A/N: Just a quick word and then I'll leave you to the story. For those of you who are interested in timelines, this takes place just after Ichigo and Co. return from their foray into Soul Society to save Rukia from execution. Aizen has not yet begun to make his move, Ichigo has yet to fully launch into his struggles with his hollow side and all parties are just starting to prepare for the things to come.
For those of you who have followed my other work, I have two pieces of news for you. 1) In an attempt to avoid my periods of writers block on this story, I decided to finish it before starting to post it online. As a result, you should be seeing frequent updates, as all I need to do is do a final once-over on the remaining chapters. 2) I have also been writing on my other story, Shades of Grey, and have the better part of three chapters completed. You should hopefully be seeing those soon, as well.
Okay, enough of me...I hope you enjoy the show ~
~ "We stand together or we don't stand at all. Together we stand and together we fall." ~
It was just approaching what might be considered late when I passed him on the street, going in the opposite direction. I couldn't sleep, like so many nights, and sometimes it was easier to roam the town as a Shinigami than lay in bed as a fucked up teenager. At least that way I felt proactive, even if it amounted to shit in the end. Aizen had the Hougyoku and even though they said it'll take him awhile to use it, he's still going to be a major problem someday soon. How was I supposed to be still, and patient, and calm with all that shit hanging over my head.
I was wandering through Urahara's neighborhood, keeping an eye out for anything unusual, when I saw him out of the corner of my eye. To be honest, I probably wouldn't have recognized him if it'd been more than a week since our fucked up 'save Rukia' fiasco. As it was, I sort of tripped to a halt, staring at the back of his head as he drifted along with a few stragglers still out in the darkness. Ukitake Juushiro, captain of the 13th division, wandering the streets in a gigai like it was the most ordinary thing in the world. At least I was pretty sure it was him, except that he looked completely different.
I didn't even hesitate as I pivoted to follow him, trying to keep my distance until I figured out if it was safe. It was just too fucking weird and honestly, the way shit was going, you couldn't be too careful sometimes. His hair was still snowy white, but it was pulled back at the nape and tied off with a piece of leather or something. He was dressed like a normal person, too; all dark in black pants and a green button down shirt, rolled up to his forearms. He looked so comfortable and human that I started to think I was seeing things until he stopped on the sidewalk with a little sigh and glanced at me over his shoulder. Not human, then; not if he could see me like this.
"Lovely night isn't it, Kurosaki-kun?" He waited patiently as I approached, eyeing him with a degree of surly suspicion.
"Ukitake-taichou?" I stopped a few feet away, my right hand twitching as though waiting for the inevitable trap to spring.
"Indeed." The corners of his lips lifted faintly, "I assure you, I truly am myself."
I frowned, because I couldn't seem to decide if that was a straight answer or some sort of dubious riddle. I snuck a quick glance around the nearly empty street, but everything looked fine. It seemed like a pretty unlikely trap when I really stopped to think about it. Sleep deprivation and unrelenting stress probably weren't the best friends for my already shady trust issues.
"What are you doing here?" I asked quietly, some of my apprehension easing, though the confusion remained. I knew it sounded like an interrogation, but I just couldn't help it.
He didn't seem to take offense, reaching up to brush a piece of loose hair behind his ear as he shrugged. "Seireitei has business with Urahara Kisuke. I was sent as a liaison."
"Is it Aizen?" I sharpened instantly, taking another step toward him.
"It's nothing to concern yourself with," he deflected, giving me another tired smile. "Just a few minor details."
"Oh," I muttered, the residual tension sliding from my frame, leaving me drifting and a little lost. Some nights it was getting harder to tell which was worse, the fear of inevitable attack or the helplessness of stagnant waiting. It was wearing on me. "Sorry about the questions, it was just kinda weird to see you...here."
I shifted uneasily, the restlessness washing over me again even though I had nowhere to go. I needed to keep moving, and I needed to rest, and I just needed something to happen before I lost my mind.
"It truly is no problem. Your vigilance is an admirable quality," he said sincerely, looking ready to resume his previous course. He paused, as though something belatedly occurred to him, and hesitated for a fraction of a second before turning to catch my eye. "Would you care to keep me company while I walk?"
