Title: For the Sake of the Children / 子どものために
Genre: gen, character study
Characters: Ukitake, Hitsugaya, Matsumoto, Kyouraku, Byakuya, Rukia, Kaien, Hinamori
Word Count: 10,800
Summary: There is exactly one dissenting voice regarding the appointment of Third Seat Hitsugaya Toushirou to 10th Division Captain. It’s yours. (Ukitake POV)
On AO3, with the appropriate chapter breaks
She comes to you heartsick, unworthiness clasped around her like a set of jaws. “Kuchiki Rukia?” you ask, and you feel her reiatsu trough and waver. Even in this, it’s elegant, dancer-like. She has an instinct for how the soul and body connect. But this is and is not yet her name.
It’s not typical for a captain to be introduced to his unseated officers by way of private audience. But this is the 13th. This is the 13th, and Kaien drags her through your yard, her feet bouncing off the cobblestones as she struggles to keep up with him. He whips open your paper screen with aplomb and announces, “Ukitake-taichou!!! Our newest recruit!”
She hurries to kneel, brings her forehead to the ground before you. This is graceful, though unpracticed.
“Kuchiki Rukia?” you ask.
When she replies, she still has her Rukongai accent—a timbre that has less to do with lilt or dialect and more to do with reiatsu. Her mouth and her aura are carrying on two different conversations at once. A few more years at the academy and she’d have lost that; a few years here will do the same. It’s a shame; you’ve always found the dialogism pleasant.
The point you want to make, though, is that you don’t think this quiet, deferent girl is the real Kuchiki Rukia. Kaien clearly doesn’t think so, either. There is more to her than sadness.
Of course, you find over time that she is that girl. She is just as much that quiet deferent girl as the soldier who barks orders, the swordsman who pursues relentless justice. The dancer, the artist. The girl who cried when she saw her first bunny. The girl who then ate hare from a skewer, gristle and all. The girl, bottomlessly sad. They are all Kuchiki Rukia.
You wonder how many of these girls Byakuya knows, the day he comes to seek your audience. Perhaps none.
He won’t deign to ask a favor, but he also knows that he cannot command you. So instead, Byakuya chooses to ordain the future.
“Kuchiki Rukia will not be seated,” he says.
“She is not Hisana,” you remind him.
“Kuchiki Rukia will not be seated,” he repeats.
He wants to protect her. He will destroy her. Byakuya wants to protect her such that he is willing to let her think she is undeserving of a seat—that you and Kaien believe she is unworthy (and that your praise is only pity).
Byakuya has the pride to know how deeply that will cut. He is cruel enough to think it doesn’t matter, so long as she is safe.
“None of us are safe, Byakuya.”
He regards you, impassive, but as though your swords are drawn, your gazes locked. You glance out at the garden, comment on the blooming pond lotuses, but he never relents. You can still feel his stare. His is not a particularly aggressive assault: He doesn’t increase his reiatsu; he exudes no menace. He’s not trying to threaten you; it’s not that kind of shakedown.
People say scars don’t speak, but you suspect they do. They are laconic, but repetitive. And they are difficult to say no to.
You sigh. “Kuchiki Rukia will not be seated,” you agree.
You remember Byakuya as a teenager, infallible. You’ve known him since childhood—and who hasn’t? A young lordling, the first son of what was quickly becoming the only noble family that mattered. Wedding Hisana certainly hadn’t quieted curious and voyeuristic minds.
But mostly, you remember him widowed.
Hisana had loved Ugendou. Before she’d become too frail to travel, you’d hosted her often. You’d sit together in silence for hours, in conversation without words, because you knew what it was like to be as ill as she. You’d been friends in a way that perhaps only the two of you could be.
And then, after she was gone, Byakuya came to you, too. He’d said nothing; you’d said nothing. He sat where she sat, saw what she’d seen. And you’d left him alone. A stranger might have passed by your garden and assumed he was at peace, but you knew better.
You never imagined ending up here.
Kuchiki Rukia will not be seated. Byakuya doesn’t thank you.
She has nightmares.
Kuchiki Rukia hasn’t returned to the Kuchiki estate since the night of Kaien’s death. There’s nothing for her here in 13th, save perhaps a shared and pervasive anguish, but there are things worse than nothing.
She fears Byakuya; she fears shaming him.
She has nightmares.
You feel foolish, having told Byakuya that none of you were safe. You’d said it so easily, as though it were some ineffable truth. Worse still, one you had accepted. But there is a difference between making peace with risk and failing wholly to do the work of meeting it. The day Kaien and Miyako died—the whole of it, start to finish—had been that failure for you.
Kuchiki shrieks awake. If her barrackmates hear it, they pretend to stay asleep. You hear only one choked sob, a whimper from beyond another wall. Someone else whose heart you’ve broken, allowing Kaien to die like that.
The funeral is tomorrow. For one hour, time will stop. You all will honor the fallen, as though any of you understand death and know how best to meet it. You are shinigami.
You want more than an hour. You want there to be an investigation. A discussion, perhaps, of what had gone wrong how to prevent wrong in the future. It’s not as though you’ve never lost someone before; the idea is laughable. You’ve lived too long, through too much, to be so lucky. But you’ve found your limit, and you’re suddenly unsure why none of this has happened yet—why all of you have failed so handily at the work of being better.
You’ve lost so many shinigami you shouldn’t have. (You, Soul Society.)
It doesn’t happen. Even Kyouraku asks you to let it go. He wants to protect you from yourself. “No one believes you mishandled the situation,” he assures you. “Not Shiba-taichou. Not even Kuukaku-chan.”
“But she’s angry,” you protest. You should all be angry.
Kyouraku sighs. “She’s raising hell, all right. But she’s not angry at you.”
You know this. You’re not so self-flagellating. It’s not the guilt that drives you, but your altruism. You want to make this right, and you know that larger things than you must change. At first you’re not sure why Kyouraku won’t join you in this; he has always joined you in your crusades. You never imagined ending up here.
But this time, he seems to think that what you’re asking—what Kuukaku is demanding—is more than this place can bear. It’s too easy for everything to crumble, for you’ve only barely managed to rebuild. You can only hold on, white-knuckled, to what you have.
Yet still, you feel—
“Ukitake.” A note of warning, under Kyouraku’s care, and careful zen. “Don’t forget who I’ve lost, too.”
He puts a hand on your shoulder.
You affirm him. You know, you know. You’ve only barely managed to rebuild. In a blink of an eye and only a heartbreak ago you lost too many comrades, their faces obscured by Hollow masks and the rest of you left in the dark.
You remember the look on Rukia’s face as her sword plunged through Kaien’s chest, his tongue made reptilian and grazing her cheek. His blood very much his, but his face not at all.
For now, you can only hold on.
