Arc: Twin Souls
Beta: incandescens Without her this would not be possible.
Characters: Kyouraku, Ukitake, Unohana
Rating: PG-13 for language
Word Count: 4,493 words
Summary: The Boys have a rough bath and a hot dinner with the Shihouin border patrol, and learn a few things thereby.
A/N: Sorry about the long delay on the chapter.
Disclaimer: I do not own or make money off of Bleach. It's all fictional, really.
The bath was wholly unexpected. The Shihouin patrol set up an iron caldron next to the fire, and everyone brought a bucket of cold water from the river to it before taking a bucket of warm water out. The gravediggers went last, and as payment for their work were able to put a single bucket in and take two out as part of emptying the vessel.
Jyuushiro waited until the last moment. He had already partially cleaned up in order to work in the infirmary tent, and he only really had his hands to wash, as most of the blood had come off of him while in the great manta ray. For some reason, the goo he'd been covered with when he came out had just been absorbed. His hair needed some attention, but that was all. So, just before the gravediggers, he put in his bucket of cold, drew out a bucket of hot and waited for Shunsui.
Shunsui plodded from the river to the cauldron with his two buckets. He looked more wrung out than Jyuushiro had ever remembered seeing him. The two of them walked together along the river bank to where everyone else had taken their baths. A tent had been erected with flaps to north and south, in order to cut the west wind, with a fire built near the rough shelter and a bench that was nothing more than a log rolled from nearby. The tent was for the women: the men simply washed outside, in the lee of the tent.
Rough wooden boxes stood by the bench, filled with lye soap that was slick and cool in the cold winter air. There were also scrub brushes with soft bristles that Jyuushiro tried against his skin and found to be pleasantly scratchy. Two other men were already there, and another approached bearing his buckets.
Shunsui stripped down, grabbed a brush, and walked into the river with a gasp. Jyuushiro knew he couldn't give his lungs that sort of shock, but he didn't have as much to scrub off, either. He watched Shunsui roughly scrub his head and dark hair, his hands and arms, and then his legs. He got the worst of the encrusted dirt off his body. When he came out, Jyuushiro had both of his hands already lathered up. Shunsui sat on the bench as close to the fire as he could get. Jyuushiro stroked soap onto Shunsui's short, curling dark hair, his strong shoulders, broad back, sides, and ass.
Jyuushiro heard Shunsui's teeth rattle even as Shunsui dipped hands into the soap and scrubbed down his flattened belly, his cold tightened sex, and his long legs.
The moment Jyuushiro was finished with Shunsui's back, he grabbed his bucket of hot water and a ladle. He poured over Shunsui's head to a long, slow sigh by the big man as the warmth ran all over him. Shunsui's hands went up to rub the soap from his hair, and Jyuushiro followed them with the stream of water, Shunsui's face and then throat, neck, and shoulders. Each careful ladleful rinsed a large area, and when Shunsui picked up a towel to dry off, they had only used a bucket and a half of their three.
Jyuushiro said, "My hair."
Shunsui dropped his sleeves and the top half of his kimono to help Jyuushiro wash out his hair. Jyuushiro bared the top half of his body as well, to keep the water off his clothing. The cold bit deep. Jyuushiro's eyes closed as strong hands worked water and soap in, and he used his own hands to rinse all the slickness out as the warm water poured over his head like a blessing.
There was a splash and a single cut-off curse word from another man. One of the grave-diggers had spilled one of his buckets. Wordlessly, the two of them went over and gave him the remainder of their hot water. He gave them a thankful bow and went back to his cleansing.
They left their empty buckets lined up by the tent, and went back to the main camp and the fires. The cook pots smelled wonderful, and people were beginning to line up with their rice bowls. They went to their tent, and found Kaoru napping in on his bedroll.
Jyuushiro dropped to one knee by the noble. Kaoru wordlessly opened his eyes.
"It's dinner time," Jyuushiro said quietly.
