Wanna know a fun fact? I have a SPN fic which I BELIEVE is about fishing angel called "Gone Fishing." Then I turned right around and named a Cars fic "Gone Fishin'." I also have a SPN fic titled "Instructions" that is also written in numbered parts, also in the second-person imperative (though I think it might also be told in reverse chronological order--this one is not). And here we have a fic titled... Instruction, no s. I have a finite number of titles within me.
Word Count: ~4800
Characters: Hitsugaya (POV), Matsumoto, Renji, Ichigo, Orihime, Rukia, Hinamori
Tags: Ikkaku and Yumichika are in this too, mentions of 10th Captain Shiba Isshin, characters are listed in descending order re: their amount of screentime in this fic, POV Second Person, Gotei 13, Advance Team arc, Character Study, Hurt/Comfort, Culture Shock, Trust Exercises, Seireitei Hierarchy, Nakama, whatever the opposite of nakama is because these fools don't actually know each other yet, Soul Society is honestly not a great place, fantasy bureaucracy best bureaucracy, an uncomfortable undercurrent of dread fueled by trauma, and belied by a willingness to give altruism the benefit of the doubt
Summary: For what little they know about the Arrancar and Aizen's machinations, they know even less about each other. They know nothing of Karakura, and much of Soul Society needs to be unlearned.
Focus. This is easier said than done--your vision swims, and your thoughts drown. You'd only just been where Kuchiki is now, under the warm bright dome of Inoue's ministrations. The only reason you aren't still is because Kuchiki had been in dire need. (You will be fine.)
They would have executed her, you think hazily, because that's where drowning thoughts always go these days. Back to Aizen, back to Soul Society. ("They" inclusive of "you," you think, whatever your likely poor and certainly failed attempt to disrupt a bureaucratic cog. It's not as though you'd known Kuchiki well enough to know to save her.)
It's difficult not to know of every Kuchiki; the clan makes sure of that. And of course, you knew what had become of Shiba Kaien. But that had been the extent of Kuchiki Rukia to you.
You are still learning her. You are still learning all of them.
Watch the way Kurosaki watches her.
Abarai beholds her similarly. For those two, you'd assumed Kuchiki Byakuya was the common link. But that's not the case--the look on Abarai's face goes deeper than that. (Perhaps, then, in spite of Kuchiki Byakuya.)
Let them have their chit chat. Stand apart, in silence.
"Matsumoto," you say, because it's all you need to. She's already sent the request to reinstate the gentei reiin. None of you need to attract any more attention tonight.
Ascertain that Madarame and Ayasegawa are still alive. Note, with some annoyance, that they are not moving in your direction. But when is standard procedure ever standard procedure in the 11th?
Send Inoue home with Matsumoto. You'd seen the way she looked at Kurosaki looking at Kuchiki--the multiple axes of her exhaustion. She should rest.
Call after Kuchiki: "Before you go."
On missions of this nature, field reports are typically expedited, you feel obligated to explain. You've already had to explain Hollows today; what's one more remedial lesson?
"I'll need yours now," you say.
A chastised bow. "Ah, of course, Hitsugaya-taichou. My apologies."
Before she continues, you catch her gaze flit across the rooftop. The dark stain of your blood still seeping into concrete behind you, the open night sky--none of it is at all like reports given in the comfort of one's own Division, to superiors she knows. Because she's never been on a mission like this, has she. Unseated in the 13th, there would have been no reason nor opportunity. This is a new and alien formation.
It's alien to you, too: You've never led so many outside your own division, least of all in unfamiliar territory. It's fairly clear none of them have ever been led in this way, either. You are all unpracticed, and in more ways than you can name--ways that continue to accrue--you are not ready for what is coming. Kuchiki's report on the Sexta Espada only confirms that.
As does Abarai's. You'd have thought news of another bankai would be welcome--why did no one see fit to apprise you of anything prior to deployment?--but Abarai's terse assessment of his margin of victory matches that of your own.
You're not ready.
Reach out to steady yourself against the building.
The gentei reiin rematerializes on your chest midway through your interview with Abarai, and your world collapses inward so suddenly your vision spots. The air feels punched from your lungs. You wait for the nausea to pass.
