Series: Twin Souls
Beta: incandescens, without whom this would have been impossible.
Characters: Ukitake and Kyouraku
Word Count: 4266
Summary: The boys go to the Ukitake household by the seaside, in time to celebrate Jyuushiro's birthday on the Winter Solstice.
Disclaimer: I do not own Bleach or its characters and do not make any money off these writings.
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Shunsui enjoyed the long walk on the bright winter's day. The road lay in shadows while they were in the mountains, but gradually wound down the slope and onto the plains below, where it straightened and basked in sunshine.
The weather changed as the land changed around them. Snow went from drifts to patches in the shade, then to nothing at all. There was more water in the air, and a faint fog drifted among wind-twisted trees. Slopes flattened to scrub, then to farmland neatly divided into plots, and then the farms thinned to nothing as the land grew rockier and the sun moved into the West.
Jyuushiro's pace picked up as soon as they could smell the sea. Shunsui amused himself with the thought that Jyuushiro certainly wanted to get home faster than he had.
The village was smaller than the grounds around Kyouraku Castle, nearly as small as the protected bailiwick within the Castle's first walls. There were no such man-made walls here, but the rockiness of the landscape lent itself to the defenses of the village, limiting access. The houses and shacks seemed empty as they half-jogged through the village.
They found all the people at the docks.
Jyuushiro dove into the crowd, greeting folks with a grin and a wave. He neatly negotiated shining nets of wiggling fish, buckets thumped into the wooden dock, sharp-edged fishing javelins, giggling kids running underfoot, and all the equipment being carried off the fishing boats. Shunsui eyed the knife-scarred and rock-battered boats, encased in barnacles, smelling of fish guts, draped with seaweed, and sloshing with each wave, and stayed well out of the way of all the people who seemed to know what they were doing.
"Shunsui, left, go left," barked Jyuushiro, sudden alarm spiking his reiatsu.
Shunsui jumped left, just barely getting out from under a net of wriggling fish that landed on the dock right where he'd been standing. He looked up to see Jyuushiro relax and smile as the slender man beckoned him to come closer.
"Is it safe?" Shunsui asked cautiously.
"For the moment," Jyuushiro said, grinning. "Let's go help Akio."
They ended up next to the small boat that was rocking in the water nearest to the land. A big man was coiling rope in it; he had hair as black as Jyuushiro's eyebrows and eyes the bright blue of mountain skies. There was a woman in the boat as well, slender and strong, who nodded a greeting, but ducked when the man lifted the heavy coil of rope. Shunsui wondered how to grab it with the waves moving the boat up and down, when the rope was suddenly flung at him. Shunsui yelped, but caught it.
"Nice," Jyuushiro said, and caught a rolled net from the woman. "Put them by the lean-to to the left of the dock entrance."
Shunsui made his way to the lean-to without getting run over, though one of the smaller kids, just thigh-high, darted in front of him. The child -- Shunsui couldn’t tell if it was a girl or boy -- giggled, holding a flapping fish tightly in tiny hands.
Five more trips, hauling buckets, some filled with horrible smelling things, wet and slimy line and nets, and two tubs filled with seaweed and fish. Shunsui found himself panting hard with the efforts after a long day's hike, but the boat was emptied of what had to be brought onshore. Without order or any specific organization, everyone moved in the direction of the village.
A herd of half a dozen small boys, including the fish wiggler from earlier, stampeded across the dock. One bounding boy yelled, "Big brother!" and jumped for Jyuushiro's back. Jyuushiro caught him neatly in a well-practiced motion.
Jyuushiro laughed and said, "Introduce yourself."
The boy studied Shunsui, and then nodded as if he were the prince of the family. "I'm Ukitake Haru. Who are you?"
Jyuushiro poked the skinny brown leg, "That's not polite. You're supposed to give him a chance to answer first."
Haru wrinkled his nose and stared at Shunsui. "Well, he's not answering..."
"Just call me Shunsui."
The boy giggled. "That's funny. That's not a normal name. But I kinda like it."
"Heh, at least it's not a number."
Haru laughed until he nearly fell off.
"Ha-RU, what are you doing riding Jyuushiro's back? You know you can walk on your own..." A woman said from behind them, as she moved purposefully forward and drew even.
Haru rolled his eyes, kicked free of Jyuushiro's hold on his legs, and slid down. "Aww, but I haven't seen him in so long... and he was okay with it."
Jyuushiro grinned. "Easier than picking him up. Mother, this is Kyouraku Shunsui, my guest for the week."