Kaoru nodded and quietly arose and joined the other two in searching through their gear for their bowls, cups, and chopsticks. Then all three headed to the fires. They were immediately surrounded by friendly patrol members.
Jyuushiro smiled as the big patrolman whose arm he'd healed came over to clap him on the back.
"Hey, student, thanks for the help earlier. Woulda taken me weeks to get this much use back on my own." The guy grabbed Jyuushiro by the waist and lifted.
"Oh!" Jyuushiro said, surprised. "You shouldn't put this much strain on it, sir. It's not that solid yet..."
"Nonsense," scoffed the big man, but he put Jyuushiro down gently enough as both Kaoru and Shunsui gave him their attention as well. "You do good work, little guy."
"Thank you," Jyuushiro said as he tugged his robes straight.
Shunsui chuckled, and then suddenly stilled.
Unohana-senpai came towards them, her slender hands folded about her bowl, her black hair in braids down her back.
Jyuushiro poked Shunsui in the ribs, and murmured, "What, you're not falling for her, are you?"
Shunsui blushed. Jyuushiro rolled his eyes, even as Kaoru snorted. Then Shunsui caroled, "Unohana-senpai, will you please grace us with your beautiful presence in this line?"
She looked up and smiled. Jyuushiro saw the smile hit Shunsui hard enough to make him rock. She walked toward them and looked uncertainly at the big patrolman behind them. "Won't this upset the people you're in front of?"
"No way, ma'am," said the big patrolman. "You saved so many of us, you could probably just go to the front of the line if you wanted." There were sounds of approval from all around them.
Unohana-senpai blushed. Jyuushiro peered curiously at Shunsui, and saw that he only had eyes for her.
"Well, it seems that you're entirely welcome, Unohana-senpai," Jyuushiro said comfortably, and made room between him and Shunsui. He saw Shunsui's eyes flick towards him in uncertainty and then towards Unohana-senpai. Jyuushiro grinned, amused at discomforting Shunsui. Shunsui looked startled, but then he nodded and made more room from his side.
She nodded graciously and stepped into line between them. "How are you both doing?" she asked.
"Quite well," Jyuushiro answered. "Your released zanpakutou is amazingly good at healing wounds I never even knew could be healed."
"I agree," Kaoru said from over Jyuushiro's shoulder. "I was certain my first command would all be sent home rolled in straw matting. I appreciate your gifts."
Unohana-senpai bowed to Kaoru, "I am glad I could be of assistance, Kuchiki-san."
They reached the head of the line. The cooks for the evening served rice, fish, boiled spinach, and fire-roasted kobocha through the simple expediency of dumping some of each into each solder's bowl.
Shunsui said, "It's quite a lot more variety than Daisuke-san had up in the mountains."
Kaoru nodded, and Unohana-senpai's stomach growled. She looked mortified, but Shunsui grinned. "Given how much work you did, no wonder you're hungry."
She nodded in acknowledgement. The four of them looked around for a place to sit. Ito Indra waved them over to a fire. There were tatami mats set out on the ground, and everyone settled on them with a sigh. Shunsui sat down with a groan between Unohana-senpai and Jyuushiro. Kaoru settled himself slowly on the other side of Jyuushiro.
"Sore?" Ito-sama asked.
All four Academy students nodded.
Indra laughed. "You're not the only ones!"
"Have you met everyone?" Ito-sama ignored his youngest with what looked like plenty of practice.
"I do not believe we have had the pleasure of exchanging names," Kaoru said quietly, bowing shallowly, one high clan heir to a lord. "I am Kuchiki Kaoru."
"Kyouraku Shunsui." Shunsui bowed nearly as slightly as Kaoru.
"Unohana Retsu," said Unohana-senpai, with the bow of a woman to men.
"Ukitake Jyuushiro." Jyuushiro bowed as well, low as appropriate for a lower family member to high clansmen.
Of the five sons, there was one with a medium build and white already in his hair. He bowed. "My name is Ito Daichi, and I am the eldest: more a farmer than a fighter, but I fight as needed."
