Bleach Fan Fiction ❯ Silver Service ( Chapter 51 )

[ T - Teen: Not suitable for readers under 13 ]
Tite Kubo owns Bleach.  I just borrowed the characters.  I do own Atonomatsuri (the bird) and Piecrust (the jerk).  I make no money from this work.  None.  

Silver Service

« Who won? » Kurotsuchi asked with a small amount of impatience.

Ise regarded him for a moment as if she had not expected that question.  « No one won.  It was simply a task that was part of the challenge. « 

When the nature of the challenge had been explained, the question of whether the tasks would be part of the way that the winner would be selected hadn’t crossed his mind.  The way it had been explained made it clear that staying awake was the whole purpose and the tasks were incidental.  He’d tried hard with washing the rice as it gave him something on which to focus aside from standing and staring, but even so, the repetitive nature of the tasks hadn’t helped.

« But, » Kurotsuchi looked aghast and shook his head.  « But who washed the rice cleaner? »

Ise took a deep breath and said slowly, « It doesn’t count toward the challenge.  It’s part of it, true.  The winner is the Captain who doesn’t fall asleep, not the person who completes the tasks more effectively. »

Kurotsuchi shook his head, almost in denial.  It was clear that he was not happy with this information and wished to argue further, but decided there was little chance Ise would yield.

« Please take you positions once more, » were the next instructions.

Folding his arms, Zaraki wondered how time might pass more easily.  Talking to the bird was an option, yet it was too soon after her near apology.  Past experience indicated she might be more argumentative than ever and try to provoke him into a fight in order to avoid any mention of it.  While the sentiment might exist, even if she had behaved badly, she hated being in the wrong.  In time the situation would be altered in her mind where he had been the one to make the apology for some reason or other.  Not that he would, but she liked to believe many things which weren’t true.

Atonomatsuri was proud, stubborn and impossible, but she was all he was likely to get.  Changing the spirit of a zanpakuto might be possible, but the only men he knew who might manage it were either his competitor or a suspect shopkeeper in the human world and it was a hard call to decide  whom he trusted less.  After the challenges were over, irrespective of who won,  there was no point in asking Kurotsuchi.  The man might have hated him before this, but the effect of these experiences might make his mania worse.

« Why am I thinking mania?  The guy’s strange; but manic? »  It seemed an odd thought for him to have and it was hard to summon up even a slight care factor about what happened to the 12th Division Captain when he finally lost.  If he was sentenced to return to the Maggots Nest, Zaraki felt the sentence was deserved.  There were stories about some of the experiments the man had attempted on his former fellow prisoners which unsettled the stomach and might cause nightmares for those more protected from the harsher realities of life.  Hell, he’d almost shuddered when Madarame had gone into detail about one particular experiment, but it might have been exaggerated by the retelling.

Killing was a fact of life, but drawing out the pain on a defenceless person wasn’t sport or fun.  The purpose of fighting wasn’t always to cause death to the other, but to prove who was stronger, or who had more skills.  A battle could be a place to learn new methods of defeating a stronger opponent or one who had a different fighting style.  Not that he changed the way he fought much, until now.  

Meeting that Ichigo kid and fighting him led to this moment of being bored in public.  Standing in the middle of a training area, staring at nothing and hearing the quiet whispering and laughter.  Then a shuffle of feet caused him to look at the audience.  Shinigami were moving out of their seats, avidly chatting and looking over their shoulders and nodding as they left.  A further shuffle of movement drew his eyes to the incoming Shinigami, talking excitedly.  What was exciting about watching two men stand, trying to remain awake, or washing rice?     

Then he saw the judges were also leaving, being replaced by Ukitake,  Hitsugaya and the guy with the sunglasses who hung around with Madarame.  He’d been in 11th Division at one time, but the name escaped him.  What was it?  He was an assistant Captain as well.  What was his name?

Ise came up to him and spoke very quietly.  « We are changing shifts as we need our sleep, even though you are not permitted to do so.  First Division, Assistant Captain Choujiro Sasakibe kindly agreed to take over my duties. »

Zaraki nodded.  There was no need to talk because it wasn’t his decision.  

