Jyuushiro and Shunsui followed Fong into the underground maze of Shiba Castle. There was damage: hollow claw marks, ruined walls, scraped corridors. At one point in their journey, a stone barrier crossed the entire passageway, and deep marks were sliced into its face. A neat doorway had been cut through, with the lintel standing square.
Kenshin stroked the polished edge when he passed through, and Jyuushiro wondered if it had been the father or the son who had thrown the wall up against the invading hordes. Jyuushiro knew that Kenshin was capable of moving rock, but he hadn't known to what extent, and the barrier was a yard thick even at the thinnest part at the top.
"Dad did it," Kenshin said.
Jyuushiro nodded. "He's a powerful man."
Kenshin just swallowed and nodded. Jyuushiro wondered if he'd touched a nerve. The whole group went on, going through several turns, hallways, and past countless doors.
"Miss Fong, where are we headed?" Shunsui asked plaintively.
"A quiet room," Fong said.
"Where are we going?" Jyuushiro asked him in a whisper.
"Under the throne room," Fong answered, and Jyuushiro sighed at being so easily heard. Kenshin grunted in acknowledgment.
"Under the throne room?" Jyuushiro asked.
"It's not pretty," Kenshin said, sounding resigned. "You'll see."
It turned out to be a dungeon. There were holding cells all around the walls. A table in the center of the main room made Jyuushiro's teeth go on edge because it was made of sekkiseki stone. He couldn't imagine being strapped to that, but the racks of implements for torture that stood around made the purpose of the room quite clear.
A man stood there, looking at the racks and what they held. He was slender, with hair so dark it seemed nearly blue, and skin a deep brown. His reiatsu lay throughout the chamber, and it seemed quiescent. Jyuushiro was reminded of the delicate fronds of an anemone drifting with the motion of the sea.
He turned when they came nearer, and Jyuushiro saw Yoruichi-chan's shining golden eyes set in the man's face. Lifelong training of knowing his place in this world made Jyuushiro long to drop to his knees. He was face-to-face with one of the most powerful Lords of all of Soul Society.
There was, however, something of Yoruichi's wistful curiosity in this man's expression, and it kept Jyuushiro standing when everyone else but Shunsui dropped to their knees as tradition demanded. Shunsui gave a respectful bow, just as he had with Shiba-sama, and Jyuushiro followed his partner's suit with all the grace he could muster. That was when he noticed that Fong, of all people, was also standing, but she was behind her master's shoulder.
"I am Shihouin Itsuki. Pleased to make your acquaintance."
The polite language eased the frantic voices in Jyuushiro's head saying that he was being not just rude, but stupid. "I am Ukitake Jyuushiro, a student of the Academy, and, I hope, a friend of your daughter's."
The smile that flitted across Shihouin-sama's face was genuine if brief. "She has said much of you, Shiro-kun. And of you, Kyouraku-kun." Shihouin-sama inclined his head at Shunsui. "You have given my daughter a great deal of useful experience. And your friends?"
Everyone else introduced themselves, and gradually everyone but Kali got up off the floor. She lingered until Shihouin-sama walked over to her and gave her a hand up. Her jaw dropped, but when she realized it was really happening, she took the proffered help and apologized when she stood.
"Please do not stand on formalities," Shihouin-sama said gracefully. "There are times when I am highly sympathetic to my daughter's desires, and this is one of them. I'm here in part because of her urgings, but my Sui Ma Yi's report now gives me a business reason to be here. So. Please will you tell me what transpired in the caves?"
Jyuushiro peeked at Fong, whose expression was impassive. She stood at an odd angle to Shihouin-sama's shoulder. She caught Jyuushiro looking at her and nodded. That was when Jyuushiro realized that she was standing so that she was always covering Shihouin-sama's back.
Jyuushiro trusted Fong by her actions. She knew what was going on: she'd seen at least as much, if not more, of what had gone on than they had. She'd also fought with them, walked with them, and treated Yamamoto for the sea snake poison, all of which indicated a willingness to help them. If she worked for Shihouin-sama, it would explain her motivations, so far as Jyuushiro was concerned.
