Kyōraku Shunsui knows many things.
Kyōraku Shunsui knows how to make friends. He knows how to hold his shaggy head high on formal occasions. He knows how to read and write and recite poetry. He knows how to dress – or, he thinks he does, anyway. These days, he can say, with both honesty and pride, that he knows how to use shunpo and kido and how to call the name of his zanpakuto.
When it comes down to it, Kyōraku Shunsui is skilled, and he knows it.
Kyōraku Shunsui is damn good, just generally – he smiles to himself, chuckles softly – and he knows it.
And, more than anything, Kyōraku Shunsui knows how to drink.
As he sips his sake, a fragrant vintage that walks the line between subtlety and dryness almost perfectly, he reflects that the same is not true of several of his comrades. “Work hard, play hard” isn’t exactly the motto of the Shinigami Academy, after all; without question, students and teachers alike emphasize the “work hard” half of that mantra. Shunsui is no exception, of course. But he finds his lessons fairly easy, and most components of combat come naturally to him – it’s just the way Shunsui is. And so, Shunsui takes regular advantage of his consequently ample free time and fortuitously ample resources, and Shunsui drinks.
Tonight is a little different, though, and truthfully, Shunsui isn’t sure whether he welcomes the change. Tonight is not solitude and string music stuck in your head and clear-sky-glimpses of stars while lying on your back in the long grass – no, tonight is a celebration. Tonight marks the one-year anniversary of his and his companions’ entrance into the Shinigami Academy. Paper lanterns hang on draped, braided strings above Shunsui’s head, casting the tranquil garden in a warm, ruddy light. It probably disguises the flush that is undoubtedly creeping into many of his friends’ cheeks, thinks Shunsui, whose dark complexion, constant brown stubble, and experience with inebriation prevent such a flush in his own face. Still, he likes to imagine that the glow of the lanterns adds a little extra something to his sharp but otherwise uninteresting features. A tinge of life, perhaps? A tinge of handsomeness? Sex appeal? Maybe. Maybe, maybe, maybe.
Shunsui’s night thus far has passed in vague flashes of color, nothing more. Shunsui’s night has passed in the red of the lanterns, in the cobalt and the maroon of swishing uniforms, in the black of shining hair, in the subtle silvery flashes of light off of a few students’ spectacles. It has passed in the muted green of the grassy ground. It has passed in the murky brown of tree trunks, and in the pink of cherry blossoms. And all is cast against the rich navy of the night sky, which stretches endlessly above their heads. And, the moon – the moon glows orange tonight. Shunsui knows he’s spoken, knows he’s laughed and raised his cup with his classmates. Of course he has. But this is not what he remembers.
Shunsui remembers the colors.
A few of the students at his table are eagerly discussing their respective shikai. Shunsui listens politely enough, but he has no interest in contributing to the conversation. Katen Kyōkotsu’s shikai still freaks him out a little, actually, and he doesn’t want to dampen the mood of the party by bringing it up. So, after a time, Shunsui pours himself another cup of sake, leans back, and watches the festivities go by.
At times like this, Shunsui can’t help but wax a little contemplative. To say that Kyōraku Shunsui is lonely would be a grand and pathetic exaggeration. Kyōraku Shunsui is most certainly not lonely. Shunsui has never lacked for company. As he observes the merriment around him, he has no trouble pointing out several individuals with whom he’s shared a drink, with whom he’s sparred, with whom he’s spent late nights talking and laughing and philosophizing. And, of course, there are more than a few with whom he’s interacted on a slightly more intimate level – because Kyōraku Shunsui knows how to reel in a girl when he wants to, too.
But despite all this, something still perpetually leaves Kyōraku Shunsui feeling – feeling what? Empty? No, that’s not quite right, Shunsui thinks, and he frowns.
“Hey, you okay, man?” whispers one of the students at his table, turning to Shunsui and nudging him gently in the arm.
“Huh?” Shunsui starts. Must’a seen my dopey facial expression, he reasons. “Aww, yeah,” he drawls, “fine. Just fine.”
“Just checkin’,” the student says, smiling. “You looked a little upset for a second there.” Seemingly reassured, he turns back to the rest of the group.
Well. I just told that guy a bald-faced lie, thinks Shunsui.
And then it hits him.
