Chapter Six

All This Aggravation

Sui-Feng narrowed her eyes. Standing stock-still in the middle of the rocky clearing, she allowed her senses to spread beyond their normal range.

The breeze was cool against her skin, but carried only the scent of dirt.

A bead of sweat traveled down her face to the corner of her mouth, leaving the taste of salt on her tongue.

The only things in sight were stones and boulders, brown and rough.

The only thing she could hear was her own breathing and the thudding of her heartbeat in her ears.

Swallowing drily, Sui-Feng took a deep breath and extended her sixth sense. Her reiatsu flowed, strong but tempered, into the clearing. Suddenly, she became attuned to nature, the life all around resonating to her presence.

The ants crawling in the crack ten feet to her left...the small rabbit hiding in a hole nearby from the snake stalking it...the raven in the dead tree nearby, watching everything with its beady eye...

And the lithe assassin hiding in the tree's shadow.

Allowing one of the throwing knives she kept stored in her sleeves to slide into her hand, Sui-Feng launched herself into action, flinging it and dodging to the left as her assailant emerged from their hiding spot and mirrored her movements. Another knife was brought to her hand and brought into a defensive position as she slid to a stop.

The attacker did the same, and the two stared at each other, waiting for their opponent to make the first move, the first mistake, the first opening.

Sui-Feng, not dropping her guard, stepped to the left. The faceless attacker did the same, and the two circled each other slowly.

The Captain swallowed again. This was not the first time she had faced this adversary; no, they had danced this dance many, many times, here in the Sokyoku Training Grounds...

And most of the time, she lost, and, each time, it was only through the mercy of the one she faced that Sui-Feng lived to see another day.

The beige-masked head of her enemy cocked itself to the side, and the slender shoulders shook themselves in silent laughter. Gritting her teeth, Sui-Feng held her frustration down.

The assassin was mocking her.

Oh, how little things changed...

Surging forward in a soundless flash step, the diminutive Captain reflected upon the fact that, if she currently had Suzumebachi, then this fight wouldn't take too long, not at all. Two hits, really. But that was one of the unspoken rules in these fights.

This was a test of skill in the secret arts of the Onmitsukido, the most precious techniques and forms of Hakuda that the average, garden-variety Soul Reaper had no clue of.

Dangerous techniques, kill moves...

Such as the "Phoenix Spreading Plumage", which Sui-Feng flawlessly employed upon the masked martial artist, only to be greeted by a hasty, ill-timed "Tiger Lashing Tail", the only known countermove to the kick the braided assassin had aimed at her opponent's sternum.

Sui-Feng took the punch square in the shoulder, allowing the momentum to revolve her in midair and give energy to the spinning backhand that crashed into the assailant's jaw...

Or would have, had said assailant been there to be hit.

Quickly slapping a palm to the earth before landing upon her still-smarting shoulder, Sui-Feng made a one-handspring and launched herself into the dry branches of the dead tree. Her back was to the trunk the instant she touched down, and obsidian eyes glared into the clearing as probing fingers felt for any brokenness in the afflicted member.

Her opponent was there on the opposite end, eyes the color and warmth of frozen gold staring holes into her own.

A single finger extended from the crossed arms and made a show of slowly shaking itself at her.

The message was clear.

'Naughty-naughty, little Feng. Little girls shouldn't play with such big techniques.'

The "little" Feng spat to the side as her self-examination reached its end. She stood up, flexing and rotating her left arm, grunting in grim satisfaction at its functioning, if bruised and painful, state.

A small buzz sounded in her mind, the brief humming of wings, and she resisted the urge to glance off to the hidden crevice where she had stashed her Zanpakuto.

Suzumebachi knew better than to speak directly to her mistress whilst in a one-on-one fight; she was merely letting Sui-Feng know that she was rooting for the small woman.

A distraction, yes...but not an unwelcome one.

"So...what say we end this?"

The smooth, rich contralto caught her attention. This was the first time her fellow jōnin had spoken during this fight, which in itself was an oddity; typically, her opposite had many the stinging jibe and jest to throw, almost as many as the blades she herself kept in her sleeves.

Which was quite a few.

