Disclaimer: The characters and settings of Bleach belong to Kubo Tite and his publishers.
Rating: G, with the caveat that if the idea of Kenpachi and Unohana squicks you, you will want to move along.
Many happy and extremely belated returns to Adam Epp, Laurie Bunter and the other January birthday celebrants!
"There's another one here, captain."
"Another one?" Unohana Retsu looked up at her lieutenant with a gentle frown, and a shiver slid down Isane's spine. Thankfully, the frown was directed past her, to where yet another groaning member of 11th was being gently transferred to a table. A furrow appeared on Unohana's alabaster brow, which caused a nearby orderly to drop the stack of bandages he was carrying. Another, more sensitive orderly passed out.
The captain ignored this, as she so often ignored the weaknesses of others, as a courtesy. "How many is that now?"
"This is the seventh one," Isane said. "Seven in seven days. Can you believe it? The training routine over there is always murderous, but this is ridiculous, captain. He's barely breathing."
Unohana pursed her lips and held out a hand. Isane passed over the note. "It's the same as all the others."
Unohana examined it anyway. To the captain of the Fourth, the square of paper read, compliments of Zaraki Kenpachi. Unohana felt something unfamiliar and unwelcome well up inside her. She brought the feeling into the light and examined it for a moment. Was it—irritation? Yes, it was. She was irritated. How unpleasant. She looked down at the note again—compliments of Zaraki Kenpachi—and that irritation grew.
"I suppose," Unohana said, "that I should go see Captain Zaraki."
It was a short walk to the 11th. Unohana smiled sweetly at the gate guard, who tripped over his own feet trying to get out of her way, and headed to Zaraki's office. She did not bother to ask if he was present; it was obvious that he was. Zaraki's reiatsu filled every inch of space in the building and leaked out into the courtyard. Unohana, marveling just a little at the man's enormous spiritual power, leaned into it. It was like walking into a strong headwind. Members of the 11th took one look at Unohana's serene face and scattered before her like blown leaves.
Zaraki was waiting for her in the office with his lieutenant and Ikkaku and Yumichika. Four faces turned to her in unison, and Zaraki smirked.
"How's Kitigawa?" he said.
His insouciance was intolerable. "This can't go on, Captain Zaraki," Unohana began without preamble. "You're going to slip someday and kill one of them."
The captain of the 11th stood, his massive shoulders blocking the light. "I thought you liked healing people."
There was that irritation again. Unohana drew a careful breath and smiled at Zaraki. "I'm always glad to heal someone," she said. "I'm not pleased to find that you are creating patients for me by design."
Zaraki grinned. "Then fight me."
"I'm not a sideshow, captain. I don't fight for anyone's amusement," Unohana said. "When I unsheathe my blade, it's for a reason."
"Me too," said Zaraki. "To see who's strongest."
"That's not a good enough reason for me to fight you."
"One body to the infirmary every day," Zaraki promised. "Until you fight me."
Unohana studied the man before her—the wide blade of a face, the scar he refused to have healed—looking for clues to his thoughts; but that effort proved fruitless. She would have to ask directly. "Captain Zaraki, I am quite perplexed. What on earth put this ridiculous notion into your head?"
Zaraki rubbed his nose and shrugged, setting the bells in his hair jingling gently.
"Are you planning to kill me and take my place as captain of the Fourth?"
Zaraki laughed. "Me, captain that bunch of pansy-ass lightweights? I don't think so." He folded his arms across his chest and leaned against the wall. "Is that why you won't fight me? You're afraid?"
Unohana's smile disappeared despite her best efforts to maintain her temper. Behind Zaraki, Madarame Ikkaku flinched and bolted for the door.
Unohana held Zaraki's gaze for a long moment. He tilted his head to the side and raised his one visible eyebrow at her. Unohana folded her hands neatly together, the better not to strangle the irritating man in front of her. "Captain, has anyone ever told you that you are intransigent?"
"Maybe," he shrugged. "I don't usually listen when people yak at me."
Hopping to Zaraki's shoulder, Yachiru asked, "What's intransigent mean?"
"Intractable," said Unohana.
Yachiru shrugged, an odd little echo of her captain.
"Hopelessly. Stubborn," Unohana clarified.
Yachiru laughed. "Hopelessly stubborn! That's Ken-chan, all right!"
Unohana turned to go. The man was impossible. He never listened to reason. He never listened at all.
"So I'll see you tomorrow, then," the intransigent, intractable, obdurate, and extremely hopelessly stubborn Zaraki called after her.
