Series: Twin Souls
Beta: incandescens, many thanks for all the encouragement and help!
Characters: Ukitake and Kyouraku
Rating: PG-13 for violence
Word Count: 4179
Summary: The boys go to the Ukitake household for the second half of their winter's break on the seaside.
Disclaimer: I do not own Bleach or any of its characters, nor so I make any money from these writings.
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When all was cleaned up after the party, and nearly everyone had gone back inside, Shunsui wordlessly took Jyuushiro's hand and led him out to the docks and the breakwater. Shunsui took one of the oil lamps with them, and Jyuushiro wondered what would need lighting.
The moon shone bright along their path, and when they got to the shore, it looked even larger over the dark waters. Waves broke over the moorings and hissed away, tumbling the rocks on the shore with small clicks of stone on stone. Stars spread out in a bright band over the center of the sky. When Jyuushiro could look down again from marveling at the beauty, Shunsui chuckled, and held out a scroll for Jyuushiro.
"For your birthday..."
Jyuushiro opened the scroll: Shunsui held the light for him to see to untie the strings binding it closed.
He found a painting of bamboo at night, under a full moon. The lines were austere, three stalks of varying widths, with sprays of leaves like hands. The moon was white against the dark background. There was a squiggle of poetry along the side over what Jyuushiro could now recognize as Shunsui's red signature stamp. "You've made something beautiful for me," he said reverently. "But I can't quite read the poem, and I don't want to risk accidentally burning it. Can you please tell me what it says?"
"I'll try." Shunsui took a breath. "Slender strength bows low. Wind finds melody in leaves. Strong grove roots run deep. Rough spring waters harm none. Blue-green strength just grows."
Jyuushiro laughed and blessed the darkness for hiding his blush. "Shunsui, that should end Shoots drink deep to grow. I wouldn't have my strength without you, and how can bamboo grow without water?"
Shunsui gave a low chuckle and hugged Jyuushiro.
"I like your present very much, Shunsui. Thank you."
"Thank you for accepting it, Jyuushiro. Happy Birthday."
Jyuushiro hugged Shunsui back. "You've helped make it very happy indeed."
For the next few days, Jyuushiro did his best to show Shunsui all of his childhood haunts and memories. He felt a little bit guilty about not doing the work he used to do with his family; but after his talk with his father, he realized it was all right when his family shooed them off to enjoy themselves. His mother had also gently complained about the appetite the reiatsu-gifted kids had when they were in constant contact with both Academy students.
So Jyuushiro and Shunsui practiced their sword work on flat stretches of beach, sometimes with the approving audience of Haru and Kaede. They wandered the tide pools, picked sea urchins for dinner, and watched cousins and sisters dive for oysters. Jyuushiro showed Shunsui the salt pools, the hidden orchids up on the cliffs, and together they went out fishing in one of the smaller patched sailboats.
Shunsui started out awkwardly, but he picked up the rhythm of riding in the little ship quickly, and even started lending his weight to the correct side of the little boat when Jyuushiro tacked to get a good ride into the wind. Once they were out, Jyuushiro let go of the rudder, pulled down the sail, and let them drift.
"Here." Jyuushiro handed Shunsui a pair of gloves, and when he'd put them on, a line woven with nearly a dozen hooks along the length of it. "Put a bit of bait on each of the hooks, and then let it go gently into the water."
He helped Shunsui with the first two, and then sat back to watch him do two more with fingers that quickly grew more expert. He turned to his own, and got three lines done in the time it took for Shunsui to finish his own. They hooked the loops at the top of their lines to the anchor points on the railing.
"Now, for your favorite part," Jyuushiro said with a grin.
Shunsui laughed and settled into the bottom of the boat with Jyuushiro; and they both found that waiting was definitely their favorite part.
They pulled fish up and into baskets, put out lines again, and had some lunch. Mid-afternoon the wind picked up: Jyuushiro felt it in the waves and the way that the boat began to toss in the water. "We need to go in," he said.
"But the sky's clear," Shunsui protested lazily from where he lay in the bottom of the boat.
Jyuushiro pointed to the West, and Shunsui sat up to see. "Oh." The clouds massed on the horizon in a bank that billowed, huge and black, from sky to sea.
They pulled their catch in. Jyuushiro set the sail, and Shunsui crouched low. As they flew toward the docks, they could see a flock of other sails heading in the same direction.