"Wow…" Abarai wheezes. He kneels. It's not the same as having received the seal prior to deployment, well-rested.
Your nausea does not pass.
Say, "We need to hear from Kurosaki. Will you take his testimony?"
Abarai raises his browline. Soul Society is not in the habit of asking for the impressions of outsiders.
Kuchiki was unconscious, you say. You need to make sure no additional information is missing. It's an explanation, if not the only one, and Abarai seems to accept it.
But you know what you felt at Kurosaki's house--or rather, whom. You suspect there is more to Kurosaki than daikou-turned-ryoka by happenstance. And maybe this part is childish, but you don't actually want to return to that place yourself. It's more than you came prepared for.
"Are you all right, Hitsugaya-taichou?" Abarai asks.
Realize you're still bracing yourself against the wall, your attention slipping like water over rocks. Quickly, uncontrollably.
"Kurosaki will speak more readily with you," you explain, in order to not explain.
Abarai looks at you, then offers to take the report from Madarame and Ayasegawa, as well. He'd recruited them; he outranks them. Technically, that duty is his. He doesn't mind.
Shake your head. You know the 11th. If this Advance Team is going to function at all, the 11th needs to report to you.
It's your job to make that clear.
Return to Inoue's house. It is hours later, pushing dawn. The 11th has been brought into line. Your gigai has been retrieved from a city trash can.
Drag its limp form through cold and soapy water in Inoue's bathtub. Try to wash the smell from it. Try not to vomit. It's not the smell, you know, but the blood you'd left in the sky. Inoue had erased the cuts but hadn't yet gotten to the damage that succeeded them, the blood that had departed from them. Inoue starts from the beginning and works her way forward.
It's an interesting power.
Rest your head against the cool tile of Inoue's bathroom wall.
"They're easier to clean if you get inside them, or if you let the gikon do it itself."
That's Matsumoto. Matsumoto's voice.
The concern in her voice brings you back. You're huddled on the floor. Inoue's bathroom. Your gigai is facedown in the tub, looking shriveled. You're going to throw up.
You say, having found it hiding in a trash can, you don't trust your gikon to be intelligent enough to bathe itself. No one ever thinks you're funny, but Matsumoto chuckles anyway.
"You should eat something," she advises.
Of course, to do that here, you need to be in your gigai.
Fail to imagine having the energy to get inside it. Tell Matsumoto, "In the morning."
"I can wake Orihime," she offers.
Shake your head. Know you have asked more than enough of Inoue, this human girl. Know you will heal on your own. You just need time.
"School starts in four hours," she says.
"All the more reason not to wake her," you say.
Matsumoto's patience with you is astounding; she must be truly worried. And that's her right. You have been in the realm of the living for just under 24 hours, and it is all going extraordinarily, extraordinarily well.
But this is not your stubbornness, nor pride. You'll admit to your difficulty in finding your bearings here--making the shift from Soul Society to the living realm, knowing yourself under gentei reiin. Feeling attuned to the strange world around you. You need to find that. You need balance, not whiplash. Inoue's power feels like whiplash.
And then, of course, is the business of who they'd felt at Kurosaki's house this afternoon--an eternity ago. That was whiplash, too.
Share a glance with Matsumoto.
"It's been a long day," she acknowledges.
But no one died. The Arrancar have been repulsed, at least for now. Your field reviews are over. You've brought the 11th into line. Recovered your gigai. You are beginning to ascertain the dynamics of your team, and your team adjacent--Inoue, Kurosaki. You know, now intimately, the keen disadvantage Soul Society will face in this coming war. But no one died.
Hang your gigai up to dry.
Stay. Will yourself--stay.
You'd thought--you'd sutured your body with ice. You'd felt--he'd called himself Shawlong Qufong--you'd felt him die beneath you and then you'd thought the beginnings of a healing kidou because you'd known that otherwise--because you weren't sure if otherwise--
Sharp black, the groan of cracking ice at your back, the feeling of your body following suit, cracking apart, the feral edges of your bankai hissing inward and by the time you've recovered your vision you've lost your kidou if you'd ever had it, you can't imagine the words to try again, can't speak the incantation--you've lost control and the cuts open like they've been ripped afresh, hot ribbons all around you as you fall.
