Arc: Twin Souls
Rating: PG, work safe, small bits of rather satisfying violence
Summary: Clan politics go wild in the boys' world and nothing is quite as it might seem; however, the boys find that the alliances they've made under pressure aren't easily broken. They do what needs to be done.
Author's Notes: Many thanks to incandescens' unceasing support, and while I didn't get this out as quickly as I hoped I would, I can say that the story is moving at a steady pace.
Standard Disclaimers: I do not own Bleach or its characters, nor do I make any money from these writings.
<< The Previous Chapter: Ch. 33 Betrayal
"He's right," Daisuke-san rasped.
Shunsui ignored the conversation and paid attention, instead, to the ruin in front of him. Daisuke-san's throat and the meat of his shoulder were a bloody, shredded mess, on top of the wounds he'd already sustained in the tunnels. Shunsui paused, dismayed.
Jyuushiro dropped to his knees by Shunsui, his slender fingers spread over torn flesh.
"Quiet, sir, I think I can put some of this back together," he said with a frown. Intoning the words for a healing kido, Jyuushiro leaned against Shunsui's shoulder, and Shunsui fought not to just wrap an arm around his friend. Shaken by the sudden appearance of violence in a situation Shunsui had thought safe, Shunsui wanted reassurance, and Jyuushiro's touch provided an unexpected amount of it.
The blue glow of healing kido bathed Daisuke-san's throat and shoulder. Shunsui, remembering how healing had worked at the Academy, reached into the mess, and did his best to press together rent edges. Jyuushiro gave a curt nod, and under his fingertips Shunsui felt heat rise and blood flow.
"Why are you healing him, boy?" Kuchiki Ren's silken smooth tones made Shunsui bristle.
But Jyuushiro's concentration on Daisuke-san's healing was too complete, and Shunsui saw that Jyuushiro hadn't even heard the question.
"Because Daisuke-san's been our teacher for a year and just saved our lives," Shunsui said shortly. "Why the hell wouldn't he?"
Daisuke-san's eyes narrowed and then dropped closed.
Kuchiki Ren chuckled. "But your boy is also the one that knew what the poison was."
The other nobles started moving in closer, and Ryuu Hinata threw more fuel on that particular bonfire. "How did your friend know about the nature of that poison?"
The glow faded from Jyuushiro's hands, and to Shunsui's touch, Daisuke-san's heated skin began to cool, the flush fading. The worst of the slashes were now closed, though the jagged flesh was purple and swollen. No more blood ran from open wounds. Shunsui relaxed as Jyuushiro stirred and looked up at the surrounding people.
"I knew because my sister was once bitten by a beaked sea snake." Jyuushiro sat back, and only Shunsui could tell that his roommate was shaking under the black robes. "She nearly died, but the village healer knew what it was and what to do."
"In Seireitei?" Ryuu Hinata asked sharply.
"Of course not, out on the Western Shore, the village of Hamamura." Jyuushiro sounded exasperated.
Kuchiki Ren turned to look at the Hatsuzora contingent, who were huddled over their fallen lord. They were arguing over a dignified way to carry the body back to their homelands. "Isn't that in the ocean Clan's lands? Why aren't you with them?"
"He's not big enough for their robes," Shunsui drawled, suddenly seeing the situation Kuchicki Ren was playing toward.
"What?" Jyuushiro looked startled, but gave Shunsui a look. Shunsui felt Jyuushiro's reiatsu relax. "Daisuke-san, do you need help with your side as well?"
Shunsui settled contentedly by Jyuushiro, seeing that Jyuushiro was doing his best to head the conversation away into safe territories. Shunsui's reiatsu senses spread just a little further, and he started as he came in contact with Kaoru's essence at the edge of the crowd. What was he doing here?
"No, Ukitake-kun," Daisuke-san said firmly. "I would not have you overdo it. There are healers in the other cave."
"Which are all overextended, sir. If I may?"
"No, Ukitake-kun. You may not. You and Shunsui already did field dressings, and they were just surface wounds. They are mildly uncomfortable, but I will not die of these." Daisuke-san's tone was dry as he levered himself back up to a seated position. "I wish, however, to speak to Kuchiki-san's concerns."
