Title: After the Fall
Characters: Ukitake/Stark, Shunsui, Unohana (in spirit), Byakuya
Rating: T to M
Warning: SPOILERS like whoah, future slashiness
Words: 13,223 (Overall)
Description: Winning the war was easy. Recovering afterward was the hard part.
Dedication: To RadicalEd57 who requested this pairing.
a/n: Yes, I know that Stark's name has been revealed to be spelled as Starrk. But, I was writing him as Stark long before that reveal, and it feels weird to suddenly shift like that. If that bothers you, just don't read it. This will be the same for any other Espada I happen to mention such as Grimmjow and Halibel. I also use the term Vizard instead of Visored.
The air still stank of blood and ash. No matter how shallowly Jyuushiro breathed, he couldn't escape the horrible stench. He swore he tasted it on his tongue, and the very odor hung heavy over his heart.
He hated this assignment. He hated it more than anything. And just a little, Jyuushiro hated Genryuusai-sensei for giving it to him.
But Jyuushiro was also well-aware that said assignment required someone of seniority and fortitude, who could handle the death and loss and destruction and despair. Someone strong with squared shoulders and eyes that had already seen death a thousand times over.
Someone like Jyuushiro or Shunsui or Retsu-senpai. Only Retsu-senpai already had her hands full, and Shunsui was in no condition to be here. Truth be told, Shunsui was in no condition to do much of anything at all.
That was another reason Jyuushiro didn't want to be here. He'd rather be at Shunsui's side than poking through destroyed buildings and piles of rubble looking for corpses. Proof of Aizen's defeat. And rescuing the fallen Shinigami who deserved to be respected properly.
There were so many missing, so many unaccounted for. And Jyuushiro hated it.
He looked up from a pile of rubble he had been pretending to peruse to find one of his lower seats approaching in a hurry. Soot smudged over her fair cheeks, and her eyes were darkened. She hadn't fought in Aizen's war, but seeing the aftermath was almost as bad.
Her hands wrung together, and she sounded breathless. "We found something," she explained as Jyuushiro moved to follow her quick and sure steps across the rubble.
"Something as in not a Shinigami." Saeki-kun chewed on her bottom lip. "He had remnants of a Hollow's mask on him."
Ah, one of Aizen's Arrancar then. To be expected. Many of them had fallen in the assault on Karakura. Or at least, the replica of Karakura that Kisuke-kun had erected for the purpose of their battle.
Jyuushiro inclined his head. "I see."
"Not exactly." Saeki-kun wrung her fingers together again and looked up at him from out of the corner of her eyes. "He's not conscious. But… um… he's not dead either."
That could be a problem. If the Arrancar wasn't dead… well, there were plenty of people who would fix that problem for him. It went against Jyuushiro's conscience just a tad, but it would also be fighting a losing battle to say otherwise. And he supposed it also depended on just who had been dug from the rubble. If he were one of Aizen's higher ranked Arrancar, then he might prove useful in locating or pointing out possible lingering threats.
Usefulness before revenge after all.
Jyuushiro bit back a sigh. "Thank you, Saeki-kun."
They swiftly approached where several of the division members encircled a fallen form but still weren't within attacking distance of it either. They all eyed the beaten, bloody form warily as though it planned to reach up and take a bite out of any of them at any given moment.
He raised his voice, lifting a hand to gather his subordinates attention but in the process pulling at the healing wound in his abdomen. Jyuushiro carefully hid his wince.
"I'll take it from here," he informed everyone as he approached the bloody, barely recognizable man coated in a thin layer of dust and debris. "You can continue to search the rubble."
He was treated to a chorus of salutes and "yes, sirs" before his subordinates scattered, leaving Jyuushiro plenty of room to get closer to the beaten body. Err, bodies. Because apparently there were two of them, and it took Jyuushiro less than ten seconds to recognize them.
Primera Espada Coyote Stark and his fraccion – though to be more accurate the other half of his soul, Lilinette Gingerback. Had they separated upon Stark's defeat? The latter looked to be in worst condition, a mottle of bruises and blood. The former was covered in blood from where Shunsui had nearly cleaved him in two, but it was dried and caked until it left him covered in a grayish-brown shade. Frankly, Jyuushiro was impressed that Stark had lived. And despite the fact Saeki-san had claimed them to be unconscious, bleary eyes peeled open and peered at Jyuushiro as the Espada drew in a labored breath.