There, in the middle of the celebratory revels and beneath the dull glow of the lantern lights, Kyōraku Shunsui realizes that there might not be a single soul in the world who truly knows him. I… I’ve never been fully honest with even one of my friends, have I? The force of the realization shocks him. On principle, Kyōraku Shunsui is not generally a liar – but it isn’t as simple as that. Shunsui has been living guarded by half-truths, by masquerades, by approximations and oversimplifications. The things Shunsui says and does aren’t false, not exactly, but to say that they accurately represent who he is… well. That wouldn’t exactly be spot-on either.
His friends, Shunsui knows, would never, never be able to guess his shikai – though, reflects Shunsui, it’s probably better that way. As long as he lets them, Shunsui’s friends will continue to view him as carefree, fun-loving, even lazy. His friends will continue to view him as an unshaven slacker who, despite his lack of discipline, will never want for female companionship. His friends will continue to view him as an awkward splash of, say, pink among black, who does little more than slake his perpetual thirst with sake and draw his swords only when explicitly ordered to do so.
Shunsui stares intently at the faces – pink skin, brown hair, yellow hair, bronze spectacles – that flit across his field of vision. None of them know me. None of them. What’s more, to his surprise, he can only attach names to about half of the faces he sees.
A roar of laughter off to his right grabs his attention. A large group of students all stand in something like a circle, most of them clutching their sides or wiping tears from their eyes as they struggle to maintain their composure. Shunsui’s interest piques. I wonder what happened over – but before he can complete the thought, one side of the circle collapses in on itself, and laughter erupts from the students once more.
What the…? Shunsui cranes his neck to get a closer look. “C’mon, man, you can totally stand up,” urges one of the students in the circle, but another quickly shoots him down, saying, “Hey, give him a break – he’s never had sake before! What’d’ja expect?” Shunsui’s interest piques even more. There’s some poor guy over there who’s never had sake before, huh? That was mildly amusing, if nothing else. “Whoa – ” comes another voice from the circle, “whoa, he’s goin’ down again, catch him, catch him!” and then half the circle dissolves into a jumble of black and white robes and protruding arms and legs and thoroughly unsophisticated guffaws on the ground. Shunsui catches himself laughing a little, too – he recognizes one or two students in the group, and he has to admit, it’s kind of funny to see his classmates in that big, old, muddled heap on the ground.
Eventually, most of the students stagger upright, but Shunsui sees that two of them remain on the ground. One of them looks a little worse for wear – must be the guy who’s making his first foray into the grand world of sake. He sits with his feet stuck out in front of him, and he’s got his head tipped backwards, neck straining a little, so that he can meet the eyes of a second man who appears to be offering him words of encouragement. The first man blinks rapidly and speaks in stops and starts. His face is plain and open and easy for Shunsui to see from his spot at the table.
But the second man…
Shunsui holds his breath. All he can think is –
The second man’s face is hidden from Shunsui’s view. Chin-length hair, true white like new fallen snow, hangs down in front of it. A few shining strands blow gently in the evening breeze, spreading out around the man’s bowed head in ghostly, ephemeral tendrils. His pale hands rest atop the first man’s shoulders as he kneels in an almost grandfatherly fashion. He nods slowly and patiently at regular intervals, responding to the first man’s incoherent babbles. And something else, too – Whoa, realizes Shunsui. His spiritual pressure…
Shunsui would remember if he’d seen that man before, he’s sure of it. Even without seeing his face, he’s sure of it. “Hey,” says Shunsui to one of his companions at the table, not really caring that he’s interrupting the conversation about shikai, “who – who’s that guy?”
“Wha – ?” says his friend, following Shunsui’s gaze. “Oh, that guy? Name’s Kiyoshi. We studied swordsmanship together, but he wasn’t very – ”
“No, no, not that guy,” says Shunsui. “That guy. The other guy.”
“Oh.” His friend rubs his chin in thought. “That dude with the white hair? Dunno exactly. Can’t say we’ve ever formally met. I think he might’a been in one of my kido classes, though…”
“Really?” says Shunsui, only halfway paying attention. He starts to stand. He wants to meet this man. He needs to. He can’t explain it, but something in him needs to.
“Uh-huh,” his friend replies, “really. If he’s who I think he is, his reiatsu is, like… insane…”
“Yeah, I can tell,” says Shunsui. He’s strong. Really strong. Shunsui takes a few slow steps away from the table.
“If he’s who I think he is. See for yourself!”
