Disclaimer: Bleach belongs to Kubo Tite.
Summary: A spec fic on what it means, and what it costs, to become the captain of the thirteenth division. (slightly AU)
Ukitake thought he had seen this in a dream once. He is fighting a Menos Grande, trying to find a way to destroy it or at least drive it back to its own dimension, when out of the corner of his eye he sees his captain get caught up in another coughing fit, one with the worst timing ever. He sees his captain double up, a hand covering his mouth, his whole body heaving with each cough, and he watches in horror as another Menos Grande—there are many, half of the thirteenth division is on the scene—takes the opportunity to run his captain through from behind with one cruel talon.
But it was not a dream. His captain drops his zanpakutou and collapses.
Ukitake left his Menos and rushed to his captain's side. His communicator was somehow already in his hand and he was yelling instructions to someone from the fourth division on the other end. Other members of the division rushed in to drive the monster back.
Suzaku-taichou put a hand on Ukitake's arm and his grip was ferocious.
"You have to go back," he gasped out. "Leave me!" His eyes caught Ukitake's, and Ukitake saw something there that he had never seen in his captain's eyes before: fear. And urgency.
His words came wetly, and for a moment he was caught up in another coughing fit that caused blood to bubble from his chest wound. The gurgling sound brought Ukitake back to his senses. The wound was bad, very bad, and in the worst possible spot, on the left side a little below the collarbone. In his lungs. Ukitake didn't say a word, but started tearing the hem of his uniform into strips for bandages.
It was while he was wrapping bandages quickly and haphazardly around his captain's left shoulder that Ukitake heard the sound of approaching footsteps. He grabbed his zanpakutou without looking and was on his feet in the blink of an eye, ready to fend off anything that might have stumbled here from the main battleground, attracted by the smell of the blood, but he was surprised to find Commander-General Yamamoto standing before him.
"Ukitake-fukutaichou, take him away from here."
Yamamoto-soutaichou's voice was grave and commanding. Ukitake hurried to obey, stowing his sword away and reaching down to gather his captain. Suzaku-taichou's eyes went wide with panic for a moment, and despite his injuries, he forced out a vehement "No!"
His refusal was so fierce that Ukitake froze mid-motion, just as he was bending to gather his captain up in his arms.
"Taichou?" he asked, surprised at his forcefulness.
"No," repeated Suzaku-taichou, voice weaker this time but eyes just as intense. He ignored Ukitake and directed his glare at Yamamoto. "Not Ukitake. Anyone but him."
Ukitake could hear the blood gurgling in the back of his captain's throat.
"But Taichou, I promise I'll—"
"Stay out of this!" his captain rasped. Ukitake flinched, and withdrew his hands.
Yamamoto-soutaichou's face was impassive as he towered over the two of them.
"Ukitake-fukutaichou, you will take Suzaku-taichou from the battlefield now," he said, evenly.
"I said no," replied Suzaku-taichou, stubbornly. Ukitake stood there helplessly, wanting to help his captain but unsure what to do.
Yamamoto narrowed his eyes. "Do not make me repeat myself again, Ukitake-fukutaichou," his voice low and threatening. "Besides," he cut in, just as Suzaku-taichou was about to protest again, "the choice is not for you to make." This was directed at Suzaku-taichou. Yamamoto's expression softened as he added, "the other captains have already agreed."
Suzaku-taichou looked stricken at this. Whatever they were arguing about, it seemed like Suzaku-taichou had lost and he knew it. His stubbornness vanished, and with it went his strength. Ukitake was still hovering, trying to decide whose orders to follow, but the return of his captain's coughing decided it for him. He scooped his captain up and, giving a nod to Yamamoto-soutaichou, whose expression was unreadable, set off for Sereitei and the fourth division's hospital.
On the way, members of the first division rushed past him heading toward the battle, and briefly he imagined that among them he glimpsed the rich brown hair and be-stubbled jaw of Shunsui, but that image was gone in an instant—if it ever was there—and he was running as fast as he could again. His captain would have been proud of his flash steps.
"Put me down," Suzaku-taichou gasped, not even two minutes into the journey.
"But Taichou," protested Ukitake, but did as he was told. He found a grassy clearing and set his captain gently on the ground, propping his head up to help ease his breathing.