A slender son, tall and quiet, bowed next. Jyuushiro recognized him as the one that had gagged Indra in Yamamoto's classroom. "Ito Eiji at your service. I'm glad you've fought with us now, and we know you better."
Soma laughed, and got up with a few bottles of something he probably shouldn't have had, and grinned as Shunsui's face lighted in recognition. "Tch. Formalities. Here, Kyouraku-kun, I think you'll like this." At an annoyed grunt from his father, Soma sighed. "Oh, all right. Ito Soma. Third Son. After granddad went on, Mom got a hankering for other names and other ways, so I'm the drunk one."
He nearly fell on top of Jyuushiro in order to sit by Shunsui, and Jyuushiro shook his head and laughed as he moved to the side.
Shunsui looked mournfully at his bowl full of food. "I guess we'll have to wait until after we eat..."
Soma laughed and produced two cups between his fingers as if by magic. "Oh, look what I found!"
"Can you teach me that?" Shunsui asked, fascinated, and settled at the laugh and the nod from Soma.
Rudra-san stood up next, solid, big, and darker than any of his other brothers. "I am the fourth son, Ito Rudra. At your service," he said with a generous bow, smooth and slow. Kaoru actually nodded back.
Up jumped the smallest, skinniest, and youngest of the brothers. "I'm Indra." He plopped back down again, jumped up and said, "I'm hungry, can we eat?"
Everyone chorused, "Itadakimasu!"
Then there was a very long moment of silence, with nothing but the sound and sighs of hungers being fed after the difficult work of the day.
It was very good.
Jyuushiro sighed as he finished his bowl, and looked mournfully at the bottom. Shunsui peered around Soma, and started to raise his own towards Jyuushiro, but Rudra chuckled and offered, "You can go back for seconds, Ukitake-kun, if you have need."
Jyuushiro blushed. "I..."
Kaoru interrupted, "Go. I do not wish for you to cough tonight. It will keep me awake."
Jyuushiro nodded at the kindness hidden in the abruptness of Kaoru's words, and left the warm circle for the coolness of the night. There was a rattle of rock and a stumble of footsteps and suddenly slender lithe Indra was by his side. "I'm gettin' more too, Shiro-san, can I come with you?"
Jyuushiro was taken aback by Indra's familiarity, but he seemed friendly. "Certainly."
They walked over to the cook fires in silence, and found the cooks eating as well.
"Help yerself," said the red-faced cook. "Don't want leftovers."
Jyuushiro held the hot lids, using folded cloths, while Indra scooped up rice and food into both their bowls.
"You burned a lot today?" asked Indra.
Jyuushiro simply nodded.
"I did, too."
"Indeed. You were very much a brilliant flame on the field today, Indra-san."
Indra laughed and laughed. "Dad calls me the gnat. I'm everywhere, annoying, and I can't seem to hit worth a darn compared my brothers. But they pay more attention to me just 'cause I'm obvious and there."
"It seems a useful tactic."
"You're the gnat of your group, aren’t you?" Indra asked, all innocence. "You're obvious, with that white hair and illness. Everyone pays attention to you. Those other two seem to follow your lead."
Jyuushiro was taken aback. "I'm... I don't know. Wouldn't Kuchiki-san's..."
"Arrogance? Maybe he is the official and officious leader; but folks just get annoyed by him, and while he's got the title, he really follows you. And folks aren't made off-balance by him the way they are by you."
"Off-balance?" Jyuushiro asked.
"Yeah, everyone expects you to be the weakest, yet you're the one that burnt the most power on the field, you hit the fastest, and took the worst hit of anyone that lived."
Jyuushiro shook his head. "That was just faulty judgment..."
"No," Indra said quietly. "You decided the bunchy thing was more important than the Gillian. I saw. You decided that getting hit by big, tall, and clumsy would be all right if you could just get a good hit into the fast one. You were right, too. You're the main reason why Dad got it good, and why he was uninjured enough to help finish off the rest."