In three hours, just before sunrise, Kuukaku will launch an attack on Seireitei. It will be vicious, fiery, and loud. She wants her brother’s body back; Kuchiki had given it to her, and Soul Society had taken it back for ceremony. It had stolen him again, again, again. More than anything, Kuukaku wants justice. Maybe you would have joined her (but maybe not); in any case, she hadn’t invited you. She probably doesn’t trust you. In the course of her assault, there will be no casualties—but only just.
She will spend Kaien’s funeral in jail.
“Shiba’s appointed another third seat,” Kyouraku says. He’s come to keep you company—as he often does, though lately it’s felt different. Your health has not been good this year, and you still have no vice-captain. Kyouraku leads his own division with as light a touch as possible, preferring leisure to all else, but you suspect that at the moment, he is carrying your 13th. (“Don’t tell Nanao-chan,” he says, and smiles wickedly. “She’ll get ideas!”)
“Another?” you ask, and Kyouraku nods.
“That’s his third, isn’t it? It’s the little one this time.”
“I don’t think he likes to be called that.”
Kyouraku chuckles. “New Third Seat Hitsugaya, then. Though I’m sure no one will tease him once they’ve seen what he can do.”
You haven’t, though you’ve heard the rumors—another child prodigy amongst you. Like Ichimaru, like Kaien. Not to mention, Kyouraku is hard to impress.
Kyouraku asks if you haven’t thought about finding some third seats of your own, and playfully suggests that perhaps Shiba might lend you one, since he seems to have so many to spare.
You’d never ask further favors of that family.
You laugh. You cough. You cough. You cough. Kyouraku pours you another cup of tea. You cough. “Between him and Rangiku-san, I imagine Shiba needs every third seat he’s appointed.”
What the 10th does and whom it appoints vanish from you for a long while after that. You’re very ill that year—so ill you wonder if it’s not a spell that will pass, but your new and more painful normal. But then you recover, inasmuch as you ever do. Life repeats.
Life marches on.
“Bankai?” you repeat.
Kyouraku must mistake your disquiet for incredulity, because he says, “You’ve heard the stories, surely.” Of Hyourinmaru, the dragon, who’d come with Hitsugaya to the Academy already manifested, already screaming to be let out. Most zanpakutou at that stage don’t know their own name, or are hardly willing to share it with their shinigami.
Of course you’ve heard the stories. That’s not what troubles you.
“It would tear him apart,” you object. Whatever Hyourinmaru’s will might be, or Hitsugaya’s, a body has limits. Hitsugaya’s is too young. No matter his skill nor potential, he couldn’t possibly handle that degree of reiatsu fluctuation, or dynamic load. It’s simple physics.
“You know Yama-jii. If this goes poorly, perhaps he’ll make a rule. Perhaps not. Shiba won’t be the one to shut the door, in any case. He’s an enabler if I ever knew one—I’ve been on the receiving end.” Kyouraku makes a tippling motion with his hand and sighs fondly.
“And you’re all right with this?”
Kyouraku shrugs. “I’m not the 10th Captain; it’s not my purview. What I’m saying is, maybe it’s time you consider filling a vacant seat.”
What he’s saying is, Shiba is fairly young himself, and reckless. He is, perhaps, not someone who’d counsel caution or patience. What he’s saying is, perhaps you are.
Then Shiba Isshin goes missing.
There has been too much loss, these last hundred years, and none of it righteous. There has been too much loss and too little to say for it. Which is exactly how much Soul Society says about it: Not a word. Perhaps there never was a Shiba Isshin, it seems to suggest.
It says a lot about the precariousness you live in that it is somehow safer to pretend him away than it is to admit that he is gone. That more than likely, he is dead. The 10th has mounted a thorough search, but his body is nowhere to be found.
At the meeting that decides that Shiba Isshin will never be spoken of again, Matsumoto and Hitsugaya both come to represent the 10th. (And to be frank, the silence had long been decided. When an order comes from the Council of 46, there is little in the way of recourse. There are no objections for the same reason there is no Shiba Isshin.)
Opposite the way you have labored to keep Kaien’s memory alive, Shiba Isshin vanishes. Just like Hirako before him, and Muguruma, and Aikawa, and the others. Just like Lisa.
Those unable to forget are left, as always, to their own devices.
What reason could you have to feel hopeless?
Some weeks later, a mission of the 13th begins to sour, and you call back your troops and request captain-class reinforcements. You're standing in the sky, 500 meters above the ground just to be level with the Hollow's hole, when Matsumoto and Hitsugaya show up in response to your missive.
You haven’t seen them since the meeting that erased their captain, and while you have great faith in seated officers, you also know what it is like to lose them. You owe Shiba Isshin this much: Not unkindly, you say, “This is a captains’ matter.”
“Then we have a personnel issue,” Hitsugaya replies, affectless.
You don’t know him well enough to know if it’s a joke, an accusation, or only a statement of fact, but Matsumoto adds that they are the nearest seated officers by far. It could be hours before anyone else arrives, if they’re able at all. And Hollows like this aren't known for their patience.
Reluctantly, you nod.
You needn’t have worried. Hitsugaya and Matsumoto work well together, and they work well with you. They let you lead, watching you as much as they watch the Hollow, which is large and tentacular and astonishingly quick. They move in only after they’ve ascertained your own strategy.
They don’t fight like they have anything to prove, which maybe some part of you had expected they might—due in part to youth, but mostly retaliation. Retaliation, for the way Soul Society had all but told them they had no reason to grieve. Or at least, they'd been instructed to act that way. You wouldn't have begrudged them if they fought bitterly, as though to prove they were due more respect than they'd been given. But neither go out of their way to assert their heroism. They bide their time, as you do.
You’re able to cut through the tentacles, though you doubt most zanpakutou could. Of all the blades in Soul Society, Sougyo no Kotowari is particularly sharp. Your 13th’s asauchi had simply been repelled.
Matsumoto and Hitsugaya seem to assume this, or else don’t see enough merit in getting close enough to try. But Matsumoto’s shikai is able to penetrate the jelly-flesh of the tentacles, razor ash bursting them into wet mist. Then Hitsugaya freezes the mist, changing the structure of the particles such that they cannot reform. They drop to the ground instead, a hailstorm. As you noted, they work well together. Once it works the first time, they begin making quick, methodical work of the rest of the tentacles.
You shout, “We should be able to use that strategy on the body!”
Matsumoto shakes her head. “It’s too large. Haineko’s ash—“
“—Only needs to disrupt the body’s reforming. I’ll handle the explosion. Fall back!”
“Can you create enough ice to freeze the body?” you ask Hitsugaya. You keep your eyes trained on the hollow, its body shuddering and bleeding hemolymph from the stubs of its appendages. It roars. You hadn’t realized the clouds roll in, dark and heavy and portentous. You feel the wind around you whip up as the Hollow sucks air into its beak.
“Third Seat Hitsugaya,” you say, in lieu of repeating the question.