All the other students turned toward Jyuushiro and Shunsui, and the look Kali gave them was pleading. Jyuushiro looked at Shunsui. The dark eyes were hooded, thinking. Shunsui shifted and his gaze met Jyuushiro's, and he gave Jyuushiro the smallest of nods.
"Of course," Jyuushiro said. "We each have various pieces of the puzzle. Perhaps begin with Kali and Kaoru, and then after Kaoru gets to where he came to us, we'll take over."
So they told Shihouin-sama everything, and he was an excellent listener. He stayed quiet while they spoke, asked incisive questions when they stopped, and asked Jyuushiro to repeat again exactly what the Hollow had said when asked who was behind the organization of the Hollows and how. Then he asked Shunsui to tell it in his own words.
Golden eyes flickered over their faces as they told their story, and the pool of reiatsu that lay all about the room seemed to intensify. Jyuushiro stumbled over a phrase and saw Shihouin-sama narrow his eyes.
After the full story, Shihouin-sama nodded, and to Jyuushiro's shock, went over to the sekkiseki stone table and sat on it. The pool of reiatsu vanished. Shihouin-sama sighed and his shoulders relaxed, but Jyuushiro saw Fong, at Shihouin-sama's back, going to full alert.
"What are you doing?" Shunsui asked.
"Gaining a little quiet." Shihouin-sama looked rueful. "You..." he nodded in Hayato's direction, "... are shouting."
"I am?" Hayato frowned.
"Kill the traitors and be done with it," Shihouin-sama stated dryly. "I think that's the gist?"
Hayato blushed bright red. "Uh..."
Shihouin-sama shook his head. "Don't worry, it won't leave these walls. I needed to think, so sitting here gives me ease. The people I usually question aren't quite so... loud."
Fong chuckled. "I did tell you, sir."
"Yes, you did. Now. As to what we're going to do with all of this," Shihouin-sama said, "I think I'd like to use this information without it spilling over all of Soul Society. Can I count on you to keep your mouths shut with anyone other than the people in this room?"
"No," Jyuushiro said. "You can't."
Shihouin-sama raised an eyebrow. Kali's breath drew in sharply. Fong's gaze snapped to Jyuushiro.
"Why not?" Shihouin-sama asked mildly.
Jyuushiro thought that it really ought not to be so difficult to meet those golden eyes when Shihouin-sama was sitting on sekkiseki stone. There could be no reiatsu pressure, yet Jyuushiro had to swallow to get enough saliva to speak.
"Because we have to tell Daisuke-san and Yamamoto-sama," Jyuushiro said, slowly, and everyone around him nodded as if they'd suddenly realized the same fact.
"He knows," Fong said. "We barely defeated an adjucha in the Passes."
Jyuushiro stared at Fong. "That's why he was so badly injured?"
"They are your commanders, they have every right to debrief you as they see fit," Shihouin-sama said.
"But we can't guarantee what they'll do with the information," Shunsui said.
"There is no need." Shihouin-sama shrugged. "They are formidable players on this field; however, I believe that our interests now align. I'll also say that I originally believed you were conspiring for treason."
"Treason?!" Hayato, Kaoru, and Kenshin all chorused in disbelief. Kali just gaped.
Shihouin-sama smiled at Jyuushiro and Shunsui's calmness. "I see that the thought has crossed your minds, at least."
Jyuushiro thought about all their conversations about how the noble families had too tight a grip on the rest of Soul Society, about how it would be better if there were wholesale change. He glanced at Kenshin and thought about the lessons that the Shiba family had learned through harsh circumstances and choices that had led to countless deaths. Still... treason... Jyuushiro frowned over how to say it to someone sitting in the middle of a torture chamber.
Shunsui chuckled. "Yes. It has. But it's stupid to kill people in order to change them."
"That seems patently obvious," Shihouin-sama said with the faintest of smiles. "So. The Academy."
Jyuushiro wasn't in the least surprised to find himself echoed by Shunsui, but he was mildly surprised to hear Kaoru's voice too. He saw Shihouin-sama's eyes flicker over them all.
"And the graduates of said Academy, they need structure," Shihouin-sama said.
"What will you propose?" Kaoru asked. "You must have something in mind, Lord."
A smile crinkled the edges of Shihouin-sama's eyes. "So formal. But it is a good question. I was going to propose a common fighting force, with all the Families represented in their own Divisions."