The oddity of the casual request snapped me out of my slowly spinning disquiet. I opened my mouth to decline, but realized I didn't have any reason to; I had nothing else to do in the ever thickening darkness. He tilted his head slightly as he turned to move away, and I silently fell in next to him because I didn't know what else to do. He came to the end of the block and paused, looking off toward the center of town before seeming to decide against whatever he was thinking. He continued straight and I followed, because wandering the streets alone suddenly felt a little depressing.
"You're out late," he noted absently, tucking his hands into his pockets and staring up at the sky.
"I wasn't tired," I grumbled, shifting Zangetsu against my shoulder to ease the dull ache.
"That seems to be contagious lately," he murmured softly. "I would tell you not to worry so much, but that would sound awfully hypocritical."
I turned to watch him as we passed a flickering streetlight and realized he looked tired, and a little sad. He seemed to look like that every time I'd seen him, though, so I didn't really know what to make of it.
"Have you…um… been here long?" I fucking suck at small talk; never had much use for it in the past.
"No." He paused at the edge of the curb, checking the street for traffic before jogging leisurely across. "I actually just arrived this afternoon. I'll be in town for about a week."
"Oh." It was hard to picture him stuck in the human world for so long, even from what little I knew of him. "You draw the short straw on this assignment?"
He chuckled softly at my assumption.
"I volunteered," he admitted, glancing around briefly as though getting his bearings. "I rather enjoy this world, when I have the chance to visit. It's quite liberating to be free from the titles and responsibilities of Seireitei, if only for a short time."
"Sorta like a vacation from being a Shinigami?" I ventured, trying to carry the thread of simple conversation.
"Exactly," he sighed wistfully, giving me a fleeting smile. "I don't have to be a captain here; I can be whatever I want to be, so long as I complete the task I was assigned."
I could understand that. It must be pretty stressful to have people relying on you all the time, looking to you for answers at every turn. From what I'd seen and heard, he seemed like an amazing captain, but even the best need a break now and then. No wonder he looked so comfortable in his human clothes. This was his escape.
"Oh fuck," I muttered, drawing up short. "You were going somewhere, weren't you? When I stopped you?"
He turned a little, shrugging in the semi-darkness. "It wasn't important."
"I didn't mean to interrupt you," I apologized, feeling like an asshole. "I just wanted to make sure you were who you seemed to be. I can take off if you have shit to do."
"I asked you to join me," he reminded me, tilting his head to one side as he regarded me with a bemused sort of fondness. "There's always tomorrow, and I find myself better entertained by your company tonight."
He stepped off the sidewalk and into an open field, slowing briefly so that I could catch up. The grass crunched softly underfoot as we trudged along in silence, taking a somewhat indirect path toward a faint glow in the distance. I hadn't been paying attention to where we were headed, but he seemed to know the area so I wasn't concerned.
"So where were you going?" I asked finally, curious what someone like him did for fun.
"Nowhere terribly exciting," he assured me with a chuckle. "There was a lounge downtown that was supposed to have a decent live band tonight."
"Music?" I was a little surprised.
"I believe I'm permitted at least one vaguely interesting hobby, even at my age," he muttered dryly.
"I didn't mean…" I trailed off, wondering how to finish the sentence without sounding like an ass.
"Don't concern yourself," he waved me off, "You have every reason to be surprised. You hardly know me."
The field was rapidly coming to an end, but he continued undaunted, weaving through a grouping of trees and into the glow of a dimly lit park. I blinked, looking around at the familiar scene.
"Hey, we're getting close to my house," I said absently, wandering toward a well worn swing set. "My sisters used to come here to play when we were kids."
He followed more slowly, his eyes raking over the trees and sky.
"I found this park a few years ago," he said quietly, his focus turning inward for a brief, reflective moment. "It reminds me of a place in Soul Society my vice-captain used to favor while he was still alive."
He paused for a moment, inhaling the clean, night air, staring at nothing in particular.
"I can't visit that place often, because Kiyone and Sentarou have decided that it means I'm melancholy and therefore strive to distract me by the loudest means possible."
He fell silent, lost to the moment and the remembrance it brought.
"Rukia says I look like him," I muttered, running my fingers over the chain suspending one of the swings. "Like Kaien, I mean."
He hesitated for a fraction of a second before his eyes fixed on me with an old sort of wistfulness.
"You do," he admitted quietly, "You're very much like him in some respects, and very different in others."
"I'm sorry," I said awkwardly. I didn't like the thought of causing unintended pain.