Aim for the rooftop.
Lose out. Feel yourself funnelling away; feel faintly, Matsumoto. Ice cracking, more of it, cool air against your face in place of hot blood as your orientation changes. You don't know why this is so fucking painful--not the blood, the evacuation this uncontrollable vortex, leaving you, tearing you away with it until you realize your mistake here:
You'd sustained severe injury prior to the gentei kaijo. When the seal was lifted, all that untapped energy had had clear direction--into your bankai. But then you'd lost control, and the energy had held to no such channels; and your body, already weakened, cannot contain it. That's the-- it's like a tide, rushing away from you-- you just-- There's no balance between the forms--your own reiryoku is slitting your throat and the bleeding out wouldn't be so bad if it weren't so wildly out of pace with--
Grab it. Right before it slithers out of reach, grab hold. Anchor yourself in the feeling of your body. Let the rest go. Let it all go.
Open your eyes to Matsumoto, your blood in her hair, up her arms.
Open your eyes to golden, unfamiliar light.
Open your eyes to unfamiliar sky.
Wake to pain. Your skin squirms under the mark of the gentei reiin, longing for the rest of yourself. You feel heavy, the atmosphere too sparse. Remember first the claws that slit you, and then the realm of the living. You are in the realm of the living. You are in Inoue's house.
You don't remember agreeing to be here, but you are grateful for the futon. You are in pain.
You're no longer injured. You're no longer devouring yourself, which would have been an incredibly stupid way to die. You were closer to it than you should have been, and it wasn't even entirely the Arrancar's doing, but a corollary. A lapse on your part, and an incredible one.
But what's done is done.
What remains is simply the issue of not enough blood in your body. You can feel its absence in your swimming head, in the dead weight of your arms. Generally, your reiryoku will compensate for your body's failings, and it still is--but with the gentei reiin, it's not enough. You lost a lot of blood. Your reiryoku had been too much, and now, dizzyingly, is not enough.
Remember almost nothing about last night. The battle, then blankness. Scattered recollections of others' reports, which hopefully you can string together this afternoon. You don't even remember returning to Inoue's.
Admit that it's unnerving. Breathe in; and breathe again. The air is thinner here, less rich with reishi. Not to an extent that should matter, and not in a way that cannot be adjusted for. But it's unnerving that you can't truly notice the gap until you reach for power that isn't there. Then there are scissors ripping through you. Blood-letting. The sickening aftermath. Everything crashing around you.
You should have come better prepared.
Fold your futon away. Fail to locate your gigai. Locate your gigai seated at Inoue's table, lolling empty head propped up by carefully positioned arms, taking breakfast with the two of them.
"Get dressed so you can eat!" Matsumoto sing-songs.
Redden. You're dressed. You're very dressed. Grab your gigai by the collar and drag it into the bathroom. Greet your face in Inoue's mirror, all pale cheeks and dark circles. As you sink into your gigai, these marks don't translate.
Breakfast is bread. Heavy, oblong bread with an armor-like crust. It's either French or Vietnamese, according to Inoue; she's not exactly sure. Neither of those words mean anything to you. "I wasn't sure what your taste was, but I like it with cream cheese!" she says. Another word that means nothing to you. But Inoue doesn't stop, keeps listing, until it becomes a "banh mi" "baguette" with "cream cheese" and furikake and cucumbers and ume paste and chili oil and jam and--
Breakfast is bread.
Fail to recognize the human in front of you. You're late for school, or so she tells you. That's not what you came here for; but however unfamiliar this woman seems, she certainly remembers you.
Sit for an exam, lose time. At lunch, escape to the rooftop.
Tell Abarai, "You're good at this." You're leafing through his report. You'd expected professionalism and adequacy, but what Abarai offers you is neat penmanship and art. The report includes all required details, in exactly the order and with exactly the emphasis the final version of such a report would require. You learn more about Abarai Renji, 6th Division Vice Captain, every day.
You flip back to the first page. The title reads Interrogation of Shinigami Daikou Kurosaki Ichigo.
"I didn't really interrogate him," Abarai admits. "We just shot the shit. You know."
You hadn't actually intended-- You can't remember what you'd asked of Abarai, or how specific you'd been.
