a/n: Last chapter, my friends. I do hope you enjoyed this odd ride into an unusual pairing. It was quite fun for me as well. No warnings this chapter. It's quite safe for work and wow, look at this, Byakuya makes an appearance. *grins*
After the Fall
Jyuushiro was actually feeling rather well rested. Which was the only reason he was willing to accept this visit so early on a morning when he was supposed to off, sleeping in and relaxing from recent stresses. Not that relaxing was on his agenda and not when he had a nude man sleeping in his bed.
Sitting across from him, Byakuya was sipping at his tea and watching Jyuushiro from the corner of his eyes, contemplative and curious. Perhaps the sight of his senpai with his hair barely brushed and his yukata obviously rumpled was bothering Byakuya. It was rare for Jyuushiro to appear anywhere less than put together. But this was Jyuushiro's home, and it was early in the morning, and Byakuya's visit was unexpected. Not undesired because Jyuushiro always had time for his kouhai, just unexpected.
Jyuushiro cleared his throat and swiped a few strands of hair back behind his ear. "To what do I owe this pleasure?" he asked, reaching for his own tea and stirring in a few teaspoons of honey.
A flurry of emotions flickered over Byakuya's face – he never could completely hide them. He breathed deeply.
"I honestly do not know any other way to subtly lead into this, senpai," Byakuya admitted, and if there was one thing Jyuushiro thanked Aizen's war for, it was that his kouhai had finally abandoned some of his previous stoic behavior. "I came here to express some concern regarding your relationship with Stark-fukutaichou."
Jyuushiro's brow lifted before he could clamp down on his reaction. "Is the concern for me or him?" he asked, the statement as unexpected as Byakuya's visit itself.
"There has been… talk," Byakuya said, shifting uncomfortably. His fingers flexed around the teacup as though he'd rather be somewhere else at the moment, anywhere else taking about anything else than the current topic. "You've been spending an extensive amount of time with him."
Well, Jyuushiro supposed the rumors were to be expected. When not commanding the thirteenth division or helping Ise-san supervise the eighth or sitting at Shunsui's bedside, Jyuushiro could often be found in Stark's company. Either for a casual dinner, conversation over drinks, or sharing heat and passion in Jyuushiro's bed. Though the latter was less well-known as the other activities.
Jyuushiro inclined his head. "He's an interesting man, Byakuya-kun. Is it too much to believe I might be curious?"
Byakuya, bless him, looked even more uncomfortable. If that were at all possible.
"Seireitei is a breeding ground for gossip, senpai. You probably know that even better than I do. And the rumors that have captivated everyone's attention right now aren't for harmless conversation."
"Ah," Jyuushiro said, nodding slowly and holding his kouhai's gaze. "You are referring to the talk where he shares my bed then?"
"Among others," Byakuya replied, barely concealing a grimace.
But Jyuushiro couldn't be sure if it was because the content of the rumors or the fact that there was gossip in itself. He set his cup back on the table, careful not to rattle the dishware, and folded his hands in his lap.
"This would be one instance in which the rumors pervading Seireitei have a basis in fact," Jyuushiro replied with a deep, slow breath.
He told Byakuya the truth because he trusted his kouhai, and Jyuushiro had never lied to him before. Besides, he wasn't ashamed of his relationship with Stark. Compared to the way the Shinigami were treating Shunsui to the manner in which Stark spoke of him, Jyuushiro was more inclined to see Stark's humanity before he was inclined to dismiss it.
Only someone who knew Byakuya as well as Jyuushiro did would recognize the subtle widening of those grey eyes for what they truly were. An expression of the Kuchiki noble's complete and utter surprise. Byakuya visibly gathered himself together as though trying to find his equilibrium after such a shocking revelation.