The bird-bright eye of Jyuushiro's tiny mother looked Shunsui over in a manner remarkably similar to how tiny Haru had studied him.
"Kyouraku, hm? High born." The tone did not bode well. "But you caught that net without a complaint, and hauled like the rest of us. I trust you're not going to complain about the accommodations. I'm called Ukitake Yuuna, even though I'm not particularly gentle."
She laughed and suddenly Shunsui could see where Jyuushiro's beauty had come from. She tilted her head in the direction of a tall, slender man with salt and pepper hair. "That's Shirou." And then, pointing to each in turn, she rattled off, "Masami, Kaede, Akio and his wife Hitomi, Haru you've met, Ayako, Osamu, and..." She turned her head and reached behind her to tug on a tiny foot, which kicked to a sudden gurgle. A tiny baby head popped out of what Shunsui had assumed was a bundle of cloths strapped to her back. "This is Takuma."
"Uhm... thank you, but please forgive me if I don't remember it all."
Everyone around him laughed. Yuuna grinned, "I got two of those names on the wrong kid. Don't you worry your pretty head about it."
"Pretty?" Shunsui laughed. "I think I'm going to like this place."
Shunsui watched, bemused, as the contents of all the platters at the Ukitake meal disappeared in five minutes flat.
The competition was fierce, and his own training on manners and courtesy stood him in very bad stead. A gentle-looking girl took three of the things he'd reached for, and a slender boy snagged a vegetable out of Shunsui's chopsticks. There was a clash, and Shunsui had to laugh as Jyuushiro shielded his reach for one of the fried fish.
He was pretty hungry, so he was grateful to find an unobtrusive plate piled with half of Jyuushiro's winnings at his elbow. Shunsui watched the others, and when Haru reached for that plate with his chopsticks, Shunsui cheerfully blocked the strike himself.
Haru grinned in good-natured defeat, sat back, and ate more rice.
Shunsui ate more quickly than he'd ever done before, and was still the last to finish. He was even behind baby Takuma, who gobbled mashed rice and smashed vegetables from her father's plate with gusto.
"What, you don't like the food?" Yuuna said, grinning at Shunsui.
"No, ma'am. I'm just taking the time to enjoy it," Shunsui replied, and got a laugh of satisfaction as she started to clear away all the plates.
Shunsui ended up helping the gentle-looking girl with the dishes, and found out that her name was Masami, one of Jyuushiro's two sisters; and that she was much shyer while doing dishes with a man, even with family members popping in and out, than she had been with the chopsticks at the dinner table.
After he helped put the dishes away, he found Jyuushiro in the big common room. The house, for all that it housed so many, was fairly simple. There was a great common room that was connected to the kitchen, and one bath room with the family's bath and the water and soap for bathing. The outhouse was a separate little building outside. As Jyuushiro had warned him, there was very little absolute privacy, and nearly everything was done in the common room.
Dinner had been served there, and now the family converted it to a room for crafts and common work.
Jyuushiro had most of a dry net in his lap as he worked cording through it. His father sat with a rail-thin boy in glasses at a table where an oil lamp burned, both bent over books. A tall teenager with red hair and green eyes sharpened knives. Masami sewed away at a quilt with her mother and a tiny girl in a flowered kimono that Shunsui wouldn't have thought could handle a needle so skillfully. Akio and his wife fussed over their own baby along with Takuma. There were others present too, far more than just the Ukitake clan. Faces half-familiar from the docks talked while they made cord or maintained tools.
Shunsui settled by Jyuushiro, and listened to the wash of everyday concerns. He wasn't that surprised when Jyuushiro joined the conversation with some bit of advice. He relaxed and, after watching Jyuushiro for a while, started sorting out various lengths of cord to a nod of approval and one or two gentle corrections by his roommate. When there were more yawns than words, people picked up their work, gave Jyuushiro's father a nod, and walked out into the night.
Tired from their long day, Shunsui followed Jyuushiro to the bath room, and came back to find everyone getting ready for bed.
Rolled bedding and stacked bed clothes were brought out from storage space to the sides of the room. They all stripped down, still chatting, put on sleeping gear and got onto their futons and under their quilts. Jyuushiro sat in the middle of all the smaller children's futons, and told them a story about the frog and the moon. When the last candle was blown out, Jyuushiro lay down by Shunsui. Eventually, as the room quieted and Jyuushiro's father started to snore, he felt Jyuushiro move closer. He smiled in the dark and leaned against the slender man.
