Arc: Twin Souls
Characters: Academy Jyuushiro and Shunsui
Rating: PG for bad language. *laughs*
Word Count: ~5260
Summary: Jyuushiro and Shunsui go out to the Shiba Estates to start their assignment and find their reception a little... rocky.
Beta: incandescens, without whom this story would not exist.
Author's Notes: Yeah, I know... three chapters in about three weeks? What is the world coming to? It seems that I do better when I can concentrate on a single thing for a while.
Disclaimer: I do not own Bleach nor the characters of Bleach, and I do not make money off these writings.
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It took them two days to get out to the Shiba plains, and after another two days' walking mixed with scattered shunpo steps, Jyuushiro wondered if it would ever end. The flat unending land was brown and sere, and the sky above was clear blue and uncannily empty of clouds compared to the ocean skies Jyuushiro was accustomed to.
"This is never going to end," Shunsui grumbled, as they walked along land that looked exactly like what they'd walked across for most of the previous day. "Now I know why I've never gone this way home before. It's dead boring."
Jyuushiro watched hawks circling above the grasses. "At least it's dry and sunny."
Shunsui looked up as well, shading his eyes. "It is that, and the sun is going to bring the wind."
True to Shunsui's word, the wind picked up in the afternoon. With nothing to stop it, the wind grew fiercer and fiercer, until Jyuushiro felt like he was leaning into a wall when they were facing it. The constant buffeting and roar of the wind gradually wore away at both of them. Sand and dust blew through the air, working its way into eyes, ears, and mouth until all Jyuushiro could taste was grit and dryness.
He pulled his water tube from his hip and took a drink, handing it to Shunsui to share. The bigger man paused, took a small sip, spat it onto the fluttering grasses, and then took a longer drink with a cleared mouth.
For a while, they saw the mountains they were heading toward: then the land rose in a swell and hid their destination from their view. The sun remained constant, so they simply navigated by it across the sea of grass. There seemed to be nothing out there. No people, no houses, no animals, and it didn't surprise Jyuushiro to see no Hollows either.
They broke over the edge of the rise, and before them rose the mountains. They were dark blue, like solidified sky, with the pale white of snow glinting on the jagged peaks. They loomed over the dusty brown of the ground, the darker pool of water, and the small town nestled among the roots of the mountains.
For all that they could see the town, it took them until nightfall to actually come within hailing distance of the walls. Their letters of introduction took them into the city easily, and two guards went with them to show them to the Shiba grounds.
The grounds were immense, flanked by the mountain to the back. Jyuushiro suddenly felt claustrophobic with all that weight of stone hanging over them after days under an immense sky. At the gates to the grounds, the guards traded off with two of Shiba's personal guards, one male and one female.
A shout of laughter from Shunsui brought Jyuushiro's attention back to the ground and a rather modest building. The building was surrounded by two enormous arms, the hands of which held a banner that read, "This is the Great Shiba Estate".
"That is..." Shunsui couldn't seem to find the words and just shook his head.
Jyuushiro coughed discreetly into a cloth rather than laugh out loud.
They left their shoes at the entrance, and walked into what, from the outside, had seemed so modest. The inside consisted of a great ramp down into the earth: torches lined the tunnel at regular intervals on either side.
"Wow. Does this actually lead to the tunnels?" Jyuushiro asked, fascinated.
"What do you know of the tunnels?" the guard asked, startled. "Only the Shiba family knows about the tunnels."
"Kenshin told us," Shunsui said flatly, and both guards stared at him even more closely. "Hey. He's our friend. He'd tell us, and it's not like the Ryuu don't know what's going on under their feet."
"Please read the letters, they should explain our relationship with Shiba-san," Jyuushiro said quietly, remembering to add the proper honorific.
Shunsui gave him a wink when the guards were looking at him. Oh... so the lack of honorific had
been intentional on Shunsui's part. This was going to get interesting, especially if Kenshin's normal biases had any basis in his home life.