His kouhai worked his jaw, seeming to choose his words carefully. "I realize that Kyouraku-san's condition might've… led you open to certain suggestions-"
"Stop right there," Jyuushiro inserted firmly, holding up a hand before Byakuya could continue down that path. "If anyone is to be blamed here, it's me. I invited him, not the other way around. And yes, it may have initially been borne out of a need for comfort. But it hasn't remained that way."
"Senpai… he's a Hollow," Byakuya said, obviously struggling with every revelation that Jyuushiro was blatantly and honestly tossing his direction.
"Really? I hadn't noticed," the older man replied dryly and shifted forward, changing his tone to one that was both serious and uncompromising. "Byakuya-kun, what Stark is matters very little to me compared to who he is. And who he is. A man who has yet to lose faith in himself despite what has happened. He's shown more honor than many Shinigami I know, and he's one of the few who has supported me regarding Shunsui's fate. What he is, Byakuya-kun, is my lover. And that isn't going to change regardless of Soul Society's opinion on the matter."
Silence followed, but he never once took his eyes away from Byakuya's face. The noble held himself together remarkably well, barely twitching after hearing such a declaration. Instead, he inclined his head, loosened his hold on his untouched tea, and returned the cup to the platter.
"I understand," Byakuya said finally and rose to his feet in an elegant motion, a strange gleam in his eyes. "I won't trouble you any more on the matter. And I will do my best, senpai, to ensure that others do the same."
It was as close to an apology as Jyuushiro was going to get, and the very fact that Byakuya was willing to concede meant a lot. Byakuya had only been concerned for him, after all. And that concern was touching.
Jyuushiro smiled. "Thank you, Byakuya-kun. I do hope that the next time you come to tea it will be for more pleasant conversation."
The younger captain nodded again and politely dismissed himself, taking the faint hum of his distressed reiatsu with him. No doubt Jyuushiro had given him much to think about it, and brooding was something Byakuya always best did alone.
In Byakuya's absence, Jyuushiro closed his eyes and sat back, away from the table. One hand lifted to his head, fingers rubbing over his brow where a small ache was building behind his temples. There was a familiar tightening in his chest as well – a coughing fit in the making. So Jyuushiro focused on making his breathing shallow and even, hoping to forestall the inevitable.
The gossip and the rumors didn't bother him. Seireitei wouldn't be complete without them. Nor did Jyuushiro particularly care if the truth came to light. It was, after all, the truth. And Jyuushiro wasn't of the sort to deny his relationship with Stark anyway. It'd be an insult to himself, to his lover, and to the things they'd shared.
Besides, most of Seireitei already considered Jyuushiro to be rapidly losing his sanity. They thought him foolish for continuing to believe in Shunsui's recovery more than six months after the fact.
But a small stirring of reiatsu from behind Jyuushiro made him still, hand dropping from his face.
"How long have you been standing there?" he asked softly, knowing that Stark had purposefully let Jyuushiro know he was there. He was too talented in concealment otherwise.
Soft footfalls padded into the room. Coming to a rest behind him as hands fall on Jyuushiro's shoulders.
"Long enough," Stark answered, thumbs pressing into the knotted muscles in Jyuushiro's neck. "I honestly didn't know Kuchiki-taichou could make that expression."
A small smile curled Jyuushiro's lips. "He's rather skilled at restraining himself," he agreed and let a small sigh escape as Stark's fingers eased the tension he hadn't even realized was coiling tightly in his body.
Stark's hands were warm and gentle. Light pulses of his reiatsu sent a gentle buzz across Jyuushiro's skin.
"It would've been easier, you know. And safer in the long run."
Jyuushiro blinked. "What?"
"If you'd denied it. If you said we were just friends. That you were just taking me under wing."
Jyuushiro reached up, laying a hand over Stark's own, and twisted around to look up at his face. "You really think I'm that sort of person?"
"I think that there are better things to fight for," the Arrancar returned, a strange look in his eyes – such an odd mixture of blue and grey and almost purple. Jyuushiro never could tell which they were supposed to be.
