A/N: So, it's been...ages. I AM SO SORRY. What follows is a draft I wrote some time ago, but I've left it so long that I can't remember the details of what I intended to convey. (AND it doesn't fit with canon anymore.)

I am therefore just going to publish it as is. Please forgive me if it lacks the polish of a proofread piece, but I figured this is better than leaving it unfinished.

A sincere thank you to everyone who has reviewed and supported this story, and especially to Jedi Boadicea for the encouragement and helpful comments.

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Chapter 7: Finale

She has never told anyone, not even her beloved Aizen-taichou, that she wasn't so much afraid of thunderstorms as she was of solitude. While violent crashes and flashes of light gave her concrete reason to seek the comfort of her captain's quarters, she suffered much more on the many nights where the weather was pleasant, the night was peaceful and it took all her strength to stay put as she lay alone, flat on her back and staring up at the darkened ceiling.

It is a familiar feeling that settles upon her as she sits in the darkness and waits for her captain to come to her aid, aid which he has provided for as long as she can remember.

She sits and waits for a voice that doesn't come, waits so long and so intently that an echo in the emptiness of her thoughts provides a beacon for her to follow. She instinctively clings onto the auditory signal and follows without heed as to her ultimate destination, for all paths lead to her captain. She faithfully clambers over and stumbles past the unseen obstacles in her mind, but grows anxious when she hears neither words of greeting nor encouragement. Her fear of solitude overwhelms her concern over the uncertain identity of the person who calls to her, and so she continues to grope her way along the walls of her mind, her eyes on her captain and her heart in confusion.

Millions of colors swirl around her and overwhelm her mind's eye as she rises out of the darkness. She immediately freezes, but strings of crimson wind around her body. The closer she hovers to the surface, the more comfortable she feels. She has been alone for so long that she cannot refuse this comfort, and she decides that it is acceptable to stay there, if only for the moment.

She looks for her captain and sees him staring benignly at her from somewhere off in the distance. His continuing presence allows her to bask in the gentle warmth that now surrounds her. Then, all at once, a torrent of emotions bombards her consciousness and the sensory stimulation is too much, the intensity both frightening and intoxicating. She thinks she senses Hitsugaya but the noise is overwhelming, and she finds it impossible to latch onto any one signal or concentrate on any one thing.

So she sits there and waits, waits for someone, anyone to come pull her out of her lonely misery, but the longer she waits, the quieter the noise gets, until she is once again surrounded by nothingness and left only with her love, as strong as ever, for the fading image of her captain.

"Aizen-taichou," she says imploringly as she reaches out to her captain, and it is the first time in the history of their acquaintance that he does not answer.

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She has always felt alone without her captain, even when surrounded by others.

Her first birthday after her promotion to vice-captain, Aizen was called away to an emergency mission and could not attend the celebration being thrown in her honor.

"I'm so sorry, Hinamori-kun," he said, his eyes full of regret as he took his leave. "I'll make it up to you, I promise. Please be sure to enjoy your special day."

She nodded, trying her best to surpress her disappointment and resolutely ignoring the steadily growing lump in her throat. "Don't worry about me, Aizen-taichou," she said, smiling. "Have a safe and successful mission, and I'll see you when you get back!"

He returned her smile with one of his own, and patted her gently on the head. "Thank you for understanding, Hinamori-kun," he said. "Happy birthday, once again."

She waved to him as he sped off in the direction of the dimensional portal, and when he was out of sight she returned to her office, hugging her arms closely to her body in a futile attempt to stave off the emptiness that was already settling upon her heart.

She remembers that it was Matsumoto who found her, sitting alone in the 5th division training grounds, staring listlessly at a blank wall as she fidgeted with the hilt of her zanpakutou. In the reflection of her sheath she could make out the tall blonde standing to one side, watching her with an expression of evident concern that morphed rapidly into her habitual cheerfulness.

"Hi, Hinamori!" exclaimed Matsumoto, plopping herself down next to her friend and throwing an arm around her slim shoulders. "Happy birthday! Let's go drink!"

She smiled slightly. "I don't know about that," she hedged. "I don't think I'm really up for a party anymore."

Matsumoto frowned dramatically, placing a graceful finger on her chin and turning her face up in a mocking pose of serious thought. "Hmmm," she murmured. "Is that so."

She turned her head to look at her friend, curiousity getting better of her melancholy. She had since learned caution whenever the blonde got one of her great ideas, but though they inevitably lead to disaster, the journey towards that end was always a riot.

"Forget the official party, then," said Matsumoto, her eyes lighting up as she jumped up and pulled her surprised companion with her. "Go for an hour, like a good vice-captain, and watch the rest of your division get drunk - then meet me outside your room, okay?" She winked. "It'll be good," she stated in a tone that inspired some anxiety in her companion, and took off before a reply could be ventured.

