Twenty Ways to Die
Disclaimer/Notes: Bleach is owned by Kubo Tite. This fanfic takes canon and bends it quite a bit, since I'm sure more than a few of the Shinigami are nobles. Call it artistic license in pursuit of an interesting story. I feel like I should give sophiap part of the writer's credit, since she walked through this step by step with me.
Renji died young.
His father was a foot soldier in the shogun's army. The man was fond of drinking, and Renji learned to keep his head down when he came back from a campaign. Renji's older brother, all of four years his senior, walked with a limp because he hadn't been smart enough to.
His mother, a woman frail from carrying ten children – only three of which survived to be born – did her best to keep her husband happy, but some nights his father was in a foul temper, and she would retreat, leaving her children to fend for themselves. She would wait until after her husband was finished, and then help bandage whatever wound had been inflicted.
He remembered the night he died was in spring, with the scent of sakura on the air. His father had been home for two days from the most recent war, and Renji had been counting the days until he left.
He never figured out what set his old man off. What he did remember was the man's eyes, bloodshot and watery, as he advanced on Renji. He remembered crying out as his father's fist crashed into his face - then his chest, then up around his ears. He didn't remember actually dying – the next thing that was clear in his mind was staring up through the rickety buildings of Rukongai.
Renji was beaten to death by his father. It's only natural he has serious issues with authority. The strange thing was, it was his mother he never forgave.
Hanatarou was old, although he doesn't appear it.
Hanatarou died over a millennium ago during the Heian era, but he never mentioned his age or tried to take advantage of his supposed seniority, since he felt he hadn't done anything to earn it. Hanatarou barely remembered who he had been in his mortal life; it seemed that he had been patching the wounds upon shinigami for eternity.
He has risen through the ranks of the 4th mainly through longevity. When the person above him died, the promotion came as an afterthought as he filled in the vacated slot. He was good at his work, one of the best, or else he wouldn't have survived this long.
Even in the 4th, there was a high casualty rate. The people responding to emergencies were often put in the line of danger and earn no glory when they die.
And that's only those that die outright.
It was not something they speak about, but the 4th has the highest suicide rate among the Gotei 13. There came a point when the mind can't take what it's seen, and needed an out. Hanatarou never reached that breaking point, but that may be because he held himself apart from his division members.
Hanatarou stopped trying to make friends after he had to cut the rope his fifth best friend had been found hanging from. He couldn't save everyone, so Hanatarou healed, because the only alternative was worse.
Kiyone and Isane both died alone.
They were born in the mortal world to a family of traders, and lived a good, although modest, life. Back then many children didn't make it to majority, and Isane fell ill when she was ten. She lingered on her sickbed for nearly a week, but the malady got the better of her, though she did have time to promise she and Kiyone would find each other again.
It was a promise Kiyone clung to. For the next three years, she lived stubbornly, knowing her big sister wouldn't want her to give up. Then an illness took her as well, and she found herself alone in a strange new world.
When Isane arrived in the Soul Society, she was advised to forget her mortal family – but she was stubborn and didn't forget about them, least of all her sister. She spent years waiting, and then decades searching, but she never turned up a trace of her younger sister.
Frustrated, she decided to join the Gotei 13. As a shinigami, she will have more power to continue her quest. She gave her word, and she planned to keep it, even if she had to cross worlds to do it.
It proved to be a moot point.
On the first day at the academy, the two meet, both members of the same class. They didn't say anything, instead just reaching out to the other, wrapping themselves in a tight hug and another silent promise: they will never be separated again.
They know there is hope in the Soul Society, because they've lived a miracle.
Gin never told anyone how he died.
He liked to make up stories, telling Rangiku that he ended up dying in the Battle of Yamazaki, adding that he still felt the phantom of the wound when it rained; another time, he told Kira he was poisoned, which was why he refused to take the first bite at a meal.
The stories piled on top of each other, some outrageous, others plausible. The few shinigami who did exchange tales – and there were very few, since it was considered the height of rudeness to discuss someone else's death – accepted that it was just another quirk of the 3rd's captain. He was not known for his honesty.
Gin kept the truth a secret for himself, hidden behind his all-purpose smile. After a while, he started to wonder if his memory of death is real, or just another story he had created.
Rangiku starved to death in her mortal life; it was why the Soul Society came as such a bitter surprise to her.
She hadn't been old enough to understand what death was, or to philosophize about what happened after life finished. But the shinigami that had performed her soul burial had promised her she was going to a better place. She had believed him for all of a week. Then the familiar ache of hunger pulled at her.
