Don't Let Go

Disclaimer: Bleach isn't mine! And nor are any characters used in this – an OC free zone!

Summary: 'Never' is too easy a word to say; in a certain Ichimaru's case, it's the story of his life.

Warning: Character death (I KILLED MATSUMOTO'S PINK SHAWL!)

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Matsumoto Rangiku panted for breath, desperately trying to ease the choking sensation that washed over her every time that Aizen made use of his reiatsu. It really was too powerful for anyone below the rank of Taichou to successfully hold off… unless you were one of those outrageously strong Fukutaichou like the bright-haired girl who was currently fighting alongside her beloved 'Ken-chan', seemingly unaffected. Rangiku had been separated from her own taichou in the early stages of the battle, and every lull gazed in a panicked way around the battlefield, searching for the white-haired youth in amongst all the carnage, though she was not really allowed to call him a youth anymore…

Her usually pristine clothing was tattered and torn, the fabric barely covering her already exposed chest though she was too preoccupied with surviving to worry about anything as trivial as modesty; the pink shawl she usually wore lay in shreds a few feet away, the sorry victim of a particularly vicious enemy. Blood caked the fabric of her kimono, a deep gash in her left side. She knew she should really withdraw – all the odds were stacked against her, since she was weaker than the rest of those in this area of the battle – but she was going nowhere until she knew her taichou was safe. Loyalty came before everything – even sake, lazing around and sleeping on the job.

Suddenly, out of the corner of one eye, she saw a flash of silver. Turning to face whoever it was, her heart leapt in a aching, twisting motion when she saw their face. He was not smiling for once; his reddish-brown eyes were open and watching her with a pained look she knew matched her own.

"I-Ichimaru." Why, oh why did she have to stumble over his name like that?

"Rangiku-chan." The sound of her name on his lips… even though they were on opposite sides, she still loved the way the word spilled out as if he were savouring every last memory of each syllable. Yet she could see his eyes misting over slightly as they watched each other. "I'm sorry."

'…Sorry?' She stared at him in confusion, then as he drew his zanpakuto she realised. Eyes wide with shock, she was barely able to react when he muttered, "Ikorosu, Shinsou." The tip of his blade sped towards her, slicing another gash in her sword arm deep enough to stop her from using the appendage; Haineko fell from her hand, clattering to the ground. Swiftly he appeared at her side and forced her down to the ground, lightly touching Shinsou to her throat, his other hand pinning her down – some part of her absently noticed that he was touching her in an entirely inappropriate place, causing equally improper thoughts running through her mind, a warm feeling spreading through her lower abdomen despite her immediate peril. With much effort she quashed the line of thinking and stuttered out, "I-Ichimaru, what…?"

"Listen, Rangiku. Stay still; hide your reiatsu." His voice was urgent, pleading; his eyes stared down into hers, desperately trying to make her understand. "Don't move until this is over or some of your friends get here, ya hear?"

She nodded in response, heart fluttering in her breast like a trapped bird desperate to break free of the cage around it. She was reluctant to speak, to give a verbal answer, for fear of drawing attention to them. With a sad smile Ichimaru Gin plunged his blade down into the corpse she was sprawled on top of; blood spurted everywhere, over him, over her pale throat, over Shinsou itself. She knew why he had done it – to give the impression that she was actually dead. At the same time she covered all traces of her reiatsu, obedient to the pleas of her lifetime friend; he stood and rushed away almost immediately, but not before a tear of remorse landed on one perfectly smooth cheek, trickling down to mingle with the blood beneath her. 'Always,' she thought sadly, 'you always go away without an answer, without telling me where you're going…'

She really had no idea why she was trusting Gin so much. He had betrayed the Shinigami, abandoned her, and killed so many of his former companions. But – and her thoughts softened slightly – he had also saved her life three times now, not to mention befriend her, care for her, protect her…

She knew that she was taking the coward's choice, but Gin had told her to do this. Gin obviously had been told to exterminate her, but old feelings had got in the way. He was unable to bring himself to kill her. And so he had done this instead, saved her in the only way he could. Even so, it was hard for her to lie there and hear the screams and rasping, choked dying breaths of her companions. The clangs of steel on steel, the ripping of flesh, the snapping of bones and the horrible gushing sounds of blood splashing to the already blood-soaked soil made tears well up in her eyes and threaten to spill down her cheeks, though she was forced to hold them at bay – after all, a dead body was unable to shed tears. All the same, her heart wrenched every time she heard and felt a fellow shinigami be injured or be killed.

A harsh roar of fury escaped the lips of her taichou as he caught sight of her bloodied and battered body. She knew she held the honour of being one of the two women Hitsugaya Toshiro had ever cared about, the other being Hinamori Momo. She also knew that both of the younger shinigami had strong feelings for each other, but Hinamori was too innocent to make the first move and Hitsugaya, underneath his gruff exterior, was actually very shy. Especially when it came to the girl he loved…

Hinamori rushed to the older woman's side, placing small, gentle hands over her wounds in a vain attempt to stop the bleeding, while Hitsugaya fended off the attacking swarms that were threatening to overwhelm him. At a shouted order from the boy-captain… no, young man, she reminded herself, the girl slipped an arm underneath her fellow fukutaichou and sped away to where the healers from 4th Division were bustling around, shouting to one another and desperately trying to heal those whose lives were in immediate danger. Just as Rangiku was handed over to Hanatarou and two of his companions, she felt the more than familiar light-headedness wash over her and finally slipped into the dark world of the unconscious.

