Light For The Deadvine: Cowboy Chronicles, Book 1
My, You have grown
You, Left alone
Screw, rip the messages off the page
You, will only come of age
Give me some recognition
Give me some light for the deadvine
Who are you fooling?
Your heart is bleeding
Who do you think you are?
Ukitake couldn't believe that he was doing this.
He must be insane. Or possibly masochistic. Yeah, most likely that one, considering where he was going— somewhere he'd sworn to himself he'd never return to.
He swallowed thickly, uncomfortably aware of the sweat trickling down his face. He reached up and wiped it away, glaring at his hand when he noticed that it was shaking slightly. Quickly, he moved his hand back down, curling his tanned fingers around the reins slightly harder than usual.
You should be thinking about what to say, he scolded himself. How to explain the situation. How to get him to agree to help, even though he has no reason to help you. He knew that if his old friend agreed to help, it would be for Isshin, not for Ukitake. His eyes flickered unconsciously over to glance at the young man riding the horse beside him—Ichigo, Isshin's son. And only for Isshin and Ichigo would Ukitake do this as well. He had no qualms about helping anyone—in fact, he was known for it. But for very few people would he be willing to contact Shunsui once again. And even now he was half-regretting that decision; the closer they came to their destination, the more the fear and nervousness in Ukitake's chest tightened and grew, threatening to choke him. His horse shifted under him, and Ukitake winced and attempted to relax his painful hold on the reins. "Sorry, old boy," he murmured.
"Ukitake?" came a hesitant voice, and Ukitake glanced over, trying not to let his uncertainty and apprehension show on his face. From the awkwardly concerned look on the boy's face, he had not succeeded.
"We can find someone else, you know. Or just do it on our own," Ichigo offered, hand drifting unconsciously toward his holster.
Ukitake smiled weakly, without much real humor. "Believe me; if there was anyone else we could go to, I'd take you to them. But Shunsui is the best, and I trust him." He didn't think it was possible for him not to trust Shunsui, no matter what had passed between them. Perhaps the real question was: did Shunsui still trust him? “And I have a feeling that we can’t handle this on our own.”
"Then why do you look like you're about to face a firing squad?"
Ukitake winced. "We used to be best friends." The 'used to be' stung, even though he really should have been accustomed to it by now. But then, some wounds just never healed, especially ones that festered with regret and guilt. "We didn't exactly part on the best terms, and that was my fault. I... have no idea how he's going to react to my arrival. I don't even know if he'll help us." Ukitake didn't know what he'd do if Shunsui refused to help. He didn't think Shunsui would, but... it had been years since he'd last seen Shunsui (truthfully, he knew the exact number of days). Who knew what had changed in the interim? “Hopefully he will at least let us stay for the night.”
He looked up, the all-too-familiar town growing larger against the orange and red evening sky. “That’s the town. We‘re almost there,” he said, grateful for a change in subject. And it worked, with how eager the boy was to get going; they’d been on the road for a couple days now.
The two wound through the streets, and Ukitake was torn between keeping a lookout for potential danger and wanting to avoid the stares of people he’d known before he left. Luckily it seemed that no one meant them any harm, because they were not accosted, even though Ukitake was distracted. Their destination had always been a presence in the back of his mind, even when he was far, far away, and his heart filled with something like dread, as he could feel them getting closer and closer to the Rose-Colored Path Saloon.
And Shunsui Kyouraku.
By all accounts, Shunsui was a calm, reasonable man. He kept quiet when he should have, mostly avoided confrontation, and only rarely got angry. However, there were three occasions when his temper got the better of him. The first: gamblers who didn't pay their tab and made Lil' Nanao upset. The second: disrespectful people. The third: shameless gunmen.
At that moment, the third (and possibly second) was stalking in through the wooden doors of his saloon, his hair as bright as the sun and his hostile attitude written all over his face. Shunsui could smell his type from a mile away, but didn't say a word and continued cleaning a glass with one hand and pouring himself another one with the other.
