A/N: Well, as usual, a terribly long delay between chapters. My apologies. Timeline-wise, this comes after Part Five of "Frozen Sky."
And I know, I probably should have gone for a new character's viewpoint, but after dealing with people like Renji, Ichigo, and Orihime in the last story I worked on, I felt it was time to go back into an angsty mind. (Heh.) Besides, Ukitake and Unohana have seemed intent on taking this story over from the beginning, so maybe I should just give in. (Not that it should really matter, at this point, but anyone who wants total consistency/freshness on the viewpoint could of course go back and read the previous Facets chapters. Slow writers always live in fear that people have forgotten everything that came before.)
Disclaimer: The only thing I own is my obsession.
Part Three – Those Who Watch
It has been a very long time since Ukitake Juushiro last observed a formal Captain's examination, and he finds that it brings back many memories, some so long buried that they have almost been forgotten in the flow of centuries.
Faces long gone… Isshin, Kisuke, Kenji, Noriko. For some, he stood in witness, in gatherings such as this one. For others, his recommendation or approval was sometimes the deciding factor that made the examination unnecessary.
There are times when he cannot help but wonder at the fact that he, of all people, has lived long enough to see so many comrades come and go.
And the last century has proved especially tumultuous, where the loss and promotion of Captains is concerned.
Soi Fong faced no examination; her bid for Captainship went completely unquestioned. Though she seemed an entirely different person from the one Ukitake had known previous to Shihouin Yoruichi's departure, he gave his approval for her recommendation. There is no denying her skills. She is the only Commander in the history of the Onmitsukidou brigades to have claimed even further power by assuming the additional rank of Captain. In the privacy of his thoughts, Ukitake believes that even that accomplishment is nothing more than a desire to leave Shihouin Yoruichi far behind, but it is not something he has ever said aloud to anyone but Shunsui, and even then he spoke softly. The Onmitsukidou has many ears.
Kuchiki Byakuya refused an invitation to join the Gotei 13 for decades. There was no one about to question his right to a Captainship; he had only to claim it. And there is no doubt in Ukitake's mind that Byakuya only agreed to become a Captain in order to fill the void left by his wife's death. He has tried to speak to Byakuya about it, but even he, for all his optimism and persistence, has finally given up that battle for lost.
Ichimaru Gin faced the examination, and met the necessary requirements, though Ukitake himself was not present to witness his testing. That month had been one of his worst in fighting the sickness, and he woke from a delirium of weeks to hear that Noriko's old 3rd Division Captaincy had been filled by Aizen's previous Vice Captain. He still occasionally hears disquieting rumors about Ichimaru, but anyone who served under Aizen must surely have picked up enough good traits to balance out negative rumor. Ukitake has never had much of a chance to interact with Ichimaru, but does not regret it. He likes to think that he knows how to read people's smiles, and Ichimaru's hides far more than it reveals.
And then of course there was Kenpachi, and his chosen path to power.
Ukitake is not at all surprised to find that Zaraki Kenpachi has chosen not to attend the examination of this newest applicant to Soul Society Captainship. The newest, and the youngest in Soul Society's history. But it would seem that not even that remarkable fact is enough to pique Zaraki's curiosity.
"Well, this should be interesting," Shunsui says, peering up past the brim of his hat into the cloudless sky and the blazing sun. He seems to have found a fan somewhere in his store of garishly colored oddments, and Ukitake can only imagine that Ise Nanao has not yet seen this particular fan and its decidedly… bare… depiction of ladies at their musical studies. She would surely have burned it otherwise. "It's a good day for a bit of ice and snow," Shunsui observes, flourishing his fan in emphasis.
Ukitake raises a hand to shade his eyes and glances skyward, though he can feel the heat well enough, beating through his layers of clothing. He has become so accustomed to the way the waters of the lake surrounding his office cool the air that it is sometimes easy to forget how hot it can become in other areas of the Seireitei. Certainly there is nothing to shelter them from the sun here, in this empty expanse between the Soukyoku and the Central Court – the only place isolated enough that a Captain could feel comfortable unleashing his power without harming others, or revealing his secrets to those of lesser rank.
"But really," Shunsui says with a heavy sigh, waving his fan listlessly in the shadow cast by his hat, "it's enough to make you feel old, isn't it? Not to mention totally upstaged. We had a good run of it, with our records unchallenged, didn't we? But I suppose fame is like good sake – it can't last forever."
"Your list of what is like good sake grows every year."
"A positive outlook on life is a good thing, I always say."
"Anyway, no one remembers our past fame anymore. We're old relics now, Shunsui," Ukitake says cheerfully.
