Don't Let Go

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

-

A body lies stretched out in the dust. A man who appears to be in his late twenties, Haku thinks, but for all the blood he cannot tell. He is wearing a yukata that had once been white, though now it is streaked with grey-brown dust and encrusted with drying gore. At his waist is an empty sheath. The dark-haired child glances around warily for any sign of a sword. There is none. Haku guesses that whoever attacked the man took it as a trophy.

But no bandit he had come across has ever left wounds like the one on the man's leg… It was as if an abnormally large dog had worried at the man's leg until the flesh hung in tatters. Had the boy eaten recently, he would've been forced to empty the contents of his stomach at the grisly sight. As it is, he swallows nervously and edges closer.

Is the man still alive? He thinks so, but isn't certain.

--

For once, Ise Nanao was neglecting the pile of paperwork in front of her in favour of staring blankly at nothing. Her dark eyes glazed over, slightly reddened by the sleepless night before, the fukutaicho absently toyed with a pen while mulling over what she had found. Idly she found herself wondering how Matsumoto-san was faring, and if she was anywhere near recovery from her wounds.

She shoved her glasses back to rest on the bridge of her nose and pulled a piece of paper towards her, attempting to lose herself in the tedium of writing and filing reports. It was a way of coping with the stresses of everyday life. The guilt Gin's diary had left her with was a millstone around her neck, and it felt like she was standing on the top of a precariously high tower where one false move could send her plummeting into the unknown.

"Where are you now… Ichimaru…"

Her voice was a low murmur, soon lost in the steady thrum of life outside the office, but the memory of the words still hung heavily on the air.

--

The man stirs weakly at the feeling of a small hand against his sweat-stained brow and opens one weary eye. Pain ripples through his battered and broken body with every movement he makes, no matter how slight. The figure kneeling over him is a child: dark-haired, wide-eyed, pale from the shock of finding a man so badly wounded out in the middle of nowhere.

"Who…?" he croaks past dry and chapped lips, finishing silently when his voice will not allow it …are you?

"Here." The young boy kneels beside him, lifting the wounded man's head into his lap, and nudges a roughly carved beaker to his mouth. "Drink. You need water."

The irony of the situation astounds him. Somewhere, in the darkened days of the past, he remembers a time like this… A young girl sprawled in the dust; a younger him offering food that she desperately needed…

He's almost forgotten how good water tastes.

---

It hadn't rained over Soul Society in years, Unohana Retsu thought wryly as she stared out into the deserted courtyard of 4-Bantai headquarters; when she commented as such to the imposing figure beside her he grunted in dismissal and said, "S'only rain. Nothin' special."

The wind was cold around them, chilled by the rain that fell in an eternal torrent. Unohana suppressed a shudder and turned to her fellow captain, a question she had been pondering for a while on the tip of her tongue. "Zaraki-taicho, why have you decided to… grace my division with your presence today?"

"Che. Yachiru wanted ta see that Matsumoto wom'n, wouldn't take no fer an answer." A bell chimed softly as he shifted position, his hand coming to rest on the hilt of his zanpakuto, and he glared sullenly at a sodden Hanataro who was staggering across the courtyard with a pile of bloodied bandages. The timid shinigami stumbled slightly and hurried a little faster towards his destination, not really wanting to feel the full pressure of the taicho's reiatsu.

"Normally you aren't so concerned when your fukutaichou runs off…"

"Dammit wom'n, why do I hafta tell yer anythin'!" he exploded; seconds later a pink head of hair protruded from around the corner and said, "Ken-chan shouldn't yell in a place of wounded people! It's bad manners, Pachinko-Head said so."

Unohana stifled a laugh at the indignant expression on Zaraki's face. "And Ikkaku-san is right," she said once her mood had sobered, agreeing with the pink-haired girl. "There are people here who are suffering severe mental trauma from the battle. Loud noises can set the healing process back considerably," she directed a pointed gaze in the heavy-set shinigami's direction.

He grunted something in response and turned his head away to stare back out at the rain. Yachiru disappeared back round the door again, leaving the two adults alone.

It hadn't rained in Soul Society in a long, long time; and Unohana could remember only one occasion when it had snowed.

---

"Do you have any family?"