"So all separated?" Jyuushiro asked, and even on saying it, he could tell it felt wrong.
"Each would have its own governance." Shihouin-sama leaned forward. "But you do not... approve?"
The hesitation in the phrasing was daunting, deliberately so, just as the entire setting was meant to intimidate, and Jyuushiro breathed deep in order to quell sudden rage. Even so, everyone but Shihouin-sama and Shunsui took half a step away from him. Fong took a ready stance.
"My, my," Shihouin-sama said.
"He's always been the reckless one, really," Shunsui said, helpfully. "Doesn't seem like he would be, does it?"
"No, I have underestimated all of you, I'm afraid," Shihouin-sama said. "This is fascinating. Please, Ukitake-kun, do say what you're thinking."
"Why are you trying to scare us?" Jyuushiro asked, as baldly as possible. "What could we possibly do to you that you must needs present this facade?"
Shihouin-sama stood up from the table. The omnipresent reiatsu extended itself again through the whole room, and Jyuushiro shivered despite himself. "It's habit, I'm afraid. I am like this in everything I do. I need to use influence and persuasion at every turn. Fear is a useful tool to move those whom are weaker in the direction I wish them to go."
"And when you said you'd underestimated us?" Jyuushiro persisted.
Shihouin-sama regarded Jyuushiro. "What is your proposed structure, and why do you believe it would work better?"
Jyuushiro looked around himself. "Look at us."
Shihouin-sama did as Jyuushiro requested and looked at all the students in the room.
"What do you see?"
"I see a collection of the heirs of the world as it stands," Shihouin-sama said. "And you. And her." He pointed at Kali. "Youngsters just getting their noses bloody in the ways of the world."
"We're also the people who brought down an adjucha, uncovered a plot that undermines the safety of this world," Jyuushiro said quietly. "With our resources, we mobilized four armies, brought together all the Clans into one space, and gained a new understanding of how we could all work together to fight a common threat."
"How do you work together?" Shihouin-sama asked, and Jyuushiro felt that net of reiatsu lessen its tension.
"By knowing each other, fighting each other, and then being fought with by powers greater than our own," Jyuushiro said. "Our strengths cover our weaknesses. If you separate the clans into their own divisions, you'll lose that possibility. Mix them up. Have them be chosen or choose by personality or reputation, not by Family or Clan. Have ranks determined entirely by merit, so that authority comes from capability, not name. Make the numbers of Divisions higher, say thirteen for luck, and give each Division a duty to perform, not a name to protect."
"That is very different from how it is now," Shihouin-sama said.
"Good," Shunsui said. Jyuushiro was glad to see him leaning forward, intent. "It better be."
"You're building something new," Shunsui said. "Something that has a chance of doing it all differently."
"If you require that Academy training be the entrance, then you shall be able to change the base values and ideas," Kaoru said. "A necessary component will be learning that commoners and nobles alike must needs work to achieve true power."
"Huh. So you're saying some commoner who can... say..." Kenshin snorted. "Get bankai, he'd get to be a Captain?"
"Or she," Kali said and got another snort from Kenshin. "Hey! I bet Yoruichi-sama could..."
Shihouin-sama coughed. "Leaving my daughter's abilities aside, I do wonder at this inclusion of anyone who wants to join."
"Everyone who wants to defend Soul Society should get the chance," Jyuushiro said, firmly, and heard Fong sigh.
Evidently Shihouin-sama did, too, because he turned toward her. "Sui Ma Yi, you have a thought as to this matter?"
"Please do voice it."
Shihouin-sama frowned. Fong gulped.
Shunsui moved and Jyuushiro followed. Both students went to stand behind Fong, and Shunsui said, "Go on. It's all right. If he fires you, Mom'll give me as many retainer salaries as..."
"Before you attempt to make off with my best spy, I should like to hear her out," Shihouin-sama said. The web of reiatsu pulsed with an impatience that made Shunsui shut up and Fong yelp.
"Sir... I... these maddening children... there's..."
Jyuushiro stood very still, but he reached out with his reiatsu to lessen the pressure around them. The power now at his command was very different than it had been on that pillory so long ago, but he used the same idea, reaching out to gently touch Shunsui and Fong. Shunsui started and then his reiatsu flooded out from him. Together, they covered the strands of reiatsu from Shihouin-sama like a blanket.