The golden eyes drifted up and to the side as the masked marauder touched a finger to a hidden chin, as if considering something. "Hmmm...I believe that this win will bring me to...twenty-nine to your...nineteen? Or is it eighteen? Oh..." The slender shoulders raised and then fell in a hapless sigh. "It does get hard to remember numbers when you're so far ahead, doesn't it?"

Sui-Feng twitched visibly at the verbal slap...and then she disappeared, only to reappear a moment later in front of the mocking ninja, leg cocked around for a powerful roundhouse kick.

A hastily thrown-up block smashed painfully into her shin, but she barreled through it, and was rewarded with the grunt as the defending forearm was slammed backward and into the face of her irritating opponent.

Something crunched, and the unknown attacker leapt backward as Sui-Feng did the same to seek an opening again.

Both came to a standstill, each glowering at the other, even as the dark-skinned hands began to unwrap the beige burnoose from a purple-haired head. If the rapidly-blooming red flower on the scarf hadn't been enough of an indicator, the bloody mess exposed upon the cocoa-skinned face practically screamed of a broken nose.

Yoruichi Shihoin gingerly touched the end of her swollen, crooked member, wincing in pain as she did. Sui-Feng swallowed down her natural impulse to rush over and knock her head on the stone at her Lady's feet over and over in a bow of penitence.

Lady Yoruichi didn't like it when she did that during a..."sparring sesh", as the older woman had come to call their little tête-à-têtes.

However...Mayhap a bit of verbal snipery was in order?

"Perhaps," she called from her ready stance some distance away, "we should go ahead and end this." She smirked at her teacher. "I wouldn't want your perfect features to end up resembling Urahara's."

Yoruichi ceased her examination, opting instead to look at her confident student with serious eyes, raising a brow as she did.

And then she was gone, and Sui-Feng was flying across the clearing, ending her journey with a painful stop back-first against one of the many stone outcroppings around the clearing, landing on her face immediately after.

As she attempted to clear her head from the massive kick that had sent her on her way, the long braids she habitually wore were suddenly, agonizingly knotted in a fist and pulled back as a knee planted itself between her shoulders and a knife appeared at her throat.

Again, that rich, smooth voice, slightly distorted by the broken nose, caught her ear. "You're right, little bee. Let's stop here...unless," and a little jerk was given to her braids as the knife pressed menacingly against her carotids, "you'd rather keep going?"

Sui-Feng weighed her options, and found them sincerely wanting. No kido was allowed, she didn't have Suzumebachi, as per the rules, and, were this a real battle, Lady Yoruichi would have slit her throat by now and, as was the right of victors, taken her head for an honor prize.

Slowly, she reached out a small hand and tapped twice on the ground. Immediately afterward, the pressure on her hair, neck, and back ceased, and a widely grinning Yoruichi Shihoin was helping her up and dusting her off.

"Not bad, little bee, not bad at all! You're getting a lot better; I can tell all that training you did is really paying off!"

Blushing a bit at the combination of her defeat and the compliments from the woman she idolized, Sui-Feng gave a shy smile. "Thank you, milady." She sighed. "I don't think I'll ever measure up to you, though..."

Yoruichi waved this off, an impatient snort causing her to wince painfully even as she smiled. "Nah, you'll get the upper hand abilitywise soon enough." She clapped her hands. "Now. I know you hate Kisuke, but I really know that you don't hate that hot spring he made down here..."

Sui-Feng walked over to the hidden crag where Suzumebachi lay impatiently.

You totally could have taken her, Bee! What'd you tap out for?!

"Hush, Suzumebachi," the Captain murmured to the blade. Turning to her lady, she nodded her assent. "No, milady, I don't." Reaching her mentor's side, she painfully rubbed her shoulder, a grimace creasing her features. "Just glad he proved useful, for once."

Yoruichi ruffled the smaller woman's hair playfully. "Ah, he's not so bad."

"..as you say, Lady Yoruichi..."

"And maybe you can talk to me about what's bothering you so badly; I could tell that you're frustrated about something."

"Yes, milady..."

They rounded the corner of the clearing's main path to the hot spring.

"Hey, little bee?"

"Yes, milady?"

"You realize that we're going to be naked together, right?"

And Yoruichi's laughter rang off the stones as Sui-Feng sputtered.