"Oh, do you?" Kuchiki Ren's tones had gone silky again.
The tone might have worked on Shunsui, except Shunsui sensed Kaoru's wrath building like a small storm cloud edging over the horizon.
"Yes. I do." Daisuke-san's smile was bland. "Ukitake-kun could not have struck through Yamamoto-soutaichou's waking reiatsu. He is not strong enough."
"But he cut Yamamoto-soutaichou easily enough right before our eyes!" Ryuu Hinata murmured, shocked. "How can you say that he couldn't have hit the General when his back was turned?"
"Because the difference between a conscious reiatsu and an unconscious one is considerable," Daisuke-san said mildly. "And if you knew anything of Ukitake-kun's personality you wouldn't even ask these questions."
"But if this is an ocean poison, and only available from oceanic sources..."
"Who would have the greatest reason to see Yamamoto-soutaichou fail?"
Shunsui was fascinated by just how many pairs of eyes flickered toward the arguing Hatsuzora nobles.
"But why in the world would any of them sacrifice their own lord to do it?" Jyuushiro asked, sounding utterly bewildered. "That's not..."
"Unless the attack on Yamamoto-soutaichou was just cover to kill Hatsuzora-sama," Shunsui interjected.
"But a Hollow killed Hatsuzora-sama," Kuchiki Ren said, sounding utterly appalled. "Who in the world could control Hollows in such a matter as to orchestrate that?"
Shunsui caught the quick flick of a glance Ryuu Hinata gave Kuchiki Ren. There was something going on between those two. They seemed closer to each other than they were with their own kinsmen. Neither were the heads of their households, nor were they direct heirs. That they might have worked together to make all this happen was entirely possible. It seemed odd that they would have put themselves in jeopardy in order to...
In Shunsui's mind, he saw Ryuu-san and Kuchiki-san's concerted movements against the attacking adjucha, and the fact that they hadn't started until after other people's kido punches and Daisuke-san's telling blow. That wasn't jeopardy. Imaging that kind of power at play dazzled Shunsui.
You could do that, brother, the gruff voice within his mind stated. You are entirely capable, my wielder, of equal if not far greater power.
Herding Hollows? Shunsui asked, appalled.
No, no! Meeting one of those things head-on and winning just as easily. Just hear my name.
Shunsui snorted, then realized that all those very sharp eyes were trained on him. He gave a sheepish grin, and most of the looks dropped away.
"If it was one of the Hatsuzora nobles," Ito Rudra said slowly, the weight of his words solid, "then they would be terrible in battle. Anyone or any clan that would stoop to calling in an army of Hollows would have no moral control anymore and would be as dangerous as a mad dog."
"But why in the King's name would anyone attack a dragon to get at the head billy goat?" Daisuke-san was frowning. "And while that further speculation might be correct, do they actually look as if they could do something like that?"
Kuchiki Ren coughed to cover a laugh. "You are calling a Clan a herd of goats?"
Shunsui eyed the utter chaos of the Hatsuzora group and understood Daisuke-san's disbelief. There was no way those people would have had the brains or the will to plan this. His mind raced down the path that his teacher had opened. If Yamamoto-soutaichou was the actual target, then it had to be because someone wanted to get rid of the head of the Academy. Getting rid of Yamamoto-soutaichou could have more than one repercussion, including causing the Academy to lose the steady direction of Yamamoto.
More than one noble house wanted the Academy in disarray; however, everyone knew that Ryuu Kurogane was next in line for the head of the Ryuu clan, and while Kurogane wasn't Yamamoto, he also wasn't one to allow chaos to reign. Shunsui felt the thread of an intent, and he glanced up to see Ryuu Hinata looking at him. She looked away quickly, but it only confirmed Shunsui's intuition.
Something else was going on under the cover of both assassination attempt and real death, and it wasn't as simple as the Hatsuzora Clan trying to get rid of the Academy. Someone was setting them up to make it look that way.
Daisuke-san was facing Kuchiki Ren as if he were taking on an equal. "Aye. I call things as I see them, sir."
"You really do not have a good sense of self-preservation, commoner," Kuchiki Ren said. "But let us say you are accurate in your assessment of those asses; then perhaps that's all the more reason why Hatsuzora-sama bungled the attempt and got himself killed."
