Author's Note: This story will be a series of companion pieces to my other story, "Frozen Sky." I did not want to disrupt the insular flow of "Frozen Sky" by inserting other viewpoints, so the occasional outsider's point of view, as they observe Hitsugaya's progress through the events of "Frozen Sky," will be seen here. This part of "Facets," titled "Choice of the Heart," takes place immediately after Part 1 ("Waking to Frost") of "Frozen Sky."
Part One: Choice of the Heart
Ukitake blames Unohana and the persuasive power of her iron determination for his presence here tonight. Her will and manner might be wrapped in gentle silk, but they are iron all the same.
He would blame Shunsui as well, but Shunsui's ability to manipulate him has been refined and applied over so many centuries that it has simply become another fact of life; impossible to lay blame or credit at its door.
"You owe it to your health to lessen your workload, Ukitake-taichou."
"I need to know that you'll be there to look after my Nanao-chan. I'm just too swamped with work today."
Ukitake smiles to himself, partly out of a vindicated satisfaction, knowing that Shunsui is not so much busy as he is painfully hungover, and that Ise Nanao knows this perfectly well. He might be stuck out in the cold tonight, but at least he isn't the only one suffering, and Shunsui's suffering is likely to multiply once his Vice Captain returns. Ukitake is half tempted to tell Ise about her Captain's "concerns" for her safety, but in the end decides he can't be that cruel. Not until Shunsui is totally sober again, at least, and ready to defend himself.
He blames Unohana and Kyouraku, but their familiar manipulations are only a superficial thing. He wants to blame them for the pain his presence here tonight is causing him, but that is a matter too deep for blame. He understands why they've pushed him to this, but he wishes it wasn't necessary. He wishes they would stop trying. The only thing preventing him from asking them to stop is that he knows they're right, but that doesn't make it any easier to bear.
"Is this is a good position, Ukitake-taichou?" Ise Nanao asks him now, as she comes to stand beside him on the hill overlooking the forested valley below, where the academy's brightest are waiting for a Hollow to appear.
What she is really asking him, of course, is if he is feeling well enough to continue with this observation, but she is too properly polite to say it openly. He returns the politeness in kind, and merely says, "This is fine."
It is a good position, true. Close enough to sense the events transpiring below through the surrounding spirit pressures, and far enough away that skilled Shinigami should be able to hide their own reiatsu just enough to go unnoticed by students focused on an enemy. And though everyone on this hill has more than the necessary skill, Ukitake could wish, in the deep privacy of his thoughts, for better company.
Of the Captains gathered here tonight, only Aizen feels like a true friend. Komamura is an honorable man and a true Captain, but Ukitake has not been given the opportunity to know him well. Komamura seems to prefer it that way, and so he has let it be.
Kurotsuchi, however, has always made him deeply uncomfortable, and if there is anything for which he has felt grateful in regards to illness, it is for the valid excuse it has given him to interact with Kurotsuchi Mayuri as little as possible. Even though their division compounds are next to each other, Ukitake rarely leaves the inner buildings of his demesne, and has little cause or opportunity to be forced into socializing with this particular Captain. He can recognize the man as a peer, but he cannot come to think of him as a comrade in arms. That involves at least a modicum of trust, and Kurotsuchi inspires the exact opposite reaction in him. He has no right to interfere in the private business of other Captains, but he can't help wishing – and he has often mentioned it in polite missives to the Central 46 as well as Yamamoto-sensei – that someone would put a stop to some of Kurotsuchi's activities. If even half of the rumors are true, then the man is half a monster, no matter his skills.
He cannot say it in public, of course, but he often wishes that Urahara Kisuke could return. There had been times when Urahara seemed half mad, and there was no denying his lapses in sound judgment while in pursuit of his science, but despite all this Ukitake had trusted the man. Trusted him in the ways that truly mattered.
Kaien often told him that he trusted far too easily. It had always seemed like such a wonderfully ironic comment coming from Kaien, the easiest person in the world to trust, and the reason he is standing on a hill tonight, trying to hide his hands from the cold in folds of white fabric.
Ise Nanao stands next to him now, no doubt following orders from Shunsui to "look after Jyuu-chan," and though he appreciates the sentiment, a part of him aches having her there, occupying a place he is not yet ready to fill.
