Ukitake jerked upright in bed, a wrenching gasp tearing at his throat. Once he found his voice, he warbled a shaky incantation, dragging one ragged breath after another into his lungs as the room slowly lit with demon glow. Raking a hand through his hair, he threw back the blankets and let the cool night air prick at his skin and help shock him back to sanity. He set there mentally recited ancient passages from his studies until the terror of the tsunami and its crushing power receded.
Same damn dream. Every single night. It visited him no matter how long or short he slept. Sometimes, he woke before he got to the ocean at all, but no matter what, whenever he slept, the dream began afresh. As the sleep deprivation began to accumulate, Jyuushirou found himself nodding off at the worst possible times; at his desk, or waiting for his turn to spar in training. Always, he faced the sea and its thundering voice. He'd asked every question he could think of, even once out of desperation he tried commanding the wave to stop. It made no difference; no matter when he awoke, he woke gasping with dread.
This night, the dream did him a favor, for he woke just in time to brace himself for an expected and inevitable confrontation.
"You knew, didn't you?"
Jyuushirou eased himself out of bed, reaching for a clean hakima and slipping it across his shoulders before turning around to reply. He met Kyouraku's seething glare resolutely.
"Yes, of course I knew. The contracts were signed earlier today." He calmly fielded the intense betrayal in Shunsui's ochre eyes. "Don't look at me like that. Nobles marry all the time and feelings are rarely a consideration. You know that. She knows that."
Kyouraku paced the tiny room like a caged leopard, his hands clenching and unclenching. "How can you let this happen? She's your sister for gods sakes, and she doesn't even know Ahi- what he's-" He choked off, an ill hue emerging underneath his tanned pallor. "You know what he's like!" he finally spluttered, jabbing an accusatory finger at Jyuushirou.
Ukitake placed a hand on each of Shunsui's broad shoulders, forcing him to stand still and meet his eyes. "I told you to hope for nothing more than friendship from my sister, Shunsui. I begged you."
Kyouraku reared back, flaring. "You just assumed I had no chance with her?"
Ukitake's eyes twisted in agony. "Second son of Kyouraku," he grated. "You should have known that."
Shunsui's eyes went flat; a dead chill filled on the room. "I can't believe you actually said that to me."
Jyuushirou's hands flopped at his sides. "I would give anything not to have to, but that's just...the way things are." His eyes implored Shunsui to see reason. "I wish it wasn't, for both your sakes. But wishes don't..." He trailed off, swallowing a despair that mirrored his friend's.
Shunsui stood like a man on death row for a long moment. "Why House Kyouraku?" he finally whispered, hoarse. "Of all the noble families in the universe, why us?"
Ukitake took a deep breath, his honor refusing to allowing him to hedge on the answer. "Because your family offered mine the most money. And because she met you," Ukitake continued over Shunsui's jaw dropping open in stricken protest. "I tried to caution Shironen not to judge your family based on her experience of you, but," His face crumpled. "I don't think she took it quite the right way."
Shunsui just blinked, shock and horror warring across his face. "How much is my father paying for her?" he asked, in an oddly removed way. Then his face twisted. "Wait, why are we paying you anyway? That's not the way a dowry works." He had the distinct feeling he was falling down a long, black hole with no bottom.
Jyuushirou sighed and broke away, slinking back to his pallet as if weary beyond words. "My family can offer a dowry that has nothing to do with money."
Shunsui reached a level of confusion that broached madness. "You're making no sense; Clan Ukitake has nothing!"
"Financially, we're hardly impressive, you're correct," Ukitake replied dryly. He paused, gathering his words. "Shunsui, how many of us are there?"
Shunsui's eyes narrowed. "What do you mean?"
Ukitake folded his hands patiently, expression tight. "How many Ukitakes are in my immediate family?"
Kyouraku's brain seemed paralyzed. "You've got, uh, three sisters-"
"And five brothers," Jyuushirou finished, his gaze intense. "That's nine children, Shunsui. In one generation."
Kyouraku threw his hands up. "So?"
"We're all true-births."