“Thanks,” tosses Shunsui over his shoulder, and he makes his way forward as confidently as he can.
When he reaches his destination, Shunsui plops down cross-legged alongside the two men and presents them with the most charming smile he can muster. He looks to Kiyoshi first. “Hiya,” he says. “Kiyoshi, right? How’re ya doin’, old buddy?”
Kiyoshi gapes at him, clearly not equipped to deal with such a startling turn of events. “Do I…” he finally stutters, “do I know you?”
“Sure! I’m Shunsui, remember? We – uh – ” he glances briefly back at the table where he was sitting – “we studied swordsmanship together!”
“Did we?” Kiyoshi’s eyebrows knit together as he struggles to remember.
“You bet we did! And,” he says, “I saw that you were having kind of a rough night. I just wanted to pop on over here and make sure you were doin’ okay.”
Kiyoshi’s lip trembles. “I think,” he proclaims after a long moment, “that I’m drunk.”
Shunsui is about to reply, but just then, he hears a voice, low-pitched and calm and kind, in his left ear. “Please, pardon me for interrupting,” it says, “but I don’t believe we’ve been acquainted.”
When Shunsui turns, he is met with the purest, greenest pair of eyes he has ever seen. And that spiritual pressure again – damn, this guy must be somethin’ amazing – “Hi,” manages Shunsui, hoping that he’s hiding his astonishment well. “Kyōraku Shunsui. First year.”
“Pleasure to meet you, Kyōraku-san,” the white-haired, green-eyed man says. “My name is Ukitake Jūshirō.” When Shunsui says nothing, the man – Ukitake Jūshirō – continues, “I’m – I’m a first year as well.”
“Oh.” Shunsui swallows, still pulled in, as if hypnotically, by those clear eyes and that immense spiritual pressure. Get it together, Shunsui. You’re cleverer than “oh,” ya know. “Good to meet you too.” Ohh, real nice, Shunsui. Real original. Real smooth. Come on, come ON –
“Cool name,” Shunsui blurts out. “Uh. Easy to remember. I guess your parents named you Jūshirō because’a that white hair, huh?”
That green gaze wavers for the briefest of moments. Uh-oh. Why do I get the impression that that was the wrong thing to say? “No, actually,” Ukitake Jūshirō says. His voice has not grown angry, but it has grown… more subdued, perhaps? “It’s written differently,” he continues, by way of explanation, “but don’t worry – that’s a common assumption. And I understand why people often think that, of course.” And Ukitake Jūshirō offers Shunsui a small, earnest smile.
“Ah,” says Shunsui, somewhat disarmed and not exactly sure how to proceed. He turns back to Kiyoshi, who has since pressed his hands to his temples and has begun to groan quietly in the back of his throat. “This guy doesn’t look too good…”
“No,” Ukitake Jūshirō agrees. “I was hoping to pick him up and get him to a safe place, but he’s proving more resistant than I anticipated.”
Hearing Kiyoshi’s groans grow louder, Shunsui finagles one arm around the fallen student and slaps that charming smile on his face once again. “I’ll help you out, Ukitake-san,” Shunsui declares.
“Are you sure? I wouldn’t want you to miss the party.” A glint of humor flashes in those green eyes. “You strike me as the kind of man who likes a good party, Kyōraku-san.”
“Heh!” Shunsui shrugs, as much as he can with Kiyoshi’s weight bearing down on his shoulders. “Very perceptive! You’re not wrong. But I’m kinda partied-out for the time being. Whaddya say? Accept my help, Ukitake-san?”
Ukitake Jūshirō runs a hand through his short, white hair – white, comes Shunsui’s thought again – and gives a quiet, little laugh. “All right, Kyōraku-san. I will. Thank you.”
After a minute or so of clunky maneuvering, Kyōraku Shunsui and Ukitake Jūshirō manage to drag Kiyoshi to a standing position. Kiyoshi’s left arm drapes across Ukitake Jūshirō’s shoulders, and his right arm drapes across Shunsui’s. “All set?” asks Shunsui, glancing sideways to make sure that both of his fellow students are ready to put one foot in front of the other and traipse back to the barracks.
Kiyoshi, eyes closed and head lolling, says “Mmh.”
Ukitake Jūshirō nods once. “Yes,” he says.