Shihouin-sama's eyes widened.
Fong visibly took a deep breath and firmed her stance with their touch. "Please, sir, I'd like to have a zanpakutou and be trained in how to use it. They... they lent me their strength, sir, and I think I could..."
"You two, damp yourself." Shihouin-sama pointed at Jyuushiro and Shunsui, and they both did as directed.
Fong's reiatsu, which had been rising in response to theirs, suddenly flooded forth.
"Oh," Fong whispered.
Shihouin-sama's head tilted. "So, they are entirely correct. You should be trained."
"But, Lord, I'm not of the proper class."
Shihouin-sama frowned. "So this is what you were speaking of, Ukitake-kun?"
"This thinking..." Shihouin-sama mused. "Sui Ma Yi, you will go to the armory and..." Fong's abject frustration flooded through her reiatsu, and Jyuushiro winced in sympathy. Shihouin-sama frowned. "On second thought, let us go together. I might manage to be more persuasive."
Shunsui burst out laughing.
Shihouin-sama's eyebrow rose. "What, you doubt my abilities?"
"No, oh no, sir, but I'd love to come see your effectiveness, if I may," Shunsui said blithely.
So they all went. The poor armory quartermaster never knew what hit him. Shunsui was suitably amused. Within minutes Fong sheathed a blank asauchi at her side. It was already shorter than Jyuushiro or Shunsui's sword, but Jyuushiro didn't think that that was from any sort of false modesty. It fit her abilities better.
When they walked away, Shihouin-sama said quietly, "I shall take your advice and think about it. There will be a general meeting of all the Clans and Yamamoto tomorrow. Do be sure that you and your classmates are there."
"Is that an order?" Shunsui asked.
"Think of it as a request. I think you'll enjoy the proceedings," Shihouin-sama said, looking at Fong who still had one hand on her sword.
"We'll be there," Jyuushiro said, and the entirety of the old Tactics and Strategy class nodded in agreement.
Once back in the tunnels proper, Shihouin-sama waved Fong off. "Go on. You're too distracted worrying about that person, go to him, and stay with him until you can concentrate again."
"Yes, sir," Fong said.
"Shiba-kun," Shihouin-sama said, and Kenshin snapped to attention. "Would you do me the honor of escorting me to your father's quarters? I have something I wish to discuss with him."
"Of course, sir," Kenshin fell in behind Shihouin-sama as they headed further into the Castle's rocky guts.
Fong started off in the direction they'd come from, or so Shunsui guessed. "Can we go with you?"
"I can take you to the camp," Fong said. "But only if you hurry." She smiled a little wanly. "You heard my orders."
"Yes, ma'am," Shunsui said and saw her shake her head, but they all fell into step behind her.
"This is the one?" Kali asked Hayato, both keeping pace easily. The mountain prince nodded solemnly.
Shunsui tried to fall back and elbow them both, but Kali just dodged and giggled. Poor Hayato blushed bright red.
Fong looked at all of them. Then she shook her head and continued walking at a brisk pace. "I am not going to ask."
"Good," Shunsui said. Kali giggled all the more.
"Kali, do you know where you're going to be staying tonight?" Jyuushiro asked from the back of the group.
"Staying?" Kali looked surprised. "Oh. Right. Uhm. I thought I'd be with the Academy camp."
"That will be where I am staying," Kaoru said quietly.
"Not with the Kuchiki?" Shunsui asked.
"Will you be staying with the Kyouraku?" Kaoru asked.
"No. I don't..." Shunsui frowned at his reflexive sense of not belonging with his family or with anyone. He took a breath and said more slowly. "I really hadn't thought about it. It doesn't seem right to stay with family when I could be staying with all of you."
"Well, you'll fight with Shonetsu less," Jyuushiro said.
Shunsui laughed. "No... well, yes. But that's not the point, you're the people I should be with, I think, when encamped for war."
"I am the same," Hayato said.
"Where in the world are our packs?" Jyuushiro asked.
"Probably with all the other stuff," Shunsui said.
"The other stuff?" Jyuushiro asked.