As the winter night's chill drifted in through the paper walls, he felt small bodies migrate towards their warmth. First was a tiny, skinny, bony figure that could only be Haru, that clambered right between Jyuushiro and Shunsui and draped himself over both of them before turning to kick Shunsui in the stomach. Then it was a rail-thin boy, a little taller than Haru, who curled up against Shunsui's back even as others moved in against Jyuushiro.
Shunsui was not used to all the contact, but he'd slept with Jyuushiro often enough that it was easy to grow accustomed to it. After such a full day, he was able to go to sleep amused, oddly comforted, and happily warm in the midst of a pile of relaxed, snoring bodies.
Jyuushiro's birthday dawned bright and clear. He awoke wrapped about Haru, who had tucked himself up under Jyuushiro's chin. Shunsui snored softly, and Jyuushiro took the moment to study his friend while surrounded by so much that was so familiar to him.
A cock crowed at first light. The whole room stirred, and then everyone untangled themselves.
Jyuushiro laughed as Haru couldn't be held off from handing him a present wrapped carefully with a thick wrinkled piece of mulberry paper. The painted red and white cherry blossoms felt soft, worn and pale with usage and time.
He unwrapped it slowly as Haru jumped up and down. He found two origami pieces within, crumpled and squashed a little, and a drawing of a big person with white hair and a little person with short spiky black hair. Both stood on a field of blue, and he pondered it for a moment.
"We're swimming!" Haru offered. "And those are paper water balloons! If we blow them up and fill them with water, we can throw them. They go splash everywhere!"
"Aaah..." Jyuushiro said. Haru jumped into his lap and threw his arms about him. Jyuushiro grinned, and hugged the boy back warmly. "Thank you very much for the beautiful gifts. I appreciate them very much."
"Happy Birthday! I'm glad you're alive." Haru solemnly kissed Jyuushiro's nose, then hopped off his lap and ran off.
Shunsui rubbed his eyes, still sitting on his futon. "Cute."
Jyuushiro nodded. "He is."
"Is that why...?" Shunsui stopped.
"Why what?" Jyuushiro asked absentmindedly, as he blew into one of the origami balloons. It popped up into a ball, but one flap popped loose as well, and he gently tucked it back into its pocket.
"Uhm... everyone else just gets older by a year with the new year," Shunsui ventured.
Jyuushiro nodded. "Right. It was when I first got sick. No one thought I'd last the year, so Mom insisted that we celebrate on the day I was born..."
Shunsui frowned. "But here you are."
Jyuushiro grinned. "Yes. Here I am. It's been several decades; but family traditions are hard to knock after they've been celebrated for those first two years."
"I can't imagine."
"What, you don't come up with new family traditions every once in a while?"
"No. All ours are centuries old, and everyone's terrified of not doing them."
"Sad? Hide-bound? Stupid?"
"No... it just seems like that'd be a lot of weight to carry all the time." Jyuushiro blew at the balloon on his hand, and it flew in a wild, uneven arc.
Shunsui plucked it out of the air, and held it in his long fingers to study it. "Mm... I think you're right. I think it's one of the reasons why I worry about getting things wrong here."
Jyuushiro laughed, "You can't get it wrong, here."
"Oh. I could try."
Jyuushiro grinned on seeing Shunsui with his back up against a wall.
His sister Masami had brought along her cousins, Kyo, Aya, and Hiroko. They were all teenage girls, and they crowded about Shunsui, chattering like magpies and giggling. They were talking so fast, they didn't give Shunsui any opening to get a word in.
"Kyouraku-san, did you really give Ryuu Kameko branches of bleeding heart on bended knee just to show her you loved her?"
"Kyouraku-san, did Kobayashi-chan really slap you for kissing her after she'd asked you to?"
"Oh! Kyouraku-san, did Tanaka-chan really fall down on her knees in front of you in class and break down weeping when you broke up with her? That's sooooo romantic! Did you refuse to go back to her, just to keep the romance alive?"
"Kyouraku-san, how lovely is Takahashi-chan? She's renowned in six different Districts for her voice and grace, can you tell us what she wore for the snow-viewing party at the Hatsuzora Castle?"
"Awwww... you're so amazing... can you tell us how to kiss someone?"
"Oh! Or better yet could you please kiss me?! I'd far rather I got my first kiss from someone like you than someone as shy and unsure of himself as Oonishi-kun, he seems to break out as soon as look at me..."