“Yes,” he says finally.
“Be ready,” you say, though the advice is lost to a vortex of sound and light as the Hollow fires a cero directly at you. You hold your stance and let Sougyo no Kotowari take it in.
“Now!” you shout, as you hurl it back. Haineko’s ash follows the blast, as does Hitsugaya. Ice explodes from his blade.
Wings, you note.
Wings, or the beginning of them, glazing his shoulders and issuing outward.
Bankai, you realize.
Or at least, the beginning of one. A whisper of the form—you’ve never seen anything quite like it. Generally, the leap from shikai to bankai is obvious and brutal. They come in roaring, and with little margin for error. There are no gradations. By contrast, Hyourinmaru is gentle.
The effects are not.
The Hollow, in pieces, comes crashing down like a shattered mirror, a sharp fine dust. The larger pieces plummet like shards of glacier into ocean.
Hitsugaya’s wings quickly follow.
Matsumoto has her scarf draped over her head. “I hate it when this happens,” she says, looking dolefully up at the sky through the boughs of the tree you’re sheltered under. The clouds’ omens have been visited upon you, in the form of a drenching and relentless sleet.
“No umbrella, no snack…” Matsumoto continues.
You chuckle. “Next time I’ll remember snacks.”
“Ukitake-taichou, you’re soaking. Do you want my scarf?” she offers, but you wave her off. You’re quite all right.
The sleet has cut visibility to all but nothing, but you strongly expect that if you walk a few kilometers back towards Seireitei, the weather will be much improved. This is not a natural storm.
(Hyourinmaru is gentle, but a dragon all the same.)
Hitsugaya still looks a little green. After his wings had shattered, his energy expended, he’d made a hasty, not entirely controlled descent back to solid ground. He'd only just stopped himself before cratering into earth. He still seems like he’d rather be sitting than standing, though he doesn’t. In any case, you hadn’t felt any imperative to immediately begin the long march home.
The Hollow is in a state of molecular disrepair, so you’re in no rush. Later, you’ll send a team to dispose of it appropriately. For now, you rest.
“How is the 10th holding up?” you ask, to fill the silence. You swallow the pang you feel.
“Aizen has been advising us,” says Hitsugaya.
“That’s good.” Aizen has always been invested in mentorship—and quite skilled at it, if the positions of his many mentees are anything to go by. He’s already given Soul Society two captains, and Hinamori seems to love him dearly. She is flourishing in his care.
But Aizen is not enough. There will never be enough. As the Hollow becomes a memory and the storm their only stimuli, you can see it reflected in their bodies now. The sadness.
Kuchiki Rukia had, and has, that look. Kaien is gone.
Shiba Isshin never existed. Except, of course, he did, and he left his heart behind in them. It weighs heavily.
The officers of the 10th are wonderful and dutiful soldiers. But they are so, so young, and too much has been taken from them. What they are doing right now, what they will go on to do, asks too much, too soon. It’s not their duty to invent the world where Soul Society can salvage itself. They’re the ones who should have been saved.
For if not for the sake of the children, then for whom?
You need to stop lying to yourself, you think abruptly. Of course you’ve imagined ending up here. In fact, you rarely need to imagine. You’ve borne witness.
For the sake of the children, you always think—only to find that all you can ever do is watch.
The ice in the trees grows heavy above you.
“We require an unanimous vote,” Sasakibe reminds the floor.
The vote is already unprecedented. He passed the exam; the position should be his. There is no precedent for a secondary qualification. There’s never been need. But you felt it prudent, somehow, to request this review. It appears you’re in the minority, however, as there is exactly one dissenting voice regarding the appointment of Third Seat Hitsugaya Toushirou to 10th Division Captain. It’s yours.
There’s a silence, as your colleagues await your explanation. They weren’t expecting this; not from you. You penned his most glowing recommendation. You approved him for the exam in the first place.
When you fail to fill that silence, Kurotsuchi speaks. “His bankai is incomplete.” Kurotsuchi is loathe to be more helpful than he need be, but always eager to move things along.
“As he’s aware,” you reply, despite yourself. You are your own enemy. “And as you always say, we are never truly complete.”
That’s probably what had impressed you most, your first introduction. Too often genius begets ego, and ego sloppiness. Great leaps in progress with not enough fill—corners cut. But Hitsugaya knows his unfinished edges, and he owns them. It's been years since you first saw the inkling of Hitsugaya's bankai, waited out that storm together. Since then, he's developed it splendidly; he will continue to. But he's a child yet.
Silence, again, waiting for you like an outgoing tide. At some point it will turn around and spit foam in your face.
“Has new information come to light, with which you’d like to amend your recommendation?” asks Sasakibe.
No, not about Hitsugaya; but yes, perhaps about this world. Though that’s a lie you’ve told yourself and already, you know it. This you’ve known about the world for years—perhaps as many as you’ve lived. You’ve simply never acted on it and now it seems it is too late again.
“He’s a child,” you say softly. You look to Byakuya, because for a fleeting moment you think perhaps he can understand what you cannot seem to find the words for. Byakuya, who’d asked of you safe harbor for his sister all those years ago.
“Hitsugaya Toushirou has many desirable qualities,” says Byakuya, “befitting the station of captain.”
Soul Society needs a 10th Division Captain. It can't weather the absence any longer.
If pressed, they could probably find another candidate as skilled and strong in battle—though not with half as much potential. With Hitsugaya, they are trading on potential. They are thinking of the future.
But more than that, what Soul Society really needs right now is someone stable. Diligent, trustworthy, pragmatic, even-keeled. Hitsugaya has these qualities in spades. You should know: You wrote the recommendation. But Soul Society acts like duty is an end in itself, desideratum.
Soul Society needs Hitsugaya-taichou. You’re still not sure what Hitsugaya Toushirou needs. You worry that this isn’t it.
So you dissent.
“Ukitake-taichou,” Ichimaru lilts, with his whistle of a voice, “seems to me you’re getting old! Genius ain’t that fragile, hey?”
He means, I would know. After all, I turned out fine.
So he says.
Never mind your stuttering. Hitsugaya becomes the youngest captain the Gotei 13 has ever welcomed. It’s quite the honor.
Still, you can’t help but feel you’ve taken something from him. (Again.)
That feeling doesn’t really make sense. Hitsugaya left Junrinan long ago; he hasn’t been a child in a long time. Besides, his captaincy is a role he’d already been filling in all but title. When you have no captain—Shiba Isshin will never be found—your work is not so different when you finally succeed him. At least this way, none can question his authority. You tell yourself, perhaps it’s for the best. Under Hitsugaya-taichou, the 10th Division finds its legs again.
His division knows him well. They’d weathered Shiba Isshin’s disappearance together, after all. And while he will never be their Shiba-taichou, he is still their Hitsugaya. They find him approachable and unassuming. He knows their names to the 20th seat, and the rest by face. They know his expectations. And they know that he will be addressed by rank, or you be corrected.