Ise moved on to the Clown Captain only to become involved in a quiet and fierce whispering match.  Obviously Kurotsuchi wasn’t happy about the change, for some reason, or he was being objectionable.  Either way it didn’t matter.  He could protest all he liked.

Iba.  That was the guy’s name.   Tetsuzaemon Iba.  He liked to fight, liked to drink, but liked the chance of promotion a lot more than Zaraki’s 3rd seat.  Hell, Madarame would be a much better Assistant Captain, but he didn’t appear to have the ambition.  Maybe he should talk to him about it, but then it would mean appointing a new third seat, a change in personnel and seemed too much like hard work.

Bored, he looked toward around the audience again who seemed to be waiting for an event to take place.  It almost made him smile to think how they would be disappointed.  Another quick glance revealed the three new judges sat there, watching, not even talking amongst themselves.  

Zaraki again went back to avoiding talking to or thinking about Atonomatsuri.  A yawn built in his throat, but he suppressed it.  Yawning would indicate he was tired and such a sign of weakness wasn’t included in his plans.  Besides, he knew that if he started yawning now, stopping might prove difficult.   

A look to his left showed Kurotsuchi’s face contorted in a peculiar manner.  His eyes were open and staring, more than normal and there was a great amount of tension in his jaw, while he seemed to be swallowing rapidly. Was he going to vomit? The motion of the man’s chest seemed to have halted.  Maybe he was having a heart attack.  Now his eyes were nearly popping out of his head.  If the man did suffer a heart attack, would that mean he lost this challenge and the whole thing?  An end to all the stupid ideas dreamt up by people intent on amusement at his expense?  He hoped it was so.  

If the man’s face hadn’t been covered with make-up, Zaraki wasn’t sure if his face would be red or pale,  but beads of sweat were forming on his forehead, breaking through the white coating and trickling down his face.  It had to be a major problem for him to be acting this way.  Zaraki wondered if he should say something and then tried to work out if his care factor was high enough.  He didn’t have a care factor, so he did nothing.

Apparently, members of the audience noticed as a few people gestured at Sasakibe, who hurried over, displaying his usual dignity and decorum.  « Are you well, Captain Kurotsuchi? « 

The man he addressed gave a strangled gasp and then his mouth opened wide as he yawned, hugely, the yawn almost cutting his face in half.  The gaping mouth, pink gums, protruding tongue and roof of the mouth were fully exposed and made him look remarkably like a large, dead fish.

It was funny and Zaraki laughed and a number of people saw and also began to giggle.  Soon a wave of hilarity swept over all present except for Kurotsuchi who was now yawning freely, in between looking indignant.   All those facial contortions had been an attempt to avoid yawning!   The swallowing seemed a weird technique, but it might help.  Eventually the laughter died down.

« There is no cause for amusement, » Kurotsuchi said, his voice dripping with a mixture of rage and indignation.  « I was merely preventing a yawn. »

A small amount of tittering ensued at this, but most of the spectators attempted to keep their composure.  The Assistant Captain had stood there all through this, a concerned look on his face, not even a small smile touched his mouth.  Did the guy have any sense of humour?  He’d heard somewhere that the man idolised English culture.  The way he was acting made Zaraki recall something about that nationality.  Something about an inflexible top lip.  Did that mean they had no sense of humour?  

Before he could further follow the idea, he felt his own jaw tighten.  He’d wanted to yawn and watching  his opponent do  so only made it harder  for him to control the urge.  The laughter had blown away some of his tension, but the tension had assisted in keeping him alert.  

« Are you certain you are well, Captain Kurotsuchi?  You may withdraw if you are too exhausted to continue. » The man’s solemn measured tone didn’t help.  It was too soothing and made the urge to yawn become more insistent.

« No.  I won’t.  I merely yawned.  It’s a perfectly natural reaction to being physically inactive. »

Kurotsuchi’s mouth twitched and again began his convulsive swallowing with his eyes once more almost popping out.  

Watching the resulting mime show, it seemed curious the man fought the desire to yawn so strongly.  Or did he too see it as a sign of weakness?  At least watching the struggle made him forget his own battle against yawning.  