That was when both Jyuushiro and Shunsui felt the reek of Hollow. They looked at each other, and Jyuushiro turned the little boat towards the clouds. He saw Shunsui put his hand on the hilt of his zanpakutou.
They had to tack into the wind again. The ships coming at them had no such need. With the wind at their backs, they came bouncing and jumping from roller to roller, spraying white each time they hit. They ran before the storm wind, fleeing what was behind them.
Jyuushiro growled when he saw that one of the front ships was being manned by Kaede with little Ayako, her kimono rucked up around her legs. She'd been the baby of the family before Takuma; but now here she was. It made his gut hurt to see her grin at him and wave as he went by. At least Kaede, who had some reiatsu sense, looked properly grim. He was bent over the tiller, looking as if he wanted to will the little ship faster, and he looked even more worried as he saw Jyuushiro and Shunsui coming out towards them.
"There's mermaids out there!" he screamed as they flashed past.
Jyuushiro gave him the arm sign that he'd heard, and Kaede gave him a surprised look as they went past. The differences between his brother and what Jyuushiro now was really came home to him. Shunsui and he trained in order to bring the battle to the Hollows that had haunted these waters for decades, not just live in fear of them. They could do this.
"Mermaids?" Shunsui asked.
"Yeah, they're a kind of Hollow here, from drowned souls. They resemble the living people's myths in that they take the faces of those they've eaten and don't have their own face anymore. They've been killing people for a really long time."
"What if you eat them?"
Jyuushiro blinked. "I don't think anyone's tried that."
"They'll go to dust if you laid them right, wouldn't they?"
"I hope so. I guess we're going to find out."
Sleek bodies shone dead white in the distance, curving in flashing arcs over the dark storm-clouded sea. Jyuushiro counted six, and headed towards them, feeling as if the fishing boat was a wallowing cow trying to catch swallows in flight. The Hollows began to pull even with the last of the fishing boats.
Suddenly Shunsui flared his reiatsu. Jyuushiro gasped as the power came down on him, and he flared in response. "What?"
Then he saw all six... no, seven white streaks turn to come toward them.
"Looks like they really are Hollows, since we're the tastier treat." Shunsui grinned and drew his zanpakutou. "Better get ready, they seem to be coming fast."
Jyuushiro sighed, as the ship lurched and the tip of Shunsui's long sword went right through the sail. Shunsui pulled the blade out, ripping the sail, as Jyuushiro dropped the tiller. When the boat came to a bobbing stop, he dropped the sail, and hurriedly lashed it down.
"Sorry about that," Shunsui muttered, eyeing the gash in the sail. "Why are we stopping?"
"They're coming to us. Might as well keep the damage to our way home as little as possible."
They both turned as intent spiked. Jyuushiro ducked as Shunsui swung, and the scream from the Hollow was pure hate and rage as the edge of Shunsui's blade struck the grotesque mask and the thing blew into dust and spume.
"They are ugly," Shunsui said.
"Better that than one that has a face," Jyuushiro said soberly as he took his stance in the bottom of the boat. He turned to face another spike of intent, and saw the streak of white under the dark water. Shunsui grunted, and abruptly turned to his left as Jyuushiro went to his right, as two sickly white bodies flew up out of the water at them, screaming.
The world narrowed to that gnarled mask of bone, and Jyuushiro used an overhand strike to cleave the mask in two. The spray of dust and sea water didn't surprise him this time.
"You all right?" Shunsui asked.
"Yeah. Got it. Watching."
They stood back to back. There were four left. Jyuushiro saw flashes of them as they circled the ship, more wary with their sisters gone. Then one of the slender white streaks headed for the little ship.
"Hells!" Jyuushiro exclaimed, as he reached out to grab Shunsui with his free hand, and stabbed his zanpakutou into the mast with the other.
The whole ship tilted hard as the Hollow hit it from underneath. His grip on Shunsui kept the big man in the boat. After the impact, they both dropped down onto the deck. Jyuushiro pulled his zanpakutou free of the mast as he went down.
Then all four of the Hollows hit the right side of the boat at the same time.
The whole boat heaved, and started to roll slowly to the left.
"Jump free of the ropes, Shunsui," Jyuushiro said, and saw Shunsui nod in the moment before the whole thing tipped and went over.
He took a deep breath and jumped, hearing Shunsui splash in alongside him. Good, he was clear. Jyuushiro dived deeper, grateful for his work clothing: it had no extra cloth for show, and kept his limbs relatively free.
