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Defeat Evil With Evil

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Almost sixteen hundred years ago, Yama-jii planned the Seireitei entirely for the purpose of defensibility and counterstrike. None had argued his allocation of territories for each of the Gotei divisions. They had been living in a violent era when elusive mysterious powers devastated the far north with erratic frequency, and feudal civil wars fragmented the lands from west to south. By comparison, the southeastern regions had less bloodshed and unrest for it was the stronghold of the early Gotei Thirteen, and therefore under a tyrannical kind of stability.

The heart of the Seireitei was built around the impenetrable Soukyoku Hill and the dense bramble forests protecting its northeastern access routes, both natural terrain features commandeered to protect the northeastern flank of the First Division and the northern flank of the Central Forty-Six Compound. From this centre node, defence of the Seireitei was split into four directional quadrants. Of the northwestern quadrant, the first line of defence of its perimeter arc and all northern entry points and Northern Rukongai were given to the Thirteenth Division, for its combat and long range arcane specialisations were particularly suited to repel the unknown northern hostile forces. Behind the Thirteenth within the Seireitei, the Third and Twelfth were assigned the second line of defence of the northwestern middle quadrant districts, with the Second standing as the last line of defence before the northwestern heart of the First Division. When it came to the northeastern quadrant, the combined combat specialisations of the Eighth and Fifth divisions defended the quadrant from its perimeter to its middle quadrant districts, with the Ninth serving as the last line of defence before the bramble forests at the foot of the northeastern lee of the Soukyoku Hill. The natural safety of the geographical feature was given to the Fourth, which Yama-jii located in the northeastern middle quadrant with the forest protecting its rear, distant enough from the northern frontlines and shielded by the natural fortifications, yet close enough to the perimeter divisions to respond quickly to the injured.

Defence of the southern half was divided into three quadrants. To the large melee forces of the Eleventh and the peacekeeping forces of the Tenth, were assigned the defence of the entire southwestern quadrant from perimeter to inner walls, from where they struck out and deployed quickly and effectively into the lands from west to south to quell the continuous feudal conflicts. The Gotei’s historical southeastern stronghold were divided into lower and upper quadrants, with the Sixth placed at the direct southern entry point as the first line of southernmost defence, augmented by the Seventh in the lower southeastern middle quadrant as the last line of breach before the Central Forty-Six Compound in the southern lee of the Soukyoku Hill. The entire upper southeastern quadrant was ceded to the Shinoureijutsuin, these days affectionately called the Shinigami Academy, whose teaching staff could be activated as the fourteenth war division when necessary.

When the centuries dragged on, as belligerence from the north continued with no sign of abatement while the feudal conflicts subsided, Yama-jii mustered a healthy portion of the Twelfth into the research and development of arcane and military capabilities of the Gotei in repeated bids to understand and defeat the strange northern troublemakers. But other than this, the specialisations and assignments of the Gotei forces remained largely unchanged for the following thousand and seven hundred years.

Of course Shunsui said nothing of this closely-guarded bit of insider military history as he watched, rather impressed, Rukia-chan draw the map of the Seireitei on a sheet of rice paper the size of a mess hall table, marking with colourful rabbit faces the spots her human friends wished to see. She was remarkably detailed for someone who was drawing from memory. He had removed his hat some time during their evening feast and now bent his own head among the five eager young ones, one shinigami and four humans, listening to their chattering comments about the locations. Unable to help himself, he picked up one of Rukia-chan’s coloured pens – selecting the magenta one - and began adding little bottle shapes here and there, indicating the best places he knew served the best sake. Five pairs of young eyes immediately pinned him reproachfully, and suddenly remembering that his entire audience was underaged, he sheepishly put the pen down.

It was time for the last adult to exit. Shunsui had always been circumspect in choosing his battles and he knew a ready defeat when he saw one.

“I’ll leave you all to it, then,” he excused himself apologetically, rising to his feet with his hat in hand. Putting it over his head, he tipped its brim at the youngsters with a smile, bade them a collective good night, and sauntered out of the mess hall.

As he stepped out into the breezeless night, he instinctively swept the moonlit courtyard in one all-encompassing gaze.

Peace reigned over the sprawling mess halls, a far cry from the electrified bustle of earlier when it had been jam-packed to near standing room with excited shinigami of the Thirteenth - and those of other divisions. Only a few kitchen staff remained to clean up the detritus of the impromptu feast. Everything else was now silent and still, awash in shades of greys in the cold light of the rising full moon, yet there was still no relief from the clinging heat and humidity. Summer was long past, and autumn should have ended, yet this year both seasons lay commingled like a persistent cloying blanket of dank warmth over the Seireitei, driving shinigami tempers across the capital oscillating between short fused and listless as frustrations mounted beneath the inexplicably prolonged damp sweltering heat. Kurosaki-kun and his friends could not have arrived at a worse time. As soon as they were named as ryoka they had drawn the full brunt of all shinigami weather-influenced frustrations.

And yet, even all that was now over. All animosity vaporised today in one dramatic afternoon. What had been abject antagonism only this morning, now verged on celebrity worship. Then when news leaked that the new human heroes would be hosted by the legendary taichou of the Thirteenth to an evening repast whipped up by his fabled chefs, sentiments throughout the Seireitei had literally lit up like spring festival fireworks. From what had been intended to be a hearty informal meal, Jyuushirou’s mess halls had suddenly become the place to be that evening. Shunsui had met Madarame-kun and Ayasegawa-kun, as well as Abarai-kun, as injured as the young ones still were. He had even spied Hisagi-kun and Kira-kun digging into the roasting haunches of black pork and had toasted several rounds of sake with amply-bosomed Rangiku-chan. Kurosaki-kun and his illustrious host had been interrupted so many times that Hanshi-sama had to put her foot down momentarily just so she could complete health checks for their human guests. And to top it all off, the quantities of food and sake consumed tonight had been enough to feed the whole of Seireitei for several days, of which such a hefty portion was silently put away by the willowy gentle taichou of the Thirteenth himself that Shunsui overheard several wagers whispered across the mess halls betting on exactly how much reiryoku the elder shinigami had to refuel.

Shunsui smiled involuntarily at the thought. A long time ago, when the Gotei had been a coarse and brawling gang of fighters instead of the disciplined army it now was, Jyuushirou had taken his meals with Shunsui and everyone else in the mess halls. But as they grew up and his love’s appetite inexplicably increased in utter contradiction to his physical constitution, meatheads had begun to challenge him to testosterone-driven contests at the bottle and the roast only to be innocently beaten into embarrassing stupor by a pale waif who had seemed like a mere breeze could knock over. Shunsui stifled a snigger at the memory, for if there was a soul who could drink even Shunsui under the table, it was Jyuushirou. For all that he appeared to be a lightweight, he simply burned alcohol as fuel before its effects could touch him, and they had both conspired to never reveal his natural unfair advantage. Ultimately Jyuushirou had retreated to eating alone simply to have peace, but eventually kept the habit as he rose in position, for it afforded him the opportunity to customise his diet for his health. Hanshi-sama had a hand in it, Shunsui knew.

Ai, I hope she’s giving you a clean bill of health, love of my life, he silently groused with humour. Make it worth my while entertaining the children on your behalf.

He imagined a gently deprecating look from those beloved mahogany eyes and a dainty sniff from that pale patrician nose, and involuntarily let loose a soft bittersweet chuckle. Jyuushirou had held court throughout the evening with the same sincere grace and humble refinement that made Yama-jii’s banquets so famous throughout the Gotei’s history. Yet Shunsui had spent nearly two thousand years intimately sharing Jyuushirou’s life and missions and he was not fooled. His love had been completely entranced by Kurosaki-kun, the mix of wonder and sorrow glimmering in the dark depths of his expressive eyes unbearably poignant to watch.

Even more heart-wrenching was how the human youth had responded to him. During the entire meal, Kurosaki-kun had voluntarily and wordlessly refilled Jyuushirou’s sake dish and dinner plate with the choicest morsels in a forthright and genuine manner so reminiscent of the fukutaichou Jyuushirou had painstakingly cultivated and eventually lost, that Shunsui had to look away. And though Jyuushirou had continued to work on his official duty to understand their new human allies, and had also noticed the strange evasiveness of Ishida-kun whenever his friends described their battles, the guileless reciprocation of Kurosaki-kun had wrung such surprise, pleasure and sorrow across his finely chiselled features that Shunsui felt his own heart ache.

Thankfully, the revelry had begun to dissipate soon after Hanshi-sama left. She, too, had been unable to elicit any information from the Ishida boy during her healing session with him, and soon after she finished her meal, she had levelled a meaningful glance at Jyuushirou and Shunsui before leaving to return to the Fourth. And that had provided them both with some relief, for Kurosaki-kun became distracted when Rukia-chan started getting into the spirit of planning her friends’ itinerary for the next day. When she enthusiastically took over organising the detailed programme and logistics, Jyuushirou gracefully excused himself stating that he did not wish to keep Unohana Taichou up late waiting for his medical appointment, then with long-practiced smoothness gently asked Shunsui if he wished to stay or retire. Shunsui had of course accepted the opening his love so subtly orchestrated despite his emotional tumult, and had opted to stay a while. And thus he had spent the next hour getting to know the human youths without intrusion from the multitudes of curious shinigami rank and file. It was during the brief lull when Rukia-chan had gone to fetch drawing materials that Shunsui could finally relax Ishida-kun enough for the youth to quietly divulge that his wounds had been inflicted by Kurotsuchi Mayuri.

Now, with almost all shinigami who had joined the feast retired to their barracks or hospital wards to come down from the highs of the evening’s spontaneous celebrations, Shunsui had a moment of peace and quiet for reflection.

The four human youths possessed not a single reishi of ill intent or meanness between them. Their combined hearts were large and strong enough to accommodate all the pettiness from the whole of the Seireitei, yet Kurotsuchi Mayuri had hurt Ishida-kun far deeper than physical wounds, perhaps even reopened an unhealed emotional pain. What that pain was, it was best to find out. Shunsui had defended Soul Society for far too long and learnt from too many painful personal experiences that even the smallest emotional issue, if left unattended, could potentially cause a devastating harm. If Kurotsuchi had fought young untested Ishida-kun yet ended up escaping using Nikushibuki, his last-resort trick of complete body liquefaction, Shunsui wanted to know how such a thing could have happened.

Taking a shunpo step, Shunsui leapt onto the roof of the mess hall, then leisurely began stepping across roof to roof in an easterly direction, towards the full moon already midway up in the eastern night sky. Silver moonlight washed everything in greys and white. Soon he arrived on top of the perimeter wall that divided the Thirteenth’s territory from the Third, at a point where there were fewer rooftops in that area of the Third. With a little push of reiatsu, he launched into the air, crossing the entire territory of the Third in one shunpo stride and aiming directly for the high walls separating the Third from the Twelfth.

Yama-jii had initially prescribed the same height for all internal perimeter walls of the Seireitei, but over the last century, the paranoid genius master of the Twelfth had raised his division’s walls to such lofty elevations that none could mistake his clear signal for all to keep out. No matter. It was easy for Shunsui to step onto the top of those ridiculously heightened walls and stand easily on its narrow edge as he sent his reiatsu out to locate the terrifyingly brilliant and ruthless scientist.

He was a little startled to find Kurotsuchi’s metallic signature in his personal quarters, along with the unnaturally regular pattern belonging to his fukutaichou Nemu-chan. It was curious, for the painted shinigami did not retire before midnight, and tonight was young yet.

Lightly buoying himself into the air, he took a large shunpo stride that placed him directly over the roof of Kurotsuchi’s personal quarters, then with his reiatsu completely cloaked, settled down light as feather on its roof tiles. A little sensing told him that Kurotsuchi and Nemu-chan were currently in the front of the house, most likely having a late supper. Since there was little point in directly approaching a personality as cagey and suspicious as their resident scientist, Shunsui decided to put in a little pre-confrontation spying to gauge the mood of the disconcerting fellow. He searched a bit for a concealed entry point, his hopes disappearing when his skin was tickled by the vibration of a freshly-made Kyoumon barrier. Dropping soundlessly to the ground in the darkest part of the building’s surroundings, he manually looked for an alternative spot to carry out his impromptu spying.

It was as if kami was watching out and rooting for him. A wind shifted the shadows of the night-time clouds, temporarily revealing a small, square, barred window located high on the corner of the shadowed wall he had dropped next to, situated close to the eaves of the roof. It was quite far up from the ground.

Shunsui felt a little laughter threaten to roll forth. I’m a lucky one, ne, Amai’take, he mentally thought at Jyuushirou. All those lunch breaks and nights trying to break into Hanshi-sama’s herb garden to see you, that little talent is coming into handy right now.

Smiling to himself, Shunsui launched himself back onto the roof, then tiptoed across its peak until he was directly over the small window. He had two thousand years and the equivalent amount of skills now compared to when he had first developed this technique, so with very little conscious effort, he held his zanpakutou close to his side, leapt into the air and simultaneously lengthened his body horizontally, and landed with one hand bracing himself on the edge of the roof, the lower half of his body coming to rest in a soundless recline on the downward-slanting roof tiles. Using only the strength of his back muscles, and holding his hat firmly onto his head, Shunsui lowered his upper torso until he could see into the small window, peering into the room upside down.

Surprise filled him. Eccentric Kurotsuchi Mayuri had chosen what appeared to be a storage room as his bedroom. There was his elevated platform bed, a wardrobe, and a vanity dresser with a large mirror. On the counter of the dresser was amassed a large assortment of what appeared to be brushes, sponges and pots of body and skin paints. The bulk of the room, however, was occupied by what looked like a circular tub of smoking liquid, and a very long laboratory bench table. The sight of what was arrayed on the bench table answered the question of why Kurotsuchi had chosen this room as his bedroom.

A series of tall, glowing, cylindrical glass tanks stood in a neat row, connected by masses of flexible tubes and wires. Shunsui blanched when he spied disembodied organs growing inside the tanks, some organs appearing more complete than the others. There was a stomach, a coil of intestines, a half-generated liver, even a heart. Next to the heart, there was…

His eyes widened.

A pair of pinkish, healthy lungs was suspended in the glowing liquid, complete with a new trachea.

He had learnt enough basic biology in field kaidou classes to know what he was looking at.

All the organs were clearly alive, feeding on the glowing liquid they were suspended in. Shunsui would not have known who they belonged to, except that Kurotsuchi had pasted a scribbled note on the cylinder containing the stomach, stating, ‘Note to self: Tell kitchen staff that anyone who accidentally put onions into my food again, will be dissolved alive to make new nutrient fluid.’

His heart and mind raced. Pressing lightly on the roof tile under his balancing hand, Shunsui propelled himself soundlessly into the air in a smooth somersault, righting himself in midair before coming to land feather light on the edge of the roof. Settling down cross-legged on the roof tiles, his thoughts spun.

You sly, crazy genius, Shunsui narrowed his eyes as ideas began frothing in his head. Now that I know your secret, what can I do with it?

A near century of serving the Gotei together with the scientist had more than convinced Shunsui that the brilliance of the Kurotsuchi’s mind was outsized only by the fellow’s own ego. One immediate question rose to the forefront, but Shunsui knew without even trying that a direct approach with Kurotsuchi would guarantee only instantaneous rejection. Especially tonight, if the agitation streaking the scientist’s metallic reiatsu was anything to judge by.

That metallic reiatsu was currently entering the room beneath the roof he was sitting upon. Nemu-chan was following close behind. Curious, Shunsui craned all his senses.

“…stubborn, obstinate walking stick!” Kurotsuchi’s nasally voice was berating. “Nemu, why didn’t you say anything! You were there!”

“I was defeated by the subject, Kurotsuchi Taichou,” was the respectful emotionless reply of the soft-spoken enhanced artificial soul.

“That’s right, you were! How useless,” muttered Kurotsuchi, then again loudly berated, “Leave the file there and go back to your room! I need to think.”

“Yes, Kurotsuchi Taichou. Good night, Father.” The reiatsu of Nemu-chan began to depart and recede.

“Stubborn, obstinate, pigheaded old mule…” Kurotsuchi continued to mutter to himself. “Now I have to waste more time just to remind that decrepit brain this is what happens when he let that man live! Of all the mulish, stone-headed…”

Shunsui frowned in puzzlement. That man?

There was a sudden silence from the room below. Then, abruptly, sounding quite loud and quite clearly from the window below him, Kurotsuchi’s nasal voice said, “There are exactly four souls in Soul Society neither my instruments nor I can sense. Of those four, only you, Kyouraku Taichou, will be brazen enough to sit spying outside my bedroom window.”

Caught, Shunsui unfurled his reiatsu a little and allowed a shadow layer of it to touch the agitated metallic signature beneath. Throwing aside all pretence of concealment, he simply held his hat to his head again, bent his spine over into a downward stretch, and looked into the window.

The upside-down black-and-white painted face of Kurotsuchi Mayuri glared at him from below mussed blue hair. The testy scientist had removed his one-horned white hat.

“What do you want?” Kurotsuchi demanded without preamble the instant his golden eyes landed on Shunsui, lipless white skeletal teeth somehow managing to look even more tightly gritted than usual.

“Merely to ask how an untested human boy could end up forcing you to resort to Nikushibuki,” Shunsui replied affably.

“What makes you think I’ll tell you?”

“From what I overheard, sounds like you need a little help getting Yama-jii’s attention.”

“I don’t need help. I just need patience. And even if I need help, I’m not taking it from any of you elders.”

“Ai, you wound me, Mayuri-kun!” Shunsui exaggerated his hurt tone as he purposely used the mad scientist’s first name with an affectionate honorific. “If you won’t accept my help, perhaps I could ask Ukitake to speak to Yama-jii for you instead? The jii-sama hardly ever resists the dulcet voice of my older brother.”

“Are you deaf? I said I won’t accept help from any of you elders!” The reptilian golden eyes flashed. “Now if you don’t have anything else to say, get out of my division!”

Shunsui grinned at him, then clasping his hat to his head, nodded once in good night. “I shall leave you then. Have a good rest.” Straightening, he rose to his full height, then paused when Kurotsuchi tossed out a warning.

“Remember, Kyouraku Taichou, there are exactly four souls in Soul Society neither my instruments nor I can sense. You may go undetected but not by my logic of deduction. If I find anything amiss in here after this, I’ll know it’s you.”

Snorting beneath his breath, Shunsui leapt upwards into shunpo.

With the mood Kurotsuchi was currently in, there would be no more talking to him tonight.

Tomorrow, however, was another day. 

# # # # # #

Shihouin Yoruichi accosted him in mid-shunpo.

Retracting his reiatsu, Shunsui stepped down onto the roof of the now-vacant quarters of former taichou of the Third Division and waited expectantly as she touched down a heartbeat later. She had always beaten him in shunpo tag, but with the vast difference in their reiatsu, if he had not been taking a leisurely pace, he was certain she would not have seen him at all.

“Out for a stroll?” she asked in her low purring alto with teasing golden eyes.

“Ai, after spying on me during the whole feast from the rooftops, and you weren’t waiting for me?” he asked with mock hurt.

A soft throaty laugh answered him. Shunsui could not help a well of male appreciation as he observed her. This was some woman. The missing century of her absence from Soul Society had imbued her with softer curves and brought out a large measure of enticing feminine mischief that had formerly been suppressed beneath heavy protocols of high nobility. If she was not so into Kisuke-kun, or for that matter, Jyuushirou, and if his own heart had not already been ceded to his gentle soul brother since he was fifteen, he would have pursued her himself for a brief exciting liaison.

“Still the same-old debauched flirt,” she was remarking with a lopsided grin. “And to be honest, yes. I was hoping to catch you for a discussion.” Her dark hand waved in the direction of the Twelfth. “But I noticed the direction you just came from. Perhaps I can cut the discussion short. Did you just try to ask Mayuri about his Quincy research?”

“Hmm.” Shunsui tapped his chin. So he was correct, Ishida-kun was a Quincy. And Yoruichi knew about it. “Why would I do that?”

“Perhaps it’s because you’re sensing something from one dinner that took me days to figure out?”

“Perhaps,” he allowed.

A look of annoyance flashed across her dark fine features. “Seriously? Are you still angry at me after all this time?”

That genuinely baffled him. “Angry at you?”

She snorted. “Don’t act the fool. You don’t show a thing but anyone who’s ever encroached on what is yours knows how possessive you really are.”

So that was it. “Ai, Yoruichi-san, I’m afraid you maligned me!” he chuckled. “I never once begrudged your dalliance! Rather, I’ve always been a little proud of it.”

She raised a disbelieving purple brow.

“He’s very easy to love,” Shunsui smirked knowingly at her, chuckling again at her answering look of annoyance. “For all his high status and mysticism surrounding him, he’s truly very approachable. You aren’t the first or only one to attempt braving those tumultuous waters. And I must congratulate you on being the only one to succeed!”

An incredulous expression came over her face. He merely laughed in response. “I would’ve shortened my life considerably and incurred his endless irritation if I were to be possessive about him.” At her continuing unconvinced look, he relented a little and shared a bit of honesty. “Nay, Ukitake knows his own heart. He and I have loved each other for two thousand years and our regard for each other still continues to deepen. An occasional affair of a century or so by either one of us is not going to affect what we have.”

When her scepticism did not change, Shunsui finally softened. Drawing upon an old remembered pain, he allowed a little of it to show and quietly, told her, “And you gave him comfort at a time when he needed it most. When I couldn’t be there for him. I never forget anyone who lends him succour, especially in times when I can’t.”

She stared at him. Then a quiet awe grew in her dark fine features, followed by another lopsided grin, this time rueful. “I’m beginning to see that living for thousands of years truly changes a soul’s perspective.”

He would have given voice to his immediate response beginning with ‘When I was your age…’ but decided to drop it, lest he came across as patronising. Jyuushirou often warned him how the younger taichou could be touchy about their immense age gap from the elders. So instead, Shunsui decided to answer her original question. “Kurotsuchi-san was beaten into liquefaction by a barely-trained and untested Quincy boy. I wished to know how he managed such a spectacular defeat. Alas, his mood tonight is foul. Apparently, Yama-jii is not listening to something he wanted to say.”

“Uryuu isn’t barely trained or untested. He was hunting and killing Hollows in the Living World years before Rukia ran into Ichigo.”

“Then I can see how this is upsetting our dear scientist. A few decades after your departure, Kurotsuchi-san made a huge fanfare of announcing he had completed all studies on Quincies.” He chuckled again. “No doubt Ishida-kun’s appearance is severely wounding his ego.”

“I don’t know Mayuri well, but since you think so, I’ll talk to Kisuke when I get back. What about Ichigo?” She looked intently at him. “What do you sense about him?”

“Something in his reiatsu tells me he’s related to Shiba Isshin, apart from the other strange combinations of Hollow and Quincy signatures I sensed in him,” he answered honestly. “Can Kisuke-kun and you look into that when you return? Kurosaki-kun is a pure-hearted child with immense potential that is yet untapped. It would be a terrible waste if neither he nor us know everything about the origins of his powers.” Then pointedly, with seriousness, he added, “If anyone tells you that ignorance is bliss, or what we don’t know can’t hurt us, I can tell you that is an absolute lie. Full knowledge is the key to everything. One innocuous little fact, once made known, can turn disaster into success.”

Golden eyes looked at him contemplatively, seemingly seeing something he was not privy to. “I seem to keep learning more and more wisdom tonight,” she softly remarked.

This time, Shunsui knew the exact words to say about the immense gaps in their ages and powers. “All the more so that you can pass it on after we’re gone, ne?” he quipped cheerfully.

# # # # # #

The first thing Shunsui noticed, as he flash-stepped over the tall, ancient wall of white stones delineating what had once been part of the Ukitake Family estate grounds, was the thin stream of softly flowing watery reiatsu deliberately left out for him, like a crumb indicating a hidden path. When he landed lightly onto the wide verandah lining the front of the pavilion lake house, the second thing he noticed was the dark cloth bundle left on the petrified cherry wood seat beside the bamboo blinds of the entryway. It had a folded note attached to its knot, with his name written in the handwriting of Nanao-chan. The cloth was one of a set of travel packing cloths which he habitually kept in the back of his wardrobe. When he picked up the bundle, a muffled clacking sound emitted from within its soft bulk. Opening the note, he smiled at the respectful but authoritative message.

Kyouraku Taichou,

These will tide you over for the week that I prefer you stay away from the divisional repairs. When I need you, I will find you. Please rest well.

Yours loyally,
Nanao

He grinned wryly. Bless Nanao-chan’s perceptive little heart. She had understood without being told that he was more than happy to continue staying exactly where he was.

Humming beneath his breath, he ducked under the bamboo blinds and entered the small stone-slabbed foyer leading to the living room of the lake house. Another pair of waraji, narrower and smaller than his own, was already arranged on the slate stone step ready for the next day. Toeing off his own waraji and leaving them haphazardly beside the other pair, he removed his flowered pink silk kimono and carefully draped it on the kimono stand by the entryway, woefully fingering the soot stains on the treasured robe.

It would be difficult to clean, he estimated sadly.

Dispelling his momentary woe and leaving the matter for tomorrow, he hung his hat on one corner of the stand, then stepped up onto the clean tatami floor, silently padding over its springy surface into the serene interior of the living room.

Scents of tea, herbs and fresh peony blooms drifted in the air, wafting through the half-ajar interior shoji at the back of the room. Warm diffused light was emanating from the fluted blasted glass lampshade of the tall kidou lamp standing in the far corner. The expanse of wall beside the interior shoji was adorned almost from floor to ceiling beams with a tall, line art watercolour from an ancient master of an era long gone by, depicting a crane flying against a rising sun over a sea-washed cliff. The soft ambient light set off the discreet dark sheen of the polished aged cherry wood of the large square low table in the centre of the room, of the rich textured crimson silk of its attendant sitting cushions, and the low liquor-and-crockery cabinet chest of matching construction. Mingling with the kidou lamplight was the silvery light of the rising moon washing in from the circular bamboo-barred window above the chest. Save for these, nothing else marred its ascetic elegance and serene contemplative beauty of the room, a perfect reflection of the nature of the master of the estate.

Treading barefooted over the tatami floor, Shunsui made his way quietly across the living room towards the interior shoji and softly stepped through. The guest room came first, which was empty of furnishings save for a large cherry wood chest of drawers used for storing various household items, and a large wardrobe lining one entire wall. The shoji of the wardrobe stood opened to one side, exactly how he had left it that morning. Placing the cloth bundle on the waist-high set of drawers within the space, he untied the knot and uncovered a neatly-folded pile of clothes consisting of his spare haori, a few sets of shihakushou, one spare yukata of his, and a few clean fundoshi. A small dark kinchaku accompanied the pile, clearly the source of the soft clacking sound for it outlined a bottle shape. The scent coming from it told him it was a refill of his shaving soap. He quickly shook out and hung up his fresh clothing, then set the travel packing cloth aside and left the guest room, carrying the kinchaku by its drawstrings. Senses following the soft thin stream of watery reiatsu through the innermost shoji of the house, he entered the expansive master bedroom.

This innermost private space was serene and intimate, lit by another tall kidou lamp standing in the corner, the twin of the one in the living room, its warm diffused light turning almost black the wave pattern of the dark-maroon silk sheets of the large double-sized futon. On the floor on the left side of the futon, the slim elegantly curved length of Sougyo no Kotowari rested quietly, its crimson hilt blood-red in the warm low light. The dark-maroon summer quilt was turned down at one corner, the silk on its underside as blood-red as the hilt of the tachi. The right side of the futon was turned down as well, waiting for him.

One after another he slid Katen Kyoukotsu from his pale green obi, first its tachi then its wakizashi, and gently laid both side by side on the tatami floor next to the right side of the futon, their dark-blue hilts almost glistening black in the low lamplight. An inaudible thrum of displeasure rose in unison from both weapons and he silently soothed the ire, stroking his hand over both sheaths reassuringly.

Rest, my dark mistress, for tonight belongs to my heart.

[I am your heart,] bit out her irritated voice.

Yes you are. But you know how I am when it comes to him.

An annoyed, long-suffering sigh answered him. [Alright… I will let you have your way… again.]

Thank you. You will not regret it, I promise.

With an air of disdain, she receded and left him alone for the night.

Rising, he padded around the futon, past the kimono stand and changing screen shielding the wall wardrobe, past the wide cherry wood cabinet which held a large collection of medicines and implements, and the shoji of the ensuite bathroom which had been left slightly ajar, his cheek momentarily warmed by a moist breath of steam redolent with the fresh alluring scent of peony as he walked past the small gap. Finally he reached the opened shoji leading to the bedroom’s verandah, and as he stepped upon its threshold, he paused, his gaze arrested by the glowing figure of the master of the estate.

Two thousand years, and the simple sight of Jyuushirou sitting in moonlight combing his long hair still stirred Shunsui as deeply as the first time he glimpsed it, all those millennia ago.

Noble delicate profile limned by moonlight, long-lashed dark eyes distant, lost in reverie upon the tranquil surface of the Ugendou lake, those slender, pale hands were running rhythmically through long damp streams of gleaming white hair with that antiquated pale-blue handled Shiba comb that was never replaced. As Jyuushirou absently laid drying lengths of his white tresses down one wide slanting shoulder, one side of his smooth alabaster throat was revealed to Shunsui’s gaze. He was loosely draped in the soft thin folds of his plain white nagajuban, the worn silk robe opened to below the delicate dent of his clavicles, its long wide sleeves fallen about his elbows revealing the smoothly flexing slender muscles of his white forearms and supple swordsman’s wrists as he removed the last tangles from his long hair. Finally he put the comb down, his fair arms disappearing from sight as the long sleeves fell to cover his hands. Then he turned towards Shunsui, and was about to speak when he noticed Shunsui’s silent regard.

Like a hidden bud silently blooming, the pensive expression over his angular fine features gave way to a soft flushing happiness.

As always, quiet amazement rose in Shunsui at that unguarded, frank response. Not for the first time in his two millennia of existence, he marvelled that such a simple thing like a loving gaze could elicit such a spontaneous quiet joy in his undemanding soul brother. Jyuushirou could have any soul he desired, yet he had chosen to share himself fully only with Shunsui. He took such pleasure in Shunsui’s simple reciprocation that it left Shunsui breathless.

“You are just in time.” Jyuushirou’s deep tenor was its usual gentle lyrical timbre. His finely carved lips were curling with pleasure beneath Shunsui’s continuing appreciation. He remained sitting seiza in his usual place, at the far end of the long low tea table. “I left hot water in the ofuro. Nanao-san came by earlier when I was in the bath. I am afraid she did not notice I was home.”

Shunsui allowed himself to admire the happy vision for several more heartbeats, then raised the kinchaku, its contents clacking softly. “She dropped off a change of clothes and refill of my shaving soap. I guess that means she’s ordering me to stay here for another week, ne?”

“Seems she deems this is the best place to deposit her taichou,” Jyuushirou teased with a smile. He nodded his pale square chin towards the bathroom. “Go on, now. I will not draw another if it gets cold.”

“Hah,” Shunsui snorted good-naturedly in return. “Wait for me, I won’t be long.”

Committing the sight of his moonlit love to his memory, Shunsui grinned, then turned and retraced his steps indoors and slipped quickly through the shoji into the bathroom, rapidly sliding the lightweight door shut behind him to prevent more steam from escaping.

He took a moment to inhale the heated, moist scented air in the hushed tranquillity, becoming acutely aware that he smelled of ash, soot and sweat. The washing stool, bucket, and his rice bran soap and washcloth awaited him on the ledge of the steaming ofuro, the wooden tub darkened and seasoned to near petrification from bathing generations of Ukitake clan heads since antiquity. Fresh shredded peony blossoms floated on the steaming surface of the water, infusing the hot bath with cleansing and calming properties, their soft fragrance rising with the steam.

It was the perfect, very much needed and welcomed end to a long, nerve-racking day.

Moving swiftly, he made short and precise work of his cleansing ritual. The kinchaku contained new bottles of his particular shaving soap and freshening water, and he replaced the nearly empty old bottles on the mirrored cherry wood vanity counter. The counter surface held a wooden basin of hot water, infused with astringent chrysanthemum petals still floating on its steaming surface, the long handle of a bamboo ladle resting on its rim. Stripping off his soiled haori, shihakushou and fundoshi, he bundled and placed them on top of the closed wicker hamper, within which he spied another set of soiled taichou uniform. Last was his hair tie, and his valuable pinwheel hairpins, which he carefully laid on top of his bundled soiled clothes. Then without further ado, he padded over to the washing stool, sat down and began dipping buckets of scented hot water from the ofuro. His senses and nerves came alive as he sluiced himself under the hot streams, his skin and scalp lightening as he soaped up and vigorously scrubbed the lathery washcloth over every inch of himself, behind both ears, ending with a good strong scrub to his feet. He never wore tabi, hence he always cleansed his feet and toes thoroughly. Done, he rinsed himself off with more buckets of scented hot water until he was squeaky clean, then rose to his feet and swung over the edge of the deep wooden tub, sinking with a sigh into the hot fragrant water.

Infusions of fresh peony essences calmed him quickly as he inhaled the scent swirling with the steam. It was a prescription from Hanshi-sama from a long time ago, which Jyuushirou continued to soothe and protect his sensitive skin. When Shunsui was an overly energetic and ignorant pre-pubescent boy, he had adamantly refused to share Jyuushirou’s bathwater to help Yama-jii save on the expense of hot water, claiming that the flowery scent offended his masculine sensibilities. Then one morning, the fifteen-year-old him had woken up and decided that Jyuushirou was the only one he would ever love, and his complaints had immediately ceased. That very night he had taken his first soak, and he had stuck to it ever since learning that soaking in the same bathwater as his beloved older brother allowed him to carry Jyuushirou’s scent with him wherever he went.

The thought of Jyuushirou waiting for him made him sit up. Taking a breath, he dunked himself entirely underwater and scrubbed his fingers through his long hair for several heartbeats, before resurfacing with a splash. Wiping hot water from his face, feeling perfectly clean and relaxed, he rose and climbed out of the ofuro, then walked dripping wet to the vanity counter. He was particular about his shaving hence his shaving things were the only personal belongings he brought everywhere he resided. He prepared the blade and foam with speed and practice, then proceeded to groom his upper lip and jaws until he had trimmed his stubble to the light covering of fur he favoured, before finishing with splashes of astringent chrysanthemum hot water from the wooden basin. His sakura-painted ceramic oral hygiene set rested next to Jyuushirou’s pale-blue glazed earthen ones. Lathering up his small brush with his own tooth powder, he cleaned his teeth and entire palate, then finally rinsed his mouth and washed his grooming tools with ladles of water from the basin. Replacing everything neatly, he padded to the wall hooks where his disreputable, beige long yukata hung next to the large towelling sheet from the night before. Drying himself while shrugging on his ratty robe, he slid aside the shoji and returned to the master bedroom, towelling his hair as he returned to the verandah.

He paused, seeing the familiar bottle of warmed sake waiting for him with its matching sake dish. Beside them, awaiting his use, lay Jyuushirou’s comb, its pale blue handle shaped like a carp, bearing the sheen of long millennia of use. His eyes traced to the other end of the table, pausing in surprise upon the two crystalline bottles. The finely fluted leaping carp embossed on each bottle was still unstained and unchipped after all these centuries, each spherical glass stopper still shiny smooth, as though time had halted since he last saw them...

Nearly a thousand years ago, he realised with a mild start. Where did the time go?

He observed the twin glass receptacles. Instead of the flower essences he remembered, each bottle was now filled with a sparkling liquid, one pale blue and the other pale green, glittering like a pair of dancing stars on the polished dark wood of the table. They made a magical pretty sight, humbling the small, white ceramic teapot sitting atop a lit kidou stove, its accompanying white cup waiting beside it.

Jyuushirou had unfurled himself from seiza to sit with one long leg stretched out, the narrow blue-veined arch and shiny toenails of one white foot peeking from beneath the hems of his long robe, his other leg bent at its knee under the draping white fabric, propping up one sleeve-covered elbow. His long hair, now perfectly dry, hung down one shoulder in a smooth, gleaming white waterfall. One hand rested in his lap, its long pale fingers absently kneading a soft fold of his thin robe, as he sat watching the warming teapot and sparkling twin bottles. A fond reminiscence was glimmering in the depths of his dark eyes, his expression mildly wistful as he absently bit at his lower lip, the edges of his teeth like small white pearls on the soft pink of his bottom lip.

Shunsui traced his eyes over the perfect oval of that noble face, over those high delicate cheekbones to the small square chin and defined jawline. He drank in every gentle, finely moulded plane and curve of that wise demeanour, re-committing to memory the delicate masculine beauty he thought he would never see again. Keeping his gaze on his contemplative soul brother, he padded quietly to his place at the left end of the long low table and settled down cross-legged, towelling his hair dry as his gaze scoured over Jyuushirou, searching for remnants of injuries.

Within that gentleness and frailty was a fey fierce warrior of terrible elemental power, a scholar of frightening intellect and a leader of unshakeable honour, all whom Shunsui knew as well as his own soul and loved with his every reishi. That warrior and leader emerged today for the first time in three hundred years to block and shield him from the punishing inferno of Ryuujin Jakka, leaving himself open and unable to evade a severe blow which should have felled him. Yet it had not. Relief and gratitude rose when Shunsui could see no discernible injuries to the slender frame. There was no awkwardness or stiffness remaining in the way Jyuushirou sat. His love was well, alive and at peace before him.

It did not mean he was ready to forgive Yama-jii.

Three hundred years had Jyuushirou spent toiling away in their old sensei’s inner sanctum. It meant three hundred years away from the frontlines, with only the training fields and doujou as his physical outlets. Three hundred years might be mere drops in the two thousand years of strife through which Jyuushirou had survived, but it was enough forced inactivity to erode his already fragile health. In the last three centuries he had suffered increasing relapses and even longer, heartbreaking convalescences. To go from that, straight into a death duel with the most powerful shinigami of Soul Society, with no prior reconditioning, still suffering from his last relapse, and intent on protecting his stronger brother by shouldering all the blame… anger rose in Shunsui once again at Yama-jii’s obstinacy.

In Shunsui’s conscious mind he would never impugn Jyuushirou’s honour. Through two millennia of their hard lives together, he had never held Jyuushirou back from doing his duty even if it meant his love took the risks and dangers that came with their positions. They were shinigami. They put their lives on the line to uphold the balance and justice every single day.

But his heart and subconscious, they were entirely another matter. There in the deepest part of his soul where only black shadows surrounded a bleached, white gravestone carved with his name, Shunsui could look at himself and acknowledge his secret wish. If he listened, he could hear those shadows screaming that he could have lost Jyuushirou today. If he paid attention to those screams, he could hear accusing words that he was being the spoiled second brother, the second son, the younger disciple and the younger ward who placed himself before others. If he faced those accusations that he placed himself before others, he could see how he had always jealously, fiercely and passionately guarded Jyuushirou’s place by his side, in his life, in his heart and in his soul, no matter what, above all else.

Vehemently, he quelled his strident self-criticism. Silently and loudly he reminded himself it was precisely because he had so ferociously and unbendingly safeguarded Jyuushirou’s place in every part of his life, that Shunsui knew the true meaning of friendship, understood what integrity was, learnt how to look after others, became responsible. He was the leader he was because he lived with a daily living proof that compassion and generosity could command hearts and souls without a single harsh word, that true strength lay not in any bankai but in the implacability of the spirit and intent in face of impossible odds and certain doom. Jyuushirou grounded him, kept him honest. His desire and constant efforts to avoid burdening others with his fragile health roused Shunsui’s innate need to cherish and protect, and in loving and protecting Jyuushirou, Shunsui found fulfilment he never could find with anything else.

Even if he often had to shield his soul brother from his own lack of self-consideration and self-preservation, Shunsui took it in stride, for that was just the way Jyuushirou was, selfless to an exasperating, sometimes infuriating, fault.

But what he refused to take in stride was what he so often had to do in the last three centuries. Jyuushirou declined to the point where Shunsui often lived at the Ugendou for months on end to nurse his love back to his feet, only to have Yama-jii call him away again as soon as he recovered to carry out more lonely, secluded work out of sight and painfully, out of mind of most. For three hundred years he worked almost exclusively with their adoptive father and old sensei, toiling ceaselessly cloistered alone deep within Yama-jii’s inner sanctum without a word of complaint, where none saw or knew, with only the training fields and doujou of his division for his physical outlet. Yama-jii commandeered his time and energies with such mounting demands that he all but retreated from the frontlines, eventually becoming more of a recluse and living relic of the Gotei’s past, a mere figurehead of a paragon of ideals, than an actively serving senior taichou to be listened to, obeyed and followed. He faced increasing difficulties discharging his responsibilities to his division when he should not have. In a mere span of three centuries he was reduced to a shadow of who he was supposed to be, a powerful commander with over a millennium of battles and political victories in his wake.

Shunsui’s heart shattered every time he was reminded of how very few today knew the Jyuushirou who once had, without raising a single harsh word, rallied thousands upon thousands of brutish, coarse fighters to the cause of the Gotei and swelled their ranks so much that they could strike out on massive sweeping campaigns and long military occupations to suppress the violence across the realm and force the recalcitrant warring factions into order and peace. For Jyuushirou’s gifts were prodigious beyond the ken of the realm, and this was not only limited to his shinigami powers. Yama-jii had taken his soul brother’s phenomenal talents in politics, law and the arcane arts and used them, used him, without limits, without restraint. Perhaps Yama-jii felt justified, for it was he who had suffered great lengths and pains to bring forth these talents in Jyuushirou, but if that was true, then Shunsui could never understand how he could bear to destroy Jyuushirou like this. Whatever secret political machinations Yama-jii had so consumingly needed Jyuushirou for, Shunsui refused to accept that any of it could possibly justify the consequences it had wrought on his soul brother. Worse, Jyuushirou himself willingly, completely gave to Yama-jii’s secret quest without reserve. The only consolation Shunsui had throughout was that fellow taichou and friends who witnessed Yama-jii’s demands on Jyuushirou continued to treat him normally, instead of as a distant folklore figure. If Jyuushirou sometimes went overboard in expressing his gratitude, all simply accepted his reciprocations, and none had the heart to tell him otherwise.

And today, despite all of Jyuushirou’s willing silent sacrifice for three hundred years, instead of hearing him out, Yama-jii unleashed the most terrible zanpakutou in all of Soul Society to mete out a death sentence by incineration.

How was that any different from imposing on Rukia-chan the worst possible death sentence without trial over a moderate transgression?

You didn’t even have the excuse of being manipulated by Aizen, Yama-jii, he thought bitterly. Some fatherly love, ne?

Even though things began to improve thirty years ago, the improvements had come at tragic cost to Jyuushirou and his division. Overnight Jyuushirou lost not only his cherished protégé, the late Kaien-kun, he also lost his Third Seat, the incredibly capable late Lady Miyako, wife of Kaien-kun. The Thirteenth would have fallen into disarray if Jyuushirou had not finally requested Yama-jii for leave of absence to tend to his division. Shunsui believed that Yama-jii consented only because the Thirteenth was the Gotei’s second largest division charged with the critical defence of the Seireitei’s northern and northwestern defences. Whether his belief was correct was no longer relevant, for it was then that Yama-jii finally saw and understood the devastation he had wrought on the one he had always called his most cherished son. He never called Jyuushirou into his inner sanctum again, and the improvement was almost immediate. As soon as Jyuushirou was freed from Yama-jii’s work, the vicious cycle of his relapse and recovery broke. In the midst of organising and conducting patrols and offensives against Hollows, and reconsolidating control and supervision over affairs with the Living World and liaison with the Kidou Corps, his health restored with a speed that clearly proved that the worst thing for his well-being was to keep him inactive and secluded away. There was even evidence for it now. When Rukia-chan went missing in the Living World, stress and worry once again struck Jyuushirou into a fresh long spell, but now that her death was averted, he had clearly bounced back, the speed of his recovery nothing short of miraculous.

Shunsui desperately hoped that this spell of stability would last, and the Ugendou would continue to be the home it was meant to be, as it had been during the last three decades. The preceding three centuries had seen the Ugendou serve more as Jyuushirou’s personal clinic and medicine-laden hospital ward than the private residence and haven it was originally meant to be, when it was converted from the Ukitake Family’s chashitsu nearly seventeen centuries ago to serve as the Seireitei’s northernmost focal point from where he, and his future successors, could live and work close to their battle stations.

“I fear to guess at what you are thinking,” softly interrupted the gentle lyrical deep tenor of Jyuushirou’s voice.

Shunsui roused himself from his thoughts, and filed them away. He had learnt to keep his scathing criticisms to himself. The first few times he had voiced them, Jyuushirou had defended their old sensei and they had gotten into an argument. It was clear to Shunsui long ago that his loyal, selfless soul brother would never blame the shinigami who had raised him, taught him and rescued his family from destitution. He would never see that while Yama-jii staunchly dedicated his long life to upholding the balance, he had scarcely balanced his treatment of Jyuushirou. Jyuushirou unquestioningly accepted Yama-jii’s increasing demands and silently endured the indignity of losing his position on the frontlines, because he wholeheartedly believed he could never repay enough the succour their old sensei had given him.

Noting the returning colour to the alabaster skin, the reduced weariness to fine features, Shunsui remarked instead, “I haven’t heard a cough since I came in. And you aren’t moving stiffly. How are you healing? Yama-jii’s cure is worse than the injury.”

Jyuushirou absently laid one pale hand on his right side. “I will be fully recovered by dawn.”

Putting down his towelling sheet and picking up the comb, Shunsui began to comb out his tangles. The carp-shaped handle of the comb fit in his hand like it was made for him, and he supposed it had been, for it was the surviving half of a matched pair. After two thousand years of use, the handle was glossed to a shine and felt smooth and rich under his hand. Its teeth were made from the moisture-absorbing wood of a tree species that had become rarer over the centuries, and though now worn smooth as glass, they still worked beautifully, separating and drying Shunsui’s long wavy locks as he ran it through his damp strands. Despite his delicate constitution, Jyuushirou always had a healthy head of hair, so Shunsui simply shared this comb if it was available. His own, the other half of the pair with its suggestive carving of an oiran on its magenta handle, was lost centuries ago.

With a whisper of fabric, Jyuushirou gracefully drew in his legs and turned to sit cross-legged. He gestured at the tabletop with a long elegant hand. “I am supposed to take this every night for one month and record any changes. The potions are a Shihouin formula. From three hundred years ago.”

“Three hundred years is a long time. Even for us,” Shunsui returned meaningfully.

Jyuushirou looked up at his pointed words, his dark eyes immediately connecting with Shunsui’s thoughts. He inhaled a small breath and decided to ignore Shunsui’s unspoken meaning. Instead, he waved at the twin bottles of potions and commented, “I doubt these will change anything.”

“As long as it prevents any more of such prolonged relapse, it’s worth a shot, ne?” Shunsui replied, letting go of the silent issue between them for the time. “As much as I love us spending so much time together, I can’t welcome it if it comes at the cost of your suffering.”

At his choice of the last word, Jyuushirou’s dark eyes grew intent. “You are still angry at Sensei,” he stated softly, without question.

Shunsui sighed. “How can I not be? He didn’t even want to hear us out.” Voice involuntarily hard, he pointed out, “I wish you are at least a little angry.”

“I was angry, but I was more afraid. My anger has passed, yet my fear remains.” In sudden discomfort, Jyuushirou looked away towards the small lake, its surface mirror still under the breezeless heat of the night. “As you rightly say, Sensei’s cure is worse than the injury. But I accept his punishment. I know what I had done. Of all in the Gotei, it is I who should not resort to such extremes. He entrusted me with full knowledge of our position, he would not have given me this burden if he had a choice. I know well that even today, he still has no other option.” Pain lanced across his pale face, and with soft anguish, he confessed, “But Rukia is all I have left of Kaien. He taught her for fifty years, she embodies everything he imparted to her. I cannot lose her too.” When he looked back again, the fear he had that afternoon was once again in his pale face. “Sensei might have healed me and listened in the end, but I am afraid I have broken his trust irreparably. I know I should have reported to him as soon as the Chamber ignored my request for emergency audience. But I did not. I feared that he would see through me and see that I had chosen my last reminder of Kaien over my duty to the Gotei and to him. I could not tell you this in Senpai’s presence, she will try to defend me to Sensei and I will cause friction between them. I cannot allow that. Because I realise that if I am given a choice again, I would still choose to save Rukia over my duty.”

“Ai, Jyuushirou, choosing something for yourself simply because you desire it is no crime!” Shunsui disagreed with exasperation. “After all these thousands of years, what have you ever decided and done for yourself for no other purpose than simply because you want it? I can’t think of any. Even this place,” he waved his hands about the verandah and their abode, “this is the most you ever gave yourself, but even this you gave it in the first place to serve the cause of the Gotei. The gyokuro tea and purple rice you take every meal? You go to that expense only because in the long run they make the most economic sense to support your health. The silk kimono and haori in your wardrobe? You have them only because I made them for you. Don’t you think it’s time you have something for yourself for no other reason than simply because you want it?”

Jyuushirou looked affronted. “There was something I wanted which I took only because I wanted it. You, Shunsui.”

That subsided Shunsui. But only a little. “And how long did it take me to persuade you?” he reminded wryly, then with a slight leer, gently ribbed, “How long did it take me to give you your first kiss?”

Dark eyes lowered in embarrassment.

“Ai, Amai’take, I understand your worry but I wish you can see what I see. What everyone else sees,” Shunsui sighed. “What you fear will never come to pass. Yama-jii always simmers down fast when it comes to you. That is the universal constant across all realms, even more unchanging than this government of ours.” Unable to help himself, he added with a critical snort, “Besides, you’re too valuable to him. He uses you mercilessly like a weapon because he knows your capabilities. He isn’t going to let something like this cause a rift with you.”

“He does not use me, I consented to every task-” Jyuushirou began with some upset.

“Of course you consented,” Shunsui interrupted. “He knows how dedicated you are to the mission and he manipulates you into voluntary commitment. And while your powers are elemental like his, my gentle brother, your nature is as far from him as the moon is different from the sun. You guide, you soothe, and calm and aid and facilitate. While he, he may nurture, may grow you, but he also burns, demands, and uses, and blinds. I know him in a way you don’t, because it takes one to know one.”

Jyuushirou bit his lip in silence and looked away. His disagreement was clear, but he had chosen not to argue.

Shunsui shook his head resignedly at his love’s denial. “Whatever it was that you two were busy with, however many secrets he entrusted you with, he should still have listened. The greater the power one has, the more circumspect one must be when using it, and the more patient and more open one must be before deciding whether to use that power. He taught you this, and you in turn taught it to me.” He sighed. “But today he didn’t even want to hear us out. He’s at a level of discipline so much higher than us, you would think his control over his emotions and responses is much greater than ours. Yet he didn’t even think to question the strange sentence.”

“Sensei is no longer in the position to question the Chamber,” Jyuushirou said quietly. His gaze returned to Shunsui, dark eyes apologetic and beseeching. “I cannot tell you more than this because I swore an oath of secrecy, but please believe me, my young brother.”

“Then he better tell us tomorrow about these developments he spoke of today,” Shunsui replied sombrely. “It’s been three centuries. I’m heartily tired of seeing him wear you out until you can’t keep your illness at bay, make a mess of you, and doing it again after I fixed you. I need to know why he did it again and again.”

“You sound just like Senpai when you say that,” Jyuushirou muttered dejectedly. Sighing, he offered Shunsui a wan, troubled smile. “I hope he will speak of it as well. Ichigo-kun’s deeds changed many things. I feel it is time Sensei shared so that all four of us can work on it together, like how we always have.”

Shunsui gazed at the pale, finely angled face with hopeless affection and helpless exasperation. Despite experiencing much more deeply of the extreme passions of the souls still cycling through the balance, Jyuushirou still remained more of a pure soul than Shunsui could ever be, with that inborn placidity to forgive quickly and simply move on.

It was this precise characteristic which had first pulled at the strings Shunsui’s heart.

So instead of answering, he smiled. “Ai, let’s talk about him no longer, Amai’take. Our time together is too precious and better spent on us.” Subsiding, he looked at his love in concern. “Are you certain you’re well enough to return to duty?”

Jyuushirou agreed with his request by way of his reply. “Effective tomorrow morning, I will be well.”

The spout of the teapot began to emit steam, indicating the water was boiling. With the barest flick of one long finger, Jyuushirou doused the kidou flame and deftly lifted the lid of the teapot, gently allowing it hang down its side suspended by its bamboo fibre string. Carefully, he lifted the bottle of sparking pale-blue potion, removed its stopper, and tilted its mouth over the opened teapot until one single drop fell into the steaming water. Stoppering the bottle, he repeated the process with the other bottle of sparkling pale-green liquid. A piercing nostril-curling odour leapt upwards when the two droplets mixed, then just as quickly vanished completely, leaving behind the impression that the olfactory senses had perhaps imagined the stomach-gagging revolting odour.

“I sincerely hope it will not taste as bad as that just smelled,” Jyuushirou murmured, staring aghast at the steaming teapot. “I am completely out of honey.”

Shunsui huffed a soft, fond chuckle. Incredibly, two millennia of consuming horrid-tasting medicines daily still failed to desensitise Jyuushirou to the foulness of medicinal brews and concoctions.

Then the comb ran into a snag at the back of his head, too close to his scalp for him to pull the lock of hair around to see. He set the comb down and tried to tease the knot apart with his fingers.

Dark eyes rose at his activity, then Jyuushirou silently flowed to his feet in one smooth movement. Soundlessly padding around the table on his bare feet, he knelt behind Shunsui and gently took over the task, the faint scent of peony rising from him from his close proximity.

“You dunked your head again,” he chided softly, his gentle fingers working against Shunsui’s scalp.

“I wanted to hurry,” he replied, relaxing against the familiar ministrations.

“I was willing to wait,” came the amused murmur.

“I wasn’t,” Shunsui quipped cheekily. He gestured at the two sparkling bottles. “I see she kept the bottles.”

“Yes.” The knot was teased out, then a white hand reached over his shoulder, palm up. Shunsui picked up the comb and put it into the slender hand. Slow combing began, the soothing movement beginning from his scalp until the ends of his hair. “I never realised. I thought I was the sentimental one.”

“She is sentimental only about certain things. Or people. Maybe… just one person.”

The rhythmic combing momentarily paused, then resumed.

If anyone asked Shunsui if he ever felt jealous of Jyuushirou’s relationship with Hanshi-sama, Shunsui would correct the person and describe his feelings for what it truly was, a mixture of envy and comfort. Envy that she had Jyuushirou for the time that Shunsui could not, and comfort in the secure knowledge that his love was not left bereft of support when Shunsui had to be away. It had been a long time ago. Devastation had pushed down from the north, while ceaseless feudal wars continued to brew across the densely populated territories from the west to the south. Yama-jii had thus paired Jyuushirou with Hanshi-sama to lead from the Seireitei their melee contingents and diplomatic corps to force peace onto the violent recalcitrant warlords with precision strikes and dexterous negotiations, while he took Shunsui with him northwards to meet the brutal northern foe with their combined indiscriminate bankai. It was a lethal combination that worked well and worked rapidly, until treachery blindsided them.

The sudden unwanted memory sent his hand to grasp the one combing his hair. Closing his fingers around the strong slender appendage, he brought it over his shoulder and placed his face against its warm silken palm, breathing in the faint peony fragrance on the skin. His cheek felt every callus from hilt and inkbrush and every flex of the sinewy flexible strength beneath. Reflexively, the long fingers curled about his jaw, stroking tenderly.

“What is it?” Jyuushirou’s deep tenor was concerned.

“Can’t a man want to feel the hand of his beloved?” Shunsui evaded with a flirty tease.

In response, the fingers tickled him lightly under his jaw, his weak spot. Sniggering, he let go and turned around, meeting laughing mahogany eyes and a faint amused smile. Reaching back one hand, he tugged playfully at one end of a long stream of white hair. “You drive a man crazy, you know that?”

“As do you.” Jyuushirou’s faint smile bloomed into a full one. Rising to his feet, he gestured despondently at the waiting teapot as he walked back to his place, settling down cross-legged in his usual place again. “I guess I should get it over with,” he murmured morosely, wrinkling his patrician nose as he tapped his comb against his chin.

Shunsui burst into chuckles.

“What.” Dark eyes stared at him, a little disgruntled.

“How many battles have we fought together? I can no longer distinguish between the memories of you drenched in gory blood and internal bits of stinking organs and body parts, and yet here you are wrinkling your pert little nose at a tiny well-meaning teapot of diluted medicine.” He subsided fondly. “Amai’take, you’re the most alluring bunch of contradictions.”

“Smelly enemy blood and body parts do not go onto my taste buds nor into my stomach,” Jyuushirou pointed out primly.

Laughing softly, Shunsui reached across and lightly tapped the tip of the beloved nose with one finger. “Your olfactory sense is on your lovely face, my beautiful moon kami, not in your stomach, which I know without looking is just as beautiful, unlike the stomachs of us mere ordinary souls.”

His compliment, as tacky as it was, wrung forth a mirth from Jyuushirou that chased away his affronted expression. His answering laugh was melodious and light in Shunsui’s ears as he threw up his hands in mock surrender and set his comb aside. “If you are trying to flatter me into taking my medicine, you have succeeded. You certainly know how to make a sickly man feel good about himself.”

“And how many times have I told you you’re not sickly? Merely afflicted.”

“Semantics.” The wide sloping shoulders shrugged elegantly. With a long angular hand, Jyuushirou picked up the still hot teapot by its bamboo handle, and skilfully poured and filled its accompanying cup. The steaming water was clear.

“It does not look bad,” he observed with trepidatious hope.

“Perhaps I should taste it first,” Shunsui suggested, feeling caution rise. Medicines powerful enough to aid Jyuushirou were almost always extremely deceptively mild. “Then give you a warning if it does.”

Jyuushirou declined with a slight shake of his head as he put the teapot back on the kidou stove. “I appreciate the thought, but it is best I get over this myself.” He suddenly grinned. “I will just think of smelly blood and gore as I drink.”

Shunsui clutched his hand to his heart. “Ai, be still my pounding heart! My Amai’take is not only beautiful, he is also brave!”

Long arching black brows rose at him.

“My beautiful, brave Amai’take!” He laid it on, breathing the words melodramatically.

Jyuushirou broke up into a spate of inelegant chortles. “Only you, Kyouraku, can turn a whisper of sweet nothings into a comedy!”

“That’s because I’m endlessly inspired whenever I’m in the enthralling presence of my otherworldly muse,” Shunsui replied, his heart in his mouth despite his deliberate theatrics.

Dark eyes filling with warm, shining love, Jyuushirou subsided, his expression moved. With a silent smile, he wrapped both hands around his tea cup, lifted it and took a careful sip.

Shunsui watched him, offering comfort by his silence. The fair angular face blanched at the first sip, then visibly shuttering into a steely expression, quickly sipped the hot liquid, clearly hurrying to finish the brew as fast as possible to shorten the nasty experience. Wordlessly, Shunsui summoned a cooling spell and with one fingertip, released it over the surface of the teapot until the steam lessened noticeably. When Jyuushirou finished the first cup, Shunsui poured him the second, emptying the small teapot. With a grateful look, Jyuushirou sipped the second cup, and when he felt that the liquid was cool enough, quickly finished it in two quick gulps. Placing the cup down on the table, he grimaced, then looked at Shunsui, unable to hide his dread.

“It’s that bad, I guess,” Shunsui concluded sadly.

“One month less one day to go,” Jyuushirou counted with a weak, dreary smile.

Shunsui poured a dish of sake then handed it over. “Wash out the taste,” he advised.

“I am not supposed to mix medication with alcohol,” said Jyuushirou, then promptly accepted the dish and emptied it in one tilt, rolling the mouthful about his palate before swallowing.

“I’ll send for an emergency batch of my family’s estate honey tomorrow morning,” Shunsui consoled. “A big batch. Then you can put as much of it as you wish to make the rest of the month tolerable.”

“Thank you,” Jyuushirou said with clear appreciation. “I will truly require it. I do not think I can withstand one more dose of that without aid.”

Curiously, Shunsui picked up the two sparkling bottles and examined them. “Strange how something so pretty can taste so foul,” he commented wonderingly. Then inspiration struck him, and aloud, he intoned solemnly, “Then again, this reminds me that life is always about balance. Where there’s dark, there’ll always be light.” He appreciatively eyed his love across the table. “Much more than anyone in Soul Society, ‘tis I who know best that the most lethal power is concealed and wielded by the most beautiful vessel.”

His oblique compliments sent a faint pink rising in Jyuushirou’s cheekbones. In pleasure his dark lashes lowered, and his lips curved into a small happy smile. Two millennia of violence, bloodshed, treachery and loss, yet Jyuushirou still retained his innate bashfulness. Shunsui felt as charmed as if he was eighteen years old again confessing his feelings for the first time to his shy twenty-one-year-old disciple-brother. Carefully he replaced the two small bottles of potions on the table, and smiling at his love, he poured and drank another dish of sake, mentally composing a prose to rouse Jyuushirou into the right mood.

Jyuushirou, the serious, responsible soul that he was, had other ideas, however.

“I wish I could listen to your words of praise forever,” he said, though his smile remained softly pleased. “However, we have to present ourselves to Sensei tomorrow evening. And my day tomorrow will be full managing our human friends and preparing the Senkaimon.” His dark gaze became intent. “Have you discovered what you wished after I left you with our guests in the mess hall?”

“Ai, Amai’take, do we really have to speak of work? The moon is so particularly round tonight and its light is so pure and becoming on you.” He gave a wink.

The dark eyes shimmered with humour even as the alabaster expression became serious. But instead of replying, Jyuushirou merely waited.

That gentle implacability always worked on Shunsui. Sighing ruefully, he emptied his dish of sake in one tilt. “I’ll give you a summary so that we can quickly return to more pleasant things.” Sobering himself quickly, he swiftly, concisely recounted his findings and perceptions of the night, but deliberately left out his inadvertent macabre discovery in Kurotsuchi’s private laboratory tanks. “It seems there must be more about the Quincies which our mad scientist colleague still doesn’t know, despite his claims. And I don’t think that bodes well. You know me, I never liked unknowns.”

Jyuushirou’s expression deepened. “I am glad you sensed the same signatures as I did,” he said quietly, then he looked at Shunsui. “I can confirm right now one of your sensing. When Ichigo-kun refilled my sake dish tonight, his fingertips accidentally touched my hand. Even though the contact was brief, it was enough for me. I know Kaien’s signature well. I am certain Ichigo-kun has Shiba blood in him. I did not probe his reiatsu for he was sitting right next to me and I did not want to risk discovery.”

Shunsui rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “We always suspected Isshin was not dead but gone into hiding somewhere in Naruki City. But now, all clues seem to point to him hiding in Karakura Town.”

Jyuushirou pondered. “If that is the case, then it is clear Kisuke must know of Isshin’s whereabouts.” With sadness, he added, “Perhaps he never let on about his knowledge in our brief correspondences because I am too close to Sensei. I suppose he fears the consequences if I knew.”

“Or perhaps he simply wishes to protect you,” Shunsui pointed out gently. “You can’t lie about what you don’t know.”

“Perhaps,” Jyuushirou sighed. “I think a trip to the Living World is in order. It is time I meet with Kisuke personally.” Then he hesitated. “However, I do not think that Sensei will allow me to make any trip there if I do not issue the Daikoushou Shinigami Daikou to Ichigo-kun.”

Shunsui frowned. “You devised the daikoushou specifically to collect evidence against Ginjou Kyuugo. All taichou agreed to make it into a permanent rule without exceptions because we feared all humans exhibiting shinigami powers will be like Ginjou. But Ichigo-kun is far from a murderer. So are his friends. I sensed no duplicity or ill intent in any of them. When we tell Yama-jii this, doubtless he’ll leave it to you to ensure the boy voluntarily accepts the daikoushou.” Shunsui poured another dish. “Leaving the dirty job to you, as always,” he muttered with some rancour, then downed the whole dish in one go.

Jyuushirou let the resentful remark pass without comment. “I do not think we can conceal the truth of the daikoushou from Ichigo-kun,” he said instead. “He is very perceptive, for all his forthrightness. He is bound to realise sooner rather than later that the daikoushou is merely functional and holds no real authority. I estimate that he will realise it much more quickly than Ginjou.”

“And when he does, it’ll once again come down to his choice before his fate is decided,” Shunsui added, then brightened. “But I very much doubt that Kurosaki-kun will make the wrong choice. There’s nothing selfish or ambitious in him that I could pick up on.”

“I agree with your judgement, for I too sensed the same,” Jyuushirou said, then sighed ruefully. “I made the device and wrote the law on the daikoushou hence I must abide by my own rules. Still, it sits ill with me to intentionally deceive our new friend and ally.”

“If there’s one thing I know about you, it’s your ability to turnaround a troublesome situation. I’m confident you’ll figure out a way to please Yama-jii while keeping us honest with Kurosaki-kun.” Shunsui poured and drank again. Then a dark thought occurred to him. “However, we still don’t know the whereabouts of Ginjou Kyuugo. At the rate Kurosaki-kun is leaking reiatsu and leaving a wide trail of himself everywhere, our lost former Shinigami Daikou will find it easy to track him down and may just show up.”

Jyuushirou was alarmed. “Then Ichigo-kun must be informed! We cannot let him misunderstand that we are using him as bait when we are not. He is just a child!”

“A child?” Shunsui chuckled. “Yare, yare, one who has enough power to resist unscathed the first strike of the Kikou’ou and then subsequently cleave the Soukyoku stand into two, is no longer a child.”

“His powers are indeed great, but his heart is still so young!”

“Untainted and unjaded, but not young or childish.” Shunsui gazed fondly at the fine anxious face. “Relax, let’s just take it one thing at the time. Right now, the problem is figuring out how not to subject Kurosaki-kun to the same rules as Ginjou. The rest will fall into place by themselves once the first question is resolved.” He looked appreciatively across at Jyuushirou. “Besides, you’ve made a real impression on the boy tonight. At first, I thought he was influenced by Rukia-chan’s praises of her taichou and her division, but that wasn’t what I saw. Kurosaki-kun looks up to you all entirely on your own merits. His regard for you is all on his own volition. And…” He softened his tone. “I know what you feel when you look at him.”

Jyuushirou unconsciously covered his heart with one pale hand. His words, however, rang contrary to his instinctive action. “I know he is not Kaien, despite the great resemblance. Yet, I do not think I can bear it if he later does not forgive me when he finds out the true history of the daikoushou.”

“He’ll know you didn’t decide this alone. I’ll ensure he knows. If it comes to that, I’ll speak to the boy myself.” Shunsui started to pour, then felt the lightness of the bottle. Putting down the dish, he raised the bottle mouth to his lips, taking a long satisfying swig, emptying it. He put the bottle down. “It won’t come to bitterness, Jyuushirou,” he said with all the certainty he felt to his reishi. “Of that I am certain. Have a little faith in our young friend. As I always have faith in you.”

Dark eyes looked gratefully at him. Then noticing his empty sake bottle, a white hand reached out. “I will fetch you a refill.”

Shunsui clasped the slender hand in his own and smiled warmly. “I am done for the night.”

Jyuushirou nodded and started to withdraw his hand, looking up inquiringly when Shunsui refused to let go.

“Are we now finished discussing work?” he asked, his tone teasing but his manner intent and intimate. He glanced up at the rising moon, then back again at his love, letting his emotions show themselves on his face. “It’s been a long, harrowing day. I need to feel you in my arms.”

A slow smile of anticipation curled Jyuushirou’s small finely carved mouth. “What do you have in mind?” 

# # # # # #

Shunsui tugged gently on the smaller hand in his grasp. “C’mere,” he murmured, giving a mysterious smile.

Expression amused and not a little curious, Jyuushirou followed the direction of Shunsui’s pull and rose to his knees, gracefully shuffling across the polished wood floor, long white hair swaying slightly with his movements until he knelt in seiza before Shunsui, his hand still held captive in Shunsui’s own. His faint scent of peony once again drifted to Shunsui.

Allowing a slow smile to unfurl, Shunsui gestured with his free hand at the moonlit night sky and the tranquil lake. “As I was saying, the moon tonight is especially round, and its light especially pure.”

Jyuushirou tilted his luminescent white head quizzically. “Poetry? Or prose?” he tried guessing.

It always happened that when Shunsui finally won the full, formidable focus of those dark eyes, all his mental faculties suddenly became riddled with blank holes. He mentally rifled through the various strings of prose he had subconsciously composed, but when he finally latched onto one, it was an entirely new imagery which revealed a path straight into his heart, and made him appear a lame, besotted fool.

But as he beheld Jyuushirou’s deep glimmering mahogany eyes, his quiet inquisitive anticipation on his finely moulded face, Shunsui admitted that when it came to Jyuushirou, he willingly, gladly bore the label of a lame, besotted fool. He cared not that it would debunk his carefully cultivated public persona of a slothful, hard drinking, flamboyant bisexual rake, because in his heart, only what Jyuushirou thought of him mattered.

So in answer to his soul brother’s question, he lifted the pale hand and kissed the fine skin of its back, breathing in its fragrance. He placed one lingering kiss on each smooth knuckle, then gently held up the elegant appendage with both hands, reverently unfolding each long white finger in the moonlight.

“Look at how the moonlight becomes your hand, Amai’take. It lights your fingers from within.” He kissed each finger, his lips feeling the hilt calluses and the supple corded strength flowing within each slender digit. Gently, he drew back the soft sleeve, revealing the finely wrought pale supple wrist. “It lights your wrist, as if your very skin is glowing.” He softly kissed the graceful joint, the faint scent of peony stronger now, mouthing the delicate skin, slowly moving his mouth around until he reached the inner wrist, then the pulse point, whose fluttering beats cradled the reiatsu vent as the familiar ebb and flow of the beloved signature rolled over Shunsui’s lips from the sensitive spot. A tremor went through the limb in his hands as Shunsui kissed and nuzzled lightly against the vulnerable zone, hearing a soft inhalation of breath from beside him. He drew the sleeve further back, exposing the smooth gilded forearm to the elbow, his mouth tracing the skin on the inside of the slender limb, as fine and tender as a toddler’s, breathing in the flower perfume of the supple flesh, not quite yet a musk.

“Do you hear the moon sigh in jealousy, Amai’take? It knows even its light cannot compare to you, can only humbly adorn your beauty.” He raised his eyes, gazing into the widened dark eyes, seeing the arousal and surprise spreading deep in their depths.

“How… where did you learn that?” Jyuushirou’s deep lyrical tenor was now tremulously husky.

“Mm, there’re texts of a lurid nature unfit for the eyes of one as pure as you,” Shunsui murmured with sudden mischief, his own voice now roughened. Reaching out his other hand, he gently wrapped his palm behind the fine nape, burying his fingers in the cool heavy silk of thick tresses, and drew the enthralled face towards him until their foreheads were resting together.

“Do you hear the winds and the clouds chastise the moon, Amai’take? They chastise the moon for daring to contest its light to yours.” He released the captive hand and raising both of his own, threaded his fingers through the heavy waterfall of gleaming white silken hair to hold the delicately angled face between his palms. Cupping the finely defined jaw, he tilted the beloved noble face slightly so that moonlight shone upon the unblemished alabaster skin. “Look at you,” he murmured. “Like the moon kami come to life.”

A faint flush crept up Jyuushirou’s pale high cheekbones as his dark lashes fluttered down in a heavy-lidded dark gaze. “Shunsui…” His deep tenor dropped to a whisper.

Shunsui slowly slid his hands down the elegant silky neck and pushed the soft collar apart, sliding the fabric over the wide slant of the slender shoulders until its folds fell down the finely gilded chest, revealing luminous creamy skin over lean defined pectorals. Jyuushirou’s pale hand involuntarily clutched the soft thin silk against his heart in reflexive shyness as his shoulders were exposed to Shunsui's gaze, completely unconscious of how enticing his bashful response was. His white gleaming tresses curtained him in smooth silken streams, the lustrous strands tousled over the porcelain rounded points of his shoulders, the fine masculine delicacy igniting a flood of lust through Shunsui's senses.

Giving in, Shunsui lunged forwards to nuzzle a juncture of the white neck and sloping shoulder, kissing and mouthing the tender skin, inhaling deeply of the now stronger peony musk as he felt a strong slender hand wrap over his bicep. Jyuushirou shuddered under his ministrations, then tilted his head to allow better access as Shunsui held the slender nape and pressed the tender white skin first against his nose, scenting its peony fragrance, then against his mouth as he kissed and sucked lightly, and then drew fluttering butterfly kisses over one fine, delicate collarbone, over the pale rounded point of one creamy shoulder, down one toned supple alabaster bicep, over the firm yielding pectoral muscle heaving slightly above the half-fallen robe, then over the other pectoral, across the other collarbone, and down the other firm supple bicep. He gentled the quivering slender white shoulders between his hands as his lips glided over skin like silk like cream over steel, the soft flower musk making his head swim. Raising his head, he gazed at Jyuushirou and heat burned through his veins at the sight that greeted him.

Jyuushirou was breathtakingly mussed, his dark eyes aflame, his sculpted lips pale pink and slightly parted, faint colour high on his cheekbones. His long white hair was a gleaming mass about his shoulders, his chest above the soft folds of his white silk robe smooth and clear and luminescent under the moon, gilded with supple muscles, making him appear like a yousei swordsman of mystical lore. He still knelt seiza before Shunsui, one pale hand modestly grasping the front of his robe to his heart, the other hand clenched tight on Shunsui’s arm, his dark eyes hazy and his expression aroused yet shy. Thus he surprised Shunsui when he dove forwards with a sudden moan, his soft hungry mouth plying a desperate kiss onto Shunsui’s own, his breaths scented with chrysanthemum and lingering traces of sake, the peony musk of his skin and hair enveloping Shunsui in a heady perfume.

Shunsui clasped the long pliant back against him, his hands spanning the deep valley between finely curved shoulder blades, gently bending the flexible spine towards his own chest, feeling Jyuushirou meld against him like the slender bamboo sapling of his namesake. Returning Jyuushirou’s kiss with passion, Shunsui moved his mouth over the fine white jawline, down the long arching throat as Jyuushirou’s head fell back with a soft hitch, his dark lashes fluttering closed. Holding the strong yielding torso against him, Shunsui slid his hands under the smoothly coiled long hamstrings then lifted once, and Jyuushirou was sitting in his lap, the soft robe separating as his long toned white thighs parted and clasped around Shunsui’s waist, his smooth heels locking firmly at the small of Shunsui’s back, the sinewy strength of his swordsman’s hands clutching Shunsui’s head against the firm resilient curves of his heaving, finely muscled pectorals. Shunsui delved deep against the warm quivering skin, his senses now drunk with heady peony musk as he kissed and mouthed the trembling muscles, over small flat pink nipples, lapping them to pointed hard nubs, drawing a deep tenor shuddering groan from Jyuushirou’s panting, silken chest. Then clasping the small firm buttocks in both hands, Shunsui rose to his feet, carrying his fey, lust-hazed lover into the room, unerringly heading for the wide futon.

As soon as his feet touched its cushioned surface he tumbled to his knees and fell forwards, Jyuushirou falling back upon the dark sheets, his long gleaming mane clouding in a fine silken mass about his head. His dark eyes shone fiercely as his robe fell completely open, exposing his torso to Shunsui’s hungry gaze, the bunched sleeves trapping his forearms within its mussed folds. His alabaster skin was incandescent upon the dark maroon of the silk sheets, marred only by the very faint white thread of an ancient scar that lined the middle of his torso from chest to navel, his glowing supple body gilded and toned with a swordsman’s agility and athleticism, inviting ravishment, anticipating Shunsui’s hungry touch…

Shunsui stopped, his gaze arrested. Fingers trembling, he gingerly traced the faint, distinctive shape on Jyuushirou’s right side, in the midst of the cloud of hazy yellow bruise marring his pale skin from ribs to waist.

Yama-jii’s handprint.

It was healing, vanishing little by little even as he watched.

Pale hands strained against the folds of the long sleeves binding them, one succeeding in reaching up enough to cover Shunsui’s hand. “It will be gone by the morning,” Jyuushirou breathed hurriedly, his voice hitching with need. “Shunsui, please…”

“Does it hurt?” Shunsui needed to know, his own voice hoarse in his ears.

“It is no matter,” Jyuushirou gasped, still too honest to lie even when urgent with passion. “Shunsui, please… make love to me…”

The gentle, captive plea wrenched a deep guttural groan from the depths of Shunsui’s soul. In one smooth motion, he tore off the belt of his yukata and shrugged the robe off completely, flinging it behind him in a billow. Bracing himself on his knees between the long white thighs, one hand on either side of the white shoulders, his own wavy locks hanging down over them like a dark curtain of privacy, Shunsui took a moment to stare down, drinking in the heady sight beneath him, at the heavenly display of his best friend, soul brother and lover, whose dark impassioned eyes stared up at him as he lay trembling, wordlessly writhing with silent pleas to be touched touch, his elegant tapering body glowing like fine bone china upon mussed silks of white and dark maroon, driving Shunsui mad with crazed lust.

In that moment, Shunsui lived forever.

His soul reverberated with his deepest secret conviction that no matter where Jyuushirou went, in this realm or another, he would eventually follow, and find him, and join him, and join with him.

“Please,” Jyuushirou beseeched softly, urgently, his restrained hands helplessly reaching for him.

Shunsui hesitated no further.

Solely with his upper body strength, he lowered himself onto the one who held his soul, his mouth descending onto warm white skin like silk like cream over pliable iron, his senses intoxicated with the heady perfume of peony and musk that could only be Jyuushirou. His tongue and mouth laved a trail down the heaving chest and toned flat abdomen, then balancing on his elbows he gently spanned his hands on both sides of the long slight curve of the narrow waist and clasped the flat navel against his mouth, his grip careful and tender on the still healing bruise, his hands possessively grasping the slight flare of the slender hips. As he nuzzled the smooth concave pelvis, the heated silky curving rod of Jyuushirou’s manhood pressed under his chin, and once again he marvelled at how Jyuushirou’s skin had remained as hairless as a young child. And as the lean flexible pelvis arched towards his mouth with an accompanying musical groan, in one seamless move Shunsui swallowed the elegant pearling manhood, powerfully hollowing his cheeks and sucking once, twice, thrice, repeating the rhythm again and again until with a tearing cry Jyuushirou arched up, clamping strong supple thighs around Shunsui’s head and shoulders, tangling fine sinewy hands in Shunsui’s hair, and orgasmed in long scalding streams to the back of Shunsui’s throat.

Shunsui kept the precious fluid in his mouth to near overflowing, then without waiting, released the hot slippery ejaculate into one palm and slathered it over himself, coating himself to his hilt, and brusquely, grasping the long trembling thighs and pulling them apart, his tanned fingers almost brutal on the tender white skin, his thumbs stretched apart the tiny quivering rosette of Jyuushirou’s entrance. With two slippery fingers he plunged into the small pulsating orifice, massaging and pushing to loosen the tight muscles, thrusting in to his knuckles and pushing both fingers apart, feeling the secret passageway open to him, then in one singular movement practiced over near two thousand years, withdrew his hand and slid himself in sheathing completely home, tearing a choked sob from Jyuushirou as his strong supple thighs crushed Shunsui’s waist in pain. Swiftly scooping his arms beneath the long shaking back, robe, sheets and all, he clasped the pale body against him as it trembled, swathing Jyuushirou’s lithe slender arms to his sides with his embrace to gentle the pained shuddering.

Soft gasping pants whispered against Shunsui’s ears as they stayed connected for heartbeats, Jyuushirou’s legs like quivering iron bands around him as his body pulsed and clenched about Shunsui. Then, a soft, hitching, “Please” brushed against the side of Shunsui’s cheek, and obediently he began moving, minutely at first, massaging the skin of his hilt, then like a slow unsealing felt pre-ejaculate began to trickle. Feverishly he peeled apart the folds of the robe and freed Jyuushirou’s hands and strong supple arms wrapped around Shunsui as he held the slender body against him and as one, they moved, matching each other in a rhythm each knew as well as the reishi of his own soul, like two entwined long-tailed sea carps rocking with the currents of the ocean. With rapturous fervour Jyuushirou kissed him, his soft petal mouth laving over Shunsui’s face, licking sweat and something that burned hot beneath Shunsui’s eyelids, and when Shunsui opened eyes he did not know he had closed, his vision of Jyuushirou’s face was blurred, glimmering as though he was seeing his love through the surface of a wind-blown pool. He saw white fingertips rise, felt them wipe beneath his eyes, saw Jyuushirou’s face shine with a smile of pure brilliant love through his stinging shimmering haze of passion and devotion, and Shunsui realised, as he watched a clear sparkling drop fall to splash gently onto Jyuushirou’s ivory cheekbone, that tears were falling from his own eyes.

I love you.

[We love you,] echoed his dark mistress.

“I cannot lose you,” choked Shunsui, hoarse.

The blinding, answering light in Jyuushirou’s dark eyes was all the answer he needed and with a hoarse, wrenching shout, Shunsui released.

# # # # # #

Laying in Jyuushirou’s warm slender arms, feeling soft fingers running through his hair, his heartbeat still thundering, his breathing still harsh, Shunsui gradually came down from their ecstasy. As the haze of passion dissipated, he watched one long white hand rise and gracefully gesture, and all kidou lamps in the house flickered and extinguished. Belatedly, he heard the gentle pattering of rain, and smelled the warm moist scent of summer heat dispelling from the earth, and the room suddenly flashed soundlessly white several times before darkening to moonlit gloom. Raising himself on one elbow, he peered through the parted shoji to the night beyond, and saw a light shower prickling the surface of the lake, receding rapidly even as he watched.

He looked down at the beloved face beneath him. Jyuushirou was smiling at him with silent love, the blue-white glow of his reiatsu fading from his shining dark eyes.

Gently, Shunsui lowered his mouth and kissed the softly smiling lips, moved beyond words. In one wordless gesture, Jyuushirou had announced his love to the heavens. Those who knew his elemental reiatsu would realise the exact nature of the brief unnatural lightning shower. Those who did not would feel compelled to pull their partners close or seek the arms of lovers. Silent satisfaction filled his heart at his certainty that those who knew Jyuushirou’s reiatsu could be counted on the fingers of one hand. He did not want to share this precious secret.

Ai, Yoruichi was right about him after all.

Discarding his silent wry realisation, he gathered the long alabaster body against himself and rolled to his side, resting his head on the silk head cushion. Like always, Jyuushirou pillowed his head on his bicep, burying his nose against Shunsui’s chest. Shunsui threaded his hand in the cool mass of long slippery white tresses, massaging the delicate scalp until his own heart calmed, and his own breathing evened.

They lay quietly in the dark, neither of them speaking, neither of them needing to.

Then softly, quietly, Jyuushirou said, “I have to tell Senpai.” As his fingers began tracing the hair on Shunsui’s chest, he added in a whisper, “She deserves to know.”

There was no need for Shunsui to ask for details. He simply tightened his hold. Jyuushirou’s shoulders and back were warm and yielding against his arms, the long tousles of his hair blanketing Shunsui’s hands like soft cool silk. It was all the answer he needed to give, for he felt the warm smooth body relax and settle further within his embrace.

Kissing the top of the beloved head, Shunsui inhaled the heady perfume of peony musk and their love-making, then rested the underside of his jaw upon the precious cranium. Sleep drifted close as his soul thrummed in peace with their skin contact, oblivion creeping over his mind as his heart cradled the truth he had always known – the being in his arms was his soul, irreplaceable if ever lost. Memory rose of Kurotsuchi’s secret tanks, and as a vague germ of an idea began to form, the dark shadows of slumber enveloped him.

Chapter Text

Brightening indigo light slowly crept through the darkness, rousing him to a dim predawn. Surfacing from oblivion he became aware that he was laying alone among cooling dark silk sheets. Sensing the familiar ebbing and flowing of the soft watery reiatsu, he stretched his arm across the empty space, feeling its fading warmth. Inhaling in the lingering scent of peony musk, he emerged into full wakefulness.

In the bluish dimness of the room, he saw that the tatami floor on the other side of the futon was also empty, the familiar long elegant shape of the crimson-hilted tachi nowhere in sight.

Shunsui sat up, the sheets falling to his waist, as his senses reached for the watery reiatsu once more. Immediately he located it in a spot he knew well. The beloved signature eddied in greeting, then unexpectedly, threw him a little splash of invitation.

Surprised, his interest piqued.

That playfulness… when was the last time he felt it?

Silently he rose, heading to the row of hooks on the wall beside the shoji of the master bathroom. His old scarlet hakama hung where he had left it, but its pale-blue partner was no longer hanging beside it, absent, like the crimson-hilted tachi.

A frisson of anticipation ran over his skin and Shunsui could not help curling an anticipatory smile.

The absence of the two items meant only one thing.

Quickly, he took down his scarlet hakama, pulled it on and bound its four-string ties securely about his waist. Taking a hair tie hanging from another hook, he returned to his side of the futon, raking his fingers through his hair as he walked and tying it back into his usual ponytail.

Good morning, my dark mistress, he greeted as soon as he reached Katen Kyoukotsu, kneeling on one knee to stroke their dark-blue hilts.

There was no answer, save for a low, barely detectable thrum that indicated a deep slumber.

Smirking at the wake-up call he was certain awaited his sleeping zanpakutou, he grasped both weapons in one hand and followed the swirling watery signature out onto the bedroom verandah. Moving around the long low table, he paused before the low wooden balustrade to sweep his gaze over the predawn scenery of the small Ugendou lake.

The ghostly disc of last night’s full moon was sinking into the western horizon. Wisps of clouds, still a dark grey, were gradually paling as the eastern horizon slowly brightened. The dim light was still tinged blue, the cool morning air redolent with fresh greenness and the lingering tang of ozone from the brief lightning shower of last night. His eyes following his senses, he tracked the watery reiatsu to the opposite shore, where a pavilion stood on the rise of the grassy knoll gently ascending from the thin strip of sandy beach.

There, upon the dimly lit green grassy slope, Jyuushirou’s lithe slender figure glowed white and pale blue as he flowed through the complex movements of an ancient Zanjutsu kata. His supple gilded alabaster torso was bare to the waist beneath the flying streams of his long white hair, his long legs encased in the clinging pale blue of his soft worn hakama, one sinewy white hand wielding his slim elegantly curved tachi with effortless ease as he spun, leapt and crouched in seamless grace slicing smooth arcs through the air, every precise stroke whipping a low vibrating sound across the mirror surface of the lake. The graceful angular fingers of his other hand wove eloquent ribbons of blue-white reiatsu energy burning the morning air with the ozone tang of near lightning as they wreathed his figure in a soundless accompanying dance. On one bare foot he spun and crouched, long blade slicing a horizontal arc before his body, one long pale-blue clad leg sweeping its bare pale foot over jadeite grass sending sheets of glistening raindrops and dew spraying into the air, and as he spun away the shining crystalline drops fell showering down upon the glassy surface of the lake in a soft scattering rain, blurring its mirror smoothness. Reaching the end of the movement, he paused in a half-crouching stance, lithely balanced on the toes of one foot beneath one folded knee, his other leg extended to the side with his bare foot lightly resting on the wet grass, long tachi folded behind his bare torso against his supple gilded arm, his other palm cradling a soundlessly flaming ball of blue white-reiatsu. As his white mane settled about his wide alabaster shoulders in a fine waterfall, his dark mahogany eyes pierced Shunsui from across the lake.

Even from this distance, he could see it. The slow, curving smile full of love. And an invitation.

Shunsui smiled slowly in response, his senses and body stirring, his instincts rising to the silent challenge.

Releasing a small layer of his own reiatsu, he lifted one bare foot, leapt onto the top of the low balustrade, then launched himself upwards and forwards into the predawn air. Curving in an arc towards the middle of the lake, he pointed his bare toes downwards as he descended towards the still rippling surface of the water, pushing his reiatsu downwards and leaving one ripple behind as the borrowed force buoyed him into a second arc, propelling him upwards and forwards once more before delivering him in a light descent landing him on the edge of the knoll. Thick carpeted damp grass flattened beneath his bare feet as he drew both swords. Dropping their sheaths on the grassy cushion, he leapt into the air in a Bushougoma spin, directing his trajectory down at his fey opponent below.

Jyuushirou spun away in swirl of white and pale blue, leaving behind a ribbon of reiatsu that repelled his blades. Shunsui landed on the grass in a crouch swinging both his blades to his side after his opponent, his blade winds blowing fresh sprays of rain and dew drops up around them, slicing upwards to meet the downward arcing long curved tachi, their three blades ringing sharply in the quiet of the brightening predawn as they struck, steel to steel, Jyuushirou’s dark gaze flashing with playful challenge as their eyes momentarily locked over their engaged blades, then with a steely slithering sound they slid apart, his fair willowy figure slanting into a new kata as without a word, his single tachi blurred then peeled apart into a pair of identical long swords, each bearing a backwards arcing secondary blade from its back, both linked at the hilt by a length of crimson silken rope from which suspended five metal talismans that chimed like bells in the silence of the rising dawn. In response Shunsui crossed his blades and swept them down each other as he spun into a low sweeping attack, his daishou pair of black scimitars springing forth as he sliced them through the air handspans above the grass aiming for the slender pale-blue clad legs. Those legs leapt above his horizontal strikes, bare white feet spraying shining droplets into his vision, and he followed through slanting upwards in double-bladed slice, a palm’s breadth behind the flying pale figure who suddenly sank beneath his strike, his scimitars passing harmlessly above the white-haired head. Twin long swords began twirling asymmetrically in pale supple hands, sending a wave of reiatsu sweeping around the knoll, gusting loose leaves and crystalline water drops into the skies and rippling the glass surface of the lake. Shunsui accompanied with simultaneous forward and backward jabs of his double scimitars, piercing the reiatsu wave with slicing layers of his own force that blew and bent the bamboo groves around the knoll without cutting a single jadeite stalk.

Delighted laughter tinkled above him, ringing like bells in the predawn light.

Looking up, Shunsui could not help an aroused smile at the sight, his loins stirring. Jyuushirou stood easily reiatsu-stepping in midair, half-turned towards the still swaying bamboo grove, long white mane flowing down his shoulders and back, one long blade was folded against the back of his slender supple arm. The back of the other blade rested over one bare sloping shoulder as he looked back down at Shunsui, his dark eyes glimmering with silent teasing beneath a raised long arching black brow, a half-smile playing on his small sculpted mouth. With a lopsided curl of his lips and a whipping swathe of long white hair he turned away and before Shunsui could shout out in caution, his lithe figure leapt right onto the top of the precariously swaying bamboo thicket, lightly skipping unerringly from unsteady stalk to unsteady stalk, throwing another glance over his shoulder with a quick inviting grin.

Barking out a laugh as he caught on, Shunsui loosed his reiatsu into his legs then buoyed himself upwards and forwards, one leg stretching out to tap his foot on a swaying leaf, then the other leg stretching out to tap his other foot on another swaying leaf, stretching and scissoring his strides in quick succession as he leapt from waving bamboo stalk to waving bamboo stalk in pursuit of the nimble willowy figure flashing white and pale blue through the green unsteady canopy ahead. Silvery merry laughter floated back to him on the speeding winds, wringing forth his own chuckles, his mirth whipping away in the winds as he plunged through the dangerously bending and colliding bamboo stalks, jadeite leaves and trunks sinking and rising and yielding unpredictably beneath his feet from their passing reiatsu. Senses sharpening into blade points to keep his balance he chased his incredibly agile target through the tall waving jade-green stalks as he tried to keep sight of his fey fleet-footed quarry. Then a soft tell-tale snick sent him rolling forwards instinctively, missing a toppling bamboo stalk, sliced in half by an unseen blade. Unfurling from his roll, he rose to a crouch on the soft moist soil, sweeping his eyes up and around in one searching glance, and abruptly sensing more than seeing an oncoming wavelet of salty ozone-tinged reiatsu, he spun, leading with his shorter scimitar, following with his longer scimitar sweeping up from below, only to see bare white feet leaping up and a somersaulting blur of white and pale blue rising clear of his strike. There was a metallic ringing and then the blur solidified into the form of Jyuushirou, descending downwards with his knees drawn up, his arms sweeping both long swords apart to his either side, sending a cutting wave slicing downwards to Shunsui. Raising both scimitars he slashed them down vertically, splitting the wave into half feeling his skin tingle as both halves sped harmlessly past his arms and sides, cracking bamboo and tearing fallen leaves behind him. With a rakish grin, he leapt towards Jyuushirou, intent on catching him before his bare white feet could touch the ground.

Laughing in answer, Jyuushirou simply threw up one leg leading himself into an upwards body flip, clearing past Shunsui overhead with both long swords folded behind his arms. Landing on top of one bamboo stalk, he flashed a grin, then turned and ran, leaping from bending stalk to bending stalk, long white hair streaming out behind him. Shunsui pursued swiftly, tossing his scimitars in midair to change his hold into backhanded grips as his feet rapidly tapped from leaf to stalk to trunk to leaf, closing in on the blurry fleeing shape ahead darting white and pale blue over the jadeite canopy. Then suddenly they were running out of bamboo grove, and Jyuushirou’s lithe form dropped to the grassy knoll twirling his twin long swords asymmetrically drawing twin ribbons of entwining reiatsu currents in his wake. Crossing his arms Shunsui sliced both outward edges of his scimitars across the reiatsu barrier cutting himself an entry gap, leaping through it and landing on the grass only to feel the currents close behind him immediately again. Jyuushirou turned, double long blades slashing horizontally. With a quick flip of his wrists Shunsui spun his hilts and his scimitars in forward grips again, caught the double blow. Four blades met in one single resounding ring, and he stared into blazing laughing dark eyes, his vision momentarily shielded under flying streams of long white hair.

Finely carved lips splitting into a mischievous smile, Jyuushirou shoved, then they were sliding apart with another singular, sharp metallic slithering ring. Before Shunsui could cease his backwards momentum Jyuushirou flipped and somersaulted backwards until he landed on the edge of the roof of the small pavilion, then pushing off on his bare feet, launched into a reiatsu-run through the air ringing around Shunsui, twin long swords drawing currents of salty ozone-tinged reiatsu in a trailing barrier. Shunsui followed his speeding trajectory slashing one scimitar after the other sending successive slices of cutting force after the slender agile form, spinning in place to keep his airborne opponent in his line of attack as his blurry flying pale target kept just ahead of his strikes layering on streams of heaving reiatsu waves about them. In a few heartbeats they were enclosed in the centre of a spacious cage of invisible undulating energy, and suddenly the speeding figure solidified into Jyuushirou’s form dropping lightly as a leaf onto the grass, white hands sealing his twin blades back into a single tachi, one palm rising and throwing a stream of blue-white reiatsu at the encircling currents of energy, igniting it into a glowing bluish-white light barrier and obscuring their surroundings. Then Jyuushirou stood still and stared intensely at Shunsui, his long white hair blown and tousled, his dark eyes alive and afire, neither winded, nor beaded with a single drop of sweat, his high cheekbones blooming with the glow of his power as the smile curving his fine lips became sultry, welcoming.

Sealing his scimitars and reiatsu, Shunsui clapped both his hilts into one hand and closing the distance between them in one stride, reached out his freed hand and clasped the back Jyuushirou’s head, pulling him in brusquely as his mouth clamped over the teasing pale-pink lips with a low growl of conquest. Vaguely he heard the drop of a sword onto the grass as lithe supple arms rose and wrapped like warm yielding steel bands about his neck, strong sinewy fingers threading through his hair. Dropping his own swords, Shunsui bore Jyuushirou backwards onto the soft grass, his mouth slanting hard across the soft sweet lips, his tongue prying them open and plunging into the warm surrendering cavern beneath, the musk of peony, grass and salty ozone-tinged reiatsu intoxicating his senses as his hands roughly, clumsily pulled at the ties of the pale-blue hakama about the slender waist. He almost tore the soft well-worn fabric in his haste, stripping it down the flat supple abdomen to the gently swelling lean hips, the newly healed skin creamy and white without a single marring injury. White angular fingers fumbled and pulled urgently at Shunsui’s scarlet hakama ties, and with mutual rustles of fabric, they were both nude. Then Shunsui proceeded to make possessive, ardent love to the fey, tantalising heart of his soul right then and there, on the dew carpeted grass under the brightening dawn, in a ring of cool blue-white reiatsu light.