« It is now time, Captain Zaraki, Captain Kurotsuchi for the next task.  Please accompany me. »  Without waiting for agreement the man led the way to two tables that were set up behind where they’d been standing.  The tables were covered but the covers were not flat, but seemed to be concealing a number of objects of varying shape.  The chairs behind the tables had some green stuff flung over them.

« Please wear these, » Sasakibe politely asked.

« What are they? » Zaraki was curious and not pleasantly so.  

« They’re merely aprons to prevent your uniforms from being dirty. »

An apron!  He wasn’t going to wear a freaking apron.  Anger touched his mind and opening his mouth he prepared to provide his thoughts about wearing aprons and how the person suggesting it might find a chair being roughly inserted in his chest.

« No. »

« No. »

Both Kurotsuchi and he spoke the word at the same time.   Both sounded adamant and he certainly was.

« You have to wear the apron or forfeit the challenge. »

Zaraki was certain that the man was wrong and this was yet another scheme to amuse to watching Shinigami and promote further attendance.  

« Why? »

A strange confused looked crossed Sasakibe’s face.  « To keep your clothes clean and it is traditional.  In England butlers wear aprons to clean sliver. »

Before Zaraki could answer, Kurotsuchi burst out, « I am a Captain of the Gotei 13, not a butler.  Nor am I English. »

In spite of himself, Zaraki found he was nodding agreement.  All those things applied to him as well.  A butler was a servant and he served no one.  

« You do, Kenny. » The quiet interruption of Atonomatsuri’s voice was unwelcome. Now it seemed his thoughts weren’t private anymore.  

« I don’t serve anyone.  What are you saying? »  he answered her harshly as she had this habit of making him question his beliefs and then his life, or death, or whatever the hell he was in now.  Then he cursed, realising that answering her might mean she’d reply.

 » They also serve who only stand and wait. »  

He thought he detected a trace of humour is her voice.  The vulture was making a joke about the competition because he was standing around waiting for something to happen.  It didn’t make him a servant.  It made him a person who had been manipulated into this position by Captain Yamamoto.

Captain Yamamoto, his senior officer under whom he….

Damn that dratted bird.  Why did she do this to him?  That little detail had always been known to him, but he chose to ignore it.  He was Captain of a Division.  Because the Old Man had the final word over everything didn’t diminish Zaraki.  He knew many ways to get around orders and find loopholes, or refuse to do the bloody work.  She always did this.  Find a fact and twist it around to present it to him in a way he didn’t want to consider.  Did she do it on purpose as it gave her some form of pleasure?  Who could fathom how the bird thought?  He wasn’t going to concede on this occasion and resolved  to do so even more rarely in the future.  As long as she didn’t mention teddy bears, he could maintain his cool.

« I’m in charge, » he growled.  Saying the words was better than not saying anything.

Atonomatsuri chuckled cynically.  There was no mistaking the disbelief in her voice.  « It makes you feel better to think so.  We have to believe in free will. We have no choice. »

Free will.  The bird had once more gone off on a tangent.  Free will meant choice but the bird was saying they had to believe in free will as they had no choice?  What sort of statement was that?  

Rather than reply, and in an act meant to provoke the 12th Division Captain, Zaraki ungraciously took the green apron and put it over his head.  A faint sound of laughter came to his ears and he turned and glared in the direction from which he thought the sound had come.  The slight sound cut off abruptly but he still noticed a few people who were observing had a hand cupped over the lower part of their faces.  Almost as if they were hiding their mouths.  As a trick to hide a smile, it only drew more attention to the person trying to pretend they weren’t.

Sure, he’d expected them to smile at the sight of him wearing an apron.  At least it was straight and green and didn’t have any frills or other feminine additions, but he still resented being forced to wear it.  The only upside was it might prevent the bird from making any further comments.

« Now you look like a waiter, » the softened tones of Atonomatsuri’s voice didn’t make him feel any better and the words were calculated to annoy him.  « Men count up the faults of those who keep them waiting and the Clown Captain is still making us wait, » she quickly added.

