SUBSTANCE AND SHADOW

Heat and cold; the heat of Ukitake's own blood on his hand as he coughs, the cold of the mist that wraps the two of them in Hueco Mundo. He had not been aware that Aizen (he will no longer give him honorific or even personal name) could bring them here; he trusts, dryly, that he will be able to return.

Aizen has changed his appearance. It's more than just a matter of removing glasses and Captain's coat. There's something to the way he stands now, the way in which he walks, which makes Ukitake wonder just how much is change, and how much of the man he thought he had known for hundreds of years was nothing more than a mask, discarded when it was of no further use.

But then, as Aizen has proven, illusions are such apt tools to his hand.

---

"I have always felt," Aizen said meditatively, "that we could have understood each other quite well. The question you asked, that other day -- you were the only one who dared to think in such terms, Captain Ukitake."

Ukitake did not turn immediately. He had felt Aizen's reiatsu from across the park; it was obvious, here on Earth, so obvious that he was surprised more of those who could sense such things had not already gathered in the area. It had not yet reached the peak of a killing edge, or even the focus that he would expect for kidou use, and so he took the gamble and kept his back turned, watching the shadows that fell across the grass and moved towards him. "In what terms?" he finally said.

"Boundaries and possibilities." Aizen's shadow paused, and the long robes it wore trembled as the breeze toyed with them. The sunset light was harsh against the pond further on, turning the waters as red as blood. "I admit that you said it couldn't be done, but -- well, even you can be mistaken, Captain. Can't you?"

"I have been," Ukitake said calmly. "In you, for instance."

Aizen's shadow moved a hand lightly, dismissively, and it brushed the shadow of Ukitake's sleeve. "You knew Aizen Sousuke better than most. Few people knew him at all."

---

Both of them are circling slowly through the mists and shadows, careful on the uncertain ground, watching the other and waiting for a moment's opening. Ukitake realises that he is looking for the familiar glint of Aizen's glasses, the way that they would catch the light as the other man tilted his head, and sets the thought aside. That was then; this is now. He must look for the flash of light on Aizen's sword instead.

When is now? he thinks for a moment, and is not sure why.

He knows, as does all of Soul Society, about the illusions that Aizen can create, but now they are mid-fight, and he can only hope that the preparation of such carefully crafted things will take time, and that Aizen does not have that time. His blades weigh in his hands; he moves, he throws himself forward into a charge, and --

-- time disjoints --

-- as the mists reach out to unfold him and drag him down, to chain him.

---

"That is still not an explanation," Ukitake replied. "Claiming that you want to fill God's throne, to be the master of creation -- along those lines?"

"Something of that sort," Aizen agreed dismissively. "Language is frequently as limited as perception. We say heaven, god, supreme power, but what do we actually mean? The only pinnacles we actually know are those that we can see, or those that we have achieved. I see a space. I shall fill it."

"You could argue as much about the depths that man can sink to." Ukitake folded his hands. For a moment he nearly coughed, but he suppressed the urge. This was not the time. (It never was.) "New murders; new betrayals."

Aizen laughed. It was the same warm laughter that Ukitake had always known. "You disapprove of me, Captain Ukitake." He took a step forward; the shadow of his robe was long and black against the dry grass.

"You know that I do, Sousuke-kun." Ukitake offered the name, and wondered if it would mean anything. "You knew this when you came here. Did you think that you could explain yourself to me?"

"I did wonder about that." Aizen moved his hand; the shadow of the hand touched the shoulder of Ukitake's shadow, and for a moment Ukitake thought he could feel it in his own body. "Perhaps I thought that it would be expedient to remove you before matters went any further."

"Perhaps you thought so," Ukitake agreed neutrally. "Perhaps I thought the same thing."

Aizen's shadow shook its head. "You wouldn't do that. Captain Ukitake Jyushirou is not the sort of gentleman who assassinates someone."

Ukitake tilted his head. "But do you know me?" he inquired mildly.

"Better than you think," Aizen answered, and the smile that Ukitake could hear in his voice was not a pleasant one.

---

"Such pretty hair," Aizen says, twisting white-blond locks around his index finger, "Captain Kyouraku's poetry does it no justice."