The trek isn’t long, but it isn’t exactly pleasant, either. Twice, Kiyoshi nearly topples over, but both times, between the two of them, Shunsui and Ukitake Jūshirō manage to help him regain his footing. Jeez, thinks Shunsui as they all stumble together through the Seireitei, this guy’s heavier than he looks. Or maybe this walk is just longer than I remembered. Either way, Shunsui’s actually sweating a little bit by the time they finally reach the doors of the student barracks. “Phew,” he says, unravelling himself from Kiyoshi’s grip. “Made it.”
“Mmh,” says Kiyoshi.
Kiyoshi tries three times to open the door, batting at it with clumsy hands. When his fourth and fifth attempts are equally unsuccessful, Shunsui intervenes, opening the door for him. “You good, buddy?” he asks.
Kiyoshi’s eyes clear briefly as he registers the question. “I… I think so,” he says. He nearly tumbles over again, but he stops himself from falling by leaning heavily on the doorframe. “Um.” He bites his lip, clearly embarrassed. “Thanks… uh, Shunsui? That was your name, right?”
“And, uh – thanks, Jūshirō,” Kiyoshi calls into the darkness, quite a bit louder than necessary. “I owe ya one.”
“Don’t mention it,” comes Ukitake Jūshirō’s voice, a little softer than Shunsui remembers it being before.
It’s only after Kiyoshi has gone and the doors have closed that Shunsui notices the surge of spiritual pressure to his left. Ukitake Jūshirō has his eyes closed and his brow furrowed, and his back is pressed up against the wall of the barracks. His arms are crossed over his chest, which expands and contracts slowly as he takes a series of very measured breaths. Shunsui considers him carefully. I coulda sworn he was stone-cold sober, but maybe I was wrong. “Hey,” tries Shunsui. “You okay?”
Ukitake Jūshirō’s eyes flicker open. “Oh, yes,” he says, his voice still soft. Another surge of spiritual pressure, notices Shunsui. Weird. Dude looks totally winded, but his reiatsu… “I just – I get a little tired, sometimes. That’s all.” A trace of that earnest smile from before crosses his features again. “You know, if you want to go back to the party, you’re more than welcome – ”
“No, no. That’s all right,” says Shunsui, lounging up against the wall a foot or two away from the other man. “I’ll hang out here until you get your zip back.”
“That’s very kind of you,” Ukitake Jūshirō says, “but it’s really not necessary. And… well, to be frank, it might take a while.”
“Eh.” Shunsui scratches his scruffy head. “That’s fine by me, actually. Like I said before, I’m kinda partied-out. I’d be happy to stay here.” And, to his mild surprise, Shunsui finds that means every word of it.
“Mmm,” is all Ukitake Jūshirō says in reply – but the sound is so faint that Shunsui has to ask himself whether he heard anything at all. Those green eyes are closed again. Man. Who is this guy? Shunsui can’t help but wonder, and he can’t help but stare a little, too. Ukitake Jūshirō’s spiritual pressure is, just as Shunsui’s table mate had said, insane. Shunsui feels it pulsing, enormous and tremendously well-controlled – it might be the strongest spiritual pressure that Shunsui has ever encountered in a student. But…
But look at him, thinks Shunsui. He sure doesn’t LOOK like a guy with spiritual pressure like that. In fact, Shunsui decides, he looks more like a guy who might fall over if a strong breeze came along at the wrong moment. He’s tall enough, but, despite the distinct cords of muscle that Shunsui can pick out on the man’s neck and upper torso, it’s clear that he’s a pretty skinny fellow overall. Dark circles hang beneath his tight-shut eyes. His face looks young, but Shunsui reads upon it the beginnings of both laugh lines and worry lines in very equal measure.
He’s... Shunsui’s jaw drops just a little. Maybe it’s the sake talking, but – Oh. God. He’s… kinda handsome. Isn’t he?
“Is something the matter?” Ukitake Jūshirō, eyes open again now, cocks his head to the side, a slightly concerned expression coming over his face. “I – sorry, I didn’t mean to be intrusive, but your – your spiritual pressure just now, it – ”
“Yeah. Yeah, I’m fine. Don’t worry about me.” Somehow, in that dim light, Shunsui’s eyes lock onto Ukitake Jūshirō’s again. “How… uh, how about you, Ukitake-san? Not gonna lie, man, you – uh – you seemed pretty out of it for a minute or two.”
“Ah…” Ukitake Jūshirō hesitates. “I think… I think it might be best if I retired for the evening.” He starts to stand up straight, but as he does, he sways ever so slightly on his feet – he keeps one hand to the wall, steadying himself. The other, he presses to his chest.
