"Jyuu-chan, don't ever frighten me like that again! We must drink and make merry before either one of us goes!" exclaimed Kyoraku when he burst into Ukitake's room into the Fourth Division headquarters the next morning, waking the poor invalid. "So, what did you do to our Unohana taichou that she kicked you out of her room? Did you do what I did to Nanao-chan that she just kicked me out of her sickroom?"
"What did you do to Ise-san? Nevermind, I don't want to know. I see that she succeeded in bashing your hand in with a book. Well done, Ise-san." Ukitake commended the absent recuperating Eighth Division lieutenant. "If you want the truth, I did nothing. Absolutely nothing," Ukitake continued thoughtfully, holding onto the handkerchief. "I came to, saw her head slumped near my hand; somehow I woke her, and she suggested I sleep in the room next to hers. Before I knew it, she made the most delicious umeboshi-chazekue I have ever tasted. She pickles the umeboshi and supervises the fermentation of the tea leaves herself. In fact, she promised me a barrel of different umeboshi every month if I heeded her professional medical advice. While I ate, she read the latest Shinigami News to me."
"That's very a conjugal description. Are you sure you weren't tempted to outrage her modesty?" questioned Kyoraku with a rakish grin as he began to gesticulate wildly. "If I were you, I would have knelt down at her feet, kissed her hands and feet; praised her grace, beauty and charm; pledged undying love; offered myself as I am – heart, body, soul and mind to her in as loud a voice as possible so as to compromise her. She would then have no choice but to marry me."
"I'm not you, you perverted idiot," laughed the white-haired Shinigami, before his features rearranged themselves into a slight frown. "She is a goddess, Shunsui, too far above my touch. I am content just to watch her."
"How long are you going to keep at that, old man? Until Kurotsuchi decides she's simply wonderful? Or are you waiting until Kuchiki decides to send her yet another marriage proposal?" sighed his friend, lightly shaking his head. "You're a man who prides yourself on your observational skills. Have you noticed how she observes you? She's been silently watching you for the past two thousand years as well. I honestly don't know what's wrong with the two of you."
"Of course she watches me, I'm her patient," explained Ukitake, stifling a cough.
"Not with those eyes. They're always mournful or pained when she looks at you. Have you noticed?"
"Your imagination is starting to run away with you. Those 'mournful' eyes may easily be attributed to administrative cares and concern for her Division," reasoned Ukitake, fighting the ticklish urge in his throat.
"Yare, yare, what am I to do with you two fools?" moaned Kyoraku loudly, scratching his stubble.
His long-suffering friend sighed and rolled his eyes. "She can hear you, you know. She's just next door. This room is connected to hers."
"Oh, I know!" the Eighth Division Captain declared stoutly, a twinkle in his eyes. "Oh, Retsu-chan, beautiful Retsu-chan, Jyuu-chan worships you, but doesn't know how to say it. He thinks you're lovely, a goddess divine, and your cooking is simply wonderful!"
"Shunsui!" gasped Ukitake, looking very much scandalised.
"What's wrong with a little flirtation?" asked Kyoraku cheekily.
"What's wrong? What about what's right?" sighed the invalid with a resigned smile. "You're the flirt. There can only be one hardened flirt in the Gotei 13. I am just plain sickly Ukitake Jyuushiro."
The rest of Ukitake's response came out in a hacking cough and brought Unohana rushing into the room, her countenance as tranquil as ever.
"You've over-exerted yourself again," she chided, stroking Ukitake's back gently. "What did I tell you about encouraging Kyoraku taichou's antics? It won't do if you're so easily excitable. You must look after your heart too – what if the infection spreads there?"
"Retsu-chan," interrupted Kyoraku with a sly wink. "Jyuushiro needs you to look after his heart for him. It's been infected longer than the last time Yama-ji cut his beard."
His statement did elicit a response from Unohana, though not the one he had anticipated. She turned attention to the Eighth Division Captain with slightly furrowed brows. "Kyoraku taichou's high spirits are very infectious. You've been very naughty to tease poor Ukitake taichou so; shall I bar your visits to Ise-san, Kyoraku taichou?"
Making a dramatic beau geste at his chest, Kyoraku pouted his lips. "You wound me, sweet Retsu-chan, with your cruelty. Be kinder to Jyuu-chan, all right? I'll be back later, handsome," he laughed and waved the two Captains goodbye.
Kyoraku's departure left a pregnant pause between Unohana and Ukitake that was only alleviated when the latter muttered a hasty apology on behalf on his friend.
"No offence was taken, I assure you. I'm inured to his ways," she answered whilst fussing over his pillows. "One can never take what Kyoraku taichou says seriously when he's in one of his moods. He's only perfectly solemn when his voice drops an octave."
"Unohana-san," began Ukitake hesitantly, "where are my third seats?"
