A/N: This is one in a series of short (700-1000 word) fics I've recently completed. Shunsui and Ukitake are practically canon for me. Spoilers for current events in the anime and manga, and warnings for angst and violence.

- Rii

Kyouraku Shunsui knows the precise value of a shinigami's life.

He thinks about it, as he rests face-down on one of Karakura's broken streets, his skin pressed against buckled asphalt, his body limp. Everyone is expendable, if necessary. He has learned this hard truth under the tutelage of Yamamoto Genryuusai, during his long years as a captain: no shinigami is so important that he cannot be sacrificed for the greater good of Seireitei.

Not even the soutaichou himself.

Battle rages around his head, seas of reiatsu swelling and crashing, ebbing and flowing into one another. He can hear the clash of zanpakuto against zanpakuto, the shouts of friends. They think he's fallen; he can feel the concerned glances, has heard one or two frantic shouts of his name.

My, my.

He isn't ready to get up just yet. Playing dead suits him; this way, the fight will last just a little longer, and Katen Kyokotsu is singing in his head that this is the most fun she's had in a long, long time. She's almost ready to play, and when she is—


Shunsui almost feels a little sorry for the Primera Espada. Almost. You'd better be ready, Espada-san. You have no idea what's coming.

Squinting up from his prone position, he can only catch glimpses: feet moving, swords flying, slick patches of ice glossing nearby buildings. Though he's not quite sure where the time has gone since he was a boy in the Academy, though he's seen more of his men die than he cares to imagine and has lived to witness the particular monstrosity that is Aizen Sosuke, he can't help a bit of nearly-paternal pride at what he can see. Look at them, Yama-jii. You should be proud.

He finds immeasurable comfort in the notion that, when he dies—whether here or elsewhere—a new generation, strong and proud, will rise up to stand in his stead, and Soul Society will endure.

No shinigami is so important that he cannot be sacrificed for the greater good of Seireitei.

But the thought splinters as his gaze falls on the prone figure nearby: a graceful body sprawled inelegantly against the ground, ivory hair spilling over the earth. Jyuushiro.

Shunsui moves slightly, hazards a peek out from underneath his arm in hopes of a better glance. He tries, briefly, to convince himself that Jyuushiro, too, is faking his wounds, waiting for an opportune moment to strike. But Jyuushiro has never been able to pretend very well. A faint, fond smile touches Shunsui's lips as he remembers surprises spilled out before their time, the inability of those dark and honest eyes to hide desire.

Falsehood has no place in Ukitake Jyuushiro's nature.

Above, the fight is getting fiercer; Shunsui hears the echo of laughter in his head, excited giggles and trills. Are you ready, Katen Kyokotsu? The response is eager glee, and Shunsui comes to his feet, adjusts his shihakusho. The shadows cloak him, hide him, and he prepares himself to slip among them, to strike out at the most opportune time.

He has no intention of fighting honorably.

But he pauses anyway, glances back over his shoulder. He is surprised when his steps snag of their own accord, when his grip slackens on his zanpakuto and the sight of the blood puddling beneath that beloved body—a body he has adored with hands and mouth so many times it might as well be his own—makes him want as many stiff drinks as he can stand without losing his ability to fight.

No shinigami is so important that he cannot be sacrificed for the greater good of Seireitei.

This is the truth they have both long believed. If their positions were reversed, Shunsui knows, Jyuushiro would respond in the same manner. Too much is at stake; to stay as he wishes, to cradle that broken body in his arms and kiss closed eyelids, to give comfort, would serve himself only. Seireitei cannot afford such selfishness.

One life means so little. And yet the value of this particular life—of laughing dark eyes and a gentle smile, of a man whose grace and kindness extended to shinigami, human, and hollow alike—is incalculable.

Shunsui tightens his grip on his zanpakuto and springs away. He leaves his heart behind. There is no need for it where he is going, after all—and if he cannot survive without it, well.

He is only one shinigami, after all.