“Sometimes I forget he might come across as cold,” Matsumoto laughs, watching a gaggle of the 13th’s unseated haphazardly clear a path for him. She laughs and laughs.
He turns back to look at the both of you. Shouts, “Who the hell are you laughing at?!”—all crass child. Then, in a flash, a return to composure. His soldiers are asking him a question about their marching orders (something about geography, or maybe geology).
“Don’t you worry,” Matsumoto tells you.
He’s doing just fine.
No one has ever needed you less.
He’s confused by the candy, your contraband snacks. Not the fact of them—he’s more familiar with the human realm and its cultural ephemera than most. He’d spent extended tours with the team that was supposed to find their missing captain. (Back home, Matsumoto ensured the squad’s survival, while driving its organization into the ground. Hitsugaya has been working to unbury it.)
What Hitsugaya doesn’t understand is why he would need such a gift.
You waxed poetic with him once, something about the change of seasons and the passage of time and a general, almost esoteric, query about where youth goes when the leaves turn.
“It hasn’t been misspent,” he replies, which is either poetic or deeply not so.
It’s been a year. You ask how he’s adjusting.
“I’ll probably never sleep again,” he says. It’s a joke—the first you’ve ever heard from him. You smile, then wonder if you shouldn’t. Sleep is to be guarded as carefully as souls are. But then, it’s only a joke. You can tell from his eyes that he sleeps soundly.
That evening, you send Kuchiki on her first solo. One month, a small town called Karakura. All should be well.
The rooftops in Seireitei get busy in the summer. You’re not much one for rooftops these days, but with so much new company, neither is Hitsugaya. You often can’t find him at all.
“Has he ever gone back?” you ask Hinamori. She’s come straight from Rukongai, bearing fresh berries for you.
Hinamori blushes, says she doesn’t know. She doesn’t get to talk to him much these days. And his grandmother is very old. Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether she’s telling stories of yesterday, or fifty years ago. But of course she must remember Shiro-chan, she assures you, in a tone of voice that suggests the opposite. She has new grandchildren now, too.
Hinamori gets sad, then. Says it’s lucky, though, that these new kids—they don’t have any reiatsu to speak of, and therefore don’t need to be fed. Because these days, Grandmother is very, very old.
You find him slipping back through the gates once. Captains don’t patrol Rukongai. You ask after his grandmother.
His eyes widen, but he doesn’t otherwise react. He’s never told you anything about his life; he must assume, or now expect, that he is under scrutiny. (Some time later he will note, correctly, that your friendly inquiries are quarterly. It’s true you’ve been tasked with his evaluation, and that you will be writing a report. But that’s not why you’re watchful.)
“Seireitei shouldn’t bring its troubles to Rukongai,” he tells you. “It’s poor form.”
So no, he hasn’t visited his grandmother. He refuses to take his responsibilities with him, but he also cannot leave them. Or at least, he hasn’t figured out quite how. He has a division to run, and there is always something. He’d always be thinking about something. He wouldn’t really be there; not in the way he thinks is right. So he doesn't go.
This is the day you find he’s friends with Jidanbou. That’s where he’d been. It’s a funny image, truly; every part of Jidanbou is larger than all of Hitsugaya, except perhaps Jidanbou’s teeth, pearl-white and many. Hitsugaya stands on the shoulder of a giant and listens to that giant lust after the sky.
You find yourself becoming very attached.
Kuchiki Rukia comes home in shackles. Orders for her execution are final.
Aizen is dead.
Hinamori may never recover.
“Unohana-taichou says it will be her will, either way. There’s nothing the 4th can do to force it,” Hitsugaya tells you. “There's nothing they can do to further aid her,” he revises.
You’d asked how he was feeling. He’s wearing plain black shihakushou, absent his captain’s haori. Seireitei is in shambles and garment work is not a priority; blood is the only substance that can’t be washed from reishi. He looks smaller without it.
Were it not for Hitsugaya’s own ice cooling his body, slowing his heartbeat, Aizen had all but left him there to die.
“And Matsumoto—” Hitsugaya starts, and doesn’t finish.
You start thinking—again, several hundred years too late—of all the ways you’ve failed them all. You, by which you mean Soul Society has failed them. By which you mean history. By which you mean home.
The 5th does not warm to their de facto commander (at least, Hitsugaya has volunteered, until Hinamori can resume her duties). They find him distant and often distracted. They shouldn’t hold the discovery of the murdered Council and Aizen’s machinations against him, but they kind of do. What’s funny is they’re not even loyal to Aizen; they acknowledge his treason. But they are feeling vulnerable. And they don’t like Hitsugaya.
Perhaps it’s that look in his eyes whenever he addresses them. That full-fathom guilt.
His 10th burns the midnight oil for him, though. Kutsushita—10th Division 17th seat, proudly from the 59th in north Rukongai—tells you he is too tired to remember whether Hitsugaya asked them to or not. Not that it matters; his first priorities are his captain’s expectations, not his direct orders. They all know what their job is.
Hitsugaya leads the advance team for no other reason than Abarai bows low and asks. There is no captain that has time for such things now, least of all one suddenly leading a second division of strangers, and strangers in mourning. Hitsugaya doesn’t need another special assignment.
Perhaps Abarai could have led the advance team alone—he’s skilled in all the ways that matter. But some protocols exist for good reasons. Abarai has no true authority over his fellow lieutenants, and if push comes to shove, there’s a slim percentage of an infinitesimal chance that that might matter. Ergo, a captain should lead.
The request goes through, because Hitsugaya has the resume for this sort of team, because Yamamoto is short three captains and in no position to decline it, because Hitsugaya doesn’t object. Because he knows where he is needed and his duty is to protect. He is a captain, not a child, and Abarai-fukutaichou asked.
Recommendation to resume wartime state of emergency issued after Aizen’s death/defection. Recommendation to suspend limiter protocol indefinitely. Recommendation to pool liquid assets, prepare stimulus fund for architecture/reconstruction. Hitsugaya’s SMS reports are not so detailed as those hand-written, but their message is clear.
War is coming.
(It’s been coming since before he was born.)
After he confirms the advance team’s safe passage back through the Senkaimon, Hitsugaya is unreachable for thirty-six hours. Matsumoto spends all of them working with the 5th. It’s been several weeks since they first deployed to the human realm, and there is much to be caught up with. But according to Kotsubaki, according to Kotetsu, Matsumoto tells Hinamori to let the captain rest before welcoming him home. According to Kotetsu, according to Kotsubaki, Hitsugaya-taichou is asleep on a couch in his office, door wide open to the world. Either he didn’t care who knew it or hadn’t planned to be there quite so long.
Kotetsu shuts the door for him.
At hour forty-seven, just before the debrief deadline, you cross paths coming to and from the Captain-Commander’s quarters. He looks drawn, a little groggy, though you suppose he’d say the same of you.