Now, Shunsui was never rude to anyone. He welcomed them all, even loudmouths like the man stepping inside. After all, there were enough shady corners around the establishment where more delicate business could be conducted without Shunsui's knowledge, so he mostly didn't bother with suspecting the newcomers. The man did not choose one of the shady corners, instead walking up to the bar and talking to another patron.
Then he started talking about some fight and gesturing to the holster around his waist, and oh, Shunsui did not like that in the slightest. Talking about the act usually meant the person either had no idea what he was talking about, or was capable of it and even willing. Shunsui had been taking care of bar brawls since the age of sixteen, yet he always hoped any threatening-looking strangers wouldn't make him use force. Shunsui couldn't help listening more carefully, his keen senses outweighing his usual policy of overlooking shady characters. Who could blame him, after all that had happened?
"… then he grabbed her, just like that, stuck a gun to her neck, like this—"
The kid didn't get a chance to finish that sentence.
First rule: no guns out in the saloon, Shunsui was told by the previous owner of the place. Second rule: don't get all up in people's business, unless the first rule is broken. Then you shoot 'em right back, Shunsui.
That young gunman should have known what was coming to him. The moment Shunsui saw the flash of the slide being drawn from the holster he placed both glasses on the counter and reached out with one long arm.
He knocked the pistol from the kid's hand with ease and then tugged at his arm until his whole body crashed against the wooden surface. My, my, what an unfortunate turn of events, Shunsui thought as he grabbed the boy's shoulders and shoved him down so that his left cheek and his chest were pressed against the counter.
"This is a friendly place, stranger," Shunsui told him, leaning down to make sure the message got through. "And you wouldn't want to start something in an unfamiliar place you don't know anyone in, would you?"
"I didn't, you old—"
Shunsui leaned forward to really jab his elbow in the other's back, hearing him wheeze when his ribs dug into the wood.
"I wouldn't," the kid croaked eventually, and Shunsui relieved some of the pressure. Never one for confrontation, right? Not anymore, at least.
"Now, did you come here to drink, or just to flash your pistol?" Shunsui asked, hoping he didn't sound too threatening.
Shunsui quirked an eyebrow, genuinely surprised. "I can't think of anything else to offer a man."
He was pretty sure the kid uttered something less than pleasant, but in the end what came out was, "Shelter."
Now Shunsui was frowning. It had been a long time since the saloon had been used for that… He became more suspicious by the second. And really, he had never seen this kid hanging around here before, had he? Who knows where he's from?
"Ask him," the boy gritted out, squirming under Shunsui to nod in a specific direction. Shunsui looked up at once and saw none other than Jyuushirou Ukitake, waving weakly at them. Shunsui nearly crushed the kid under him in his shock, but pulled himself together quickly enough.
He immediately straightened up and patted the kid's back, letting out a fake chuckle even as his world came crashing down. "Ah, what a surprise. You should have said something sooner."
There were several things that Ukitake would never be able to erase from his memory, and the look on Shunsui’s eyes in that moment was one of them. It took a lot to surprise the laid-back, experienced cowboy, but shock burned clear in his old friend’s eyes. For a second, Ukitake thought he might have seen something like hope buried in there, too, but that was definitely wishful thinking.
It was the barely concealed anger that appeared after the shock had melted away, though, that cut Ukitake to the core. He barely held back a flinch, and he found himself drawing on his inner strength, summoning his inner mask… something that he only ever did when around those he was fighting, those he distrusted. Not Shunsui, never Shunsui. But he didn’t see how he could handle this any other way.
Stop it, he told himself. You knew it was going to be like this. And yet, a part of him hadn’t wanted to believe it. Couldn’t imagine what it would be like.
“Ukitake.” Shunsui’s voice was calm, blank, and painfully, falsely pleasant. Once again Ukitake almost flinched. I’ve got to get used to this.