Jyuushiro walked on in silence, thinking through the reasons for his decisions, but his silence didn't seem to deter Indra.
"You know, the princess wants to give officer sponsorships to certain students at the Academy, she's just about got her Dad convinced, too." Indra laughed. "If I didn't know my zanpakutou's name already, I'd probably go, but I don't need any lessons on that. But you... you're just the kinda guy she'd want to encourage."
"I am?" Jyuushiro said, hiding his smile. So, Yoruichi-chan was likely to get her way. That was good to know.
Indra ran on, "Yeah. I'm pretty sure you could have one if you told them that you wanted one."
"What do I have to do for it?"
"I dunno. I think it'd give you an officer's spot in the Shihouin forces, as soon as you're outta the Academy. Maybe there would even some work and pay when you're off on breaks. You'll have to talk with Dad about that, I think... or... uhm... nah, the princess wouldn't know what to do. Maybe... eh, I’m bad with this business stuff, but I think you got it sewn up if you want it."
"Thank you, Indra," Jyuushiro said quietly. "I'll have to figure that out. The money would be very useful for my family in any case."
When they got back to the fire, Soma and Shunsui were swapping drinking stories.
"You've seen gold elephants? Well, I've seen blue cranes!"
"There are actual blue cranes, idiot."
"Oh? And here I thought it was a hallucination! Are there pigs that let people ride them? I saw those one night. A whole herd of them!" Shunsui sounded like a little kid, and Jyuushiro had to smile.
He and Indra sat down by Kaoru and started eating again as they listened to the banter.
"I've drunk three guys under the table and ended up in a rain barrel."
"Yeah? And I won a contest at the Blushing Bull against 20 other comers!"
"Well, I did mine one at a time..."
"That sounds like fun. You'll have to go there with me sometime, I bet we could drink everyone under the table."
"Yeah! I bet we could at that."
"The odds would be pretty good, when they don't know you that well."
"Do you get into the city that often?" Jyuushiro asked Indra quietly as the other two went on.
It was Rudra that answered the question. "No. We don't. Trying to find you," Rudra said, glancing at Kaoru, whose head lowered a little in acknowledgement, "was the first time we'd been in town for decades. We didn't like knowing little sister was there and unprotected. It'll be good if you offer marriage to her, Kuchiki-kun."
"Hey, yeah!" Soma boomed. "When are ya gonna make that official?"
Kaoru paused to think.
"Better sooner than later," Ito-sama said quietly. "Then you can pull her out of that damned foolish school. No place for a woman."
Jyuushiro stilled, and felt the sudden ice from Kaoru and Shunsui, and... he was startled to note that Unohana had that same sudden wariness that his teammates did.
"Why would you say that, Ito-sama?" Unohana-senpai asked, all sweetness and polite curiosity.
The five Ito boys and their sire all suddenly stilled as well.
"Well, it's different for a healer," Daichi offered. "You're there to learn a womanly art, to comfort the dying and heal the wounded. You did a wonderful job out there today, and if Kali showed any inclination to such a seemly practice, I don't think we'd have the objections we have today."
"So it is entirely womanly to run onto a battlefield and wrestle a broken, bleeding, screaming warrior from under the claws of an adjuncha, but not womanly to stick a zanpakutou into said adjuncha in order for it to never harm another mother's child again?" The lilting voice was such a brutal contrast to the contents of the words that Jyuushiro caught his breath.
Daichi's jaw dropped.
"Kuchiki-san, I beg of you, on the favor of the lives of your men." Unohana-senpai gracefully dropped to her knees before Kaoru. "If you give Ito-chan your promise, please allow her to finish at the Academy and find her place in the ranks of those who would protect all of Soul Society. It would be an injustice to her, if she were made to limit her strengths."