She remembers that her birthday was when a lot of questions were raised and answered.

She remembers how Kira brought her an almost comically large birthday cake, decorated in all sorts of pretty colors and with her favorite fruits spilling over the sides.

Even she had to admit that she was having fun, even though she still missed Aizen terribly. The three male vice-captains eventually decided that there was not enough alcohol consumed and headed down to the cellar to replenish their stores, though Kira had so difficulty getting down the stairs that he was forced to lean heavily on Shuuhei the entire way down.

"Hinamori doesn't love me," she heard him slur from her vantage point at the top of the stairs. She blinked, and was exceptionally glad that Hitsugaya had already left the room in search of his very inebriated vice-captain, who had disappeared a few minutes ago ostensibly in search of paper plates.

She was innocent, not stupid, and when she looked back on her interaction with Kira the revelation was not entirely surprising. She stayed where she was, knowing that eavesdropping on their conversation was wrong, but unable to allow her curiousity to go on unabated.

"She loves someone else," Kira continued, followed by a series of loud bangs and a muffled, "Ow."

"Goddamit!" Shuuhei swore exasperatedly. "Not this again! Either say something to her, or shut the hell up about it!"

She wrung her hands in front of her and bit down on her lower lip as she nervously awaited Kira's response.

"It's no use," lamented Kira dramatically. "How could I possibly compete with a captain?"

She slapped a trembling hand over her mouth to stifle a gasp of surprise, and leaned against a nearby wall for support.

"What captain? Aizen-taichou?" asked Shuuhei incredulously. After a brief pause she heard a derisive snort, followed by, "That's impossible. No way Hinamori has the hots for him."

"Want to bet?" challenged Kira hotly. "You know what I think? I think we should go up there and ask her whether she likes Aizen."

"You know what I think," interjected Renji quickly. "I think we should ask Shuuhei whether he likes men."

Shuuhei choked audibly. "What?!" he exclaimed, when he recovered from his coughing fit. "What the hell is your problem, jackass?"

She could hear the grin on Renji's face as he replied, "I heard a most...interesting...story from Ayasegawa."

"That fruitcake is a liar!" exclaimed Shuuhei, as Kira broke down into hysterical laughter.

She remembers hearing the ensuing scuffle, remembers how Renji winked at her conspiratorially when the three young men stumbled out of the basement a few minutes later, slightly bruised but their attention successfully diverted.

Hitsugaya emerged through the doorway a minute later, a look of distinct displeasure on his youthful features as he stumbled forward, Matsumoto clinging onto his sleeve with ardent fervour as she cheerfully recited a poem of questionable origin.

She remembers how Hitsugaya hid the present that Aizen-taichou had gotten for her until later, so that she would not be saddened by the reminder of her captain's absense.

When the festivities were over and she sat alone in her room, fiddling with the ribbons on her birthday gifts and staring off into the night sky, the emptiness had returned with an added dimension of guilt. She remembers nodding enthusiastically in response when he asked if she had fun while he was away, realizing how much that could hurt him only when he flinched ever so slightly and opened his mouth to respond. She remembers her panic, hastily making it known that she would have much preferred a quiet evening with her captain than partying with her old friends.

It is the first time she remembers that there were times, indeed, where she did not have the option or the need for Aizen's presence. It is the first time she recognizes a difference between wanting Aizen and needing Aizen.

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She realizes that she cannot stay here indefinitely, and wonders if the fact that Aizen is getting further away is an indication of her deteriorating physical state.

She wonders why no one has come to get her yet, why no one cares about her enough to come rescue her, why they have forgotten her, given up hope, written her off as lost forever.

She is disappointed in her friends, and she decides that she will wake because it is the only way she can think of to return to her captain's side. As she floats to the surface away from the comfortable darkness, she feels a sharp pain in her side and has vague recollections of a sword, eerily familiar, simultaneously piercing through her frail body and fragile heart.

When she wakes, there is no one there. There is nothing dramatic about the first time she opens her eyes after her extended sleep, no one to see her sit up and weakly rub her eyes, no one to pick up the blanket that falls to the floor as she experimentally swings her feet over the side of the bed.

She sits in the sterile room and feels empty, alone but very much alive. It is the first time she experiences self-reliance, although bitterness threatens to amplify the ache in her heart.

She extends her hand and Tobiume flies dutifully into her grasp. At least her zanpakutou has not deserted her. She smiles through her tears and idly fingers a smooth silk ribbon on Tobiume's hilt.

"Ano...", she says hoarsely, her vocal cords hurting from lack of exercise.

A fourth division officer comes running down the hall to peer into the room. "Hinamori-fukutaichou!" he exclaims. "You're...you're awake!" He turns around in a rush to inform his superior, but she stops him with an imploring look and a frail, outstretched hand.