The small hairs on the back of Shunsui's neck rose. "Bakana."
"And I would lie about this, why?" Ukitake returned, looking grim. "My mother birthed us all. You never thought it strange that we all bear an uncanny resemblance to each other, and to my parents?"
"But that's-" Shunsui's jaw snapped shut. Virtually unheard of. It was the nature of Soul Society that souls were always coming and living and going, in accordance with lives and deaths and births on Earth. True-births were a subject of much debate among philosophers and medical professionals alike as to whether or not they were an unusual way for souls to enter the realm, or the creation of entirely new beings. Regardless, they happened so rarely - once or twice per generation in nobles, vastly less often in commoners - that it was normal for nobles and peasants both to adopt 'families' from existing souls. Peasants, of course, had to take on new members as they came, through luck or chance or circumstance. Nobles could be much more discriminating.
Ukitake's eyes gleamed emerald in the demon-light. "Your family has a preference for finding wives that tend to true-birth. That's how you and your brother exist in the first place."
The truth struck home and lodged in Shunsui's throat. Both he and Akihiko were both blood-related to their line, although their mother died before she could produce more than two offspring. It was part of the Kyouraku boast; they might be second to the Kuchiki clan in wealth, but their blood lines ran truer than any other House in Soul Society.
Shunsui's knees gave out; he dropped to a crouch, held up only by the wall behind him. "I have just as much chance of progeniture as my brother."
"I know," Jyuushirou sighed, "and I think her heart would have been yours, as well." He raised agonized eyes to his friend's. "But you're not the son your father is looking to marry off, Shunsui. I'm so-"
"Don't." Kyouraku's hands engulfed his head as if he were trying to keep it from exploding. "There has to be something that can be done."
Ukitake's eyes slid shut. "The contracts are signed, Shunsui. There is no going back now."
Kyouraku's fists drew tight; what he imagined he was strangling didn't bear thought. A long time passed, and by the time he spoke he was trembling with abject misery. "What am I supposed to do?"
"The only thing you can do is make this as uncomplicated as possible." Unspeakable sadness shimmered in Jyuushirou's eyes. "She's in a tricky situation, Shunsui. Let her do what she must, without bringing to bear how hard it really is. If you truly love her as I have a feeling you do, you must let her go-"
Kyouraku launched to his feet, cold fury pouring off of him. "What is wrong with you Ukitakes? Do you just accept everything? Your illness, Shironen's marriage... fates worse than death are just okay by you?!" Shunsui was shouting now, something fervid in his eyes that sent shivers down Jyuushirou's back. "Why the hell won't you do anything? What does it take for you to fight for something!?"
Jyuushirou stared at him open-mouthed, a cold anger steeling through his veins along with something akin to shame. "Shunsui, that's not fair."
"Don't talk to me about 'unfair'!" Kyouraku snarled in disgust and turned for the door.
Jyuushirou rocketed to his feet. "Kyouraku, wait." Shunsui's stride didn't falter. Desperate, Ukitake pleaded, "Can't you at least try to see the bright side?"
Shunsui threw the door open, but halted in the doorway, back still turned. "What bright side could there possibly be to any of this?"
Ukitake tried to stay calm, but his voice came out low and fervent. "You and I will finally be brothers. Real brothers." A tremor shivered through his pale limbs.
Kyouraku just stood there, like a statue. When he finally turned to look over his shoulder, the black betrayal in his eyes stole Ukitake's breath away.
"In my book, we already were. But I guess that was just me." Without further pause, Shunsui stormed out and slammed the door behind him.
As dawn broke, he was beating down a different door.
"Get up," Shunsui snapped at a newly-awakened and utterly shocked Sasakibe. "I need to beat the shit out of something." With a glare, he turned on his heel and headed for the nearest shielded training ground, certain his new sparring partner would follow shortly.
"Enough!" Sasakibe's ragged shout brought the spar to a screeching halt. His lithe, thin frame was covered in sweat and dirt and blood, visible through multiple slashes and tears in his shinigami robes. He sucked wind until Kyouraku sealed his sword with a disgruntled growl; each lowered his own zanpaktou in accordance.
