Population: One

Rangiku liked to go to a specific saloon, when drinking alone got to be too pathetic even for her and her melancholy. It was in the 47th district of South Rukongai, not too sleazy but not too proper, either. A place a girl could get good and pissed without having to worry about being hit on or thrown out.

The bartender asked her once a night what a pretty girl like her was doing, drinking herself halfway to a stupor. She never answered, just grinned blearily and held out her glass for a refill. Even if it weren't classified, Rangiku doubted there was a way to put into words the sorrow-shock-horror she felt at Gin's betrayal. There was a raw and primal baseness to it all that defied any attempts she might have made at description.

If she closed her eyes, she still saw the way he went suddenly, instantly still when she'd grabbed his wrist. Narrow wrist, bony and deceptively frail-feeling, he'd quivered once as his body registered the remembered imprint of her touch upon it. How many times, when they were children, had they made contact with each other? No way to count—the number would be endless.

There had been a time when Rangiku was as familiar with Gin's body as with her own. The year before he'd left Rukongai to attend the shinigami academy, the year her mind had caught up with the burgeoning, almost-adult promise of her body. Gin had surprised her with a kiss, one day, and a longing she hadn't realized she'd always harbored for him had broken free.

They'd made love with a fervency, a potent concentration that had threatened to shake them apart, and afterward they'd laughed, embarrassed. It didn't stop them from doing it again, and again, until every secret had been routed out, until Rangiku felt that every blood vessel and every nerve ending had been revealed to each other.

It hadn't kept him from leaving, however, and his going had hurt her like the loss of a limb. And like any other amputee, sometimes she still felt him, even though he wasn't there.

By the time she, too, was in the academy, he'd graduated. And when she'd entered the ranks of shinigami, he was working his way up the chairs in division five, far too lofty and busy to spend time with her, though sometimes he would look at her—actually open his eyes and look at her—with real regret.

Then she was vice-captain of division ten, and he captain of division three, and though now there was more time and opportunity, Rangiku felt herself uneasy in his presence. He wasn't who he had been; something had changed in him, had sharpened and hardened, had doubled and redoubled the blade within until he was little else but the blade.

Gone was the compassion that had made him save her, gone the generosity that spurred him to share his precious food to keep her alive. His mischievous sense of humor had given way to one of malice, and the edge of cruelty she'd always known lived inside him had been honed until it glittered, blue and bright, for all to see.

Confused, unnerved, Rangiku had fled from him, instead of confronting him. She wondered now if it would have made any difference. She wondered if she could trust her perception of events, those fateful moments before Gin had ascended into the sky to join the Hollows, their enemy. He had gone so still, except for the trembling, and his skin had warmed against her fingers.

Was there anything she could have done to prevent his defection with Aizen-taichou? Rangiku felt buffeted by remorse, by a sense of fury at her own impotence. If she'd gone to him, had ignored her discomfort with the changes in him, had been stronger and more insistent—

But no. A man is responsible for his own destiny, and Gin had always possessed a part of him that craved troublemaking. It was her own shortcoming that she'd underestimated the lengths to which he'd go in indulging it. His trickster agenda had meshed with the grandiose notions of Aizen-taichou, and that was that.

His parting words were what haunted her most of all. His grin—for once in a long time, not a smirk—had been genuine, and sad, as he'd told her that he wouldn't have minded being her prisoner just a little longer. Memories had crowded her, pressing in like a persistent throng, ever since.

Memories of him beneath her as they fucked, her hair falling around them so they were wrapped in a soft, private cocoon, her hands on his wrists pinning him down—and his letting her. It had pleased him to allow her the assumption of control and they both knew it was only by his forbearance, nothing more.

It had been no different, on the cliff. He could have broken free, could have fought her, could have killed her. Gin was more powerful than she, and always had been, but he'd once again placed himself in her hands, to do with as she would.

Rangiku sipped her drink, reveling in the sting of it on her tongue, and understood at last that, to the end, their dynamic had been intact. If he'd wanted her to stop him, he'd have come to her, would have placed himself in her hands and done what she wished. But he'd kept to secrecy and plots, to treachery and deception.

The last hurrah of his submission to her had been out of a sense of nostalgia, of that Rangiku was convinced, because she couldn't bear to think he might love her still (if indeed he ever had).

No, she thought with something akin to panic, he didn't love me. He didn't, he didn't didn'tdidn't…

"Rangiku." Her captain's voice cut through the alcoholic haze fueling her distress, and she turned to see him staring down at her, face exasperated.

The burn of the booze in her stomach was matched by the ache in her chest. She tossed back the last watery dregs of her drink and felt her mood shift yet again.

"Heeeeeeey, taichou!" she greeted him, waggling her empty glass in his direction. "What're you doing here? How'd you find me?" Then she peered more closely at him. "Aren't you a little young to be in a place like this?'

Thunking her glass on the scarred surface of the bar, Rangiku lurched to her feet and tried to steer her captain toward the door. "C'mon, lil fella," she urged. "Let's get you home and into bed! 'S'late! Beddy-bye time!"

Hitsugaya pried her hand off his shoulder. "You know very well that I'm over thirty years old," he snapped. "And you also know I found you by following the feel of your spiritual pressure." He slung an arm around her waist and began to remove her from the establishment. "Are you always this stupid when you drink, or is tonight a special occasion?"

"Tonight's special!" she declared, head lolling back on her neck as she stared at the sky above. It was an overcast night, the clouds looking dingy and worn, and Hitsugaya was unable to share in his vice-captain's fascination for them.

"That's where he went, yaknow," she confided in his ear, sending a gust of booze-scented breath toward him.

Hitsugaya scrunched his nose and averted his face, sighing as his suspicions were confirmed. "You're still torn up over him. Hinamori's still worked up about Aizen. Am I alone in failing to understand their attraction?" He sounded very irritated, and Rangiku swung her head around to look at him.

"But taichouuuuu," she protested, "you don't know what it's like, to be in, in thrall to a car-seat-matic……. charsimatic…"

"Charismatic!" he gritted out.

"Thassit!" she agreed amiably. "A… that… sort of person. They just kind of hook you in!" Here, she illustrated her point by curling her fingers into claws. "And you can't escape. They have you forever."

He sent her an inscrutable look, but she was looking at the dirty sky again and missed it. "Yeah," he said at last. "I have no idea what it's like."

"Don't worry," Rangiku told him in what she was sure was a very encouraging way, and backed it up by mussing his hair. "One day, you'll grow up and find some nice girl and you'll give her kisses and see inside her skin, and go away for days and days, until you come back, and she'll love you so much, even when she shouldn't…"

She stopped then, stopped dead, right in the middle of the street, wiggling free of his grasp and staring blankly at the sky once more. "Oh, Gin," she said, and Hitsugaya didn't think he'd ever heard so much sorrow in just two words, ever.

Then she passed out. He caught her before she hit the ground, slinging her over his shoulder. It was better, this way; now he could flash-step back to the Seireitei much faster. In short order, he was dumping her onto her futon in her quarters in the 10th division headquarters.

The room smelled stale, with an underlying tang of spilled liquor and grief, and he threw open the window shutters before departing. In the feeble light that had struggled past the clouds, Hitsugaya watched Rangiku for a moment, face impassive.

Then he left.

He understood far more than she thought.