“She left some things out,” he says, of the report in his hands. (For example, you will find later that Hitsugaya and Kuchiki both had cheated death. That Orihime had counted cards for them, un-rolled the dice. There is also a long, long section that speaks to Orihime’s character, specifically. The report swears solemnly that she wouldn’t have gone to Hueco Mundo out of willing self-interest. But these are not the only things Matsumoto left out.)
Hitsugaya regards the report like an alien object. He’s not used to not having written it himself. Matsumoto has exceeded expectations. Or maybe she hasn’t—she’s always known when follow-through is pertinent. She has always been there for her captain. They trust each other.
And they all protect each other.
“Ukitake.” Hitsugaya stops, keeps his eyes trained on the ground. You start, because it’s the first time he’s ever sounded like he needed something from you.
He’s so quiet. “How much thought do you give to people who are... who you thought were gone?”
“Who?” you ask, because you’re not sure what he means. He says it in the strangled poesy of Seireitei, which holds things always at a distance.
Hitsugaya looks up at the sky, down at the report, and resumes walking.
They all protect each other.
Most of what happens over the false Karakura is unspeakable. You’ve cut your lifespan yet again, by puncturing a lung already thousands of years damaged. Unohana does what she can before sending you to the 12th, where Kurotsuchi has trained his officers to handle the finer, cellular art of organ regrowth. Your lungs are like no one else’s.
Still, you’ve never heard a scream like that before. Not in all your years of war. Not even from Kuchiki, her sword hilt-deep in Kaien’s chest. It didn’t seem possible, that a set of lungs could hold a scream like that. A scream like that turns its vessel inside out.
In the rubble of false Karakura, you are trying, trying not to drown in your own blood, and you don’t realize at first the scream is Hitsugaya’s. You assume it’s some new monster Aizen has conjured. Which in a way, you suppose, it is.
Kyouraku tells you later that he found the two of them together, Hitsugaya and Hinamori. Hitsugaya wouldn’t let go of her, though between the two of them they seemed more blood than body.
Kyouraku has, unfortunately, seen and caused much worse than that. But that was long ago. When he tells you this now, his voice is heavy and dark, with shadows built in.
You sigh. The truth is, you try not to think much about those who are gone. You prefer to leave them in the garden of your memories, on sunnier days than these. But you think a lot about what the world might yet lose. You think a lot about how it will lose them.
Regaining limbs is more arduous than losing them, and the procedure never goes particularly well. Soi Fon and Komamura are here too, somewhere. But Hitsugaya runs a fever that keeps him under observation nearly as long as you. He spends much of the time vomiting quietly into the sink you share, as his body tries to expel its new attachments. His new left leg drags lame, but you watch him work to lift it higher every day, like he’s pulling taut his kinetic chain, twisting it around himself.
“My apologies,” he says, the way he always does when he runs the sink after he’s done. It’s quite loud, a cavernous stone trough magnifying the roar of the faucet, though it’s not what woke you.
Hitsugaya grips the sink, arms shaking, and for a moment it seems he might pass out. The mist in the sink turns to ice crystals, and the temperature makes your lungs ache. You call his name. He draws a shuddering breath.
“Sorry,” he says.
Not that the apology is truly for you. Hinamori had her heart crushed.
No. A grammatical correction, a change in the velocity of verbs: Hitsugaya crushed her heart. He thrust his sword to the hilt and made ice bloom inside her, jagged and hate-filled. He made sure it hurt.
Sorry can’t begin to describe him.
Delirium trumps heartbreak, however, and while he’s ill it’s hard to tell whether his own heart is well or not. Hitsugaya is no more or less forthcoming than he ever is; and truth be told, you’re not well enough to counsel him, or to speak much at all. You can only watch and listen.
For the most part, he weathers this storm the way he always does. He knows, far better than you’ve personally ever been willing to know, what he can change and what he can’t. He is not wistful. But there are days—moments, really; flickers—where he is not all right at all.
You see the way he looks at you. How do you stand this? he’d ask, if he thought there were an answer. He doesn’t bother, because he knows there’s not. What he’s feeling is so common within these gates that it’s often mistaken to be germane to the experience. That feeling has become what it means to be a shinigami.
That’s not right, you think. But how else do you all survive this? You’re watching a generation grow up again. You feel you’re leading them to death. Maybe it is what it means to be a shinigami.
Hitsugaya leaves a few days after Soi Fon, and a few days before you. His arm and leg are still swollen, tender, and red. He’s planning to train bankai, flood the resistance out and reclaim his body with his own reiryoku. It sounds unwise, but you are old; you have long lived boldly enough to know that is how you find your fissures. When bankai becomes a reflex, it’s efficient, but limited. Train without reflex, with no reserve remaining, and you will surely find new pathways.
There is no update on Hinamori.
You move on. This is how it has always been here, which is ironic given this place is only a collection point for human lives already lived. It’s already the after, the place beyond movement.
You remember the morning after the hollowfication incident in Rukongai. Most of Seireitei had been left in the dark as to the particulars, but it’s impossible to keep news of that magnitude completely quiet. Everyone had been so scared, and there’d been rumors—so many rumors—of high-ranking officers exiled to the human realm, of traitors having already made their escape. Of Soul Society’s complete vulnerability in their wake.
And then there was Kaien, sending young members of the 13th on their regular tours of duty. As though nothing had happened, and there had been no loss, and their home was not on the brink of collapse. Collapse or not, no clocks stopped ticking, no hourglasses paused its sands. There were souls in need of konsou in the human realm. Yes, that human realm, the very same. But all will be well, Kaien assured them.
It’s better to move forward, Kaien assured you. And you agreed, for the most part. You can’t count the number of times you would have preferred to throw yourself into an all-consuming physical task, rather than wait out days in faint and fevered contemplation. But there is a difference between wallowing and rest, and maybe if Kaien had been granted a breath after Miyako’s death, he’d still be alive. (If you’d ordered a breath. If you’d counseled one. You were his captain.)
Kaien had always done his utmost to be kind, but maybe when life becomes a certain way in a certain place, hewn into certain conventions, cruelty is all that is available. It’s cruel, to forget as quickly as Soul Society does. To pretend the pain never happened, or the losses were not real. To pretend pain and loss are not worthy of examination, or restoration. You’re expected to simply move on.
Perhaps you think about the dead more often than you realized. But then, isn’t that why Kaien’s seat lay vacant for so long? To forestall the erasure.
Most days, you’re not convinced that Soul Society protects its people. Some days, you wonder if it’s worth protecting, either. Maybe it should fall, or flower into something new, before it grinds this generation to dust as it did yours.
You keep thinking, They are children.
It’s not that they’re unworthy. But perhaps you are, with this history you’ve let unfold. Perhaps Soul Society is. They shouldn’t have to pay for its protection with their hearts.