Despite the unseasonable heat, he is feeling good today. Whether it is mere chance, or invigoration caused by his eager curiosity, he can't say, but he's grateful. He has watched Hitsugaya Toushiro's career as closely as he could over the years, but this is the first time he will be able to truly see the boy in action. He has never forgotten the impressive reiatsu – undeniably Captain class – he sensed from the boy on the day word of Akita Sachio's death snapped his self-control, and Ukitake's conversations with Unohana since that day have only confirmed that he had not misinterpreted what his senses were telling him.
But perhaps his greatest source of information on Hitsugaya Toushiro's career has been the result of Sentaro and Kiyone's drunken socializing. The absence of Komamura's young fourth seat at officer gatherings over the years has not gone unnoticed, and drunken Shinigami love to gossip. There are times when letting Sentaro and Kiyone yell at each other unstopped as they recount a night's events can yield some positive – or at least informative – results.
Shunsui waves his fan in Ukitake's direction with a pursed-lip smile and a proud flush of his cheeks. "It's a good thing beauty comes with age, then, isn't it?" he says in reply to his friend's attempt to consign them to forgotten antiquity.
"I hope you're going to hide that fan before your Vice Captain sees it."
"What, this thing? Oh, don't worry, my Nanao-chan appreciates good art."
"I see your most recent concussion still hasn't worn off, then."
"Anyway," Shunsui says, shifting to seriousness with his usual ease, "we're certainly here early. Your curiosity is getting the better of you, as usual. Not even Komamura has arrived yet. Though…" He smiles suddenly, and says without turning, "Good morning, Unohana-taichou. Warm weather we're having, isn't it?"
"Indeed," Unohana says as she steps up beside Ukitake, smiling at both Captains warmly. "A good day for ice and snow."
"Just what I said."
"It looks like the others are arriving as well," Ukitake observes, sensing the approach of several Captain presences.
"Komamura-taichou is with Soi Fong-taichou and Yamamoto-soutaichou, observing the final stage of the written examination," Unohana reports.
"Final stage, hmm?" Shunsui says with raised eyebrows. "He finished rather quickly, then."
"Indeed," Unohana says again, staring back in the direction of the Central Court's tall buildings. "I couldn't help but notice that his fingers were marked by ink stains as well as calluses, whenever I examined him."
"Aaah," Shunsui drawls, his eyebrows climbing even higher as he taps the brim of his hat with his fan in a knowing sort of gesture. "One of those who feels like he has something to prove, is he?"
Unohana smiles, her head tilting just slightly with her quiet laugh. "Not an entirely incorrect feeling, for someone in his unique position."
Tousen Kaname makes his entrance then, walking sedately, as usual avoiding anything even as commonplace as shunpo to make a flashy entrance. The blind Captain gives them a nod on approach, but no words of greeting as he takes up a position beside Unohana.
"Looks like we'll have a decent turn out today," Ukitake says brightly, glad to see that someone other than himself, Unohana, and Komamura are willing to give the boy's exam serious consideration. Despite the unexpected news that Kurotsuchi also gave his recommendation, Ukitake is not expecting to see the 12th Division Captain here today, and can't say that he feels badly about it.
"It is our duty as Captains to observe our peers and maintain the integrity of our rank as much as possible," Tousen says quietly. "Age doesn't matter. Only purity of purpose."
"A good sense of humor always helps, too," Shunsui says lightly.
Ukitake winces, but if Tousen takes any insult from the comment he doesn't show it. Even a couple centuries isn't always enough to get used to Kyouraku Shunsui. Ukitake has had millennia, and the man can still take him by surprise.
He remembers that Kaien, on the other hand, was never set off stride by Shunsui, even at his most drunk. All thanks to the Shiba disposition, Kaien had explained cheerfully. Shiba were never appalled by anything. Iron constitutions. Iron smiles.
And here he had been hoping to get through the day without comparing one young genius to another.
He does not want to be thinking about Kaien as he observes Hitsugaya's test. The boy deserves his unwavering focus, on this important day.
It was a day that Kaien never had the chance to know.
"Ah, I see I'm late. My apologies."
Aizen has approached quietly; he has always been good at making himself unobtrusive.
"You're not late, Sousuke-kun," Shunsui says, fanning himself again. "We're just discussing the possibility of change in the weather forecast."
"Ah yes, I've heard that his zanpakutou can control the weather," Aizen replies, folding his hands in his sleeves as he comes to stand beside Kyouraku, on the opposite end from Tousen. "I'm looking forward to seeing it displayed."
"Though it looks like Kuchiki isn't going to make an appearance, eh?" Shunsui says, not bothering with the theatrics of looking around. "Not surprising, but it is a shame. Still no interest in playing with others."