But Abarai is talking again, perhaps had never stopped. "Kurotsuchi-taichou just likes you better when you write it like that! Not that he likes anyone." And Kuchiki expects it, perhaps goes without saying.
You need to collect yourself. "Not just the report," you say. "The team you've chosen."
You know the team had not been selected so much as it had haphazardly fallen together, but these are people Abarai trusts. You are beginning to parse the convictions that bind them, and to trust in that. You're of the mind that it means more than experience, 99% of the time.
"Not that any of them deigned to show up at school today," you point out, eyes narrowing vexedly. "So Kuchiki has some explaining to do, as regards the merits of this pretense."
Kuchiki's not at school, and neither is Kurosaki. Nor are Madarame and Ayasegawa, though this is at least partially at your behest. They would follow your orders; in return, you would allow them to patrol more broadly. Besides, they hadn't assimilated quietly into the charade at Karakura High, and you're not one for square pegs and round holes.
Abarai laughs nervously. "I wanted to ask you about that," he says. Abarai wishes to seek out Urahara, the exiled. Otherwise, he knows he won't be ready for what's coming.
"Go," you say, knowing he still won't be ready. Soul Society won't be. The report you send home will say as much. But you're trying to allow this Team to find its shape. To trust this.
It's not until after he's left you realize you will need to transcribe his handwritten report into the digital message on your denreishinki. You sigh. As typical of the efficiency of the Gotei 13, you suppose. You start typing.
Feel Matsumoto at your back, her hands over your eyes, her voice ringing in what had been silence. Your report is almost complete, and you're unwilling to entertain her games.
She doesn't need to be told that this is serious. Feel her gaze as she appraises you carefully.
"Oh, you're feeling better!" she says, and offers you an onigiri wrapped in plastic. "That's great, because Ikkaku told me about these things--he doesn't trust them--so naturally, I wanted to be able to try one, too."
You send off your report from the roof of a high school in Karakura Town, thin cool air chilling your skin and, with every crosswind, throwing Matsumoto's hair in your face. She eats with you.
War is coming. Not over the walls of the Seireitei, nor even within them. But out here. And you think, no good can come of that.
Acknowledge your limitations. Grasping this place takes more imagination than you have. You haven't passed into the realm of the living in over fifteen years, and the shop displays, the buildings, the people, even the food--it's all familiar but not quite, like Soul Society but not quite, and you don't know which distinctions are meaningful, which are window dressing. The window before you is advertising some form of technology. It looks sleeker, less swamp-born than most of what Kurotsuchi cooks up, though its function is unclear to you.
"Have you found what you're looking for?" says a woman holding a tray filled with colorful trinkets.
Ignore her. But you have a body, you are pretending to be human--she is speaking to you. Remember this too late, just by a split second--the split second where suddenly, the only polite response is, "Yes, definitely."
Feign reverence, badly.
(Prior to deployment, Kuchiki had spent a not insignificant amount of diagram-assisted time schooling the Advance Team in the importance of developing your living-realm persona. No one had listened. Think, perhaps you should have.)
The woman doesn't ask for your money, though, which you'd all but resigned yourself to giving. She gives you a sad smile. "My son has his eyes on that one, too."
Of course. You're a child to her, and children don't have that kind of money. Not the ones who stare through windows, in any case.
There's more to her sadness, but it's not your story to know. You duck your head, a boyish bow, and leave the thread raw. Think: It's all sadder now than it was before, this world. Of this you're certain. You have no reason to remember the past rosily.
Back then, the humans in the streets had seemed happier, more self-assured. They'd come across as grandiose, invincible--at least, in their own self-perception. They'd spoken boldly of the stock market, of real estate, of the cars they would own and the fortunes they would amass, of the world they would enclose in the palms of their hands. You remember because you had felt alone enough to bother listening.
Back then, you hadn't felt self-assured at all. You'd felt loss. You hadn't found what you were looking for, and you hadn't expected to. You'd simply carried out the order.
You'd thought for a long time that Shiba Isshin was the one thing Matsumoto would never talk about again. (Then, of course, came Ichimaru.)
