A/N: Bleach/SG-1/ SG: Atlantis AU - none of the canons are mine. Warning for shonen-ai, hints of xeno.
Blue. Gold. Green. All blurs, until a sparkle of tourmaline pink caught the light, pulling a gaze into rough focus on a set of elegant, deadly curves.
Flutter of breath against the back of an aching hand. Heat of sunlight on white hair. A prick of thorns near a right knee, as if it had crashed through a rosebush. A curl of clothed warmth against a side, familiar down to the prickle of stubble against the shoulder. It… he… was known. Safe. And… fragments, slipping through thoughts like water.
There should be more. There should be solidity, coherence, names-
Pain. Pain was important, because it… he hurt. But it couldn't be too bad, because the… important, familiar, so many fragments, they had a word to tie them together, a name….
Yes. That was it. His friend was here.
Colors danced and flickered behind his eyes. Gradually the starlit veils firmed, into… odd crosses between a jellyfish and the frailest octopus he'd ever imagined, casting out tendrils of light like the arms of a galaxy. Two in particular seemed to sharpen behind his eyes; spiraling near each other, twirling apart, teasing near again. Fluxes of color slowed, turned more subtle; tendrils reaching out, claw-tips curling, almost touching….
"Right," he murmured, piecing the words together like torn paper. Spirits, his throat felt dry. "Shunsui is my friend."
…What am I talking to?
"'Sh'rou? Wh'd we-" Shunsui Kyouraku coughed, but made no move to get up. "What'd we drink last night?"
Memory was tattered, out of sequence, but…. "We didn't." Juushirou Ukitake. That's me. How'd I forget my own name? "We wouldn't. It was graduation." And he was going to get through it, bad day or not. Shunsui had glared at him when he got out of bed, and made sure he was half-carrying Juushirou all the way to the hall, but even a sometimes overprotective roommate had to admit that all they really had to do was sit there.
"Right. Wicked new swords, Yama-jii looking all pleased about something - couldn't be us - and… there were these lights…."
The swords were still thrust through their obi, if the uncomfortable lumps Juushirou felt were any indication. The lights-
…Oh, this was not good.
"'Shirou?" Shunsui said warily.
"Colors in your head that feel confused?" Juushirou asked, just as uneasy.
Well, he doubted this would make anything worse. Hello?
:!!!: Colors shifted, smoothing from almost-random scatter into gathering patterns. :"Hello" - soft touch/wave of colors/greeting?:
"Nice to meet you, too," Shunsui said. "I think."
"You-" Heard wasn't the right word. Saw, or felt, maybe…. "You sensed that?" Juushirou asked.
"Uh-huh." Shunsui shifted a little, so his sword-hilt wasn't digging into their sides. "Um… who are you?"
"Two of them," Shunsui concluded, sitting up as if he weren't quite sure the top of his head would stay on.
"And they're not exactly certain what names are," Juushirou said thoughtfully, matching him. How long were we out? It was a bad day before, and now - well, outside of the aches, I'm all right. "How do you - can you tell each other apart?"
A swift color-shimmer from the one he sensed as fainter; almost a chuckle. The same image of a light-creature bloomed in his mind; only this one pulsed in quick patterns of pink and ruby. :"Shunsui.":
The brighter one showed a second creature, slow waves of sapphire and sea-blues flowing over it. :"'Shirou.":
The two graduates glanced at their swords.
::Sweet/shiny glimmer/taste?:: both creatures ventured.
Shunsui blinked. "We've been set up."
"This seems a bit too elaborate to be a prank," Juushirou objected. "And it definitely doesn't seem like something the Wraith would do."
"You've got a point," Shunsui admitted after a moment. "But trust me. This was not an accident."
"I've trusted you for years." Juushirou smiled, reaching for the offending weapon-
What in the worlds is that?
Tapered curves of sapphire at the end of each aching finger, each tipped with a diamond-sharp point. Not like a Wraith's cruel talons; these reminded him of the claws on one of Unohana's treasured crystal dragon statues.
Gingerly, Juushirou flexed his fingers, feeling the odd tug on muscle and bone. Traces of blood lingered around the base of each, and remnants of his right thumbnail still clung by a shred of dead skin.
Swallowing hard, he curled his right index finger to trace over the top of glimmering sapphire on the finger next to it. The curve felt hard and smooth as polished glass - yet warm, and oddly alive.
When crystal touched crystal, they chimed.
"Guess we know why it feels like someone pounded spikes through our hands," Shunsui said at last, holding out his own tourmaline-pink claws. "What the…."
:Pretty?: the sapphire creature ventured.
Juushirou snickered at the dumbfounded look on Shunsui's face. "I think she has you there."
"She?" Shoving back brown waves of hair, Shunsui gave him a skeptical look.
Juushirou shrugged. "I think she meant more than just pretty," he said thoughtfully. "Could you try that again? More slowly?"
"Maybe… aesthetic?" Shunsui mused. "Feels like relief in there, too; like seeing your arm's still straight, when you felt like it was broken. Rightness-of-touch?"
:Touch/sense/taste energy/solid,: tourmaline said firmly. :Touch, sense - you?:
"They had - have? - claws like this," Juushirou realized. "It's how they sense each other."
Shunsui shrugged. "Worth a try." Reaching out, he wove his fingers into Juushirou's-
Double-images, blurring the world apart. He almost panicked, recognizing the same confusing interweave of color and touch that had scattered his identity for hours-
No. I will not lose myself again.
He closed his eyes.
The world was traced with light.
Sapphire and tourmaline, glowing bright from the swords and their entwined hands. Fainter traces of azure and cochineal led up their arms, fading into a white network that looked very much like what Juushirou recalled of nervous system diagrams. Above them was :solid spread thin, radiating star-energy.: Below, :thick solid: that had to be earth, :thicker solid: that felt like rocks, and :interweave of solid and delicate energy-alive: that smelled like the grass and wildflowers they'd been lying on….
:Pretty/useful/right?: his unexpected guest asked.
Like rainbows. A thunderstorm at midnight. His first sight of the Milky Way, arcing across a winter sky. "Wonderful," Juushirou whispered.
:Sense star-energy… "see"?: tourmaline requested hopefully.
"I'll try it," Shunsui stated. "Knock me down if I bolt, all right?"
"I'm right here," Juushirou assured him.
"Here goes." An in-drawn breath. "Confusing. If I could just - focus on one or the other…."
:Juushirou energy-net shape, "not seeing",: sapphire offered. :Similar/reversed pattern work?:
:Can use to dim energy-sense,: tourmaline noted. :Better?:
"Better," Shunsui agreed. Hesitated. "You like seeing?"
:"Seeing", stellar energy used to create frequency perception, three-dimensional without active touch!:
"I think that's a 'Wow!'" Juushirou smiled. Cautiously opened his own eyes, just a little. Sapphire surged, dimming here and helping him focus there-
The world still glowed, more than sunlight could account for. But he could bear it.
Shunsui was looking down at their entwined hands. "Is it my imagination, or are they in our nervous systems as well as the swords?"
"Nerve impulses are electrical," Juushirou pointed out. "If they're energy… it would make sense."
His friend frowned. "So how did intelligent energy get the idea to move into our heads?"
:Listened to one-who-was-elsewhere,: sapphire put in.
A red and orange creature; like lava, like flames. Why did that seem vaguely familiar?
:We many-not-all gather in groups,: tourmaline took up the story, feeling its way through concept-images they might understand. :Groups… friendly-not-permanent? Move about? Find tasty/interesting places?:
"Wander?" Juushirou suggested. "You're nomads?"
:Some wander more, solitary,: sapphire agreed. :Not common, not rare. But this one-who-wandered was gone… many planet-around-star cycles?:
Juushirou frowned. "How many is many?"
::???:: A feeling of thoughtful conference, and half-felt, half-tasted images. Solid shifting form, minute particles at a time, from carbon to nitrogen. The time it took stellar energy from a supernova here to reach solid-space there. The swing of the outermost asteroids around their sun, completing the circle, and a bit more….
"A couple of centuries?" Shunsui said uneasily. "And you were only a little worried?"
:Not very long time,: tourmaline answered, confused. :Longer than usual, only.:
Juushirou and Shunsui traded glances. Given even Yamamoto-Genryuusai, known to be over five thousand years old, thought a century was a long time….
:One-who-wandered appeared before/within our group, this planet's-rotations - "days?" - ago,: sapphire went on. :Content. High energy levels. Odd tie to elsewhere.:
"Elsewhere being here?" Juushirou ventured.
::Solid-world,:: the two creatures agreed.
"Energy," Shunsui said, half to himself. "If the Academy professors are right, mass is just energy slowed way down… damn it, something about how they describe where they live bugs me. Like I've heard about it somewhere-"
"Zero-point space," Juushirou blurted out.