Because she is standing next to him, Ukitake can hear Unohana's very soft sound of amusement, though her serene expression does not change.
Aizen smiles, but only says, "Still, we have enough to make the exam legitimate."
Ukitake feels comfortable with the Captains who have chosen to gather today. No one here will judge the boy for the wrong reasons. It will be a fair observation.
Though when it comes right down to it, he wonders how much their approval is actually needed. Technically, merely passing the exam's many requirements is enough, so long as there are witnesses, and the Commander General gives his sanction. The Central 46 has a say in nominating candidates, but the traditions of the Gotei 13 go back even further in history than the authority of the Central 46. The Captains who stand witness have the right to make their opinions known, but if a candidate faces the exam successfully in their presence, in the end their good will is not required, only their confirmation. Yamamoto-soutaichou's word carries the truest weight here, and Ukitake suspects that Yamamoto has already made his decision, and is only waiting for the exam to support it.
Ukitake smiles faintly to himself, lost in old memory. Strict and uncompromising though he has always been, Genryuusai-sensei has a weakness for indulging genius. Ukitake remembers the many private lessons and lectures he and Kyouraku have weathered over the years, even after becoming officers. Even after becoming Captains. Yamamoto expresses his pride best by insisting on ever greater results from his chosen favorites.
Whether it is a bond between wielders of elemental swords, or the boy's serious ambition, or merely a respect for the rarity of such genius, Yamamoto has clearly had his sights set on Hitsugaya Toushiro from the moment of his unusual admittance to the academy.
Well, perhaps it is inevitable. It's true that 10th Division has been without a Captain for far too long, and Shinigami capable of achieving bankai are truly hard to find.
"Ah, here we go," Shunsui murmurs, tucking his fan away at last into his obi.
Yamamoto appears first, ending his shunpo standing opposite the Captains, his hands folded over the cane grounded before him. Soi Fong appears a second later, taking up a position beside him, but at two proper steps' distance. As Commander of the Onmitsukidou and its Keigun Brigade she has a special role to play in observing candidates for Captaincy. Immediate reporting and punishment of misdeeds falls to her Corps, even if only in name. The ritual, symbolic though it may ultimately be, must nonetheless be observed.
Ukitake sighs again, unable to help himself, and Shunsui shoots him a brief but understanding glance. After all, the last time they observed an exam together, it was Yoruichi who had stood by Yamamoto's side. Hers is a smile they both miss.
Komamura appears last, and the vibration of his feet touching ground can be felt through earth and sandals. He steps in beside Tousen without a word.
"Captains," Yamamoto says, his voice carrying across the empty distance between them. "You have gathered today to witness the final testing of one who wishes to lead a division of the Gotei 13. He has successfully completed the written exam, and presents himself now to be tested orally, and to display his combat abilities."
Perfectly timed, young Hitsugaya Toushiro appears in the middle of the field, stepping smoothly out of his shunpo. Given everything he's heard about the boy, Ukitake half suspects that Hitsugaya might indeed have been diligently counting off the seconds to his arrival.
"Hmmm," Shunsui hums softly, tilting his head down just far enough that the brim of his hat will obscure his smile.
Ukitake doesn't need to see Shunsui's face or hear words to know what he is thinking, however. It's been a long time since he saw the boy this close up himself, and he is still much shorter than expected. Ukitake tightens his jaw to keep from smiling. It really is almost endearing, that lack of height. Though he is certain the boy would not appreciate the sentiment.
"The oral examination begins," Yamamoto announces, tapping his staff once against the earth.
Shunsui lifts his head to observe more closely, but Ukitake does not expect his old friend to put forth any questions of his own for Hitsugaya to answer, even though all Captains present have the right to do so.
In the end, as is most common, Yamamoto does the asking. Most of the questions were of course part of the written exam – questions of protocol, of strategy, of administrative minutiae, of the nature of Hollows, and even the history of the Rukongai districts. What is important is not proof that he can answer them again, but rather the manner in which he answers them, when under the scrutiny of other Captains.
He performs admirably. Better than even Ukitake was expecting. As the questions continue, and the boy's answers remain steady and insightful, Ukitake finds himself standing straighter than usual in the grip of an odd sort of pride. He has had nothing to do with Hitsugaya's training, played no role in his life, but somehow having seen enough in the boy to give his recommendation, to be proven right like this… there is no logical reason for it, but it feels rather like a… vindication. Kaien was never able to stand here, but Ukitake feels certain that Kaien would have approved of this boy. He would have had some irreverent things to say about the boy's attitude, true, but he would have approved.