He looked and Kurotsuchi was staring at him, apparently dumbfounded.  « Why? Why are you wearing the apron, Zaraki? »

The man was asking why he put on the apron?   Hadn’t he been listening?  If they didn’t wear the bloody thing, then all the time they’d already spent on the challenge would be wasted.  Couldn’t the man see past his pride for a few seconds and do something simple, instead of arguing against a rule when he was sure to lose?

« I don’t like wasting time. Do you? »

It was a pointed response and he saw the man begin to shake his head in denial and then stopped.  « This whole set of challenges is a waste of my valuable time.  I could be undertaking important research instead of standing here at night, breathing the same air you have fouled with you exhalations. »

It was such a stupid response, Zaraki laughed.  Instead of replying he sat on the chair and waited.  Either the man would don the apron, or not.  He’d take advantage of the chance to sit down while it was offered and let his feet have a break.  It reminded him how much he’d hated sentry duty; all the waiting around standing still most of the time, wishing for time to pass.  He’d nearly perfected the ability to appear alert while his brain was nearly asleep.  Standing alone for long periods of time had almost led to him thinking on a few occasions, yet he’d always stopped and for a few seconds he longed for those days.  

Kurotsuchi was standing with his hands clenched at his sides staring at the 1st Division lieutenant. The man drew himself taller and stared down his nose at the Captain.  He seemed to be as stubborn as the clown he faced and Zaraki wondered who would crack first.

« You have two minutes.  If you do not don the apron in that time you will be disqualified. »

Yamamoto suddenly seemed to appear, standing beside his subordinate.  « Is there a problem, Mayuri? »  His voice was cool and steely.

Kurotsuchi opened his mouth, snapped it shut and then swallowed.  « No. »

« Then put the apron on and stop acting like a prima donna.  This is not an opera; you’re a bad actor and worse singer. »  Yamamoto tiredly rubbed his face and was gone as quickly as he’d appeared.

A sad frown crossed Sasakibe’s forehead as he sadly shook his head.  « I am distressed that he was disturbed due to my inability to explain matters clearly. »

With a stiff gait Kurotsuchi  walked toward the chair and picked up the apron and then put it down.  Slowly he removed his Captain’s coat, folded it and then reluctantly pulled the apron over his head, tied the strings behind him and sat in the chair.

The short and impromptu striptease has caused a few giggles and whispered comments. Zaraki had trouble keeping his face straight, but managed by biting the side of his cheek.  Yeah, it’s been funny, but why antagonise him any further?  He was tired and a fight would tire him even more and maybe give the other Captain an edge.

« This task is to polish the silver.  A variety of cleaning products are provided and you may choose which method you prefer.  This task will continue until you are requested to stop.  As mentioned by Assistant Captain Ise, there is no winner in these tasks. » Saisakibe’s tone was measured, almost mesmerising.   « You have to wear the gloves provided also. »

Zaraki hoped he wouldn’t talk much as he could almost feel his eyelids dropping while he listened to the instructions.  Pulling the cloth off the objects in front of him, he saw silver: tarnished silver cups, mugs, plates, candlesticks and other items.  Some were simple, others were ornate with many decorations that might make polishing a more complex task.  

He picked up the gloves and looked at them.  It wasn’t easy to stretch them far enough to reach over his hands, but he succeeded.  The only thing he’d polished was Atonomatsuri and the times numbered under 15.  Picking up a blue cloth he picked up a simple, but blackened plate and rubbed the cloth over it.  Nothing happened, so he rubbed it again.  The blue cloth turned slightly black and he continued to rub the same area, watching the black slowly disappear and a gleam of silver show through.  Putting down the cloth he picked up a bottle and read the label.  It promised to remove the tarnish quickly, but advised the items would require washing and further polishing.  There was a container of water on the table, obviously there for the purpose.  Opening the bottle he recoiled from the stench of the liquid contained within.  The stuff was vile.  

While the smell was disgusting, it woke him up considerably.  

« Use it, Kenny, » Atonomatsuri advised and then went quiet.

« No adage? » Zaraki thought.  Her voice had sounded sleepy and strange though the idea appeared, he wondered if the smell had woken her as well.  