That is why they have all convinced him to come tonight, of course. Past time, they think – even if they will not say it openly – for him to have picked a new Vice Captain. And perhaps they are right. Perhaps it is past time. Surely Sentaro and Kiyone are likely to kill him faster than illness with their over-attentiveness. But this is a choice he is not yet ready to make.
"They say there's quite the genius in this year's batch," Shunsui had said, mumbling with a poorly feigned casualness from under his hat.
A genius is the last thing he wants. The reminders would be too sharp.
Shunsui undoubtedly knows this, but he has also always been one willing to swallow bitter medicine for the greater good. Ukitake shares that willingness. He has simply not recovered from the last time such a choice was made.
"Wasn't Zaraki-taichou supposed to be here tonight?" Aizen asks casually, moonlight shining off his glasses as he looks calmly about.
"Yes," Ise Nanao replies swiftly, efficient and knowledgeable as always. Ukitake couldn't have hoped for a better second for his friend. Heaven knows Shunsui could use a bit more efficiency in his daily life. "But most recent word says a third Hollow was spotted outside eastern Rukongai's fourth district, and he seems to have taken a… detour… in that direction."
Aizen smiles faintly. "It has been rather peaceful lately. Zaraki has undoubtedly been feeling… restless."
"A shame he has not taken it out on his subordinates, in his usual fashion," Kurotsuchi says, that huge grin of his seemingly immovable as always. "I could always use his leftovers."
Ukitake can't quite control the grimace that turns his lips, and tries to cover it up by letting one of the coughs he usually suppresses emerge. He doesn't even need to glance at his hand for blood as he pulls it away; he is intimately acquainted with how each level of coughing feels, and tonight he is in as healthy a state as can be hoped. Out of the corner of his eye, he can see Ise Nanao frowning slightly, but she does not look at him, or move from her position, hands clasped loosely behind her back. Sometimes he thinks that an unflappable, unobtrusive Vice Captain like Ise might be best for him. But after Kaien, it's almost impossible to imagine a second that wouldn't constantly interfere, and constantly argue, and constantly fill the room with the warmth of his good intentions.
"Ah," Aizen says softly, and Ukitake glances curiously towards him at the tone. Hands tucked away in his sleeves, Sousuke looks as calm as ever, his eyes unreadable behind the reflective panes of his glasses. "It would seem that Sasakibe-fukutaichou has come to join us. Yamamoto-taichou has indeed taken an interest in this young genius."
Ukitake does not doubt the accuracy of Aizen's claim, though he himself cannot yet sense the 1st Division's Vice Captain approaching. If he has one great weakness he is quick to acknowledge, it is that strong emotion often clouds his spirit sense. Reflexes honed over centuries have usually allowed him to compensate, but there is no denying that this inability has cost him in the past, and probably will in future. Nor is there any denying the emotions tonight's activity are stirring up in him.
A few moments later, Sasakibe Choujirou joins them on the hill, offering a perfect bow of respect to the gathered Captains. Without a word spoken, he joins Komamura, and a slight tilt of the visored helmet the Captain wears is all the acknowledgment, or permission, given. Ukitake knows that Komamura has a deep history with Yamamoto-sensei, but he has never sought to uncover it. Komamura is owed his privacy, and Yamamoto is an old teacher, doubly entitled to his own affairs.
He does think it sad, however, that Komamura continues to feel the need for that helmet. Even in the company of fellow Captains.
"Really, what is taking so long?" Kurotsuchi asks, opening and closing his fingers in repetitive ripples of motion, as though anxious to be burying them in some best-unnamed experiment. "Perhaps there isn't a one among them quite ingenious enough to offer sufficient lure to a Hollow after all. Pity."
"Wait," Komamura says, the first word he has spoken all evening. "It comes."
Trying not to let his relief show – it is a cold night, after all, and healthy though he may be feeling, this would not be his preferred choice of passing the remaining hours until dawn – Ukitake suppresses another cough, and nods to himself as the distant approach of a Hollow's taint becomes more noticeable. He only hopes the students below are as gifted as reported, to sense this approach clearly. The distance would be nothing for Captains to cover, should the need arise – but that is not the point of this exercise. Should the need arise, then that means a penalty for failure must be paid. There have not been deaths in these tests for many decades now; these students are chosen for their strength. All Shinigami students must eventually face dummy Hollows, some sooner rather than later, but only those on the brink of graduation who are expected to earn a seated position in the Gotei 13 are ever invited to participate in this particular testing. Captains with an open seat are invited to watch. To choose.