Something was swimming for Shunsui's back. Jyuushiro used both hands to swing his zanpakutou through the water at it.
In the back of his head there was the flash of something silver and blue, and his sword gleamed as it cut through the water nearly as easily as through air. The edge struck the mask, and with a scream that vibrated as much against his skin as in his head, the Hollow came apart.
One Hollow circled under their feet. The other two circled around them in the water. Jyuushiro had to go to the surface for a breath of air, and he found Shunsui bobbing gently on the surface. After their escapade on the lake, he'd known the bigger man could swim, but he was relieved to find Shunsui relaxed and floating easily.
"The water's warmer than I expected," Shunsui said calmly. "What do you think they're waiting for?"
"I just cleansed one of them. Maybe they're waiting to see if we tire?"
"The storm's coming, too. Will that affect them?"
"Whoops..." Shunsui flailed and got one gulp of air before he was dragged under.
Jyuushiro took an extra second to thoroughly fill his lungs, then he went down too. One of the Hollows had her arms wrapped about Shunsui's waist as she dragged him further and further down into the depths of the water.
She had a face, a beautiful one. Shunsui hadn't struck: he was staring at her instead, and one of the other Hollows was headed for his back.
Jyuushiro swam toward Shunsui with all his strength. He was horrified to see that the mermaid coming at Shunsui's back had a girl's face, still round and soft with youth. But the tattered scales and dead white of its body, and the screaming of his zanpakutou in the back of his head, all reminded him of what he had to do.
So he did.
He struck and she melted away.
When he turned back, Shunsui was being dragged even deeper. Jyuushiro knew he was running out of air, so instead of the fast kicks he'd used earlier, he used an oyster diver's slow, big kicks to swim down. He angled for the mermaid's back, and struck her from behind so he would not have to see that face. She swirled into dust, and for a moment Shunsui looked truly sad; then he nodded to Jyuushiro and started to swim upwards. Then his eyes widened, and Jyuushiro froze mid-stroke as Shunsui threw his zanpakutou over Jyuushiro's shoulder.
Jyuushiro's lungs hurt and his head ached from the depth; but the first thing that went through his mind was, Shunsui can't lose his sword for me.
He turned and saw the cloud of black dust, with the sword glittering in the center. It began to sink. He kicked for it, and grabbed the hilt, knowing he might not make the surface now, but trying anyway. The hilt felt warm and solid in his hand, as if he were grasping Shunsui's arm.
Jyuushiro... His sword spirit sounded worried.
No, I can make it. he insisted, and kicked for the surface, slow, big kicks. The world started to fade, graying out….
... and then a hand grabbed his arm and hauled him the last few feet.
"GAH!" The first lungful of air burned. A wave slapped him in the face with the next, and he spluttered.
Shunsui took his sword from Jyuushiro's grasp. "Thank you."
Jyuushiro coughed. "Uhm... sure. Couldn't... gah... couldn't leave it."
"You could have, especially since you had to save me. I'm just... grateful you didn't. Now what?"
"Oh. Turn the boat over, and get the hell out of here before the storm breaks."
"How the hell do we turn that over when we're here?"
"Oh, easy. That's what the keel line's for."
"Never mind." Jyuushiro jammed his zanpakutou into its sheath. "Stay back. I'll get it over."
He grabbed the line attached to the tip of the keel, put his feet on the side of the boat, and used his weight to pull on the line. He flipped it back over. That was when the rain started pouring down. He hauled Shunsui in over the side with the simple expedience of falling back into the ship while he had Shunsui under the arms. He set Shunsui to bailing the still-wallowing ship as he put the sails back up.
His coughing grew worse, and he had to turn the tiller over to Shunsui, as he collapsed into the bottom of the little ship. He'd only managed half the sail; but that was plenty, given the storm-strength winds that were at their back. Shunsui's physical strength allowed him to hang onto the tiller, keeping the little ship weaving in the direction of the docks that they could now see in the distance.
They arrived with a crash that Jyuushiro couldn’t complain about, as he was doubled up coughing.
There were voices and lots of hands. Misami held pills to his mouth, and carefully put a cup of water in his shaking hand. He swallowed the pills down with some of the water; and the coughing let up, but the shivering didn't let up at all. Shunsui half picked him up, supporting him, and when Jyuushiro saw that they were headed to the bath, he helped as best as he could.