"Well, Mom got everything organized. There were wagons, weren't there?" Shunsui asked. "I think everyone just bundled all the things that were in that cave into various means of transport."
"A few of the farmers had wagons, yes, so..." Hayato said.
"So they're probably parked in the peasants' encampment," Jyuushiro said dryly. "Does anyone know where they ended up?"
They all looked at each other. Fong chuckled, and when they all looked at her, she shook her head. "The peasants and farmers were sent to the south end of the enclosure. They're protected by everyone else, but not allowed to mingle with the nobility. And, no, I'm not going to take you there."
"Fair enough," Shunsui said. He frowned at some of the passing doorways. In the days when he and Jyuushiro had stayed here, he'd started to get a feel for the place. The orientation he'd started to feel when underground was coming back.
"Miss Fong, do give our affections to Daisuke-san when he awakes. We'll be there in the morning," Shunsui said. "I think we need to go this way."
Fong looked surprised, but she nodded in acknowledgment, and it unnerved Shunsui when everyone followed him without any question.
A few hundred yards down the hallway, Shunsui said, "Someone should still ask 'Are you sure this is the way to go, Shunsui?' just to make me feel better."
Jyuushiro chuckled. "All right, if it makes you feel better. What indicators are you using to assure you that we're headed south? I assumed that the laundry room up ahead was a good sign. Especially since it is linked to the boiler pipes overhead, which also supply the baths in the south end of the castle... but you might have other signs."
"Baths?" Kali squealed, while Shunsui rolled his eyes. "There are baths?"
"Yes," Shunsui answered. "Public baths."
"Hoorah! Can we go there after you find your stuff? I'm going to have to borrow anyway, as all our travel gear is still sitting at Kyouraku Castle, I think." She looked at Kaoru, and he nodded.
Shunsui squinted at Kali.
Kali shook her head. "No, your mother's things would not fit on me. I'm way too big, and the stuff she wears just scares me. Do you know where the maids' quarters are?"
"Maids' quarters? How should I know where the maids' quarters are?" Shunsui asked, and then everyone but Jyuushiro was staring at him as if he'd lost his head. "What?"
"You weren't chasing the maids while you were here?" Hayato asked, shocked. Both Kali and Kaoru had their mouths open.
"I had an assignment!" Shunsui said, exasperated.
"That doesn't seem to stop you at the Academy," Kali said.
Jyuushiro was not helping matters at all by laughing, a lot.
"Bah. I'm sure that you'll find something from the villagers, they had quite a few things with them," Shunsui said.
It was full night when they reached the surface again. Torches smoked and fumed, snapping when pine pitch caught and burnt. The guards at the entrance glanced at them, not even bothering to hail them since they were coming out of the castle. Shunsui looked up at the sky, found the stars and silver disk of the moon, and found that he was, indeed, headed due south.
In the sea of tents, there was a darker area by the wall straight in front of them. The Clans tents were of silk in the Clan colors, but the gathering before them was of plain cloth or leather, undecorated, but standing sturdy against the chill bite of the late winter night. There were fewer torches amid the peasants, but then, Shunsui supposed, they might be sanely asleep with the dark instead of trying to stay up and plot political schemes or tactical replies to another army of Hollows.
The wagons were lined up at the front border of the peasants' area. Most were emptied, but one still had a few things in it and a sleepy boy. Shunsui recognized his pack in the pile.
"Oh, hey, Shin," Hayato said, surprising Shunsui with the gentleness of his tone. Shunsui wondered suddenly if the prince always addressed his subjects so carefully, or if that was another result of their adventures. "Wake up. We've come to get our stuff."
"Uh?" The little boy's eyes blinked open, and he reached up to rub his eyes thoroughly. "Oh. Hey. Hawk Prince!" The boy smiled a huge smile.
Hayato grinned back. "We'll have to go flying again, just not with a thousand Hollows chasing us."
Hayato patted Shin on the head. "Trust me, it's actually more fun. Can we get our stuff?"
"Oh! Sure!" Shin scrambled off the equipment. "I was guarding it for you! Oh! And this..." He pulled what looked like a scrap of ribbon from his pocket. It was tattered, worn, and rippling with black ink down its length.
"Is that my charm?" Jyuushiro asked, taking the wad of red cloth and unfurling it. The top was torn in two, lengthwise, and the bottom edges were singed.