Silence. "'Shirou," Shunsui said at last, "are you seriously suggesting we've got creatures who were living in the same kind of quantum foam Seireitei draws its power from?"
::Yes!:: Pouncing, the pair drew up their memories of equations, theories, how the ancient power systems worked. ::Fits created/comfortable upwellings!::
:One nearby, why we/our group often visit,: tourmaline added.
:Long time ago, used to be many,: sapphire said wistfully. :Glowed/warm, happy times. Then - started winking out….:
"So you were bored, and a little hungry," Shunsui concluded. "Boy, if that isn't a recipe for trouble."
A mischievous ripple of pinks. :But I like trouble.: Almost innocent stillness. :You/solid-companion like trouble?:
Juushirou burst out laughing, even as sapphire skirled in a way that reminded him of rolled eyes. "The look on your face…!"
"And I suppose you got the quiet one?" Shunsui said wryly.
:Yes.: Sapphire radiated amusement. :Always dragging that one/friend out of scrapes.: Worry. :Not sure how to drag out of this one….:
:Find one-who-wandered, ask?: tourmaline offered.
:(Ask) include energy-shred, dangle near event horizon?: sapphire grumbled.
Sapphire shivered with annoyance, and fearful rage.
"Somebody's not happy," Shunsui observed. "Mind telling us what happened?"
A silent exchange of color-fluxes, too subtle to catch. :One-who-wandered offered (touching solid),: sapphire admitted shyly.
:Solid we move around/glimpse/taste; never touch,: tourmaline stated. :New. Different. And wandering-one showed (solid-companion). (Air-moving-in-gift-of-name.):
:Solid-companion!: Sapphire spread the image-words as wide and eloquent as possible, so they could see all the wonder and hope the wanderer had packed into them. :Native to solid-world, wanted to touch our world. Gate. Bridge. Newness to trade memory/experience/laughter with.:
:One-who-wandered, (search glimmer/taste. Solid-companions waiting.): tourmaline went on. :Searched together. Sweet/shiny taste; many. Solid-with-energy-pattern there, many.:
:But separate,: sapphire noted. :Wanted not-separate. Wanted match. Wanted… friend-with-friend? Searched.:
:Caramel/glittery with chocolate/shimmer there. Together.: Tourmaline hesitated. :But… chocolate/shimmer bleeding energy….:
:Tasted/examined energy loss. Proposed means/energy-weave to reduce,: sapphire stated.
:Would work,: tourmaline allowed. :Did work. But would not fix. Asked friend wait/search longer?:
:Considered,: sapphire admitted. :But - matched pair. Had energy-link; fainter than ours, but there. Who knew how rare? How long before another match?:
:Reached to glimmer/taste, energy-pattern-:
:Confusion/panic/heartbeat,: sapphire whispered, :what is heart and pounding and scared-:
A flux of determined pinks. :Moved you-solid-companions/moved with you. Away.:
:Wanted touch-solid,: sapphire told them miserably, spots of blue paling like raindrop tears. :Hurt/pattern disruption-others not wanted. Tried to leave/disentangle. Can't.:
"Whoa," Shunsui said at last. "So you're why Juushirou isn't curled up in a corner trying to breathe?"
"Shunsui," Juushirou sighed.
"You were already having a bad day, and you pushed it to get through the ceremony," his friend said matter-of-factly. "Add to that the stress of whatever just happened - are you seriously going to tell me you're not surprised you're still sitting up?"
"You have a point." Juushirou glanced away. "So… you sensed what was wrong?" None of Seireitei's physicians had ever been able to pin that down. The best they could do was theorize that he'd gotten a bad combination of Alteran genes, crazy as that sounded. But historical cases seemed to bear it out. Apparently some alleles had been just fine in a double dose in their Alteran ancestors, but weren't good at all in someone who had human ancestry. It didn't show up often, they thought there were at least five different genetic loci involved and all his brothers and sisters were just fine… but usually, those born with his DNA profile died within their first year. From no apparent physical cause. Not even genetic surgery could stop it. It was as if whatever animated the body just - stopped.
He hadn't died. It might have been his parents' determined care, Yamamoto-Genryuusai's direct involvement (he remembered being terribly frightened of the man when he was young), or possibly his own stubborn will to live. No one was sure. But he'd always known his life was borrowed time. How better to spend it than defending his people against the Wraith?
:Instability in connection, you-energy-matrix/you-solid-form,: sapphire informed him. :Solid-form - body? - wishes to exist in this world. Energy-matrix - spirit? Mind? - wants to stay in body, but being pulled toward dangerous-silly-creatures-not-us.:
"Silly creatures?" Juushirou asked, feeling as if he'd fallen down a rabbit hole. What in the galaxy could living energy like their guests think of as silly?
"Oh, you're not worried about the dangerous part?" Shunsui murmured.
:Appeared near/when upwellings began to die. Live in other-elsewhere, never see us - not even when it/they reshape energy-home and crush us,: tourmaline said grimly. :They come, we leave. Besides, boring. Could touch-solid, but won't. And whine about it. "Oh, look how awesomely powerful we/I are! Oh, we don't dare touch poor lesser beings!": Sparks of angry crimson in pink. :If don't want "interfere", why twist energies/maim/kill us?:
:If want touch-solid, gather self and be solid again,: sapphire agreed. :Otherwise, why not just go away?: Waves of comforting blue, like a restful sea. :Wrapped energy-weave around you-energy-matrix. Redirected pull. Now spirit reaches for our-home. Still leaking energy… but not as much. And not reaching for/calling silly-creatures!:
"Thank you," Juushirou said honestly. "I wonder if Master Genryuusai has any idea what you're talking about."
"Wouldn't be surprised," Shunsui stated. "So they've been worse than usual lately? A lot worse?"
"You don't think centuries are a long time, but you decided to try this just days after the wanderer told you it was possible?" Shunsui raised an eyebrow. "Even if you didn't think you'd get stuck, that doesn't sound like you were just curious."
:Silly-creatures avoid solid, so this upwelling mostly-safe,: tourmaline added. :But what if upwelling fails, like others?:
:Could live without upwelling, but good place to gather/meet/exchange news/create young,: sapphire told them. :And… if silly-creatures avoid solid, maybe solid-creatures know why? Or could find out? Worth risking, for us. But didn't want to hurt. Never wanted to hurt.:
Juushirou and Shunsui traded glances. "We're… not hurt, I think," Juushirou said at last. "Confused, and startled…." He took another look around, finally registering the distinctly non-city nature of their surroundings. "And lost."
"We're not lost," Shunsui said automatically.
Juushirou raised a dark brow.
"Okay," Shunsui admitted, after a half-hour's tramp hadn't gotten them anywhere near something that looked like civilization. "Maybe we are lost… 'Shirou?"
The brunet tried not to roll his eyes. Right. And turtles were going to be zipping by like shuttles. Any minute now. "Lean on me."
"I don't need to lie down-"
"I didn't say you did." Shunsui reached out for his friend, shivering from the tingle as tourmaline brushed sapphire. It wasn't unpleasant, exactly, just… he wasn't sure what it was, as sensations that should have been alien shifted into almost-familiar. "Let me feel useful, okay? Since I somehow neglected to stick a map up my sleeve for graduation."
"Not that any we had around would have done much good," Juushirou admitted, accepting his hand, and then his shoulder. "I wonder how far we went?"
:Not sure,: sapphire admitted. :More than spaces-between-solid, less than turn-of-planet.:
"Leaves a lot of wiggle room," Shunsui noted. "You two have been awfully quiet."
:Trying to understand "lost",: his own companion admitted. :Unable to coordinate current space-time location with formerly known location?:
"Pretty much sums it up," the brunet nodded.
:Created upwelling, known location?:
"Seireitei's power source." Juushirou brightened. "You can-"
Shunsui closed his eyes.
Light, beside and within him; 'Shirou, himself, and their guests. Fainter glows painting their surroundings in surreal hues and flavors; a champagne-glitter of ores in the planet's crust, mint-and-vinegar flow of life around them, sparkle-bursts of photon-excited gases.
And in the distance, a comfortable upwelling of warmth.
Blinking, he met Juushirou's gaze. "That way?"
"That way," his friend agreed. Shook his head, amazed. "How did we come so far?"
:In-and-out,: sapphire stated after a moment's contemplation. :Start-step, end-step, in solid. Within step, in home.: A hesitance. :Used a lot of energy.:
:You were us, and we were tangled and afraid,: tourmaline added. :Worth it, to flee dangerous conditions. But if we are not in danger, should go slower.:
"So it's going to take more time. And I'm not certain how far we are from the city, but it's more than we can walk in a day…." Juushirou cocked his head, and spread out his free hand, sunlight glinting off sapphire as he flexed claws at different angles, feeling the minute differences in energy-touch. "Do you sense that? It's fainter, but closer."