Frowning, Jyuushiro rose to his feet. But the tightness in his lungs grew unbearable, and he curled into himself instead. Quickly covering his mouth to conceal the wet coughing. Stark instantly knelt at his side, one hand rubbing Jyuushiro's back as he fought through the spasms.
Having been through this before, Stark was quick to send his other hand diving into Jyuushiro's pocket and to where the captain was wise to keep a handkerchief doused in medicine at all times. Soon, the vaguely minty scent of the medicine was pressed to Jyuushiro's mouth. The soothing smell eased the clenching of his lungs and throat.
"You… idiot," Jyuushiro grated out once the coughing laxed enough that he could manage a few words. His free hand slipped out, grasping onto the front of Stark's sleep robe and dragging him closer. "You heard all of that… and you're still saying this?" he demanded from behind the cloth.
Exasperation fluttered across Stark's face as he rolled his eyes. "You can't wait to chastise me until you've started breathing properly?"
Jyuushiro glared at the man who'd become his lover and maybe something a bit more along the way. He dropped the handkerchief, drawing in slow and steady breaths with only the occasional twinge of pain to ruin the effort.
"Am I that untrustworthy?" he rasped.
Stark sighed and rose to his feet, dragging Jyuushiro with him until they stood nearly face to face. "You know that's not it," he said, and his gaze was everywhere but on Jyuushiro's eyes. "But you and I both know that the only reason I'm still alive is by the grace of Seireitei's higher powers. I can't imagine they'd take too kindly to us. I might be accused of corrupting you, as Kuchiki-taichou so helpfully pointed out."
Jyuushiro snorted, though the reaction made him wince. "If I've not let them defeat me regarding Shunsui, then I'm not bothered about a scandal either." He reached up with his free hand, grabbing Stark's chin and forcing the man to look at him. "Unless, of course, you decide to abandon me first."
Stark's eyes widened noticeably, and a fierce expression fluttered across his face before he closed the space between them. His lips sealed over Jyuushiro's mouth. It was an answer, perhaps not verbal, but an answer all the same. His lover eagerly returned the kiss, Stark's lips pressing against his and a tongue sliding into his mouth. One of the lieutenant's arms slid around Jyuushiro's waist, pulling them together.
"I'm an idiot," Stark mumbled into the kiss as they melded together. "And a coward as well."
"I don't think so," Jyuushiro replied, one arm slipping around Stark and pressing his fingers gently against the man's back. "Overly cautious perhaps. Maybe even a tad too honorable for your own good."
"I didn't know Hollows had honor," Stark muttered, but he shivered nonetheless as Jyuushiro's fingers traced familiar, erotic paths.
He nibbled on Stark's jaw, lips moving lower to the sensitive flesh of his throat as his hair brushed the white bone of his mask. He felt a minute tremble rock his lover's body as Jyuushiro neared one of his more responsive erogenous zones.
"We could stand here and argue niceties all morning," Jyuushiro whispered, fingers tracing the curve of Stark's spine and each knob of bone. "Or we could return to bed – where we should've never left I may add – and continue this. Entirely up to you, my wolf."
Stark groaned low in his throat as Jyuushiro's tongue flicked across the top of his mask. "Or I could take you right here," he murmured with a hint of wickedness in his tone as he pressed against Jyuushiro, the rigid length of his arousal obvious.
"Sounds good to me," Jyuushiro said and dragged his lips back to Stark's mouth, sealing them together in a deep kiss.
Byakuya's accusations and concerns were far, far from Jyuushiro's mind as Stark proceeded to tangle their tongues, hands roaming in all the right places. And untouched tea was quickly swept aside to make room on the table. Unsurprisingly, Jyuushiro didn't even mind the mess.
Jyuushiro was sleeping when he felt it, just a vague stirring on the edge of his senses. A tickle across his back. A feeling of warmth like a spring day pulsing over his skin. A sense that something had returned, something had finally clicked into place.