Shunsui's eyes got so wide at the last one that Jyuushiro finally took pity on him. He stepped in and waved his arms at the girls as he would at chickens. "Go, go on. No kissing my guest."
They giggled, bowed politely to Shunsui, and then ran off, chattering with each other cheerfully again.
"How do they know these things?" Shunsui asked, still bemused.
Jyuushiro shrugged. "I'm not sure I want to know. Were all those things true?"
Shunsui just nodded, mutely.
"Well, why wouldn't they know, then?"
"They're just... kids!!"
"Obviously kids that want some romance in their lives, I guess."
"But..." Shunsui sputtered.
"Yes," Jyuushiro agreed with what Shunsui couldn't say. "You're far too old for them."
Which left Shunsui spluttering even harder.
The party came to life as the shortest day of the year faded into night. Paper lanterns glowed soft and warm in the cold air, and everyone bundled up in thick quilted coats. Little Haru looked like a silk ball, bouncing everywhere and chattering. "Look, Jyuushiro, LOOK! You have to see this!"
There was a bonfire in the front courtyard of the house. People gathered about the warmth and light, and, as they caught sight of him, went to greet and congratulate Jyuushiro. He loved being back, being surrounded by people that cared about him. There were plenty at the Academy who cared, but it wasn't like Uncle Haru patting his head or Aunt Mai who hugged him so hard he'd cough and gave him an extra quilt for what she was sure was a drafty school dorm room.
Cousin Hiroko approached him alone, looking uncharacteristically somber without the other girls. "Cousin... happy birthday," she said and handed him a painstakingly hand-embroidered yard of red ribbon. The almost painfully neat square calligraphy read Shield from harm..
"What's this for?"
"To keep you from getting hurt," she said shyly. Then she surprised him by reaching up and kissing him on the cheek.
"Thank you," he said, and she blushed bright red and ran away.
Uncle Noburu walked up to natter on about how in his day the snows were deeper, the fish were scarcer, the water colder, the sky was clearer, and parents far less lenient than they were today. He also talked about how easy kids had it now, with someone that was actually willing to teach them how to cleanse Hollows rather than just going it on their own and that an academy was just a way for kids to get together and make trouble...
Jyuushiro nodded at everything Uncle Noburu said, and idly sent his reiatsu out to find Shunsui.
He'd gotten better at it. He discovered Shunsui out by the docks and the sea wall, all by himself. When Jyuushiro's reiatsu reached him, Shunsui gently touched Jyuushiro's power with his own, but remained on the wall.
Jyuushiro stayed with his guests, and gave his friend some room compared to the incessant comings and goings of all the people of his clan. Much later, as the sake barrels were broken into, and the food started rolling out of the house, Jyuushiro saw Shunsui come back, damp with sea spray but looking very content. They sat together for the meal.
Everyone exclaimed over the excellence of the meal, even as Yuuna wailed about how it was inadequate. Various members of the family came up with more and more outrageous compliments as Yuuna berated her meager skills with greater lamentations, until finally everyone was overcome with laughter.
Mochi sweets with red bean paste and dried fruit came out, and the sake flowed like water. Jyuushiro left Shunsui with the other young fishermen, as they all tried to outdrink each other.
Jyuushiro joined the ring of children and men around the firecrackers. That first birthday, they'd been used to emulate the New Years Jyuushiro wasn't supposed to see, and now they were a tradition. He helped light some of the strings, and the flash and bangs were just as fascinating as they had always been. He was careful to stay out of the acrid smoke.
"Good way to keep the bad luck away," his father said quietly as the last of the smoke blew away.
"You goin' where there might be some bad luck to deal with?"
"Well... I'm glad that you'll have him at your back, then. The one you brought. He's different."
Jyuushiro laughed. "Yeah, when I first got to the Academy, he was out drinking every night."
"I was studying, of course."
"You go drinking once in a while now?"
Jyuushiro turned to look at his father, and frowned a little. "Well... yes."
"Good," his father said, stroking his chin.
Jyuushiro puzzled for a moment, and then burst out with the questions he'd been hanging onto since he'd seen the docks. "How is Kaede doing at the fish cleaning?"
"And Akio with leading the fleet? They're finding fish, yes?"
"The catches this fall and winter have been good," his father said placidly.
"And Osamu's doing all right with the books?"
"Jyuushiro, he's been doing the ledgers for years before you left."
"And Masami and the cousins..."