Is it foolish of him, to feel like the approval of a man long dead, a man from a disgraced family, a man who never even achieved a Captain's rank, is something to which he should aspire even now?
Ukitake has long felt that a man is better judged by the nature of the people willing to follow him than by the greatness of his deeds. That Kaien chose to serve him so whole-heartedly is perhaps the greatest pride of his life. Maybe regret makes the feeling sharper than it ought to be, but he is willing to accept that.
A new voice suddenly interrupts the proceedings.
"I have a question to ask, Yamamoto-soutaichou."
Ukitake glances, somewhat surprised, to Aizen. But of course, Sousuke always has been conscientious about his duties and his peers.
"Ask, Aizen Sousuke," Yamamoto says.
Hitsugaya turns his back on Yamamoto for the first time since arriving in order to face Aizen.
Ukitake frowns slightly. There is something in the boy's expression as he looks at 5th Division's Captain that, for just a moment, looks almost… defiant. But the moment passes so quickly that Ukitake wonders if the heat isn't getting to him. Perhaps he only imagined it. The boy has intense eyes, there's no doubt about that.
Aizen smiles, as though to set Hitsugaya at his ease, and speaks his question casually enough for a conversation over tea rather than the most important examination a Shinigami of power can face. "I would like your opinion on matters of discipline, Hitsugaya-san. Should, for example, you become aware of an infraction committed by a seated officer in another Captain's division, how would you handle the situation?"
Hitsugaya doesn't even blink before answering. "I would do what was necessary to rectify the situation on the spot, note the offender's name and position, then instruct them to report to their own Captain on the incident as well as sending said Captain my own report, in person or otherwise."
The answer comes so easily, and so perfectly appropriate to regulation, that Ukitake has to wonder if Hitsugaya hadn't somehow had a reply prepared for just such a question.
Then again, from what he's been able to glean from Unohana and Komamura, the boy achieved bankai years ago already. If he has spent all the intervening time preparing himself for this day, then his poise isn't too surprising. Impressive, and perhaps a bit excessive, but those who achieve a Captain's rank are often… eccentric… in their own and varied ways. Far more surprising is his sense of maturity in the whole affair.
"And would you abide by that Captain's choice of discipline, no matter your interest in the offender or the infraction?" Aizen persists.
This time Ukitake is sure that he does not imagine it; Hitsugaya's eyes narrow, and it is not a look of mere concentration. But when Ukitake glances quickly to Shunsui to see if he too has noticed it, his friend's expression under the hat remains entirely undisturbed. Another quick glance to Unohana proves the same. When he turns his gaze back to Hitsugaya to find all traces of challenge gone from the boy's face, Ukitake realizes he may have been the only one to notice.
"As long as the infraction didn't fall under the jurisdiction of the Commander General or the Central 46, then yes," Hitsugaya says. "A Captain has the right to decide on discipline within his own division."
This time Shunsui makes another small noise of amusement. The boy has staked his own claim to authority in his reply, and perhaps in this his youth is still to be seen. If he passes this examination today, he will find that he needs to assert himself with the other Captains far less than he clearly believes is necessary. The real test will be with his subordinates, but that is something he will have to discover for himself.
Aizen smiles again and nods, apparently satisfied with the answer. "I have no more questions."
"Very well. Does anyone else wish to speak?"
No one does. Ukitake thinks he can detect a slight relaxation in Hitsugaya's straight shoulders, but no longer trusts himself to be sure.
"Then the oral portion of this examination is concluded," Yamamoto announces. He taps his cane to the ground once more, and the sound resonates unnaturally. Ukitake is suddenly reminded what the cane's gnarled appearance masks. It has been so long since he has seen Ryujin Jakka released that it is too easy for even him to forget the truth of that innocuous looking stick. "Hitsugaya Toushiro. Present your zanpakutou."
Moving almost as one, every Captain present steps back into a smooth shunpo, leaving Hitsugaya Toushiro standing alone in a wide open space of dusty land.
The ends of his clothing whip around Ukitake as they settle in the wake of his shunpo, and unexpectedly – always so unexpected – the effort of even so slight a motion starts up a convulsion in his chest. He clenches his teeth and swallows down the cough before it can escape him, though the effort makes his eyes water and pain burst in his chest. Both Shunsui and Unohana, still close enough to either side of him to note his effort, shoot him concerned glances, but they say nothing. After a moment, satisfied that he has forestalled the seizure this time, Ukitake wipes a hand across his brow to clear the sweat that is no longer merely the result of hot weather. He will be especially glad now for something to cool his fevered skin.
Hitsugaya, however, seems in no particular hurry.