He woke with a start, heart building a steady beat in his chest. Jyuushiro pushed himself out of the warm circle of Stark's arms before he even realized what he was doing. Sitting up, pulling the folds of his nemaki around him as he concentrated on the gentle reiatsu that seemed to call to him.
It was still night or early, early morning. The sky was dark. Air crisp, cool, and damp. Jyuushiro could smell flowers on the breeze through his open window. Behind him, Stark stirred with a murmured noise, one hand stretching across the mattress in search of him.
He shook his head as that tickle increased to the ghostly flicker of a hand on his, squeezing gently. To laughter that was warm like honey. To a familiar voice and the taste of sake and the scent of springtime.
Jyuushiro was on his feet in a flash, feeling an answering pulse from Sougyo no Kotowari. His zanpakutou had felt the reiatsu as well.
A hand flashed out, fingers wrapping around his wrist. He blinked, turning to find that Stark was looking at him. A small frown marred his otherwise cute and sleepy expression.
"I have to get to the fourth division," Jyuushiro said. A part of him wanted to tug away from Stark as he struggled, stretched out to cross the distance.
Stark swung his legs out of bed, rising to his feet in a motion that was more stumble than anything. But he never once lost his hold on Jyuushiro's wrist.
Swallowing thickly, Jyuushiro nodded. "I think so." He shook his head, resolve flashing in his eyes. "No. I know so."
He reached for his yukata, fixing the loosened sides and retying the obi. Jyuushiro didn't plan to do anything more than throw on an over robe and slide into a pair of loose slippers. He didn't care how he looked; he needed to get to the fourth. And right now, no matter what time of day or night it was.
"I'll go with you," Stark insisted. Then he moved, suddenly awake, as if magically going from sleepy to alert in the blink of an eye.
He threw Jyuushiro's his captain's haori, which would serve as a good cover if nothing else, and reached for a robe of his own. It was a midnight-blue ensemble that Jyuushiro had picked out for him several weeks ago. At the time, he'd admired the way the dark color highlighted Stark's eyes. Even now, he took a moment to appreciate the look before the call pinged on his senses again, and Jyuushiro stirred into motion.
Stark grabbed some sandals, and together, they slipped into the night to flit through Seireitei toward the fourth division. Jyuushiro's heart hammered in his chest, hope surging and swelling in him like the rise of high tide. His reiatsu surged without his consent, cloaking Jyuushiro's body in a relative hum of eagerness. He couldn't tamp it down, however, and he was surprised that he hadn't yet woken half the damn city as they raced through the streets.
Years of constantly visiting the fourth had given Jyuushiro exclusive privileges to come in whenever he wanted. Of course, that was usually for his own illness, but at the moment, Jyuushiro just didn't care. He did little more than nod to the woman seated at the front desk before he hurried to Shunsui's room. The ping on the edge of his senses grew louder and stronger, now more of a low drone like a hive of busy bees.
Shunsui's room came into view, but before Jyuushiro could enter the door, fingers locked around his upper arm. He came to a halt, whirling with a question on his lips. Only to have it quickly smothered by Stark's mouth and a fierce, demanding kiss. Stark's familiar reiatsu brushed against his own, tangling gently at the edge as the kiss softened. His lover's lips moved in a rare show of vulnerability.
"I'm still here," Stark murmured, voice carrying no further than the two of them in the hushed and empty hallway.
Some of the frantic, anxiousness coiling inside of Jyuushiro eased, and he took a deep breath, nodding mutely. It was a testament to their relationship how much Jyuushiro understood from those simple words. And how much Stark understood from Jyuushiro's equally simple response.
The fingers around Jyuushiro's arm loosened, giving him room to step through the door. Stark was a warm, familiar presence behind him.