Jyuushirou arched and cried beneath him, throwing back his fine beautiful head arching the slender vulnerability of his white throat to Shunsui’s demanding kisses, his long, toned legs snapping about Shunsui with steely strength, his lithe body heaving and straining with hunger for fulfilment. Shunsui answered his demands heave for heave, rapidly pumping Jyuushirou to ejaculation, caging the head of Jyuushirou’s throbbing elegant manhood in one palm to capture the thick scalding streams. Then messily, hurriedly, he slathered himself and in one aggressive thrust pierced into the hungry willing pale body, still pliant and open from their passion last night, swallowing Jyuushirou’s shout of pleasure in his mouth as he slid back and thrust, slid back and thrust, and slid back again and thrust again over and over the throbbing nerve centre inside the clenching quivering passage, his rhythm rapidly quickening until he was pounding uncontrollably, pounding feverishly, Jyuushirou's supple strength meeting him thrust for thrust for thrust with ravenous iron force, his impassioned cries muffled beneath Shunsui’s relentless, consuming mouth, his hands and fingers clenching deep and hard over Shunsui’s back. Then he was coming again between them for the second time, and a heartbeat later Shunsui shouted and shuddered his release deep inside, deep within the clenching clasping depths of his fey, strong, beautiful love and soul brother.

They fell apart together, panting, sticky and dishevelled, exhausted and messy from their passion instead of their sparring. The reiatsu flames dimmed and dissipated around them, revealing the grassy knoll and bamboo grove once again. Laying panting on the damp grass, as one they turned their heads and looked at each other, then without warning, burst into laughter. Jyuushirou’s peals of mirth rang carefree and unrestrained through the air, as light and happy as that day two thousand years ago when Shunsui showed him his shikai for the first time.

Counting his laughter from last evening when Kurosaki-kun had made him laugh, Shunsui realised he had not heard his soul brother express so much joy in so short a time for several hundred years.

Then he realised something else. “That’s two days in a row we released shikai!” Shunsui sniggered, grinning madly.

Dark eyes widened, then crinkled with answering mirth. “Yes!” gasped Jyuushirou, his pale shoulders shaking at the ridiculousness of their situation.

“What must Yama-jii think!” Shunsui chortled with glee.

Another silvery peal from Jyuushirou joined him in commiseration, and they both collapsed again into laughter, feeling once again like two errant boys conspiring to vex their sensei and adoptive father.

Shunsui rolled onto his side, still cackling as he gazed fondly at his snickering soul brother, whose entire frame was still quaking with mirth. “Ai, hundreds of years of no shikai, and now we’re deluging his senses every day!”

Gasping until he subsided enough to speak, Jyuushirou turned his face towards Shunsui and grinned impishly. “We will probably send Sensei back into his private library,” he snickered softly. “He does so love to study our powers.”

“Let him guess at this one then,” Shunsui quipped, flinging himself onto his back once more, throwing his arms out haphazardly on either side. “He started it yesterday, toying with our zanpakutou the way he did.”

Above him, the dome of the predawn sky was almost bright. Their sparring and shunpo tag had taken them to the cusp of sunrise.

“Come,” Jyuushirou finally said, sitting up. With another soft snicker, he flowed to his feet and stark naked, curtained only by his long gleaming white mane, he ran lightly down the grassy knoll like a magical yousei, and in one leap, two, his elegant body sliced head first into the lake like a glowing white carp with a crystalline plop. The water rippled after his disappearance, and lazily, Shunsui waited.

And waited.

When the ripples continued expanding and fading, he quickly sat up and scanned the lake surface anxiously. As the ripples continued expanding undisturbed, he tensed to go after his love when abruptly, a white gleaming head burst through the rippling lake surface, long hair throwing back a shining sheets of crystalline water.

Laughing to himself in relief, Shunsui rose and more sedately, followed. Walking nude and barefoot until he left the grass and felt sand beneath his feet, he waded into the cool water and began stroking steadily, powerfully towards Jyuushirou, turning to float on his back to scrub his skin with his hands underwater. Soft hands moved through his hair and scalp, and he smiled appreciatively at the upside-down image of Jyuushirou, inhaling a sharp breath when the sun finally broke into a new day and dusted his love’s damp alabaster skin with a luminous pale gold.

Splashing about and treading water so that he was facing Jyuushirou, Shunsui slowly, lovingly, placed a kiss on those wet, pale-pink lips, expressing without words what he felt in his heart for the one soul who knew all layers of darkness within him and loved him even more for it. Jyuushirou kissed him back softly, deep understanding in his dark eyes as shining water droplets beaded on his long lashes. Then with a grin, he began stroking gracefully back to shore, towards where their discarded hakama and weapons lay, his fair skin flashing like a pale golden carp in the dawning rays of the sun.

# # # # # #

The exact nature of the brief lightning shower last night could only be understood by those who knew well the one who summoned it.

Thus it came as a surprise to Shunsui that one particular high-seated Thirteenth Division officer had picked it up.

It was a slender bespectacled young man of average height, with light-purple hair of medium-length combed back from his face. Shunsui recognised him as the Sixth Seat of the Thirteenth, but for the life of him could not remember the officer's name. The Sixth Seat was in the middle of a slight commotion on the shore at the end of the narrow bridge linking the pavilion lake house to the main land. It seemed that Kiyone-chan and Sentaro-san had discharged themselves early in the morning and now found themselves barred from seeing their taichou by their bespectacled junior colleague. As Shunsui trailed behind Jyuushirou over the narrow bridge, their arguments rose in volume, testament to the unique culture of the Thirteenth that juniors could argue against seniors, as long as the argument had merits.

And from what Shunsui was overhearing of his explanations to his irate superiors, the Sixth Seat had sound merits to his argument. The young man was clearly flustered at being outranked but nevertheless was firmly standing his ground.

“…isn’t that Taichou is not well! Truly! Last night wasn’t a stray reiatsu release due to illness!” argued the young man. Kajoumaru, Shunsui suddenly recalled his family name. “Neither was this morning!”

“And how would you know!?” Sentaro-san boomed with furious demand. “You haven’t served Taichou as closely and long as us!”

“Let us pass!” cried Kiyone-chan, her face streaked with exasperation and anxiety. “When Taichou accidentally releases reiatsu like that it means he’s very ill!”

“Trust me, it wasn’t an accident!” Kajoumaru tried again with urgency. “Taichou needs the utmost privacy right now!”

Shunsui slanted a humorous glance to his side, seeing a fine crease wrinkle the otherwise unlined pale brow of his love.

Unfortunately, before he could comfort his love, their arrival was noticed.

“Ukitake Taichou! Kyouraku Taichou!”

“Ukitake Taichou! Kyouraku Taichou!”

“Ukitake Taichou, Kyouraku Taichou.”

The three greetings came at them at various volumes in a disjointed chorus, two of them surprised, one flustered.

“Good morning,” Jyuushirou returned, his deep lyrical tenor calm and gentle as always, but held a clear hint of trepidation.

Shunsui decided to spare a moment to watch the curious drama.

“Taichou, are you well?” Sentaro-san’s worried voice reverberated around the early morning Ugendou. “We felt your reiatsu release-” He stopped suddenly, his eyes widening in confusion at Jyuushirou’s apparent health.

“Taichou, did you have an episode?” Kiyone-chan was equally confused, her grey eyes darting from Jyuushirou to Shunsui and back.

“Taichou, I keep trying to explain that you should not be disturbed…” Kajoumaru trailed off, his bespectacled eyes glancing discreetly at Shunsui.

“Please, everyone,” soothed Jyuushirou as he held out his slender hand placatingly.

His voice and manner calmed his highly strung subordinates like a balm of cool water. Immediately, the three officers subsided into respectful silence. Turning to Kajoumaru, Jyuushirou smiled kindly and with soft gratitude, praised, “Thank you, Hidetomo, you are indeed astute.”

His light skin turning red, the Sixth Seat bowed. He gave Shunsui another discreet glance, opened his mouth to add something more, then shut it again wordlessly as he seemed to think better of it.

Shunsui took no offence at the surreptitious glances. He understood the two Third Seats’ anxiety, for they had both served Jyuushirou for more than half a century and knew well that Shunsui spent his nights at the Ugendou to care for their taichou whenever a long bout struck. What they had yet to learn was that for nearly fifteen hundred years now, Jyuushirou’s control rarely slipped. And he was mildly impressed that the unassuming studious-looking Sixth Seat had figured it out when his more experienced superiors had not.

“I apologise for being presumptuous, Taichou,” Kajoumaru was apologising. “It’s just that I was extremely certain that you… are well.”

“I am well, indeed,” Jyuushirou chuckled. Looking at his Third Seats, he asked in concern, “But are you two well?”

“We’ve recovered, Ukitake Taichou!” they answered simultaneously, then glared at each other.

“We came immediately when we felt your reiatsu!” Sentaro-san boomed anxiously, still confused by the fact that Jyuushirou did not appear ill.

Understanding abruptly dawned on Kiyone-chan’s gamine face. “Ai!” She started flushing deeply. “I-we-I’m sorry, Ukitake Taichou! We should not be disturbing you! Come on Sentaro, we should leave now!” She began tugging urgently at the sleeve of her co-Third Seat as she began moving away.

Kajoumaru bowed again and prepared to follow his superior officers.

“Wait, please,” Jyuushirou called to them.

Turning his back to his officers, Jyuushirou looked at him wordlessly for a heartbeat, then a small intimate smile curved his lips. Lowering his lashes, his cheeks blooming faintly pink, he murmured in a hushed lyrical voice that remained only between them, “Last night… and this dawn… they are very special to me…”

Shunsui’s heart stopped, then stuttered up again, his blood stirred by the demurely shy confession.

Unaware of his effect on Shunsui, Jyuushirou lifted his dark eyes, his warmth and caring shining in their depths. “I may be delayed by my duties today… but I can have our kitchens serve your evening repast here for your return. Our chef recently created a new sushi dish…”

“Let’s share that together another time?” Shunsui put in softly, reaching up a hand to touch the finely chiselled face, then dropping it at the last instant when he recalled they had an audience. “As much as I would love to, I have something I need to do tonight, remember?” His arms ached with need to fold Jyuushirou back into his embrace.

Jyuushirou brightened as he visibly recalled Shunsui’s private arrangement with Hanshi-sama yesterday. Curiosity flashed briefly in his expression but he did not pursue. Instead, he looked hopefully at Shunsui, the memory of their recent passions lingering in his dark eyes. “Then… will I see you when you return?”

Resisting another urge to touch the beautiful angular face, Shunsui hid his impulse with a dip of his hat. “I shall be back before you fall asleep,” he confirmed softly, allowing his eyes to say what his lips could not.

Smiling with pleasure, Jyuushirou nodded slightly and with barely perceptible reluctance, turned back to his waiting subordinates. He gently gestured with unconscious graceful authority. “Could all of you accompany me to my office? We have much to do today.” With a backward smile and a nod of farewell at Shunsui, he stepped from the bridge onto the pebbled shore and began to lead his officers away.

Shunsui watched Jyuushirou’s tall lithe form leave with silent longing, missing him already. Not for the first time, he imagined that someday, they would both find a place where they could be together forever, without interruptions.

Secreting his emotions deep into the centre of his soul, he released the barest force of reiatsu and launched himself towards the eastern boundary walls of the Ugendou.

For now, he needed Jyuushirou to be occupied while he pursued the idea that had formed during his sleep.

# # # # # #

The Eighth Division headquarters lay east of the Ugendou, in the north-northeastern quadrant of the Seireitei. That entire quadrant was originally allocated to Shunsui, and the east-northeastern quadrant to the Fifth. But by the fifth century of moving into the Seireitei, as he slackened off on recruitment while Jyuushirou continued to receive more applications than he could manage, Shunsui had simply ceded half of the Eighth’s territory to the Thirteenth and thus solved both their problems: Jyuushirou suddenly had new roles and territories for his excess recruits and Shunsui no longer needed justify to Yama-jii why he was failing to meet his recruitment quotas. Of course, his old sensei had never let him forget that he had creatively taken the easy way out, but Shunsui had long ago ceased to argue. He would recruit only when the right candidates appeared rather than force himself to fulfil artificial requirements. Besides, he always believed that it was more important that the Seireitei’s first lines of defence be stronger than its secondary lines of resistance. If they kept their outermost perimeters, they could go on the offensive rather than have to fight fires after the enemy had broken past their boundaries.

But that was physical defence of the Seireitei. Dealing with enemies he could see with concrete military and defence strategies was his especial domain. When it came to enemies he could not see, Shunsui was less sure of himself. As he took a sedate contemplative pace back to his quarters, consciously planning the steps to unearth Kurotsuchi’s secrets in those tall cylindrical tanks, that part of him which was the sleepless shinigami warrior took the opportunity to rise unbidden to the fore and send his thoughts mulling over his exchange with Yoruichi, and his sense memory recalling the strangely mixed reiatsu emanating from Kurosaki-kun. Like rapidly flitting images he backtracked over the events of the past week, and the directions of his musing mind began to arouse that tingling on all his instincts he immediately recognised. By the time he crossed the boundary walls of his own division, Shunsui was in a semi-state of alert, his brain whirling with a morass of ideas, memories, thoughts and questions both official and private until he almost ran into the bustling wagon line of shinigami, Rukongai workers and trundling carts of construction materials and tools.

Flash-stepping out of the way into the lee of a protruding eave, he paused to watch the commotion for several heartbeats. Those shinigami were his own officers, and they were completely preoccupied with supervising the transportation of the wagon line towards the destroyed courtyard of the Eighth where he had duelled with Sado-kun. Most of the wagons bore slabs of new, white masonry stones. There was that quality of organised chaos and noise about the avenue which were totally incomprehensible to him and, quite frankly, scared him. Clearly, Nanao-chan truly meant business when she said she wanted him out of the way while repairs were being done.

Deciding it was best he keep away from his subordinates and their business, Shunsui cloaked his reiatsu completely and sought another way back to his private quarters, leaping from roof to roof in a circuitous route to avoid being seen and, if anyone were to ask him, to stay out of something he knew he had no capability for. It took him nearly half an hour to make it to his private quarters, and when he finally did, he entered his personal space with a sigh of relief.

“Good morning, Kyouraku Taichou.”

He almost jumped.

Nanao-chan was waiting for him in his living room, a stack of papers in her hand. Her face was stony but there was a smirk in her blue violet-tinged eyes behind her spectacles as she deliberately lowered the reiatsu-masking technique he had recently taught her.

She had ambushed him with paperwork.

For a heartbeat, Shunsui regretted imparting that particular skill to her. Then guiltily banished the selfish thought.

“Good morning, lovely Nanao-chan!” he returned jovially. Before he could even take a step into his own quarters, those dreaded papers were suddenly under his nose.

“I just need you to sign these acquisition forms. The materials and workers are arriving today, and we need to pay the suppliers.”

After several decades of having his niece take over as his fukutaichou, he had learnt that when she was serious enough to accost him in his private quarters with paperwork, it was far better for his continued peace that he attended to it immediately rather than procrastinate like he normally would.

Gingerly accepting the papers, he flashed a smile at her then made himself read through them, becoming utterly impressed despite himself as he leafed through each sheet until he reached the last form.

The suppliers were the finest masonries in the First District of North Rukongai who exclusively served high nobility. Yet they were offering an unusually generous credit line despite their reputation of being cutthroat in their prices and snobbish in their attitudes simply because of their elite clientele.

“How did you get them to agree to this?” he said wonderingly, looking at her with some amazement.

She creased her brow at him, then lifted one brow over the frame of her glasses. “Sometimes, Kyouraku Taichou, you forget your own status.”

Oh.

“But it also means we need to uphold your reputation by paying on time. Which means signing these requisition forms on time. Such as signing them now.” Her last word was entirely steely.

Smiling ruefully, Shunsui asked no more and obediently signed all the places helpfully marked out with colourful bits of sticky paper. He did not bother to check the cost calculations. If he did, he was certain he would mess up an impeccable and sophisticated system that she had undoubtedly put in place. A rule of good leadership, he firmly believed, was knowing when to stay out of the way of more capable subordinates and let them do their jobs. And if that subordinate was capable enough to do the work of a taichou, then was it not all the merrier for all?

“There!” He handed back the duly signed stack with a proud flourish.

“Thank you, Kyouraku Taichou.” She took the sheaf, checked through them quickly, then satisfied, tucked them under her arm a visibly pleased look. Casting a look towards his bedroom, she informed, “I've hung out your spare kimono out. I couldn’t pack it in the bundle last evening because the silk will be crushed. If you could give me the one that you’re wearing now, I can bring it to the silk master to have the soot stains removed.”

She had read his mind.

Shrugging his treasured flowered pink silk kimono off his shoulders, he folded it in half and handed the cherished robe to her. “Ai, Nanao-chan, you understand me too well,” he rumbled fondly.

“This was my mother’s,” she replied simply, carefully draping the stained kimono over her arm, then prepared to leave. The gentling of her stern demeanour was only slightly perceptible when she asked, “Will you be moving back here after this week? That lightning rain last night…”

So she had figured it out as well. Shunsui did not need to think about his answer, however. “I can’t leave just yet,” he answered honestly.

It was a testament to her understanding of him that the only response she made was to push her glasses farther up on her nose. “Then I'll prepare and send over more of your clothes. And see you in the office during the day.”

“Thank you, Nanao-chan,” he smiled gratefully at her. Then added, “And more of my stash as well.”

She frowned. “I'm quite certain Ukitake Taichou does not prefer you drunk all the time,” she said with sharp meaning.

He affected a wounded look. “Me? Drunk?”

Rolling her eyes, she made her way towards the door, throwing back one last line over her shoulder. “My report and Enjouji’s report will be ready for your review in two days. Enjouji is recovering well and is able to write already.”

“I’ll look at them when they’re ready.” He waved cheerfully at her in acknowledgement, ignoring her sceptical look as she left and drew the shoji shut behind her.

Chuckling silently to himself, he walked into his bedroom. His private quarters were the standard taichou apartments, and he mostly used it for storing his personal things and sake stash rather than for sleeping. Shunsui could sleep anywhere. Over a millennium and a half of hard campaigning had ensured that. And guaranteed that he had very few keepsakes from avoiding attachments to anyone or anything. He had no need for other memento when his one true treasure was alive and well in his life every day and in his arms every night.

There was one thing, however, that he secreted in his private quarters for security.

The spare kimono was hanging ready on its stand, as Nanao-chan had said. It was slightly different from the one he had kept from among the personal effects of his late Ise Onee-sama, but close enough of a replica that he would continue to keep in character in the eyes of the public. Leaving it for the moment, he moved to the floor at the farthest corner of his bedroom and dropping to his haunches, lifted the tatami to uncover the floorboard underneath. The kidou seal hummed in greeting at his approach, Jyuushirou had helped him weave it so that it responded only to Shunsui’s reiatsu signature. Unfurling a little reiatsu, he let it recognise him, then as soon as the barrier parted, he lifted the floorboard and removed the mechanical black butterfly laying in the compartment beneath. At another touch of his reiatsu, the delicate construct moved, slowly lifting and lowering its wings once, awakening from dormancy.

He had an old low-ranking steward in the Kyouraku Estate who was formerly a high-level adjutant in the Gotei. Shunsui had persuaded Yama-jii to allow the shinigami a dishonourable discharge and sealing of powers in lieu of execution, for in his view the former adjutant’s crime had been one of superciliousness and overconfidence rather than evil intent, despite its near fatal consequences. Shunsui had taken the disgraced officer into the Kyouraku Clan in exchange for serving as his personal eyes and ears on his clan members, and at times, carrying out matters which he preferred to keep from his clan’s knowledge. If Yama-jii knew of this private arrangement, his old sensei made no mention of it.

His message to the mechanical butterfly was simple. Send a batch of the Kyouraku estate honey from the peony gardens to the Eighth by this afternoon, and make a dinner reservation for two tonight at a particular ryoutei whose proprietor owed Shunsui a favour and would keep strict confidence about his visit. Then carrying the construct to the window, he powered it with his reiatsu and watched as it took flight into the early morning light, resembling a Jigokuchou in all ways except for the fact that it was a purely mechanical thing and could be detected by those without reiryoku.

Private errand completed, Shunsui resealed the floorboard over the now empty compartment and replaced the tatami, then straightened to his feet. He moved to the kimono stand and removing the new kimono carefully, pulled it on over his shoulders as he left his bedroom.

The ideas congealed in his subconscious last night had risen to the forefront of his mind in vague, indistinct blotches. Coupled with his instincts on high alert from his contemplation of all that had recently happened to them and the Seireitei, his thoughts were now even more disorderly. There was something just beyond his mental grasp, eluding him every time he reached for it. And whenever he found himself with such a messy unsettled head, he needed a proper conversation with his zanpakutou.

However, to hold a proper conversation with Katen Kyoukotsu meant that he had to go into that half-meditative state which, if anyone happened to look at him, they would think he was snoozing off another heavy drink. It was how he had gained a reputation for being the resident alcoholic sloth of the Gotei. He never once minded the mistaken impression, since he was honest enough with himself to admit that he did love sake.

The cherry wood sideboard in his living room was a relatively new piece of furniture, added to store his private stash of Kyouraku Reserve within his convenient reach. Ever since he started the collection it seldom ran low and never once ran empty. Restocks tended to mysteriously appear before either emergency could arise. For the longest time he thought it was Lisa who kept him in constant supply, and after he lost Lisa, he thought it was Nanao-chan who took over her predecessor’s duty. He had even gone so far as to tease both of them about their farce of keeping up a public disapproval of his constant imbibing. But the first time a rare selection of Ukitake plum vintage appeared among his cache eighty years ago, he suddenly understood who it was who had been keeping him in an unceasing supply of alcohol.

That rare, contrastingly piquant and sweet plum vintage never lasted long once they appeared in his stock. Regretfully, he had none of it left now. Wistfully plucking out two fresh bottles of his usual, he held them by the string handles around their necks and left his private quarters, stepping onto the corridor outside.

A light leap onto the corridor balustrade, followed by another leap upwards, brought him to the opposite rooftop. Lightly he trod along the peak of the roof until he arrived at his favourite shaded spot, right under the overhang of the second storey where the roof tiles were kept suspiciously clean for him. Settling down cross-legged, he slid Katen Kyoukotsu from his obi and balanced them across his lap, then placed one bottle beside him. The other, he uncorked and took a swig.

While not the Ukitake plum vintage, the current batch of his estate’s reserve was still excellent. He made a mental note to congratulate the brew master in his next note home and took a few more swigs, slowly allowing the alcohol to burn into his bloodstream and warm him from within.

Someone unknown to him had decided a long time ago that the Academy would teach that the only way to imprint on one’s asauchi and after that communicate with one’s zanpakutou was through jinzen. Shunsui never found out who was the one who decided so, because to him it was inflexible and an overly limited form of martial instruction. For starters, jinzen never worked for him. The first time he tried it, over a thousand years ago, his zanpakutou had turned up her snooty nose, went silent and that was that. Through his subsequent centuries of hard warfare, he could only ever talk to her in her preferred way, which was when he was liberally doused with sake until he was halfway to inebriation.

A couple of swallows of his first bottle was not going to send him to that zone any time soon.

Which was why he jumped and nearly dropped his bottle at her sudden voice.

[I’m listening.]

Quickly he collected himself, quite shocked. Yare, yare! This is the first time you don’t need me to drink myself into a stupor!

[I was awake before daybreak. And waiting for you to talk.]

Truly?

[You want proof now?] she snorted.

He hurried to assure her. No, no, no. I’m just really shocked. What gives? You usually take me nearly two bottles before you’ll even deign to acknowledge me.

[After that most stimulating wake-up call? I can hardly return to sleep now, can I.] There was an entirely inappropriate licentious tone in her voice.

Ooooooooooh, I see, he sniggered mentally. She would never admit to it, but she had a secret vice for the illicit voyeur’s thrill of spying on his intimacy with Jyuushirou.

If I knew this was another way to get you into a talkative mood, I would’ve employed it centuries ago. And save Hanshi-sama a lot of work repairing my liver.

[Oh you always knew. You were just too jealous to share,] she sniffed. [I hope you know why you’re sharing now.]

When she put it that way, it sounded ridiculous. She was a part of his soul. So it followed that it was completely illogical that he could be jealous of himself.

What, no terrorising me with threats? Going straight to the point? he teased to hide his discomfiture.

[You should be the one to talk. You know as well as I do why you’re talking to me this seriously. Speak. I may be your zanpakutou, but I can’t always read your mind.]

And here I was just thinking how illogical it is that you think I can jealous of you, who’re a part of me. Aren’t we the same soul? You should know everything I know, ne?

[I much prefer for us to keep our separate individualities, thank you.]

She had a point. Whatever he still retained of the innate placidity that came with his being born as a pure soul, he preferred to keep. To become anything like her was… a little too much to take. Even for him.

He scratched his stubble as he tried to frame his chaotic thoughts into some semblance of order. I’m disturbed, yet excited, he tried experimentally.

She remained silent, waiting.

I think it has to do with everything that’ve surfaced since Aizen was exposed. My instincts are itching.

[Why do you think?]

It’s the confluence of events, he pondered, trying to identify the exact thing that had his instincts rising in hackles. Everything that’s come to light, and likely still coming to light, they’re simply… well, too coincidental. And the things I'm discovering myself… I went to Mayuri to find out what he did to that Quincy boy, but instead found a sliver of hope for Jyuushirou and I. Aizen had been scheming against the Gotei for a long time, yet it had to take someone with powers as strangely mixed as Kurosaki-kun to expose him.

[And you’ve never believed in coincidences,] she concluded for him.

And he realised, that was it. The root of all his unease. Chuckling, he rewarded himself with a few satisfying swigs. Why can’t all our conversations be this efficient?

[Why can’t you share him with me more often?] she retorted, half-sneering, half-wistful.

At her words, he felt a possessiveness overcome him. It was ludicrous but there it was. He was possessive over Jyuushirou even against his own soul, his own zanpakutou. My dark mistress, he began, masking his feelings by trying to sound understanding. He’s the most beautiful thing in all realms, and I let you peek on us because you’re a part of me. But never forget that he’s a warrior with a strong soul and an even stronger will. I won’t ever disrespect him sharing him around like a plaything, if that’s what you’re after. And frankly, I doubt his zanpakutou intrudes upon his privacy the way you intrude upon mine.

[They care more about their own fun than his well-being,] she scoffed with disdain. Then lewdly, teased, [Oh you are a territorial one. That Shihouin woman is right on the kan about you.]

Her last sentence hit a little too close to his heart, hence he deliberately ignored it. I see you talk to his zanpakutou behind my back.

[It’s hard not to when their rowdiness gets on my nerves.]

Why is that they’re a pair, and you’re only one of you? he genuinely wondered.

[I like manifesting as a pair. You like it too.]

Well, yes. But I’m still curious. Don’t get me wrong, having one of you inside me is more than I can handle, so I’m not wanting another one of you. I’m just wondering how this could have happened.

[To be honest, even I don’t know. When you first called me, I came. And there I was, in a pair. And it feels right, though I don’t know the reason.]

He drank more sake, thinking. I don’t think they care so little for him. They respond to him much better than you respond to me, so he must have a way with them we don’t know about. Still, their relationships is none of our business. We’ve no place in their private bond.

[As you wish,] she replied archly, then fell silent, clearing no longer wishing to speak.

Shunsui continued to sit and drink, allowing his mind to wander and look at the questions and hunches floating through the forefront of his thoughts, entering into that half-conscious wakeful state where his thinking coagulated best.

Eventually he was able to fit his scattered thoughts into a more coherent string of reasoning.

It seemed much too coincidental that Aizen, who kept his machinations carefully hidden for a full century with none the wiser, who had been experimenting with a power device that could break the barriers between shinigami and Hollow, would finally be exposed by the actions of one fifteen-year-old human whose reiryoku felt like a mixture of shinigami, Hollow and Quincy, and whose reiatsu signature so resembled Shiba Isshin who was the first among the Gotei to encounter a shinigami-like Hollow called White in Naruki City almost two decades ago, and whose physical appearance was almost a mirror image of Shiba Kaien who was killed by the Hollow called Metastacia which could mask its reiatsu like a shinigami. Equally coincidental was that the human youth had brought with him a young friend whose reiatsu reeked of Hollow tang, and another young friend who was a Quincy, a race that was supposedly extinct. And it was entirely too inexplicable that Urahara Kisuke, who was exiled to the Living World for supposedly messing with Hollowfication experiments, was responsible for sending this particular human youth into Soul Society, with the result that Kurotsuchi discovered that their knowledge of Quincies was incomplete.

All coincidences were just too overwhelming to remain as mere coincidences any longer. And they were all connected to the Living World and the Gotei officers placed in charge of it. The only real problem he had with the puzzle was he could not sense how the issue of Quincies fit with all the other pieces.

There was only one place where he would be able to find all the missing pieces to complete the puzzle, and the bridges to close the missing gaps in logic.

Shunsui finished his bottle with one final swig, then placed it on the roof tile where he knew it would be discreetly collected. His brows rose momentarily when his gaze landed on the second bottle, still unopened.

He had not needed it this time.

Smiling to himself, he picked up the new bottle nonetheless, then rose to his feet, replacing Katen Kyoukotsu in his obi as he did so, then leapt into shunpo, heading south towards the Central Forty-Six Compound.

# # # # # #

Repairs had begun to the front gates of the Central Forty-Six Compound. With all members of the Chamber dead, security measures had been completely disabled for the time being. Shunsui easily slipped unseen past the workers, especially past Sasakibe-san and Soi Fon, who were personally overseeing the repairs.

He smirked mirthlessly at the sight of the pair. Sly, wily Yama-jii had lost no time to seize the opportunity to reinsert the First and Second Divisions into the security protocols of the Chamber’s territory. Shunsui would have done the same himself. And he had to admit, the jii-sama could not have chosen a better combination. One was a completely stiff-necked black-and-white minded sharp-eyed rule follower given only to emotions when her cat woman predecessor was involved, the other was old enough, astute enough and tactful enough to rein in any unnecessary over-the-top militant execution of Yama-jii’s orders.

Tightly cloaking his reiatsu, Shunsui skirted past the crews and bounded unseen along the top of the Compound’s perimeter walls until he reached the courtyard of the Daireishokairou. Guards had not yet been reinstated here as well, and the main entrance of the sentient repository was deserted. He lightly dropped down beside the oversized doors.

He stood studying the towering twin dark panels for a heartbeat. The entrance was massive. Yama-jii had it enlarged from its original size after Komamura-san was promoted to taichou, so even the giant wolfman could now walk through it while keeping perfectly upright. Access to the repository within was a privileged tool of duty, given only to Gotei taichou and fukutaichou, and Chamber members and scribes. It had begun as a part of Yama-jii’s personal library, but now it was a limitless physical library containing all knowledge and history of Soul Society. Ever since then, it had served the new government of Soul Society in its shining new capital right here, in the heart of the Seireitei. Unto today, its collections were still growing, for Yama-jii made laws mandating that all who worked for Soul Society continue to contribute to the expanding libraries within. Librarians and administrators were contributed equally by the Gotei and the Chamber on a random rotation schedule. And the Onmitsukidou ran an efficient and extremely tight security system on the whole building and outfit, even regulating and screening all its rostered personnel before they were allowed to even walk through these massive doors. These complicated procedures were encapsulated in a set of seamless laws which Yama-jii had Jyuushirou draft before their old sensei enacted them with the mandate of the Soul King. Nothing had changed after one and a half thousand years, or as far as Shunsui was aware of.

Which was why he knew he had no excuse for his current unfamiliarity with the reiatsu locks humming over the entire height and breadth of the massive entrance. The lock was more complicated than the ones he was used to, and he was used to many complicated locks in his lifetime. Silently rehearsing the incantation in his mind, he revised the cadence and inflexion of each word of the unlocking spell to ensure he had it correct. He was a Kidou Expert, but when a spell was made by Kidou Masters, as this one was, it would take him a while. Especially when he had not used it for decades. History and the arcane were never his forte. He had always managed by sending his fukutaichou to research or find information he needed, the last two being Lisa and Nanao-chan. More often than not, he simply asked the true master of the repository for help, and Jyuushirou’s personal soft spot for him usually gave him what he wanted immediately. Thus for as long as the Daireishokairou existed, Shunsui never entered it for any purpose other than to take Jyuushirou away from it.

But now, the urgency of his instincts spared him no time to fetch his soul brother, and the reason for his visit was not something he could share with Nanao-chan. Thus relying on his memory of the unlocking spell, he settled on a few likely cadences for the incantation and attempted the most possible one.

Reaching out his hand, he laid his palm on the vibrations of the reiatsu locks and carefully, chanted under his breath.

To his relief, he got it right on the first try. The energy obstacle parted aside like a curtain for him. Exhaling the breath he had been holding, he pushed on the wooden panel and followed it through the threshold, the door smoothly swinging inwards without a sound.

As he stepped into the hushed, vast columnar space within the building, he physically felt an invisible attention swivel and focus on him. He paused, allowing the door to swing shut behind him on its built-in mechanism as he stood in the foyer to let his eyes adjust to the relative dimness inside. As soon as his vision adapted, his sight immediately rested on the wide thoroughfare leading from where he was standing straight through the heart of the cavernous hall, ending directly opposite him at the foot of the massive, white Sekkiseki column rising from the flat stone floor. It soared vertically up into the shadows overhead, its upper limit lost into the darkness above, indistinguishable from the unseen ceilings of the hall. Shunsui never recalled ever seeing those impossibly high ceilings from the inside, even though he had seen the roof of the Daireishokairou plenty times from its outside.

Tracing his eyes down the pure white stone column to ground level again, his gaze stopped at the brown, nondescript door set in its base, directly facing the main entrance where he still stood. On either side of him and all along the sides of the wide thoroughfare, tall massive shelves spread outwards into the cavernous hall, arranged in concentric rings around the central white column. The shelves had grown taller than he remembered, the height of three men now instead of two men, emitting the dull humming of preservation kidou spells.

Despite his long absence from this place, the sensation of the ageless, omnipresent and omniscient being felt as he remembered it: not quite alive, but entirely sentient, clearly showing its intent.

Its intent now was to observe him dispassionately. As if he was a stranger, not someone who had once visited it fairly regularly. He felt as though the unseen entity did not know him, as if it had forgotten him and their past altercations.

That unexpected response discomfited him to the point where he felt his fine hairs start to rise.

He contemplated the innocuous-looking door as it continued to sit unperturbed on the opposite end of the thoroughfare. It had not changed since the last time he saw it. Beyond it, resided the Daireishin, the immortal omnipresent and omniscient scribe of Soul Society and the living sentient mind in control of this entire building. The mind which did not forget anything. Absolutely nothing could be kept from the Daireishin, nor be forgotten by it. It saw into every thought and every emotion, and observed every deed and every single thing that occurred in Soul Society, all at the same time, all the time. Once it inscribed an observation into its circuits, that observation became a permanent, indelible truth. Yama-jii created its consciousness from his own reiryoku, but for it to pull off these kami-like feats, he merged it with the forces that created and maintained the reality of Soul Society, its space, its time, its reishi, and powered it with the elemental energies that gave Soul Society its existence and substance. The end result was an immortal sentient being which was connected to reality and time, and it could freely look backwards and forwards into time and populate its circuits with transcripts of what it saw. The exact limits of the Daireishin archives were unknown, and unquantifiable. The only thing that they could be certain of was that it knew immeasurably much more than the already fathomless knowledge contained out here in the library halls. If something could not be found in those archives, then it did not exist in Soul Society.

Thus the only way for the Daireishin to have forgotten Shunsui, was if its circuits contained no record of him. Which was an impossibility by itself. The library halls of the Daireishokairou were made freely accessible to the top echelons of their government, but those who had access to the Daireishin archives could be counted on the fingers of two hands. For the very power which made it what it was, also emitted a lethal consuming force. To even pass through that door and go inside, a soul had to be strong enough or die a slow, horrible, soul-destroying death from being utterly absorbed alive, never to return to the cycle to be reborn. It was a death that was final, with absolutely nothing left. Yama-jii placed reiatsu locks on that door to protect over-ambitious fools from killing themselves rather than to prevent unauthorised entries. There was a time when more than half of the Gotei taichou-class shinigami had reiryoku immense enough to withstand the hunger of the Daireishin, and they had followed a duty roster to act as reiatsu shields for Chamber members who needed to consult it. That number had now dwindled to only four, namely Yama-jii, Hanshi-sama, Jyuushirou and Shunsui himself, for none had subsequently surfaced who was strong enough.

So if someone had broken in to wipe the Daireishin’s memory of Shunsui, that intruder was long gone. Consumed into non-existence.

But surely something must have had happened in there to cause this.

Controlling his nerves, Shunsui cast his gaze about in a sweeping search pattern as he took a moment to think and order his thoughts.

He had come here to verify his hunches regarding Aizen’s crimes. So he would start from that point and hopefully, find answers along the way to explain the Daireishin’s strange reaction to him.

So if he were Aizen, and he had control of the Chamber for a whole month without anyone’s knowledge, what would he do? Obviously, the top priority would be to discover as many of his enemy’s secrets as possible. In this case, the Gotei’s secrets. However, as Aizen was escaping to Hueco Mundo, he had disdainfully looked down at Jyuushirou and announced that he would become a kami. Thus it would make sense to also examine the library sections on the kami of Soul Society.

He returned his gaze over the dim distance to the dark wooden door of Daireishin archives. The most efficient way to have all his questions answered would be to consult it. Its observations and recordings would reveal all of Aizen’s thoughts and deeds once a search on the traitor was performed on its circuits. However, Aizen had shown himself to be extremely meticulous and patient for over a century, and Shunsui would have to be thorough in his scouting.

It made no difference if he began his scouting from left or right. Thus turning right at random, Shunsui left the main thoroughfare to begin walking down the outermost concentric ring of towering giant shelves, sweeping his reiatsu outwards in a wide circular sensing field as the scent of old paper and preservation kidou spells tickled his senses. The tall massive shelves brimmed end-to-end with books, scrolls, labelled boxes and glass cases containing all kinds of artefacts, the sections of the shelves parsed at intervals with reading desks lit by kidou reading lamps and paired with comfortable reading chairs. Once, Jyuushirou had explained that the Daireishin could create its own dimensions within its physical building in order to continually house the growing amount of knowledge in its safekeeping. Something about how the Sekkiseki stone of the archives column blocked out the sentient entity’s lethal energies, but left this entire building under the control of the Daireishin as an extension of itself. Only vaguely did Shunsui still remember the mechanics, for his attention during that explanation had been thoroughly distracted by the glow of Jyuushirou’s eyes and skin as he spoke avidly about a subject he loved.

Now, as Shunsui walked and scanned, he detected a variety of reiatsu signatures, most of them strange to him. Chamber members, he surmised with sardonic observation. And probably their scribes. So much for Yama-jii creating the Daireishin to serve the Gotei and the Chamber equally.

Their two separate powers were meant to be bound by a system of checks and balances against each other to revolve around an impartial core of truth as the final arbiter of justice in Soul Society. The Chamber was to consult the archives when it issued judgements and made new laws, the Gotei was to use the archives to verify decrees and laws before it executed orders and enforced the mandates. Yama-jii used to lecture about the importance of the Daireishin in preventing either faction from falsifying facts to overstep boundaries or scheme to usurp and draw Soul Society into another civil war. He had even voluntarily relinquished his dominion as the highest decision-maker of Soul Society and restricted his influence solely to the Gotei to allow his new governing system to flourish. All admirable goals and deeds, and though the veracity of the Daireishin had helped them keep order and peace in Soul Society for over a thousand years, not everything had been smooth-sailing. Yama-jii had ruthlessly used Jyuushirou’s talents and skill to realise his brainchild. While Shunsui respected that ambition, he always thought that the jii-sama should also have been a little more pragmatic in his expectations of the outcome. Since it was now clear, in the end, that it was the Chamber which used the repository more frequently than the Gotei. An outcome which was far from the original ideal.

Completing his sweep of the first concentric ring without encountering any reiatsu of concern, Shunsui emerged back into the main thoroughfare feeling a little relieved that he found nothing alarming. He moved quickly to the second outermost ring to begin his sweep, hoping that, too, would throw up nothing.

Shortly, he completed his sweep of the second concentric ring without any worrying discovery, and the knot in his sternum began to loosen a tad.

Encouraged, he began his sweep of the third concentric ring. And it was here, when he was barely a quarter into it, that he began to identify familiar presences among the lingering traces of Chamber members: Yama-jii, Hanshi-sama, Byakuya-kun, Hitsugaya-kun, and unsurprisingly, very old traces of Kisuke-kun and Kurotsuchi, the two most avid researchers among the younger taichou of the Gotei. The metallic reiatsu signature of Kurotsuchi jumped out at him as he approached one section, the track as fresh as from last night. It felt anxious. Worried. Spilling forth from a lingering mechanical hollow sensation that could only be left behind by a reiatsu-concealing gadget. Peering at the titles in that section, Shunsui saw that they were all about Quincies.

Seemed that their run-in last night had rattled the irascible scientist enough to burn the midnight oil on the subject, Shunsui mused with a smidgen of satisfaction. Let’s hope he found something to answer my tingly senses about Quincies.

Moving on, he soon approached the middle of the third ring, placing him diagonally opposite of the main entrance of the Daireishokairou. He quickened his pace when he once again encountered Kurotsuchi’s reiatsu, though it was older this time. Almost a century older. As Kurotsuchi’s signature grew stronger, another signature encroached on Shunsui’s senses.

Aizen, he identified immediately.

This was the first time Shunsui was encountering Aizen’s presence in the library halls. Quickly, he followed its trail and arrived at where the signature felt the most concentrated. A glance at the titles on the shelves told him that he had arrived at the section where the history of Soul Society and the Soul King were kept.

So Aizen was researching into the Soul King.

The ages of the reiatsu tracks, however, raised the hairs on the back of his neck. They ranged from more than a hundred years old, to as old as four hundred years ago.

It meant that Aizen had been researching into the history of Soul Society and the Soul King way before his last century of scheming.

Quickly moving on to the fourth and fifth rings, Shunsui completed his sweep and found more traces of Aizen’s reiatsu signatures in the sections on politics and law, all of the tracks there also aged between one to four centuries old. By the time he emerged back in the main thoroughfare, he was baffled.

For all of Aizen’s apparent ambition to become a kami, there was no trace of his reiatsu in the section on the kami of Soul Society. Indeed, there was no trace of Aizen’s reiatsu anywhere in the libraries except in the sections on the Soul King, the history of Soul Society, and studies of politics and law. All his reiatsu tracks in the libraries were concentrated on these few subjects of completely mortal concerns.

Instincts strumming into high alert, he swung his eyes towards the innocuous-looking door to the Daireishin.

It was the only place left to investigate.

He had emerged at the end of the innermost ring of shelves, standing only a few strides away from the massive Sekkiseki column. He could feel the omniscient power of the sentient being emanating through even those reiatsu-cancelling stones, which had only ever been able to filter out the lethal effects of the Daireishin’s ceaseless thirst for knowledge.

Since he was currently alone with himself, he had to face the truth. He detested the Daireishin. As useful as it was to Soul Society, he would never see it as anything more than a terrible detriment to Jyuushirou. Shunsui never consulted it. He refused to after his first interaction with the thing. That first meeting was an outright confrontation. He had charged in, forcibly broken its thrall on Jyuushirou’s mind and its grasp on Jyuushirou’s power, and physically carried his zombified and drained soul brother out of that structure, out of this very building and out of the very compound of this repository, as far away as he could from this greedy ceaseless hunger which forever sought to deplete Jyuushirou’s precious reiryoku. All of Shunsui’s subsequent interactions with the Daireishin had been equally antagonistic, all of them involving Shunsui showing up for the sole purpose of depriving the thing of its most desired source of power. Its intent towards him now should be one of animosity if not outright hostility. Not this apathetic observation, as if it had forgotten the acrimony between them.

But if Aizen had done something to it, Shunsui would have to put his personal feelings aside.

Swallowing his distaste, he strode the remainder of the way to the ordinary-looking door and stared down at its plain unremarkable doorknob. There were no visible locks anywhere, but there was no necessity for them. There was no keyhole either, for that artifice was also unnecessary. The only security was the reiatsu lock sealing the door against fools, and as he probed it with his senses to search for his own reiatsu signature, the living force behind the lock suddenly reared, banging against the locking spell with jarring frequencies that vibrated to his bones, its intent towards him suddenly transforming from indifference to deadly enmity.

Suspicions rising, Shunsui searched deeper. And found no trace of his own reiatsu signature. He ranged his search out a little more, and likewise found no trace of the reiatsu signatures of Yama-jii and Hanshi-sama. Like his own, they were gone.

He retracted his senses as his alarm rose into a near-panic, even as comprehension dawned

The Daireishin had not recognised him when he arrived, and now sought to repel him as an unknown intruder, simply because Shunsui’s reiatsu signature was missing from the lock. Someone had erased it. When Yama-jii first installed the reiatsu lock, as soon as the spell merged with the Daireishin’s energies to become part of the sentient entity, the Daireishin had pushed its memory of Shunsui’s signature into the locking spell so that it would recognise him and grant him access. It had done the same for every Gotei elder who had ever been given access, including Yama-jii and Hanshi-sama. But with their signatures erase, if either of them were to attempt to unlock this door right now, they would both be greeted with this same lethal intent.

Forcibly ignoring the hostility emanating from the living force, Shunsui shielded his reiryoku then reached out one hand towards the doorknob, extending his reiatsu to examine the turning mechanism.

Six reiatsu traces bumped against him at once, all nearly a month old, all of them unfamiliar, except for one which Shunsui identified after a few heartbeats as belonging to Chief Justice Furukawa Souta… or rather, the late Chief Justice, since all members of the Central Forty-Six Chamber were now murdered and dead. Then, as he suspected, he felt the seventh signature on the reiatsu lock.

Aizen.

It had no business being there at all. Yama-jii had not granted new access to the Daireishin for hundreds of years. Least of all to Aizen.

Then Shunsui detected what was grating at his senses from beneath Aizen’s signature.

Discordant and harsh, the underlying energies of the lock were twisting, contorting to beyond recognition, hammering riotously against his probing senses. Gritting his teeth against the uncomfortable sensation, he tracked it, and his blood turned cold when he felt them extend inwards and disappear into the looming presence of the entity beyond the door, into the archives.

Breaking the connection, he withdrew his hand and stepped back, his heartbeat racing with stark, terrible realisation.

Aizen had not only removed their access to the lock, he had also tampered with the lock itself. Among all who ever had access to this door, Shunsui understood the Daireishin the least. But even he knew that the only way Aizen could have done what he did was if he had successfully gained access and learnt operations of the Daireishin circuits, and performed these alterations right from within the core of the Daireishin itself. Even worse, Aizen had survived the experience and emerged alive and well and full of power to taunt the entire Gotei with a dramatic escape to Hueco Mundo.

The implications were nothing short of frightening.

Surviving the sentient presence was the ultimate acid test of a shinigami’s power. Every shinigami knew this. A shinigami might be born with a vast immense reiryoku, but it would still take a thousand years before that innate power matured and transcended into the next level to be strong enough to resist the Daireishin. Aizen was not much older than five hundred years, around Yoruichi’s age. Unless, of course, the traitor had also faked his age along with faking everything else.

Shunsui inhaled a deep steadying breath and pulled the brim of his hat lower over his face. It was now clear to him why Aizen’s reiatsu tracks in the libraries had been so specific and limited.

The traitor had known that what he was seeking would not be found in the library halls, but within the archives. Evidently, he had spent centuries accumulating enough power to enter the Daireishin. Like all high-ranking commanders of the Gotei, Aizen knew very well the dangers of the entity. It had the infamy of mercilessly consuming friend and foe alike if it found its user’s power even slightly lacking, until the very mention of its name struck horror into hearts. Threatening a suspect with calling upon the Daireishin as witness was often enough to extract an immediate confession. Aizen had heeded all these whisperings, and had triumphed over them.

Closing his eyes momentarily, Shunsui cast his senses out to give the area a final sweep.

Two other signatures came to him immediately, and he knew he would have noticed them sooner if he had not been so engrossed in tracking Aizen. They were painstakingly cloaked, but their cloaking skills were no match for Shunsui. He peeled apart the shields and identified the very recent, very distinct signatures of Ichimaru Gin and Tousen Kaname.

So those two had been here as well. Recently. Repeatedly. Standing in the exact spot as he was, right before the door to the Daireishin. Faithful as dogs to Aizen.

Dejection filled Shunsui. But there truly was no help for it now. As much as he hated it, he had no other choice but to get Jyuushirou here immediately and commence a probe. With all three of them now locked out, his soul brother was their only remaining recourse to obtain the answers they desperately needed to turnaround the mess Aizen had left behind.

“What have you found?”

The sudden gravelly voice startled him.

Whipping around, he saw Yama-jii walk into view from behind the last shelf of the fourth ring, carrying his gnarled stick instead of supporting himself with it.

“Heh, Yama-jii! Lying in ambush and masking yourself to catch me unawares?” he complained, settling his nerves.

“I arrived not long after you. But decided to watch you.” His old sensei drew abreast and finally allowed himself to make a noise by dropping the end of his stick to the floor with a soft thump. Then he repeated his question, “What have you found?”

Shunsui sighed. Setting aside his ire, he schooled his thoughts and emotions and gave his full account as he had always done as a taichou, beginning from his hunches last night, and ending with his recent findings. He deliberately left out his macabre discovery in Kurotsuchi’s tanks.

“This explains why Mayuri was so agitated last evening,” rumbled Yama-jii thoughtfully. “And even more agitated this morning. I had assumed he was being paranoid as usual when I spied him come in here.” Then his red eyes sharpened. “Aizen was interested in the Soul King, you say?”

“Mayuri is paranoid, but this time his paranoia actually matches a cause,” Shunsui commented, then gestured despondently at the archives’ door. “And yes to your question. I’m certain once we regain access through there, we’ll find corroborative evidence of Aizen’s interest in the Soul King and Soul Society’s politics and law for a long while. His reiatsu signatures out here on these subjects are already nearly four centuries old.”

“And you are certain one of the reiatsu signatures on the lock belongs to Chief Justice Furukawa Souta?” Yama-jii asked with curious intensity.

Shunsui spared him a speculative look. Then he indicated the doorknob. “You can sense them for yourself, Yama-jii.”

Yama-jii grunted and strode forwards, holding out his gnarled palm to hover over the doorknob.

Shunsui could not remember any moment in his life when he had seen Yama-jii look shocked. But the expression rising on the wizened face could only be described as such.

“What now?” he asked trepidatiously.

The red eyes were widened. “The tampering runs deep. My seals are gone.”

“What? Wait a moment, Aizen erased your reiatsu signature because he must have sensed it when he was breaching the lock. But how did he know about your seals?” Shunsui did not know the exact mechanics, but he at least knew about those seals. “Ukitake and you assimilated those seals right into the reishi of the physical structure of this thing, like in these Sekkiseki stones, this door, and this reiatsu lock. They shouldn't have been detectable by anyone but either of you.”

Yama-jii held his palm closer, his red eyes momentarily unfocused as he searched deeper. His entire mien darkened. “Aizen’s tampering runs deep. The distortions in the lock run directly into the core of the Daireishin.” His heavy white browed gaze narrowed. “And I know the other five signatures well. They belong to all the other five judges of the Chamber.”

“But that makes even less sense,” Shunsui frowned, thinking aloud. “If Aizen was after the secrets of the Gotei and the Chamber, why would he break in with the very ones he was spying on? And he knows as well as the rest of us that the judges would die once they enter.”

Standing back, Yama-jii stared ominously at the innocuous wooden door. “I fear to think what this implies. The only way to remove any one of my seals is to make fundamental changes to the Daireishin itself, from right inside its heart. I was at the Underground Assembly Hall last evening and again this dawn to discover what else could be learnt before Retsu moves out the corpses. There were only forty corpses in there. The six judges were all missing, and there was no sign that they had left their stations under force. So I came here to find answers. Now with what you have discovered, I am quite certain that the six judges are still inside, dead and their remains in the process of being absorbed into the atmosphere within. With their weak reiryoku, they would not survive the core’s power.”

“What’s worrying me is how Aizen gained so much power to pull this off.” Shunsui might nurse a grudge against the sentient entity, and still some personal ire at Yama-jii, but he knew his duty well enough to set aside his private feelings for the moment. “And how he knew of the existence of your seals, and how he knew to remove them.”

“We must have these questions answered.” Yama-jii’s red eyes flashed. “The seals protect the circuits against my reiatsu so that the Daireishin will allow me to operate it. Without them, if I force entry inside, it will defend itself against my power and cause this whole building to explode. The loss to Soul Society will be unimaginable. I cannot touch the archives until this is set right.”

Shunsui rubbed a hand over his face. Soon after it awakened, the thing behind the door had inexplicably rebelled against its creator. It was not until Yama-jii had roped in Jyuushirou’s aid that the jii-sama regained access to it. For reasons known only to the entity, and perhaps kami, from the very first moment the Daireishin encountered his soul brother’s reiatsu, it had regarded Jyuushirou’s power as part of the elemental energies from which it was birthed, as part of itself. Ever since then, it responded to Jyuushirou as if it was responding to its own intent, with the result that his soul brother could accomplish feats with the sentient being that even Yama-jii could not. Such as never needing any access right or lock to enter and operate the Daireishin, never leaving any track in it, and never be visible to its perpetual omnipresent observation. Since his reiryoku first erupted when he was thirteen years old, Jyuushirou had gone unrecorded by that omnipresent watcher. Yama-jii, even Jyuushirou himself, rejoiced and called it their strategic advantage. Shunsui could only see it as Jyuushirou being cruelly left out of history.

All these meant that for as long as Yama-jii could not touch the archives, Jyuushirou would have to be the one to do it.

“Clearly, Aizen means to stop us from following his tracks,” Yama-jii was saying. Then his red gaze narrowed with a vicious gleam. “Let him believe he has succeeded. He does not know everything. Kami not only gave me Jyuushirou, it also gave me victory against all opposition to keep him, and the foresight to keep his connection to the Daireishin hidden. Once your brother enters and starts a probe, we will knowing Aizen’s full motives and have a full accounting of his deeds before the traitorous whelp even realises.” Confidence shone fiercely in his wizened old face.

Memories of his conversation with Jyuushirou last night rose to the fore of Shunsui’s mind. He raised a brow at their old sensei and ventured, “You aren’t angry with Ukitake anymore?”

The ancient red gaze blazed momentarily. “Did you think I ever was?”

Shunsui was incredulous. “I saw your handprint on his flesh with my own eyes! You don’t even raise your voice at him, and you’ve never hit him hard enough to leave a bruise like that!”

A loud thump of the gnarled walking stick resounded through the cavernous halls. “And do you suppose I should let him go without punishment? There has been enough talk for enough centuries that I show favouritism to both of you. Destroying the Soukyoku is a crime of the highest order. When committed by a senior taichou against a Chamber edict, especially by the one all of Soul Society believe is my favourite, in the eyes of the public a death sentence is justified. If I had let your brother go without a scratch, I would have publicly contravened my own rules and given our political enemies a new leverage against me.”

“So it was all a ruse? Yama-jii, if you never had such an intent, you certainly hid it very well yesterday when you were beating us,” Shunsui argued bleakly. “Ukitake was convinced you meant to kill us. You know how well he can sense intent. Tell me now, what would you have done if Hanshi-sama had not exposed Aizen in time and informed us all?”

Yama-jii stared at him, his red eyes burning. “As I told Retsu and you yesterday, there are developments which neither of you nor the rest of the Gotei know. I kept from everyone, including you, the true nature of the burden I placed on Jyuushirou during the last three centuries. So I shall forgive your tone of voice, your ignorance and your accusation. But never forget that I taught both of you myself, and the pains I took to keep your brother with us. I know far better than you what his body can and cannot withstand. Yes, I made that blow to look worse than it is.” Then his glare turned meaningful. “I felt his reiatsu release last night and early this dawn. Clearly, he has recovered speedily, would you not say?”

Mollified, and a little embarrassed that their adoptive father had understood the intimate nature of their reiatsu releases, Shunsui looked away. The infamous Yamamoto Soutaichou of the Gotei Thirteen did not express soft feelings, but it did not mean he did not understand them. But still, Shunsui was not entirely appeased. The memory of Yama-jii’s handprint on Jyuushirou’s pale vulnerable flesh persisted starkly in his mind.

“You know, Yama-jii,” he began conversationally. “Every time I went inside this thing, it was to break the Daireishin’s hold on Ukitake and take him away before he became too drained to keep his illness back. And after each time, I spent a whole month at his bedside to get him back on his feet. He needs every bit of his reiryoku to sustain himself so that he doesn’t relapse. He can’t afford to spare any power to this thing. I never liked it. But I know we have no other option now than to rely on him to deal with it. Are you certain what we need him to do now won’t bring him down again? He’s been well for thirty years ever since you stopped involving him in your secret work.”

“You rascal, how you forget,” Yama-jii’s gravel voice was steely. “When I found Jyuushirou, he had lost control and called down a storm that ransacked all of Soul Society in one night. Yet none of the Gotei or our allies believed he would be of any use to us, simply because of how ill he was. I used our scarce resources to barter for him from his lady mother, I fought against great opposition from our allies and even my own taichou to keep him. I withstood the entire barrage for centuries to shield him from those who would cast him out to die. Only Retsu and Choujirou understood and stood by me. You saw this yourself. And you now presume that I do not know your older brother’s abilities?”

“It didn’t look that way to me for three centuries,” Shunsui replied quietly. Then he turned and looked directly into those red eyes, and abruptly saw that hurt had mixed with anger in those wizened red eyes. Gentling his tone, he pointed out softly, “Yama-jii, he needs your reassurance. You know how much he loves you and respects you. But he doesn’t get enough direct affection from you. After what happened yesterday, perhaps it’s time to change how you relate to him?”

The red eyes continued glaring at Shunsui for several more heartbeats, then the anger began to dim. Yama-jii’s reply, when it came, was an indistinct grunt.

Shunsui supposed that was as good as he would get from his obstinate old sensei for the time being.

Yama-jii turned away and began thumping steadily towards the exit. Shunsui slowly trudged after him, keeping a wary distance from that obstinate fiery soul.

“Jyuushirou co-created the Daireishin with me,” echoed back the gravelly words as the wizened hunched form thumped on ahead. “You will never find a finer construct than this in Soul Society past, present or in future. Your brother knows his creation as well as I, but his mastery over it has long ago surpassed mine. Yet unlike you, he understands and accepts that the needs and sentiments of many outstrip the needs and feelings of one individual. I will not tolerate any more accusations from you that I am ill-using my own son. And I forbid you to call the Daireishin a thing. I barely awakened it when it learnt to be fussy and decided to choose which reiryoku it wanted. It decided that I, its creator and parent, have a reiatsu too harsh and blunt for its tastes, and it repelled my every attempt to work with it. Then it decided that I was a threat and started to self-destruct whenever I touched it. I was furious-no, I was livid. So you tell me now, is the Daireishin an inanimate thing, or a being with its own awareness?”

Yama-jii had seen right into him. And if Shunsui were truly honest with himself, he knew his old sensei was right. The problem lay with Shunsui, not the circumstances of Jyuushirou’s birth and life. Of the four of them, only he, Shunsui, had never fully accepted the consequences of their responsibilities and positions on his frail soul brother. He had never revealed his true feelings on this to Jyuushirou, but he could not hide them from his old sensei, for the wily old fox had raised and taught him, after all.

“That, I won’t argue with,” Shunsui finally gave in. “I know it has its own mind and personality. It probably knows I don’t like it and the feeling’s mutual. Sorry to disappoint you, Yama-jii, but you’re going to have to accept that your second son and your pet creation will never get along.”

“Never say never. The day you will need the power of the Daireishin may come sooner than you think.” Then with noticeable softening of his gravelly tone, Yama-jii ordered, “Send for Jyuushirou, and Retsu. We cannot wait until this evening to convene. We will discuss this now. My chashitsu. In one hour.” With a final thump of his walking stick, the hunched old figure pushed against the oversized doors and stepped out into the morning sunshine.

Only the three of them shared tea with Yama-jii in his personal chashitsu. Wordlessly Shunsui obeyed, trailing behind at a good distance as he summoned for his Jigokuchou.

Silently, he realised that Yama-jii had not actually answered his question of what he would have done if Hanshi-sama had not exposed Aizen in time yesterday. But Shunsui decided it was futile to pry.

# # # # # #

The tallest rooftop of the Twelfth Division was the perfect vantage point for locating its taichou. Shunsui had less than an hour to spare but it would be time enough to gauge the mood of the Seireitei’s irascible resident scientist. Thus he was rather surprised to see Kurotsuchi leave the Twelfth Division and break into shunpo towards the direction Shunsui had just come from, which was the south, where the First Division and Central Forty-Six Compound lay.

Silently he followed, fully cloaking his reiatsu for good measure. He preferred not to repeat his experience last night of being discovered before he was ready to reveal himself.

Kurotsuchi was holding a thin file in one hand and muttering to himself under his breath as he flash-stepped from roof to roof. His speed was no challenge for Shunsui to keep up with, but his ability to read and shunpo at the same time without colliding into anything or taking a misstep was admirable.

As the engrossed scientist drew near the territory of the First Division, Shunsui sped up on impulse, intent on venting a little of his residual ire at Yama-jii on his unaware, testy colleague.

He deliberately, and suddenly, peeled open a notch in his reiatsu shield.

“Haarrgghh!” The squawk from Kurotsuchi was hilariously undignified, the thin file almost falling from his chalky blue-nailed hands.

“Going to see Yama-jii again?” Shunsui tipped the brim of his hat jauntily.

The ruffled scientist dropped to a stop onto a precarious-looking perch. Shunsui stepped down onto a safer spot, and a glance around told him they were balanced on top of the inner boundary walls separating the Second Division from the First.

“So what if I am?” Kurotsuchi demanded. “I don’t see anyone else investigating.”

Investigating…? Oh.

So Kurotsuchi believed he was helping to investigate their new human allies.

“I felt your reiatsu traces in the Daireishokairou. You haven’t slept all night?” Shunsui asked with some concern. Genius or not, no one could function without sleep.

In Kurotsuchi’s case, sleep deprivation could mean the difference between a brilliant solution or a fatal disaster for the Seireitei.

The golden eyes narrowed suspiciously. “What were you doing there? Following me?”

“Following up on my own hunches,” Shunsui placated. “Now, now, Mayuri-san, don’t be like that. We serve the Gotei together. If you feel there’s a real problem that needs to be heard by Yama-jii, I can help.”

The painted skeletal face looked undecided for a moment, then suddenly hardened in decision.

“Is it still on?” Kurotsuchi demanded.

Shunsui drew a blank. “Is what still on?”

Those lipless, exposed teeth gnashed in impatience, somehow managing to look even more like a grinning skull. Shunsui suppressed a shudder.

“Your offer.”

He looked vacantly at Kurotsuchi.

Irritation flashed across the black-and-white painted skeletal face. “Do you have goldfish memory? Last night you offered me the aid of, quote, the dulcet voice of your older brother, unquote.” Blue-nailed fingers made quotation marks in the air. Then the lidless golden eyes narrowed. “Or have you recanted?”

Oh. That.

“I apologise, much has happened since we spoke last night,” Shunsui said sincerely, but his mind was whirling rapidly. “I do recall, however, that I offered it in exchange for information.”

“Fine!” Kurotsuchi snapped. “I’ll tell you how the Quincy boy defeated me and-”

“See, this is where I’ve run into a little problem,” Shunsui interrupted. “Shall we?” Without waiting for a reply, he turned towards the low warehouses at the back of the First Division and leapt into shunpo, leaving Kurotsuchi to pursue at his heels.

In three large strides, Shunsui landed on one low roof. It was a storage area, quiet at this time of the day. Briefly, he scanned around with his reiatsu.

Good, they had no eavesdroppers.

Kurotsuchi appeared several minutes later, managing to still look impatient even when clearly winded from chasing after Shunsui.

“My original question is now useless, it seems,” Shunsui began without preamble, not giving the scientist a chance to catch his breath. “Once Yama-jii hears your report about the Quincies, it will become known by all of the Gotei. My return favour from you will soon become useless, I fear. No, I would like another piece of information from you. One that no one else can know.”

“What information?” Kurotsuchi asked immediately, admirably without showing his breathlessness.

Desperate, are we? Shunsui mused silently. Aloud, he said, “I wish to know everything about those organs in your tanks and what you do with them.”

Kurotsuchi looked surprised for a moment. “Since when are you interested in science?”

“Hey, hey, no questions now. A trade is a trade.”

“Fine!” Kurotsuchi snapped, then added slyly, “I won’t tell you everything because you won’t be able to understand everything. I’ll tell you what you’re capable of understanding. Acceptable?”

That sounded fair. Shunsui knew he had a far from adequate grasp of scientific terms and reasoning. He nodded in agreement.

Kurotsuchi raised his hand. “See this? If I cut off this arm, I can grow another in a few seconds with an injection of my Hojiku-Zai serum. It’s very painful but it works like a charm, there’s no rejection and the new arm works like the original was never cut off. But if I lose an organ, I can’t do an injection immediately on the battlefield. Growing a new organ needs the body to reroute its life support system and you can’t do that in the middle of fighting. So I’ve devised a way to grow my spare organs first, then perform a transplant before going into battle. When I return, I transplant back my originals.”

Shunsui grimaced at the images the descriptions were conjuring up. “An organ transplant sounds very painful, Mayuri-san. Why do you subject yourself to it twice? Can’t you keep using the new organs and transplant back the originals only the next time you need them?”

“Not yet, I can’t.” Kurotsuchi was surprisingly honest. “The spares I create now can function well for half a year at most. Six months after the transplant, they start to fail until they die at the end of the year. To create true replicas that function like the originals, I’ll need a huge supply of my reiryoku to power the development of the reishi particles. But I can’t spare that much when I have to work. So I’ve begun experiments to create a reiatsu converter and amplifier, it will convert any reiryoku into my own signature before amplifying its strength. I then infuse it into the culture tanks. But I lack enough reiryoku supply to finalise testing of the machine.” His golden eyes suddenly looked calculating. “I’m willing to trade if you can donate me some of your reiryoku to test my amplifier, Kyouraku Taichou.”

“How much reiryoku do you need?”

“Until the development of the organ is complete and successfully tested to be as functional as the original.”

“In other words, you don’t know.”

“Of course I know!" The black-and-white painted face looked thoroughly insulted. "I’m just not certain yet of the exact amount.” One blue nail tapped the golden-coned chin. “But, if you’re willing to help, with your level of reiryoku, and the amplifier, I’ll need an infusion for only about half an hour a day, perhaps even less. The reishi particles have a fixed rate of organisation and to hurry their development will only spoil the organ.”

“Half an hour a day for how many days?”

“For as many days as it takes for the organ to fully and properly mature. Then I’ll transplant the new organs into myself and see if I’ll start to suffer organ failure within half a year.”

Shunsui looked at the mad genius in mild horror. “You’re testing on yourself again? What if the experiment doesn’t work?”

“Then I’ll transplant back my original organs and start another trial all over again.”

It was an insane testing procedure, but if Shunsui were to be honest, macabrely admirable. He could see how a successful procedure like this would help the entire Gotei army, make shinigami stronger and near indestructible.

“Assuming you’ve successfully tested on yourself, will you then share this with the Gotei? I can see many applications for your discovery that will help shinigami survive their battles. In fact, your Hojiku-Zai serum should be shared.”

“All my inventions are meant for mass replication!” Kurotsuchi stressed, his nasally voice scratching into an irate pitch. “Do you think I create them to be private toys? You may not think it, but I am loyal to the Gotei! The only reason I’ve always limited my creations to myself is because mass replication needs more test subjects before they can be safely implemented. I will share if you can find me shinigami who will generously submit themselves to science for the greater good!” Kurotsuchi ended his tirade slightly breathless.

It was an astute but painful observation. The Gotei today was not like the one Shunsui had started with. The virtue of prioritising society over self was now increasingly reversed, and most shinigami these days placed self above society. The advent of individualism and personal glory had led to divisional territoriality and hoarding of skills and secrets, and competition between the younger taichou was invariably ego-driven, setting dismal examples for their subordinates. Even within the same division, rivalry between individuals for the coveted twenty seated positions ran fierce. The Fourth, Thirteenth and Eighth were close and comparatively harmonious only because of the long relationships between their taichou. The Eleventh and the Tenth were grudgingly cooperative with them only because the pink-haired pint-sized Eleventh Division Fukutaichou held special fondness for Jyuushirou, Hanshi-sama, Nanao-chan and Rangiku-chan, in that order. But to ask any of them to subject themselves to science for the sake of the entire Gotei, unless they were facing an imminent threat of extinction, Shunsui very much doubted that even Yama-jii could order anyone to do it.

“This is why I kept the procedure only to myself. Without an adequate variety of reiryoku, I can’t mass replicate it. With the way everyone is around here?” Kurotsuchi snorted in disgust. “Mass replication may never happen. So don’t think about asking me to do it any time soon.”

Shunsui memorised the details of the new knowledge. “This is interesting, and an interesting offer. Thank you, Mayuri-san. Give me some time to think on it. But right now, consider our first deal done. I’ll ensure Yama-jii listens to you regarding your worries about the Quincies.”

“Who says I’m worried? He should be the one to worry!” Kurotsuchi was near apoplectic with denial.

Shunsui waved his hand placatingly. “Right, right, you’re not worried about the Quincies. You’re worried that Yama-jii’s not worried about the Quincies. I get it, I get it. Wait for the good news, ne?” Chuckling, he leapt upwards into shunpo before he could hear any protest or rejoinder.

The new information was giving him new ideas.

Chapter Text

Over recent centuries, the First Division had expanded to incorporate multiple Sekkiseki high-rise buildings constructed in a plain, sterile architectural style which, from what Shunsui had seen of pictures of human cities in the Living World, resembled the featureless tall buildings in some of them. The headquarters of the Seireitei was now an eclectic cluster of feudal and modernistic structures, housing the command centre of the Gotei. As a consequence, the private chashitsu of the soutaichou of the Gotei Thirteen tended to be moved from location to location, at a schedule known only to Yama-jii himself.

Since Yama-jii begun the practice eight centuries ago, every shinigami of the Gotei knew the purpose of his personal chashitsu. While Yama-jii held tea sessions in his division every month with every member of the First and every taichou and fukutaichou of the Gotei, his tea sessions in his private tea room were reserved for his most senior commanders to discuss matters of gravity and greater strategies. Hence his personal chashitsu was always secured by his personal brand of lethal Bakudou shields and any soul who wished to see or listen beyond the shields, or pass through them without being incinerated, needed to bear Yami-jii’s seal. As centuries passed, only three senior commanders of the Gotei remained who bore that seal on their Saketsu.

For now, Yama-jii’s personal tea room was not a room, but a large square pavilion erected in the centre of the flat rectangular rooftop of the tallest building of the First Division. There was only one route to enter and leave it, and that was through the roof access doorway of the building. That roof access, as well as the entire rooftop, were completely sealed off by Yama-jii’s shields, and the perimeter of the rooftop was bounded by tightly spaced Sekkiseki pillars to keep its occupants and meetings within it invisible. And inaudible.

When Shunsui stepped through the inferno of the shields, he was surprised to see only one occupant sitting cross-legged within the pavilion. He was slightly late, but apparently not the latest to arrive.

Hanshi-sama was in her usual place, seated on the western side of the square table. She appeared to be in jinzen, for Minazuki was balanced horizontally across her knees. Silently, Shunsui removed Katen Kyoukotsu from his obi and climbed the single step into the pavilion, moving to settle down in his usual place on the northern side of the table. He placed his zanpakutou onto the cool stone ground as he made himself comfortable on the cushion. No sooner had he settled down when Hanshi-sama softly exhaled, then opened her dark-blue eyes to look at him. Her serene expression held an inquiry.

“I received your invitation for evening repast tonight,” she said placidly. “It is a rather extravagant establishment, is it not?”

“Will you come?” he asked immediately.

“I shall meet you there. Allow me a little while to change into appropriate attire after I end my duties.” She raised one brow at him. “And I assume you do not wish Jyuushirou-kun to be apprised.”

“Not just yet. He knows we’re meeting tonight, but for now he isn’t asking for details.”

“How is his injury? I felt his reiatsu release last night, and again this dawn.” Her tone and expression were concerned, but deliberately neutral.

“Not a trace of it was left when I glimpsed it this morning,” Shunsui updated honestly, seeing no reason to demur, but neither wishing to let on intimate details. However, he thought he should mention about the potions. “That Shihouin medicine seem to taste really awful. I’m sending him a batch of honey from my clan’s peony gardens. Will that be suitable?”

“That will be a good salve. The additional anti-inflammatory properties of peony can only help.” Straightening her posture from jinzen, she lifted Minazuki from her knees and gently laid the long curved nodachi on the cool stone floor, roughly perpendicular to Katen Kyoukotsu. Nonchalantly, she said, “Zaraki-san came to see me this morning. He requested me to train him to learn the name of his zanpakutou.”

Shunsui perked up with interest. That monstrous lug of a fighter often openly accused them of using their zanpakutou as crutches, and Shunsui always thought that was a bit rich coming from a shinigami who had little to no reiatsu.

“His battle with Kurosaki-san made him realise how terrible his zanpakutou must feel to remain nameless for so long. It seems our new human ally has changed our Kenpachi in ways we could not.” Deep blue eyes looked intently at him. “In light of the latest developments in our government, do you think I should agree to his request?”

It was a dicey issue. Shortly after Zaraki seized the position of taichou of the Eleventh, the Central Forty-Six Chamber expressly forbade any further training for him, though that edict was known only among the four of them. That decision was made out of fear that the current Kenpachi’s insanely tremendous power would grow too strong to be manageable. However, the Central Forty-Six members who had passed that edict were now dead. Did the death of the edict issuer negate the edict?

“Ukitake would know best the legalities of whether you’re now allowed to accede to Zaraki’s request,” Shunsui concluded aloud. Then he looked at her with unspoken meaning. “But don’t you think it’ll be of benefit to the Gotei to have him become stronger, instead of stagnating?”

“You do not think he will turn his power against us?” she countered, again deliberately neutral. If she still felt anything from her altercation with Zaraki hundreds of years ago, she let nothing show.

Shunsui chuckled, giving in. “I don’t feel that he has any evil bone in him, for all his crazy lust to fight anything he thinks is stronger than he. On the contrary, the stronger we let him become, the less fights he’ll pick among us because there’ll be less combatants available who he thinks are worthy of his time. That’ll solve your problem of constantly draining your resources to heal his injuries and those he defeats, and our problems of him constantly draining the Gotei’s resources to repair the damages in his wake.”

A faint smile lit Hanshi-sama’s lips. “What about boredom? A bored Kenpachi, who lacks anyone to challenge, is a dangerous Kenpachi.”

Yes, it was she, among all in Soul Society, who knew this truth most intimately. Shunsui considered the dilemma. “We’ll have to think of something to occupy him.”

“Please do,” she requested, in a way that did not sound remotely like a request to Shunsui, for all the gentleness of her tone.

Then her next words surprised him.

“I will decline Zaraki-san,” she decided gently, but firmly. “It is best he learns the name of his zanpakutou through jinzen, like everyone else.”

Something about her demeanour stopped him from prying into her reasons. Perhaps once, when she had been close to Jyuushirou, she would have shared her true thoughts. However, her relationship with his soul brother was a long time ago. She and Shunsui now had a comfortable, familial bond that each was loathed to disrupt out of their mutual concern for the gentle soul they both loved.

Although, when Shunsui tried to imagine Zaraki Kenpachi in jinzen, his mind conjured up an image of a monster drooling in his nap cradling his jagged sword across his belly, and hapless Academy instructors tiptoeing around him in abject terror.

He shuddered inwardly and tried to dispel the disconcerting picture – only to be struck by new inspiration when the tall willowy figure of Jyuushirou stepped through the roof access, his frame briefly ringed in fire as he passed through Yama-jii’s shields.

Here is the very soul with the right patience and skill to coach Zaraki in jinzen, Shunsui speculated on impulse.

Briefly gathering and lifting the hems of his hakama with one slender hand, Jyuushirou carefully took the single step into the pavilion, his other hand carrying the large heavy kettle which Yama-jii used for their tea sessions. Their old sensei was a master of chanoyu and a traditionalist at heart, but over the centuries he had allowed traditions to give way to pragmatism, for their private tea sessions were often held to discuss and decide urgent or strategic business. For as long as Shunsui could remember, they practiced Yama-jii’s own truncated version of senchadou temae which greatly shortened the amount of time required compared to the full-length tea ceremonies, while catering to their collective preferences for gyokuro type of leaf tea instead of powdered green tea. The only tradition Yama-jii kept unmodified was the martial protocol in which the one to show respect prepared and served the tea to the one to receive the homage; in their case, from the eldest of all disciples as a collective sign of respect from disciples to sensei. Thus between the four of them, the preparation and serving of the tea usually fell on Jyuushirou.

“Senpai, Kyouraku.” Jyuushirou’s soft greeting was calm, his serenity enveloping them as he drew near. When his dark eyes rested on Shunsui, their mahogany depths glimmered with secret, knowing warmth.

That soft dark gaze instantly dispelled Shunsui’s frustrations lingering from his earlier exchange with their old sensei, and he happily returned it with one of his own, even as the impish part of his mind was spinning. He watched Jyuushirou place the heavy kettle of water on the kidou stove built into the southeastern corner of the square table, next to the small chest where Yama-jii kept the tea implements for their sessions. Removing Sougyo no Kotowari from his obi, Jyuushirou gracefully sank down cross-legged onto his usual seat on the southern side of the table, placing his tachi gently on the stone floor behind him. “I hope your mornings were less eventful than mine,” he said with a soft smile. “I have forgotten how much energy human youths have.”

“Are they all off on their separate adventures?” Shunsui asked.

“Yes. I left Hidetomo to assist Rukia.” To Hanshi-sama, he said, “Senpai, Sentaro will be chaperoning Sado-kun to visit the Fourth, if you do not mind. He wishes to apologise to Kyouraku’s Third Seat Tatsufusa-kun.”

“I trust Sentaro-san knows how to keep clear of the Eleventh Division officers,” Hanshi-sama replied with humour. “Neither you nor I are there to keep peace at the moment.”

“I will trust to their grudging tolerance for one another,” laughed Jyuushirou lightly, the sound like a tinkle of bells.

That rarely heard soft laughter entranced Shunsui, and he silently marvelled that this was the third time in the space of less than two days that he had heard Jyuushirou laugh. It seemed that knowing the human youths was lifting Jyuushirou’s gentle spirits in ways Shunsui had never seen before.

“So what were you both discussing?” his soul brother asked curiously.

Shunsui told him, concluding with the central question surrounding the issue. “Does an edict cease to have effect upon the death of the Central Forty-Six member who made it?”

“Of course not.” Jyuushirou’s reply was certain and immediate. “If the laws work that way, then we would still be in the feudal system that caused Soul Society to fall into chaos in the first place. Power grabs always happen each time a ruler passes. The rules of the Chamber were made to avoid such unnecessary bloodshed and disruption. Chamber laws are perpetual regardless of who are the incumbent Chamber members. This way, we ensure that stability continues through leadership changes.”

“Zaraki-san should seek formal tutelage in jinzen,” reiterated Hanshi-sama gently but firmly. Then she added, “It would do him good to understand the process his subordinates have to go through.”

Jyuushirou bit his lip absently as he considered the issue. “The restriction is on his further development, but knowing his zanpakutou is his inalienable right as a shinigami. No law can stand in the way of that. If the Chamber subsequently challenges us, we have full grounds of defence. I see no harm to agree to his request. Besides,” he straightened with conviction, “I must confess I never agreed with that edict. I never sensed anything in Zaraki’s motivations or intent that could be a threat to us. He is loyal to the Gotei beneath his violent temperament.” He looked around brightly at them. “Shall we seek Sensei’s approval to assign him a jinzen tutor?”

Shunsui scratched the back of his neck. “I’m thinking that it’ll be more effective to allow him to pick his own. He’s terrifying even when he’s just lying down taking a nap. Shoving him at any Academy instructor is likely to spectacularly backfire.”

“Ai, I fear to witness the rejections our Kenpachi will have to face if he goes around to court himself a tutor!” Jyuushirou laughed merrily. “You are too devious, Kyouraku. Please, let us spare the poor man the humiliation and have Sensei assign him one.” Laughter subsiding into a smile, he added, “It shall not be too arduous. All Zaraki really needs are just the basics. I reckon his zanpakutou has been waiting for his call for a long time and will hear him quickly.”

“Perhaps I could enlist the aid of Kusajishi Fukutaichou,” suggested Hanshi-sama, her smile and expression perfectly guileless.

Shunsui stifled his grin. There would really be only one outcome once that pink-haired pint-sized tsunami was involved. But Jyuushirou’s last statement piqued his curiosity slightly, and he wondered absently if his soul brother knew something they did not.

“Aye, she would know him better than anyone else,” Jyuushirou was saying agreeably, completely oblivious to their subtle trap, and once again showing a complete lack of any sense of self-preservation when it came to children.

Especially this particular child. No one wanted to advise him that his love for konpeitou and all sorts of sweets won him the permanent status of being the second most favourite person of the Kenpachi’s little girl. Least of all Madarame-kun, for the more time the tiny pink-headed terror spent pestering Jyuushirou, the more relief his bald head had from her milk teeth.

“I did not know that our grave security problems can be such a light-hearted topic,” interrupted the gravelly voice of Yama-jii. 

# # # # # #

At Yama-jii’s arrival, they rose to their feet as one, pulling on solemn faces immediately. Jyuushirou stepped forward as the eldest disciple to help Yama-jii to his seat.

To their collective surprise, Yama-jii waved him off and indicated that he be seated first.

“Sensei…” Jyuushirou started to object.

“Sit, sit down,” grumbled Yama-jii, leaning his gnarled walking stick on the corner column of the pavilion. When he turned back and saw Jyuushirou continuing to stand hesitantly, he repeated firmly, “Take a seat, Jyuushirou.”

Uncertainty on his face, Jyuushirou relented and obeyed, quietly returning to his place and folding himself into seiza, his dark eyes shooting questions at Shunsui and Hanshi-sama.

Satisfied, Yama-jii reached into his kosode and brought out a small tea caddy, still tied with the strings and labels of its master blender. As he padded to the eastern side of the table, he gestured with a gnarled finger and the kidou stove flamed to life under the kettle to begin the water boiling, then settled himself down cross-legged, his movements still spry and lithe for all that he was hunched and as gnarly as his stick.

As Shunsui watched in silence, he had an inkling that perhaps his earlier exchange to Yama-jii had struck home in that old hardened hear. He was quickly proven correct when Yama-jii waved Jyuushirou’s hands away and opened the small chest to begin bringing out the tea implements himself. His gnarled hands laid them out in smooth practiced motions, expertly keeping his sleeves out of the way as he methodically placed the tea bowl, the steeping teapot and four tea cups, item by item, on their accompanying tray, and the tea towel and a small stack of tea napkins beside the tray. The accompanying large basin for waste water he situated beside the tray, closer to himself as the preparer and server, instead of where it habitually was put closer to Jyuushirou.

Surprise rose amid the uncertainty in Jyuushirou’s dark eyes, and he looked questioningly across the table at Shunsui. Shunsui merely gave his soul brother a reassuring smile. Hanshi-sama remained watching curiously, but said nothing.

The water soon boiled, and another quick gesture from one gnarled finger doused the kidou flame. Any who believed the wizened shinigami weakened with age would be terribly mistaken, for with one hand, and while still seated cross-legged, Yama-jii effortlessly lifted the heavy kettle of boiling water and with a stately steady precision, doused a thin stream of boiling water over the implements in a smooth circling motion, cleansing them with the hot water. When all implements had been drenched and scalded, one-handedly he set the heavy kettle back on its stove without a slightest tremor to his limb nor a single boiling drop spilled, then turned back to the table and began emptying the hot water from the bowl, teapot and cups into the basin, his hands light and deft. Finally he picked up the tea towel and swiftly, began drying the now cleansed implements.

Watching those sure, steady movements, Shunsui began to understand.

The martial protocol in which the junior prepared and served the tea to show respect to the senior, when reversed, was an unspoken expression of love and care from the elder to the younger. Yama-jii was wordlessly reaffirming his regard for his sons. Or, in their case, for his eldest son.

Shunsui swept his eyes around the table and saw the same understanding rise in Hanshi-sama’s blue eyes and on the expression of Jyuushirou’s fine alabaster face.

When all tea implements were heated, cleansed and dried, Yama-jii dropped the used tea towel into the basin, then reached out to pick up the tea caddy. Holding it up to eye level, he examined its label sceptically. “Kumoi Gyoukaku sent this along with this month’s maintenance from the Kasumiouji Clan. No doubt he is once again courting my support for his campaign. After all these years he still has not given up trying to break Kasumiouji tradition to install a Kannogi male descendant as head of the Kasumiouji Clan.” He set the caddy down and began breaking the ties and seal over the caddy lid. “Kumoi is a viper but the tea leaves are innocent. Let us see if this is any good.” Carefully, he carefully lifted the unsealed lid.

The aroma immediately wafted across the tea table. It had a strong smooth clarity, with a greenness and crispness at just the right sharpness that Yama-jii favoured the most. In fact, Shunsui would bet his best sake it was either the exact gyokuro blend their old sensei liked best, or a startlingly close approximation of it.

Clearly, Kumoi Gyoukaku was indeed courting the Gotei, though Shunsui could not imagine any motivation for it.

“How very like your favourite blend,” Hanshi-sama pointed out speculatively. “The Kasumiouji have kept to themselves since ceding their eastern forge to the Academy. We have heard nothing about them for over a thousand years. Why are they making overtures to us now?” She inhaled visibly as Yama-jii shook a little pile of dried leaves into inner mesh net of the teapot, and looked impressed.

Breathing in the aroma, Shunsui had to agree. That’s going to be some superb tea, he assessed speculatively. Curiouser and curiouser.

Yama-jii closed the tea caddy, then began filling the teapot with steaming water. When it was almost its brim, he replaced its lid securely to allow the leaves to steep.

“Shuu Kannogi is a mere boy and innocent of the ways of the court,” spoke Jyuushirou softly, sadness and disapproval in his tone and face. “Lady Kasumiouji herself is also a mere child and sheltered from the politics of her late parents’ advisors and vassals. It is terrible that noble children are subjected to such lives.”

Still contemplating Kumoi’s intent, Shunsui observed, “The Kasumiouji have forged only royal ceremonial swords for several centuries now, but a ceremonial sword is still a weapon.” He cast an eye at the edge of the sheath of Sougyo no Kotowari, visible to him from where he was seated. “We mustn’t forget their workmanship is behind some of the deadliest weapons the clans of Soul Society had the misfortune to encounter. I think we should keep an on eye on them from now on.”

“We should. But we lack enough shinigami as it is,” Jyuushirou replied doubtfully. He frowned slightly. “I can ask my brother and sisters if they have heard from the Kannogi Clan, but I am afraid my family’s influence is not that far reaching.”

“I’ll put my clan on it,” Shunsui offered. He looked at their silent sensei. “What say you, Yama-jii?”

“We need to focus our resources on investigating and defeating Aizen,” replied the gravelly tone. Then those red eyes shifted to Jyuushirou from beneath heavy white brows, suddenly darkening with haunted memories. “But we must never be caught off guard again by another vassal clan. That is one lesson I will never forget.”

Shunsui froze, the black memory seizing his veins like sudden ice. Hanshi-sama’s face went deathly pale as memory of horror and trauma flooded her dark-blue eyes. He swivelled his eyes to his soul brother, and his heart wrenched.

Jyuushirou’s alabaster skin had paled into a bloodless grey, his long-lashed dark eyes cast down and his face avert with shame and phantom pain.

One thousand years, yet none of them could still speak of that nightmare. They never talked about it. Ever. It was their way.

Ruthlessly Shunsui quashed the emotion and plunged it back into where he always kept such memories, in that mental strongbox in the depths of his subconscious that he never wanted to reopen. The good spirits Jyuushirou had arrived with were completely gone from his demeanour.

“I would be thankful if the Kyouraku vassals could serve as our eyes and ears,” Yama-jii was saying, his gravelly voice gone soft.

“Consider it done,” Shunsui rasped. He stared at Jyuushirou, willing his soul brother to look up.

Jyuushirou kept his face and eyes averted.

“And I will speak with Byakuya,” Yama-jii added wearily. “Clans have always been troublesome, but we need them. We will reconvene on this matter when we have gathered enough intelligence.” His red eyes gazed at his eldest disciple, something deep in them turning their depths an almost agonised black. “Jyuushirou,” he called softly.

At the sound of his name, Jyuushirou collected himself and returned his attention to their meeting.

Picking up the small stack of tea napkins, Yama-jii distributed the cloths deftly around the table, his motions deliberately slowed and gentle as he laid the first one at Jyuushirou’s place setting, then more quickly at Shunsui’s and then Hanshi-sama’s, and leaving himself for the last.

Jyuushirou flashed a quick glance up at their old sensei, his unreadable dark eyes holding an inquiry.

The order of distribution had been significant. Shunsui was usually served last, as the youngest of their quartet. But Yama-jii was making a point, and making it himself personally, and had placed Jyuushirou first.

Right on the heels of mentioning the most painful thing the four of them had ever shared.

Ai, Yama-jii. Must you always thin your love with pain? Shunsui picked up his napkin, absently folding and refolding the small square, his emotions mixed.

Glancing to his side, he saw the same realisation had dawned on Hanshi-sama as well, for her dark-blue eyes were troubled.

Yama-jii was filling the large tea bowl with the first brew, filling it to four precise mouthfuls. Then lifting the bowl with both hands, he took the first sip, rolling the tea experimentally in his mouth. Grunting once with approval, he used his tea napkin to wipe the edge of the bowl where he had sipped, then with both hands, gravely presented the bowl to Jyuushirou, his red eyes patient and gentle.

Jyuushirou looked at their old sensei, then bowing his head, accepted the steaming bowl with both hands. Turning the bowl to another edge, he took a genteel sip, rolling the tea briefly in his palate. Lifting his small napkin, he cleaned the side of the bowl from where he had sipped and with the smooth grace of an accomplished tea master, gently shook back his long sleeves and leaned slightly forwards to present the bowl across the table to Shunsui, both arms stretched elegantly over the space between them.

Shunsui never had the same grace, hence he simply raised his hands and accepted the bowl quickly before the outstretched position could become awkward for Jyuushirou. His own temae style was sparse and economical, and quickly turning the bowl to a fresh edge he took his sip of the brew with both hands, his eyes never leaving his soul brother.

His gaze held those quiet and inscrutable dark eyes as the fresh and crisp aroma and body of the tea suffused his palate, washing away some of the ache remaining in his heart. Rolling the mouthful about his tongue, he allowed its fragrance and body to infuse his senses as he cleaned the edge of the bowl from where he had sipped. Then with both hands he passed the bowl to Hanshi-sama.

She accepted the receptacle from him with two hands, then ceremoniously turned the bowl to the last fresh edge. Raising one sleeved arm, she shielded the lower half of her face and drank from the bowl, tilting it until it was empty. Savouring the tea in her mouth, she handed the empty bowl to Jyuushirou, who took the used receptacle and gently placed it into the basin.

With the tasting done, Yama-jii proceeded to fill the four teacups with the remaining tea, before distributing them in the same order, first to Jyuushirou, then Shunsui and followed by Hanshi-sama, each precise motion ponderous and stately in his personal temae style. Finally, they were all served, and for the next several heartbeats, they sat in familiar companionable silence imbibing the hot tea.

The second pour was stronger than the first, yet remained free of bitterness. Quite unlike the current mood between them.

“This is fine sencha indeed,” Yama-jii rumbled sardonically. “Kumoi certainly knows my taste. Or he managed to secure that information.” Setting his cup down, he refilled it sedately, speaking as he did so. “The likes of Kumoi Gyoukaku… Soul Society was rife with characters like him, running amok and driving Soul Society into ruins. I am certain all of you can still remember how it was like.” He put down the teapot and contemplated his refilled cup. “Personalities like Kumoi are driven by passions of greed, ambition and base desires. He is not the worst we encountered. Fortunately the worst of them no longer exist today, although this distasteful breed did not become extinct like I had hoped. I created this government to prevent such characters from usurping absolute control and cause misery to our realm. Between the four of us, we were able to prevent such snakes from taking over and keep order and peace for over a thousand years, were we not?”

It was a rhetorical question for which no answer was expected.

“We upheld a just and stable government all this time because we ensured that our leadership is just,” Yama-jii went on. “Justice is the key to stability, for only when hearts feel they are treated with fairness will they not seek to disrupt, or rebel. I taught both of you this truth all your lives.” His red eyes wandered to Jyuushirou. “But what is justice? You asked me that yesterday, Jyuushirou. And I told you that justice for all must override justice for one. Is it justice if I allow the actions of a few to upend the stability for all?”

Jyuushirou’s knuckles unconsciously whitened around his teacup. “Sensei, I-”

“All is right,” Yama-jii gently interrupted. He reached across the tea table and gently loosened Jyuushirou’s death grip on the teacup, then patted the larger, slenderer hand reassuringly. “I had time to think last evening and I realised what was truly motivating you the past few days. But please do not destroy my teacup.”

Mildly embarrassed, Jyuushirou retracted his hand quickly and clasped his fingers in his lap.

“While we were on Soukyoku Hill, you explained your actions to me, but you did not speak of everything in your heart, did you?” Yama-jii asked softly. “I raised you and taught you, I know well what affects you. Did we not spend the first three centuries of your life training closely together on your control?”

“Aye.” Jyuushirou inclined his head, not meeting Yama-jii’s eyes.

Yama-jii paused, a touch of regret rising in his wizened mien. “Two centuries ago, you spoke to me of the changing natures of the souls returning through the Rukongai. At that time I believed we would have several more centuries before we need to evolve the way we govern to accommodate the differences we are receiving in the new Rukongai souls. I did not expect that in a mere two centuries the Living World would change so much more than all the millennia before it. And change the souls living in it. The souls who became shinigami in the last two hundred years are no longer the same as the shinigami I once understood so well. I look at the deeds and behaviours of Kurosaki Ichigo and his friends, and I see their reflections in Abarai Renji’s generation. I see it in Kuchiki Rukia. Pure souls born in Soul Society like Shunsui and yourself are but a handful now. Most inhabitants of this realm today are returned souls who began in Soul Society through arriving in the Rukongai. Even within the Gotei, most shinigami are now Rukongai souls. They bear the personalities of who they had last been upon their return to Soul Society, even if they no longer remember their last lives and identities. They return to us instinctively passionate, without knowing why. Or am I mistaken?”

“No, you are not mistaken, Sensei,” Jyuushirou softly said, his dark eyes rising in silent question.

“The changing natures of Rukongai souls will only carry on and spread as time goes on. Eventually, the nature of the Gotei, and Soul Society itself, will change. Our ranks of taichou are already affected. It has come to my attention that it is entirely possible that souls like Ichimaru Gin and Tousen Kaname were humans with similar traits in their previous lives, perhaps they instinctively found us inadequate to satisfy their innate needs, hence they turned to Aizen. They are both only two or three hundred years old, the time frame fits. I am asking myself this question: if we are no longer able to fulfil the need for justice in our own younger generation of taichou, can we even hope to fulfil the need for justice in the larger population of Rukongai souls? But you already knew all these, Jyuushirou, do you not?”