She cast him a smile of mild amusement. "Do you really want to see them, Ukitake taichou? I told them you needed quiet. I've arranged for them to take some refresher classes in administration at the Shinigami Academy. Kotetsu-san is taking organisational administration and Kotsubaki is taking fiscal administration. That way, more work will be done. Their competitive spirit will be better suited in that area, don't you think? In any case, you will see them later in the afternoon, after their first classes."
The Thirteenth Division Captain's eyes widened in amazed disbelief. Then the state of his paperwork dawned on him, "What about my paperwork?"
She reached into her sleeves and handed him a wad of documents. "They're all compiled and in order."
"You shouldn't have," he mumbled, checking through the reports.
"Hitsugaya taichou helped. He said it was thanks for the sweets."
"I mean you shouldn't have bothered. I'm enough trouble to you as it is," he said apologetically.
Unohana sat on the edge of bed, placed her hands neatly on her lap and looked at him kindly. "It was no trouble at all. Zaraki taichou and Kurotsuchi taichou are more trouble. Reason appeals to you, so it's easier to talk to you. It's as simple as that."
Seizing on the initiative, Ukitake immediately proffered a suggestion, "You can drop by and talk any day, Unohana-san. Bring Isane-san along; I'm sure Kiyone would be delighted to see her sister."
"It's very kind of you," she answered with a sad little smile, "but I don't want you to feel indebted to... It was all such a long time ago. Never mind, I'm a little tired. Forgive me, Ukitake taichou, I'll check on you in another hour. I shall send up some steamed sweet potatoes to you later."
She rose to leave and would have done so had Ukitake not detained her by holding on to her Captain's overcoat. "Unohana-san…"
"Hmm?" she murmured, feeling his forehead and chest. "Are you feverish? In pain?"
"There is neither debt nor obligation," he said simply, catching her small hands in his.
"You're an aristocrat, so there is noblesse oblige," she reminded him, her mournful eyes piercing his soul as she regained her hands. "I don't want that."
"Unohana-san… Retsu…I…" he sputtered, desperately wishing that he had Kyoraku's glib tongue for once.
"Good day, Ukitake taichou, please rest," she insisted, making her way to the door in such a way that her colleague would not be able to see her pained eyes. "The morning's excitement has proved too much for you."
Disappointed that his tongue had failed him, he resolved to enter into a serious conversation with her later when she returned for his hourly check-up. The hour came and it yielded only Kotetsu Isane. The next hour came and only Isane came. For the rest of the day, all his questions as to the whereabouts of Unohana Retsu were hastily evaded. Unohana taichou was in the hospital wing; Unohana taichou was checking the stock of medical supplies; Unohana taichou was training the unseated Shinigamis were offered as excuses. He tolerated Kiyone and Kotsubaki's visit with good cheer and noted that they were very much better behaved. It only served to highlight Unohana's qualities, he mused with a pang. "Yare, yare, Shunsui, what would you if you were in my sandals?" he murmured with a furrowed brow as he watched the sunset from his window.
The sounds of a sliding door and light footsteps next door caught his attention just as he abandoned another flowery pre-planned profession of undying love. She's returned, he thought. He strained his ears and heard the rustling of clothes and another sliding door. Curious as to the sounds, he opened the dividing door into her room and found it devoid of her presence. The sounds and soft light on the balcony alerted him to the fact that she must be sipping tea and watching the night sky. Throwing a moss green haori over himself, he quietly made his way to the doorway where he could watch her.
She had changed into a dark blue kimono with a sky blue obi. Her hair was worn in a loose braid behind her, indicating that she had just had her ablutions.
"Hiding in the shadows doesn't suit you, Ukitake taichou," Unohana's voice called out after she sipped some tea.
"Unohana-san," he began, carefully sitting beside her. "I'm sorry if I offended you earlier today. I really think…"
"If you're not going to be honest, I suggest you get back in bed before you catch your death," she stopped him before he could continue. "If you want to stay, honesty's the best," she continued, handing him a cup of tea.
"I am excessively fond of you," Ukitake said quietly, twisting the teacup in his hands. "There's nothing much I can offer you other my profound respect and deepest affection. I am grateful that you saved my life so many times in the past, and I know this disease means I can never really protect you. Because you have only grown in my estimation, I will do everything possible to deserve you."
The wind rose and played with Unohana's loose locks of hair. Her continued silence and serene countenance made Ukitake's throat parched. Yet, in spite of himself, he struggled to continue, "You need not answer me. If all this is repugnant to you, I will never speak on it again and we shall be indifferent acquaintances. Unohana-san… Retsu, a look will suffice. I know I am not worthy of you …"
The rest of his words were disrupted when she placed a hand on his and gently said, "The tea will get cold if you keep talking, Ukitake taichou."
"Unohana-san…" he whispered, momentarily confused by her remark until he caught her soft smile and noticed the light squeeze on his hand. "Does that mean…"
"Hush, my dear, surely you and I are beyond speaking when words are not enough," she quietly remarked, sipping her tea.
He returned the pressure on her hand and concurred with her observation. "Indeed, we are, Retsu. Indeed, we are."