Shunsui watches him warily. “Which barracks do you live in?”
“It’s not far from here. Just a few blocks north.”
“Great,” Shunsui says. “Perfect. C’mon, Ukitake-san. I’ll walk you home.”
“Are you sure? You’ve already missed a lot of the party – don’t you want to – ”
“I already told ya, I don’t have any interest in going back there tonight. And what’s more,” he adds pointedly, “you look like you could use a little help walking straight. Am I right?”
Shunsui sees a spark in those green eyes that make him think Ukitake Jūshirō might protest further – but in the end, he only says, “All right, Kyōraku-san. And… thank you.”
The first block is easy. All things considered, so is the second. Ukitake Jūshirō leans heavily on Shunsui as they walk. When they reach the third block, Shunsui feels his companion’s steps slow, and slow, and slow, and then, after a moment, stop altogether. Ukitake Jūshirō breathes through gritted teeth, and his head hangs straight down – just as it was back in the garden, Shunsui cannot see his face through that white hair.
“Hey,” says Shunsui. “You got this. You’re almost home, okay?”
Ukitake Jūshirō says nothing.
“Look, man, I feel ya. I’ve been there. That last cup of sake can creep up on you mighty quick – ”
“I’m… not... drunk…” says Ukitake Jūshirō, raising his head slowly.
“Of course you’re not, pal. You’re just – ”
“Kyōraku-san. I’m not.”
Shunsui turns to face him. Ukitake Jūshirō’s countenance is set, determined, willful. Whoa. I think… I think he might be telling the truth. “All right,” Shunsui says slowly. “I believe you. But then, I have to ask… what, uh, exactly do you – ”
Ukitake Jūshirō’s spiritual pressure surges again. “Let’s keep going,” he says. “Like you said – I’m almost home.” When Shunsui only stares in response, he adds, “…please?”
“Okay,” says Shunsui. “Right. Okay.”
It happens two blocks after that. One moment, Ukitake Jūshirō and Shunsui are walking, step by deliberate step, through the streets, and the next, Shunsui feels his arm pulled downwards, yanked abruptly by a considerable weight. Shunsui’s head whips around. Just like that, Ukitake Jūshirō hits the ground. His limbs shudder. His entire frame shakes. And it seems to Shunsui, who can only stand and watch, paralyzed, that for an instant, Ukitake Jūshirō does not breathe – no, realizes Shunsui, alarmed, he CAN’T breathe. What – what’s happening? What can I do? he asks himself desperately. Can I do anything? Unthinking, Shunsui kneels and seizes Ukitake Jūshirō’s hands, believing, ridiculously, that the contact might help somehow –
And then, the terrifying moment passes. Jūshirō gives a small cough, and he sighs, the tension gone from his body. His breaths are short, fast, jagged little things. His eyelids flutter, and then open. He glances at Shunsui, then at the ground, and then at his hands, to which Shunsui still clings with all his might. “Oh, dear,” Ukitake Jūshirō whispers between gasps, registering what has happened.
Shunsui stares intently into Jūshirō’s face – he could swear that the man is blushing, of all things. “What the – what the – ” splutters Shunsui, “dude. Are – are you okay?” Well, THAT’s a stupid question, Shunsui. CLEARLY he’s not – “You scared me, man. What was that?”
“It’s complicated,” comes Ukitake Jūshirō’s quiet reply.
“I should think so,” Shunsui says. “Look, I’m sure it’s none of my business, but explain something to me, will ya? How do you get away with having such crazy spiritual pressure, and then pulling a stunt like that – huh? ’Cause, by the way, I know you have crazy spiritual pressure. It’s obvious.”
“It’s complicated,” repeats Ukitake Jūshirō. “You shouldn’t worry about it, Kyōraku-san.”
“Oh, yeah?” says Shunsui. “Well, I am worried about it. And I – I’m probably gonna stay worried whether you want me to or not, to be honest.”
But Ukitake Jūshirō shakes his head. “You shouldn’t,” he insists. He breaks contact with Shunsui’s hands and, with an effort, pushes himself into a seated position. “You… Kyōraku-san, I apologize,” he says, green eyes cast downwards. “I… this… this wasn’t supposed to happen tonight – ”
“Is it ever?” Shunsui cuts in.