One of the guards frowned at the paper, and then handed it to the other guard. She sighed, and unrolled it to look, using her finger to follow along what was written, frowning fiercely the whole time. "Right. You're here on a class assignment?" She started laughing. "That's good."
Jyuushiro and Shunsui looked at each other, not quite sure why she was laughing so hard, but when she turned down into the tunnel they followed. The other guard trailed them both.
Kenshin's conversations and behavior, the guards' reactions to their knowing what seemed to be Shiba secrets, and Shunsui's innate dislike of formality all swirled together in Jyuushiro's head. He took five steps back from Shunsui, letting the big man lead. Shunsui threw him a puzzled glance from over his shoulder. Jyuushiro met the gaze, and then saw comprehension dawn. The eye roll was classic. Jyuushiro nodded in acknowledgment, and Shunsui turned to follow their guide.
The underground chambers were immense. The main hallway had numerous branches, and those echoed their footsteps with cavernous delays. They walked through dozens of turns, and ended up at a wall of stone with two sliding doors set in the center. The guards each took a door and pulled them open to reveal a throne room.
In it, an enormous lacquered throne was filled to overflowing by a man that looked like what Kenshin would have looked like if he were decades older, a few stone heavier, and had been in far more fights.
The front guard fell back. Jyuushiro kept pace with the guards until he saw the lead one's eyes give a terrified flick between him and a spot just a foot in front of them, and a few yards back from Shunsui. He took the half step forward, and felt both of the guards suddenly relax. So his status was above that of the normal servants, but low enough that this should be safe. When he saw the guards stop in their tracks, he stopped as well and went to his knees, head to the floor. Shunsui stopped before the throne and gave a half-bow to Shiba-sama.
Shiba-sama's eyebrows rose. "That is how you pay your respects to a Clan leader?"
Shunsui stiffened. "That's more than I give to my father."
"He should teach you your place better, whelp," Shiba-sama's reiatsu exploded forth as he rocked forward out of his chair, and he was on Shunsui in a flash of shunpo. He cuffed Shunsui hard on the side of his head; and Jyuushiro found himself on his feet when Shunsui hit the ground. His zanpakutou spirit leaped in outrage, pushing at the back of his mind in a white-hot rush of anger. One of the guards tackled Jyuushiro's ankles, and Jyuushiro found himself abruptly back on the ground as well.
The weight of Shiba-sama's reiatsu was heavy and harsh, acrid like the edge of burnt gunpowder. When his attention was turned toward Jyuushiro, Jyuushiro was reminded of when Ryuu-sama pushed all his intent into an exercise. Heavy, but something Jyuushiro now knew he could withstand. Of course, there was the matter of someone wrapped around his lower legs.
"So you have a faithful companion, who knew better than you to start with, but now wants to get into it." Shiba-sama stood over Jyuushiro.
"He usually does," Shunsui chuckled breathlessly. To Jyuushiro's relief, he got up off the ground, but knelt at the proper aspect.
A foot prodded Jyuushiro's shoulder. "Beautiful, too. You, get off his ankles. If you know what's good for your lord, you better stay put."
The guard reluctantly let go, but it was Shunsui's evenly voiced, "Don't," that kept Jyuushiro where he was, even as he shook with suppressed adrenaline. He suddenly realized that Shunsui's reiatsu was very, very tightly pulled in. While Jyuushiro hadn't flared involuntarily this time, he hadn't thought to hide his powers.
"Loyal, strong, and obedient. That's a good combination." Shiba-sama's praise made Shunsui snort. That caused Shiba-sama to laugh a huge rolling belly laugh. "I'm assuming you want him in your rooms while you stay here; and it looks as if your assignment goes in many of the same places my patrols go. There will be no surprises."