"Shini… gami," Stark rasped, making no efforts to move. "That brat… didn't kill… you."
The patched up hole in his chest chose that moment to itch and throb like mad.
"I'm quite resilient," Jyuushiro replied, rather disturbed by the blood that flecked across Stark's lips with each word. "And so are you it appears."
Stark laughed. But it was more of a chuckle, dry and brief, as his fingers twitched. His eyes slid slowly to Lilinette, curled up beside him, before moving back toward Jyuushiro.
"Not… in my benefit."
Ah. He expected to be killed. And Jyuushiro knew good and well that he ought to. Stark was a Hollow, and more than that, he was an Espada. He'd fought against them in Aizen's war, albeit reluctantly. Stark was supposed to die. Except…
Jyuushiro's eyes flickered to Lilinette, gaze softening. His logic told him that the small girl, curled up in a dried pool of her own blood and covered in bruises, was only an Arrancar and another piece of Stark. That she was hardly human, hardly blameless, and just as worthy of death as Stark.
But there was another side of Jyuushiro. A side where his honor lived and where he recoiled at the thought of drawing his sword against a helpless and defenseless child. A female child at that, one who hardly looked like a threat in her current state.
"You may be wrong," Jyuushiro commented. Knowing he was probably making a huge mistake but tired of being too late and too useless. "You were Aizen's Primera Espada. You must have some information that could be of use."
Stark laughed again, a hollow and bitter sound. "He… treated us like trash. Disposed of us… as though we meant nothing. You think… he told us… anything?"
Jyuushiro frowned. "Do you want to die?"
"Am I even alive?" Stark asked. He shifted, just barely an inch, but it was enough to cause pain to radiate across his dust-covered face, turning his brown hair a sickly shade of grey.
His hand, the nearest to Lilinette, twitched again, as though desperate to touch her. To confirm whether she was alive or dead, there or missing. To cling to the other half of his soul.
Jyuushiro wavered as a wind rose and tugged at his hair and clothing, bringing him a fresh whiff of death and blood and ash. The dim sound of his subordinate's voices as they continued to dig through the rubble. The sight of various bodies set out in a line on a clear patch of ground – fallen allies who deserved a proper burial.
"That's not a question I can answer for you," Jyuushiro answered and glanced again at Lilinette. Who hadn't moved. Hadn't stirred. Hadn't so much as twitched. Lying there so quiet and still like a broken doll.
Jyuushiro turned, decision made. Momentarily leaving them, Jyuushiro found the nearest of his third-seats – Sentarou – and issued his orders. For Stark to be taken immediately to the fourth division and treated for his wounds. No, he was not to be killed, and anyone who tried to do so would face Jyuushiro's wrath. In the meantime, Jyuushiro would present himself to the captain-commander and explain his reasoning.
Seireitei was not so forgiving after Aizen's war, but perhaps Jyuushiro could convince Genryuusai-sensei to be sensible. After all, concessions had been made for Neliel-san and her companions in the same manner that Genryuusai-sensei had ignored the Hollow within Ichigo-kun and his fellow Vizard.
Perhaps Genryuusai-sensei understood that it was their blindness, their clinging to ancient and outdated traditions that had allowed Aizen to so effectively deceive them. Jyuushiro hoped that the captain-commander's new understanding would serve him in this instance as well.
While his subordinates scrambled to obey behind him, Jyuushiro paused atop a piece of debris to survey what was left of the fake town. Nothing but shattered buildings and a few crumbled towers at the four corners where Kisuke-kun's barrier had fallen so surprisingly quick. Nothing but blood and tears and the lingering, bitter scent of betrayal and one man's madness.
Sentarou sounded solemn, composed, one of the changes after the war that Jyuushiro could've done without. He missed the loud and almost obnoxious behavior.
"The… uh… the other Arrancar…?"
The captain bit back on a sigh and tried to ignore the strange clamping feeling of guilt and despair inside of him. "Yes, I know." His shoulders were suddenly so very heavy, and the still-healing wound in his chest throbbed like mad. "Bring her, too."
"Ah… yes, sir," Sentarou said, so quiet but understanding. No argument on his part.