"Don't be sorry, Kurosaki-kun," he admonished gently, sliding into an empty swing. "I hold no grudge for whatever hints of Kaien you may stir in my memory."
I frowned down at my fingers, pale against the warn metal.
"I guess I know how that is," I sighed, dragging Zangetsu off my back and laying him on the grass. He eyed me with mild curiosity and I shrugged. "My sister, Yuzu, reminds me more of my mom each year, but it's not a bad thing. It's just the way it is."
I lowered myself onto the swing next to him as he nodded in understanding. The ground was furrowed with years of heavy wear and I kicked off gently, the chains whining in protest. The breeze trailed its fingers through my hair and I felt the familiar, dull ache of memory settle over me.
"It's natural to find comfort in seeing the dead reflected in the living," he said softly. "It reminds us that they live on through those they leave behind."
"It's fucked up," I muttered, scuffing my toes against the ground.
I winced at my choice of words, but he either didn't notice or didn't seem to mind.
"It's part of our world," he continued. "Loss and memory burn as bright as flesh and blood sometimes. It's inevitable, really, with the nature of our existence."
I didn't have any clever retort, because I knew it was true even if I didn't want to think about it. I knew we'd all been lucky, really lucky, when it came to scraping through alive up to that point. I also wasn't stupid enough to believe our luck would hold out forever. I wasn't ready to see the faces of my dead friends reflected in those who managed to survive. I wasn't ready to even think about it.
"Kurosaki-kun." His voice broke through my spinning thoughts and I realized he was watching me, his head resting against the chain as he swayed slowly. He smiled at me, gentle and worn. "Try not to dwell on it. No amount of worry can change the future, and it can be dangerous if the fear slips in at the wrong moment."
He rose from his seat, rolling his shoulders slowly.
"Besides," he continued, the smile creeping toward his eyes. "I happen to believe in your rather uncanny ability to overcome fate. You may prove to be the best of us yet."
I snorted faintly, but the words stirred a spark of hope inside me. He was right. When it all came down to it, there was no use worrying over shit that hadn't happened. Besides, I wouldn't let it happen, so it didn't even matter.
He wandered a few steps away to a patch of especially dense grass, turning a slow circle as he eyed it critically. It seemed to meet with some unspoken standard because he sank gracefully to his knees, running his hands over the soft blades before rolling onto his back. He laced his fingers behind his head, sighing up at the sky.
"So, what do you do for entertainment, Kurosaki-kun?" He turned his head, catching my gaze through the dusky shadows. "When you're not patrolling the streets or staging assaults on other worlds, that is."
I felt my lips curve up despite the frown pulling at my brows. It was a common enough question, I supposed, but for some reason I just couldn't wrap my tongue around an answer. What did I do for fun? Nothing, if I really considered it. Who the fuck had time for extracurricular activities with all the shit flying around lately?
Ukitake apparently did, I amended to myself, watching him settle deeper into the grass in his casually elegant gigai. It really wasn't fair that he could look so damn comfortable.
"I don't know," I grumbled, feeling a little put out and more than a little boring. "I used to get in a lot of fights, I guess."
"For fun?" he prompted, sounding merely curious.
"Not really," I admitted, the frown sinking deeper onto my face. "Mostly people just started shit with me 'cause of my hair or clothes."
"Hmm…" He seemed to digest this for a moment. "What about your friends? What do you do when you go out with them?"
"Well…" I blew out a breath, running a hand through my hair as I tried to remember the last time I'd done anything of the sort. "I've been kinda busy lately.
"Hmm…" he intoned again, sounding a little more serious. "You know, if you don't find time to unwind now and then, you run the risk of snapping under the tension."
"I know," I grumbled darkly, wishing it was as easy as it sounded.
I felt the weight settle a little heavier on my shoulders as I studied the chain between my fingers. There was nothing but concern in his tone, but it still felt like I was being scolded. Like I didn't have enough shit to deal with, now I had to worry that I wasn't having enough fun. Life was such bullshit sometimes.
"Kurosaki-kun," he said softly, and when I refocused I found him sitting up in the grass. "I meant no censure; I simply know the amount of strain you're carrying at the moment. Forgive me."
"Its whatever," I shrugged weakly, feeling more tired than I had in days.
He sighed softly, lips pulling into a rueful half smile. He beckoned me over with a vague wave of his hand and I slid reluctantly from the swing, closing the distance slowly. I stopped a couple feet away and he tilted his head back to stare up at me.