"We're... I'm just learning the lay of the land." The lightness of Shunsui's voice made Jyuushiro's eyes close, and he was just glad that Shiba-sama didn't know Shunsui as well as he did.
"Ah, well, that would be a worthwhile effort, if this were your lands. Is your father as studious as ever and your mother as terrifying?"
"Quite. Mother is always ready to take anyone on," Shunsui said without any hesitation, and Jyuushiro was startled by the surety of the threat within his words. "However... as was stated in the scroll, Yamamoto-sama intends the Academy forces to help defend all the lands, not just our own."
"Hmph," Shiba-sama snorted. "Well, we'll see. If I can't defend my own people myself, what use am I? You go ahead and play your games. I know you're not responsible for the rest. I will tell Yamamoto he should have sent my son back to me to see what there was to see, but that is not your fault. Do as you're ordered, that is appropriate." He waved over his majordomo. "See to it that Kyouraku-kun is appropriately housed with his servant and that he has access to what he needs. He will be in and out."
Jyuushiro saw Shunsui's jaw clench once before he said pleasantly, "Thank you, Shiba-sama."
"You're welcome, now that you have a civil tongue in your head," Shiba-sama returned. "Now off with you."
Jyuushiro carefully moved backwards far enough before even getting up to his knees. They left the throne room in the same order as they came in.
"We will take them to the west wing, the ninth room: that should put them out of the way and near the western tunnels," the majordomo said crisply.
The guards nodded and led the way, and the majordomo trailed them quietly. When they had made three turns into successively smaller tunnels, the majordomo turned to shout for two maids. The girls scurried ahead with heads bowed, and went into the room to light the oil lamps, fill the drinking water, sweep away the cloths on the furniture, and start the fire in the stove under the table in the center of the room.
Once it was done, the majordomo bowed to Shunsui and said, "I hope that you will find this to be to your satisfaction, Kyouraku-san. The common bath and dining areas are that way." He pointed further on in the direction they'd been going.
"Thank you," Shunsui said and gave the servants nothing but a nod. They seemed accustomed to that and bowed themselves away, sliding the paper door shut behind them.
For a long moment the two of them just stood there in the center of the room.
"I thought you were going to try and kill him," Shunsui started off conversationally as he moved to drop his pack by the futons.
Jyuushiro followed him and set his down as well. "Yes."
Shunsui snorted softly. "You and your ideals."
Jyuushiro wordlessly moved in close to Shunsui and wrapped his arms around him, and felt Shunsui gust a huge sigh and wrap his arms around Jyuushiro. That was when Jyuushiro realized that Shunsui was shaking as hard as he was.
Shunsui said softly against Jyuushiro's hair, "I really truly hate politics, you know?"
"You do so well at it..."
"It's just reflex, like the sword play and martial arts. I do well at it, but I hate them anyway," Shunsui said wryly. "And for the same reasons."
"They hurt people?" Jyuushiro said quietly, and felt Shunsui start a little. He broke their hug to sit on the floor by the heater. Jyuushiro knelt beside him, grateful for the warmth. He leaned against Shunsui's side, and was gratified when Shunsui leaned as well.
"Sometimes it can't be helped, though. I'm learning that," Shunsui said quietly, watching the flames. "After the patrol, and when I saw Sato go after Daisuke-san..." He shook his head. "That was eye-opening. There's only one way to stop some people."
"What do you think of Kenshin's father?" Jyuushiro said softly. "He isn't an assassin, but he's so pig-headed, set in his privileges as a Lord."
Shunsui frowned. "Shiba's different. I learned that from Kenshin when I was drinking with him. His dad's like a boar, he just ignores the small stuff. If you challenge him and then back down, you'll get trampled and gored. If you look too big and don't back him into a corner, he'll play nice until he thinks he can get you. So we'll just make sure he doesn't think he needs to hurt us, and it's easy."
"That's why you used your mother as a threat?" Jyuushiro asked, surprised.