When his soul brother looked away with guilt, Yama-jii perceptibly exhaled, his wizened mien filling with what could only be called a fond exasperation. “Emotions are so much a part of your control and your life, Jyuushirou. Knowing the heart and soul is second nature to you, I have yet to meet any other who understand them as well as you. This is why I gave you chief command of all affairs with the Living World. However, after a thousand years, it seems to me that despite being born a pure soul, you have taken on some aspects of Rukongai souls yourself. Doing what you did, breaking the law to do the right thing… I can find such passion only in our younger generations, like Abarai Renji and his peers, and in the Rukongai souls among our ranks, like Hitsugaya Toushirou. Like Retsu and myself when we were both much younger. It took both of us more than five thousand years of war and strife to rid ourselves of our rashness. I look at you today, and I see you uphold justice of the heart as passionately as I uphold the law.” He paused, his red eyes suddenly saddened. “Yet you kept silent on this. I am obstinate, but even so, have I not always listened to your counsel? Have you changed so much as well, that you have forgotten my regard for you?”

“I had no proof,” Jyuushirou said simply, looking up with honest dark eyes. “I had been in such poor health for so long, when I regained stability, there was much that I had to catch up on, and that included finding proof to support my observations of Gin and Kaname. You were already under tremendous pressure from the Chamber…” He trailed off, dark eyes glancing at Shunsui and Hanshi-sama, then finished softly, “I did not wish to disturb you when I had no evidence of what I was sensing.”

“Yet, I would still have given you my full attention if you had come to me with something that affects two of our senior commanding ranks,” Yama-jii insisted. “I have never doubted your acumen and I do not intend to begin doubting you. In future, you must share your sensing with me as soon as you are certain of it, proof or no proof. Do not act alone on your own judgement, or wait until I am too angry to listen.”

“I hear you, Sensei,” Jyuushirou said, looking visibly glum.

“You hear me,” Yama-jii repeated to himself in a mutter, staring at his erstwhile disciple. Then he shook his bald head and his hunched shoulders lowered. “I suppose that is as much as I am going to get out of you on this for now. You may not argue with me like your younger brother, but you share his same penchant for resistance if you do not agree with something.”

Shunsui tried not to bristle.

“I promise to do as you say, Sensei,” Jyuushirou amended, his dark eyes contrite. “I will not disappoint you again.”

At his last words, Yama-jii’s red gaze flashed with pained remorse. “Do you recall my vision when we set out to create this government? I wanted a ruling system of checks and balances so that no faction can overcome the other and drive us back into the dark ages of civil wars. For this goal that I created the Daireishokairou to be of equal benefit to the Gotei and the Chamber. Do you remember all those many long years we spent in my library writing the rules of this government? How it took us a near century to create the Daireishin and raise it to awareness? So many challenges we had to overcome in those early days.”

“I remember well.” Jyuushirou lowered his eyes momentarily in remembrance.

“We could not have accomplished what we had without a strong foundation of laws. Laws which you aided me to create and establish.” Yama-jii sighed, this time quite loudly and wearily. “You vex me in several ways, but disappointing me has never been one of them. On the contrary, you have always surpassed my expectations in every task I have given you. I would not have you ever think that you disappoint me.”

Shunsui stared at their old sensei in surprise. So Yama-jii had really taken to heart his words in the library halls.

Jyuushirou was staring with equal surprise at Yama-jii, his dark eyes wide beneath his long white bangs.

Their old sensei harrumphed and shook his bald head again. “Two thousand years, yet both of you are sometimes still like the boys you were…” he muttered beneath his breath. Lifting his teacup, he began taking calming sips.

Clearly, that was as much emotional expression as Yama-jii was capable of.

Nevertheless, it was enough. Shunsui had never heard such heartfelt words from him before… no, that was not entirely correct either.

Belatedly, an ancient memory rose. He remembered seeing Yama-jii’s stark, rigid and bloodless face on that long ago dawn when they realised that grievously ill Jyuushirou had left them to trek through the dangerous Rukongai with his powers still sealed. He remembered seeing those gnarled hands shake as Yama-jii read Jyuushirou’s deed and stroked the handwritten notes of a zither manuscript.

Ai! Shunsui realised with a sharp pang of regret. He stole a look at Jyuushirou, seeing those beloved dark eyes liquid with emotions as they gazed in wonder at the shinigami who had raised them. I’ve been a little unfair to Yama-jii. 

# # # # # #

Yama-jii did not speak his heart in words. He spoke in actions.

Contrite, and chastened, Shunsui realised that he, too, should also speak his heart in actions, for that way would be far better understood by the shinigami who had raised and taught him.

Leaning forwards, he picked up the teapot to replenish tea for all, filling Yama-jii’s cup first with an apologetic look.

Those red eyes studied him wordlessly for a moment, then lowered sedately into a meditative expression. Quietly, Yama-jii instructed in his gravelly voice, “Let us now speak of what we came here for. Shunsui, what do you sense of our new human allies?”

Setting down the teapot, Shunsui collected himself and his mind, and proceeded to give a complete and detailed report, from his sensing of the powers of their new human allies, to Yoruichi’s questions, to Kurotsuchi’s concerns about their knowledge of Quincies, carefully leaving out his private information trade with the scientist. When he ended his report, Hanshi-sama gave her own perspectives, stressing her concerns about the Quincy boy Ishida-kun, her worries about him surprisingly echoing Kurotsuchi’s.

“It is his reticence that unsettles me,” she concluded. “A youth who locks deep emotions so closely inside, will eventually find himself unwittingly venting it when the opportunity presents. If our enemies are astute, they will be targeting his psychological vulnerability and attempt to harm us through him. Ishida-kun may inadvertently hurt those he cares about, even if his acts with the best of intentions. He may threaten us without meaning to.”

“Uryuu-kun’s fierce pride in his race will threaten us only if he does not know enough about his people’s history with us,” Jyuushirou said quietly. “Most Shinigami today still remember Quincies as threats to the balance. Undoubtedly, Uryuu-kun will not see it that way. In his mind, he likely sees shinigami as the ones who committed genocide of his race. I believe our first step with him should begin from the position of sharing and exploring the mutual histories of our two races. It will give us the chance to face long blood feud and resolve ill feelings before we attempt to develop our alliance further. We need mutual understanding first, otherwise no matter how golden the intentions of either side, we may inadvertently harm each other.”

“The road to hell is always generously paved with golden intentions, because too few understand that the greatest evil always lies in the details,” Shunsui recited from memory, gazing at his soul brother in oblique confession that he remembered the lesson Jyuushirou taught him.

An answering warmth began to rise in those dark eyes.

“If Ishida-kun is at risk of manipulation by our enemies, and if sharing knowledge about his own people and us can reduce that risk, then I say we should start developing our friendship with him, ne?” Shunsui went on. Then added, “Especially now that we know Quincies are not extinct.”

“Do you propose we consider a Quincy as our ally?” Yama-jii asked.

“With Uryuu-kun, a friendship could be possible. He spoke much of Quincy pride last night, but he is clearly friends with Ichigo-kun and loyal to him,” Jyuushirou replied. “If we do not merely judge him by his race, but take a step further to understand him as a person, his background, his heart, we can better estimate what he will do if he is placed in a situation where he has to choose.”

“Quincies and shinigami are polar opposites,” their old sensei sama pointed out. “This is not limited to the power, but to the body and the very soul. How do you propose we convince the boy we mean no harm?”

“Knowledge,” Jyuushirou answered simply. He looked at Shunsui. “Did you not say Mayuri may have hurt Ishida-kun deeply? That is where we should begin looking.”

Shunsui took the opportunity to covertly advance Kurotsuchi’s request. “In this case, Yama-jii, we should truly hear what Mayuri has to say. Starting with how Ishida-kun managed to defeat him so utterly in the first place. The better we know, than we don’t know. If our repository of knowledge on the Quincies is incomplete, then all the more we should authorise him to complete it.” He smiled at Jyuushirou and recited another lesson, “Mistakes are always made because of the lack of critical knowledge.”

This time, he succeeded in bringing a smile to Jyuushirou’s pale face, reviving some of his good cheer.

“How many times in our past did we turn defeat into victory because we held the key of knowledge?” reminded Hanshi-sama. “How many times did our most powerful opponents lose because they only had a fierce desire to win, but lack knowledge of how to win?” She turned to Yama-jii. “Perhaps in our centuries of peace, most of us have forgotten that knowledge is as important as strength, that both must be pursued equally. But Aizen did not forget this. He saw and exploited our tendency to focus on strength to the exclusion of knowledge. Kurosaki-kun arrived with unknown powers and threw us into a disarray, and Aizen took advantage of our confusion. We must not allow ourselves to become this unbalanced again.”

“Ichigo-kun lacks knowledge about himself, that puts him at a great disadvantage in battle and makes him a great risk to others,” Jyuushirou offered his perspective. “We all agree his power is not simple. Each of us sensed shinigami, Hollow and Quincy signatures in his reiatsu. Each of us felt how similar his shinigami signature is to that of Isshin’s. It is essential he understands his true nature and the origins of his power so that he will not accidentally harm others. Although I knew him and his friends only last night, I feel their hearts are pure and their honour to their friends unimpeachable. This is a good thing. Now we need only discover how Ichigo-kun is mentored and instructed. I would worry just as much about who is his sensei.”

“That would be Urahara-san and Yoruichi-san,” Hanshi-sama informed.

“Kisuke-kun? Ai, now I’m concerned!” Shunsui exclaimed. “From what I know of him, he tends to go overboard when he becomes passionate about something. His thinking is as deeply entrenched in logic as Mayuri’s, it’ll blind him to the dangers of emotions in his management of the boy. And the boy’s friends, for that matter.”

“This is why I have asked Yoruichi to report in once a week,” informed Yama-jii. “And to have Kisuke communicate directly with the four of us.” He turned to Jyuushirou. “I would have you issue Kurosaki Ichigo with a new Daikoushou Shinigami Daikou. With the speed and depth at which the Living World is changing, it is time to implement your proposal to start a Gotei garrison in the Living World. If Kurosaki Ichigo develops himself favourably towards Soul Society, he could eventually head our garrison. I am of a mind to appoint Hitsugaya Toushirou as your auxiliary to supervise this. What do you say?”

“I have always hoped that Toushirou would succeed me to oversee the Living World. My health is unstable, all of us at this table know that I am living on borrowed time. If we have an auxiliary in place to co-manage affairs with the Living World, in the event I can no longer serve in this capacity, the Gotei will not be left bereft. However, my proposal for the Living World garrison are over two centuries old, I will need to trouble Toushirou to update it.” Jyuushirou’s dark eyes flickered briefly towards Shunsui before returning to Yama-jii. “As for the daikoushou, Sensei, Ichigo-kun is not Ginjou Kyuugo. A daikoushou should not be necessary for him.”

“This is why I said a new one, not the one you previously constructed.”

A frown creased Jyuushirou’s fine brows. “I am afraid I do not understand.”

“Kurosaki Ichigo’s daikoushou shall possess the same functions as the first daikoushou, with the exception that it shall not limit or restrict his power, but merely retain a small amount of it should he ever require a fall back reserve. With our enemies at large, we cannot afford to have our allies in the Living World hindered in any way.”

“I see.” Jyuushirou bit his lower lip, casting a quick look at Shunsui. “I have anticipated that you will order me to do this,” he said finally.

“This shall not be made known to Kurosaki Ichigo,” Yama-jii added firmly. “Our rigidity to rules has become our weakness, Jyuushirou. You have shown us this yourself yesterday. However, remember that we have centuries of entrenched mindset to change. Our argument for change will be weak if we interfere in the catalyst events. For Kurosaki Ichigo to become a true catalyst of change for Soul Society, he must be allowed to make his own choices and act without our interference. I am convinced we can trust him to make the right choices and act accordingly.”

“I understand. But please, Sensei, hear me out,” Jyuushirou beseeched gently. When he had Yama-jii’s full attention, he explained, “Our friendship with Ichigo-kun is still new and therefore fragile. He believes friendship is a black or white matter, either you are a friend, or not. When he regards you as a friend, he does everything in his power to protect you no matter the cost to himself, even if you make a mistake that angers him. I sense a great capacity in his heart to forgive those he calls his friends. His trust in us right now is absolute. He believes he is friends with the forces for good. It is entirely on us right now to live up to his expectations while giving him the freedom to decide his perspectives. The way we currently function, I expect we are more at risk of letting him down than him letting us down.” His expression darkening, Jyuushirou emphasised, “Withholding the true purpose of the daikoushou from him will not be a sign of good faith. It is not how he would treat his friends. Nor I.”

“You could tell him as much truth as will not interfere with his thinking,” Hanshi-sama suggested.

“We still do not know the whereabouts of Ginjou Kyuugo,” Yama-jii added, unknowingly echoing Shunsui’s thoughts last night. “If Ginjou can still sense shinigami, he will be attracted to Kurosaki Ichigo’s daikoushou. When he does, Soi Fon has collected enough recordings from Ginjou’s daikoushou to bring him in to face justice.”

“Kyouraku reminded me of this last night,” Jyuushirou replied. With perceptible iron in his tone, he said, “I apologise, Sensei, but I will not allow a child to be used as bait. Ichigo-kun’s mind and soul is still only fifteen years old. His power is incredible as it is and will only get stronger. Ginjou will find him of his own accord without the daikoushou needing to function as a lure.” He looked around at them. “And how shall we inform the rest of the Gotei? I do not wish for anyone to misunderstand that we are putting our new ally under surveillance as if he is a person of interest. Ichigo-kun has made powerful friends among us. Even Byakuya.”

“I shall announce it at tomorrow’s taichou assembly to keep us all aligned on this issue,” Yama-jii assured. “As for Byakuya, he is still naïve in the ways of the heart, for all his prowess. I shall be speaking with him soon. Our young Kuchiki taichou needs lessons in humanity.”

Jyuushirou looked troubled for a heartbeat, then exhaled softly. Bowing his head formally, he said, “Our law regarding the daikoushou was created with only Ginjou in mind. There is no precedent for Ichigo-kun, and this is an opportunity for us to create room for change. I will obey your command on this, Sensei, but I also ask that you allow me to modify our laws.”

“I cannot ask more of you than that,” Yama-jii consented. Then his tone suddenly hardened and he admonished, “But I will not hear anymore of you talking about yourself like you are dying. You proposed the concept of command auxiliaries to me one thousand years ago, yet today you are still sitting here telling me the same thing. I will accept your suggestion to establish command auxiliaries as a sound succession planning for the Gotei, because any one of us can be killed in action any time. This is a good management concept and I shall meditate on how best to implement it. But I will not have you take a fatalistic mindset about yourself.”

Jyuushirou bit his lip, an unconscious habit whenever he did not entirely agree but did not wish to argue.

But Yama-jii knew him well, and harrumphed in frustration at his response. “Do not pain me, Jyuushirou,” he said gratingly. “There is more yet left undone in your life. When this is all over, we will need to amend the laws of this government, otherwise we will be caught off guard again in future when more Rukongai souls like Ichimaru Gin or Tousen Kaname or even Aizen Sousuke find cause to rebel. But I need some time to think on our new direction. When I have some initial thoughts, we shall discuss. Soon, I will once again require your skills and knowledge in my inner sanctum. And I would have you in full power and health when the time comes for that phase of our work.”

“I will aid you in this to the best of my abilities, Sensei,” Jyuushirou replied, relenting.

“You always do, Jyuushirou. I know that better than anyone else. What I want to see now is for you to keep up your spirits and health to go the distance. The challenges facing us now are much harder than those in the past. We need your mind and your abilities now more than ever, because the enemy before us was once a part of us and hence knows us much better than any enemy we previously faced.” Yama-jii’s mien became hard. “Right now, it is clear that Aizen has one weakness, and that is his arrogance. He was conceited enough to reveal why he was pursuing the Hougyoku, and to tell you his ambitions to become a kami.” At the last word, he snorted in derision. “The whelp clearly does not understand kami at all. He will have his comeuppance eventually. In the meantime, however, his ego has given us valuable clues.”

Their old sensei began detailing their findings in the Daireishokairou in the morning, concluding with his shocking discovery that his seals had been removed from the Daireishin circuits.

Alarm spread across Jyuushirou’s expressive face even as Hanshi-sama dark-blue eye glinted with an old familiar dangerous light.

“How did Aizen gain so much power to do this?” An anxious line marred the smoothness of Jyuushirou’s fine dark brows. “The elemental energies of the Daireishin destroys all except those whom it accepts.”

“We asked the same questions as well,” Yama-jii replied. “Until yesterday, none of us knew that Aizen’s shikai is complete and permanent hypnosis. We have all been under the thrall of his zanpakutou all this time. It begs the question of what else about him we do not know or have been misled into believing. Do we truly know his power? Shunsui’s findings this morning give us clear reasons to assume that Aizen had been planning his crime for a century. If the Hougyoku truly is capable of affecting shinigami and Hollow powers, that is one more strong reason we should suspect that Aizen was also behind the Hollowfication experiments that cost us so dearly one hundred years ago.” His red eyes darkened. “We lost not only four taichou of the Gotei and the two commanding leaders of the Kidou Corps, we also lost Kisuke, who is still the most brilliant mind Soul Society has ever seen. All of you recall that the evidence accusing Kisuke of Hollowfication crimes was not only very thin, they were also unverified. There was no mandatory investigation to confirm the veracity of the so-called proof against Kisuke. At his trial, he was denied his constitutional rights to defend himself.”

“As Rukia was also denied her rights to mandatory investigation and self-defence,” Jyuushirou observed softly, guilty realisation was rising in his dark eyes. “Ai, Sensei! Even without knowing about Aizen, I should have seen this connection sooner! But I was too blinded by my own emotions!”

“Nay, the fault is not on you, Jyuushirou,” Yama-jii rumbled, the darkness in his red eyes turning to anger. “As Retsu rightly pointed out yesterday, Aizen ensured we were caught in the midst of chaos and could not think. You were bedridden from the stress of not being able to find Kuchiki Rukia, likely, that was also intended by Aizen. I will not ignore the possibility that he had observed and understood how your emotions affect you, for he certainly had predicted my reactions very accurately.” He turned his stare to encompass Hanshi-sama and Shunsui. “My purpose for this meeting is to divulge to you the matter I mentioned yesterday. However, Shunsui’s discoveries this morning has now raised even more dire implications. This must go no further than the four of us until such time as I decide otherwise.”

“You have my word,” Shunsui vowed.

“As you have mine,” Hanshi-sama swore likewise.

“Then listen well,” Yama-jii began, his mien severe. “When Kuchiki Rukia’s sentence was announced, I knew then she had become another victim the same way as Kisuke. The Chamber broke away from our criminal laws and evidentiary procedures when it convicted Kisuke, I saw that it was behaving the same way when it convicted her. The connection between their cases was immediately clear to me. One incident might be dismissed as a standalone occurrence. But two similar incidents form a pattern, and would have given me legal cause to present them as circumstantial evidence to apply for further investigation. Such an application from me would have suspended the execution sentence. But if I had sent it, it would also imply I was aligning with ryoka intruders at a time when the Chamber has been seeking to depose me to seize control of the Gotei. Thus I withheld action.”

Shunsui froze. “What’re you talking about, Yama-jii? Was the Chamber seeding a sedition?”

“Sedition?” Yama-jii scoffed. “Call it an attempted coup. Kisuke and Kuchiki Rukia were only the most obvious cases. For centuries, the Chamber has been trying to subvert our governing system of checks and balances we so painstakingly established and upheld. I am certain you have heard of the illegal weapon called the Bakkoutou.”

“Indeed I have,” Shunsui affirmed. “Supposedly the Bakkoutou is organic and grows on the wielder’s body to feed on the wielder’s reiatsu. It consumes its wielder to grow its power until it drives the mind mad and turns the wielder into a rampaging killer. When it fully consumes the body and soul, the victim never returns to the cycle. Worse, it can be transferred from fighter to fighter which makes it easy to distribute and become common. The balance of souls will be dangerously skewed if the Bakkoutou is widespread in Soul Society.”

“Precisely. Three hundred years ago, I lost my Fourth Seat Kisaragi Shin’etsu when I tried to expose Kumoi Gyoukaku for abusing his position and the Kasumiouji Forge to manufacture and spread the use of the Bakkoutou.”

The revelation stunned Shunsui. He remembered the First Division officer. Tall, brawny, somewhat rough, whose shihakushou always looked tattered, with faded brown eyes in a rugged face with a goatee under a messy mop of dark brown hair. He was passionately loyal and courageous, if a little unrefined in his speech and manners. “Kisaragi-san was killed in the line of duty, wasn’t he? Survived by his only son.”

Exhaling a weary breath, Yama-jii sat back and closed his eyes. “Shin’etsu was indeed killed in the line of duty. His killer was I.” 

# # # # # #

Shocked, there was only one response Shunsui could make.

“Why?” he asked.

“Shin’etsu witnessed Kumoi transport a wagon of Bakkoutou from the Kasumiouji Forge and tracked it to the outer Rukongai, where he spied Kumoi’s men distributing the weapons to criminal clans. With his eyewitness report, I applied for permit to further investigate. Under our original laws, one eyewitness account should have sufficed as probable cause to allow further investigation. Instead, I was told by the Chamber that a new law had been enacted, all questioning of clan activities were forbidden except on proof beyond a shadow of doubt that the clan has broken one of the laws of Soul Society. It was utterly ridiculous, how could iron clad proof be obtained without questioning? Our original laws permitting investigation based on probable cause were completely replaced. When I questioned Chief Justice Furukawa Souta, he sent me a letter claiming that the new law was mandated by the Soul King. However, the Daireishin records showed nothing of the Soul King having used the Ouin to approve this new law. I raised the Daireishin records to Furukawa to challenge his claim. Instead, he sent me an official edict banning the Gotei from all investigations on Kumoi and the Kasumiouji Clan, including banning investigations by use of the Daireishin. Contravening this edict would be regarded as treason of the highest order and cause the arrest and execution of all Gotei taichou. The edict effectively rendered me unable to use my access to my greatest source of truth. Shin’etsu saw my problem, and he volunteered to go undercover for an extended period of time at the Kasumiouji Forge to orchestrate a scenario in which Kumoi would expose himself. I had no other option left, hence I allowed him.”

Yama-jii paused, his red eyes glazing with remembered pain. “On hindsight, I should have kept him out of it. One month after he left the Gotei, I received his message to meet. As soon as I faced him at our rendezvous point, I knew our secret mission had failed. Shin’etsu had been infected by a Bakkoutou. He attacked me, and I subdued him. But Kumoi had chosen to release him back to me when his soul was almost consumed. If I did not kill my officer quickly, his soul would never be reborn. Thus I ended his life. But I could never speak of it, or acknowledge his sacrifice, or I would bring the Chamber down on all Gotei taichou, including my own sons. I could only cover up the secret failed mission and publicly declare that Shin’etsu was killed in the line of duty. It was the closest to the truth I could manage to honour my Fourth Seat without alerting the Chamber.” His hunched shoulders lowered. “I gave Shin’etsu’s widow and only son the support of the Gotei in honour of him. They should have survived, and flourished. But they did not. His widow passed away shortly from heartbreak, and his son died to disease in an orphanage.”

Shunsui sat still, his heart stunned. He had not even guessed. “Why did you not tell me, Yama-jii? I would have understood and helped.”

“You certainly would, but what would you have done if they had summoned you to aid their investigation against me?” his old sensei rasped. “Only the four of us are left with access to the Daireishin. If the Chamber even notices any attempt to pry into this matter, Furukawa would know I instigated it, and exercise his full legal rights to summon one of you to act as reiatsu shields for his scribes to investigate me in the archives. I gave access to the Chamber for the purpose of justice, but Furukawa turned my gift into my handicap. Nay, Shunsui. I could not have told you. Or Retsu. The only one who could aid me without endangering anyone is your brother, for he leaves no tracks in the Daireishin, and his connection to that sentient mind remains unknown beyond this table till this day.”

Three hundred years ago. The time frame fit. Abject realisation began flooding Shunsui and he looked across the table, meeting Jyuushirou’s dark eyes.

His soul brother returned his gaze with compassionate understanding.

“So this was what started you pulling Jyuushirou into your inner sanctum,” Shunsui concluded bleakly.

“Yes,” Yama-jii rumbled, his demeanour dark with remembrance. “It was the beginning. Initially I meant to only discover what truly happened to Shin’etsu. But it was not to be. What was uncovered ran much deeper than I expected. Jyuushirou spent one morning in the Daireishin, and everything came to light. Shin’etsu never stood a chance. By the time he arrived at the Kasumiouji Forge, Kumoi and his men were prepared. He was set upon immediately and forced to merge with a Bakkoutou before he was released back to me. Kumoi had hoped Shin’etsu would kill me and hence rid himself of persecution. But I could not use this evidence against Kumoi, not when I had your brother obtain it from the Daireishin in contravention of the edict. The only thing I could do was use these facts to find other ways of proving Kumoi’s crime. However, I needed to know how Kumoi could have been alerted to our undercover mission. Hence, I asked Jyuushirou to probe further in the archives. Turned out, Kumoi had been warned by Furukawa himself. Our late Chief Justice had been leading several senior officials of the Chamber, including all the other five judges, to collude with Kumoi in producing and distributing Bakkoutou in Soul Society. They sought to sow violence, so that they could accuse the Gotei of not keeping peace and order and manufacture an excuse to seize our military power. But they knew that the Gotei will not fall as long as I remain in position. None of them had military or war competencies, thus they used these devices to attempt to undermine me. Furukawa and his cronies of five judges had counted on me to disregard their ban against investigation, and I had sent my subordinate right into their trap. They had hoped that my subordinate would succeed in killing me so that there would be a power vacuum for them to seize control of the Gotei.”

“Sensei needed my help to devise a surveillance system on the Chamber using the Daireishin,” Jyuushirou put in softly, speaking up for the first time since Yama-jii began his narration. “And to review all its past edicts and decrees. This was why I had such long hours of work, Kyouraku. We began to uncover earlier edicts and decrees which wrought similar injustices, some of them resulting in tragedies on Gotei shinigami, and even a few undergraduates of the Shinoureijutsuin. There was no specific profile to the victims except that they were incidental to attempts to undermine Sensei’s position. Shin’etsu was the first case in which the Chamber had directly acted against Sensei.”

“Jyuushirou was ever my only recourse, for his work in the Daireishin remained invisible to our opponents,” Yama-jii explained, his red eyes intent on Shunsui. “I kept up appearances of being ignorant of the seditious activities of Furukawa and his cronies and dealt with the Chamber on the public front, while your brother worked in the shadows to find us hard proof without their suspicion. Our investigations had to be strictly covert, for they had originated from my contravention of a Chamber ban edict in the first place. If any hint of what we were doing was detected by Furukawa, the entire Gotei command would be executed, including my own two sons. I spoke of this to no one else, for it would have unsettled and fragmented our shinigami rank and file knew that the very government which they are upholding is plotting against them. With your brother’s aid, I could begin to verify and compile facts that gave me excuses to reopen some cases for proper investigation through manual means. At times, I enlisted the Onmitsukidou. I never revealed to Yoruichi the source of our clues, but if she suspected, she never let on.” His wizened saddened. “These obstacles meant we only managed to right a small proportion of the wrongs we uncovered. Not everything have been smooth sailing. Not every victim received justice yet. After I released Jyuushirou from this work, progress stopped altogether, for I could not use the Daireishin myself without raising suspicions.”

Guilt rose starkly in Shunsui. That was the same period of time when he had to deal with his own clan problems. If he had not been so distracted, he would have observed that more had been occurring than Yama-jii’s seemingly inexhaustible demands on Jyuushirou.

“This is what I have been withholding from you both. This is why I had to appropriate Jyuushirou’s energies for three centuries.” Yama-jii looked at Shunsui with a sort of scathing forgiveness. “I know you blame me for working your brother so intensively in seclusion. I believe your most often used term was, ‘cruelly imprisoning his most devoted son’, if I am repeating it correctly.”

Shunsui flushed to the roots of his hair as Jyuushirou gasped and stared at him in dismay.

“Did you truly believe I was not pained by what I had to do to my own son?” Yama-jii went on, his gravelly voice becoming harsher. “If I had any other choice, I would not have demanded this of your brother, for I know well the costs to him.”

“Ai” Shunsui rubbed his face, then looked up at that wizened face. He tried to think of what he could say that would atone for all the blame and anger he had levelled at his old sensei for three centuries. But his mind was whirling with a morass of guilt and regret and his grope for words came up empty.

“You did not know, Kyouraku,” Hanshi-sama consoled quietly. “It is useless to blame yourself.”

“Yes, you did not know,” Yama-jii relented. His ire subsiding slightly, he said, “This is why I said your discoveries this morning has now raised even more dire implications. As a Gotei taichou, Aizen knows my strict adherence to laws. He also knows that I would not have let the Chamber get away with flouting the laws of Soul Society. How, then, did he know that I would not challenge the sentence on Kuchiki Rukia? If I am right that he was also behind the framing of Kisuke, how did he know I would not intercede on Kisuke’s behalf?” His red eyes glinted as he concluded, “How did he know I was treading a precarious line with the Chamber?”

“The only possibility would be that Aizen had known of Furukawa’s sedition all along,” Jyuushirou surmised, alarm dawning. “Either that, or he discovered it by chance and used our late Chief Justice to further his own aims.” Dread and suspicion were overcoming his fine features.

“Both are equally valid conjectures,” Yama-jii agreed. “When Aizen murdered the entire Chamber, he interrupted a coup in progress. Whether he did it inadvertently or deliberately, is what we must know. Our worst fears would be if he was the mastermind throughout it all.” His red eyes began to burn with a fierce pride as he looked at Jyuushirou. “Once again, I am fully justified in all my efforts to keep your abilities under the strictest secrecy. Like all our enemies before him, Aizen does not know about your connection to the Daireishin. You are the only one who is able to access the archives now. Your first priority is to find out how he knew to remove my seals, how he was able to do it, and what he was doing in there. Then extract from the Daireishin everything on Aizen, his origins, his age, his power, for we must assume that he had deceived us in his application papers to the Gotei. Find out how he managed to corrupt Ichimaru Gin and Tousen Kaname. Find evidence of his involvement in Kisuke’s exile, we must clear Kisuke’s name and give him the choice to come home if he wishes to. Lastly, see if there is any link between Aizen and the Chamber judges. Were Furukawa and his cronies coerced and unwilling participants in Aizen’s schemes? Or were they colluding with him and he subsequently betrayed them? Or were the two parties unrelated and only had coincidental interests? We must find enough evidence to give us a clear picture.”

“I will do so,” Jyuushirou replied with determination. “The fastest way will be for me to join with the Daireishin to discover all we need to in a short time.”

“Then do it,” Yama-jii approved. “While you are at it, permanently revoke the access of all Chamber members while the Chamber is still in disarray. Whatever the outcome of your investigations, I will no longer allow anyone else to have access or control our most precious resource. The Daireishokairou is irreplaceable. First Furukawa and whoever was supporting him, and now Aizen. I am tired of all these whelps running around trying to defeat truth and justice. The Bakudou barriers I use for this chashitsu shall suffice for the whole building of the Daireishokairou, I will install the spell after this meeting. From this point onwards, no one save the highest ranking shinigami of the Gotei shall have access to the Daireishokairou, and no one save the four of us shall have access to the Daireishin archives. Choujirou has carried my request to Soi Fon this morning. There will be a permanent Onmitsukidou guard around the Daireishokairou from today onwards. I have additionally ordered a personal protection for you whenever you enter the building. The Daireishin draws on your reiryoku whenever it senses your presence, Jyuushirou. It weakens you and I would not have any of Furukawa’s or Aizen’s cronies who may still be lurking in the Seireitei come within even a spirit-mile of you when you are vulnerable. I know how you dislike being coddled but this is not coddling, it is necessity. Do not fight me on this.”

Jyuushirou wordlessly inclined his head in acceptance.

“We must now address the question of time. Have the succession procedures begun for the reconstitution of the Central Forty-Six?”

“They are,” Jyuushirou nodded in confirmation. “The emergency protocols have been invoked. The new Chamber officials should be taking office in a week, and formally inaugurated in a fortnight.”

Yama-jii stroked his beard in thought. “That is too small a window for us. We need to delay the reconstitution of the Chamber without being publicly obvious about it.”

“We could hold elaborate ceremonies to return the bodies of our late Chamber members to their families,” Shunsui suggested. “Have a long official mourning period. Distract their successors for as long as possible.”

Their old sensei hummed, intrigued. “Go on.”

Shunsui straightened. “How many nobles do we have in the late Chamber? If there is one thing I know about clans, it is their love for ceremonies and pomp. And since the late six judges were at loggerheads with us, perhaps we could assuage their successors with generous hosting of funeral services.”

“That is an excellent idea,” Yama-jii approved. “Can I assume the Kyouraku Clan will be on board with this?”

“Yes,” Shunsui confirmed. He stared meaningfully at Yama-jii, “But I’ll leave it to you to talk to the Kuchiki and Shihouin.”

“That, I will do.” Inhaling a deep breath with clear satisfaction on his wizened face, Yama-jii straightened his hunched form. “We have dealt with many troubling issues in this meeting, but despite how calamitous our situation appear, I am energised for the first time in three centuries. No longer will I have to fight a clandestine war alone. With the three of you at my side, I am certain we will see victory in the end. Let us end our discussion here for now.” His red eyes moved to Shunsui. “Retsu, Jyuushirou, can you both allow me a moment to speak with Shunsui?” 

# # # # # #

The tea meeting ended on a sombre but confident note, with Hanshi-sama and Jyuushirou both looking resolute as they left. Shunsui watched his love’s retreating form until the tall slender figure vanished through the roof exit in another brief fiery flare as Jyuushirou passed through the Bakudou shields. Then Yama-jii and he were finally alone.

He looked at his old sensei a little tensely. “I’m listening,” he said quietly.

Yama-jii took a sip of his now fairly cool tea and levelled an unblinking gaze at Shunsui. “As I told your brother yesterday,” he began in a low rumble. “If I had known that the Chamber had broken its own laws when it ignored his request for emergency audience, I would have interceded in Kuchiki Rukia’s defence. Why did he not report it to me first thing?”

Whenever Yama-jii spoke privately and in this manner to Shunsui, it meant his old sensei would tolerate nothing less than the truth.

But the answer was not a confidence he could share.

“It's not my place to say,” Shunsui replied honestly.

However, Yama-jii was implacable. He stared at Shunsui and waited in silence, and with his patient, expectant red gaze, wordlessly informed that the matter was serious enough to him that he would disregard personal confidences to obtain the truth.

It put Shunsui in a quandary. While he felt he needed to atone for terribly misjudging his old adoptive father and sensei, the answer was truly not his to share.

He settled on an oblique reply. “Ukitake regards those whom he teaches as his children, Yama-jii,” he tried to explain in a way that would tread the middle ground between his dilemma. “His nature is not like you and me. If he sees a hope that he can save his child, he will do his utmost to accomplish it, even at great cost to himself. His heart does not permit him any other option. In his mind, if the heart is not on the right path, there can be no honour, no life and no greater good. This is why every soul he ever taught has gone on to become great shinigami. Even Byakuya, as stubborn as our Kuchiki Lord remains.” 

Those red eyes continued to stare at him, but a contemplative look had entered them.

“You did not see him that night he returned from pursuing Metastacia,” Shunsui added darkly. “It took me days before I discovered the details, and it was from Kiyone-chan because Rukia-chan had confided in her. Ukitake had to cut Kaien-kun, Yama-jii, because he realised that his son’s soul was no longer in his body. But that monstrous parody still resembled Kaien-kun so much, and retained all of Kaien-kun’s memories of Ukitake. Can you imagine how he must have felt killing the body that once contained the child he loved?” He paused, hesitating over the next words that had risen to his mind, then decided that they needed to be spoken. Carefully, he delivered the message, “You did not answer me this morning when I asked what you would have done if Hanshi-sama had not exposed Aizen in time. But I no longer need to know. All that I ask is that you think of how you would have chosen if you had to decide between upholding the greater good or protecting the son you went through so much pain to raise and nurture. Then know that whatever your choice would be, Ukitake would only ever choose his child.”

“As I would have chosen him, if I had known and had the room to make a choice,” Yama-jii rumbled, his gravel tone stern.

But within that stern voice and mien, Shunsui saw a shadow of hurt. It was perceptible only to him, and only because he knew Yama-jii so well.

Softening, he told his old sensei as honestly as he could, “Ukitake is the bravest soul I know, he confronts his fears in a way I can never hope to match. But if he has one fear he can’t overcome, it’s his fear of your rejection. You saved him and his family and he feels he can never repay you enough in this lifetime. He vexes you as often as I do, as sons typically vex their fathers. But he has never chosen his heart over you, until yesterday.”

“Does he believe that I would not do right by him?” Yama-jii asked sombrely.

“Fear is a strange thing, Yama-jii,” Shunsui replied cautiously. “I saw the fear in his eyes when we were fighting you, and again last night when we were speaking of it. You occupied almost all his time and focus over the last three centuries. Only you know how you related to him. I see you’ve taken my hint to express more of your regard for him, perhaps it’s not too late to keep doing this, and convince him finally that you could never have hurt him or denied him.”

He lapsed into silence at the end of his words, busying himself instead with pouring out the last of the tea for both of them. When the teapot ran empty, he set it down and quietly waited.

Yama-jii sipped from his cup, his wizened face and red eyes as inscrutable as ever, but Shunsui thought he detected a sadness in them. When his old sensei spoke again, it was a non sequitur.

“I noticed your brother appeared light-hearted when I first arrived. Have our human allies already influenced him that much in less than a day?”

“There is more than physical resemblance between Kurosaki-kun and Kaien-kun, Yama-jii,” Shunsui allowed. “I spent last evening with Kurosaki-kun and even I thought I was speaking to a ghost.”

With a grunt, Yama-jii downed the rest of his tea then set his cup down. “It has been too long since I heard Jyuushirou laugh,” he rumbled in a low voice. “And it is good that Kurosaki Ichigo seems able to bring back his cheer and optimism.” He looked intently at Shunsui. “I asked to speak to you privately because your brother is worrying me. It used to be that your company and support was enough to keep him in high spirits. But these past few decades, I have observed his increasing fatalism. Has he been sleeping well?”

Shunsui frowned. “His rest is as always whenever he isn’t down with a spell of his illness.”

“How about his daily activities? Have you observed or heard him sound more dispirited than usual?”

“Not that I noticed, but I don’t spend the entire day with him,” Shunsui replied. Then added wryly, “I do have work during the day at my own division, you know.”

At his last comment, red eyes looked at him in consternation for a few heartbeats, then subsided. “I need you to pay close attention to his spirits. You know as well as I how much his emotional state affects his power. Let us not invite a reiatsu tsunami before we are ready.”

“Ai, so this is why you’re worried,” groused Shunsui, sitting back. “For a moment there I thought that perhaps you’re worried simply because he’s your son.”

“That, too. But I am also responsible for the Gotei and Soul Society,” Yama-jii returned harshly. He looked hard at Shunsui. “Someday, Shunsui, you will realise that personal love is often indistinguishable from commitment to the greater population. When that day comes, you will be ready to take my place. In the meantime, I need you to ensure that your brother keeps in good spirits and stable health to go the distance. I do not expect our present struggle to end speedily, nor easily.” His red gaze turned inwards. “I sense in my reishi that we have once again entered into a critical period of pivot. One decision, one move, we will either empower Soul Society to evolve, or cripple ourselves into eternal stagnation. If we stagnate, we risk causing more discontent in future that will create more Ichimaru or Tousen, even more Aizen. And kami knows who else. Your brother perceives more than he realises, and I will need him once again to institute change to this realm. But he is not the careful youth he once was, too much has happened in his life and his generous nature has become a reckless lack of self-care that worries me. We are now fighting a new kind of war, and it has barely begun.”

“How long will you put him to work in the archives this time?” Shunsui asked the question that most worried him.

Red eyes looked at him. “I am unclear. Much will depend on what Jyuushirou uncovers, and how much he sees fit to do to find the answers we need.” Then with brutal frankness, Yama-jii said, “If you are asking me to promise that I will not work him in the archives until he relapses into illness again, I cannot make such a promise. I can only tell you that this time, we have much more room to manoeuvre because our past opponents are gone, and our present opponent is no longer within Soul Society. This time I intend for Jyuushirou to maintain a balance in his as far as possible.”

Shunsui took a deep breath. “I’ll never dishonour Ukitake by overprotecting him or preventing him from doing what honour demands. My commitment to him has ever always been to stand guard at his side and defend him as he carries out his responsibilities. This is how he and I could always give you the best results when we work together armed with the same knowledge. You know this, because you taught us this yourself, Yama-jii.”

The red eyes gazed at him sombrely. “I remember.”

“Then for me to aid you, there are two things I need.” Shunsui looked at his old sensei with his heart in his eyes. “Don’t keep anything from me, and always listen first and judge later no matter how dire the circumstances. No more secret investigations or mission that I’m unaware of or not a part of. No more secret information between you two that I don’t know about. I must know everything and be part of everything otherwise I won’t be able to anticipate and pre-empt dangers. Ukitake and I will rather vaporise our souls than betray our mission and our allegiance to the Gotei. If you sense that we’ve arrived at the cusp of another era of change, then I trust you. But it means there’ll be more ambiguity in the days ahead, and if they arise, I need you to listen to us first before jumping straight to extremes.”

Yama-jii’s red eyes stared at Shunsui. “I will listen when there is room to listen, Shunsui.”

A promise that was not a real promise. If Yama-jii was prepared to have more open communication between them from now onwards, he had clearly left the initiative to them. Or rather, to Shunsui. Their old sensei was too old to change, and he knew this himself.

Shunsui sighed. “Yama-jii, when I finally knew who that boy was in Hanshi-sama’s herb gardens, you told me that you’d given me a brother to play and learn with, a partner to team up with, to love and cherish. I’ve done exactly all of those things for two thousand years. I’m not stopping now.”

“And you must never stop,” affirmed the gravelly voice. “I give you my word now that you will have all you asked for, and more, if I can manage it, but in return I am entrusting you to ensure that Jyuushirou can go the distance without prematurely exhausting himself.”

“I’ll do it, Yama-jii, but I won’t swear to it. I do it anyway without any vow because I love him,” Shunsui said. His anger was finally, thoroughly, placated.   

Yama-jii looked at him in silence for several more heartbeats, then nodded. Gathering himself, he began to rise to his feet. “I will call a taichou assembly tomorrow morning after our allies depart for the Living World,” he rumbled as he straightened. “Be prepared for that.” Gesturing at the remains of their tea, he gave his final order, “If you please.” With that, he retrieved his gnarled stick from where he had left it leaning on the pillar and thumped out of the pavilion in sedate distance-eating strides.

Shunsui looked at the tea implements strewn over the tea table. With Jyuushirou having taken an early departure, the task of cleaning up now fell on him.

Ai, Nanao-chan, you should see me now, he thought wryly, as he began collecting the items.

Chapter Text

Kyouraku Taichou-sama,

Here are the first batch of honey from our peony garden as instructed. This spring we saw an exceptionally active pollination, therefore our beekeepers eagerly await the verdict of its quality. More batches will soon be harvested and sent to you when they are ready.

I have made the reservation as ordered. Madame Natsusaki informs me that she anxiously awaits you and your guest.

Yours loyally
Shinjin

Shunsui lifted his eyes from the note and observed the three glass jars of honey arrayed on his living room table. They stood on a black lacquer tray before a small empty wicker basket, glowing a translucent pale gold in the afternoon light slanting in from the opened shoji entrance to his personal quarters. Each jar held three small fresh peony buds artfully suspended within, its mouth sealed with pale cream wax imprinted with the Kyouraku crest and bound with fine golden silk cord from which suspended a small finely lacquered honey scoop. There were even tiny peony blossoms painted on the handle of each scoop.

Altogether they made a beautiful refined elegant gift, as if his former shinigami old steward knew for whom the honey was meant for.

Smiling to himself, Shunsui put the note aside and carefully, collected and replaced the jars in the small wicker basket and carried them out of his quarters. He would personally ensure the valuable honey reached his intended recipient.

He broke into shunpo, retracing his steps of the morning back to the Ugendou, this time avoiding the construction hustle and bustle with ease. In short order, he dropped down onto the entryway verandah of the pavilion lake house, what he had come to think of as his second home. Ducking under the blinds of the entryway, he left the basket of honey on the tatami, plucked out one jar and secreted it into the inner pocket of his kosode, before turning around and ducking back out. He was about to leave when he heard a series of distant splashes.

Following the sound with his eyes, he spied Zaraki’s little girl emptying a fisherman’s trap full of what looked like several very large, very fat and very colourful carps into the Ugendou lake. For some reason she was wearing a hat that had cat ears.

And as always, her reiatsu was muted on his senses, almost hidden, as if blocked behind severe blankets of thick blinding fog. It was the reason he never could sense her when she showed up.

Bracing himself for the kind of incomprehensible conversation that he knew would follow, Shunsui took a shunpo leap across the lake. “Yachiru-chan!” he called cheerfully. “What brings you here?”

“Shun-shun!” The little pink-haired fukutaichou waved her chubby small hands from where she was perched on a boulder, dropping the trap with a small plop back into the water. Two narrow parallel lines tracked across the thin strip of sandy beach, ending at the small wheels attached to the tip of the sheath of her zanpakutou, where it lay carelessly behind her, the weapon as long as she was tall. “I came to comfort Yuki’s koi.”

Shunsui had to pause to recall. The pint-sized tsunami not only gave everyone nicknames, but she also renamed her victims at her unpredictable whim. Recently she had decided to gift Jyuushirou with the new euphemism of ‘Yuki’ in place of her former abbreviation of ‘Ukki’. When Shunsui had asked her, she had explained, with great seriousness, that ‘Yuki’ sounded like ‘Ukki’ but was more appropriate because the characters of ‘Yuki’ meant snow, like the pure white of Jyuushirou’s distinctive hair. Shunsui had secretly thought she was rather poetic despite her lack of education.

Her fish logic, however, was another matter entirely. He realised with a little vague horror that he would have to think like a little girl if he hoped to make any sense of it.

“Ah, comfort his koi with… new koi?” he ventured trepidatiously.

“Uh-huh. If they have more new friends, then the next time there is lightning rain, they won’t be as jealous anymore.”

Jealous?

A sudden suspicion struck him. “Ah… where did the new koi friends come from?”

“Byakushi, of course. He’s sick right now, so he can’t take care of them himself,” she replied with the patience of one explaining something perfectly obvious and common sensical to a rather dull audience.

At which point, Shunsui decided it would be safer if he did not know anymore. He was also somewhat unsettled by the fact that the juvenile fukutaichou of the monstrous violent brute of a Kenpachi mysteriously possessed the sensitivity to understand the intent of last night’s lightning shower.

Jealous carps, indeed.

“Yuki loves all living things, so all living things love him back, and they get jealous when Yuki loves someone else,” she was explaining, her large dark pink eyes looking at Shunsui reproachfully. “So now, I’m going to tell Ken-chan to ask Yuki to teach him how to do jinzen. Then you won’t take up all of Yuki’s time and nobody will get jealous.”

There was no way Shunsui was going to touch that piece of reasoning. Hence, for better part of valour, he asked instead, “Do you think Zaraki-san will agree to be taught by Ukita-I mean, Yuki?”

“Why not? Re-chan thinks so. She just told me.”

Re-chan? Who-

Oh.

Oh.

She meant Hanshi-sama.

He was getting a mild headache trying to follow all her changeable nicknames.

But at least he now knew that Hanshi-sama certainly moved fast on this issue. It seemed she was quite eager to rid herself of Zaraki.

“Do you plan on waiting here to tell Ukita-Yuki?”

“I’m just visiting to comfort Yuki’s koi, Ken-chan will ask Yuki himself.”

“When will that be?” Hopefully, he could get a date and timing for what he knew would be the most entertaining visit.

However, the little girl merely shrugged. “It’s up to Ken-chan. I don’t tell him what to do, you know,” she chided, as if she did not have that hulking lug of a crazy fighter completely wrapped around her food-stained little fingers.

Shunsui decided that he had been courteous enough for long enough to greet and have a chat with her, and it was time to leave before he became hopelessly lost in her little girl’s logic. Tipping his hat, and trying not to appear hasty, he nodded at her in goodbye. “Well then, Yachiru-chan, I must be going. Enjoy the koi!”

Taking the largest shunpo stride he could muster, he stepped out of the Ugendou in a flash, distantly hearing, “Bye bye, Shun-shun!”. He wondered just how the Kenpachi would react when his darling little fukutaichou told him that he was to seek jinzen tutelage from the one he had always referred to as, in his coarse northern Rukongai alley accent, a sickly wee purdy thang who’s got no business handlin’ no sword.

At the thought, Shunsui could not help the grin splitting his face. There would be payback when Jyuushirou found out, he was very certain of it. And Shunsui was absolutely looking forward to it. 

# # # # # #

The office of the taichou of the Thirteenth Division was really only on the other side of the southwestern walls of the Ugendou. If Shunsui had not been in such a hurry to escape Yachiru-chan, he would have taken a leisurely stroll there. As it was, all he needed was to take two large shunpo strides and he was dropping down lightly onto the courtyard of the office block.

Kiyone-chan saw him immediately. “Kyouraku Taichou!” she greeted, jumping down the verandah steps to meet him. “Ukitake Taichou is in meeting with a guest right now.”

Shunsui was instantly curious. He dug into his kosode and handed the jar of honey to her, saying, “I came to drop off a jar of these. You can use it for his tea. Who’s the guest?”

“Yoruichi-sama, though I don’t know how she got in. It seemed she just appeared out of thin air.”

So the cat woman had finally found her way to her final interrogation prey.

“Next time, just watch out for a black cat,” Shunsui grinned at her.

However, Kiyone-chan was distracted, her eyes and hands examining the jar with wide-eyed appreciation. “This is really beautiful and elegant, so exquisite and refined, just like Uki-” She suddenly stopped herself, her face turning a fierce red.

He suppressed a chuckle. The young woman had been crushing on Jyuushirou ever since she first laid eyes on him while she was still an undergraduate. He still remembered her awestruck face when Jyuushirou and he had taken the judges’ panel for the final round of that long ago annual Academy-wide kidou competition. Ai, and who can blame you ne, Kiyone-chan? Even I cannot help myself when it comes to him, and I’ve been with him for two thousand years, he silently smiled to himself. The young woman would have won second place in that finals if she had not been so distracted by the rare appearance of the Gotei’s legendary white-haired Kidou Hanshi-Master.

To save her from further embarrassment, he said instead, “I’m going to drop in on your taichou and his guest for a little bit, Kiyone-chan. Do you mind fetching him his favourite tea? My clan’s beekeepers are dying to know what he thinks of this season’s new honey.”

“Certainly, Kyouraku Taichou! I won’t be long!” She scurried off to fulfil his request.

In quick and silent steps, Shunsui hopped soundlessly onto the verandah, toed off his waraji on its steps, then on bare feet, followed the wide verandah corridor towards the entrance of the office. The little meeting, as he referred to, was not little at all. It was serious enough to warrant a silencing Bakudou barrier. He felt its discreet vibration and the distinct rhythmic ebb and flow of Jyuushirou’s reiatsu signature as he drew near. The shoji stood open, however, for Jyuushirou almost never closed his office door.

Like himself, his soul brother preferred traditional furnishings. There was a complete lack of modern furnishings in the spacious rectangular room; instead, the entire right wall was completely lined floor-to-ceiling and corner-to-corner by well cared for and polished cherry wood bookcases filled with books, scrolls and a few elegant, undoubtedly priceless displays, while the entire left wall was lined from corner-to-corner with identical waist-high cherry wood chests of drawers. Above the row of chests of drawers, the wall was adorned with a sprawling horizontal painting depicting a school of koi in the Ugendou lake, the suggestion of the pavilion lake house in the distance. Below the painting, taking the centrepiece display position on the top of the row of chests of drawers, rested the long slim curving elegant form of Sougyo no Kotowari, cradled between the dark cherry wood arms of a polished sword stand carved in an ancient classical style. The far inside wall, facing the office entrance, was adorned with a large circular bamboo grilled window that opened onto the zanjutsu practice yard, beyond which an advanced zanjutsu training was in progress, its noise blocked by the silencing Bakudou barrier. Below the window was a raised tatami platform, occupied by a long wide calligraphy low table which served as the Jyuushirou’s office desk. Nearer the entrance, a small low tea table rested on another tatami platform flanked by a pair of crimson cushions, for the use of guests.

Jyuushirou was seated cross-legged at one side of the guest tea table, his fine features thoughtful, a long stream of white hair draping over the slope of his left shoulder as he tapped one long finger absently on the tabletop. Yoruichi was speaking to him as she stood leaning one shapely hip at the edge of a chest of drawers.

When Jyuushirou caught sight of Shunsui, he gracefully gestured for him to enter.

Shunsui walked past the silencing barrier, feeling cool water currents stroking his skin as he entered the office, only to catch the end of Yoruichi’s sentence.

“…way of communicating with Kisuke. Do you have a soul phone?”

“A what?” Shunsui asked.

“Denreishinki,” Jyuushirou explained. “The young ones are calling it the Soul Phone these days.” To Yoruichi, he answered, “Yes, I have. Since we lack time, please take mine before you leave.” Flowing to his feet, he moved past her to the chest of drawers nearest the window and pulled open the top drawer, dipping his slender hand in to retrieve a small black device. Long white fingers flowed quickly over the device for a few moments, the screen on the gadget lighting up, before he handed the gadget to Yoruichi. “Here, I have removed the lock and unnecessary information. It still contains the reiatsu signatures of Rukia and I. Allow me a day or two to requisition a new device from the Twelfth before you send me a message.”

Dark slim fingers accepted the device and fiddled with them for a moment. Golden eyes peered flirtatiously at Jyuushirou. “Still not giving out your number unless it’s for work?” Yoruichi teased.

Jyuushirou merely rolled his eyes and returned to his seat by the guest tea table, where he looked disconsolately down at the object laying on it. Shunsui settled down on the other side, peering at the thing.

A daikoushou was laying on the cherry wood tabletop. It was an exact replica of the first one created almost two decades ago, was inscribed with symbols. A strong, discordant thrum of power was emanating from it, the sensation wholly discomfiting. On closer inspection, Shunsui realised the symbols were incomplete.

“I am imprinting Yoruichi’s signature on the daikoushou,” Jyuushirou softly explained, his mahogany eyes dark with decision. “It will let her sense what Ichigo-kun senses and enable her to locate him easily if he should need help. It will take me the rest of today, but I will prepare it for Kisuke and Tessai to imprint their signatures as well, so that all three of them will be able to find Ichigo-kun in event he runs into trouble and needs help.”

“Benevolent spying,” Yoruichi quipped with her trademark lopsided smile. “Like a child monitor.”

“A what?” Shunsui was once again lost.

“Humans have invented a device which they strap on their young children when families visit crowded places, or if the parents have to leave the child unattended for a while. It’s a way for them to keep watch over their toddlers. I asked Ukitake to modify the daikoushou to have the same function.” She grinned. “Which is why Ichigo must never know about this design. He’s a teenager, he’ll likely rebel and figure a way out to turn off the device or evade us if he knows we’re keeping watch on him.”

“I see you agree with keeping an eye on Kurosaki-kun,” Shunsui remarked.

She snorted. “I like the kid, don’t get me wrong, but his powers are a handful and Kisuke is in way over his head. You can’t train Ichigo. In fact, I don’t think he can actually be taught by anyone or anything except a good beating that will defeat and humble him. He may be a good boy but like all youths, he tends to think too highly of his powers until he gets his ass handed to him. He learns best on his own, on the job, from those he fights, and the people he associates with. This is Ichigo’s idea of training and learning. The best we can do for him is be his friend, guide him and show him the way.”

“Perhaps you should be the one to present him the daikoushou,” Jyuushirou suggested hopefully.

She laughed a throaty laugh. “After what I saw last night? Ichigo thinks you walk on water. Trust me, Ukitake, it has to be you.”

“I do not like lying to him,” he said forlornly. His dark gaze speared Shunsui immediately. “And an omission of truth is still a lie, Kyouraku.”

Shunsui chuckled. Reaching across the tea table, he fondly tapped the tip of the pale patrician nose. “This is why we love you so much,” he murmured affectionately, then added wryly, “So much that I cleaned up for Yama-jii, Ukitake, when I haven’t washed a single dish all my life. It’s fortunate I didn’t break anything.”

In reply, Jyuushirou waved at the small palm-sized piece of sculpted wood laying between them. “Would you like to take over this instead?”

“I’m not the Kidou Hanshi-Master here.” Shunsui raised both palms in surrender.

Jyuushirou’s dark eyes tried to maintain a disgruntled look, but failed quickly as warm humour melted into their depths. Carelessly tucking his hair behind his ear in unconsciously demure gesture, Jyuushirou picked up the daikoushou and wordlessly held it out to Yoruichi. “Do it, then,” he softly requested.

Straightening with a smile, Yoruichi padded towards him, her hips swaying in her feline way, and pausing before his outstretched hand, delicately took the device. Shunsui noticed her fingers deliberately linger on Jyuushirou’s palm and gave her a wordless smirk. Caught, she scowled, then took the device and padded to the calligraphy table, settling into seiza like a cat curling up for a nap. Holding the daikoushou in both palms, she closed her eyes and her fine feline features immediately relaxed into meditation.

Taking advantage of the lull, Shunsui settled himself and took a moment to survey his love and soul brother.

Jyuushirou was in full health, his unblemished complexion blooming with colour that had been absent for three weeks. His dark eyes were alight with vast power and keen intellect, his small fine mouth blushed with a soft rosy pink. Save for the fact that he now wore his hair loose instead of a long braid, and his shoulders were now covered with the white satin of his taichou haori, he looked as fresh as he was on the morning of his twenty-first birthday as he prepared for his martial demonstration, when his cheekbones had been blushed with the winter’s chill.

Noticing his silent appreciation, Jyuushirou’s expressive face warmed with shy pleasure and his long-lashed eyes involuntarily lowered in quiet happiness. The bashful response stirred Shunsui more than words could say.

Then Shunsui felt the arrival of Kiyone-chan’s reiatsu on the edge of his senses. “Here it comes,” he whispered dramatically.

An inquiring look passed over Jyuushirou’s face, quickly followed by surprised wonder when the elegant aroma of gyokuro tea wafted into the office through the opened shoji, tinged with the faint fragrance of peony. His dark eyes widened with delight. “Is that…”

In a few moments, Kiyone-chan appeared, bearing a tray arranged with three cups of steaming tea, a teapot, and a small dish of mini ohagi balls and mini pastel-coloured mochi. The jar of honey was proudly displayed in a presiding position over the layout, its wax cover having been carefully replaced over the mouth of the jar.

“Ukitake Taichou! Kyouraku Taichou! Yoruichi-sama!” she greeted cheerfully, then quickly hushed when she saw Yoruichi deep in meditation.

“Tell me what you think,” Shunsui smiled at his love.

Quietly, Kiyone-chan knelt before the tea table with smooth grace despite her heavy tray, expertly distributing the tea, teapot, snacks and jar of honey on the tabletop. Then bowing once silently, she picked up the tray and left the office after giving her taichou a respectful, adoring smile.

Completely missing his Third Seat’s tender feelings, Jyuushirou returned her smile with his usual smile of thanks, then carefully lifting his cup, inhaled its fragrant steam once. Looking impressed, he took a genteel sip.

The effect was immediate, for his whole demeanour lit up.

“I shall tell old Shinjin it meets with your approval,” Shunsui chuckled lightly. “I left two jars in the Ugendou. This one you can keep here for your daily tea. More will be coming as soon as it’s harvested.”

Long white fingers turned the jar on the table carefully, the dark gaze admiring the presentation. “Thank you,” came the low pleased murmur, audible only for Shunsui’s ears. “Tonight’s dose shall be enjoyable, I believe.”

“I can only hope!” Shunsui whispered his dread. He slanted his eyes at the meditating Shihouin woman. “Maybe we can ask her if she can’t make the recipe less foul tasting.”

Jyuushirou shook his head ruefully. “That was the first thing I asked when she appeared. Apparently, the worse it tastes, the more potent it is.”

“Ai, it’s really what they say, ne? The best medicine most bitters the palate,” Shunsui quoted with regret, then took a sip of the tea.

His eyes widened. The soft, sweet yet elegantly bitter tea was beautifully touched with just the right dose of the peony honey to lighten its acidity, imbuing a delicate fresh fragrance into the bouquet. Kiyone-chan had done a masterful job. Perhaps he could borrow her once in a while, Shunsui pondered absently, eyeing Jyuushirou who was quietly enjoying his favourite beverage.

“This should do it,” announced Yoruichi’s low purring alto. Unfurling to her feet, she lightly stepped around the calligraphy table and padded to them, gingerly holding out the daikoushou by its rope. It fairly thrummed with the Shihouin aura, further adding to its unpleasant resonance. “I suppose once you complete the modifications it’ll become bearable to hold,” she grimaced. “As it is now, it’s making my bones ache just being near it.”

“The resonance shall not be noticeable when it is complete,” Jyuushirou assured, accepting the device and placing it on his own lap, his reiatsu discreetly falling over it. Immediately the nasty vibrations were muffled into a low hum. “Here, have some tea. The peony honey is excellent.” He served her the guest cup with both hands.

Accepting it, she sniffed at its steam like a cat, then golden eyes lighting up, took a noisy lap. “Mm-mm!” she hummed in appreciation, rolling the mouthful in her palate. “I haven’t had something like this for…” Her gaze glazed over for a moment, then cleared with a rueful smile. “Well, a century, I guess.”

“Do you not miss home?” Jyuushirou asked with honesty.

She considered the question for a heartbeat. “I don’t know,” she pondered aloud. “The pace of life in the Living World is much faster. Especially during the last fifty years. Hollow activity has not only increased, but also diversified, as I’m sure you’ve noticed from your end.” She slanted an intense golden look at Jyuushirou.

“We have been stepping up patrols and rotation recruitment,” confirmed Jyuushirou with a quiet nod. “Some of the case reports are troubling, and difficult to understand.”

“This is why you must return,” Yoruichi said seriously. “Much has changed in the Living World, Ukitake. Many things can only be understood in person.”

Jyuushirou looked at Yoruichi inquiringly. “You will inform Kisuke…?”

She smiled lopsidedly. “Yes, he’ll get in touch with you once your Gigai is ready. It won’t be long. He said he only needed to make a few more improvements to it.”

Shunsui looked at Jyuushirou, recalling their discussion from the night before.

“Thank you, I shall await his notice then,” Jyuushirou nodded, then quietly, added, “I initially communicated with Kisuke through letters after he was gone, but his replies became less frequent until they ceased to come. I understand if he does not wish to be close to me, for I am close to Genryuusai-sensei. For over ninety years, messengers inform me of what he needs, and I supply him through the messengers or other intermediaries.” He looked intently at Yoruichi. “How will he feel about a personal visit from me after all these? Especially after you inform him of our questions regarding Ichigo-kun. Kisuke views him as his protégé, does he not? I fear he may not welcome questions. Perhaps he no longer welcomes any of us from the Gotei.”

Yoruichi’s golden eyes gleamed. “Rest assured, I’m dying to know myself where he found Ichigo. He’ll have a lot of explaining to do when I get back.” Then her fine sharp features fell solemn, touched with sadness. “He’s always known it was you who was fulfilling his orders. I sometimes see him start to write you a letter, only to stop and burn the paper. He keeps a strict don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy in the Shouten about the origins of his supplies, and though he never speaks of it, I know he wishes to protect his source. So if you want my opinion, your visit will be timely. Even overdue. It’ll remind him that he still has friends in Soul Society who care about him. Kyouraku and you are the only ones in the Gotei he sometimes still speak about, so no worries about how he’ll receive you. My question is how you will receive him.” She shrugged. “I see him almost every day, so it doesn’t affect me. But it may affect you. Kisuke isn’t exactly the same as you remember. Oh, his personality traits are all still there, those won’t ever change, but be prepared for someone who’s less trusting now, more secretive, more confident. When you meet him, he may tell you he welcomes you, but my advice is don’t take him at his word. Even I can’t tell what he’s really thinking these days, he doesn’t tell me everything anymore.”

Sadness fell over Jyuushirou’s fine angular features. “He was terribly betrayed by his own government. It may already be too little too late, but if there is a way to remove his sentence, I will find it. Genryuusai-sensei wishes to give him the choice to come home if he wishes to. I share the same wish. Will you convey our thoughts to Kisuke?”

“I will, but I doubt he’ll change his mind. He prefers the freedom of being on his own now. As do I.” Abruptly, as was her mercurial wont, she smiled crookedly. “But no matter what we feel, it’s good that the Chief Commander of Living World Affairs finally returns for a visit. How long has it been since you were last there?” 

# # # # # #

“I mean to speak with you,” Jyuushirou began in a calm, precise voice as soon as Yoruichi had slinked beyond the boundaries of the silencing Bakudou barrier.

Shunsui knew this particular tone only too well. Jyuushirou almost never raised his voice, but whenever he had that firmness in his dark gaze to accompany that specific tone and manner, he expected to be listened to or be obeyed to the letter without obfuscation, fudging or prevarication. Thousands had presumed to take advantage of his gentle nature or the fact that he had practically retired from visible duty for three hundred years. Those who had tried to blow smoke screens in face of this very demeanour, utterly regretted their attempts.

Jyuushirou put down his teacup and gazed at Shunsui with sadness in his dark eyes. “Did you truly believe Sensei was deliberately keeping me confined with confidential work?” he asked softly.

“I knew you two were doing something important,” Shunsui confessed with a sigh, knowing that no obfuscation would work this time. “But he never used you to this extreme before. Nor remained so blind to how it was affecting you. He’s always been protective of you, but he’s never kept you from active duty, nor unbalanced you to the point of making you sick. I had no other answer than to think that in his old age, he was finally giving in to his wish to keep you out of danger in the worst way possible.”

“‘Tis such a terrible misunderstanding,” Jyuushirou exclaimed quietly, stark regret on his pale face. “It caused so much friction between you both for so long. If I had known that was what your heart believed, I would have sought to reassure you.”

“What could you have done?” Shunsui returned. “Break your oath and tell me what you two were doing? That isn’t like you. Besides, I doubt I would’ve listened even if you’d tried.” He allowed his pain to seep through. “You were declining at a rate that was terrifying me. There was no end in sight. Soon as I got you healthy again, right back in you went and right back out you returned, even more ill than the last time. It broke me that he could not see it.”

“I would have found some way to comfort you,” Jyuushirou insisted softly. “You are a peacemaker to the bottom of your soul, Shunsui.” Reaching across the table, he grasped Shunsui’s fingers. “And I thank the kami inside me every day for saving my life, because otherwise I would have never known you. This is why you must not hide your pain from me. I love you in equal measure, and I know you love Sensei as much as I do. When you are in conflict with him, when you argue with him or become estranged from him, it hurts you. Do not cause pain to yourself on my account. Please.”

He turned his hand and covered Jyuushirou’s pale slender fingers with his own. “I’ll do as you ask,” he said. “I can’t promise I won’t argue with him again, I’ll try my best not to, alright? But no more secrets, Jyuushirou. I can’t do right by both of us if I constantly lack full knowledge.” And I can’t protect you if I don’t know who’s the foe, he added mentally.

Dark eyes scanned him speculatively, and comprehension suddenly dawned in their depths. “You made Sensei promise full disclosure in future,” Jyuushirou stated.

“Your deductive skills scare the living daylights out of me, you know that?” Shunsui replied wryly, raising his hand to brush a long white bang away from one fine alabaster cheekbone.

“What did Sensei ask for in return?” Jyuushirou asked placidly, withdrawing his fingers from Shunsui’s grasp and folding both slender hands onto his lap.

“He didn’t ask for any exchange, he agreed to full disclosure but for different reasons-” Shunsui abruptly stopped, replaying his conversation with Yama-jii in his head.

‘I give you my word now that you will have all you asked for, and more, if I can manage it, but in return I am entrusting you to ensure that Jyuushirou can go the distance without prematurely exhausting himself.’

While it had seemed that Yama-jii agreed to his request based on different reasons, at the end of it, he had still exacted a promise from Shunsui in return.

The wily old fox.

“You must teach me how you anticipate him so well!” Shunsui lamented.

Jyuushirou looked at him with wan humour. “I spent almost six hundred years working with him almost exclusively. That is a slightly more than a quarter of my life. It has to count as good practice, ne? So what did Sensei make you promise?”

He chewed over Yama-jii’s words and realised, with sudden sadness, that his shrewd old sensei had dealt with politicians and bureaucrats for far too long, for his words had held layered meanings even when he was speaking privately to his own son. “Yama-jii wants to do things differently this time with you,” he said at last, conveying his old sensei’s underlying intent rather than his exact words. “He wishes for you to have a more balanced life when he eventually calls you back into his inner sanctum. My job is to make sure that balanced life happens.”

A frown creased Jyuushirou’s fine dark brows. “I hope Sensei is not intending that you become my personal minder. I am fully capable of pacing myself without supervision, if that is what both of you are worried about. But you must understand that if the task requires it, I will still do what is necessary. This includes joining with the Daireishin if that is the only way to achieve our goals. The most I can promise is to look for as many better alternatives as I can and take precautions not to expend unnecessary power.”

“Heh, that’s good enough. Don’t worry, I won’t be underfoot or get in your way, as long as you don’t go wearing yourself out before the real battle,” Shunsui replied.

Jyuushirou looked only slightly convinced.

Shunsui felt like those deep mahogany eyes were seeing right into his soul. And he knew that was not far from the truth. “I promise,” he added with emphasis.

“I know you do,” Jyuushirou replied neutrally, looking away to sip his tea.

In Jyuushirou-speak, that reply meant his soul brother knew and accepted that Shunsui’s promise was not absolute, and would be kept for only as long as Shunsui deemed fit.

It also meant Jyuushirou knew him well enough to be able to pre-empt him.

His job of safeguarding his love’s well-being just became immeasurably more difficult. 

# # # # # #

The only concession Shunsui made to modernity in his private quarters was a shower over a clawfoot tub in his ensuite bathroom. He made quick work of bathing, then leaving his hair to dry in the cooling evening air, padded into his bedroom wrapped in his towelling sheet to dress for his dinner appointment. Madame Natsusaki ran an impeccable ryoutei and regardless of whether she owed him a favour, he refused to abuse her hospitality by turning up shoddily attired.

He might have cultivated an infamy for flamboyance, but Shunsui’s wardrobe was in fact rather utilitarian, consisting of black-and-white rows of standard issue shihakushou and taichou haori than anything fancy. He kept exactly one set of civilian formal wear in the Seireitei, hence it was a no-brainer to select his attire. It was a simple ensemble consisting of a pistachio-green nagajuban, a cream ankle-length silk kimono and beige silk obi, completed by a teal long-sleeved silk haori of hip length. The haori was an expensive hand-painted affair, with darker-teal line drawings of chrysanthemums accented with ivory touches. It came with a matching dark-teal silk string himo and a hair tie. And for the first time in a very long while, Shunsui pulled out a pair of white tabi.

It had been quite a while since he donned civilian formal wear, but he had not forgotten the sequence. After tying on a fresh fundoshi, the tabi went on first, then foregoing the han juban and suteteko due to the warm weather, he pulled on the pistachio nagajuban directly onto his bare skin, tying its slim sash. Finally the silk kimono and the obi went on. By the time he was done, his hair was semi-dry, and he raked his fingers over his head to gather them into his usual ponytail and secured it at the base of his nape with the dark-teal hair tie. Katen Kyoukotsu went into his obi, then he shrugged into the haori, shaking out the sleeves so that the triple layers of long sleeves nestled neatly within one another. Securing the himo between the lapels of his haori at level with his sternum, he left his bedroom and walked to the exit of his quarters, snagging his signature flowered pink kimono and hat as he went. He was in no rush, but he did not wish to be late. The tabi were slippery as he wriggled his toes back into his worn waraji – it truly had been a long time since he had covered his feet. Finally emerging into the corridor outside his private quarters, Shunsui leapt into shunpo heading northwest.

Dusk was rapidly falling, and the ryoutei was on the outskirts of the First District. He covered the distance between the Eighth and the northern exit of the Seireitei with several large shunpo strides. Soon he arrived at the mammoth-sized Kokuryoumon, where the commensurately mammoth hulk of the Seireitei’s northern Seireimon Monban hailed him immediately, fully in control of his own senses once again and recovered from his fight with his western counterpart Jidanbou.

“Ho! Kyouraku Taichou!” The giant’s voice literally boomed off the Seireitei’s perimeter walls. “Is it safe for you to leave at this time? Aizen is still at large.”

“Danzoumaru, good evening to you too.” Shunsui tipped his hat. “Haven’t you heard? Aizen has escaped to Hueco Mundo.”

“That, I have not heard,” rumbled the giant with a scratch to his bald, tattooed head. His white eyes looked Shunsui up and down. “Going into the First District?”

“You guessed right,” Shunsui confirmed jovially. “Unohana Taichou will be joining me, so please open the gate for her as well. We’ll return much later tonight.”

The giant shrugged. “It’ll be your own necks you’re risking. My job is to guard the gate. Hold a moment.” Bending, he easily lifted the gigantic barrier to a height under which Shunsui could easily walk through. “Here you go.”

“Many thanks, Danzoumaru.” Tipping his hat once more, he passed quickly out of the Seireitei.

Once out, he turned east, rapidly eating up the distance in shunpo. Madame Natsusaki’s ryoutei was located right on the edge of the Northeastern Rukongai First District, almost into the Second District. He had offered her choicer locations, but she selected the current address as it was closest to her home. After the first century, he was certain she could afford to move to a better location, but it had become pointless by then for her establishment had made a name for itself and all nobility now knew where it was. Reservation was highly coveted, accepted by references only and further subject to availability of rooms. The practice had kept the lady brisk in wealth and health.

Despite its ostentatious patrons, the ryotei itself was a nondescript manor situated at the end of a secluded sakura avenue, its trees almost bare and their last blooms falling in the unseasonal warmth of this late autumn. The solitary winding road was carpeted with a profusion of pink petals and tiny blooms. Shunsui flash-stepped to the end of the avenue then emerged from shunpo, taking a brief moment to adjust his clothing and smooth down his hair. Sedately, he followed the meandering flagstone path through a koi pond garden watered by bamboo fountains. A little white parakeet perched on a large bonsai tree squawked his name at his approach.

“Kyo-raku! Kyo-raku!”

The small entrance of the manor was shielded with light curtains painted with sparrow and bamboo motifs. At the bird’s cantankerous announcement, the curtains swept aside, and the lady of the establishment emerged, impeccably composed in a deep-violet silk kimono finely hand-painted with raining golden snowflakes, completed by a wide obi of textured golden silk as tastefully refined as the golden sakura ornaments in her polished black hair coiffed into a high elegant pile. A warm welcoming smile graced her elegantly powdered face as soon as she caught sight of Shunsui,

“‘Tis been too long since I last had the pleasure of serving my most handsome, dashing patron,” she declared, her kohl-lined light-blue eyes crinkling at their edges.

“Ai, Natsusaki-sama, you’re as sweet-tongued as always,” he smiled broadly, giving her a formal, deep bow.

She laughed with genuine pleasure. “I reserve the sweetness of my tongue for one who genuinely deserves it.” Gracefully folding her white-powdered hands over her lap, she bowed formally in turn with a demure slant to her knees. Rising, she scanned behind Shunsui. “And where is your most exquisite and captivating significant other? My manor has been pining for his legendary grace for far too long.”

“Alas, Ukitake is busy with work tonight, Natsusaki-sama, but sends his gentle regards,” Shunsui said with regret, even if he was making up the excuse on the spot.

“Oh? I received reservations for two. Do you have a new companion?” A look of mild disapproval passed across her face.

“One whom you may remember well. Tonight I am dining with my most respected Hanshi-sama.”

“Retsu-sama! Oh, I have not seen her since…” The light-blue eyes went unfocused for a moment, then widened in astonishment. “Has it been four hundred years already?”

“Time flies, ne?” Shunsui chuckled in wry commiseration. That was as long as the Natsusaki Ryoutei had been opened. Its opening ceremony had been attended by all of the Gotei commanders, and the four most senior taichou had made a deep impression on the retired geisha.

“Well then, please come in, Shunsui-san, my brothers and sisters shall lead you to your dining room, while I await here for Retsu-sama.” She pivoted smoothly in place, the long sleeve of her kimono falling with precise elegance as she gestured with one arm in invitation for him to enter.

Smiling and bowing once more, Shunsui stepped up onto the lowest step, toed off his waraji, then bounded up the remaining two steps in one light stride. He ducked under the curtained entryway and was greeted by a young lady as flawlessly powdered and coiffed as Madame Natsusaki, clad in a plainer kimono of the same deep-violet silk though the fabric was plain, held together by a wide obi of plain silver fabric indicating her training status as a maiko. She slanted her knees in a deep bow, then with her eyes demurely lowered, indicated with a sway of her long sleeves for him to follow.

The passage opened into a long inner courtyard lined by wide, dark polished wood verandah. The central length of the courtyard was presided by a long rectangular lily pond, its profusion of white lotus blooms nodding gently above large jadeite lily pads, home to leaping frogs and dancing dragonflies. Ryoutei staff in neat, grey yukata were lighting lanterns spaced at even intervals along the verandah all around the pond even as fireflies descended from the darkening sky to join the frogs and dragonflies on the pond’s tranquil surface.

Perhaps it was an overkill, Shunsui thought belatedly as he paced behind the maiko through the respectfully hushed, classy environment. Then he immediately dismissed the notion. He was going to broach the most important subject of his life tonight to the only soul who could help him succeed. No expenses would be spared.

He was conducted to the verandah right at the back of the courtyard, to the passage which would lead to the dining room he usually used. It was always ready for him whenever he made a reservation, and he never had any occasion where the room was unavailable. The maiko leading his way flowed over the hardwood floor in soft whisperings of silks, her gliding walk making no sound otherwise. Reaching the room, she slid its shoji aside and smoothly pivoted in place, bowing demurely and gracefully extending one elegantly draped arm, invited him to enter.

“Thank you,” he said graciously, ducking in.

The small dining room was ready for him, lit by stand candle lamps and warmed by a brazier burning scented cherry wood. His sake stood warmed and ready in its ivory bone porcelain bottle, accompanied by two matching sake dishes. On a dark cherry wood stand beside the entryway rested a large basin of water with lotus petals floating on its surface, and a clean napkin folded in readiness by its side. Removing Katen Kyoukotsu, he laid his zanpakutou on the tatami beside the seat cushion closest to the shoji, put his hat down over their sheaths, then moved to the stand. The water in the basin was soothingly warm as he dipped and washed his hands, rubbing and rinsing his fingers thoroughly in the scented water before drying them with the napkin. With a bow, his hostess silently removed the used basin and napkin from the stand, then left him to his privacy.

He settled down to wait, his mind rehearsing through the stages of conversation he would conduct tonight. Lost in thought, he absently poured the sake into one delicate bone porcelain sake dish and then took a sip, feeling the smooth elegant drink travel down and warm him from palate to gut.

There was shuffle from beyond the opened door, and his hostess returned, placing a fresh basin of water and a new napkin on the stand. With another bow, she left again as discreetly as she had appeared.

A thick, viscous drop of reiatsu on his senses announced the arrival of his guest. Setting his dish of sake down, Shunsui rose to his feet and waited. In short order, the shoji slid aside to reveal Hanshi-sama, freshly bathed and formally dressed in a light-yellow kimono hand-painted with pale-green bamboo, completed by a silk obi of dark blue. Her braid draping down the front of her bosom had been threaded with a dark-yellow silk thread. And despite her feminine attire, Minazuki hung from her shoulder on its silk cord, and the slim filigreed hilt of a sheathed silver rapier glinted from the top of her obi, just under her breast.

“Hanshi-sama,” Shunsui greeted with a bow.

“Kyouraku,” she inclined her head once, in turn. Unstrapping Minazuki, she laid her nodachi on the tatami on the empty seat opposite him and proceeded to wash her hands in the same manner as he had. Then she was seating herself, folding into a comfortable seiza.

As if on magical cue, Madame Natsusaki appeared at the shoji entrance. “Does everything meet with your satisfaction, Retsu-sama? It has been so long since we were last honoured by your visit, please tell me if you find anything which does not suit you.”

“Your establishment is as perfect as I remember, Madame Natsusaki,” Hanshi-sama smiled in genuine pleasure. “I am a simple healer and shall not need to trouble you so.”

Madame Natsusaki beamed with pleasure. “Still, I do so rarely have the honour of serving you! My sisters will await outside this door should you have any new fancy. Shunsui-sama, when shall we begin serving?”

“Perhaps in a quarter of an hour? Hanshi-sama, would you share a sake with me or prefer tea?”

“Sake, please. I have had enough tea today,” she replied with a meaningful smile.

“I shall prepare another bottle then. I hope you will enjoy yourselves tonight. We shall be serving our house speciality kaiseki-ryouri. Please do not hesitate to send for me should you need assistance.” With a demure bow, the lady of the establishment dismissed herself quietly, gently shutting the shoji.

As Shunsui poured her a dish of sake, Hanshi-sama observed the fine translucent bone porcelain of the dish, then looked around the room noting its simple, elegant but expensive furnishings, and the fine texture and silky smoothness of the tatami beneath them. Lifting her filled sake dish with one hand, she silently raised it to him as they toasted wordlessly, then took a sip. A faint flush immediately warmed her fair skin as she imbibed.

“I think Yachiru-chan is stealing Kuchiki koi and putting them into the Ugendou lake,” Shunsui began humorously.

Dark-blue eyes lit with knowing mirth. “Is she now. I am certain she means no harm.”

“She wants to keep the Ugendou koi from becoming jealous,” Shunsui grinned. “I didn’t think she had it in her to discern such adult things.”

“She is no ordinary child,” Hanshi-sama replied lightly. “Although I must confess, she tends to cause us to forget that most days.”

“You spoke to her already?” Shunsui asked innocently.

Hanshi-sama looked at him, amused. “You know I did.”

“How did she react?”

“Let us just say that in a few days, Zaraki-san will be approaching you for advice.”

Shunsui paused in mid-sip. “Me?”

“Who else knows best how to obtain Jyuushirou-kun’s agreement?”

He realised he had been outsmarted. “Ai! And here I thought I was being devious!” he laughed softly, raising his dish to her with respect. “You’ve outmanoeuvred me, Hanshi-sama.”

“Let me know the outcome.” She sipped her sake. “It will be a good exercise for both of them. Jyuushirou-kun hardly has any opportunity to work with desire-type reiryoku other than yours and mine. And Zaraki-san needs to learn respect for kidou-based martial power.”

“I’m not sure that Ukitake needs to become stronger,” Shunsui stated cautiously. “His reiryoku takes up most of his willpower as it is.”

“Not stronger, but finer control,” she corrected. “That has always been the only way for him.”

Shunsui decided to defer to the one who had trained his soul brother. “It’ll be a tremendous thing to witness, if this works,” he contemplated, trying to imagine a duel of reiryoku between the most peace-loving shinigami of the Gotei, and the most violent. “A master of control against one who has none.” He raised his dish with another grin. “I’m glad you’re on my side, Hanshi-sama.” He downed the sake in one tilt.

She followed suit and raised her own dish, then tossed back the heady alcohol in one tilt. The masculine warrior’s motion somehow made her appear more feminine than detract from her womanly allure, eliciting an involuntary appreciation from Shunsui as he admired her in the same way he admired a particularly beautiful, lethal weapon. Once, when he had just become aware of such things, he had entertained thoughts of pursuing her. But that randy youthful inclination had vaporised the first time she rushed into the dormitory room he shared with Jyuushirou in the middle of the night and plunged a kaidou spell into his soul brother’s windpipe and cleared his airways of choking blood. And there at their side she had remained throughout the whole night as Shunsui held his sixteen-year-old disciple-brother against himself in his arms while Jyuushirou struggled to simply breathe, until the suffocating tide of blood had receded with the sunrise. From that moment onwards, she had only ever been to Shunsui his adoptive aunt and Jyuushirou’s saviour.

“If it works, I trust you will find them a place where they can train without causing too much damage,” she reminded him with a stern look in her eyes. “It is your idea to put this on Jyuushirou-kun, after all.”

“Ai, that I will,” Shunsui agreed, remembering how tumultuous his own shikai was.

The first revelation of a zanpakutou’s name to its master more often than not was a cold affair, despite a zanpakutou being part of the shinigami’s soul. It was a strange and inexplicable truth all shinigami lived with. Even when the Academy started mandating jinzen as the way to call forth the zanpakutou, most shinigami still experienced a rude response when learning the names of their soul weapons for the first time. Those with immense reiryoku, however, like Jyuushirou and himself, tended to go straight into shikai under the most violent circumstances imaginable.

They drank in companionable silence until the shoji quietly slid aside, revealing the young maiko once more, accompanied by a male assistant in grey yukata bearing a large tray. Ceremoniously, she bowed, then entered the room, her assistant following behind her. As they watched, she began serving their first course, the sakisuke, the appetizer comprising a selection of steamed and stewed wild mushrooms and rare white asparagus, arranged in a pale-pink shallow dish served on a white sakura-shaped platter, the matching chopsticks and napkin artfully stacked beside the dish. Hanshi-sama was served first, as the guest, and Shunsui was served last, as the host. Duty completed, the young woman and her assistant bowed out gracefully, and slid the shoji shut.

Hanshi-sama’s serene expression showed clear recognition. With a nod at Shunsui, she gracefully picked up her chopsticks and lifted a white asparagus for closer inspection. It had been so delicately prepared, it was translucent in the lamplight and looked like a piece of glistening white jade. Raising one sleeve before the lower half of her face, she brought the chopsticks towards herself and cleanly consumed the vegetable, lowering her sleeve as she savoured the taste with clear sounds of enjoyment, even smacking her lips once. “Heavenly,” she pronounced, after swallowing the bite. “As exquisite as I remembered.”

“I thought you would,” Shunsui grinned. “I asked for the same menu as the one they served you the last time. It’s been a long while, Hanshi-sama.” 

“It certainly has been. Three…no, four hundred years, was it?”

“Thereabouts. Madame Natsusaki is now a great-great-great grandmother.” Shunsui tucked into his own dish, consuming it all at once without a pause, then washing it down with another dish of sake. “I think she may have established her own clan by now.”

“Have you been bringing Jyuushirou-kun here?”

“As often as he allows me, which is less often than I prefer,” Shunsui chuckled ruefully. “For all his refinement, I fear when it comes to food his appetite is more about calorie density and nutrient potency than fine culinary arts.”

Dark-blue eyes looked at him understandingly. “Shinigami physiology is simple mathematics. The higher the reiryoku, the more calories are required.”

“I’m his equal but I don’t eat as much.”

“You drink much, much more,” she pointed out humorously. “Do you not know that one bottle of sake contains as much energy as a full meal? How many bottles do you drink a day?”

“I won’t argue with the Chief Hanshi Healer of Soul Society,” Shunsui grinned, then refilled their sake dishes again.

The shoji slid aside once more. It was their young hostess, but this time, she was accompanied by a large team of assistants. Bowing ceremoniously first, she proceeded to remove their appetizer platters, then the near-empty sake bottle, replacing it with a freshly-warmed full bottle. Then she placed a large, dark, lacquered tray before Hanshi-sama, serving the hassun and mukouzuke courses. The hassun first course was an exact repetition of the sushi and three-side-dish repertoire from that opening ceremony so long ago, while the latter course was a new addition: a delicate rectangular dish of an assortment of stunningly fresh sashimi. Shunsui was served last, and as their serving team left, he lifted his sake dish to toast the beginning of the meal.

“Kanpai, Hanshi-sama, I’m glad you came!”

“Thank you for your invitation and thoughtfulness, Kyouraku,” Hanshi-sama replied with genuine sincerity. “This is an excellent close to a rather trying day moving dead bodies and working in the mortuary. It also brings back many good memories.” Then she returned the toast with a gustiness that matched any male warrior. “Kanpai!”

He smiled warmly, then sipped his sake as he waited for her to begin on her dishes before starting on his own.

For a while they demolished their dishes in silence, smacking their lips in appreciation and downing sake to wash down the wonderful freshness of fish, warm, tender and springy white rice, and fried and stewed vegetables and roots. Shunsui felt a belch coming and let it out in a long, rolling sound, eliciting an answering smile from his guest. They were warriors, and hence quick eaters, and soon their plates were empty. Shunsui poured them another round of warm sake, and Hanshi-sama downed her dishful in one tilt. Then gently, with a deliberation that caught his attention, she placed the dish down.

“I would like to hear about your quest now, if you are ready,” she gently requested. “Please speak your mind.”

She was still as direct as always with him, even after two millennia. He supposed he should have expected it. All the artifices and conversation lead-ins he had mentally prepared, were immediately rendered pointless by her gentle forthrightness.

Downing his sake, he put down his dish quietly. “I want to cure Ukitake, and I need your aid to do it.”

Her dark-blue eyes held his, neither surprised nor expectant, merely patient.

Encouraged, he went on. “I think you’ve known for a long time that his true ailment isn’t a simple matter of a disease. I’ve always wished he’ll share the burden of his secret with you, but I can’t force him to divulge it. He believes he’s incurable and doesn’t wish to break your heart. So before I go on, I wish you to know and understand that he withheld the truth from you out of love, Hanshi-sama.”

She inclined her head, an old knowledge in her dark-blue eyes. “Why do you think I never pry too hard? I appreciate his consideration and thus I have always respected his wishes.”

He smiled ruefully. “Then I hope you’ll not think badly of me when you hear what I’ve to say next.”

In answer, she gave him a serene, encouraging smile.

Taking a readying breath, he spoke his mind. Honestly and without embellishments. “Last night, he decided that he’ll tell you the truth. But I know him too well. He’ll let you in, but he’ll stop your further involvement simply to save you from more heartaches. He’s selfless to a fault, and his sense of responsibility at times drives him to take extreme risks on behalf of others.” Summoning his emotional control, he recounted their recent fight with Yama-jii. “You trained him once, Hanshi-sama, you know he’s fast but he’s even more agile and flexible. If he doesn’t want to be caught or hit, he won’t be. But during the fight, he kept putting himself in front of me to take on everything. His conscience and sense of responsibility made him take all the risks. He left himself open and that was how Yama-jii managed to land a blow. This time that blow was a show, but what about the next time? What if it won’t be Yama-jii next time? I can’t have him do such a thing again when his health is this fragile. Not for me, not for anyone else.” He paused momentarily to rein in his frustration.

When he felt more collected, he went on, “Believe me when I say my vow serves a much bigger purpose than my own selfish want. We both know Ukitake possesses one of the most incredible reiryoku of Soul Society after Yama-jii. This was how it took only the four of us to lead the Gotei, create a whole new society and uphold it until today. The true nerve centre of the Gotei is Yama-jii and Ukitake. Yama-jii stays in the light and draws all attention, while Ukitake uses his gifts in the dark and behind the scenes. If anything happens to Yama-jii, Ukitake will step in and hold things together while you and I manage the fallout. That was the plan when the four of us began this.”

“Indeed, and it is still Yamamoto-sama’s fundamental strategy today. His intention has not changed,” she affirmed.

“But it’s not going to work,” Shunsui said, looking at her with stark desolation. “You know this too, Hanshi-sama. Yama-jii is in denial. Both of us saw today how much he hated it when Ukitake said his life is a borrowed time. I hate it as much as Yama-jii, I hate to hear him talk like that, but I’m not like Yama-jii to live in denial. Ukitake holds no illusions about himself, and he was speaking the truth. His health is a time bomb. Shinigami like us are expected to have natural lifespans of ten thousand years or more. He and I are young yet, we’re both only in our second millennia. Ukitake’s meant to serve Soul Society for as long as I. We’re both meant to die in action, in service of the Gotei. But as long as his illness continues, he may not even see his third millennia. He will die before any of us. Die young. Even now, he can be brought down anytime, by something most of us think little of. Inactivity, a slight imbalance in his lifestyle, and most of all, any emotional stress, and he relapses. If he uses his power too much, he relapses. He’s keenly aware of this. He never speaks of it but I know he feels he cripples us. This is why he pushes himself so hard to serve the Gotei, why he never says a word even when Yama-jii goes overboard with him.”  

“Are you sensing that his time is running out?” she asked quietly, her expression troubled.

“I do not know,” Shunsui admitted in a rasp. “All I feel is that I’m finally seeing something that can be a real cure, and if I don’t seize it now, there won’t be another chance. Especially after what happened yesterday, every moment I have with him now has become even more precious. If I lost him, Hanshi-sama, I lose myself. It’s as simple as that between he and I. But if he’s lost to Soul Society to an ailment instead of to duty… it’ll be a tragedy that I won’t know how to overcome.” Clearing his throat of his hoarseness, he told her with determination, “I have a sliver of hope now. Last night I made a vow to myself. I’m going to do everything it takes to cure him. Even if his stubborn self-sacrificing tendency gets in the way.”

She studied him wordlessly for several heartbeats. Then quietly, said, “But this is precisely why we love him so, Kyouraku. He never thinks about himself. I doubt we can cure that character trait, and even if we could, I would not want to. It is one of his virtues. However, if you have indeed discovered a cure for his illness, then that is entirely another matter. My question is, have you truly?”

“This is why I need your opinion on my discovery. I wish to be sure.” He sipped his sake, organising his thoughts.

Her serene expression saddened. “Often, cures are disguised as illusions of hope. Long have I searched and experimented on Jyuushirou-kun for a cure that would work on him. His disease is rare but there were a few before him in Soul Society’s history who had the same disease and were cured. Their cures, however, did not work on him for reasons I cannot decipher. I exhausted all medical sources, and even enlisted the aid of Tenjirou-sensei. He too could find nothing that would explain the obstruction. We delved into the Daireishokairou archives repeatedly, but it was useless. Always, cures for the same disease which had worked on other souls did not work on Jyuushirou-kun. There was nothing else that could clue me into another direction of search. My last resort was to train Jyuushirou-kun himself in the healing arts and ensure he becomes as skilled as possible. He knows himself best and is much better at managing his health than anyone else. He is a Hanshi Healer today, but the situation is still far from ideal, as we so recently experienced. He was healthy for thirty years but one incident of emotional stress over Rukia-san’s disappearance brought him down again. His recovery this time is encouragingly fast, but I still fear what will come next.”

They lapsed into silence when the shoji opened. Wordlessly, they watched as their trays were cleared, and new trays were served. There were four courses now, a takiawase presented in a leaf-shaped porcelain bowl displaying an arrangement of delicate jade-green wild spinach and paper-thin roasted ginger shreds over a silky square of tofu, a futamono in an elegant bowl whose lid was emitting steam from a pinhole, and a yakimono of grilled black cod served on an artfully charred slatted bamboo dish and lightly scattered with fine flakes of bamboo salt. Completing it was the naka-choko, the palate cleanser being a small bowl of lightly vinegared miso sprinkled with finely sliced rings of scallions.

They were soon left in privacy again as the shoji slid shut.

“Do not misunderstand my words as disbelief or doubt, for more than anything, I wish for him to be cured,” Hanshi-sama explained as soon as they were alone again. “However, I have experienced countless painful false hopes in the past. Thus I do not wish to see you get your hopes up, only to be badly disappointed. Most of all, I do not wish to cause Jyuushirou-kun to suffer any false hopes when he has long ago achieved such a precious emotional equilibrium about his fate.”

