Feb 192007

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Title: This is How It Feels to be Free (Chapter 1)
Characters: Ishida Uryuu, Ukitake Jyuushirou
Rating: T
Spoiler: Best after the Bounto arc
Notes: Two men and a river; heavy art, heavy philosophy.

It was about midday as Ishida gazed across the moat at the dusty streets of Rukongai. Ichigo was off pretending to be important and Rukia was slowly recovering at her brother's house. The others were probably sightseeing or harassing Captain Hitsugaya. It would take them a good long while to notice that he was gone; they never noticed even when he was there. Well, that wasn't quite true; Inoue noticed when he was there, but she was also a bit much for his nerves, most days.

He leaned back on his elbows and tried not to think about how hard it would be to get the grass stains out of his very white Quincy clothes. As that slightly nauseating thought stretched across his mind again, a shadow extended toward him. He looked up, surprised, and squinted his eyes against the sun.

"I didn't mean to frighten you," the tall, lank figure said. "I wasn't expecting anyone else to be here, or I wouldn't have come. I'm supposed to be in bed — at least that's what I'm told — but I'm tired of being sick, and the day is such a lovely one."

The tall figure sat down next to the slightly grass-stained Quincy, bringing him out of the path of the sunlight and suddenly into focus. "Ukitake Jyuushirou. I don't think we've been properly introduced. You know me as just another Shinigami captain, and I know you as just another ryoka friend of Kurosaki. It's hardly the way to enjoy the company of another who is clearly also hiding from his associates." Ukitake smiled in commiseration.

Ishida was stunned at the straightforward declaration of the softspoken captain. "Ishida Uryuu. No one of any consequence." He looked quizically at Ukitake. "Is there just one reason, then, for a man to sit in the sunlight and watch the dust on the streets of Rukongai?"

Ukitake laughed until he coughed, then quietly spit blood into the grass. "No, that would be a limiting perspective. There is something about the look on your face that encourages me to read myself into you, I think. You're also here alone, and you keep glancing about as though you expect someone to ruin the experience."

He hadn't noticed that he was nervous until the Captain mentioned it. "You are very perceptive, Ukitake-taichou. They are very different, and I am never entirely comfortable with them. My … associates … are full of life and drama, and they rarely stop to think. They live fast. They will die young. I am, perhaps, afraid that I will grow old watching them, and grow even older after they are gone."

The captain nodded thoughtfully as he gazed across the water. "There is no place for formality on a day like this, Ishida-san. We are two free men, with no obligations, seeking contentment on the banks of a river that separates us from hardship, concern, and the desires of others. I love the smell of the breeze here. I can finally be alive and free. I can pretend, for a little while, that I am a whole man. Let go of your concerns — your associates will not find you quickly, and if they do, it is because they need you. They need you because you are not like them. You do the things they cannot understand. But for now, there is no one to demand anything from you."

The Quincy was floored by the Shinigami's choices — first to put aside formality, meaning that he did not wish to be addressed by his title, and then to raise an outsider to the level of an equal by calling him '-san'. But, still, he raised points that needed to be addressed. "They do not need me; they pity me. I lost the power to help them, Ukitake-san. They will come for me when it is time for them to carry me home. But, you're right: it isn't proper to dirty a day like this with thoughts like that. It would ruin the sound of the water and the smell of the grass."

Ukitake coughed again, in amusement — it seemed that he was unable to laugh without jarring the congestion in his chest. He reached into the small bag he wore across his shoulder and drew out a tea set wrapped in pink silk with embroidered carnations on it. "Hm, I think the stillness is getting to you. You sound like Shunsui." He smiled at a passing memory. "Perhaps you would like to share some of his tea with me. I promise to brew it with water instead of sake — I never did understand what he sees in that revolting beverage — and I'll only ask one small thing in return."

Ishida watched the Shinigami lean down to fill the tiny iron pot with water from the moat, and then start a small fire for it, between them. "What is it you want?" He sounded suspicious.

"Nothing so terrible as what you might imagine. Please, just address me as if I am no one of importance, because here, that is the truth. Shunsui likes to call me Jyuu while we drink his tea. I would be honoured if you would do the same." He filled the tea strainers as he spoke and set them atop the cups, waiting for the water to warm.

The request burned through Ishida as he recognised both its source and its truth. While he preferred to remain as separate as possible from people, insisting on his title from even his … friends, this was a very different situation. The sick young man at his side was a captain easily twice even Renji's age, very probably older than Captain Kuchiki, who had indubitably seen many others rise and fall. And somehow, despite all that, he was sitting by the river with some ryoka he hardly knew, sharing tea and offering the sort of privilege that indubitably belonged only to his closest friends. As Ukitake had said, here, he was finally a free man, removed from both owing and being owed. "Jyuu…"

The thin man's eyes sparkled brightly as he coughed up more blood, most of which wound up on the grass. "I like the way you say it! It sounds new and sweet, not like when Shunsui says it with that ridiculous lusty accent." He blushed just a bit as he removed his shoes and slipped his feet into the water. "They'd never let me do this at home. My third seat would be all over me in an instant about how the cold water will only make me sicker. But, it feels wonderful on my toes."