Now it was Kaoru's turn to look hunted, though, to his credit, he only clenched his jaw to what looked like a breaking point instead of dropping his mouth wide open. Jyuushiro had only the merest idea of what kind of pressure the Kuchiki clan would bring to bear on their heir at the idea of his wife-to-be putting her life on the line when her duty would be to bear the next heir, but the amount of pressure Kaoru was now exerting on his jaw indicated that it may well be a great deal indeed.
Jyuushiro put all his trust and faith in Kaoru into his reiatsu, and extended it gently, only to find that Shunsui had done the same, as they both brushed against their leader's presence.
Kaoru took a breath at their reiatsu's touch, and then said, clearly and concisely, "On the lives of my men, I do so promise."
Ito-sama took a slow breath. "Everyone witnesses the promise of the heir of Kuchiki?"
There were soft ayes from around the fire.
Ito-sama laughed softly and shook his head. "And they call us Tenshi Heisouban*. You children..."
It was Shunsui who barked a laugh in reply "No, not we poor students. Just Unohana-senpai. Now I know why I'm so in love with her."
Jyuushiro blinked at the blatant declaration on Shunsui's part, and saw Unohana-senpai blush.
"You backed her," Ito-sama said. The threat underlying his voice wound Jyuushiro's tension even tighter.
"As good nakama should." Shunsui was completely unrepentant.
Ito-sama threw his head back in laughter, and his sons and his retainers all relaxed. Jyuushiro let out a breath he hadn't quite known he was holding, and coughed softly. Shunsui flicked him a questioning look, and he simply shook his head. With the threat dying down, the agitation wouldn't affect his breathing further
"Then I must regretfully inform Kuchiki-kun that if he were to make a declaration of intent to marry my daughter, it would be refused on account of their youth. But we note that he has declared his honorable intent to do so."
Jyuushiro frowned, still puzzled by one aspect of this whole exchange. "Ito-sama, why don't you just tell Kali-san she cannot stay at the Academy if your family objects so much?"
Kaoru touched Jyuushiro gently on the shoulder. "Because the Shihouin support Yamamoto-Genryuusai-sama in his endeavors, it is a political necessity. I, as the Kuchiki heir, support him as well. For all that there may be traditional objections to Kali going to school there, there are certain balances of power that must be maintained."
Indra had flinched a little at Kaoru's familiar use of Kali's name. Looking directly at Kaoru, he asked uncomfortably, "You're in love with her, right?"
Kaoru nodded. "Very much so."
Indra let out a sigh. "And you're going to do right by her, aren't you?"
"As well as I can."
Soma grinned. "That's good enough for me, little brother."
Indra looked at Soma, and then smiled and nodded back at Kaoru. "All right then."
Kaoru nodded quietly in acknowledgement. Indra went back to finishing his dinner.
There was a long moment's awkward silence, and then conversations began again around the fire, first between the retainers, and then gradually back among the Ito family. Eiji and Rudra quietly talked over what had happened with the Gillian and adjucha. Shunsui and Soma cheerfully teased Unohana-senpai, and she, just as cheerfully but rather more soberly, fended off their attempts.
Jyuushiro settled with a sigh and returned to the cooling contents of his dinner bowl. Behind him, he heard Shunsui ask, incredulously, "You were drunk when you figured out your shikai?"
Shunsui was having a hard time with his conversation. Caught between gut-wrenchingly powerful drink on one hand and a lovely long-haired woman on the other, he was feeling more and more left behind by both of them as their conversation turned towards shikai.
"Well, yeah, I was drunk when I finally heard his name," Soma said. "But I don't think you have to be plastered and trying to stop bandits from robbing a merchant's train to find your own. I know for damn sure Daichi and Eiji weren't, as I don't think they've been drunk ever."
Daichi snorted. "I have been drunk, just not out of my mind drunk. And you are right, I found mine in the middle of a downpour on a flooded field, certainly not when inebriated. And you, Unohana-san, you said you only found yours on your last patrol, how did that happen?"