Shunsui looked across the table at his guest. “We’re of like minds, Hanshi-sama,” he reassured. “You’re the only one I’m speaking to about this. I’ve no intention of letting Yama-jii or Ukitake or anyone else know until we’re certain of what we have.”

“Then speak.”

With his heart in his mouth, he began hesitantly, “This disease that attacks Ukitake’s lungs… what if we simply give him a lung transplant?”

Silence met his words.

“Hypothetically speaking,” he added, then waited.

Staring at him with an inscrutable expression, Hanshi-sama finally stirred and drank a mouthful of sake. “I explored it once in the past,” she began. “A decade ago, with Urahara-san’s assistance I secured texts from the Living World to study how humans perform their organ transplants.” She shook her head sadly. “It is impossible. Shinigami bodies are made of reishi. The reishi particles of each individual shinigami body are imprinted and powered by the shinigami’s reiryoku. When we infuse foreign reishi particles to close our wounds, our reiryoku imprints on the new reishi particles and assimilates them as our own. But implanting an entire living organ is a different matter. Our reiryoku are so individualised that it will simply reject a whole living organ from another shinigami because the organ itself will bear the imprint of another reiryoku. The closest parallel concept in human medical science is how a human body will reject a living organ donated from another body of a different blood type. But here the parallel ends. Human bodies are able to accept donor organs from other human bodies of the same blood type, but shinigami have no such option because all our reiryoku are different. I could find nothing practical to solve this obstacle.” Her eyes suddenly narrowed at him. “Why do you ask?”

Trepidatious of her likely reaction, he bought himself a small delay by inviting her to proceed with the dishes. His nerves, however, were just a little too unsettled at the moment to eat, hence he opted instead to remove the lid of his futamono dish to allow its contents to cool. He composed his next words in his mind as he absently observed the arrangement of sweet potato cubes and pork balls in the steaming broth. The aroma was tantalising as the steam rose, but he found his appetite fading.

“I may have found a shinigami who could perform an organ transplant,” he replied carefully, then paused to look at her. “Although what you said about the individuality of the reiryoku now raise very large questions in my mind.”

She stared at him for several moments, then revulsion crept over her porcelain features as comprehension dawned in her blue eyes. “Kurotsuchi Mayuri. You have been speaking to him.”

“Not speaking to him. It was an accidental discovery,” Shunsui admitted.

He proceeded to detail his findings to her, leaving nothing out.

“I trust you the most,” he finished firmly. “This is Ukitake we’re talking about. Mayuri is not touching him until you’re sure.” Unbidden, grotesque images of macabre body modifications flitted through his imagination, and he involuntarily shuddered.

No, never Jyuushirou.

“Over my dead body will I allow that mad man anywhere near Jyuushirou-kun,” she almost snapped, violet reiatsu suddenly flashing in her dark-blue eyes.

Shunsui leaned back involuntarily.

Subsiding, she settled into a stern look. “I will look at Kurotsuchi’s research if you can obtain them for me. The only way this can even be a viable cure is if a new set of lungs is grown from Jyuushirou-kun’s own reishi and the development of the new organ powered with his own reiryoku. I can examine all the information and risk parameters and produce a conclusive proposal.”

Abruptly her dark-blue eyes glowed violet as she stared hard at him. “But you, Kyouraku, will have to convince Jyuushirou-kun to participate in it. I know without a doubt that Yamamoto-sama will command him to accept the procedure if it means a permanent cure. But that will not be the right way to go about such a thing. The patient must be willing to accept the cure. You must first discuss with Jyuushirou-kun and he must agree to it.”

He looked intently at her. “Does this mean you will help me, Hanshi-sama? Even before knowing what is truly ailing him?”

For a long moment, she gazed wordlessly at him, her reiatsu subsiding and her expression growing somewhat perplexed.

Then a sad, warm smile crept across her fair face.

“My dear boy,” she said finally, amused and exasperated at the same time. She gestured at the lavish dishes before her and then around at the equally lavish room. “You need not have gone through all this trouble and expense just to ask me to do something I will gladly lay down my soul for. I made that vow to myself when Jyuushirou-kun sought my arms for the first time. And you know how long ago that was.”

Like a cool flood, Shunsui felt relief wash over him. Something edgy and jittery deep inside him calmed, and began to loosen, and belatedly, he realised that he had been on edge and tensed ever since discovering the secret in Kurotsuchi’s cylindrical glass tanks. 

# # # # # #

A Jigokuchou found Shunsui as soon as he dropped lightly onto the stone path before round entrance of the Ugendou compound. The message it carried was abrupt and to the point, lacking any greeting and signature, typical of the temperament of its sender.

The dulcet voice of your older brother is sweet indeed. I wish to discuss our second deal.

Shunsui stared at the large black butterfly on his finger, Kurotsuchi’s nasal tone ringing in his ears, his mind still brooding and mired in Hanshi-sama’s revelations that the individuality of a shinigami’s reiryoku could affect the viability of an organ transplant. With his thoughts still fuddled, he gave a delaying response to buy himself a little time.

You’re welcome, Mayuri-san. I’ll find you tomorrow. I wish to know your first outcome.

With that, he sent the insect off into the air.

His dinner meeting with Hanshi-sama had ended with a newfound camaraderie as co-conspirators, and a renewed warmth and understanding that dissolved much of the awkwardness that had risen between them over the past centuries. Through neither of their fault, she had come to love Jyuushirou as deeply as he, and towards the end of the dinner, he understood with a wash of guilt that her love had never faded despite the passage of nearly a millennium. Yet he could not find it in himself to begrudge her, for she had healed the soul he loved more than himself in ways that he could not, in the darkest period of Jyuushirou’s life. Over dinner he had briefly entertained the idea of expanding their relationship into a formal tripartite, but the territorial alpha male in him had immediately shut it out.

[You’re understanding and accepting only if she loves him from afar,] came the acid, uninvited observation.

Hush, you.

[Hit a sore spot, did we,] laughed his zanpakutou unrepentantly.

He pointedly closed his ears to her echoing, overly knowing laughter. Instead, he fondly hefted the small silk-wrapped lacquer box in his hand, a present from Madame Natsusaki.

You simply must bring him to see this aging lady, Shunsui-sama,’ she had admonished with genuine concern. ’He’s so delicate, I’m anxious to feed him some of my tonic specialties.’

He smiled at the memory of the generous retired geisha. It was a comforting reward for a mentally draining day, and the only things Shunsui wanted to do now were to present the lovingly made dessert to the light of his life, take a warm, scented bath with him, and fall asleep among cool silks with his soft fragrance and slender body wrapped safe and secure against himself, in his own arms. As such, instead of walking down the path towards the lake house, he stepped into shunpo.

In the next instant he was in their living room foyer, toeing off his waraji and balancing on one leg, lifted one foot to pull off the constricting tabi with one hand while his other balanced the lacquer box. Despite the interior of the house being lit, and the wicker basket of honey having been moved to be displayed on top of the cabinet chest, Jyuushirou’s waraji were absent from their usual place on the slate stone step of the foyer.

Shunsui frowned. He was late, and it seemed his love was even later.

When he fumbled on one foot, he put the lacquer box down onto the tatami, then quickly shed the other tabi, leaving the pair carelessly laying where they fell next to his waraji, then hurriedly shed and hung his pink kimono and hat on the kimono stand. Striding quickly into the guest room, he shed and hung his silks until he was only in his pistachio green nagajuban, then zanpakutou in hand, he retrieved the lacquer box from the step of the foyer and sent his senses out in search of his soul brother.

Jyuushirou was not in the lake house. Walking quickly through the rooms, he verified with his eyes what his senses told him.

However, the master bedroom verandah had been prepared for them. The medicine teapot from last night was sitting on its kidou stove on the tabletop, and beside them stood the two small bottles of potions twinkling merrily in the slanting moonlight, next to the blue-handled comb and teacup laying in readiness for their master’s use. Opposite them, a fresh bottle of sake and a clean sake dish awaited Shunsui.

Casting his senses out, Shunsui scanned the entire lake garden of the Ugendou, and when he still found nothing, he strode to the edge of the verandah and scanned the opposite shores with his eyes.

Immediately he spied the white haori-clad figure sitting within the pavilion opposite, at the crest of the grassy knoll where they had sparred in predawn that morning. Wasting no time, Shunsui leapt into an arc across the lake, this time taking a wide stride, and in one step landed on the knoll. He strode quietly up the gentle incline, the cool thick carpet grass crisp under his bare soles.

Jyuushirou was sitting cross-legged, deep in jinzen with Sougyo no Kotowari balanced across his knees, his posture straight as a sapling. His eyes were closed and his pale features and hair shaded into light greys beneath the shadowed roof of the pavilion. His reiatsu was completely cloaked, explaining why Shunsui had been unable to sense him. The length of his white haori lay fanned out perfectly on the floor behind him, and before his crossed feet, rested the daikoushou on the granite stone floor.

As Shunsui climbed up the steps into the pavilion and settled down opposite his soul brother, he could barely feel the device, a sharp contrast to its discordant vibration of that afternoon. He noticed that its inscriptions were still sparse, but complete.

The daikoushou was ready.

Laying Katen Kyoukotsu across his own knees, he silently put the lacquer box down beside the daikoushou, and patiently waited.

[Should we ask his zanpakutou to release him?]

No. Don’t interfere, please.

A pause. Then, [He’s in really deep.]

All the more you shouldn’t interfere. Now, please, leave them be.

As the moon climbed towards its zenith, the grassy knoll and surrounding bamboo forest washed into greyish greens and blacks, the space beneath the pavilion darkened into shadows as the roof blocked the moon rays. In the increasing dimness, Jyuushirou resembled a shadowed alabaster statue of a beautiful meditating kami, every angle and plane of his face perfectly carved, the dark arching slashes of his brows and feathering of his long lashes on his high cheekbones impassive and noble. Shunsui ran his eyes over the beloved visage, tracing the silken white waterfall of long hair as it stirred minutely in the weak, unseasonably warm breeze, and his thoughts wandered, revisiting his discussions with Hanshi-sama, ruminating over her unexpected unconditional aid to his quest, and her fierce protectiveness of the soul before him. Upon the heels of the memories of their discussions his mind called forth the image of the pair of healthy lungs he had seen suspended in Kurotsuchi’s tanks, and he began to imagine that those lungs were Jyuushirou’s, that Hanshi-sama had successfully analysed the procedure and declared that it viable, and they were now in her operating theatre… and she was instructing Kurotsuchi… and Shunsui was standing beside the operating bed his hand grasping Jyuushirou’s narrow slender one, his eyes holding Jyuushirou’s dark eyes as they slowly closed, slipping into sleep under anaesthesia with a tremulous smile of love and hope on his beautiful face…

…the imaginary scene segued into memories of his anger at Yama-jii, his unsettled instincts leading him to discovering Aizen’s break-in of their most precious and closely guarded secrets… the simmering fury and betrayal sensed in Yama-jii as his old sensei recounted the sedition of the Chamber, the bittersweet regret in him as he assuaged Jyuushirou’s fear and reaffirmed his love… the surge of relief and happiness in Jyuushirou as Yama-jii once again placed his trust unto his slender shoulders, this time with the monumental task of driving their investigations and preparing their counter strikes… then remembering his own guilt as he realised how he had wronged the shinigami who had raised and taught him, the barely hidden worry in Yama-jii as he spoke of change and extracted a promise from Shunsui to watch over Jyuushirou… Jyuushirou’s quiet acceptance when Shunsui asked that he promise there be no more secrets between them…

And gently, abruptly, a cloud parted and awareness rose, clear as daylight, that Jyuushirou had not given his promise, but had instead subtly diverted their conversation to what Yama-jii had asked from Shunsui in return.

He rubbed a hand over his face, and stared ruefully at his meditating soul brother, feeling a little self-disgust. First Yama-jii, then Hanshi-sama, and now Jyuushirou. Though Shunsui should have known, really. Those who said that Kyouraku Taichou was the perceptive one, the one who could see the truth in the midst of chaos, deceit and illusions, clearly had either never been taught by one of these three or worked with them before. Their three minds ran mental rings around Shunsui even when he was at his best.

And when it was Jyuushirou’s turn, Shunsui should have known better and reacted faster. Beneath that gentle demeanour and frail constitution lay a frightening talent for extracting information without revealing a single clue.

Was it even possible now to keep his promise to Yama-jii? He had already been so adroitly and soundly outmanoeuvred in one simple conversation despite knowing Jyuushirou so well for two thousand years. Not to mention, could he now even convince his soul brother to cooperate with his quest to permanently heal him? Though Shunsui could not possibly imagine any reason why Jyuushirou would refuse any attempt to rid himself of his illness for good. That… thing, which was sealed inside of him, it might be holding his disease at bay, but every sense that Shunsui possessed screamed that it was merely suspending the swing of the deadly pendulum blade of time, that any day now, that lethal knife would resume its fatal downward arc, swinging ever lower with each pass closer to Jyuushirou’s lifeline, until that last pass when it would slice through that precious red ribbon…

Secrets, Amai’take. What secrets are you concealing that you’ve so skilfully diverted my attention from?

Shunsui reflected on the events of the past week, then to events of two months ago when Rukia-chan’s disappearance was confirmed, and then further back to some five months ago, when Jyuushirou had commented over their dinner how strangely coincidental it was that all candidates had withdrawn their applications for rotation in the Living World due to various kinds of personal reasons, leaving only Rukia-chan’s application for Yama-jii’s final approval. Then his memory wandered back even more, to that Taichou Assembly some twenty years ago when Isshin-kun had reported on a Hollow named White that felt like a shinigami and was terrorising the Plus souls of Naruki City, and when he subsequently disappeared. And then even further back, to that terrible rainy night thirty years ago, when Jyuushirou had staggered back to the Ugendou, blood on his skin and robes and his blade, his dark eyes dead and desolate with his inner light extinguished, and Shunsui had learnt that his soul brother had lost his beloved protégé that night… And his mind wrenched back to the present, now, in fact to only yesterday, to Kurosaki-kun’s strange hybrid reiatsu of Hollow, Quincy and shinigami that rang of familiarity to Isshin… to Aizen’s scathing remark to Jyuushirou as he ascended in the Negación that Jyuushirou was arrogant to think that he was born on top of the world… Suddenly something fell into place as he recalled Yama-jii’s suspicions over how accurately Aizen had predicted his reluctance to challenge the Chamber, how Jyuushirou’s last long bout had seemed too timely…

His heart pounded suddenly as a cold dread gripped him.

In his admittedly disorganised way, he had always been able to make that entirely inexplicable, completely illogical and often uncoordinated leap from what was unconnected and chaotic right onto the heart of what was real, what was the truth. Yama-jii called it his preternatural instinct and he called upon Shunsui whenever they needed to go to ground and pursue a clue. And right now, it was as clear to Shunsui as daylight that Aizen knew.

Aizen knew.

Aizen knew.

Everything Aizen had done, Yama-jii, Jyuushirou and those under their domain had been at the centre of it all.

What did Aizen know? Did Shunsui dare guess?

What secret was Jyuushirou hiding even from Shunsui?

As always when he made such intuitive leaps, his immediate response was to deny and second guess himself.

He did that now, but for the first time in his life, his resistance was weak.

He tried logic next, to reason his dread away. There was no clear link between Aizen’s betrayal and what he was seeing. He had no proof. But despite the lack of evidence his instincts persisted. He felt it to the reishi of his bones. Something was coming. An event horizon loomed and there was scant escape, scant possibility of changing it. And somehow, for some reason, he knew the key to avert it all was to change Jyuushirou’s fate.

Cold sweat broke all over his skin.

[Shall we connect?]

He must have acquiesced, for in the next heartbeat, he was in his inner world. The bleached bone-white headstone stood in the lonely lit grave before him, the only light within an endless space of formless black encroaching on him from all directions.

He had looked at it for two thousand years, but he only ever saw his own name on it.

His name was still on it now.

Nothing had changed.

Blackness moved behind the headstone, forming into the elaborate headdress of skull and bones in the coiffed violet hair, revealing the black eyepatch, then resolving into the lone, limpid turquoise eye gazing at him from beneath a superciliously arched brow. As the rest of the figure formed, the full, oversized cleavage under the red neck ribbon came into view, wearing the blackness around them like layers of inky robes. The figure ceased materialising further, hovering behind the headstone in its half-formed state.

“Not coming out fully to welcome me?” he asked, for the first time feeling impatient with her moods. His own mood just then was thoroughly rattled and in need of succour.

“It’s been ages since you came in here to see me,” Katen Kyoukotsu snorted. “And you expect me to come out eagerly to greet you?”

He looked around at the blackness, and then gestured about them. “If you improved the decor around here…”

“This is your inner world, not mine,” she retorted. “I merely live in the world you create.”

“I didn’t create this,” he said, then immediately knew it was a lie. He had chosen this darkness over a welcoming springtime sakura garden. The memory of his choice still plagued him sometimes, but that was not to say he regretted his decision. He had never regretted a single moment of it.

Sighing, he began tramping towards the headstone. “Well, I’m here now. You said we should connect.” He slumped down on the shadowed ground beside the stark cold stone, resting one elbow on top of the carved rock. “So let’s connect.”

Her arms snaked about his neck from behind, and her sake-tinged breath tickled his cheek. “My poor, oblivious master. What took you so long to see?”

“Long? Everything only happened yesterday,” Shunsui protested.

“Yesterday?” She huffed a disbelieving laugh against his cheek. “Or twenty years ago?”

He fell silent.

“This is why you should come in here more often,” she said tartly, leaning on his back, her generous breasts pressing onto his shoulder blades. “If you’d come to see me then, you would’ve seen the connection sooner. Right after your drinking buddy disappeared. Now Aizen is gone, taking with him kami knows what secrets.”

“What should I do?” he asked bitterly.

“What can you possibly do?” she asked in return.

“It is possible to change fate?”

“Is your name on this stone?”

He peered down at the gravestone and read his name on it. It appeared upside down to him from the angle he was sitting.

Dejection filled him. “If you’re trying to tell me that fate can’t be changed, you’re doing a fine job of it.”

“What is this stone?”

“It’s my grave, isn’t it? When I die, I’ll return here to be with you.”

“What a one-dimensional conclusion,” she criticised.

“If this isn’t my grave, then what is it?” he demanded with ire.

“This inner world is your creation,” she reminded. “You tell me.”

He groped, but everything in his mind now slithered beyond his reach, as if trying to avoid his recognition. Hiding, like that thing hiding inside the slender chest of his love.

“Fate or not, he’s the key. He’s my key,” he mumbled. “Whatever’s coming, I mustn’t lose him. Must keep him safe.”

“For yourself or for Soul Society?” Her question was unbearably sharp.

He tried to deny, to think of the Gotei, to be the larger person. But here in his own inner world, alone in the soundless beckoning blackness he had listened to and accepted as his own from when he was a preternaturally perceptive five year old, he knew he could not lie to himself. His selfishness was there, staring him in his face from the blackness around him.

“Is he sensing the same thing? Seeing the same connections I’m seeing?”

“Of course he is.”

He should have known better than to ask. “I hate it that he doesn’t tell me such things. I asked him not to keep anymore secrets from me. He heard me, I know he did. He chose to evade my question.”

“What difference would it make if he told you? What would you have done twenty years ago? Thirty years ago?”

He craned his neck to spear her a look of irritation but could only see blackness. “I hate it when you talk exactly like him.”

“You won’t hate it so much if you came here more often,” she replied archly. “Take a leaf from him. Spend more time in jinzen. And I mean proper ones, like this one. Not those half-sober alcohol-induced talks you’ve been giving me. Then you’ll understand why he and I speak the same way. Things look different from in here.”

“Since when do you prefer proper jinzen? The last time I tried it, you didn’t even bother to answer.”

“Times have changed. Things are changing. So I have to change,” she explained. Her arms tightened around him. “As do you. Change is the only constant and is inevitable. I’ll aid you fully because I’m your zanpakutou.”

“Then you must already know what I’ve decided. Whether he agrees to or not, I will change his fate,” he told her darkly.

“You will or you will not. When you are doing everything in your power in the belief that you are averting fate, are you acting exactly as predetermined, or are you charting a new course of events? Your name is carved on this gravestone, but is this a grave, or a doorway?”

“Can you be any more cryptic?” he asked in annoyance.

“Do you want me to be?” she returned with a teasing laugh.

He sighed. “What about his zanpakutou? What do they sense?”

“It’s hard to get them serious enough to talk about this. So I don’t know.”

“Try?”

“If I can pry them away from their games long enough and get them to pay attention long enough. No promises.”

“As long as you try, it’s good enough for me,” he assured. “Sometimes I wonder who’s truly in control in there. He spends an awful lot of time keeping them happy.”

“He’s in control, never doubt that.” She lightly rapped his shoulder in emphasis. “His zanpakutou barely tolerate the intruder residing with them. They know they need it because it’s keeping their master alive, hence keeping them alive, but they don’t know how to reconcile what they feel with what they need.” She shuddered. “Even I don’t like the vibes between them. The sensation grates at me. That thing is completely unnatural and should not have been there. His will is incredibly strong, to keep them all in line for so long.”

He stroked her arm absently. Her skin, when materialised, was warm and soft like a real woman’s. He caressed her arm around his neck, but it wasn’t her arm his fingers yearned for. “You can tell me how it feels like when all this is over. A storm is coming, and I need you to back me up. If he does not agree, then I fear that in the end, I must go against his will to change his fate. He may hate me for it. I’ve no idea what that thing has been telling him.”

“You know he does not hate.”

“Then I may lose his love,” he concluded with bleak certainty. “I know him. He’ll be convinced I betrayed his deepest wishes.” But with determination, he said, “Better that he stops loving me and goes on living and finding fulfilment serving the Gotei, even in the arms of another, than for me to see him dead and gone.”

The light around the gravestone began to dim in response, as her arms slipped away. “Like I told you, I’ll aid you fully because I’m your zanpakutou. Even if you’ve been slow to see by twenty years.”

“I see now.”

“Yes, you do,” she agreed, her voice echoing as the blackness consumed them.

He opened his eyes.

Moonlight was beginning the slant into the pavilion from the west. His lips and mouth were dry as he stared into Jyuushirou’s dark gaze.

A cup of water was held out under his nose.

Shuddering slightly, Shunsui accepted the drink and allowed the fresh moisture to dampen his palate down to his throat.

How long had he been in jinzen?

“Quite a while,” Jyuushirou softly replied his unspoken question.

Shunsui trailed his eyes over the beloved form. Jyuushirou had changed into a light-blue summer yukata, his long hair still slightly damp, his zanpakutou and the daikoushou no longer in sight. The shiny nails of his pale toes peeked from under his soft hems as he sat cross-legged before Shunsui, patiently waiting for him to collect himself. Absently Shunsui noticed that Madame Natsusaki’s small lacquer box had been unwrapped, and only one piece of ohagi remained nestled within its vermillion interior. The teacup from last night was beside the gift box, the faint scent of peony honey rising from the half-consumed medicine within.

Blindly, Shunsui stretched his hand out, closing his fingers tightly over the pale white ones resting on Jyuushirou’s knee. His grip was returned with equal strength as those mahogany eyes held his gaze in silent inquiry.

Love, exasperation, questions and fear warred for dominance within his soul. Shunsui answered his conflicting emotions in the only way he knew how. Setting aside Katen Kyoukotsu, he reached across the space between them and with both arms, bodily hauled Jyuushirou into his lap. As soon as the long slender body was in his arms, he buried his face into the fragrant silken hair as he cradled Jyuushirou tight against his chest. Jyuushirou instinctively curled against him, one arm trapped between them and the other gripping the folds of Shunsui’s nagajuban as he moulded himself into the embrace.

“Does the medicine taste better?” Shunsui asked hoarsely, breathing in the soft peony musk rising from Jyuushirou’s neck. He would never tire of the scent.

Jyuushirou nodded against his stubbled cheek. “Much better with your honey, thank you.”

“I sensed the daikoushou was ready when I arrived,” Shunsui said, his eyes still closed, nuzzling the silky fragrant skin beneath one pale ear. “Was it difficult? Are you tired?”

“Unravelling a spell is always difficult,” Jyuushirou whispered, his breathing hitching as a tremor went through him beneath Shunsui’s kisses on his sensitive spot. “But it was nothing. The Senkaimon was a little more troublesome, though.”

With his free arm, Shunsui reached forward and picked up the lacquer box, offering the last piece of the dessert to his love. “Here, recharge.”

Jyuushirou did not need a second invitation. Deftly, his long fingers plucked the last red bean paste rice ball confection from its nest and popped it into his mouth. “Madame Natsusaki remembers,” he murmured as he chewed, not bothering with grace and manners when they were alone and intimate.

“You’re unforgettable, Amai’take.” Shunsui forced himself to relax.

In the slanting rays of moonlight stealing beneath the roof, he saw a small smile of pleasure accompany Jyuushirou’s faint blush. Swallowing, Jyuushirou sat up within the circle of Shunsui’s arms and picked up his cup of unfinished medication. He downed the remaining mixture with no visible sign of distaste.

“Genryuusai-sensei is correct, there is still much to change in our mindsets,” Jyuushirou said pensively, rolling the empty cup between his fingers. “Despite knowing what Ichigo-kun had done for us, the Kidou Corps still absolutely refused to allow humans to use their official Senkaimon. I had to construct a new one on Soukyoku Hill and incorporate the Reishi Henkan-ki on my own. That was entirely unnecessary work and effort.”

Shunsui hummed in agreement. “What will you say to Kurosaki-kun tomorrow morning?” He gently stroked back the long white bang that had fallen onto the pale patrician nose.

Jyuushirou placed his empty teacup back onto the granite floor. “I am still considering. I need to tell him in a way that allows him to learn the truth on his own without our interference. I agree with Sensei that we should not influence his choices.”

“That’s significantly different from how we’ve been approaching things for far too long,” Shunsui observed.

“Yes. It is time to take a different approach. Ichigo-kun will realise the truth in a fortnight as he is meant to, I give him a month at most. We shall then see how he chooses to act. I am confident he will not disappoint us. On the contrary, I know he will far surpass our expectations.” He straightened, preparing to rise, when his yukata shifted to reveal one long, shapely leg. Innate modesty drew his hand down to cover his limb discreetly. “I rebuilt the device completely. There was no time to carve a new daikoushou, so I used the reserve of the first one and removed all its previous spells.” Dark eyes glanced at Shunsui with some relief. “I am glad Sensei allowed me to revise the laws surrounding the daikoushou. It was my mistake in the first place to assume that future Shinigami Daikou will all be like Ginjou.”

Shunsui drew back enough to look fully at his love’s face. In the waning light of the moon he noticed the faint weariness marking the fine skin. He tightened his arms involuntarily. “What did I tell you last night, eh? Yama-jii won’t change his feelings towards you,” he murmured into the silken hair covering the shell of one delicate ear. “His trust in you will never change. He’ll be betraying his own heart otherwise. He favours you.”

“He loves us equally, my young brother,” Jyuushirou replied softly, using his age-old address for Shunsui whenever they compared their old sensei’s regard for them.

“He’s always softer on you, my gentle brother,” Shunsui returned, using his own ancient address for Jyuushirou. “And I’m glad for it. Because I’m always soft on you too.”

Happiness rose unbidden on Jyuushirou’s fair cheeks. “You are,” he murmured in agreement, then leaned close to nuzzle his face against the crook of Shunsui’s neck and shoulder. “I will have never made it this far in my life if you were harsh with me.” He drew back a little with a soft smile. “Come, I drew us fresh bathwater. Let me bathe you and we can retire.” He made to rise again, then stopped when Shunsui’s arms remained locked tightly about his waist. Looking up, his dark gaze moved lovingly across Shunsui’s face, concern rising when he observed Shunsui’s expression. “What is it?”

“How many times have I said you should not serve me like this, Amai’take?” Shunsui murmured, then gently kissed those soft, carved lips. Drawing back a little distance, he quietly added, “I meant what I said this afternoon. No more secrets. I can’t do right by both of us if I constantly lack full knowledge.”

“I heard you,” Jyuushirou replied softly. “I promised, did I not?”

“Did you?” Shunsui asked gently, tightening his arms about the slender waist a smidgen.

Jyuushirou stiffened in his arms, then leaned back to study his face. Heartbeats passed, then his lips tightened and he looked away.

“What’s so terrible that you can’t tell even lil ‘ol me, eh?” Shunsui murmured against the soft silken hair, nuzzling behind the ear again, this time giving the well-shaped shell a gentle little kiss.

A fine tremor snaked through Jyuushirou’s slender body. “What do you wish to know?” softly rasped the deep lyrical tenor.

“How about beginning from when you knew you and those of yours were being targeted?” Shunsui gently nuzzled the fine neck through the thick, lustrous white tresses, sending another tremor through Jyuushirou’s lean frame.

“I did not know we were…” Jyuushirou breathed. “I observed a coincidence… then a pattern… it was not only me and mine, but all shinigami looking after the Living World…”

Shunsui kissed the side of the pale slender neck, inhaling the strong peony musk rising from the creamy skin. “Like Isshin-kun,” he murmured, gently nudging the collar aside with his nose.

“Yes… like Isshin…” The beloved deep lyrical tenor wavered slightly as Jyuushirou tilted his head to the side to allow him better access.

Taking advantage of the exposed skin, Shunsui kissed the underside of the angle of the defined jaw, gently mouthing the velvety soft skin with feathery touches of his lips. “But that’s not all, is it? What else are you not telling me?” he breathed against the fragrant skin, the part of his mind that was the warrior deciding against mentioning how his instincts were screaming warnings at him that Aizen knew their deepest secrets.

When Jyuushirou did not reply, Shunsui locked one arm tightly about the small waist and raised his other hand to cup the other side of the slender neck, gently tilting the fine head to the side as he bent his mouth onto the exposed throat. Softly, lovingly, he kissed and mouthed the warm, pulsating skin, hearing Jyuushirou’s breaths become shallow and rapid. A low moan began keening from the depths of the white throat.

“‘Tis unfair… this…” Jyuushirou breathed quaveringly. “I cannae… cannot think…”

“Then do not… just speak what you know…” With his nose, Shunsui nudged up under the small, square chin and tilted it back, closing his mouth over the soft fragile skin on its underside and sucking gently, ruthlessly suppressing his sudden possessive surge to leave his mark where all might see and know how much Jyuushirou belonged to him. “Let what you know flow…”

Breaths now coming in deep and rapid, Jyuushirou gasped softly and clasped his hand over Shunsui’s head, holding him close as he offered up his jugular with a shudder. “I… ‘tis hard to say… Shunsui, please… I cannot…”

Feeling the beloved voice vibrating from the throat under his mouth, Shunsui slid his hand down from fine neck to smooth shoulder, pushing the yukata aside to reveal its creamy slant until he held the porcelain rounded point in his palm. Pulling the bared shoulder towards his mouth, he kissed his way across the collarbone, lovingly mouthing across the fine ridge until he was kissing the firm, yielding slender deltoid, his hand cupping and pulling the rounded point towards his mouth. Jyuushirou groaned against him and his long fingers suddenly clamping tight in Shunsui’s hair, he shakily, but resolutely pushed Shunsui back until they eyes locked, his dark eyes hazed with passion and shining with slight hurt.

“You are not being fair,” he rasped breathily, shakily.

Shunsui reached up and pulled down the hand in his hair to his lips, kissing the smooth skin on its back. “Then tell me, if you prefer me not to seduce it out of you,” he murmured with a rakish smirk.

Jyuushirou looked at him in consternation as his breathing slowed and evened, then pulling the collar of his robe back over his shoulder, he looked down.

“The final reckoning will come from a place we least expect,” he whispered in a tremulous voice. “Seireitei will be wrecked. There will be many deaths, but I cannot tell who. It will not be very far in the future, and Aizen will be the least of our problems.” His fingers tightened on Shunsui’s grasp. “You and I… we will be fighting on different fronts. I never saw how. I cannot see what happened nor the outcome.”

“And…” His heart pounding, Shunsui rested one hand on the slender chest. “This?”

“I do not know.”

“Ai, Amai’take, you’ve already been told so much! How can you not know what will become of the kami living right inside of you?”

“I do not question it, Shunsui. If I am told, then I merely accept. Even if what I am told is incomplete and leaves more questions than answers, I do not ask and I never researched. As long as I am alive and making a difference, as long as I continue to have your love and Sensei’s trust, I have more than enough in this life.” Another flush rose on Jyuushirou’s cheeks, this time one of guilt. “I am a mortal, Shunsui. Sometimes… on some things… I wish to be ignorant.” When he looked back up, a trace of moisture was shimmering in his dark eyes. “Please understand and grant me this reprieve. Please.”

Shunsui knew all too well what it meant not to want to confront a part of himself, especially if it was a part he disliked or hated.

But he had a personal mission to accomplish, one in which a successful outcome could only save the life of the soul he was holding so tightly in his embrace.

“Will the Daireishin know?” he pressed gently. “It’s connected to time, ne? Can it see into the future?”

“I never tried searching forwards in the archives,” Jyuushirou admitted. “In theory, it should have the ability to see forwards into time. But the future is never set, and I very much doubt what it can see will be anything defined or clear.” Blinking away the moisture in his eyes, his expression became pained. “Why do you insist so? We both knew a long time ago what I am. Yet I dared to love you in the end, because you give me hope that perhaps, my transience in this realm will not be as brief as I feared. And I have been given more than I dared to dream for. Any day I live, could be my last day. I do not wish to spend any of my time dwelling on what we cannot change, or trying to decipher a future that could only be realised by living today.”

Shunsui raised the hand in his grasp and fervently kissed the fine fingers. “Precisely because each day we have together may be the last, if there’s the slightest chance we can change fate, we must take it. Just do a search in the archives tomorrow. For us, please?” He could not help the hoarseness in his voice.

The fingers in his hand turned and cupped his stubbled jaw. Shunsui looked up into dark eyes that were beginning the catch the slanting rays of the moon.

“Very well,” Jyuushirou softly agreed. “Because you ask, I will do it.”

Shunsui placed another gentle kiss on those soft, beloved lips, then reluctantly let go. “The night is getting deep, and you must recover your strength for tomorrow’s tasks. I promised Yama-jii to keep you rested. Go on. I’ll follow.” He withdrew his arms.

Jyuushirou smiled wanly, then collecting himself, flowed soundlessly to his feet. Pausing, he gave Shunsui a last, fondly exasperated look, then walked soundlessly out into the deepening night, the soft crisp grass barely making a sound as his bare feet trod lightly over them.

Rising to his full height himself, Shunsui left the teacup and lacquer box where they were, picked up his zanpakutou and followed a heartbeat behind, leaping into shunpo a breath after the light-blue lithe figure did so, keeping a silent rearguard as they arced together through the air and across the lake, back to their warmly lit lake home. 

# # # # # #

The sensation of being watched woke him in the deep morning, hours before sunrise.

Shunsui opened his eyes slowly.

A large, single eye stared balefully at him from within the circle of his arms.

With a strangled scream he jerked away bodily, fumbling back in panic in a tangle of silk covers until his naked buttocks hit the sheath of his zanpakutou.

“Shunsui!” Jyuushirou cried, awoken by his violence, a reddish mark fading on his cheek from where Shunsui’s flailing hand had accidentally hit him.

Panting, heaving hard, Shunsui stared at Jyuushirou, his gaze greedily drinking in the familiar elegant litheness, the well-loved fair skin and long tousled white hair, the mahogany eyes he knew so well. They were staring back at him wide with anxiety and fear.

As reality returned, he shuddered, and quickly clambered back into bed, gathering Jyuushirou tightly against his chest and inhaling his warmth, his fragrance, hearing the soft deep lyrical tenor voice consoling him over and over again in nonsensical murmurs.

Shunsui felt clammy with cold sweat. “A nightmare, just a nightmare…” he muttered to himself, tenderly massaging the red mark on the alabaster cheek. “I’m so sorry, so sorry, Jyuushirou…”

“Hush, it is no matter, just a dream, my beloved,” Jyuushirou was murmuring softly.

Holding Jyuushirou tight in his arms, Shunsui laid them back down, cradling the white silken head protectively against his chest, entwining their legs together. Long angular hands stroked across the hairs on his arm and chest rhythmically, gentling his thundering heart until his heartbeat regained its even keel, the tender touches warming his veins and chasing away the chill which had set into his blood. His own hands stroked over the soft silken skin of the wide valley between the finely shaped shoulder blades, down the long tapering back and then up again into the warm, slender nape, his fingers tangling through long cool silken tresses, and he made a lulling caressing rhythm, down, up and around, reassuring his love that he was well as much as to calm himself.

Soon, soft deep breathing indicated that Jyuushirou had fallen asleep once more.

Shunsui lay awake staring out the opened shoji to the setting moon over the mirror surface of the lake. It was a wordless thing, his silent vow to himself. But it crept over his mind, and his heart, until he lost himself to slumber.

Chapter Text

It seemed he had barely rested before he was awake again, this time by true daybreak lightening the predawn twilight.

Always an early riser, Jyuushirou was already up, emerging from the bathroom in a fresh set of shihakushou. His alabaster features were distracted as he looked out the shoji in the direction of the entrance of the Ugendou, a fine line creasing his smooth brows.

“Byakuya is here,” he informed quietly, with slight surprise and curiosity.

Shunsui gathered his mind as he sat up, extending his senses. He immediately felt the keen slicing sensation of the reiatsu of the Kuchiki clan head, and alertness immediately vaporised the remnants of sleep as he unfurled to his feet from his warm nest of silk sheets. “Wait for me,” he said, not quite an order but knowing Jyuushirou would comply.

He made short work of washing and dressing. By the time he met Jyuushirou in the living room, dawn was slanting over the horizon, scattering the tranquil surface of the Ugendou lake with shiny wavelets of pale gold. Fully dressed now, they exchanged a look, then ducked under the bamboo blinds of the entryway.

Jyuushirou preceded him as master of the estate, his lithe figure taking a gentle shunpo stride. Like a falling bamboo leaf he floated down, landing soundlessly onto the gravel path ending at the small stone bridge joining the islet from the Ugendou main entrance. In the quiet of the early dawn, the small brook running beneath the arched bridge bubbled with the soft melodic tinkling. As his long white hair and haori settled about him, Jyuushirou stood still and met Byakuya’s slate-grey eyes as the Kuchiki Lord stared at him from the other side of the bridge. Byakuya began moving forwards to cross the bridge, stopping when Shunsui dropped down behind Jyuushirou.

The young taichou was standing rather stiffly, still recovering from his injuries. His slate-grey eyes watched Shunsui, his refined aristocratic face set in its customary cold, still mask, the kenseikan holding back his black hair glinting in the rising sunlight. Then he looked at Jyuushirou again.

For a heartbeat, they remained wordlessly watching one another.

Then hesitantly, with uncharacteristic softness in his deep modulated voice, Byakuya addressed Jyuushirou.

“Ukitake-senpai.”

They stilled. Neither of them had heard that form of address for nearly seventy years. Jyuushirou’s dark eyes exchanged an uncertain glance with Shunsui, then looked to where Byakuya stood waiting.

Their young colleague appeared as cold and calmly collected as was his usual wont, but when his slate-grey eyes once again passed over Shunsui, he perceptibly hesitated.

Jyuushirou placed a gentle hand on Shunsui’s arm. “Byakuya,” he said softly, carefully. “There is nothing you cannot tell me that Kyouraku Taichou will not keep in strictest confidence.” Then in a warmer tone, he inquired kindly, “What brings you here so early this day?”

“I…” The young Kuchiki clan head began to say, then with uncharacteristic concern, commented, “You look well. I am glad to see you recovered.”

Shunsui raised his brows. He tried to recall but failed to remember any instance in their long history in which the Kuchiki heir and lord had shown anything other than either anger or cold indifference to his patient, gentle mentor.

However, Jyuushirou was responding with his own concern, his deep tenor warm and soft. “It is I who should be asking after you, Byakuya. I see you are recovering well and able to move on your own. But your movements seem rather stiff to me. Are you in pain?”

Byakuya absently covered the sword wound on his chest with one fingerless white tekkou-clad hand. “This physical pain is a good reminder for me,” he replied in his low modulated voice, his gaze momentarily turned inwards. “Ichigo showed me what it truly means to love and protect, and…” His gaze shifted intently to Jyuushirou. “To repay a debt.”

Nonplussed, and more than a little startled, Jyuushirou widened his eyes in wonder.

“I blamed you,” Byakuya suddenly said, his tone resolute. “I asked you to keep Rukia as an unseated officer so that she would never have to face the risks of a shinigami’s life.”

Jyuushirou visibly flinched. Shunsui took an involuntary step closer, and slightly forwards.

Byakuya’s next words came in a short torrent, his tone emotionless, as though quickly reciting from a distasteful report to get the matter over with before he could change his mind.

“When you sent her for rotation to the Living World, I was angry at you for betraying my trust to keep her safe. When Rukia went missing, my anger at you deepened. And when you finally found her reiatsu signature, I insisted to Soutaichou to send Renji and I to retrieve her. I no longer trusted you to keep my sister safe. Rukia spoke to me last night. When she received her assignment, she did not wish to leave the Seireitei. She did not want to leave your side. For she had vowed to Kaien that should he be unable to, she would fulfil as much of his service to you as she could.”

“Byakuya, I…” Jyuushirou began.

“A moment, Senpai.” Byakuya began descending stiffly down the short bridge, his steps slow and careful. He held Jyuushirou’s eyes as he continued to speak. “After her first week in the Living World, however, Rukia realised you had been wise to send her. She had been stagnating, and you had seen it. She had never felt more alive and fulfilled than when she was exterminating Hollows and following in the footsteps of the late Lady Miyako. She then understood that you were looking after her as her taichou, that you were honouring her desire and abilities even before she knew them herself.”

He came to a pause before Jyuushirou, leaving only an arm’s breadth between them. “You taught me once, Senpai, that honour follows when the heart is on the right path. I never understood this, because I did not wish to. I believed it to be a fool’s philosophy.” He looked aside to the bubbling brook, his profiled bowed. “I knew well the circumstances of Kaien’s death, but I refused to understand it. I blamed you. Rukia was wrecked by her loss. I saw her pain, and all I could remember was my own when Hisana passed. All I could think of was how you hurt my sister with your decision to let Kaien die. I did not think of your pain. Until Ichigo showed me what it truly means to put the heart on the right path.” Turning back, he scoured his eyes over Jyuushirou’s pale face, a deep emotion roiling in the depths of his gaze. “I call myself Rukia’s brother, yet out of my own selfishness I dishonoured her by preventing her development, when I should have supported her growth. I further dishonoured her this past week, I could only see my dilemma between upholding my honour to Hisana and the honour of my clan, I had forgotten her honour. And I dishonoured you. I had forgotten your honour. I should have been beside you, fighting to save my sister instead of condemning her blindly. You should not have had to face Soutaichou’s wrath alone.”

Silence fell.

“He was not alone,” Shunsui finally felt obliged to point out, though he carefully kept his drawl friendly, without blame.

Byakuya turned back and looked at him, wordless contrition in his slate-grey gaze. “And I thank you, Kyouraku Taichou.”

Jyuushirou stood silent, his fine angular features clouded with surprise, regret and contemplation.

Once more holding Jyuushirou’s dark gaze, Byakuya went on, with a tightness across his aristocratic face, “In my anger and pride and ignorance, Senpai, I wished for you to feel my pain. Thus I spoke words to you with the intention to hurt you deeply. I was cruel to you. Unohana-sama gave me a sound reminder yesterday, and I realised that I have been cruel to you for much longer, when you have ever only been kind and generous with me. This is why I am here at this hour. If you still have it in your heart to forgive me, then I seek your forgiveness. But even if you do not, I give you my vow on all that I honour that I will not hurt you so again.” With a hitch in his breath, he bowed his head low.

A dawn breeze blew long white bangs across Jyuushirou’s pale face as his dark eyes watched Byakuya. Absently, he brushed his hair aside and tucked it behind his ear, exhaling gently and looking away, his expression becoming distant.

“Byakuya,” he said softly at last, his expression gentle but detached. “I ended our mentorship seventy years ago, because you reached a pinnacle where what was left for you to learn could only be imparted to you when you live life fully and allow yourself to be taught by the experience. There was nothing more I could teach you when you remain sheltered within the strictures of clan nobility, and certainly not when you remain listening at the knee of a sentimental old man.” He returned his gaze to Byakuya. “The demands of honour and the demands of the heart do not always meet. More often than not, the choices are difficult to make, and the consequences lie between suffering one loss or another greater loss. As leaders of the Gotei, we constantly need to make the best choices we can under all circumstances, even if we cannot escape the emotional pain of each one. But this is the way it should be. It is the key that makes our souls what they are, makes us who we are, and we write our choices in the greater fabric of our lives that will shape our future soul cycles through all realms.”

“So, the heart… it overcomes the difficulties of honour,” Byakuya considered, his aristocratic face unusually humbled.

“Not always, Byakuya,” Jyuushirou intoned softly, his dark eyes deepening with ancient sorrow. “I would that our lives is so simple. As leaders of Soul Society, we are beset with much more complexities and ambiguities than others.” Then a comforting smile brightened his mien. “But after two thousand years of strife and peace, I do tend to find that decisions made by a heart on the right path, almost always lead to greater outcomes, in the end. Even if the path is difficult to tread.”

Solemn contemplation fell over Byakuya. “Good things do not come easy, but they do come if we keep our hearts on the right and narrower path?”

At this, Jyuushirou smiled wanly. “Life does seem to fall that way.”

“And this… this is my final lesson?” The hesitation in Byakuya’s deep modulated voice was imbued with regret.

Jyuushirou gazed at him serenely. “My doors are never closed to friends, Byakuya,” he said softly. “We no longer need a formal mentorship for me to listen to you, and help you if you wish it.”

Wonder crept into the slate-grey noble eyes. “I never understood why, with your influence and your stature, you do not command with your pride and station. I even disdained your practice. Then I see my own sister becoming determined to give you her best. You are not her sensei, yet I see how she loves and respects you as one. She once told me you are the father she never had. And I realised… I realised it is impossible for me to reach such a level of leadership.”

“Ai, you must not compare in such a way, we are of different personalities,” Jyuushirou corrected gently. “You are a leader in your own right, and with your position you have your own ways of leadership, or you will soon find it.” His dark eyes turned inwards, and softly, he said with conviction, “You will find your own way, and you will know a level of power you do not expect. But you must always focus on the choices you make in the present. Each of your decision creates a ripple that links to the next, and shapes your future. How you make each choice, will always be your greatest challenge. I fear this is not something anyone can teach you.”

Byakuya listened thoughtfully, even as a slight curiosity gleamed from the depths of his eyes. However he said nothing, instead, bowing once more, slow and deeply respectful. When he straightened again, he murmured, “I wish you to know that I remember every one of your lessons, Senpai. Even if I never showed it. This is a debt I mean to repay.”

Jyuushirou inclined his head once. “I do not expect repayment, Byakuya. But I will gladly accept your honour. And you have my forgiveness, should you still need it.” Finally he smiled warmly. “Will you bid Ichigo-kun farewell?”

“Renji and I will be at the Soukyoku Hill,” Byakuya confirmed. Nodding once to Shunsui in farewell, he turned and began retreating back over the stone bridge. When he reached its highest point, he paused, turning his face over his shoulder. “Your sentimentality is well-loved, Senpai. But you are very far from being an old man.” With that, he continued on his way, walking stiffly in his half-healed state, until his form flickered and vanished into shunpo.

Shunsui watched where he had vanished. Proud to the core even in his apology, he mused absently. Ginrei-sama’s grandson had not changed one iota, despite all that he had undergone for his late wife.

But a greater revelation had caught his notice and he glanced at Jyuushirou, seeing those dark eyes deep in contemplation.

“That was a little precognitive, ne?” Shunsui commented intently.

Jyuushirou looked at him, and a soft resignation came over his demeanour. “I will just say yes,” he replied softly. “I will keep my promise to you, but please understand that it is difficult to tell you everything that is revealed to me. Often, I cannot distinguish whether it is a premonition or my own intuition, the knowledge comes so naturally that its source is not always clear.” Pausing, he bit his lip to gather his thoughts, before explaining, “I know that Byakuya’s fate lies on a different kind of path from ours. He has the choice to command it the way he commands Senbonzakura.” His dark eyes raised and looked beseechingly at Shunsui. “But I am uncertain if I know that because I mentored him in the past, or if…” His pale slender hand clasped over his chest. “Or if it was this kami inside who imparted that knowledge. It is like my power. Often, I find it difficult to know where my reiryoku begins and ends and where it is this kami at work.” Then ruefully, he finished, “It is fortunate you cannot see inside my head, otherwise you will be disappointed when you see how muddled it frequently is.”

Shunsui reached out and gently touched the fine alabaster features, lovingly rubbing his thumb over the edge of the defined jaw. “You’re many things, Amai’take, but muddle-headed is never one of them,” he murmured. Then with resolute conviction, said, “Your power is all yours. Of that I have no doubt. We trained together and fought back to back for most of our lives. Trust me on this.”

“I always trust you,” Jyuushirou replied quietly, then with a wry smile, added, “Even when I am sceptical of your outlandish ideas.”

Shunsui chuckled. “Aye, that you do.” 

# # # # # #

The turnout to bid the human youths farewell comprised those who had opposed and those who had aided their invasion. Hanshi-sama attended alone, and as he had promised, Byakuya arrived with Abarai-kun, who was still nursing his injuries. Madarame-kun and Ayasegawa-kun were hanging around with Kurosaki-kun and his friends, while Soi Fon stood apart speaking with a black cat with familiar, teasing golden eyes. Surprisingly, Komamura-san was there, accompanied by Hisagi-kun and Kira-kun. Zaraki and Hitsugaya-kun were the only ones absent, as was Kurotsuchi, whose absence went unnoticed by all others.

Sentaro-san and Kiyone-chan were bustling around and through the newly created Senkaimon, checking and double-checking their calculations. The gateway was a replica of the official portal of the Kidou Corps, the only differences being that this one framed a different view of the Seireitei skyline and emitted a different reiatsu signature. Shunsui felt the low rolling and heaving an unseen oceanic force flowing from it, barely perceptible beneath the conscious senses. It was as familiar to him as the reiatsu of the soul he held in his arms to sleep each night.

He was admittedly tired. His disrupted sleep of the night before, the refusal of his subconscious mind to rest, and Byakuya’s unannounced early dawn visit, all did him little favours. He silently released a little more of his reiryoku into his body to bolster his flagging élan. A soft touch on his arm brought his eyes to his side to meet concerned dark gaze, and he discreetly patted the long pale fingers on his sleeve in wordless reassurance.

Jyuushirou surveyed him intently for a heartbeat, then apparently satisfied with what he saw, withdrew his hand and began making his way towards the lively chattering group of youths, where Rukia-chan was engaged in an energetic exchange with her human friends.

Their human friends, Shunsui mentally corrected himself as he trailed discreetly behind, making sure to keep within hearing distance.

The youngsters, three shinigami and four humans, immediately sent up a chorus of exuberant greetings upon seeing Jyuushirou. Except for Kurosaki-kun, the humans had changed into their Living World clothing. Rukia-chan herself was out of uniform, dressed in a dark-blue kimono printed with pink tiny sakura blossoms. She was clutching a pale-green human clothing item in her hands, at the amusingly fierce insistence of Inoue-chan. Kurosaki-kun bounded to the front of the group, bright-eyed and fresh-faced beneath his carrot-orange spikes, his energetic confidence evoking heartbreaking memories of his lookalike from so many decades ago.

“Ukitake-san! Glad to see you looking so well! We want to thank you for everything!”

“I hope you rested and enjoyed yourselves yesterday,” Jyuushirou replied warmly. “I apologise for not being able to accompany you much-”

“Don’t worry about it, we know how busy you are,” Kurosaki-kun cheerfully assured. “Besides, we had a great time!” He jabbed a thumb in Abarai-kun’s direction, and laughing aloud, added, “And I taught Renji new kanji characters when we went to Gin Tonbo to get his new sunglasses!”

“Oi, Ichigo!” protested Abarai-kun with an indignant huff.

Humour livened Jyuushirou’s expression as he surreptitiously observed the two youths’ interactions with a keen gaze. “And what characters are those?”

“Tonbo!” chortled Kurosaki-kun. “Dragonfly, Renji, not cockroach, not bug!”

At Abarai-kun’s further howls of protests, Kurosaki-kun cackled even louder.

Dark eyes exchanged an amused glance with Shunsui, then Jyuushirou assured with a smile, “If you had purchased sunglasses from Shirogane-san, you can take them back with you. I have incorporated a Reishi Henkan-ki in the Senkaimon, they will be converted into kishi when you pass through.”

Waving curiously at the Senkaimon replica, Kurosaki-kun asked, “So this is it? The official one Sentaro was telling us about?”

“Ai, yes. This is the official Senkaimon-” Jyuushirou began to explain, then ruefully amended himself. “Or as close to official as I can make it within a short time. The important thing is, your friends’ bodies and belongings will convert from reishi to kishi as well upon their re-entry into the Living World. But for you, Ichigo-kun, since you arrived in Soul Society in your reishi form, you will remain in this form until you re-enter your kishi body when you reach home. The Reishi Henkan-ki will have no effect on you once you are inside the Senkaimon.”

Kurosaki-kun looked thoughtfully at it, his face frowning a little. ““It feels… it feels like the sea yet it also feels like a storm. Are you sure it’ll lead us to the right place? Karakura Town is not at the seaside-” Suddenly, he cut himself off as realisation dawned on his face. With a perceptiveness beyond his age, he asked quietly, “You said you made this and incorporated that reishikan-reishiki, you know, that converter. So this must be your reiatsu I’m sensing?”

Jyuushirou looked impressed. “Very good, Ichigo-kun. Yes. I made this Senkaimon. Naturally it will bear my reiatsu signature.”

Kurosaki-kun brightened, looking back at the Senkaimon. “Then I’m going to memorise it, so that when you come visit us, I can look for you.”

“You may not need to. Here.” Jyuushirou reached into the inner pocket of his kosode. When he withdrew his hand, the carved dark wood of the daikoushou laid on his pale palm. “This is the Daikoushou Shinigami Daikou. I made it for you. Feel it and tell me what you sense.”

To any shinigami who did not know Jyuushirou as well as Shunsui did, the device felt inert and dead. But with a little probing, Shunsui sensed the familiar ozone-tinged ocean-like signature deep within the device, perceptible only because he searched for it. He watched Kurosaki-kun pick up the device with curiosity on his face and hold it up in the morning sunlight to better see the simple inscriptions.

Out of the corners of his eyes, Shunsui saw the collective attention of Byakuya, Soi Fon and Komamura swing towards them.

“This allows you to continue to be a shinigami in the Living World,” Jyuushirou explained. “It will help you release your soul from your kishi body, and once you learn enough fine control, you can use it to call us.” He paused, his demeanour neutral, then went on. “We have a law that requires us to issue this daikoushou to any human with shinigami powers who is beneficial to Soul Society. This will not make up for what you have done for us. But if you wish to continue helping others with your powers, it will make your work a little easier.”

To Shunsui’s immense surprise, the human youth said, in a wondering tone, “I can feel you in this, Ukitake-san. Very faint, and I won’t know it’s you if I’m not looking for it. But when I’m looking for you in this, I can definitely feel you.”

“That means we will be connected,” Jyuushirou smiled warmly. “I was told it felt uncomfortable, hence I have dampened its resonance as much as possible so that it will not disturb anyone.”

“So how do I call you on this?”

“Reach out to my reiatsu on this device. I will hear you when you call. However, you will need to attain a very fine level of control before you can activate the Bakudou communication spell.”

“Like a training, huh?”

Jyuushirou laughed lightly. “You can call it that, yes.”

“Will you be able to call me on this? It’ll be so cool if I can use this instead of a Soul Phone.”

A fine line creased Jyuushirou’s brow. “Cool…?”

“Like, awesome, you know?”

“Ah, I see.” An amused smile curved Jyuushirou’s lips. “I am afraid I only have time to make this is only one way. For now, only you can call me on it.”

“Got it,” grinned Kurosaki-kun. He tossed the device up in the air once, then caught it again. “Thanks! I’ll gladly accept this.”

“Do be careful with it, Ichigo-kun. This daikoushou will eventually become your last resort aid. You must not let it fall into the wrong hands.” Jyuushirou hesitated for the barest heartbeat, before concluding, with carefully selected words, “It is safest that you do not share its existence with anyone other than trusted friends who know how you became a shinigami.”

The layered meaning was immediately picked up, for the brown eyes looked at Jyuushirou hesitatingly, showing the briefest flash of puzzlement.

Perceptive and quick, Shunsui thought, impressed. Amai’take, you’re right. This boy will realise the truth in a hurry.

“Got it,” chirped the young man instead, all traces of his slight hesitation gone as if it had never been. Turning to Rukia-chan, he said with affection and a little sadness, “I guess this is goodbye.”

Brilliant white light flooded over the hilltop as Sentaro-san and Kiyone-chan simultaneously activated the Senkaimon, the vista of Seireitei’s skyline obliterating from view as the portal filled with blazing kidou energy.

“It is time,” Jyuushirou announced. Turning towards the portal, his eyes began to glow blue-white as mild waves of a sea wind began gently swirling about him, lifting the long tresses of his hair.

The two Thirteenth Third Seats began chanting and gesturing in unison, then at their final uniform gesture, a bolt of white light shot from the portal towards their taichou. In one smooth continuous motion Jyuushirou deftly caught it with one slender hand, gracefully twirling the white energy about his long fingers as he infused the energy with his reiatsu until a large ball of blue-white fire burned soundlessly in the cradle of his long palm, then gently tapping with one long index finger, he shot the blue-white ball of reiatsu flames directly into the centre of the glowing Senkaimon. Upon contact with its creator’s reiatsu, the portal boomed with a tremendous echo and belched out a cloud of white smoke as a thick, vertical pillar of pure white light stabbed straight up into the heavens with a low, resonant hum. When the smoke cleared, it revealed a watery, shimmering twilight space within the massive frame of the gateway. The Senkaimon was opened, the whole process mesmerizingly elegant and over in three heartbeats.

A blanket of awed silence had fallen over the hill, every pair of shinigami eyes wide with wonder at the rarely seen, simple grace of the masterful Bakudou execution.

Lowering his hand, reiatsu fading from his eyes and hand, Jyuushirou turned to their young human ally and smiled warmly. “Farewell, Ichigo-kun,” he bade gently.

“Farewell, Ukitake-san.” A cheeky grin lit up Kurosaki-kun’s face and he waved the daikoushou at Jyuushirou. “Wait for my call!” With a last backward smile at Rukia-chan, Kurosaki Ichigo stepped into the twilight portal.

Shunsui hung back as Byakuya moved to the front, overtaking Jyuushirou, as the three human youths, Sado-kun, Ishida-kun and Inoue-chan jogged into the portal after their leader, followed by a small darting black streak shaped like a cat. They watched in collective silence until the forms diminished until they were no more, then at a wordless gesture from Jyuushirou, Sentaro-san and Kiyone-chan began to close the inter-dimensional gateway. The pillar of white light started to fade rapidly until the new Senkaimon finally darkened, all light within its stone frame dissipating to once again reveal the vista of the Seireitei.

Their new human allies were finally gone.

Long white tresses blowing gently in the wind, Jyuushirou turned to look at their assembled colleagues, his expression unusually closed.

As Shunsui expected, the objections came almost immediately.

“Was the daikoushou necessary?” asked Komamura-san quietly, a hint of disapproval in his rich, resonant voice.

“We’re spying on our allies now?” questioned Madarame-kun more directly.

“It is the law,” Jyuushirou replied neutrally, not defending himself.

“Ichigo will understand soon enough, and make the right choice,” intervened the deep, cultured voice of Byakuya. Shunsui was surprised when the young Kuchiki lord wordlessly stepped forth and positioned himself slightly in front of his former senpai.

Rukia-chan followed her brother-in-law and silently placed herself beside her taichou. Behind her, Sentaro-san and Kiyone-chan rapidly brought up the rear even as Shunsui observed Hanshi-sama ready to take her stance.

“It is not the same device,” Shunsui stepped in smoothly to defuse the situation. All eyes swung to him as he strode into their centre, careful not to appear to be taking sides. “What have we learnt this past week, my friends?”

“That we shouldn’t be treating our friends as suspects?” Abarai-kun answered sarcastically.

“Renji, hold your tongue,” shot Byakuya.

The volatile red-headed fukutaichou threw up his hands but did not make further remarks.

“Think about this like the Gotei, my friends,” Shunsui elaborated. “Kurosaki-kun will be out there, alone with no sensei, no senpai, no senior support, while Aizen is still at large. He’s still new to his powers, still developing them. His friends are completely behind him, but their powers are also new and growing. They’ll need as much help as they can get to use their abilities wisely and choose the right path.”

“Far be it for me to doubt my elders, but wouldn’t issuing Ichigo-kun with a Denreishinki and a Gokon Tekkou equally serve the purpose?” Komamura-san asked.

“Ichigo’s daikoushou helps Yoruichi-sama train him,” spoke up Soi Fon, her diminutive form stepping forwards, carefully maintaining a neutral position as well. “It is necessary for the Second Division to respond swiftly to her calls.”

“Respond to her calls to hunt down Ichigo?” asked Madarame-kun askance.

“Peace, my friends, please,” Jyuushirou finally spoke, his calm flowing over them like a smooth balm despite the accusations directed at him. “Ichigo-kun’s daikoushou contains no surveillance function, nor any function to restrict his power and development. I have also removed all homing functions.” He inclined his head at Soi Fon. “Soi Fon is correct. It contains the imprint of Yoruichi’s reiatsu. Once Kisuke and Tessai touch it, it will contain their imprints as well. These are for expediency in event Ichigo-kun needs their aid but is unable to call for them, or if they should lose track of his reiatsu. But this function will work only in the Living World once the device is converted to kishi. The only connection to Soul Society remaining in the daikoushou is that my reiatsu remains in it, so that Ichigo-kun can contact me if he wishes.” He paused, allowing his words to sink in. When there were no further objections, he continued, “What I have not yet told him is that it will store a little of his reiryoku every time he uses it, and eventually serve as his personal reserve of power, for I foresee that he will need a fall back in the near future. Unless he returns the device to us, we will not be able to access his reserve power. That I have ensured. Other than these functions, it will do nothing else and mean nothing else. It is as I said to him, merely an aid and a way for him to call for backup when he needs.” He looked around apologetically. “I am afraid that until we find another way to help a human shinigami perform shinigami duties in the Living World, this device will have to serve this purpose for now.”

“Everyone, all will become clearer at the taichou assembly,” interrupted Hanshi-sama. She pointed. “Look.”

They turned to where she indicated, only to see the red-and-black clad and visored Riteitai messenger kneeling on one knee behind them.

“By order of Yamamoto Soutaichou, all taichou of the Gotei Thirteen are to assemble in the Taichou Assembly Hall in two hours. Third Division is to be represented by Kira Fukutaichou, Ninth Division is to be represented by Hisagi Fukutaichou, and Fifth Division is to be temporarily headed by Kyouraku Taichou.”

The messenger flickered and vanished away into shunpo.

So it begins, Shunsui thought. Yama-jii is certainly not wasting any time.

Shunsui met the knowing dark-blue gaze of Hanshi-sama, who gave him an imperceptible nod before her form flickered once and vanished. He heard the grumbles of the two Eleventh Division officers as they, too, dispersed with the rest of the shinigami who had gathered, but paid them no heed as he made his way towards Jyuushirou. Passing by Komamura-san, he briefly tipped the brim of his hat in farewell at the giant wolfman as he took his leave with Hisagi-kun and Kira-kun, with Soi Fon following him. Finally Shunsui turned his attention to Jyuushirou, in time to hear his final instructions to his two Third Seats.

“…keep them in my office, I shall dispose of the seals as soon as I have time. Please ensure that this Senkaimon is fully deconstructed before the end of today. I have not made it to last more than half a day, hence you should have little difficulty dispersing its reishi.”

“Yes, Taichou!” saluted Kiyone-chan.

“You can count on us, Taichou!” boomed Sentaro-san, not to be outdone, and not noticing that his loud volume brought a slight wince to Jyuushirou’s expression.

The two Third Seats ran off with their orders, arguing competitively as they did so. Massaging his temple slightly, Jyuushirou finally turned to his last officer, the young woman waiting quietly beside him. Her violet eyes were looking helplessly at the fading figures and noise of her two most senior seated officers.

“Rukia…” Jyuushirou called softly, garnering her immediate attention. He paused when he noticed her pallor, and frowned in concern. “Your sick leave ends this evening, does it not?”

“Yes, Taichou,” she confirmed with a nod.

“Please hold a moment.” Extending one long pale hand, Jyuushirou hovered his open palm above her diaphragm and an imperceptible trickle of reiatsu rippled from him. Pained regret rose on his pale face. “You have suffered so much, Rukia,” he said sadly. “Your reiryoku is still severely depleted. I wish to spare you from any duty until you are fully recovered. However, I believe that Yamamoto Soutaichou will mobilise the Gotei soon. You are one of my most capable officers, and I fear I may need your assistance sooner rather than later.”

“I will eat more, Taichou,” she promised.

A wan smile curved Jyuushirou’s lips. “I know you will. But the body still takes time to assimilate new energy. If you allow me, I can place an acceleration kaidou on you now to speed your recovery. Then please take the next seven days off from duty. I hope you can forgive me for not giving you more time to rest and recover.”

“Taichou, there’s nothing to forgive,” Rukia said, looking up at him with honesty. “You’ve already helped me so much… you must rest too. I really don’t need so much time to get well.” Her violet eyes became determined beneath her long black bangs. “I wish to be on active duty when Soutaichou mobilises us.”

“You can rest at home, Rukia,” interrupted Byakuya, his slate-grey eyes communicating a wordless request to Jyuushirou. “We can put you on a tonic diet that will speed up your recovery.”

“That is an excellent idea, Byakuya,” Jyuushirou smiled. “How about it, Rukia?”

She bit her lip, uncertainty suddenly darkening her petite face. “Will… will my position still be here when I return?” she asked hesitantly.

Understanding dawned on Jyuushirou’s fine features. “Ai!” He sank gracefully to one knee so that his eyes became level with hers. “Forgive me, I forget how it worries you to be moved around,” he apologised regretfully. With faint sadness, he reached out a pale hand and gently clasped her small shoulder. “We have shared so much, Rukia. If it were wholly up to me, I do not wish you to leave me. Your place is with us always, for as long as you will have it.”

A tremulous smile spread on her petite face, and she bowed her head. “I love being in the Thirteenth, Taichou,” she said quietly in her low alto voice. “After I recover, please let me to return to my previous duties.”

Jyuushirou gazed at her thoughtfully. “I think after your recovery leave, we could discuss promoting your duties, Rukia. Taking care of my medicine room and schedules are too basic work for a shinigami who has gained as much experience and skills as you.”

Her purple eyes raised to look at him, touched. “I will gladly take on additional duties, Taichou. But please allow me to retain my responsibilities to your medicine room. Kaien-dono entrusted me to look after it, to look after your health…” She paused, then taking a deep breath, confessed, “I don’t trust many people with it. What if they get your medicines wrong? It’s better and safer if I take care of it myself.”

Dark eyes shadowing briefly at the memory of Kaien-kun, Jyuushirou held her gaze wordlessly for a moment, then inclined his head in acquiesce. “Very well, if that is your wish, you shall retain this duty,” he murmured. Then smiling, he counselled, “Your dedication moves me, Rukia. Yet as leaders, we must learn to know which subordinates to trust, and then learn to trust them. Therefore we shall assign you junior assistants for this task. This will be a good starting point for you to develop your latent leadership gifts, for when you will have your own squad. If you have no objection, I will let Kiyone know to commence arrangements.”

“Taichou…” Rukia began with a tiny hitch in her breath, moved, then nodded and bowed her head in grateful acceptance.

Brightening, Jyuushirou gently instructed, “Now, please hold still a moment.” With that, his hand glowed with green light and as Hanshi-sama had done for him two days before, he gently laid his palm on her diaphragm. With a slow, soothing rolling release of reiatsu, he formed a complex kaidou and sent it softly into her sternum. She gasped as the spell disappeared into her form and bound itself into her reishi, and her wintry reiryoku surged in happy response.

Shunsui was silently awed and proud as he watched his soul brother, his interactions with Rukia-chan bringing back memories of how Jyuushirou once tamed wilful, rowdy and violent shinigami fighters one garrison after another. With the difference now that Jyuushirou had become a Hanshi Healer in his own right.

“There.” The green light of the kaidou faded. Jyuushirou laid his hand gently on Rukia-chan’s shoulder. “Better?”

“I feel like I’ve just eaten three meals!” she reported with wonder.

Jyuushirou smiled. “I made it to last for seven days. You should be able to return to light duty by the end of the week.”

“Thank you, Taichou!” Turning to her brother-in-law, she said, “Nii-sama, I shall pack immediately. Do I see you at home?”

Byakuya inclined his head once in wordless reply, then watched her depart to where Abarai-kun stood solemnly waiting.

Delighted speculation rose in Shunsui as he watched Abarai-kun solicitously place his arm around her and disappear them into shunpo. He would bet his best sake that the two young souls would be married within the decade, no matter how infatuated the young woman seemed to be with Kurosaki-kun at the moment. Jyuushirou caught his look and raised his own brows in amusement. He opened his lips to speak when he was interrupted.

“Senpai.”

It was Byakuya again. He was looking at Jyuushirou impassively.

Jyuushirou waited expectantly.

“I noticed you did not ask for my agreement to commence my sister on leadership training,” observed the young Kuchiki lord, his deep modulated voice sedate and calm.

Shunsui tensed, and felt Jyuushirou’s frame beside him still.

“I thank you for not objecting,” Jyuushirou replied carefully.

The dark head shook slightly and that impassive slate-grey stare lowered momentarily. “I… apologize. That was not what I meant. I meant that you… you did not have to ask, because you see in her what I never saw.” Byakuya lifted his head and looked squarely at Jyuushirou again, with the noble strength that he was born with. “I have never witnessed how you managed her development. Now I have. There is much I have just seen, and they are giving me deep thoughts. I thank you.”

Wordlessly, Jyuushirou inclined his head in acknowledgement.

“There is also another matter,” their young colleague went on. “Renji informs me that he wishes to take another rotation in the Living World. Is this regular? He completed his rotation nearly fifty years ago.”

Jyuushirou considered for a heartbeat. “Perhaps we should wait until we hear what Genryuusai-sensei announces later before we decide,” he suggested kindly. “But I shall keep his wish in mind. And if there is no obstacle, I shall support his application.”

“Thank you.” Inclining his head once, Byakuya gazed wordlessly at Jyuushirou for a heartbeat, before his form flickered and vanished.

“Yare, yare. I can’t remember the last time he spoke this much or this nicely to you,” Shunsui remarked wryly.

Dark eyes glimmered at him with humour. “You do not believe his sincerity?”

“I believe you’re too compassionate for your own good when it comes to people you care about,” he replied honestly.

Jyuushirou merely raised a brow at him. “I find myself eager to receive Ichigo-kun’s call, if only to know if he will forgive me when he realises the truth. Will you call this compassionate, or self-serving?”

“No one can ever accuse you of being self-serving, Amai’take.” He gently grasped the wide slope of one slender shoulder and squeezed in reassurance.

His assurance brought a soft smile to Jyuushirou’s small sculpted lips. It quickly faded, however, as seriousness took over his mien. “There is time before the assembly,” he said softly. “I shall go to the archives now and get started, for there is much to discover, and my promise to you last night to keep. Let us meet later at the hall?”

Shunsui knew better than to ask to accompany his soul brother. He never fully grasped the exact nature of the Daireishin, but long experience had taught him that whenever Jyuushirou worked the sentient repository, he needed his full concentration. And that included not having Shunsui around to distract him.

“I will see you later, then,” he affirmed, then reminded, “Remember not to overstrain yourself.”

Dark eyes warmed with silent promise. 

# # # # # #

The taichou office of the Twelfth Division seemed to have been permanently relocated to the main research office of the Gijutsukaihatsu Kyoku. However, the research institute’s corridors and premises were so bustling and full of white lab-coated shinigami running to and from between incomprehensible experiments laden with precarious piles of research materials that Shunsui decided to simply go to where the taichou office was originally located. He entered the deserted room, which was still furnished for use by an actively serving taichou but had a fine layer of dust coating everything. The furnishings were of a style in the Living World which humans would consider as Western, but to Shunsui’s eyes it looked completely sterile, the warm tasteful touches of décor that he remembered from when Kirio was running the division now long gone. He knew the true culprit for stripping the room into sterility was Kurotsuchi, for in the ten years Kisuke-kun had commanded the division he had simply not bothered with appearance and left Kirio’s décor to the accumulation of grime.

There was, however, a rather clean settee beside a bookcase full of books whose titles Shunsui had no hope of even coming close to understanding. Unfurling his reiatsu just a notch to announce his arrival, he settled onto the leather cushion, taking off his hat and removing Katen Kyoukotsu. Placing them on the seat beside him, he crossed one bare ankle over his knee and waited.  

He did not have to wait long.

The irritation in the answering metallic reiatsu was clear, and he had barely begun to hum his favourite love song when the heavy oak door squeaked opened on little used hinges, and Kurotsuchi entered his office. The scientist’s black-and-white painted skeletal face was perpetually pulled into a lipless grin, but even so Shunsui could see his clear annoyance at finding his seldom-used office invaded.

“You couldn’t have sent a message to meet elsewhere?” Kurotsuchi demanded as soon as he closed the door.

“A room is easier to manage,” Shunsui laconically replied, muttering the incantation for a silencing Bakudou barrier and releasing it over the entire room. “You and I have a lot to discuss. But first, I would like to hear what exactly you reported to Yama-jii and how he reacted.”

The lidless golden eyes stared at him calculatingly as their owner moved to sit behind the large, dusty desk. Blue-nailed pasty white fingertips coming together to rest in a steeple, he said, quite offensively, “Follow if you can, I shan’t waste my time repeating.”

Shunsui merely waited.

“I’ve studied and experimented on two thousand six hundred and sixty-one Quincies. Not one of those test subjects was capable of using the Quincy technique called Ransoutengai, which uses reiryoku to draw reishi from the air and create puppet reishi strings to animate a completely paralysed body. However that ryoka Quincy boy successfully used that technique on himself to break through my zanpakutou’s paralysing stabs. Then he used a Quincy artefact I’d never seen before, a kind of long glove. It draws reishi from the very air to form the Quincy bow and arrows. It was limitless, I had to liquefy completely and escape or be speared to death by his volley of arrows. This is what we have to deal with now, Kyouraku Taichou. A Quincy with highly advanced Quincy techniques completely outside all of the Seireitei’s records. Yamamoto Soutaichou informs me that the Quincy boy lost all his powers due to the use of that glove, but I’m not so sure. I’ve proven that there’s much we still don’t know about Quincies and their powers. What’s to say he can’t regain his powers? If one boy’s family survived our massacre two hundred years ago, then it means our extermination was clearly incomplete. I advised Soutaichou that we should investigate who the boy’s parents are and trace his lineage.” The golden eyes hardened. “But I’m going to need your brother’s help again. Soutaichou dismissed me in quite the fit after I told him he should have killed the father of Quincies one thousand years ago.”

Shunsui froze, an old memory flitting across the forefront of his mind. He had just returned from his final northern campaign then, not yet adjusted to the pace of life in the Seireitei. He had gone in search of Yama-jii in his study one sleepless night, needing to talk. Instead he had chanced upon a painting laying open upon Yama-jii’s office desk, depicting a dark silhouette within a field of fire.

Oblivious to his internal reaction, Kurotsuchi went on speaking. “Don’t you see? That mistake will come back to bite us. Quincies disrupt the balance of souls with their genetic fear of Hollows. They are an aberration to all realms. By letting the original progenitor live, Soutaichou had allowed the threat of imbalance to continue and one day, that threat will rear its head again and retaliate. Soutaichou has to see this. You can disbelieve me but I’m still a shinigami and I’m loyal to my job to keep the balance.” Kurotsuchi’s voice suddenly took on a threatening tone. “Will you get Ukitake Taichou to help me make Soutaichou listen to reason? If it weren’t for our private arrangement, I’ll be asking your brother myself.”

The idea of Kurotsuchi physically going anywhere near Jyuushirou suddenly filled Shunsui with such a sharp revulsion that it immediately brought him out of his old memories. Images of macabre body modifications once again skipped across his imagination and when he answered, he found his own words a little too quick, his tone a little too repulsed. “I’ll speak with him.”

If the sharp-eyed scientist noticed Shunsui’s discomfiture, he let it pass. Instead, he leaned back and steepled his pasty fingers again. “Now that I’ve given you what you want, what about our second deal? Can you donate your reiryoku to my machine?”

Shunsui rubbed his stubble. “I’ve new questions about that.”

Kurotsuchi folded his arms. “What new questions?”

“Have you ever tried an organ transplant on anyone other than yourself?”

A snort replied him. “Of course. I’ve had seven tries with the Nemuri Project-”

“I don’t mean artificial bodies.”

Kurotsuchi stared at him, his golden eyes suddenly shrewd. “You’ve been speaking to Unohana Taichou,” he deduced correctly.

Someday, and soon, Shunsui would like the see Kurotsuchi and Hanshi-sama pair up and observe how they would work together. Their deductive abilities were too uncanny for him to be fully comfortable.

“The answer to your question is no,” Kurotsuchi went on. “I don’t have willing and powerful enough test subjects other than myself.” He leaned forward with interest. “Or perhaps we can include this in our deal. Donate your reiryoku, and I’ll return your favour and grow you your spare organs.”

“I read that a fully grown, living organ is imprinted with the reiryoku of its owner, and will be rejected by another shinigami body,” Shunsui fudged nonchalantly. “Are you certain your machine will properly convert my reiryoku into yours?”

“Well, I won’t know until I test it, correct?” Kurotsuchi returned impatiently. His painted face suddenly brightened with a disturbingly happy light. “Actually, you’ve just given me an idea. If you’re willing to donate your reiryoku, I could start experiments to mass replicate right away. Grow new organs for a controlled group of test subjects, do the transplant, and monitor how the subjects fare. Anyone who is going into organ failure, will be transplanted back with their original organs. I volunteer my cooks. Maybe you can volunteer some officers you don’t like.”

Shunsui was incredulous. “I like all my officers,” he pointed out with double emphasis.

“No issue. I’ll just broadcast a volunteer recruitment exercise to the whole Seireitei.”

Shunsui remained cautious. “Do you have any literature for me to read? Some research. I’m still not quite comprehending it.”

“I’ll have Nemu send them to you. So do we have a deal? I’m not giving out any information unless there’s a deal.”

A thundering pulse began in his heart as Shunsui silently contemplated what he was about to commit himself to.

[May as well get things rolling,] advised Katen Kyoukotsu.

“I’ll give you something more valuable, Mayuri-san,” Shunsui said, deciding to try to avoid cornering himself. “I’ll get you the support of Soutaichou to bring your experiments to mass replication. How does that sound?”

“Grandiose,” Kurotsuchi snapped.

Shunsui startled.

“Since you’re not a scientist, I’ll explain in simple terms,” the cranky genius condescended. “Creating a new scientific solution isn’t the same as developing a new zanjutsu technique. You need a disciplined process of trial and error, and controlled studies, before you can even conclude that the creation is safe for mass consumption. You need guinea pigs first. And that’s why I said to test first on a controlled group of test subjects.”

“What if the new organs fail and the transplants of the original organs also fail? Or the test subjects die from organ failures before you can transplant back their original organs? Wouldn’t the test subjects die?” Shunsui protested.

Kurotsuchi gave a look as if Shunsui had lost his senses. “That’s why they’re called test subjects.”

Shunsui blanched. “I can’t support an experiment that subject healthy shinigami to risks of death. We have too few shinigami as it is.”

Kurotsuchi stood up abruptly and headed for the door. “Then we have no deal. The taichou meeting is about to begin. See you around, Kyouraku Taichou. But remember to speak to Ukitake Taichou immediately, or I will. That other subject concerns us all and can’t wait.”

Shunsui watched the irascible scientist walk through the door and slam it shut behind him.

Empty heart, he thought. Give me a little of that, Amai’take.

[Excuse me?] asked Katen Kyoukotsu.

Empty heart of a bamboo. Strength through flexibility. Like Jyuushirou.

[I… see.] A pause, then, [You’re going to need many more empty hearts to deal with this testy savant.]

He sighed. I need a drink first.

[Count me in,] agreed his zanpakutou for once. 

# # # # # #

The Gotei Thirteen, at least those who had been on time, was an uncharacteristically subdued group. Eight taichou and two fukutaichou stood waiting in their usual places assembled according to their alternating divisional positions, the even-numbered divisions lined up in ascending order to the right of the soutaichou’s high-backed chair, and the odd-numbered divisions lined up in ascending order to its left.

But Yama-jii was late.

And Jyuushirou still had not arrived.

Shunsui deliberately relaxed into his customary position, firmly keeping his hands folded inside his sleeves. It was a given that Yama-jii was not always punctual, but Jyuushirou was seldom tardy for taichou assemblies unless delayed or otherwise occupied. The only reason Shunsui could think of for delaying his soul brother was that he had discovered something in the archives, and it was holding him up. Shunsui could be at the Daireishokairou in a few shunpo strides and get his answers in a few heartbeats, but that would just incur Jyuushirou’s annoyance at being distracted from his delicate task. Thus, Shunsui forced his nerves to settle.

It could also be that he was feeling rather cranky himself. He continued to ignore the repeated angry glances from Kurotsuchi on his far right. Let him stew, Shunsui decided peevishly. Sooner or later the irascible fellow would voluntarily regret calling off their negotiations so abruptly.

However, it was harder to ignore the ire of Hitsugaya-kun, whose position in the assembly line-up made him an unfortunate unwitting bystander to Shunsui’s wordless tiff with Kurotsuchi. The child prodigy taichou had arrived directly from his hospital room, his bandages still visible above his collar, and was now standing even more stiffly than his recovering wounds warranted, his boyish expression rife with irritation at Kurotsuchi’s continuing volley of venomous glares over the top of his white spikey head. Shunsui gave him a helpless smile and tipped the brim of his hat in silent apology, and in answer the turquoise eyes rolled, mollified but still aggravated.

“That… ruffian,” came the disapproving mutter of Byakuya on Shunsui’s left.

Shunsui glanced at the young noble lord on his immediately left. Byakuya’s slate-grey eyes were narrowed at the far end of the opposite row, farthest away from Yama-jii’s empty chair. Shunsui followed the direction of his hostile stare and had to suppress a grin.

Zaraki Kenpachi was standing in his customary place, but his hulking form was unusually still and his face lax, clearly having fallen asleep on his feet. If the monstrous lug was attempting jinzen on his own, he had obviously failed. Not only had he fallen into somnolence, he had done so leaving his violent reiatsu leaking. Hisagi-kun, on Zaraki’s immediate right, was shifting and grimacing from his direct proximity to the suffocating pressures. Noticing the youngster’s discomfiture, Komamura-san took a step to his right, and Hisagi-kun immediately moved right as well, placing a little more space between himself and the snoozing Kenpachi.

It was heartening to see the giant wolfman take the youngster under his wing, despite nursing visible grief on his canine face. Hisagi-kun had always struck Shunsui as being mature and calm beyond his years, but right now he looked like a fish out of water. His youthful tattooed face bore visible emotional wounds from Tousen’s betrayal, and his nervousness at his lack of rank and power among the surrounding taichou-class powers was clear to see. Kira-kun on the other side of Komamura-san was faring little better, plied with the additional guilt of having aided Ichimaru. The two young ones were physically clustered close like wolf pups to Komamura-san, whose canine face was more poignantly human than all the human faces present.

Then a familiar burning fiery reiatsu lit on the edges of Shunsui’s senses, and he settled his nerves in preparation for the imminent arrival of Yama-jii. His slight shift in demeanour was picked up by Byakuya and Hitsugaya-kun, who followed suit and straightened in anticipation. Finally, the thudding of a walking stick began to sound through the halls, and silence fell quickly.

In a few heartbeats, Yama-jii entered the hall.

Shunsui stared.

Yama-jii thumped towards his tall chair. Sasakibe-san, the only fukutaichou who regularly attended taichou assemblies, was following closely on his heels. To any other, the soutaichou of the Gotei Thirteen appeared as latently powerful and unperturbed as always. But to Shunsui, the ancient wizened demeanour was at once outraged, angered, worried and resolved, and the hunched bearded frame stooped with more weariness than he had ever seen. He felt the reiatsu of Hanshi-sama surge in concern.

He watched in silent uneasiness as Yama-jii reached his tall chair at the head of the assembly, Sasakibe-san a mere arm’s length behind him. There was just that little bit of hesitation as the hunched figure lowered onto the seat, before settling down with both wrinkled hands clasping the top of the gnarled walking stick. Sasakibe-san fell into his usual place behind the tall chair, but he had placed himself just that little bit more closer than usual. Then it was as if Shunsui had imagined glimpsing all those minute differences, for they vanished as the familiar inscrutable mask came down over the wizened visage and those red eyes scoured the two rows of assembled shinigami commanders with its usual unreadable gaze.

Jyuushirou had still not shown up.

A few sets of concerned eyes wandered to the vacant position, but Yama-jii merely ran his red eyes past the empty spot. He held Shunsui’s gaze momentarily, then began speaking.

“Ukitake Taichou is pardoned from this assembly,” he announced in his gravelly voice, his powerful timbre booming against the silencing Bakudou barriers sealing the hall.

It woke Zaraki up.

“As all of you know, two days ago Unohana Taichou exposed Aizen’s treachery. He murdered the entire Central Forty-Six Chamber and impersonated them, played us for complete fools with fake edicts,” Yama-jii began in his gravelly voice. Then with a burst of fiery reiatsu that singed every sense present, growled, “He caused me to nearly execute my own sons. That, I will never forgive.”

Eyes glanced at Shunsui and the vacant spot where Jyuushirou customarily stood.

“Yesterday, the true extent of Aizen’s crimes began to surface. Kyouraku Taichou and I commenced separate investigations, and both of us were led to the Daireishokairou, more precisely, to the entrance of the Daireishin archives.”

Eyes widened in shock throughout the assembly.

“What we discovered is very grave and places the very government of Soul Society in extreme danger. Aizen had broken into our most closely guarded sanctum of all our secrets, tampered with the reiatsu locks I personally designed and installed during the creation of the Daireishin, and locked us out completely. He removed all our reiatsu signatures to the point where the Daireishin no longer recognises us.”  

“How dare he!” exploded Soi Fon.

“Aizen’s treachery knows no bounds!” snarled Komamura-san with fury.

Hisagi-kun and Kira-kun physically cringed under the backlash of all the taichou-class reiatsu. If Gotei shinigami these days were conditioned into venerating Central Forty-Six Chamber officials as royal mandate bearers of the Soul King, when it came to the Daireishokairou, their reverence reached a petrifying fever pitch and among some, a near superstitious fervour. It did not help that throughout the history of the Gotei, Yama-jii resorted to using the archives only in the direst of circumstances, and always emerged armed with miraculous new knowledge that turned certain doom to victory. The effect of his news was akin to telling worshippers that their most sacred and holy place had been desecrated by someone whom they reviled.

“Aizen overestimates himself if he believes he can bar me permanently from my own creation,” Yama-jii grated harshly, each of his gravelly word pounding through the reiatsu reverberating through the hall. “Last night I reversed his tampering and restored our access. At my instructions, Ukitake Taichou commenced investigations in the archives. But when he entered it this morning, the first thing he found was six desiccated corpses wearing the robes of the Central Forty-Six judicial office. The bodies are now beyond physical recognition, but their robes identified them as the six judges of the Chamber. Ukitake Taichou further found that all Daireishin records of Aizen’s existence, his thoughts, his deeds and all traces of what he was doing in the archives, destroyed, burned by blunt reiatsu forces. All records of Aizen’s dealings with Ichimaru Gin and Tousen Kaname are also gone, destroyed in the same way. Similarly all records of Aizen’s dealings with the Chamber are no longer viable. Even as I speak to you now, Ukitake Taichou is repairing the damage. Since this morning, he has joined his reiryoku to the Daireishin, and shall continue to be merged with the being until the damage is reversed.”

Shunsui stared at Yama-jii, his blood running cold. Not again. Joining himself with that sentient thing to operate its circuits was effortless for Jyuushirou, but to do so in order to repair it… as little as Shunsui knew about the Daireishin, he knew more than enough what this meant. Around him, emotions were escalating into abject anger and outrage, and enraged growls were rolling forth from Komamura-san, joining the furiously swelling waves of combined reiatsu that were beginning to vibrate the walls and floor of the hall. Shunsui could hardly heed them for the worry and anxiety seizing his heart, the phantom terror in his arms as they tightly cradled Jyuushirou’s weakened perspiring body, the burning pain of his sense memory of savagely breaking a soul-jarring elemental connection. Distantly he felt anxiety burst forth from the thick viscous reiatsu of Hanshi-sama, but he was too frozen to respond.

Hanshi-sama controlled herself enough to speak up. “Under normal conditions, desiccation of a corpse would take a few years of exposure to extremely dry conditions.”

“Under normal circumstances, yes,” Yama-jii replied. “However, Ukitake Taichou determined that the reiatsu traces remaining in the bodies are all recent, from one month ago to five days ago. For our late judges to have died leaving behind such dried out husks of their bodies, and reiatsu traces to only as recent as a month ago, there is only one possible explanation. Aizen must have used them intensively as his reiatsu substitutes while he learnt how to operate the archives. He would do this only if he was uncertain that he could survive direct contact with the circuits, if he did not know how the archives worked.”

Hitsugaya-kun, his turquoise eyes now a deadly, freezing aquamarine, asked with deceptive calm, “What was Aizen seeking?”

“The more important implication is how he survived it!” put in the nasally voice of Kurotsuchi. His lidless golden eyes flashed about the assembly with sharp disdain. “Clearly no one here is seeing what this means! Only souls transcended to elder levels are capable of resisting those elemental forces. Anyone else who even puts a finger in will be slowly and torturously consumed alive, the soul forcibly removed from the cycle and never be reincarnated again. It will truly be the end for the foolhardy. So think, you all. When and how did Aizen gain such power? How much power does he truly have? Did he succeed in operating the circuits? What did he find?” His reptilian gaze swung around to Yama-jii, gleaming with a strange triumph. “I’m sure this has occurred to you as well, Soutaichou. We now have an enemy whose reiatsu and knowledge is equal to one of the Pillars of the Gotei!”

“Yes, Kurotsuchi Taichou, we thought of these as soon as we discovered it, thank you for your clear reminder of our extremely precarious situation,” Yama-jii growled sardonically. “There are four elders in the Gotei, and Aizen’s shikai clearly had the ability to hide his true power from even us. Even me.” Red eyes flashing, he added, “Hitsugaya Taichou raised equally critical issues. We need to know what Aizen was searching for, the answer will reveal his motives. And we need all these answers no later than two mornings from now.”

“Aizen deceived us for a full month, perhaps even for years if not centuries,” said Komamura-san with clear worry. “Can we find answers in such a short time?”

“Ukitake Taichou has no option but to meet the deadline,” Yama-jii pronounced direly. “Soul Society is now without government and emergency protocols have been initiated. Six days from today, the new Chamber will be reconstituted and take office. Thirteen days from today, the new Chamber members shall be sworn in officially. Aizen was one of the Gotei, one of us. We can decry him as much as we want as a murderous traitor to the Gotei, but it will not change how we already appear to other government branches. We now look like a weak organisation which could not prevent treachery from among our own ranks, who lack discipline to prevent our problems from fatally spreading to other institutions. When the new Chamber takes office, rest assured that its first task will be to launch an inquisition against the Gotei to hold us responsible for the deaths and manipulations of their predecessors. Next will come decrees and edicts and new laws to limit us and interfere in how we perform our duties as shinigami. We cannot be hampered by internal persecution while we hunt down Aizen Sousuke, Ichimaru Gin and Tousen Kaname. Therefore we need full answers and evidence fast.”

“Even if the circuits can be repaired in time, will the data be still intact?” Kurotsuchi pressed.

“The circuits may be destroyed but the memory of the data is still retained in the Daireishin. Once the circuits are repaired a full copy of the data can be restored completely. The only way to accomplish this within such a short time is for Ukitake Taichou to infuse his own reiryoku into the Daireishin and reset the pathways from within the living core itself.”

“Soutaichou, is Senpai doing this alone? Repairing the archives is a major feat,” Byakuya spoke up, his eyes and deep voice perceptibly hard.

“He’ll be drained completely,” Shunsui added with barely contained anxiety, no longer able to stay silent. With thinly veiled sharpness he referred to their promises yesterday. “We’ll be prematurely burning out one of our strongest even before the final battle.”

Red eyes glowering, Yama-jii visibly kept a rein on his temper as he replied, “Jyuushirou has far more strength than even I can fathom. But I note your concern. Follow Unohana Taichou and I to the Daireishin immediately after this assembly. He has indicated he will have the first findings ready for our update. You can see for yourself then that he is well.”

Zaraki looked around. “I’ma fighter notta scholar like our sickly wee purdy fren. But if I were fightin’ someone who puts all his power in one arm, dat’ll be an easy take down. Seems ta me we’re puttin’ too much on a buildin’ dat can be broken into or destroyed. Donch we have ‘nother archive or library somewhere? Search Aizen’s old office? Some other places which can give a clue?”

“Aizen’s office is clean of evidence that incriminates him,” informed Hitsugaya-kun. “I made a thorough search when he was supposedly murdered. His private libraries and quarters bear nothing except things that support an image of a loyal, friendly taichou of the Gotei. His masquerade was complete.” Turning to Yama-jii, he requested, “Soutaichou, I seek permission to search the offices and private quarters of Ichimaru Gin and Tousen Kaname as well. I doubt they’ll turn up anything for I’m certain the two of them have been coached into extreme meticulousness in concealing themselves. But we must still be sure.”

“Permission granted,” said Yama-jii with approval. “Kira Fukutaichou, Hisagi Fukutaichou, you shall both assist Hitsugaya Taichou.”

“I will not waste our resources searching the Kuchiki Archives,” Byakuya spoke, his deep modulated voice barely concealing disdain as his slate-grey eyes stared with criticism at Zaraki. “No other repository in Soul Society can keep up with the Daireishin. As a Gotei taichou you ought to know why we call it the living archives and our highest bastion of truth and knowledge. It is not an inanimate building or storage. It is sentient. It sees and records every thought and action of every living soul, whether or not that soul allows it or knows it. It feels nothing for the subject, hence what it observes and records of the subject is incorruptible and perfectly unbiased. By the time our scribes enter similar records into the Kuchiki Archives, the information is not only outdated, they also lack the same degree of details and objectivity.”

“Unfortunately I find Zaraki’s point to be a pertinent one,” disagreed Kurotsuchi. “I’ll review my databanks and all my security recordings and personnel logs. Not that I need to, my databanks are extremely well fortified with state-of-the-art security. But if Aizen has been fooling everyone with illusions, I want to be sure he hadn’t impersonated me or one of my staff to breach my information stores.” Then his golden eyes gleamed as he snidely added, “How strange that the only one among us who sees our obvious strategic weakness is an illiterate roughneck who understands the world only through violence. Soutaichou, since Ukitake Taichou is in there being a living battery for the Daireishin, perhaps he can divide up the archives so that we don’t keep all our secrets in one place?”

“And where else do you propose is more secure than behind my Bakudou, Kurotsuchi Taichou?” asked Yama-jii with dangerous calm. “Or are you suggesting that I transfer part of the Daireishin archives into your control in the databanks of the Twelve?”

Soi Fon snorted. “That will be Mayuri’s dream, Soutaichou.”

“I do believe I have the most impregnable non-arcane security system in Soul Society,” declared Kurotsuchi, his gall drawing incredulous stares.