Shunsui half-closed his eyes, letting his companion stretch their shared senses. There. Not the city's main power source. Something smaller, that almost seemed to float in the heart of organized circles and patches of life. And around it, quiet, familiar energy-nets- "People."
"I think it's a farm," Juushirou said thoughtfully.
Would make sense. Some people didn't like living in the city, risk of Wraith attack or not. And city-dwellers liked fresh farm produce, so both sides got a good deal. So - people. Which implied a house, fortifications, underground shelters, and all the communications and transport capabilities necessary for a settlement that had to stand its own ground at least long enough for reinforcements to fly there. "Feels like we could walk there. I bet they'd let us hitch a ride. Or at least call a shuttle."
"One problem." Juushirou wiggled his fingers, glittering sapphire.
Shunsui grinned sheepishly. "Yeah, I'm working on that…."
:Other humans see?: sapphire asked. :Not energy-sense?:
"Far as we know," Shunsui agreed.
:If stellar energy - "light" - shifted, would not see?: tourmaline put in.
The pair of students traded glances. "That's true," Juushirou nodded. "What did you have in mind?"
:If light-reflected-from-fingers looks right, then if we shift light-off-claws….: Sapphire patterns shimmered with concentration, as in outer vision blue crystal shifted to the hues of Juushirou's pale hands. Though still shaped as claws.
"It's a start," Shunsui smiled. The day was looking up. "We're going to be walking a while. Let's see if we can make it a little more convincing…."
Hands hidden in his sleeves as he sat in the back of the shuttle cab, Juushirou pasted on a determined smile to meet yet another of Mr. Hayashi's backward glances. White hair did stand out, unfortunately. And he had a bad feeling that their illusion of normality might have slipped once or twice. Shifting light wasn't exactly easy, and their guests couldn't concentrate all the time.
I know you are, Juushirou answered silently. It's fine. He hasn't thrown us out of the shuttle yet, has he?
Three beings' amusement tickled down his nerves; from within him, mingled with from the passenger seat in front. :"True.":
…I don't suppose there's any way you could help me tell all three of you apart?
:Friend-and-Shunsui deliberately overlapping,: sapphire informed him with a dry swirl of colors. :Here, try-:
A fiercer prickle than just his guest tracing out the twists of his nervous system. This one hurt, sharp and swift and oddly clean as slicing steel.
"Just dizzy." :I'm fine, really, I… something's not right….:
:Try words,: sapphire pointed out, amused and relieved at once. And oddly closer; no fear of mistaking her for another, now. :Other-humans-not-ours need words, yes?:
:Yes, they do.: Shunsui. He'd know that comforting chuckle anywhere. Even when it wasn't a chuckle, but a dance of hues and intensities, stroking along his claws like silk.
:Silly,: tourmaline mused; pleased, with just a touch of manic glee. :This is better!:
Well, interesting, at least…. Juushirou cleared his throat, aware their ride was eyeing him. "It's just been a long day." :How are you - I didn't know you could-:
:We are energy, you are energy-in-solid.: His companion nestled further into him, pleased as a cat burrowed in clean clothes. :Just shifted you-and-I; a little here, a little there. Matches us better.:
:I thought you didn't want to be tangled?:
:Already are,: tourmaline shrugged. :Tangled-and-speaking better than tangled-not-speaking-well.:
:Already tried arguing,: Shunsui told him ruefully. :I think they like how we feel.:
::Yes.:: Satisfaction. Nesting.
:Didn't want hurt,: sapphire elaborated. :More/better we speak together, less Shunsui and Juushirou are hurt. Have been tracing tangle, our energies and yours and swords'. Very intricate.:
:Could take time to untangle,: tourmaline agreed. :Why not be more comfortable, all of us? Smooth rough spots. Stroke knots loose.:
Could take time? From creatures that thought of centuries as not very long? Juushirou felt faint.
:And matching is not tangled,: his companion added. :Tangled is accident; matching is us.:
:But-: Juushirou reached for Shunsui with this odd newness, wishing they dared touch. Knowing they couldn't, under a stranger's eyes. It'd feel better if he could just hold his friend's hand, he knew it. :They can't stay, we have to help them get home-:
Contact. Even without the touch of crystal on crystal. He was in his own seat, and with Shunsui, and trying not to gasp as silk and flames seemed to caress him, sapphire and tourmaline carefully slowing or exciting strand after strand of energy flowing between two and two and four….
:Nesting,: sapphire soothed, releasing the new network to glow and strengthen. :Usually we pair, but more-than-two can work. We-two were paired, and you were trying to pair, and now we-four are beginning-nesting-together.:
Not happening. This was not happening, and it did not make an odd, shuddery sense - he wouldn't let it. No, and no, and no.
:…You're married?: Shunsui managed.
Juushirou wished, very desperately, that he dared bang his friend's head off a handy bulkhead.
:Friend-with-friend, raise offspring, fight together?: Tourmaline seemed to blink. :Yes. Like you.:
A speechless Shunsui. Oh, how delightfully rare. :They're energy,: Juushirou pointed out impishly. :I don't think biological reproduction is something they know about. Yet. And after all, lots of same-sex pairs and war-widowed use our genetic manipulation technology for exactly that.: The original founders of Seireitei had been a relatively small group; if they hadn't brought a slew of other genetic samples with them, and made sure they didn't lose good genetic combinations just because one parent was the wrong sex, the planet's population would have suffered an inbreeding depression not even the best technology could have compensated for.
And why was he so calm? He should be panicking. He knew it. Something was inside his nervous system, changing it in ways he could not understand… and all he wanted was to get off this shuttle, find a warm, private spot to cuddle with Shunsui, and let it happen.
:First nesting?: Sapphire was shyly joyful. :Will help with calm. Until we are safe.:
Like a bucket of cold water. Much better. Although he already missed that stroking of silky heat. Like a dream. One of the very good dreams, that he never told Shunsui about in the morning.
He chases the girls, but he's always kind, because none of them ever truly held his heart. Yet if someone ever did….
Shunsui was such a generous soul. If someone ever managed to get that close - Shunsui would be there. Forever.
And I won't do that to him. I'm going to die. A year from now, a few decades if I'm lucky. I lo- I care about him. I won't love him, and leave him to mourn me alone. I won't.
Focus, Juushirou told himself, glancing warily at their driver. One of them had to keep his head enough to keep them all safe. And enjoyable as that moment had been, he somehow doubted their companions had had the concentration to manipulate their energies and maintain illusions.
But Hayashi was silent, eyes fixed on the flight ahead as Seireitei's towers loomed over the horizon.
Maybe they'd gotten lucky. Juushirou breathed a deep sigh of relief, drinking in the green scents of fresh-picked fruits and vegetables from the cargo area. It still made his mouth water, though Shunsui had talked their surprised farm hosts into setting out a simple meal before they hitched a ride. Paid for with Academy funds, of course. And thank the spirits they'd each had the foresight to bring coinage along with them; they'd put away enough food to make the lady of the house jokingly wonder if they were bears in disguise.
:Used a lot of energy,: sapphire had reminded him at the time. :Need to refuel. Chemical reactions to sustain systems, interesting….:
:You wanted us fed so you could nest,: he realized now.
:So we could. Yes. Takes resources.: Azure shimmers of sadness. :Not happy?:
:You want us.: Tourmaline was utterly certain.
:We don't know enough, yet,: Shunsui put in. :Give us time?:
"So," Hayashi said shortly. "Graduation prank?"
"Must have been," the brunet said shamelessly. "Can't think of anything else that would dump us in the middle of nowhere… ah, no offense."
A snort. "Weird stories about that Academy of yours. Especially since yesterday. Somebody setting off explosions?"
Gray and hazel blinked innocently at him. "Must have missed it," Shunsui shrugged.
"It could well be that the pranksters inadvertently did us a favor," Juushirou ventured. "Thank you for telling us. We should get back as soon as possible, and see where we can help." :Explosions?:
:We were upset. We left,: sapphire said simply. :Friend-and-I find trouble, try not to start it. Or harm. But if others were upset….:
:You said you couldn't touch solid-: Juushirou realized what he was thinking, and almost buried his head in his hands. Photons might not mass much, but they were particles. Their companions could definitely touch those, and their nerves, and move them through space….
:Can't touch solid alone. Can touch solid with you,: tourmaline agreed.
"How bad do you think it was?" Shunsui said in a low tone.
Hayashi hovered to a halt, and pointed out the front view-port, where part of what had been the main assembly hall was still smoldering. "See for yourselves."
So many injuries. So much confusion. But at least the triage stage was long over, and they were down to less serious trauma now….