He has drawn his sword and holds the blade lowered, left foot slid back, leaning forward over his right knee – a perfect ready stance. He holds the position for so long that it seems indeed as though he is waiting for something against which to guard, and Shunsui hums to himself again as they watch, one finger tapping lightly against the folded fan in his obi.
Ukitake can't help glancing toward Komamura, and wishing again, as always, that he could see the Captain's expression. As difficult as Komamura's unique face is to read, even an inscrutable expression would be better than that helmet. Perhaps it's no surprise that Komamura and Tousen get along so well; both of them have the advantage of unreadable eyes. Ukitake looks away, wondering how lonely that must be.
Fortunately, Hitsugaya has moved at last. Without shifting his feet he lifts his sword, angled overhead in a perfect block, and the bright sunlight – unimpeded by any cloud – glints off the star-like tsuba of his sword.
"Soar in the frozen sky," Hitsugaya says, and though he does not raise his voice the sound of it carries in the still, expectant air. "Hyourinmaru!"
The explosion of reiatsu comes so quickly that Ukitake is sure now that during the long pause Hitsugaya must have been communing with his sword. Together, they have chosen to leave space for not one moment of doubt.
Stepping forward with his left foot, Hitsugaya swings his block around into a angled cut, ending in a single-handed sweep, wide, at his right side. Like a sinuous steel ribbon a chain whips suddenly through the air, coiling around him, suspended in the sudden surge of wind exploding along with his reiatsu. Ice forms in liquid streamers about his arm, crystallizing with a delicate tinkling sound as it winds down the sword and then into the form of vast, blue dragon.
Ukitake catches his breath, remembering the shape he had seen rising above the trees on the night of Hitsugaya's student testing. Up close it is even more beautiful, and its strength is undeniable. The dragon moves through the air like a celestial being in truth, glimmering and swift, and when it roars Ukitake can feel the force of the zanpakutou's presence shivering the air – so close, so present, even in just this shikai.
He wishes that Kaien could have been here to see this. It is just the sort of thing he would have talked about capturing in fireworks. He would have sketched strange, arcane designs, so like the tattoos on his skin, and sent them off to his sister with a grin of expectation. "We'll have dragons in the sky next festival, just wait and see."
But if not Kaien, then at least Rukia should be here. She speaks so little about her sword, releases it so infrequently. Ukitake has seen some of Sode No Shirayuki's attacks, but not nearly enough to suit his sense of curiosity, or of concern for his subordinate's progress. Rukia is a solitary child, and she too often prefers training alone. At least seeing another ice and snow zanpakutou in action might be a nice change for her.
Little chance of that now, of course. The boy will be a Captain after this, with no interest in another man's subordinates.
"Ara," Shunsui murmurs, smiling as he tilts his head back to watch the dragon's flight from underneath his hat. "Now that's definitely a sight."
"Yes it is," Unohana says softly, a slight smile turning her own lips. "And very right."
Ukitake doesn't know what thoughts prompt her comment, but nonetheless finds himself silently agreeing with the sentiment.
"And it seems like we'll get some rain after all," Shunsui adds, still looking upward.
Ukitake follows his gaze to see the clouds forming in a previously empty sky; they roll in, black and riotous, swirling into a localized stormfront over Hitsugaya's position. Their dark mass spreads even as Ukitake watches, stretching wispy arms over the entire plateau, and a crack of thunder accompanies the sudden drop in temperature. By the time the black-swathed shapes of Onmitsukidou elites emerge like ghosts from the new shadows the clouds cast, it has already begun to rain.
Seemingly oblivious to the unfavorable conditions his own power has created, Hitsugaya weaves his way through his enemies with ease. He foregoes hakuda entirely, which is a bit unorthodox, but not prohibited, and Ukitake finds himself even more impressed to see the boy take down opponent after opponent by striking only with the flat of his blade. It requires an excruciating precision, Ukitake knows; an unnatural manipulation of the sword's design. The dragon hovers, trailing the movements of Hitsugaya's sword and slicking the ground behind him in ice, but not once does it strike.
Every Captain present has enough experience by which to judge the boy's movements, no matter his methods, no matter his opponents. The Onmitsukidou elites are not here with any hope of defeating him, but merely to give him the opportunity to move against a target. In observing this examination the Captains are merely confirming that they alone would stand a chance against the candidate in combat, and Captains do not fight one another, not even for an examination such as this.
Private sparring, on the other hand, is a different matter, and even as Ukitake finds himself thinking that it's been too long since he and Shunsui last trained together, he wonders if this boy has been lucky enough to know someone – an equal, a friend – with whom he could spar in such a fashion. Probably not, given what he has heard of the boy's solitary nature. And there is little chance that he will find such a comrade now, with a Captain's rank to isolate him. Perhaps the best he can hope for is to be blessed with a worthy Vice Captain.