“Kyouraku.” He touched the rim of his hat and tilted his head, amazed at how steady his own voice sounded.
Shunsui’s eyes flickered to his face, assessing, before looking back over to Ichigo. Ukitake took some pathetically small comfort in the fact that he knew what Shunsui was going to say before he said it. “Come on into the back, then.” He abruptly turned and walked quickly into the back room, his shoulders tense.
The bar was quiet, the patrons staring at the two newcomers. It was too still, and the silence was oppressive, weighing down on his body. Ukitake didn’t dare try to figure out if any of the customers were older ones, ones that he would know. Recognizing someone else, someone who would know how off this whole scene was… that might break the last of his composure. His mask was fragile as it was.
He swallowed, and jerked his head at Ichigo. Ichigo nodded, straightening up and irritably brushing his clothes off. He fell in behind Ukitake as they both moved toward the door to the back.
Ukitake closed the door slowly behind him, probably taking longer than usual, stalling, doubt and fear checking his movements. The door clicking shut, he raised his gaze to meet Shunsui’s. They stared at each other for a long moment, Shunsui’s stare frighteningly inscrutable.
“I’m not sure I ever expected to see you again, Ukitake,” he said slowly, leaning casually back against an old desk, a thumb hooked into the pocket of his pants. Ukitake wasn’t fooled by his relaxed posture. “And what was this I hear about shelter?”
Ukitake sighed softly. “Yes. At least for the boy, if not for me.”
Something strange and dark flashed in Shunsui’s eyes, and Ukitake saw him tense. Ichigo, or most people, might not have been able to see it, but Ukitake could. He wasn’t quite sure what it meant, though.
Shunsui shook his head, a sharp jerk. “No. If you need it, you can have it. Both of you.”
The tightness in Ukitake’s chest lessened, just a bit. “Thank you,” he said quietly, and Shunsui looked away.
“Why do you need shelter?” he inquired, still staring away.
Ukitake felt like rubbing his forehead, but he didn’t. He gestured toward Ichigo. “This is Ichigo Kurosaki. Isshin’s son,” he introduced. Shunsui turned his head back at that, interested eyes sharp on Ichigo. Ichigo’s eyes widened in surprise.
“I remember Isshin.”
He nodded. “I thought you would.” Shunsui’s eyes flashed to him then, and he felt like Shunsui acknowledged him for the first time that day, with a small nod and something that might, might have been a ghost of a smile. They both knew that there was no way either of them would ever forget Isshin Kurosaki. Ukitake continued on, feeling more confident. “Isshin entrusted him to me. Their farm was attacked a couple days ago, and a woman was kidnapped…” He fell into the story, letting himself relax into something he knew. He could tell a story; here was solid ground. He clung to that comfort for as long as he could.
Ukitake couldn’t sleep.
He hadn’t really thought that would be a problem. This saloon was the closest thing the wandering cowboy had ever had to a home since his childhood.
On second thought, maybe that wasn’t so surprising. This was the home that he had lost. The home that wasn’t his anymore, and hadn’t been for a long time. He had given it up by choice, yes, but it was a choice he had never wanted to make.
And here he was, in the guest room, and the soft snores of the other occupant—Ichigo—only served to remind him of the choice he had made, and its consequences. Everything that he had lost.
He slipped out of the small bed and rubbed his face roughly with his hands, feeling beyond exhausted and almost feverish. The memories were almost too much for him, haunting at the corners of his vision. There were too many of them, and too many of them hurt to think about. They threatened to overwhelm him. He’d spent the last several years trying to forget those memories, and now every single one of them were fighting for his attention.
He walked quietly over to the door, and opened it softly, glancing back to see if he’d woken Ichigo. The boy slept on, and Ukitake smiled a bit sadly. He’s young, yet.
He put his hands into his pockets and glanced up and down the dark hallway, his eyes lingering on the door to Shunsui’s room. With a grimace of pain, he turned away and moved toward the stairs. He crept down the steps, instinct born of experience causing him to step on the quiet parts. At least some things don’t change, he thought to himself bitterly.
