The worrying thing was that Shunsui wasn't drinking the wine. He was turning the cup in his hand, and smiling as pleasantly as ever, but he hadn't needed his cup refilled all evening, and Jyuushirou was perfectly well aware of the reason why.
One of the reasons why Shunsui was such a pleasant (and frequent) drinker was the fact that he never did anything while drinking which he'd have to apologise for later. Or at least, not more than he did while sober. Jyuushirou wasn't sure whether to attribute it to the centuries of practice, the iron control, the iron liver, or his friend's naturally amiable disposition.
But - and there was always a but - there could be a very nasty underside to that naturally pleasant disposition. If Shunsui was actively avoiding drinking, then he was in such a fury that even the slightest relaxation of control might be enough for him to do something very pragmatic and very lethal.
And Shunsui hadn't been drinking all evening.
It came as no surprise, and almost something of a relief, when Shunsui rose and picked up his swords. "Excuse me a moment, Jyuushirou," he said. "I have someone to kill."
"I thought we'd been through this already," Jyuushirou said.
"We have," Shunsui agreed. "But you've also said that there's a chance he may be acquitted, and I won't permit that."
"Unthinkable." Jyuushirou rose to his feet, pausing to cough. "The physical evidence is unarguable. The witnesses all agree. You know what the Chamber's like. They're not the sort to acquit, even in cases where there's room for doubt." And that did twitch at his conscience a bit, but not very much at the moment, not tonight.
"She wasn't your vice-captain," Shunsui said.
"Even if she had been, it wouldn't make a difference," Jyuushirou answered.
The night breeze whispered outside.
"They actually caught him coming out of his private workroom, you know," Shunsui said. It wasn't the first time that he'd said it during the conversation. "Walking out into the morning sunlight, as casual as if he never even expected to have Covert Operations at his door. And all of them lying there in his laboratory."
"There's still a chance that Unohana-sempai may be able to do something," Jyuushirou said.
"There's a chance," Shunsui agreed. "It's just not a very good chance. I went to see her and the others. They wouldn't let me in the same room with them, of course, but you could see the - the filth -moving across their faces, warping their bodies. There was barely anything of them left."
Again, it wasn't the first time that this had come up in the conversation.
"You're making this a personal quarrel," Jyuushirou said, falling back on an unfair but hopefully effective tactic.
"A captain has the right to answer an injury to his vice-captain," Shunsui said calmly. "And to defend other officers."
"It's still personal." Jyuushirou controlled his own rising temper. "I was standing next to you at the time. You may remember?"
"It wasn't you he lied to," Shunsui said, a whisper of storm behind his voice for a moment. "I knew something was wrong, but I let him convince me that he was simply nervous for normal reasons, the way that any captain might be when his vice-captain had been sent into danger. He used her as a pawn too, Jyuushirou. Think about that."
"You had other suspicions as well," Jyuushirou said, as gently as he could.
"My error," Shunsui said. "I practically tripped over the fellow when I was nosing around. Half his Division can testify that he was there. He's the last person who could have been involved." His eyes narrowed. "You're trying to distract me."
"Yes," Jyuushirou admitted. "Is it working?"
"No. Now, if you'll excuse me -"
"Shunsui." Jyuushirou caught his friend by the sleeve and played his last, meanest card. "We both know that Yadomaru-fukutaichou wouldn't have wanted you to do this."
Shunsui went still, and Jyuushirou could feel the tension in his body. "And who are you to speak for her?" he said with deadly gentleness.
"Her friend and yours."
Shunsui shot him a heavy-lidded glare.
"Yama-jii won't be able to ignore this," Jyuushirou went on urgently. "We both know he's guilty, but let the law take care of it. Yadomaru-kun wouldn't have wanted you to disgrace yourself. Not like this." He deliberately went for emotive words, prodding for effect. "Dying in the heat of battle is one thing. Fighting for what you know is a good cause is another. But wasting your honour in something that the law's going to deal with anyhow -"
Shunsui shook his hand off with a twitch of his arm. "Very well," he said slowly. "Very well. But right now I believe that I want to be somewhere else."
"Wide patrol, maybe." Shunsui gave him that deep glare again. "After all, I don't have a vice-captain to look after these things for me now, do I?"
"That'll be days."
"Yes," Shunsui agreed. "It will. And when I come back to hear that it's all over, perhaps I will be less inclined to settle it for myself."
Jyuushirou let him get to the door before asking, "What if Yadomaru-kun asks for you while you're away?"
"Then you can come and get me," Shunsui said. "But we all know she isn't going to do that. There's only one thing that she and our other friends need now. It's only a question of time till Unohana gets the order from the Forty-Six to cleanse them as we'd do for any other Hollow." He passed his hand across his face, and for a moment his weariness showed. "Better sooner than later, I think."