The rain is turning swiftly to snow by the time the exercise ends. As the Onmitsukidou withdraw – on their own, or taking their incapacitated comrades – Hitsugaya lifts his sword over his head and cries out, raising his voice for the first time.
"Fly – Hyourinmaru!"
Ukitake doesn't think he is naming any particular attack, but his zanpakutou seems to understand him just the same.
With a deafening roar the dragon shoots up into the sky like a serpentine arrow, coils once at the apex of flight, then turns and plunges straight down toward the earth, maw gaping, until it crashes into the ground and shatters in an explosion of water and ice. The wind generated by the force of impact and of reiatsu lifts Ukitake's hair, even at the distance at which he stands, and he can't help grinning as he raises a hand to shield his eyes.
"Now that," he says cheerfully, looking to Shunsui, "was a bit of excellent showmanship."
"And a lovely change in the weather, too," Shunsui says, reaching out to catch a drift of snowflakes as they swirl past. "If only Nanao-chan were here. Perfect weather for snuggling."
But though there are plenty of things Ukitake would like to say in reply to that, the descending silence convinces him to hold his tongue. Hitsugaya has not sheathed his sword, and the clouds still roil overhead, but the wind is slowly dying. Yamamoto steps confidently forward onto the ice-slicked ground.
"Hadou number sixty-six," he calls out without preamble, his gravelly voice sharp with command.
Sheathing his sword at last, Hitsugaya faces away from the Commander General, into the empty distance, and begins the incantation.
Incantation after incantation. The familiar words run through Ukitake's mind in tandem with the boy's recitation. There are no mistakes. He makes no attempts to skip the full incantations, instead focusing on perfect execution. Not a natural kidou user, perhaps, but indisputably a Captain's mastery, right into the eighties for bakudou and hadou both, which is as far as even Captains are expected to go.
When it is over, and the last crackle of energy fades, Yamamoto strikes the ground with his staff once again. This time the impact is against frozen earth, and a starburst of cracks spreads from the wooden tip.
"Hitsugaya Toushiro, have you anything you wish to say before the other Captains leave us?"
Ukitake wishes he were standing closer now, but it would be inappropriate to take another shunpo forward. So he is left to imagine the look which might be crossing Hitsugaya's face as the silence stretches. It would seem that this, at least, was one question for which young Hitsugaya had not prepared himself.
"No," he says at last, his voice rather tense.
Shunsui tips his hat down again to hide his smile. Ukitake raises a hand to do the same. That was a tough question, he remembers. Shunsui made a flowery speech, of course. He himself had managed to put together a hasty but more or less collected expression of gratitude for those who had had enough faith in him to recommend him for the examination.
Kisuke, Ukitake suddenly remembers, had grinned that manic grin of his and said only that he hoped everyone would allow him to treat them to a night on the town when the examination was over, because all that standing about in the sun had made him ravenously hungry.
All things considered, a terse "no" isn't too bad. If the boy means to start his career in a no-nonsense fashion, then he is off on the right foot. And Ukitake finds himself looking forward to trying to set him off it. Any young man that tense is in dire need of fun and relaxation. Normally he would put Shunsui on that sort of mission, but in this case trying to solve the problem through liberal application of alcohol and singing might not be the best strategy.
Turning to look at Unohana he is not surprised to find her watching him, and he smiles, remembering their conversation over tea on a night years ago. "I think you're right after all, Unohana-taichou. Some intervention is definitely called for."
She smiles warmly at him in return but says nothing, as Yamamoto is speaking once more.
"Then the final stage of the examination will now begin. Captains, you may withdraw."
Ukitake turns along with his fellows to leave the testing ground behind. This time even Tousen uses shunpo to make the long descent from the plateau; there is no way they could cover the distance in a timely fashion otherwise. They reach the first plaza of the Central Court more or less together, even Soi Fong, and silently they all turn to gaze back toward the Soukyoku plateau, now hidden from view by trees and distance and the buildings clustered about the base of the Shrine of Penitence.
But the distance isn't enough to dull a Captain's senses, and Ukitake knows the others feel it as keenly as he when Hitsugaya Toushiro at last releases his bankai. The force is unmistakable. Somewhere beyond their sight, Yamamoto is observing the final and most crucial part of any Captain's test.
Ukitake sighs. "Such a shame. I bet it's beautiful."
"Undoubtedly," Aizen agrees, his eyes hidden by a flash of sunlight on his glasses. "But there are some secrets we all like to keep."
Tousen turns, wordless, and walks sedately from the plaza.