Kuchiki is lonely and heartbroken for two months, which is only a heartbeat in a lifetime of things that should have killed her; and then she sits for her lieutenant’s examination. When she takes her seat beside you, from no seat at all to second, she’s moved on from everything and nothing.
Hitsugaya graduates from his captaincy assessment period, as well. Not that there were any shinigami waiting with bated breath to learn whether he had passed or failed. The verdict is: Soul Society remains in dire need of a certain class of soldier, and it is in no position to be picky, and no one is reading this type of paperwork at present, anyway. Not that any would have questioned Hitsugaya’s captaincy in peacetime, either; he is remarkably of use.
But since there are so many duties your body can no longer fulfill, you linger on this one. Hitsugaya-taichou has played a vital role in multiple high-profile and successful campaigns on behalf of the Soul Society and the realms we service, you write.
He has rarely come away from one under his own power, you don’t. He will take himself to whatever extreme is required. For Soul Society, it is always the furthest extreme.
You’ve watched, for hundreds of years, young shinigami grow to fill the need before them, no matter how thin it requires them to stretch. Soul Society calls this “duty.”
You come to the 10th to deliver your good news in person. You stop short when you catch Hitsugaya in the hallway outside his office, forehead resting against the wall, eyes closed. He has two lacquered bento in hand, wrapped in an elaborately patterned furoshiki that must be Matsumoto’s.
You stop short, though he’s not paying enough attention to notice your approach. He looks exhausted. You watch his shoulders heave as he takes a series of slow, measured breaths.
Then the bento tip from his hands.
He startles back awake, before the lunches clatter to the floor but not soon enough to catch them. Rice and fish go flying. He hits the floor, too.
Hitsugaya swears loudly, and when the office door swings open Matsumoto’s voice joins his. “Taichou” has more syllables in it than you ever imagined. Then they’re both shouting incomprehensibly at each other, a sudden and intense explosion. Then, just as suddenly, they quiet. Hitsugaya kneads his temple.
Matsumoto quickly picks a slouching onigiri off the floor and stuffs the whole of it into her mouth at once. Then she magics chopsticks from her sleeves and snaps up three pieces of limp, sagging fish from the floor in quick succession.
“Matsumoto! What the hell are you doing?” Hitsugaya protests.
She stuffs another onigiri—a second casualty of the floor—into her mouth.
“You know the old saying—make sure to love them before they realize that they’re damaged!” she says, around the rice.
“Are you insane? That’s not a saying. Stop—”
Matsumoto insists that it was printed in this month’s Seireitei Communications. One of Kira’s poems.
“Then it’s definitely not a saying! Not for this application!”
“Here,” she says, placing the salvageable remnants of both bento into one of the boxes and pressing it firmly to his chest.
Hitsugaya begins to protest, but Matsumoto interrupts. “Eat.”
She matches him syllable for syllable, mimicking his voice. “You-need-to-eat.” She pushes the bento towards him harder, until he takes it. Then she whirls around, disappears from your view.
Hitsugaya begins to stutter a thank you, but Matsumoto overrides him, adding brightly, “Honestly, for someone who’s about to be on vacation, you should be in a better mood~!”
“The leave approval is what’s created all the work,” he mutters. He gets to his feet deliberately. He wavers a little, before form and color return to the room. He takes another deep breath. Before the door closes you hear him ask Matsumoto to run down the team assignments for the next four days, for while he’s away.
She tells him it's handled. Besides, she's already eaten. She's ready to work.
You’re certain Hitsugaya has long recovered from the battle above Karakura, at least physically—though given how hard he’s been training bankai his body would never know it. But in the scramble to deploy, and then recuperate, regular duties have piled up, and he is tired, he is tired. Regular duties have piled up both here and at 5th, which he is still supervising (Hinamori may never recover) and from whence you suspect he’d just come. (Broiled salmon is a specialty of the mess cook there.)
There was a war; there is a war. Another war is coming, quickly.
But it’s the leave, of course, that’s created the work.
You’re grateful he has learned to take it. You worry it will never be enough.
(Hinamori may never recover.)
Hitsugaya enters your receiving room already kneeling. Then he announces recognition of his debt—for your conducting and favorably concluding his captaincy assessment, that is. He slides a small box toward you with both hands.
It’s all very formal and ceremonial, old-style in a way most of Seireitei hasn’t been for hundreds of years. Not that Seireitei is terribly fashionable, given the ample curiosities shinigami come laden with every time they return from the human realm. But time moves even more slowly beyond the gates of Seireitei. Rukongai will always be an older place.
“From the western mountains,” he says. That is, from home.
You open the box and pluck out a curled mushroom. Hitsugaya tells you this mushroom is typically used for tea or broths. It has little in the way of medicinal or nutritional value, he admits, but even the souls in Rukongai still need to keep warm. It is favored for this purpose.
Kaien had never been much one for mushrooms, but he’d loved those mountains, too, and the cool shadows they cast over the nearest districts of West Rukongai in the summer. Then he’d complained about the way they froze in winter.
You think more about the past than you realized.
“Did you enjoy your visit?” you ask.
“She no longer remembers me,” Hitsugaya replies. “Hasn’t for some time.”
You nod. So it goes. Rukongai is an old and cyclical place.
“But there’s new children, and there will always be more children,” he continues. “They make her happy now.”
Hitsugaya dips his head quickly before he begins to rise and excuse himself.
“I’m sorry,” you say suddenly.
“It can’t be helped."
He truly believes that. And of course, he should—he’s right. He’s only saying what you already have. Rukongai is an old and cyclical place. Time flows in circles there, human souls flowing in gentle whirlpools, in and out. Junrinan has been the exact same Junrinan as long as you have known it, and you’ve known it a long time. So it goes.
Still, you don’t want him to have lost her. You suppose he hasn’t. He still goes; she is still there.
You don’t want her to have lost him.
Hitsugaya doesn’t need your pity, nor your mourning. It’s life, and this is only what happens. He’s at peace with that.
There are things that Hitsugaya is not at peace with. You’d never ask him about Hinamori, or Aizen. It’s not your place. But you wish with all your being you could have spared him that. That you could have spared them all.
They are being ground to dust before you, trapped between the cogs. They can be as resilient and collected and forgiving as they like, and you will laud them for it. But resilience can only go so far. Maybe you’re old, after all, thinking such things. But you can’t find it in yourself to believe in rites of pain. You can still see that scream in Hitsugaya’s eyes sometimes.
Not today, though. You hold onto that.
The bonfire at 10th is so large it casts an orange glow all around the south side of Seireitei. You can see it clear from the 13th.
It’s dondo yaki season, Kuchiki reminds you. She has ample, theatrical tears billowing down her face, her arms full of lucky rabbits—sketches, dolls, omamori.