Listen: The humans now are cowed, but still talking about the economy. This time they call it a tsunami. A ten-year tsunami--that's what they're still riding out. They say there's nothing to be done, because the earthquake that started it had come and gone long ago, when they'd all been too bold and too comfortable to feel it. This, they say, is only the tsunami. All attempts to reverse the tide should have been executed long ago. Now it's too late.
Speak: "Kurosaki Ichigo," as he runs headlong into you, imposing serendipity on an otherwise unassuming street corner. He's in a hurry, thinking more about where he's going than where he is. He's clearly startled to see you.
"T--" he starts. It's your given name in Kurosaki's mouth. Expect that. Then hear him turn it into taichou.
Hear your title and know that everything that follows will almost certainly be a lie.
Let yourself be lied to.
Kurosaki grumbles something about never having seen any shinigami his entire life, and now suddenly they're all over town. "Anyway, I gotta go take a makeup exam," he says. "I skipped class today to study for it. Last night was busy."
Is he trying to guilt you? In any case, you don't know much about the living realm, but you know that that school has a dress code, and Kurosaki doesn't meet it. You're not sure what to make of the fact that he's willing to use his normal life as alibi, already treating it like a fantasy. You hope he doesn't make a habit of it; that kind of thing is hard to undo.
Still, this world is his. It's not your business where he goes, or what he does. He's unbound by your rules, or should be. And maybe you trust people who lie badly.
"Good luck with your exam," you say. "Civics, I presume. I didn't understand any of it."
Kurosaki furrows his brow at you. Too many questions to bother asking. "Cool," he says instead. "Well, I guess I'll go then."
Watch him go. He's not rushing anymore. He turns the corner, not in the direction of school, his gait schooled to casual. Bad liars look you in the eye and let you watch them act against their nature. They let you see them fail, because it's less a deception than an entreaty: Will you follow me?
Maybe that's too romantic. That's what Hinamori says you are, all because you enjoy the sky. ("I also like metered mail," you'd pointed out. "Super romantic." Hinamori only laughed. "You can't change what I see in your heart," she'd insisted, and you'd replied, "That's what a romantic would say."
She'd said, "I didn't say you were alone.")
What is the mission of the Gotei 13 if not a bad lie? After all, Kurosaki's not wrong about all the shinigami suddenly under foot. Before this Advance Team, you're not certain a deployment with this much firepower had ever been sent to the realm of the living. One captain, two vice captains, and two ranking officers--and from the 11th, no less. And whatever Ukitake's machinations, it's clear Kuchiki is no foot soldier.
For a Society that proudly claims its charter to lay souls to rest, to offer konsou, you don't spend much time doing it. You treat the realm of the living like a field trip; an initiation. And after those, unless you are part of the onmitsukidou, you're only sent here if you've proven otherwise incapable. It's a minor assignment. If Soul Society really cared to play shepherd, it wouldn't be so.
Even your presence here now is technically voluntary. As a captain, you've never once been assigned to the living realm. (And you'll never know what Shiba Isshin had come looking for.) It's backwards, given what you know of Hollows. It's not as though you don't know how they come to be: There could be fewer of them, if it were human souls you really cared about.
"You," meaning Soul Society. You don't know what you care about. You've never asked. The point is, the lie hasn't had to be good. Soul Society has thus far been powerful enough to get away with it.
Know this: Your stewardship was unsustainable even before you'd lost three captains. Most of Rukongai is unpatrolled, left to wolves or worse. Given the number of Hollows lapping at your borders, you imagine your konsou work in the realm of the living leaves even more to be desired. There aren't enough of you, and you are spread too thin. You've let the balance tip against you.
Know this, too: You can't be the first to have realized this. You've all watched it happen.
You've been watching for a long time.
School your face to zero when Kuchiki informs you Kurosaki has gone missing. Tell her, "Kurosaki is not our primary mission here." Think, So it runs in the family.
Begrudge him nothing. Trust that wherever Kurosaki's gone, he must have felt it necessary. He looked you in the eyes and saw no reason to explain--or, more likely, saw a compelling reason not to.
It must have all been necessary.
(You've been telling yourself a version of this since the moment Matsumoto suggested you all crawl through Kurosaki's attic, and you'd refused. You knew she'd felt him, too.)
You're not brazen enough to guess how these pieces fall just yet, particularly out of respect for your recent track record. You can be patient.