--

Gin felt the normal smile return to his features as Rangiku was taken away from the battlefield, as well as a feeling of relief. With her safely in the hands of 4th Division he knew he no longer had to worry about her well-being. All that was left for him to do was continue fighting until he died or emerged victorious – that was what Aizen had told him, anyway. In his mind he was already victorious, having prevented Rangiku from joining the ranks of the dead. No longer was he afraid of death; he was a new man in more ways than one, one of those being his acceptance of his love for the beautiful woman.

Tousen had already been captured, Komamura Sajin and Zaraki Kenpachi having finally put aside their differences and working together, a hyperactive Yachiru guarding their backs, her sword darting all over the place as she fended off multiple enemies, many of which were too startled by her sudden appearances to put up much resistance. Aizen, also, was perilously close to being overwhelmed – the ryouka/shinigami Kurosaki Ichigo had come back to aid the 13 Gotei (his friends, Sado, Inoue and Ishida, had also joined the battle, though due to the loss of his powers the latter was confined to aiding 4th Division in any way he could and Inoue was more suited to the job of healing), and was fighting alongside the commander of Seireitei himself and the twin blades of Kyouraku Shunsui.

"Ichimaru!"

He already knew whom the voice belonged to – it was only a matter of time before the youngest of the taichou realised who it was to have caused the cut on Rangiku's arm.

"Tell me, Hitsugaya-taichou, will Rangiku survive?"

The youth was momentarily taken aback at the seriousness of the former taichou's words, but soon overcame his surprise. "She'll live, no thanks to you!"

Hyourinmaru and Shinsou clashed, Hitsugaya immediately taking the offensive. Ichimaru was more than happy to defend though, knowing that this way he was more likely to prolong his existence and possibly see her again. Strange, how his train of thought always returned to her even when his life was in immediate danger…

He never noticed the raved-haired young girl standing off to the side, not until it was too late. He never recognised the kidou spell she was chanting until the restraining bolts of light appeared around him. He never realised that Abarai Renji was standing behind him until the hilt of his zanpakuto slammed into the base of his skull. He only knew there were too many 'never' s in his life.

Except never never happened. The raven-haired girl never completed her spell – it never even began because of the blade that slid into her chest from behind; the traitorous Aizen stood there, a smirk on his features as he drew the blade out and the girl collapsed to the ground. Abarai Renji never knocked Gin out using Zabimaru's hilt, nor did Hitsugaya continue to fight against him when the blow never came. Instead the pair roared with anger and charged at Hinamori's attacker, leaving Ichimaru standing alone amidst the carnage. His gaze turned to the girl slumped on the ground – for a fleeting moment he saw another form there. Rangiku, when he had first found her, had lain in a position exactly like this…

As soon as he was certain that Aizen was suitably distracted he moved over to the girl and scooped her up. Not even pausing to question his own consuming madness he headed towards the back lines of the Shinigami forces, receiving astounded stares from all those who caught even the tiniest glimpse of him out the corners of their eyes. He laid the bloody bundle on the ground, in full view of Unohana and her fukutaichou, flashed a quick grin, and then was off again. But not before catching a glimpse of Rangiku staring at him, a question forming on her lips – his only response was a cheeky wink. And then he was gone.

---

Once again Rangiku was close to panicking, but this time not out of loyalty and fright for her taichou. No, she had a new fear now, for the 'smiling madman' as he had been nicknamed amongst her fellow shinigami. Almost as soon as her friend Inoue had healed her wounds she was off, dashing through the melee that was the battle between Soul Society and the traitors. Her mind clamouring, Haineko only adding to her confused thoughts, she followed through the turmoil of fighting yet was too slow to catch up.

A Hollow leapt at her seemingly from nowhere; she sidestepped the clumsy lunge and swung Haineko down, cleaving straight through its white mask. As it faded into dust she spun, zanpakuto ripping into the shoulder of another about to kill one of her subordinates. As the limb thudded to the ground and the creature howled in pain, the other shinigami shattered the mask. As it too dissolved into nothing the young recruit turned to thank his commanding officer, but Rangiku was already running again, straight towards the heart of the conflict. Haineko's deadly dance cut down all those of the other side who dared to get in her way, flashes of sliver slashing out, only to retreat and take out another; as she burst through into the centre she stopped abruptly, breath catching in her throat.

"Hitsu…gaya-taichou?"

His haori was ripped and stained, blood trickling from the corner of his mouth. Next to him Renji was crouched, trying to stem the steady flow of crimson that splattered onto the soil from a deep slash over his chest. Aizen stood opposite them, pristine, seemingly invincible. His naked zanpakuto was clasped loosely in one hand, slick with an oily red sheen from all of those he had killed or wounded over the course of the war. Over the other side of the battlefield the other taichou were banded together in small groups, fending off masses of foes, depending on each other to guard their backs. And no aid could possibly come from them…

"Matsumoto! Get away!" She looked at him, then Aizen, then back at her taichou. His icy jade eyes met hers, looking down at her, an angry spark shining from them – not for the first time she wondered how anyone could think those eyes as frozen, as cold as the exterior he showed everyone.

"Gomen, Hitsugaya-taichou," eventually came her response, "but I can't."

He was about to yell at her again, she knew. Perhaps that was why she moved out to stand in front of Aizen. Perhaps that was why she shouted out, "Unare. Haineko!" She saw, even as the plumes of ash sped towards the traitor, his lips moving, and a dark spell about to be unleashed upon her. She had seen what it had done to Komamura, when he had tried to stand against Aizen over a year ago; she had seen the wounds that had been inflicted on him, and he was far more powerful than she… As the darkness began to wrap around her she heard a quiet, calm, almost mocking voice.

"Ikorosu, Shinsou."