Unohana, her serenity tried almost beyond bearing, turned and smiled her very sweetest smile. It wiped the smirk right off Zaraki's face. "There is an end to my patience, captain. You're skirting the precipice. Be wary," she advised gently, and shut the door behind her.
Zaraki frowned at the closed door. Yachiru rested her chin against his shoulder. "There's an end to her patience? Do you really think so?"
"Dunno. What do you think?"
"If there's an end to her patience, I've never seen it. I think—hmm. I think it could be interesting."
"Yeah," Zaraki said. "Me too." He tore the door open and padded out, lion-like; Yachiru hopped off his shoulder and settled herself at Yumichika's elbow.
Ikkaku poked his head cautiously back into the room. "She gone?" On receiving the affirmative, he slouched back in and draped himself over a chair. "She's right, though. I've never seen him like this. What the hell is he thinking?"
"I told Ken-chan he should send her candy instead," said Yachiru.
Two heads swiveled toward their vice-captain as one, as if pulled by invisible strings. Ikkaku and Yumichika both stared at Yachiru. "You think those bodies are a—a—a courting gift?" Ikkaku finally breathed, in mixed horror and wonder.
Yumichika frowned, rubbing a slim hand along his chin. "He'd probably do better with flowers."
"Captain Unohana would look good with lilies," piped up Yachiru.
"Lilies are for dead people," Ikkaku said. "Also, why are we talking about this? The whole idea of the captain and Unohana is ridiculous."
"Lilies mean majestic beauty," said Yachiru. "What's wrong with lilies?"
"She should have lotus flowers," said Yumichika dreamily. "Lotuses would suit her. Such a beautiful woman, and lotuses are very elegant."
"Are either of you listening?" demanded Ikkaku. "I can't believe we're even having this conversation." Kenpachi and Unohana? That made no sense at all. The captain of the 11th was barely contained chaos, mayhem in human skin. And the captain of the 4th was—well, was Unohana. "The captain and Unohana? It's absurd. You can't be taking this seriously."
"Why not?" Yachiru asked. "What's wrong with Ken-chan?"
Ikkaku paused, trying to think of a way to phrase his thought that would not send his vice-captain into a fit of temper that would then result in said vice-captain biting his earlobes off. Yachiru did not permit anyone to bad-mouth her Ken-chan. "Aren't they too different?" Ikkaku finally asked, cautiously. He waved his hands through the air, as if he could make his thoughts solid and thus more amenable to organization. "I mean, the captain is—and he's—and sometimes he's—and Unohana's just, you know—not."
Yumichika raised an eyebrow. "Your eloquence astounds, as always."
"You know what I mean."
"I don't, actually. You know what they say: opposites attract."
"And there's nobody more opposite than Ken-chan and her," Yachiru agreed.
"But she doesn't even like the captain. Does she?"
Yachiru stuck a lollipop, procured from some mysterious candy-filled pocket in her hakama, into her mouth and spoke around it. "It doesn't matter. Ken-chan always likes a good fight."
"This isn't like fighting," protested Ikkaku.
"It is to Ken-chan," said Yachiru definitely.
Ikkaku made a private mental note to avoid sparring with the captain for the foreseeable future. "Maybe we should help him," Ikkaku said finally. He heaved a sigh. "If the captain really likes her."
"Help him?" Yachiru looked puzzled. "Why would we help him?"
"Er," said Ikkaku. "Because we think—because we want him to be—" What was the right word? Not happy, not exactly. The captain was only happy when he was killing things. Content? Less easily irritated? That wasn't what he meant either. "We want to help him because he'd be in a better mood if he got lai—Ow! What was that for?"
Yumichika removed his heel from Ikkaku's instep and narrowed his eyes, his expression promising further retribution at a later time. "We want to help the captain make a good impression on Captain Unohana," he explained to Yachiru, "because he likes her."
Yachiru laughed. "Ken-chan doesn't need your help," she said. "He can win his own battles."
"This isn't exactly a fight," Ikkaku began again, and then stopped. With the captain, it probably was. Well, well. He had always thought of Kenpachi as a bystander on the lists of love, perhaps heckling the participants but not actively taking part in the contest. Maybe the captain just thought it was time to get in the game.
The next morning, another hapless member of the 11th was deposited in the 4th's severely injured ward. Zaraki Kenpachi sent him off with satisfaction and put one more tic mark next to the mental list in his head relating to Unohana Retsu. The list had six items and he had yet to get beyond the first, be noticed. But he was making progress in that department. She had spoken to him more in the past week than she had in the past ten years. And when he felt her reiatsu infiltrate the courtyard, spreading like the scent of honeysuckle on a warm evening, Zaraki's satisfaction grew. He pushed his chair back from the desk, leaned back in his chair and linked his hands behind his head.