"Well, Komamura," Shunsui says, "I think you can be proud."
Komamura remains motionless, helmeted head still turned to the plateau. "I have done nothing. He chose his own path early on, and walked it alone. I suspected from the beginning that it would be so."
"I don't think you were the only one," Ukitake murmurs, wondering what Yamamoto-sensei is seeing, and feeling, at this moment.
"An impressive accomplishment, certainly," Sousuke says.
"And what do you think, Soi Fong-taichou?" Shunsui asks, snapping out his fan once more. The cold shift in the weather has not reached this far from the testing grounds.
"He has met all of the necessary requirements," she replies, her tone as cool as any shrug.
"And he doesn't seem likely to go busting down the wrong doors, wreaking havoc and causing you problems, does he?"
Soi Fong meets Shunsui's gaze levelly. "No. Which is more than I can say for others."
"Yes, I know." Shunsui affects a heavy sigh. "That Zaraki. Such a trouble maker."
Soi Fong's eyes narrow, but she doesn't bother to reply. Turning gracefully, the rings on her hair sweeping the length of her sword, she leaves the plaza without another word.
Aizen clears his throat, smiling knowingly, and gives them a slight bow. "I also have business to attend to. I will send my formal observation approval to Yamamoto-soutaichou in writing, though I suspect there'll be no need to wait on it."
"No need," Komamura agrees, and despite his claim of a moment ago, there is something very like pride indeed in his gruff voice as he turns away from the plateau at last. "It was a perfect examination. Just as he intended."
"Who intended, I wonder," Shunsui says softly from behind his indecent fan, and Ukitake meets his eyes. They've both been thinking the same thing today, apparently. No surprise. They know Yamamoto Genryuusai better than anyone.
"I'll have Hinamori-kun bring over the book that Ise-fukutaichou was requesting, Kyouraku-san," Aizen says with a wave as he departs, and Shunsui flaps his fan at him by way of thanks.
To Ukitake's surprise, and pleasure, Komamura makes no signs of leaving. His large, gauntleted hand touches his sword once, readjusting it in his obi, and then he tilts his head down toward the three Captains remaining. "It will be 10th Division, then," he says.
"It would have to be," Ukitake agrees.
"And past time, I think," Unohana adds quietly, still gazing into the distance, where the pressure of a bankai release can still be felt. "It will be a difficult position to fill at first, but I think he will settle in well."
"He could use a good Vice Captain," Komamura muses. "Who is it again? Nakada?"
Shunsui chuckles, tapping the brim of his hat with his fan in a mischievous fashion. "Oh no. Nakada already put in his resignation. I do believe our young genius is going to be blessed by Matsumoto's ample – "
"Ability," Ukitake injects swiftly, stepping hard on Shunsui's foot.
"Ai, Juushiro!" Shunsui crumples in dramatic dismay to fan at his reddened toes.
"Matsumoto?" Komamura echoes skeptically, completely ignoring Shunsui's display. "That will be… an interesting arrangement. I do not think they are well suited, but I suppose she will have to learn."
"Oh, I think they will both have to do a great deal of learning," Unohana says brightly, midnight eyes sparkling with an amusement that from anyone else would have come across as decidedly wicked in bent. "I think it's quite a good arrangement, actually. Be comforted, Komamura-taichou."
"She'll loosen him up." Shunsui straightens from his huddle in a sweep of pink fabric, and there's no hiding the wickedness in his eyes at all. "He looks like he could use a bit of hard drinking."
"I don't think drinking will work in this case." Ukitake shakes his head. "She might have to try something like… sweets, maybe."
"Tea," Komamura suggests simply.
"Ample… abilities," Shunsui says, shooting Ukitake a contrite look – ruined by the smile that follows. "In any case, she'll give him a bit of respectability, whether he knows it or not."
"Matsumoto-san was in your division for quite some time, was she not, Kyouraku-taichou?" Unohana asks.
"Oh, years and years," Shunsui replies, fanning himself once more. "Nanao-chan still misses her, you know."
"You mean you miss having a drinking partner," Ukitake points out wryly.
"That too, that too. But she's a good girl, really. She deserves this chance. Every Vice Captain needs a good Captain in order to shine, isn't that right?"
Komamura merely grunts, and Unohana smiles gently, saying nothing.
"It can work both ways," Ukitake says quietly.
Silence follows his words, and Ukitake regrets having spoken them aloud. The old, black guilt once again driving him into needless pains.
If only he could say that, given a second chance, he would do things differently.
But he knows that he would not.