Sasakibe's legs gave out and he slumped to the ground, resting his head against the pommel of his sword while he tried to still the trembling in his fatigued limbs. A yard away, Shunsui threw his swords down in disgust and flopped onto his back, throwing an arm over his eyes. The noonday sun beat down on them mercilessly while the two men fought through their exhaustion.
When he could speak again, Sasakibe raised wary eyes and looked at the prone figure beside him. "Gods above, Kyouraku, are you trying to kill me or yourself?"
"What difference does it make?" Shunsui rasped, scrubbing his hands across his face and pushing himself up to a half-sit.
"You should not speak so; every life has value, even when it must be taken." Sasakibe's reply was somber.
"Can't say I agree." Shunsui returned, his tone bleak. "Some people are better off dead."
Sasakibe wrapped hands around hilt and raised serious, probing eyes. "If you fight with such darkness in your heart, it will be dangerous. Innocent people might be killed. You might be killed."
"Trust me, that'd be doing me a favor," Shunsui returned, working his tongue around and spitting out blood and dirt and part of a tooth. He dragged himself to his feet, staggering over to offer Sasakibe a hand.
He took it, expression wary while he allowed himself to be pulled to his feet. "I didn't realize I would be training with a suicidal."
"I didn't realize I was getting a philosopher," Kyouraku snapped back. "If you ever kill me, trust me - I'll make you work for it."
"If I ever kill you, at least one of us with mourn it." Sasakibe saluted Shunsui and sheathed his sword.
"I'll never know," Kyouraku replied, a tired, bitter smirk crawling across his face. He offered a shorter salute, and flashed away.
Sasakibe was honestly impressed that the man had enough energy left for shunpo. He stood under the sweltering sun, watching the direction his strange new sparring partner had taken, until another source of heat to begin beating against his back.
"Well?" Yamamoto barked.
Sasakibe did not turn. "Is he insane?"
"Hard to tell," the captain-commander replied. "Not yet, I don't think."
"There is much anger in him." Sasakibe's head swiveled around to meet his commander's gaze. "His sword is full of darkness."
"I promised you an appropriate counter to your own sword. The better for you both to push yourselves to your limits, and beyond." Genruusai's fist knotted on his cane. "Have I chosen well?"
Sasakibe was a moment answering, head inclined towards his sword as if listening to something. "Yes," he finally replied, turning once more to gaze in the direction Kyouraku had gone. "I will find my bankai with this one. And, if it doesn't kill him, he will find his as well. But at what cost?" he added quietly.
Yamamoto said nothing, and when Sasakibe turned around again, he was gone.
Shunsui started awake, unsure if some sound had woken him or if it was just the searing pain in his head. Groaning, he screwed his eyes tight shut against the raging hangover his previous evening had left him as a present and reached blindly over the side of his bed. He knew for certain he had brought home no less than six bottles of sake; all he had to do was find one of the ones he hadn't poured down his throat the night before and he could tame the wild beast tearing his frontal lobes to shreds.
With a clattering tinkle, his groping hand knocked over two empties. Gritting his teeth against the assault on his sensitive ears, he stretched further, knocking over another bottle that rang hollow. Three bottles in one sitting; not the hardest he'd ever drunk, but then again, he'd always had company on his binges so three bottles in one stomach was still a new record for him. When his continued efforts left him still empty handed, he heaved himself to his hands and knees and with a steady stream of vulgarities, picked a direction and began to crawl. Surely there was some sake left somewhere, dammit?
Several minutes later, he risked a peek. The damage it did to his headache was immense, but at least he managed to spot the rest of the bottles. They were scattered around his room, two tipped over on the floor - and surely not open, right? Five bottles in one night was simply impossible - but the last one stood proudly on a low table across the room. Screwing up his courage, and holding on carefully to the carpet to make sure he didn't fall off the floor, Shunsui resumed crawling; his efforts would have impressed a pilgrim of the Basillica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Finally, oh sweet ecstasy, the bottle was his and after a few hairy moments when he couldn't get his hands to stay steady long enough to get the cork out, Kyouraku managed to down some hair of the dog.