Shunsui nodded. "With reiatsu, he can sense if I mean it or not, so I had to use something I really believed, and Mom would just stomp him flat if he tried taking Kyouraku land."
"You think he'll play nice at that?"
"Well, he sure changed his tune right after that, didn't he?
"I didn't like him hitting you," Jyuushiro said, and felt that jolt of adrenaline run through him again and the flash of his zanpakutou's spirit. "It wasn't right."
Shunsui laughed, and Jyuushiro felt him relax suddenly. "Kenshin's done... hell, you've done a lot worse to me in class."
Jyuushiro considered that, remembering some pretty good falls, and he reluctantly nodded. "Physically. I just..."
"Jyuushiro, I don't have any pride you need to protect." A big warm hand wrapped about his cool one, and Jyuushiro had to close his eyes for a moment.
"I guess I would differ," Jyuushiro said to the flames.
Shunsui chuckled softly. "You are proud enough for the both of us, perhaps."
Jyuushiro blushed at that. "Am I really..."
"No," Shunsui cut in. "Well... you are and you aren't. You're not stuck up, if that's what you're asking, nor are you so proud that you're blind to what you can learn from others; but... you're going to make someone really angry someday simply 'cause you'll hold onto principles every other sane man would let fall by the wayside when his life's at stake."
"Angry?" Jyuushiro blinked, bewildered.
"You're going to make someone remember what they should have been, and there's going to be someone that will hate you for that," Shunsui said soberly.
Jyuushiro studied Shunsui quietly, watching the lights of the flames flicker across dark eyes and dark hair. "Do you hate me?"
Shunsui turned and gave Jyuushiro a lopsided grin. "Sometimes." Jyuushiro must have changed expression, because Shunsui sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. "Most of the time, though, I just want to live up to what you think I'm capable of doing."
"I... I think I'm glad of that," Jyuushiro said.
"Well, good, 'cause I'm not sure I can stop now." Shunsui ran his hand through up his hair and grimaced. "Ugh, I think the grit from the prairie's worked itself permanently into my scalp."
"Maybe we should try and bathe before dinner?"
"Yeah." Shunsui levered himself back up and started to dig through his pack. "Guess I will have to wear my persimmon colored kimono."
And Jyuushiro knew things were okay again when Shunsui burst out laughing at Jyuushiro's tone.
The next week was spent following the patrol paths that were marked on their map. Many of the paths crisscrossed through the mountain tunnels and the overland paths. They'd stay a night in some remote village before heading back into the Shiba tunnels along a different route. Shunsui was careful to mark tunnels on their map, as they found them, especially as short cuts to the villages. As Shiba-sama indicated, there were no Hollows to be seen anywhere. People seemed busy and content, and the children weren't afraid of them. What they hadn't anticipated was that when Jyuushiro started giving kids candy, they often received stories of Shiba's patrols coming through the day before.
"Cheating bastard," Shunsui muttered as the kids ran away to play. "Damnit, he's using his knowledge of what our route's going to be to clear the way."
Jyuushiro unrolled the map for the two of them to see, and they both bent over it.
"We're about halfway through our time, and we've covered nearly everything we've been asked to cover already," Jyuushiro said.
"How about here?" Shunsui asked, tracing a line that was not marked in blue. "There seems to be a village out here, and Kenshin and Hayato said that this valley seems to be a hiding place the Hollows like."
Jyuushiro nodded. "And it's off the route Shiba-sama knows about." He looked up to see Shunsui grinning at him.
"You're thinking devious thoughts." Shunsui didn't even bother masking his glee, and he watched Jyuushiro pull himself up at the phrasing.
"I am not." Jyuushiro huffed. "I'm just... wondering what he's neglecting while he tries to clear the path before us."
"There. That's devious. Let's do it."
"It is not devious, it is... "
"Practical," Shunsui said with a laugh.
Jyuushiro opened his mouth, closed it, and then nodded. "That I'll accept."