“I do believe you wish to die by incineration,” muttered Komamura-san beneath his breath. His canine larynx was so naturally robust, however, that all heard him like a pin dropping in dead silence.

“When you have proven to me that your most impregnable system is capable of breaching my Bakudou, then perhaps I shall consider it,” grated Yama-jii. “But now is not the time to play with science. We are facing external and internal threats right now. Focus on these. Since you have so helpfully volunteered, Kurotsuchi Taichou, prioritise your search for information on the Hougyoku while you review your systems. None of us knew that the Hougyoku existed until Aizen pulled it from the soul of Kuchiki Rukia before witnesses, so we must educate ourselves from scratch about this power orb.”

Red eyes igniting with a fiery light, his gravel tone reverberated with power as he declared, “As the Gotei, we must answer for allowing one of ours to cause such destruction. However, that is all we will answer for. I will not allow a fair prosecution under the law to descend into political persecution and revenge, but mark my words, that is what will happen if we do not act now to prevent another internal strife. One period of civil wars in our history is more than enough. We sacrificed too much to end it, and I refuse to allow us to repeat our costly mistakes. This past week disrupted many of our most fundamental beliefs, and if there is one thing which has become absolutely clear to me, it is that the future of the balance and Soul Society is best tended by those who give their blood and lives to uphold it. Aizen is at large and planning unknown evil. We cannot plan our countermoves without knowing his final objectives. Much now hinges on what Ukitake Taichou discovers after the archives are restored. It will not be long now. In the meantime, I am proceeding on the assumption that Aizen has left accomplices lurking in Soul Society, and that his treachery runs even deeper than what we have uncovered so far. It is entirely possible that he had infiltrated even the clans and the successors to the Chamber. As such, I have already begun our first offensives.”

“Yesterday, at my command the First and Second Divisions took complete control of all security protocols of the entire Central Forty-Six Compound. Administration process was completed this morning and from today onwards, the Onmitsukidou is wholly ceded to the Gotei and no longer serves any other branch of Soul Society’s leadership. The first task of the Onmitsukidou shall be to establish permanent security and protection over the Compound and the Chamber, and take complete charge of the safety and peace of all who reside and work in the Compound and serve the Chamber. By the end of today, the entire Chamber and those who serve it shall become wholly dependent on the Gotei for their safety and peace. At my command Ukitake Taichou shall complete revoking all access of the Chamber to the Daireishokairou, and all Chamber members and those who serve them shall no longer have rights, means or tools to our bastion of information and knowledge. These measures shall continue until Aizen has been hunted down and brought to justice and we are no longer threatened by him and his conspirators. If any of his accomplices attempts to undermine us again, or strike at us, we shall know immediately. To ensure Aizen does not try to compromise our pursuit of him, I have commanded the Onmitsukidou to protect all Gotei officers charged with hunting him down, beginning with assigning protection detail to Ukitake Taichou whenever he is working within the Daireishokairou. Are there any questions?”

There were none. There could not be, for the ruthless intent rolling forth in searing tongues of reiatsu from tall chair were suffocating all but the elders. Save for Hanshi-sama, Sasakibe-san and Shunsui himself, none present in the hall were old enough to have experienced a Yama-jii marshalling their forces for a counterattack.

When Yama-jii spoke again, it was to issue a whirlwind of commands.

“Kuchiki Taichou, you will act as auxiliary to Kyouraku Taichou and myself to deal with the new Chamber. Most of the new officials are direct successors of their deceased predecessors and are from the noble clans and their vassals. Your most immediate task is to gather and analyse information on the current state of affairs among the clans and their vassals, specifically those with members who are scheduled to be appointed to the new Chamber, and those with past members who had served the Chamber. We need to know the political stance and leanings of each of these clans, who their rivals are, their ambitions and objectives. Soi Fon Taichou has been instructed to support you with provision of espionage expertise. I have endorsed Kyouraku Taichou proposal that the Gotei hold official ceremonies to return the bodies of the late Chamber members to their families and organise a Seireitei-wide mourning period. Unohana Taichou is leading this and shall need your advice on the key Chamber successors to involve. Our objective is to do as much as we can to distract the Chamber’s successors so that we can prolong our window of time for us to consolidate our authority.”

Then Yama-jii looked at Shunsui and formally, commanded, “Kyouraku Taichou, you shall take charge to increase our defence capabilities with Komamura Taichou as your auxiliary. In the event that we face an armed insurgency from the clans supporting the new Chamber officials, we must be ready with a suppression strategy that is as peaceful and as non-violent as possible. You shall also head the Fifth Division for the time that Hinamori Fukutaichou remains indisposed.”

Shunsui inclined his head in acknowledgement.

Next, the heavy white-browed red eyes scoured down the assembled rows until they fixed on the Kenpachi. “Zaraki Taichou, the Eleventh has the largest fighting force of the Gotei, but your capabilities lie exclusively in close quarter brute force melee combat. This is a relic from the early history of the Gotei when we used such capabilities to quell localised pockets of insurgencies in the early provinces of the Rukongai. Now there is peace beyond the Seireitei walls, so you shall focus on our internal security for the time in support of Kyouraku Taichou. Your first task is to train and discipline all your squad members to accept and fight alongside kidou-based combat techniques. If I hear so much as a peep from any of your squadron belittle anyone with this power, that person shall answer directly to me. Your second task is to begin melee zanjutsu training for all ground combat units of all divisions, not only the Eleventh. Are you clear?”

“As day,” growled the Kenpachi, clearly disgruntled but complying, nonetheless.

“All divisions shall lend their military power according to the strategy set after Kyouraku Taichou has cleared it with me. This is no time for us to place our individual rivalry above the Gotei. Anyone who does will get a roasting and be removed from command. Am I clear?”

No one dared speak a word as the gravelly voice echoed throughout the hall.

With a thud of his gnarled walking stick, Yama-jii straightened. “I now come to our next tasks. To triumph over what lie ahead of us, we must fully utilise all our advantages. Kami gifted us with a new external ally whose powers took even Aizen by surprise, therefore we must create a strong alliance with Kurosaki Ichigo. In this regard, I have instructed Ukitake Taichou to issue Kurosaki Ichigo with a modified Daikoushou Shinigami Daikou based on our only law on this matter. Ukitake Taichou has full authority and management over this. I have further taken counsel with him and our laws regarding this device will subsequently be improved. To better enable Ukitake Taichou to modify our laws regarding this device, each of you shall report to him your findings and thoughts as you work with Kurosaki Ichigo. Due to the history of the daikoushou, I understand some of you may have reservations. Speak now and let us resolve it, or your silence here and now shall be recorded as your agreement.”

“Ukitake Taichou explained it fully this morning,” said Komamura-san. “That is all I need. I give him my full support.” His statement drew affirmative nods from Hisagi-kun, and a heartbeat later, from Kira-kun.

“Will’it make Ichigo stronger?” rumbled the Kenpachi, an interested glint in his only visible green eye.

“If you had shown up this morning, you would have heard that it is meant to help develop Ichigo’s powers,” Byakuya shot with barely concealed annoyance.

“Da means it’ll make him stronger. Good. Da’sall I need ta know.” With a snort back at the young Kuchiki lord, Zaraki settled back in satisfaction.

“I did not have the chance to get to know Kurosaki Ichigo during this week, but my prime concern is the safety and welfare of Soul Society,” spoke Hitsugaya-kun. “From what I have heard, I understand that Kurosaki Ichigo is not Ginjou Kyuugo. Since Soutaichou has given full authority to Ukitake Taichou for this matter, I shall support Ukitake Taichou and trust in him fully.”

More nods of assent followed the statement of Hitsugaya-kun.

“Then we are all of the same mind on this matter,” Yama-jii grunted with satisfaction. He continued, “Hitsugaya Taichou, I am appointing you as Auxiliary Commander of Living World Affairs. You have had experience with Naruki City under the jurisdiction of the Tenth, and it is time you expand your experience to the rest of the Living World, beginning with Karakura Town. I will be needing Ukitake Taichou in close inner counsel with me from now on, and he conveys his welcome for your assistance to lift some of his burden in overseeing Living World Affairs. Your first task, is to submit for his consideration a strategy for how we can best utilise our alliance with Kurosaki Ichigo. Do you accept this appointment?”

“Gladly, Soutaichou,” rang Hitsugaya-kun’s response, accompanied by a firm, brisk nod.

Satisfied, Yama-jii turned to Kurotsuchi and his mien immediately tightened. “Kurotsuchi Taichou, in addition to your search on the Hougyoku, provide me with an update of all innovations you have made that could improve our troops’ fighting capabilities, including those in the medical field. You shall collaborate with Unohana Taichou on this last area. And while I hear and understand your report regarding the reappearance of the Quincies, until we have made progress hunting down Aizen, I cannot prioritise it just yet. However, send me a succinct report so that I may mull over it in between our pressing matters. Do you hear?”

“I hear, Soutaichou,” answered Kurotsuchi, sounding mollified. His golden eyes shot Shunsui a conciliatory look of acknowledgement.

Shunsui pretended he had kept his end of their private bargain and nodded in return. He might not have gotten Jyuushirou to persuade Yama-jii to pay attention to the crochety genius as he had promised, but what he had done instead achieved the same results.

With a final harrumph, Yama-jii rose to his feet. He gave them all a last scathing look, and commanded, “Each of you, commence your tasks immediately. We shall convene two mornings from now. But be prepared that I may call our next assembly sooner. Retsu, Shunsui, let us look in on Jyuushirou. This assembly is now dismissed.” With that, he turned and thumped in long strides out of the hall, Sasakibe-san on his heels.

No one except Shunsui, and Hanshi-sama, detected the unusual haste the hunched figure was making. Catching her worried blue gaze, they exchanged a wordless look, then taking deceptively sedate but very, very long strides, chased after Yama-jii’s quickly vanishing form. 

# # # # # #

Shunsui dropped out of shunpo into the courtyard of the Daireishokairou, one heartbeat after Yama-jii, landing on the smooth stone ground several feet outside the main entrance. The place appeared as deserted as it had been yesterday morning, except that Shunsui’s periphery vision detected numerous slinking shadows flitting out of sight at their arrival, and his senses burned with the fiery zing of Yama-jii’s personal brand of the Kyoumon he had pulled over the entire building.

Away from the eyes of the Gotei now, his old sensei was clearly hurrying, his bald, hunched form vanishing through the main entrance in a blink.

Shunsui pursued him, Hanshi-sama at his back.

The Sekkiseki walls, now reinforced and layered with Yama-jii’s Kyoumon spells, had completely disguised the tumultuous energies within. As soon as Shunsui passed through the burning sensation of the Kyoumon, an invisible force jarred him to his soul and his bones and joints, catching him completely off guard. The hostile discordant vibrations were a complete antithesis to the indifferent collected calm of yesterday. The quasi sentience was now frenzied, and angry, its hushed tranquillity gone.

It felt like the Daireishin was trying to repel them.

Cacophonous flashes of yellow and blue-white lights strobed through the cavernous vaults overhead, sometimes crossing, sometimes mixing, with no discernible pattern or rhythm. Shunsui squinted his eyes and traced their chaotic flashes until his gaze fell upon the archives’ entrance. That nondescript door was standing slightly ajar, opening inwards. The anarchic light show and energies were spilling forth from around its dark wooden edges, accompanied by a dull thrumming sound just below hearing level.

This was the source of the grating tumultuous forces. The energies were erupting from the gap in all directions into the outer halls, burgeoning up into the shadows high overhead and pounding down through the stone floors beneath their feet.

He silently gritted his teeth against the sour, soul-aching sensation. Beside him, Hanshi-sama tightened her face.

Yama-jii, however, showed no sign of being affected. He gestured for them to hasten as he strode down the main thoroughfare. “Jyuushirou must be realigning the circuits,” he told them, his gravelly voice tight with urgency. “Come. He has been immersed for many hours.”

They hurriedly followed on his heels as he seemed to all but glide straight down the wide aisle directly towards the massive Sekkiseki column in the centre, the thumping of his walking stick echoing through the vaulted space. He was banging his stick louder than usual, as if deliberately announcing his arrival by sound instead of by reiatsu. Shunsui almost crashed into his back when he suddenly halted before the partially opened door to the archives.

“Wha-”

“The seals are not yet replaced.” Yama-jii’s heavy brows lifted as he gazed up into the massive white column. Turning sharply to Shunsui, he commanded, “Signal to him. I will not risk damaging the archives with my reiatsu.”

Questions rose in his mind, but Shunsui saved them for later and complied instantly. The urgency in his sensei’s tone brooked no delay. Lowering his reiatsu barrier a tad, he grimaced as more of the aggravating vibrations piled wildly onto his senses. Pointedly ignoring them, he lifted a thin shadowy layer of his own reiatsu and sent it towards the gap between the heavy door panel and its doorframe, seeking the familiar gentle stream of watery reiatsu signature.

He stopped immediately when his senses met a vast undulating current. It heaved against him, smoothly, powerfully, holding back a restless formless undertow beneath its deceptive calm.

The last time he had felt this form of Jyuushirou’s reiatsu was prior to a battle, several hundred years ago.

Then he sensed another presence, a discordant, disorganised mass that swelled unseen everywhere and nowhere at once, pulling towards itself massive flows of reishi from their surroundings in chaotic, disjointed streams, the great invisible suctioning force threatening to pull Shunsui in. He backed out hastily, throwing up his reiatsu barrier, when he suddenly detected the soothing oceanic reiatsu winding in supportive swathes around the distraught anarchic mass, its rhythmic sea-like current sending calming pulses towards the frantic centre, bathing it with peace and assurance…

He snapped back to himself in a rush.

“Well?” Yama-jii pressed immediately, visibly chafing at being unable to use any of his reiatsu.

“We wait, Yama-jii,” Shunsui said to him, gently but implacably. He gestured vaguely at the door. “Something elemental is going on inside, it’s way out of my domain. I poked in long enough for Ukitake to notice, he’ll come out when he’s ready. Just don’t ask me to interrupt because I won’t even know how to, and frankly, I don’t think I should.” He looked askance at his old sensei. “You told the Assembly you reversed Aizen’s tampering of the locks. But that’s untrue, ne? Ukitake’s the one who’s doing all the work here.”

“There is nothing I can do to alleviate the demands on his strength, much as I wish it otherwise,” Yama-jii returned with uncharacteristic tightness in his gravelly tone. “Until such time as I can find a way to break this terrible hold on your older brother, the white lies are necessary. As soon as he even comes near this building, the Daireishin latches on his reiryoku even through his reiatsu barriers. We never made the Daireishin this way, it evolved this preference all on its own volition.” His wizened face darkened. “The rest are not ready to bear the burden of knowing Jyuushirou’s intimate connection to the Daireishin. You saw for yourself Mayuri’s hunger. Whether or not he is loyal to the Gotei, he prioritises enriching his knowledge over all else. Can you imagine the consequences if he knows of your brother?”

Immediately, images of Kurotsuchi strapping Jyuushirou down for macabre and cruel experiments flitted across Shunsui’s mind. He blanched involuntarily.

“Precisely,” Yama-jii said when he noticed Shunsui’s reaction. “Sajin and Soi Fon are uninterested and therefore do not need to know unless we have absolutely no other option. Zaraki simply does not care, hence it is unnecessary for him to know. Byakuya has the temperament to keep strict secrecy but he is too self-absorbed in Kuchiki pride and honour. Over the next few days, if he shows more concern about political issues as he discharges his latest assignment, I may consider him a good candidate.”

“And Hitsugaya Taichou?” asked Hanshi-sama. “Jyuushirou-kun seems to think he makes a good candidate.”

“He appears to be, does he not? Hitsugaya Toushirou has the gravity, the intelligence, calmness, and diligence. His reiryoku is closest in nature to Jyuushirou’s. While he is young yet and has many more centuries to live until his power transcends, he has been steadily learning the ways of the soul and the heart from his duties over Naruki City. In a century, he may be ready to share this burden with us. As I mentioned yesterday, I have given him auxiliary command of Living World Affairs. May this position enlarge his experience speedily.”

“Yama-jii, you support Hitsugaya-kun as successor to Ukitake to this thing, but why do I detect scepticism in your tone?” Shunsui observed.

Sombreness fell over the wizened mien. “Have you never asked why your brother was so fixated on who should become his fukutaichou? Why that position is still vacant today?”

“Hitsugaya Taichou’s reiryoku is the element of ice. But Shiba Fukutaichou’s reiryoku was purely of the element of water, an even closer match to Jyuushirou-kun,” Hanshi-sama put in. She glanced meaningfully at Shunsui. “However, no two reiryoku are exactly alike.”

“Jyuushirou spent five years persuading Shiba Kaien to become his fukutaichou. He spent the next seventy years waiting for his protégé to master bankai,” Yama-jii rumbled. “All precisely because your brother knew Shiba Kaien was the closest match to his power. Yet, even then, he was taking a chance on Shiba Kaien. As I am now taking a chance on Hitsugaya Toushirou.” He laid a gnarled hand on the white wall of the column. “Arcane may not be your forte but even you should know that light and heat are the first two elements of creation, and from their conflict, the third and fourth elements, water and lightning, are born. Light and heat produced fire, the first reiryoku to appear in Soul Society. That is my power. I created the consciousness of the Daireishin, on the belief that the two most primal elements of creation would be enough to feed its development until it became the omnipresent and omniscient sentient being that I envisioned. But I was wrong. My power awakened it, but it could not grow it. For a decade I tried everything to no avail, until it rebelled against my reiatsu. The moment Jyuushirou intervened to build my seals, the Daireishin responded to him in ways it did not respond to me. That was when I knew it had been seeking the third element of water, and the fourth element of lightning. Both which are Jyuushirou’s power. With him, the Daireishin began to flourish. All its circuits today were grown on the base of his reiryoku. It has not accepted any other elemental reiryoku ever since.”

Yama-jii dropped his hand and turned his gaze back on Shunsui. “I might have created the Daireishin, but it has its own mind. Who shall succeed your brother will ultimately be its choice. We can only present likely candidates. Once we had hoped it would accept Shiba Kaien, but alas he did not live long enough for us to test our hopes. We now hope it will be Hitsugaya Toushirou, and only time will tell if our hopes will be answered.”

Thoughts of Kurotsuchi’s reiatsu amplifier and converter flashed through Shunsui’s mind. But just as quickly he decided against mentioning it. There were still too many aspects of the scientist’s inventions he did not yet understand. But the implications were now starkly clear. And worrying.

“This means that until Hitsugaya-kun is accepted by the Daireishin, if we lose Ukitake, there will be none left who can retrieve our connections to the archives if something like this happens again.” Shunsui’s throat tightened.

“Not only our connection, but the power source on which the Daireishin draws on for its primary functions. Believe me, this reality weighs on me heavily each day,” intoned Yama-jii bleakly. “Zaraki pointed out a weakness that has been troubling me for many centuries. I have never shared this worry, but with everything that has happened now, I may even consider taking Mayuri up on his proposal should his systems prove worthy.”

Shunsui forced himself to put the dire realisation aside for the moment and did a mental calculation. Jyuushirou had come here directly from Soukyoku Hill. The taichou assembly took place two hours later, was delayed nearly an hour, and lasted another hour. “Ukitake’s been joined with it for nearly four hours. Is this the first time he has to repair the circuits?”

“Repair work shares similarities with creation work. The Daireishin generates new circuits with infusions of Jyuushirou’s reiryoku, in this sense it is not the first time he is doing this. The difference now is that it has to learn to replace the damaged circuits without disturbing those which are intact. How well and quickly it does this greatly depends on how well it learns what your brother teaches it. It is an extremely delicate process that requires an equally great amount of power.” Ancient red eyes looked intently at Shunsui. “I have not forgotten our discussions yesterday. But we are in a state of emergency. Jyuushirou did not have to think twice before doing what needs to be done. We must honour his decision.”

“Don’t I know it, Yama-jii,” Shunsui sighed. “You’ve always called this a burden. To you it’s the burden of hiding his link to all the secret work you need him for. To me, it’s the burden of making sure between the two of you he isn’t crippled into permanent relapse, even worse, death. Is there anything else you aren’t telling me? Remember we spoke about this yesterday. I need to know everything that’s going on.”

Yama-jii’s wizened expression darkened with what could only be called worried. “What is greatly vexing me right now is we do not know what and how much Aizen has discovered inside the archives. He was part of the Gotei high command, if he had been diligent in keeping up with divisional reports, he will be able to piece two and two together and realise that Jyuushirou is missing from the Daireishin records. If he does so, it is no stretch of imagination to assume that he will be curious and investigate further.”

“And you fear Aizen would have discovered Ukitake’s connection,” Shunsui surmised.

The only response Yama-jii gave were red eyes that burned.

Shunsui tried to quell the fears which had arisen in his guts since last night. He consciously forced down the memories of his conversation with his zanpakutou, and the disturbing precognitive dream that had disrupted his sleep. He needed proof, before he acted.

Fortunately, he was saved from having to speak further on the subject, for Jyuushirou’s oceanic reiatsu undulating on the periphery of their senses chose that moment to shift, and ebb. 

# # # # # #

Like always, Shunsui responded to Jyuushirou, no matter what.

Peeling back his barrier slightly, he carefully stuck out a shadowy tip of his reiatsu.

Instead of the aggravating vibrations, a low thrumming greeted him.

Unfurling his senses a little more, he cast about cautiously. The earlier frenzy of the Daireishin had calmed significantly, its anger mostly mollified. When the sentient being pricked up its figurative ears at his presence, he hurriedly shut the gap in his barrier before he could be detected. His vision swam and then he was back in the library hall, staring into his old sensei’s knowing red eyes, his hasty retreat eliciting a ripple of concern and mild amusement from Jyuushirou’s smoothly heaving reiatsu.

Shunsui grunted and regained his composure. Jyuushirou’s reiatsu continued to ebb and thin until it divided into rivulets, the rivulets coagulating until they gathered into one single river, the single river further thinning until it once again became the gently flowing stream as familiar to him as his own soul. The blue-white lightning flashes from beyond the door receded in tandem, as the yellow light calmed and dimmed into regular pulsing flickers. Then the wooden door of the archives began swinging inwards.

Thick, white clouds of condensation billowed forth, the dense whirling mists obscuring the doorway until a shadow began forming, becoming a tall slender silhouette which quickly resolved into the lithe white form of Jyuushirou as he stepped through in a swirl of power, long white hair windblown and pale skin glistening, blue-white reiatsu fading from his dark eyes. Emerging fully into the hall, he smoothly and firmly pulled the door shut behind him with a soft thud, cutting off the elemental energies instantly. Hushed tranquillity fell at once into the hall, and his attention immediately riveted onto them as his reiatsu vanished behind his barriers.

In two steps, Shunsui was before him, shamelessly crowding the slighter frame with his greater height and bulk until Jyuushirou’s slender form backed up against the wooden door, his fine angular face rising to look into Shunsui’s eyes. Clasping the haori-clad biceps, feeling the lithe muscles beneath his hands, Shunsui held his soul brother still as his senses scanned the lean body and the reiryoku beneath. “Yama-jii said you joined with the Daireishin. It’s been four hours,” he rasped. “How’re you holding up?”

“I am well,” Jyuushirou murmured, slightly surprised by Shunsui’s unusual public display of physical dominance.

Shunsui anxiously combed his gaze over the fair skin, seeing the thin sheen of perspiration, the sweat-dampened long white bangs slicked onto one high cheekbone, the drenched white collar of the shitagi. Strands of moistened snowy hair were slicked messily about the pale ivory throat. The reiryoku beneath his senses, however, felt vast, substantial and powerful, the familiar watery reiatsu peacefully and steadily flowing. The alabaster complexion was only slightly pale. Slightly.

Jyuushirou looked no worse for wear.

Yet.

Dark eyes patient and reassuring beneath Shunsui’s scrutiny, the pale delicately angular features warmed with pleased understanding as Shunsui spilled his heart into his gaze.

“I am well,” Jyuushirou softly repeated, then with a lopsided teasing grin, added, “But how about you? You retreated from the Daireishin rather hastily.”

Shunsui relaxed minutely, but grimaced at the soft jibe. “I’d rather not give it time to remember what I used to do to it,” he admitted.

“It may not like you but it will not harm you,” Jyuushirou chided with a gentle smile.

“I’ll take your word for it, but I still prefer not to push my luck.” Once more Shunsui scanned his eyes across the fine features looking up at him. “Are you certain you’re well? Yama-jii told us.” He shuddered involuntarily. “You’ve been working in there the whole morning right next to dried out corpses!”

Jyuushirou’s amusement faded instantly. “I am unaffected. The bodies are too desiccated to smell or decompose further so they no longer bother me. We do not have time to wait until they are removed for me to begin work.” Pity and horror rose in his fine features. “They were used as living shields until they were utterly consumed, Kyouraku. I cannot imagine dying in such a manner. No matter how estranged we are from the Chamber, I will never wish such a death on my worst enemy.” He patted Shunsui’s chest consolingly. “Please let me up, there is much I need to explain.”

Reluctantly, Shunsui withdrew his hands and stood aside, following as Jyuushirou made his way towards Yama-jii and Hanshi-sama, who had allowed them a moment of privacy.

“Sensei, Senpai, I apologise for my delay,” Jyuushirou began in his deep lyrical tenor. “It took me quite a while, but the Daireishin has finally settled down. Aizen gave it quite the scare.”

“Are you well, Jyuushirou?” Yama-jii’s red eyes were intently scanning him.

Jyuushirou inclined his head. “I am well, Sensei. The Daireishin did not take as much out of me this time as we initially thought it would, I shall explain shortly. The good news is that we have successfully repaired the circuits containing records from the last six months, for we need that information most urgently. We have also compiled summaries of all the searches Aizen performed during the past month. Both these sets of information are now ready for your viewing.”

We?” Yama-jii asked.

“Yes, we, the Daireishin and I,” Jyuushirou confirmed, his dark eyes suddenly sparking with excitement and awe. “A fundamental change has taken place, Sensei. This morning is the first time in all of its existence that I could observe it in its entirety without the seals obscuring parts of it. I saw clear signs that the Daireishin passed the final level of its development. It now has a fully formed perspective and sense of self, it can feel a wide range of emotions like a fully formed soul, in other words it has become truly sentient, as you envisioned all those centuries ago. While it took one and a half thousand years, it is now a proper new soul. You have created a new soul, Genryuusai-sensei.

Yama-jii’s red eyes widened in surprised wonder.

“It will continue to teach itself from what it observes and records and from its interactions with us. I will not be surprised if one day in the future, we find it manifesting an avatar,” Jyuushirou concluded, wonder lighting his delicately chiselled features.

The news sank in, momentarily distracting them from their urgent worries. A new soul…

“Does this mean it’s now a new life?” Shunsui was curious.

“Not in the sense that we understand it,” Jyuushirou explained. “For it needs neither rest nor sustenance, only an occasional infusion of my power. But in its own class, yes, we can call it a new life.” Then his brightness dimmed, and with worry, informed, “I will need more time to determine when exactly this change took place. For now, we can safely assume that when Aizen broke in one month ago, he encountered a Daireishin that had outgrown the protocols and algorithm we designed for it. It was how he could fool the Daireishin with the illusions of his shikai and done what he did.”

What?” Yama-jii burst with a fiery flare of shock.

Jyuushirou’s expression darkened. “If I had not known better, I would have thought that it was you, Sensei, who was working daily in the archives for the past month. I further found traces of Aizen’s reiatsu in the six corpses, and vestiges of soul-linking kidou spells through all of them. Clearly, Aizen forcibly linked the souls of our late Chamber judges to his own as his extensions, then impersonated himself and them as you, Sensei. I doubt he knew that his shikai would work before he attempted this. Most likely, he must have been surprised when the Daireishin proved to be susceptible to the illusions and mental suggestions of his shikai. He fooled the Daireishin into thinking he and the six judges were you, and ordered the erasure of all three of your access rights. In the process of that, he discovered the seals. Since they contained receptors to your reiatsu, he must have understood their importance hence ordered the Daireishin to reject them.”

“But how is that possible? This is a reiatsu lock, and reiatsu cannot be faked,” Hanshi-sama objected.

“Indeed, reiatsu cannot be faked. If the Daireishin had been completely free to manage its own security access, it would have immediately detected Aizen’s deception, no matter how much the illusion appeared identical to Sensei’s reiatsu. This is why I said that our protocols and algorithm were no longer adequate. The Daireishin has to obey our lock protocol, and our protocol does not give it any independent means of verifying the authenticity of the reiatsu presented to it. Aizen’s illusion should not have worked, for our locking protocol would have been unable to verify his false reiatsu against your signatures stored in the core memory. However, the Daireishin had developed its own perception, and in its belief that our lock protocol was wrong, it chose to disobey its commands and gave him access. The Daireishin’s maturity became its weakness against Aizen’s shikai and he took the opportunity.”

“Yet Aizen has unwittingly left us a clue to his actual powers,” Shunsui drawled, feeling a grim satisfaction. “Why did he link the souls of our late Chamber judges to himself if not to shield himself? The reiatsu of those six are not even at a level which would qualify them for the Academy. They are, however, full living souls. The only explanation is that Aizen needed their souls as buffers between himself and the Daireishin’s power. This means he still isn’t near the level of transcended power, or he would have broken in all on his own.”

“Precisely,” concurred Jyuushirou, with an uncharacteristically cold, grim smile. “And the weakness of the Daireishin to his shikai was only due to our outmoded protocols, not to anything that was intrinsically its own.” His dark eyes flashed. “I have begun work to reconfigure our protocols. When I am done, the Daireishin itself will take it further than we can even imagine. I hope that Aizen will not try this again. If he does, he will be consumed alive like his six victims.”

“So I take this to mean you have completely realigned the core?” Yama-jii’s gravelly voice queried.

Jyuushirou nodded in firm affirmative. “Yes. The Daireishin’s maturity might have made it temporarily vulnerable to Aizen, but it is also what saves it. And us. We know that Aizen’s time spent in the archives was limited to the last month. All I needed to do was to inform the Daireishin that Sensei’s presence during the last month was unauthorised because it was falsified by Aizen, and it did the rest. It needed only a little of my power to identify all the false signatures and recategorise them as intruders. I only needed to keep it calm throughout the process. By now, Aizen’s tampering are completely reversed. All your access are restored, we only need to imprint your reiatsu signatures afresh to complete the new protocols.”

Yama-jii grunted in relief. “And the damaged circuits?”

“That will take more time and require a proper infusion of power,” Jyuushirou advised. “Since I began work this morning, I had to divide my focus among several issues. I no longer need to do so now and will dedicate the rest of today to restoring the burned circuits. However, it will still take a few days before everything can be fully repaired and we are able to see the full extent of Aizen’s activities and origins beginning from the time he arrived in Soul Society.”

“And can the seals be replaced?” Yama-jii pressed. Softening, he explained, “I do not wish to push you unnecessarily, but the sooner I regain operation of the archives the sooner I can relieve you.”

Jyuushirou hesitated, then his long dark lashes lowered as he bowed his head in apology. “I am sorry, Genryuusai-sensei. I will not replace the seals.” His voice was gentle, but firm.

“What do you mean?” Yama-jii demanded with a flash of flames in his red eyes.

Undaunted, Jyuushirou turned and walked back to the massive white column, laying a long angular hand on its white Sekkiseki wall. The paleness of his long fingers almost blended with the stone as he stroked it comfortingly, like gentling a distraught soul. “If the Daireishin is the mind of the archives, then this room is its body. I believe you sensed the chaotic vibrations when you first arrived here. Think of how you would feel if you were told that your body was recently altered by someone whose every reishi you reject, and your responses controlled against your conscious will. When it realised that what it thought was you was in fact Aizen’s unwanted reiatsu… the vibrations you sensed were manifestations of what the Daireishin felt when it knew the truth. It realised it had obeyed an authority it had never accepted, and it felt…” An involuntary shudder ran through his soul brother’s lean frame.

Violated, supplied Shunsui’s traitorous mind, once again pulling out from his mental strongbox what he thought he had locked up tight. Mercilessly he grasped it and threw it back into the mental prison box, refusing to acknowledge its existence.

When Jyuushirou spoke again, there was an audible quaver in his deep tenor, though his words remained firm. “Sensei, when we applied the seals, we used external force so that the Daireishin would accept it against the burn of your reiatsu. It was necessary at the time, and did not harm the Daireishin for it was immature then. But it is no longer immature. It feels full emotions, like a soul. And I understand how it will feel if we force upon it now something it never wanted in the first place. I cannot… I wanted to avoid doing this to it if there was another way to restore your access. And I have found another way.” Turning, he looked imploringly at Yama-jii, a haunted hollowness in his pale features. “Please forgive me for not consulting you first. I ask that you allow me to show you before you reject it.”

Shunsui never wanted to see that look on Jyuushirou’s face ever again. He stared at Yama-jii, willing his old sensei to say yes. Hanshi-sama’s eyes burned with violet reiatsu, silently announcing where she stood on this matter.

“Show me then, Jyuushirou,” was all Yama-jii replied, his gravelly voice very soft.

Clearing his throat, Jyuushirou gestured gracefully at the closed wooden door. “I have removed the lock. Try extending your reiatsu into where it used to be, Sensei.”

Thumping forward, Yama-jii moved until he stood before the door and very carefully, extended one gnarled hand over the ordinary looking doorknob. Two heartbeats passed and his heavy white brows lifted. “I no longer feel hostility,” he said, astonishment in his tone. “It used to repel me as soon as I show even a spark of my reiatsu. What did you do?”

Relief visibly flooded Jyuushirou. Tentatively, he explained, “When I was building your seals, I knew the reason we needed them was because the Daireishin required time to reach an equilibrium between all the conflicting elemental energies that gave it birth. I did not realise it would take so long, but when I examined it this morning, I finally saw a cohesion that had been missing before. I took the chance that it was the equilibrium I had been waiting for, and I marked in its core memory your reiatsu and records of you throughout its existence, and classified my markers as belonging to its creator and protector. The markers would not harm the circuits but would show me how it would respond to you. And it did not respond, Sensei, as if it was not aware of you, which is how it should have been right from the start. Your reiatsu should be regarded by the Daireishin as part of the elements, like how it perceives mine. The fact that you do not feel hostility from it now confirms my theory. Try infusing a little of your reiatsu now, and tell me how it feels.”

Yama-jii hesitated, then placed his hand on the doorknob. Focussing, he fell silent for a moment. Then his eyes widened. “Why, it feels …” He trailed off, his attention turning inwards.

“If it no longer registers Yama-jii, does it mean from now onwards he’ll become invisible to the Daireishin?” Shunsui asked.

Jyuushirou tapped his chin in his familiar gesture of scholarly contemplation. “In theory, that should be what will happen. The Daireishin was designed to observe and record only the thoughts and actions of souls, and anything related to a soul’s thought or act. Take me as its first example. As soon as it decided that my reiryoku was no different from the elements of water and lightning, it ceased to regard me as a soul hence it ceased to record my thoughts and actions, effectively rendering me invisible to its awareness. However, it had accumulated too much history on Sensei while the seals were in place. With its new development now, I will not be surprised if it starts to reconcile what it used to know of Sensei in the past, with what it senses of him from this point onwards. We will have to wait and see how it will pan out. But I am quite certain that unless time itself is tampered with, or history is changed, Sensei will neither be erased nor vanish from the archives after today.”

Like you vanished from it soon as your reiryoku erupted, Shunsui wanted to say, but swallowed his words. He had learnt from past experience that it was futile to argue this point. He would never be convinced that this so-called power of invisibility was anything other than a draconian, tragic cost that none would pay except a soul who lived everyday with the conviction that he was doomed to an unnaturally shortened existence. A soul like Jyuushirou. But neither his old sensei nor even Jyuushirou himself saw it that way.

“This is astounding,” Yama-jii announced, releasing the doorknob. He gestured at Hanshi-sama and Shunsui. “Will this now work the same way for Retsu and Shunsui?”

Confidence slightly bolstered, Jyuushirou nodded in the affirmative. “Yes, with only a slight difference. Senpai and Kyouraku are not elemental reiryoku, hence their reiatsu signatures will be treated as new data. With its matured perception now, the Daireishin needs to be able to fully control its own authentication processes or it will not cease questioning our external commands. Therefore I simply gave it what it wanted. The full set of the reiatsu lock protocols we previously used, including its authentication process, I ceded it to the Daireishin’s full control this morning. Any new reiatsu introduced to it now, it will voluntarily authenticate against the reiatsu transferred to its memory core. If there is a match, it will allow access. If there is none, it will repel the reiatsu. The Daireishin trusts only its own logical processes now. No amount of illusion in future will convince it otherwise if the reiatsu does not match. As Senpai said, reiatsu cannot be faked. The Daireishin knows this too.”

“You’ve made it its own security agent and guardian,” Shunsui concluded.

Jyuushirou nodded. “In effect, yes. And I am extending these parameters for all datasets beyond security.” His dark eyes looked beseechingly at Yama-jii. “Genryuusai-sensei, we built this being to be eternal, to be omniscient, to have perfect logic, and to be completely honest. It has now grown up, and we need to trust our creation to do what we meant for it to do. History seldom repeats itself in exactly the same way. If in future another person appears which could safely interact with the archives without our knowledge, we must be prepared that such a person may not do the same thing as Aizen. However, we are mere mortals. We cannot perfectly foresee all eventualities, and we cannot guard this repository forever. Hence its best guardian and best source of truth is itself. What I have begun today, even after we are both gone, will continue to evolve based their own logical processes. The Daireishin is now able to maintain its own security without external help. In time, each subsequent attempt to breach this door, each subsequent user, will be met by a more sophisticated being than the last, and the process will continue until its protocols can be overcome only by itself.” Ending his explanation, he touched the white walls lightly, as if for support, and waited with visible anxiety for Yama-jii’s final verdict.

Their old sensei gazed at Jyuushirou with distant red eyes, his wizened mien thoughtful. “What you have essentially done, Jyuushirou, is to allow an evolving sentient being the freedom to determine how it would behave within our standards instead of imposing our will on it.”

Jyuushirou inclined his head. “Yes. I will… I will replace the seals if you do not approve-”

Yama-jii cut him off. “Jyuushirou, even at my great age, I still learn every day. And what I learnt today is that you are using the principle of parenting in a way I have never thought of. I believe it will work and succeed beyond our expectations. On the unlikely chance that it will not, then we think of another way. We shall not use the seals again.” His hunched form straightened, visible satisfaction in every line of his stance. “You have outdone yourself, Jyuushirou. This is an ingenuous solution.”

Dark eyes shot up with relief, and some surprise.

“Did you think I will disagree?” Yama-jii observed Jyuushirou’s response with some sadness. “You are nurturing the Daireishin the same way I raised you, and you have always made me proud.” And with that, he waved at Hanshi-sama. “Come, Retsu, imprint yourself. Shunsui, follow after. Then all of you come inside. I cannot wait to try my hand at the archives and see how it will respond to me, so I shall enter first, see if it will do my bidding now without its usual quarrelsome attitude, that lippy thing of a core it calls its brain…” Muttering to himself, he opened the wooden door and, amid leaking swirls of yellow light and elemental energies, thumped through the opening and slammed it shut behind him with a loud thump.

Shunsui stared nonplussed at the closed door, then looked at Jyuushirou. “Has it really given him that much grief?”

“You have no idea,” Jyuushirou murmured, the relief on his fine angular features palpable, and heartbreaking to see.

Chapter Text

Shunsui kept his eyes on Jyuushirou as his soul brother showed Hanshi-sama the new security protocols on the archives. The relief on his pale angular face had settled into his usual scholarly calm. As far as Shunsui was concerned, Jyuushirou should never have had to feel anxious in the first place. Thus he stepped close as soon as Jyuushirou stood back to allow Hanshi-sama privacy.

Gently grasping one slender haori-clad shoulder, Shunsui gave a comforting squeeze, feeling the supple muscle yield beneath his hand. “Yama-jii would’ve never rejected this,” he murmured with conviction. Then added with a smirk, “Mayuri made Nemu-chan only on his seventh try. He’ll be apoplectic with jealousy if he knows you created a new soul on your first try.”

“After one and a half thousand years of waiting, do not forget,” Jyuushirou softly pointed out. He bit his lower lip as his calm gave way to a troubled expression. “Sensei’s temper has been worsening over the last three centuries, Kyouraku. For a while now I find myself fearing to suggest anything to him… and after he unleashed Ryuujin Jakka against us, he frightens me even more. I have never been this afraid of his reactions before. I think… the deeds of our late Chief Justice and his accomplices have hurt him more deeply than he realises. And now with Aizen showing his true colours…”

“You’re the last soul who has anything to fear from Yama-jii.” Shunsui gently stroked his knuckle under the small, square chin. “Now that I know what you two had been dealing with, if he loses his temper again, I’ll know it won’t be because of you. Or even I, for that matter. Think about it, he’s witnessing the legacy he spent his entire life building be pulled apart by those he entrusted it with. I would be bad-tempered too if I were him. You should’ve seen how he was at the assembly this morning, Ukitake. He was like how he was in our early days.” Quietly and succinctly, he updated on all that had transpired during the taichou assembly.

Jyuushirou’s dark eyes became bleaker as he listened. “You are right. Sensei is marshalling us for war.” He exhaled wearily. “And he is right to do so. When I was compiling the summary of Aizen’s searches, I manage to skim a little through them. Aizen was studying the powers of all Gotei high command, particularly Sensei’s. That is in addition to all his other searches on the Soul King and the Hougyoku.”

Once again memories of his conversation with Katen Kyoukotsu reared in Shunsui’s mind. He stared at the white Sekkiseki walls with dread. I still need proof, he told himself firmly. “How about you?” He looked intently at Jyuushirou. “Did he perform searches on you?”

“He must have, for he searched extensively on Senpai and you as well. But he would have found nothing on me.” Jyuushirou gazed at him, comprehension dawning in his dark eyes as he recalled their conversation last night. “You think Aizen is the one who has been targeting shinigami looking after the Living World.”

“Yes,” Shunsui admitted quietly. He stared intensely into those dark eyes. “He’s highly intelligent. If he found nothing on you, that mystery alone would have alerted him to dig deeper. Go through the circuits again? Prove me wrong. I want to know that I’m wrong.”

A fine line creased Jyuushirou’s smooth brow as he stared at Shunsui. “But if you are right, then Aizen has been carrying out his schemes since thirty years ago. If what Sensei suspects is also true, then his schemes go back even further, as far back as a century, to when Kisuke was exiled. All these data have been burned, and I have restored the circuits only up to six months back. I fear I can make these searches only after all damage is repaired. Anything I find now will be incomplete or distorted.” He looked apologetically at Shunsui. “With so many urgent questions needing answers, I would need to delay the searches I promised you last night.”

“I’ll wait a little for that,” Shunsui compromised. “‘Tis more important we figure out Aizen’s motives soonest.”

“Thank you,” Jyuushirou murmured. Then he shook his head, visibly exasperated. “Does Aizen truly believe the Hougyoku can help him challenge the Soul King? Why would he wish to do that? If he disrupts the Soul King, he will disrupt all realms and realities. He will end himself along with everyone else.”

“Whatever his true purpose, Aizen has clearly chosen to believe that what is known of the Soul King is a myth,” put in Hanshi-sama, moving towards them. “He has shown his true nature to be ambitious and ruthless for power. Such personalities have no ability to understand anything except through their own thirst for power. I am quite certain he thinks we have buried the truth about the Soul King to keep ourselves in power.” Her dark-blue eyes tinged violet when she rested her gaze meaningfully at Jyuushirou. “When I spoke to you of the impending storm we do not yet know of, my senses were obscured. I still cannot tell if what I am sensing has to do with Aizen. But I will not disregard the likelihood that Aizen plays a large part in what I feel awaits us on the near horizon. You sense this too, Jyuushirou-kun, much more clearly than I.” Her eyes shifted to Shunsui. “As do you, Kyouraku. I discussed this with Yamamoto-sama yesterday morning while we were examining the bodies in the Underground Assembly Hall. He feels the same foreboding.”

Then she stared hard at them both, her violet reiatsu suddenly swirling in her eyes. “If war is what Aizen wants, then we give it to him. But if I were him, I would be prepared to be brought down. Yamamoto-sama put it correctly yesterday. A character as arrogant as Aizen will be destroyed by his own conceit before he succeeds. He will make it difficult for us along the way, but we have endurance and we merely have to persevere until his own ego gives us the opportunity to take him down. Let us not flatter him with giving him more of our energy than is necessary.”

Shunsui stared, seeing the image of the Kenpachi she had been superimposed on his vision of her.

Gathering herself, Hanshi-sama gestured at the archives. “Come, Jyuushirou-kun, I need your assistance to examine the judges’ bodies. Kyouraku, I suppose you know how to imprint your reiatsu on the new system?”

“I’ll follow, you both go right in,” he nodded.

Dark eyes giving him a last worried glance, Jyuushirou followed Hanshi-sama and they both entered the archives, momentarily leaking elemental energies into the hall as its door opened and closed. As Shunsui watched them go, observing the deceptively serene figure of Hanshi-sama, it struck him that it was not only Yama-jii who was gearing up for retaliation and rampage.

He supposed he should join them soon.

Inhaling a fortifying breath, he went to the door of the archives and looked down at its ordinary-looking doorknob.

Did he dare? Would the thing inside remember him and their past quarrels?

Hesitantly, he closed his hand over the doorknob.

As soon as his skin contacted the mechanism, he was seized.

Or it felt like it.

Hastily he unfurled a small amount of reiatsu and without needing to do anything else, a gargantuan suction force locked onto his hand and simultaneously latched onto his reiatsu, and then pulled away, stretching his power outwards in thinning layers until it was enveloped by a vast indecipherable thinking sensation. He felt like he was watching the constellations wheel through the heavens at a dizzying pace as a keen, impatient mind tasted his reiatsu, delved into the frequencies of his power, and began absorbing his signature. All the anger, chaos and frenzy he had felt earlier were gone, replaced by a calm, questioning contemplation that felt like it was aware of their past altercations, but chose to put them aside.

The intent reaching him was clear. The Daireishin wished to begin afresh with him.

Then the suction force faded, and like someone pulling a blanket over his eyes, the power disappeared from his senses, and the doorknob under his hand felt exactly like what it was, a mere doorknob.

If this was a new security system, it was deceptively simple, utterly elegant and impossibly effective. Focussing hard, he could faintly feel his reiatsu commingled with the elemental energies within. Accepted. By a being whom he thought he knew, but now realised that he had never truly understood.

Withdrawing his hand, he stood in speechless amazement for several heartbeats. Only Jyuushirou could have devised something like this.

“Ai, Amai’take!” he laughed softly to himself, pride and love for his soul brother suffusing his chest.

Chuckling beneath his breath, Shunsui carefully opened the door and prepared to re-enter the place he had not visited in thirty years. 

# # # # # # 

The inside of the Daireishin archives appeared as Shunsui remembered it, a fathomless, echoing vertical columnar space that stretched straight upwards into infinity and plunged straight downwards into a bottomless abyss. The door opened directly onto a straight wide bridge guarded by railings on each side, ending in a large square platform suspended over the exact centre of the circular abyss. All around, stretching limitlessly upwards and downwards, the concave interior walls was completely and seamlessly covered with grid panels, each panel housing a segment of tight complex circuitry that defied comprehension. All the grids were now alight with yellow energy, glowing and dimming in irregular rhythms, and should have presented one continuous, unbroken pulsing glowing yellow expanse, but instead they were marred with swathes and scattered patches of dark ugly burns. An oppressive restlessness permeated everywhere, the sensation of an impatient omnipresence pressing and prickling every exposed reishi of Shunsui’s skin, watching and recording every second of his existence as if he was just another particle.

He suppressed a shudder at the unnatural sensation of the strange invisible being. As the Daireishin created its own dimension to accommodate the ever expanding libraries in the halls outside, the same principle applied inside its heart. But whatever that principle was, Shunsui categorised it as one of those things he was better off not knowing. For as long as he could remember, each time he peered over the railing into the abyss below he suffered a brief vertiginous terror, and whenever he peered up into the infinity above, he felt doomed to hopeless insignificance. It was like looking down into the depths of his own hell and up into an unreachable heaven.

This time was no different. Except that it was much worse. Keeping his eyes on the bridge instead of up into the limitless heights or down into the drowning depths, meant that he had to look upon the macabre crime scene Aizen had left in his treacherous wake.

Yama-jii was standing with his back to them at the far edge of the square platform, before the long panel of controls that stretched from one end of it to the other. To reach him, Shunsui would have to pick his way over the bridge by navigating through the six haphazardly fallen dried husks of their former Chamber judges, and try his best not to touch any of them. Each corpse was shrivelled and shrunken to paper brittleness as if they had been sucked dry of all soul and body fluids. Even the hair on each skull now appeared as no more than crinkly, dry wiry masses. The bodies now defied identification, and if not for their robes, it would be impossible to know who they had been.

Eerily, there was no stench of decomposition, as Jyuushirou had said.

His soul brother stood beside Hanshi-sama as she knelt bent over the corpse closest to the platform, surgical gloves covering her hands, her touch delicate as she examined it.

Gathering his robes tight against himself, Shunsui gingerly threaded his way across the bridge, firmly keeping his attention on placing each foot on a clean spot of floor. As he passed the bodies, a stray glance showed him teeth crumbling to dust in a pulled-back mouth, completely useless for identification. In their dried out deaths, the shrunken brittle faces of the corpses defied recognition, their faces now nothing more than paper-thin masks stretching over grinning skulls, their lips, eyelids and noses having desiccated along with the rest of their bodies.

When he finally drew abreast with Jyuushirou, he let out a breath he did not realise he had been holding, and looked back dismally at what he had just passed through.

Each corpse had once been a living, breathing grand personality holding an exalted position and discharging an illustrious function. All now lay strewn and discarded like so much chaff over the bridge.

He tried to focus on the pragmatic issues. Such as how they could move the husks out of the archives without breaking them apart. As he chewed on the problem, Jyuushirou stirred briefly, and exhaled softly, the low sound somewhat distressed. Shunsui glanced up at him, immediately noting the new pallor of his noble profile and intensity of his dark eyes.

“This is no way for any soul to end,” Jyuushirou murmured, his deep tenor haunted. “Some centuries ago, I had thought to install shields so that unauthorised persons would only be forcefully repelled, not utterly consumed like this. But…”

Shunsui understood what was left unspoken. A deterrent. Yama-jii had left this aspect of the Daireishin untouched as a deterrent against those who would dare breach the archives.

Fat lot of good that did them now. He raised his eyes and scoured his gaze over the proof, the blackened swathes of burn marks resembling gargantuan scratches over the concave surface of the columnar chamber.

Hanshi-sama straightened, moving down the haphazard line of bodies more quickly after her examination of the first one. “Death came slow,” she pronounced, her voice echoing with a hollow effect in the enclosed cavernous space. “The skin had time to contract, this is why there are few wrinkles on their dried surfaces. Each one of them was used slowly like a wand to connect with the circuits. They were literally dried and consumed to death from inside out.” She reached the last body, and after giving it one final cursory look, walked the rest of the way until she stood at the other end of the bridge, before the archives’ entrance. Her dark-blue eyes scanned over the six husks with clinical coldness. “We risk disintegrating them if we move them. If we disperse them as they are now, their reishi can be absorbed by the core and aid towards its repairs.”

“But we must still try,” Jyuushirou insisted, his fine features lined with angered grief. “Such a death does not leave the soul intact to return to the balance. These judges will never be reborn. The least we can do is allow their families a vestige of their remains.”

“An official show of compassion and respect from the Gotei will help placate the anger of their successors and their clans,” cut in Yama-jii’s voice. They turned to see him thumping across the platform towards them. “The six of them might be seditious schemers in their lifetimes, but we are the Gotei and we will respect our enemies’ unfortunate end. In fact, we will even take care of all their funeral services at our full expense. After all, these six were our most honoured judges and leaders of the Chamber, were they not?” His gravelly sardonic tone distinctly lacked any sympathy. “Proceed as we discussed, Retsu. I assigned Byakuya to aid you for his clan connections will be useful to you, but do not let him handle this alone. His youth will insult all the old clan members, even if he heads Soul Society’s most powerful family. I will leave it to you to decide whether to combine this with the official ceremonies for the other forty Chamber members. I am willing to perform personal eulogies for all forty-six of them, if it will delay the Chamber reconstitution even more. It may even soothe some anger.”

Shunsui said nothing as he listened to the ruthless opportunism. Warrior code of honour on the battlefield was far cleaner compared to the mutable and murky realm of realpolitik. Unlike in warriors, realpoliticians never gave any quarter. His eyes returned to Jyuushirou, seeing his love’s tightened lips. His soul brother was clearly suppressing his distaste at using the terrible deaths of their former political enemies as tools, especially since the deaths were caused by one of their own. But he also saw in Jyuushirou’s dark eyes his agreement with Yama-jii’s approach. Of the four of them, Jyuushirou held the most revulsion for realpolitik despite understanding it the most.

“In the meantime, have Iemura come with enough pallets and sheets. Shunsui and Jyuushirou will do what they can to move the bodies into the hall. I will create an opening in the Kyoumon for Iemura to bring the pallets into the library hall. If any of these bodies disintegrates during the move, then we disperse their reishi and let the core absorb them and send the robe to the successor with a full official explanation and condolences. Choujirou will assist you,” Yama-jii finished.

“Understood, Yamamoto-sama,” nodded Hanshi-sama, then turned to leave through the door, her serene calm suddenly appearing terribly pragmatic to Shunsui’s eyes.

Yama-jii gestured at the control panel behind him, where many of its keys were lighted. “I have never used the archives with such ease, Jyuushirou. This new method of access you gave me works beautifully and smoothly. The only problem I see now is that if another unauthorised user makes too many searches, to track down and investigate every one of the illegal search strings will take a long time.”

“This is because you have always used the archives as though you are disconnected from it, Sensei,” explained Jyuushirou. “Allow me to show you.” He began moving across the control platform.

Pausing at roughly the middle of the platform, Jyuushirou raised a hand, fingertips glowing with blue-white reiatsu. Immediately there was a soft hum and with gentle vibration from beneath their feet, the featureless floor of the platform beside Jyuushirou suddenly sprouted a bulbous silvery head the size of a fist. The metal bulb rose upwards from the floor smoothly on a silver pole, coming to a stop waist-high beside Jyuushirou.

Shunsui remembered this.

“Through the power input?” Yama-jii exclaimed with surprise.

“Yes, Sensei,” Jyuushirou affirmed. “It is the only part of this whole structure that can receive reiryoku. Please connect with the other one.”

Moving to stand beside Jyuushirou, Yama-jii held out his hand as well, and very carefully, released a touch of his reiatsu into his gnarled fingertips. As they ringed briefly with red fiery tongues of flame, the platform responded to him as it had responded to Jyuushirou, sending up another bulbous-headed silver pole rising from the featureless centre of the floor, also stopping when it was waist-high beside Yama-jii, though lower than its twin to accommodate their old sensei’s shorter stature.

The two conductive poles now formed a pair, set a distance from each other such that a shinigami could comfortably stand between them and rest each hand on one bulbous head. The last time Shunsui had seen these power input conductors, Jyuushirou had been between them, one pale hand on top of each pole as dangerous amounts of his reiryoku drained into archives. Dread began to rise in him until he noticed the set up was slightly different this time. For starters, the two conductors had risen to unequal heights, clearly adjusted individually to the differing heights of their two creators.

“I will begin first. When you feel my reiatsu, follow with yours, you will see how easy it is,” Jyuushirou said, as he placed one pale hand on his power input point. “You have been using the control panel to send your commands to the Daireishin. But now, when you join your reiryoku to it, you will still retain control of your power, but communication will be different. The Daireishin will regard your intent and wishes as its own, so you need to clearly signal each of your intent. For instance, if I wish to know the proceedings of the taichou assembly this morning, I frame my wish in my intent, instead of issuing a command for the records. The Daireishin then interprets my desire as its own and will send up a record of the assembly. Let us try now with my wish to retrieve my summary of Aizen’s search records.”

With that, a blinding flash of blue-white reiatsu spilled from his pale hand to travel down into the silver conductor. A heartbeat later, Yama-jii touched his conductor and a tongue of flame leapt down the silver pole beneath his gnarled hand.

Shunsui had never witnessed this part of the communion before, and he found himself… awed. The Daireishin responded like a literal living thing, unbelievably natural. Like a great being turning in its sleep, several grids lifted from their positions with a deep vibrating hum and began sliding smoothly across the surface of the concave walls with unnatural speed and grace. Shunsui counted six panels awakening and watched impressed as they rapidly lined up in a horizontal row before the platform, their circuitry glowing in definite patterns. Then the yellow glow of the six panels turned white, and black texts began appearing on the white glowing panels as if they were monitor screens. The panels settled into their new positions, the hum ebbed, and texts were careening down each panel in a blur.

Jyuushirou removed his hand from his conductor pole as he turned inquiringly to Yama-jii. “I felt you, Sensei. Did you sense how the Daireishin responded to my intent?”

“Yes,” Yama-jii confirmed, his red eyes slightly wide in his wizened face.

“As you can see, the texts are scrolling too fast to be read. Perhaps you wish to try slowing them down? Just signal your intent through your reiatsu.”

Carefully, Yama-jii sent a tendril of reiatsu down his conductor, the orange flame uncharacteristically gentle as it travelled down the silver pole and merged into the metal. He hummed in pleased satisfaction when almost immediately, the downwards speeding texts began to slow until sentences and paragraphs became readable at a sedately flowing pace. Shunsui read them off as they appeared: history, military, arcane, science, administration and law.

“What do you think, Sensei?” Jyuushirou asked, sounding a little nervous.

Withdrawing his hand, Yama-jii stood back and gazed contemplatively at the display before them. “After one and a half thousand years of its existence, I finally fully understand what it truly means when the Daireishin considers your power as part of its elemental environment. I have never felt the pathways as open to me as this. If I dare say so, they now feel like extensions of my soul, as if they are a part of me when I was connected with the Daireishin. No wonder an hour of your work in here always surpassed a thousand hours of mine. This form of integration is absolute, Jyuushirou. Why have you never said anything before?”

“I never thought it was worth mentioning. The Daireishin was unwilling to accept anyone else and I believed this mode of communication was peculiar only to me,” Jyuushirou replied a little ruefully. “It had never crossed my mind that it could be replicated.” He gestured at the six slowly scrolling panels. “Look at these, there are no monitor screens on the grid panels, but they appear so because I wished it so, in order that we can better read the findings. After a few more tries, you will be able to have the data organise and present themselves according to your wishes.”

Stroking his beard thoughtfully, Yama-jii began to examine the results.

But Shunsui was already ahead of him, his attention already arrested by the words now scrolling slowly down the screens.

Cold dread began spreading through his veins as he read what the Daireishin had to say. 

# # # # # #

He could not recall any moment in all two thousand years of his life when he wanted to be wrong as desperately as he wanted it right now.

Yama-jii’s fears had come true.

And the fear coursing through Shunsui was one that was close to panic. Every single one of his reishi was screaming that he grab Jyuushirou now and flee now, take him away from Soul Society now, hide his gentle tender-hearted soul brother from Aizen. It was only by the sheer strength of his faith in Jyuushirou himself, that kept him standing right where he was and calmly continue to digest the full impact of what Aizen had discovered in the month that he had spent in this most sacred sanctum of their secrets.

Aizen had stood right here, in this very same spot, cunningly and ruthlessly deceiving the Daireishin into giving up every reishi of its knowledge on the Soul King, while his living shield of six forcibly tethered souls slowly absorbed alive by the relentless consuming force of the elemental sentient being. How Aizen could have possibly worked among those screams of agony, Shunsui could not imagine; the only explanation he could think of was that those tortured cries must have been to Aizen like a mentally stimulating symphony, for his research was cold-bloodedly thorough, shrewd and meticulous. It was not a case where he had simply broken in, found two and two, added them up and discovered the answer was four. What the restored records showed, was that Aizen had been watching them very closely and very sharply for a very long time. The last six months were merely the culmination of a long string of daring, ruthless and devious schemes that completely disregarded all morality and honour. With his intelligence and astute observations, Aizen had drawn extremely accurate deductions, and in his final month in Soul Society, meticulously combed and queried the Daireishin for every clue and tenaciously pursued each cue with clever, inventive and subtle search commands. Even when he received no direct reply to his queries, he managed to extract what he needed with indirect questioning. And throughout the entire month, lured into thinking that it was answering the summons of Yama-jii, the Daireishin had offered up their deepest secrets on a golden platter.

Everything it knew on the Soul King, his origins and functions, everything about his power and base of operations, was extracted and served up for Aizen’s viewing pleasure. The Daireishin had no information on the Soul King’s base of operations, but that did not deter Aizen, for he simply redirected his search to find a means of locating it. Unaware of his true motives, the archives had answered him with old transcripts of the very first meeting between an envoy of the Soul King and the first shinigami to ever exist, Ichibei Hyousube. The purpose of that meeting was for the envoy to bestow on Ichibei-sama the title Manako Oshou on the Soul King’s behalf, and to inform the first shinigami that in time, he would be given the Ouken which would lead him to the Royal Palace, the Soul King’s hidden base of operations. Nothing more was recorded of the Royal Palace or the Ouken in those transcripts. And when no amount of clever search could shed more light, Aizen had simply asked the Daireishin to show him a means of forging the Ouken. The archives had responded that such a thing had never been done, and the most helpful information available was a recording of Hikifune Kirio’s idle thoughts as she worked late one night, before her promotion, theorising that rei energies produced from vaporising one hundred thousand living souls at the same time in the centre of a Jyuureichi of half a spirit-mile radius might possibly replicate the effects of the Ouken. That indirect answer was enough for Aizen, for he searched for that specific class of Jyuureichi and easily found it: District Number Three Thousand and Six Hundred, situated in the Living World, bearing the human name Karakura Town. Along with that record, the Daireishin yielded up the town’s latest census showing its last recorded total human population as close to half a million, and a stringent reminder that since Karakura Town was the only Living World district entrusted to the direct jurisdiction of the Thirteenth Division without any other intervening layer of government hierarchy, nothing should be done to it or in it by any shinigami until permission was given by the Thirteenth Division.

And what are the chances that Karakura Town also happens to be the home of our new human ally with strange hybrid powers of shinigami, Hollow and Quincy, the place where Kisuke-kun had fled to, and where we suspect is the final residence of Isshin-kun?

[No chance at all. All these can’t possibly have happened by coincidence,] Katen Kyoukotsu answered flatly.

But Aizen did not stop there. The record and reminder clearly piqued his curiosity enough to investigate further. And the unsuspecting Daireishin served up the entire story in a few comprehensive lines: a thousand years ago, all branches of Soul Society’s government jointly agreed that the primitive riverside fishing settlement had the potential to one day become the most powerful node of the Living World for the interaction of souls and supernatural forces, and would produce a rei so powerful, that they collectively deemed it best that the entire district be directly supervised and managed from its infancy by the elemental powers themselves.

Nowhere was Jyuushirou mentioned. There was no need to. Aizen knew the Gotei very well, and he was smart. What followed next was a flurry of search commands to uncover the truth of Jyuushirou’s powers. For his pains, Aizen received a startling paucity of information. Records of one Ukitake Jyuushiro ended two thousand years ago. The last entry detailed a disastrous electrical sea storm that had erupted from the soul of thirteen-year-old Jyuushiro one night in the abandoned, overgrown courtyard of a derelict shrine located far inland from the sea coasts, in the outskirts of what was now the Seventy-Eighth District of Eastern Rukongai. After that entry, there was nothing else, as if Jyuushirou had died in that storm at age thirteen. Aizen sent a deluge of penetrative and inventive search commands but the only other significant record he found was dated a decade prior, detailing how the previous Lord Ukitake and his lady wife had prayed throughout a stormy night in that same derelict shrine to a fallen one-eyed pagan kami shaped like a forearm, and thus saved the life of their dying three-year-old firstborn son.

“Kami,” Shunsui breathed. His instincts, the one which always landed him unerringly on the heart of the truth no matter how obscured, the one which Yama-jii depended on like a crutch, had been right on the kan.

Aizen knew, and this was how he had known. He might still not know the details of how Jyuushirou came to be, but the screaming absence of information on this important individual of the Gotei’s history from the all-seeing, all-knowing ceaselessly recording immortal scribe of Soul Society was enough. Aizen had clearly made the connection that ‘elemental powers’ was the Daireishin’s peculiar reference to the taichou of the Thirteenth Division.

Once again, Aizen’s scorn, his contempt in his accusing words thrown at Jyuushirou rang starkly in Shunsui’s mind, as if he was hearing them again. Aizen clearly believed that Jyuushirou was favoured by the kami and that misconception, more than anything else, made Jyuushirou a target.

They might as well have painted their secrets in loud, red signs across the archives’ walls.

Yama-jii’s entire secrecy had hinged on the fact that very few had access to the Daireishin. And of those who had, it would take a very deliberate, very deep and very cleverly oblique search like what Aizen had done to surface this connection. In all the time that members of the Chamber had been chaperoned by the Gotei to consult the archives, none had the cause to look into this. It took an ambition like Aizen to blow the lid right off their cover. Someone like Aizen had not figured into Yama-jii’s security calculations.

Shunsui did not want to read on.

Turning, he looked at Yama-jii and for the second time in his life, he saw that the ancient wizened face had turned white. Their old sensei was standing stonily still and silent, and not even his robes stirred. The only thing which moved were the flames of reiatsu leaping in his red eyes. Shunsui would not be surprised if in the next instant, Yama-jii would finally give in to the overprotective urge Shunsui suspected their old sensei had been resisting for two millennia, and lock Jyuushirou up in his inner sanctums until Aizen was neutralised.

And Jyuushirou, always sensitively attuned to the moods and thoughts of the shinigami who had raised and taught them, knew it too. His fine delicate features were near bloodless with fear, but not from the fear of Aizen’s discoveries. His pale fingers touched the conductor pole at his side to draw up the next summary report, and with an audible waver in his deep tenor, he implored, “It is not only I, Sensei. He had been targeting all shinigami overseeing the Living World. Look. Please.

The plaintive plea in Jyuushirou’s last word nearly tore Shunsui apart. The least he could do, he knew, was to look at what his soul brother was showing them.

Shunsui turned to the indicated panel.

And found his mind racing to stave off the draconian verdict he was now certain Yama-jii would issue next.

During the last six months, Aizen masterminded all events affecting Rukia-chan. He had used his shikai liberally, impersonating anyone at will to achieve his goals, and had been very careful and very clever to impersonate only officers of lesser rank to avoid drawing attention. He had never repeated each illusion, making it near impossible for anyone to notice the imposters. All applications for rotation to the Living World must first be approved or recommended by the applicant’s taichou, then sent to Jyuushirou who needed to interview and approve each applicant as Chief Commander of Living World Affairs before he sent them on with his recommendations to Yama-jii for final approval. Aizen impersonated Sentaro-san and slipped into Jyuushirou’s office to copy the full consolidated list of Gotei candidates who applied for the rotation, then impersonated every one of those candidates to withdraw their applications. Those applicants from Third, Fifth and Ninth divisions, he had Ichimaru and Tousen use their positions to reject them all. Then three months later, Aizen met Furukawa in private and called in the century-old favour owed to him for assisting Furukawa in removing the influence of the Shihouin Clan from the Gotei. And the very next day, the late Chief Justice sent an edict directly to Yama-jii, naming Kuchiki Rukia a traitor for transferring her powers to living humans as part of the Thirteenth’s seditious attempts to expand its forces. Yama-jii was ordered to retrieve his rogue shinigami, mete out punishment against the human recruits with extreme prejudice, and – Shunsui’s heart nearly seized up - put the entire Thirteenth under surveillance for suspected sedition.

“That was never done,” Yama-jii finally spoke, his gravelly words suddenly grating the silence between them. “It was a ludicrous charge. When that surveillance order came, I knew then the edict was another of Furukawa’s schemes to remove me from power. He clearly meant to disconnect the Gotei from the Living World so that he could later claim I was not upholding the balance. At that time I had not suspected Aizen’s involvement, but I did not need to know of the traitorous whelp’s scheming. Furukawa and his cronies played the noble card with me to rob Shin’etsu of justice. I could certainly play the same noble card right back at them to protect my own son. I gave Furukawa my official reply that Kuchiki Rukia was a noble, hence Byakuya held the right to retrieve her, and take over the whole case. As young as Byakuya is, not even they would dare challenge the Kuchiki Clan.”

Shunsui rubbed his face. Too close. That danger had been too close. It suddenly struck Shunsui how dangerous the consequences of Aizen’s deception had been. The Gotei code of conduct dictated that it should have been Jyuushirou as Rukia-chan’s taichou to retrieve her, to atone for his error in supporting her for rotation to the Living World. With one missive, Yama-jii had painted himself as impartial, lulled the Chamber into the false belief that the surveillance had been implemented, and averted political persecution of Jyuushirou, without once letting anyone in on it.

“You should’ve told us this, Yama-jii,” he rasped hoarsely. “If we’d known, we would’ve acted much differently.” And I wouldn’t have been so angry at you, he mentally added.

The wizened face grew darker, if it was not dark enough already. “Jyuushirou was bedridden with worry over his officer, Shunsui. What good would it have done your brother to know this except stress him more and delay his recovery? I needed him back on his feet as soon as possible. And letting anyone else know would only cause baseless suspicions within our ranks and fracture the unity of the Gotei at a time when we needed it most, play us right into Furukawa’s hands.”

“But do you not see?” Jyuushirou softly dissented. “Aizen had anticipated you would send Byakuya, and he knows Byakuya adheres strictly to Chamber orders. It is confirmed here that our late Chief Justice owed Aizen a century-old favour for removing the influence of the Shihouin Clan.” He turned to look at them, his dark eyes sorrowed. “Who else did we lose a hundred years ago? Beyond six of our strongest, and our two staunchest allies in the Kidou Corps. Yuushirou is still young yet, his influence and power are nowhere near his sister’s.”

“Ai!” Shunsui exclaimed dejectedly. “If Aizen was also responsible for framing Kisuke-kun, then he must have known that where her protégé goes, Yoruichi will go as well.”

“Precisely,” Jyuushirou nodded bleakly. “I have not yet repaired the older records, but something tells me that your assumptions are correct.” He looked at Yama-jii, his dark eyes willing their old sensei to understand. “Kisuke was likely Aizen’s target as well. I fear to see what else will be revealed when I complete repairs to the Daireishin. I am now questioning who was behind the attacks by Metastacia, and White in Naruki City. Who caused Isshin’s disappearance. As soon as the circuits are whole, I wish to review Shin’etsu’s case. At that time Aizen had just joined the Gotei. We need to know for certain if he had also been involved with the Bakkoutou crimes.”

“Then find out, Jyuushirou,” Yama-jii grated ominously. His red eyes stared at them. “I know what both of you are thinking. You have my word that until our suspicions are confirmed, I will not do anything drastic. Except for one thing, Jyuushirou.” His gravelly voice and wizened face hardened. “I am no longer willing to risk your safety. Aizen has seen all these. I cannot disregard the possibility that he has left spies in the Seireitei, nor can I disregard the possibility that he is able to find a way to extract information from living minds. While he does not yet know that your memory is eidetic, if he gets his hands on you, he will discover it soon enough. If he finds a means of accessing your memories, he will not need the Daireishin at all. While there is none beyond the four of us who can defeat you in a fight, your focus and power will be preoccupied by the Daireishin for the next few days, even the next few weeks and months. You will need additional eyes and senses to prevent attempts on you from the shadows. As soon as we are done here, I will give the order that your protection detail be extended to all hours, to all places. Do not leave the Seireitei without informing us. And do not fight me on this.”

Jyuushirou stared at Yama-jii, then looked at Shunsui. He gave his soul brother an imperceptible nod. It was either accept this, or incite Yama-jii to more extreme measures. He saw the moment Jyuushirou accepted the situation, for his dark eyes dimmed with surrender.

“Aye, Genryuusai-sensei. I obey,” he said quietly, inclining his head once and averting his eyes.

Yama-jii studied him ominously for several heartbeats, then turned back to the panels. “Show me what else Aizen has discovered,” he ordered, noticeably gentling his voice.

Comforted by their old sensei’s softened tone, Jyuushirou touched the conductor pole once, and two panels left the line-up and came closer to them, the ones on arcane and science. “He was searching for information on the Hougyoku, but there is scant information on it during the last six months. This confirms that during the last half year, the device was not active in Soul Society. If it had been active during this time outside of Soul Society, the Daireishin would not know since its sight is limited to this realm. Most of what we do know of the Hougyoku right now are from Renji’s reports. Aizen had a perfectly safe and peaceful way to remove it from Rukia, but he had instead chosen to scheme and throw us into disarray at the cost of her soul for no purpose other than he found it entertaining. We also know it can dissolve the barrier between shinigami and Hollow powers. I will have to complete repairs before we know more.”

“Why go through all these trouble to possess the Hougyoku? Does Aizen really believe it can help him gain access to the Soul King?” Shunsui pondered.

“Apparently, he does. The whelp does not even realise what the Soul King truly is.” Yama-jii’s gravel voice was sharp with cold scorn.

Or if he does, he chose to disbelieve it, as Hanshi-sama said.

Jyuushirou summoned another panel to come closer. Shunsui blanched when he saw that it was the one on military. “This is my most important discovery from this morning. Aizen was studying the powers of every member of the Gotei high command, Sensei. Particularly yours. And…” He flushed, embarrassed. “He was prying into all four of us, and your relationships to me...”

He was, indeed. The Daireishin coughed up the entire history of Yama-jii, from how a young soul had walked out completely unharmed from a forest inferno beyond the furthest reaches of the Eastern Rukongai ten thousand years ago, to how Ryuujin Jakka came to him when he called, to how he spent the next few centuries terrorising the eastern regions until one day, he was confronted by an envoy of the Soul King who bestowed upon him the celestial mission of cleaning up Soul Society and restoring the balance. Then the records went on to detail the development of Yama-jii’s powers, chronicling how their old sensei came to be and how he had founded the Gotei Thirteen, tracing the eras of changes to his power until he discovered Shunsui, and then discovered a wild and dangerous elemental power which he subsequently tamed and protected, thereafter commanding its absolute loyalty and love. There was no need at all for the Daireishin to name the identity of that elemental power.

But the worst thing was how Aizen dug into Hanshi-sama’s powers next. His search on her could only be described as offensive. Her powers were laid out like an open book to him. Shunsui’s skin heated with anger and embarrassment when he saw the gleeful and lewd hatred implicit in Aizen’s search commands as he ruthlessly pried into her personal relationships, including one brief dalliance with Zaraki Kenpachi, and one very old, yet still deeply faithful and abiding intimate and supernatural relationship with the ‘elemental powers’.

Then Shunsui saw Aizen’s searches on himself, and read even more viciousness and salacious malice when he pried into Shunsui’s powers, the volume and depth of his searches into Shunsui’s life and powers unnaturally keen and greedy, showing a near euphoric triumph when the Daireishin confirmed Shunsui’s long, abiding intimate relationship with the ‘elemental powers’.

“What was he trying to do!” he burst, unable to control himself.

“Finding our weaknesses,” Jyuushirou replied faintly. “And the archives showed him that I am everyone’s weakness.”

“Ai, no, no, no and no!” Shunsui knew that tone of voice too well. “‘Tis not your fault, and don’t you go do anything stupidly self-sacrificing!”

Jyuushirou said nothing in response to his outburst, merely wordlessly turned away.

“All is not lost,” Yama-jii observed. “He found little else on you, Shunsui.”

Startled, Shunsui looked back at where he stopped reading.

It was true.

And shocking.

Despite Aizen’s deluge of enraged search commands on Shunsui’s powers, the Daireishin could not produce anything more than records of Katen Kyoukotsu’s shikai release as a daishou pair of large, black scimitars, and Shunsui’s ability to summon hurricanes of lethal cutting winds. Everything else that the archives had on him were garbled and miswritten, all gibberish, as if seen and recorded by the Daireishin through an unknown layer of distortion.

Shunsui frowned at the oddity, and immediately queried his zanpakutou. Your work?

[I’m only a zanpakutou,] reminded Katen Kyoukotsu. [I don’t have the power to mislead or obscure the sight of the Daireishin.]

She made sense.

Frustrated by the lack of more information on Shunsui, Aizen went on to research the powers of the rest of the Gotei high command, which the archives yielded up promptly and completely under his clever and penetrating search commands. Then he returned to questioning the Daireishin on Shunsui again, only to be met by more gibberish.

Shunsui turned and stared at Yama-jii. “What is this?”

Red eyes glared back at him. “Why do you think I know the answer?”

“You’ve been studying our powers since you adopted us, Yama-jii,” he persisted. “Surely you must have a clue?”

Their old sensei stroked his long beard. “I do not know why this is. I have seen it several times before. It is a mystery I have been unable to unravel ever since I found you.” He looked at Jyuushirou’s silent profile. “As is the mystery surrounding your brother’s power. The both of you have something in common, which is how your powers defy my every attempt to understand them.” Tentatively, he touched a gnarled hand to the conductor pole beside him. “But that mystery for now protects us all. Since even we do not know it, nor the Daireishin, therefore neither does Aizen.” Sending a little reiatsu, he attempted to move a panel, and with a little start and stop, the panel on administration lumbered closer. Visible satisfaction crossed the wizened mien at the accomplishment of the little feat. “What I want to know is how Aizen convinced Furukawa and the five judges to come here. As I told you, Shunsui, there was no sign in the Underground Assembly Hall that the six of them had been forced.”

“They were not,” Jyuushirou finally spoke up, visibly pulling himself out of his momentary depression. He touched his conductor pole and scrolled the text to one particular section. “Aizen invoked his taichou rights to request for emergency audience one month ago. He claimed he had evidence of your illicit surveillance on members of the Chamber. Our late Chief Justice could not refuse such a bait, he immediately convened the audience for Aizen. He had hoped to finally obtain the leverage against you that he had been seeking for so long.”

And at the audience, Aizen had convinced Furukawa that the evidence was waiting in the Daireishokairou under guard of Tousen, and thus the six judges had eagerly left their seats to follow him to the library halls. As soon as Aizen departed, his shikai left with him and unveiled Ichimaru, whom he had hidden with his illusion prior to entering the Underground Assembly Hall. What followed next was a bloody massacre, none of the forty Chamber members stood a chance when Ichimaru unleashed his bankai Butou: Renjin, piercing all forty hearts where they sat in a space of three heartbeats. Simultaneously, as soon as Furukawa and his five accomplices reached the library halls where Tousen stood waiting before the archives’ door, they were immobilised with Bakudou Number One Sai and helpless to resist, could only watch as Aizen chained their souls one by one to himself and before their very eyes, transformed himself into Yama-jii with his shikai. Shielded by their souls and his illusion, he convinced the Daireishin to let him through, and Tousen had simply thrown the judges in after him and pulled the door shut, sealing them inside despite their howls of agony.

What followed next was a gut wrenching month of slow torturous death by soul and reishi consumption, as Aizen stood at the control panel consumed with his research while the six judges one by one felt their souls disintegrate into the power of the Daireishin. Furukawa, witnessing the hopeless annihilation of the souls of his colleagues, in his final moments, wracked with guilt, used his remaining blood and wrote the names of all those he had wronged on the inside of his haori.

At this point Shunsui had to stop. He might be battle-hardened but he was not Yama-jii.

“So even Furukawa did not know about Aizen,” Yama-jii growled. His red eyes flashed and he stared at both of them, his wizened mien intense. “This information must never get out. If the successors of our dead Chamber officials know that one of our own had deceived even the Chief Justice so completely, no amount of evidence against Furukawa will appease their thirst for revenge. It will not matter to them it was Furukawa who started the sedition in the first place. Clan and bureaucracy politicians are never concerned with justice.” He slid his fiery red gaze to Jyuushirou. “You know this as well as I, Jyuushirou. Do you understand?”

Jyuushirou’s dark eyes were desolate, his pale face almost greyed. Belatedly Shunsui realised his soul brother had already seen the reports once and with his sensitive nature, it was cruel to make him see them a second time. Nevertheless, he nodded.

“Yes, Sensei,” he rasped softly.

Yama-jii softened. “I would have this part of the information quarantined with no more access to anyone else except me. I will personally perform the quarantine later, so you do not have to. I know it pains you.”

Wordlessly, with gratitude, Jyuushirou nodded.

Their old sensei straightened. Gentling his voice, he praised, “You have accomplished much in a short time, Jyuushirou. What you have uncovered to this point, will be enough for us to commence our actions. Aizen is clearly gearing up for a final confrontation with us, he now knows almost all of our powers, all members of the Gotei high command will be his target, particularly the four of us. Well, let him come. Far better that we flush him out than wait for his ambush. If he means to strike at you to extract the location of the Ouken from me, or otherwise threaten me, he better think again. If he thinks he can succeed forging the Ouken, then I wish him luck.”

“In the meantime, we must seek more information on the Hougyoku,” Yama-jii instructed. “Shunsui, press Mayuri for it. I want to know what he knows about this device as soon as possible. I shall also contact Kisuke to speak with him on this matter.”

“Understood, Yama-jii.”

“Jyuushirou, it will be a while before I am accustomed to operating the archives in this new manner. Therefore your aid remains critical in the days to come. Take a rest, before you begin again. Retsu should be returning by now with Iemura. I sense the restlessness of the Daireishin, stay in here and keep it calm. Shunsui, come help me.” With a grunt, their old sensei began heading for the bridge, his walking stick thumping lightly in time with his steps.

Shunsui caught Jyuushirou’s dark eyes and silently mouthed, “I’ll be right back”, then hurried after their old sensei’s deceptively slow steps. 

# # # # # #

As soon as Shunsui cleared the threshold of the archives’ door, Yama-jii reached out a gnarled hand and firmly pulled it shut. Then his red eyes stared at Shunsui with such intensity that they pinned him to his spot.

“Your brother!” he huffed, and not with a little exasperation, despite his gravelly words kept low and only for Shunsui’s ears. “He is completely underestimating his importance. Again. Aizen had always mistaken his gentle nature and frail health for weakness. I know for a fact the whelp believed I favour Jyuushirou because of his delicate constitution. I very much doubt he will continue to believe that now. He is likely to strike at Jyuushirou first just to spite and demoralise me because he knows as well as the rest of the Gotei what your older brother means to me. We still know little of Aizen’s true power other than his ability to cast complete hypnosis, but that is already bad enough. Stay close to Jyuushirou, Shunsui. When Aizen strikes, both of you must take down the attacker, whoever it may be. Try to subdue and bring him in for questioning. If not, kill him yourself for I know your brother will not. If you are outnumbered, shout for help. The Onmitsukidou detail will hear you.”

Shunsui stared at the frustrated wizened mien, and softly exhaled. Patiently, softly, he reminded in a low murmur, “Heh, Yama-jii, do you remember how Ukitake achieved his bankai?”

The red eyes abruptly stilled at the memory.

“Precisely,” Shunsui said bleakly. “He discovered your true worries, so he removed himself to help you, never mind that he was near death and his powers were sealed. The last thing he ever wants is to burden you with worry for him, Yama-jii. That has never changed, because this is how much he loves you. This is why you need to tell him what you just told me. Talk to him alone, make him understand. Otherwise he’ll go haring off by himself again with plans we can’t hope fathom and no way for us to track him. Again. And this time, it won’t be just ronin and rebels waiting out there. We’re now dealing with Aizen, whom we no longer know anything about that’s real or reliable, and whatever dangerous powers he’d gained remains unknown. We’ve lived through this before, Yama-jii. You know I’m right.” He stared into the red gaze, willing them to understand.

Reluctance and acknowledgement warred over Yama-jii’s wizened face. His old sensei continued staring at him for a moment, then sighed tiredly and relented. “Agreed.”

Then the voice of Hanshi-sama echoed down the hall as she stepped through the main entrance. “Iemura awaits outside with our transport teams, as does Sasakibe-kun. How shall we do this?” 

# # # # # # 

Shunsui and Jyuushirou were hardened warriors. Between the two of them they had four millennia’s worth of experience of bloody warfare, and they had seen it all – mangled corpses, lopped off body parts, blood, gore, and all manner of grisliness of battlefields. Such sceneries and landscapes no longer unsettled them, but instead, steeled their resolves and spurred them with greater fervent to end the violence as swiftly as they could to prevent more senseless cruelty and bloodshed.

But picking up six dried out husks of recently alive political enemies in the clinical, civilised safety of the heart of a great library… was a totally different story.

The only remaining means of identifying the bodies were their robes and, if they had not already fallen off desiccated fingers, their insignia rings.

Very gingerly, with his glove-covered middle finger and thumb, Jyuushirou picked up one desiccated hand to peer at its insignia ring. The small metal ornament fell through the dried finger, the detached ring and brittle appendage rolled, crumbling all the way, until they were stopped by the big toe of his left waraji.

“There goes the ring finger of Ironaki Keiji,” he muttered, his expression frozen and his dark eyes transfixed upon the dried, half-disintegrated finger touching his tabi-covered big toe. Slowly, carefully, he lowered the dried out hand. There was a dry crackling sound, then the entire limb detached from the shoulder and fell onto the floor in a small explosion of scattering crumbs. With forced, exaggerated calm, Jyuushirou rose to his feet, gently brushed the crumbs off his hakama and tabi, then practically leapt backwards from the ghastly remains.

Heeding the macabre lesson, Shunsui carefully bent over the husk closest to him, and without touching any part of it, squinted at the insignia ring on its dry shrunken hand. “I don’t recognise this one,” he muttered.

“Only judges from noble families will have their clan crest incorporated into the judicial crest,” Jyuushirou replied hollowly. His alabaster complexion was going completely greenish-grey as he looked over the corpses.

“Well, this one only has one crest,” Shunsui observed.

Jyuushirou carefully picked his way to Shunsui and holding back his long hair with one hand, cautiously bent over and peered down at the ring Shunsui was pointing at. “That is the judicial crest. Not a noble, so this was either Kawano Noritaka, Atsuimoji Rin or Yanagi Samuru. But I cannot tell exactly which one of them this was.”

A clattering sound drew their attention.

Hanshi-sama stood staring in consternation at the fallen shoe at her feet, her gloved hands holding what was left of a foot. “This must be the Chief Justice,” she said, looking down at the more elaborate robes of the husk before her.

Shunsui immediately led the way over, Jyuushirou following behind him. In a few ginger strides, they were at her side, looking down at the corpse whose foot had broken off in her hand.

The robes of the husk were not only more elaborate, one corner had been carefully turned upwards. The left hand was still mostly intact, and its ring finger precariously bore the signet of the Chief Justice office.

“So this is Souta,” Yama-jii intoned coldly as he thumped towards them.

“Yes. And he will never be reincarnated,” Jyuushirou softly replied, his deep tenor gentle and holding no rancour, only the subtlest wordless request for compassion. Gracefully sinking to one knee, he very gingerly adjusted the upturned corner of the late Chief Justice’s haori to better reveal the blood writings on heavy silk. “Ran’Tao. Kusaka Soujirou. Ryoudoji. Yushima Ouko. Kuroiyama Minato. Mizyuumi Kiyoko,” he read aloud, his deep tenor softly echoing in the cavernous chamber. Then his voice hitched. “Bakkoutou.”

Bakkoutou. The case which started it all. And started Jyuushirou’s health on its downward spiral three hundred years ago.

Jyuushirou’s dark eyes looked up at Yama-jii. “Sensei, could this be his confession for his part in Shin’etsu’s fate?”

Yama-jii gave a loud snort of disdain. “Furukawa Souta will have to leave me something better than the name of that illegal weapon written in his blood on his haori for me to pardon him.”

Biting his lip, Jyuushirou looked down at the blood writings again. A line creased his fine brows. “I do not understand. The Ryoudoji Family was stripped of their titles and exiled a thousand years ago. Chief Justice Furukawa was not much older than six hundred years. Why would he confess to the Ryoudoji’s exile? And was not Kuroiyama Minato murdered by Ginrei-sama’s son-in-law?”

Bending to examine the dark purple silk more closely, Shunsui saw the blood writings had dried to a blackish ink. There were no other sentences aside from the list of names.

“I will investigate into these names,” Jyuushirou decided. Flowing to his feet, he absently tucked a fallen snowy tress behind his ear. “The Daireishin began regenerating the rest of its damaged circuits after we restored data of the last six months. It will not be long before we have answers, Sensei.

“Very well, Jyuushirou,” approved Yama-jii.

“In this case, come and help me, Kyouraku,” Hanshi-sama put in, then added with a tired sigh, “There is only one way to move these bodies without further destroying them.” 

# # # # # #

Hanshi-sama’s solution completely lacked elegance and reverence for who the six husks had once been, but it was brutally simple and effective. At her direction, Shunsui began laying out the tarps she had brought into the archives beside each corpse. Then acting in tandem, and as gently as they could, they rolled each brittle body onto the tarp before wrapping it up. Half of them crumbled and disintegrated right onto their respective waterproof sheets, but at least their various parts were together, not scattered across the bridge and commingled with parts from other husks. Jyuushirou hesitated only for the briefest moment before bending to help.

It was messy, gruesome work, but at last they had six long bundles neatly wrapped and laying along the length of the bridge. With Shunsui carrying the heavier end where the heads were, and Jyuushirou carrying the lighter end where the feet were, they made six trips in and out of the archives, placing each long bundle on a waiting pallet Iemura had laid out in waiting in the main thoroughfare of the library halls.

By the end of it, Shunsui was coated in sweat. He was born of mountain folk and did not do well when he was hot and sweaty. Finding a cool reading alcove away from the main thoroughfare, he shed his hat and pink flowered kimono and hung them on the corner of a chair, then stood to cool off. Silently he watched the quietly buzzing activity.

Yama-jii had opened a temporary exit in his Kyoumon. Iemura and his pallet teams were efficiently working to prepare the transports under Hanshi-sama’s watchful eye as Sasakibe-san helped to clear the way. Standing back from them, Jyuushirou was conferring with Yama-jii, the low murmur of their voices indistinct. Then Jyuushirou glanced at Shunsui, and with one final nod at their old sensei, began making his way towards the alcove.

The expression on his soul brother’s delicate angular face was calm, but his dark eyes held a resolute light. Some time ago he had shed his white haori and pulled back his long white mane to twist it up into a loose bun at the base of his nape. His fair skin was almost all drenched, the collar and shoulders of his kosode darkened with perspiration. He was entirely dishevelled, sweat-slicked and messy, his pallor lightly blushed from physical exertion, and his entire aura energised with purpose.

In Shunsui’s eyes, Jyuushirou looked utterly enticing and never more beautiful.

“Something bothers me,” his love muttered as he drew near, his deep tenor carrying only to Shunsui’s hearing.

“Mm-mmm,” Shunsui hummed distractedly as he discreetly inhaled and breathed in the familiar soft musk of peony tinged with the salty sweetness of perspiration. When was the last time he had seen Jyuushirou perspire from physical exercise and not fever?

Jyuushirou frowned and speared him a look. “Are you listening?”

“Yes, yes,” he murmured with a flash of his most charming smile.

Long white bangs puffed up lightly as Jyuushirou blew out a breath. “I said, something bothers me.”

Shunsui spread his hands at the six long bundles of husks who, only last week, had been the exalted leaders of Soul Society and secret political enemies of the Gotei. “I can’t imagine how this wouldn’t bother anyone.”

“That is not what I mean,” Jyuushirou clarified. His brows creased. “The reiatsu of our late judges were very poor, the two strongest among them could still barely qualify as unseated officers. Yet Aizen used their souls as shields, you saw how quickly they burnt out. There were stronger candidates in the Chamber whose reiatsu qualify as seated officers. Why did Aizen not choose those? Or add those to his soul tethers? He would have longer lasting batteries, to put it crudely.”

It was a good point. “Are you thinking that Aizen used them as a ruse to throw us off his scent?”

“That would be the most obvious explanation.” Jyuushirou’s dark eyes narrowed. “We now know that the six of them had struck at least two illicit deals with Aizen. But two transactions do not make a deep relationship, they were at most partners in crime only at a superficial level. Aizen would have to be truly petty indeed to murder his partners in such a terrible. But what do we know now about Aizen, really? Is he an elder like us, and we did not know because we have been deceived by his shikai all along? If he is more than a thousand years old, then your conjecture is possible, he could have used our late judges as a ruse to throw us off his trail. Or he could have infiltrated the Chamber for far longer than we thought, and there is something else we are not seeing.” He turned and looked squarely at Shunsui. “I know what I promised you, Kyouraku, but this is urgent. We cannot wait even a few more days for the Daireishin to regenerate its damaged circuits. We need to know the truth by tomorrow or sooner.”

“You’re going to merge with it,” Shunsui predicted, his mood darkening.

“Feeding my reiryoku directly to the Daireishin is the only way to hasten the repairs.” Jyuushirou quickly held up a hand to forestall Shunsui’s objections. “The Daireishin has matured much since my last integration with it, so I doubt it will drain me as much this time. But even if it does, there is no choice. Rather that I do so now, still early in the game, than to put it off until later when I am unlikely to have enough time to recover. We need to know everything before the Chamber reconstitutes and we do not have much time. We need to give a precise response, otherwise all that Sensei and I have worked for during the last three centuries will be for naught.”

Faced with that determination, and the merciless reminder of the gravity of the Gotei’s position, there was really little Shunsui could do to dissuade his love.

“I don’t see how I can dissuade you, or if I even should,” Shunsui sighed. Then grimly, he asked, “Tell me what you need me to do?”

Jyuushirou looked at him gratefully. Reaching up a pale hand, he undid his bun and gently shook his hair loose, his long white tresses falling about his shoulders in gleaming streams. “I left instructions with Kiyone this morning to have our kitchens prepare a recovery meal for me at the Ugendou tonight, and I…” His long dark lashes abruptly lowered. “I know it is presumptuous of me, but I included a repast for you. Could you… could you come back for me this evening to take me home? I do not think I will have the strength to leave on my own later… and last night… I did not want our love-making to become a bargaining tool… and I miss you so…” From below his lashes, his dark eyes glimmered with a soft, hopeful entreaty.

As always, whenever faced with that shy, artless and heartbreakingly honest request, Shunsui had no resistance. Jyuushirou completely lacked coyness or sexual wiles, and every time he initiated intimacy, he did it out of genuine desire with an innate bashfulness that simply melted Shunsui.

Taking advantage of their temporary seclusion, he tenderly cupped Jyuushirou’s small, square chin and gently thumbed his soft, finely sculpted lips. It was Shunsui’s own wordless, physical promise.

His gesture brought a happy anticipation to the beautiful alabaster face. Giving a last shy, pleased smile, Jyuushirou departed the alcoves to return to the archives. With his heart thudding somewhere between high in his chest and the middle of his throat, Shunsui watched the slender retreating back, his eyes tracing the gently swaying white swathes of waist-length hair as Jyuushirou slipped back through the nondescript wooden door.

The approach of Hanshi-sama roused him. Catching her observing blue eyes, he straightaway noticed the wistful gladness in her gaze. Quickly, he quickly tamped down his emotions.

“I will perform my final autopsy before I accompany Yamamoto-sama to notify their families,” she informed quietly as she shuttered her emotions with a bland expression. “He is expecting an uproar from them. Most of these six clans have been supplying judges to the Chamber since its first generation, and they will prefer to deal with us older ones. Jyuushirou-kun and you should stay out of the limelight until the furore is passed.”

He nodded. “Understood, Hanshi-sama.”

She looked at him intently. “In the meantime, when you press Kurotsuchi for information on the Hougyoku, perhaps you could take this opportunity to press him to share the information we discussed last night…”

Shunsui smiled mercilessly. “My thoughts, exactly.”

Her answering smile was one he had not seen for eight hundred years, the one which was the total opposite of the smile of a serene healer. 

# # # # # #

Unexpectedly, it was Kurotsuchi who chased him first.