The room stopped spinning just about the time the bottle ran dry. Panting faintly with two parts effort, one part relief, Shunsui struggled to his feet and stretched. The maelstrom in his head had faded to a dull roar, and with a bath and a change of clothing he would be just about right as rain. He was just finishing the first task and wrapping a towel around his waist when a sound drifted in from the hallway.
Shunsui froze. Surely he was still drunk. He had to be. As if in a trance, he crossed the room and threw the heavy wooden door open.
The sound came again, echoing off the walls, and at the end of the hallway a flash of motion and color as figures vanished around the corner. Shunsui recoiled back into his room, slamming the door shut. His heart hammered in his chest, and his half-fuzzy half-throbbing brain began to race.
Shunsui donned the first robes he could get his hands on and was out the door and down the hallway before his brain could catch up. It didn't take him long to track down the noise; a small cluster of souls strolling at a languid pace through the dour halls of Kyouraku.
Akihiko was in his element, lord of all he surveyed, and leading the group on what was clearly a tour of the premises. Who the guests were was not hard to guess; an expression of the wooing groom-to-be was fixed on the normally cruel lines of Akihiko's face as if by sheer will. The overall effect was rather disconcerting to Shunsui's trained eye, but the Ukitake's didn't seem to notice.
"Kyouraku holdings are quite beyond compare, Kyouraku-sama," Ukitake Kimi preened, a polite look gleaming in her sharp eyes. "Although, these honored halls could definitely do with a woman's touch," she added with no small dose of charm.
As if on cue, Shironen lowered her eyes demurely and blushed. Shunsui just about fainted, even from a distance.
"No doubt my bride-to-be will do as much honor to my household as you have done to your husband's." Akihiko strode along, hands clasped behind his back. It was impossible to tell from his delivery if that statement was insult or compliment.
Ukitake Hiroshi clearly took it as the latter. "Yes, my dear girl has done great things for me, and all of our children." That last was tacked on rather hurriedly and a bit too obviously, prompted by a stern glance from his wife. Ukitake's father smiled at her with apology and faded into the background to leave the schmoozing up to his better half.
Kimi took over effortlessly. "Indeed, raising so large a family is no small task. As you yourself will find out before long, my lord." She practically batted her eyelashes at her future son-in-law.
Watching the Ukitakes court his brother, mingled with the head-over-heels sensation of seeing Shironen standing right there in his home and the hangover that was still hovering over him, all combined to make Shunsui about ready to lose his lunch. He began to regret his impulse to present himself when Akihiko caught sight of him.
"Ah, there you are," he said, his love-sick groom act unable to fully mask the sour tone his voice dropped into. "I hadn't expected you would be upright before noon. Come here and give honors to our future relations."
Shunsui was momentarily rooted to his spot. The Ukitakes all turned - well, Kimi and Hiroshi did, as well as the servants they had brought along as protocol dictated; neither Jyuushirou or any other of his siblings were present - except for Shironen, who kept her gaze on the ground. Somehow, her refusal to look at him galvanized Shunsui into striding forward and offering the most formal bow he could muster considering how badly his head was swimming.
He managed quite well, and upon rising noted that at least Hiroshi seemed impressed. His wife was hardly so affected.
"We've met." Blessedly, she said no more than that, although it was clear Kimi was carefully masking a look of contempt.
"Have we my dear?" Hiroshi looked at her quite confused, but it was Akihiko that spoke up next.
"I understand my little brother has attended that Academy," he spat, "with your eldest son, the sickly one. No doubt your paths have crossed before." Lip curling, Akihiko sneered at the swords hanging from his brother's obi; Shunsui didn't even remember belting Katen Kyoukotsu on in his hurry to dress.
He studiously ignored the entire byplay, having eyes for only one person. "You are looking fine today, Shironen-san," Shunsui said as politely as possible.
Finally, she lifted her gaze for the briefest of moments, her eyes flickering away almost as soon as they met his. "I am glad to see you well, Brother," she replied. Her hands, folded properly at her waist, flinched slightly before relaxing.