“That’s not what I meant,” Ukitake Jūshirō says emphatically. “I meant…that you – you didn’t need to see this. To concern yourself with… with this – ”
“And what is ‘this,’ exactly, Ukitake-san? You make it sound like this happens to you all the time.”
Ukitake Jūshirō’s blush deepens. “It… does. Actually.”
Shunsui has nothing tactful to say to that.
After a moment, Ukitake Jūshirō says, “I think you should go.” Shunsui gapes at him. “You’ve done more than enough, Kyōraku-san,” he continues. “You certainly don’t need to – ”
“No freakin’ way,” Shunsui says flatly. “No. No way am I gonna just leave you in the middle of the street.”
“Kyōraku-san,” Ukitake Jūshirō tries again, “listen. I appreciate your willingness to stay here, but I simply can’t ask you to – ”
“Then don’t ask.” Now it’s Ukitake Jūshirō who gapes. “You don’t need to ask. Whether you like it or not, I’m not going anywhere until I know you’re home safe, okay? What kind of person would I be if I just walked away, huh?”
“I – Kyōraku-san, you've only just met me. You don’t need to – ”
“Yes. I do.” And as Shunsui stares into that earnest face framed by locks of pure white hair, he realizes just how true it is. I… I don’t think I could leave this man right now if I tried.
Ukitake Jūshirō stares back. “All right,” he finally concedes, his voice low. “…thank you. Again. Kyōraku-san.”
A few silent minutes pass. Shunsui takes in the muted colors of the Seireitei at night – blue, he thinks, lots of blue. Even Ukitake Jūshirō’s white hair shines vaguely blue in the glow of the moonlight. Shunsui wants to say something to him, to this oddly magnetic man he’s just met – but what? Words of reassurance don’t seem appropriate, somehow; Shunsui is fairly certain that he’s more shaken up by this incident than Ukitake Jūshirō is. So… what, then? Shunsui thinks furiously. Then he remembers the last thing that Ukitake Jūshirō said…
“Thank you. Again. Kyōraku-san.”
...and Shunsui has an idea.
“Y’know,” begins Shunsui, piecing his thoughts together as he speaks, “you, uh – you can use my given name if you want to.” Ukitake Jūshirō blinks. Before he can respond, Shunsui continues, “The Academy can be so stuffy sometimes, don’t’cha think? We’re both students, after all – both of the same rank. There’s no need for honorifics in a casual setting like this.” Shunsui could swear he sees the blush in those pale cheeks deepen even further. “Um. In – in my opinion.”
Shunsui feels Ukitake Jūshirō’s spiritual pressure spike. “Ah – are you – are you sure?”
“Sure, I’m sure,” Shunsui says. “I’ve never really been one for formality. Go on, give it a shot.”
Ukitake Jūshirō pauses for the briefest of instants. Then – “All right… Shunsui.”
Inexplicably, something inside Shunsui melts just a little bit.
“Ah. Well, then,” Ukitake Jūshirō continues, “I… suppose that means that you can call me Jūshirō, too. If – if you’d like.”
Shunsui feels a smile come over his face. “Jūshirō,” he says.
“Oh – ” Ukitake Jūshirō says suddenly, sliding a bit closer to Shunsui, “I – ah. One thing first. It’s – it’s probably silly, but if you’re going to use my given name, I… I’d like you to know how to write it. Properly. If you don’t mind terribly much.”
“No,” says Shunsui, “not at all.”
“Are – are you right- or left-handed?”
What an unexpected question. “…uh. Ambidextrous, actually.”
And the next thing he knows, Ukitake Jūshirō – no, he corrects, it’s just Jūshirō now, isn’t it? – has taken Shunsui’s right hand in his own, long fingers wrapping delicately around his wrist.
“Here,” says Jūshirō softly, guiding Shunsui’s hand through the air. “I… I didn’t mean to be rude before. When you asked about my name. Of course, you’d think that my parents named me ‘Jūshirō’ because of my…” he trails off. “Well. This,” he says, “is the character for the shirō you’re thinking of.” He moves their hands together, and Shunsui lets Jūshirō lead him through the familiar strokes. He already knows how to write this shirō, of course – but it does not occur to him, not even for a second, to stop the movement. “And this,” continues Jūshirō, his voice shaking just a little, “this is my shirō. It’s two characters, actually,” he adds.