"It blocked all the Hollows from gettin' into the cave. We thought you'd probably want it back." Shin looked at it with a squint. "It was hard to get it down, though. Took all of Hiroshi-san's strength to pull it down."
"Oh, good. I'm glad," Jyuushiro said, folding the battered thing into a neat bundle and tucking it into his sleeve. "I'll have to tell its maker it did so well."
"Shin-chan, do you know of anyone that might be able to lend us some clothing?" Kali asked.
The little boy blinked at them both and then nodded. "Sure. If you're with these guys, no problem! Follow me."
Shin led them into the sleepy peasants' camp and proceeded to rouse his mother and father, who gladly gave them clothing. Kali thanked them happily. Kaoru's statement of appreciation made them both stammer their gratitude to be allowed the pleasure. Shunsui noticed that Kaoru repeated both of the parents' names during the thank you, and realized that Kaoru was memorizing them for later.
True to his word, Shunsui then led them to the public bath. The promising scents of steam and soap came from two compounds. Kali went into the women's bath, the rest of them going into the men's. There was already quite a crowd, but there were enough niches for their packs and clothing, so they all stripped. The cleansing area was another matter. There were already nearly a dozen in the small area.
The four students found Sato Saburou and Abe Tarou already there, too. Abe was sitting on one of the washing stools, and Sato was scrubbing his back and cleaning around a bandaged shoulder and thigh. They both looked up when the students entered the door, well before anyone said anything, and Shunsui idly wondered why.
"Come on over, the water's good and hot," Abe Tarou said. "Where did y'all fight?"
Shunsui remembered both men from the Academy. Sato had been in the medical tent earlier and Abe had been part of the army that Hayato and Daisuke-san took into the mountains. Abe was big and burly like his security chief uncle, but he winced when Sato asked him to move so he could get at another spot.
"In the caves, mostly," Shunsui said carelessly, dragging over another stool, and holding it out for a delightfully naked Jyuushiro.
Jyuushiro quirked an eyebrow, but took it and sat down. Shunsui poured a bucket of the steaming hot water over Jyuushiro. His fingers itched to touch, especially where Jyuushiro's shoulder should have been split wide open by a blade Shunsui hadn't been able to stop, but to his bemusement, Kaoru stepped in with the pot of soap and started lathering Jyuushiro's hair and skin.
"Where?" Abe asked. "We did the long fight home. It was just crazy."
"In the lower levels," Shunsui said, watching Kaoru's hands smoothing lather all over Jyuushiro's back. Shunsui swallowed and tried to find his mouth and hook it to his brain so he could get Abe talking and not noticing how Shunsui was a drooling idiot. "I bet the fight home was something else."
That was enough to launch Abe into a long description of the battle with the Hollows, and Shunsui cheerfully washed himself, watched his friends, and didn't pay much attention at all to Abe until he started saying something about a bamboo-based bankai that happened mysteriously at the back edge of the battle and blown out before Kuchiki Ren had unleashed his lotus attack.
All the Tactics and Strategy classmates turned to look at Shunsui.
"Yes. Bamboo. A forest of it risin' inna hurricane." Abe said. "Could see the whirl of it all a mile away."
"That sounds spectacular," Jyuushiro said. He looked at Shunsui. Shunsui nodded. It was probably Daisuke-san, the Gardener, whose reiatsu had always tasted of the growing green vitality of bamboo. It was interesting, now that he was thinking again, that neither Fong nor her commander had told the students what exactly had happened on Daisuke's way to Shiba Castle.
"But it weren't nothin' against Kuchiki-san's mile-wide lotus. Ate 'em all in a gulp and then they all just started running," Abe said. "Nothin' like."
"The bankai my cousin uses is rather gaudy," Kaoru said without inflection. He poured water to rinse the suds from Jyuushiro and himself and then stood gracefully on the tiles.
"I don't mind a bit of pink so long as it kills Hollows," Abe said with a smirk.
"Quite the utilitarian distinction," Kaoru said. "I think I shall be utilitarian myself and go soak."
"Right behind you," Shunsui said
Kaoru surprised the hell out of Shunsui by turning back and saying with one arched eyebrow. "I shall depend on it." He then continued padding on bare feet to the baths.