Shunsui dropped out of shunpo to float down onto the top of the perimeter walls between the Ninth and Fourth, mid-way to returning to his private quarters for a quick change out of his sweat-stained shihakushou. Balancing easily on the narrow precipice with his reiatsu, he waited for their resident scientist to catch up.

“Stop going so fast!” barked Kurotsuchi breathlessly as soon as he landed with an audible plop on the narrow width of the wall. He was clasping a thick file under one arm and stood dangerously unbalanced on the thin precipice.

“I wasn’t expecting you,” Shunsui replied mildly. “I thought we no longer have a deal.”

The crotchety genius narrowed his golden eyes. “Contrary to popular belief, I’m not ungrateful. Your older brother aided me. So I’m returning the favour. Catch!”

A small black object flew in an arc towards Shunsui. He plucked it easily out of the air with instinctive reflex and looked down.

It was a shiny, black Denreishinki.

“Ukitake Taichou requisitioned for a new unit two days ago. Normally I would assign a recycled one to an applicant and deduct the cost from the requisitioning division’s budget. But this unit is my own. Needless to say, it’s the most advanced version in all of Soul Society and contains the most sophisticated security features of all Denreishinki ever issued. I’ve cleaned out my data, so he’ll be able to use it like new. There’ll be no bill for this, his budget will not be deducted. Consider it a gift in return for persuading Soutaichou to listen to me. Only trouble is, the Daireishokairou is tightly sealed and I couldn’t get in to give it to him.” Then Kurotsuchi leered salaciously. “Giving it to you is my second best bet to ensure he gets it, ne?”

Shunsui chose to ignore the innuendo. Secreting the device into his kosode’s inner pocket, he said blandly, “I’ll convey your message and pass it on.” He would have to think of a way to explain the gift of the device without alerting Jyuushirou. “Anything else?”

“I need information from the Kuchiki Library and the Daireishin archives.”

“I can’t help you with Byakuya-kun,” Shunsui rejected immediately. Then, in a more accommodating tone, offered, “The other… well, what information do you seek?”

“Data on Quincies from six to eight hundred years ago. And… some other data.”

Shunsui tilted his hat back a little. “What happened to yours?”

“My information on Quincies from that period of time have been, shall we say, misplaced.”

Was he hearing it right? This was Kurotsuchi Mayuri. Who did not misplace anything. “Misplaced as in misplaced, or misplaced as in lost, or misplaced as in stolen?”

Kurotsuchi scowled. “Does it make a difference? The end result is the same. I am missing those data.”

“Ukitake is going to have to know more details if you want him to make an accurate and reliable search,” Shunsui pointed out reasonably.

The black-and-white painted skeletal face clearly hesitated. Then grudgingly, Kurotsuchi obliquely revealed, “I didn’t lose anything. And I certainly didn’t misplace anything.”

Theft, then.

But who would have such skill to bypass Kurotsuchi’s infamously tight surveillance systems? Aizen’s illusions?

Shunsui leapt at the opening. “And what about that some other data?”

“I wish to discuss this somewhere more comforta… secure,” Kurotsuchi grated, shifting uncomfortably with the large heavy file, then snapped, “Soukyoku Hill, see you there.” With that, he flickered and vanished without waiting for Shunsui’s response.

Wryly, Shunsui pulled down the brim of his hat and lightly lifted off, leisurely following and then easily overtaking the metallic reiatsu with some bemusement at the scientist’s choice of location. Despite its breathtaking scenic vista, Soukyoku Hill was never used as a meeting point, the foreboding presence of the execution stand having dashed all inclinations to congregate in its shadow. But perhaps its dismal repute would now begin to dissipate and shinigami would begin to use it as a place for happier purposes. Although why it was Kurotsuchi of all shinigami who was the first to utilise it as such, was a mystery only kami would know.

The few wide lazy leaps he took through the air effectively dried his perspiration in the winds, and when he floated down onto the base of the ruined stand, where the Senkaimon had stood earlier that morning, Shunsui was feeling rather dry and comfortable. He looked about the grounds, then choosing one broken piece of the former execution stand, took off his hat and sat down upon it to wait, enjoying the cooling breeze which further dried his skin and hair.

Kurotsuchi appeared a few moments later, annoyance crossing his skull-like features as he saw that he had been beaten once again. Winded, he trudged up to Shunsui and stared down at him with some ire, before grudgingly flopping down on the log opposite him. With a perceptible sigh of relief, he laid the heavy file down on the wood beside him.

“Well?” Shunsui drawled.

The tetchy scientist leaned forward, balancing his elbows on his spread knees with his pasty hands clasped between them. “As Soutaichou ordered, I checked my databanks after the assembly. There’s no information on the Hougyoku anywhere. It isn’t a case of data that was there suddenly going missing. There never was anything about the Hougyoku recorded in it in the first place. Which means, the only places with reliable data about the Hougyoku is inside the Daireishin archives, in Urahara Kisuke’s head or, if you can get hold of it, Aizen’s head. I’m not surprised about Urahara Kisuke. I was his data keeper, and I know for a fact that his most important data he kept only in his mind. But I doubt he’ll see me even if I go to the Living World to ask it of him. Aizen is gone. That leaves only the archives as our resort.”

“You’re absolutely certain of this?” Shunsui asked.

“Positive.”

“Yama-jii ordered me to find this out from you.” He looked a little closer at Kurotsuchi, and detected the minute jitters of nervousness in the scientist’s outwardly calm posture. “But perhaps you want to report this to him directly? Soothe his ire a little. You can tell him you’ve already informed me.”

“If you think so.” Kurotsuchi stared at him. Then his lidless golden eyes narrowed. “We’re also began reviewing and re-verifying all our personnel logs. It’ll take a few more days before we’re finished, but as of now, we’ve already confirmed that slightly more than thirty years ago Aizen impersonated my department head Hiyosu to infiltrate our security surveillance facilities. He was spying on that Hollow called Metastacia, I’ve isolated several recordings of his illegal snooping. He saw it all, how Metastacia hunted and killed the entire squad of the late Lady Shiba Miyako, and then fused itself into her to infiltrate the Thirteenth. He even saw how it took over Ukitake Taichou’s late fukutaichou and tried to kill him and Kuchiki Rukia. I leave it to you on how you wish to inform your older brother.”

Shunsui kept his expression lazy even as his heart rate sped up at the revelation. “We’ll be able to restore this same information to the archives very soon. Ukitake is repairing the damaged circuits even as we speak.” He paused, then added solemnly, “But thanks for telling me this first. I appreciate the thoughtfulness. ‘Tis not going to be an easy news to relay to him.”

Kurotsuchi leaned back with visible satisfaction. “I was reviewing our innovations in our storage as Soutaichou ordered. You’ve heard of my invention the Reiatsu Restraining Material which we now use in the Muken., I found something similar but much more suitable for use in combat in the Living World. It’s a reiatsu limiting bracelet, has the same function as the reiatsu limiting seals of the Senkaimon, but far more flexible. The Senkaimon seals uniformly reduce all reiatsu to twenty percent of their full strengths, but with this bracelet, the wearer can adjust the limiting level at will in an instant, whether to fully limit reiatsu, or not at all, or adjusted to any level in between. The speed and flexibility will make a big difference if any of our shinigami are in critical danger in the Living World. A much better device than the Senkaimon seal, wouldn’t you say?”

Shunsui rubbed his stubble thoughtfully. “I can see the merits. But also the drawbacks. It relies entirely on the discipline of the shinigami not to abuse the flexibility that this bracelet grants. I doubt every shinigami can be allowed to use it.”

“I will include it in my list for Soutaichou’s consideration. But at the very least, all taichou should be allowed the option of using this device?”

“You wish me to help promote its use to Yama-jii?” Shunsui asked speculatively. He leaned back and gazed patiently at the jittery scientist. “Ai, Mayuri-san, you’re throwing me a number of very nice titbits. Perhaps you want to tell me about this some other data you referred to earlier? What are you really asking for?”

Kurotsuchi paused for a moment, visibly conflicted. Then, clearly very upset, he grated, “This goes no further than here.”

“And Ukitake,” Shunsui added for good measure.

“Fine,” he snapped.

“So let’s hear it,” Shunsui invited magnanimously.

The golden eyes stared at him intensely from the black-and-white painted face. “Three years ago, Aizen impersonated me and broke into my personal databank in my private quarters. He downloaded and then corrupted all my data on my Nemuri Project. I need them restored, and I need Soutaichou not to know about this.”

“Why not?”

“You swear this will stay only between us?” Kurotsuchi asked again, suddenly urgent.

“By my zanpakutou,” Shunsui confirmed.

Taking a deep breath, very quietly, Kurotsuchi said, “I passed my Taishu eighty years ago. All other taichou who passed their Taishu achieved bankai through training, but I didn’t. The Nemuri Project gave me an advantage that didn’t require training. That particular data was stolen and then corrupted by Aizen, and now I can’t even retrieve it to erase it. If Soutaichou finds out…” He trailed off, looking so extremely unsettled that Shunsui half expected him to crawl out of his body paints.

The fundamental rule about the Taishu was that bankai must have been achieved through training, not by any other means. Breaking this rule would immediately disqualify the candidate with heavy penalties.

Shunsui stared at the thoroughly rattled scientist before him and suddenly, he felt a surge of compassion.

For all his nasty personality, terrifying eccentricities, and even more frightening inventions, Kurotsuchi never aspired to be anything other than the best scientist in Soul Society. Privately, Shunsui always believed that if given a full day to prepare with enough information at hand, Kurotsuchi would find a solution to any problem or obstacle, with the added benefit to the Gotei that the scientist and inventor would do it only because he relished solving the problem for its own sake, not for any other purpose. Despite popular perceptions and Kurotsuchi’s infamous reputation, his motives had always been easy for Shunsui to grasp.

If Shunsui blew the whistle now, Kurotsuchi would be finished. Banished back into the Ujimushi no Su where Kisuke-kun first broke him out from over a century ago. But if he did that, the Gotei would also lose one of its most brilliant minds, something none of them could afford right now with Aizen at large and internal conspiracy snapping at their heels.

And Kurotsuchi, he abruptly realised, must have realised this as well and had clearly decided to gamble on his indispensability to the Gotei before he so boldly came forward to Shunsui, even if the act was terrifying him out of his body paints.

“This is very prickly, Mayuri-san,” Shunsui opted to say. “If it were up to me, I’ll pardon you right now because in a strange way, I understand you. But Yama-jii’s position is entirely different. He can’t show preferential treatment to anyone, not even to those he most favours.”

“Why do you think I insisted you keep this from Soutaichou?” Kurotsuchi bit out nervously. He looked agitated enough to fly up from his seat.

Jyuushirou was the only one who could retrieve the information for the scientist with none the wiser, for he left no trace of his actions in the archives. But it sat ill with Shunsui to implicate his soul brother, who already had more than enough on his plate to handle.

“What you’re asking me to do, is seditious,” he warned.

“This is why I brought this.” Kurotsuchi lifted the heavy file from beside him. Placing his hand protectively over its cover, he said, “There’s only one duplicate copy in existence of my research on shinigami organ replacement and transplant. In here is the first half of the duplicate. If you agree to my request, this is yours. When I get the data, I’ll send you the second half.”

The temptation sang to Shunsui like the best sake.

“And I’ll even throw in free and secret consultations,” Kurotsuchi continued.

Now the offer was as enticing as Jyuushirou.

His only fear was that he would be implicating his love.

[Take it,] whispered Katen Kyoukotsu. [Deal with the consequences later.]

I’ll get him into trouble, he argued silently. Once he retrieves the data, he’ll see Kurotsuchi’s transgression. I can’t swear him into silence when he finds out.

[Then get the data yourself and convince him it’s for helping a friend.]

I leave very clear tracks in the archives, my dear, he reminded. Yama-jii will notice even if Jyuushirou believes me.

Then suddenly, he saw the solution to his quandary.

“We have a deal,” Shunsui said, lying through his teeth. Silently, his heart apologised, I’m sorry, Mayuri-san. But you’ll understand later this is for the best.

“When will I get the data?” Kurotsuchi asked, his characteristic paranoia now in full blaze.

“Tomorrow,” Shunsui estimated, this time with honesty. “Latest by the day after tomorrow.”

The reptilian golden eyes stared at him. Then silently, Kurotsuchi held out the heavy file.

Shunsui accepted the heavy binder carefully.

The nervous scientist rose to his feet and stared down at Shunsui, his lidless golden eyes for once filled with emotions, this time a churning mix of fear and warning. “I’ll be holding you to our deal. If you double-cross me, Kyouraku Taichou, rest assured that you’ll live to forever regret being left alive.”

With that threat, the brilliant genius walked away and vanished into shunpo, leaving Shunsui alone with heavy piles of information which he had coveted and been engineering to possess ever since he saw those tanks in Kurotsuchi’s private quarters. 

# # # # # #

While the reconstruction was in progress, Nanao-chan had set up his temporary office in the barracks nearest to where his original office had been. It was a flat, single storeyed white stone building connected to the zanjutsu doujou by a wide verandah.

Freshly showered and changed into a clean set of shihakushou, Shunsui hefted his precious, heavy bundle over one shoulder, then raising his reiatsu barrier firmly, sauntered down the verandah and into his temporary office as nonchalantly as he could.

Nanao-chan was surprised, no, actually shocked, when he appeared.

“Nanao-chan! Anything for me to sign?” he sang, entering with a flourish.

Her blue violet-tinged eyes stared at him widened and unblinking from behind her oval glasses. Very carefully, she raised the tip of one middle finger and pushed the frames up higher on her nose and looked at Shunsui closely, as if to make sure she was really looking at him and not an apparition or doppelganger.

“Kyouraku Taichou, the next batch of forms do not have to be sent yet as we still have enough material for the reconstruction,” she reported carefully. “But our incident reports are just completed. Would you like to read them now and sign them off?”

He waved merrily. “Sure, sure. Let me at them.” He slung down the heavy bundle from his shoulder, put it on the nearest desk, which happened to be hers, and stuck out his hand.

Immediately, a thick sheaf of papers appeared on his palm, neatly stapled into two piles. No matter how shocked she was, she was not one to waste the sudden emergence of this rare, industrious streak in him.

Chuckling, he glanced through the papers, noting Nanao-chan’s name on one report, and his Third Seat Enjouji Tatsufusa’s name on the other report. He had been present for Nanao-chan’s incident, for he was the one who took down Sado-kun, hence he gave it no more than one cursory run through. But he scanned through Enjouji’s report with interest.

And almost laughed aloud when he read his Third Seat’s lively descriptions of how he had dazzled Sado-kun with his Houzan Kenbu technique and they had both engaged in a prolonged fight which ultimately ended when the human ryoka slipped away in defeat. It was a fantastic piece of fictional writing.

He held out one hand. Nanao-chan promptly placed a pen on his palm. Grinning, with a flourish, he signed off on her report. On the other report, he scribbled a short note to inform its author that he had missed out the names and detailed descriptions of Sado-kun’s fighting techniques and would Enjouji be so kind as to provide them for everyone’s future learning. Then he handed everything back to Nanao-chan with a wink. She took a look at what he had scribbled, and while her expression remained stern as always, humour began dancing in her eyes.

“Can you also requisite me a Denreishinki?” he asked. “I’ll sign a blank form now, and you can fill in the rest. Ask for a unit that isn’t complicated. Call in, call out, that’s it.”

“Certainly, Kyouraku Taichou, a moment please.” Moving to her very organised desk, she pulled out a pad of blank forms and handed it to him with a pen. “Are you going on mission to the Living World?”

“Am I,” he hummed noncommittally, signing on the signature line, before handing it back to her. “Remember, ne? A simple one. Call in, call out.”

“Understood.” She looked pointedly at him and added, “When I receive it, I’ll schedule your time to show you how it works, yes?”

“Ai, excellent idea!” he beamed proudly at her.

She jotted down the appointment in her ever present notebook.

“And do we still use that big room with the map of Seireitei?” he asked.

“The Strelitzia Hall? It’s been converted to a divisional meeting room.”

“Get a latest map for it. As large and as updated as you can find. See if the room can be converted into a war room.” He thought about it, then added, “Make it possible for meals and drinks to be served in it as well, for those times when discussions will be long.”

“Noted.” She scribbled it down. Then looking at him quizzically, asked, “Is there anything else?”

He lifted his heavy bundle and slung it back over his shoulder. “This is it for now, I’ll pop in again tomorrow!” Cheerfully he waved, then flashed out of his office before she could respond.

Shunsui was a man on a mission. It would not do to be interrupted.

The headquarters of the Fourth lay in a steep southwesterly direction from his location, slightly nearer to him than the Ugendou which lay to his west. Leaping lightly from roof to roof, he cast his reiatsu out in a thin discreet layer, and let his senses range forth in search of the thick viscous signature of his co-conspirator.

She was somewhere underground, under the main building of the hospital.

It had been some time since he last visited the mortuary, but he still remembered the way. The afternoon sun was beginning to slant, hence he made haste, landing lightly into a side courtyard situated away from the direct traffic of the bustling main thoroughfare before the front entrance of the Sougou Kyuugo Tsumesho. Here, the atmosphere was as sombre as the mortuary itself, in respectful silence for the dead. He strode towards the small, secluded entrance quietly, entering without being questioned, and in bounding steps, quickly descended into its basements. The sterile chemical stench of embalming solutions and disinfectant assailed his nostrils immediately. A thick drop of the viscous reiatsu indicated that he should proceed to Room Six.

Following the reiatsu trail, he arrived shortly before the swinging twin doors, and peered through its circular glass window.

Hanshi-sama was inside, gloved and clad in a lab coat with a mask over her face, putting away a silvery scope. At his appearance, she nodded for him to enter and began pulling off her surgical gloves and mask.

He pushed through the swinging doors, immediately seeing the six long trolleys in the room bearing the six long bundles transported from the repository. The last one was opened, the corpse turned on its front, its judicial robe cut open to reveal a dried shrunken back. As he approached, she wordlessly covered the body again and turned expectantly to him.

“Here,” she indicated the counter behind her as soon as she spied his heavy bundle.

“You’re going to like this,” he grinned at her, then swung the heavy bundle down. “I think you’ll find this quite exciting.” With a flourish, he undid the knot of the travelling pack cloth and let the folds fall apart.

Her eyes widened when the fabric wrapping fell aside to reveal the thick binder file it protected. Immediately she opened the cover and began flipping through the bound documents, sparing him one inquiring glance.

“What did you have to promise Kurotsuchi-san for him to give these up?” she asked.

“You don’t want to know,” he told her seriously.

“Do we have his full cooperation on this?”

“Not yet.”

She flipped through the file quickly, her eyes lighting up the more she scanned through. First gladness, then excitement rose in Shunsui as he observed her expression. The data were all gibberish to him, but if she found them enlightening…

Then she frowned when she came to the end. “They are incomplete,” she said. Lifting her eyes, she gave him an interrogative stare and waited.

“I’ll receive the second part in a few days,” he assured.

Hanshi-sama’s dark-blue eyes became very, very steady. “Whatever it is that you have done, it is imperative that you obtain Jyuushirou-kun’s consent to the treatment. I will have to read in detail later, but from what is already in this portion, I know this operation will be extremely invasive. As of now, without any idea of what is truly causing his chronic illness, I can only say with certainty that assuming we proceed, this will change his biology and physiological. The results may cure him and strengthen him for good and allow him to live the natural lifespan a soul of his power is meant to. Or it may negate his powers and he can no longer be a shinigami. He must know everything and be given the freedom to make his choice. Without any influence.”

Shunsui hesitated. “But… what if he rejects it?”

She closed the files with finality. “Then we respect his wishes. I will not force an invasive procedure on anyone, least of all on a soul as gentle as he.”

He held her gaze a moment more, then nodded silently and looked away. “I understand.”

As she began rewrapping the files, he confided quietly, “It’s not fair to him, is it? Being left out of history like this. The Daireishin is the definitive record of everything that happens in Soul Society, but he’s only in it for the first thirteen years of his life. That’s not even a speck in his entire lifespan. All that he had contributed to this realm, it’s as if he doesn’t exist and never did any of the great things that changed the tides for the better. Changed Soul Society for the better. Why am I always the only one who see this and object to it?”

“You refer to the fact that the Daireishin does not see him because of the nature of his power?”

“What else,” he huffed.

When she remained silently listening, he went on. “He never complains because he really doesn’t think of himself. He wants to return to the frontlines not because he seeks the glory and misses the action, but because he knows that’s the best way he can contribute. Yama-jii takes advantage of his willing nature, Hanshi-sama. It has never sat well with me, even though I know it’s for the greater good and Ukitake himself wishes it.” He looked plaintively at her. “What Yama-jii does to him… I don’t think I can ever treat him the same way.”

Setting the bundle aside, she looked up into his face contemplatively. There was a conflict of emotions in her blue eyes, but her expression was clear. When she answered, it was with a question. “Do you know how I am able to step in whenever you need me to, and step aside as soon as you do not need me?”

Guilt and contrition flooded him. Shunsui bowed his head. “I’m sorry, I never meant… I’m sorry.”

“That was not what I meant,” she said gently. “But apology accepted. When I agreed to our arrangement, neither one of us knew the heart would choose what it chose.” Lightly, she tilted his chin up to look her in the eyes. “What I mean, however, is that I see what you cannot because you are too close to Jyuushirou-kun. He decided a long time ago that his fulfilment is to give his life and his soul to uphold the balance and protect Soul Society. Anyone who loves him, can only truly love him by honouring his desire and his decision. He loves you to distraction, but his sense of mission overpowers all. In his deepest heart of hearts, his love for us takes second place. You and I have never been rivals at all, for neither of us can compare to the mission that consumes him. This is how I am able to step aside. Yamamoto-sama understood this from the moment Jyuushirou-kun chose the life of a shinigami. He shows his love by honouring Jyuushirou-kun’s desire and decision to give all that he is to the greater good.”

Shunsui sighed. “I hear you, Hanshi-sama. Don’t get me wrong. I support and uphold his sense of mission and I’ve done so for as long as I’ve loved him. But when it comes to allowing himself to be left out of history… I can’t accept that. He’s not an average shinigami, or even another taichou. He’s a fundamental key to all of our existence.”

“Then perhaps you should speak to him about it. Or to Yamamoto-sama.”

“I know what Ukitake will say if I broach this to him.” He looked at her. “But perhaps, I’ll take your suggestion and speak to Yama-jii. Surely our jii-sama can’t be as cavalier about this as he seems to be.” 

# # # # # #

Afternoon sunlight was turning golden by the time he completed all his errands and returned to the Daireishokairou. He had received Nanao-chan’s Jigokuchou informing him that the Strelitzia Hall would be ready as the new war room of the Eighth by noon tomorrow, thus he had paid a quick visit to Komamura-san and arranged to hold their first defence meeting there the next day after noon repast. The giant wolfman, buried under diagrams he had drafted on customised paper the size of bedsheets, had been anxious to get started and had begun sounding some ideas when Shunsui had quickly demurred, citing he needed to hurry to another duty. He had all but fled from the Seventh, then en route back to the Central Forty-Six Compound, paused on a secluded rooftop and sent his own Jigokuchou to Byakuya. He needed to finalise their strategies for dealing with the clans as soon as possible, and thus proposed their first meeting in his temporary office for tomorrow morning. The young Kuchiki lord had clearly been eager to begin as well, for his affirmation of their appointment had been immediate. With that final important task done, Shunsui had put everything else out of his mind and hurried back to the repository.

Once again, shadows slinked away from his senses when he entered the deserted courtyard. The Onmitsukidou was clearly actively protecting the place now. He did not expect, however, the pint-sized pink-haired little girl sitting cross-legged on the steps of the main entrance. Her zanpakutou was resting haphazardly across her tiny hakama-clad lap with its training wheels on the stone floor as she frowned distractedly up into the late afternoon skies. Two white little bags were balanced on her knees, one larger than the other. Upon seeing him, her large dark-pink eyes brightened.

“Shun-shun!” she waved.

“What brings you here, Yachiru-chan?” he asked cheerfully, hiding his caution. It was pointless to ask her how she managed to get past the Onmitsukidou, so he did not bother.

“I came to find you,” she said. “Gramps said you’ll be here.”

Shunsui startled. “Me? You’ve been to see Yama-jii?”

“Uh huh. He’s got new konpeitou for me. This one’s for Yuki and you.” She picked up the smaller white bag on her lap and held it out to him.

He accepted the tiny bag. It was very small. So small, in fact, that his entire fist could surround it. Surreptitiously he visually measured it against the larger white bag still sitting in her lap and noted its significantly bigger size. Shunsui supposed that in her little girl’s logic, one of her would eat much more konpeitou than two fully grown adult males

“Why, thank you,” he said anyway. “I’m sure Uki-Yuki, will love them. I don’t really eat sweets.”

She giggled. “I know that, silly. I was being nice. It’s really for Yuki only, if you must know. He loves sweets.”

That, Jyuushirou did. Shunsui stowed the small bag into the inner pocket of his kosode, nestling it next to the ultra-sophisticated Denreishinki. He had tried a peck at the gadget earlier and had given up within ten heartbeats. The thing was completely beyond him.

“So uh, why are you looking for me?” he asked genially.

“You gotta ask Yuki to teach Ken-chan jinzen. You just got to.”

The change in her mien was sudden… and terrifying.

Gone was the little girl. In her place, someone extremely old, and extremely powerful, stared at him from the depths of those large dark-pink pupils.

For the first time, he thoroughly regretted seeding the idea in Hanshi-sama’s head.

“There’s no one else left who has enough reiryoku. Re-chan said no again to Ken-chan today. Gramps said he’s too busy. Your zanpakutou said she won’t like it if you teach Ken-chan. But even if all three of you said yes, it still has to be Yuki. I like Yuki best. Ken-chan prefers Re-chan the most but I don’t, something bad will happen if Re-chan teaches him. If Yuki teaches Ken-chan, something good will happen. So it must be Yuki.”

Shunsui almost staggered under the deluge of revelations.

When did you talk to Yachiru-chan? he demanded of his zanpakutou.

Katen Kyoukotsu merely hummed.

“Ukitake is going to be very busy in the coming days, Yachiru-chan,” he frowned. “Can you tell Zaraki-san to wait?”

“For how long, Shun-shun? It’s very important Ken-chan hears his zanpakutou soon. You’ll need it.”

Her stress on ‘you’ll’ did not escape his notice.

For a moment, he was annoyed beyond words. Was even Yachiru-chan becoming precognitive now?

He sighed, silently berating himself. Suddenly, his disrupted sleep of last night caught up with him and exhaustion ached right into his bones. Things were developing in a direction and at a speed that unsettled him, and everything seemed to be hinging on Jyuushirou and himself.

But since he was the one who started this ploy, he would have to finish it. “I’ll talk to him, Yachiru-chan, but you’ll have to promise me one thing.”

“What’s that?” Suddenly, the little girl was back again, her large eyes and round face bright and inquisitive with innocent curiosity.

He concealed his inward shudder at her eerie personality change. “Ask Zaraki-san to make as best use as he can of his Gotei-wide melee zanjutsu training in the meantime, will you?” he implored with his best cajoling voice. “I’m honest. Ukitake cannot spare the time right now. Only later.”

“Deal, I’ll tell Ken-chan to stop bugging Re-chan if you’ll ask Yuki!” Brightly, she grabbed her large white bag of candy and leapt to her feet, her hilt in her other hand. “See you around, Shun-shun!”

Then she was off, disappearing in a streak of smoke and black-and-pink blur.

She was fast. Annoyingly so for someone using neither shunpo nor reiatsu.

Shunsui sighed and adjusted his hat, then turned to re-enter the library halls.

Only to be stopped by an icy draught.

Turning, he watched as Hitsugaya-kun dropped down into the courtyard.

“Kyouraku,” greeted the child prodigy.

“Hitsugaya-kun, you shouldn’t be straining yourself just yet, ne?” Shunsui spied the faintly stiff movements and the bandages still showing above the collar of his much younger colleague.

“This is no matter. I came to seek a trade with you,” replied the child taichou in his usual cold voice.

Silently, Shunsui counted and realised that if he made this trade, it would be his third of the day. He would have to remember to ask Nanao-chan whether he gave off any vibe of a dealmaker.

“Momo is unwell, and it’ll be a long time more before she recovers,” Hitsugaya-kun was saying. “I’ve worked with her division since she became fukutaichou, and I know the squadron of the Fifth quite well. If you agree, I’ll like to look after her division while she’s on recovery leave. In return, I can cede to you any duty of your choice under my purview.”

Shunsui raised his brows. “Hmm, this is troubling, Hitsugaya-kun. I’m neutral, but Yama-jii seems to have pretty firm ideas about who does what in future. You should’ve spoken to him first, before coming to me with this.”

“I will. I thought to sound you out first. I mean to seek Ukitake’s opinion as well, but Soutaichou’s Kyoumon repels all entry.” His icy aquamarine shifted to the main entrance with some concern. “He’s been in there almost all day. Is he… well?”

Immediately, Shunsui understood what the brilliant child genius meant. “He’s holding up great,” he assured cheerfully.

Hitsugaya-kun looked momentarily relieved. “That’s good to hear. Can you convey my message to him? I’ll only take a moment of his time, nothing more.”

“Sure, sure,” Shunsui waved reassuringly. Then more solemnly, he stressed, “But I truly believe it’s best you speak at length to Yama-jii about this. None of us can truly see the full scope of his thinking.”

“I’ll do so,” replied Hitsugaya-kun with a stiff nod. “Have a good evening, then.” With that, his form flickered and was gone.

Third deal done, Shunsui looked around, wondering if he should continue his way inside, or wait some more for another unexpected dealmaker to appear.

He was glad he waited, because several heartbeats after Hitsugaya-kun had left, Abarai-kun appeared, holding a sheaf of papers in his hand.

Were all these young ones trying to avoid one another?

“Abarai-kun, greetings.” Shunsui tilted his head. “How may I help you?”

Looking momentarily taken aback that Shunsui seemed to be expecting him, the tattooed fukutaichou recovered quickly and walked forwards with a serious expression on his marked face.

“Kyouraku Taichou,” he bowed formally in greeting. “Kuchiki Taichou said I should seek Ukitake Taichou’s opinion on my taking another rotation in the Living World,” he began with determination. Then his eyes shifted to the main entrance. “But I-”

“Couldn’t get inside,” Shunsui finished for him. “Yes, yes, I know.”

Abarai-kun looked flustered. Then bowing his head low, he added, “I also wish to apologise to him for my harsh words this morning. I judged him without knowing the full details and I’m sorry.”

Shunsui waved his hand placatingly. “I’ll tell Ukitake, but don’t worry about it. His heart is too large to take offence at such things.” He studied the young fukutaichou, noting the resolution in his slanting brown eyes and the firm set of his sharp, wildly tattooed features. “But as for taking a second rotation, I can see that you've made up your mind,” he observed. “I suppose nothing remains for Ukitake to say that will change your decision?”

The youngster nodded. “I’m afraid I won’t be dissuaded, Kyouraku Taichou. Ichigo… Rukia is worried about him. He’s new to all his powers, and he often doesn’t think before he acts.”

Like you think before you act? Shunsui almost laughed out loud but checked himself at the last moment. Abarai-kun had always been a rather sensitive sort, for all his rashness and bluster. It was the only reason he thrived under Byakuya’s command compared to when he was in the Eleventh led around by Madarame-kun.

“I’ll convey your wish and your message to Ukitake,” he assured. “If it were up to me alone, you’ll be approved already because there isn’t another who knows Kurosaki-kun as well as you, now that Rukia-chan is on recovery leave.” Then an idea struck him. “But you should also inform Hitsugaya Taichou, Abarai-kun. This morning he’s been made Auxiliary Commander of Living World Affairs.”

The slanting brown eyes looked surprised.

“The final decision will still lie with Yama-jii, but Ukitake’s opinion will count for a large part of how Yama-jii decides,” he advised. “And I believe Hitsugaya Taichou’s opinion will count as well.” Shunsui gestured at the papers in the fukutaichou’s hands. “Is that your application then?”

Brightening, Abarai-kun held out the papers respectfully with both hands. Shunsui carefully took the neatly stapled sheaf of tidily completed, signed and compiled set of forms, marvelling silently at how the tall young man, despite his rough Rukongai beginnings, seemed to have an extraordinary knack for paperwork.

“I’ll hand this over to Ukitake,” he assured again.

With gratitude on his tattooed face, Abarai-kun bowed deeply. “Thank you, Kyouraku Taichou!” Straightening, he looked at where Hitsugaya-kun had disappeared to. “I shall find Hitsugaya Taichou now…”

“Go, go,” Shunsui urged amiably. “Just be ready to respond quickly when Ukitake calls you to have tea. He’s going to be real tied up in the coming days, but I believe he’ll take a personal interest in your views.”

“Certainly, Kyouraku Taichou!” Another deep bow, this time with cheer. Then with a beaming face, Abarai-kun nodded his farewell and flickered into shunpo, chasing after the child taichou.

Carefully placing the form into his inner pocket, which was now near to overcrowding, Shunsui looked around the deserted courtyard. Then swept around the place with his senses for good measure.

Anyone else?

He only detected a multitude of vague reiatsu glimmers, all of them deliberately tamped down. Members of the Onmitsukidou, he identified. Other than them, no one else remained.

At last.

With finality, he turned on his heel and walked through the main entrance of the Daireishokairou.

Passing through the burning Kyoumon, the first thing Shunsui noticed was that he could feel nothing except a quiet peace. The omnipresence of the Daireishin was gone, as if departed or perhaps fallen into somnolence. The library halls were quiet and still, deserted once more, emptied of its earlier momentary buzz of activities.

Shunsui strode quickly down the broad length of the main thoroughfare until he reached the closed wooden door. It felt still, unlike how it had felt mere hours ago. He paused momentarily to extend his senses into it, and once more, felt nothing but silence. Carefully, he placed his hand on the doorknob, and allowed his reiatsu barrier to fall slightly.

He was recognised immediately. As if possessing a will of its own, the knob turned by itself under his hand and the door swung inwards.

Instantly, a riot of chaotic humming, blinding light and energies exploded. Gritting his teeth, Shunsui slipped in and quickly pushed the door shut behind him. Then he stood, squinting in the madly pulsating brightness and involuntarily clapped his hat to his head against the whipping salt-and-ozone-tinged reiatsu winds.

Through slit eyelids he saw all panels of the columnar interior afire and pulsing with searing yellow light. The humming reverberated through his bones from everywhere at once, and chaotic pressures pummelled him from every direction. White reiatsu clouds roiled high above embroiled in its own silent storm, flashing with hidden lightning and permeating the air with ozone. The pulsating yellow light all around him shaded downwards into green, then shaded further down into blue-white, finally blazing into a blinding white inferno in the heart of the gaping abyss far below, as if hell itself was burning cold and white hot.

And standing in the centre of the square platform, transfixed between the two silver power input poles, bare hands outstretched and gripping the bulbous tops of the twin conductors, was Jyuushirou. He was bare to the waist, his long white mane whipping about him, his entire lean, broad-shouldered frame glowing a brilliant bluish-white as his elemental reiatsu drained in dazzling blue-white rivers directly into the conductor poles.

In one shunpo stride Shunsui was before the coldly flaming figure, staring with a wildly pounding heart at the ethereal, frightening vision of his slender, delicate soul brother pouring his precious life force into this… thing. Jyuushirou’s finely sculpted face was slack and distant, blue-white fire burning where his expressive dark eyes used to be. Perspiration poured down his toned alabaster torso to soak into the damp robes hanging from his narrow waist. His long pale fingers were clenched white-knuckled around the conductor poles as his blue-white reiryoku visibly poured from his reiatsu vents on the insides of his wrists into the metal stakes. The platform floor vibrated with what felt like thundering waves. Shunsui instinctively reached out to grasp Jyuushirou, to pull him away, then hesitated.

Something in the connection felt different this time.

The last time, he had battled a savage elemental suction power that cruelly ripped Jyuushirou’s power from him.

But what he felt now, was an unimpeded torrent voluntarily gushing into an invisible omnipresent maw.

Fear gripped Shunsui. “Jyuushirou!

He was heard. Whether by Jyuushirou or something else, Shunsui could not be certain. All he saw was that Jyuushirou shifted, awareness coming back to him as his slackened expression reanimated, and those blue-white flaming gaze seemed to see Shunsui.

Immediately, the crashing waves of reiatsu and blue-white energy pouring from Jyuushirou’s hands and wrists began tapering off. All around them the winds and clouds ebbed as the entire expanse of the columnar panelled walls gradually dimmed. The white inferno in the depths below started fading, the blue and green shadings fainting into yellow. Jyuushirou’s long mane began to fall about his sweaty shoulders in long, heavy, wet streams as the blue-white flames started to fade from his eyes and his mahogany gaze began to reappear.

Stemming his near panicked distress, Shunsui gritted his teeth and waited.

Finally, all of Jyuushirou’s power retracted until his reiatsu was once again a thin, calmly flowing stream, his form was no longer wreathed in glowing reiatsu, and the surrounding interior walls of the archives calmed to a steadily pulsing yellow light. Before Shunsui’s very eyes, Jyuushirou’s alabaster skin began taking on a bloodless tone. Yet his dark eyes glowed with excitement as they focussed on him, and faintly, he whispered with elation, “It worked!” before his knees began folding.

Shunsui caught his falling body, crushing his sweat slippery torso tightly against his chest to prevent his slender form from slipping out of his grip. Jyuushirou fell against him, his perspiration cold but his skin hot, severely weakened, his long fingers shaking as they instinctively bunched in the folds of Shunsui’s kosode. He was suddenly, frighteningly light. Shunsui bore them to the floor as gently as he could, Jyuushirou limply folding down with both legs to his side as he slumped against Shunsui’s chest.

“It worked!” he rasped again, from within Shunsui’s embrace.

Biting back his fear and frustration, Shunsui rested them on the floor of the platform. Now that the connection was broken, the temperature within the archives began to fall rapidly, raising goose bumps on the fine alabaster skin beneath his hands as its sweat evaporated. Hurriedly, Shunsui began pulling the top of Jyuushirou’s shihakushou back up over his torso, first his white shitagi then his black kosode, the semi-dry garments soaking up perspiration immediately. Wordlessly Jyuushirou tried to help, putting his shaking hands and arms back through the arm holes. His long white tresses were now so damp that they tangled, and Shunsui gently moved thick slick coils of snow white strands aside so that Jyuushirou could dress.

“Kyouraku…” Jyuushirou tried again.

“Won’t drain you as much this time? You miscalculated, you self-sacrificing nut!” Shunsui finally let out his frustration. “I wouldn’t have left you if I knew you were going in so deep!”

“I am sorry… but it worked… and we need the information quickly…” Jyuushirou rasped apologetically. His deep tenor was weak, its usual vibrant timbre gone. “Look…” He pointed with a trembling finger at the walls. “All destroyed pathways will… be fully restored by tomorrow… we will soon know… the full extent of Aizen’s infiltration…”

But fear still thrummed through Shunsui’s veins, and his hand involuntarily tightened on one slender bicep. The firm gilded muscle beneath the dampening sleeve yielded under the pressure of his grip. “You could have gone straight into relapse going in this deep!” he bit out, trying not to raise his voice.

If Jyuushirou felt the discomfort of his tight grasp, he did not show it. Instead he tried to reason with Shunsui. “You… promised to... come for me…so I… took the risk...”

The archives chamber was truly getting chilly now, and the floor they were sitting on was turning positively cold. They needed to get up before Jyuushirou caught a chill. Shunsui patted down the slender body, pressing the fabric of the shihakushou to soak up more of the sweat. Jyuushirou’s taichou haori lay discarded on the floor nearby, weighed down by Sougyo no Kotowari to prevent it from being blown away by reiatsu winds. Shunsui snagged its edge and pulled haori and zanpakutou towards them. Shaking out the white robe, he draped its voluminous folds around Jyuushirou, then lifted the zanpakutou and pressed the long tachi into its master’s embrace. His soul brother instinctively cradled it against his chest, seeking its fortifying comfort. Pulling the front of the haori closed, Shunsui snugly folded the long wide sleeves over the slender arms and chest. 

As Shunsui fussed in silence, Jyuushirou watched him with dark anxious eyes. His complexion was going grey. “Kyouraku…”

They were both shinigami warriors, risking their lives were part of their job descriptions. Shunsui would not dishonour Jyuushirou by preventing him from taking risks. Especially when they both knew that between the two of them, it was Shunsui who was habitually the more reckless one, with a tendency to act on an idea before it was fully formed only to later navigate through what he had impulsively started by the seat of his hakama. Jyuushirou, on the other hand, tended to plan properly, and took as many precautions as he could when faced with dangerous situations to avoid making himself a burden to others.

In this instance, Jyuushirou had trusted Shunsui to show up and retrieve him and had therefore plugged himself deep into the reiryoku-starved elemental being.

But knowing this did not make it easier for Shunsui to deal with the aftermath. He had never found it easy to handle the consequences of Jyuushirou risking his health. If his soul brother was gearing up to lead a shinigami army against a phalanx of Hollows, Menos Grande or Arrancars, Shunsui would have broken out his best sake and settled down to watch the breathtaking spectacle that was sure to follow. But whenever Jyuushirou used his reiryoku in arcane battles, he silently screamed with a nameless terror because he knew how much Jyuushirou depended on his power to simply stay alive.

“I… I completed it... a while before... you arrived...” Jyuushirou was still trying to explain. “But I… stayed connected... to observe how… the regeneration would proceed... This... is the first time… I am repairing it… I needed to know…”

Jyuushirou’s shihakushou was now damp beneath his haori. With the chill in the air now, it was a risky condition for him to be in. Shrugging off his pink flowered kimono, Shunsui wound his favourite robe about the slender form as well, tucking the sleeves together to fully swaddle his weakened soul brother in a snug makeshift bundle. Then without hesitation, he shrugged out of his own taichou haori, and layered it over Jyuushirou’s tightly wrapped form, tucking the back collar under his pale chin. Finally he wound his arm around the back of the slender shoulders and pressed the brave, stubborn, precious white silken head to rest against the crook of his own neck and shoulder.

“Ai, Amai’take, what am I to do with you,” he murmured mournfully against the dampened white hair, pressing a warm kiss on the sweat-slicked strands. He cared little that they were both a mess now, instead, he snuffled, and breathed in lungfuls of the salt-tinged distinctive soft musk of peony blossoms. Must be true love, he thought ruefully not for the first time in his life. For Jyuushirou’s sweat always smelled sweet to him.

Only then, did he look up to study the walls of the archives.

The ugly black gashes and burn marks marring the concave interior walls were still there, but visibly fading before his eyes as he watched.

Like wounds healing on a shinigami body.

Jyuushirou snuffled into the crook of Shunsui’s neck and shoulder. “Tomorrow… we will know everything… all that Aizen destroyed… please tell Sensei…”

“Don’t worry about that now,” Shunsui hushed him. “Yama-jii will know when he knows. What we need to do now is get you out of here and back to the Ugendou so that you can recover.”

Jyuushirou acquiesced silently, then softly admitted, “I am getting hungry.” He began drawing his legs under him.

Huffing a fond chuckle, Shunsui untangled them and rose to his feet, his arms around the slender form as Jyuushirou leaned on him heavily to shakily rise. He wavered dangerously as soon as he was on his feet.

It was all Shunsui needed. Without waiting for permission, he pushed his zanpakutou behind his hip, bent and scooped the trembling frame up into a bridal carry, and at the slight moan of dizziness, tightened his hold securely. Tightly bound within the layers of their robes, Jyuushirou indicated with his eyes that he be moved closer to the conductor poles.

“I have to… close up,” he rasped.

“Leave them, no one unauthorised can come in here,” Shunsui rumbled brusquely.

Jyuushirou looked about to protest, then weariness got the better of him. Nodding wordlessly, he finally gave in to exhaustion and dropped his head onto Shunsui’s shoulder, his eyes closing. Beneath his swaddling robes, he curled in close around Sougyo no Kotowari for comfort, a habit he kept from his boyhood which unconsciously surfaced whenever his power was severely depleted.

With his love bundled safely in his arms, Shunsui bore them out of the archives, out of the library halls, then finally out into the courtyard, before leaping into shunpo into the sultry evening skies, heading northwards.

He sensed the multitude of hidden eyes keenly watch them depart and knew, with certainty, he would be questioned by Yama-jii tomorrow.

But tonight, they had a reprieve.

Chapter Text

Over the centuries, Jyuushirou became extremely adept at managing his chronic illness and developed an array of medical response and healthcare regimens. To his surprise, his seated officers and estate servants quickly picked them up, and in turn developed their own protocols for each of the myriad of physical conditions that beset their taichou and master. Tonight was an exemplary demonstration. Kiyone had outdone herself to prepare the Ugendou for healing his drained reiryoku. A large evening spread awaited them on covered dishes and bowls set on warmers about the low table of the living area, while a tranquil warmth and comforting ambience permeated the entire house, the light of freshly lit kidou braziers and kidou lamps welcoming them home. The fresh scent of peony wafted through the house from a freshly drawn infusion bath in the master ensuite, and by the step of the stone flagged foyer, fresh warm wooden basins of chrysanthemum infused warm water stood steaming with clean soft washing cloths to cleanse her taichou’s sensitive hands and feet. She had dismissed all the estate servants, knowing from long experience that Jyuushirou preferred strict privacy whenever his power was drastically weakened.

The only thing she had not prepared for was the sight of her taichou returning swaddled in layers of robes laying quiet and still in Shunsui’s arms, unable to even stand much less return home under his own power, his alabaster complexion greyed, long white hair mussed and matted from dried perspiration, and dark eyes unfocused and lacklustre.

She had paled and her eyes had widened, for it had been an extremely long time since Jyuushirou wore himself out to this extent. And the last time he had, Kiyone had the late Shiba Kaien to guide her. So for her sake Shunsui had deliberately kept his mood upbeat, reassuring her quickly that such things often happened long before her time, and the best remedy was always a good meal.

Without Sentaro’s rivalry, her training and innate sensible nature shone through and she had immediately summoned her self-control and rushed forth to help as Shunsui carried her drained, starving taichou inside, where he gently set his precious burden down at his usual dining place. Kiyone had knelt to remove Jyuushirou’s footwear with undisguised heartbreak, while Shunsui freed him from the confining layers of robes and helped him lay aside Sougyo no Kotowari, assuring him again when his shaking pale fingers were reluctant to let go of his zanpakutou’s comfort. Then reiryoku hunger peaked and struck deep, and Kiyone nearly wept as Jyuushirou’s limbs shuddered with pained weakness as soul eating ravenousness coursed through him. She bit her lips hard as she gently cleansed his trembling slender hands and bare narrow feet with the warm chrysanthemum water and soft cloths. Shunsui had wasted no time. He opened the first bowls of tonic soup and purple rice, quickly mixing them into a porridge, then began feeding Jyuushirou mouthfuls of the potent fuel to blunt the agonising famishment.

They kept at it wordlessly, until the sharp gnawing devouring pain began to dull. Reiryoku depletion caused a hunger of the soul, and when severe enough, could drive a shinigami to pain crazed desperation for replenishment. Shunsui never experienced it before but he did not have to in order to know how it felt like; his soul resonated with sympathetic agony each time Jyuushirou suffered it, like it was now. Kiyone had worked quietly and deftly around them, stripping her taichou of his sweat soaked kosode and shitagi, mopping his face and neck, his shivering shoulders, back, chest and arms. She untangled his sweat matted long hair and mopped the thick white coils before laying them in tidy lengths his back. Jyuushirou had attempted to help her as much as he could, but so weakened had he been it was all he could do not to topple over as she helped him insert his arms one at a time into his light blue yukata. In the end, Shunsui had simply removed his hat, haori and zanpakutou, settled down behind Jyuushirou with his legs cradling either side of his long slender body, and carefully settled his debilitated love against his chest. Then finally seeing that her beloved commander was in good hands, Kiyone had bowed, wished Jyuushirou a speedy recovery, then gathered up his soiled clothing and cleansing things and left them to their privacy.

That had been an hour and half ago.

Now, Jyuushirou had regained enough strength to sit upright under his own power and was starting on his sixth serving of purple rice and tonic soup.

A centuries old combination that proved repeatedly to start his reiryoku on instantaneous recovery, he consumed them as his staple diet, along with humble dishes of calorie dense meats and roots cooked with vegetables and herbs, neither fanciful nor luxurious but simply serving the utilitarian purpose of replenishing his reiryoku on a daily basis as he unconsciously used his power to keep his illness at bay. Tonight he was consuming more quantities of them. Much more. Most times Shunsui shared the dishes, but now he limited himself to his usual sushi, soup and sake to leave more portions of the energy dense food for his love. Too elegant and graceful to inhale his meal, nonetheless Jyuushirou pulled off a close approximation of it, vanishing almost all the dishes in the same amount of time that Shunsui took to finish his own significantly smaller portion.

Then only a few partially consumed dishes remained, and Jyuushirou put down his chopsticks and spoon with a relieved sigh.

“Better?” Shunsui asked wryly.

“Much,” was Jyuushirou’s answer, the vibrant timbre of his deep tenor partially restored. Colour was beginning to return to his skin, chasing away the grey pallor. He was still a way off from full recovery, however, and every now and then an involuntary tremor shook his hands.

“Have more water,” Shunsui insisted, taking the large water jug and pouring out a large cupful. He placed the filled cup before Jyuushirou. “You’ve been sweating all day.”

Nodding, Jyuushirou wrapped both hands around the large cup of water and lifted its rim to his lips, his dark eyes stealing surreptitiously to the rest of the dishes as he sipped.

Shunsui chuffed a soft laugh. “Go ahead,” he encouraged, nudging the remaining dishes over. “May as well finish them, ne?”

With a sheepish smile, Jyuushirou finished his water, then retrieved his chopsticks and spoon and began demolishing the remaining dishes at an astonishing pace. Shunsui drank his sake as he watched, wondering if they should inform the kitchens to send more food.

Finally, all the plates and bowls were picked clean. Jyuushirou put down his chopsticks and spoon and reached for his water again.

Shunsui was impressed. In a mere two hours, wan and slight Jyuushirou had consumed enough calorie dense food to feed an entire squadron.

Then remembering, he reached into his kosode and pulled out the small white bag of konpeitou. Leaning across the table, he plopped it gently before Jyuushirou.

Dark, fatigue smudged eyes lit up with delight.

“Dessert. From Yachiru-chan to Yuki,” Shunsui informed with a grin. Then added with amusement, “She claims it’s from Yama-jii.”

With obvious pleasure, Jyuushirou undid the top of the small bag, his hands now noticeably more steady. Carefully picking out a few tiny colourful candies, he rolled them in his palm for a moment to admire their glittering pastel hued star shapes, before popping them all into his mouth.

“I will be sure to thank her,” crunched Jyuushirou with visible enjoyment.

“Don’t be too hasty,” Shunsui laughed lightly, wagging a finger. “This is a bribe. She asked me to persuade you to coach her Ken-chan in jinzen so that he can hear his zanpakutou. She was awfully serious about it too.”

Dismay flooded Jyuushirou’s face. “Ai, it seems Zaraki is truly determined!” Shaking his head, he explained, “It is not that I refuse to teach him. The truth is I simply do not have adequate time to give him the proper attention such a skill requires. Will Senpai not reconsider? She was the one who first called him the Kenpachi.”

“Apparently Hanshi-sama turned him down again this morning. Don’t worry, I asked Yachiru-chan for time and for Zaraki to be patient.” Shunsui paused, then asked earnestly, “If I push it back to later, you’ll spare him a session or two?”

“I can spare him two hours for a first lesson, but I do not know what it will achieve,” Jyuushirou said honestly, his dark eyes doubtful. “Zaraki’s single-minded drive to seek the fight is the main issue. His thirst for the fight will get in the way of his desire to connect with his zanpakutou.” He took another drink of water, then said softly with humour, “Besides, every time we conduct cross division exercise, he will remind me that I should be working behind a desk or in the Fourth instead of defending half the Seireitei’s perimeter with him. I do not know how much he will heed my teachings.”

Shunsui chuckled. “It’s not disrespect he shows you. He’s just terrified he’ll accidentally chip you or even flick a speck of dirt on you, then have to face Yama-jii’s roasting.”

The dark eyes rolled. “You say that because you instigated this and now need me to help you fulfil your promise to Yachiru. I will help you. But please do not expect too much. I have been managing Zaraki since he took over the Eleventh, and nothing about him tells me jinzen is the way for him to hear his zanpakutou. I suspect he will come into his shikai like us, through violence.”  

“As long as we give him a shot, ne? Thanks for saving my skin, Amai’take,” Shunsui grinned and raised his sake dish. Downing its content in one tilt, he put it down and dug into his kosode again, pulling out the next item he had planned to mention. He placed Abarai-kun’s application form before Jyuushirou, next to the bag of candy. The once neat sheaf of papers now looked rather crumpled. “Seems that Byakuya-kun moved his request along. He told Abarai-kun to seek your opinion about him repeating another tour in the Living World.”

Jyuushirou popped another handful of konpeitou, then crunching on the sweet treat, opened the sheaf of papers. There was a only a slight tremor in his long pale fingers as he held the papers while his dark eyes scanned through the application quickly. “Renji has a knack for paperwork,” he murmured with a small smile. “I shall speak to him anon. There is no reason why we should deny this. I always thought one tour of duty in the Living World is never enough exposure for the young ones to learn the true importance of upholding the balance. Every shinigami should ideally take three or four tours. But since we are always severely shorthanded, I understand why Sensei never allowed more than one tour of duty per shinigami.” He refolded the sheaf and placed it securely in the hidden drawer beneath the low table. Taking another drink, he said with conviction, “But as he also said, perhaps now it is time to change our practice. It is precisely our lack of adequate interaction with humans and the Living World that we became a breeding ground for ambitions like Aizen’s which hold souls in complete disregard.”

Nodding in agreement, Shunsui downed his dish of sake. “None other than Abarai-kun and Rukia-chan know Kurosaki-kun well. I’ve asked Abarai-kun to also inform Hitsugaya-kun.”

“Thank you,” Jyuushirou smiled with gratitude. He poured out the last of the water from the water jug and began to sip.

Shunsui pulled out the last item in his inner pocket and gently placed it next to the candy bag. Jyuushirou immediately recognised the highly advanced Denreishinki that used to belong to Kurotsuchi, and his dark eyes widened as he carefully picked it up.

“Why do you have Mayuri-kun’s Denreishinki?” he asked curiously.

“It’s now yours,” Shunsui said. Then smoothly obfuscated, “It’s his advanced show of gratitude, he needs your help to retrieve information from the archives for restoring his databanks. He found several important parts damaged, his data on Quincies from six to eight hundred years ago, and all his data on the Nemuri Project. Aizen broke into his databanks and left that little present for him.”

“Ai, that is terrible!” Jyuushirou exclaimed sadly. “Certainly I will help, I do not expect any repayment at all.” Looking down at the device, his fingers expertly flew over the small keypad and the small screen lit up. He tapped a few more buttons, and a pleased surprise blossomed on his refined features. “Ai, I have always wished for a unit that could also take photographs!” Smiling, he held it up at Shunsui, saying, “Smile for me!”

He drew a blank. “What?”

One dark eye peeked impatiently over the top of the device. “Just smile, like how you always smile at me.”

Shunsui obliged, only because Jyuushirou looked so happy.

A blinding light burst in his face and he snapped his eyes shut. “Ow!”

“Oops!” A light laughter floated to him.

Blinking rapidly until he stopped seeing dancing patches of darkness, he squinted until he saw Jyuushirou once again holding up the device at him. The grin of mischief on his love’s face was one he had not seen for…

For far too long.

Unable to help himself, Shunsui smiled at the sight.

A soft click went off in the device, and Jyuushirou looked down at its tiny screen. Warmth flooded his fine features when he saw what he had captured on the mini camera, and he held it up to show Shunsui.

Shunsui saw himself smiling in the small screen and wonder began to fill him. Did he always look like that whenever he smiled at Jyuushirou? He looked at his love inquiringly.

Jyuushirou’s dark eyes shone with love. “Now I will have your image everywhere I go,” he murmured, the vibrant timbre of his deep tenor beginning to return. Gently, he turned off the device and looked at Shunsui with soft happiness. “I will thank Mayuri-kun personally and let him know I am glad to assist him. When does he need the data?”

“By end of tomorrow, if possible. There’s no need to trouble yourself,” Shunsui added smoothly, unwilling to let his love directly communicate with Kurotsuchi just yet. “Yama-jii wants me to press him for information on the Hougyoku, so I’ll convey your data pills to him when I see him.” He hesitated, hating to dispel the precious joy lighting his love, but knowing he had no other choice, quietly added, “Mayuri-kun also discovered Aizen had used his surveillance facilities to spy on Metastacia… Aizen saw everything, Jyuushirou. I think if we search the restored circuits tomorrow, we’re likely to find he was the one who created Metastacia and targeted your subordinates.”

Stricken realisation crossed Jyuushirou’s finely angled features, like a dark cloud blotting out the sun. Unconsciously he clutched a pale hand to his heart.

“We will bring Aizen’s comeuppance to him,” Shunsui vowed softly. “I’m behind you on this. Everyone will be, once Yama-jii announces this.”

The white head nodded with silent gratitude. Shakily, Jyuushirou drew his legs under him and began to rise unsteadily. “I should… I should go wash now… and rest… for tomorrow…”

“Wait, wait.” Nearly spilling his sake, Shunsui stepped around the table in a flash, gathering the wobbly form against himself before Jyuushirou could topple over. The lithe body quivered in his arms, and Shunsui suddenly understood it was from more than just fatigue. Tightening his hold, he squeezed the slender shoulders against his chest. “Don’t strain yourself so soon, your strength hasn’t completely returned,” he murmured against one pale temple.

“This is my fault…” Jyuushirou muttered, mortification clear in his low tone. “I should not have spent so long immersed… I was feeling so strong, I overestimated my own strength…”

Wordlessly, Shunsui bent and hooked his other arm behind the slender knees, then straightened, scooping the pale shaking body up into a bridal carry. He nuzzled the side of bowed face until the dark eyes looked glumly up at him. “So now you know how I feel,” he chided gently. Then with a slow lascivious smile, he added, “Let me bathe you and take care of you tonight, Amai’take.”

“I am smelly and unpleasant right now…” Jyuushirou protested in embarrassment. “Just put me on the washing stool and I will-”

“Ai, you truly have no idea, do you!” Shunsui huffed a fond exasperated laugh, cuddling Jyuushirou closer against his chest as he made their way towards the bedroom. “My Amai’take, I never found you unpleasant even when you were covered in blood and gore of enemies you’d slain! What’s a little perspiration?” He planted a loud smacking kiss against the side of the beloved white haired head, inhaling its salty sweet scent. “On the contrary, I find taking care of you to be the most arousing, enthralling thing.”

“But I had planned to please you tonight!” Jyuushirou fretted, his face reddening. “This is really not what I had in mind… I am so sorry I drained myself so much…”

Shunsui stopped momentarily before the slightly opened shoji of the ensuite bathroom. “You did scare me,” he admitted softly. “I’ve not seen you ill for so long… the memory is still too near.” The long pale fingers silently tightened in the front of his robes. “But I know why you did it,” he continued. Then added, more firmly, “You saw what needed to be done. And you did it because it was in your power to do so. I would’ve done the same thing too.”

Then planting himself firmly on one foot, he reached out with his other foot and widened the gap of the shoji enough for them to enter. Turning around, he repeated the same manoeuvre and slid the shoji closed completely, trapping the scented steam in the room. “Hold on to me,” he murmured.

Jyuushirou complied, wrapping his arm around Shunsui’s neck as he was let down gently to his feet to stand leaning against Shunsui. Keeping one arm locked around the slender waist, with his free hand Shunsui rapidly undressed Jyuushirou, pulling at the belt of the light blue yukata, then at the ties of the black hakama. The voluminous garments slid smoothly down Jyuushirou’s long body to pool at their feet. Hooking one gentle thumb in the top of the black fundoshi around the slim waist, Shunsui slid the underwear down over the slight swell of the white hips, letting the slip of fabric fall to join the rest of the soiled clothes pooling at their feet.

Then he simply held Jyuushirou close, relishing in the warmth of the slender nude body against him. Jyuushirou was tall, lithe, elegantly spare of limbs and body, but clasped against Shunsui’s even taller, broader and heavier muscled frame, dressed in nothing except his long streams of white silken tresses, he was a slender alabaster slip of a waif, all long supple limbed, warm, soft and silken in Shunsui’s arms, exuding a heady enticing salty sweet floral musk.

After a while, Jyuushirou stirred. “Your turn,” he murmured, his pale fingers reaching for Shunsui’s lapels.

Shunsui indulged him, helping one handed while he kept a firm hold around his love with one arm, allowing Jyuushirou to help him pull off his haori and pieces of his shihakushou, while he undid his obi and ties of his own hakama. Hooking one thumb around his own fundoshi, he rolled it off himself one-handed as Jyuushirou pulled off his hair tie and carefully removed the pinwheel hairpin.

Then they were both naked, skin to skin, their eyes locking for an intense moment. Love, gratitude and desire glimmered from the deep depths of Jyuushirou’s dark eyes as his fine hairless pelvis rested against Shunsui’s softly hirsute one. Their intimate contact was sending a blush of arousal rising from Jyuushirou’s pale chest to his high alabaster cheekbones, and involuntarily his lips parted like a pair of silken pale pink petals.

Shunsui needed no further invitation.

Bending his head, he covered the small enticing mouth with his own, tasting their warmth and softness, then delved his tongue into the soft warm cavern beneath, hearing Jyuushirou’s breaths quicken and deepen. Leaving the soft willing mouth, he nuzzled tender kisses along the defined jawline, tilting the fine head back to access the pale vulnerable skin beneath the small square chin. A faint breathy moan rose from Jyuushirou as he surrendered his throat to Shunsui, his head lolling back to expose the fine fluttering pulse of his jugular. Shunsui covered the rapidly beating point with his mouth, sucking on the tender silky skin until he left a satisfying faint rosy mark over it. Beneath Shunsui’s tongue Jyuushirou’s silken throat was soft, warm, and sweet, his clean scent of perspiration mingling with lingering scent of peony rising into Shunsui’s senses in a heady musk. A hitched breath and helpless gasp from Jyuushirou sent territorial possession surging through Shunsui and burying one hand in the back of the well-shaped head, he gently stretched the long white neck further and bent to devour it, sucking, kissing and licking until the body in his arms trembled from more than weakness and a steady, breathless moaning keened from the arched slender throat.

Incited, Shunsui tilted the elegant head to the side and moved up the soft lovely throat to behind the ear, then butterfly nibbled and kissed the delicate white shell of the ear, over the high cheekbone, across the bridge of the nose, then down the other cheekbone to nibble on the other ear. As he licked and sucked the delicate shell into his mouth, Jyuushirou cried out softly, shuddering with arousal as his knees buckled. Locking his arm tightly around the small waist, Shunsui held Jyuushirou bodily against himself as he relentless kissed down the other side of the fine arching neck, over the pulsing jugular again, finally back up over the chin and over the small yielding petal lips, muffling and swallowing Jyuushirou’s low groan. Clasping Jyuushirou’s head in his hand, he returned to devour the soft pliable mouth again, sucking in the tongue, licking over smooth teeth and silky soft palate, and when his love’s breaths began to come in strained, he finally receded, withdrawing to kiss the pink bow of the lips and withdrawing momentarily to look upon the face between his hands.

Jyuushirou’s dark eyes were dazed, his small carved mouth parted with his lips swollen, the fine white skin of his throat and cheeks blooming a rosy tint even as he shivered with arousal in Shunsui’s arms. He looked half ravished, like he had been left wanting, and with a satisfied smirk of alpha male pride Shunsui touched their foreheads together, and grinned.

“You won’t forgive me in the morning if I don’t get you clean,” he teased hoarsely, then pecked a kiss on the soft pink bow of Jyuushirou’s mouth. “Let me wash you. Hold onto me.”

Dark eyes gazed at him hazily as long pale fingers curled over his shoulders. Sweeping the slender elegant body back into a bridal carry, Shunsui moved them over to the washing stool, then gently sat Jyuushirou down upon it. He remained on his knees before his love to steady him, but Jyuushirou would have none of it. Long shapely alabaster legs parted and straddled either side of Shunsui as Jyuushirou drew them close pelvis to pelvis, wrapping his arms around Shunsui’s neck.

Chucking a fond, affectionate laugh, Shunsui held the slender torso against himself. “How am I going to wash you like this, eh?”

Jyuushirou tightened his arms and legs. “You cannot arouse me so and then leave me high and dry,” he complained breathily, unconsciously pouting, his dark eyes blackening with desire.

“They say sex in the bathroom is dangerous,” Shunsui teased, then unable to resist, nibbled the soft blushing skin of one cheek.

“You will not let me fall. I shall be safe in your arms,” Jyuushirou murmured confidently, then bent to kiss Shunsui’s collarbone. He followed with another kiss, and another, until he was planting line of butterfly kisses along Shunsui’s bare shoulder. “I so ache for you…” he breathed against Shunsui’s skin. “I burn for your strength… please, Shunsui…”

“Ai, and how can I ever resist when you always plead like this?” Shunsui groaned, clasping Jyuushirou’s head against his shoulder as a frisson of heat chased down his nerve endings. Craning his head, he kissed one ear through the thick lustrous white hair draping over it, and then gently pried Jyuushirou away and sat him back on the stool. “I have an idea,” he grinned breathlessly. “Just follow my lead.”

Anticipation widened Jyuushirou’s dark eyes.

Firmly balanced on his knees, Shunsui reached for the washing bucket and dipped water from the steaming ofuro beside them, lifting it over both their heads, discreetly displaying the flex of his pectorals and arm muscles. Arousal and ego rose through him as carnal hunger spread across on Jyuushirou’s fine elegant features, transforming his ethereal beauty into something earthy and lustful to be seized and ravaged. Leaning close, Shunsui slowly tipped the bucket, allowing a hot stream of scented water to sluice over both of them at the same time, watching as Jyuushirou closed his dark eyes in bliss as the cleansing soothing water washed over his stimulated nerves and senses. Using the washcloth, he sluiced them with three more buckets of water until they were both thoroughly wet and their skins heated by the hot water, then set aside a half bucketful of water before reaching for Jyuushirou’s soap, an ancient rice bran and peony oil medicinal recipe from Hanshi-sama nearly two millennia ago.

The soap’s fragrant lather was delicate and fine. Shunsui frothed it up in the washcloth over Jyuushirou’s wet head, releasing a copious amount of suds. Slowly, languorously, he ran the silky suds through Jyuushirou’s scalp, using the blunt of his fingertips to gently massage through the thick wet streams of white silken hair. He could almost cradle the entire well-shaped head in both hands, and he did so, pressing the pads of his fingers down in circular motions over the precious cranium, the back and sides of the skull, then the fine slender nape and top of shoulders. Moaning in bliss, Jyuushirou lolled his head back and Shunsui cradled it lovingly, working the suds through long wet streams of white silk, laying the gleaming soapy tresses down on either side of the creamy slanting shoulders. Picking up the washcloth and soap again, he frothed it some more and slowly, with alternating pressure of his hands, he massaged the fragrant foaming washcloth over the lean gilded pectorals, teasing the flat dusky pink nipples until they were hard nubs and eliciting a shudder through Jyuushirou’s entire frame. He palmed the suds over each wide slender shoulder, admiring the glowing creaminess of the skin beneath the white foam, down each supplely muscled arm, the firm flexible biceps yielding as he gently pumped the silken muscles between his hands. Tenderly, he traced a line of suds down the faint hairline vertical scar running from between the lean planes of the defined pectorals, down between the twin supple rows of tight abdominals, then washed the rest of the tapering torso with the same alternating pressure and erotic massaging circles, over the small waist and smooth slight swell of the narrow hips, then up the long elegant back and over the wide shoulder blades. Running the pads of his fingers up and down the long spine, he stroked and pressed until Jyuushirou was limp against him, quivering with conflicting arousal, relaxation and weakness.

“Wha..what is this?” Jyuushirou breathed gasping against his shoulder. “I have never…”

But Shunsui was not yet finished. Frothing up more lather, he reached down and gently lifted one buttock, massaging the small taut rounded muscle with his hand through the foaming washcloth, then repeated the same ministration with the other. Jyuushirou groaned at the erotic massage, involuntarily curling against Shunsui, his slender white hands clutching against Shunsui’s biceps as a shudder shook him. Releasing the porcelain mounds, Shunsui pulled the foamy washcloth around and using his sense of touch alone, spread its sudsy length across the hairless loins. Then he palmed the smooth hairless length beneath over the washcloth and began to massage, washing the crevices between the inner thighs and pelvis at the same time as gently teasing the half-hard manhood to full hardness. With a sharp gasp, Jyuushirou’s legs clamped tight about him instinctively as Shunsui massaged the scrotum, tightening the twin silken testicles up behind the hardened silken rod. Lathering more suds, he coated his fingers and began stroking further down and back, over the fine hairless perineum, drawing a soft cry from Jyuushirou. Jyuushirou clung to him, trembling in earnest now as Shunsui explored further, circling the tiny pulsing rosette entrance, before carefully, gently, inserting one finger in.

A breathless moan wafted into Shunsui’s ear at his intrusion, the sphincter muscle clamping involuntarily over his finger, then suddenly relaxing and drawing him in to his knuckle. Carefully, gently, Shunsui began to massage the hot, tight channel, feeling it shudder and yield around his finger as Jyuushirou thrust his hips backwards, seeking more penetration. Answering the invitation, Shunsui slipped in a second finger, scissoring both fingers to widen the hot pulsating passage.

“M-more… I need… please…” Jyuushirou softly begged, his beautiful fine features creased with pain and pleasure, his dark eyes burning black with need.

Smiling in answer, Shunsui quickly lathered up, coating himself and pumping himself to full hardness, and with both hands, lifted Jyuushirou’s lighter weight. Sitting back on his heels, in one smooth motion he pierced the slender torso upon his manhood.

Jyuushirou gave a strangled shout, clenching his eyes shut as he slid down Shunsui’s full length, his entire frame quivering and his supple gilded chest heaving in quick pants of pain. Giving him no reprieve, Shunsui wrapped one arm tightly about the slender waist and began undulating his own hips, jerking in strong sharp motions, unerringly hitting the small sensitive nub deep inside with each thrust, while his other hand began to pump the long pale manhood, the soap suds reducing all friction.

A long low cry tore from Jyuushirou’s lips as he was bounced up and down impaled on Shunsui’s metal hard rod. His clenching passage gripped and pulled at Shunsui each time his prostate was struck, while his own manhood was drawn and milked mercilessly in rhythm to his being bodily speared through his most secret and vulnerable of orifices. He rode helplessly shaking on Shunsui’s rhythm, his strong supple thighs quaking with weakness and effort and his arms clinging desperately around Shunsui’s neck. His lips cried soft incoherent noises, his long lashed dark eyes wept crystalline tears as he gazed dazedly at Shunsui with passion, love and complete trust. Shunsui pumped and thrust powerfully, losing himself to the alpha domination of Jyuushirou’s willing submission, the territorial conquest of Jyuushirou’s giving gentleness, the loving protectiveness of Jyuushirou’s vulnerable frailness, the desperate fear of harm to his tender-natured soul brother and lover. The lust drove through him scalding his nerves and his senses and he gave in to the burning fever pitch passion and suddenly, they were both frenzied, Shunsui jerking and thrusting fuelled by sudden surges of reiatsu, Jyuushirou’s tight passage spasming around his manhood as he shuddered uncontrollably. Then Shunsui came first with a hoarse, bitten back choked groan as he flung his head back, shooting his seed in tremendous enervating streams. Jyuushirou came next, clamping down hard on Shunsui, his own manhood ejaculating white creamy bursts of thick semen against Shunsui’s abdomen and all over his hand, washcloth and soap. Neither screamed, nor made any sounds, muffling their cries against each other’s wet, heated skin.

Then thighs sore and aching, Shunsui sat down panting hard, gripping Jyuushirou against himself, tasting hair and water and soap in his mouth, and he huffed a breathless laugh. Shakily, Jyuushirou raised his tear streaked face, looking utterly ravished, wearing a delicate gorgeous bloom on his white pearlescent skin, his dark eyes shining with exhilarated exhaustion and pure unbridled love.

“Moon kami… my moon kami…” Shunsui muttered incoherently, drunk with crazed love, nuzzling the beautiful visage he was bodily connected to. He lapped fervently at the warm soft silken skin of one white collarbone with his tongue, tasting bitter fragrant soap. “My very own beautiful, beautiful moon kami.”

Then softly, vulnerably honest, came a shy murmur against his skin. “I love you, Kyouraku Shunsui.”

Love, protectiveness and possessiveness rioted in Shunsui’s heart. He cuddled Jyuushirou tightly, inhaling the soft sweet peony scent rising from his pliable body. Through two millennia of strive and peace, of the thousands who laid their hearts and fealty at his feet, Jyuushirou had only ever given his heart once. Shunsui never understood what it was that he had done that made him deserve to be that lucky one, he only knew to cherish his blessings with every breath he took.

Jyuushirou was fidgeting, and belatedly, Shunsui realised he had taken the washcloth and soap, and was gently lathering up. Still sitting impaled on Shunsui’s lap, his dark eyes soft and warm as a forest doe, he gently and with the practiced grace of one used to dealing with long hair, began to soap Shunsui’s scalp and long chocolate wavy locks. Shunsui let him, drinking in every plane and curve of the delicately masculine face before him, marvelling not for the first time how it was possible that Jyuushirou could be so demurely fragile yet heart stoppingly handsome. “Only a moon kami,” he absently spoke his thoughts aloud. “‘Tis possible only ‘cus you’re a moon kami. Descended to the mortal plane to bewitch helpless souls.”

Dark brows raised quizzically as Jyuushirou gently scrubbed suds over Shunsui’s neck and shoulders. “You sound delirious,” he murmured affectionately, smiling softly with fond indulgence. “Whatever are you speaking of?” Soaping up the washcloth, he began washing Shunsui’s chest, his dark eyes growing wide and languorous as his pale hands stroked sensually across Shunsui’s pectorals. In a low bashful tone, Jyuushirou whispered, “I love it when you hold me against your heart. Here,” his slender hands opened wide and palmed against Shunsui’s bosom, “like you will never let me go.” Jyuushirou’s blush deepened with his soft confession.

Shunsui covered the pale fine hands over his heartbeat with his own tanned ones. “I can never let you go. Not even in death.”

Dark eyes locked on his solemnly. “That is a hefty promise to make.”

“It’s the only promise I can make,” Shunsui stated hoarsely. He cupped one side of the beloved face, letting his thumb stroke the fine toddler soft skin of the cheek. “There’s a place in my soul shaped exactly like you. Even if your reiatsu were to end one day, I’ll follow.”

Jyuushirou looked away and picked up the sudsy washcloth, resuming his washing of Shunsui’s body. He massaged the gentle bubbles down Shunsui’s arm, his fine fingers tracing the lines and veins of his tanned muscles lovingly. “My mother gave me up to the Gotei in exchange for upkeeping our family,” he said softly, without rancour. “I never resented her, she did it because she saw how much better off I would be with Sensei. Sometimes, she returns to see me in my dreams, and she will always look regretful and proud. On her death anniversaries and our festivals, I would send her my prayers. Do you know what I always tell her?”

“Tell me,” Shunsui encouraged. “You never let me come along on your prayer trips.”

“I always tell her she made the right decision, for she sent me on my way to meet you.” Jyuushirou gazed up, his mahogany eyes glimmering. “Last winter, she visited me in my dreams again. She was on her knees, begging for my forgiveness. She said she did not know fate had lain such a great soul in my path to love me and care for me. She said if she had known, she would have gone straight to the Gotei stronghold instead of the shrine in East Rukongai.” He began soaping Shunsui’s other arm. “I told her she must not regret what she did. Because of you, I have lived, loved and fought for two thousand years, helped achieve this balance that keeps us all. I have known a deep abiding love and passion that countless could only dream of or yearn for in songs and poems. I have never lacked security and safety, nor wanted for anything in any way. I do not regret a single moment of my life, even if I do not know for certain if my power is truly my own.”

“It is your own,” Shunsui affirmed. “We can all sense the difference, even if you can’t.” He captured the pale hands washing his abdomen. “I didn’t fall in love with a vessel of kami or the power such a status brings. I fell in love with my eighteen year old disciple-brother who taught me calligraphy, showed me how to be kind, why we must cherish all living things, and why the more power one has, the more compassionate one must be.” Taking the washcloth and soap, he splashed a bit of water from the bucket and began frothing the suds over Jyuushirou’s long creamy white thighs straddling him. Massaging the cleansing foam over the strong supple limbs, he continued, “Yama-jii didn’t adopt you for your power alone. He was seeking humanity, and the fearsome powerful qualities of the heart that could reform the Gotei and shape the future he envisioned. So tell your late mother that, Amai’take, or allow me to tell her. I owe her for her courageous decision that must have terribly broken her heart.”

He was softening. With a slight shift, Jyuushirou’s body allowed him to slip out. Taking the small waist between both hands, Shunsui lifted his love back onto the stool, and proceeded to wash the long shapely calves.  

“I never brought you along on my prayer trips because I always thought you did not like to be associated with the dead,” Jyuushirou said. “Why did you never say a word?”

“I know how much you still love your mother,” Shunsui replied, lathering and scrubbing down the fine well-turned ankles and down the high white arches of both narrow feet. “I don’t want to intrude.”

“She was very fond of you when she was alive and came to visit us,” Jyuushirou smiled. “I very much doubt she would dislike your prayer dedications. It would be to the contrary, Shunsui.”

Keeping his eyes studiously on his task, Shunsui gently rubbed soap suds between each long straight toe and under each pearlescent toenail. “When she knew me, I had not yet taken her eldest son off the market and doomed him to an heirless life,” he said carefully. “When my older brother died, the pressure on me to produce an heir almost split us, Jyuushirou. I don’t want to inflict the consequences of my decision on a lady I still hold in the highest regard. Even if she is now in the grave.” He gave each tender sole a final invigorating scrub, then finally set the washcloth and soap aside. Rinsing off his hands with the remaining bucket of water, he rose to his knees and began dipping for clean hot water to rinse off his soapy soul brother.

Jyuushirou remained quiet as Shunsui rinsed him off from top to toe, helping to massage the water through his long hair. The soft suds ran off quickly leaving his white tresses gleaming and silky, and his pale skin pearlescent. When he was completely clean, he reached for Shunsui’s own plainer rice bran soap and washcloth, clearly intending to complete washing Shunsui.

Shunsui stopped him gently, wrapping his hands around the fine wrists. “Tonight is all for you, Amai’take,” he husked. “I can wash myself. You just relax and focus on recovery. Come, hold on to me.”

Without waiting for permission, Shunsui gathered Jyuushirou up into his arms, rose, and then carefully, lifted him over the wide petrified edge of the ofuro and gently let him down with a small splash. Keeping his hold firmly on the slender torso, Shunsui slowly sat Jyuushirou down into the peony infused hot water, supporting his love to lean against the side of the tub.

“Soak up,” he murmured, lapping fragrant soothing water and several peony blooms over one creamy shoulder. “You’ll regain your strength faster if you don’t exert yourself washing me.”

Dark eyes looked up at him ruefully. “I promise I will be well by morning,” he murmured.

Grinning, Shunsui lightly tapped the end of the patrician nose. “You can watch me instead,” he jeered lightly, succeeding in lighting a keen, hungry light of desire into Jyuushirou’s dark eyes.

“Oooo, I shall enjoy it,” Jyuushirou returned with sudden mischief.

Straightening with a smirk, Shunsui deliberately stretched himself a little, displaying his muscles for avidly watching mahogany eyes. Then with great show, he lathered up his soap and washcloth and began washing the rest of himself, twisting and arching to display his body, tensing and rippling his muscles with a playful lasciviousness that brought soft aroused laughter to Jyuushirou’s solemn mien. When it was time to wash his feet, Shunsui waggled his brows then turning around, bent over and presented his posterior to Jyuushirou’s hungry gaze as he efficiently scrubbed his feet and toes. Done, he straightened again and dropping his foamy washcloth on top of one foot, balanced himself on that foot while he scrubbed his other sole on the washcloth, making sure to wiggle his hips so that his manhood and scrotum jiggled and began awakening again. Jyuushirou’s bow mouth formed a perfect ‘o’, then he covered it with one pale hand, chortling back laughter even as new lust darkened his eyes. Grinning lewdly, Shunsui repeated his sexual comedy with his other foot, finally breaking into laughter himself as Jyuushirou erupted into silvery peals of mirth.

Feeling ridiculously accomplished that he had made Jyuushirou laugh, Shunsui picked up the bucket and began rinsing himself off, taking up three bucketsful before he was clean. Smiling from ear to ear, he swung his legs over the edge of the ofuro and with a small splash, sank into the deep tub, sending a little wavelet of scented water into Jyuushirou’s laughing mouth.

Spluttering and laughing at the same time, Jyuushirou picked out the peony flower that had landed inside his mouth, his fine beautiful face shining with amusement and love. Inspired by the vision, Shunsui gave a slow, adoring smile and began stroking the surface of the water, gathering up the floating pale pink blooms within his arms as he drew closer to Jyuushirou, crowding the small fresh flowers around his pale beauty. Dark eyes, long lashes spiky with water drops, watched him in amusement as he arranged the flowers about the white creamy shoulders, covering the long trails of gleaming white hair floating on the water’s surface.

“Now you are my moon kami descended on my bed of flowers,” Shunsui husked, lowering his face until they were sharing a breath. “I fell in love with your soul, my Amai’take. But one day, I woke up, and lo and behold, to my eternal astonishment, I saw that I had also fallen in love with the most beautiful being in this realm or next.”

A slender, almost translucent skinned hand rose from the water and caressed his face. “I love how you ignore my sickliness. Often, I wish I can listen to you all day,” Jyuushirou said with a gentle smile. Leaning forward, he placed a chaste, soft kiss on Shunsui’s mouth. “Your words are more potent than any medicine. I believe I shall be strong again by dawn.”

Sudden sadness and joy pierced Shunsui. Jyuushirou really only saw his own illness. He returned the kiss, more ardently, slanting his mouth over the perfect pale pink lips. Underwater, his hands roved down both sides of the lean tapering torso, following the elegant dip of the small waist and slight flare of the smooth hips. He massaged the tight buttocks, palming and squeezing each in one hand, the glute muscles made and sized perfectly for his hands. Jyuushirou’s dark lashes fluttered closed as he leaned his head back onto the side of the tub, his petal mouth opened slightly as he breathed heavily at the stimulation.

When Jyuushirou’s breathing became laboured, Shunsui tapered off, deciding against overtaxing his love. He gathered the limp pliable form against himself, feeling his own skin pruning.

“We should get out now,” he murmured.

Jyuushirou gave an agreeable hum, raising his arms lethargically and draping them about Shunsui’s neck.

“Hey, hey, don’t fall asleep yet,” Shunsui nudged slightly. “You still have medicine to take.”

Blearily, Jyuushirou roused himself and blinked slowly at Shunsui for a moment, then recollection came. “Ai, yes,” he mumbled with a nod.

Pecking a fond kiss on the straight nose, Shunsui arranged an unresisting Jyuushirou in his arms and then with barely any effort, stood up, water cascading off them in sheets. Carefully, he swung himself over the edge of the tub onto the dry part of the bathroom, a drowsy Jyuushirou cradled in his arms, and walked with careful gripping toes over the floor towards where a pile of towelling sheets lay ready. Seeing them, Jyuushirou gestured to be let down and Shunsui complied, holding the narrow waist securely against himself as they snagged two sheets and bundled themselves into them. Wrapping a sheet about his own waist, Shunsui picked up Jyuushirou again, sheet and all, and with his elbow, slid the shoji aside and exited into the master bedroom.

It was only then that Shunsui noticed the two matching dark blue yukata laid out in readiness on the wide futon mattress. Kiyone, bless her little observant heart, had likely retrieved Shunsui’s counterpart from Nanao-chan. Chuckling to himself, he carried his precious bundle over to the mattress and sat him down on its covers. Jyuushirou began towelling his hair dry by reflex, his face gradually slackening with impending sleep.

“Wakey, wakey,” Shunsui nudged him again. Smiling, he tapped the end of the pale nose playfully. “Let me get the medicine brewing.”

Jyuushirou nodded, then stifled a yawn.

Shunsui hurried out onto the verandah, grinning when he saw Kiyone had placed a full jug of spring water and the unsealed jar of Kyouraku honey next to the twin small glass bottles of sparking potions, all arranged around the medicine teapot and cup ensemble. The old well-worn blue handled comb lay in readiness next to them all, exactly as how Jyuushirou usually set things out on the low tea caddy table. Striding over, Shunsui made quick work, filling the teapot and setting it to boil on the kidou stove, then dished out enough honey into the waiting teacup. Picking up the comb, he returned to the bedroom.

Jyuushirou had dropped the sheet about his waist, and was struggling into his yukata, trying and failing to find the sleeve hole. Taking a double look, Shunsui stifled a laugh. His sleepy soul brother was trying to pull on Shunsui’s yukata instead of his own.

Deciding to let it be, Shunsui knelt down to assist, finding the too large sleeve holes and holding them out so that Jyuushirou could put his arms through. Wrapping the front over the lean chest, he securely tied the belt around the slender waist and then gently swept the half damp hair forward to begin with the drying comb.

“I can do it,” Jyuushirou murmured, taking over the combing even though his eyes looked dazed and half asleep.

Shunsui raised his brows momentarily, then huffed a quiet fond chuckle. Jyuushirou must be well towards recovery, for his independence was asserting itself even if he was practically asleep on his feet. Leaving him to it, he picked up the damp sheet and cast it to corner, then returned to the verandah.

The water was boiling merrily. Dousing the kidou flame, he lifted the lid of the steaming teapot, and remembering how Jyuushirou did it two nights ago, mixed a drop of each potion into teapot. He grimaced as the kami-awful smell burst upwards, thankfully disappearing as quickly as before. Swirling the mixture in the teapot, he poured it into the cup, watching as the honey melted and turned the clear liquid into a pale yellow and sending the fragrance of peony up into the air. Sighing in relief, he carefully brought the cup indoors.

Jyuushirou put down the comb as soon as he saw Shunsui, clearly fighting sleep. His long white hair lay in a smooth gleaming sheet down his shoulders almost to his waist, and the overlong sleeves fell to his cover his hands completely as he tried to get up.

“Sit, sit,” Shunsui urged, kneeling down. “Here.” Blowing on the hot liquid until it cooled some, he held the cup as Jyuushirou leaned forward to sip from it, his pale hands rising to cover Shunsui’s to guide the cup as he drank.

He finished the dose with ease.

“One more, wait,” Shunsui instructed, then waited to ensure that Jyuushirou would not fall asleep, before hurrying out.

He poured the last dose quickly, emptying the teapot, and cast a brief cooling spell on the steaming cup. Then he hurried back indoors, kneeling once more to help Jyuushirou drink up the medicine, before putting the cup aside.

“I have to…” Jyuushirou mumbled, and then his eyelids closed, and he swayed, sleep claiming him in mid-sentence.

Catching him, Shunsui laid him gently onto his usual side of the mattress, then pulled the covers and tucked it around him. Brushing stray strands of the long white bangs away from the peacefully sleeping face, Shunsui bent and placed a kiss onto the fine forehead, then straightened with a sigh.

Dawn, he told himself. Jyuushirou had said he would be well by dawn.

Flowing to his feet, Shunsui pottered around the house, picking up and arranging their things, drying his own hair, shaving and washing his mouth, then as the waning moon sent its light creeping through the verandah door, he doused all lights in the house and climbed into bed naked. Jyuushirou was dead asleep, but instinct sent him turning over and burrowing into Shunsui’s arms, seeking familiar warmth and safety. Shunsui gathered him close, holding the lithe precious body against himself as he stared at the moonlit lake through the shoji, eventually drifting off into exhausted sleep himself. 

# # # # # #

The vast surging and rolling currents woke Shunsui at the same time as the multitude of faint signatures flitting onto his periphery subconsciousness.

Opening his eyes slowly, his first emotion was elation when he sensed the strong reiryoku undulating calmly and powerfully within the warm pliant body in his arms, like the long awaited tide had finally come in after a night of low ebb.

Jyuushirou’s reiryoku had returned to its usual strength.

Then extending his senses further out, Shunsui counted twelve shadowy concealed presences planting themselves around the perimeter walls of the Ugendou.

The sky outside was a deep black, and moonlight was slanting past its zenith point. Raising himself silently on one elbow, he reached out to his side and his hand closed over the hilt of his tachi as he stretched his senses out.

An apologetic touch from the strongest of the twelve unknown signatures answered him, sending him wordless communications of security and safety and more apology.

Shunsui relaxed. Releasing his sword hilt, he lay back down, continuing to stare out the opened verandah door.

The Onmitsukidou were here. Standing guard.

The sight of Shunsui bodily carrying a weakened Jyuushirou out of the Daireishokairou must have been reported to their old sensei. Yama-jii must be feeling justified in extending the protection detail around his eldest son to beyond the repository. He hoped Jyuushirou would understand when he found out later.

Turning his head, Shunsui gazed at the sleeping face next to his, the fine features peaceful and relaxed, the white silky long hair trailing in a mass of shining disarray on the dark sheets behind. One side of the oversized yukata had slid off Jyuushirou’s shoulder and fallen to almost his elbow, revealing his white pearlescent skin to the moonlight and Shunsui’s loving gaze.

It was only because Shunsui was looking upon Jyuushirou, admiring the pristine translucence of his fine smooth skin, that he saw it.

An intangible, moving splotch of liquid darkness, rising up behind Jyuushirou’s slumbering figure. It was a cloud, yet not quite, for Shunsui could see right through it. Something moved within the inky darkness, and as he stared, transfixed, an eyelid opened, and single spherical black pupil stared at him, cold, alien and indefinable.

His nightmare from the night before flashed back to him and in an instant, Shunsui knew with crystal clarity that it had been no nightmare at all.

Staring at him now, was the second visitation from the same single eyed presence.

Heart pounding, Shunsui slowly, silently, rose on one elbow, then very gently, pried himself into a sitting position, his stare never leaving the strange entity. The single baleful black pupil unblinkingly followed every inch of his movement.

He decided he would try communicating with the being. Summoning his focus, he asked one simple question.

Why do you seek me?

The eye continued staring at him. Then it blinked once. Slowly.

What do you want from me?

Another blink, as slowly as the first time.

Confounded, Shunsui wondered what to do next, and as his mind raced, his eyes idly traced the wavering splotch, following its inky tail downwards until-

He jerked and choked in horror.

The black inky tail of the one eyed presence was rising from Jyuushirou’s half revealed back.

Unbidden, an almost forgotten ancient memory came flooding back and suddenly, Shunsui was five years old again. He was huddling in cold and fear against the wooden statue of a forearm, whose head was its clenched fist, its face the back of the fist, its one single opened wooden eye staring unblinkingly into the derelict remains of an old abandoned shrine. Another remembrance followed the first, and Shunsui suddenly recalled the strange warmth of the statue, as if it was a living being, warming his cold five year old body.

He blinked and suddenly he was back in Jyuushirou’s bedroom again, sitting in bed beside Jyuushirou’s softly breathing somnolent body, staring at the inky dark cloud resembling the statue of the pagan god he had fled to when his reiryoku first erupted.

Jyuushirou had told him the name of the fallen kami sealed inside him, but he had never described its appearance.

“Mimihagi,” Shunsui rasped hoarsely, feeling blood drain from him.

The eye blinked twice. Clearly.

Suddenly understanding, Shunsui realised what he had to ask next.

“Are you here to hurt Jyuushirou?” he rasped.

One blink. Slowly.

“Do you protect him?” he asked again.

Two clear blinks.

“Is his lung disease truly gone?”

One slow blink.

Dread rose in Shunsui. “Is he… is he dying soon?”

Two very slow, very clear blinks.

Denial and anger rose. “What if… what if I replace his lungs with new ones? Will he live then?”

The eye glared at him, and then rapidly snapped out a long succession of soundless blinks, at a varying intervals, and Shunsui was utterly lost. He wanted to shout for the fallen kami to stop, to explain, but he feared waking Jyuushirou. Glaring back in fury, he thought at it, I don’t understand you.

As soon as he ended his thought, the furious blinking stopped. Staring at him balefully, the pupil contracted, and then the eyelid began to close.

Wait!

It was no use. The conversation was over.

Closing completely, the eye disappeared, and soon after, the splotch of inky blackness began to retract, becoming smaller, drawing together into a thin stream that flowed downwards and into Jyuushirou’s exposed upper back. And just like that, it was gone. As if it had never been.

Shunsui stared at the empty space for long moments, sweating cold beads of perspiration. Silently, gingerly, getting to his feet, he moved woodenly to the bathroom, where he dampened the washcloth and mopped his face and neck, then down his torso for good measure, using the ordinary task and repetitive movements to bring himself fully back into reality. Then equally woodenly, he padded back to the bedroom until he stood at the foot the mattress, staring down at Jyuushirou’s sleeping form.

His love was an ethereal alabaster beauty sleeping on his side, swathed in voluminous folds of dark silks upon which his long white hair fanned out in a gleaming cloud, his fine dark brows arching into his temples, his straight patrician nose and small sculpted mouth perfectly balanced in his pale oval face. Shunsui strained and strained his eyes but he could see no trace of the inky blackness of the fallen pagan kami anywhere on the flawless pearlescent skin of the slender supple back. He could easily convince himself that it had been another nightmare, but he knew he could not. This was real, very real.

And he was out of his depth.

He needed the aid of the true master of the arcane of Soul Society, but the master was the very one afflicted, the one he sought to save from the clutches of fate.

He would have to speak to Yama-jii. There was no choice. And then, no matter how he felt about it, how Hanshi-sama felt about it, he would need to confide in Kurotsuchi Mayuri and find a solution. There was no one else who would have sufficient knowledge, and no one else who would be vested enough to help. Kisuke-kun was no longer in Soul Society, out of reach. Kirio had moved on, as had Kirinji-san. There was no one left.

Silent vow made, he quietly returned to bed, gathering Jyuushirou close as his love sought him in his sleep again. For good measure, he pulled the loose yukata up over the exposed shoulder and back, covering Jyuushirou, convincing himself that the thin silk would stop any future inky visitations from rising again. Then resolutely he buried his nose on the top of the fragrant white head and willed himself back to sleep.

He vaguely heard the pre-dawn chirping of rousing birds before he lost consciousness. 

# # # # # #

Shunsui awoke tired and out of sorts. Two nights in a row his sleep had been disrupted. However, he had two comforts this morning: Jyuushirou had regained his strength, his alabaster skin glowing with health as he had risen on one elbow to look lovingly down at Shunsui’s disgruntled expression. And in their conversation that followed, Shunsui had obtained more than he dreamed and progressed further on his private crusade than he dared hope.

“Bad night?” Jyuushirou had murmured softly, his pale fingers stroking through the soft hair carpeting Shunsui’s pectorals.

“In a way,” Shunsui had evaded, not yet ready to confide his chilling night encounters.

“Do you wish to talk about it?” Jyuushirou asked in concern.

“Maybe later.” Shunsui clasped the pale slender hand on his chest. “Are you going back to the archives today?”

“I have to. The destroyed pathways should have regenerated,” Jyuushirou had replied. “We need our answers today. I hope they have restored during the night.”

Shunsui frowned. “Another immersion?”

Dark eyes had looked down at him apologetically. “If necessary, yes. We can no longer delay. I can operate the archives much faster and more thoroughly when I join with the Daireishin.”

Refusing to let go of the captive hand, Shunsui sat up, compelling Jyuushirou to follow suit. Shunsui was gratified to see him move smoothly into a sitting position with his usual grace and strength.

His love had truly recovered.

