Arc: Tea with Tenpou
Fandoms: Bleach, Saiyuki
Characters: Tenpou, Byakuya
Word Count: 4024
Warnings: A little fighty, a little implied nakedness. But for the bath this would probably be G like the first.
Summery: After Hakkai dies, Tenpou wants his tea, and he wanders into the Bleach universe to find it.
Beta: mysocalledhell, thanks!!
Disclaimers: I do not own nor make money off Bleach or Saiyuki.
A/N: This is a follow on to In the Autumn Woods, because the guys never got their tea that time. 2metaldog gave me the prompt for the first, so this is for her, and I've borrowed some of her Beautifully Broken Evolution history as the back story for this, with her permission. Plus, I also borrowed her habit of writing in the first person. I haven't done that very often. Tell me if it worked?
When I died it was a spectacularly uneventful death, especially given all that I had gone through to get there.
At eighty-eight years of life, after lunch and a game of mah-jong with the other three who had traveled with me for so long, I died while taking my afternoon nap.
A matron who had known us the last two decades said, "Cho Hakkai must have had really good karma to go that way."
Gojyo splattered her thoroughly with beer, because he was drinking when she said it.
That was worth staying to see.
It was also worth seeing the funeral, as the three of them burnt paper offerings; and, perhaps by habit or perhaps because they remembered our past lives, they offered up all my travel gear. I thanked the Merciful Goddess when Hakuryuu stole a pack of cigarettes each from Sanzo and Gojyo and threw them on the fire as well. He had always remembered.
There were two different strands tugging on my soul. One I remembered from the other times, the links that pulled me back to the Emperor's Heaven, crystalline and singing pure. The other was less familiar. I rolled up my left sleeve to find script characters twining down my now smooth and strong arm. The script ended in a thin line that pulled me to the East.
Script calligraphy has very strict rules as to how the characters should be written. Whomever had written it had bent those rules with interesting results.
On the surface it read: "Invitation to chakai with Kuchiki Byakuya Taichou, at his convenience. Give this person entrance."
But the word 'invitation' had nuances of "requested" that suggested "feelings" on silk with an asking mouth that might have also implied asking divinations of ancestors. The word chakai had the tea character twisted towards many plants and flowers more than just the tea itself. The character "taichou" was written with the older formal character including the forms for a high table and death: that intrigued me. Finally, the gate of the word "entrance" flowed into an open mouth which could also suggest a polite request.
Seeing that script, I remembered autumn leaves falling in the forest and the slender man whose immense power made breathing a labor.
Tea. He had promised me tea. I could take the time, this time. Their lives were not at stake, and I didn't think the notoriously slow Will of Heaven would care about one freed soul if I kept my head down.
I pushed back my shaggy dark hair, adjusted my glasses on my nose, settled the pack on my back, lit a smoke from my funeral pyre, and followed the strand twisting away to the East.
I stepped into a harsh early spring. The air held the first traces of the heady scent of sakura. The other trees were still nothing but black branches against the sky. I recognized the oak from last time, this time as bare as its brethren, with buds beginning to grow on branch tips. Snow lay in shadows, and the wind was still bitter with cold.
This was much better than the endless, unchanging perfection of the Emperor's Heaven I thought, as I stubbed out my smoke in a snow bank and tucked the butt in a pocket. I shivered though, dug the heavy-duty tunic from my pack, and took off my lab coat to put the tunic on underneath.
That's when I discovered the katana in my belt, its plainly wrapped hilt as hauntingly familiar as...
Tenpou, it is good to be in your hands again.
I closed my eyes at her tone, old pain flared to joy for an instant before burning down to understanding. Kanaan, I thought I'd lost you forever.
The laughter was rich, heartfelt. Never, Field Marshal, I will always be yours. You simply misplaced me for a bit. Rage flooded through me, and memories of castle steps running with still-hot blood. Now, whom shall we kill?
Was a thousand souls not enough for you, sweet?
Ha. That was a good workout, Tenpou. The tower stairs in Heaven were better.
That was when I heard someone running across the dead leaves of the forest. They were foundering, gasping for breath, and I was surprised to feel their fear as they approached. I narrowed my eyes, and stayed behind a tree as I looked around to assess what was happening.
It was a girl, dark-haired and dark-eyed, dressed in traditional Islands of the Rising Sun robes, a white under-robe with wide red pants, now ripped and ragged at the knees and hem. Blood fell from a slash on her face, a burn on her back, a cut through her arm. She was carrying a sword in a sheath at her sash, and she had her one good hand on it as she ran, keeping it from tangling with her legs and feet.
A stench flooded in, or that's how I took it at first and then realized that it was an amalgam of emotions: hunger, lust, self-hatred, and a deep-seated pain of loss that ate away at my composure like acid. Trees snapped like matchsticks as bone-white mandibles scythed their way through them. The spread of just the legs we could see was larger than that of a house.