Grimacing against the smell he selected an ordinary cloth and applied the contents of the bottle to the remaining silver, noticing how the black vanished quickly from some, but stubbornly lingered on others.

He didn’t notice how long it took.  After he’d finished using the noxious fluid and washing it off,  the repetition of cleaning the silver became monotonous.  At first it had been slightly interesting to watch the gleam emerge, but the novelty wore off, fast.

« This task is now complete.  Please remove your gloves and aprons and wash your hands in the basins provided. »

Looking down, Zaraki saw the apron was streaked with black and spattered with tarnish removing  liquid which had bleached the colour from the garment. After removing the gloves and apron he washed his hands, finding the cool water refreshing.  Without waiting to be told he moved to the place he’d stood before and resumed the challenge.

Now he was tired,  The water had provided a brief respite as had the smell, but after the events in the past days he wanted to rest and recuperate, not stand around waiting.  A sideways glance showed Kurotsuchi fighting off another yawn.   The man had some strange ideas.  Yawning didn’t make you sleep.

Deciding that watching him trying to stop yawning was likely to make him yawn, he looked out at the Shinigami audience.  Weren’t they bored yet?  They’d got a laugh out of seeing him in an apron, but watching two men standing trying to stay awake when they could be drinking, playing Go or following other pursuits seemed strange.  Some of the other challenges might have been more interesting, but…….

His eyes began to drift shut and he jerked instinctively trying to remain alert.  Opening his eyes wide he stared at the brightest light.

Until now he hadn’t realised how heavy his eyelids were.  He brought up his fingers and tried to prop open the lids.  It wasn’t helping.  Desperate, he bit down on a finger, hoping the pain would wake him up.  It helped slightly, but again his lids began their determined descent.  Damn it.  He was going to lose the challenge and he’d wasted all this time trying to stay awake in an attempt to win when he could have been sleeping.  This competition was making him give up on too many things he liked.  

Why bother?  It was time to give up and sleep.  So what if he didn’t win this one and had to compete in all the other events?  Knowing Kurotsuchi, he’d have to anyway.  There’d be some excuse or argument to trap him into all the other events which would make money for Yamamoto and provide grist for gossip, rumours and possibly amusement.  

Now he let his eyes shut.  The competition would be lost honourably, by falling asleep.  Strangest way to lose anything he’d ever heard, but it didn’t matter.

Starting to relax, he heard a thud and a groan.  Turning he noticed Kurotsuchi had fallen.

« I didn’t touch him, » was his instinctive reaction.  

The answer was a loud snore.  The 12th Division Captain had lost his battle against sleep.

Zaraki stared at him for a second, finding it hard to believe.  They must have both given up at the same time, except the Clown Captain succumbed to sleep more quickly.

« Does that mean I won? » he asked, his voice thick with sleep.

« Yes, Captain Zaraki.  You’ve won, » the assured voice of Sasakibe told him.
« Good, » he managed to mumble before a wave of sleep overtook him and he didn’t remember anything else.
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« Ken-chan, you won!  You won! » The cheerful voice of Yachiru sounded like it was a long distance away but the weight bouncing on his chest convinced him of the wisdom of waking up, fast.

Opening his eyes, he noticed it was morning and he was back in the accommodation so carefully provided by Yamamoto.  He was lying on his back, staring into the excited face of Yachiru who was gazing at him mischievously.

« I won last night.  Why are you jumping on me now? » His voice grated out of his dry throat and he coughed, trying to clear the obstruction.  

« I came to bring you some water, » Yachiru said, brandishing a cup which promptly splashed into Zaraki’s face.

It made him wonder how she’s managed to bounce on him and keep the water confined to the cup, but when it came time when it might prove useful to him, she spilt it.  Then he noticed the grin on her face.  It hadn’t been an accident.

« I’m awake.  You made sure of that.  Get me some water to drink, » he ordered her.  The girl liked to do things like this, pretend she had made an innocent error and then prove it had been a deliberate act by laughing loudly.  It was only fun and didn’t hurt anyone, or never hurt him.  Water wasn’t going to make him rust.

