grave.
Then all the remaining border patrol members appeared out of the darkness, in one whoosh of displaced air from all the shunpo or other means of arriving. There must have been some kind of signal or some kind of broadcast message, Jyuushiro thought, as all the dark bodies came together around the graves. Jyuushiro looked for Kaoru, and found both him and Unohana, both looking somewhat haggard, by one of the other men that had been helping in the healing tent. So they had brought along the outsiders.
Ito-sama stood a little uphill from the dark-clad gathering. "We are gathered to lay our dead to rest. Those who have honored our clan, our people by laying down their lives in defense of our ways, our people, and our lives. We thank them with our presence, as they move back to the warmth of the living world once again. Please join me in sending them on their way."
With that he came down to the graves, took a handful of the dirt so painfully removed from the cold hard earth, and cast it back into the hole, on top of the cold body lying there. Soon everyone came forward to follow his example.
Jyuushiro stood by Shunsui, and together they put their handfuls in. As soon as they let go of the dirt, their wrists were caught by Rudra, who had moved to stand between them.
"Father!" Rudra's voice rang across the gathering. "I wish to recognize two outsiders who have joined in this work, and defended us as well!"
"I want to recognize two, too!" Indra cried out from behind Kaoru and Unohana. Jyuushiro saw Kaoru wince at the shout.
"Who do you wish to acknowledge, son of tears?" Ito-sama asked, as if part of a recognized ritual. All faces turned towards Rudra, Jyuushiro, and Shunsui.
"I wish to acknowledge Kyouraku Shunsui and Ukitake Jyuushiro, Father," Rudra said firmly.
"And you, son of fire?" Ito-sama asked.
"I wanna acknowledge Unohana Retsu and Kuchiki Kaoru, Dad!" Indra yelled.
"Do we, of the wind clan of Shihouin, recognize these people for their efforts on our behalf?" Ito-sama asked.
"Aye!" The roar of affirmative sounded larger than it should have, coming from scarcely more than a dozen throats. Jyuushiro blushed at the force of it, as unexpected as it was.
And equally unexpected was the sudden flood of people greeting them, touching them, congratulating them, thanking them, and helping the two of them as first Shunsui and then Jyuushiro went back to the work of filling in the graves. Jyuushiro saw Shunsui's eyes grow bright as the Clan folks dropped their guardedness of the last few days, and took them into their circle.
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