Kaede jumped out of the tub when he saw them coming, and slipped under Jyuushiro's other arm. Together, he and Shunsui helped lift Jyuushiro into the steaming tub. Jyuushiro groaned at the heat, but then it soaked in deep, and Jyuushiro felt like he was melting. That was when he started being able to hear the rain pounding on the roof and the wind whistling outside.
Finally, he whispered, "Everyone get in?"
"Yes." It was his father's voice. "All safe and sound, Jyuushiro. You boys did very well."
"Thank you, father." And the world went away.
Jyuushiro woke with Haru curled up beside him, snoring softly. He grinned and patted the narrow back gently, and stretched. He was sore, and the bottom of each breath was tight and hard.
Haru stirred, and then his eyes popped open and he grabbed Jyuushiro to hug him.
"Hey, hey," Jyuushiro said softly. "It's all right. Everyone's safe, right?'
Haru nodded fiercely against Jyuushiro's chest.
Jyuushiro started coughing again, and Haru went and fetched him a cloth. He nodded his thanks and let himself cough up the obstruction, and then settled, gasping a little for air.
Haru curled in close. "You actually fought them. Didn't... didn't let them eat anyone."
Jyuushiro nodded. "Ayako... was out there."
"She's good in the boats, and fast with baiting the lines, now."
Jyuushiro sat back, his eyes closing. "Changes."
"Mhmm. Should I get Ayako?"
Jyuushiro shook his head. "Kaede..."
"... yeah, he takes good care of her."
Jyuushiro nodded, feeling torn again between his past and what he was now.
"I can't believe... they're gone, right?"
Jyuushiro nodded again.
"Wow. We... we don't have to worry about them the next storm either, huh?"
"I think that was the idea," Shunsui said, as he came around the screen that had been put up to block Jyuushiro's pallet from the rest of the common room. He handed Jyuushiro a cup of drinking water, and Jyuushiro took it gratefully. "It's what we're trained for, anyway."
"In the water?" Haru bounced.
Shunsui laughed, and went over to check on the pieces of their zanpakutou, laid out to dry. "No... I've... I'll have to admit I've never done a cleansing in the water before."
"Awww... but you did it."
"Yeah, we did."
Jyuushiro heard the emphasis on the we, and grinned tiredly. Either one of them would have died out there separately: as it was, together, they'd worked it out. His place here at home might be gone, but now he had another place where he belonged, where his strengths could be used to the utmost.
Knowing that, he saw his family and his home with different eyes, and he watched more closely.
His parents were doing less and less of the daily work. His father now practiced calligraphy on a daily basis, in addition to his duties as the village judge and records-keeper. His mother happily stayed at the house and in the kitchen and their house garden, rather than going out on any of the fishing. She used to ride with the boats, but was now content to stay at home with Takuma and Akio and Hitomi's new baby.
Akio and Hitomi made a great team on the lead ship for the small fishing fleet. Jyuushiro hadn't seen Hitomi on the water that much before: she'd just seemed like a good, quiet wife for Akio; but on the water, she was confident and capable, leaving Akio free to make the decisions while she set their ship flying across the waters.
And Kaede was beginning to grow into his reiatsu and powers. He'd found Shunsui and Kaede sparring a little in the courtyard one evening, and he'd hung back to watch.
Shunsui's power and grace made Jyuushiro's throat tight. But then he realized just how much faster Shunsui was than Kaede, even when the teenager was trying his best. Jyuushiro could keep up with Shunsui, whereas it was obvious that Kaede could not. It was an insight to his own abilities that he hadn't had before. In the Academy they were both considered good, but he hadn't thought that applied to outside the Academy in any real sense.
Everyone also looked at him and Shunsui a little differently after the storm. He caught some glances when they weren't supposed to be watching, and there were small gifts left on the threshold of the Ukitake home: fruit, silk ribbon wards, and good luck items like the one his cousin had given him for his birthday. His mother collected them wordlessly, and left them on Jyuushiro's bag to take back to school.
When Jyuushiro and Shunsui packed up at the end of the week, they started some of their packing the night before. All the gifts from the birthday and during the week needed places to go, and Shunsui cheerfully shared half the burden.
"I'm going to have to put those charms up at school," Jyuushiro muttered.
"Well, then I'll get half the benefit, that should be useful. We'll have the best warded dorm room with all of these."