"Then justice is already served cold," Daisuke-san said quietly.
The clan members shifted, their intent suddenly feeling to Shunsui as if they were nearly as hungry as Hollows. Nobles with a weak clan to fall on were worse than sharks with a taste of blood in Shunsui's experience. Hatsuzora's disarray was awfully appealing to any that wished to take over their lands. The very coldest of practical voices in his head murmured that it would be easier on the Academy in the end if the Hatsuzora clan were brought down. The last clan that resisted the Academy would be gone.
Under Shunsui's hands, Daisuke-san stiffened. There was something of warning and challenge in Daisuke-san's reiatsu, and Shunsui acknowledged it with a slight nod. Here and now was not the place to air his thoughts. There were too many to hear and take the kind of offense that a wounded Yamamoto couldn't afford.
"How are they doing with Yamamoto-soutaichou?" Daisuke-san asked anxiously, and everyone turned to see.
Jyuushiro patted Daisuke-san's shoulder, got up, and found himself eye to eye with Ito Indra. Jyuushiro kept his gaze steady while looking into Indra's bloodshot glare, and finally it was Indra's eyes that flickered down. Before everyone, Indra stepped aside and Jyuushiro paced over to where Yamamoto lay.
Unohana pushed damp hair from her face at Jyuushiro's approach, and Fong was gasping for air, sprawled by Yamamoto-soutaichou's now relaxed form.
"How is it going?" Jyuushiro asked so that everyone could hear. "His breathing seems to have evened out."
Unohana looked up, while Fong just grunted something that might have been, "Fever."
Unohana nodded in agreement, took a deep breath and held it for a moment before letting it go out slowly. When she spoke, it was in calm and measured phrases. "The poison is mostly taken care of, but what's left will induce a fever to burn off what remains. At his age, it might be dangerous to keep him here, where his convalescence could be compromised."
"How about the Shiba Estates? Would that be a better place for him?" Shunsui asked from where he sat by Daisuke-san. "It's the closest."
"There is only one possibility for taking Yamamoto-soutaichou to the Estate," Kuchiki Ren stated with authority. "The Academy army cut a swathe through the horde of Hollows on the way here, but there are still hundreds of Hollows scattered throughout the side valleys between here and the Estate. If we go back through all of that, it should only be with people who can fight."
"What of the Hollows stuck behind the rock fall! If you go now, those will just break through!" Hayato seemed to have finally found his voice, even if it was rather high.
"Which will not matter a jot if we take all the troops who can walk with us." Ryuu Hinata almost sounded contemplative.
"And who will defend those who can't go with you?" Hayato's voice broke in the middle of the sentence, and the stress and mortification of having to point out something like that shone bright in his reiatsu. "We can't get everyone out of here, especially the slower villagers."
"Maybe the Academy students will prove their worth." Hinata's smile looked all the more hawk-like. "Or they'll prove that, like the villagers, they are simply fodder for Hollows."
"You're including me, you know that?" Hayato flushed bright red, as if he suddenly realized how his aunt thought of him.
"Of course not, nephew." Anyone with a jot of reiatsu senses would have understood that Hinata's surprise was feigned, and Shunsui snorted. It earned him a glare much like that of a raptor eying a tasty rodent. Hinata turned back to Hayato "You are of the Clan. You would come with us, of course."
Hayato blinked at Hinata and recoiled. "And leave my friends?"
"We are family, Hayato-kun. What is the problem?"
"E--everything," Hayato stammered. He glanced at Shunsui, who smiled back in encouragement. Hayato straightened and put his shoulders back. "I'm staying here."
Hinata studied Hayato. "You mean that, chick, don't you?"
Hayato trembled but nodded.
"Maybe this Academy thing is good for you, boy." Hinata slapped Hayato on the shoulder. "Good. Stay here. Defend your honor, chick. We'll bring all the clans. Just hold them long enough."
"Why not send a Hell butterfly now?" Jyuushiro asked quietly, just behind Hinata's shoulder. Shunsui saw her jump and used his sleeve to hide his grin.
"Just send a Butterfly to the Lords, that we need help here. The Kyouraku Clan already know, and Ryuu might be upset at being left out."