:We do what we can,: pale aqua murmured to Retsu Unohana as she looked after yet another of her fellow graduates who'd ended up scorched, frozen, or temporarily impaled by bits of falling building. No one had died, that she knew of, but there had been at least three cases that were touch and go, two that were flat-out missing, and everyone was upset. :Not as bad as it seems. Your whole-energy-pattern lingers, even days after injury. Show us how it should be, and we heal.:
Retsu leaned into that melancholy comfort, still amazed how quickly the other within herself had gone from frightening intruder to trusted ally. :I know much of our medical equipment works on similar principles, but I've never been able to feel things being put right before.:
:Never felt solid-being-made-right before, either,: came that hint of faded mischief. Sobered again. :Came to be allies. Did not mean to do this.:
:We'll figure it out,: Retsu assured her, stepping forward to soothe yet another burn. :Master Genryuusai said he'd have news for us soon… my friend?:
Distraction. Incredulity. Dawning, impossible realization.
Joy and :claws caressing: and arms around her and :auras spiral-wrapped around auras, kin and together and hope rescued from disaster-:
Tears, running down her cheeks. Not all of them were hers.
"Aw, Retsu," a familiar voice tried to tease, thick with emotion. "You missed us."
Kyouraku? Retsu stiffened. Shunsui Kyouraku? That rake, that scoundrel, that incorrigible skirt-chaser-
:Younger brother!: her companion cried; the same mix of joy and grief Retsu had seen after a Wraith attack, as scattered family found each other and mourned those who'd never be found. :Brother's partner!:
Juushirou Ukitake was the third in their complicated hug, stroking her hair like a child's. "I thought there was something they weren't telling us… you're family. They'd never abandon you."
:But… hurt you….: Aqua huddled, ashamed.
Sapphire and tourmaline reached out, gentle but firm. :Elder sister. You lost chosen-friend, half-of-pair,: tourmaline stated simply. :Of course you hurt. Takes time to heal. Time to grieve.:
:But grieving, pain-lashing, mourning - still our sister,: sapphire said firmly. :You choose risk, hope of pain-ending, chance at stopping those-who-slay? Then we choose, as well.:
::You will not lose us, sister. We love you.::
It was a gift. Rescue out of hell. The priceless surety that someone was here, someone cared….
Retsu cried her companion's pain out on their shoulders. And Shunsui kept his hands to himself.
:Why surprised?: aqua finally managed; exhausted, but brighter with hope than Retsu had yet felt her. :He is younger brother.:
:He is,: Retsu acknowledged, :but Shunsui's not.:
:He/Shunsui tangled like you/I, brother's partner/Juushirou,: her companion stated, puzzled. :Feels what brother feels. Is brother to us. Would not make us uncomfortable. And-: A surprised shimmer of colors, very much an older sister's giggle. :Nesting? All of you?:
Juushirou went bright red. Shunsui cleared his throat. "Ah. I think there's been some sort of misunderstanding…."
"Not on your parts." Yamamoto-Genryuusai's presence was heavy as volcanic ash, nape-prickling as a wildfire. "We specifically said no mated pairs." His cane struck the ground for emphasis, and Retsu swore she could feel the planet shudder.
:Leave sister alone, lost, grieving?: tourmaline struck out. :Enter black hole and rotate!:
"What he said," Shunsui nodded. And tried not to wilt in the old man's glare. "With all due respect, Yama-jii."
"Brats," their teacher said, not unkindly. "I suppose you want answers." He raised his voice, just loud enough to be heard over the murmur of confused and worried students. "Listen up, youngsters. You have a lot to learn about the refugees we've just given sanctuary, and how they will help us against the Wraith."
The main dining hall. Probably not Master Genryuusai's first preference for addressing near a hundred upset graduates, Juushirou thought, claiming a seat between Retsu and Shunsui. However, given it was one of the buildings that still seemed to have an intact roof….
"Hall saved by Tuesday night mystery meat," Shunsui muttered.
Juushirou elbowed him, trying not to shudder at the thought. "Shh!"
The fierce gaze swept them all once more, and nodded. "You know who I am, and what I am."
Shigekuni Yamamoto-Genryuusai. The last living Alteran on the planet; possibly the last in this galaxy, or any other. Ancestor to many of those here, and grim protector of their people as long as the planet had had humans on it.
"Five thousand years ago, we thought we had escaped the Wraith by fleeing to Earth." A dry hint of a smile. "As if mere isolation were enough to defeat any plague."
:Retsu says, (You need immunizations and eradication. But Wraith aren't a real plague,): aqua informed them.
:Why didn't Retsu say that?: Shunsui frowned.
:Tried. You didn't hear.: Aqua was puzzled. :And she doesn't hear you. Hears me, and brother's-pair, and you-two hear each other….:
:We are nesting-together,: sapphire stated thoughtfully. :Hear each other that way. But hearing you… we-energy hear our sister, but we-solid-companions hear we-energy hearing you.:
:Yes!: Aqua brightened. :She hears me hearing-:
A rumble. An earthquake. A flash of fire.
They shut up.
"I'll spare you the history lesson," Master Genryuusai said dryly. "In short, one reckless Queen of a Hive-ship cobbled together enough stolen technology to follow us here. And we've been at war ever since. With casualties to both sides, thank the spirits one of our first raids destroyed their cloning tanks…." His gaze went distant with memory, before he shook it off. "Your books have told you of the stalemate since, I'm sure. We've never had the technological advantages of my forebears. I make no apologies for that. I was a young warrior, not a scientist, and no small band of survivors, no matter how determined, can reweave the whole fabric of a dying civilization. What we have built is strong, and endures, and protects almost all of us, so long as we remain vigilant." He paused, and regarded them again. "But there has been little we could do to prevent them from raiding planets near to us in secret. Planets where humans are kept as slaves, and worse, by the children of Ra."
The Goa'uld. Juushirou felt chilled.
:Solid inside solid? Parasites?: Sapphire shuddered.
:Not like you,: he soothed. :Never like you. You were asked.: Juushirou eyed their teacher. :Even if we didn't ask you.:
"They're intelligent enough not to draw Goa'uld attention, so they raid carefully, and build their numbers slowly," Master Genryuusai went on. "But they are increasing. And when they feel they are strong enough… then we shall see a siege to rival that which felled Atlantis."
A murmur from the students. Two bodies edged closer to Juushirou, seeking comfort.
"I did not think I would live to see that day," Master Genryuusai mused. "My race is long-lived, but not immortal as the Wraith. The Queen has always known her ally is time." A subtle shrug. "So I set out to devote my last decades to how we might win our war at last. Our best defense has always been our sources of power. Likewise, they are what the Queen seeks most of all, for with that and the right 'Gate she could call more of her kind here, and crush humanity utterly. The battleground may be in this realm, but zero-point space feeds it - and two centuries ago, I found casualties there, as well." He struck his cane on the floor, wood disintegrating to reveal a sword like theirs. And the hands that gripped it….
Juushirou stared at flame-orange claws, and tried not to feel betrayed.
The wandering one.
:The young ones are melding well,: Ryuujin Jakka reported, sternly relieved. :These of my people will live.:
:Young ones?: Juushirou wondered.
:Maybe he means you?: sapphire wondered back. :Genryuusai has many more - centuries? - than other solid-companions.:
:Millennia,: Juushirou admitted. :No one else here is over forty.: Not old at all, by Seireitei's standards. Just old enough to fight, and die.
"Our people, now," Master Genryuusai observed. "Given they will learn to step into your realm as I have, and so we may be able to protect even those who choose not to meld." Their teacher's gaze fell on the pair of them. "Though I suspect two of you already have, given how far you bolted. How in the worlds did you manage that with no training?"
"Pure panic," Shunsui admitted, grinning. "So - protect them. Does that mean you know what's after them?"
"Unfortunately, I do," Master Genryuusai admitted. "History tells you how most of the Alterans died. What it does not mention is the fate of those who chose another path. A fate, it seems from the consequences, that is far worse than death."
Juushirou straightened. "They became the strangers."
"They call themselves the Ascended," their teacher nodded. "I've encountered one or two. Mostly when they wished to harangue me with a long lecture on growing up and leaving the physical world to fend for itself… spirits, and you think my classes are boring…."
Startled laughs from their fellow students.
"Lectures aside, they have bound themselves not to interfere with those still living on the physical plane. Which is why it is still safe for our companions to gather near this planet," Master Genryuusai stated. "But they have nothing to stop them from interfering with the realm of energy - and, from what I can determine, no reason to believe they should not." He sighed heavily. "If Ryuujin Jakka is correct, our companions once numbered in the millions. Now… they are far fewer. And very frightened."
"They're not the only ones," Retsu said bluntly. "Master Genryuusai, you said before it wasn't relevant to our treatment - but we have people here in this room, healthy, who even a week ago would still have been in an infirmary after their injuries. And that doesn't even begin to get into the psychosensory effects, or-" she spread aqua claws to catch the light.
