SPOILERS: through the Soul Society arc
NOTES: Since I only watch the anime, I don't know if this has been covered in the manga, but my muses latched on to the question, "How did Hitsugaya end up with Matsumoto as his lieutenant?" This is the result of trying to answer that question believably combined with my thoughts on that little flashback Matsumoto had while fighting Kira. With the release of the film Diamond Dust Rebellion in Japan, I figured it was just a matter of time before it became available in English and made this plot implausable in some way, so I decided I should finish and post it before that happens! Unbetaed.
DISCLAIMERS: Bleach and all things associated with it belong to other people.
He had only been to 1st Division's complex on a handful of occasions--when he became Captain of 10th Division and to attend a few meetings--all of which had been conducted in official public areas. So it came as a surprise, after responding to an official summons, to find himself being escorted by Lieutenant Sasakibe to Commander General Yamamoto's personal chambers, not that he gave any indication this was unexpected. As he was lead around various rooms and across several walkways that linked the inner buildings, he couldn't help noting that, while generally larger, there was nothing grander or more extravagant than his own rooms. Most of the sliding doors were plain or adorned with nothing more than simple patterns, and all of the wood, from the floors of the walkways to the roofs overhead, was natural, lacking the paint often found in formal spaces. The clean, balanced quality of these architectural elements spoke of an ordered, ascetic disposition. Although he knew it shouldn't have made any difference to him, the observation appealed to his austere nature and reaffirmed his respect for his host.
They found the highest ranked member of the Thirteen Court Guardian Divisions sitting sedately on a cushion, sipping tea on a veranda that overlooked a small garden. Beside him was a tray with another cup of tea along with a bowl of bite-sized senbei and two small plates, each bearing a sweet shaped like a plum blossom. Next to the tray was an empty cushion.
After following the path of a finch as it flew from its nest in the branches of a blooming plum tree, Yamamoto's gaze fell to his Lieutenant and guest. "Captain Hitsugaya," he nodded to the other cushion, "have a seat."
By the time he was settled, Sasakibe was gone.
The older man turned his eyes back to the garden. "Please, help yourself."
The tea was exceptional, and although there was little doubt the beautifully crafted sweet was also delicious, in keeping with his instinctive avoidance of anything associated with children, the young captain chose a senbei, instead. It, too, was excellent. Unsure what to do, but certain Yamamoto would reveal his intention for the meeting eventually, he sipped his tea and tried to enjoy the garden. He had not become the youngest captain in the history of Soul Society by patiently biding his time, yet he found the anxiety and anticipation such an audience inspired was melting away in the quiet calm of the garden. The morning was cool with little wind and few clouds. Thanks to the chill, the hot tea and warm sunlight combined to create a sense of tranquility. He decided he should spend more time in his own garden.
With a pink-chested flash, the finch returned to feed its chicks, then Yamamoto finally spoke. "You have not chosen a lieutenant." It was said as a statement, but there was a question to it.
"I was not aware there was a time limit as to when I might choose." He nearly winced at the hint of defensiveness in his voice and took a sip of tea to cover his discomfort.
"Of course not," agreed Yamamoto, yet the mere mention of the topic suggested he considered it an issue.
"My understanding is that Captain Ukitake has been without a lieutenant for many years."
The bald head nodded. "He is one of the oldest of the thirteen captains. His division is well established and closely knit. They can function adequately without a lieutenant." 10th Division, on the other hand, was barely half-staffed, many of its members having left for other divisions after the deaths of their previous captain and lieutenant.
As a prodigy, envy and admiration were par for the course of his life; he found both vexing and shallow. Combined with his single-minded pursuit of achieving bankai and captaincy, forming friendships with his fellow recruits had never been a concern for him. For the most part, the attempts of others to befriend him had been an unwelcome distraction. While he had sought to enlist several Shinigami he considered promising from his days in the Academy, their selection had been determined by merit, not camaraderie. He'd been surprised that more than half of them had chosen lesser positions in other divisions rather than join him in 10th. Since then, there had been a slow but steady exodus. Some thrived under his strict authority--he felt proud of the three Shinigami who had released their zanpakutô since his promotion. Those who didn't thrive left, and that was fine by him. The improved proficiency of those who remained more than compensated for their reduced numbers.
"I was not aware there had been any problems with 10th Division's performance." He couldn't avoid the impudence of his words. While his superior might consider this private interview a kindness, if his methods were in question, he'd prefer an official request or outright order to change them. Tact and political subtleties did not interest him.
"None at all." This was followed by another nod. "Only 5th Division equals yours in the timeliness and detail of their reports, and none match the efficiency and tactical prowess of 10th." The praise seemed sincere, but the young captain couldn't help but feel he was being coddled or, perhaps, given a means to soften an imminent blow. "But there is more to our responsibilities than fulfilling our duties efficiently."
