Disclaimer: I do not own Bleach. That honor belongs to Tite Kubo. All characters are depicted as legal age.

Warnings: Au-ish, language, spoilers for the Soul Society Arc and beyond

AN: A b-day gift for The Sorrowful Vampress. I know that you probably wanted smut, and I apologize at my complete and utter failure as a writer.

Even years later, Stark doesn't know why he did it. Why he would risk so much for a Shinigami. Much less a captain and not to mention the friend of someone who seemed rather determined to kill him at the time.

Memories of that day are still sketchy at best. Just little flashes that dance across his thoughts at odd times. Recollections of being all but slashed clean through and falling to the hard pavement below. Of not being quite as defeated as believed and merely playing dead as the battle continues on around him. He just watches from his half-hidden spot amidst the debris as Halibel's taken down by the same man she all but worships. As her lord and master discards her like a human would a piece of trash before turning on the others.

And one by one, the Shinigami and their allies fall to the three traitors. Bested by Tousen's bankai and preternatural senses. Defeated by Ichimaru's blur of motion and his quicksilver strikes. Betrayed by their own minds as Aizen looks on impassively.

He doesn't know how, but his opponent from before, the man in pink, ends up crashing down not too far from him. And Stark can see him struggling to rise, desperate to get to his feet as Aizen approaches. However, he isn't attempting to fight on or even to run. Instead, he has a different objective in mind. One that's even now bleeding on the ground a distance from them. Not too far but more than far enough.

Stark can see his goal – his white-haired companion from earlier. But he knows that the captain will never make it in time. That the rapidly approaching Ichimaru will intercept him. That he will have to watch his friend die – be murdered – right before his very eyes. That he will be powerless and alone and completely decimated. That Aizen will only give his signature smile as he goes in for the slaughter.

Cruel. Merciless. Unrepentant of the heartache and sorrow he causes. Uncaring for the destruction and death and devastation all around him. Aizen doesn't care for anything or anyone but himself. Not his fellow traitors. Not his Espada, his so-called children. Not Barragan or Halibel. Not Stark.

And somehow, without even realizing that he's done it, Stark is on his feet then. Is running, racing as fast as he can. The world a haze around him before it all fades to the sensation of pain and shocked brown eyes. Lilinette screaming in his head and the sound of a cero and a sword clattering to the pavement. Then, there's blissful nothingness.

He wakes to white hair. To the slide of strands fluttering in the breeze from the open window. There is a strange pink outline just to the side, and it takes Stark a few minutes to realize that there are in fact two people sleeping in the chairs by his bedside. And that no, he isn't dead or even hallucinating this fact. He's in what appears to be a hospital room with two Shinigami – two unconscious and blissfully asleep Shinigami – and no one has lost their head yet.

Surely, the world is coming to an end.

That thought is still skittering across his understandably aching brain when one of the men wakes with a start. Perhaps drawn to alertness by the sudden rise of Stark's own reiatsu. Either way, the man in pink jerks up with a start, rousing his friend in the process. The three of them – Stark and the two captains – stare at each other for a few seconds. An Espada versus a pale man with equally pale hair and a soft smile and another Shinigami with all-too-knowing eyes and a very strange looking hat. He just glances from one to the other. Pink and brown to white on white. And back. Gauging their expressions. The way that their hands are loose at their sides and swords not even in sight. That both of them are in hospital robes underneath their haori. And isn't that such an odd thing?

Stark thinks to ask why he's there. Why they saved him, healed him when he's just an Arrancar. An ex-Espada to be specific but an Arrancar nonetheless. Little more than an intelligent Hollow to them. But inevitably and in a fashion all too typical for him in the mornings just after he has woken, the first thing out of his mouth is not even reasonably sensible.

"Your eyebrows don't match." He can all but imagine Lilinette smacking her hand to her forehead.

One of them – Ukitake, is it? – blinks at him. "Um… What?"

"Your eyebrows… they don't match your hair," Stark clarifies and then very slowly sits up. Watching them watching him. Trying not to start when the pink one moves to help him.

He allows the contact because Stark honestly isn't sure he can manage without it. His stomach muscles are giving him a very unpleasant jabbing sensation that complements the dull ache pulsing through the rest of him. He rather feels like he's gone ten rounds with both Grimmjow and Nnoitra followed by a side-helping of Barragan because he's just that masochistic sometimes. Or like he decided to fight Yammy after he's released, which is always a stupid, stupid thing to do. He learned his lesson the first time, thank you very much. Lilinette only reinforced it, making his ears ring for days afterwards.

And speaking of the devil herself…

"Where's Lilinette?" he asks then because she certainly isn't there with him. In either sense of the phrase. Definitely not at his side as she usually is and probably should be.

The two men glance at each other before turning back to him. The one in pink removes his hat and rotates it in his hands.

"Your… er…" Kyouraku – is that his name? – falters. "Person? Counterpart? Daughter?"