Shunsui looked at everyone else and saw Jyuushiro and Hayato's mouths hanging open. Abe was eyeing them with a frown. Sato was still scrubbing away diligently, but he was flushed a delicate shade of pink.
Shunsui shook his head, poured the last of his rinse water over himself, and got up to follow Kaoru into the baths.
The water was deliciously and languorously hot. They'd built the tubs by the simple expedient of carving them from solid rock, so they were deep and held the natural heat of the hot springs water. Shunsui sank to his chin next to Kaoru and placed his washcloth over his eyes. Kaoru had already done the same. There was the faintest scent of sulfur and the tang of iron in the water. Minerals had built up in delicate lace-like whorls of color and layers all along the edges of the baths. Shunsui could feel the thin edges against his skin on the ledge of the seat and the edge of the basin.
The heat pervaded everything, and after the last week, it was like getting every ache, pain, and stress soaked out of him. He didn't want to do anything at all but lie there, not even twitching when other people got in and out of the pool. It was interesting finding that with his eyes covered, he could concentrate on tasting their reiatsu, and he felt Jyuushiro climb in on his other side. Surrounded as he was by both his friends' reiatsu, Shunsui relaxed with a sigh.
"What's the matter?" Jyuushiro asked.
"Nothing," Shunsui said carelessly, and heard the slight exhalation of breath that was Jyuushiro's faintest laugh. "What?"
There was nothing but silence, Jyuushiro's listening silence. Expectation hung gently in the air. Shunsui sighed in resignation.
"I just realized," he said, "that if Hollows stampeded the baths, that my body believes that having you and Kaoru on either side of me is enough to allow me the extra minute it might take to stop relaxing and get out of this pool and fight."
"I am honored," Kaoru said laconically.
"You're all damned useful," Hayato said. He groaned and winced. "Shit, that's hot..."
This time it was Jyuushiro who made the sound of inquiry.
"You've emptied this side of the baths," Hayato said.
Shunsui pulled the washcloth off his eyes. Sure enough, all the other people had moved away from where the students were bathing. "Why in the world..."
"Our reiatsu," Kaoru said, without removing his washcloth. "You and Jyuushiro are significantly stronger."
"Huh?" Shunsui blinked. He didn't feel all that different, and for an instant he was tempted to try and release his reiatsu. A slender hand grasped his arm, and when he turned, he saw Jyuushiro laughing at him. Jyuushiro, however, was also shaking his head. "Huh. Shikai, hm?"
"Yes," Kaoru blindly said to the ceiling. "Shikai. Do use care in where and to whom you reveal your abilities."
"Reveal?" Jyuushiro frowned. "Aren't we showing it simply by existing as we are?"
"Only to those who have not attained a level of power beyond yours, or, at least, that is what my esteemed grandfather has told me. To them, we weaker ones are all gnats in the sunshine."
"Huh," Shunsui said, remembering conversations with his parents and brothers. "That could be useful escaping the notice of a bankai user."
"Okay, so no releases during the meeting tomorrow," Jyuushiro said patiently.
"Right. Or in camp tonight," Kaoru said blandly.
Shunsui started laughing and couldn't stop. Jyuushiro punched him in the arm. That only made Shunsui laugh harder., until he suddenly realized that tonight would be the first night in a several days where they would have not been sharing sleeping quarters with hundreds of farmers. That sobered him. "Are the Academy's tents..."
"Six men per tent," Kaoru said dryly. "And when I say men..."
"... and the women have their own?" Shunsui said, speculatively.
"Four to a tent, but yes, they are neatly segregated from the rest of us."
"Most of them are with the healers," Hayato said. "So they set aside all their tents by the field hospital."
"With guards," Kaoru added, with what Shunsui thought was unnecessary exactitude.
Shunsui sighed and settled again in the tub, back against the edge, washcloth over his eyes. "I guess it'll be a quiet night then, tonight."
Jyuushiro chuckled. "You'd think, after facing down an army of Hollows, we'd all want a quiet night."
Everyone laughed. The sound was so different from anything Shunsui had heard for days, that he basked in it and relaxed. Yes, it would be good to sleep for a night, but after that... he started to make plans.