"You owe it to your health…"
"They say there's quite the genius…"
No. Ukitake already knows he is not going to make that choice. Not tonight.
He only hopes he will not be forced to witness another death before the dawn.
But again his emotions have clouded his mind, and he senses Captain Soi Fong's approach only a few heartbeats before her sudden arrival. She steps out of a shunpo, the fabric of her jinbaori and hakama snapping for a moment in the wind-wake of her movement. It is the only sound made by her arrival. The epitome of stealth, as always. And of other things. If Ise Nanao is unflappable, Soi Fong seems often to be carved of stone. She was not always thus, Ukitake remembers. He thinks the change a shame, but again, such things are not said between Captains. At least not by him. Not all stand so firmly on ceremony, but he has never quite been able to shake the rigorous requirements of politeness. The fault of a noble's upbringing, he supposes. Or centuries under Yamamoto-sensei's example.
Or maybe simply his own failing. Kaien used to tease him about it.
Yet another thing he misses.
"The other group has defeated their enemy," Soi Fong reports, taking up a watchful position beside Aizen.
"I hope some of them proved appropriate to your need," Aizen says.
Smiling faintly, Aizen exchanges an amused glance with Ukitake, who raises a hand to his lips once again to hide his expression. Sometimes it is hard to remember Sousuke as anything other than one of the Seireitei's most able and admired Captains, and then sometimes it is hard to remember him as anything other than the able and admirable subordinate Ukitake had once taken so much pleasure in recommending to Vice Captain. He had been sorry, on that long ago day, to lose Aizen to another division, but there had never been any doubt in his mind that Aizen was destined for Captainship, and he was only too glad to put him on that path by whatever means necessary.
When the Hollow's roar breaks the night, no one on the hill flinches. The only sound to follow is that of Kurotsuchi's soft laughter, echoing eerily from behind his teeth. Ukitake is glad that he does not know what the man is thinking.
Doing his best to set emotion and discomfort aside, Ukitake clears his mind and lets his senses become his eyes.
In the valley far below, several spirit pressures collide. A few of them are blurry, overlapping slightly as those of comparable strength often do. The Hollow, of course, is unmistakable. But two of the students have quite distinct reiatsu, one particularly strong in kidou; at least one incantation has already been performed. The other radiates an impressive power, even at this distance, but something about it remains strangely muted.
"It is a strong Hollow," Komamura says, and beside him Sasakibe gives a slight nod of agreement.
"Yes," Ukitake says, trying not to let his mind wander back into memory. Centuries fighting Hollows, and only since Kaien has he begun to fear them. Fear what they might do around him. Fear for himself has never been a factor, even in his youth. If sickness has taught him anything, it is a comfort with the nearness of his own death. "But there is strength there to match it."
"If he moves," Soi Fong says bluntly. "Poor reaction time."
"Perhaps the boy is paralyzed with fear," Kurotsuchi interjects with another empty laugh.
"No," Aizen says, his hands still neatly folded in the sleeves of his haori. "He is frozen by something else, I think."
A few moments later, Ukitake marvels at the prescience of Aizen's words. It would have been patently impossible, of course, to know the nature of a stranger's zanpakutou without having seen it once already, and often not even then can full natures be perceived. 'Frozen by inner reflection,' had been no doubt what Aizen meant, for a connection with his zanpakutou had clearly been reached by the academy's newest prodigy below. But coincidental as Sousuke's choice of words might have been, they are proven entirely appropriate by the sight of the creature who can now be seen rising above the treetops.
Nanao makes a soft sound of wonder, and Ukitake has to nod, sharing the sentiment. This is a full shikai release, undoubtedly the first, and already the strength it radiates is worthy indeed of a seated officer's skill. It is strong, yes. And beautiful. After so many years, Ukitake Jyuushiro has learned to appreciate the latter over the former. Respect is owed to strength, but what is life without beauty?