"Please," she says. "How long have I been asleep?"

He pauses, unsure how much he is allowed to divulge. "Uh," he hedges. "A few weeks. You should probably speak to Unohana-taichou for an exact time."

She nods gratefully. "Thank you," she whispers, lying back on her cushions and turning her head to the side. She looks around the room, her eyes widening with a fathomless sadness as she inspects the room that she has imagined but never actually seen.

She takes in her surroundings for the first time since she woke. Her eyes turn to inspect the room, and she is surprised to see the hospital floor littered with confetti. The room is in a relative state of disarray, paper cups bearing familiar names littering the tables of the ordinarily impeccable fourth division. A cheerfully decorated banner bearing confusing messages hangs overhead, a carefully wrapped gift sits neglected in the corner, and she wonders what happened while she was asleep.

Her eyes fall upon a small cake sitting on the side of her bed, untouched and carefully inscribed with gentle artistry.

"Happy Birthday, Hinamori," reads a plaque carved out of ice that will not melt, and the chaos that earlier flooded her senses suddenly falls into place.

Her hand grips the silk ribbon in her hand, and no sound escapes her lips as a single tear slowly trickles down the side of her face.

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She has been given time off duty, 'To recover from mental and physical strain,' it reads on her record, but they all know that it is a cover, a time for them to evaluate her fitness to continue as the 5th division vice-captain, for them to gauge whether or not she will move past her loyalty to Aizen and return to the capable Shinigami that she once was.

Hitsugaya has lead her friends on a mission in the real world, and she implores Yamamoto-sou-taichou to allow her to speak to him and voice her apologies for all the pain that she has caused him. The white-haired boy tiredly shrugs it off as if it were of no import, but his eyes shine a bright turquoise that not even the terrible reception of the communication screen can mask, and she knows that there is, at least, one person in the world that still cares about her.

No matter what they tell her, she cannot believe that her Aizen-taichou is the terrible person that they say he is, because they have never seen the sides of him that she has, they have never been held in his arms, never seen the look in his eyes, the true warmth of his unrestrained smile. There are so many levels of their relationship that no one but Aizen and her have shared, and no matter how much she forces herself to write off certain questionable events, there are so many inconsistencies that she cannot reconcile the Aizen only she has seen with the completely heartless manipulator that they would have her believe him to be.

She goes to speak to Kuchiki Rukia one day, and after an afternoon of pleading the other girl relents and tells her what Renji refused to recount, tells her Aizen's exact words, his rationale for having struck a would-be fatal blow to the only one loyal to him still.

She holds Aizen's word in one hand, the testimonies of her friends in the other and stays awake nights, trying to no avail to interpolate a story that would be consistent with both. Finally she collapses from exhaustion in the privacy of her living quarters, and wakes half a day later with no one by her side and nothing but a dilapidated alarm clock with her in the room.

Aizen is gone, her friends do not understand, and it is the first time she realizes that she needs to stop relying on others and stand fast on her own judgment.

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No matter how she paints the picture, her captain has left her. When she closes her eyes and blows out the proferred birthday candles with Matsumoto's help, it is with heartbreaking certainty that she knows Aizen will not be there when she reopens them. She wants to scream and cry and tear down the walls that hold her in, but the cheering and the hugs and effusive happiness that surrounds her is intoxicating, and she cannot ignore the reality that is around her now.

Her eyes turn to the flurry of activity taking place in front of her, her vision blurred by the rush of memories, feelings and realizations that overcome her all at once. Kira shuffles around the room like a man on a mission, handing out plates and party and favors and beaming like he never met Ichimaru-taichou at all. Hisagi has Renji pinned on the ground and is gloating as they continue to wrestle for rights to the last piece of cake, ignoring Hitsugaya's pointed comments about lovers and quarrels.

The sheer level of love and support that emanates from them as a collective are enough to show her that there is something worth living for after all, and she wipes away her tears and steels her will towards the future that she knows to be difficult, but correct.

She is ready now, but there is still something that must be done.

"Thank you, Aizen-taichou," she whispers when no one is listening, her entire being focused inwards towards the image of her captain that she continues to hold in her heart.

She does not see Hitsugaya watching her from across the room.

"Truly, thank you," she whispers again, shuddering from the emptiness he has left with his absence.

The line between the man she loved and the true Aizen Sousuke are still not entirely clear to her, but out of the corner of her eye she sees Hitsugaya walking towards her with an uncharacteristically open smile on his face, cradling two slices of birthday cake and a glass of orange juice carefully in his hands, and it is the first time since Aizen left that she knows anything to be absolutely true.

"Goodbye," she whispers, her final words to her captain, and with a resolute movement she swings her feet over the side of her bed and manages to return Hitsugaya's smile.