If not for Gin, she would have given up all hope. Gin was the first person who ever really helped her. She never understood why he had chosen to do so since she was perceptive enough to know he never did anything without purpose, but she loved him for it.
Mayuri died in an accident, and he never quite came to terms with it.
Gunpowder, a new and fascinating invention, made its way to Japan during the late Sengoku period. Mayuri, son of a daimyo, became fascinated with it. It provided an easier way to hunt; it wouldn't be until later that it became a valuable tool of war.
Mayuri was one of the first Japanese gunsmiths, and one of the most successful. Using Western designs, he created his own weapons, adapted to designs that fit the slighter builds of the Japanese. He saw guns as a form of power. He recognized, as many did not, the role they could play in shaping the future. He wanted to be the best, because he wanted to rule.
Mayuri was very good at his work, quickly on the way to becoming a legend, but every man has his off day. Gunpowder, though, was an unforgiving subordinate, and his one off day resulted in an explosion that took out his entire smithy.
It was a painful death. He lingered for days, without hands or feet, mentally calculating what he had done wrong. Finally death took him, and he learned from that lesson.
Mayuri is determined to never die again. His research will lead him to true immortality.
Ikkaku held a party on the anniversary of his death.
Time was a strange thing in the Soul Society, but Ikkaku kept track of its passing, marking each year without fail. He has celebrated 299 "Death Days," and was planning on throwing a grand bash to mark his tricentennial in the Soul Society. Some people thought he was morbid, but when confronted, he merely shrugged and claimed that any excuse for a party is a good one.
What he doesn't say is that as long as he gets drunk enough, he could keep from remembering exactly how he went. After all, who in his right mind wanted to relive being tortured to death?
Hisagi died in battle.
He had joined the Shinsengumi because he believed in their cause; he loved his country, and didn't like the foreigners. For him, the choice was clear, written in black and white on his soul.
The battles he fought were fierce and furious, and the rules of the Shinsengumi made life simple. There was a right and wrong, a way things had to be done. It was a hard life, but he was fighting for something he believed in, and following leaders he could respect.
It was less than three months after he'd joined that his squad leader had fallen in battle. According to the code, all members of the unit were required to fight until they died on the spot.
He had done so, attacking members of the Mori clan who'd slain his leader. He was a good fighter, but a sword to the back had taken him before he'd managed to kill any of the enemies. Still, as he lay dying, he knew satisfaction for fulfilling his purpose, and following the Shinsengumi's code to the end.
Hisagi only realized much later how very naïve he'd been.
Hitsugaya died in fire.
He had been too young to understand why. The war had his community on rations, but that was the way he'd been raised, so he didn't know anything different. The planes that flew overhead on bombing runs were just a fact of life. He didn't bother worrying about the things he couldn't change. His main concern was if he had a crush on the girl who lived down the street.
Sitting in class, he listened as his teacher droned on and on about history. He tuned most of it out, tired from staying up late the night before, playing shougi with his grandfather. He'd been half asleep when the world suddenly changed.
He barely had time to register what was happening. There was no sound, just a flash of blue light and an intense heat that felt like falling into the core of the sun. Later on, he found out that he was merely one of many thousands who had been killed by Little Boy.
He knew it was silly, but while living in the first district in the Soul Society, he always felt overheated. He dressed in summer clothes, and drank many iced drinks, but nothing was able to make him feel cool.
It wasn't until he met Hyourinmaru that his fever finally broke.
Hinamori died in water.
Her family lived in a small fishing village. Like all of the children, she worked for her parents as soon as she could walk. She learned to swim even before she could walk. Those lessons made her feel prepared for anything the ocean could throw at her.
It was a perfectly fine day, and she and her younger brother were at the docks, repairing nets for her father. She had been daydreaming, thinking about the festival slated in three days, mechanically performing the work and not paying attention to her surroundings.
She only noticed the unusually low tide because she had to drag the nets further than she was accustomed to. Her brother complained about it, but she smiled and laughed at him, accusing him of being lazy. He'd sniffed and stopped speaking to her, going into a pout. She'd decided to let him sulk.
He was the one who broke the silence, like he usually did. "What's that, oneesan?" her brother asked, pointing toward the ocean. She barely had time to turn her head before the wave hit. It moved so fast.