When Unohana entered, she was unruffled and smiling faintly, as usual, but she was there, and that's what counted. Zaraki smirked. The plan was working.
"Captain Zaraki," she said, "This is intolerable."
"You know how to stop me."
Unohana's alabaster brow creased ever so slightly; it was almost a frown. "What can you possibly hope to accomplish by fighting me?"
"You're a sword specialist. A kendo master. I'd like to see what you're made of."
The look Unohana gave him was almost pitying. "I wish you'd put this idea out of your head. I don't want to hurt you."
Well, that was intriguing. Zaraki tilted his head; he knew the look of mild interest made his face no less menacing. "Do you think you could?"
Unohana sighed. "Come to the west-side plain tomorrow," she said. "See for yourself."
There was immense interest among the 11th in seeing Captain Unohana fight, since it happened so rarely; in fact, no one in the squad had been alive the last time the captain of the 4th had sparred with anyone, let alone another captain. But Kenpachi strongly discouraged anyone from accompanying him, and after they had been picked up and bandaged his squad agreed that, yes, captain, they would be happier staying inside the city walls.
It took Zaraki hardly any time to reach the spot on the west-side plain that Unohana had designated for their bout. Unohana was already there, kneeling next to a basket and ignoring his approach, apparently absorbed in rearranging the basket's contents.
Zaraki walked close enough to peer inside. It was filled with bandages. "What are those for?"
Unohana stood—gracefully, of course. She did everything gracefully. "Your wounds," she said. She had to tip her head back to look at him. "In case there are too many to be quickly healed. I would hate for you to bleed to death because I lacked foresight."
Zaraki laughed. "You don't think you're going to hurt me, do you?"
"I certainly don't want to."
"You don't have a chance of even touching me."
"Is that so?"
"I've killed more men than you can count."
Unohana's gentle, abstracted smile did not flicker. "You have a very low opinion of my math skills, captain."
Zaraki loosened his sword in its sheath. "It's a very bad idea to underestimate your opponent."
"That is true," Unohana agreed.
"I'm not going to take it easy on you because you're a woman," Zaraki warned.
"I should hope not." Unohana stepped back a pace, away from her basket, and drew Minazuki. "In fact, Captain Zaraki, I hope you will accept a piece of advice. Don't hesitate to strike me: not even once, not even for a moment. It is your only hope of defeating me."
Zaraki laughed again. He felt the mad thrill along his spine that preceded battle and drew his own sword, the nameless one. "Come at me," he invited.
Unohana struck out at once. Zaraki met the blow easily. Oh, so she was testing him, was she? He would test her in return.
By the time their blades crossed a tenth time Zaraki had her mettle, and he was genuinely impressed. He had longer reach and far greater strength, but Unohana matched him in speed and agility. And she had the true sword-master's ability to anticipate her opponent's moves just enough to avoid them, like a telepathy of the body.
But the first time he suspected she might be more gifted than he realized came when she leaped like a gazelle and thrust at his head. The blow missed him. He felt the wind of its passing. "You missed," Zaraki called, feeling triumphant, but then his eyepatch fluttered to the ground. She had sliced through the ribbon holding it on.
Zaraki raised a startled hand to his face—no blood, just unbroken skin. Unohana hadn't even scratched him. That was not kendo. That was kenjutsu.
Unohana lifted Minazuki in a polite salute. "That's better," she said. "You're going to want your full strength, captain."
Zaraki threw back his head and roared with laughter. And then he lunged.
Before five more minutes had passed Zaraki's opinion of Unohana's swordplay changed five times, until he at last ran out of superlatives to describe her skill. Unohana Retsu did not just wield a blade. The blade was part of herself, an extension not just of her arm but her mind. And behind each strike was a fierce spiritual pressure.
But it wasn't nearly as strong as his own. Not by a long shot. Zaraki saw a micro-second-long opening and jabbed out with his sword; Unohana jerked to the side and the zanpakto grazed her shoulder. Unohana hopped lightly backward out of his reach, glancing down at her shoulder with surprise. A crimson rose blossomed from her sleeve.
"You're going to need some of those bandages for yourself," he called.
Unohana tutted, as if chiding herself. Then she leaped forward with a blindingly fast series of lunges and retreats; it left them both breathing hard and the air around them glowing with reiatsu.
Zaraki roared with laughter. He hadn't felt so alive in ages. Fighting at full strength, trading blows with an equal or at least a near-equal; it was worth all the scheming and maneuvering to get her here. Unohana feinted suddenly and Zaraki barely managed to throw himself to the side, but he cursed himself for carelessness; it was going to be a bad blow when it connected. He braced himself for it. Her blade slit his sleeve and came away wet with blood, but left his arm attached to his shoulder. It shouldn't have.