"... have done an excellent job tending the oyster beds, the yields have been plump, sweet, and the pearl counts are solid. Jyuushiro..." Shirou's tone was exasperated.
Jyuushiro looked at his father. "What?"
He smiled and said, "We are doing fine without you, son."
Stung by the words, Jyuushiro pulled back, but his father followed him even as he drew away. "Don't take me wrong, now. We love you and we miss you, but everyone has stepped up to the roles they can now do."
Jyuushiro sighed. "But I bet Kaede still leaves his knife stuck in the cleaning trough at the docks," he grumbled.
"Yes he does, but now he's the one that has to deal with the rust when he gets back to it, so he's only doing it once a month now. You kept cleaning up after him, so he relied too much on you coming after him."
"Huh." Jyuushiro's breath huffed out of him. "Oh well, I guess when there's so many, it's easier to just do without me."
Shirou burst out laughing.
"You look like when you were Haru's age, after we'd birthed Akio and just gotten Masami and Kaede left on our doorstep because of their reiatsu. You ran away from home, and came back two hours later to demand that we look for you."
"Humph, indeed. Brat."
Jyuushiro held a stiff silence for a few moments, then wrinkled his nose. "Did I really?"
"I guess I was a brat."
Jyuushiro took a moment and then nodded. "I am, aren't I?'
"And we love you anyway."
Jyuushiro laughed, then bowed gently to his father, and his father bowed as deliberately back.
Yuuna and Shunsui walked up, talking together. Yuuna was giggling like a young girl. She smiled at seeing Jyuushiro, and gave him a hug around his belly and ribs. When she had finished, she took half a step back to look at Jyuushiro. "Are they feeding you at all at that Academy of yours?"
"Plenty, mother. You wouldn’t believe the dining hall at school, with all those talented kids at one table... it's amazing how much they eat!"
"And now I know why your son is the fastest eater in Seireitei," Shunsui added.
"Ha! You are? Now that's something to be proud about!"
Jyuushiro just blushed.
They all laughed.
When the party wound down, people came to give Jyuushiro their gifts.
Homemade candies, jugs of honey, spun yarn, a bundle of small clothes, a solidly made pair of geta, a few tubs of soap, a soft turtle shell comb, toothbrushes, lengths of good cloth in the Academy's uniform colors, a small bag of sea salt, a new rice bowl, handmade and beautiful, five sets of bamboo chopsticks, and several sturdy lengths of cloth for carrying things. Each present was handed over with a bow. Jyuushiro accepted each with both hands and his own bow, and unwrapped each one before the giver in order to thank to them.
Shunsui helped Jyuushiro find the little gifts he'd bought for nearly everyone in the village from Seireitei. Each time, Jyuushiro muttered a name, and Shunsui found the characters written on the paper wrappings: there were good brushes, rolls of fine paper, pipes and tobacco, tea, silk worm eggs, steel needles, sturdy hooks, and small sharp knives. Jyuushiro had skimped on his own clothing and supplies to buy them, but the generosity of the gifts he had received more than made up the difference.
Also, he enjoyed giving things that made people's eyes light up, things that most of these folks wouldn't go to the city to buy and so rarely saw here. On getting a bronze-plated pipe, Uncle Noburu was so overcome with joy he couldn't say a word, and Jyuushiro counted that well worth the price.
When the last of the guests had gone, the whole family got to the work of cleaning everything up from the party. Shunsui and Jyuushiro worked together on gathering up the dishes and cups left on the tables; and took them into the kitchen.
"Did you have a good party?" Shunsui asked.
Jyuushiro smiled. "Yes. It was good to see everyone again, gratifying to know that they care enough about what happens to me when I'm gone that they're all here to find out."
"They all do care about you, don't they?" Shunsui sounded wistful.
Jyuushiro peered at Shunsui's face, not quite able to read it in the dark. He hesitated, but knew that this had to be said too. "The thing is that none of them, I think, really understand me the way you do. They haven't faced a screaming Hollow with nothing but the edge of a blade between it and them. It's odd, because I feel so different, and yet they're all the same as they were when I left, doing the same things, worried about the same weather, and concerned about the same things that they've always been. And I've... changed. Grown, maybe, seen too many things to be comfortable here the way I used to be.
"It's odd to not fit the way I used to. To not be needed for the things I used to do."
Shunsui cocked his head. "I'm sorry?" he said tentatively.
Jyuushiro laughed. "No reason to be sorry. Now I know, even better, what I'm trying to protect."
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