"Sister?" Ukitake suggests with a smile.

"Your sister is probably off with Retsu-senpai and that little girl Kurosaki-kun brought back with him," his friend finishes, fiddling with his hat a minute more before putting it back on his head. "I'm sure she's just fine."

Stark stiffens and briefly feels for her reiatsu. Pulling on the link that always exists between them. She seems fine. But that doesn't mean anything. Doesn't mean that will last. She's an Arrancar deep in Shinigami territory, surrounded by strangers. People who would as soon kill her than look at her, child-form or not.

He begins to rise from his bed before that thought even completes itself. But there are unexpected hands on his shoulders, keeping him down with an ease that should be embarrassing under normal circumstances.

"None of that now," Kyouraku informs him with another gentle push. "She'll be fine. I promise."

"Senpai is not in the habit of harming children," Ukitake continues as he promptly covers Stark with his blanket and tucks in the edges. "And Ichigo-kun would not take a threat to her or his charge too lightly either."

Kyouraku grins at that. "He certainly has a way with the ladies, doesn't he, Jyuu? All the little girls love him," the man adds in a conspiratorial whisper. "First, Rukia-chan. Then Hime-chan. Now, Nel-chan and our new friend's dear sister. I'm just waiting for him to steal away my Nanao-chan."

Ukitake snickers beside him. "Don't let Ise-san hear you say that. She might just take him up on it."

That earns him a pout from Kyouraku and an almost-twitch from Stark. He can't decide if he's bemused or amused or simply just hallucinating. This is all too surreal. Doubly so when they turn to him with grins that slip away as they watch at him, and Stark can only imagine what he must look like. He can tell from the subtle ache to his jaw just above his mask that it can't be pretty.

"Stark-san?" Ukitake questions. Not unsure or casually curious. Something else entirely is present.

The Espada… the former Espada glances up. He can only gaze at them. Can only look from one to next with complete incomprehension. He doesn't understand this at all. Doesn't understand why they are even here. Why he is here.

"Are you alright?" Kyouraku asks next, and he's either a very good actor or that's genuine concern. He tilts his head when there is no answer. "Are you still with us?"

He doesn't nod, but it's a near thing. And his lips form the word before Stark can stop himself.

"Why?" He finally gives voice to the thing he needs most to hear. "Why would you do this? Why are you doing this? Why are you being so--"

Nice. Friendly. Reasonable.

"--understanding?" Stark finishes. He shakes his head at their surprised expressions. "You're Shinigami. I'm an Arrancar. Why am I even here?"

'Why am I not dead?' is his unvoiced question.

He doesn't have to say it for them to still know. For both of them to simply gaze at him with unfathomable eyes that say everything and nothing and make Stark's heart give a painful jolt when they refuse to glance away. He feels his hands clench into fists at that, at them just watching him. At feeling like butterfly on display, pinned into place by their looks until he can't help but bite his own lip in an effort to keep silent, and Ukitake's resulting grasp on his wrist is unexpected yet somehow not unwelcome. Touch warm and easy and somehow familiar.

"How could we not help you when you helped me first?" Ukitake returns, and his eyes are impossibly bright and gleaming as his fingers smooth over the skin of Stark's fingers. "How could we not save such a person who would go to such lengths for an enemy? I would've died, you know. Aizen was very much determined to kill me. And yet… Yet--"

"--you got in the way," Kyouraku inserts. "You put yourself in the way," he corrects after a second and leans forward to rest one elbow on Stark's bed, face now disconcertingly close. "You didn't have to do that. You could've easily fled while we were distracted. Could've just as easily cut me down and gotten back in Aizen's good graces."

Stark can't help but snort. "Aizen doesn't have good graces. Besides, it wasn't like I'd even wanted to fight in the first place. You weren't my enemy. Not really."

"That's very true, my friend," Kyouraku lifts an eyebrow and laughs. "I am not your enemy. Certainly not now." He shoots a glance to his companion. "But it was more than that as well. We could hardly let you die after what you did. Saving Jyuushiro and then killing Aizen like that."

Reality comes to an abrupt and grinding halt. It cracks and fizzles as those words start to sink in. Making absolutely no goddamned sense.

"I…" Stark merely blinks and replays that in his head. "What? I did what?"

"You killed Aizen Sousuke," Ukitake replies cautiously. "Rather… brutally, I might add."

It's difficult to keep his mouth from dropping open. "When? How?" Stark all but demands.

That earns him a lifted eyebrow. He sees them look at each other and have a whole conversation without any words. Exchanging with subtle flicks and movements what it would take Stark himself hours to impart to anyone but Lilinette. Turning to him in unison afterwards and just studying him for several long minutes before speaking again.

"How much do you remember?" Kyouraku asks, and his voice is deceptively light for the sudden hardness in his gaze.

And how much does he remember?

