Title: Do You Still Love Me?
Length: 1,499 words
Rating: PG for... one mild swear word, I think.
Pairing: Unohana Retsu and Ukitake Jūshirō
Note: This story isn't really about romance, but it is about love.
For some reason, I felt inspired to write this pairing. It's not as overtly coupley as one would expect of a valentine's fic, but I feel like it captures the contest theme in essence.
“Do you still love me?” he asked, searching her face for something that wasn’t there. He was too tired to shout, to beg, to do more than look at her with weary eyes.
Unohana Retsu didn’t respond. She couldn’t.
So that was her answer. She didn’t love him. He wondered if she ever had. “I see,” he answered flatly. There were so many things he could say, but he just didn’t want to anymore. Jūshirō was tired of trying. Tired of being the only one trying to make things work. She didn’t answer; but he knew. He bowed his head and took a step back, willing the ache in his chest away. It was the only goodbye he could muster. With it, he turned and walked away, sliding the screen closed behind him. As he left, her sad eyes stayed with him.
They would for years.
Jūshirō bitterly wondered what had been the point of it all. Had all those moments of sweet bliss been a lie? What had she thought every time he told her he loved her? Was she just leading him on in some sick game? He groaned, running his fingers through his hair. He knew that wasn’t the case. She was far too kind for that… Maybe that was the problem. She knew he loved her and she was too kind to hurt him by telling him she felt nothing. But damn it, she had to know that it hurt so much more.
Retsu sipped her tea in silence, reflecting on the day. Jūshirō’s despairing expression weighed heavily on her mind. After working together as relatively new captains in the Gotei Thirteen, Jūshirō had asked her if she would accompany him for tea in the courtyard. He came every day after that and invited her to join him. Even on days when she told him she could not come, he always brought her cup along with him and sat in their usual spot.
It hadn’t taken long for them to begin courting one another- it was a perfectly natural progression. He was one of the most compassionate men Retsu had ever met. He was brilliant, strong, friendly to all, and adorably childlike. She watched him always with a small smile and a warm fondness.
But Retsu did not love Jūshirō the way he loved her. He loved her in the way any romantic loves a woman- with wistful sighs and heartfelt letters. With small, thoughtful gifts every day, from single flowers, to small candies, to jewelry from little known but skilled vendors in Rugonkai, to the gaudy little trinkets that he seemed so fond of leaving all the captains. (It was those that she always saved among her treasured possessions.) He loved her with songs and moonlit strolls. He loved her with everything he had.
Nothing pained her more.
Without a doubt, Retsu loved Ukitake Jūshirō. But she loved him without romance. She loved his very being and cherished him always. But even when she let him kiss her, she felt none of the passion that was supposed to accompany love. She loved him as one loves their closest and dearest companion. She would not give Jūshirō what he wanted; she could not.
She closed her eyes. She would not see him again.
One hundred years passed with the swiftness of spring. Over one hundred years… and Jūshirō still loved her. She cared for him, professionally, of course. Though it was a struggle for him at first, the two captains remained close friends. He was young back then- young and filled with ideas of love and romance. But Jūshirō was content with his friendship with Retsu. Over the years, she remained a constant support for him- as much as Shinsui and Yamamoto. He had been a fool once, to risk such a strong friendship over a blinded love.
But even after thousands of sunsets, he could not shake the emotions that swelled when he thought of her. They did not crash into his heart with the force of a battering ram as they had when he was younger. They came like a constant tide, welling up in his chest on occasion when they spoke.
Then one day it happened. It came unexpectedly, like a flash flood. He sat under the tree where they used to take tea together. It had become a habit that was hard to break, even after a hundred years. He was not as strong as he once was and dozed off under the umbrage. When his eyes opened again, Retsu was there; sitting beside him with the extra teacup he always carried and never knew why. She hadn’t sat in that spot since those days of his youth and he stared at her in speechless confusion.
They did not speak. She sat beside him with her eyes closed sipping tea, breeze tousling her hair lightly about her face. The whole time, he watched her. When she finished, she left without a word.
The next day, she was there again. Again they sat in silence, sipping tea together. She was there every day afterward, and every day they drank in companionable silence. On the seventh day, she hummed.
On the twelfth, she spoke.
It had taken Retsu over one hundred years of solitude to realize she loved him, more accurately, to realize the nature of her love for him. Her female staff always gossiped about love stories and high romance. She was surrounded by talk of it at every turn, even from Isane. And somehow, Retsu had fallen prey to the romance mythology. Somewhere along the road of her life, though she hated to admit to herself, she began to believe in that stupid “spark.” Oh, logically she could say she did not believe in it. Logically, she could say love was something more powerful and everlasting. But when she told, though without words, Jūshirō that she did not love him, it was because she could not classify what she felt.
Yet here she was, spending nearly every day with him after a century. What was that, if not love? How could she explain her devotion to him, the warmth that she felt at his presence, and the smile she never noticed on her lips until she stopped, if it was not love? Why did she buy into the idea of that attraction so popular with romantics? Why had it taken her so long to see that he did love Jūshirō? She felt at ease whenever she sensed the soft pulse of his reiatsu- a peaceful contentment whenever he was near.
She wondered if he still loved her. But it was a foolish thought. He had never bothered to hide it. He sat under their tree every day, unfailing. She watched him, heart breaking when he doubled over in another coughing fit. Even when the attack subsided, it left him weak. His energy spent, he fell asleep. Gliding across the courtyard, she was by his side in an instant. O, how darling he was. She brushed his hair from his brow and watched him.
“I never stopped,” she spoke.
Jūshirō looked at her in obvious confusion. The cool breeze lifted the veil of silence in the air and leaves drifted by, carelessly unaware of the event occurring around them.
It wasn’t as if he had not spoken to her often, so Jūshirō could not understand why her speaking now felt so monumental. They talked every day- they were close companions and dear friends. So why did it feel as if the very earth was shifting?
“Retsu,” Jūshirō answered delicately, “I don’t-”
Her eyes stayed focused on the horizon, a distant look in her eyes as if touching an old memory. “You asked me,” she interrupted him for the first time in their friendship. “Many years ago, when we were young, you asked me if I still loved you.”
Now, it was he who could not speak. His eyes could not leave her face, his mouth was open to respond, but all sound died in his throat. She still looked at the sky, holding her teacup in her lap. Finally, she turned her head and met his eyes.
“I am sorry, my friend, that I could not see it until now.”
And in an instant, a century of a broken love was healed. Retsu had a gift for healing. Jūshirō knew that she often lamented on her inability to heal his disease. But she had effectively healed one of his greatest wounds without preamble.
A century, he waited.
A century of foolish dreams of this woman of beauty, strength, and grace passed. Never had he imagined a resolution like this. Peaceful. Serene.
Nothing he ever had imagined could have felt more perfect.
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.