Yachiru jumped lightly to the floor and poured him some more water which was handed to him promptly.  « You’re allowed to sleep in today as the challenge is scheduled for this afternoon, » she told him.

« Sleep in?  What time is it?’

Yachiru shrugged.  « I don’t know.  I woke up, the sun was up and I decided to visit.  No one wanted to let me in, but I told them they had to. »  The smile that crossed her face indicated that she had enjoyed forcing the Shinigami who were watching him to let her in.  He wondered what she’d done, but knew he’d find out, eventually.

Checking the time he swore, quietly.  It was very early and he was still tired, but at the same time he was pleased to see Yachiru.  He’d missed her company the last days and her regular teasing.  Raising his voice, he yelled, « I want some breakfast, fast! »

Not hearing a reply, he yelled again and heard the sound of running feet.

« I already told them to bring breakfast, » Yachiru said.  

If she’s chosen he was going to be presented with sugar in a variety of forms.  It make help him function, but he wished he could have a fish porridge or something he normally chose.

« Don’t look like that.  I asked them to give you what you like, » Yachiru said.  « And if you’re good I’ll share mine with you. »

He couldn’t resist grinning at her.  « If I’m good?  I beat Kurotsuchi at staying awake.  Isn’t that good enough for you? »  

She nodded as two Shinigami entered the room carrying what were apparently heavy trays.  

Zaraki’s stomach growled appreciatively.  After the events of last night he needed both sleep and food, but he’d have to give up on the idea of sleep for the moment.

********************************************************** ************************

After spending the morning with Yachiru, he was even less inclined to participate in the next challenge.   When he mentioned this to his assistant captain she hesitated for a moment and bit her look, refusing to meet his gaze.

« What’s up? »

Normally she would have been quick to explain everything, but this time even after he asked a direct question, she didn’t seem to wish to reply.  She played with the hem of her sleeve and hummed quietly and he began to feel a twinge of tension at her attempt at nonchalance.

« Yachiru, I want to know. »  He let the element of command show in his voice knowing it normally brought a quick answer.

« Everyone is talking about you.  Nearly all of them want you to win, » she said, in a transparently casual manner.

« Yeah.  So? »

« It’s sort of been fun, Ken-chan.  People act like it’s a holiday and make jokes and laugh.  There’s no paperwork, or not much; but I don’t like being away from you this much. »

It was strange.  He hadn’t thought about it in the way she was describing.  A holiday?  Even though the competition was to prove the Clown Captain’s guilt or innocence, the method was providing entertainment to the Shinigami who were observing.  If this caused the amount of interest it appeared to, wouldn’t a regular competition where all eligible Shinigami competed be even more interesting.  Nothing as tedious as the Olympic Games in the Human world, but contained events that were amusing and taxing in different senses.

Then again, maybe the Old Man had already considered the idea and was preparing to introduce it anyway.   It would make money and keep people focused on  something other than the discord between Divisions.

« Captain Zaraki.  Would you come with me?  It’s time. » Captain Ukitake was at the door, a small smile on his face.

« Yeah.  Sure. »

« Why is this Captain here, Kenny?  Don’t you think it strange that a Captain is here to escort you, not an ordinary Shinigami? » Atonomatsuri asked, interest thick in her voice.

« Please let us walk alone together, » Captain Ukitake requested Yachiru who had already leapt onto Zaraki’s back.  « I want to ask your Captain something private. »

Had the world completely tilted on its axis?  Ukitake had never requested a private conversation with Zaraki until now and it wasn’t easy to think of anything they had in common or needed to discuss.

Yachiru pouted.  She was going to be stubborn.
A bag of lollies magically appeared in Ukitake’s hand.  « You may have these, if you like. »

« Oooooooohhhhhh.  Lollies.  Yum, » Yachiru gloated.    « Yes, you can talk to Ken-chan, this time. »

Following the older man out of the room, Zaraki wondered about the nature of this ‘something private’.
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Author’s Note.
Apologies for the extended delay.

Please review.

MS   

 

Sleepless in Seireitei
Rock, Paper, Scissors