That looks tasty, Kanaan murmured.
I automatically fingered the rim of my ear and was amused to find the limiters there, all three of them. I wondered if Hakkai's youkai nature was now a part of my soul, we'd lived long enough with it.
The shadow that fell upon us swallowed half the sky. I let the girl run past me. She didn't even notice me in the shadows of the trees. I assessed the various joints that were suddenly offered. I noted the mask of bone up on that head with silk-soft blond hair behind it.
I drew my sword and said, "Kanaan, scream."
The sword screamed a siren call of hatred and blazed arterial blood-red.
The monster before me halted. The girl collapsed behind me, like a puppet whose strings had been cut.
I leapt: up the ankle, back of the calf, to the knee. A huge beam of a leg swiped at us. I laughed and swung, and the leg parted from its host. It screamed, a huge sound, and wind that blew back my hair, making it all the easier to see our ultimate target. But suddenly the black mouth fired chittering insects at me.
I swung Kanaan at them, and the bug parted neatly, but then exploded so hard that it threw us out of the air even as more blasts burned clothing and stung skin.
I tumbled, was hit by another beam of a leg. In mid-flight towards another tree-thick limb, I brought my chi shield up. The barrier cushioned the next blow so that I didn't go flying like a ping pong ball, instead we dropped directly to the earth. More of the insects splattered against the barrier before exploding again. The barrier kept the blasts away from us; but it would be harder for me to do something offensive...
Ha. she said, a quick reminder that I wasn't just Cho Hakkai anymore.
I threw Kanaan at the mask with all my considerable strength. Exploding insects converged on the blazing comet she made.
I leaped after her, more easily dodging the things when they were intent on her; and even as the explosions knocked her from her path, I arrived at the mask. I took the ball of chi I held in my hands and slapped it against the cold bone. The blast cracked it as if it were no more than a crust for one of Goku's favorite pies.
The mask fell away, and I was startled to find the face of a beautiful woman underneath, blond hair floating in a ghost breeze about her agonized features. Then a cold blast of sakura scented air swirled about us both and Kuchiki Byakuya appeared.
"Idiot, you need your zanpakutou to cleanse her," was all the greeting he gave.
He drew his sword and startled me by laying the butt of it against the woman's forehead. She sighed and her immense body crumbled to dust. We both landed on our feet on the soft forest floor.
He snapped, "That is taught even in First Year. Why did you throw it away?"
That was when he actually turned to see me, and he instantly moved to ready stance against me.
I dove for Kanaan, and rolled up into a ready stance as well.
Obviously he didn't recognize me; but he shifted, moving his front shoulder forward, the angle of blade just a hand-span back, and his back foot moved four inches to the front. It was a faster attack angle and if he believed he could hit me from there with a four inch change, his distance would be impressive.
I shifted my weight forward, and dropped my blade to my right side. That made it easier for me to move back at the first swing if need be; but also gave me the distance to better judge the power of his attack. Clearing my line of sight might allow me a stop hit before he finished a traditional swing.
If that failed then I'd have the room to dodge the first attack, and that should clear the way for another two-stroke exchange that would allow me to learn more of his abilities. From there the tree branches of possibilities unfurled in my mind to the sixth and even seventh move, but a good deal of it was fuzzy from not knowing his exact abilities. He wouldn't have the same problem with me, after having seen me attack the monster.
His eyes narrowed. Intriguing. He looked too young to have such tactical depth, but then, I suddenly realized, so did I.
I smiled and took two full steps back. I sheathed Kanaan and moved her to my right side. She grumbled in the back of my head, but it wasn't as if I couldn't draw her even from the off side with the time the extra distance between us bought me. I showed him the arm that was covered in script.
"I believe that I was invited, Kuchiki-taichou," I said politely.
He frowned, eyes still narrowed. "What are you? You are no shinigami, but you have power."
"I told you before that I was not human, Captain."
"Please look at my arm. I'm unarmed."
"Lace your hands together before you."
"Only if you sheath your blade."
An eyebrow rose. "You presume with your tone of address."
I sighed. "I am from the Central Lands, not a native speaker of your tongue. I meant no disrespect."
Kanaan giggled in the back of my head, You simply do not give him the respect he thinks he deserves.
He slowly sheathed his blade.
I laced my fingers together and held my hands out before me.
Kuchiki Byakuya came forward, without any of the caution I expected. He came in close, frowned and then, without any warning, put his guard-covered hands on me, and moved my arm so that he could see his writing on my skin more clearly.
His hands were warm.
"Are you cold, Cho Hakkai?" he asked, even as he continued to study my skin.
"Yes. But, I'm not entirely sure that name is appropriate anymore."