"We've all been where you are, in some way or another." His face was solemn, the tempered sadness lingering in his tone. "You're not as alone as you may feel sometimes."
I was silent for a moment, because I didn't know what to say. It was becoming a pretty common state for me, it seemed.
"Don't worry about me," I said finally, sounding sullen even to my own ears and swallowing around the faint lump in my throat. "I'm not gonna lose my shit anytime soon."
Barely visible lines creased the corners of his eyes as he smiled.
"Are you always so crass?" he inquired, seemingly out of nowhere.
"Huh?" I asked brilliantly, caught off guard by the change of pace.
"Your language," he clarified, lowering himself back into the grass. "Is it always so colorful?"
"Oh." I tried not to scowl as I wondered how to respond. The obvious answer was yes, of course, but I usually kept a better lid on myself when I was in polite company. "Sorry."
"Don't be," he chuckled, letting his eyes slip closed. "It reminds me of Kaien, except he was never sorry for it. You should have more confidence."
I decided he was random as fuck sometimes, but his smile was contagious. I shook my head, dropping to sit next to him.
"What was he like?" I asked carefully, pulling up some grass from between my feet and shredding it absently. I wasn't sure it was the best topic, but it seemed to fit the mood and I couldn't think of anything else to say.
"He was fascinating," Ukitake said simply, catching a piece of grass as it slipped from my fingers. "He was like watching life flow by in a vaguely surly cage."
He laughed again, eyes warming to the memory.
"He believed wholeheartedly in everything he did, and it seemed like he was always moving, never still."
He turned the blade of grass, catching the faint glow from the park on its edge before releasing it, watching it drift on the stirring breeze until it finally disappeared into the tangle of the unkempt lawn. When I pulled my gaze back he was watching me again, a frown marring his otherwise tranquil face. His eyes slid shut as he turned once again toward the sky, and then he began to speak, about Kaien, about his division. There was nothing either heavy or frivolous in his tone, just warm remembrances of times gone by.
After awhile the lilting flow of his words slowed, winding to their inevitable close, and he asked me about my family. I figured that meant it was my turn to talk, so I gave it a shot, and after a little while the simplicity of it came easier. It had been a long time since I'd just sat around and talked about nothing important. It was kind of nice, even if it was with the last person on earth I would ever have expected. Fucked up world, but sometimes you just have to roll with it, I guess.
"It's getting late," he murmured, and I opened eyes I couldn't remember closing. "Or early, depending on your perspective."
He was sitting up again, having moved at some point during my overly long blink. The sky was starting to show the faintest traces of color in the east and I winced, realizing I had to be to school in a couple of hours.
"I shouldn't have kept you up," he apologized, having caught my expression.
"Don't worry about it," I assured him, my voice rough with sleep. "I would have kept myself up even if you weren't here."
He smiled faintly, rolling to his feet and offering me a hand. I let him pull me up, feeling exhausted and relaxed all at the same time. I blinked up at my unlikely companion, strangely reluctant to leave the first vaguely normal night I'd had in weeks.
"So, I guess you're gonna hit up that music thing tomorrow?" I nudged a rock with my foot.
"Tonight, actually," he corrected, untying his hair and running his fingers through it, "and yes, that was the plan."
"Oh," I felt a sense of disappointment stir in my chest and pushed it aside, because there was no reason for it to be there. "Well, have fun."
He paused in the act of retying his hair, eyeing me a little too shrewdly, as though sensing my hesitance. I let my face relax, meeting his gaze for a second before turning toward home.
"I'll see you around," I offered over my shoulder, bending to retrieve Zangetsu.
He'd taken a couple steps toward me, his fingers deftly winding the leather back into place. He looked like he was mulling something over for a heartbeat or two, and then his face softened.
"There's a good chance I'll be wandering down that same street again tonight," he said absently, eyes sliding over me briefly. "Should we by chance meet again, though, it would be more convenient if you were in your body. That way I wouldn't appear to be talking to myself, should we happen into a more public venue."
"Um, okay," I ventured slowly, unsure if that qualified as an actual invitation.
He didn't elaborate, just gave me a final, fleeting smile and a moment later turned to stroll back through the trees. I watched him go, trying unsuccessfully to guess at his thoughts, before shaking my head and turning on my heel toward home.
Just gotta roll with it sometimes...