Ishida suppressed a snicker at the description of Shunsui, and his face reddened and stretched into a wide eyed smile. Ukitake — Jyuu was right about the water, though; it looked like it would feel pleasant. He slipped his own boots off, momentarily enjoying the feeling of having prevailed over fashion for just a moment before plunging his feet into the cool water. "Oh. Oh, wow." For all the years he'd spent standing in that stream with his bow, he'd never done it barefoot. "I suppose that if we're to be free men together, you might call me Uryuu. You are the one with the tea and the good ideas. But what do we do if the wall comes down?"

"That, Uryuu, is why some wise man in the past invented Shunpo. I'm sick, not dead; I'm pretty sure I can move us both before we get lopped off at the knees. And if I can't, what's a knee?" he joked quietly with the young man, carefully using his name to acknowledge that he would accept the offer.

It took a moment for the jest to register, and Ishida paled for a few seconds. Finally he pulled his wits together. "I suppose Inoue could put my legs back on. Of course, that would also involve Inoue looking at my legs — not a wholly appealing prospect."

The teapot began to rattle as the water boiled, and Ukitake leaned back to remove it from the flame before pouring it. "Inoue?" he asked, neutrally.

"She's a nice girl. I suspect that someday Kurosaki-san will notice her. But, she's too kind — blames herself for the faults of others, heals enemies that we, ourselves, have felled. And for all the good she's done for me, I… she… It's too much blood." He shook his head, trying and failing to gather his thoughts on the matter.

Ukitake poured the tea and set the pot of water aside. "And what," he asked slyly, "has any of this to do with whether she sees your legs?"

Ishida turned a stunning shade of red and looked into the depths of the water beside his feet. "They're my legs. I prefer them to remain in my pants, where people aren't looking at them. I've taken in the waist of all my pants so they'll fit me but not show too much. You Shinigami all get to wear hakama; people can't just look at your legs unless you want them to."

The Shinigami lifted his feet from the water. "You have thin legs. Just the fact that your pants don't quite touch them at that size gives it away. You're afraid she's going to say something about that, aren't you?" He pulled up the leg of his hakama, revealing his own bone-thin leg. "Shunsui likes to tell me that my legs are girlish. I know he means it as a compliment. I also know that he's wrong. Girls have wider, softer legs — even that Nanao of his isn't thin like this. But he says it because it makes me smile."

The Quincy sat very still for a few moments, only his eyes moving as they travelled up the captain's leg to re-examine the rest of his body. He hadn't noticed at first, but Jyuu was rather small. At first glance, the clothes seemed to make him larger, but the distance between the clothes and his skin gave lie to his actual size. "You're barely my size, aren't you? Then, you know… You know how it is."

Ukitake smiled and shook his head softly. "No, I really don't, I'm afraid. I've been sick too long to have retained any modesty. Every bit of me has been studied and tested, and I let the Fourth and Twelfth continue, because it's pointless to tell them to stop. It makes them feel better, but I've stopped imagining that any of it will help. It isn't as though this will kill me after all these years — sometimes it just keeps me in bed. But, because I have no modesty left, I have no need to dress before Shunsui brings me tea. I have no need to return in wet clothing when I wish to hide that I have gone swimming. I dress for the comfort of others."

As the captain began coughing in earnest, Ishida looked on with concern. "Jyuu, are you alright? Is there something I can do?"

Ukitake shook his head before disgorging a lump of congealed and partially-dried blood that struck the edge of his sleeve as he spit it into the grass. He stripped off the white coat and handed it to Ishida. "Hold that in the water for me, so the blood runs out of it. This is why I don't bother to dress." His voice was hoarse, his eyes watering, as he leaned to the side to cough up the last of the blood clot.

Ishida lowered the sleeve into the water, watching the swirls as the blood rinsed out of the cloth. Cold water really was the best solution for that sort of thing, and he supposed that Jyuu knew it well.

Reaching for his tea, the Shinigami wiped his eyes on his sleeve. "Swimming," he gurgled, then sipped the tea and tried again. "I meant to go swimming, today. It's a beautiful afternoon. But, as I said, I wear clothing for the comfort of others."

"I'm interrupting you! I'm so sorry…" Ishida leapt to his feet. "I didn't mean to —"

Ukitake sighed loudly. "Sit down. You're not interrupting anything. I see that I have to be more explicit when I talk to you — you really are attatched to your sense of propriety, aren't you? I meant to ask if you minded. I don't mind your company, so if you'll pardon my nudity, I think I'll go for a bit of a swim."

Jyuu isn't kidding about his complete lack of modesty. He sat back down and contemplated the situation. It wasn't as though there were girls involved, and Jyuu didn't have a body to be envied, if his legs were any indication. In fact, they very likely looked about the same under all the layers. Of course, he wasn't fond of looking at himself, either, but at least it would be a familiar view. He nodded his assent and picked up the second cup of tea.
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