She wasn't one of the lucky ones, the people who died instantaneously as the wave crashed down. She survived the initial impact, only to be swept out to sea. It felt like she spent an eternity clawing for the surface to no avail, but later she recognized that it was likely only a few minutes. A small girl didn't take long to drown.
At night she dreamed of that feeling, the burning sensation of her lungs as she struggled to hold her breath for just a little longer.
There were all kinds of stories about how Zaraki ended up in the Soul Society. The shinigami in the 11th invented wild stories about the battle and how many people he took with him. They believed he was a warlord or a bandit in his former life, and he let them think whatever they want, smirking every time he interrupted one of their speculative conversations.
A few of the braver ones tried to get a hint from him, but he told them he didn't exist until he joined the Gotei 13. Not even Yachiru knew about his death; it was a secret he was too ashamed to admit.
In truth, Zaraki died of consumption.
Zaraki feared no man, but the thought of illness caused him nightmares. He avoided Ukitake as much as possible because although he knew the 13th's captain wasn't contagious, he couldn't convince his subconscious of it. He remembered how his body failed him, coughing up blood and gasping for breath. He remembered his helplessness, and swore that will never happen again. The next time he died, he promised himself, he will go out in a blaze of blood and glory that the Soul Society will never forget.
Yachiru didn't remember how she died.
Her first memory was of blood, of living in the 79th District and meeting Zaraki. She remembered the number of clouds in the sky, the slightly shocked look in his eyes as he saw that she didn't fear him.
She didn't mourn for her mortal life; she had everything she needs and there's no point in asking for more. Yachiru didn't care how she died; it was more important to concentrate on living this life with Zaraki.
Tousen was born without sight, and died without ever seeing anything.
Growing up, people were not accepting of his disability. He was luckier than most in that his mother shouldered the burden of caring for him, but his world was a small place, limited to the two rooms of his mother's home. He grew to know those rooms better than most people would ever know anything, even with sight.
He had lived well, but in the end, his mother couldn't take it anymore. He died in his sleep, suffocating under a pillow his mother had held down on his face. He never learned this, believing that his body had just given out. He built his afterlife upon this lie.
In Soul Society, most physical imperfections were healed, but a few were not. There was plenty of theories why, but no one had any concrete proof one way or another. Tousen was one of those rare few who came to Soul Society blind. He vowed that the entire world would be his home, and set about learning it as thoroughly as he had those two small rooms.
Tousen didn't see his physical blindness as a liability. Instead, he believed he saw more clearly than anyone, since he was not blinded by false illusions.
Creating the illusion of his dead body actually made Aizen twitch.
There wasn't much that could shake him. Once, when he'd been young, he'd known fear. He faced it every time he went on assignment with his squad, wondering if this mission would be the one he wouldn't come back from. That was part of the reason he worked so hard to master his innate power. Aizen had no desire to become a ruler; his drive was instead fueled from a primal desire to survive.
Time had worn away his fear, and eventually he'd grown discontent. He hadn't realized that it was the uncertainty that had made the battles so exciting. Eventually his skill was such that there was no doubt if he would be one to live. He couldn't always save those in his charge, though, and that had led him to review his previous disdain of power for power's sake.
Seeing his body dead against the wall was a reality check. No matter how good he was, there was always the possibility that someone could bring him low. Death could happen, even to him. Then he dismissed the doubts in his mind.
He had no need of fear; only the mortal knew that emotion, and he was to become God.
Isshin was not dead, no matter what the Gotei 13 had listed in its records. Isshin left the Soul Society after meeting Masaki during a routine patrol, and never looked back.
He fell in love with her laugh, the way she smiled and the resulting sensation of lightheadedness it evoked in him. He made an insane, instantaneous and completely irreversible decision after seeing her – instead of heading straight home, he'd gone to Urahara's shop.
It had taken a while to get used to gigai, and not using his power. Urahara had been kind (for a bill Isshin spent years paying off), helping him forge a faux identity to suit his faux body. The first week he'd had doubts, but by the second, he was opening his own medical practice using the wisdom he'd gained over the centuries from close association with Unohana and his own good sense. It took him far more time to win Masaki's heart, but things won easily weren't worth cherishing.
Isshin mentally buried the man who served as captain, but from that death came the birth of a doctor – and later a husband and father. If anyone had asked, Isshin would have said it was more than a fair trade.
Yumichika died in squalor.
There had been a famine in the land, and rice was hard to buy. He'd worked in the fields, just a farmer, but was still starving since he wasn't allowed to eat the fruits of his own labors. The daimyo didn't care about the people under his rule; rice was power, and he wanted all of it.
