Author's Note: Bleach doesn't belong to me. This is set just prior to the Winter War and contains Kyouraku and Ukitake friendship as well as suggested Kyouraku/Nanao.

"Drink, Shunsui?"

"You know I don't drink when I'm pissed."

"And believe you me, I am thankful for it," Jyuushiro whispers, half to himself and half accusingly to his friend who is pacing the floor. "At least sit down, you're making me tired."

He jerks to head toward a chair, but changes his mind and resumes his pacing, pulling his hat off of his head in a swift, aggressive motion. "What the hell is he thinking?"

Jyuushiro shrugs quietly, and tries once again to change the subject. Shunsui, however, cares little about sweets from the real world that Kuchiki Rukia gifted to her captain, and once again pivots and stalks across the room again. "She's my lieutenant, Jyuushiro!"


"What am I supposed to do without her?"

Jyuushiro sighs and leans back in his chair, tucking his hands into the sleeves of his shitagi. "Sit down, Shunsui."

The taller man stops in his tracks and looks at his friend. The thirteenth division's captain's eyes are stern. Shunsui sits, and wisely with very little argument.

"The decision is final and there is nothing you can do about it except get over it and accept the fact that Lieutenant Ise is staying here," Jyuushiro informs quite impatiently. He is reaching for his candy drawer again, hoping that what the humans call a 'swiss chocolate' will effectively distract his agitated companion.

A large hand is drawn through coarse dark hair, and Shunsui rests his head miserably in his palm. "I just don't know what to say to her." He glances up again, eyes sullen. "Did you see her face?"

The other man nods grimly. "She is and has always been devoted to you, Shunsui, I expected a level of disappointment."

"Disappointment? She looked horrified!" He flops back in his chair, neck crooked backward over the top of the backrest. "She looked like she was going to explode from keeping her protests to herself."

"At least you trained her to be wise enough to do so. You, however, should have learned that lesson a long time ago. Yamamoto-sensei has very little tolerance for your whims."

Shunsui's neck snaps straight again and he stares with wild shock at Jyuushiro. "Fighting alongside my own vice-captain is now considered a whim?"

"Sensei has his reasons."

"He failed to name any that I can see just as plainly as he states."

Sighing, Jyuushiro shakes his head. "Well perhaps if you opened your eyes…"

Silence falls heavily in the room, as does Shunsui's gaze on the fair-haired captained sitting across from him. "You agree with him?"

He opens his mouth to reply, but has to pause on account of having nothing to say. "I-" he croaks finally—"don't necessarily disagree."

Shunsui is dumbfounded. His eyes are wide and unblinking.

"Come on, Shun, it's not that bad!" He tries to laugh it off, and reaches hastily into the drawer at his left, pulling out a handful of plastic-wrapped and sugar-based treats. "Toffee?"

"She's my lieutenant!"

"Shunsui, this isn't what you should be worrying about. We have a battle to prepare for." The larger man snarls, and Jyuushiro narrows his eyes. "What's come over you?"

"Perhaps you've forgotten how this works, Jyuushiro. Perhaps you never knew. You allowed Kaien to fight that Hollow alone, and now he's dead and you can't even say that you fought for him-"

A storm rises as Ukitake's reiatsu flairs, and his friend is reminded of just who he is taunting.

"I would appreciate it if you left Kaien out of this." His voice is dark and threatening, yet it trembles defensively in the same instant.

They watch each other, quietly reading expressions and body language as they have learned to do after centuries of friendship. There is apology and resentment and defiance.

The crinkling sound of a candy wrapper being untwisted throws them back into familiarity.

"I'm sorry, Jyuu."

"I know."


"Huh? Oh, sure."

"Red or green?"

"Red one, please. The spearmint makes me ill."

A candy is passed across the room, exchanging hands with very limited conversation.

"Jyuu," Shunsui asks after a moment or two. He has difficulty pronouncing his name around the hard candy in his mouth, but the other man gives him in attention anyway. "Do you really agree with Yama-jii?"

A sigh, and then he runs his hand though his hair. "She is a distraction, Shun."

"Distraction?" he repeats, incredulous. "What do you mean? We fight beautifully together—we're like poetry—like music!"

Jyuushiro nods in agreement. "You're right. I've never seen a captain and his lieutenant paired as perfectly as you and Nanao; but…"

"You're supposed to have my back," Shunsui interrupts, glaring scathingly.