He stepped out into the bar area, only to stop dead in his tracks. He wasn’t alone. Shunsui was there too, sitting by himself at the bar, and staring at the intruder. Ukitake tried to read his expression, but the shadows obscured his face. He swallowed, knowing he couldn’t go back now, and continued into the room, suddenly self-conscious of his bare chest.
“What’re you doing up this late?” Shunsui asked him, light glinting off a bottle Ukitake wasn’t surprised to see in his possession.
Ukitake shrugged. “Couldn’t sleep,” he answered simply, moving toward the bar. Once he was able to see Shunsui more properly, his eyes adjusting to the dark, he asked, “May I sit?” The words burned in his throat.
His old friend closed his eyes, and after a moment he answered, “Sure.” The shortness of his response couldn’t hide the first real glimpse of emotion Ukitake had heard in his voice all day. They both knew how absurd it was that Ukitake felt the need to ask permission for something as simple as that.
What has happened to us? Ukitake wanted to ask. The question would never pass his lips, though, because this was all his fault.
So he said nothing, just settled down on the stool next to Shunsui and leaned back against the bar. He tipped his head back and stared at the familiar ceiling. There are too many memories here as well. How many times have Shunsui and I sat here like this? He bit his lip, and sighed.
Shunsui shifted, and Ukitake’s attention was drawn to him. “What do you want from me, Ukitake?”
Ukitake’s hands clenched involuntarily. “I… don’t know, Kyouraku. Whatever you’re willing to offer me. I… have no right to ask anything more of you.”
His old friend slumped forward, staring at the mouth of the bottle. Ukitake ached to reach out to him, to touch him, to provide comfort. But he was the one causing Shunsui pain, wasn’t he? He wondered, not for the first time, if coming here had been the right choice. His return certainly was causing Shunsui more hurt. If it had been just Ukitake’s life at stake, he wouldn’t have returned, but this involved Ichigo and a young woman. There was no choice. And yet, logic never stopped regret.
“I don’t like how the situation sounds.” Shunsui admitted darkly. “I have a bad feeling about it.” He shook his head. “You feel it too.”
It wasn’t really a question, but Ukitake nodded anyway. “That’s why I came to you.”
Shunsui made an angry movement. “Of course! I‘m your last option.” he hissed, and Ukitake didn’t know if he’d ever heard Shunsui sound like that before- harsh bitterness mixed with rage.
“I didn’t mean it like that!” he said desperately, his mouth moving without his permission. He might give away more than he meant to, but the way Shunsui was acting was undoing him. Or perhaps it was his guilt that was undoing him. “I just… I don’t think I can do this on my own… Isshin said… Isshin implied… I really don’t know what I’m getting into. I need… I need your help. You are the one I trust the most. Even if… even if things have changed, now.”
After his words had faded away, they both were very still. Ukitake’s throat was dry.
Then, with a frustrated noise, Shunsui stood up abruptly. Ukitake blinked, startled.
"You... what?" That was about the last thing he'd expected Shunsui to say. Even though that was what he’d originally come there to ask, seeing Shunsui had made him face reality. He’d given up the hope that Shunsui would help.
"I said I'm coming." He repeated shortly, almost angrily. "There's a girl to rescue after all."
There was a hint of his customary smirk in his voice, and Ukitake wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. Shunsui was silent for a moment, and then he half turned back toward Ukitake, though not enough that his face was visible. "Besides, I know that tone of voice. You're going to get yourself killed, Ukitake. It doesn't matter what's happened between us. I still can't stand by and let you do that." He set the bottle down on the bar with a lot more force than was necessary. "It’s that weakness of mine again." With that, he stalked out of the room.