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According to Quincy folk tale, the Shinigami known to them as "the Butcher" was an ogre given a human-like form, bloodthirsty, malevolent, and utterly ruthless. As tales were passed down, he quickly gained several attributes that were ascribed to the creatures that reach the status of living legend.

He ate the flesh of children.

He would only come at night.

He demanded the sacrifice of undefiled virgins.

He lived under the bed.

He would only come at noon.

He wouldn't harm children.

He lived under the arches of Hell, playing dice with the Devil and the Grim Reaper.

And so on.

However, there was one thing all the legends agreed upon, and that was his implacable nature and the completely merciless method of hunting his enemies. The Butcher showed no compunction about rooting out even the most peaceful Quincy villages and razing them to the ground, no survivors but the dying left to tell the tale.

It had been this way for a thousand years and more.

However...

It had never crossed the average mind that such a malevolent and strong force would be in front of a modern kitchen sink, quietly preparing vegetables for a salad.

Tatter de Malion ran the tap in the Lieutenant's Quarters on a low, cool stream, gently washing the dirt off the single tomato and lone carrot he had picked from the items he had bought from a stall in the First Rukon earlier that morning. The head of lettuce sat glistening upon the counter, ready and waiting to be chopped and pulled apart.

Shaking the extra water off of the vegetables, he lay them next to the lettuce, shutting the water off.

Turned slowly, and sedately walked to the cutlery drawer.

Selected an appropriate blade.

Walked back to the counter, brought the cutting board to him from the side.

Tatter then placed the lettuce upon the board, cutting the end off as he did, and began to slowly and steadily push the blade through the leaves.

Tatter had come to like this kitchen in the time he had been here. The house was just big enough for his needs, plus a guest should he want one (which he didn't; he preferred his own company), and the kitchen had an extraordinarily nice view of the aesthetic garden common to all the Divisions.

He was off duty today, and so Tatter was able to fully employ another thing that drove his temperamental Captain insane.

Simply put, the art of moving...slowly.

Tatter de Malion had spent the majority of his life on the run, hurrying from this place, making haste to the other, trying to simultaneously keep up with and also one step ahead of his many, many enemies. As such, when he came to places he knew he would be safe, he took the time to...well...take his time.

He finished his duties in a timely manner, yes...but in moving, he breathed deep and chose his steps. Every motion of his hand was calculated to take the least effort, conserving his energy. If anything, all this made him seem almost lethargic, and the image didn't improve when he took a deep breath before speaking.

This peculiar habit of his, combined with his perennially-hooded eyes, had caused him to rouse the Captain's ire on at least two occasions, each time starting with her "growing concern" about his "obvious lack of sleep" and ending with her raised voice on how he was making her Division look bad with his sluggard's attitude.

Each time, he had merely looked over his reading spectacles at her, gave his usual out-of-sync blinking routine, and apologized, once again reminding her of the temporary nature of his placement.

It infuriated her to no end.

Tatter had to admit...he rather enjoyed that.

Finishing the lettuce, he selected the best leaves and put the others aside for later, and then began slicing the tomato, and then shaving the carrot.

Tatter had just enough to make a salad large enough for himself, which would suffice for lunch. He had a very large, very comfortable chair (courtesy of his predecessor) in which he could enjoy his meal, and then possibly take a nap or read a book.

He paused at this thought.

It had been quite some time since he had read a book with the intention of enjoying it.

He looked down at his salad.

It had been quite some time since he had made a proper meal by hand, as well...not that a lone salad could be considered a meal, of course, but it opened up possibilities...most of his meals for his stay had been from the Second Division Cafeteria. They were good, but still didn't compare to a meal made for himself by himself.

"Home cooking is the best," he murmured, idly scratching at the white streak in his indigo hair. He cocked his head at the Zanpakuto leaning against the counter, his crimson eyes questioning as he produced a bowl and began to place his meal in it. "What do you think, old father?"

Silence answered him, and he grunted. Furui Hone was being short today, and the blade's normally recalcitrant and quiet nature had deteriorated as a result.

Picking up the wooden spoon and fork, de Malion began to toss the leaves and tomato and carrot shavings. "You're a grumpy old man, you know that?"