"What do you suggest?" Perhaps asking directly would get them to the point more quickly.
"As is only natural, each captain has his or her own style." Ignoring the question, Yamamoto spoke as though he hadn't been interrupted. "Choosing a lieutenant who is compatible with that style is not a decision that should be made in haste."
Stirred by the will of his sword, a breeze caused plum petals to scatter and soothed his rising temper. There was no place for temper while dealing with his superior. "I have found none of my subordinates suitable for the task."
The old man turned his gaze back to his guest. "I was not aware a lieutenant had to come from within the division of the captain they are to follow."
Taken off guard by having his own phraseology thrown back at him and the glimmer of amusement in Yamamoto's eyes, he blinked in surprise before fully considering the implication of the words. "This is true..."
After slicing off a section of his sweet and washing it down with a sip of tea, Yamamoto turned back to the garden. "When Captain Ichimaru took over 3rd Division, he brought Kira with him from 5th." He spoke casually, as though making a simple observation, but almost nothing he said was ever simple. "While I am confident Captain Ichimaru would not have selected him if he was not capable, Kira is quite inexperienced for his rank."
This sparked the memory of a random comment Hinamori had once made to him after she'd become lieutenant. At the time, he'd been too disgusted by her adoration of her Captain Aizen to have paid it much thought. Feeling as though he'd finally figured out the rules of the game, the young captain took a sip of tea and commented blandly, "I have heard Kira was promoted over a senior member of 3rd Division."
"Rangiku Matsumoto was Captain Ashikaga's lieutenant before he retired to the Demon Magic Syndicate." Yamamoto paused to enjoy another slice of his sweet. "Ashikaga is an astute man, one who only selects superlative subordinates."
While he had been at the top of every class in the Academy, including history, all he knew of Ashikaga was that, despite a sterling record, the previous head of 3rd Division was most noted for being the youngest captain to retire, so he could only accept his superior's comment at face value. "Yet this Matsumoto was passed by in favor of Kira." Did Yamamoto really expect him to consider Ichimaru's castoffs? Just by association, as Aizen's former lieutenant, Ichimaru was not among his favorite officers. Then again, perhaps that was reason enough to consider this Shinigami.
"It's understandable that Captain Ichimaru would find a familiar subordinate more suitable. The accord between captain and lieutenant impacts a division's vision." Yamamoto popped the last section of his sweet into his mouth with an appreciative hum followed by another sip of tea. "Also, there is a saying that only a truly strong man is capable of relating mutually with a truly strong woman."
So Matsumoto was a woman. "Would you have me question Captain Ichimaru's manhood?"
He nearly jumped out of his skin as Yamamoto laughed. It was an unrestrained, barking laugh that gradually diminished to a chuckle then concluded with a snort.
"As captain, Ashikaga's greatest skill was seeing the potential in others and drawing it out. The strength of his authority provided a structure that allowed his subordinates to grow, their talents to flourish. Many of them followed him to the Demon Magic Syndicate."
Yamamoto was not known for flattery, so the young captain wasn't sure what to make of the comments. Was he honestly being compared to a distinguished ex-captain, or were these details merely meant to inspire interest in a potential lieutenant? It might even be a favor to Ashikaga, who was no longer in a position to directly look after his minions who'd stayed in the Thirteen Divisions. Whatever the motivation, there was one aspect of it he wished to know, and that was why an apparently distinguished lieutenant, facing demotion and poor prospects after her captain's departure, had bothered to remain behind. Hoping he could prompt his superior into sharing more information, he murmured, "But not Matsumoto."
Silence reigned, broken only by the wind in the budding branches, the chirping of the finch chicks and the occasional slurp of tea.
Upon reaching the bottom of his cup without further comment, it was obvious his audience with the Commander General was over. After thanking his host for the hospitality, Lieutenant Sasakibe appeared without summons to guide him back to the entrance. Just before they arrived, his escort paused.
"Thank you, Captain Hitsugaya."
He favored the red-skinned Shinigami with a raised eyebrow.
"It isn't often the Commander General has cause to laugh," explained Sasakibe.
The idea that he was being complimented for being found funny initially irked him, but then he considered the sentiment and thoughtfulness behind the statement. Sasakibe cared for Yamamoto as much as Hinamori did for Aizen, if less ardently. He knew little of the relationships between other captains and their lieutenants, but the prospect of having someone he could trust, someone he deemed worthy of sharing his thoughts, appealed to him. That a lieutenant might attend to the more social aspects of the division and make working in 10th more inviting, more successful, would also be nice. For even though Yamamoto had said nothing of his division's numbers, there was no doubt the older man was aware of it. Just because 10th Division's Captain didn't think it should reflect badly on them, like separating rice from chaff, didn't mean his superior felt the same way.
Intent on deciding for himself if this overlooked Shinigami was worth the effort, he headed for the Hall of Records.