Jyuushiro didn't turn around. Couldn't watch as his subordinates gingerly extracted the rest of Stark from the rubble and carefully laid Lilinette near – but not alongside – the fallen Shinigami.
Jyuushiro wondered how Shunsui was faring, and vowed to see his oldest and dearest friend as soon as night fell. He had the strangest urge to hold Shunsui's hand, even if he was as useless there as he was here.
And he wondered, as he moved on to search more rubble, how it would feel to lose half your soul. How it was possible, and how one survived such a thing.
Weeks passed, moving painfully slow as they had in the wake of Aizen's first treachery. The Shinigami healed. They rebuilt. They restructured and reorganized. They grieved and waited and blamed and tried to pull themselves together bit by agonizing bit.
Jyuushiro didn't exactly forget Stark, but there was precious little time to spend in thought about the ex-Espada either. Truth and circumstance unfolded and it soon became clear that Stark hadn't been the only survivor. The sixth Espada, Grimmjow, had also survived. As had the third, Halibel. And Jyuushiro wasn't sure what to call Szayel's current state, somewhere in between living and existing. Not quite dead but not quite alive either.
Not that Jyuushiro had any say on his fate. The eighth Espada's current situation had been entirely handed over to Kurotsuchi, and frankly, Jyuushiro didn't want to know. The mere act of considering it made his stomach churn and bile rise in his throat.
Jyuushiro wasn't sure what Genryuusai-sensei had planned for the surviving Espada, save that immediate execution wasn't going to happen. Imprisonment was possible. Banishment to Hueco Mundo perhaps. They were unlikely to cause any problems now that their leader was defeated.
Stark, like the other survivors, was cordoned off in a section of the fourth division under a heavy, constantly changing guard that usually consisted of at least one lieutenant level. Jyuushiro had wandered by once, just to see how the first Espada was faring. But Stark had been asleep, looking pale and defeated against the white sheets of his recovery bed.
Jyuushiro himself was a frequent visitor to the fourth division. When not maintaining command over his own division or eating and sleeping, he was here. Where he should be. Sitting in a chair at Shunsui's bedside like Shunsui had done for him over countless centuries. Holding a hand that was still and warm. Wishing, hoping, praying that eventually, he'd wake up.
It was times like this, surrounded by the utter quiet, consumed by fear and worry and sorrow, that Jyuushiro felt he understood how Stark must feel. Though to be fair, Shunsui was still alive. If in a coma could be counted as such. Was he going to wake? Only time could tell. Retsu-senpai was optimistic, but then, maybe she didn't have the heart to tell Jyuushiro the truth.
And Jyuushiro sat in this uncomfortable seat, captain's haori folded neatly on another empty chair with Sougyo no Kotowari placed gently atop it, and bowed his head. His hands wrapped around Shunsui's, wondering if the light pulse of his own reaitsu would be enough this time. Enough to jar Shunsui from whatever had shoved him to a place where Jyuushiro couldn't go.
"How did it happen?"
The unexpected voice made Jyuushiro's head jerk up. He nearly lost his hold on Shunsui's hand as he whipped his gaze around, eyes instantly finding the man in the doorway. The man – or Arrancar rather – who really shouldn't be wandering around without any sort of escort either.
Jyuushiro cleared his throat, trying to compose himself. "How else? In Aizen's war."
Bandages wrapped around his body, visible everywhere that hospital robe didn't cover, Stark nodded slowly. His gaze flicked between Jyuushiro and Shunsui constantly.
"Is it my fault?"
It would be easier if Jyuushiro had a face to blame and a name to hate. Easier if he could say that Stark's attack was what caused his current state and Jyuushiro would get his revenge and everything would be a hell of a lot better than it was now. Except that would be a lie. A lie on top of lies. And Jyuushiro's just too goddamn tired to even care who was supposed to shoulder the guilt anymore.
What would it prove? What would it heal? It wouldn't make his best and dearest friend wake up. And it wouldn't fill the ever-growing hole inside of Jyuushiro. Strange, he woke up some days and really felt like a Hollow.
"Are you looking to carry some blame?"
Stark lifted his shoulders in a shrug, a motion that seemed painful. "I'm not sure." He glanced at Shunsui, one hand patting down the side of his robe as though smoothing out nonexistent wrinkles. "You didn't kill me."