When they turned down the tunnel from their room, Shunsui felt a little like when Jyuushiro had followed him to the gangsters' camp, as if he were getting the other man into trouble. As they walked he thought it over: Jyuushiro wouldn't be following him if there wasn't a good reason to, just like with the camp. He'd have to trust that Jyuushiro knew what he was getting into.
They walked through the tunnels for a few hours. During the week they'd found that there were markings at each intersection that indicated north, south, east, and west. Some of the intersections were even becoming more familiar, the turns and twists to get to common areas easily navigated. Between the directions and the map they were able to head out to the west entrance of the underground complex, out into the lower foothills of the mountains.
When they reached the outside there was mist everywhere, obscuring the peaks and hiding the valleys. They couldn't see much more than a dozen yards before them, as they ate rice balls for their mid-day meal while still walking. At first bamboo stood tall and disappeared into the mists, then evergreens as they passed the grove and wound into forest a few miles further on. A stream tumbled and ran alongside the path, ice still jagged along the edges. Shunsui grinned, seeing his name in the water, and he bent to put a hand in. It was frigid cold, but when he brought the liquid to his mouth it was sweet.
He noticed that Jyuushiro protected his back as he drank. His friend was turned, watching the forest. "You feel it, too?"
Jyuushiro started. "Feel what?"
Shunsui sighed. "There's something out here. I'm not sure what, yet, but... do you hear any birds?"
Jyuushiro tilted his head to listen, and then he frowned.
"Thought not. Let's keep going."
They were both more wary as they went, and Shunsui couldn't be sorry when they came over the lip of a valley and in the mist they saw a seething of white.
They both dropped as if shot by crossbows, and Shunsui felt Jyuushiro wrap his reiatsu tightly in even as he did the same. They both moved closer in an attempt to see more, but the Hollows were too many to count. Huge Gillian gave lowing cries. The warm weight of the other man on his shoulder anchored Shunsui, this was real. The soft breath against his ear made him close his eyes.
"How do we warn the villagers?" Jyuushiro whispered.
Shunsui wanted to laugh, but he held it in. No denial of what they were seeing, no questions about could it be real? The crowd of Hollow amassed in the valley made Shunsui doubt his eyes, and the pop, pop, pop of Hollow reiatsu could only be multiple Adjuchas flickering through that herd. A trick of the mists, or something else? No, this was just something that had to be dealt with, and the most practical thing would be to warn the villagers. Jyuushiro had hit the heart of it with his first words.
Shunsui recalled the map and its contours behind his closed eyes. "The next entrance is too far from the village for a timely message."
"If they aren't already overrun," Jyuushiro sighed.
"Will your hell butterflies work?" Shunsui asked, his eyes opening as he turned over to look at Jyuushiro.
Jyuushiro thought a while and then shook his head. "I have to know someone to send one to them."
"Drat. I was afraid you'd say that. We're going to just have to sneak over to the village."
"Sneak? Through them?" Disbelief finally touched Jyuushiro's voice.
Shunsui let himself chuckle. "I'm not that crazy..." He pointed to the ridge to their right. "Daisuke-san said that the best strategic place to be on a mountain is just to the far side of the top. So we'll go up and follow the ridge of this foothill and stay on the far side of it, and check for where they are now and then. They can't see us, we won't be silhouetted against the top, and we'll have plenty of warning if they do try to swarm up it. The ridge should lead us most of the way to the village, and we'll have to just chance the slope down the other side."
Jyuushiro nodded. "That makes sense. I just hope it won't be like Yoruichi-chan coming down off that bamboo when we get to that last slope."
Hours and a scrambling climb later, as the sun slanted down low in the late afternoon, Shunsui surveyed that slope into the village. "You had to say that, didn't you?"