Rattleshakerattlerattleclatter

The Lieutenant blinked, drawing back a bit in surprise as he stared at the vibrating blade. "No need for that kind of language, old father; I was just—"

ShakeshakeclackclackRATTLE

"And how did I keep you up all night?"

ShakeshakeCLACK

De Malion finished his stirring and made his way to the small refrigerator. "I do not snore." He looked inside and picked out a vinaigrette dressing, holding up and squinting at the expiration date.

Still good.

Closing the door and shaking up the dressing, he proceeded to open and pour it upon his salad. "That," he shot back at the sword, "would be your job, Old Bones."

The irritable spirit made no reply as Tatter de Malion, balancing his bowl of salad in one hand, picked him up and made their way to the armchair.

Sitting down, the Shinigami leaned his companion against the coffee table in the center of the room, picked out his fork, and proceeded to take a large bite.

He munched and swallowed. "Not bad..." De Malion frowned a bit, the large scar on his face twisting the expression into something slightly more macabre. "Needs something else, though..."

Shakeshake

The words were considered. "Yeah...meat makes everything better..."

The next few minutes were passed in companionable silence, the only sounds being the munching of a very simple salad.

Finally, the fork clattered into the empty bowl.

Tatter de Malion sighed. He normally didn't eat much rabbit food, but a fresh salad seemed nice, and now he was reasonably full, at least until dinner...which brought up another question.

"You think I should eat out again?"

Before the blade could make an answer, its master whipped his head around, all signs of lethargy gone.

Through the window, crimson eyes, suddenly wide-open and alert, sought out the source of the noise he had just heard...

And the gently fluttering form of a Hell Butterfly suddenly winged through the open portal, coming to rest on the newly outstretched finger of the rogue.

The little creature proceeded to deliver its message.

"A mission for both of us?"

A twitch of an antenna confirmed the question, and the small insect once again flew through the window, back to the cages of the Sixth Division.

Tatter de Malion blinked, looking around at his living room, and his gaze turned to the long sword before him.

"...so much for a day off..."

Shivershiverclatter

"No," sighed the rogue as he levered himself out of the armchair and picked up the Zanpakuto, making his way to the front door. "She isn't going to like this one little bit."

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"—and he keeps standing there until I tell him to sit!"

Sui-Feng was regaling Yoruichi with all of her substitute Lieutenant's shortcomings as she finished clothing herself. Having felt that she was sufficiently relaxed and healed in the miraculous liquid, she was now opting to lean against one of the stones, dangling her feet in the near-scalding water as the Shihoin Princess reclined in the buff, waterline just barely concealing her own modesty.

The older woman tossed back a small saucer of sake, a slightly inebriated blush dusting her cocoa skin as she reached for the pitcher resting by the poolside.

"Well, bee, I don't think it's anything to get worked up about..." she mused as the clear liquor ran its way into the cup. Yoruichi raised it to her lips again. "So he's old fashioned. So he's weird. So he does things differently." Once more, the cup emptied itself past her full lips. Letting out a satisfied "Ahhh", the jōnin looked to her protégé.

"So what?"

Said protégé blinked. "What?"

Yoruichi smirked. "What what?"

Sui-Feng stared. "...what?"

Yoruichi snorted, the healing spring having put her pained proboscis in proper position posthaste. "Never mind." She reclined, eyes lazily drifting half-closed as her breasts just as lazily floated to the surface of the water. Enjoying Sui-Feng's blush and averted eyes, she made a vague motion in the air.

"If you're that worked up about it, then go do something with him."

Sui-Feng turned to look at her teacher, remembering a moment too late about the cat's exhibitionist tendencies. "Uh...wh-what do you mean?"

Yoruichi relaxed further, folding her arms behind her head. "I remember exactly how you really are, Sui-Feng. You get all worked up over little things until you get the chance to find out more about the person you're in a crisis over. You were the same way with me until we began spending time together."

Sui-Feng remembered those times, as well, and knew that her Lady was right. Yoruichi Shihoin had been a larger than life figure to her, a goddess among the unwashed, a rose among the thorns. Having quality one-on-one time had exposed her to what the Princess truly was; a young woman as lonely and in need of a friend as little Shaolin Feng had been, and it had seemed to that girl as if the unbridgeable gap between them was that much shorter.