"Should I have?"
"It would've been kinder."
"Would it?" Jyuushiro asked. And he really wanted to know, not just for Stark's sake, but for his own.
If Shunsui never woke up, what was Jyuushiro going to do? How was he going to think? How was he going to keep living on?
Stark dragged a hand through his hair, somehow younger for his obviously weak disposition and pale skin. "Maybe," he said quietly. "I'll let you know when I feel whole again."
Which would be never. An impossibility now. Stark would never feel complete, not anymore. Not when half of himself was gone. And Jyuushiro's still not sure how that was possible. Stark was a unique Espada in the first place. But even this went beyond the realm of what anyone in Soul Society understood about Hollow, Arrancar, and the existence of both.
"I understand," Jyuushiro replied. And truly, he did.
Shunsui wasn't awake. Wasn't here laughing and smiling and teasing. Calling Jyuushiro's name and sharing a bottle of sake with him. Their reaitsu wasn't coiling together in lazy twists from long years of companionship.
Instead, Shunsui was lying there. Dead if not for the slow, rhythmic rise and fall of his chest. The sound of his breathing the only sign of life. He was so still, so utterly still that he might've been shaped from wax. And he wasn't awake.
Stark shifted, a sign of discomfort and he looked away, half-turning out of the doorway. "I'm sorry," he said quietly.
But the Arrancar was never given the chance to answer because his apparent escape from his hospital bed had been discovered, and Retsu-senpai came into view. Her smile pleasant but her tone sharp and reprimanding as she rushed to escort the swaying man back to his room, bed, and special Shinigami guard.
Leaving Jyuushiro to the stillness and the silence with more to ponder then he thought himself capable of considering.
The new Chamber 46 and a Shinigami council consisting of all the captains – newly appointed and old guard – of the Gotei-13 made their decision a week later. One that Jyuushiro felt his honor could at least stomach without the urge to commit suicide in order to restore itself.
The surviving Hollow were given a choice. Make themselves useful to the Shinigami in some capacity and consent to a period of observation. Or be returned to Hueco Mundo disarmed and all but helpless.
It wasn't really a choice, all things considered, but Jyuushiro thought it much better than immediate execution. Not that the Arrancar looked grateful. In fact, the blue-haired one – Grimmjow – was downright murderous. But he consented anyway. Just like the others. And Jyuushiro couldn't help but catch Stark's eye, something passing between them. Something a lot like understanding.
Shunsui still hadn't wakened. And things were looking grimmer by the passing day. There were talks. Talks that made Jyuushiro furious to the bone. Talks of replacing Shunsui's captaincy on a permanent rather than interim basis. Talks of possible long-term care and whether one could even define his condition as living. Talks of ending his suffering.
Jyuushiro wouldn't stand for any of it. He fought and argued and flared his reaitsu at anyone who so much as mentioned mercy or comatose to him. He could handle both the thirteenth and the eighth divisions until Shunsui woke up. Until not if or maybe. Until and when.
A growl of anger spilled past Jyuushiro's lips, and his curled fist slammed against his tray. Knocking the tea and all it's accessories to the floor where both pot and dishware shattered. Tea spilled everywhere, cookies scattered with crumbs in their wake. Jyuushiro couldn't be bothered to care; the brief loss of control made him feel a mite better. Just enough that he didn't think he'd lash out at the first person to speak to him.
"Man, if I were you, I'd fire the guy who brought that to me," a voice commented with faint amusement. "Then I'd make them clean up the mess."
Jyuushiro looked up, finding that he was not alone as he had thought himself to be out in the garden courtyard of the fourth division. He was supposed to be enjoying the warm spring day, calming himself for another round of arguing with those who thought they knew what was best for Shunsui. People who hadn't spent the last two thousand years at his side. People who didn't know him at all.
Jyuushiro sighed, embarrassed that his behavior had been witnessed. "There was nothing wrong with the tea," he responded, slumping as he laid a hand across Sougyo no Kotowari's hilt for comfort. "Instead, it's my control that's lacking."
"Understandable." Hands in his pockets, Stark's waraji-clad feet crunched over the stone pathway as he approached. "Mind if I sit?"