At this distance, the shimmer around the dragon below is like moonlight on water. Tiny fragments of ice left in the dragon's wake as it moves shatter into stardust. And it moves quickly. Surprisingly quick. That speed will only improve with time and training. It is a sobering thought.
Zanpakutou with elemental natures are not uncommon, but they are notoriously difficult to fully master, and few emerge with wielders skilled enough to bring out their full potential. Perhaps there had been more than one reason that Yamamoto-sensei allowed this boy to enter the academy so many years before the usual age.
Ukitake cannot help thinking of Rukia, as he watches the sinuous curves of the icy dragon below rise briefly above the trees before diving back down again, controlled by the will of a Shinigami whose reiatsu is growing palpably stronger by the second.
Rukia, who could easily have filled one of the vacancies he has been invited here tonight to fill, the snow of her own blade shimmering with bright grace. She is skilled enough. And he owes her… he owes her any form of respect he can give, any reward that might serve to distract her memories more effectively than his own have been distracted since that night.
And yet, at the same time, he cannot truly fault Kuchiki Byakuya. Once, he had thought Kuchiki's request cruel, especially in his insistence that Rukia not be told why her skills remained unacknowledged. But now… now he cannot help the traitorous will of his own heart, wanting to keep her safe. He has done her enough harm already.
The opposing spirit pressures below are reaching a peak of conflict now, and Ukitake gathers his thoughts once again, focusing on the battle, though there is no longer any doubt in his mind as to the outcome. The brief explosion and then fading of the Hollow's aura marks the end, followed by a surge in the boy's reiatsu. Exultant is the only way to describe it. Even at the remove of so many centuries, Ukitake can still remember how it felt the day he first reached a true communion with his zanpakutou. Thinking it, he places a hand lightly on his sword, and Sougyo No Kotowari seems to hum in response, deep in the back of his mind. He does not release his zanpakutou often these days. Perhaps he owes the sword some training.
"Excuse me," Ise says, bowing briefly but correctly to the assembled Captains, and then disappears to return to her charges. She will be a good calming influence, helping to bring the boy back from his newfound place of power into a less heady reality. Though it is quite possible that one who can summon forth ice with such comfortable skill will not need much help in cooling a hot head.
"Well," Aizen says, his eyebrows slightly raised. "The night has proved quite interesting, wouldn't you agree?"
Ukitake just nods, fighting to keep in an unexpected cough.
"The boy is gifted," Komamura says, his voice a sonorous echo from behind his helmet, lacking the disconcerting quality that always emerges from Kurotsuchi's mask. "Genryuusai-dono was right to admit him for training."
Sasakibe nods again, fine eyebrows and moustache undisturbed by the slightest hint of an expression which might betray his feelings. But Ukitake does not doubt that Yamamoto-sensei will get a full and detailed description of tonight's exercise.
"Too strong," Soi Fong says, narrowing her eyes. The weighted coils hanging from her hair shift at her back with the fractional shake of her head. "I have no openings in my division, and he is not suited for the Onmitsukidou brigades."
Yes, she is probably right. That sort of strength cannot be kept leashed for stealth, or the ambition which might drive it kept masked by the anonymity required of most in Special Operations.
Ukitake knows he has openings. He has the perfect openings. He could use such skill in his squad, and he could use the somber dedication this young genius has reportedly applied to his studies, far surpassing the capabilities and ambition of most Shinigami senior to him in age.
But he cannot do this. He cannot take another prodigy, strong in their gifts, strong in their potential. It is too easy to want to nurture those gifts, to want to guide them, to watch them grow. Too easy to love a face alive with such genius.
He had loved Kaien. Perhaps like a son. He cannot truly know how it feels to have loved a son, but he knows that Kaien, with his genius, with his kindness, with the sharpness of his wit and the fierce independence of his defiance, was more to him than a Vice Captain. He has had many Vice Captains. He has seen many of them die.
His dreams have never been haunted by any death save Kaien's.
"I will take him," Kurotsuchi says.
Ukitake shudders, and not just with the cough that suddenly overtakes him. He struggles to get it under control, wanting very badly now to speak. His reaction is gut-deep and instinctive; he would almost take this boy, at the risk of his own heart, just to keep him away from Kurotsuchi. There is no doubt in his mind why the 12th Division Captain would want such a young genius in his reach, under his control.