"Good thinking." Kuchiki Ren cocked his head. "Do you think Kaoru-kun will be reasonable and come with us?"
"Unlikely." Kaoru's slow voice drawled. The slender noble limped into the circle from where he'd been standing at the edge, receiving a fierce look of concern from Unohana-senpai. "I'm a little too stubborn to do what anyone would do, dear cousin."
"It is good to know one's limitations, cousin."
Shunsui watched, fascinated. While he and Shonetsu might go at it as if with cleavers, Kaoru and Ren argued like slipping daggers hidden under silken sleeves between ribs.
"Besides, I regret not dying with Kali..." Oh, there was the cleaver.
"To the betterment of your standing and clan, dear cousin."
Kaoru flushed but his voice remained calm. "... and will not leave again. Especially a situation where there is some hope."
"There was never any hope with that low-born bi--..."
Ito Indra hit Kuchiki Ren in the mouth with a clenched fist. It wasn't particularly honorable, nor was there any statement of ritualized intent, and Shunsui approved with every ounce of his being.
"Go, Indra!" Shunsui shouted with enthusiasm, and saw that even mild Jyuushiro had clenched fists.
Surprised and shocked by the utterly primitive assault, Ren just stood there, while Indra proceeded to pound him with half a dozen quick blows that sent the noble reeling back with a bloody nose and a bruised cheek. With a little distance, Ren gulped for air, flexed big hands, and then came back at Indra with a roundhouse kick aimed at Indra's head. Indra bared white teeth, stepped in toward Ren, grabbed the on-coming ankle, and hit him between his spread legs.
"Oooohhh." Shunsui winced and closed his eyes at the sound of pain from Ren. "That's gotta hurt."
Indra growled and stared at Ren writhing on the ground. "It's supposed to hurt."
Daisuke-san covered a laugh with a cough. "I suppose you have no objections to my students staying, then, Ito-san."
"None, sir." Indra frowned. "My brother and I will not run, either. We'll go to the barrier that Yamamoto-soutaichou created, and we will hold there. If they break through, then we will fight forward, toward Kyouraku's mountains. I need to see if my sister is alive, and that seems the most..."
"... least prudent but most satisfying method." Indra's brother, Rudra finished, peering at the thrashing Ren. "This Kuchiki should be all right enough to run away."
A groaning growl of sound came from the hunched over Ren, along with a slur of words Shunsui couldn't make out.
"I know, I know, we'll pay for that in Council when next we meet. And we will survive today, so that everyone will know exactly what you and your cousin have done," Rudra stated dryly. "And how you differed."
Rudra walked over to Yamamoto-soutaichou and bent to check the teacher's pulse, before looking up into Fong Jin Wei's eyes. "Will you stay?"
She nodded. "My orders..." Fong trailed off uncertainly.
"Are probably secret, aye?"
"Aye," Fong's dark eyes met Rudra's.
"And directly from..."
Shunsui noted how quickly Fong cut Rudra off. Rudra nodded and bowed low to Fong, lower than any noble would normally bow to a commoner. He and Indra strode away, and a dozen black-clad retainers leaped after them. Fong closed her eyes and took a deep breath, and Shunsui could see that her hands trembled.
Hinata impatiently gestured to the Kuchiki retainers, who came up to Ren and hesitated. It seemed that the pause was for good reason, as Ren growled at them and batted away any helping hands. Finally the man clambered unsteadily to his feet. "Build a litter for Yamamoto-soutaichou," he snarled. "Get going."
The Ryuu retainers looked to Hinata, who nodded curtly, and all the Clan folk split up to do as ordered.
Daisuke-san sighed. "Help me up, Shunsui."
"Aye, sir." Shunsui got under Daisuke-san's arm and helped the older man stand.
"All right, Kyouraku-kun," Daisuke-san said, "let’s get the rest of the students together and see which ones will leave and which wish to stay." Shunsui, Jyuushiro, Hayato, and Kaoru went about gathering all the students who could move, and brought them over to Daisuke-san's resting place. Fong knelt by Daisuke-san's side, but faded away when all the black-clad students arrived.
Daisuke-san stood to speak once everyone quieted. Shunsui recognized Abe Tarou, Sato Saburou, and Hoshiko-chan from their classes. Jyuushiro went to greet them and sat by Hoshiko-chan while they all listened to Daisuke-san.