Jyuushirou couldn't answer that. He raised his hand in farewell, and watched Shunsui walk into the night.
Two days later, he was standing on the practice ground when he felt Shunsui's reiatsu come within his range of perception. He flared his own reiatsu in response, knowing that Shunsui would sense it. He'd already taken pains to get people out of the area: he'd ordered the Academy class who'd been practicing there back to their classes at once, and he'd had his Third Seats watch the main approaches to warn other shinigami away.
He glanced aside for a moment, and Shunsui was there before he'd finished drawing his next breath, the wind pulling at his robes. Dust from travel still clung to his sandals and lingered in streaks on his clothing.
However, physical presence was a small thing when set against the storm of his reiatsu. He had been angry before, two nights ago. He was furious now. The dry grass was powder where he stepped on it. The air moved in quick fits and starts, with normal winds turning their paths to avoid him, bending away from the eye of the hurricane. A rising vortex of anger spun around him like a physical thing, growing denser and darker with each passing revolution.
"I got your message," Shunsui said curtly. "I'm surprised you didn't come to bring it yourself."
Jyuushirou shrugged. "I was helping supervise the search from this end. I thought you'd want to know it was being done thoroughly."
"And you found?"
"Nothing," Jyuushirou said.
"Nothing at all?" Shunsui's brows drew together. "That piece of shit walks out of here and takes all his victims with him, and you found nothing?"
The vulgarity hung in the air like a stain. Jyuushirou held down his own temper with a growing effort. He had to make sure that Shunsui heard the facts while he was still in a condition to listen. "Shihouin Yoruichi helped him."
Shunsui paused for a moment, then shook his head. "Why would the girl do something so stupid?"
"They were children together," Jyuushirou said. "You should know what that means. And she is head of Covert Operations."
"Was, I assume," Shunsui said dryly.
"Was," Jyuushirou agreed. "But if there was anywhere to hide from the whole of Soul Society, then she is the person who would know where it is."
Shunsui's fingers drifted down to tap against the hilt of his katana. "So you are telling me that they have escaped, and that they took Lisa-chan and all the rest of them, and that you have no idea where they are, and at the most primitive and basic level, the man who ought to have had his head above the gateway two nights ago is now free to do exactly as he wishes."
"Yes," Jyuushirou agreed, and he drew his blade at the same moment that Shunsui drew his own two.
Shunsui didn't bother with formal declarations, or insults, or shikai. He simply attacked, moving into the traditional forms that they had practiced together so often, hammering at Jyuushirou in blows that had little of his usual deception or distraction about them, but everything to do with the need to strike out at someone. Jyuushirou moved into a standard set of parries. From a distance, he thought with the bit of his mind that was not focused on blocking Shunsui's strikes, it might almost have looked, from the ease of their movements and the closeness of their bodies, as though they were simply following the kata for the love of it.
Neither of them invoked their shikai. They were both too angry for that. But the grass flattened itself in great wide sweeps around them as they fought, and the wind shuddered and broke in all directions, and the air rumbled above them like summer thunder.
Jyuushirou reflected, with the bit of the back of his mind that wasn't focussed on the fight, that this had nothing to do with killing intent in the classical sense of deliberate will and absolute concentration. This was just about the intent to kill -
He swept a smooth leap over Shunsui's katana, turned and brought his own round to parry the offhand wakizashi thrust, and slid into a few paces of retreat, their blades tapping together one-two-three without a moment's breath in between.
- and behind it all, the intent to hurt.
"Did you help them?" Shunsui demanded.
"Don't be stupid," Jyuushirou said, and lashed out in a head cut that Shunsui lost his hat to avoid. In return he took a slice in his sleeve that went through three layers of robes and brushed cool metal against his arm. "Why would I have done that?"
"How should I know?" Shunsui said, quite unfairly, and twitched his left blade so that the sun flashed on it before moving into a straight thrust.
Jyuushirou stepped out of the way of the thrust, and brought his blade up to lock the hilts for a moment. "At least I didn't run away from the situation!"
Fury darkened Shunsui's gaze. He twisted his katana to break the lock, and his wakizashi came round in a quick cut that forced Jyuushirou to jump back. "I did as you suggested and trusted the law to handle it!"
"We both know that -" move move move sideways, the two of them tracing parallel lines across the field, the distance between them exact and unchanging "- was an excuse, don't we?"
"Better there than sitting here on my hands, waiting on Unohana -"
"Better here than waiting to take responsibility for your Yadomaru -"
Shunsui broke the distance and moved in to strike. He moved just slightly faster than Jyuushirou had expected, and Jyuushirou had been working to very precise expectations, knowing that Shunsui would already have driven himself as hard as he could on the patrol, to have an excuse not to think, and that was why Jyuushirou took the blow to his arm and felt the impact all the way to his shoulder. His zanpakutou screamed in his hand, demanding manifestation, and he forced it down with an effort of will.