Akio and Hitomi came over and Shunsui a bow. "We'll be out at dawn, doing a little scouting ahead of the rest of the fishing ships. While I'm sure you want an early start, I'm not sure it's going to be that early," Akio said, grinning at Shunsui.
Shunsui just laughed. Jyuushiro got pounded on the back by Akio, and he gave Hitomi and their baby a hug together.
Masami and her friends had come by earlier in the afternoon, and each of the friends had given both of the Academy boys a kiss on the cheek at Masami's insistence. By the end of the encounter everyone was blushing bright red with embarrassment, and her friends had flown off like birds.
In the morning, after the early rush and breakfast, Jyuushiro and Shunsui finished their packing and got ready to go. Jyuushiro's parents were in the kitchen with Takuma, Kaede, Ayako, and Haru when they came through, and everyone got up to see them out.
"Thank you for our stay!" Jyuushiro said.
"You're very welcome, "Jyuushiro's father said quietly. "It was good to see you and to see your friend here."
"Thank you, sir." Shunsui bowed. "It was good to meet you, too."
Yuuna, still holding Takuma, hugged Jyuushiro and then grinned and gave Shunsui a hug as well. "You put your back into it, noble boy. You're welcome back when you want."
"Thank you," Shunsui said, then went cross-eyed as Takuma grabbed his nose. The little baby girl pulled on his nose: he moved in close enough for her to suddenly latch onto it with her mouth, and chew the tip of it a few times with toothless gums, before letting him go with a crow of delight.
"You do have a way with the ladies," Kaede said, laughing. "You wouldn’t believe how Kyo, Aya, and Hiroko were going on..."
Shunsui rolled his eyes. "No, I'd believe you. I just really don't want to know."
Kaede laughed again, and punched Shunsui in the shoulder. "Well. I'm envious. Maybe I should come to this Academy sometime, too, huh?"
"Hey, yeah, you should," Shunsui said.
Jyuushiro had to think about it a moment, but when Kaede looked at him he nodded. "Yes. I think you'd do very well."
Kaede laughed and hugged Jyuushiro hard. "Don't be so enthusiastic, brother! It's okay, I'll just have to deal with being in your shadow if I do, huh?"
"Hey, hey! We just got a good fish cleaner, why do you have to try and steal him?" Jyuushiro's father said ruefully.
Yunna tutted. "It'll be for everyone's good."
"You think, Mom?" Jyuushiro said wistfully.
"Yes." She gave Jyuushiro a solid hug again. "You're learning a lot, aren't you?"
"I am. But I feel..." Jyuushiro spread his hands and sighed. "I'm out of place here, now, aren't I?"
"How do you feel when you're at your school?" she asked, bright eyes gleaming.
"Good, Mom. Strong. Capable of far more than I used to be able to think I could do, even when I have the coughing attacks."
"Was it worth the lung burning?"
Jyuushiro frowned. He hadn't remembered that for quite some time. "Yes. I'm... I'm back up and doing things, now, and the more I do the better it seems to get."
"Good, then. You have a place: that it's not here is new for you, but now you have your own life, son. That's an amazing thing, compared to when we thought you wouldn’t live at all. Enjoy it."
Jyuushiro sighed, "Why am I still so sad, though?"
"'Cause you miss us?" Haru piped up. The younger boy threw himself at Jyuushiro, and Jyuushiro caught him and picked him up.
Haru threw his arms around Jyuushiro's neck and hugged him tight. "We miss you, too, but I'm glad you're fighting the big monsters. They scare me."
Jyuushiro looked into the boy's face and sighed. "Yeah, they sometimes scare me too, but Shunsui and I, we'll definitely keep you safe."
Haru said softly in full formal cadence, "Thank you, very much."
It was the hardest thing in the world for Jyuushiro to let go of his youngest brother, but he finally did. Shunsui and he bowed to his family, and they bowed back. And then the two of them turned their backs to the crying of the seagulls over the crash of the surf, and headed back to the Academy.
Back to their new lives.
References: I used interesting stories and references for Japanese mermaids, which are actually, mildly more like Greek mermaids, all of which are very different than modern movie mermaids. One of them was an reference for the creation of Japanese mermaid mummies, and another was through the anime/manga references for the Mermaid Saga series by Takahashi Rumiko, which I read when I was far more impressionable. Mine are mildly different than either of those, but... hey, it's the Bleach Soul Society universe, not the living world.
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