"Anyone that wishes to go back to the safety of the Shiba Estates should do so," Daisuke-san said,
At the rising murmur of protest, Daisuke-san shook his head. "Do not get caught up in a matter of pride when we are entering a battle for survival. There are dozens of wounded, many of which might be able to make it out if they have support and someone that will watch out for them. I would rather that those who don't feel up to the task simply get out now, there will be no pride lost in going. Kuchiki-kun has extenuating circumstances, and Ryuu-kun's pledge is different than your pledges to the force led from the Academy, especially since Yamamoto-soutaichou is now out of the picture."
"What about you, Kyouraku-kun, are you staying?" Abe-kun asked.
Shunsui caught Jyuushiro's eye. There was a calm belief there in those green eyes, a solidity that Shunsui found himself relying on in a way he could with no other. Shunsui chuckled and nodded. "Yes. Jyuushiro and I are staying. Nothing was said about getting the commoners out of this mess, only of the troops moving out. Jyuushiro and I brought them here. We can't leave them."
Jyuushiro's slow smile warmed Shunsui like nothing else could, and Shunsui felt himself settle. "We'll stay."
Everyone started talking. Shunsui stood by Daisuke-san, as the old sergeant got the remaining students organized. Most of them decided to go back, and Daisuke-san illustrated his point about pride by putting himself in charge of all those that were going back to the Shiba Estates. Once he'd said that, a lot more of the students decided to go. Unohana-senpai decided to stay with the wounded that couldn't make it, and she helped determine which of the remaining students were capable of making the trip back and which weren't.
When Shunsui saw Jyuushiro slip away from the busy group, he followed.
Jyuushiro sat on the cold stone floor of the cave, and pondered what it was they were really going to do and what it was that was really going on. He was shaking now from the aftermath of adrenaline and still feeling a little ill over the fact that Kuchiki Ren was going to use all the Clan and Academy warriors to get to safety and leave everyone else behind. It was also hard seeing all of his Academy friends only to know that they were about to leave again.
"Any bets on how many of the Hatsuzora are going to actually make it to Shiba's?"
Jyuushiro looked up to find Shunsui kneeling beside him, studying him. Shunsui's presence calmed his fears, and Jyuushiro was able to match the even tone.
"But didn't we figure out they weren't to blame for the poisoning?" Jyuushiro said, incredulous at the complete loss of law and order in the proceedings. He'd expected more of the nobles than this pragmatic and deadly Clan politics. "They can't be killed for that."
"We did, but I'm afraid the other Clans are just going to kill them off for failing to keep their Lord safe and making themselves a very ripe target," Shunsui murmured, his fingers going to Jyuushiro's cheek. The touch burned. "This is still bloody, you know."
"It is?" Jyuushiro asked absentmindedly, and touched the tacky surface of his bloody skin. He was still too appalled by the consequences to worry about a cut as a distraction. "Can they really kill a whole clan when they have no idea who's really guilty of Yamamoto-sama's poisoning?"
Shunsui pursed his lips. "I think Ren and Hinata are in it together."
Jyuushiro blinked, wondering why in the world those two would have done it; however, if Shunsui was correct, then Jyuushiro suddenly realized that Daisuke-san wasn't taking any coward's way out of danger. He was putting himself right into the heart of it. "Is that why Daisuke-san volunteered?"
"Probably." Fong Jin Wei's husky voice cut in. "The fool."
Both of the students turned to look at the tiny lady. "Why do you say that?" Jyuushiro asked, surprised by her presence but not willing to show it.
"Because he's injured, trying to protect someone that's completely unconscious, and he's putting them both into the fire. Why else?" Fong's tone was testy.
"Why don't you go with him, then, Fong-chan?" Shunsui asked. "It's pretty obvious that the two of you care for each other."
Fong gave an exasperated sigh. "He had to say that, didn't he?"
"Well, and you called him Gardener," Jyuushiro added peaceably.
"I did, didn't I?" Fong blew out another breath and sat down. "I am getting careless around you two instigators."
"Us?" Shunsui's tone of mock innocence made Jyuushiro smile.
Fong snorted, but she dropped to kneel by them. "My assignment was to watch the two of you."