"Those are our companions' physical manifestations of their senses in this world," their teacher informed them. "There are other, more subtle alterations as well; I'll walk you through them later, when we all visit the infirmary. Suffice it to say… are you familiar with lichens, Unohana?"
"Symbiotic organisms, an association of fungi and algae," Retsu answered, used to their instructor's sometimes roundabout way of answering questions. "The algae provide energy and various metabolites; the fungi provide protection from a hostile environment…."
"Precisely," Master Genryuusai nodded. "Though in our case, the protection may well be on both sides. Our weapons are the match of the Wraiths', surely, and our shields - but how many lives have we lost when a Wraith broke through those defenses? How many have died because a Wraith is, simply, faster, stronger, and far more resilient than any normal human could ever be?"
"We're healing faster," Shunsui concluded, "and… if they can't catch you, they can't eat you."
"Indeed. Observe." Master Genryuusai straightened-
"As you can see," his voice floated over from the far end of the hall; the class jerked their gazes that way with a start, "this ability alone gives us a significant tactical advantage."
Another blur, and he stood before them again. "As for what other assets our new allies bring to the table - have your companions ask Ryuujin Jakka. He and I have been working on this for quite some time. Though I have no doubt that new minds will bring fresh insight." He waved dismissal. "For the next three days, get to know your companions. Meet me here at the regular lecture time afterward, with a list of ten suggestions. I am specifically looking for ideas on close-quarters combat, evacuation of the injured, and ways to protect non-melded individuals from Wraith projections."
"What about protecting us?" someone muttered in the midst of the crowd.
"Our minds are different enough now that the Wraith have little effect," Master Genryuusai said confidently. "Ryuujin Jakka believes that with a little more experience, we should be able to block them entirely. Dismissed."
Old habits died hard. The class dispersed, if nervously; ones and twos and little clumps of shocked students murmuring to each other as they wandered out.
Juushirou stood with the others, though he felt no inclination to head back to their dorm room immediately. A reluctance that tasted of aqua-mint…. "Retsu?"
She stalked toward Master Genryuusai, face set, gaze dark. Her voice was low, pitched to not carry beyond their small circle. "Lichen is a very permanent relationship, Master Genryuusai."
He met her eyes, white brows lifted in satisfaction that his pupil had followed facts to the proper conclusion. "So it is."
"Sir." Her tone was half accusation, half a sob. "What are we?"
"My best students," Master Genryuusai said bluntly. "My hope for our people. Trained, dedicated young lives that I will not throw into the abyss armed with less than the best weapons I can forge. Tactically skilled, intelligent, steady - and most of all, ethical enough to be trusted with these innocent creatures."
:Who's he calling innocent?: tourmaline grumbled.
"You are, young one," their teacher said bluntly.
"Newborns, when it comes to dealing with our world," Master Genryuusai said dryly. "Ryuujin Jakka has spent centuries with me, observing humankind, before he would risk your lives and hearts, entangled with ours."
:Humans are complicated,: Ryuujin Jakka said matter-of-factly. :Still surprise me, even now… you mean to nest with the humans?:
"We asked for unpaired volunteers. We weren't certain how the melding would affect certain aspects of your physiology," Master Genryuusai stated, troubled. "You're few enough as it is. I did not want to remove a mating pair…."
:But we are here,: sapphire replied. :And you hint-not-say, we are not leaving.:
Juushirou wasn't sure which should upset him more; the solemn confirmation of his suspicions, or the leap of panic and denial at the thought of losing this friend, this brightness, this connection that made all the world seem right.
:All energies needed are here,: tourmaline added. :Though some blended with solid-companions. If we-two alone tried - yes, offspring might be incomplete, misformed.:
:But we-two and companions'-two have begun to be we-four,: sapphire stated bluntly. :If solid-companions willing, we will be we-four. And if we-four are agreed, we will try.:
:Such offspring will include human energies,: Ryuujin Jakka observed, troubled. :They will be different.:
:Solid-offspring will be touched by our energies,: tourmaline shot back. :Might be different, too. Won't know until we try.:
"What do you know?" Retsu asked, dark brow raised.
"Enough that I would not fear taking another wife, were I so inclined," Master Genryuusai said gruffly. "There seems to be an odd sort of selection bias in the gametes, but nothing untoward in the genetic material itself. Would you care to examine the data?"
Retsu's chin lifted. "I would."
"Guess it's just us now," Shunsui said wryly, as the two walked off. "Any plans? Outside of heading right back to the dorm and collapsing, which sounds like the next best thing to heaven to me. Lists can wait."
"Food," Juushirou said firmly.
Shunsui chuckled. "Ah, why am I not surprised?"
"And then, we need to talk." :All of us.:
Some pillows, a blanket, and Juushirou's head resting on his shoulder as they huddled together on a bed, desk pulled up beside it for their swords. "You know, even if they're only mostly leaving, the weave's not going to hold up so well without all of her here," Shunsui murmured. "I know they want to fill in their group on just what happened, but maybe my friend should go alone-"
A head-shake. "They deserve some time to think away from us as well," Juushirou said firmly. "I'll be fine."
"Guess I can't talk you out of it…." Shunsui sighed, and reached out to touch the hilts. "Go for it, people."
::Won't take long,:: the pair reassured them. And shifted.
The world dimmed.
Shunsui kept his eyes open, stunned at how different the room seemed. Same as always; books on shelves, small food unit in the corner, rude poster tucked behind an improvised curtain. But everything seemed - flat. Muted. Heavy, in a way he couldn't quite define. The densest matter was still almost all empty space, he knew that… yet, for the past day, he'd lived in a world where he could actually feel it.
Wonder if this is how Yama-jii felt, when Ryuujin Jakka went to talk to the others.
Not that his partner was truly gone. There were threads of presence left behind. But not enough to feel the world as it should be felt. "Like insects caught in amber," Shunsui mused. "We think we move through empty space, when all the time the air is as thick around us as glass… 'Shirou?"
Right. Sure. He could already see the first flush of fever rising on his friend's pale cheeks. "I'll call a medic-"
"To do what?" Juushirou said wearily, breathing growing ever more ragged. "Medicine just lets people feel like they're doing something useful."
Oh, not good. "Don't give up on me, 'Shirou." Don't you dare.
"I'm not." Slow, deliberate breaths; the only thing that would hold off the coughing. For a while. "I'm hanging on. To you. Can't you feel it?" Juushirou was shivering against him; Shunsui grabbed for more blankets. "World's so heavy… but you're all that keeps me from flying away…."
It's just another fit, Shunsui tried to tell himself, stroking white hair as Juushirou fought to breathe. He's had them before. You've always seen him pull through. Always.
But 'Shirou had been so well today. Like a normal person, for once in his life; almost as if he'd never been sick. And they'd been so close, so much a part of each other… it wasn't fair, being huddled here watching, unable to help. But for all their closeness, it was Juushirou's companion who had held the flux of energy that had staved off this - this separation of flesh and spirit. And he didn't have that kind of power-
Breath catching in his throat, Shunsui interlaced his claws with sapphire. :'Shirou?:
Like shouting into a hurricane. But he held still and listened.
:Stay with me, 'Shirou. Lean on me.: "They said we already had a link," Shunsui said out loud. "Use it. Stay here."
"Don't want… to make you…."
"Exactly what is it you think you're making me do?" Shunsui said wryly. "'Shirou - I want you to stay."
Juushirou slumped. "For how long?"
So that's the problem.
Wasn't it always? He might be a skirt-chasing idiot, sometimes, but he wasn't blind. His best friend loved him. Had loved him, bad habits and all, for years.
Loved him, and tried not to ever let it be noticed. Because 'Shirou was just selfish enough to want to be loved the way he deserved to be loved; mind, heart, and soul. The kind of love that would leave a gaping hole in anybody left behind.
Just selfish enough to want it… and far too kind to want to do that to anyone.
For a smart guy, 'Shirou, you can be a real idiot sometimes. "We're going to the front lines, 'Shirou. Even if this works out the way Yama-jii hopes… how many get through their twenty and out?"
"You will," Juushirou murmured.
"Not," Shunsui said bluntly, "without you."
Hazel finally looked at him. "How… can you be sure?"
Shunsui met him gaze for gaze. "Because you're my friend."
And maybe I don't love you. Yet. You never let anyone get that close. But if you did….
If you ever did, I'd be an idiot to let you go. And 'Kaasan Kyouraku didn't raise anybody that stupid.