Immediately inside the darkened room, Jyuushiro felt the stirring of a reiatsu that had slept for too long. The entire room hummed with it: floor and walls, even the vase on a bedside table. Jyuushiro wondered why no one else had sensed it, the feeling so palpable that it trickled across his skin like a lover's caress. But then, Stark didn't seem to feel anything strange, his face filled with concern for Jyuushiro and nothing else.
Breath bated, the captain pushed himself toward the bed and its lone occupant, knowing his own reiatsu answered the vibrating call. Warmth blossomed as the tendrils of Jyuushiro's energy entwined with the seeking curls of Shunsui's own. The moment his fingers slid around Shunsui's hand, he could feel an answering pulse.
Shunsui twitched, and a hand once lax squeezed Jyuushiro's gently in return. He felt heat bank behind his eyes as he heard – actually heard not just saw – Shunsui take a breath before his eyelids fluttered open. His gaze was unfocused, but he turned his head and seemed to find Jyuushiro nonetheless. His grip tightened and tightened as though desperate to be grounded.
Jyuushiro felt like dropping to his knees and bawling out of sheer relief. But he settled for a wobbly fall onto Shunsui's bed as he embraced his best and dearest friend. No, more than that. Shunsui was more like the other half of his soul. Not in a romantic sense but in every other way. Friend and brother and everything else in between.
Their reiatsu clashed and instantly entangled. Jyuushiro could feel the weakness in Shunsui's energy. It was barely more than a fledgling at the Academy but obviously growing in strength the more seconds passed.
"You're awake," Jyuushiro said, throat thick as he felt Shunsui return the embrace, the warm weight of arm falling around his back. "I knew you would."
He heard Shunsui swallow before attempting to speak. "What… what happened?" Shunsui asked. His voice was a raspy, familiar rumble that made joy blossom through Jyuushiro all over again at just hearing it.
"You don't remember?" he asked, pulling back enough to see Shunsui's face. Jyuushiro unlinked their fingers and brushed hair out of Shunsui's eyes.
Shunsui shook his head, blinking slowly like a man coming out of a long and deep sleep and still waded through the resulting fog. "I remember… Aizen. The battle. The Hougyoku. A feeling like someone had sucked everything out of me. Breath, heat, power. And then… nothing."
"You destroyed the Hougyoku," Jyuushiro explained.
That particular action was something he'd relived night after night. Dream after nightmare. Over and over in his head, wondering if he could have done something different.
"And it nearly took you with it."
Grimacing, a brief darkness entered Shunsui's eyes. "And Aizen?"
"Dead. Along with most of his associates. If not for Ichigo-kun…" Jyuushiro trailed off, unwilling to go back into the heart of madness that was the war.
It was over, done with, Aizen defeated. No need to delve into the past. None at all.
"It doesn't matter. The war's over."
"It's nice to wake to good news," Shunsui commented with a hoarse chuckle before he focused on Jyuushiro, concern further darkening his eyes. "How long?"
"Too long," his friend replied and forced himself to swallow again, swallow down the tears that wanted to emerge. He hadn't cried the whole time Shunsui was locked in a coma, and he refused to let them fall now. "But don't worry, between Ise-san and myself, your division is in tip-top shape. Just waiting for you to come back."
A small sigh slipped past Shunsui's lips. "Ah, my sweet Nanao-chan. I can't wait to see her tear-stricken, relieved face."
Jyuushiro shook his head, a smile twitching his mouth. "She's more likely to give you the stack of paperwork that's been waiting for you."
The soft, rough laughter from Shunsui was music to Jyuushiro's ears. Their reiatsu was tangling together in familiar ways, and Jyuushiro could hardly breathe under the relief that was spreading through him.
And then, Shunsui's gaze drifted past Jyuushiro to the man who stood just behind him. A man Jyuushiro ashamedly admitted to himself he'd almost forgotten was there.
"Oh ho!" Shunsui put in. "What's this? It seems I've missed something while I've been gone."
And despite the fatigue that lined his face and the shadows under his eyes, Shunsui managed an eyebrow waggle better suited for tawdry bars rather than a bed in the fourth division. Jyuushiro blushed as Stark stepped up beside him, one hand settling firmly on his shoulder.