Shunsui stood there, holding the blade close to Jyuushirou's throat. "I suppose you expect me to stop now," he said coldly.
"I expect to have to beat some sense into you," Jyuushirou snapped, and used the fractional moment to spin and whip his own blade, sharpened by fury and reiatsu, round into Shunsui's ribs, slicing through cloth and into flesh till it hit bone.
Shunsui slid back, blood running down his side: he tracked blood across the dusty ground, leaving dark scuff marks with each step. "The sensible thing would have been to kill him," he said heavily, "and you'd have done better to let me."
"No," Jyuushirou answered. He moved in to strike again, spiralling to take advantage of Shunsui's wounded side, but was forced to retreat from a set of blows that were painfully directed against his wounded arm. Another cut, a feint from Shunsui's wakizashi that had to be bypassed in favour of the katana's more direct threat, scored into his leg. "I don't think so."
They were both past shouting, too bitter to do more than say the bare minimum, in words deliberately chosen to hurt.
The fight went on for minutes that stretched like hours, until both of them stepped apart and stood there, watching each other, breathing hard, their blood spattered over their torn clothing and across the practice ground.
That evening Jyuushirou sat alone by his pond, listening to the melancholy cicadas and the hopeful frogs. His wounds from earlier still ached. While they had managed to avoid damaging each other seriously, they'd both given each other enough flesh wounds and bruises to make moving painful, and Unohana Retsu had declared that it was not worth her while to spend her time kidou-healing Captains who no doubt had very good reasons for 'slicing each other to bits at a moment like this'. She'd used disinfectant, bandages, and stitches instead, and she had done it in person. Her reiatsu had hovered over Jyuushirou like a mother's gaze, looking for the slightest opportunity to slap him down and teach him better manners.
She'd treated the two of them apart. He had no idea what she might or might not have said to Shunsui.
Again, he felt the reiatsu approaching before he could hear footsteps or see his friend. Shunsui trailed along the path, both his pink over-robe and his Captain's coat laid aside for the moment, even his hat gone: he was in plain black uniform, with tendrils of bandage protruding at the wrists.
(His own fault for leaving his arms wide open while back-stepping: their teachers had scolded him for it two thousand years ago, warning him that not all opponents would be distracted by floating sleeves and dramatic zanpakutou maneuvers. Nothing had changed.)
He had a jug of wine tucked under one arm. As he approached, he held it up. "Truce," he said.
"Truce," Jyuushirou agreed. He reached to one side and brought out the cups that he'd had standing ready.
After a few minutes of careful settling on the ground so that they could both reach the wine and cups without stretching their injuries, and after both cups had been filled, emptied, and filled again, they sat there in companionable silence.
"You were right," Shunsui eventually said, drifting elliptically round the subject. "One can't blame idiots so much for making mistakes. One can blame malice. It's harder to blame misjudgement."
"But not impossible," Jyuushirou said. The sun was setting in veils of cloud. It looked almost easy, the way that it sank into the west: so casual, so peaceful, so untouched.
"And you were right about Yadomaru." Shunsui bowed his head to rest it against his knees. "It would have been my responsibility to cleanse her. It was cowardice to leave it to Unohana."
"Nobody else was in that position," Jyuushirou said. Mashiro's captain had fallen beside her, after all, and Hiyori-kun - well, it was clear that her captain felt no responsibility towards her as his own subordinate, only as some sort of experimental subject. Jyuushirou spared a thought of pity for her and the others. "If I'd been in that position myself -"
"You'd have stayed," Shunsui said, looking at him sideways.
"I would be glad for an excuse to walk away," Jyuushirou answered.
They both drank. Shunsui poured more wine.
"I shouldn't have let her go," Shunsui said. "I could have ordered her back. Instead I actually pushed for it."
"For what it's worth," Jyuushirou said, "Yamamoto-soutaichou feels worse. And on account of more people."
Shunsui thought about that. "Yes," he said, and sighed. "You know how to prick my self-indulgence better than anyone else, don't you?"
"Practice," Jyuushirou said, rather than the noble we do it for each other or the more self-pitying I'm sure you'll do it for me some day. "I miss her too."
The weary sun dipped slowly, and it was twilight. Shadows became that little bit deeper as the last of the warm light drained away.
"We should get indoors," Shunsui said, not bothering to move. "Retsu-chan would scold."
"Why bother?" Jyuushirou checked the jug. Still plenty of wine. "I think that at the moment she'd like a target just as much as any of us."
"Then let's give her one," Shunsui said, and sat back to watch the moon rise.