Shunsui does not know what to do when the moment ends. Jūshirō still gently holds his wrist. Is this… am I… what’s happening here, exactly? Shunsui can only suck in the cool night air and hope that it settles him somewhat – he’s sure that Jūshirō must sense that something’s amiss, whether from the heat of Shunsui’s skin or from the inevitable erratic behavior of Shunsui’s reiatsu. His head swims; his heart pounds. Finally, after what feels like a very long time, Shunsui does the only think he can think of. “My turn now,” he mumbles, praying he doesn’t seem awkward, and he wraps his fingers around Jūshirō’s wrist instead.
He moves Jūshirō’s hand through the motions of five characters. After the second, he hears Jūshirō laugh, and really, he’s not surprised – it’s pretty obvious what the word is going to be. Even so, Jūshirō politely waits until the word is finished to say, “Arigatō.” Jūshirō laughs again. “You’re welcome, Shunsui,” he says.
Shunsui looks sidelong at Jūshirō, watching that smile play about his kindly features. “You – uh. You feeling better?”
“Mmm,” says Jūshirō, the smile fading slightly. “Yes. Yes, a bit.” He glances at Shunsui. “Well enough to walk home, I think. If that’s what you were asking.” He averts his eyes briefly. “If… that is. If you’re still willing to walk with me. I… I know I’ll need the help.”
That… that was hard for him to say, Shunsui realizes. Oh, god. He’s embarrassed, isn’t he? “Hey,” he says. When Jūshirō’s eyes stay downwards, he says again, “Hey.” Jūshirō looks up. “Of course I’ll help you, Jūshirō. Don’t you worry about a thing. I’m sure you feel like it’s an imposition or whatever, but – I’ve gotcha, okay?”
“Shut up,” says Shunsui. “’Course I’m sure, Jūshirō. Come on.” In one swift motion, he hoists Jūshirō into a standing position. Jūshirō tips forward, both arms flung around Shunsui’s neck, and he lets out a weak, little groan as his head sinks to rest on Shunsui’s shoulder.
“It’s okay, man,” Shunsui reassures him. “You said it’s not far, right?”
“Right,” manages Jūshirō.
“Right. Like I said, I’ve gotcha. One step at a time, okay?” Jūshirō nods, and fixes his eyes straight ahead. His spiritual pressure surges once more. He says nothing – saving his strength for the walk, Shunsui has no doubt. “Okay, Jūshirō. Let’s do this thing. In three… two…”
Finally, finally, they arrive. When they do, Jūshirō lets his hand slide from Shunsui’s shoulder, and he staggers the few steps to the door.
Then, he turns. “Shunsui,” he says.
“You’re… you’ve been…” he stops.
“It’s nothing, man. Really.”
“No, it isn’t. I mean it, Shunsui. You’re – truly – ” and he stops again. “I think… I think that any man who counts you among his friends is very, very lucky to do so.”
Wow. That’s a first. “I dunno,” Shunsui says. “You… you don’t know me, Jūshirō – ”
“I – I think I’d like to.”
“ – ’cuz, I promise, I’m much more disappointing once you get to know me – wait, what?”
“I. Ah. I’d like to. Get to know you, Shunsui.”
Shunsui feels his heartbeat pick up speed. “I… ah…” What the hell?
“Listen,” says Jūshirō. “You – ah. You haven’t exactly seen me at my best tonight. You haven’t seen me at my worst either, so I suppose that’s something, but – I. Well. I wouldn’t mind a second chance to make a first impression.”
“You’ve made a fine first impression,” Shunsui stammers.
“No. It’s kind of you to pretend, but no. I haven’t.”
“You’ve been just freakin’ fine,” says Shunsui. “And – well – you didn’t have to do a damn thing. I wanted to get to know you the second I saw you back in the garden.”
Jūshirō’s green eyes grow wide. “…really?”
“I mean, at first, it was your spiritual pressure.”
“Hang on – really?”
“Yeah. Not to be the absolute worst, but I kinda figured any guy with spiritual pressure like yours was worth knowing.”
“No, no, that’s okay – I was going to say the same about you.”
Shunsui raises an eyebrow. “…you were?”
Jūshirō nods. “Your spiritual pressure is incredible, Shunsui.”
“Ha.” Shunsui shakes his head. “Nice try. But yours knocks mine outta the park, no question.”
“I don’t think so,” Jūshirō says, and Shunsui sees that he’s serious.