"Please excuse my presumption, Kurotsuchi-taichou," Aizen says, "but it seems to me that one whose skills are so clearly oriented towards combat might benefit from a position in a more battle-oriented squad. And Soul Society itself would benefit from him in that capacity."
Ukitake carefully presses his fingers to the corners of his mouth, to be sure he has wiped off the blood flecks he knows will be there this time, and silently thanks Sousuke for his intervention.
"Are you saying you want him, then, Aizen?" Kurotsuchi turns to face the 5th Division Captain, the moonlight playing in disturbing ways on the garish details of his mask. "Shall we make a contest of it, then?"
"Ah, no," Aizen shakes his head, smiling faintly. "I'm afraid I do not have a position open of a high enough rank to be worthy of his skills. I merely suggest that he may be better suited to a division with units actively engaged in Hollow patrol. Such as Komamura-taichou's, for instance."
Komamura says nothing. Whatever expression might be gracing his unusual face, as he continues to stare down into the valley below, is hidden to the Captains now watching him. The posture of his huge body betrays nothing.
"Ch. Komamura doesn't seem to want him."
"Aizen is right," Soi Fong says, giving Kurotsuchi a cold look out of the corner of her narrowed eyes. "Leave the boy to a division that will benefit from him."
"Oh, my division will benefit from him."
Ukitake looks to Aizen, hoping with a glance to convince him that even a low position in 5th Division would be better than Kurotsuchi's clutches. Fortunately, it has begun to rain above the valley – an interestingly localized phenomenon that could quite possibly be another side-effect of the boy's power – and the sound of thunder and approaching rainfall is enough to hide Aizen's words from anyone save Ukitake, standing closest to him.
"I cannot do much more," Aizen says quietly, carefully not looking at Kurotsuchi, who has turned his gaze back to the valley, a hungry light in his eyes.
"Surely…" Ukitake begins, but then hesitates. How can he ask Aizen for something he himself is unwilling to do?
"I'm sorry, Ukitake-san, but I don't think it would be wise." Sousuke's brow furrows slightly in the regretful frown Ukitake remembers from those days, long ago, when he would apologize to his Captain for some self-perceived failure. Always imagined. Sousuke never failed at anything in Ukitake's memory. "I have heard of this Hitsugaya from an officer of mine. They are childhood friends. I have high hopes for her, and do not wish her to become too distracted. Her training progresses well, and I would like it to continue at this pace. But perhaps you – "
Fortunately, Ukitake is spared having to explain his own reluctance by Komamura, whose voice can be heard clearly even over the rain that has now reached the hill, spattering the robes and faces of all present. Not even a Captain's reiatsu can truly keep the rain at bay.
"I will take him," Komamura says. "Genryuusai-dono's judgment is law. If he feels that this Hitsugaya Toushiro should be well positioned for advancement, then I will do so."
The look on Sasakibe's face, normally so inscrutable, betrays that this was what he had been hoping for all along.
"A wise choice, I think," Aizen says quickly.
A hiss of annoyance escapes Kurotsuchi's mask. "Very well, then. Take him. But do not be too surprised if your next request for technical assistance is met with disregard."
"I will not be surprised," Komamura says, no emotion discernable in his voice. His helmet does not even turn toward the 12th Division Captain.
With another hiss, and a clacking of one long nail against his masked cheek in a peculiar gesture of disdain, Kurotsuchi sweeps back his haori and vanishes into the darkness.
"I will take my leave," Soi Fong says then, but does not even wait for her words to be acknowledged before vanishing as well.
Ukitake lets the sigh he has been holding in all night escape him, masked by the sound of the rain. Rain. Rain. Rain brings back too many memories. His hair has begun to stick to the back his neck. He thinks he has made the right choice. Anyone with the power to call rain in his presence would call memories with it.
But he hopes, nonetheless, for a chance to know this Hitsugaya Toushiro. To see his progress. He hopes that the boy will not be too similar to Kaien. But he knows that he will not be able to help watching. For there is a beauty in genius, and there was a beauty in the dragon he had seen rising above the dark trees.
In his long life Ukitake Jyuushiro has learned that with beauty, as with memory, it can sometimes hurt too much to make the choice of looking away.