Ukitake raises an eyebrow, suppressing the urge to jerk his head away from this unwelcome intimacy. "I was not aware that you had ever seen it."

Aizen smiles. "Nor is he."

It's all white here in the mist, white and grey and black, and the only colour is that of flesh; eyes, skin, hands, lips. Ukitake does not remember Aizen's gaze as being like this. He had been a Captain who had softened his direct, honest eyes with glasses, had deliberately gentled his motions, moderated his presence. At the time, Ukitake had thought it kindness to those around him.

This is a different place, it seems, and Aizen has shed those parts of himself like a snake's skin.

Aizen strokes Ukitake's cheek, trails his fingers down to brush along Ukitake's neck as though he could capture his pulse, then takes Ukitake's chin in his hand and leans in to kiss him, mouth to mouth, lips to lips, tongue probing.

The chains hold fast.

---

Ukitake shook his head, once, emphatically. "Perhaps I can understand what you desired, and perhaps I can understand how much you wanted it, but I do not accept it. Am I supposed to believe this is all you ever were?"

"I never did find out what you thought of Project Spearhead," Aizen commented idly.

Ukitake snorted. "I voted against it."

"True. True. I never did find out what you thought of it, though." Aizen's shadow folded its arms. "Or if you approved of the banishment of Urahara Kisuke."

"I am not sure that I see your point," Ukitake said coldly.

"Perhaps I'm just wondering what would make you change your mind and take a stand against Soul Society. I saw that you would do so in order to save your subordinate." Aizen's shadow tilted its head. "Or was that because of the one before? The one you couldn't save?"

Pieces of information locked together to make an ugly picture. "Was that one of your experiments? Back then?"

"An interesting question." Aizen laughed. "Of course, given that you did nothing to stop him, I don't see that it really matters either way -- does it?"

---

Ukitake throws his head back and struggles for air as Aizen marks kisses down his throat, holding each one for just a moment too long. Aizen's hands slide under his robe and move against his bare skin, smooth large hands that inch around his chest and to his shoulderblades, then down his back as if they were mapping out his body, intimate and unwelcome, as if each movement, each gesture, each kiss were to say, I know this part of you and you cannot hide it from me; I have seen behind your eyes, beneath your skin; I have listened to your breathing when you did not know I was there; I have read your words in private; I own you and I have you in my hand.

---

Ukitake coughed. It was one of his lighter spasms; he knew that it would pass, that he could control himself if Aizen should choose that moment to attack, but even then he resented the weakness, as he had always done. "You are trying to confuse the issue again. Sousuke-kun, have done with this. What do you want?"

"I want power," Aizen said, then paused. "No, I want more than power. I want control. I want supreme authority. There has been no god before me; there will be no god after me. I want to stand in Heaven, with nothing and nobody above me. I will look down, and you, even you, Jyushirou, will know my touch."

Ukitake's shoulders tightened at the familiar use of his name, at the insult of it. "On that," he said, "as with so many other things, we must disagree."

"You have no time left to disagree in," Aizen answered. He reached out both hands, and their shadows touched Ukitake, and darkness came rising behind them.

---

. . .Aizen brings his hands up again, trailing them over Ukitake's chest, up to cup Ukitake's face and hold him steady for another kiss, body pinning him against the rock; the mist is everywhere, nothing is clear except Aizen's face, Aizen's eyes, Ukitake cannot speak, he has no words, Aizen possesses his mouth, his body, Aizen kisses him as though to take the air from his lungs, and each breath he takes is at Aizen's sufferance, each heartbeat is in time with Aizen's lips against his as Aizen says words he cannot hear . . .

---

"I caught you before you knew you saw me," Aizen said quite clearly, and his presence was gone.

The shadow receded and took the mists with it. Ukitake was standing in the empty park, coughing, looking toward the water, and the setting sun filled the lake with blood.

He still couldn't breathe properly; with each gasp for air, he could still feel the pressure of a body against him, hands against his skin, Aizen's mouth against his. He reached out one hand to balance himself against the back of a bench, and spat blood, coughing for his life, trying to remember how to breathe, how to call his body his own again.

---