Yumichika didn't understand any of the politics behind his life. All he knew was fighting for survival, a fight he lost. He died before he turned fifteen, and it had not been pretty. Burned by the sun, his ribs poking through in contrast to his distended stomach, Yumichika had been a pitiful sight.
It wasn't until he saw his reflection in Soul Society that he appreciated what had been done to him. He vowed that next time, he would be the one to take everything, to remake the world in his own image. He would not let others control him again.
Yumichika learned not to be upset about the way his mortal life had ended. He didn't resent the way he had been crushed down, because he had been weak. No, the thing that annoyed him was how ugly it had been.
Yumichika knew that the next time he died, it would be a beautiful spectacle.
Rukia and Hisana died together.
They were two siblings among many, Hisana the eldest and Rukia a babe of four months. Hisana was starting to think about marriage, and their mother figured it was good practice for Hisana to take care of her siblings. It was a day toward the end of summer when Rukia caught a cold. Usually they would go to the market with their mother, but someone had to stay and watch the crying child.
"Look after your sister," her mother commanded before leaving for the store, and Hisana had promised to do her best.
It wasn't a hardship. Rukia was a charming baby, aside from her occasional sniffles, and Hisana liked to make her giggle. They spent the morning playing peek-a-boo, Rukia gurgling in surprise each time Hisana peeked around her hands. It was a pretty normal day until the room begins to shake.
Hisana was no stranger to earthquakes; living in Tokyo made it a fact of life, but this one was different. She felt the ground drop beneath her feet and fear surged within her. Somehow she managed to push the terror down enough to grab Rukia, prepared to find someplace safe. The last thing she remembered was seeing the ceiling come toward them.
Hisana discovered that they had been lucky to die quickly. The tales of horrific fires she heard from other newly arrived souls made her glad that death had been merciful. It was the last bit of mercy they knew.
Life in the 79th was hard, and though she tried, Hisana discovered that she couldn't take care of Rukia and survive herself. So she abandoned Rukia, reasoning that most people in Soul Society are alone.
It was something she regretted from that moment on. She didn't go an hour without thinking about her sister, and if Rukia was still alive. She tried to rationalize her decision, but understood that her choice has branded her as unworthy of anything but scorn.
When she met Byakuya, she promised to be a good wife, but knew she'd already failed those duties before. Hisana wondered how he could love a woman whose word is worthless.
Byakuya took pride in his title. He was proud to be shinigami, proud to control the power that came from death.
He was tall and imposing, a figure that truly defines "grim reaper" whenever he was at work. Byakuya knew he must appear frightening to the souls who he laid to rest with a soul burial, but didn't care. Death, he believed, should not be comforting.
The nobility of the Soul Society have always been indifferent to the trauma souls feel when they make they transition. They had never died, and thus had no empathy. Byakuya believed, as did his entire family, that death was merely part of life and should be accepted philosophically.
It's not until he lost Hisana that he understood the pain death brought. While he had never died, not like most of his subordinates, he realized that there was more than one way to lose his life.
His title mocked his soul; he was god of nothing.
Shigekuni Yamamoto-Genryūsai died in his sleep.
In his life, he was a master general. He lived a good life, won many wars and had many children, but in the end, his body failed him. One night he went to bed, and woke up in what would become Rukongai. At the time, there was little organization, but he helped reform the society in his image.
Death is – or should be – the one universal truth. Even the greatest must fall to mortality, no matter which side of the Soul Society they're on.
It is a lesson he learned well. He made sure to discover how all his subordinates met their mortal ends, for it shaped their spirit in their afterlife.
Kaien died without regrets.
He'd been a noble of the Soul Society, and hadn't understood what death really was. He knew the system, believed in his place in it, and accepted that all he could do was his best.
That final battle, against the Hollow that robbed him of his wife, had been for his pride. He'd been enraged, and wanted to be the one to destroy the monster. He had, but it had cost him his life. But he had done it, restoring Miyako's honor while maintaining his own.
He'd never really thought of what would happen when he died. He knew how souls moved back and forth from the mortal realm to Soul Society, and had subconsciously assumed that he'd be part of that cycle. In the moment before he died, Kaien felt Rukia's hand on his back tremble, and he felt at peace.
He knew they'd meet in a future life, and he'd have the chance to thank her again for what she had done. Kaien died content, because there was someone who could carry on his will.