His captain lay there panting for several moments, his skin pale and clammy in a way that sent a dagger of worry into Ukitake's stomach. He considered calling the fourth division again and asking for Unohana-taichou directly, but then he remembered that he had left his communicator in the grass, forgotten in all the madness and the argument between his captain and the commander-general. He could try a binding spell, though, and reach Unohana-taichou that way. Even if his captain didn't want to be moved any further, he had to do something. They were alone in the middle of the forest beyond the 74th district, blood had already soaked through his makeshift bandage, and his captain's breathing was becoming weaker as the moments went by.
"Come closer," said Suzaku-taichou, so faintly that Ukitake had to lean closer just to understand what he had said. "Closer."
Ukitake leaned down until his captain's lips nearly brushed his ear, and he could feel the shallow breaths on his sensitive skin.
"This is important, so listen closely," Suzaku-taichou whispered. "You know of the royal family, correct?"
Ukitake gave the slightest of nods. He had no idea what to expect, nor where this was going. His family was one of middle rank in Sereitei, but they were nobility nonetheless, so of course he knew of the royal family.
"Then you must know that the location of the entrance to the king's domain is secret," said Suzaku-taichou.
Again, Ukitake nodded, though a sense of dread was starting to seep into the back of his mind. Everyone knew that just to seek information about the entrance to the king's domain was forbidden. He shoved the ominous feeling aside, however, and concentrated on his captain's words.
"...to tell you, but it seems the old man has made my decision for me," he was saying. He closed his eyes, and his whole body seemed to be in resignation. It took a moment for him to re-gather his strength. "Jyuushiro, listen carefully. Once you have the key, the only way to open the door to the king's realm is by…."
The words poured into Ukitake's ear, one after the other in a honeyed flow, for it was a secret passed on for generations and it had developed its own timing and rhythm. Suzaku-taichou's words whispered and sang until the passing was complete and Ukitake's mind was filled with one thought only.
It couldn't be…they wouldn't dare….
But Ukitake knew from the pit of his stomach that they could, and they did. The part of him that knew that these were Suzaku-taichou's last words also knew that he had no reason to lie. But the secret…he didn't know if he would be able to hold it. He was reeling from it, his mind in disjointed disarray. It was horrendous. It was monstrous. It was perfect. The knowledge insinuated itself in his mind like a weed, pushing out poisonous tendrils to the far reaches until there was no room left for thought, winding roots down, reaching down around his heart and his lungs, choking the breath out of him.
And then he realized, he really was choking.
He was bent nearly double, his body was shaking violently as wave after wave of coughing overtook him. His chest and throat burned. It was as if something was stuck there and his body was trying to either fight it down or force it out. He raised a hand to his mouth, trying to hold it in. He could hear himself hacking and gasping, but the noise sounded far away, and he started to panic, afraid that it meant he was on the verge of passing out.
He thought he heard someone say his name, distantly, and he looked down to see his captain's face twisted in anguish, with tears leaking from the corners of his closed eyes and mouthing words that Ukitake could not hear. From the movement of his lips, though, it looked like he was saying, "I'm sorry, please forgive me," over and over.
Ukitake didn't understand what was happening to him, much less why his dying captain was apologizing to him, and was about to ask why when another coughing fit overtook him. He covered his mouth and tried to keep the coughs from rattling his body too harshly.
When he took his hand away, there was a metallic taste in his mouth and his palm was stained with blood.
The walk back to Sereitei was the longest walk Ukitake had ever taken, both literally and figuratively, but since his captain was already dead, there was no need to rush. He had walked slowly, resting whenever a coughing attack left him feeling week. He was carrying his captain in his arms because it seemed rude to drag his body along behind him or sling him over his shoulder, though Suzaku-taichou probably wouldn't have cared if he knew. Still, Ukitake had that much respect, at least, for the man who had taught him and given him so much.
When he finally reached the headquarters of the fourth division, the sun was hanging low in the sky, and he was not surprised to find Unohana-taichou at the entrance waiting for him, her hands folded in front of her. She greeted him with a sad smile, one that made her seem ancient and weary, and Ukitake knew that she knew what had happened in the forest, and why there was dried blood at the corner of his mouth. She reached out and gently took Suzaku's body from him, her hands steady and sure, as if she'd done this countless times before. Ukitake wondered if she had looked like this on the day Suzaku-taichou had brought the body of his captain to her, and if she would be the one to receive his own body from the new captain of the thirteenth division when the time came.
Unohana-taichou seemed to understand his thoughts, for her eyes were unreadable as she offered him that sad smile again and gestured for him to step through the entrance of the hospital, saying, "Welcome, Ukitake-taichou."
Endnote: Someone has already pointed out to me that Ukitake was ill even during his academy days, hence the "slightly AU" tag at the top.