But...

"But Lady Yoruichi, that's not the same thing!"

"Oh?" said the Flash Master. "How so?"

"He's a man!"

Yoruichi rolled her eyes. "Oh, really? I hadn't noticed."

Sui-Feng spluttered. "I'm serious! They're...different!"

Yoruichi stared at her student. "Yes, little bee," she said slowly. "They are different."

Sui-Feng grappled with her tongue for a moment. "And he's even stranger than the rest! He does the weirdest things, he eats utterly outlandish food, and his sword dances when he talks to it!"

She stopped short at the large smile on the nude goddess's face. "What?!"

Yoruichi continued smiling. "You got a crush on him. Dontcha?"

"No! And don't laugh at me, milady! He's completely deranged, somehow! I barely can get him to say anything to me, and when he does talk, half the time I can't even understand what he's sa—"

"Herping the Derp, Captain?" The hoarse voice behind her interrupted.

This odd question was punctuated by a short scream, followed by a splash as the unfortunate Captain of Squad Two jerked in surprise, causing her to fall into the spring.

Yoruichi Shihoin laughed uproariously as the diminutive assassin rocketed to the surface, dripping wet and spluttering...

To come face-to-face with the most recent object of her constant irritation.

"De Malion!" Her shriek of rage only made him blink, and caused the other occupant of the pool to erupt into further spasms of alcohol-fueled laughter.

"Captain." His greeting, calm and cool as always, only served to further aggravate her already-spent temper.

"What the blazing hell do you think you're doing here?!" Sui-Feng clambered out of the pool, her sodden robes making the journey from water to stone all that more difficult. Finally, she stood with her hands on her hips and at full height.

It was here that she was reminded once again that she barely made eye-contact with his chest. Sui-Feng irritatedly adjusted her line of sight accordingly, fixing her subordinate with her most withering glare.

He seemed unimpressed with it. Understandably so, given her current impression of a soaked cat.

She made the best of it, though. "I asked you a question, Lieutenant!" she barked in her best drill-sergeant voice,

A pause as he took a deep breath. "I wasn't under the impression that this was a private training ground."

"It's not...but it does beg the question of how you found it." Yoruichi's voice, still somewhat strangled thanks to the odd giggle, rang out, giving Sui-Feng another bit of anger to crank up her stare with.

"I have my ways," was the mysterious answer. As he leaned around to say hello to the Princess Shihoin, Sui-Feng grabbed de Malion's shoulder and jerked him back into place. "How dare you try to see the Lady Yoruichi naked? What kind of man are you?!"

Tatter de Malion merely stared at her. "Captain," he said after another deep breath. "I'm over a thousand years old. She hasn't got anything I haven't seen a hundred-hundred times." Before she could stop him, he leaned back around her and gave the exposed Goddess an appraising look, which she returned.

De Malion gave an approving grunt. "I do have to admit, though; they're some of the nicest I've ever seen."

"LIEUTENANT!"

Ignoring the scandalized young woman, Yoruichi beamed at him. "Why, thank you, Lieutenant de Malion." At his nod, her look turned sultry. "Now...since I've shown you mine, why don't you show me yours?"

"LADY YORUICHI!"

The man shrugged, waving a hand. "I'll have to pass, milady. I came here for the Captain." He turned to the red-faced woman. "Sorry to interrupt your day off, Captain, but mine's been cut short, too. It appears we may have some runaways to round up."

Sui-Feng found enough of her composure to swallow a breath. "Official...orders?" she grated out.

A nod. "Straight from our recon crew, courtesy of the Butterfly Express."

Sui-Feng jerkily raised a dismissive hand. "Meet...me...at the office...in a half-hour..."

"Yes, Captain." In a blur of reiryoku, flash step took Tatter de Malion out of the underground arena, leaving the two women alone.

The dripping Commander-in-Chief of the Onmitsukido turned to the still-chuckling woman in the pool. "And he's an utter pervert!" she rasped, pointing in the direction the man had gone.

Yoruichi shrugged, then, smiling, arched her back and laced her fingers behind her head, shifting her wet bosom suggestively.

"Can you blame him?"