Jyuushiro laughed breathlessly. He had kept up with Shunsui, but Shunsui had kept their pace slow enough that he could. Their plan had worked, and there hadn't been any motion by the Hollow in the valley to indicate that they knew that the two students were there. Shunsui was still in good shape, but he could see Jyuushiro was physically exhausted. He was covered in a heavy sweat and he sat whenever they stopped to rest. Luckily, the scene below them was peaceful: there was smoke coming from all the chimneys, the kids were running around playing, and the Hollows were nowhere within sight or their reiatsu senses.
The slope down, however, was loose shale. Slippery, sliding stuff: if they knocked too much of it loose it would all come down in a pile at the bottom of the mountain, and they'd be tumbled about in it like dice in a gambler's cup. Shunsui frowned, considering it.
Then to his surprise, Jyuushiro took a shunpo step down, landed lightly on a bare spot and then jumped down again.
"Aw, shit," Shunsui said softly, and rather than try to emulate that kind of reiatsu control, he started walking down the slope. He managed to find a slender bare thread of a track through the shale until about halfway down. He paused a moment and saw Jyuushiro already at the bottom, waiting for him. He sighed, took another step, and his foot hit a loose spot. He slid and when he tried to take another step it was on the same slippery stuff. He only went faster.
That did it. The whole hillside started sliding down with him. When he saw a boulder start bouncing toward him, he shunpo'ed to the side, barely caught his balance, and started concentrating on finding a solid spot to place his feet each time they came down. His world narrowed to tiny shelves, hillocks of dead grass, and flat boulders. He had no room for panic or fear of the fall, there was just that next foot hold. The ground suddenly loomed up. There was a bang-flash of shunpo, something hit him hard in the side, and he found himself under Jyuushiro, knocked well clear of the ensuing avalanche of rock.
He caught his breath, his arms automatically going around Jyuushiro, who clung to his waist, shaking. When he managed to get his head up, he suddenly realized that Jyuushiro was shaking with laughter. Shunsui started laughing, which made Jyuushiro laugh out loud, which only set Shunsui off further, and both of them lay there and laughed until they cried.
"Crazy kids. They're not only alive, they're laughing!" The voice sounded disgusted. "Look at all that rock. The dust!"
Shunsui and Jyuushiro wiped the tears from their eyes, and Shunsui chuckled at the tracks that made through the dust masking his face. Jyuushiro coughed once, but got a cloth out to breathe through as he helped Shunsui up.
"Sir?" Shunsui called out, and started toward the voices.
"Who the hell's sir'ing me?" came a rough voice out from the woods. "What the fuck are you doing out here?"
"Tryin' to warn you, sir." Shunsui found himself changing his vocabulary and syntax to fit that of the mountain folks. "There's Hollows down in that valley, and they're a mighty large number of 'em. I think you'd best get your folks where it's safe."
The abrupt stop in progress by the oncoming bodies made Shunsui come to the alert.
"Kyouraku folk, are you? What the hell are you doin' here on our ground? Doncha know better than to..."
"Arai, he said Hollow! If there's Hollows..."
"Hollows? How can there be Hollows? Shiba-sama woulda gotten a message out and gotten our asses outta here. No way there kin be..."
"Would you care to follow us? We can show you where they are," Jyuushiro cut in tiredly.
"I'll go, Arai, you don't have ta..."
"Hmph, wild-goose chase, Saito, but if you're willin'."
"Yeah. I'll go." A wiry youth came out of the trees, with an old man following him. He stopped and stared a bit at the two Academy students. "You're in uniforms."
"Shinio Reijutsa Academy," Shunsui supplied. "We're students out trying to help."
"Help, huh?" Saito turned to the older man. "I'll be right back."
Shunsui looked at the exhausted Jyuushiro. "Why don't you stay here? Maybe get them started on packing or figuring out how to get out?"
Jyuushiro grinned a little wryly, but nodded. "Certainly. Arai-san, may I go to the village with you? Maybe you can show me what you need to do for an evacuation for when they do come back with confirmation."
