"I was reading Kuchiki Kaoru's diary," Byakuya said. "It was stored with the family annals."
"Oh," Ukitake said. He poured more tea for both of them, and said, "Oh," again. "It must have been -- a little strange, reading things written by your ancestors, and seeing the names of people you know in them."
Byakuya nodded, a small inclination of his head that he hoped gave nothing away. "What was he like, when you knew him?"
Ukitake tilted his head, considering Byakuya with those damnably penetrating eyes. "Oh, he was a perfectionist. Very much like you, but a more slender build and a . . . higher temper. He was very cold and controlled on the surface, but the best and most reliable of friends once you got to know him. We trained together in the early days of the Academy. He saved my life more than once. I honour his memory."
"His diary spoke highly of you," Byakuya said.
"How very kind." Ukitake smiled happily.
"And Kyouraku," Byakuya added. "But mostly you. While he was a friend of Kyouraku's, he never seemed to have quite the same degree of . . ." He realised he was getting into the awkward part of the things that the diary had said. ". . . of closeness," he finished.
Ukitake remained silent, waiting for Byakuya to continue.
Byakuya eventually spoke just to fill up the empty space. "He seems to have been a man who could never do well enough to satisfy himself. His parents never blamed him. He writes lovingly about them. His friends never accused him of being less than he could be. Even Yamamoto-soutaichou seems to have praised him."
Ukitake nodded. "He was a fine man, but he judged himself very harshly."
"Why?" Byakuya asked. "I've seen his official record. He hardly ever made a wrong decision. He served Seireitai well and he never spent his men's lives uselessly. Why should he condemn himself?"
Ukitake leaned back in his chair. "Those same high standards. He learned them from his parents when he was young -- much as you learned yours from your grandfather, Byakuya."
Byakuya felt his cheeks flush. "My grandfather was a credit to our family," he said, biting back his temper before it could influence his tone. "I have never regretted what he taught me."
Ukitake sighed. "And Kaoru never regretted what his parents taught him. But equally, he could never live up to what he felt that they expected from him. He looked at himself in the mirror and he found himself flawed. He was a Kuchiki. He could not let himself be flawed."
Byakuya almost flinched at that. A Kuchiki cannot be less than perfect . . . "What has that got to do with it? There are times when we all fail."
"If you truly believe that," Ukitake said gently, "then why are you having this conversation with me, here and now?"
He'd known this part would come. He'd tried to think of a way round it or through it. He'd failed. "Because I could have forgiven Rukia anything," he said haltingly. He looked down at his hands. "I could not have saved her, but I would have forgiven her. But I cannot forgive myself."
He could feel Ukitake's eyes on him, even without looking up. "He trusted your judgment more than his own. Perhaps I should have done the same."
Ukitake was silent for a moment. "You acted according to your convictions," he said. "You had sworn an oath to your parents. I cannot blame you for keeping that oath. And in the end, you put yourself between her and Ichimaru's blade. Isn't that enough to wipe out your guilt?"
"No," Byakuya said. "It isn't."
"Then what would be?" Ukitake sounded honestly curious. "Stopping Aizen?"
"That's my duty to Soul Society," Byakuya answered automatically. "That doesn't repay what I owe Rukia."
"But this isn't about what you owe to Kuchiki Rukia," Ukitake said. "It's about your own wrongdoing."
"Wrongdoing?" Byakuya looked up. "I didn't say --"
"No," Ukitake said. "You have referred to errors in judgement. You've admitted to guilt. But you haven't so far said anything about actively doing something which you knew was wrong."
Byakuya put down his cup. "I didn't have a choice. You said that you understood that!"
Ukitake simply regarded him.
"I had an oath," Byakuya said.
"You had two oaths," Ukitake said, "and you have a sister."
Byakuya pulled the rags of his pride around him. "My duty to my parents comes before my duty to my sister."
"A man who would forgive his sister anything doesn't think in terms of his duty towards her."
"But I should have," Byakuya said desperately. "How can I trust my judgment if I know that --"
The words came out like painful ashes. "If I suspect that the Kurosaki brat won because I deliberately failed. That I put my personal affection above my duty. You at least have the certainty that you put your duty and your honour above the law. I don't have that. How can I trust myself if I know that I would let him win and that I would do it again?"
"Is that why he won?"
"I don't know. He's a brat. A genius, but still a child. He shouldn't have won. Maybe he did win on his own merits. But I look back, and I think, if I had struck a little earlier, or a little harder, or . . . Ukitake, I cannot be sure. And then I cannot bring myself to regret it. Rukia is alive. I am . . . glad, not to have lost her. She has changed since then. When I talk to her, I find her more of an equal, more of a sister. But I can't talk about this with her. She wouldn't understand."
"No," Ukitake said. "She wouldn't."
"And my grandfather --" Byakuya broke off. "My honoured grandfather has left us, and he was never less than just and righteous."
"Kuchiki Kaoru was never less than just and righteous," Ukitake said gently. "But he doubted. We all doubt, at times. Sometimes we need to trust other people at times, for when we can't trust ourselves."
"Then tell me." Byakuya could hear the desperation in his own voice. "Did I do wrong?"
Ukitake sighed. "Are you giving me the authority to judge you?"
"You have it already. You know that."
"Then whether or not you did wrong, Byakuya-kun, you wish you had, and that is enough for you."