"Oh? Have you remembered previous lives?"
"Mmm... somewhat, but mostly my time as the previous Field Marshal of Heaven," I said softly.
He dropped my arm abruptly at that. "That is why you have already achieved shikai."
"I... what?" I asked and then shook my head as he opened his mouth to answer. "It doesn't really matter. I've resigned the post with a vengeance. No need to stand on formalities, Captain. I really am just here for the tea."
I admired the fact that he took a moment to absorb that, but readily did.
Then he asked, "What shall I call you?"
I thought a moment. The post was gone. I had no reason to even put on a mask of being pure anymore, what Hakkai had represented was no longer needed. Gonou was long dead, the Cho family not really a connection to anything I could now lose. "Please call me Tenpou. It will do for now."
That eyebrow went up again. "Tenpou, I am pleased to meet you, and with a name like that I am sure you will excuse me to take care of my subordinate before we make our tea."
"Certainly. May I help?"
He chuckled. "Can you see this?"
In a burst of chi, he appeared five yards to my right. I studied the energy signature of that trick. Then I nodded, concentrated on what I'd seen, shaped my chi, and let it go.
I stood next to my clothing and pack.
He nodded as he scooped up the girl. "Follow as you can. I do not expect you to keep up with me."
I had to laugh at that, as I pushed the heavy tunic back into the bag and slipped on my lab coat before the pack.
"No," I said softly, "you wouldn't."
I kept up.
We appeared in a complex of compounds, with people everywhere: people that shot us surprised looks as we flashed through them, people that suddenly tasted of ice or snow, rain or sea, moonlight or blazing sun, fire and black iron. I was breathless with this new sense by the time we stopped at the building with the number four in a placard over the doorway.
"Do you feel everyone's powers, too?" I asked, drinking in this new facility to read people's souls along with a general indicator of their feelings.
"Of course," he said shortly, paused before the doorway.
I opened the door for him and his burden. The woman at the desk shouted for orderlies, and soon there was the familiar rush of people at an infirmary. The odd thing was that all of them stopped just eight feet from us. Byakuya huffed an impatient breath, put the girl on a stretcher, and then not only backed up but pulled me with him. As soon as we were some distance from the stretcher, everyone crowded in to help her.
It took me a moment, but then I remembered how hard Hakkai had found it to simply breathe in this man's presence. His power must be evident to everyone that was here; interesting. Mine as well, I guessed, since he had pulled me back.
"What do I feel like to you?" I murmured under the noise of all the activity.
"The stench of old blood and countless battles, each edged with loss, but redeemed by a purer purpose."
I blinked. "How can someone feel that way?"
He shrugged. "I do not know. You simply do."
He watched quietly as they wheeled his subordinate away, and a woman with long hair braided before her came up and said, "She is not badly hurt, taichou. She should be ready for duty within a day or two."
"Thank you." The nobleman bowed, and the woman bowed back. Her chi felt calm, as restful as the shade under a tree.
She looked kindly at me. "Thank you, for the girl you saved told me that you'd rescued her from the Hollow. We are in your debt..."
She bowed and I, awkwardly caught between my old irony about such things and Hakkai's reflexes, bowed back. "It was an interesting fight," I said quietly. "I was glad for the Captain's assistance in the battle."
Her eyes widened a moment and then she laughed. "I am glad to have helped."
I was taken aback. "Oh. I meant him..." I glanced in the direction of Byakuya, and then considered the woman. "Fascinating, you are a Captain as well?"
She didn't roll her eyes at me, she was far too well-mannered. "Indeed. You do not have female Captains where you come from? I hear that that is common in many parts of the world."
"No, I haven't met many female Captains, only goddesses that are far, far more powerful than I'd ever fear to be."
Her eyebrow moved up fractionally, and then she simply nodded and bowed to me. I bowed back again and she turned back to her infirmary.
Kuchiki tilted his head and surprised me by saying, "You did well."
Together we turned back along the path we'd blinked along so quickly before. The infirmary was within a white city with walls, buildings to all sides, and as we traveled out of the city there larger houses on even greater amounts of land until we were walking through the spring-scented woods along side a meandering stream with shards of ice glinting along its banks.
"Do you have monsters attacking in the wealthiest parts of town frequently?" I asked.
We kept walking and I waited a bit for something more from the cool captain, but we turned up one of the paths toward one of the larger family compounds. It was ringed in a fence, and the black wood gate loomed as we walked up to it. The captain opened all 20 feet of solid hard wood easily, and then stepped within.
I didn't hesitate too long. There was no reason for him to kill me, yet, and I was still drawn by the promise of a true tea ceremony, since I'd never experienced that before. He nodded as I stepped in and closed the gate behind me.