The old man looked at Jyuushiro and frowned. "What the hell did you just say?"
Jyuushiro looked the man in the eye. "Let us go get ready to get out of here, if there really are Hollows." Jyuushiro respectfully waited, and at the nod and a muttered mumble about stuck-up students, he turned the old guy around and they walked back toward the village.
Saito laughed. "Your partner's good with obstinate people." Then he tilted his head at Shunsui. "Let's go."
They went at a full run down the floor of the valley as the sun moved behind the mountains. It was easier than the climb along the mountain, and Shunsui felt good going all out, his running was smooth and easy. The other man kept up with him without a show of effort, and when he gave the hunter's hand sign for slow and quiet, the other instantly slowed and grew cautious.
Hollow reiatsu alerted Shunsui from yards and yards away, and he was surprised that the other man didn't seem to be aware of it at all. Shunsui wrapped his reiatsu about him even more tightly, and they went in closer. Finally, when they could see the white heads, gaping maws, and talons gleaming, Saito sat down for a minute, his eyes very, very wide. He made no sound, and for that Shunsui was grateful.
They slunk back away, and when Shunsui could finally not feel the distinctive pain and hunger of the Hollows, he said, "They seem to have filled the valley. There's hundreds of them of all levels of power."
"Shit," Saito said softly as they started the run back to the village. "Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit. How are we gonna get help? I mean, I know you're Academy students, but I don't think you could take those on."
"I can't imagine taking them on either," Shunsui replied dryly. "My friend has a Hell Butterfly we can send back to Shiba-sama, but we thought it was important to warn you first."
"Gods, yes, we can at least get to the tunnels. Maybe send someone back through them to Shiba-sama too."
"Right." Shunsui was relieved that he had managed to turn the other man's thoughts to what he could do rather than what he couldn't, and the rest of the run back was accomplished in silence.
To his surprise, Saito didn't go directly to the town square and ring the alarm: instead he went to Arai's house first. Fifteen minutes of argument ended up in the old man going out to the town square.
Jyuushiro murmured, "It's that hierarchy thing, isn't it?"
Shunsui nodded and sighed. "It might get them killed, this delay."
"Well, at least I got enough of a rest I can help delay the Hollows if it comes to that."
"I hope it doesn't," Shunsui said fervently, even as old Arai got up and started telling everyone they had to evacuate. He was grateful when Arai motioned Saito up to the platform, not the two students, as the eyewitness, and all the villagers ran back to their homes. One slight woman with short-cut bangs, long black hair, and dark eyes watched them instead of the village elder. Shunsui looked at her, and she looked away.
"We should be going in an hour. We'll have to move in the dark and pray the Hollows don't roam further in the night," Saito said when he came back up to the students. "Can you do that... whatever-fly thing, to tell Shiba-sama?"
"Oh, right. Jyuushiro, I told him you could probably contact Shiba-sam..."
Jyuushiro nodded. "I already have. Also sent one off to Yamamoto-sama as we were instructed to do. This is going to be a mess if there's actually an engagement: he didn't want to do this kind of thing until spring when everyone lent their forces for it. It'd be easier if there wasn't a fight yet."
"But our village! We have to be able to come back!" Saito cried.
"I dunno. Between being alive and having no home until spring, and being dead, I think I'd choose the first," Shunsui drawled.
Jyuushiro sighed, "I said it'd be easier, not that it had to happen. I suspect that if Shiba-sama charges into that mess, he's going to need some help getting out of it. So I sent a note to Kenshin, too, thought he should know and figure out what he could do as well."
"That's the last of your Hell Butterflies, isn't it?"
Jyuushiro nodded, his smile wry. "Yes, it is. I'll admit I didn't think they'd be so popular."
"Well," Shunsui sighed, then slapped Saito on the shoulder. "You'd better get going. We'll help cover your folks, but it's going to be a long night."
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