“Perhaps you can take a large noon meal instead of waiting until the evening. Replenish yourself on the go,” Shunsui suggested. “I can collect your noon repast and bring it to you.”

Jyuushirou brightened. “That is a good idea. I will prepare your noon meal as well. But do not trouble yourself collecting, I will ask Kiyone to have someone deliver our meals to the main entrance, and you can bring it in for us. Perhaps Sensei will join us? We can all share a noon repast in the library halls. I should have new updates for him by then.”

Shunsui chuckled. “I don’t doubt Yama-jii will break his own no eating and drinking in the library rule if he knew how much you’ve done.” He kissed the silky, angular hand in his grasp, inhaling the soft musk of peony rising from the alabaster skin. “Kami, Jyuushirou, I don’t feel like letting you out of bed. You belong right here in my arms. Where I can love you and keep you safe every single moment.”

With a soft rustle of silk, Jyuushirou shifted close and drew Shunsui’s head towards him with his other hand. He leaned their foreheads together. “There is nowhere else I love better than being in your embrace,” he murmured, before regretfully drawing back, his mien serious. “But before we start our day, there is something I wish you to understand.”

Shunsui waited intently.

“What you said last night,” Jyuushirou began softly. “You do not doom me to an heirless life, Shunsui. Never think that.” His pale hand rose and cupped Shunsui’s jaw lovingly. “Sensei taught me to control my powers, he loves me and cares for me as a father. But even he could not fight all my battles for me. I struggled to control my reiatsu for centuries, and many battles I had to face them alone because the conflict was inside of me. Without your love and loyalty, I would never have come this far. And now that I am so old, I look back and I never cease to be amazed that you have stood by me through it all. You have given me immeasurable joy and security, nothing can compare.” He leaned in and kissed Shunsui chastely on his lips. When he spoke again, his dark eyes glimmered with understanding. “I knew what you agreed with Senpai. Neither of you said anything to me, but I always knew. You made a great sacrifice allowing another to take your place when you could not be with me. And later, I…” His face ducked down momentarily. “I was in a bad place… for a long while, and when I… I needed the space to heal… with her… you gave me that.” He looked up again with deep gratitude. “I am blessed. The love and care I have been given in this life… I can never repay enough. I do not wish for more.”

“But… don’t you wish for heirs? For your own children? I know how much you love children.”

Jyuushirou smiled, without rancour, regret nor sadness. “I never told you, I am unable to have children of my own. Senpai tested me a long time ago. I am sterile, Shunsui. Therefore it is not even a question I think about.”

“A consequence of your lung disease?”

A graceful shake of the beautiful white head answered him. “My lung disease manifested itself when I was three years old, long before I was of age to have heirs. Nay, it is a consequence of the ritual my parents submitted me to. I told you about the ritual before.”

That hated, infamous ritual. The image of the baleful, single eye in an inky black cloud flashed across his mind.

“How can a ritual render a body sterile?” he pressed.

Dark eyes looked at him curiously. “Are you certain you wish to learn the details? You have never been comfortable with this.”

Shunsui gathered the sleep warmed slender body against him, wrapping his arms securely around Jyuushirou’s waist as he leaned his chin on the wide slope of one slender shoulder. He felt gentle hands begin to stroke his back. “I wish to know now” he murmured petulantly, inhaling the soft peony musk rising from the silken hair. “Tell me.”

There was a pause. Then with uncertainty, “If you are sure…”

“I am sure,” he affirmed gruffly.

He needed to know.

Jyuushirou took a deep breath. “I told you a long time ago that Mimihagi was an ancient fallen pagan kami, who used to be worshipped by the wild settlers of Outer East Rukongai. He answered my parents’ prayers and took away my diseased lungs in exchange for the rest of my body and my life when the time came for him to claim me as his living vessel. Therefore I lived. I do not know how it works exactly, but I truly doubt he physically took away my lungs, for I could continue to breathe and Senpai never found anything other than my compromised lungs. My guess is that he arrested the progress of my disease, and my affliction is still inside me, though it no longer affects me. When I reached puberty, I understood that my lung disease was not the only thing whose progress Mimihagi arrested. My skin remained in suspended time, I could never grow a beard or a moustache, I never grew body hair. I knew this only when Takashi begun growing body hair when he reached ten. So different from what I experienced when I was his age.” He chuffed a soft laugh. “I should be fortunate that I was not bald, ne?”

Shunsui chuckled and kissed the soft hair against his face. “It wanted-” He paused, then tried saying the name he had always hated, “Mi-Mimihagi… he wanted to keep his vessel beautiful.”

Jyuushirou leaned back to look at Shunsui, pleasure blooming his cheeks. “You think I am beautiful because you are biased. But I love your compliments,” he smiled, a little bashful. Then he looked down, seriousness falling over his expression. “But it was not until a thousand years later when I… I had my first relationship with a woman… with Senpai, that I discovered my skin was not the only organ Mimihagi had suspended development.” He bit his lip briefly, then continued, “Senpai never wanted children. When we were together, she took precautions. It was a terrible inconvenience for her and a great burden, and there were a number of times she slipped her schedule. But when time went on and she never conceived, we began to wonder. I readily agreed when she asked to test me.” He looked at Shunsui. “My semen is devoid of life, Shunsui. My body never matured to the stage where I can produce sperms. Mimihagi suspended that part of my growth but allowed me to develop the genitalia of a man. I do not know why he was so selective. I only know that I am sexually immature and cannot reproduce.”

Shunsui stared at him, speechless.

Kami, another sacrifice.

Desperately, he searched the finely sculpted face, but saw neither sorrow nor anger. He saw only acceptance and a matter-of-factness. Reaching out, he grasped the slender points of the sloping shoulders and squeezed. “How… how do you even deal with this?”

Jyuushirou smiled gently. “I am alive, am I not? Alive and blessed with a vast power to do what others cannot. This is not a bad trade off. I have had hundreds who called me sensei and senpai in the last thousand years. That is fatherhood in itself. I am content, Shunsui. Discontent and sorrow would be if I inflict my sterile state on unsuspecting maidens who wished to bear children of their own. Or my disease on my offspring. That would be irresponsible of me.”

“Does your family know?”

“Yes,” Jyuushirou replied. “I cannot hide something so serious, especially from Takashi. He may only be two years my junior, but he is mature beyond his age. As second son he ran our family when our mother passed. I am not fully functional as head of family, so I gave him my official deed to abdicate and transfer all rights of head of family to him when all my siblings become independent and no longer need my income. Takashi rejected my deed, and the rest of my siblings would not hear of it. I kept my position but in name only. When I pass, my title and rights will pass to Takashi. But it seems,” sudden sadness overcame Jyuushirou, “I have outlived most of them. Ukitake family members are not wont to be born with strong reiryoku. Only my two sisters and Takashi are still alive today, for they have stronger reiryoku than our ancestors. But even they are aging faster than I. If you see them now, Shunsui, you may no longer recognise them. I would appear to be their youngest sibling, not their oldest.”

“But the kami-Mimihagi has not yet come for you in two thousand years,” Shunsui said. “May he never. And you never have to pass your position on. I don’t have to ask to know your siblings feel the same as I about this.”

Memory of his conversation with the one-eyed kami last night sent dread flooding through Shunsui’s blood. Suppressing the chill in his veins, Shunsui lifted Jyuushirou bodily and placed him into his lap, along with voluminous folds of dark blue yukata and maroon silk sheets. The fabric skirted in billows around them as Jyuushirou sat in his embrace, an elegant ivory yousei rising from swathes of luxurious silk. Shunsui distracted himself from his eerie memory with stroking the long white bangs off the fine beloved face.

Jyuushirou looked at Shunsui, his dark eyes calm with acceptance. “I know you wish to turn away fate’s claim on me. I promised to help search the archives and I will, because you asked. But whatever the outcome, Shunsui, please always remember what I just told you. This life I have been given, it is full of sacrifices, but in return, much more good has come from the price paid by merely one.” Lifting Shunsui’s hand to press against the side of his face, Jyuushirou looked at him earnestly. “I do not know when Mimihagi will come for me, it will not be tomorrow, but it will be soon. If whatever you are planning does not succeed, the last thing I wish is to leave you angry or sad. I have been given so much more in this life than I ever dared hope. If I must leave, then my only regret is that I will have to leave you alone, and nothing else.”

Once more Shunsui recalled his conversation last night with the single eyed deity, and the sense of doom loomed even closer and more real on his consciousness. And once more supressing the memory, Shunsui gently took the delicately handsome face between his hands and pressed the petal mouth against his own. He kissed Jyuushirou tenderly, showing all that he felt through his kiss. Soft lips parting willingly under him as Jyuushirou melted against him, his breaths rising into small rapid pants. Shunsui slanted his mouth and thoroughly ravished Jyuushirou’s lips and his fine featured face, then withdrew slightly to look into the love hazed dark eyes, the soft parted mouth with kiss swollen lips.

“I will remember, Jyuushirou,” he rasped, holding the pale face tenderly between his hands. “But it doesn’t mean I accept. You know me. If I decide on something, I will do it. Fate can be changed, I know it.” He paused, contemplating, then ventured, “If… If I succeed, what will you do? Will you…” Shunsui slid both hands down to cradle Jyuushirou’s defined jaw, his hands cupping both sides of the slender neck. He took the plunge. “If I can truly change fate, will you want to live?”

His head gently trapped between Shunsui’s grip, Jyuushirou creased his fine brows as he stared at Shunsui for long moments, confusion and trepidation warring over his expression. When he answered, despite his incomprehension, it was with his usual honesty. “I accepted my doom long ago, Shunsui, but… but if it can be changed… I…” He cast his eyes down in shame, his long dark lashes feathering on his pale cheekbones as, with a shaky whisper, he confessed, “If fate can be changed, I… I want to live… I want to live, so that I can be with you… to repay your love.”

No,” Shunsui objected sharply, his fingers involuntarily squeezing.

Startled, Jyuushirou’s pale hands reflexively flew up to lock around Shunsui’s wrists to pull at the tightened grip about his neck.

Stung by his own reaction, Shunsui instantly let go, and contritely wrapped his hands around Jyuushirou’s back, stroking the deep valley between the slender shoulder blades apologetically. Gentling his voice, he said, hoarsely, “Live, because you want to live. Not because of me. I may be killed in action any time.”

Soothed, Jyuushirou breathed easier, his pale hands began to stroke Shunsui’s bare chest in comforting rhythm.

Shunsui leaned forward, burying his face back on the slanting shoulder. “Promise me, Jyuushirou. On your soul. Live because you want to live. Not because of me.”

Soft hands stroked his head, carding through his loose hair. “I… I promise,” Jyuushirou whispered. Then in a stronger voice, he said, “If you can avert my doom, then I promise to live because I want to live.”

And that was enough for Shunsui. For Jyuushirou never broke a promise.

Raising his head, Shunsui gazed at his love with fierce passion. He drank in the beautiful, noble face.

If he was a kami, he would never give up a vessel as beautiful, benevolent and pure as Jyuushirou.

The thought froze him.

Belated comprehension dawned.

That long incomprehensible string of blinking from the one-eyed kami, after Shunsui had revealed to the very being who had staked a claim on Jyuushirou that he, Shunsui, was planning to get rid of the lung disease that gave that being the very justification for its claim over his love in the first place.

Shunsui had naively shown his opponent his game plan.

He wanted to hit himself upside his own head.

Jyuushirou noticed his expression. “What is it?”

“Ai, Jyuushirou, my dearest, beloved Amai’take!” Shunsui buried his face against the Jyuushirou’s shoulder once more, this time feeling like ten thousand kinds of fool.

Why had he not kept up his guard?

The real opponent, the true enemy, was the one sealed inside his love.

“I wish I can just wave my hand like you do with kidou spells, and make Mimihagi relinquish his claim on you,” he mumbled forlornly against the soft fragrant skin. “And I’ll wave my hand again and give you back your health, and you can have as many babies as you wish with the woman of your choice. I believe Yoruichi would be the first to volunteer. And perhaps Hanshi-sama may change her mind now, after so long and seeing how much you’ve suffered.”

Jyuushirou cradled the back of his head comfortingly. “You… you will step aside so that I can sire a child?”

Shunsui raised his head and smiled a lopsided smile at the love of his life. “Why not? It’ll make you happy to have your own babe. I know it. And I can be the overindulgent godfather to spoil your kid rotten.”

Uncertainty crossed the fine alabaster face. “But I only wish to be with you. If you have such a power, I will not do such a thing to an innocent woman. She will wish to have her own family with a husband whose heart is wholly with her.” He looked down, a faint shy smile curving his small finely carved mouth. “If you have such a power, then you can wave your hand and enable me to bear us our child instead.”

The idea aroused Shunsui deep to his reishi in ways he could not even begin to describe.

“But that is impossible,” Jyuushirou was saying. He looked intently at Shunsui. “If you can change fate, then we will adopt. There are many babes and young children in the outer districts of Rukongai who need loving homes. We can provide one, for a few at a time.” Then his dark eyes turned sharp. “Fanciful thoughts aside, I hope what you are planning is not illegal. We broke one law already.”

Shunsui chuckled. “Rest easy, Amai’take. I’m not contemplating anything illegal.” He picked up a pale slender hand and kissed the silky skin of its back. “And trust me, Yama-jii has already forgiven our little act of defiance.”

“I doubt destroying the Soukyoku can be considered a little act,” Jyuushirou pointed out softly, but sternly. “I am certain once the new Chamber reconstitutes, this will become an issue and I will be summoned for questioning. I will not leave Sensei to defend me while I hide away.”

“Then in the next few days, we make sure the Chamber is stripped of its power to do that,” Shunsui replied.

Jyuushirou looked at him with increasing perplexity. “What are you planning? Please do not tell me you are intending to upend our system of checks and balances.”

“Not me, Jyuushirou. ‘Tis Yama-jii himself.” With stark solemnity, Shunsui drew his thumb across the fine skin of a pale cheekbone. “You didn’t hear the way he spoke at the taichou assembly yesterday. He’s taking back control and he’s resolute. He declared to everyone that the welfare of the balance and Soul Society is best left in the hands of those who bleed and die for it. Us. The Gotei. Things will not return to how they were before even after the new Chamber takes office. And he’s not letting any Chamber member even send any message to you, much less summon you into their territory. I’m with him on this. Don’t think of us as being overprotective. Right now, you’re the best we’ve got to counteract enemy intelligence. This is why I’m not objecting to you joining with the Daireishin again. We need that information soonest and I know that as well as you.” He cupped the fine jawline. “And this is why, I’m going to ask you for one thing.”

“I am listening.”

Shunsui held the beloved face, then stroked down one side of the pale slender throat, his thumb gently rubbing over the Adam’s apple. Jyuushirou swallowed against his light touch. “I’ve deliberately avoided the subject all this while, but now it is time I confront it head on. Mimihagi has a claim on you. I need to know all there is to know about this fallen kami, and the ritual your parents subjected you to that bound you into this hostage state. Do you think you can do the search soon? By today?”

Jyuushirou stared at him with uncertainty, then nodded. “I will prioritise it then.”

“Thank you.” Shunsui continued stroking the side of the fine alabaster throat, his mind whirling despite his lack of sleep.

Final realisation and belief began to dawn on Jyuushirou’s expression. “You mean to do this, do you not,” he whispered, half in wonder and half in fear. “You really mean to challenge Mimihagi.”

Shunsui looked at him steadily, wordlessly, his unwavering gaze and silence answer enough.

Worry and apprehension clouded Jyuushirou’s face, together with resolution. “Then I will not only keep my promise to do the search, I will aid you to the best of my abilities to keep you from harm. Mimihagi sees all, knows all. He sees the future of all that happens in Soul Society. This conversation is already noticed by him. He is not to be trifled with, Shunsui.”

Neither am I when it concerns you, my Amai’take, Shunsui thought quietly, but he said nothing.

For now, Jyuushirou’s agreement and aid were more than he had hoped for.

Chapter Text

Byakuya arrived at in Shunsui’s temporary office at their appointed time, holding a thin file of papers. His young nobleman colleague still wore bandages and a slight limp, but his face looked as impassive as ever when he appeared. However, as he sat down on the other side of the large meeting table Nanao-chan had placed in their shared office, his hard slate grey eyes and cold expression softened perceptibly when he looked intently at Shunsui and asked, in his deep modulated voice, “How is Senpai?”

Shunsui raised his brows.

Byakuya explained, “I hear he was drained repairing the archives last evening, and Soutaichou extended his protection to round the clock beyond the Daireishokairou.”

Well, well. News travelled fast, indeed. And accurately too.

Slight worry was creasing Byakuya’s fine aristocratic face, and in that instant, he utterly resembled his late, kind and gentle father Soujun. As Shunsui studied the softened look of the young Kuchiki lord, the epiphany struck him that this was the cause of Byakuya’s cold indifference towards Jyuushirou throughout all these decades. Perhaps Jyuushirou reminded Byakuya too much of his late father. And perhaps Ginrei-sama had insisted on Jyuushirou’s mentorship of his brash hot headed grandson to replace the loss of Soujun’s gentling influence.

Well, Yama-jii, if you mean to make this one auxiliary to Jyuushirou and I, you certainly have chosen a complicated one.

“Ukitake recovered by the middle of the night,” Shunsui assured. “The repairs did take the wind out of him, but it was only temporary. Nothing he can’t heal himself from.”

“I have forgotten how little he cares for himself for the sake of the mission,” Byakuya muttered, more to himself than to anyone else. Looking at Shunsui, he said, “Rukia has been taking a root which our healers have cultivated for centuries, and she finds it replenishing. I will deliver one this evening to Senpai’s medicine room.”

Surprised, Shunsui gave him a lopsided smile. “That’ll make Ukitake happy, he’s always looking out for new herbs and such. How’s Rukia-chan recovering?”

“She is recovering well, but still has to sleep a lot. I let her.”

“Sleep is the best cure for a worn out shinigami,” he agreed jovially. Then he nodded at the file Byakuya still held. “So what’ve you got?”

Aristocratic face resuming its usual mask of cold impassivity, the young Kuchiki lord placed the file on the table, turned it so that it faced Shunsui right side up, and slid it over. “I have compiled in here all the nobles who will be appointed to the new Chamber. None are from the Yondai Kizoku, but this does not mean that one or more of them will not be acting under shadow orders from one of the four great clans. I can vouch that the Kuchiki Clan does not use its vassal clans for sedition against the Gotei. I am quite certain the Shihouin Clan and its vassal clans are clean as well. But I cannot say with such certainty about the other two great clans.”

As the explanation flowed, Shunsui opened the file and slowly flipped through the pages. He noted the names, photographs, personal and family particulars, and appendixes of resume, education, clan name and position, wealth, income, social and business associations, and past political history and leanings. Considering that Byakuya-kun had only less than a day to prepare the information, the dossier was impressively substantial.

“Furukawa Clan has been used to the fame and influence of their great grand uncle Souta holding the position of Chief Justice for one and half thousand years, and with his murder by one of the Gotei, his brother Furukawa Kouta will certainly want revenge. We have heard nothing of note from Taishuura Clan since the last Quincy War two and half centuries ago, and we should be wary. The Taishuura have never given up their warlord traditions.” Byakuya reached over and turned to a particular page.

The white haired bespectacled ape face of Kumoi Gyoukaku smirked up at Shunsui.

Him again.

“And I believe you may already be aware of what Kumoi Gyoukaku is trying to do,” Byakuya was saying. “The Kasumiouji Clan has been vulnerable since the passing of Lady Kasumiouji’s mother. Her betrothal to the Kannogi heir is to be formalised into marriage in two months’ time. If Kumoi seeks to seize control of the Kasumiouji Clan, he is likely to do so within this time. Neither Kumoi, Kasumiouji nor Kannogi have any clan members in line to be appointed to the Chamber, but I do not doubt Kumoi will take this opportunity to win favours and support among the new appointees.”

“Strangely enough, he’s also courting the Gotei,” Shunsui shared, rubbing his stubble. “Thank you for this, Byakuya. It gives us a clearer picture. I agree with you that the Furukawa and Taishuura need to be especially watched. Do we know their vassal clans?”

“We do, but our list is incomplete. I shall require the assistance of Soi Fon Taichou to place them under observation and find us more intelligence to complete our knowledge.” Byakuya turned to the page listing the vassal clans.

It was indeed incomplete. But Shunsui was already impressed enough and he made no issue of it. “I’ll let Soi Fon and Yama-jii know you have my full support to activate the Onmitsukidou. I’ll put my clansmen on the lookout as well,” he said, then added slyly, “I see you made no dossier about the Kyouraku Clan.”

“I did not think it was necessary, Kyouraku Taichou,” was the bland, courteous reply, the slate grey gaze completely neutral.

In the language of nobility, it meant that Byakuya was leaving it to Shunsui to make sure that his own house - and neighbouring yards - were clean.

He was inwardly amused. The young lord did not know it, but much of Jyuushirou’s diplomatic skills had rubbed off on him. Shunsui was certain that Yama-jii noticed this a long time ago.

“So what are your next steps?”

“I will conduct my own investigation and news gathering,” replied Byakuya-kun. “Kuchiki vassal clans are loyal, and there are a few stalwarts whom we have trusted for centuries. I have begun preparations to throw a number of strategic tea ceremonies and entertainment lunches and dinners. Plied with copious amounts of valuable gifts, sake and the company of select oiran or tayuu, of course.”

Shunsui perked up.

Kami, this was where Jyuushirou’s influence clearly showed. Vivid, colourful memories paraded themselves in Shunsui’s mind, unbidden. The numerous gay, lavish, well turned out events the early Gotei had hosted for recalcitrant warlords and allied clans, the revelry ranging from refined to ribald depending on the amount of alcohol and sex imbibed, but always, always, always concealing deeper underlying motives. Whenever Yama-jii launched such events, Jyuushirou had always been placed in charge and Shunsui had always been the gopher during their complex organisations, and during the revelry he had always been Jyuushirou’s unofficial bouncer and bodyguard to fend off the attentions that inevitably targeted his beautiful, sexually naïve and oblivious soul brother. Yama-jii had keenly understood the massive effect of his older son’s unconscious allure and in those days, their sensei had ruthlessly used it to great strategic outcomes. Until today, Shunsui doubted Jyuushirou was even aware that their phenomenally high guest attendances had mostly been due to him, not the bevy of gorgeous famous oiran he hired.

Ai, those were the days.

But, to Byakuya, Shunsui flashed a grin instead. “Ah, that sounds like fun I’ll hate to miss! Good idea, Byakuya-kun. Presents, alcohol and soft charms have a way of loosening lips. I should know it myself.” Then raising his brows meaningfully, he quipped, “Perhaps, when you have the dates and events itinerary ready, let me know? I’ll see if I can’t pry Ukitake away from the archives to focus on something else for a change.”

The impassive aristocratic face did not quite smile but came close to it. “I shall gladly welcome Senpai and yourself as my honoured guests,” he replied, a telltale gleam in his slate grey eyes.

If Byakuya knew of Yama-jii’s infamous past underhanded tactics, he let nothing on.

Satisfied, Shunsui sat back and smiled beatifically. “Since Unohana Taichou will be organising elaborate funerals for the six deceased Chamber judges, you’ve just given me the wonderful idea that perhaps we could kick start your round of events with a final funeral feast for the clans of our late judiciary members. Have an even longer period of official mourning than Yama-jii expects. Maybe keep everyone so busy and drunk on pomp and ceremony until no one wants to get back to work in the Chamber so soon. What do you think?”

Slate grey eyes glinted. “I think that will be a most congruent uplifting end to a terrible tragedy. I believe if the Kuchiki Clan and Kyouraku Clan were to lead in this, the rest will not object. Perhaps the Shihouin Clan would also wish to help spearhead this.”

Shunsui smiled. “I am confident Yoruichi can influence her brother to lean together with us.” Slapping both hands and rubbing his palms together, he grinned just a little savagely. “Then we eagerly await your invitations. I shall donate some of our Kyouraku Reserves, if that suits you.”

“That shall suit me very well. I shall now confer with Unohana-sama on our proposal. Thank you, Kyouraku Taichou.” Byakuya never smiled. But right now, as he rose to leave, his impassive slate grey eyes held a dangerous kind of mirth. 

# # # # # #

Seen from the balconies of Yama-jii’s sprawling study and office, Seireitei was an eclectic landscape of ancient and modern architecture. Except for the southeast quadrant and the mesa of the Soukyoku Hill to the east, all of their fortress city home lay in plain visibility to the open scrutiny of the soutaichou of the Gotei Thirteen.

Including the construction and repairs going on in the Senzaikyuu. Half of its towers had been collapsed by Zaraki when he duelled Kurosaki-kun. Clouds of stone and mortar dust plumed and puffed into the clear blue skies in time with the echoes of piling as the foundations were reinforced even deeper for new towers, which reports said would be built much stronger in case of future, more powerful destructive forces. Rumour had it that human engineering was being copied to build the new towers with flexible joints to withstand immense reiatsu vibrations. Shunsui wondered if no one had ever thought to look at a bamboo grove and notice that the same concept already existed in Soul Society, without having to copy everything from humans.

He had come to invite their old sensei to lunch with them in the Daireishokairou, as Jyuushirou and he had planned. But he had arrived much earlier than necessary, determined to broach the subject that had been prime on his mind. And he was looking out the balconies because the walls of Yama-jii’s study and office were bare of any paintings or scrolls, and very few ornaments decorated the expansive room. The only thing that gave it a personal touch was a photo frame on Yama-jii’s desk, taken when his old sensei still had black hair and was beardless, sitting on tall chair with a stern, proud face between two teenaged smiling boys. One boy was dark wavy haired with glinting pewter eyes and a cheeky grin on a lean tanned face, his short ponytail jauntily tied to one side over one broad shoulder. The other boy had dark doe eyes beneath snowy white bangs and a gentle smile on a delicate pale face, his shoulder length hair pinned back and brushing his slender shoulders. In the photo they were all dressed in their Gotei best, which for Yama-jii, meant their ceremonial uniforms, still in the standard colours of black and white, but in richer fabrics, the gleam of silk still discernible in the ancient kidou preserved photograph.

Shunsui had to wonder at the display of their old photograph. Jyuushirou and he each had a copy. However, Yama-jii often conducted meetings of business in this very room, and to openly display his personal ties like this to the scrutiny of subordinates, strangers and potential enemies, was a risk he would never have taken in the early days.

The wall sliding apart behind the desk stopped his further rumination.

Yama-jii emerged, his hunched figure temporarily ringed in orange fire as he walked through his own Bakudou security barriers. Behind him lay the infamous inner sanctum of the soutaichou of the Gotei, the place which Shunsui had visited only a few times, but which Jyuushirou was most well acquainted with as it was where he was sequestered in with Yama-jii during the last three centuries investigating and spying against the late Chamber members. In his gnarled hand, Yama-jii held a small transparent box, within which was suspended a small glowing white spherical pill. As he thumped his way through, the wall closed behind him and its seams disappeared, as if the doorway had never been there.

“Take this, what you seek is all in there,” Yama-jii rumbled, holding out the small pill box. His red eyes were sharp as he looked intently at Shunsui. “You will alert me immediately the next time you receive another visitation. This is a serious matter and I will not have you go haring off to counter it on your own. Once you take this pill, you will understand why we must handle this with the strictest secrecy and seriousness. I have thought I could deal with the Quincy issue later, but now it seems I must prioritise it equally. Have Mayuri send me that report on Quincies soonest.”

“Kurotsuchi is missing data on Quincies from six to eight hundred years ago, and all his data on the Nemuri Project,” Shunsui reported with studied nonchalance, deliberately keeping his eyes on the small glowing white pill. If it was not glowing and floating of its own power in the middle of the transparent cubical box, he would have dismissed it for an ordinary sugar drop. “Ukitake is helping him retrieve the data from the archives. Once the pathways are repaired, we can finally confirm when and where Aizen had broken in and messed with the Twelfth’s databanks.” He held the pill up in the sunlight and raised his brows when the little thing caught a ray and started to shine like a little ball of light. “How much data did you put into this, Yama-jii? I’ve never felt it this vibrant.”

Kirio had produced a large store of blank Gikongan for the archives centuries ago when she was experimenting with Gikon technologies. Since one of such pills could store enough information to transport and transmit a fully functional Gikon, Jyuushirou had theorised each pill could also store, transport and transmit vast amounts of static archival data. He had requested for a small batch of blank Gikongan to test the theory and had been proven right when Shunsui had learnt the entire history of Gikon in an instant after swallowing his love’s first data filled pill. The only limitation they had was that unlike transporting Gikon, each pill could only be used once when it transported static archival data, for it was completely digested and the data erased, a consequence of it not being used according to its original purpose. Yama-jii had approved of the method nonetheless and commissioned for a large stock of blank pills.

“It is almost full,” his old sensei was replying to his question. “There is too much background history and politics you need to know. I suggest you take it when you have nothing else to do afterwards. Such a great volume of knowledge can have a disorientating effect.”

Shunsui knew well how that effect felt like. He had never forgotten it even through the centuries.

Tucking the pill box into the inner pocket of his kosode, he began, “There is a matter for which I seek your approval, Yama-jii. Could you spare me this time before our lunch?”

The red eyes studied him for a moment, then gestured for him to sit. Yama-jii settled into his worn chair behind his desk to wait.

Seating himself before his old sensei, Shunsui initially debated how he should frame his request, then almost immediately realised that when it came to something like this, the best course was to be direct and succinct. Thus in the concise manner he used for writing reports, he began to detail his discoveries of Kurotsuchi’s private incubation tanks, the dossier of the first half of the ruthless scientist’s organ replacement technology, Hanshi-sama’s agreement to help, and his ultimate hope for the treatment. When he finished, he stared at Yama-jii and waited, his heart in his mouth.       

The wizened old face was still and inscrutable, the red eyes banked and unreadable. For a long time, his old sensei remained silently staring at Shunsui without moving a nudge, not even a strand of the long tail of his heavy white brows blew in the breeze, until Shunsui began to think that he had made a dreadful error. Just as he opened his mouth to speak, Yama-jii broke his silence.

“How certain are you?” The gravelly voice was soft, but tight, as the red eyes pinned him to his seat.

Shunsui relaxed minutely. “I'm still trying to get the second part of the information for Hanshi-sama’s study. Right now, based on only the first half of the information, the best she can give is a fifty-fifty chance that Ukitake will come out of it permanently cured without damage or be changed for the worse.”

“Have you spoken to your brother about this possibility?”

“I want to wait until I have more certainty,” Shunsui rasped softly. “He accepted his fate long ago, perhaps for his entire life. I don’t want to raise him up with false hopes only to dash them down again.” He paused, gathering his courage, and pressed on. “But the only way I’m able to obtain the rest of the data is with your approval and a promise to something else.”

“Speak.”

“I need Kurotsuchi willing and happy and trusting me. Otherwise he won’t do this, or he’ll do this but sabotage the procedure in ways we can’t know or catch or mend. This means whatever I tell you next, Yama-jii, you must pardon him.”

Yama-jii leaned back wearily, as if he had been expecting such a news. “What did he do now.”

“Can you promise me first, Yama-jii?” Shunsui persisted.

“That is unfair, and you know it,” Yama-jii said with sudden ire. “The best I can give you is I will not respond in a manner that will jeopardise Jyuushirou’s chance of a full and permanent cure.”

This was as good as he would be getting from his old sensei, Shunsui realised.

There was nothing to be done for it, except plunge ahead on this course he had embarked upon. Drawing in a bracing breath, he spoke, holding nothing back. About the Nemuri Project and how it enabled Kurotsuchi to achieve bankai, about the abject terror of the obsessive researcher and genius of having his crime discovered and being sent back to the Ujimushi no Su. He concluded with another plea. “I can’t upset Kurotsuchi or scare him or make him feel anything less than I’m on his side. He’s mercurial, and temperamental, and too smart for us. But with his heart in the right place, he can perform miracles. I need him exactly right as he is now, for this procedure to work successfully.”

“Provided Retsu is certain at all that it can work,” Yama-jii reminded.

“Well, yes. That is the pre-condition,” Shunsui admitted, before hazarding his own opinion, “But even if it doesn’t, there is no replacement for Kurotsuchi. I doubt we can find another shinigami with his talents if we banish him back to that underground prison.”

His old sensei stared at him, hard-eyed. “Mayuri’s deception of his judging panel at his Taishu is a very grave crime. If you are seeking a pardon for a crime of this extent, you are going to have to drive a harder bargain than simply obtain the rest of his research notes.”

Shunsui listened intently.

“You have the hardness in you, Shunsui, so use it to greater impact than this. Listen and learn well.” Yama-jii stroked his beard. “If you had approached me with this one week ago, my answer would be to throw Mayuri back to the Kanritai and locked up where Kisuke broke him out from. But events have given me an opportunity now to take back control of this government. When the Chamber is in disarray, the decision of the Soutaichou of the Gotei is final. That is our law. So this is my order to Mayuri, listen well. Kurotsuchi Mayuri is to share with Retsu and you all his knowledge and skills relating to the organ replacement technology he has been developing, and to lend all his abilities to both of you, for the sole purpose of permanently healing my eldest son of his lung disease. He shall be forbidden to perform any body modification to Jyuushirou without our unanimous approval. If Mayuri needs help, come only to us. This experiment shall not be known to any other beyond the five of us. In other words, Mayuri heals Jyuushirou properly under Retsu’s supervision and he shall be pardoned, and the crime struck from his records and all that he is now shall continue, or he gets indicted for his crime and be thrown back to Ujimushi no Su. If he contravenes any part of my order, it shall be slow death by incineration. You may convey this to him immediately after this. I shall follow with my decree later.”

Shunsui stared at his old sensei’s wizened face, the calm impassive expression completely belying the ruthlessness of the sentence. If Shunsui were completely honest with himself, it was what he would have done if he was in Yama-jii’s position. The worst, or perhaps best, part of it was, if Shunsui were to become as ruthless as their old sensei, Jyuushirou would have understood and accepted it as part of him and still loved him without change.

“Thank you for this, Sensei,” he said quietly, using the formal address for the few rare times in his life. “I mean it. Ukitake-Jyuushirou. He’s everything to me.”

Emotions briefly flashed across Yama-jii’s wizened face before his mask of inscrutability was firmly in place again. “I first understood the true extent of your brother’s condition during that winter noon tea when I conveyed to him the news of his late mother’s passing,” he rumbled softly. “I believe you remember. You were loitering outside my study eavesdropping on us.”

Embarrassment flushed over Shunsui. Finally caught, after two thousand years. But he should have known. This was Yama-jii, after all.

“Since that day, I have been searching for a way to avert your brother’s fate,” Yama-jii intoned, his gravel voice quiet with concealed sorrow. “I know you often accuse me of using your brother like a tool. And I do. Jyuushirou knows it, but he willingly gives me his all, because his belief in our cause is unshakeable. But I will have you know, I have lived for ten thousand years and given every one of it to the greater good of keeping the balance and the betterment of Soul Society, yet until your brother appeared in my life, none fully understood my work and my worries. In all my long and colourful existence, there is none who touches my humanity the way your brother does. This is why I never accepted that kami can grant me such a soul to be my adopted son, and then so cruelly take him away from me. No parent should have to watch their child die. Least of all when that child is as kind and gentle as your brother. And you, Shunsui, I know only too well. Your nature is such that you must always have your brother at your side, behind your back, in your life. As much as you are his pillar, more importantly he is your anchor because he keeps you honest. His humility and integrity ground your artifices and contrivances. At the very least during the past two thousand years, he often kept me from wanting to throttle you where you stand.”

“Ai, Yama-jii,” Shunsui murmured ruefully. “I didn’t know I vex you so.”

“Both of you vex me in different ways. And still do,” Yama-jii huffed. “Why do you think I am still taking active leadership of the Gotei? Neither of you are ready yet, even though it has been two millennia. The day one of you attains adequate sensibility for this job, is the day I can semi-retire and concentrate on my tea hobby.” He gestured about the large sprawling office. “All these, will eventually be passed to you, when you are ready. You will lead in my place, with Jyuushirou right beside you.”

“And I told you before, that day will never come,” Shunsui replied firmly. “You’ll be here, for ages and ages, until we’re both as old and wrinkly and bendy as you, and we’re using our zanpakutou as walking sticks like you, and you’ll still be breathing down my neck and scolding me and giving me beatings, and showering praises and treats on Ukitake and nagging everyone to follow his example. This is how we’ve always been, and this is how we’ll always be. That’s the way of us, the four pillars of Gotei. No kami can change this.” He straightened. “And even if fate decides to change how we are, I’ve ever only been the second son, the younger one, the one everyone knows is a bit of a lazy rascal. Ukitake’s been the head of his family since he was twelve. Everyone loves him. When he speaks, all hearts listen and even if the minds and ears do not always first agree, they quickly will. That’s way more effective than leading by command and power.”

“Jyuushirou does not wish to lead,” Yama-jii revealed. “He has enough burden as it is. More will not do him any good if he is to remain healthy. And he is too forgiving and generous at times. You, however, have the steel and ruthlessness to do what must be done, the insight to see to the heart of the matter, and because of your brother’s influence, you have developed the restraint to be compassionate. This is why you must train yourself to be ready to lead the Gotei after I am gone. But you must always lean on your brother. Not only because of his ties to our most priceless resource. Jyuushirou has the farsightedness you do not have, and an understanding of the ways of the soul that far surpasses any I have known. His soul is strong and flexible where yours can be brittle and unyielding. The two of you balance each other, and you must never separate. You must never reject him, Shunsui. Always keep him close to you, always depend on his counsel. Above all, you must always protect him in times when he cannot see the danger to himself. Because without him, you will be lost to your own darkness, and if you are lost, first the Gotei, then Soul Society will be lost. When the day comes that this seat of soutaichou becomes yours, Jyuushirou will be at your side to give you his all, the same way he has given all that he is to me and Soul Society. My vision is for you two to lead this realm together, you as the spear point and vanguard, his soul strength and wisdom the force and support behind you.”

Shunsui stared at his old sensei. “You’ve decided this with Ukitake without me?”

“Only as far as I have decided you will inherit this position. Jyuushirou is my older son, he has to know why I am not passing this position to him. He never once thought to take over, and he wishes you to. I have his full agreement on my decision.” Then Yama-jii darkened. “But I am unable to convince him that his doom is not set in stone. He gave me his promise he will stand by your side for as long as he is allowed to live. He does not believe he will outlast me. This is why I am agreeing to your proposal to use Mayuri’s talents. If there is a chance that I will not see my son die before I, I will take it.”

“Yama-jii, I will make it work, I swear.” Then Shunsui’s voice tightened. “But don’t be talking like you’re dying soon.”

“Even a shinigami such as I do not last forever, Shunsui,” stated Yama-jii. And for the first time since… since never, Shunsui realised with a sudden start, his sensei looked old. “This balance we achieved has never been anything more than a delicate fragile state, a slightest evil intent will topple it and plunge us into chaos again. As the leader of this government, we must always consider and plan for continuity. Do not fall into the fallacy that we are immortal, because we are not. I have never ceased fretting over what will become of our future after I am gone. The last few decades, succession planning has become an acute consideration on the forefront of my mind. But I have ever only considered it for the position of soutaichou. As your brother reminded me two days ago, I must now consider it for all key positions.”

Shunsui rose, having heard enough. “The two of you are depressing personalities. Do all elemental types think in such foreboding terms? All these are depressing talk. And only talk. I always do my best in any duty you give me, that’ll never change. But what you’re speaking of, is all in the future. Not set in stone and may not happen. I refuse to listen to anymore of it.” He stuck his hat back onto his head. “Shall we go? I believe the kitchens of the Thirteenth went all out when they were told to prepare your share of our lunch.” 

# # # # # #

The kitchens of the Thirteenth did not only go all out, they went over the top in preparing their luncheon. A full retinue of servers was awaiting in the courtyard outside the main entrance of the Daireishokairou when Shunsui dropped from shunpo behind Yama-jii. He counted six servers, three bearing portable bamboo lunch towers, two bearing large pitchers and sake bottles, and the final who seemed to be the head chef. Kiyone was there conducting them all, her manner bossy until she saw Yama-jii. They all hurriedly fell to their knees when their old sensei appeared.

Yama-jii surveyed them wordlessly, then with a shake of his bald head, thumped towards the main entrance. His hunched figure flamed as he passed through his own Kyoumon, and then as Shunsui watched, the barrier shimmered, and a temporary doorway opened.

“Well, hurry up, I do not have all day,” echoed the gravelly voice from within the shadowy library halls.

Galvanised, the retinue quickly shouldered their equipment and under Kiyone’s direction, filed into a neat line and scurried into the repository.

Shunsui followed them sedately, keeping his amusement to himself to avoid hurting their feelings.

There was nowhere to sit for a meal, for the library halls were never designed for eating within its hallowed vaults. Ingenuously, Kiyone’s team commandeered tables and chairs from the reading alcoves, and in short order, a veritable dining area had been set up in the middle of the main thoroughfare, nearer to the archives than to the main entrance. Yama-jii chose the seat which allowed him to see both the archives door and the main entrance, and Shunsui chose the seat opposite him, leaving the seat nearest the archives for Jyuushirou. Then what followed was the display of the lunch spread, each bamboo tower rotating out into mini multi-layered bento trays containing dishes, bamboo canisters of soups, and fragrant purple rice.

There were enough to feed at least six shinigami, Shunsui assessed in silent amusement. For both lunch and evening repast. Nobody who knew Jyuushirou ever accused him of eating like a bird.

“Kyouraku Taichou,” called Kiyone softly, approaching him with a pile of fabric over her arm. “This is for Ukitake Taichou to change into, in case he is perspiring again.” She pushed the heavy pile into his hands.

He looked down and saw a freshly laundered set of shihakushou, and the dark blue yukata from last night. There was an additional towelling cloth besides. Smiling gratefully at her thoughtfulness, he accepted the bundle. “I’ll take good care of him,” he quietly promised.

She blushed and looked down. “You always do. Thank you.”

The girl really loved her taichou. There were no two ways about it. Not for the first time, Shunsui wondered if Jyuushirou ever noticed that her devotion was more than what a subordinate should nurse towards her commander. She was strong and skilled, feisty and protective when it came to Jyuushirou, sensitive when the occasion called for it, and pretty in a petite gamine sort of way. Perhaps, after Shunsui successfully cured him, and Jyuushirou could finally live a normal life, Kiyone would make a suitable wife… Shunsui shook the thought away. He was getting too far ahead. One step at the time.

Patting her shoulder reassuringly, he gently nudged her towards Yama-jii. “Go attend Yama-jii, now. I’ll go inside and look in on Ukitake.”

Her grey eyes lit in gratitude, and she bowed before hurrying away to obey.

Smiling to himself, Shunsui hefted the pile of clothes and strode to the nondescript door to the archives, re-entering it for the third time in two days.

The columnar interior was a far cry from yesterday. It pulsed yellow, calm and steady, the omnipresent sensation organised, detached and indifferent. There was no heat, instead, the interior was chilly. Out on the platform, Jyuushirou was once again standing between the twin silver power input poles, one hand on each bulbous top, but fully clothed this time to protect himself against the chill. His reiatsu bathed the poles in blue white, all of the control panels were lit and their keys flashing and blinking in rapid patterns, as several yellow glowing panels slid and moved about the concave walls with soft humming.

Tasting salty ozone on his tongue, Shunsui strode carefully forwards, announcing his presence just a tad with a tendril of his shadowy reiatsu.

Unlike yesterday, Jyuushirou was fully aware of his surroundings this time. “You are just in time,” his deep tenor echoed softly. “I fear the only good news I have is that all damage have been repaired and the new pathways repopulated with data that Aizen erased.”

When Shunsui drew abreast, Jyuushirou lifted his hands from the conducting poles, blue white reiatsu immediately fading from his pale fingers and dark eyes. His alabaster face sported a fine sheen of sweat, although his perspiration was not as copious as yesterday. Shunsui offered him the towelling cloth regardless, noticing the haunted sorrow in the delicate angular face and tell-tale dried tracks of tears on his fair cheeks.

“Is it that bad?” he murmured in anxious concern.

Jyuushirou nodded wordlessly, taking the towelling cloth from him. As he mopped his face, he absently gazed at the fresh pile of clothing in Shunsui’s hands. “Kiyone brought these? I do not recall requesting for a change of clothes.”

“She’s observant and devoted in that way,” Shunsui replied, taking the opportunity to put in a good word for the faithful, loving Third Seat. He glanced at the panels nervously. “Dare I read them?”

“You should,” Jyuushirou answered sadly, then laid the towelling cloth over one arm and took the pile of fresh clothing from Shunsui. “Go ahead, while I freshen up.”

Shunsui watched his love move to a corner of the panel where a sufficient blank space allowed for resting the pile of fresh clothing, then with trepidation, looked up at the panels displayed across the concave walls in front of the platform.

It was completely true that Jyuushirou could wring out more from the Daireishin when he joined with it, despite the cost to himself. The information scrolling on the panels were extremely detailed, the language mechanical and dry, but in the summary panel, the data was organised in a chronological order that told the entire story in one glance.

As Shunsui scanned through summaries, it became starkly clear that Aizen’s treachery had been not only been a century in planning, but had begun even earlier, as far back as four hundred years ago when the traitor was still an Academy zanjutsu and calligraphy instructor. He remembered the warm and scholarly instructor who had approached him three hundred years ago for recommendation to transfer to the Gotei, and his heart clenched in pain and anger that all he had seen and known about Aizen had all been lies. For the Aizen recorded by the Daireishin was a completely different personality: terrifyingly brilliant and meticulous, ruthless and patient in his single minded pursuit of power and domination, given to enjoyment of cruel emotional and psychological manipulations as entertainment and past time.

If Shunsui had to pinpoint a time, Aizen’s treachery began four hundred years ago, when as an Academy instructor he began researching on the Soul King, first in the rare books section of the libraries of the Academy. It was in those hardly used books that Aizen first learnt the truth that the Soul King, long lauded as the ultimate monarch of Soul Society and the lynchpin who kept all realities in balance by regulating the flow of all souls through the Living World, Soul Society and Hell, was originally an immortal tyrannical and cold blooded half-shinigami kami during the prehistoric dawn of Soul Society. His tyranny was eventually ended, and his power curbed by early shinigami shaman who severed his four limbs and removed his heart before imprisoning him in an unknown dimension. The duty of keeping the balance and regulation of the flow of souls had been his eternal penance, and he was accorded the treatment of royalty only after eons of faithful consistent service. Grown used to his royal status, the Soul King had become contented and only wished to have his limbs and heart restored to become whole again. This discovery was the turning point for Aizen. He lost all of what little respect he ever held for the Soul King, deeming him nothing more than a pathetic bureaucrat degraded to petty lament over his well-deserved losses, and deciding that he, Aizen himself, would usurp the throne and do a better job. Then followed centuries of fruitless hard study and research to find the Royal Palace. And to Shunsui’s alarm, it was he who had explained to Aizen about the Zero Division in the wake of Kirio’s promotion a hundred and ten years ago, which had spurred the traitor on in his secret quest of ambition. Finally, one month ago, Aizen discovered in the Daireishin archives that he either needed to steal the Ouken to enter the Royal Palace or obtain a tremendous amount of power to forge one.

“Ai,” Shunsui groaned, rubbing his face. Kami, he had been an unwitting aid to Aizen’s scheming. “How had I missed this? I’m usually better at detecting liars.”

“Did he invite you to witness his zanjutsu?” Jyuushirou asked softly, coming up beside him to rest a comforting hand on his shoulder.

“Well… yes. We sparred so that he could convince me.” Shunsui looked at his love, alarmed. “I must have been the first member of the Gotei to fall under his shikai illusion. Is there no record of his powers? When did he achieve shikai? And bankai?”

Frustration creased Jyuushirou’s fine features. “That is the problem we must raise to Sensei. While the records have all been restored, we now know the Daireishin is susceptible to Aizen’s hypnosis. I have searched and there is nothing on his powers in here, not because the Daireishin did not record them, but because his illusions had masked them, and I do not know in what form he disguised himself every time he released his powers. We have no idea who Aizen impersonated during his entire lifetime to hide his powers. Rest assured that Aizen’s shikai and bankai are recorded in here somewhere. When I have compared and tallied records of all shikai and bankai released in Soul Society during the last five hundred years, we will know. It is not an impossible task, just that it will require much more time than I have right now, and the results cannot be obtained today.”

Shunsui gazed back at the summary panels dejectedly. It stung him severely that he had been so trusting. Three hundred years ago, Hirako-kun had warned him to deny Aizen’s application for transfer, but Shunsui had been cocky, overconfident, and had given his recommendation to Yama-jii. He now understood why Hirako-kun immediately took Aizen as his fukutaichou. As a fellow shinigami with perception type reiryoku, his younger ex-colleague had sensed something was wrong and moved to keep an eye on the new officer.

The consequences of Shunsui’s mistake did not end there. 

# # # # # #

As soon as Aizen transferred to the Gotei, in his relentless quest to locate the Royal Palace, his first act was to use his position as fukutaichou to continue his research in the history section of the library halls of the Daireishoukairou, and use his power of complete hypnosis to break repeatedly into the Twelfth under various different guises at random times to steal information from its databanks and use its surveillance systems to spy on the rest of the Gotei and the Chamber members. Thus he discovered the ambitions of the late Chief Justice Furukawa Souta to undermine the influence of Yama-jii in a bid to wrest control of the Gotei’s military powers. Aizen had jumped at the opportunity to turn the sedition to his advantage, anonymously aiding and conducting illicit liaisons with Furukawa to subvert Yama-jii and the Gotei until he gained the trust of the late Chief Justice, before demanding for information on the Royal Palace. However, when he finally received Furukawa’s information that the Royal Palace was secured in a separate dimension in the heart of Soul Society, protected by seventy-two interdimensional barriers that could not be penetrated by any power, he flew into a rage. 

In vengeance Aizen turned his attention towards usurping the existing government itself, using his illusions to play the Chamber against the Gotei in hopes of inciting a civil war while beginning illegal experiments to increase his own power through science and arcane. It was during this time that he invented his own version of the Hougyoku, impersonated Furukawa to issue fake mandates from the Soul King to Kumoi to create and spread the use of the Bakkoutou, and incited Kuchiki Clan rival Kuroiyama Minato to frame Ginrei-sama’s son-in-law Kuchiki Kouga. When he noticed Jyuushirou’s frequent long hours spent in Yama-jii’s office, he even dared to disguise himself as Sasakibe-san to loiter in the corridors outside Yama-jii’s study but fortunately, had been prevented by Yama-jii’s Kyoumon and security barriers from learning more. When a blind Rukongai soul possessing great amounts of reiryoku named Tousen Kaname demanded for justice for the murder of his friend Mizyuumi Kiyoko, Aizen had neutralised the threat of Tousen’s natural immunity to his shikai by disguising himself and convincing Tousen to join the Academy to gain revenge, where he began making overtures to manipulate the mind and emotions of the blind soul until Tousen swore to him his secret fealty. In the meanwhile, contrary to what Yama-jii had believed, Aizen developed a secret wariness of Jyuushirou, for he could neither glimpse Jyuushirou’s power nor determine his exact role in Yama-jii’s chain of command.

Then Shunsui had explained to whom he thought was Hirako-kun’s faithful fukutaichou about the Zero Division and its role in protecting the Soul King, about how the power of the Zero Division was greater than the power of all the Gotei taichou combined. Aizen became spurred and renewed his secret quest. He now understood that he would need much more power to defeat the Royal Guard before he could take over the throne of the Soul King. With more power now, and more knowledge of the workings of the administration and politics, he redoubled his efforts to learn how to penetrate the Royal Palace. The quarter-century transfer of the Oin took place in the following year, and manipulating his shikai, Aizen attended the evening celebration feast in disguise where he overheard a tipsy Kirio slur to Yama-jii that not having ever been called to receive the Ouken to meet with the Soul King was a good sign, and unless the soutaichou was willing to sacrifice one hundred thousand souls in a Jyuureichi with the radius of half a spirit-mile to forge the King’s key, he should be content with never having to step foot into the Royal Palace.

Armed with that information, knowing that he lacked such a Jyuureichi, Aizen began committing a series of murders to collect souls for feeding to the Hougyoku to increase its power, targeting to hit one hundred thousand souls in an experiment to test if the orb could be a replacement. When the Hougyoku unexpectedly began to break the barriers between shinigami and Hollow powers, Aizen pursued its mutation capabilities, culminating in the Hollowfication of four taichou, three fukutaichou and the vice commander of the Kidou Corps, for which he framed Kisuke-kun for all of it. Shortly after, Kurotsuchi’s subordinate Yushima Ouko successfully created a test army of reanimated human corpses to perform shinigami duties in the Living World and defeated Aizen’s Hougyoku mutated Hollows. To erase his competition, Aizen used his position as taichou of the Fifth to convince Furukawa to shut Yushima down on false ethical pretentions and banish the scientist to the Ujimushi no Su. Then when Jyuushirou recruited the late Shiba Kaien as fukutaichou, Aizen had matched him by recruiting Ichimaru Gin, and consequently began targeting the Thirteenth because its jurisdiction over the Living World risked exposing his secret Hollow experiments there. When the late Kaien-kun instinctively kept his guard up against Aizen and never saw Aizen’s shikai, it sealed his fate. Metastacia was engineered to target him by targeting his late wife, Jyuushirou’s former Third Seat, hurt and demoralise Jyuushirou, and consequently, impact Yama-jii.

The murders struck a blow to the Thirteenth and the rest of the Gotei, for Kaien-kun had been well respected and well loved. Taking advantage of the distraction, Aizen opened a Garganta in secret and departed Soul Society for Hueco Mundo. When he returned, he had learned that when fed with Hollow power the Hougyoku mutated the Hollow into an artificial Arrancar, a being much more powerful than one created by mutating a taichou or fukutaichou level shinigami. Aizen decided that he would build an army of Arrancar to help him invade the Royal Palace and defeat the Zero Division while he continued to search for a way to obtain the Ouken. Then a mere twenty years ago, Aizen identified that Karakura Town in the Living World was in fact the Jyuureichi he had been searching for, and in order to discover how to use its living souls to forge an Ouken, he visited the human town numerous times undetected wearing a stolen copy of Kisuke-kun’s invention, the Reiatsu Concealing Cloak. In that same time, he set loose his creation, a Hollow named White, in Naruki City, prompting their ex-colleague Shiba Isshin to personally investigate. Isshin-kun never returned after his second trip and till this day, remained lost.

And the worst of it all, was that Tousen should not have been an enemy. His murdered friend, Mizyuumi Kiyoko, was a First Year Academy Undergraduate, killed by her husband, Final Year Academy Undergraduate Mizyuumi Akio, after she reprimanded him for killing a comrade over a petty argument. Mizyuumi Akio was the nephew of Chief Justice Furukawa Souta’s third sister-in-law who had appealed to the late Chief Justice to save her nephew from prosecution. And it had been Furukawa who reached out to his anonymous ally in the Gotei to cover up the crime and ensure Mizyuumi Akio graduated with honours. Aizen had done it to ensure Furukawa owed him a debt. And when time came for Aizen to collect on it, Furukawa had obeyed the instructions of his anonymous benefactor to grant his “ally” Aizen Sousuke Taichou all requests to have Rukia-chan arrested and executed.

# # # # # #

The words blurred, and reformed into the wavering image of a stern, detached feminine face framed by long black bangs and two short pigtails, looking at him with intent turquoise eyes from behind square red rimmed glasses.

Lisa.

Shunsui abruptly realised there were tears in his eyes. He raised his sleeve to wipe away the moisture. A gentle touch on his forearm brought his stinging gaze to his side, looking down into dark eyes glimmering with sorrow beneath unshed moisture.

Belatedly he realised that Jyuushirou had been reading together with him. His love’s fine alabaster face had gone paler than usual and was tight with grief and anger. Jyuushirou had never truly healed from the loss of Kaien-kun, like Shunsui had never truly accepted the loss of Lisa-chan.

He wrapped one arm about the slender shoulders and drew Jyuushirou close against his side, rubbing his hand comfortingly up and down the slender supple bicep through the layers of robes.

“Kirio will be so distressed if she knows this,” he said dejectedly. He was rather fond of his vivacious ex-colleague.

“It is not her fault,” Jyuushirou consoled softly.

“This is hard to read,” Shunsui rasped.

“I know.” Jyuushirou’s deep tenor was whisper soft.

“How are we going to tell this to Komamura-san?” he wondered, stricken on behalf of the kind giant wolfman. “He’s already broken up enough as it is.”

“I could tell him in your stead,” offered Jyuushirou softly, his tone as saddened as Shunsui felt. “However, I believe Sensei would wish to perform this task himself.”

The reminder consoled Shunsui somewhat. Komamura-san had always looked up to Yama-jii. Besides, it was now crystal clear that Aizen had incited and facilitated the Chamber’s scheming against Yama-jii. Their old sensei would have to know.

And it was also now clear to Shunsui that the rest of the answers they needed, could only be found in Karakura Town in the Living World. Something had happened to Rukia-chan there, and as Jyuushirou had told Kurosaki-kun days ago, something had malfunctioned, for a sharing of powers usually did not result in its full transference.

“Perhaps we should also do a search on Kurosaki Ichigo?” he suggested.

“The Daireishin was built to see only into Soul Society, not into other realms,” Jyuushirou replied. “I will try, but I doubt it will work. It is clear now how much Aizen had used the Chamber, particularly our late Chief Justice. Furukawa Souta had been planning a coup for a long time before Aizen’s appearance. We should take this opportunity to search his offices and private premises before the Chamber reconstitutes.” He paused, his fine brows creasing in thought. “Aizen had been targeting my division for a long while, it seems. First Kaien, now Rukia… all because of our connection to the Living World… and Karakura Town.”

Shunsui had to agree. However, Yama-jii’s worries now began to eat at him in earnest. “Was this exactly what Aizen read?” he asked.

“Yes,” Jyuushirou confirmed.

He rubbed a hand over his face. “Yama-jii was right to worry about you, Ukitake.”

Dark eyes looked at him inquiringly and waited for him to explain.

“Aizen is likely to have figured out your connection to the Daireishin by now. Look at how you’re recorded.” Shunsui waved his hand at the texts. “Your name doesn’t appear anywhere, but here it mentions the elemental power which commands the Thirteenth, and there it says a lightning sea storm occurred when it was you confronting Metastacia. Aizen knows us well, it won’t take him much to deduce all these references are to you. If I were him, I would begin to wonder why the Daireishin treats you so differently. And I’ll start wondering about your powers.” He suddenly understood what had driven Yama-jii to put Jyuushirou under round the clock guard and even a special security detail. Their old sensei had expected all these.

As usual however, Jyuushirou was dismissive of himself. “He may be, and could be investigating, but there is nothing much for him to go on. My powers are not recorded anywhere else and there is scant data in here. This is the whole point of my invisibility, Kyouraku, to serve as a fall back recourse for the Gotei. I worry more about why Aizen destroyed the pathways and locked us out. He must know Sensei will find a way around his obstructions eventually. Perhaps he does not expect that we will overcome his obstacles so quickly. But it does not change the fact that he was seeking to delay us. This means he needs time.” Dark eyes narrowed. “Our most important question is, what does he need time for?”

Fond exasperation rose in Shunsui, and he squeezed the lithe body against his. “Ai, Amai’take, you’re not seeing the danger to yourself!”

“We are always in one form of danger or another, not just I alone,” Jyuushirou chided him gently. His mien turned serious. “We need to find out why Aizen needs this delay. It is important to direct our next move against him.” His dark eyes hardened. “I need to see Kisuke as soon as possible. As you can see, there is nothing more in here about the Hougyoku. Shinigami are small in number and Aizen knows that. We cannot spread our resources too thinly chasing the wrong objectives.”

Shunsui tightened his embrace around Jyuushirou’s warm, determined form. “Let’s update Yama-jii. He’s right outside waiting for us for lunch.” 

# # # # # #

Meals with Yama-jii were always either quiet and comfortable bonding time, or sober solemn work affairs. With the heavy weight of the copious new discoveries revealed to them, Jyuushirou had somewhat lost his appetite in the middle of the repast as he detailed the findings, until Yama-jii reached over with his gnarled hand and patted his slender shoulder, stopping him in mid report.

“Restore yourself, Jyuushirou,” rumbled their old sensei. Levering himself up with his gnarled walking stick, he said gruffly, “Since you have left the panels in place, I shall go in and read on my own. Shunsui, make sure he eats.” With that, Yama-jii had thumped away from their makeshift lunch table and headed for the archives.

They watched him go, and then exchanged a long lingering look with each other. Wordlessly, Shunsui pushed a the fourth bamboo canister of tonic soup towards Jyuushirou and nodded towards it with his chin, trying for a comforting smile.

With a grateful look, Jyuushirou picked up the canister with both hands and began to drink the soup.

The library halls were deserted now. The servers and Kiyone having departed at the beginning of their meal. Yama-jii’s Kyoumon was the most secure barrier in all of Soul Society, not even an insect could pass through and hope to live. Idly, Shunsui thought that if their old sensei could, he would have erected it all around the Seireitei. Even make an armour of it around Jyuushirou’s frail body.

“Here,” said Jyuushirou, putting down the soup canister to dig into the inner pocket of his kosode. He retrieved two small transparent cubes within which each suspended a small glowing white pill. He pushed the cubes towards Shunsui. “One contains all data on Quincies from six to eight hundred years ago, and the other all the information on the Nemuri Project. I was busy so did not have time to review the downloads. If there is anything wrong, Mayuri should just let me know and I will fix it.”

“I’ll get them to him, thank you.” Shunsui pocketed the data pills.

“Please tell him to insert them into a Gigai programmed for data entry. The data pills cannot transfer information from machine to machine, I fear.”

“Got it.”

Jyuushirou finished the rest of his soup, then set all his dishes aside. Then he simply sat and looked at Shunsui in silence, his dark eyes filled with chaotic emotions.

“What is it?” Shunsui finally asked, when the silence prolonged.

“What we spoke about this dawn…” Jyuushirou began, then trailed off. Closing his eyes, he momentarily massaged his temples, a frown creasing his brows. “I made a terrible mistake, Kyouraku. I should not have been so accepting of my fate. Your timing in asking me to research on this is extremely coincidental. I could not have discovered this much in such a short time if I was not also investigating Aizen’s interest in the Soul King. If you seriously mean to challenge Mimihagi, you will be challenging the Soul King himself.”

What?

“Mimihagi is not a kami at all,” Jyuushirou said softly, suddenly, his dark eyes opening to look bleakly at Shunsui.

Not a kami?”

“Mimihagi was worshipped as the Kami of Stagnation Governance, the one who halted all things requested by his followers. But he is no kami. He is the right hand of the Soul King.”

Shunsui stared. It made no sense.

Jyuushirou sighed. “There was a reason the early shinigami shamans severed the limbs and heart of the Soul King. Each of his limbs and his heart had their own individualities and because of this, since time began the Soul King often conflicted against his own decisions and actions, causing chaos over all he ruled. Unfortunately, the shamans underestimated how fiercely independent the limbs and heart of the Soul King were. Once severed, they immediately escaped, for they had long desired freedom. All were taken in by a wild tribe in the far north except for the right arm, it broke away from its family and escaped down south. It eventually found refuge in the wilderness of East Rukongai and manifested a physical reishi body shaped like a forearm with its fist as its head and one eye on the back of its hand for it to see. It named itself Mimihagi. When it encountered the early wild settlers of East Rukongai, it told them that it was the Kami of Stagnation Governance come to the mortal realm to halt the progress of all evil. The settlers gave it a male gender and built it a shrine and carved a statue in its likeness, and they worshipped it for millennia as a kami. Then in the last two millennia, the Gotei expanded towards the heart of the land, and reorganised all of Rukongai. We brought civilisation and progress into many parts, and eventually, kami worship was replaced by kidou and technology, and the shrine fell into disuse. Mimihagi, instead of joining its siblings in the far north, concealed itself within its statue and hibernated. It had grown too fond of Soul Society after protecting its souls for so long.” He stared at Shunsui. “This was the shrine my parents brought me to when all healers had abandoned me. I believe it was the shrine where you ran to when your reiryoku first erupted.”

“Ai!” Shunsui exclaimed in shock and sadness. “You’re right. You should have not been so accepting, should have researched this earlier.”

The alabaster face was desolate, tinged with desperation. “What you mean to pursue, it is too dangerous now. Please, Shunsui, do not continue any further. What time I have left, let us spend it together in joy. Our lives are dangerous enough, let us not take on additional dangers. I beg you, please do not oppose the Soul King. If something were to happen to you…”

Shunsui reached across the table and grasped the pale hand, feeling the minute trembling in the slender fingers. “We will have joy together, regardless of whether I pursue this. I am not ready to let you go, Jyuushirou. I may never be ready. If there is even a slightest hope of cheating fate, I will take it. Trust me, Amai’take. I will bring you joy, and even more happiness whether you believe it or not.”

Fear glimmered in the depths of the mahogany eyes. “I fear for you, Shunsui,” Jyuushirou whispered. “My life is not worth the risk-”

“Never say that!” Shunsui cut in fiercely, crushing the slender fingers in his hand. “How can you say that?

“But I cannot lose you!” Jyuushirou cried in near terror.

“As I cannot lose you, Jyuushirou,” Shunsui commiserated. He tried for a confident smile. “Do not worry. All will be well. You will see.”

Then realisation belatedly hit him.

If Jyuushirou was going to be working this closely with the Daireishin, nothing could be hidden from him. Shunsui would have to confess his plans first, than for his love to find out through the archives.

“You see, I may have found a way to return you your health,” he said softly, watching his soul brother carefully.

Confusion creased Jyuushirou’s fine features. “How can you? Not even Senpai could. Not even Kirinji-sama could.”

“I have hope because it’s based in science, not kidou. It’s a chance discovery, really. And it’s going to horrify you. I only ask that you hear me out before you judge.”

Jyuushirou nodded. “I am listening.”

Taking a deep breath, Shunsui began to detail his findings.

# # # # # #

When Shunsui arrived back at the Eighth after lunch, he saw that Nanao-chan had executed his orders with her usual exemplary flawlessness. The Strelitzia Hall had been converted into a veritable war room, with a huge most recently updated map of the Seireitei covering one wall, and the adjacent wall covered with a sprawling map of Soul Society from ocean to land. Completing the outfitting was a dark cherry wood bar counter and long dining side table to display alcoholic relief and self-serve food in times of long emergency meetings, and completing the concept were wardrobes containing futons and sleeping rolls. There was even an emergency medical cabinet, and from somewhere, she had managed to scrounge up a low table strong and large enough to accommodate Komamura-san. Shunsui had whistled involuntarily when he entered, and judging from the widened canine eyes, Komamura-san had been utterly impressed as well.

Because it was Shunsui, he wasted no time, and commemorated the new war room of the Eighth Division with a fresh bottle of Kyouraku Reserve even before their first defence meeting began. Of course, he had another reason for dousing himself in drink in the middle of an early workday afternoon, but he had responsibilities to fulfil and thus, temporarily willed his emotional turmoil aside as he listened to the giant wolfman lay out his proposals for increasing the military power of the Gotei’s capabilities.

Komamura-san’s plans had seemed counterintuitive at first, but as Shunsui continued to listen, he saw the sound common sense and logic behind it.

For too long, the Gotei had operated according to their own divisional specialisations, with little coordination between divisions, if there was any coordination at all. Changing the behaviour of an army of thirty-nine thousand which had operated for centuries in fixed patterns would not happen overnight, and any drastic reorganisation would instead throw everyone into chaos. With the loss of three taichou, there was chaos enough, but also provided a greater measure of adaptability as three divisions were now thirsty for any form of leadership. To add to the challenge, shinigami forces had always been severely outnumbered, thirty-nine thousand strong was nothing compared to the billions of Hollows and human souls out there needing to be balanced. Komamura-san pointed this out and argued convincingly that going forward, the Gotei should focus on amplifying their effectiveness, instead of trying to win by sheer amount of might. And to get started on this new approach, he analysed the strengths and weaknesses of each division, and proposed new task squads with each squad comprising an array of strengths drawn from across all divisions instead of just one. He further laid out proposals for the new task squads to undergo training exercises so that the members could learn to work together and leverage on one another strengths, while building camaraderie so that they would also protect one another’s weaknesses. Finally, he sketched out a few specific proposed training exercises to sound off Shunsui. Playing the devil’s advocate, Shunsui had tried to find fault with the plans and proposals, and in the end, had slapped Komamura-san heartily on his bracers and congratulated his wolfman colleague for a well thought out strategy.

“The only possible failure is if we ourselves reject the notion,” Shunsui had theorised. Then he smirked, “But I believe, once Yama-jii endorses this, everyone will have no choice but to obey or face his wrath.”

“Yes. Shuuhei and Izuru tell me that in the Living World, there is a concept called democracy where individual choice and opinions are placed before the greater good and actions are taken based on majority agreement. That is not how Soul Society works and not how shinigami work. Our culture has ever been led by one ultimate power. I hope Soutaichou will see the merits of this new approach and command everyone to cooperate,” Komamura-san had said, his long furry face looking humbled that Shunsui thought well of his plans. “On the specifics, the Fifth, Sixth, Eighth, Tenth, Eleventh and Thirteenth form our first wave perimeter response, but I can’t help thinking that more can be done with their melee abilities. Ideally, our capabilities will be greatly enhanced if we can incorporate kidou and zanjutsu melee combat training exercise for every task squad.” His canine eyes looked slightly dejected. “However, I hear it will be difficult to work with the Eleventh.”

Shunsui sighed and drank a dish of sake. “Ai, that’s the crux of it, and a sticky issue. I like Zaraki well enough, but he isn’t inclined to working in a team or fight according to strategy.”

“I shall try to speak with him nevertheless,” Komamura-san said. “I know he only listens to Soutaichou and Ukitake Taichou, but I should still try. Ukitake Taichou does not have time to handle this, and I won’t bother Soutaichou.”

“You could enlist Unohana Taichou to help persuade Zaraki,” Shunsui suggested, silently praying that Hanshi-sama would not scold him later for it. “She gave him the title of Kenpachi, he respects her so perhaps he’ll listen to her.”

The large canine face brightened. “I shall speak to her then. This is a good idea, Kyouraku Taichou.”

“Just my two kans’ worth,” Shunsui grinned, then reached over and refilled the sake dish of his colleague. “Come, have another drink. Commemorate our first use of this shiny new war room. May there never be war that forces us to use this room, and that instead we spend many pleasant times simply partying in here without the burden of violence!”

“Excellent toast, let’s drink to it!” growled his giant colleague with a wolfish smile, then opened his huge maw and tossed in the dish of sake. His size suddenly made the large dish of alcohol look like woeful drips.

Shunsui sat back and pondered if he should break the news of Mizyuumi Kiyoto or allow Yama-jii to do it. Komamura-san looked at peace for the moment, his equilibrium no doubt hard won. Shunsui truly loathed to dispel it. But if he could alleviate Yama-jii’s burden, then he should.

He decided on an oblique tactic to test the ground. “How are the two fukutaichou holding up?” he asked gently.

Komamura-san sighed and carefully put down the sake dish with his outsized paw. “Better than anyone can expect of them, but not as well as they should be. Such tragedy should never have befallen on shinigami so young. Shuuhei was very close to Tousen. I don’t understand how Kaname could just throw something like that away. Once a sensei, always a father. It’s like Shuuhei means nothing to him.” The furry paws clenched in anguish.

“Ai, Hisagi-kun is a good young man,” Shunsui agreed. Then carefully, he said, “But I doubt throwing him away is hard, when the feeling was never there to begin with.”

The canine eyes glared at him. “What do you mean, Kyouraku Taichou? Kaname took care to teach Shuuhei many principles of combat.”

“Did he truly?” Shunsui questioned. Gently, and neutrally, he related what he read in the archives.

If a furry wolf face could pale, Shunsui would be looking at one. Komamura-san’s poignantly man-like expression was an abject mix of sorrow, understanding and rage.

“Is there nothing that can be done?” he demanded with anger and sorrow. “Kaname must be informed that it was Aizen who had been behind the cover up of Kiyoto’s death! Once he knows, he’ll understand that Aizen is evil and he will return to us! I know it!”

Shunsui thought about the Gikongan pill brimming with data currently nestled in his inner pocket. Would it be possible…? He decided he would sound out Jyuushirou on the idea.

“We must set out to find Tousen,” Komamura-san said with conviction. “It’s not too late. When he knows the truth, he’ll turn around. If he’s in Hueco Mundo, then we go there to retrieve him!”

“Let’s take this to Yama-jii first, ne?” Shunsui interjected gently. “We don’t want to go at this alone and get in the way of what else that’s happening. The Gotei should be coordinated in our countermoves.”

Komamura-san subsided and nodded in acceptance. “You’re correct, Kyouraku Taichou. We shall discuss with Soutaichou first.”

“What about Kira-kun?” Shunsui asked. “He’s rather close friends with Hisagi-kun, ne?”

“Izuru is holding up just as well, but in a different way,” Komamura-san replied. “He’s more sensitive, more quiet, and lacks confidence in himself. But when push comes to the shove, he has the iron to do what must be done. He’s holding the Third Division together, but he’s still wracked with guilt over helping Ichimaru. I don’t quite know how to help him out of that. Do you have any suggestions?”

“Kira-kun has always been an introvert,” Shunsui pondered. “Introverts are the hardest to reach, because they’re the hardest to read. We don’t know what they’re thinking or feeling because they reveal so little of themselves. Only peer support can reach him now, though I certainly hope to see other taichou try to help him. He takes the fukutaichou codes of obedience and protecting his commander to heart, and if his taichou had been anyone else, he would be flourishing far more than this.” An idea occurred to him. “Perhaps he can seek a senpai mentorship.”

“Who do you have in mind?”

“Someone who’s equally introverted and sensitive, and equally resolute when it comes to doing what’s necessary. But who’s had better leaders and examples in his life and thus less scarred.” Shunsui rubbed his stubble. “What do you think of Byakuya?”

The canine eyes widened in surprise. “Is Kuchiki Taichou even interested in mentoring?”

“Honestly? I doubt it.” Then Shunsui smiled. “But I’ve watched him grow, trained him in Hakuda, and seen him mature under Ukitake’s mentorship. It seems to me it may do him a world of good to mentor for a change, instead of forever being mentored. Shall we persuade him together?”

The wolfish eyes beamed in agreement. “That is a good idea. I fear he’s always been rather standoffish towards me, and unlikely to hear me out if I approach him alone.” Then stroking his long snout thoughtfully, Komamura-san remarked, “Kuchiki Taichou benefited from mentorships by Ukitake Taichou and yourself, and both of you were disciples and wards of Soutaichou. If we can secure Izuru this, he would benefit from all three of your combined teachings, in addition to the experiences and talents of Kuchiki Taichou himself.”

“Let’s see if it works out, ne?” Shunsui raised his sake dish. “Kanpai!”

Komamura-san toasted him back. “Kanpai!” 

# # # # # #

Sunset was beginning to streak the skies with great bands of pinks, oranges, and yellows when Shunsui returned to the rooftop above his personal quarters, absently looking at the reconstruction progressing in earnest in his division grounds. He swigged the last dredges from his sake bottle, then placed the empty bottle down beside him, next to the thick file half unwrapped in his old travelling cloth.

The second half of Kurotsuchi’s information on his organ replacement technology.

By the time Shunsui managed to find their resident scientist in his office, the scientist had already received Yama-jii’s decree, and was extremely subdued, even cowed. He showed Shunsui none of his usual irascibility, and even dismissed Nemu-chan out of earshot. He had been sitting at his desk, his fingers steepled, the thick file between his elbows, his lidless golden eyes doing nothing except staring into space lost in thought.

He stared at it. The second half of Kurotsuchi’s information on his organ replacement technology.

By the time Shunsui managed to find their resident scientist in his office, the scientist had already received Yama-jii’s decree. He had been extremely subdued, cowed, even. He showed Shunsui none of his usual irascibility, and even dismissed Nemu-chan out of earshot. He had been sitting at his desk, his fingers steepled, the thick file between his elbows, his lidless golden eyes doing nothing except staring into space lost in thought.

Or perhaps memories.

Shunsui had been to the dark underground depths of the Ujimushi no Su exactly once, and it had been once more than enough for him. According to Kisuke’s reports over a century ago, Kurotsuchi had been languishing in there for two hundred years since he was arrested while still an undergraduate of the Academy. When Shunsui had arrived and seated himself before Kurotsuchi’s desk, those reptilian eyes had immediately focused on him, and unexpectedly, a very human look had overcome the black and white painted, skeletal face.

“I should have guessed the real intent of your interest,” Kurotsuchi had said, his nasally voice for once without rancour nor irritation.

Shunsui had said nothing, except withdraw the two small pill boxes from his inner pocket and pushed them across the desk towards the uncharacteristically quelled master of the Twelfth. “Use these on Gigai programmed to perform data entry. These things don’t transmit well from machine to machine. You should also check all your personnel and usage logs, we have proof that Aizen has been helping himself to your surveillance systems and databanks since Kirio’s time.”

Pasty white painted blue nailed hands had reached out to collect the cubes, then pushed the heavy file across the surface of the desk towards Shunsui. “Tell Unohana Taichou I am ready to discuss whenever she is.”

Shunsui had pulled the heavy file to himself, deliberately keeping his movements smooth and sure instead of giving in to his urge to snatch up the precious volume.

“When I have cured your brother, I want a new underground laboratory in a new secret location,” Kurotsuchi had said.

“You sound very certain you will succeed.”

“Of course I will,” Kurotsuchi had sniffed with some of his usual spiteful self. Then he had subsided and, with an uncharacteristic lack of abrasiveness and an unusual display of respect, had said, “Long have I suspected the true extent of Ukitake Taichou’s reiryoku. I know very well that the folk tales surrounding his past exploits were all facts, not fairy tales as most shinigami today think they are. There is no reason why a power like his combined with my reiatsu amplifier will not be able to generate a fully functioning set of new lungs from his reishi. There is even less reason for a shinigami like him to not achieve much more than the considerable feats he already had.”

On hindsight, it was that rare show of sincerity that had convinced Shunsui it was time for full disclosure if those he was entrusting with Jyuushirou’s life were to do a proper job. “There’s something else you don’t know,” he had begun, and when he had the scientist’s full attention, proceeded to detail the kami… no, the estranged relative of the Soul King sealed within his love’s body.

And strangely, Kurotsuchi had hardly blinked, merely commenting clinically, “So that’s where it went. Hiding in plain sight right under our noses all along. Clever.”

Shunsui supposed it was clever, if he was the one-eyed entity.

“I made some notes on it a long time ago, let me refresh my knowledge first,” Kurotsuchi had said. “I recall reading that the power of the Soul King’s right arm is that of stagnation, arrest of progress. I am quite certain that it merely arrested Ukitake Taichou’s disease, not removed the disease itself. But as I said, let me refresh my knowledge.”

And so Shunsui had agreed. “If you can heal Ukitake permanently, without adverse effects or strange body modifications, I’ll ask Yama-jii to give you that lab.”

That had been an hour ago.

Now he looked down, and carefully, re-wrapped the heavy file in the old travelling cloth, twisting the ends of the cloth up into a sling, much like he had done with the first file yesterday. Then settling it snugly onto his lap, he reached into his inner pocket and very carefully, withdrew the final piece of the puzzle.

The small transparent pill box Yama-jii had given him that morning glinted in the setting sun, the small spherical pill within a white glowing spot.

Take this only when I’ve nothing else to do afterwards, ne?

Well, the only place he needed to go for the rest of today, was back to Jyuushirou. Preferably, back into his soft, pliant, fragrant arms.

But Shunsui was not going to push his luck tonight. For one, two consecutive nights of disrupted, inadequate sleep, was wearing him ragged. For another, Jyuushirou’s reaction to the news of a possible lung transplant had been… reactionless.

There was no other way to describe it. There had been no shock, no horror, no elation, no happiness, no hopeful looks. Jyuushirou simply had no expression on his face and had not made a sound. He had simply, wordlessly, stood up and returned to the archives.

They had not argued, or even had a difference of opinions, for centuries. Maybe half a millennium. Shunsui had forgotten what Jyuushirou was like when he was truly upset. He did not argue, did not even passively resist. He simply retreated to where Shunsui could not find him or moved on to other tasks to distract himself from his unhappiness.

[Perhaps he’s overwhelmed,] Katen Kyoukotsu chose that moment to speak.

Well, well. You’ve been awfully quiet, he sniped.

[You have been awfully busy scheming,] she pointed out sharply.

He sighed and capitulated. Alright, alright. Holding up the pill box, he looked at the white glowing Gikongan suspended inside. I asked Yama-jii to tell me about Mimihagi and how Jyuushirou is connected to him. And he gave me this. Dare I take it?

[You don’t have a choice if you wish to learn everything about our permanent foreign resident,] she replied.

Our permanent foreign resident? Mimihagi is not inside me, you know.

She sighed. Then uncharacteristically sad, said, [Someday, you’ll understand. He already does, and now you’re messing with his perspectives.]

He frowned. What do you mean? I shouldn’t pursue this?

[No, pursue it. For my sake and yours as well. Did I say foreign resident?] Her tone had gone sharp.

Understanding dawned abruptly. So you, too, think Jyuushirou’s parents made a mistake. You know, his mother apologizes to him in his dreams.

[They were desperate. If he was my child, I would be desperate too. We can understand that, can’t we?]

They certainly could, even though neither his zanpakutou nor he knew what parenthood was really like.

Without further ado, Shunsui opened the pill box, and tossed the pill into his mouth, swallowing immediately. He hardly felt it as it went down.

He waited.

Nothing happened.

He drummed his fingers on his knee.

Still nothing happened.

He was about to give up and rise to go in search of Jyuushirou, when it hit him all at once.

Like a floodgate suddenly opening in his brain, tidal waves of knowledge fell onto his consciousness, sucking him into a disorientating maelstrom until he could no longer tell which way was which, right side up from upside down, left from right, front from back.

Suddenly he knew all that Jyuushirou had told him, and all that he did not.

And he felt everything that Yama-jii had felt as his old sensei recorded every word, as Yama-jii’s memories became his own.

A desperate noble family couple, their three year old firstborn dying in their estate, straining their declining resources to invite healers and priests from far and wide because their only child simply could not travel, and each time only to be told to prepare for a funeral, sometimes even being accused of bringing a curse upon the land. How relatives and friends and even their own patron clan had shunned the couple, fearing their child would bring a contagion or curse down on their heads, how the very town they had supported for generations rebelled and assembled at their gates to demand that they pack up and leave. Compassion flooded Shunsui as he suddenly saw, on a storm lashed night, the despairing couple pack up their suffering child, travel without stop for three weeks through merciless weather and hostile settlements, and finally arrive distraught and nearly giving up at the derelict shrine the noble lady had learnt about from her old grandmother’s old tales. Horror struck Shunsui as he watched the fraught couple pray feverishly without cessation all night through the storm, offering anything and everything they were to the statue of the fallen one-eyed pagan kami, ignorant of all rituals and of everything else save that superstitious lore had whispered of how the one-eyed kami shaped like a forearm could grant wishes for a price. And when inky blackness had risen from the statue, passed over their small son, and disappeared without mentioning a price, and their child had miraculously sat up and cried for his mother, his black hair entirely whitened overnight, the thankful and relieved couple had taken their three year old into their tight embrace and questioned nothing more.

Then sorrow engulfed Shunsui when he understood how the couple finally learnt of the terrible price they paid when the one-eyed kami began haunting their sleep with nightmares, staking its future claim on the life and body of their firstborn. His heart ached as he witnessed how they begun an annual dangerous family pilgrimage to the derelict shrine to appease the deity, how the nightmares ceased and their firstborn lived and grew but continued to be frail, how the head of the family was killed when their eldest son was a mere sickly twelve year old too weakened by chronic illness to learn the sword much less take over as head of the family. Tears stung Shunsui’s eyes as the close knit loving family fell into increasing hardships and was teetering on its last resources when Yama-jii had appeared, on another dark and stormy night, and with his healer-warrior Yachiru Unohana Kenpachi had rescued the injured thirteen year old youth and his seven siblings from his power gone awry. And then his heart broke as the noble lady’s heart shattered when she tearfully traded her fragile, most beloved child to the harsh and stern shinigami commander of the infamously ruthless, brutal Gotei Thirteen, how eight years later she divulged to Yama-jii in a final tear stained letter that when the time came, her firstborn had no choice but to initiate the rites of Kamikake to fulfil the claim staked on his life and limb so long ago.

Suddenly impotent rage burned Shunsui at the injustice of fate, at the discovery that once summoned, the victim of that one-eyed pagan kami had no choice but to surrender everything he had left, and hopelessness nearly drowned him as he fruitlessly, painfully searched and recorded in his journals through lonely millennia for a way to break the claim. Then Shunsui was touched, tantalisingly, by an ephemeral sliver of hope at the discovery that the fallen pagan kami was the right hand of the Soul King, which meant there was a way to bargain for the fate of his [son?] if there was something of equal value to bargain with. And finally, he was consumed by centuries of solitary, private search for that one key, one potential, that could be the bargaining chip to reverse the future of his kind, gentle son.

Then Shunsui was flat on his back, staring up at an indigo canopy darkening into black as stars blinked alight, and the sliver of a waning moon appeared over the east.

He breathed hard, heart pounding, head whirling, and felt cold beads of sweat roll down his temples.

A movement to his right drew his gaze.

The face of Nanao-chan appeared perpendicularly in his field of vision, her features shadowed by the lamplight from the corridors beneath, her worry clear under the brightening moonlight.

“…been calling you for minutes!” she railed, angry in her anxiety. “Your eyes were opened but you weren’t there! What happened?”

Tiredly, he rubbed a hand over his face and sat up, carefully, ensuring his movements were steady to avoid worrying her further. “Jinzen,” he muttered. Miraculously, the heavy wrapped bundle of the file was still in his lap.

“That’s no jinzen I’ve ever seen!” she retorted disbelievingly. Nevertheless, relief was beginning to flood over her face at his regaining of awareness.

“Katen Kyoukotsu was being especially moody,” he lied.

Sorry, he mentally apologised to Katen Kyoukotsu

An affronted sniff answered him from his zanpakutou.

“Here.” Nanao-chan handed him a bento box. “Your tempura dinner went cold. So I had it replaced with sushi, which is cold anyway.”

“Ai, Nanao-chan, what will I do without you?” Ruefully, he accepted his dinner with a grateful smile. He was starving. Peeling open the lid in the rising moonlight, he saw his usual favourite pieces.

“Same as you always do. Move in with Ukitake Taichou and have his estate and Kiyone look after you,” she sniped, though there was no sting in her tone. With a one-sided quirk of her lips, she commented with exasperation, “I swear, Kyouraku Taichou, maybe you should ask Soutaichou to merge the Thirteenth and the Eighth. After all these centuries, I’m not sure where we begin and end and where they begin and end. Kiyone and I could serve both of you interchangeably and no one would know anything had changed.”

Shunsui popped two sushi at once and munched noisily as he made a show of seriously considering her words. “May be a good idea. Ukitake’s got a bigger budget than I,” he quipped around his mouthful.

She threw up her hands. “That shouldn’t be your motivation!” Sitting down cross-legged beside him, she pushed up her glasses and looked squarely at him. “Your other kimono is back today. I’ve hung it up in your bedroom. If you wish to change, then leave this one here and I’ll get it cleaned. The repairs are well on their way to completion, we should be back in our original office in three or four days. Enjouji put in his request for transfer today.”

“Oh?” He stopped chewing for a moment.

“He’s too ashamed to admit he was knocked into the skies by one punch from the ryoka boy,” Nanao-chan replied, snorting a little. “Male egos! The ryoka boy was very powerful. There’s no shame in admitting that one is defeated by a powerful foe.”

“Not ryoka boy, Sado-san,” Shunsui gently corrected, then asked, “Where does he wish to transfer to?” Privately he already had a very clear idea.

“Second Division, where else,” said Nanao-chan.

“I doubt Soi Fon will accept him. He’s too… loud. Showy. She needs nondescript indistinguishable types.” Shunsui popped two more sushi and chewed thoughtfully. A grin creased his face. “May Zaraki will take him. If Enjouji can withstand his… uh, entry test.”

“You mean if he can survive being beaten into dust by Zaraki Taichou,” Nanao-chan rephrased matter-of-factly.

He chuckled in answer, swallowed, then popped another two.

The sushi was delicious, liberally dabbed with wasabi and without soy sauce, just the way he liked it. Unbidden, he fondly remembered how Jyuushirou always stared aghast whenever he watched Shunsui chew and swallow a spoonful of the nose stinging green mustard paste without choking.

“So will you approve his application?” Nanao-chan asked.

“He has to find a place to go to first. If no one else accepts his transfer request, then it becomes a voluntary resignation from the Gotei and that’s not a pleasant consequence.” Swallowing again, he instinctively reached for his sake bottle, then woefully recalled he had finished it all. “But with his ego, I would rather he learn to channel it first before going elsewhere. Pride obstructs him from developing his skills further. In the coming days, all shinigami need to learn to stretch their effectiveness without adding mere brute force. All these start with putting the ego aside, honestly looking at one’s weaknesses, then getting rid of the weakness one by one.”

“I’ll tell him,” Nanao-chan nodded. “But shall we keep his application in the meantime? In case retraining doesn’t work out for him.”

“Please do.” He popped the last two sushi, then closed the bento box with finality. Fondly, he gazed at her, as memory rose of his recent discussions with Komamura-san. “You know, Nanao-chan, maybe you can learn some zanjutsu from Ukitake. He was a master at it long before he even heard his zanpakutou’s name. He knows kata that don’t require shikai and can be honed to deadliness with an unimprinted asauchi. He’s always been lightly built, so he focused on technique, reiatsu and Hohou and in the end, he beat the pants off his bigger and heavier opponents. I think his techniques will be very suitable for you.”

Her eyes shone with interest and curiosity under the moonlight. “Do you think so? Kiyone always boasts about Ukitake Taichou’s zanjutsu but none of us has ever seen it except in lore books… and he’s so busy with Soutaichou all the time…”

“I’ll ask Yama-jii to loosen his leash on Ukitake,” Shunsui consoled. “But does this mean you’re keen? Mine are scimitars and dual katana, not really suitable for you, otherwise I would have taught you long ago.”

“If Soutaichou permits, and Ukitake Taichou is willing, I’m keen.” Her head bowed. “Thank you, Kyouraku Taichou.”

He squeezed her shoulder affectionately, not needing to say anything more. 

# # # # # #

The Ugendou was devoid of Jyuushirou when Shunsui returned.

His love was not hiding his reiatsu.

He simply was not there.

The only being there was the visored, red uniformed Riteitai messenger, who suddenly appeared kneeling on one knee on the verandah before the entryway of the pavilion lake house.

“By order of Yamamoto Soutaichou, all taichou of the Gotei Thirteen are to assemble in the Daireishokarou Library Hall two hours after sunrise tomorrow. Third Division is to be represented by Kira Fukutaichou, Ninth Division is to be represented by Hisagi Fukutaichou, and Fifth Division is to be temporarily headed by Kyouraku Taichou.”

Then the messenger flickered and was gone.

So Yama-jii was ready to act. But the change of their usual venue of assembly was interesting.

Shunsui stopped his musing. He had bigger things to worry about. Such as, where could Jyuushirou be?

Worry, sadness and discomfort gnawed at him. If Jyuushirou was still avoiding him, then chances were, his love was still upset.

Ai, Amai’take, could you not be upset in a unknown location? Now is not the time for you to be disappearing.

He momentarily considered if he should ask one of the twelve Onmitsukidou that were perched unseen around the perimeter, then decided against it. He was certain Jyuushirou had noticed their presence as soon as they appeared but had chosen not to show any objection. Likely, long experience with their old sensei had disabused him of the notion.

Perhaps, he should return to the archives and see if his love was pulling an all-nighter.

[He’s not there anymore,] supplied Katen Kyoukotsu helpfully.

And you know this how?

[I have my ways,] she replied mysteriously.

Shunsui decided not to ask. He was never certain if zanpakutou talked among themselves, or if it required two or more shinigami to be as close as Jyuushirou and he before their zanpakutou could communicate with one another. Yama-jii’s old arcane library probably had some texts and research on this, and Jyuushirou probably knew more about it than Shunsui. Arcane studies had never interested him all that much. For all of Yama-jii’s tendency to boast of Shunsui’s prowess, Shunsui knew himself only too well. If he could not drink it, party with it, have sex with it, outwit it, cut it, blast it or kill it, in that order, he was hard put to drum up interest.

Except when it came to Jyuushirou.

Then Shunsui was passionately, obsessively, unfalteringly, interested.

So help me out here. Where do you think he’s gone?

She went silent for a moment, as if conferring with someone else.

And perhaps she was. He really did not want to know.

[Do you want to try checking in with her?] suggested Katen Kyoukotsu.

From their long-time soul bond, Shunsui knew who his zanpakutou was referring to. He’ll run back to her? He could not help feeling his heart ache.

[Relax. Think about it. You did drop a tremendous bomb on him. Who else does he have to turn to?] she soothed.

Shunsui could not remember the last time his moody mistress of a zanpakutou deigned to soothe him.

Well, you sure have changed a little, he commented. What gives?

[Perhaps I have a vested interest in this, have you ever thought about it that way?] she challenged.

No, he had not.

And what might your vested interest be? he asked suspiciously.

[Another time. For now, you need to go.] And with that, she simply dismissed him and gave him the vivid impression that she had turned her back to him and gone back to sleep.

He snorted at her, but let it go. He had to find Jyuushirou now. Fix things between them.

Picking the heavy bundle up from where he had left it on the foyer step, he swung it over one shoulder and launched into shunpo, heading southeast, towards the Fourth. It was a little farther away from the Ugendou than his own headquarters at the Eighth, so he picked up speed. He sealed his reiatsu barriers tightly long before he drew near.

If Jyuushirou had sought the arms of Hanshi-sama for comfort, Shunsui preferred to arrive unannounced.

He told himself stridently that he was not saddened.

When he arrived on the rooftops over Hanshi-sama’s office and adjoining clinic, he knew before he descended that they were not there. The office and clinic were dark, and locked. Upset rising in him, he exerted reiatsu on his toes and headed for her private quarters.

The only reiatsu signature he sensed was that of Isane-chan’s as he dropped onto the roof of Hanshi-sama’s private quarters. Elation, relief and guilt flooded him when he found her bedroom and verandah empty, and silently he cursed himself for being all kinds of faithless fool.

But it left him in a quandary. Where in kami’s name had they gone?

Not willing to alert anyone of his skulking, he took as few shunpo leaps as possible as he searched all possible places.

He hit the hospitals first, perhaps Jyuushirou had gone to help her with her rounds to take his mind off things.

No luck.

Next, he visited the mess halls, perhaps they were taking an evening repast together.

But the mess halls were emptying, and the kitchen had begun washing. So not there either.

He tried the mortuary, perhaps Jyuushirou had gone to examine the husks.

But the mortuary doors were locked, the lights off. No one was working there.

Shunsui dropped out of shunpo into the mortuary side yard, and tried to think, ignoring his escalating panic.

Where would you go, my Amai’take? Don’t scare me, please.

The clouds moved aside, and the waning moon appeared, dusting everything in gentle silver. And suddenly a memory rose, of his ten-year-old self pretending to be a hero as he determinedly scaled the vines clinging to the high stone walls of Hanshi-sama’s herb garden that seemed to repel his entry in every way, in his umpteenth attempt to see the pale, pretty new boy imprisoned inside.

It was during those long convalescing months, trapped in his own body by an excruciatingly slow recovery and languishing in the herb gardens of the old Gotei fortress, when his thirteen year old future soul brother first showed his latent gift in herbology.