Ukitake sat there in silence for several minutes, staring blankly out into the dark area. He reached out and gently picked up the alcohol Shunsui had left behind, and then gazed down at it as if searching for all the answers to the world, to life in the ripples of the liquid. He raised it to his lips, and as he took a sip he almost imagined that he could taste the flavor of Shunsui's mouth. He swallowed, cradling the container in his hands.
What have I done?
Shunsui didn't go to sleep that night. He didn't even try; just the thought of sleeping under the same roof as Ukitake again made him jolt. It was… an unexpected visit. Shunsui wouldn't go as far as unwanted, but he'd been attempting to lead his own quiet life for five years now; reuniting with Ukitake definitely damaged his efforts.
He wanted to be more angry than he was, more upset or vengeful or even sad, if only to cover up the hurt that had unfurled in him the moment he realized it wasn't a dream nor make-believe: this was really Ukitake at his doorstep again, asking for help because even after all these years he had no one else.
And Shunsui was bound to take care of everything, and every time he thought about that—how it still fit, how helping Ukitake still made perfect sense to him—cobwebs vanished from another layer of feelings. Another part of him lay bare. Resentment, uncertainty, shock, an ache Ukitake put in there when he left.
You're melodramatic when you drink, his brother had told him once before Shunsui had told him to piss off (his brother, the only person Shunsui would use such language with). He'd never asked for melodrama. He had been caught off guard when Ukitake first showed up in his life, all those years ago. He definitely hadn't been prepared to fall in love with the man, and it felt like he was about to die when the man had eventually gone away.
It was more than seeing an ex-lover at the bar, it was Ukitake, and damn, it was harder than… He couldn't even articulate what was going through his mind, let alone his heart, and that was a first. Shunsui had been at his worst long ago, when his heart had been broken for the first time. Now, he thought, Ukitake was just being cruel.
No, that's not like him. Ukitake wouldn't come if it weren't necessary. Shunsui knew him like the back of his hand; he figured he'd earned the right to guess Ukitake's reasoning. Of course Ukitake and the Kurosaki kid needed him; of course Ukitake had no one else. During the wild days, all the friends Shunsui and Ukitake had gained weren't nearly as trustworthy as Shunsui himself, nor worked as well together with Ukitake, and the rest were just enemies.
So yeah, he understood why Ukitake was there. It was a noble cause, too, one that Shunsui couldn't refuse to take upon himself. There had been some violent raid on the Kurosaki farm, no casualties but a girl that was taken: Rukia Kuchiki.
The details of the story were quite colorful, as Ukitake had allowed Ichigo to tell some of it ("And then that motherfucking redheaded fucker shot me right in the shoulder and took Rukia!"), but Shunsui tuned in and out. He hadn't realized how unbearable it would be to stay in the same room as Ukitake. He was too preoccupied to listen—focused on the way Ukitake's brilliant hair had grown out of control, on the wrinkles around his mouth (and he knew they weren't from laughter. He wondered if the disease had taken anything else while Shunsui hadn't been there), on how goddamn thin he was. How goddamn beautiful he remained. Shunsui felt sick to his stomach, but kept his head up, his expression as unreadable as possible, and his tone pleasant and firm.
He tried to listen again. Ichigo's brilliant retaliation plan had been to set out all guns blazing, but Isshin, who had to stay put and take care of his girls, told Ichigo to go straight to the 'good old boys', meaning Ukitake. At that point of the story Ukitake got a haunted look in his eyes, which seemed more natural there than Shunsui had ever seen it. It meant there was more that Isshin had told Ukitake than Ichigo knew about. Shunsui guessed Isshin had worked out some details that made the case weird or difficult, otherwise, well, what the hell other reason was there for Ukitake to come to him for help? He wouldn't dream of not helping—Ukitake's righteousness had rubbed off on him on too many occasions.
He said just that, and that they should get some rest in the spare room until they decided what to do. Then he left, and went to the only place he could think of—down to the bar.