Jyuushiro ignores him. Whether or not they were in agreement did not mean he didn't want what was best for his friend. Patiently he carries on. "It's right for you to want to fight at her side—but this isn't about that this time, Shunsui."

He stares off distantly. "I don't understand it, Jyuu. Sasikabe is going, as is Iba… Omeada…"

"It's different, Shun."

"Are they not lieutenants?"

"They are not women."

"What is that supposed to mean? You're the last person I'd expect to be suddenly misogynistic—besides, Matsumoto is accompanying Hitsugaya, and Yama-jii didn't have a word to say about that."

"You're thick, Shunsui. Use your brain. You've been around long enough to know what the difference is. You've been through this before."

Shunsui's jaw is tight and waits for his friend to continue.

"When it comes down to it, Shunsui, if anything happened to Ise, the only thing on your mind would be her: How to help her, how to save her, how to go on without her. We need all of your attention on killing Aizen."

"I know my duty."

Jyuushiro smiles quietly. "I know you do. But when you love someone, it's difficult to remember that duty when they are hurt or dying and out of your reach."

Kyoraku's silence is haunting, and Jyuushiro knows better than to interrupt it this time; it is not a spell needing to be broken, but rather a pause; a rest while he straightens out his thoughts.

"Love," he says; voice distant. His eyes are unfocussed.

"Am I incorrect?" Jyuushiro presses, the wrapper of his candy crinkling loudly. He pops the sweet into his mouth and waits.

Shunsui breathes in evenly. "No." He blinks, and continues to stare into nothingness. "You rarely are when it comes to explaining to me how it is I feel."

Across from him, the thirteenth division captain sits back smugly in his chair.

"Do try to look less pleased with yourself."

"It's hard, Shun. It's just so amusing to see you worked up like this about a woman. Usually it is the other way around."

"I would have preferred to keep it that way, too," he grumbles, raggedly dragging a hand over his face. "How did I let this happen?"

Jyuushiro simply smirks. "She was the first one to tell you 'no' since Lisa."

Shunsui sighs. "I only wish it was that simple. It's that and so much more." He's quiet for a moment. "She is like… you, in a way, except entirely different. I would do anything for either of you—both of you; lay down my life in an instant, give up everything in a breath."

"And tell me about what you would do for her breasts, Shunsui. I know you're dying to."

"Shh, Jyuushiro, I was getting there. A good poet paces his works. Be patient."

His friend laughs and patiently folds his arms over his chest, waiting like he was instructed to do.

"Her breasts are like the gentle sloping hills of the country side, perfectly sculpted and sized to fit in the rough palm of my hand as though the gods had intended for me alone to cup them and feel their warmth."

"How you know of their size so exactly concerns me for Ise's sake, Shun."

"I haven't laid a hand on her, I swear. It's all speculation."

Jyuushiro arches an eyebrow.

"She won't let me within two feet of her without hitting me with that godforsaken fan of hers," the larger man pouts.

"Will you tell her?" his friend asks, suddenly serious.

"Tell her?" he repeats, incredulous. "Jyuu, I've been telling her for nearly a half a century. She needs to be shown or she'll never take me seriously."

"You've been showing her too, unfortunately. Completely discredited yourself and your intentions in the process; I warned you that your flirting would backfire eventually—especially with her. It wasn't flirting at all- it was defending. Put on a front and you thought you could change your own mind." Jyuushiro chuckles merrily, shaking his head. "Who would have thought it would be her?"

"It's always the ones who deserve better that a man wants the most."

A silence settles upon them as Shunsui contemplates his own words. Jyuushiro's eyes grow soft. "You're a good man, Shunsui, somewhere under that rough exterior."

"I'll have to give up sake and women," he equates miserably.

"You will," his friend agrees, "But I think you'll find it's worth it." That's one thing he's sure of.

"Given, of course, that I even make it back to her," Shunsui says, leaning back again with hardened features. It's out of character for him to seem so pessimistic, but he's never been able to hide the truth from him in the past, so there was no sense in trying to doing so now.

The smile slips from Jyuushiro's face and he pushes his candy drawer closed. "You will," he declares, but his voice does not carry its usual confidence.

They share a brief, meaningful look.

"I've got your back."