He held onto that, even as Juushirou started coughing in earnest and clutched the energies between them like the last lifeline before the whirlpool. "Hold on," Shunsui said firmly, and, :Hold on, don't let go-:
::We are here!::
Light and life surged back into the world, lifting him up like strong tea, the first light of dawn after storm. The frail link between them was caught, strengthened; tension singing out of it as tourmaline gripped them both and sapphire wove, wove, wove and threw a net to catch the spirit slipping free-
:Sorry,: sapphire keened, holding and soothing and pale-ribboned with the nearness of grief. :Sorry, so many questions, thought the weave would hold longer….:
"I've - had worse-"
:Stop trying to talk,: Shunsui told him bluntly. :This is easier.: Deliberately, he turned his attention toward their companions. :What did you tell them?:
:What we know,: tourmaline shrugged. :Silly-dangerous-strangers made a promise not to touch-solid, so staying near solid should be mostly safe. Solid-companions don't yet know how to stop stranger-Ascended, but poking the problem. Solid-companions have own killers to flee-and-fight, and want help. Solid-companion is all wanderer Ryuujin Jakka said, but also more. And… link between solid-companion and energy-companion likely to be permanent, so long as solid-form energy-net exists.:
:Bet that was a mouthful to chew on,: Shunsui commented wryly.
:Needs thinking about,: tourmaline agreed. :But if Yama-jii and Ryuujin Jakka are right, and we-together can defend those who do not choose to meld - would be worth it.:
:Worth it for more than that. If Wraith destroy Seireitei, upwelling will vanish, as in other cities Wraith slew, and there will be no refuge from the Ascended,: sapphire observed grimly. Softened. :Better now?:
:I've lived through worse,: Juushirou assured her faintly.
:Almost-die often?: Azure wrapped more tightly around him. :Don't.:
:I don't want to,: Juushirou admitted. :But I won't chain you. Ever. Friends don't do that to each other.:
:Friends-together are linked, not chained!: sapphire bristled.
:And if we-four nest-together, all three of us can hold the weave,: tourmaline stated more practically. :If one or two missing for a time, would not unravel.:
"Sounds like a plan," Shunsui said lightly. Stroked white hair, trying to pack in longing and friendship and a welcome that would never, ever cease. :'Shirou? Stay.:
:…Yes.: Tentatively, Juushirou reached back, sapphire and tourmaline interlaced with white. :But how?:
:Start from links-already-formed,: tourmaline instructed, brightening those energies in their mind's eye. :Slow and careful, to begin… trust. But stop if anything hurts.:
:New for all of us,: sapphire agreed. :Better to build in stages, work delicately, leave alone and let grow before shaping again.:
:Like bonsai,: Juushirou murmured.
Two minds explored the concept, rippled with recognition. ::Yes. Very like.::
:Is known what pairing should look like, but everyone is different,: tourmaline added, reaching delicately into the network between them. :Here, looks good for start….:
Slowly, by degrees, Shunsui felt hearts and breathing negotiate new rhythms. Skin was pressed against skin, auras weaving around each other, and… it wasn't what he'd anticipated, at all. The energies between them didn't blend, they built. He could close his eyes and reach out to what was Shunsui and what was Juushirou and-
:-Sougyo no Kotowari-:
-and what we have built together….
Shunsui pried his eyes open, feeling the lateness of the hour. Juushirou was a boneless warmth against him; but breathing easily, asleep, not the racking struggle of before. "Is that it?"
:Good start,: Katen Kyoukotsu chuckled, a ripple of tourmaline and ruby. :Takes time. No one pairs in a day.:
:Rest,: Sougyo no Kotowari murmured. :We are here.:
Good advice. "Lights off," Shunsui murmured, and pulled another blanket over them.
The blood was black, but it was just as warm.
Spin, slash, deflect the bolt back-
Juushirou held the hive-ship corridor with Shunsui at his side, wondering, in the few instants nothing was coming at them, just how he'd let himself be talked into this. In the past months, they'd found out exactly how risky flying against Wraith darts was. Flying through the screen of darts, close enough to the hull to chance a flash-step into the ship itself-
Master Genryuusai was going to kill them for losing that fighter. He just knew it.
:Has to get to us, first,: Sougyo no Kotowari pointed out.
:Oh, he would,: Shunsui chuckled. :Just to grab our ears and yell.:
:Wouldn't mind if he did,: Juushirou admitted, ducking talons. :Why did I-:
Behind them, one of the five children they'd come for whimpered.
…Right. Damn all Wraith, anyway.
Katen Kyoukotsu was a wordless, bloody keen through all their minds, keeping them fast enough to match the Wraiths' inhuman speed. They needed it. Ordinarily they could have ducked in and out of elsewhere, letting bolts flash harmlessly through space they'd been in moments before. With civilians behind them…. "Miss Midori!" Juushirou called back to the teacher who'd been snatched as prey with her charges. "Do you have the door open?"
"There isn't any door!" She sounded a breath from tears.
"Hell of a time for these guys to remodel," Shunsui grunted, slicing through a feeding arm with his second blade.
I could use one of those, Juushirou thought in passing, throwing himself back into the fray. He'd tried out Shunsui's two-handed style in training, but it had never felt quite right….
A Wraith down the corridor took aim. He saw it, moved to block - and found himself pinned down, attackers too close. He knew, so they all knew, but Shunsui had no time-
We're going to lose him. Our friend. Our partner.
Sougyo no Kotowari surged through him, and he was blind.
So much power….
More than he'd ever touched. More than they'd ever dared use; humans were fragile, so fragile in the face of their companions' energies. They'd always been so careful.
They weren't careful now.
The world was slow, honeyed amber. Calm as foam atop a wave, Juushirou reached out with one blade, brushing the bolt of energy aside. He needed a second, so there was a second, and with that-
Lightning arced with his strike, leaping from foe to foe in a blistering cascade of destruction.
:Yes!: Katen Kyoukotsu exulted. :Pattern seen/tasted/accepted-:
Impossible wind howled through the depths of the hive-ship, smashing their remaining enemies before them.
Silence, broken only by quick breaths behind them. "There's going to be more," Shunsui pointed out. "If we're lucky."
"And if we're not, they'll seal this section and vent it all to vacuum…." Words died in Juushirou's throat. It wasn't his eyes playing tricks. The corridor was far too bright, lit by-
:You're glowing.: Shunsui's images were awed.
:So are you.:
::We are with you. We are more. Our child will not wake only to mourn!::
"Well." Juushirou cleared his throat. It felt like drinking rainbows. Holding a tiger by the tail, with its amused tolerance. "I don't think we'll be getting out that way… if the wall is new, do you think we can cut through it?"
Shunsui didn't answer, sheathing his blades and walking back into the dead end with the children and Midori. "Don't be afraid," he said gently, reaching out with a clean - if glowing - hand. "It won't hurt you."
:Are you sure?: Juushirou whispered.
:We're sure,: Shunsui reassured him. :Katen Kyoukotsu got a good look at you two when you lit up. They're still inside us. Just a little more… visible than usual.:
Sougyo no Kotowari shared his sigh of relief. :Wasn't sure,: she admitted.
No need to ask why she'd risked it anyway. Losing civilians always hurt. Losing Shunsui-
They might live through it. But like Retsu's Minazuki, they'd never be the same.
Shunsui had all the children around him now, along with their wide-eyed teacher. "How far do you think we can go, 'Shirou?" he said thoughtfully. "I mean, really go."
Juushirou blinked. Looked where Shunsui's claws were touching the organic bulkhead, and followed the stretch of his senses to the hull, vacuum, and the first thin wisps of atmosphere from their homeworld. :You're not thinking of….:
:See any other way out?:
No good ones, at least. The two of them would probably survive breaking into the hangar to steal a ride. The children…. :Can we do it?: he asked his companion.
:Not in one step,: was her considered reply. :Very far. And far to bring those-not-melded. But… in one step, can get to atmosphere.:
Careful as that answer was, where in the atmosphere would be very, very tricky. :Can you reach Minazuki?: Others might be closer, but relatives were always easier to reach. :This is what I think we need….:
Shunsui was already putting the medical tape in their field kits to a distinctly nonstandard use. "Retsu's going to yell at us," he sighed.
"Probably," Juushirou agreed. "Miss Midori, would you come over here?"
"What are we doing?" she asked, trying hard not to look at their hands.
I think Master Genryuusai needs to tell people we're friendly again. More persuasively, this time, Juushirou thought ruefully. "We're going home." I hope.
Civilians tied to their belts with sticky tape, Juushirou took Shunsui's hand and they stepped-
-Cold, punishing cold, ripping at their clothes yet nothing to breathe-
Warmer air; high and thin as mountains. The children were screaming. He might be screaming. Shunsui was definitely screaming, the maniac; Academy students were too valuable to risk their necks sky-diving, meaning he hadn't been able to go in years….
And the ground was so close, but they could feel Minazuki's call beckoning, and alter the angle of where-to-move-next-
"Inertial dampening field," Shunsui groaned as stunned children rolled off him. "Good idea."
:You. Did. What?!?: Darkness seemed to cloud the sky over them, and stunned rescue personnel scrambled to get clear.