With nice whiskey in his hand, it was much more pleasant to feel sorry for himself. Free spirited and easygoing and tough; he was all of those, but when it was one of those days he let his basic instincts and thoughts get the better of him. For that, he needed alcohol. Anger and bitterness, such elderly, shameful emotions, as though he'd succumbed to being human.
So of course that in his moment of weakness, Ukitake would drift down the stairs to stir what might have been left stable in Shunsui. And it hurt, but god, he felt things he hadn't felt in a long time when Ukitake sat down next to him and told him that he needed him, that Shunsui was still the one he trusted the most.
"I'm coming," he said, and it made perfect sense to him. Of course I still love you. That's why it hurts. Maybe Shunsui was as masochistic as Nanao kept claiming he was when he drank more than he poured for his patrons, but he never backed down from a cry for help and hell if he was starting now.
He went to his small bedroom, but not to sleep. He merely sat and kept thinking, worked on his determination, until first light. Then he changed to clothes fit for adventure and went downstairs again. As expected at the crack of dawn, there was Nanao, counting the cash behind the bar, pretty as ever.
When she noticed him, she berated him for not shaving and then for risking a kiss to her cheek, but when she noticed he was dead-serious she stopped the scolding. He'd told her all he could have and gave her the usual instructions for keeping the saloon safe. He tried not to think about what happened the last time he left the place for a journey with Ukitake, because then he really wouldn't have been able to leave her there.
Luckily for Ms Rukia Kuchiki, he didn't get a chance to change his mind before Ukitake and Ichigo came down as well. Two things became very clear when he saw Ukitake, as graceful as ever in the mornings.
No, I'm not ready for this. Yes, I will do it.
He stood in front of Ukitake, and felt as though the horrible night had ridden him of the motivation needed to pretend. He knew he had to, if he wanted to keep his dignity, but still he let some cracks show. Ukitake looked like a wreck, a tired old mess, so he might as well know that that was what dwelled inside Shunsui as well.
He saw Ukitake's brown eyes widen, saw a flash of something in there and chose to convince himself that it was regret. He didn't want to, but he had spent so many years attached to Ukitake that even then he craved his… attention, his friendship. Their connection: what he wanted back but could never get. It wasn't wise at all; it was like adding gunpowder to an already loaded pistol. Ukitake would wreck him all over again.
"I won't hold it against you if you won't join us," Ukitake said, ripping something else inside Shunsui just with his voice.
He'd do it all over again in a heartbeat.
"Don't be ridiculous," Shunsui said, looking away just to break the connection. He turned around to get his things from behind the bar. "You know I'm a man of my word."
"Where are we even goin'?" Ichigo asked, cutting off whatever reply Ukitake had intended.
After learning this boy was the son of Isshin Kurosaki, his brashness made Shunsui smile rather than get on his nerves. Old friends always did that to him. After so many years, he guessed he really could be called an old sentimental fool.
"Dear boy," he said, looking back at Ichigo, who scowled. "Didn't anybody teach you that when you witness a crime you should alert the lawman?"
Ichigo was scowling more, somehow. He looked at Ukitake for help. "Is he for real?"
Ukitake's face brightened and he sneaked a glance at Shunsui. "It does seem wise, Ichigo. We'll head to the sheriff's station."
"What the fuck good will that do? Can't trust nobody there, we're better off on our own if we wanna get somethin' done."
Oh yeah, that's Kurosaki's boy. "You've come to me for help, right? So let's do it my way." Shunsui didn't mention the fact the sheriff station could hold more information for them than it did for Ichigo, if the sheriff himself happened to be in the office that day. Ukitake did know, of course. We're still good, even if I can't bear looking at him for more than five minutes.
"Let's head out." He quickly returned to occupying himself with his gear, and cast a sidelong once-over of the Rose-Colored Path. He wondered, like every time after that time, whether or not he would return to the same place. Whether or not he'd return at all.
He picked up his hat, looking past the saloon doors. No point in backing out now.
They set out.