And then Zaraki was suddenly, blindingly angry.
"You're going easy on me," he said aloud. Zaraki's lips peeled back from his teeth in a snarl. The fight that had been fun till that moment suddenly felt like a mockery. He let his sword fall like a hammer; it rang against hers. "You're pulling your punches."
He struck again, fueled by rage. How dare she take him so lightly! She wasn't really trying to defeat him—she was just humoring his desire to spar with her. She was humoring him! "You're hiding"—another, furious blow—"your true strength."
Three quick blows forced Unohana backwards and though she lost a bit of ground Unohana did not lose her composure. Damn her. Zaraki wanted to rattle her; to break that iron self-possession, ruin her serenity—to make an impact on her. Zaraki struck again; Unohana parried again; it shook the ground like thunder. "Come on, woman. Show me what you've got."
Something flashed deep in Unohana's eyes. "You want to see my true strength? You fool."
It is a testament to the power of the survival instinct that even in the midst of his blood-rage, some little warning bell went off in the back of Zaraki's head: retreat, retreat, pull back, perhaps this isn't wise. Zaraki let his sword arm fall. To his surprise, so did Unohana.
Her eyes fixed on Zaraki's. "Gorge, Minazuki," she said.
Her sword disappeared. A green mist coalesced around Unohana, sinking into her skin. What was the woman doing? This was her strength? Where? She was defenseless now. Unohana closed her eyes, and Zaraki hesitated for a split-second—it seemed unsporting to kill an unarmed woman with her eyes closed. But he was here to prove his strength, wasn't he? And this was his chance to defeat her. Zaraki raised his sword for a final decisive blow.
But by then it was too late.
In the middle of Unohana's forehead, Minazuki's eye slowly opened.
Zaraki's heart skipped a beat and then began thumping against his ribs like a caged bird. He could not look away from that huge eye, glowing faintly green. He had seen far worse things in his years of fighting hollows; what made the eye such a horror? It seemed to pulse with a slow, sickening rhythm, like a tortured heartbeat; Zaraki's own heartbeat, thumping in his ears, changed itself to fit the eye's rhythm.
All three of Unohana's eyes fixed on him. Zaraki felt light-headed; panic nipped at him. Some in the Seireitei called him a beast, and perhaps he was, but he had prided himself on being a predator. For the first time in many, many years, he felt the unswerving conviction that he was prey, the quarry of this aberrant, perverse, horrifying thing.
Zaraki surged forward. He would end this fight as quickly as possible. It would be easy, very easy; Unohana's hands were empty now. She had nothing to fight with. He shifted his weight, aiming the blow at her mid-section. It would be a precise, razor-swift thrust, enough to incapacitate her but not to kill her, not quite. Then he would scoop her up and get her back to the 4th before she bled to death. He wanted to defeat her, not kill her.
At least, that was what he had wanted a minute ago. It almost didn't matter now. What Zaraki wanted most right now was to strike her down and rid the world of that terrible eye.
His lunge went as he planned and his sword pierced her body exactly where he intended. Or it should have. But the moment Zaraki's sword touched Unohana he felt something inside himself snap. Some floodgate opened. The scent of Unohana's reiatsu filled his nostrils, and he felt something flow from his body, through his sword, into Unohana. It was a delicious feeling, indescribably sweet and powerful.
He looked, dumfounded, from the sword to her face. Her empty hands were still at her side. Her three eyes held his, as piercing as any sword.
Zaraki moved to withdraw his sword, to heave himself out of reach. But instead of moving backward, he felt himself pulled forward; the sword sank further into Unohana's flesh. The harder he pulled back, the more quickly his sword was dragged in. His sword was being devoured, Zaraki realized. He was being devoured. He was being eaten.
Zaraki staggered forward a step, then fell to his knees. That drugging sweetness drained the strength from his body with terrifying speed. He was dying, wasn't he?
He felt no pain, no fear; instead he was curiously comfortable, cushioned and warm, surrounded by the scent of honeysuckle. The sky was falling—no, merely narrowing, drawing itself in and in till it formed a blue halo around Unohana's head. And then that disappeared as well, till all the world was her white face and dark hair and the slow, mesmerizing pulse of Minazuki's eye.
How long he was insensible Zaraki did not know, but he awakened to a sense of enormous, profound wonderment. Before he was fully conscious he recognized the scent of Unohana's reiatsu. It entirely surrounded him. Unohana's hands were flat on his chest, and he could feel strength seeping back into him through her touch.