:Good to see you, too.: Juushirou smiled innocently at Retsu.
She eyed him, unimpressed. "That works better when your co-pilot isn't bouncing with post-jump euphoria. Do I even need to ask whose idea this was?"
"It worked," Shunsui pointed out.
Untangling frost-nipped children, she raised an eyebrow. "Tell that to the Commander-General."
:Aw, no….: Shunsui winced.
:We're going to get yelled at,: Katen Kyoukotsu chuckled. :But the young ones lived.:
And for that, Juushirou knew, they could stand every bit of yelling Master Genryuusai dished out. :I thought you didn't like human children,: he teased.
:Unaesthetic,: Katen Kyoukotsu stated firmly. :Unpredictable. No memory-base laid down, you have to begin instruction in proper behavior, what not-to-touch, all over again. Every time.: A pause. :But some of them must come out right.:
:And you always intended to have a child with him?: Juushirou asked his companion privately, amused.
:Our children,: Sougyo no Kotowari chuckled, :are cute.:
:Right,: Shunsui said, amused and skeptical. :This, I've got to see.:
::We will. Soon.::
Ears still ringing from Yama-jii's lecture, Shunsui sprawled on their couch and rolled quartz crystal between his hands. The faint, flickering glow along veins of iron pyrite was stronger now; a perceptible light, instead of the there-and-not shimmer of a few days before. I hope this comes out right….
:Will,: Katen Kyoukotsu assured him. :Trust.:
:Easy for you to say,: Shunsui grumbled. :Didn't you tell us your people don't need physical anchors for the egg? And we do. If it weren't for our energies in the mix-:
:If not for you, we-two might not have lived to attempt an egg,: Sougyo no Kotowari put in calmly. :Beginning was tricky, yes. False starts. Much to adapt, make right. But now, foundation is solid, and the child has grown well.:
So they said. Their companions' mode of reproduction definitely wasn't as straightforward as biological creatures'. Together all those involved had to decide on a basic framework, lay it down in layers of energy and memory, and wait….
And observe. And trim, encourage, hinder; all the while spinning in strands of light, of recollection, of a past that would give their child solid ground to understand the present and live into the future.
Now Shunsui knew why they understood bonsai.
Behind him he could hear Juushirou muttering something uncomplimentary about paperwork in general and the creator of equipment loss forms in particular. "Let me guess," Shunsui mused. "They don't have a blank for 'lost due to flash-stepping out of craft to create combat diversion'?"
The incoherent snarl was answer enough.
"Put down 'unexpected energy-manipulation side effect'," Shunsui suggested.
"But we didn't-"
"Do you want to be fighting with the computer all night? Just put the details in the addenda tomorrow." Shunsui patted the cushion beside him.
"I suppose it's accurate," Juushirou said ruefully. "More or less."
"Don't know why you're so determined to finish that up when we could be meeting someone," Shunsui said pointedly, as his partner made a few last touches on the holographic projection.
The report closed and winked out, and Juushirou gave him a wry smile. "You've met my siblings?"
"Yeah…." What did that have to do with anything?
"We're going to be parents, Shunsui. Even if Katen Kyoukotsu and Sougyo no Kotowari say they can handle most of the care… we're going to be very, very busy. If we didn't have Master Genryuusai's direct intervention to take us off the front lines because of how important this is to all the companions - you know the Forces' position on parental leave."
He did. It could pretty much be summed up as, Don't. Children were for people out of the fighting. A fighter had to be sure a spouse or relatives could raise them alone until front-line service was up. And if someone slipped up? Gestation was in an artificial womb, and there was hell to pay from your superiors.
He didn't like being an exception. But they couldn't, in all good conscience, leave this young one in unmelded companions' care. The way human and companion energies were intermingled - for all they knew, normal companions couldn't even feed the child.
We don't know, Shunsui realized. We don't know anything.
:Now you panic.: Sitting down knee to knee, Juushirou reached out to touch the crystal. :One day at a time, Shunsui. We'll figure it out.:
:Silly,: Katen Kyoukotsu teased, though they could almost taste the nervous ripple of pinks. :Checked everything-:
:Three times,: Sougyo no Kotowari murmured, brushing lightly over the complex knot of energies linked to smoky quartz.
:-Should be ready to hatch. Soon.:
Juushirou shared a glance with Shunsui. :And how soon is-:
The knot trembled. Wriggled, strands slipping free to coil out into the world, tipped with claws so ruby-red they were nearly black. Shimmered.
And popped free into a familiar, miniature bell of a shape, shadows glinting sober crimson and silver as it studied them, as if they were new as the first dawn.
::Soft touch/wave of colors/ greeting, little one.::
A tentative answering shimmer, reds and blacks and- :…Hello?:
"Aww," Shunsui murmured. "He could fit in your hand."
The tiny creature regarded them thoughtfully. :Physically possible, but practically unwise. Parent Sougyo no Kotowari already occupying energy-realm there.:
If he hadn't been watching, Shunsui never would have caught the shadows-in-shadows ripple accompanying those images. But he knew Juushirou, and he knew Sougyo no Kotowari, so he was. And smirked, while his companion was still sputtering. "Sense of humor? Comes from your side of the family."
Which seemed to be all the encouragement the hatchling needed to fling itself at them and cling, pouring out waves of :mine: and :who: and :world is so big….:
Children don't need much, Juushirou had told him once, with dry irony. Just love, and care - and the firm conviction that if they deliberately screw up, you will make sure they suffer the consequences.
So Shunsui smiled, and watched their companions rough-stroke their offspring with energy, like grooming a kitten. ::We're here. You're safe.::
:War,: the hatchling protested. :Wraith. Silly-dangerous-Ascended.:
Shunsui's jaw dropped, and he knew Juushirou's wasn't far behind. One thing to be told their offspring would have bits of their own memory woven in, like corporeal creatures' instincts. Quite another to realize their little one already knew of war, and grief, and death….
:All exist,: Sougyo no Kotowari affirmed. :But not here. Here is protected. Stay near us. Other places, not so safe-: and with that came a shiver, like a mother snatching her child away from flames :-do not go without us.:
:Agreement,: came shyly back. :Curious. Home - solid-realm? Energy-realm?:
:Our-home,: Katen Kyoukotsu said confidently. :Though in time, you may also choose solid-companion….: A ripple of surprise. :???:
"It tickles!" Juushirou giggled, falling back against the couch.
Shunsui felt it then; a feathery whisper over his cheek, as if someone had drawn across a gossamer strand. Or a tiny kitten-claw. :Is that you, little one?:
"It's-" Juushirou hiccuped, and got his breathing under control. "It's fine. As long as you don't keep it up too long, oh my ribs…."
:You can touch-solid?: Sougyo no Kotowari hugged the hatchling. :Then need to tell you lots of not-to-touch. For now - touch skin, hair, claws only. Touch very light. Solid-companions resilient. Other humans-:
:Not so much,: Katen Kyoukotsu finished, chuckling.
"Yama-jii," Shunsui predicted, "is going to have a fit."
"Probably," Juushirou agreed, bemused. "What should we name him?"
Shigekuni Yamamoto-Genryuusai's enough of a mouthful, was on the tip of Shunsui's tongue, before he caught the full force of 'Shirou's soft smile.
If a platoon of Wraith dropped in for lunch, he'd slaughter them all, then go back to cooing.
:Yes,: Katen Kyoukotsu agreed privately. :Dangers-to-young die.:
And their companions had spent five thousand years running from something they couldn't talk to and couldn't fight. Spirits, that had to hurt.
Wait. Wait just one minute. For a danger to die, it had to be alive in the first place…. :You're not the only energy-creatures out there?:
A blink of confusion, then embarrassed realization. :No. Have been busy learning your world. Haven't told you much about ours.:
Yep. Yama-jii was definitely going to throw a fit.
But that wasn't nearly as important as considering 'Shirou's question, as he carefully tickled their little one back. What do we call you, young one?
"Nejibana Zangetsu," Master Genryuusai murmured, energies wrapped tightly around him so as not to wake the minuscule being tangled in Sougyo no Kotowari's tendrils. "Grand name for such a small creature."
"He insisted," Juushirou smiled wryly, almost rubbing the crystal tucked up his sleeve. Nejibana didn't need the quartz as a physical anchor anymore, but it made things easier. Like any young creature, the hatchling sometimes still got confused about exactly which sets of energies were his parents. The stone made a reliable beacon, comfortable as a familiar blanket. "We have two names, so he had to as well."
:Different,: Ryuujin Jakka said thoughtfully. :One of us, but different.:
"An energy-creature who can touch the physical realm without a bonded physical companion as an intermediary," the shinigami commander said thoughtfully. "You may have just solved one of our most pressing ethical dilemmas."