"Feel free," Jyuushiro said with a vague gesture at the pottery. "Watch out for the broken pieces." His voice was dull, barely concealing his anger.
A soft chuckle was Stark's answer as he lowered himself beside Jyuushiro. Tilting his head back to look up at the blue, blue sky.
"For what it's worth, I'm on your side. Not that anyone cares about the opinion of an Arrancar."
"It's worth more than you know," the captain answered honestly, lips twitching towards a smile but never actually managing the expression. "How's the fifth?"
Stark shrugged. "I'm getting used to working with others. It's different but not bad." His eyes seemed to be tracking the path of a single, fluffy white cloud as it lazily drifted across the sky. "Hirako is… interesting."
"Not even a century's passing could change his eccentricity," Jyuushiro agreed musingly. "In fact, it seems to have worsened it."
A chuckle, just a pale shade of amusement, echoed from the man beside him. "Compared to some of my former allies, my captain's the picture of sanity," Stark said and then quieted, as though stepping on some taboo topic that had always been carefully avoided before. "He's very… energetic. Doesn't leave much time for sitting and thinking."
"A plus in my opinion," Jyuushiro replied, forcing his fingers to unclench, trying to ease their rigidity in the same manner he was attempting to soothe the turmoil in his reaitsu. "There's not a day I've spent where I wasn't caught up in one or the other."
Stark breathed slowly, in and out. "It's like… I'm missing something," he said after a noticeable pause. "Only I can't remember what it is. I keep looking for it. Searching my room. Retracing my steps. And then I remember, she's not missing; she's gone. What am I looking for?" He shook his head, eyes shuttering closed against the brilliant sky. "What am I looking for?"
"Would you rather be in Hueco Mundo?"
He made a sound of utter disgust. "By the gods, no. That place is a wasteland. Empty sand and dark sky and desolation. It stank of death. And sometimes, I'm forced to dream of it. I'd rather not have to live there, too."
Jyuushiro inclined his head. "Aizen must've promised something great for you to join him. Otherwise, I am hard-pressed to believe you would have done so of your own accord."
Silence settled between them, not awkward but anticipatory. He knew that he'd surprised the Arrancar and the soft chuckle that divided the air between them proved Jyuushiro's assumption.
"That's probably the most polite way anyone has asked me why I would follow a deranged lunatic," Stark commented, hands dangling loosely as he leaned forward on his elbows. "It had nothing to do with power and glory. But he did promise me something. Haven't you wondered how Lilinette came to be?"
The slight pause before his former partner's name proved that grief still held Stark in his tight grip. Yet, he was stronger than he seemed; Stark preserved nonetheless. Even daring to speak of her. It was a remarkable thing.
Eyes shifting, Jyuushiro watched his companion, pleasantly surprised by the open honesty in the Hollow's expression. He wasn't intensely guarded like so many others in the same situation as him. And if Jyuushiro looked beyond the obvious, the white bone that clearly denoted Stark as an Arrancar, he could see a very attractive man.
"There have been hypotheses," Jyuushiro admitted. "Do I take it you're going to clarify them for me?"
But he never got his reply.
A woman called from the open doorway that led back into the fourth division, impatient and annoyed. Jyuushiro and Stark both glanced behind them before Stark stood, a soft smile on his lips as he shoved his hands into his pockets.
"It seems it's a story I'll have to save for another time," Stark said, head tipping in a shallow bow. He moved past the bench with his usual lazy grace, heading toward the waiting woman when a thought occurred to Jyuushiro.
He turned, voice raised before he could second-guess himself. "We should continue this at another time," Jyuushiro called out. "My curiosity hasn't been sated."
A hint of a smile curled Stark's lips. "If you insist," he said, and with a faint salute, he continued on his way.
Jyuushiro shifted back around on the bench, one foot brushing the shattered pottery. He felt strangely calm inside, the former anger bleeding out of him and leaving only a dull annoyance behind. He wondered if Stark's lackadaisical attitude had someone rubbed off on him.
Perish the thought.
a/n: This was meant to be a single drabble in Seireitei Monogatari. But somehow... it kept expanding. *laughs* There are three parts in total. This was originally meant to be a drabble but for some reason, it kept expanding and expanding. Not that I'm complaining since I'm super-proud of this fic.
Comments are definitely welcome and appreciated!