Zaraki dragged his eyelids up; they felt as heavy as granite. "That was something," he said.
Unohana gave him a reproving look. "It was childish. And foolish. And dangerous. I'm returning all of the life Minazuki took from you, Captain Zaraki, but you'll need to be careful for a day or two nonetheless."
Zaraki shuddered. He never, ever wanted to see her bankai again. She really was an astonishing woman. "Can you do that from a distance, or do you need physical contact?"
"It requires Minazuki's gaze to fall on one."
Zaraki said admiringly, "It would take a whole division to bring you down."
"It would take more than one." Unohana frowned. "Don't try it, or I really will be angry."
"Is that how you're able to heal people? You take the life from some people and give it to others?"
"That's a vast oversimplification. And Minazuki takes life from everywhere, all the time. But if I fight with Minazuki, yes, that is what we do. So now you know. I hope you're satisfied."
Zaraki snorted. "Not nearly." He made a move to get up.
Unohana leaned against her hands, pushing her whole modest weight against his chest. "Stay there and be healed," she commanded.
Zaraki subsided. It seemed wise not to annoy the woman. Apparently he had at last learned wisdom.
"I don't understand you at all," Unohana said, sounding exasperated. "It's been hundreds of years, literally hundreds of years, since anyone has aggravated me as persistently as you. I demand an answer. What on earth are you trying to accomplish? Why are you doing this?"
The long dangling end of Unohana's braid brushed against Zaraki's chest. Her eyes were brilliant and the very faintest flush spread up over her cheeks, the most delicate wild-rose pink imaginable. The life she had filled him with fluttered in his chest under her smooth hands.
Zaraki grasped Unohana's wrists and yanked. She fell forward onto his chest with a little gasp, a little sound that was extremely rewarding in itself; as was the feel of her pressed against him—warm, soft, pliant, extremely full of life. Zaraki did not allow himself a moment to enjoy the sensation; instead he rolled them both over. He did indulge himself with a single hard kiss against her mouth, but mindful of the plan, kept it short and reasonably respectful.
After all, he had a list. Kissing appeared on it, but there were few more items to get through first if he was going to achieve a meaningful conquest over this remarkable woman.
So rather than follow that first kiss with a score of additional, more insistent kisses, he trailed his lips across Unohana's cheek till they rested against her ear. "Why am I doing this?" he rumbled, his voice as intimate as he could make it. "If you think about it really hard, I'm sure you'll come up with something."
Zaraki shifted his hips against hers, to be sure she would have something significant to think about, and pulled his head back. Unohana's eyes were as wide as he had ever seen them, and the flush had deepened and spread down her neck to the edge of her captain's uniform, and her gleaming hair was mussed. It was a very attractive picture.
Zaraki stood, half-drunk with elation. He hooked his hands around Unohana's elbows, set her neatly back on her feet and ambled toward the city. He had lost the fight, which was unexpected, but had succeeded in flustering Unohana, which represented a much more important win. Zaraki was careful not to look back, because robbing his woman of her dignity was not on the list, but he couldn't help smiling. It would be days and days before he could stop smiling, as he carefully crafted his next maneuver. Zaraki intended to see Unohana looking mussed and flushed again. And next time he would be sure she also looked thoroughly kissed.
Unohana stood where Zaraki had left her, hands pressed against her hot cheeks. And then she laughed. It had been hundreds of years, literally hundreds of years, since anyone had dared to approach her so boldly. It appeared she was about to be courted. But she couldn't allow him to have it all his own way. The man was already insufferable. Zaraki would not find her easily conquered. Unohana gathered her basket and headed back to the city, still smiling, already planning her counterfeints.
The silence on the west-side plain was broken by a chorus of indrawn breaths. "See? I told you Ken-chan didn't need any help," said Yachiru, smiling fondly at Unohana's receding back.
"He's insane," breathed Ikkaku.
Yumichika's eyebrows looked as if they were about to take flight. "And braver than I ever realized."
"So who won?" Yachiru asked. "I couldn't tell. Could you?"
"It's not about winning and losing," objected Ikkaku.
"I'm giving this one to the captain," said Yumichika. "Did you see her face, there at the end? The captain definitely won."
"The fact that the captain was even out here means that Unohana won," Ikkaku objected immediately. "She won by default."
It was an argument that continued through the walk back to Seireitei, and was eagerly taken up by every member of the 11th, and then the 4th, and eventually by all the divisions. Captain Shunsui even made a book on it, and if Ukitake had laid ten to one on Unohana, Lieutenant Matsumoto laid a hundred to one on Zaraki.