Akihiko glanced at her, his expression slipping for a second. "My brother is rarely among polite company, and I apologize for his not being present at your arrival," he addressed to the Ukitakes in general, although when he turned back to his brother, his dark eyes were blazing. "I promise you such sloth will not occur at the wedding. Everything will be performed to the highest standards, as to bring nothing but honor to both our Houses."
"Yes, wedding plans must be discussed at length," Kimi said, with a barely perceptible jab to her husband's ribs.
Hiroshi jumped, looking startled, but then seemed to catch himself. "Ah yes, Kyouraku-sama, let us meet up with Lord Kyouraku, there is much still to go over! I'd love to see the renovation plans I hear you've commissioned; we've installed some lovely landscaping at Ugendo and I would be happy to make some recommendations..." The ebullient Ukitake head broke the tension with his enthusiasm and almost by default started the group on their way. Akihiko spared one last, dark look at his younger sibling before resuming his duties and leading the group along.
Shunsui bowed them out, staying prostrate long enough to be sure he was being polite, and when he straightened the room was empty. He let out a long breath, one he hadn't realized he was holding, and collapsed against a wall, head tilted back. What the hell was that, you idiot? he berated himself, although the love-sick part of him had no doubt. He stood there for quite some time, trying to sort through his racing thoughts and feelings and to squelch the over-riding desire to snatch Shironen up right in front of his brother and kiss the hell out of her. Eventually, his hangover started to emerge from its temporary exile and Shunsui pushed off, heading off through the manse in search of more alcohol in which to drown his sorrows, and his desires. There was little doubt at this point that they were pretty much the exact same thing.
His feet took him on a meandering path through the manse, Shunsui's head hardly being up to the task. Trudging down hallways and up stairs, Shunsui took a short cut across an abandoned sitting room and popped out onto a balcony that would see him all the way from the western wing around the south wall to a servant's stairway that would lead into the sake cellar. Because he had to shield his sensitive eyes against the harsh sun, he practically ran into her before he saw the balcony was occupied.
"Shunsui-san!" Shironen yelped and nimbly danced out of the way of getting trampled.
Shunsui himself fell backwards in surprise, then cursed himself for missing the opportunity to 'accidentally' end up in a tangle of limbs. "What are you doing here?"
Huge green eyes blinked rapidly at him. "I was- my father-," she started, then paused to collect herself. "There's lots to discuss, and it was getting stuffy. Your brother suggested I get some air." Her hands flapped feebly at her side before she stilled them.
Shunsui just stared at her as if she were speaking a foreign language. For a moment, desire to make passionate love to the divine creature before him battled with the part of his brain that acknowledged such a thing would be wildly inappropriate to do to his brother's fiance.
It was a short battle. "Where are your servants?" Shunsui purred, keeping his tone just shy of sultry. It was technically unseemly for an engaged woman to wander a strange house on her own, even if it was to be hers soon.
Shironen's eyes dropped to the parapet. "I wanted to be alone. Just for a moment." She took a deep breath and seemed to find some inner strength. Straightening, she met his gaze with resolute politeness. "It's just all so overwhelming, you know. The wedding, marrying into such a high House." She trailed off, but kept rein on her composure.
"I can imagine," Shunsui replied, regaining enough of his to relax and lean both elbows on the stone railing. "Just think, soon all this will be yours," he said with a wide sweep of his arm, indicating the stunning view of Kyouraku lands spreading out at their feet, bitterness barely masked beneath his velvety tone.
He felt her gaze lingering on him for a long moment before she replied. "Yes. All mine." It was barely a whisper.
Shunsui looked over at Shironen, but she had turned and was focused on the vista. "I apologize for my any awkwardness earlier; I didn't expect to see you here."
She smiled, her head ducking. "You should get used to it, Brother. Soon you'll be seeing quite a bit of me."
Shunsui quirked an eyebrow at her. "Not nearly enough." His tone was anything but brotherly.
Shironen started to roll her eyes, but caught herself and dropped them instead. "You should watch your tongue."