"A product of Seireitei's mercy," Stark answered with amusement in his tone and perhaps a touch of relief as well. "Coyote Stark at your service."
"We're lovers," Jyuushiro added, sensing that Stark wasn't going to introduce himself as such, and Jyuushiro himself wasn't ashamed. "He helped keep me together when everyone else started to lose faith in you."
"Ah, then I owe you my gratitude," Shunsui commented conversationally. But it was a cover for the way his eyes studied Stark. As if weighing and measuring him and making sure he really was good enough for Jyuushiro.
"None needed," Stark replied, and when Jyuushiro turned his head to look at him, he caught a fond smile curling Stark's lips. "Jyuushiro healed me as well."
An urge to kiss Stark rose up in Jyuushiro so strongly he was surprised at himself for not following through with it. Instead, he placed his hand over Stark's and squeezed firmly. There was a strange, bubbly happiness inside him, and he was overwhelmed with urges to cry and laugh and smile and bathe both of his two favorite people in kisses and hugs until exhaustion overcame him.
Soft laughter dragged Jyuushiro's attention back to Shunsui, whose eyes were sparking with familiar humor. "You two are so cute," he all but cooed, his teasing quickly broken by a jaw-cracking yawn.
Strange how someone could be trapped in a coma but still wake as though they hadn't slept for days.
Jyuushiro's free hand groped for Shunsui's again. "Get some sleep," he said, ignoring the heat in his cheeks. "No doubt you're going to have a lot of visitors tomorrow."
"Think Retsu-senpai will be surprised?" Shunsui asked with a chuckle, eyes obediently sliding shut.
"I know she will," Jyuushiro replied and squeezed Shunsui's hand again, finding himself unwilling to let go.
Shunsui was conscious, awake, alive, and Jyuushiro couldn't be more pleased. But there was a lingering fear that Shunsui could slip away from him again. Jyuushiro fought that irrational worry down, settling for contenting himself with watching his friend settle once more into sleep. A sleep that seemed far more restful and healing. Color was already returning to his face, and the gentle buzz of his reiatsu was a steady presence coiling together with Jyuushiro's own. As fierce as the mountain wind but as gentle as a spring breeze all at once. Playful as a child's game but with an edge underneath that was hidden in the shadows.
Stark remained behind Jyuushiro, a silent, steady presence that leant support and demanded nothing. If someone had told him months and months beforehand, that one day he'd be relying on one of Aizen's minions, that he'd fall into something deep and loving with an Arrancar, he'd have asked them which of Shunsui's special stock they'd stolen. Jyuushiro couldn't have expected today's reality. He couldn't have anticipated how much Stark would come to mean to him.
Shunsui's breathing evened out, and Jyuushiro rose to his feet, loosening his hold and pressing a soft kiss to his dear friend's forehead. Shunsui didn't stir, but his skin was warm to Jyuushiro's lips. A startling contrast to the former tepid, almost chill that Shunsui radiated during his coma.
Shunsui was awake. Alive. He was going to be just fine.
Both of Stark's hands were on Jyuushiro's shoulders now, squeezing and rubbing. Soothing motions that were accompanied by soft brushes of his reiatsu, reassuring pulses that spread warmth through Jyuushiro's body. He closed his eyes, leaning back against his lover and allowing himself to be enfolded in the man's embrace. Stark's scent, that wonderful mix of almonds and juniper surrounded Jyuushiro. He sighed softly.
"I'm fine," Jyuushiro assured him, enjoying the press of Stark's face against his cheek. "I'm really and truly fine."
For once, it didn't even sound like a lie.
a/n: Annnnd, that's all folks. I don't, at present, have any ideas for a sequel, but one never knows where the muses may tread. But that's all for this particular fic so I hope that you liked it. As always, feedback is appreciated!