"What? And not go after lost loves?" Fong growled, but Shunsui continued calmly, "Well, you know where we are and exactly what we'll be doing, right? What else does your boss need to know?"
Fong looked at both of them, and Jyuushiro wondered what it was that she saw. Something of tenderness touched her dark eyes and quirked the corner of her mouth.
"Well," Jyuushiro said to fill the silence, "you know we can't cook, that I'm good at carrying a baby, and exactly how easy it is to get Shunsui to hand his blade to the care of a woman..."
"Hey!" Shunsui's exclamation sounded more amused than outraged, and Fong's smile showed as thin as a new moon.
"... and precisely how stupid we are about sticking with what we've started." Jyuushiro puffed a laugh. "And we're not going to back down here, either."
"No, no you're not," Fong said with a sigh.
"You say that as if it were a bad thing," Shunsui teased, but Jyuushiro noted the way Shunsui's eyes were very intent on... well... their spy.
Fong shrugged, looked up, caught Shunsui's look and her stance straightened. "Maybe it is, young sir," she said neutrally, but then shook her mood off. "No, you are... uncomfortably accurate in your assessment."
"Then you should go with Daisuke-san. Keep them both safe," Jyuushiro said, putting something of the same tone he'd taken with the villagers into his words.
Fong chuckled. "And you're getting entirely too good at that too, Ukitake-kun, for I shall obey your order, sir."
Jyuushiro blinked, disarmed and confused.
"But you must take care of my villagers, yes?" Fong asked. "I've cultivated them for a few decades as a safe hiding hole while watching Shiba's doings. It surprised me when you defended them, but you will keep doing so?"
Jyuushiro nodded automatically at the tone, and nodded again when he actually comprehended the content. "Yes, ma'am, we shall."
"Ma'am..." Fong shook her head. "You really don't care about me being one of the Common Dead, hm?"
"Not really. Daisuke-san is one, too, isn't he?"
"Yes." Fong's tone sounded lost all of a sudden. "Yes, he is."
"And, in my book, neither of you are particularly common. Go on then." Shunsui made gentle shoo'ing motions.
"Right." Fong Jin Wei sounded bemused. She bowed low to them both. "Take care, you two."
"Aye," they chorused and bowed back.
Fong sprinted away in the direction of Yamamoto's stretcher, and Jyuushiro saw Daisuke-san bend to let Fong speak in his ear. The smile on the older man's face made Jyuushiro grin. A warm hand closed on Jyuushiro's, and he turned his hand to hold Shunsui's quietly. There was a determination about Shunsui that Jyuushiro hadn't ever felt before. It was new and Jyuushiro rather liked it. He looked up at Shunsui only to find dark eyes trained on him.
"What are you thinking, Shiro-san?"
Jyuushiro shrugged, but Shunsui quirked one eyebrow.
"Tell me. Anything that can make you smile like that is worth knowing."
"Well, I hope that Daisuke-san invites Fong to the Academy..."
"But there's more, isn't there? You're looking at me differently."
Jyuushiro fumbled for words, not sure what would make sense and what wouldn't, but with Shunsui watching him like that he had to say something. "Well, you're stronger and more sure, and I think it feels good on you."
"Stronger?" Shunsui looked taken aback. "I don't..." He trailed off uncertainly.
Jyuushiro frowned and shook his head. "Not just stronger, but also... I think..." His voice dropped with uncertainty. "I think it's because you understand that you're not alone."
"Not alone?" Shunsui's eyes had widened in surprise, and the hand wrapped about Jyuushiro's tightened. For an instant, Jyuushiro wanted to take his words back, not because he was sure he was wrong, but because he was unsure if he was entirely right in saying it to Shunsui. The big man might reject what was said so baldly. Jyuushiro searched Shunsui's face for understanding or rejection, and finally took a breath when Shunsui nodded.
"You're... right," Shunsui said slowly. "It's odd, knowing that other people can rely on me, or that I can depend on them. No, truly, that I can depend on you." Shunsui touched Jyuushiro gently on the chest. "That you'll just be there, as strong as I am, and never back down. You make it possible to hope that my parents will find Kali, that Unohana will heal to her full abilities, and that Kaoru and Hayato will do all that they can do. Most of all, that every one of those people also needs me to do what I can do, and that I might actually not fail them. That's very new to me."