Flashes. Pieces. Shards. Shouts that rip through the air in his wake. The hot splash of liquid on his face as he shoves Ukitake out of the way and goes down in a tangle of limbs. Being subsequently coughed on in a very unattractive and gross fashion, particularly when it gets in his mouth. Rolling to his feet and turning to Aizen. And then…

And then… then… nothing. Almost nothing. Only the taste of blood on his tongue and absolute agony that burns through his veins. And just before the black consumes him, the feel of fingers brushing hair from his eyes. Soft and gentle. Cupping his face.

"I don't…" Stark attempts, but it falls flat. "How did I do it?"

Again, they talk without speaking to one another. Only this time, Ukitake is the one to respond first.

"You shot him point-blank with a cero." He says it matter-of-factly, but there's a peculiar undertone.

Kyouraku is nodding beside him and even thinks to add, "And then stabbed him with his own zanpakutou. Apparently, not even a Vizard can survive being skewered through the eye."

Stark really does feel his mouth drop open this time. And words fail him utterly as he attempts to put that into some semblance of sense. As his brain short-circuits and can only draw a blank. He can honestly say that he doesn't remember doing that at all. It just seems so out of character for him. So completely off the deep-end to react in such a manner for anyone short of Lilinette. So strange. So utterly bizarre but somehow fitting. Somehow recognizable and familiar.

Just like the men before him. Friendly and welcoming despite the true of what he is. That he should be their enemy at the very least. That they should have left him to die or put an end to him themselves. That Lilinette shouldn't be off playing – and he's certain that was what she's doing – but should already be dead. Not coddled. Not healed. Just destroyed, put down like some animal.

And yet, they hadn't.

It's all so very confusing.

However, even his haze of bewilderment is driven away when the door to his room suddenly slides open. A woman stands in the doorway then, dark of hair but with very blue eyes. She bows deeply, the edges of her white haori brushing the ground as she steps inside. Her voice is soft as she introduces herself and glides to his bedside, gaze drifting to her two fellow captains and remaining. Taking in the haori over their hospital garments and the very sheepish cast to Ukitake's face while Kyouraku studies the far wall with unexpected interest.

"I did not expect both of you to be awake, much less away from your beds." Not quite an accusation but it comes close. "I believe it would be best if I could examine my patient now, gentlemen."

It isn't a request, and she doesn't make a shooing motion. But the intent is there in her honeyed tone. As if they would do anything but listen. There is too much smooth authority in her demeanor, too much steel underneath the silken exterior. Kyouraku and Ukitake seem to rise without even realizing it, both flushing like naughty schoolboys caught by their teacher. But they hesitate then, as if they can't decide if they should immediately obey or if they can loiter a bit longer.

A raised eyebrow decides for them.

They both sigh. Ukitake brushes back a stray strand of hair and nibbles on his lip before looking to his friend. Kyouraku gives him a nod, and then, he puts a hand to Stark's shoulder in farewell and squeezes.

That should be a surprise. After all, Shinigami don't touch Hollows. Not once. Not ever. Not for anything. It should be a surprise, but it isn't. He's already broken that unspoken rule three times and counting just since Stark has been awake.

"It was good talking with you." His fingers are very warm, even through the fabric between them. "We'll be back later. Promise."

He says it in such a way that Stark can't help but believe him. Can't do anything but want to believe him.

Anything he wishes to say in return though is driven away as Ukitake leans down. Stark has a second to see all that white hair sweep across his field of vision before a gentle kiss is brushed to his cheek. He's too shocked to even be embarrassed as Ukitake drifts to his ear.

"She'll take very good care of you," he murmurs, breath ghosting across skin. "We'll see you in a little while."

His mouth lingers for a moment more and then pulls back. He just smiles, eyes twinkling in what's coming to be an all-too-frequent manner as he steps away. But somehow, Stark is already reaching for his sleeve.

"No, wait… Don't go. Stay," he says in a voice that isn't at all like himself, hoarse and almost breathless. Face on fire where Ukitake touched him. "They can stay," he tells the healer. "I don't mind. And there's more than enough room in here anyway."

He nods at the empty beds in the room, and it doesn't take a genius to figure out why an Arrancar would be given a private place to recover. But they're here now, and he honestly doesn't want them to leave.

She remains silent at his statement. Just standing there for a few heartbeats before tilting her head in a motion of comprehension, gaze flickering to the others. They, in turn, blink at Stark in astonishment. As if they didn't expect him to want them around.

But he does, he realizes. He wants them there. He doesn't want them to leave. Not now.

It's such a strange thing to have others be kind to him. To have them care. It isn't the same with Lilinette; she is him, after all. And always will be. This is different. They are different.

He doesn't know if he'd be able to watch them leave. Even for a little while. Always the chance that they won't come back. No one else ever has.

"Don't go," Stark repeats. And his voice says everything that he can't. "Stay."

They do.

Ever Hopeful,