Unohana wrapped slender fingers about her bowl, which was now filled with hot water and tea. "It's all a whirl of things all mixed together for me. The Hatsuzora fought an adjucha as well on that round, and they were losing badly. I was on the field, pulling in the wounded as I was able, when she started shooting barbs into people and controlling them by them as if they were puppets. She turned the patrol members on their own people."
Shunsui leaned close, catching a breath of her scent as he asked, "How did you fight that, senpai?"
"She was cruel: she clearly wanted the anguish of clan member against clan member, and since I was the outsider, no one attacked me. Thus I was left free to strike directly at her. I was not able to finish her off with my first strike using only my own strength, but I caught her attention with it." Unohana gave a soft laugh. "When I was able to deflect her barbs using Ryuu-sama's teachings, she sent the nearest clan members after me, and I got... hit a few times. The last was a strike by my heart, and I fell..."
"You fell?" Shunsui suddenly had to close his eyes, at the thought of her dying that way.
Unohana nodded. "Yes. Fell... into... another place, it wasn't exactly safe or warm... but it was right. And I was frantic for help, for something, anything to use against that monster, to save all those other people, even if it meant my death or my ending. In answer to my... wish... I believe... she came to me, and I heard her offer her name to me. I took it." Her hand crept to her zanpakutou, and wrapped around the hilt as if for comfort.
Soma nodded. "Yeah, the bandits cut me up pretty badly. I thought I was a goner myself, when I dropped into... somewhere else, green and growing with dancing girls and monkeys and a laughing god whirled up to me and offered me a drink that glowed with golden light. And when I sipped..."
"Monkeys!" Daichi shook his head at Soma's story. "That is a colorful as you are, brother. The world my zanpakutou dropped me into was dark and warm, a cave deep in the heart of the earth." Daichi hesitated and then frowned. "There was a huge flood stone trapping the leg of a child. I dove repeatedly to try and free her in the midst of the storm and flood, when hollows attacked both of us."
"So they were all... only when you were doing something that was going to kill you?" Shunsui asked, brow furrowing.
Unohana shook her head. "That wasn't the foremost thought in my mind. I didn't mind dying at that point. It was the others dying that I hated." The strength of that word sounded odd coming from that soft mouth, that mild expression, but it riveted Shunsui's attention.
"I couldn't die there. Not and leave them all to die. But there was nothing more I could do on my own. I begged and pleaded and offered my life. That's when Minazuki said her name as she swallowed my heart. She healed it, and then the two of us hurt the adjucha enough to chase it off, before doing our best to rescue those we could reach."
"Heh, I knew we were better fighters than the Hatsuzora," Indra said with relish. "They got their butts..."
Daichi whacked Indra over the head. "Idiot."
"I was sad to have lost so many." Unohana's quiet words made Indra wince more than the crack on the head. "But I had to do what I could with what I was given."
Soma nodded. "Yeah. I couldn't die there and then, not when I had another power at my hand to use."
Shunsui listened, fascinated. "How... how did you take that power?"
All four of them just looked at him, puzzled. Indra, Daichi, Unohana, and Soma all had exactly the same expression on their faces.
Finally it was Unohana who said, "I don't know. I just heard her name."
The others nodded as well.
"I supposed that you will know when it happens to you," Unohana added, as if that were any help.
"But I met my zanpakutou's spirit, when I was in that man's grave. But he didn't say anything," Shunsui said, his hands tightening into fists.
"Maybe you didn't need to hear it, yet," Soma said. "It's interesting that yours showed up after the fight, not during. Here. Have another drink."
"Oh, I heard him during, too, but..." Shunsui shook his head, and then took another gulp of the harsh liquid. "He said that I wasn't drunk enough."
Soma gave a shout of laughter. "Well. I can fix that."
"He also said I should have listened." Shunsui sighed. "I'm not sure you can fix that."
"At least I can help make it so you don't care."
Shunsui shook his head, and chuckled. "I guess that will have to do, for now. I guess that will have to do."
* Means: "The House of Godly Gears"
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