"You won't fail," Jyuushiro assured him.
Shunsui chuckled. "Not so long as you're beside me."
Jyuushiro tilted his head. "Whereas, I think that if I fell, you would keep doing all that you were capable of, not less."
Full lips twisted into a frown. "Let's not speak of that."
"But I need for you to know, Shunsui, that I think you would do everything within your power for those you were protecting. Even if I had to leave your side," Jyuushiro said quietly. "Everything."
Shunsui's hand closed almost painfully tight about Jyuushiro's, but Jyuushiro didn't wince, didn't let go. He hung on.
Shunsui finally sighed and bowed his head. "I believe you, Jyuushiro. I believe you, but I'd rather it went the other way, evenso."
Shunsui watched the last of the Army leave the caves while standing by the front entrance. The air outside held a hint of the spring that was to come. Sharp, cold, but laden with water and the promise of growth and warmth to come. Hayato stood next to him, looking half a foot taller now that the noble youth was in the open air.
"So much for the army you brought, Hayato," Shunsui said.
"Just rub it in, why don't you?" Hayato said with a grin. "Well, can I take watch out here?"
"Sure. It'll be good to have advanced knowledge if any of the Hollows find the cave from this side," Shunsui said. "Do you have a way to talk to us if you do see something?"
"I was thinking of just borrowing one of the villager's kids to do the running from the peak back into the caves," Hayato said with a grin. "They're small and fast, and I can protect one kid pretty easily."
"Or at least provide enough distraction the kid'll get through, hm?"
"Well, on a mountain top, I'll be just fine, I think," Hayato said, keen eyes glancing up at the sun. "So long as the sun's up."
"Well, it's just mid-day, so we should be fine for a while, then." Shunsui got up and Hayato stood with him. "When it's dark, come on inside, it'll be more defensible."
"You mean, it'll be a much more solid trap." Hayato shook his head. "Still hate being underground, but you're right, there's fewer hidden approaches."
"All right then. I'll see you."
Hayato nodded and grinned. "Yes. See you, and remember, send one of the kids."
Shunsui walked back into the caves, found a boy that was fighting with the others, and sent him up top. The kid seemed eager to take on anyone, and the peace that resulted in the living areas seemed worthwhile.
Jyuushiro was helping Unohana with fortifying the makeshift hospital when Shunsui appeared. Yamada-ji was taking care of the wounded, and with most of the military folks moved out, the villagers had decided to all move into the single cave with its one, defensible entrance. Shunsui was impressed to find Kaoru actually sleeping on one of the pallets, while Jyuushiro fumed.
"There is only one entrance and exit," Jyuushiro grumbled. "There is no other way out if there are overwhelming forces at the entrance."
"Well, it's not like you could move anyone in here, even if we did, right?" Shunsui asked.
The patients were down to just a quarter of what had been there: anyone that was at all mobile had been taken with the troops. Of those that were left, some were in plain clothing instead of their uniforms. Unohana had gone around telling the wounded about the decision of the Clans, and several of the Academy students had lent their uniforms to the able-bodied villagers.
"True." Jyuushiro sighed in exasperation. "True. But I really hate not having any way they could get out if we were to be caught."
"I'm not sure we could take it even if there was one," Shunsui said, and saw the truth hit home as Jyuushiro sobered. "We're here just to delay the inevitable, not to stop it from happening."
Jyuushiro's eyes narrowed. "I can't help trying to win, though, Shunsui."
"And I won't stop you," Shunsui said with a smile. "If those things get past the Ito brothers, and you figure out a way for us to win, then we will all be in your debt."
That was when the whole cave rocked with an explosion. Pebbles pattered down from above as everyone looked at each other in astonishment. Even through the stone walls, Shunsui sensed Ito Indra's fiery rage, hotter than a blazing forest fire, rise even higher. Another shock shook the foundations of the earth they stood on, and Indra's fire snuffed out.
Shunsui sighed. "I guess you'd better think fast, Jyuushiro."
"Aye," Jyuushiro said with a sigh. "I guess I'd better."
Together, they walked to the cave's entrance.
>>The Next Chapter