Shunsui took off for the private herb garden he knew Hanshi-sama maintained at the edge of the Ninth’s territory, nearly at the edge of the thick bramble forests blanketing the foot of the cliff face of the Soukyoku Hill. No one had ever commented about her encroachment of another division’s land, for everyone knew that particular spot was most conducive for growing those specific plants she used for saving their lives. It was not far from the mortuary, and in short order, Shunsui found himself dropping unnoticed on the stone path leading to the garden’s boundary walls.

The walls of this herb garden were not as forbidding as the one he used to scale as a boy, and were scrupulously maintained by members of the Fourth, occasionally helped by members of the Ninth. As silently as possible, he walked up the stone path towards the main gate and peered around the thick foliage obscuring the primary compound of the garden.

He first saw Hanshi-sama, still in her haori and shihakushou, sitting on the stone bench in silent contemplation, her blue eyes seeing distantly into the night as her serene face showed no expression. Jyuushirou was seated beside her, his long white mane a smooth waterfall of moonlight down the back of his haori, a small transparent pill box on the seat beside him, opened and empty. Before them, Shunsui spied a half finished repotting of young plants. They were both seated at an angle towards the gate.

No matter how well he hid himself, Jyuushirou always sensed him. He looked up now and turned his head, his dark eyes catching Shunsui’s, inscrutable in the moonlight.

Not waiting for an invitation, Shunsui entered the herb garden. As silently as he could so as not to break Hanshi-sama’s concentration, he walked towards Jyuushirou, scanning his love from top to toe.

Jyuushirou looked normal, his delicate noble beauty limned by moonlight, and only a little fatigue showed from a full day of immersion with the Daireishin. Otherwise, Shunsui saw nothing else that would alarm him. Satisfied, he allowed his eyes to shift to the transparent pill box.

It was identical to the one Yama-jii had given him.

“I told her,” Jyuushirou said in a barely audible whisper, his dark eyes still inscrutable and expressionless. “I had meant to earlier, but urgent tasks kept getting in the way-”

Shunsui placed two fingers on the small fine mouth, hushing the flow of words. “I understand,” he whispered back. “I was there, remember?”

Jyuushirou turned his head, moving his mouth away. He looked down as he murmured, “After what you revealed to me today… I do not think I can delay keeping her in the dark. She needs to know. If she is to be able to do this.”

He stilled. Did this mean…?

Flowing soundlessly to his feet, Jyuushirou walked towards Shunsui, then led him a little distance away so that their voices would not disturb Hanshi-sama. He paused next to a row of older potted plants, and absently brushed the fronds with his long pale fingers, masterfully feeling each leaf and stalk.

“I apologise for my reaction today,” he said lowly, not looking up. “You… you truly caught me by surprise.”

“So you… you agree?”

Dark eyes looked up at him with fond exasperation and a vulnerable helplessness. “How long have I known you? Is it even possible for me to disagree?” Though the words were a bare whisper, the plaintiveness in them was clear.

Shunsui wanted to say no, that it was impossible for him to drop it even if Jyuushirou disagreed. But he remembered the dire warning of Hanshi-sama, and resolutely, vowed, “You have a choice, Jyuushirou. Give the word now, and I will desist.”

Sorrow, hope and fear vied for dominance in the delicate, handsome face. “I… I wish to live, if there is a way. Live and love like everyone else, if it is possible.” He looked down, and in rolling whispers, the emotions he had been restraining all afternoon and evening poured forth in a torrent. “After what you told me at lunch, it is all I can think about. This afternoon Toushirou discussed his plans with me, but my mind was not fully there. Renji came to me just now, yet I could not give him my full attention. My reality is shifting, Shunsui. My promise to you… I will keep it if you can truly find a way. But it is changing everything I believe about myself. All my life, I lived knowing that my life is a borrowed time, that I should not even be alive to see the next sunrise. I do what I can with what I have been given, to give hope to others, but I never kept any hope for myself… It took me so long… took you so much convincing… before I dared to return your love… I feel I am being ungrateful, but… I am only flesh and blood. I have never let myself think about this, but I… I do not have the willpower of a kami.” A tear escaped from beneath his dark lashes. “Senpai said this may not succeed… or it may succeed but change me forever… and I cannot stop thinking about what if it succeeds, and what if it does not… what if it changes me…” Jyuushirou looked up at him. “I am certain that if this changes me and I lose you because of it, then I would rather live out my remaining time without pursuing this at all.”

A stinging sensation rose behind Shunsui’s eyes as guilt and contrition rose. Swallowing hard, he reached out and wiped away the tear drop from beneath Jyuushirou’s eye. “I’m sorry, so sorry,” he rasped. “I shouldn’t have given you an ultimatum like that. I didn’t think about how simply living from day to day must be like for you. Will you forgive this brash fool?”

Jyuushirou nodded, then dashed at his eyes with the back of his pale hand in a manner that poignantly reminded Shunsui of his fifteen year old disciple-brother, dashing away tears of relief with the back of his hand when Yama-jii finally carried home twelve year old Shunsui, safe and sound, if a little scratched. 

“Let us take it one step at a time,” came the calm voice of Hanshi-sama.

They both turned to look at her, feeling once again like two errant boys caught conspiring in her herb garden.

She had risen from the bench, her blue eyes dark with a chaotic mix of shock, horror, sorrow and comprehension. Her serene face had momentarily vanished, replaced by a look they both knew too well, but had not seen in eight hundred years: a look of keenness, desolation and hardness, hiding a barely withheld ferocity.

“This is a lot to take in, Jyuushirou-kun. For you as well as I. I had not known what is truly ailing you. Now that I know, we both need time to adjust and understand what this truly means.” She walked calmly towards them, a tinge of violet reiatsu in her eyes. “I would like to interview Kurotsuchi-san and hold a discussion with him when I am ready. Please arrange it when I notify you, Kyouraku.”

Shunsui bowed in grateful acknowledgement, then swung the bundle down from his shoulder. “Here’s the second half. Kurotsuchi is very confident it will work.”

She stared at it, then at him, and with a perceptible push of reiatsu, took the heavy bundle from him and swung it over the crook of her elbow as if it weighed nothing. “I will be the judge of that,” she said firmly. “In the meantime, I suggest none of us make any promises to one another until we know what we are dealing with and heading into. We will update Yamamoto-sama when we have reached a comfortable level of certainty.” Then her demeanour softened, and suddenly, her serene mien was back, her reiatsu gone, and she once again appeared as nothing more than a nurturing healer. Reaching out to Jyuushirou, her graceful fingers gently held his small square chin. “I watched you grow, Jyuushirou-kun. If not for your condition, you are an optimistic soul. You are fatalistic only because you know no other future. Do not let yourself be pulled down by negative thoughts. We are here for you, as long as we are alive. Even if you are changed. For we have loved you through all your changes, have we not? What is one more?”

In answer, Jyuushirou grasped her hand and kissed it, too choked with emotions to answer.

She smiled at him, her love for him shining as strongly as all those centuries ago. Then she looked at Shunsui. “You sometimes get ahead of yourself, Kyouraku, and press everyone else along with you without realising that others need more time. Take this one step at a time, please. We should not rush something like this.”

“I shall remember, Hanshi-sama,” he promised.

She released Jyuushirou and gripped the cloth bundle against herself. A wry smile wreathed her lips. “Now move along, you two. I have much meditation to do and I cannot do so with you two loitering around me.”

Reflexively, Shunsui huffed a bark of laughter at her chastisement. He grabbed Jyuushirou’s hand in response. “Come, Jyuushirou, let us flee!”

Jyuushirou answered with a smile which settled Shunsui’s nerves and restored his confidence so deeply, he belatedly understood that he had been more frightened than he had realised. 

# # # # # #

The sudden unburdening of secrets, the abrupt sharing of a personal, lonely crusade, of confiding the pain of uncertain hopes, was like a taut tensed string abruptly cut.

His hands shook as he gently took them through their nightly ablutions, as he prepared the medicine, as he sat ceaselessly stroking smooth strands of long white hair while Jyuushirou sat within his embrace and drank his potions. Like overstrained muscles suddenly finally relief, all his nerves quivered as he doused the lights, took Jyuushirou into his arms and laid him down among the dark silks of their private haven. Carefully, fearing to break him, he spread long gleaming streams of white hair about the fine noble face looking up at him with tremulous hope, and then Shunsui made tender, careful, passionate love to Jyuushirou, and Jyuushirou immediately surrendered under his ministrations, already half claimed by reiryoku exhaustion, climaxing as soon as Shunsui sucked him into his mouth, then shuddering into further completion with soft mewling cries when Shunsui plunged into his hot tight pliant body, his long alabaster supple limbs snapping about Shunsui like iron bands like they were never letting go, his long lustrous hair tossing in a shining white cloud over dark silk covers. Blue white reiatsu had flickered momentarily in his dark impassioned eyes as he came, then instinctively tamped down, conserving it for their heavy responsibilities ahead rather than expend it on frivolous displays of desire.

“So beautiful, you’re so beautiful, my Amai’take, my sweet Ukitake, my lovely gentle Jyuushirou…” Shunsui had murmured ceaselessly, lost in his own lust for the lithe white gilded yousei in his arms whose panting supple body yielded quaveringly to his every want.

And as he came, and came, deeply and hotly inside Jyuushirou’s tight clenching heat, it mattered not at all that his subconscious felt twelve reiatsu signatures watch them from distant perimeters, observing every one of his inadvertent reiatsu release.

He collapsed into exhaustion, sleep coming for him almost immediately, his disrupted rest over two consecutive nights finally consuming him, his arms and legs wound tightly, possessively and protectively around Jyuushirou who had already fallen into somnolent unconsciousness. And sinking rapidly into oblivion, he silently told the watching one-eyed being to just back off, and let him sleep tonight.

Chapter Text

He swam from unconsciousness into fresh, golden light of early dawn, his limbs wrapped around an empty dark blue silk yukata still warm and fragranced with the familiar, delicate peony musk. A slip of paper lay resting next to his eyes. Unfocussing and focusing his vision, he read the simple, elegant handwriting.

‘Gone to work. Try to come a little earlier to help me prepare for the assembly. Breakfast in the living room. See you later. With love, A.’

Groaning a little, he gathered the yukata against himself and buried his face into its lingering scent. Kami, he was still tired.

Why am I so tired?

Extending his senses inwards, he checked his own reiryoku.

There was nothing amiss.

His shadowy layers swirled in foggy swathes as usual, sometimes obscuring, sometimes revealing the gravestone deep, deep within his soul. There was no sign of any depletion.

They had both fallen asleep even before the moon hit the zenith. And he had slept till dawn. There was no reason why he should be so tired.

With a grunt, he flung himself onto his back, and sat up. Grumpy and not understanding why he was so, he crawled to his feet, nearly tripping over his zanpakutou, and blearily padded naked into the living area. The mouth-watering aroma of roasted pork and freshly brewed gyokuro tea tickled his nostrils, and opening his eyes wider, he spied the covered earthen bowl steaming gently on the kidou warmer.

His stomach answered the sight with a loud rumble.

Clambering down into his usual place at the low table, he gingerly opened the lid of the bowl.

“Ai, Amai’take!” he gasped aloud.

It was a sinfully rich rendition of the humble ochazuke. No ordinary green tea here, Jyuushirou had lavished the simple recipe with his finest gyokuro tea. In place of ordinary polished white rice, his love had served the springy, fragrant, highly valuable purple rice that once served only royalties. And instead of ordinary roasted pork, there were generous, tender slices of the finest cut of black pork. For the final touch, Jyuushirou had garnished the common dish with fragrant highland vegetable shoots and shredded mulberry leaves. A small piece of paper was weighed under the long handled spoon, on which was written in Jyuushirou’s elegant hand, ‘Chefs are not yet awake. Hope this tastes acceptable.

Shunsui picked up the spoon and took an experimental mouthful. The flavours immediately burst through his sleep thickened palate. Abruptly ravenous, he began to eat in earnest, slurping up the invigorating porridge, feeling himself come awake and his vim restoring with every swallow.

He had forgotten that Jyuushirou could cook as well as he could eat.

The hearty breakfast eroded his grumpiness and in short order, he was picking up the bowl and slurping down its last drop. With a loud smack of his lips, he put down the crockery and sat back in satisfaction. As his private parts touched the smooth ribbed surface of the tatami mat, he laughed aloud to himself.

He had eaten his breakfast stark naked.

Mood much elevated, he sprung to his feet and sauntered back into the bedroom to get ready for the day. As he washed and dressed, he belatedly realised he was humming his favourite love song.

Ai, Nanao-chan! he chuckled to himself. Will you think me a lovestruck fool if you saw me now? You know, perhaps I’m a lovestruck fool every day.

Whistling to himself, he slipped on his waraji and ducked under the blinds of the entryway, then stood on the verandah and stretched in the early morning sun, breathing in the dew laden air. There was a new chill in the breezes, and his mood lifted further.

The long sweltering autumn end was finally giving way. Soon, the unnatural heat would abate and lead into sharp winter.

He was in such an irrepressibly good mood, that he nearly hollered cheery morning greetings to the twelve hidden reiatsu signatures watching over the pavilion lake house. At the last moment he restrained himself, however. It was unwise to give away the presence of Jyuushirou’s invisible protectors.

Instead, Shunsui took as big a shunpo step as possible and launched himself southwards towards the repository.

The shortest route to the Daireishokairou from the Ugendou was to cross the territories of the Twelfth and the Second, before crossing the rooftops of the First. Shunsui passed the first two divisions without care. His was an elder reiatsu which normally went undetected by younger shinigami, as well as Kurotsuchi’s various sensors. However, he slowed when he entered the territory of the First, for among Yama-jii’s division was a number of aged shinigami whom, while used to Shunsui’s frequent comings and goings, like all old folk they could become irate if he accidentally crossed their paths, never mind if Shunsui was in fact chronologically over a thousand years older than them.

There was one shinigami in the First, however, who was a few millennia older than Shunsui, who looked in early middle age, had bankai but nevertheless persistently declined promotion to the office of a taichou for as long as Yama-jii lived. Sasakibe-san came hurrying out of the main entrance of the Daireishokairou to intercept him, his dark complexioned face and avuncular demeanour harried.

“Shunsui-san!” he called, speeding towards Shunsui as soon as he dropped into the courtyard. “Thank kami you’re here!”

“What happened?” Shunsui asked quickly. It was not like Sasakibe-san to be flustered.

“Your sensei and your brother!” the middle aged fukutaichou said, with visible upset. “I’ve never seen them argue like this!”

Jyuushirou? Argue?

Belatedly, Shunsui realised the Kyoumon was no longer there. In its place, was the silencing Bakudou barrier Yama-jii usually pulled down over the taichou assembly hall when they were in session. 

Without another moment of hesitation, Shunsui plunged through the invisible silencing barrier across the main entrance, Sasakibe-san at his heels.

As soon as he stepped through the gravelly raised voice of Yama-jii rang in his ears, echoing through the cavernous halls and reverberating off the Bakudou barriers. More tables and chairs had been arranged in the main thoroughfare, forming a long meeting table, six chairs on each side, with a single chair at the head facing the main entrance. Yama-jii and Jyuushirou were nowhere to be seen, but their voices were spilling from the opened door of the Daireishin archives.

Shunsui flash stepped down the remainder of the way and in the next heartbeat, was inside the archives, firmly shutting the door behind him.

For the first time that Shunsui could remember, the omnipresence seemed to welcome him. His old sensei and his love were on the platform standing before the panel of controls. Jyuushirou’s taller frame was still and rigid with tension as Yama-jii harangued at him.

“…risks are too high now and I absolutely forbid it!” concluded their old sensei, his red eyes flaring with flames of his reiatsu.

Outwardly Jyuushirou looked unmoved, but a sudden scent of salt-tinged ozone filled the air. “Genryuusai-sensei, Kisuke is our only recourse now if we mean to fully understand the Hougyoku. And there have been so many changes in the Living World that it is imperative I see them for myself if I am to ensure we can counter our opponents with any accuracy. There are also the strange circumstances in Rukia’s transfer of powers to Ichigo-kun that I must investigate since it is clear now that Aizen had even orchestrated her posting to the Living World. We have no choice. Regardless of the degree of risks I need to make this trip, or we will not be able to grasp the true picture. It will only be a week, maybe even less. I have always been able to conceal my reiatsu completely and this time, to give you peace of mind, I will take along a bodyguard of your choice.”

“Who shall I choose who will not be a liability to you?” Yama-jii retorted. “Shunsui? If both of you go, then half of the Gotei Pillars will be exposed. Anyone of lesser power, you will end up being the bodyguard and babysitter instead. Aizen has been targeting you and the Thirteenth for centuries, and that was without knowledge of your true power. What do you think he will do now? Mark my words, he has read everything, and there is no doubt he already knows how much I, and hence the Gotei, rely on your knowledge and capabilities. Our advantage of secrecy against him is as good as gone! If you fall into his hands, all he needs to do is to connect into your mind and everything you know, he will know. And he will use you as leverage against me, you can count on that.”

Frustration finally crossed Jyuushirou’s normally composed, tranquil demeanour. “Sensei, I am not defenceless! I may not have been on the frontlines in the last three centuries, but I have led your armies and intelligence squads for far longer! When you placed me under round the clock guard even to my own home, I said nothing because I understood the necessity. But this is bordering on… on being grounded! What has changed? You have never been this restrictive with me before!”

Yama-jii suddenly went silent. His red eyes blazed as he stared at Jyuushirou, his wizened face suddenly tight with unexpressed emotions.

Abruptly, comprehension dawned on Jyuushirou’s face, and his frustration melted. “Ai…” he exclaimed, his dark eyes suddenly becoming red rimmed. “Sensei, you… you have not stopped …”

“Yes, Jyuushirou, I never stopped. Two thousand years of fruitless efforts and disappointments, now that I have some hope, I am not letting you take any risk before we can even ascertain if this hope is real,” Yama-jii grounded out, his gravel voice gone hoarse. Then softening his voice, he said, “Stay close by me, my son. Where I know you will be safe. At least until this period is over.”

Shunsui silently inserted himself between them. “Ai, Yama-jii, I wish what you wish too,” he mournfully offered. Then with seriousness, pointed out, “But our enemies will not wait or care about our private wishes. Let me go with Ukitake, we take along Abarai-kun and Hitsugaya-kun as well. You can give Yoruichi and Kisuke-kun a heads up and notify Tessai. Between the six of us, if Aizen is watching, he’ll be stupid to try to make a move.”

Yama-jii glared at him. “Abarai Renji and Hitsugaya Toushirou will have their separate urgent duties once they are in the Living World. You have the defence of Seireitei to take care of.”

“Ukitake will not be there for long, surely you can assign them protection duties for the first part of their missions until Ukitake returns?” Shunsui reasoned calmly. “And I conferred with Komamura-san yesterday, I think you’ll be very confident of what we have to report later. I can spare a week away.”

“Nay, Kyouraku, Sensei is right on this count,” Jyuushirou intercepted, although his dark eyes looked gratefully at Shunsui for his support. “We must never weaken the defences of Seireitei on my account. Besides, the lighter I travel, the more easily I can move about undetected. I will take along an Onmitsukidou officer of Sensei’s choice, and we go separately to avoid drawing attention.”

Shunsui rubbed his stubble. “It will have to be a real superb officer, Ukitake. I’m not entrusting you to anyone lesser.” He brightened. “I thought I read in the archives that Kisuke has a Reiatsu Concealing Cloak. Can we borrow it?”

Jyuushirou brightened as well. “That is a good idea, I will ask him-”

“No, you will not,” Yama-jii cut in with a growl. His red eyes flashed at the both of them. “Since both of you are set against me on this matter, I see the more I forbid you the more you two will collude to get around me. Fine. I will allow it. But on my terms. I will talk to Kisuke to prepare him for this. While you, Jyuushirou, are forbidden to leave the Seireitei until I am sure all preparations are adequate before I give you the approval to leave. Now finish up in here. The assembly shall begin soon.” And with that, their old sensei thumped away, grumbling his annoyance beneath his breath.

They both waited until Yama-jii had left the archives and slammed the door shut behind him before Shunsui turned to Jyuushirou wryly. “Kami, he’s always more protective of you but never to the point of stopping you from doing your job. What did you say that fired him up so?”

“Ai, I simply told him I will leave for the Living World tomorrow,” Jyuushirou said regretfully. He shook his head. “I was not thinking. Did not realise things have changed for him…” He turned to the control panel beside him to continue his work, a drawer beneath a panel hissing open at a wave of his hand and emitting a glowing yellow light. Carefully, he placed a blank Gikongan into the drawer, and waved it shut. Then eyes averted, he said quietly, “Sensei, he… I know he was seeking to break Mimihagi’s claim on me, but I thought he stopped a long time ago…”

“He didn’t,” Shunsui murmured. “I felt all his emotions at the time he recorded the events, the feelings in his records are too recent. What he gave me were direct downloads from his personal library. You know the one, inside his inner sanctum.”

“I used that library often, but never bothered to search on this matter.” Jyuushirou looked up at him ruefully. “Another one of my mistakes. I never thought it grieved him this much…”

“Ai, Amai’take, you really don’t realise how much you mean to us, do you?” Shunsui chuckled sadly.

“I am beginning to find out now,” came the soft admittance, contrition heavy in the deep tenor.

Then they were both distracted when the drawer hissed open again, presenting another glowing spherical white pill. Jyuushirou turned away from him to attend to it. Belatedly, Shunsui noticed the half dozen transparent cubical pill boxes each suspending a glowing white pill inside, laying in pile on the edge of the control panel.

“What are you putting into these now?” He picked up one curiously.

“The summaries of my searches,” Jyuushirou said. “There is simply too much information to share, if we update it all verbally at the assembly we will be here until tomorrow. I thought about it early this morning while I was preparing our breakfast, this way will be faster and more accurate in transmitting the knowledge. Then Sensei will only need to give the barest outlines later before issuing his orders. I need your help to transport them out and place them on the meeting table, Kyouraku. One for each taichou, including yourself, I made new discoveries after you departed yesterday afternoon. But be careful when you move them, please. They are very full and therefore unstable. A slight shake will corrupt the data inside. The Gikongan are not meant to be used in this manner after all.”

“These summaries are exactly what I read yesterday?” Shunsui asked in concern. “We can complain about him but Yama-jii is right in this sense. Anyone who knows the Gotei will figure out the references to you and start to wonder why you’re the only one the Daireishin doesn’t identify.”

“These are not direct downloads, but edited versions. None shall know,” Jyuushirou assured.

“Ah, I see. Alright. I’ll take these first and come back for the rest.” Carefully, Shunsui looked over the pill boxes, thinking of a way to transport them all at the same time without shaking or jostling any of them. There were six boxes in all.

In the end, he found it safer and easier to gently stack them into two small pillars of three and carry one mini tower in each hand.

He held up his arrangement with a flourish for the approval of the archives’ master. “This should do it, ne?” he grinned.

A gentle answering grin wreathed Jyuushirou’s small mouth. “Clever,” he approved. 

# # # # # #

The taichou assembly was direct, sharp and to the point, with Yama-jii clearly in a bad mood. His wizened mien was as inscrutable and implacable as ever, but his ire was rolling off in fiery waves even from where he sat at the head of the long table. As if the irate reiatsu flaming hotly from him was not uncomfortable enough, the archives door had been left open at his order, its mechanism engaged to prevent the ordinary looking wooden panel from swinging shut. Yellowish light spilled forth onto their long meeting table, silhouetting Yama-jii and casting his long shadow down on them, while the sentient omnipresent Daireishin poured out its cold alien power over each of them, scrutinising all of them disturbingly and intimately down into their very innermost thoughts.

Save for the four of them and Sasakibe-san, the assembled high ranking officers of the Gotei all sat in their seats extremely ill at ease. Poor Kira-kun looked like he was about to faint within minutes of taking his seat, which was the first on Yama-jii’s left and hence closest to both sources of the unnerving energies.

Yama-jii’s reason for changing their location of assembly became clear as soon as he called the meeting to order.

“I am sure all of you are now feeling what exactly it is that we are protecting,” his gravelly voice boomed. “You should be proud and confident that this repository is now fully ours and will never again fall under the influence of another group. With Ukitake Taichou’s assistance, we now possess undeniable proof that several members of the former Central Forty-Six Chamber had been plotting for more than three centuries to remove me from my position in order to wrest control of the military capabilities of the Gotei. Aizen stumbled upon a coup in process, but instead of helping us to destroy it, he used it against us for his own ambitions. The coup was led and masterminded by the late Chief Justice Furukawa Souta. A summary of his sedition, and Aizen’s involvement, are now all in the data pills before each of you. Know that from this point onwards, the use of this repository shall be permanently monitored at all times by the Onmitsukidou. Furthermore, I shall be permanently encasing this entire building with my own protection spells. All of you at this table shall be given a seal so that you can pass through my Kyoumon to access these library halls without incinerating yourselves to death.”

Shocked expressions rose down the table at the severity of the spell.

“The Daireishin archives, however, is another matter. Other than Retsu, Jyuushirou and Shunsui, the rest of you, give me a show of hands now, who at this moment does not feel hostility from the Daireishin?” their old sensei questioned.

No one raised a hand.

“I think it will be futile for us to force the Daireishin to accept us at this juncture,” Hitsugaya-kun said, his voice tight with discomfiture.

“Likewise,” agreed Byakuya, a line between his aristocratic brows.

Komamura-san burred in agreement.

Soi Fon said nothing, for her face was stretched tight, almost as if in pain. Like Kira-kun she too was in closest proximity to the opened door of the archives.

“Then we shall not change the level of our access for now. When you are ready for the Daireishin’s power, you will no longer feel the way you do now in its presence. Come to me then, and we shall see if it will allow you access,” Yama-jii decided.

“S-Soutaichou, I-I do not wish to have the seal at all,” stammered Kira-kun, his face sweating and pale.

“Neither do I,” added in Hisagi-kun, who was visibly gritting his teeth from the double whammy of pressure from the Daireishin and Zaraki’s constantly leaking reiryoku.

“I dun read. But I’ll take da seal in case ya need me ta come chargin’ in here ta rescue someone,” rumbled Zaraki, his single visible green eye slanting to the calm, white figure beside him.

Jyuushirou tranquilly responded with a silent release of a cool stream of reiatsu, curving it smoothly around the back of Zaraki’s chair like a shimmering ribbon, then stretching it upright into a thin watery vertical wall between the Kenpachi and the suffering Ninth Division Fukutaichou. Hisagi-kun’s relief was immediate, his grimace fading significantly as he straightened in his seat. Leaning back in his chair, he cast a grateful look at Jyuushirou.

Zaraki huffed a soft cackle. “Glad ta see ya’re up and runnin’ strong, wee purdy one.”

Dark eyes giving his immediate neighbour a very bland look at the diminutive label, Jyuushirou then leaned forward to look around the hulking form at the young tattooed fukutaichou. “How do you feel now, Shuuhei-kun?” he asked kindly. “Do you still not wish to have the seal?”

“I feel better, thank you Ukitake Taichou. But I’m still having goose bumps, like someone’s scraping my insides,” blanched the young fukutaichou. “I still prefer not to have the seal.”

“Then I shall withhold it from you two. Come ask me for it when you feel up to it,” decided Yama-jii. “Jyuushirou, close up the archives.”

Hanshi-sama rose. “Allow me, I am nearer.” She stood from her chair and moved towards the massive white column. Quietly, she disengaged the locking mechanism and gently pulled the wooden panel shut.

The effect was instantaneous. Sighs and faces of relief passed through their ranks as soon as the living core was once again sealed behind Sekkiseki walls.

But Yama-jii allowed them no reprieve. “Ukitake Taichou has amassed a great amount of evidence and we now have a clear idea of our enemies’ objectives.” With that opening, he proceeded to sketch in several sentences the gist of Jyuushirou’s discoveries to-date.

Shunsui expected the angry outbursts that followed, particularly from Komamura-san again when Mizyuumi Kiyoto was mentioned. But what he did not expect was the further revelation about Ichimaru Gin.

“Former Taichou of the Third Division Ichimaru Gin committed many evils in the name of his single-minded pursuit to get close to Aizen Sousuke to learn Aizen’s weaknesses. He is motivated solely by his quest for vengeance against Aizen for injuring his childhood friend Matsumoto Rangiku Fukutaichou.” Yama-jii looked at each of them, his red gaze finally landing on Hitsugaya-kun who had been shocked into silence. “I forbid all of you to reveal this to Matsumoto Fukutaichou. The time is not yet right. Keep this knowledge to aid you in your fight, but do not share your knowledge with her until the time is right and the outcome could help you gain victory. Am I clear?”

Several affirmatives rose.

“Former Taichou of the Ninth Division Tousen Kaname committed many evils. Even though he is ignorant of Aizen’s manipulations of his circumstances, every one of us is born with the ability to choose between right and wrong. He compromised his morality and chose to do wrong, however much he had been influenced, he cannot escape responsibility for his actions. Whether or not he can be redeemed, is an outcome best left to fate. If any of you prioritises his redemption over our mission, you will face my wrath. Nonetheless, if any of you sees any opportunity to turn him around, do not act, report it immediately to me, Unohana Taichou, Ukitake Taichou or Kyouraku Taichou.”

Affirmatives voices rose.

“Kurotsuchi Taichou informs me that the databanks of the Twelfth Division never had any information about the Hougyoku imputed into it. Therefore the only resource we now have about this power orb lies with Urahara Kisuke. Aizen Sousuke left a wake of destruction in the archives in an attempt to delay us. We need to know why he needs this delay. We now have irrefutable evidence that he colluded with the late Chief Justice Furukawa Souta to frame Urahara Kisuke and cause the Gotei to lose one of our most powerful minds. This crime must be reversed and the innocence of Urahara Kisuke restored. I have meditated on what we must do, and this is my decision.” Yama-jii paused, staring them down intensely. “I have formed and mobilised an Investigative Force. Its mission is to hunt down the information we need on the Hougyoku, track down Aizen, Ichimaru and Tousen, and investigate the deeds of the late Chief Justice. To uphold secrecy, this is all I will reveal on this matter.”

Their old sensei next looked at Byakuya. “Kuchiki Taichou, I have reviewed your initial findings and I agree we need to prepare for the Furukawa Clan to orchestrate its vengeance. Your proposals for the schedule of events is hereby approved and the budget transferred to your division. Retsu will coordinate with you to effect a seamless transition from the funeral ceremonies. I also approve your application for Soi Fon Taichou to lend the Onmitsukidou’s espionage network on the clans. Continue to work on this with Kyouraku Taichou.”

Byakuya inclined his head in acquiesce.

“Komamura Taichou, I have not yet reviewed your defence plans, but I am informed by Kyouraku Taichou that you have his support. You shall hear from me by today whether to proceed.”

The giant wolfman rumbled in affirmation.

Then Yama-jii turned his red gaze on Hitsugaya-kun and studied him expressionlessly for several heartbeats. Finally, he spoke.

“Hitsugaya Taichou, I understand your desire to temporarily head the Fifth Division while Hinamori Fukutaichou is indisposed. However, I cannot approve your request. A graver task lies before you as Auxiliary Commander of Living World Affairs. Several centuries ago, Ukitake Taichou proposed the permanent establishment of a Gotei Thirteen Living World Garrison to be headquartered in Karakura Town. Its main responsibility is to perform ground surveillance in the Living World so that we could take preventive actions instead of only being reactive like we are now which often lands us in more trouble. However, as much as I approved of his proposals, I was forced to decline it at that time. The Gotei had no extraneous resources to maintain a permanent crew among humans. We already lack enough shinigami for Soul Society as it is. Our strained resources have not changed even today. Yet, we now have an advantage that we lacked in the past. I am referring to Kurosaki Ichigo. In this new ally, we have an unprecedented mixture of powers that though few in number, is far greater in reach and impact than we have ever experienced. I plan to nurture our relationship with him correctly. If Kurosaki Ichigo continues to prove his loyalty to upholding the balance of souls and to the Gotei, he could be the first of our ground surveillance force and initiate the start of our Living World garrison. This means we must take the right first steps in our relations with him. You shall form a task force to engage him in the Living World. I have received Ukitake Taichou’s endorsement and support of Abarai Fukutaichou’s application for a second rotation in the Living World. He shall be your core member of the task force, Kuchiki Rukia shall be your other core member as soon as she is well enough to return to active duty. Abarai and Kuchiki are currently the two members of the Gotei closest to Kurosaki Ichigo, therefore you shall leverage on their connections. You shall select and assign other task force members as you deem fit but obtain Ukitake Taichou’s approval before you proceed. The proposal of Ukitake Taichou is still with me, Choujirou shall send it to you today. You are free to modify it as you go along as the Living World has changed much since the plan was first drawn up. Modifications will certainly be required. Do you have any questions?”

Hitsugaya-kun closed his aquamarine eyes in acceptance and inclined his white spikey head. “I understand, Soutaichou. I shall undertake this task to the best of my abilities.”

“Does anyone else have anything to add on this matter?”

“It will be some time before Kurosaki-kun is fully tested,” pointed out Hanshi-sama. “We know what he is now. How can we tell what he will become when faced with increasingly difficult choices? Perhaps it is premature for us to reveal our greater plans for him at this juncture.”

“I agree it is premature for us to reveal our ultimate hopes for Ichigo-kun until we are more certain, but for different reasons,” Jyuushirou put in. “From my brief interactions with him, Ichigo-kun is motivated by personal friendships and strong sense of personal justice for those he calls his friends. He may be repulsed if he knows our longer term hopes for him before he is comfortable with all of us and knows our cause well. This is why I support our engagement with Ichigo-kun at this critical turning point in our history. Toushirou’s task force can be our interim ground engagement unit until such time Ichigo-kun fully understands us and willingly commits himself to our mission. We can influence him, and his development can only benefit from contact and collaboration with us, not away from us. But we must never force any ultimatum on him or coerce him to cooperate with us.”

“Aye, Ukitake Taichou puts my thoughts into words most clearly,” Komamura-san added, nodding in agreement. “Young people today are motivated differently. Us older ones sometimes find it hard to understand them. I can’t think of a more appropriate starting unit than the one Soutaichou proposed.”

Hanshi-sama finally nodded in agreement.

“But this is not to say it will solely be Hitsugaya-kun’s purview,” Shunsui decided to add. “We are too few as it is. Any one of us here, who wishes to learn and understand more of the Living World today, should be free to volunteer for the task force as well.”

“I shall volunteer as soon as I am able,” Byakuya supported.

“Can we volunteer?” Hisagi-kun asked uncertainly.

“This isn’t a chance for you to take vacations in Karakura Town,” Soi Fon said sharply.

“Hitsugaya Taichou shall manage this issue as he deems fit,” Yama-jii cut in. “I now come to our next follow-up item. Zaraki Taichou, what progress have you made?”

All eyes swung to the Kenpachi.

“Ikkaku’s makin’ da schedules fer Gotei wide trainin’, all divisions ‘ave given their time slots ‘cept one.” His only visible green eye shot towards Byakuya with undisguised irritation. “Prince Kuchiki dere thinks himself too good ta get involved. So I can’t do anythin’ with da Sixth.”

“I asked you for a meeting time to discuss how we should incorporate kidou based melee training, where is your answer?” Byakuya shot back.

“And I said da only way ta know is ta spar. How em’ai s’pposed to plan anythin’ if I dunno how ya fight?”

“Sparring does not solve everything,” retorted Byakuya. “We are planning for all shinigami, not merely you and I.”

“Everybody has weaknesses. Even a kami. Taichou train their divisions so yer squads inherit yer fightin’ style.” Then the Kenpachi leered. “Or are ya ‘fraid of showin’ me yers?”

“I will not reveal my techniques to an uncouth-”

A sharp smack of the walking stick on the stone floor pierced through the air and echoed into the ceilings above. “Enough!

The two arguing taichou fell silent as red eyes flared literal flames.

“We are facing threats of internal treacheries and yet you two cannot see past yourselves for the greater security of the Gotei!” thundered Yama-jii. “Do you know why Aizen could manipulate us so thoroughly? It is precisely because of this attitude of keeping our skills to ourselves for the sake of individual pride instead of sharing our strengths with our comrades to make us stronger as a whole! When I first formed the Gotei, I discarded this mindset. When did it creep back? Overcome it, both of you, or I will relieve you of command until you do. Sort out your issues by the end of today. I want to see all divisions begin melee combat training, kidou based and non kidou based, by tomorrow dawn. This is final!”

“I can make available a neutral ground for your sparring,” offered a calm, gentle deep tenor.

Everyone swivelled their gazes to Jyuushirou.

“The basin behind the Thirteenth’s kidou fields is sheltered and reinforced for high level training,” Jyuushirou explained. “I can reinforce it further with no problems to contain both your reiatsu when you spar. The terrain is flat and bare, you will be able to see each other’s moves clearly to develop your coordination.”

Shunsui raised his brows. He knew the place well. The location was a deep sprawling circular basin with almost vertical rocky sides higher than even the tallest of the Seireimon Monban. The bottom of the basin was flat, bare of vegetation, almost a rocky desert of pebbles and boulder outcrops. Jyuushirou and he used to race each other around the perimeter of the bottom, to see who could pick up enough speed to run upright on the steep sides. Shunsui had repeatedly lost to Jyuushirou until they both crossed the thousand year old mark, and when their reiatsu escalated into the next plane, he had then outstripped his soul brother.

“I do not wish to destroy your property, Senpai,” Byakuya demurred.

Jyuushirou smiled gently. “There is nothing there to destroy.”

“Oi, wee purdy one, ya sure?” Zaraki rumbled sceptically. He pointed to his eye patch. “All I need ta do is take dis off, and everythin’ in miles around go boom.”

A nasally laugh cut in. “You’ve all forgotten your history lessons,” said Kurotsuchi derisively. His lidless golden eyes gleamed eerily as he said, “When Ukitake Taichou said high level training, he means his personal training. Don’t either of you understand what that means?”

There was a momentary silence as the scientist’s’ words sank in.

Shunsui sat back, silently stunned and disturbed that the disconcerting genius knew this much. Perhaps he had been researching all their powers for far longer and much deeper than Shunsui had realised. It was something he would need to pay attention to.

“So be it,” Yama-jii rumbled. “Both of you, do your sparring there and sort this out once and for all. As Ukitake Taichou said, it is neutral ground, so each of you cannot blame the other for unfair advantage. When can you get it over with?”

“It will only take me a few minutes to reinforce the area,” Jyuushirou said. “Perhaps we can commence two hours after noon today?”

Byakuya inclined his head. “Then I thank you, Senpai. I shall be there slightly before the appointed time. I believe Rukia would wish to come as well.”

“Heh, if ya’re sure, wee purdy one,” Zaraki growled amiably. “I’ll be takin’ Ikkaku and Yumichika. Ah yeah, Yachiru’s comin’ too.”

“First blood, and no reiryoku depletion,” ordered Yama-jii sternly. “I cannot afford to have any of you injured or drained from a simple sparring.”

Despite his severe declaration, Yama-jii’s red eyes were gleaming with a particular light that Shunsui immediately recognised; he had faced the same look a mere four days ago before receiving the thrashing of his lifetime from their old sensei. Smirking inwardly, he jovially said, “Let’s make it a mini Gotei game! Commemorate the new start of a Gotei wide teamwork! I’ll bring my Nanao-chan, and Kyouraku Reserves to share. Anyone who wants a bottle, place your order with her!”

An excited ripple began twittering up and down along both sides of the long table. Jyuushirou’s dark eyes met Shunsui’s gaze with silent humour and a touch of fond exasperation. He grinned back unrepentantly at his soul brother.

“We now come to our last follow-up item. Kurotsuchi Taichou, we can now corroborate your findings in your personnel logs with Daireishin records. Aizen had been illegally tapping on the databanks and surveillance facilities of the Twelfth. Have you been able to determine specifically when and for what purposes were his unauthorised use? I understand you have received the missing data about Quincies from Ukitake Taichou and restored them to your databanks. When can we see your presentation? What other updates do you have?”

“I will have the presentation on Quincies ready in three days,” replied Kurotsuchi. “My subordinates are continuing to match all our logs. After I vet their results everyone here will be given the final list of the date, time and purpose for which Aizen used our facilities.” Then his golden eyes flickered to Shunsui for an instant before returning to Yama-jii. “Regarding innovations to improve our fighting capabilities, I may have something useful. I found a set of reiatsu limiting bracelets in my stores. I don’t know where the Investigative Force is being sent to, but if they’re going to the Living World, it’ll benefit them more if they go with these bracelets instead of the Senkaimon reiatsu limiting seals. These bracelets can be flexibly calibrated at will unlike the Senkaimon seals. In case of emergencies, they can be turned off and the wearer will have instant access to more power without having to go through the Kidou Corps’ bureaucracy to remove the Senkaimon seals. The speed will make a big difference if any of our shinigami are in critical danger.”

Yama-jii’s red eyes gleamed with interest. “Send a pair to my office today for my review. Anything else?”

Kurotsuchi hesitated for a barely perceptible heartbeat, then said, “Now that I know of Aizen’s interest in the Soul King, I can readily tell you he’s dreaming a futile dream. I researched on the Soul King eighty years ago when I was researching on souls to develop the Gikon technology for the Nemuri Project. The Soul King cannot be replaced. His left arm, right arm, left leg, right leg and his heart, are all independent sentient entities. They escaped far and wide all across Soul Society when shinigami were still living in tribes wearing animal skins and using carved bone weapons as zanpakutou. If Aizen kills the Soul King, one of these entities will simply return to their place of origin and replace him and Aizen will be back to square one. No one knows where these entities are hiding today. Because they are impervious to fate, not even the Daireishin will know. You can check on that, Soutaichou, and you’ll see I’m right.”

Shunsui tried not to stare at Jyuushirou, whose demeanour gave nothing away. A sideways glance to the head of the table showed him that Yama-jii and Hanshi-sama wore expressions that gave nothing away.

“It will be useless for Ichimaru or Tousen to inform Aizen of the futility of his pursuit,” Komamura-san said. “He’s so obsessed I doubt he will believe.”

“Either that, or he’s convinced that his Hougyoku can do the impossible,” Shunsui pointed out. He slanted his eyes to their old sensei. “A lot will be hinging on what this Investigative Force can find about this Hougyoku, Yama-jii.”

“That is correct,” rumbled their old sensei. “Is this all you have for now, Kurotsuchi Taichou?”

“For now, yes,” affirmed the scientist.

“Then we shall stop here today. All of you, the data pills before each of you contain all details of Ukitake Taichou’s findings in the last two days. The volume of data is immense, so try not to shake the pills when you handle them. Take them only when you are about to retire, for the information will overload your minds and disorient you. And stand by to receive my alert for our next assembly.” Yama-jii’s hunched figure rose. “Jyuushirou, Shunsui, confer with me for a moment. Retsu, please sit in. Everyone else, make a time with Choujirou to see me in my office to receive your seals. This assembly is now dismissed.”

# # # # # #

The four of them, whom Soul Society called the Four Pillars of the Gotei, were gathered in Yama-jii’s office. Their old sensei stood with their back to them silhouetted against the vista of the Seireitei gleaming under the late morning light. They waited lined in a row behind him, with Jyuushirou in the middle as always, flanked by Shunsui on his right and Hanshi-sama on his left. As the sun climbed towards the zenith, the panoramic colours of the fortress city flattened into dull pastel tones as sunlight gradually slanted perpendicular to the land.

Shunsui felt anxiety crawl over him like a swarm of ants over his skin as they waited silently for Yama-jii to speak. A cool near noon breeze wafted through the sprawling office from beyond the balconies, the chilly bite of its currents increasing the discomfiting sensation. Beside him, Jyuushirou stood in his customary stance, a tranquil relaxed swordsman standing pose with his left wrist resting casually on the hilt and tsuba of Sougyo no Kotowari. His outward calm, however, concealed a brimming anxiety that only Shunsui could feel.

“Winter is coming,” Yama-jii pronounced in his gravelly voice, seemingly non sequitur.

“It has been an unusually long autumn,” Hanshi-sama concurred with her usual serenity, seeming to understand the strange disassociation.

“Even each season of the weather does not stay the same from year to year.” Their old sensei’s hunched shoulders imperceptibly slumped. “Yet, we have been even more unchanging than the seasons.”

“The function of the balance cannot cease,” Hanshi-sama comforted. “Those who uphold it, likewise, must be steadfast.”

“Steadfast, yes. But not stagnated. The souls returning to us in the last three centuries are of different natures. They are driven by changed instincts, for they retain their impulses from their lives in a changing Living World. Your observations are keen and correct, Jyuushirou. As always. But I have not yet grasped how we should evolve with changing times.” There was a pause. Then, “I will need to meditate much more on this. Perhaps, when you return, I may have some inkling to share.”

Yama-jii finally turned around with a soft thump of his gnarled walking stick. His red eyes were like banked coals, deepened with memories and thoughts. They softened when they gazed upon Jyuushirou.

Their old sensei never looked at anyone else in that same way.

“Listen well, Jyuushirou,” he began, his wizened mien stern. “The Investigative Force comprises three units. The unit charged to track down Aizen will be penetrating Hueco Mundo tomorrow midnight, the Kidou Corps are too noisy, therefore I will be opening the Garganta myself since you will not be here. The unit tasked to investigate our late Chief Justice will be scouring every corner of Seireitei and Soul Society for his remaining cronies, but also ferret out any spies Aizen may have left behind. The last team assigned to gather information on the Hougyoku, shall be leaving for the Living World tomorrow before dawn so that it will arrive at Urahara Shouten at the appointed time. The team shall be disguised with the supplies delivery team.” Yama-jii sighed. “I had originally planned to send Soi Fon to the Living World on this team. I thought she could work with Yoruichi on gathering information on the Hougyoku. But I gave in to you this morning. It is not merely because I know you will find a way to leave even if I forbid you. Our argument forced me to face the irrefutable fact that no one else has enough arcane knowledge to truly understand and draw out what we need to know from Kisuke in a short span of time. So do not think I have become too obstinate to see reason. What I have become, is grow too used to having you constantly at my side and not having to worry about your safety.”

“I will be safe, Sensei,” Jyuushirou assured. “I have done this before-”

“No you have not,” Yama-jii cut him off darkly. “This will not be like your past intelligence missions. Our enemy now is someone who was once one of us, who knows us far better than any of our previous enemies ever knew us. We are being watched by someone who can predict our moves with uncanny accuracy, and whose powers have transcended to a level we do not yet know. My anxieties remain valid. You will go, but you will strictly obey my conditions and report back home at the end of your mission. Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes, Genryuusai-sensei.” Jyuushirou bowed.

Yama-jii grunted, still clearly unhappy but proceeding nonetheless, for the fact of the situation was, this was truly their best option to beat the odds Aizen had stacked against them. “I will be having Soi Fon select her most experienced and capable officer to shadow you. You are one half of the team I am sending to the Living World, the Onmitsukidou officer who shall shadow you is the other half. Your mission is to collect the information we need, at speed and under utmost secrecy. The mission of the Onmitsukidou officer shall be to watch your back and ensure your presence is not compromised. Should you be exposed or fall into danger, to extract you and bring you home. Choujirou will arrange the delivery team to make room for one more patrol officer. You are to follow Choujirou as a stock taking clerk and he will insert you into the delivery team. Cover your taichou haori with civilian clothes. Disguise your zanpakutou. You shall conceal your reiatsu completely at all times when you commence your mission. Other than the four of us, Soi Fon, your bodyguard, and Choujirou, no other shall know that one of the Gotei Pillars has left the Seireitei for the Living World. The Senkaimon seals will not be applied on you. If you run into the danger, you will have access to your full powers. I am trusting that you will use your strength wisely when you are in the Living World among souls and things immeasurably weaker and much more fragile than yourself. You shall carry your Denreishinki at all times and update me at least twice a day. You have three days in the Living World. If you need to delay until the fourth day, I must know latest by noon of the third day. If you still cannot complete investigations by the fifth day, cease it anyway and come home first. If I do not sense your reiatsu in the Seireitei by sundown of the fifth day, I will take it that something has gone wrong and will come for you.”

Then he thumped forwards and reaching out, clamped one gnarled hand over Jyuushirou’s haori covered elbow. “I am making this decision by trusting you to obey my orders to strictly avoid all confrontations with Hollows, and any agent you suspect to be working for Aizen. No rescues, no protecting of innocents. Leave that to the others. If you face the risk of exposing your presence, turn away. If you run the risk of discovery, deny your identity. Swear that you will comply with all my instructions. Swear that you will obey me fully, Jyuushirou.”

Falling to his knees in silent grace, long white haori pooling about him, Jyuushirou formally bowed his head. “I swear on everything I hold dear, Genryuusai-sensei,” he swore softly, resolutely.

Yama-jii gently placed his wrinkled hand on the smooth white head. “Too much hinges on you, and much of it is my mistake,” he rumbled, his gravel voice hoarse. “Return to me safely, my son.”

# # # # # # 

By the time Shunsui accompanied Jyuushirou back to the Thirteenth, the entire Seireitei was vibrating with news that Ukitake Taichou would be opening up his personal training ground for the first time in three hundred years to referee a spar between the famous Kuchiki Taichou of the Sixth Division and the monstrous Kenpachi Taichou of the Eleventh Division.

If there was one thing shinigami these days shared with shinigami of the early Gotei, it was to watch a duel between highly powered combatants.

And if there was another thing shinigami past and present shared and loved equally, it was to watch such a duel in a place of legend in hopes of catching a glimpse of that legend.

The entire ranks of the Thirteenth, from its gardeners to its seated officers, were frenetic with near delirious energy and a fierce pride. Shunsui empathised with every iota of their feelings. His own good mood of that dawn was now thrumming on a near drunken high. At long last, the soul whom he had so painstakingly nursed and looked after was finally, definitively, making a statement that he was returning to action, to the frontlines, where his legendary career had first begun and from where he never should have left in the first place. While no longer angered at Yama-jii, Shunsui still could not resist thumbing a figurative finger at his old sensei with every bottle of Kyouraku Reserve booked, until Nanao-chan warned him that unless he wished to run himself dry of alcohol for the next month, they must stop taking orders. Shunsui immediately found a simple way around that: he tossed her his purse and asked her to buy up the sake from all nearby shops in the First District. For he had utterly meant what he said. They needed to commemorate a new chapter in the Gotei’s history where the value of team combat took precedence over individualist one-upmanship martial pride.

Jyuushirou’s high seated officers were bustling around the fields surrounding the rim of the basin, directing teams in setting up safety cordons for an expected influx of shinigami spectators, checking and rechecking the silver conductor poles staked vertically all around the circular mouth of the basin. Unexpectedly it was Sixth Seat Kajoumaru who was in his element, leading the preparation of the venue with surprisingly experienced efficiency, his slender bespectacled figure suddenly gaining a surge of authority over Sentaro and Kiyone.

At first glance the basin appeared completely devoid of life, a dry brown barren deep circular gouge in the land secreted behind the treelines of the Thirteenth’s kidou training fields, smaller than the surface of the Soukyoku Hill, but large enough to accommodate two high powered duellists. Folklore whispered that the basin was the original Ugendou Lake over two thousand years ago, all its water and aquatic life long since lost to wars and countless invasions from enemies of the early Gotei, but the site continued to be kept within Ukitake Family nevertheless, for so infertile it had become that it no longer retained any value to be sellable to another clan. But Shunsui knew better. He had spent countless centuries honing himself and duelling with its master in this place, and if he probed carefully enough, he could feel the ancient kidou and that other formless elemental force resonating restlessly within the very rock of the basin and in the reishi of the air extending upwards into the skies.

As Kurotsuchi had said, Jyuushirou’s simple description of the venue said nothing about the its true nature.

“I hear Hisagi-kun will be featuring this in the next special issue of the Seireitei Tsuushin,” Shunsui rumbled with amusement as he strolled leisurely while his love moved from silver pole to silver pole, his long white tresses swaying in the light crosswinds blowing above the mouth of the basin. “One thousand kan per copy. That’s nearly fifty percent higher than the current special issue featuring Kurosaki-kun and his friends.”

Jyuushirou’s pale angular hand lightly touched the silver pole before him, and a small white spark of lightning jumped from his fingers to disappear into the metal stake. His dark eyes looked at Shunsui in surprise. “That is expensive. Astronomical, in fact.”

“It’s because it’s been far too long since the Gotei has seen an event like this,” Shunsui declared grandly, pride suffusing him. Smiling at the love of his life, he said, “Duels happen all the time between taichou and fukutaichou. But not when it’s officiated by someone they’ve only heard about in legends. It’s been too long since you’re out and about, Amai’take. Those of your officers who know, they want to remind the Gotei who exactly leads them.”

Humour curved Jyuushirou’s carved lips. “There you go again, exaggerating about me. Though it makes me glad to see you so happy.” Chuckling softly, he moved to check on the next pole. Like the last one, it accepted the brief flash of lightning from his fingertips. “I do wonder, has no one explained to Shuuhei-kun the implications of charging such a high price for sell-out issues?”

“I had thought to hint to him that Yama-jii liked enterprising spirits,” Shunsui replied thoughtfully. “Maybe hint to him to draw a correlation between his increasing magazine sales revenue and the Ninth’s shrinking quarterly budget. But,” he grinned mischievously, “some lessons are best learnt through hands on experience, ne?”

Dark eyes flashed at him in gentle admonishment. “Perhaps not if the Ninth becomes more focused on its business than upholding the shinigami mission.”

“Ai, that you’re right,” Shunsui conceded. Then smiled beatifically, “I’ll leave it to Komamura-san to advise him.”

Jyuushirou rolled his eyes, then turned in a white swirl of long white hair and crimson lined white robes to move towards the next pole. Smiling to himself, Shunsui accompanied him in companionable silence until Jyuushirou completed inspection of the last two poles. It brought them back to where they first started, after having walked a full circle around the rim of the basin.

Dark eyes gazed fondly over the terrain below. “This place brings me so many good memories,” he murmured, slanting a meaningful gaze at Shunsui. “Do you remember…”

“How you used to leave me eating your dust in shunpo tag?” Shunsui teased.

A small grin answered him. “As I remember it, eventually it was I who was eating your dust. And still am.”

“Ai, good times,” Shunsui laughed lightly.

Jyuushirou looked at him with a quizzical smile. “I love when you are in such high spirits when you are with me. But pray tell, what is making you buzz so brightly since this morning? Not even my brief argument with Sensei deflated you.”

“Well, it started with the best breakfast I have ever eaten,” Shunsui declared warmly, lovingly holding Jyuushirou’s gaze. “And realising that things are finally looking up for you, hence for me, hence for us. You belong out here, Jyuushirou, doing these things with me. Not secreted away with the jii-sama until Soul Society begins to forget you.”

Soft realisation rose in Jyuushirou’s delicate angular face. “I do what must be done,” he said, then quietly admitted with a brief flash of contrition, “But I must confess… I too prefer to be out here. It makes me feel… alive. Sensei will be disappointed in me if he knows how I truly feel.”

“He’s not disappointed. And he knows now,” Shunsui said firmly. “Trust me, he’s not going to repeat his mistake again. He promised me.”

Jyuushirou was about to reply when his eyes moved to behind Shunsui. “Ai, here they come,” he murmured with a twinge of dread.

Shunsui turned and caught sight of three shinigami rushing towards them, with a brightly coloured kimono clad form running behind them. Sentaro was leading the pack, with Kiyone and Kajoumaru chasing after him, and Rukia bringing up the rear, the faces of the latter three looking as exasperated as he knew how Jyuushirou often felt when it came to the rivalry of the two Third Seats.

Sentaro’s booming, eardrum pounding shouted reports drowned over all of them before the Third Seat had even reached them. Shunsui grimaced and nearly wanted to cover his ears, and only stopped himself to avoid giving the impression of being rude. Although technically, his position allowed him to be as rude as he wanted.

Ukitake Taichou! All conductor poles have been triple checked and are ready for your use! The spectator galleries are also all ready and the bidding of admission tickets for the prime seats has now reached eight hundred kans per seat! Sixth Division members and Eleventh Division members are now allocated to galleries on the opposite side of the venue to prevent them coming to blows! All chefs are now ready to sell yakitori snack sticks at ten kans per stick! We have reserved priority seats for First, Second, Fourth, Seventh, Tenth and Twelfth Divisions for Soutaichou, Soi Fon Taichou, Unohana Taichou, Komamura Taichou, Hitsugaya Taichou and Kurotsuchi Taichou and all their respective fukutaichou! The referee gallery is now ready for you and awaits your final approval! May we know where Kyouraku Taichou and Ise Fukutaichou would like to be seated!

Shunsui nearly missed the fact that the last sentence was a question, not a statement, so ear jarring was the string of reports. Finally unable to stop his reflex, he massaged his ears and with a grimace, said, “Can we take the gallery right next to the referee gallery?”

“That has already been done!” Kiyone cried, lifting her hands from her ears, her gamine face fully annoyed at her co-Third Seat. “I’ve been trying to tell you that for the last half hour, Kotsubaki!”

“Ukitake Taichou! Nee-sama said I can choose to sit where I want! May I join the seated officers of our division!” Rukia asked in a shout, the poor young woman forced to raise her voice to be heard over her noisy superiors.

“But I prepared a seat for you next to Renji-” Kajoumaru began.

Rukia’s face went red and being near recovered, her icy reiatsu rolled forth as she thundered, “I’m an officer of the Thirteenth Division of the Gotei Thirteen even if I’m still unseated! I shall stand by our division and our taichou on this great occasion to commemorate the new phase of Gotei operations!

And before anyone else could say a word wise, Nanao-chan dropped from shunpo with Shunsui’s own Third Seat Enjouji behind her. “Kyouraku Taichou! All twenty seated officers of the Eighth and their squad assistants are now entering the compound of the Thirteenth bearing the sake orders of our comrades! I request the assistance of Thirteenth squad members to set up the sake distribution stand and help carry the crates in!”

“I’m on it!” Sentaro yelled.

“I’m on it first!” Kiyone yelled back.

“Nanao, let’s go do it!” Rukia shouted to be heard, pulling on Nanao’s sleeve to turn to go.

“The crates are heavy, no work for mere girls-” Enjouji began.

Oh dear.

If the officers were noisy before, that was nothing compared to the immediate explosion from the three female shinigami present.

Shunsui physically cringed at the decibels of outraged feminine pride and next to him, Jyuushirou’s face pinched in pain as his slender hand braced his forehead.

Then amidst the furious feminist lynching of hapless Enjouji, a very high pitched, juvenile girl’s voice pierced through the cacophony. “Yuki-chan! Yoo-hoooooooo! Ken-chan is here!

At which point, Jyuushirou’s dark eyes unfocused and his delicate alabaster face started to look faint.

Shunsui acted. “Ai! I forgot I have a very urgent matter to discuss with Ukitake! Girls, please mind the boys!” he loudly and cheerfully declared, then hooked one arm around Jyuushirou’s waist and leapt into shunpo.

He made it to the highest point of the Thirteenth, which was the rooftop of the meditation hall. Settling his love down on the windswept roof tile as he dropped out of shunpo, he held onto the wide sloping shoulders and gazed with humour and concern at the beautiful dazed face.

If even Shunsui found the exuberance of the youngsters hard to stomach, it must be much worse for Jyuushirou who had spent two days sequestered in solitude in the peace and quiet of the archives. The isolation of the Daireishin had clearly sensitised him to noise.

“I am well, I am well,” Jyuushirou muttered, brushing his long bangs away as the wind blew the white strands across his patrician nose. He looked up at Shunsui with rueful indignance. “I cannot believe Sentaro was even selling tickets! Even auctioning them! And make our chefs sell snacks! What are we now? An enterprise? Ai, I am so sorry they damaged your hearing!”

Shunsui laughed softly. “I’m even more sorry they made me nearly take you back to the archives. Yachiru-chan was my last straw, though.”

“As she was mine,” Jyuushirou admitted with a lopsided grin. Then he shook his head. “Yare, yare, when did I grow so old that I can no longer keep up with them?”

“It isn’t only you, Amai’take. It’s both of us,” Shunsui confessed. “They’re all growing up so fast. Look at Rukia-chan. Not yet seated but she’s already got all her priorities right.”

A long pale hand rose to massage a whitened temple. “I wish… Byakuya would help out more with Rukia’s development,” Jyuushirou murmured gloomily. “The sooner she is fully trained, the sooner I can finally promote her. I love them both but Sentaro and Kiyone can be… well.”

“Kiyone’s actually really alright without Sentaro’s influence,” Shunsui took the opportunity to point out.

Jyuushirou looked at him thoughtfully. “Perhaps I should split their duties more,” he pondered aloud.

Seed of the idea planted, Shunsui said no more on the subject and instead, buried one hand in the lustrous white silk of Jyuushirou’s hair, bent his head and covered the petal mouth with his own. Jyuushirou opened his mouth involuntarily under his sudden kiss, his soft lips opening in invitation as his lithe arms rose and clung tight around Shunsui’s shoulders. In the chilly crosswinds buffeting the rooftop, his soft peony musk wafted directly into Shunsui’s nose, the warmth and softness of his palate and tongue sending a rush through Shunsui’s head. Grasping the fine skull in his hand, Shunsui tightened his arm and crushed the silky mouth beneath his own and wrapped his other arm around to crush the slender torso against himself. He inhaled deeply to imprint the feel, taste and scent of Jyuushirou into his very reishi. Then finally, reluctantly, he released the captive lips and pressed the well-shaped head against the crook of his neck, feeling Jyuushirou’s fingers clench in his robes.

Five days, he told himself. Even less, three days, if Jyuushirou found everything they needed without interruption.

“It isn’t just for Yama-jii you must return safely,” he whispered against the white hair.

Jyuushirou pushed himself gently apart and looked up at him. “I know,” he said simply, his dark eyes saying everything else. Then he looked away to the basin. “Come, let us return. The sooner the two of them beat each other into cooperation, the sooner we can accomplish our goals.”

Shunsui raised his brows. “Are you intending to interfere if they prove difficult?”

“We shall see.”

# # # # # #

Winter would not be long in coming, for there was a definite bite in the winds now as cross currents buffeted the excited crowds of shinigami spectators.

It seemed like the whole of the Gotei had shown up. The entire rim of the basin was overflowing with black clad bodies, spotted at intervals with white clad taichou, the air over the arena echoing and resounding with the din of excitement. Even Yama-jii had shown up, sitting meditatively in his tall chair which someone had spirited to the cordoned gallery of the First. Far below on the flat barren bottom of the basin, the two famous taichou of the Gotei, Byakuya and Zaraki, stood facing each other, their forms appearing small from this height. Early afternoon sunlight glittered and sparkled off lenses of binoculars and theatre glasses all around the crowded rim as shinigami, unable to decide which was the more attractive spectacle, swung their eyes indecisively between the two renowned shinigami taichou below, and the referee gallery where the elegant white figure of the fabled commander of the Thirteenth stood conferring with his officers. The atmosphere was electric with anticipation and zinging with festivity, something Shunsui had not experienced for over one and half thousand years since the early Genji School’s birthday martial demonstrations had given way to formal Academy examinations.

Nanao-chan had pushed a pair of theatre glasses into his hands earlier and now, he held them up to his eyes as he leaned forward.

The referee gallery was between the galleries of the First and Eighth. Jyuushirou gave his last instructions to his officers, then moved sedately into the sunlight to the front to stand before the safety cordon rope in full view of all spectators. His entire figure glowed white in the gentle afternoon rays, framed by long white tresses floating in gleaming silken streams about his white haori clad shoulders, his noble delicately handsome alabaster face tranquil with a timeless elegant grace. His dark eyes shone warmly from under long elegant arching dark brows as he stood watching the arena in a relaxed swordsman’s stance, the dark crimson hilt of his zanpakutou a visible sheen in bright sunlight. Altogether he cut an arresting classical figure, a living legend from the Gotei’s illustrious past.

At his appearance, a roar of excitement rolled up echoing into the air mingled with feminine screams of his name and title, and camera flashes burst in a frenzy all around the rim of spectators. Pride suffused the faces of the officers and rank and file of the Thirteenth squad members at the crowd’s reaction to seeing their fabled taichou, Sentaro so moved that big manly tears rolled down his rugged swarthy goateed face.

Shunsui’s own heart was near to bursting. Despite being more active in the last three decades, the majority of shinigami today still had yet to see Jyuushirou in person, much less in action. He is here. Real. Right among us. Living and breathing. Not some distant porcelain figurine you only talk about. Feast your eyes, all of you.

Jyuushirou said a word, but when the commotion continued, he raised his pale hand beseechingly, wordlessly requesting for silence. At his gesture, the clamour quickly diminished until a hushed anticipative silence fell. Excitement still zinged through the air however as crosswinds whooshed over their heads. When he spoke again, his deep tenor rang calmly, clearly, with a lyrical mellow vibrancy carrying to every pair of ears with the sheer subtle force of his reiatsu.

“Welcome, shinigami of the Gotei Thirteen,” he greeted warmly, then looking down towards the basin, extended an even warmer greeting. “Welcome, Kuchiki Taichou, Zaraki Taichou. I am glad that you are both here and appear prepared.”

Raising his dark eyes again, he raised both hands and smiled a broad genuine smile, unconsciously sending blushing twitters and gasps of appreciation running through the spectators. “Today’s event may be a mere learning exercise between two of our strongest and most famous taichou, but it marks a new milestone in the history of the Gotei Thirteen. We were founded by Yamamoto Genryuusai Shigekuni Soutaichou ten thousand years ago on the tenets of purity, justice and honour, with the spirit of sharing our individual skills and talents so that we, the Gotei Thirteen, as one, become strong and invulnerable. Events of the last week showed us that we must now work harder and closer together to strengthen this spirit, so that we will not be thrown into chaos again by those who mean us harm. By now, most of you would have already signed on for the Gotei wide melee combat training programme led by the Eleventh Division. Today, Kuchiki Taichou and Zaraki Taichou will spar and discover how they can both incorporate kidou based melee combat techniques into the training programme. Therefore, if you are expecting to witness a contest of prowess where there will be one winner and one loser, I must apologise in advance for disappointing you. If you have placed bets or purchased snacks, I fear the vendors will prevent me from refunding your kans. The sake are with compliments of Kyouraku Taichou, however.”

Scores of laughter and some groans rang from around the crowded rim. Shunsui waved jovially at the crowd, inducing rowdy cheering, and mischievously ignored Nanao-chan’s face-palm. He cast his glance sideways at Jyuushirou, catching the dry mirth on the graceful expression as the dark eyes patiently waited for the crowd’s reaction to run its course.

It was like in the early days all over again, Shunsui reminisced with nostalgic joy. With Jyuushirou effortlessly drawing unity of friendship and camaraderie about them with only his affability and kindness while they were student leaders, later eliciting respect and loyalty from their comrades with his talents and unconscious grace when they were warriors, and finally educing a near worship and reverence from their shinigami armies with his prowess and wisdom when they both became taichou.

“However, take heart, my friends and comrades,” Jyuushirou continued after the reactions began to simmer down. “What you will soon witness is something that used to be a regular event of our early days, when we called the Shinoureijutsuin the Genji School. The objective is mutual martial learning between two fighters, and when the fighters are taichou, a mutual discovery of new techniques that can be honed and shared among all divisions. So allow me now to set the rules of engagement.” Looking down at the pair of duellists waiting below, he gently but firmly reiterated, “Kuchiki Taichou, Zaraki Taichou, as we discussed this morning, the purpose of this exercise is for you to discover each of your division’s fighting styles and learn how kidou based melee combat techniques can be incorporated with non-kidou based ones. The ultimate objective is to create a unified training programme for all shinigami of the Gotei regardless of division and specialities. As such, we shall divide this exercise into two sessions, the first without shikai, the next with shikai. As you are both taichou, use of all skills and techniques are allowed in each session within the rules set, and each session stops at first blood drawn. Reiryoku depletion is strictly forbidden. Depending on the outcome of the second session with shikai, we may mutually decide whether to hold a third session with bankai for Kuchiki Taichou, and without the reiatsu absorbing eye-patch for Zaraki Taichou.” He paused, then added humorously, “Please do not worry about property damage or injuring spectators. These training grounds are fortified and will absorb all reiatsu releases. Do you have any questions?”

Nervous chuckles rose from all around the rim. Some shinigami bodies began edging backwards from the safety cordons.

With a slithering sound that echoed through the steep circular cliffsides, Zaraki unsheathed his long nodachi and swung it upwards to rest its blunt edge over one gigantic shoulder. “I’m’all ready, Ukitake!” he rumbled, his coarse Northern Rukongai accent grating clearly to all ears in the perfect natural acoustics of the basin.

Byakuya moved not a single inch, merely inclined his aristocratic head respectfully, the kenseikan on his black hair glinting in the sunlight. “Thank you, Ukitake-senpai. I am ready as well.”

“Very well, then,” Jyuushirou concluded amiably. “I shall activate the shields. As soon as you sense the barriers have closed, you are free to begin.”

With that, he touched the silver pole beside him with a pale elegant hand, long slender fingers glowing with blue white reiatsu. Suddenly, the heavy tang of ozone filled the air and the silver pole soundlessly blazed with blinding white light.

In a chain reaction, the silver poles staked at the corners of the First and Eighth galleries simultaneously burst into the same brilliant light followed by their twins in the next galleries and the next and so on, two by two in quick succession until all silver poles staked around the rim of the basin were silently burning like white incandescent light rods, as the ancient elemental resonance in ground beneath their feet escalated into bone buzzing vibrations. Hairs stood on end as the air electrified and each white flaming light rod shot a long white arcs of light into the sky, the arcs meeting in the centre in the air far overhead, then with an invisible shudder of energy and a salt tinged shockwave, what felt like a tidal current came roaring down, plunging into the top of the vertical cliff walls of the basin. Like an invisible gigantic bowl upending and cupping over the entire deep crater, the unseen dome trapped the two combatants in the basin within and shielded the spectators safely without. Then the blinding white arcs of light faded, leaving behind the energy shield undulating against the senses like the restless surface of the ocean, the smell of ozone lingering in the nose and the taste of salty winds on the tongue. The barrier was now complete, an ancient powerful kidou intricately weaved with the elemental reiryoku of the wielder.

Before the breathless crowd could recover, Zaraki charged.

Binoculars and theatre glasses swung downwards.

Byakuya stood still as the rising plume of dust shot towards him, then suddenly he was behind the Kenpachi, sealed Senbonzakura drawn.

Sharp ringing of steel rang belatedly. When the dust cleared, Zaraki was standing stock still, long nodachi across his back, jagged and chipped blade facing up and blocking the lethal edge of Senbonzakura. He craned his one-eyed lean craggy face over his shoulder and cranked a grin.

“I’ve heard ‘’bout yer Senka,” he burred amusedly. “Seems ya’re da type who wanna end things quickly.”

“There is no reason to show off when the goal can be achieved efficiently,” Byakuya returned emotionlessly in his deep modulated voice, then drew back.

Steel slithered against steel and the opponents disengaged, only to see in the next heartbeat a double-handed downward arc of Senbonzakura slicing hard towards Zaraki’s shoulder. Steel rang again when the blow was once more blocked by the jagged edge of the nodachi.

“Again with endin’ it fast,” Zaraki commented. “Ya donch like fun?”

“I do not fight to entertain myself,” Byakuya coldly replied. “It wastes time when there are more important goals to achieve.” He drew back.

With a one-handed horizontal swipe he swung Senbonzakura to cut his opponent in half, meeting another one-handed block from a chipped blade edge. Drawing back he spun and swept another horizontal arc in the other direction, only to clash against another one-handed block. Leaping backwards, Byakuya suddenly disappeared and reappeared behind Zaraki again but the Kenpachi had already learned the trick of Senka and was already reacting, his chipped nodachi sweeping a lethal torrent of violent yellow reiatsu around him, pulverising the rocky ground and sending up an obscuring dust cloud.

“Byakurai. Dankyuu.”

Pure white lightning bolted towards Zaraki as the Kenpachi’s violent yellow reiatsu warped around the sudden translucent shield materialising before Byakuya, slamming into the cliff face behind him while Zaraki held his nodachi flat side up and blocked the lightning strike, reflecting it up into the skies. The combined released kidou and reiatsu crashed into the invisible shields but nothing happened, the formidable strike forces instantly absorbed like droplets into an ocean.

“Attack first, block later?” Zaraki observed critically. “Not every officer moves as fast, princelin’.” 

Byakuya paused a heartbeat in thought. “Not every officer can block with the blade, barbarian.”

They stared at each other, then leaving reiatsu and kidou aside, grasped their hilts in double handed grips and charged.

What followed next was a flurry of sheer, pure swordsmanship display of cutting, parrying, spinning and thrusting, the movements raising a dust cloud that was quickly dissipated by salty breezes that seemed to know where to blow, the successive ringing of steel blending into an endless symphony, and it soon became clear to all that an unspoken agreement had been reached and Byakuya and Zaraki were now contesting on pure swordplay, using nothing but their technique, reflexes and speed. And strangely enough, they began talking to each other. Of a sort.

“Underhand cut?” Zaraki blocked Senbonzakura with his edge in a two-handed grip. “A close quarter block will take care of dat!”

“Will it take care of a Byakurai from here?” A fingerless white tekkou covered hand was outstretched before Zaraki’s face, but no kidou spell was released.

“A distraction, ah see.” Zaraki shoved Senbonzakura away and then thrust forward in a two-handed grip.

Byakuya slanted his torso to the side and spun, bringing his blade swinging towards his opponent’s exposed side. Zaraki let himself fall to the ground and rolled away in a feint, then towards Byakuya again with point of nodachi thrusting up, only to stop when Byakuya said, “Dankyuu.”

“Ah, so ya’ll block with dat?” growled the Kenpachi though no kidou shield appeared, before leaping to his feet and immediately launching a series of strikes in quick offensive pressing his opponent backwards. “Whacha gonna do now eh?”

“If I were using kidou, this. Enkousen!” Leaping backwards, this time Byakura released kidou, stretching his palm against the tip of Senbonzakura and generating a large spinning disk of pink reiatsu, repelling all strikes of the Kenpachi’s nodachi.

Zaraki leapt backwards. “Ah see. Well den, I’m convinced. But how ‘bout dis!” And he flared his reiatsu, the yellow energy churning up the ground spewing dust, rocks and violent forces in a direct strike aiming straight towards Byakuya.

Byakuya, seemingly tossing his zanpakutou into the air, slapped its hilt and sent the katana spinning into a blur. “Tenran!” A tornado spun out and crashed headlong against the violent reiatsu midway between them.

The collision exploded in an energy blast that deafened the ears and sent everyone instinctively crouching, but again nothing happened, the elemental reiatsu shields swallowing all energies like a hungry sea. The ground shook however, the seismic waves toppling ranks of shinigami to their knees.

Zaraki laughed. “Neat trick! Catch dis!” In a two handed grip, he sliced his nodachi downwards sending a cutting reiatsu force towards the blast zone, gouging a long track in the ground and slicing right through the collided energies as it sped lethally towards the Kuchiki lord. “Hey, where didcha go?!

Byakuya had disappeared and multiplied, moving so fast in the Hohou technique Utsusemi that he left several afterimages of himself fencing Zaraki in a ring, simultaneously releasing a series of Hadou spells without incantation. “Byakurai! Shakkahou! Oukasen!

Fine!” Zaraki roared, then launched into a three hundred and sixty degree spin blocking, parrying, ducking and leaping to avoid the kidou coming towards him.

The ground was obliterated into spewing fountains of gravel and dust as the singed stench of Byakurai kidou melted sand into glass. The entire basin shook like there was an earthquake as lightning, fire and reiatsu pounded against the cliff faces, shaking loose rocks and gouging new damage. But still nothing came through, draining harmlessly against the invisible shields protecting the spectators. Down below, the two taichou engaged again, this time in fury, Zaraki’s nodachi a blur as he cut and slashed and his coarse Northern taunts blistering the ears of spectators, while Byakura deflected and parried and thrust in between bursts of kidou and white reiatsu flames. Then, simultaneously,

“First blood!”

“First blood!”

And the two opponents leapt apart, disengaging, both looking windblown and sporting matching cuts, Zaraki’s wearing his across his great muscular chest, Byakuya wearing his across one bicep.

It was a tie, even if it was not meant to be a contest.

The first session was over.

Then without waiting, Byakuya lifted his hilt to his lips and said, “Scatter.” And Senbonzakura dissolved into a cloud of sakura petals.

The second session had begun.

“Hah!” shouted Zaraki, and then flamed like a living yellow torch as his reiryoku burst with a shockwave that sent the earth trembling.

The cloud of sakura petals flew and spiralled around the yellow flaming Kenpachi in tightening swathes, Byakuya’s bare hand manipulating the ribbons of lethal fragments as he stared down his opponent dispassionately. Yellow reiatsu punched through the cutting shroud, only for them to reform and reattack. Mutual learning now completely discarded, a contest of reiatsu stormed below with neither giving an inch; one the head of Soul Society’s most powerful military noble clan, the other a northern barbarian who decimated his way southwards to wrench control of the Eleventh Division. Shunsui shot a look at Jyuushirou, wondering if it was time to interfere, but his soul brother merely stood watching placidly, expectantly, as if he had known this would happen.

But of course.

Silently laughing at his own naivety, Shunsui sat back and swigged a hearty mouthful of sake. A ripple of excitement snaked through the rim of the basin as those among the spectators who had placed bets hastily revised their stakes, doused by copious amounts of sake.

“Kyouraku Taichou, aren’t they supposed to be learning from each other, not contesting?” asked Nanao-chan with a frown, pushing her glasses up on her nose.

“Ai, Nanao-chan, these two first need to beat their mutual dislike out of each other,” Shunsui grinned.

“And… Ukitake Taichou expected this? He’s not reacting…” She trailed off, looking concernedly towards the referee gallery.

“Aye, he knew. As did Yama-jii.” Chuckling, Shunsui swigged another mouthful. “Wait and watch on, Nanao-chan. The best has yet to start.”

There was a thunderous uproar now as Sixth and Eleventh squad members began cheering and booing across the void at one another as the reiatsu contest below intensified, Byakuya now sending Senbonzakura in whooshing streams from either side to attack the Kenpachi in the middle, Zaraki sweeping and arcing his nodachi in shockwave after shockwave of repelling reiatsu. Both were landing cuts on each other, shredding their haori in numerous places, fine cuts slicing each other’s cheeks open at the same time as the edges of their robes were further sliced to tatters, grinding the rocky ground beneath them into fine dust. Neither could get the better of the other as their combined reiatsu entwined in a tornado which spun into the air melting into the energy shielding above, and finally, anger flashing on his aristocratic face, Byakuya raised his other hand.

Soukatsui!

Blue energy discharged from his fingerless tekkou clad palm in a torrent of jagged blue energy bolts hurtling towards Zaraki, blowing the entire basin into a storm of gravel, rock and reiatsu, and in response Zaraki simply flared and cut downwards, flinging a violent yellow wall of shockwave to slap down the Hadou bolts like a giant palm. The explosion was deafening and shook the earth to its reishi, sending shinigami falling all over themselves around the rim of the basin with only the taichou standing firm, and both Byakuya and Zaraki were repelled from each other, their bodies flying back and crashing into opposite sides of the cliff faces.

That did not stop them. Leaping back onto their feet, zanpakutou drawn again, they recommenced the duel and charged at each other, white and yellow reiatsu flaming as they crashed their blades. Zaraki sliced a tremendous arc that should have gouged the cliff face and bifurcated Byakuya in half, but the shields absorbed the destruction and the Kuchiki lord was too fast, appearing behind him in a sakura cloud which rushed forth to envelop the Kenpachi. Laughing maniacally, Zaraki slashed his blade with blurring speed repelling all the lethal petal cloud like a whirlwind until with distinctive, silvery ringing, the bells on the ends of his hair spikes were cut off even as the kenseikan flew from Byakuya’s head. Both wild haired now, their strikes heightened in speed and ferocity and noise even as reiatsu exploded and gouged the barren ground even deeper as more kidou singed the air and gravel. Neither could further injure the other and soon their fight descended into a sheer test of endurance and reflexes. Tension now bore down on the arena as the Sixth and Eleventh squad members sobered at the accelerating intensity of their combating taichou down below, the cheering of spectators quickly simmering down into anxious anticipative buzzing as the fight continued, binding the two opponents tighter and tighter in a deadly dance of swirling lethal clouds of sakura blade fragments and lightning fast parries and thrusts backed by violent yellow energy.

Aha!” suddenly shouted Zaraki in mad glee and what happened next took place as if in slow motion.

Violent reiatsu retracting, Zaraki lunged, blade point shooting straight towards the barrier of swirling blade fragments, his entire body exposed.

Terrified shouts rang out from the Eleventh at his apparent suicide.

Blood sprayed from his hulking form as the Kenpachi bodily pierced through the lethal cloud of Senbonzakura, the jagged point of his nodachi zooming right towards Byakuya’s shoulder, right into the eighty-five centimetres of space surrounding every inch of his body, his Mushouken, the safe zone from which he barred all fragments of his shikai to prevent himself from getting cut.

Slate grey eyes widening in shock that his weakness was discovered, the Kuchiki lord began to slant. In the wrong direction. Placing his heart directly in the path of the Kenpachi’s oncoming blade point.

Then everything froze as a suffocating crushing force solidified the very atmosphere, stealing air from all lungs present. Black clad bodies suddenly toppled or stopped in their movements all around the rim of the basin.

The point of Zaraki’s blade froze in mid strike, a handspan away from Byakuya’s heart.

Senbonzakura’s fragment cloud vanished and reformed as a katana on its hilt in Byakuya’s hand.

Then, as shinigami ranks fought to breathe, Jyuushirou appeared between the two fighters down below, his fine alabaster features severe. Gently, he pushed Zaraki’s sword point aside with one pale slender hand, while his other hand lightly tapped Byakuya with one finger.

Suddenly the choking grip on the air loosened minutely. Multitudes of lungs began gasping for breaths as Byakuya and Zaraki fell away from each other in two stumbling steps, visibly drawing in fresh breaths of air as they came to a stop on opposite sides of the arena. As one, they looked back at each other only to meet implacable dark eyes burning with restrained elemental power.

In wordless agreement, both combatants finally stood down, their fighting intent vanishing.

Only then, did Jyuushirou completely withdraw his reiatsu from the entire arena.

Rolling sighs of relief buzzed through the shaken spectators as their eyes remained glued to the spectacle below.

Zaraki was coated in blood, his entire form a huge lacerated mess, his terrifying one-eyed lean craggy face covered in wild stringy black hair. Byakuya stood with the bottom half of his robes shredded into large tatters, nicks and cuts all over him including one across his cheekbone, his loosened black hair concealing the shaken expression of his usually impassive face. They looked back at their referee, who stood gazing at them serene and unperturbed, not a single strand of his long white hair out of place, his reiatsu now undetectable to them.

“We shall stop here,” Jyuushirou declared calmly, his deep tenor firm.

“I got him,” Zaraki growled.

“And I got you,” Byakuya shot back, hiding his shaken composure.

“Yes, and we would have two unnecessary fatalities if this was a real combat situation,” Jyuushirou answered them sedately, though his voice held a steeliness that brooked no debate. “In the first session you cooperated and discovered valuable points from each other. You made a great leap forward, I am certain all shinigami here today look forward to your imparting of new techniques. Based on your first success I allowed you to carry on after first blood. However the second session missed the point of this exercise. It became a personal contest. The only learning points I can see are that kidou, zanjutsu and hakuda are all equally important disciplines in melee combat. Therefore I will conclude this exercise here. Please see to your injuries. If you wish to have a second sparring session, feel free to approach me again after a week.”

Zaraki sheathed his sword and swung it over one broad shoulder, unheeding of the copious cuts on his person. “Aye, dat’ll do fer me.” His single eye continued to scour Byakuya speculatively.

The young Kuchiki lord sheathed his zanpakutou in silence, then began to look around, stopping suddenly when his kenseikan was silently held out to him on one long pale palm. Gratefully, he accepted his family heirloom from Jyuushirou with a stiff nod of thanks.

The near brush defused, Jyuushirou raised his head and looking upon the gathered shinigami ringed all around the top of the arena, announced with his gentle deep tenor that carried like clear bells into the air, “We now come to the end of today’s sparring between Kuchiki Taichou and Zaraki Taichou. I hope everyone has learned valuable lessons from witnessing their demonstrations. I will not keep you from your duties any longer. Please assist me to clean your galleries before you leave, I am afraid I do not have adequate numbers of cleaners to help you.”

Nervous laughter sounded from several quarters as the crowd shook themselves from the recent intensity of match and its astounding conclusion. Black clad ranks began rising and moving to pick up after themselves as they dispersed. Soon enough, the air was filled with excited buzzing of voices until the atmosphere regained its former festive din.

It was clear that what just happened would be the talk and speculation of Seireitei for the next week.

“But I don’t understand,” said Nanao-chan.

Shunsui drank the last of his sake and debated on what to tell her. It was unlikely the Kuchiki young lord would take kindly to having his weakness made public. “Zaraki made a suicidal dash and he surprised Byakuya,” he explained instead, keeping as close to the truth as possible without revealing the crux of the matter. “That’s why he moved in the wrong direction.”

“And that reiatsu that stopped them…” Her voice fell into a hushed whisper as her violet-tinged blue eyes widened. “…was that Ukitake Taichou?”

“Yes,” he replied simply, watching her from under heavy lidded eyes.

She sucked in a breath. “I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t move, like I was anchored right to the bottom of the ocean. I didn’t know…”

He patted her hand kindly. “Not many know, Nanao-chan.” Corking the empty sake bottle, he tucked it back into its carrying crate for his officers to clear, then rose to his feet. Deliberately, making sure the rest of his seated officers heard him, he said, “I’m going to catch Ukitake for a bit before he leaves for his home visit. What we said last night, Nanao-chan, when he’s back we can both go discuss a schedule with him. You’ll be alright to wait a week?”

She brightened. “I’ll wait.” Then with a fierce gleam of anticipation, added, “Impatiently.” 

# # # # # #

It took very little effort to convince Sentaro and Kiyone that Jyuushirou would be taking a short leave of absence to visit his family. Kiyone was especially approving, yelling over Sentaro’s booming voice that their taichou had worked himself so hard during the last few days that a vacation was precisely what he needed. The two Third Seats, for all their boisterousness, were perfectly capable of running the Thirteenth for a short time on their own, hence Jyuushirou had merely smiled, quickly caught up with his outstanding work, then took Shunsui’s hand and led him out of his office as the sun began to set.

A soft travelling bundle lay waiting on the foyer step of the entryway when they both reached the Ugendou. Jyuushirou put away his waraji neatly, then bent and lifted the bundle as he moved into the lake house, kidou lamps flaring to life at his absent gestures as he walked past. Shunsui toed off his waraji and hung up his pink flowered kimono and hat before following him, curious. They did not stop until they reached the master bedroom, Jyuushirou shaking out a long black cloak with one hand as he flung the travelling cloth over one shoulder. In his other hand he held a pair of delicate golden bracelets. As soon as Shunsui drew close, he wordlessly passed a small sheaf of papers into his hand, before hanging up the cloak and placing the bracelets on the dresser. Then he began disrobing as he headed for the ensuite.

Shunsui looked down at the sheaf, belatedly realising it was a stack of three notes stacked together.

The handwriting on the first note was one he had not seen in a century. ‘A present. For it to work properly, please wear before coming through. Draw the hood up and button up fully. Draw the muffler down as well. Will catch you at the other end. Looking forward, Kisuke.’

The second note was in Sasakibe-san’s handwriting. ‘Eijisai-dono wishes you to wear both of Mayuri-kun’s inventions before you depart. Apparently, its power is controlled by intent. He said you will know what to do. I personally feel it is only an option of last resort. See you soon. With care, Sasakibe.’

The last note was from Yama-jii himself. It was simple, and to the point. ‘Obey me. Come back to me safely.’

He set the notes down the dresser. As the sound of water began to run in the ensuite, he picked up the bracelets to examine them, appreciation rising as he held them up to the lamp light.

They were a pair of delicate, strangely beautiful jewellery. Made of almost pure gold, they shone innocuously in the ambient light of the bedroom. He could sense no power in them despite straining his senses. Each piece was a double banded bracelet which, instead of circular, was fluted in the shape of a curving teardrop, designed to wrap around the wrist and hand, with its curving side meant to frame both ends of the pulse point of the inner wrist to cradle the wearer’s reiatsu vent in between the bands, and the double teardrop points intended to rest on the back of the hand. The inner band was slightly broader, the outer band was slightly thinner. The teardrop point of the thinner outer band ended in a tiny split fishtail from where a delicate teardrop charm dangled. As he gently jiggled the bracelet, the charm made a very faint tinkle. A small instruction note was attached to each bracelet with a string, looking like a price tag. It read, ‘Control level of limitation by intent. Full suppression by one device equates suppressing user’s reiatsu by fifty percent. Zero suppression turns off the device. Wear before adjusting controls.’

Kurotsuchi did not make them, Shunsui was suddenly certain. Their resident scientist was a genius but completely lacked a sense of aesthetics. The bracelets were stunningly beautiful and must have come from another mind. One of the Kurotsuchi’s high seated officers, would be Shunsui’s best bet.

As he stared at them, he tried to imagine how Jyuushirou’s wrists would look adorned in the delicate golden teardrop bands, and sudden arousal flared in his loins. Smiling at himself, he placed the mystical jewellery down on the dresser and tried not to look too hard at the images flitting through his mind. Jyuushirou never wore any personal ornaments and Shunsui never needed to see him in any, his love’s own unconscious natural beauty was already more than enough to stir Shunsui senseless with crazed desire. And Sasakibe-san was right. No matter how useful the devices were, unless Jyuushirou was impaired in some way, the best controller of his reiatsu was still himself.

He began stripping off his haori, hanging it up on one corner of the changing screen, then removed his twin zanpakutou to lay them in their usual places, which was on the tatami floor parallel to his side of the wide futon bed. Faint splashing was coming from the ensuite. Stripping his shihakushou, Shunsui padded to the shoji and entered the steamy bathroom.

For all that his long hair was a thick mane that hung down to his waist, a millennium of warfare made Jyuushirou a fast bather. He was rinsing himself with buckets of hot scented water by the time Shunsui had fully stripped to join him. Rising from the washing stool, he smiled in wordless welcome as Shunsui drew close, then dipped him a bucketful of water and handed it to him, the slender muscles of his elegant arm flexing effortlessly as his reiatsu buoyed the heavy weight. Stealing a quick peck on the curving sculpted mouth, Shunsui accepted the bucket then sat down to begin his own washing, hearing a soft splash as Jyuushirou slipped into the ofuro for his nightly medicinal peony soak.

Shunsui had completed scrubbing soap through his scalp and long lengths of hair and was rinsing them off when he heard, through the water running over his ears, Jyuushirou’s soft statement, “I am going to miss this. Too long have I not been on missions. I have grown attached to creature comforts.”

Hair and scalp clean, Shunsui raised his head and brought the bucket over the rim of the ofuro to dip for more water. Jyuushirou took it from him, filled it, then handed it back. Shunsui looked meaningfully at his love, feasting his eyes on the rosy blush blooming Jyuushirou’s fair skin from chest to face from the hot water. Dark eyes were gazing at him ruefully.

“Then come back soon,” Shunsui said softly. “No matter how keen Kisuke-kun sounds to see you.”

Jyuushirou smiled wanly. “I will do my best. I do not think Sensei, Senpai or you will have the patience to referee if Byakuya decides to challenge Zaraki to another duel.”

Huffing a chuckle, Shunsui began soaping himself briskly. “What do you think our young Kuchiki lord learnt this afternoon?”

“The obvious answer is not to underestimate those from low social stations,” Jyuushirou laughed softly. Then sobering slightly, he smiled and said softly, “He is probably berating himself right now for allowing his weakness to be so obvious to top skilled fighters. He will need to conceal himself better, or if not, cease assuming that opponents will not be mad enough to sacrifice themselves just to hurt him.”

“Aye, that much is right,” Shunsui concurred. “He underestimated the power of friendship with Kurosaki-kun. He now needs to understand how far desire and drive can push a soul.” Bending to scrub his feet, he asked, “Speaking of Kurosaki-kun, will you be seeing him? Yama-jii didn’t explicitly forbid you to, you know.”

There was a pregnant pause. Then quietly, Jyuushirou said, “Much as I wish to see him, I must avoid him. It will be unfair to burden him to keep my visit a secret from Toushirou.”

Shunsui straightened and began to rinse off. “Do you think there’ll be a chance to find out about Isshin? I’m fairly certain Kurosaki-kun is related to him somehow. The feeling is right.”

“I feel the same way,” was the reply, before solemnly adding, “I hope Kisuke will be open with me. It has been so long, however…”

“Something in the tone of his note tells me he’s itching to catch up with you,” Shunsui predicted, then doused himself one final time before standing up, dripping. Looking down at the tub, he smiled involuntarily when he saw Jyuushirou floating on his back, his white hair streaming out about his head in a cloud. “Ai, you look mighty comfortable in there. Dare I disturb?”

Laughing softly, Jyuushirou sank down then sat back up. “This is all yours. I am beginning to prune anyway. And there are still some things I need to prepare.” Rising from the tub, water sluicing off his flawless white skin, he waded to the side of the ofuro and tiptoed to place a kiss on Shunsui’s mouth. “Enjoy yourself. See you outside,” he murmured softly, then with an agile leap, cleared the edge of the tub with a splash, peony blossoms and water drops flying everywhere. His dark eyes flashed a warm look backwards as he snagged his large towelling cloth to wrap about himself before gliding out through the shoji, leaving a glistening trail of water in his wake.

Shunsui laughed out loud, feeling joy and happiness despite the danger of the impending mission looming over their heads. As he splashed into the tub, his subconscious provided him the explanation by way of a memory. 

The last time he had felt like this, it was the night Jyuushirou was preparing to leave for a northern Hollow patrol the following dawn, his first after three centuries of seclusion. It was thirty years ago, at the end of the mourning period for his late fukutaichou Kaien-kun. And similar to how Shunsui had felt at that time, he now felt that all was right, that everything was as it was supposed to be, that Jyuushirou should be out and about on active duty just like Shunsui and everyone else.

And he would never have it any other way.

He would have to press Hanshi-sama on her research soon.

# # # # # #

They made slow languorous love that night, imprinting each other onto their senses, inhaling each other’s scents for the five days they would be apart. Jyuushirou was all yielding white silken warmth against his own hard tanned hirsuteness, his long lashed dark eyes glimmering and swirling with deep soul abiding love and belonging as he opened up like a flower to Shunsui’s tender preparation, mewling soft wanton cries into Shunsui’s mouth as he drew in Shunsui’s possession, straining to impale himself deep upon Shunsui’s slow, burning thrusts. They came together, then cleaned each other up, and as Jyuushirou drifted to sleep in Shunsui’s arms, an inky blackness rose from his slender pearlescent back to form a dark cloud above their bed. Shunsui stared unblinkingly as the single eyed entity opened its lone eyelid, and he glared back as the eye gazed balefully down at him, daring the entity to do something, right now, when the rituals were not yet initiated. As if realising this, the baleful glare banked, and the eye retreated, slowing closing until it was once again indistinguishable from the dark cloud, and Shunsui stared until the inky blackness retracted, returning to its safe haven sealed within the delicate body of the soul Shunsui loved more than his own. Then feeling immensely satisfied that he had won the battle of wills for a second time, at least for now, he closed his eyes and finally, after three disturbed nights, drifted off into peaceful oblivion. 

When he opened his eyes again, dawn had crept in from the opened shoji to the verandah, and the empty futon next to him was already cooling. A fresh peony blossom lay on the cushioned headrest beside his head, within his grasp. He closed his hand over the soft bloom and brought it to his nose, inhaling its fragrance, remembering the soft musk of peony on warm silken white skin. 

Come back soon, my Amai’take, he silently sent.

 

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END PART 3 OF 'IN ALL, BUT BLOOD'