You still know how to trust.
Admit you don't think this can wait. What's approaching is the tsunami, not the earthquake. The earthquake shuddered awake before you were ever born and if you've felt its aftershocks they masqueraded as the natural order. It's the tsunami that's coming now, and it cannot be stopped. It's the moment at which it all devours itself. This is the ocean sucking out.
It's been days since you sent your report and you've heard nothing. That's never a good sign.
Matsumoto pouted at you the other day, You know, Taichou. Here, it's possible to wear something other than white or black. I'll get you a cool outfit! You don't care what your gigai wears, as long as Matsumoto didn't choose it.
The woman in front of the technology store waves as you pass by.
You are already conspicuous enough.
Shake the feeling that you've already lost. It's not a feeling so much as it is an assessment, but that doesn't mean that it's immutable. Resolve to change the outcome. Receive a message: The Captain Commander wants to talk.
Again, not a good sign. Whatever needs to be said can't be put in print. It also means the Captain Commander is not willing to summon you back. It would be easier, certainly, than setting up an emergency channel.
Something could happen while you're away.
"You look like you've seen a ghost," Matsumoto comments when she opens Inoue's door. A wave of heat--multiple hot plates and the oven going, circuit breakers straining--engulfs you.
Reply tartly: "If you're bored, I'm sure there are plenty to go find." But for all appearances of playing house, Matsumoto's done well in keeping Inoue occupied. You don't want her too curious.
Kurosaki is still missing.
Inoue and her vice-chef Matsumoto have prepared a feast of oddities. You assume some of them are edible. It's a mountainscape of breads and sugars, the things called cake; and buns; and omelettes. Mackerel mayonnaise and chocolate milk chicken. "You should become a--what did you call it? A patissiere? Orihime-chan, you really must--" Matsumoto insists, all vowels, as steam billows out from a pot on one of the hot plates.
"Matsumoto," you say, and she emerges from the steam mantou-first.
You bend away.
"I need you to place an order with Urahara. Tell him it's urgent. Yamamoto-soutaichou wants to call."
Matsumoto looks back at Inoue, flour-covered, only for a moment. She adjusts her shirt and starts looking for her coat. She doesn't complain, or try to bargain, which means she's as on edge as you are.
When Matsumoto has gone, it's only you and Inoue and a table full of confections. Inoue takes a seat, hands in her lap, surveying the spread. She doesn't look up.
Tell her, "I wanted to express my thanks." For commandeering her home, though there are probably additional options. For the spread, you suppose.
Inoue shakes her head. "It's nice, having you and Rangiku-san here. Being less alone."
Marinate in steam and silence.
"I'm scared," Inoue tells you, finally. Her hands form fists.
"I'm scared I'm not enough."
Feel your own thoughts turned against you.
"It--it must all have been necessary," Hinamori whispers, through her fingers, through her grief. She says it the same way you did.
"I need to trust-- I trust that that Aizen-taichou-- He would never--"
Sasakibe catches her as she falls back, the Captain Commander having closed her eyes and mind. Put her to rest. Hate him for a moment, hate them both, hate them almost as much as you hate to see her in so much pain--as much as you hate Aizen for what he's done to her. You hate watching her awareness taken away like that. You hate that it's what you would have done, too, if you knew how.
Bow toward the screen. "Thank you."
The line blinks to static and Soul Society goes dark again. You're alone.
You don't know what you need to unlearn. To start: This roiling pit in you, the fury. It's probably going to get you killed, but you can't unlearn a feeling. You can unlearn betrayal, refuse to abandon trust simply because one defector had abused it. Trust Abarai. Trust Kurosaki. Trust Abarai, who--if the rumors are true--turned blade against his captain. Trust Kurosaki, whom no one really knows at all--a human child. All because of a feeling he gives you.
You're only doing what Hinamori is, and calling it the opposite.
For a moment, the only thing you care about is Hinamori's eyes. How alien they'd felt. The rest of the tsunami doesn't matter, with all its histories and allegiances and promises and cross-purpose. It's only the shattering of her.
Seek the sky.
The stars are dimmer; the city is brighter. Maybe there's no romance to a light-polluted sky. But the city is full. The city's alive. No one is alone down there.
The tide is going out.