“Do you have shikai?”
“Shikai,” Jūshirō repeats. “You have shikai, don’t you?”
“I…” Shunsui is pretty sure he can see where this is going, but he’s not sure how he feels about it. “Yeah, I do. What – what are you gettin’ at, Jūshirō?”
“Well. I want to get to know you better. And you, for some convoluted reason, seem to think my spiritual pressure is more impressive than yours. Suppose… suppose we trained together sometime?”
Shunsui bites his lip, very, very uncertain. “Jūshirō,” he says, “I think it’s a swell idea – in theory. But – you’re asking about training together using shikai, right?” Jūshirō nods. “Look, man. I…” You what, Shunsui? Are you about to tell him about your freaky shikai? Really?
“I see,” says Jūshirō. “I understand. It’s all right, Shunsui – I probably wouldn’t want to fight someone like me in a training context either, given the choice. I just – ” He closes those green eyes for a moment. “I thought I’d ask. I – thought you might be different.” He turns away, and moves to open the door. “Thanks again,” he says over his shoulder. “Good night, Shunsui.”
“No – Jūshirō!” Shunsui rushes forward and lays a hand on his shoulder. Jūshirō lurches, almost falls – Shunsui catches him, supporting him from behind with his strong arms. Shunsui feels Jūshirō trembling slightly against him. “Jūshirō,” he says, quietly. “No. It isn’t that. It isn’t that at all.”
Jūshirō looks up at him, the question written clearly upon his face. “It isn’t?” He seems shocked. “Then… then what?”
“Honestly? It’s – my shikai.”
“It’s – it’s weird, man. I wasn’t kidding when I said that getting to know me wasn’t a whole lot of fun.”
“Oh.” Jūshirō keeps his eyes trained on Shunsui’s. They soften, and Jūshirō smiles. “Well, that’s all right,” he says. “A – um – weird shikai will probably help me train better than a conventional one, anyway.”
“You say that now,” Shunsui says. “I don’t think you know what you’re getting into.”
“Well, then.” Jūshirō inhales sharply and stands on his own, turning once again to face Shunsui. “I’ll just have to find out. Won’t I?”
Shunsui swallows. “You sure?”
Jūshirō’s smile grows. “As you might say, ‘sure, I’m sure,’” he says. “And, I must confess, Kyōraku Shunsui, that I am also more than a little bit intrigued. So – sometime next week, perhaps?”
“Good. I’ll – I’ll send you a message soon.”
“I – I look forward to it.”
“As do I.”
They stand for a long moment in the darkness, facing each other, neither of them speaking. Then, Jūshirō opens the door and, after a final glance over his shoulder, he disappears into the barracks. The last thing Shunsui sees before he vanishes entirely is that flash of white hair.
The barracks in which Shunsui lives are nearby, but it takes him a long time to meander his way home. The blue Seireitei provides an appropriate and echoing stage for his wandering footsteps and wandering thoughts. He flexes the fingers of his right hand over and over and over, and he, surprising himself, fancies that he can still feel Jūshirō’s hand wrapped tenderly around his wrist.
What a strange man, thinks Shunsui, gazing upwards now. He raises his right hand to the sky and stares at it. It is silhouetted against the moon, which glows bright white now, instead of its former orange.
It is then that Shunsui realizes that he’s forgotten how to write Jūshirō’s name. Damn. It angers him that he can’t remember. It seemed important to him, too.
Still looking at the sky, Shunsui wraps his left hand around his right wrist and begins to guide his own right hand through the air. ‘Shi…’ he thinks, ‘shi...’ like the number four. Yes. But the ‘rō…’ he makes one clumsy stroke, and then another – but he knows it’s wrong. He can’t remember. He can’t. He simply can’t.
And what’s more, he can’t un-see that first shirō - the shirō that means white.
When Shunsui finally lays down to sleep that night, feet a little bit tired and mind reeling, he is still thinking of Jūshirō. I hope he still wants to be my friend after he sees my shikai, is Shunsui’s last dim thought before he slips into sleep.
And that night, Shunsui dreams.
Yes, splashes of violet taunt his dreams. And yes, splashes of crimson stain them. But that night, for once, Shunsui ignores all of the colors swirling in his head – all, that is, save for flecks of playful, intelligent green which seem to linger on the periphery of his slumber.
In his fitful sleep, Shunsui smiles.
Because that night, his dreams are