Juushirou blinked, considering that. "If Nejibana can associate with a human, without melding with them-"
"Then our future recruits would, at the least, have informed consent," Genryuusai nodded. "That is my hope, yes."
Gently. Gently. Let our kitten sleep. "You could have asked us," Juushirou said quietly.
"I've lost so many of you to the Wraith," his teacher stated, just as softly. "Too many. The projections are classified, but Retsu can show you some of them…. In ten years, without some unforeseen breakthrough in weapons technology, they would have been laying siege to Seireitei. In twenty, they'd have been feeding inside our very walls."
Juushirou shivered. "I knew it was bad, but-"
"We were dying," Genryuusai said bluntly. "We may yet perish. But without our companions, we would have no hope at all." A sigh. "One day, I pray you will forgive me."
"I forgave you months ago," Juushirou said honestly.
"You always were a gentle soul," Genryuusai mused. Grimaced as his communicator beeped, and left to tend one of the thousand and one emergencies only the Academy's leader could handle.
"Not so gentle as you think," Juushirou mused, alone. Or - not quite alone, ever again. "I forgave you. But I can't forget."
:You should not,: Sougyo no Kotowari agreed. :We are companions. Partners. Those who strive together against that which destroys life. We are not tools. And neither are our children.:
:Never tools,: Juushirou vowed, feeling Katen Kyoukotsu and Shunsui's assent behind him. :You're family. Now, and always.:
Pleased warmth. :Then let us consider this thought, of our child in your Academy.:
When he testified days later, Shunsui would solemnly swear that the hospital explosion was nobody's fault.
Nobody's except the Ascended, that is.
At the time, he was a little too busy to care. "Retsu!"
:Here!: Katen Kyoukotsu carried Minazuki's frantic call, as smoke and sparks flew.
In and out and he was there, adding his strength to Unohana's as she desperately tried to shield one of her critically ill patients from…. What the hell is that?
Not a Wraith. Not another shinigami - they might glow when their companions took the gloves off, but they were never transparent. And they damn well didn't float.
:Ascended!: his partner warned.
Oh. Lovely. But why did he feel like he should know that face, even altered as it was?
"Hidetada Shiroi," Retsu coughed; one hand splayed wide to hold her mind on the energy-shield, the other feeling her unconscious patient's pulse. "He died two weeks ago. Sort of."
"Sort of?" Shunsui echoed in disbelief, swords at the ready. For whatever good that might do. He felt Katen Kyoukotsu reach, as Minazuki must have reached, trying to set off the building's alarms, alert security, anything.
Nothing worked. Nothing.
So much for not interfering with the physical world.
"I was only there at the end," Retsu said hurriedly. "Master Genryuusai said the Ascended approached Hidetada… that he decided to join them as an ambassador, and tell them to be more careful in zero-point space-"
"Release the woman."
It rattled around in Shunsui's head, where nobody but four people had any business going. Calm, almost gentle… and an invasion all the same.
"No." Retsu's voice was steel. "Aoi is my patient."
"Whom you cannot heal. There is no need for her to suffer and die. Let her come to us-"
"The lady said no," Shunsui said with a grim smile, feeling help on the way. Maybe physical alarms weren't working, but every shinigami in the city knew something was wrong. And ahead of them all-
Juushirou stepped out of elsewhere beside him, his own blade drawn. "What seems to be the problem?"
"Brother." A sense of satisfaction. "You have been hidden so long. But we knew you would come."
Trap, Shunsui knew, chilled. But - they told Yama-jii they'd leave us alone….
Juushirou gave the glow a sharp look. "I have five brothers. You're not one of them. Why are you here?"
"Why am I here? Why are you still chained to flesh, brother? It is not right for you to linger in this world."
Juushirou stiffened. "This is my world."
"And last I heard, it's a free planet," Shunsui slipped in, turning a charm he didn't feel on the glow-bulb. "What we're up to isn't any of your business. You wrecking our lovely Unohana's hospital, though - that's our business. So. You want to get out of here and stop messing with the lady's life support?"
"It only ties her to this reality."
"For us, that's considered a good thing," Juushirou said with deceptive mildness.
"Hold to your chains, and you will one day die. As this woman will die, without our aid."
"The cost of a life well lived," Juushirou said levelly.
"It is not a price you should pay. You are one of ours-"
"Never," Juushirou said flatly. "I will never become a creature that harms the innocent. Unless you have something else to say, please leave."
"You refuse?" Utter disbelief. "We harm no one-"
"Hey," Shunsui broke in. "Aren't you the guy who was supposed to explain how much damage all you glowy guys are already doing to a lot of innocent creatures in zero-point space? I know Yama-jii would have explained it, in little tiny details. You are hurting people, and 'Shirou doesn't want into your little club."
"He is mistaken. Who would not join us? The knowledge, the freedom-"
"To do what, sit around watching the world spin by and whining about it?" Shunsui let his smile fade. "If you want to help with the Wraith, we can talk. Somewhere else. If you don't - in case you hadn't noticed, we're a little busy, what with having a war with things trying to eat us. So scram."
Probably not the smartest thing to have said, in retrospect. Shunsui didn't see what Hidetada did, but the world went white, and his link to 'Shirou was-
Nejibana, flinging defiance in the face of the creature hurting his parent. Whiteness flickered a little, confused, then gathered its strength to crush-
Juushirou and Sougyo no Kotowari, caution thrown to the winds, slashing at the impossible weight of energy that threatened their young one. Shunsui and Katen Kyoukotsu flung their own strength at the whiteness, Retsu and Minazuki hard behind them.
Pinpricks, Shunsui realized. We're not even hurting this thing….
"Spare the mortals, brother. Leave that prison of flesh of your own will."
"Death first," Juushirou gritted out.
"Your life is unnatural; you should have fled that flesh decades ago. So… acceptable."
They were doomed. But Shunsui grinned, Katen Kyoukotsu a bittersweet song inside him, and readied everything for one last shot. This bastard wouldn't have his child, or his friend-
The world dissolved in fire.
:Step, young ones!:
Ryuujin Jakka. Shunsui felt faint with relief, even as flames burned through the physical world they were no longer in. Not that he knew what even Yama-jii could do about an Ascended, but-
The blast knocked them into the physical world, and the fire consumed them.
Endless agony later, Shunsui blinked off ashes. Ground, Juushirou pale and shut-eyed beside him-
Yama-jii, holding a white-faced Retsu back before she could rush into the burning building. "My patients!"
"They're gone, young one." Their teacher's voice was weary, but unyielding. "I won't lose you as well."
"No…." She crumpled, weeping, to the ash-stained grass.
:Aunt,: Nejibana murmured, cuddling near them both. :Sorry. Glad you're alive. So sorry.:
"Not your fault, kitten-light." Shunsui coughed out soot - were those his lungs knitting back together? - and gripped Juushirou's shoulder. "You alive?"
:Evil!: Sougyo no Kotowari hissed, weaving energy around her wounded partner. :Evil, didn't ask, tried to take!:
:You hurt it,: Katen Kyoukotsu growled, rippling with anger. :How?:
:There are ways,: Ryuujin Jakka stated. :We will teach you.:
Yama-jii frowned. "We meant to negotiate, not fight!"
:Negotiations,: Ryuujin Jakka said dryly, :appear to be over. Ukitake will die without those techniques, Shigekuni. We must teach them. All of them.:
The old Alteran's shoulders slumped. "They were my people."
Deliberately, Retsu wiped off tears, and stood. Pointed, where the first firemen were working to extinguish the unnatural blaze. "Those were our people, Master Genryuusai!"
"They still are." Leaning on Shunsui, Juushirou got to his feet. Raised his hand, and beckoned. "Don't be afraid."
I'm seeing things, Shunsui thought, stunned, as something seemed to flutter up out of the ruins toward them. Or, well, not seeing, exactly, as the first flutter was joined by a second, and then a swarm-
:It's real,: Katen Kyoukotsu assured him. :This is what you are, without a living body to house you. Though usually, your people don't linger.:
Ghosts. Oh, wonderful.
"I don't think they're supposed to look like that." Juushirou gestured toward an odd knot of energies, right above where the spirits' hearts should have been. Bright, glowing - yet eating into them, in a way that raised all the hair on Shunsui's neck.
"No," Yama-jii said darkly. "It seems our guest was busy, before he made himself known."
Juushirou nodded, determined. "It's going to be alright," he said softly, reaching out to energy that felt like Aoi, and bewildered sorrow. "We won't let them have you." Sapphire touched the foreign energy-
The spirit dissolved into sparks, flickering away to elsewhere.
"Um… what just happened?" Shunsui managed. Oddly enough, he wasn't afraid. Not anymore. It was as if that knot had tied up something wrong in the universe, and its severing set the world suddenly right.
:Death,: Ryuujin Jakka said gravely, :is only the beginning.: