Getting old was a very strange thing.
It was not one of the things Ukitake Jyuushirou was particularly fond of contemplating – mainly because the very perusement of it made him feel, well...old – but since he was one of the few Gotei captains with more than enough opportunity to think long and hard on anything and everything, the subject persistently swirled up from deep within his psyche and niggled at him like a loose tooth.
Ukitake was not a vain man, so this slight obsession with the process of aging bemused him. Perhaps, he often concluded, it was because he had never expected to grow old in the first place, and even now with a couple of millennium safely tucked under his obi, the concept was still novel to him.
First off, he could never decide if he actually felt old or not. Oh sure, there were times of trial or difficulty – not to mention the odd captain's meeting – when Jyuushirou felt the weight of centuries pressing down on him with such cumbrous gravity that it was difficult to stand straight up under it. There were periods of his long life that bore such pain and loss that he had fervently wished to be six feet under the ground already.
But for every one of those times, Jyuushirou could think of a dozen moments when it seemed like no time at all had passed from his own boyhood. A joke shared with Shunsui that had him laughing until he was breathless, or a sparring session without a single hitch in his chest that reminded him of endless days playing on the grounds of Ugendo, long before such vitality had been cut short. In those moments of clarity, it seemed like nothing had changed at all, and he was still the dark-haired boy with eons of life ahead of him.
So much changed, Ukitake decided as he so often did, even as so many things stayed the same.
And that was another thing – trying to keep the past straight became quite the exercise after a couple thousand years. Even for one with such an eidetic memory as his, Jyuushirou would often find the centuries blending together into a nebulous melange. Images and events were crisp and clear, but the timing of everything sometimes got muddled. The edges of emotions blunted and blurred and bled into each other until Jyuushirou was quite sure he had gotten something wrong, that he had not felt that way about something, or found that problem quite so difficult to solve. The further he got away from things, the less they seemed to make sense, enough so that Ukitake often worried that age didn't make you wiser, just slightly insane.
This would inevitably lead Ukitake to wonder if he was remembering things accurately or subconsciously rewriting history in order to suit some deep psychological need. The fear that he could be so self-serving would prompt a sort of personal crusade that resembled a mental closet being cleaned out, and before long Jyuushirou would be so deep inside his swirling, conflicting thoughts and memories that he ran the risk of going insane altogether.
But in this, Ukitake was luckier than most, for whenever he got into such a mental whirlwind, Shunsui would always show up and take him drinking.
Now, it was a common misconception that Ukitake Jyuushirou hated to drink. This was quite untrue; while Jyuushirou did maintain a rather formal and refined mien he was far from a prude. In fact, it was quite common for him to end a night of administrative work with a quiet sip or two of warm sake to ease a throat sore from coughing all day. If Jyuushirou kept this from his worshipful Third and Fourth seats it was out of consideration for their mental stability, more so than a direct desire to be secretive. Moderation was the key, and in this Ukitake was generally something of a stickler, again more out of necessity than anything else. Careful monitoring of his physical health had saved him from many an avoidable fit of illness, and while this mental watchdogging of himself had become automatic over the years Ukitake remained unwilling to surrender his faculties unnecessarily.
Jyuushirou drank, he simply preferred not to get drunk, a distinction wholly unacknowledged by his best and dearest friend. Whoever invented the saying "Less is More" never met Kyouraku Shunsui and if they had, they would have reevaluated their philosophy.
Where Shunsui walked, sake followed, or quite possibly the other way around. There was a common rumor that he bathed in the stuff, but this was relatively false. Kyouraku drank more than any soul was capable of comprehending, and not only did he know every single bar and pub and tavern in the entire expanse of the Soul Society, but he had patronized most of them at some time or another. For most people, such a proclivity would have earned nothing more than derision and disgust, the social designation of 'drunkard' being generally inglamorous, but this was not so for Kyouraku. Coupled with a cast-iron liver, Shunsui was born with more charisma than a gaggle of peacocks and it was very nearly impossible for a soul to resist adoring him at some point or another (although his current vice-captain seemed to have managed this pretty well).
Kyouraku was like the sun, blanketing his warm irrepressibility on everyone around him without discrimination, and while Ukitake had long ago developed a certain immunity to this effect, he was particularly susceptible when in the aforementioned mental hurricane. So it was on days like these – and only in such mental states – that Kyouraku ever managed to sweep Ukitake off on a drinking binge.
Over the years the name for such an unlikely outing changed (Night of Drunken Revelry stuck for a while, followed by Sloshing till Sunrise; Handsome Devils on a Rampage for Love was hotly disputed and quickly discarded, although Kyouraku still pouted about it from time to time), but the event remained the same: Ukitake would get himself into a rare funk, Kyouraku would show up unannounced and all but kidnap him from his squad duties, and whisk them both off to Rukongai. An elaborate process of considering drinking establishments would follow before Kyouraku settled on one (always the same one, as it turned out), and they would sit in the private room in the back and order every bottle of sake in the building.
From there, the predictable would happen. Shunsui would drink, Ukitake would drink. They would talk and laugh, drink, and talk some more. Words would get fuzzy, as would memory, and some of both would come out sharper than intended. Sometimes they would shout at each other, fueled by sake and emotions long forgotten. Sometimes the tears would burn hotter than the sake, and they would just sit there quietly together. At some point, Shunsui would always pass out, leaving a still relatively-sober Ukitake to consider the hangover they were both going to have in the morning and wonder if these outings were really worth while. Even souls as powerful as theirs needed some release once in a while, it was true, but it never really changed anything.
So Ukitake thought on his latest outing, the one right before the War. So many things were going on, so much preparation, that a drinking binge was certainly uncalled for. Ukitake could feel fear humming through his squad like a beehive, through his own swirling thoughts, and for once he actually mounted a credible defense against Kyouraku's assertion that it was time to go for a drink. It seemed...inappropriate somehow, to lose themselves in the past when the future was so close to intruding on the present. Still, Kyouraku himself had burned with an almost manic fervor, insisting with a near-desperation that was unusual for him, that drinking was exactly what was needed at a time like this, and with great misgiving Ukitake decided to go along after all.
And in a way, Jyuushirou's foreboding turned out to be true, for that night – for the first time ever – the Night of Drunken Revelry turned out differently than every before and in the process, changed a great many things.
For that was the night that the SWA found them.