"You should watch my tongue." It was like the words just came out of their own accord. The desire Shunsui had had every intention of drowning raged through him, stronger than ever. He was approaching the edge of desperate.
This time she threw a full glare at him. "I imagine your brother will cut it out if he heard you."
"He would try. It would end badly for him. Actually, 'messy' would be a better term." Shunsui turned around so that his back was to the view, tired of pretending to look at anything other than the angel before him.
She didn't even flinch, some of the backbone he loved so much emerging out of the demure shell she'd donned in Akihiko's presence. "You would kill your own brother in order to make love to his fiance?"
"In a heartbeat." Shunsui didn't even blink.
It took a moment, but she backed down and when she took another deep breath, this time it shuddered. "Since we are soon to be brother and sister," she began, her own voice a little hoarse. "I should begin by apologizing of any of our time together was misleading. It is my dearest wish that our friendship will continue as befitting a new brother-"
He grabbed her wrist; Shironen cut off, her eyes clamping shut. It may have been a play of sunlight, but it seemed as if tears shimmered just behind her thick, black eyelashes.
Shunsui leaned in, his breath fanning her face. "Don't do this." Shironen took a deep, careful breath, but didn't speak. Encouraged, Shunsui continued. "You have no idea what my family is like."
"If they are anything like you, I will be well cared for," Shironen returned, raising her chin as her eyes opened defiantly.
Shunsui stepped in until he was a breath away. "They're not-"
She raised a hand to his lips, to keep whatever words they were from escaping. "Then I shall have to rely on my new brother to watch over me as my own would."
Kyouraku's mouth worked, but no sound came out. His eyes were wide with horrified shock. "You can't ask that of me."
"You would have me fend for myself?" She tilted her head.
"Never," Kyouraku replied in a tone that was decidedly not brotherly. "Shironen, I can't be your brother. I lo-"
"STOP." Her sharp cry shuddered through the air. Shironen took a steadying breath before continuing softly. "You can never say such things to me, do you understand?"
"No, godsdammit," Shunsui growled, reaching for her chin. "Why won't you hear the truth?"
"The truth is that I am engaged to your brother," Shironen returned, putting as much coldness into her eyes as she could. It froze Shunsui short of touching her and, after a moment, he dropped his hand to his side. "The truth is that you and I will be brother and sister. That is the only truth that matters anymore."
Kyouraku watched her for a long moment. "You can't believe that."
Shironen seemed to grow before his eyes, her chin set. "I am the eldest daughter of an impoverished House. This was always my destiny; I was raised to understand that, and to accept it."
Shunsui took a step closer and leaned in, inches from her. "Shironen, is this what you want?"
Gods, she looked kissable, staring up at him with those enormous eyes, standing fierce and tall under the weight on her shoulders. At least, this time, she didn't give him rote bullshit. "It's easy to think you know what you want, when you are young," she murmured. "What I know for certain is that I love my family, and no one - not even you - will convince me to betray them. Whatever your feelings for me may be, can you do me the honor of trying to understand that?"
Kyouraku stared down at her for a long, long time, long enough to know that this stolen moment together must surely be running out. He had no choice; slowly, deliberately, he took a step back from her. Then another. As he retreated to a respectful distance, he could see her relax into something akin to relief, but he wasn't ready to let her off the hook just yet. "I will try to understand," he promised, "if you will answer one question. Answer it true, and I swear I will never ask anything of you again."
Shironen looked wary, but finally nodded. "Ask."
"Do you have any feelings for me at all?" In all the times Shunsui had been undressed around women, never had he felt so naked.
She stared at him for a long time. "No," she replied, barely loud enough to hear. "No more than a sister loves a brother."
She turned then, and walked away. Shunsui watched her retreat, watched her disappear into the house of his family and shut the door firmly behind her. The breeze danced across the place she had been, and at his hip Katen Kyoukotsu stirred for the first time.
Brother, the zanpaktou said with unusual solemnity. She just lied.
"I know." Shunsui turned on his heel and headed back the way he came, wine cellar forgotten. Sake was the last thing he needed now.
What he needed now was a plan.