DESTINED FOR A BURNING, she shouts to the sky, to herself. I AM SO SORRY, RABBIT-SAMA. FORGIVE THIS RITUAL SACRIFICE AS WE PURGE OUR FORTUNES FROM THE PREVIOUS YEAR, LEST THEY TURN ON US IN THIS NEXT.
You chuckle. You’re not sure if ritual sacrifice is “quite the right phrase,” as Unohana often says charitably of both your haiku and your bonsai trimmings. But you suppose it’s appropriate, given the year that Kuchiki has had. She herself was nearly burned for ritual and sacrifice.
And now all that is gone, Ichigo is gone, and it is time to let go of past fortunes.
Kuchiki begins to crab-walk to 10th, hunched as she labors under a satchel four or five times her size, filled to the brim with last year’s lucky rabbits. You chuckle again. You hadn’t realized she’d begun to keep so many of her belongings in the division quarters, rather than at home in the Kuchiki mansion. She seems, finally, at home here. Willing to take up the space in the world that is hers.
“Kuchiki-fukutaichou, are you in need of assistance?” you ask playfully.
But “in need” and “assistance” are words you forget you ought to utter sparingly, because before you’re aware of what’s happening, you are seated in a palanquin, Kotetsu and Kotsubaki whisking you through the streets at pace. They are shouting something not quite in unison, about the pride they take (each more than the other, of course) in rapidly presaging your every need and desire. They ask that you forgive their unforgivable tardiness.
In the already far-distance, you can hear Kuchiki shouting protest. W-wait! You didn’t ask if the captain wanted to go!!
Hitsugaya seems surprised to see you, though perhaps that’s owing more to the manner of your arrival than the fact of your presence. It seems a good many strangers have opted to stop by 10th this evening. The courtyard is overflowing.
Hitsugaya is leaning against the outer courtyard wall, either already retreated from or not yet arrived at the party; it’s unclear to you which. From his demeanor, you surmise that he feels very much on-duty, but is possibly trying not to be.
“Ahhh, Hitsugaya-taichou! There you are,” Kyouraku greets, materializing out of the throng as he helps you extract yourself from the wobbling palanquin without batting an eye. (Kotetsu and Kotsubaki are not skilled palanquin-bearers.) “I see you’re the life of the party, as ever.”
“It’s past my bedtime,” Hitsugaya remarks, in that way of his.
Kyouraku chuffs. “All joking aside, it’s good to be here again, especially after what a winter we’ve had. And we all have fond memories of this festival under Isshin.”
That name hasn't been spoken in twenty years. It doesn't officially exist. But Kyouraku is Kyouraku, and the truth is, it’s impossible to forget the pyrotechnics that had accompanied Shiba’s version of this festival. (It’s a particular skill of that family, to change things so wholly with their absence.)
This is the first year the 10th has hosted it since.
“Pay your compliments to Matsumoto. This is her doing,” Hitsugaya says, as Kyouraku attests to the many wonders he’s experienced tonight. The size of the bonfire, the sweetness of the sake; the unusual, unbridled cheer in the air.
Hitsugaya pauses. “That sounds dismissive,” he says, and revises, “This is hers.”
But he believes in the festivities, in their power and the need of them, even if he doesn’t really want to be there. He believes in Matsumoto, in the 10th, in all their many guests.
This is his, too.
“By the by, there’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you. It’s about our battle with Aizen,” Kyouraku says, and you feel Hitsugaya tense. All the calm he’d gathered falls away.
That hardly feels like appropriate conversation for the moment, but Kyouraku knows exactly what he’s doing. A stranger would never know it from the singsong of his voice, but you know that he will be relentless: “As I was picking through the rubble in the aftermath, I could swear I felt the remnants of an unusual reiatsu. Unusual, but quite familiar.”
Hitsugaya stays silent.
“There were many unusual faces at that battle,” Hitsugaya says finally. “I imagine all of them were familiar to you.”
He nods at Hirako, who waves, grins his reptilian grin as he passes through the 10th Division gates and into the courtyard for the bonfire. Hinamori isn’t with him.
“Ah, true, true,” Kyouraku allows. When Hitsugaya is not more forthcoming, he adds, “So you don’t know anything more about that, then. Since you’ve deployed to the human realm so often recently, I thought I would ask. I always like to know how stories end.”
Kuchiki arrives, finally, beneath her monstrous satchel filled with charms and drawings for the bonfire. She begins to flick them into the flames one by one. They pop and hiss. Most of them are rabbits, but even from afar you recognize her substitute shinigami chronicles, too. Those stories belong to the past and it is time to let them go.
Abarai, loud and drunk, tells her—and the entire rest of the courtyard—that it’s always okay to cry, but she shouldn’t linger on such things now! He’s heard Kusajishi is on her way, her captain in tow! (They’ve been on their way.) Wait too long, Rukia, and there won’t be any food left!
Kuchiki, sober, agrees just as loudly. She shouts kiai, opens into a wide stance, and hurls the entire satchel into the bonfire at once, body arcing like impossible and willful bamboo. There’s a blinding light, a thundering boom, and a warm and smoky snowfall of glittering ashes.
Then comes the clamor and chaos. The courtyard catches fire.
You turn to Hitsugaya, who looks as though his life has passed before his eyes, curdled dead-eyed stare fixed on his face like the afterburn of a bomb flash. He hisses something about noticing a disturbing pattern of treating others’ homes as playgrounds, but holds his ire. Someone has started a bucket brigade. The situation is under control.
“I suppose it’s been a while since Soul Society has had good reason for fireworks,” you laugh, sheepish.
“It’s been so long maybe we should remind everyone that fireworks belong in the sky,” Kyouraku suggests. “Maybe Kuukaku-chan could—“
“He’s happy,” says Hitsugaya suddenly.
Kyouraku’s eyebrows rise. As though he hadn’t always known he’d get his answer, one way or another.
“At least, he seems the type to find happiness wherever he might find himself,” Hitsugaya amends. “Shiba Isshin has been missing for a long time. I guess I wouldn’t really know.”
Kyouraku murmurs assent. “He does seem the type.”
You’re not sure how well-acquainted Kyouraku and Shiba had ever been, beyond their easy social stupors. They drank together, and perhaps that’s all you can say. Connection isn’t Soul Society’s strong suit. But if you can drink and make merry like that after all that Soul Society and its shinigami have weathered, you’re probably the type, indeed.
“Thank you for the story, Hitsugaya-taichou,” Kyouraku says, before dipping his hat to excuse himself.
Hisagi and Kira are beckoning him, Come hither, Kyouraku-taichou! We need a third to break a tie, and he melts into the crowd, into the long warm shadows of the bonfire.
You catch sight of Hitsugaya again some time later, across the courtyard and hazy through the smoke. He’d been standing behind Matsumoto for some time, and she’d been ignoring him. She and the others are all blissfully drunk, Kira’s head in her lap and Hisagi’s in his, and Kyouraku’s on the ground beside Ise, who is sitting apart from the sprawl of their bodies, reading by firelight. But when Hitsugaya finally touches her shoulder, Matsumoto sobers instantly.