We took our shoes off in the entry way to the largest building in the compound. There was a huge kitchen, to the back, with stoves and ovens still fired with charcoal, as a boy as black as the buckets shoveled chunks into the glowing maw.
Byakuya walked up to the woman who was orchestrating the steaming industry within, and said, "Two cha-kaiseki meals."
She bowed and then turned to bark some orders.
I expected that to be it, but, instead, he beckoned to me and we walked down a hallway. He opened a door to a neat little modern bath room. The whole floor was tiled, and there was an already steaming-hot filled bath.
I looked at him.
He looked into the room.
I sighed. "Must I...?"
Byakuya nodded. "It is part of the purification for the ceremony. I shall do so as well, before we leave this place. There is a change of formal clothing already in the room. I shall meet you afterward."
Well, it was better than the time Kenren threw me into the Goddess' pond. Hakkai had more socially acceptable habits than I ever had, the Orphanage had beaten that into him, and he'd had Kanaan to please. There was a small sniff in the back of my head.
This wasn't going to be nearly as cold.
"Is it okay if I smoke?"
A barely suppressed eye roll preceded the clipped words. "Yes, if you only do it in here." He snapped on a switch and there was the quiet hum of a fan.
Twenty minutes later, as I settled in the scalding hot water, put a towel over my eyes, and took a long, slow drag. I had to admit that it felt very good, especially after the cold and damp of the spring day.
An hour later, I was rethinking my earlier assessment, as I puzzled over which of the formal kimono layers went over which, and when it was that I was supposed to tie on the damned obi as well as how to tie it. I had some inkling that there were probably dozens of methods and some of them appropriate for spring but many of them not. The Imperial Court dress was like that as well, designed to be a cause for ridicule for those that didn't slavishly follow the latest trends as well as for the more practical purpose of preventing assassination attempts.
Finally, I gave up. I opened the door a crack to a muffled squeak of surprise from a woman who was waiting, sitting seiza out in the hallway.
I tossed out the strip of fabric I took to be a wrapper for my private parts and said mildly, "I will not wear whatever this is. Get me some proper underwear and someone that can come in here to help me with the ordering of these layers."
A few minutes later, the door slid wide open and Byakuya walked into the room.
He paused, looked me up and down, and took his time to study what he saw. He had been freshly bathed as well, his hair still damp, but neatly restrained by the kenseikan. He wore what looked to me like formal kimono in soft grays, no longer the black and white uniform with the numbered jacket I'd seen him in earlier. The sheer scarf he'd worn before was wrapped with a carelessness that must have taken practice and time to achieve. He held my rejected strip of cloth in one hand and did not have anything else in the other.
"Are you here to put that on me?" I asked, dubiously.
"Indeed. It is far more comfortable and modest with kimono than modern wear, and if it is simply your ignorance that stands in the way, I am glad to assist."
His tone was dry, nearly clinical. But something... smelled, tasted... oh, it was my new senses that were telling me that not everything was quite as it seemed. I stood up and walked over to him, not sauntering as Kenren might, but I watched him quietly as he draped one end over my shoulder and down my front only to pass the cloth between my legs and then he started twisting, wrapping, and adjusting.
He worked smoothly, but laid cool fingertips on my hip, stroked where the twisted cloth lay against my stomach; and when he took the rest of the cloth to make the second layer of the loin cloth itself, I just closed my eyes, as his hands firmly adjusted the tension of the cloth and tucked the end in at my waist.
"Comfortable?" he asked.
I walked around, not quite used to the feel of it, but it did not bind and it didn't seem inclined to fall off. "Yes," I said.
"Good. Then put these on." He handed me two kimono, and when I put the first one on, he made a pained sound.
"The other one. You never put that color over the other for a spring tea ceremony."
I put the other one on, and before I even reached for the second, he came up close and put a clip at the neckline that held it closed. Then he held out the second one for me and helped me situate the sleeves and fold the front. He didn't even let me touch the obi, instead, wrapping it about me and expertly folding and tucking and tying the ends.
I watched his hands, fascinated.
He slung a jacket-like coat over the kimono, tucked the sleeves in for that as well, and then did something to the ties for the over coat that made me tilt my head a bit. I peered down at the intricate knot.
"Beautiful," I said, studying the weave of it.
He took two steps back to look at me and nodded. "You are," he said thoughtfully.
I raised an eyebrow.
He only inclined his head and slid open the door.
A little amused with my disappointment at his opening of the door, I exited, and then waited for my host to lead the way. The kimono made walking harder. They restrained my steps to a certain length, and when I looked at Kuchiki-taichou, he was taking the smaller, measured steps without any hurry.
When we arrived at the front door, there were two carefully wrapped boxes sitting next to our shoes. After putting on our shoes, we each picked up our burdens and walked out into his garden.
>> The Next Chapter