And it is with guilt – but determined not to allow them a chance to scold him for being morose – that he lets the cough he has been suppressing emerge. As expected, the nature of the concern in Unohana's eyes changes at the sound, and Shunsui settles for patting him uselessly on the back with his fan.
Unfortunately, once started, the coughing fit is difficult to control. The sharp taste of blood hits the back of his tongue, and Ukitake grimaces, covering his mouth with one hand.
"Tea for us as well, perhaps," Komamura suggests calmly. "Do not strain yourself, Ukitake-taichou."
"Tea is always a good idea," Unohana says. "Perhaps you would all join me? I have a great deal of work to get back to, but I could do with some tea first. And perhaps some… sweets."
Behind his hand, the taste of blood still in his mouth, Ukitake can't help but smile.
"I would be honored," Komamura says.
"Wonderful. We will go on ahead, then. Ukitake-taichou, Kyouraku-taichou, please join us when you are ready."
"We'll be right along!" Shunsui calls after them cheerfully.
Ukitake presses his fingers to his lips for a moment, making sure there is no blood to wipe clean, and straightens his shoulders.
"That's enough, thank you," he says hoarsely.
"Eh?" Shunsui feigns innocence, continuing to pat away with the fan.
"Shunsui, if you don't put that fan away, I'm going to burn it."
"Burn it!" Shunsui snatches the fan back. "Who's talking about burning it? Really, Juushiro, there's no need to be unkind."
"You might consider that yourself before inflicting your taste in accessories on the rest of us."
"Eh, don't pretend now, Juu-chan! I know you like these lovely ladies. I still remember that day I caught you peeping at the hot springs – "
"That was two thousand years ago!" Ukitake protests. "We were practically children!"
"Yes, but you're still blushing, aren't you? I'd say that means you still feel guilty about it. Go on, admit it. It's no sin to be a lecher at your age."
"Like good sake, my friend. Like good sake."
Ukitake sighs, giving in. As he always does.
"Anyway, it seems they've finished up there," Shunsui observes, without even a shift in his tone. "The boy has quite the reiatsu, doesn't he?"
"Do you regret not choosing him for your division after all?"
"No. It has worked out for the best."
"Maybe so, maybe so. It would have been hard to let him go so soon."
"And I think it's all worked out according to sensei's plans."
"Probably," Shunsui agrees. He puts the fan away, and out of nowhere produces a flowered stem. Settling it between his teeth at the corner of his mouth, he speaks around it with a grin. "He's a conniving one, our Yama-jii. Likes to pick them out when they're young."
"And we still bear the scars of it, don't we?"
"Proudly, of course."
"Perhaps we should wait for him…"
"Yama-jii, or the boy?"
"Well… both. Mostly the boy. Though we shouldn't call him a boy any longer."
"He should be quite happy to be a boy still, I think. Or at least happy about his height. With Rangiku-chan for his Vice Captain, I'd say that's the perfect height to be."
Now, with no one else around, Ukitake allows himself a chuckle.
With only an exchange of glances, they turn by silent consent to leave the plaza, beginning the walk to 4th Division's compound. Unohana will be waiting with the tea prepared, no doubt. Komamura too, unexpected company, but welcome all the same; Ukitake has always wished Komamura Sajin would confide more in his fellows.
As they walk, Shunsui begins singing a drawling song about full moons reflected in full eyes, and shining on the snowy skin of full bosoms – deliberately off-key as always, though Ukitake knows his friend can sing perfectly well when he wishes to.
It will be a long walk, but Ukitake doesn't mind. His hair is still slightly damp from the rain Hitsugaya Toushiro summoned, which is pleasant in the heat. His mind is still full with the image of a graceful dragon, and he hopes that it will not be the last time he sees that creature of ice and stars. He will never have Kaien's eye for shapes, never be able to capture color and form in ink or in fireworks as the Shiba pride themselves on doing. But he can appreciate such things all the same.
Kaien, he thinks. You would have liked the boy. At least you would have liked pestering him. You were never isolated by your gifts, because everyone loved you. You could have given him that.
"Do you really think Matsumoto will be a good Vice Captain for him?" Ukitake asks, trying to put the memory of Kaien's crooked smile aside.
"Absolutely. She'll skip out on her work, pester him mercilessly, and make him wish he'd never left the academy. He'll be driven to distraction within a month."
"Taichou, this office is a disaster! If Miyako sees this mess she'll kill me. You should be ashamed, making your poor Vice Captain pick up after you like this. Eh, what are you doing!? If you get up from that chair I'll be forced to do something drastic! Taichou, you're enough to make even a Shiba despair. Old as dirt and still no wiser. What would you do without a responsible Vice Captain like me to look after you?"
"You're right," he says. "She'll be perfect for him."