He’s masking his reiatsu; it’s nothing like that. She just knows. Together, they step aside.
You can’t hear them, can’t see much in the way of facial expressions, outside the bonfire’s halo as they are, but when Hitsugaya has finished, Matsumoto turns toward Kyouraku, still on the floor. Then Hitsugaya looks directly at you—or where you would be, if he could see you; you’re hidden in the crowd. Still, he knows exactly where you are.
And you know where Shiba Isshin is. The four of you all know.
There’s nothing to say, nor to be done; it’s not that kind of secret, if it’s one at all. It’s not a concession to Seireitei’s pall upon pall of secret; the past has reared up so many times in the last few months, it’s simply as though everyone has decided that this story has earned its rest. Something, at least, should be allowed to rest. The final chapter of Shiba Isshin’s disappearance is only a story to be carried, in whatever way you will.
Matsumoto carries it back to the group on the ground, in the form of a giant iron kettle. She plies her friends with tea, tell them to start sobering up. She pinches Hisagi’s cheeks together until his mouth blows raspberries. It’s time to wake up; it’s time to go home.
When you look back for Hitsugaya, he’s gone.
You end up walking Kyouraku to 8th, he draped between you and Ise, and you musing about the potential whereabouts of that palanquin, which seems like it’d be useful about now. After depositing him, you run into Unohana on her way back to 4th, and join her. It is a beautiful evening, cold but bright and still, and you are feeling strong. You’re loathe to let the moment pass.
Unohana lets the two of you walk in peaceable silence, to appreciate the night. When you reach the gate to her private quarters, she tells you how pleased she is to see you well. She knows that it’s been a difficult recovery, after Karakura; Kotetsu has been diligently providing updates.
Unohana doesn’t need Kotetsu’s updates to surmise this, of course. But she enjoys seeing the Kotetsu sisters together. Such bonds are rare. She's happy to oblige whatever chance they have to see each other.
“Goodnight, Ukitake-taichou.” She smiles. She tells you it's been a pleasure to walk with you. “Happy new year.”
She leaves you to the night and the moon.
Before Unohana built the 4th, there’d been no healing arts. Healing began as a demonic art—you know this intimately. There’d be rogue resurrection here, a blood spring there, whatever struck Kirinjo’s fancy, mostly; but there’d been no expectation that many would learn these things, or have need of them. There’d been no expectation that any of you should live.
You were shinigami; your lives were expendable. Things live and die, and thus to prolong your lives, as servants of this world, seemed to spit in the face of the balance you were tasked with keeping.
“But what do we ever gain by balance?” Aizen asked you once. He’d been a new vice-captain then. In contrast to Hitsugaya, Aizen routinely asked questions whose answers he had no desire for. That is, unless they were answers of his own design.
Is balance ever an end in itself? it turned out, had been a quiet but forceful declaration of war.
Aizen was right, though. Aizen was right about more things than he should have been, given what he’d done and to what ends. He’d been all too right for comfort. Deep down, you know that he was not the villain, and none of you had been the hero.
But it’s not their fault, you think, as you feel the glow of kidou above you. When you look up you see the flames, bobbing in the air like foxfire. Hinamori is huddled on the roof, Hitsugaya beside her.
It’s not their fault.
Soul Society is no one’s hero.
It takes a deft hand to control kidou like that for any length of time. Its flames are meant to sear and kill, not to warm. You can’t make out all of Hinamori’s words, which are carried skyward by the breeze, but each syllable is infused with power. She’s speaking conversationally, but it’s as though she can make her words stand in for incantation, controlling the flames like it’s nothing at all.
She’s still in pain. Regardless of her skillful fire, most of her remains divorced from the exercise. Beyond it, her reiatsu shimmers like a heat mirage, wavering between presence and absence, joy and pain, fear and comfort. There’s no heartbeat to it, just jagged thready syncopation.
Hinamori has good days, but this is not one. She’s pale and gaunt, even in the kind moonlight.
“I can’t tell what you’re thinking when you do that,” says Hinamori. Hitsugaya is still masking his reiatsu.
“I can just say what I’m thinking,” he replies. “Besides, it’s cold enough up here.”
Hinamori nestles into her scarf. It is cold. “But you’re not saying anything, either,” she points out. He looks away.
The wind steals their voices again, and you miss his retort, but the air takes on a deeper chill.
When the wind shifts again, you catch mention of the festival back at 10th, of all the many things people had come to burn. Of Kuchiki’s bold and spectacular unburdening.
“Since you missed all that, I wanted to bring this to you,” Hitsugaya says.
His offering is slim, wrapped in papered cordage. And there before them—their own small bonfire. The large bonfire should be only embers by now. From here, you can see the way its smoke pierces the distant sky like a needle.
You smile, and resume your long walk home. It’s late.
You turn back abruptly when you hear Hitsugaya yelp and sputter loudly. He’s shouting something about “not for that purpose!” as he bats out the gift’s smoldering edges, having snatched it from the flames. You’ve never seen him so animated. He lets the wrapping crumble to white ashes and shoves its contents back into Hinamori’s hands, still ranting about stupid festivals, forget about that, what is it with all you people and burning stuff up, anyway??
The gift is a sketchbook, as near as you can tell. Hinamori’s fire is bright, but you are far away. Mostly, you can tell because its thin pages are not the woven reishi of Soul Society—instead, they’re human paper, futuristic and blank and ready to be filled anew. This gift is not about the past at all. It’s not to be let go.
Hinamori laughs behind her hand as she realizes this, before bringing the entire book to her face as her laughter exceeds her. Her fire dances with her voice, which is filled with joy but also pain and rage and terror. She will likely never quiet these, not entirely. She will have no choice but to bring them with her. But tonight, she is laughing.
This is the future you want to protect, you think—these blank pages before them. The pages they are already filling, have been filling.
This is the future.
This is the future.
This is the end.
You leave your heart with the living. That’s what Kaien always said. My apologies, you think, but you’ll be taking yours with you. You don’t wish to live on in anyone, though you suppose there are those who will insist regardless.
You just want them to live.
Maybe you’ve already lost this war. No one knows where the 10th is, or if Kuchiki will survive—either of them. No one knows if anyone will survive. But this is for a society worth saving, no matter its pain, its failures.
“Mimihagi,” you chant. This is the end; this is the future. This is for the thousands dead, rotting in the streets for days now. This is for the children of today, for all the generations you’ve felt slip through your fingers, for the millions to come.
“Mimihagi!” Louder, this time.
Maybe they need you; maybe they don’t. You can’t promise the world you wish. But this, you can: They will be protected. There are things about this world you cannot change. You choose to ordain the future.
You will always protect each other.