"I used to," Haku replies simply, staring into a basin of water with a forlorn expression. "At least, I think I did. Most people have, don't they?"

"You… think you did?" Silver-head seems startled by that admission. Haku can hear it, even through the peculiar accent.

"I don't remember much." Small thin fingers snake over the surface. He loves watching the ripples, the lines where reflection and reality blur. "Maybe I don't want to remember…"

He does remember, but doesn't know how to explain that his father murdered his mother and then him, just because they had a power considered the brand of a demon.

----

Matsumoto Rangiku stared blankly at the ceiling. Yachiru was gone now, leaving her alone. The sky outside matched her mood: overcast, sorrowful, bleak. In her hands, she clasped a cool metal locket, the one she usually kept hidden by her uniform. It had been a gift from Ichimaru, the last he had given her – he had brought it back from the human world with him, probably against orders. 'So you'll remember me when 'm gone, Ran-chan,' he'd said. Her fingers ran over the metal, feeling the engraved pattern of a lily. Wasn't that meant to be a death-flower? She knew it by heart, didn't need to look at it.

"Was this what you meant, Gin?" she murmured aloud. "Did you know what was going to happen?"

There was no reply. She had hardly expected one. No body had been recovered, but it was commonly believed that there was none to be found. He had been ripped apart, the whisperers said, and his corpse scattered across the battlefield. Shinsou had been recovered, snapped in two, at the place where the tide had overwhelmed him. And Ichimaru would never, never leave his sword behind. A shinigami could not be parted from his zanpakuto for long, else the blade would weaken and its wielder be drained of his reiatsu.

Still one small part of her avoided the terrible likelihood, desperate to believe that he was still alive – somehow – and free from Tousen's grasp. She slid her fingers into the groove of the locket, snapping it open easily, and it was with a heavy heart that she fingered the small twist of silver and strawberry-blonde hair contained inside.

She barely noticed when exhaustion forced her into unconsciousness once more.

A figure lifted a hand to the jagged slash that left his left arm limp and useless. Trying and failing to stem the gush of blood. White, grinning faces around him hungry for more, more blood, more pain, and with a growl of anger he lifted the broken blade and held it in front of him. There was a flash of strawberry-blonde hair somewhere outside the circle, and her voice was screaming, trying to get him to answer. An answering roar rose from the outskirts of the circle, as one of the Hollows rushed her, and he lashed out with the broken blade, ripping, tearing, watching with grim satisfaction as the Hollows dispersed into fine dust that scattered across the battlefield, but his fox-like grin faltered at the pain that greeted sharp claws raking across his back. The mob parted slightly, and their eyes met; even as Tousen appeared behind her and slid his sword through the woman's ribs, she never took her eyes off him.

Ichimaru yowled in primal fury and tried to batter his way through the mass of Hollows, desperate to reach her side, hating himself for getting her involved in the battle. He never reached her, as the tide crashed over him once more, and the bleeding woman stared at him still, her eyes pleading, her lips moving still despite the numbing cold that was slowly creeping over her.

He couldn't make out what she was saying.

And then she was gone, and there was only searing agony, and he screamed out against the world, against his mistakes, against everything that had separated them, even as his broken blade hacked and slashed at the mob that threatened to separate them for forever, and his voice carried out over the shrieks and slavering grunts of the Hollows.

"Ran-"

And then his cry of anger stopped.

The broken sword fell.

"Gin!" she screamed, jerking into wakefulness, and her hand instinctively grasped at the air before her. Footsteps sounded against the floorboards outside as she pushed herself upright, staring around in wide-eyed shock, trying to discern the figure she knew she had seen from the shadows cloaking the corners. Tears welled up in her eyes, trickling down her cheeks like liquid diamonds. She clutched at the locket as if it was burning her, but she could not bear to let go. To let go would be to let him go...

----

"Nii-san, do you have any family?" Echoing the very question Haku was asked six weeks before. The boy is curious, and a little worried that he might lose his sole precious person.

His 'brother' puts the steaming tea, product of a recent foray into Rukongai, aside. Ghost pale hands knot over folded knees. Gin's ever-present smile is bittersweet, like the tranquillity of a lake disturbed by a casually tossed pebble.

"Dead," he says simply. "Lived here for a time – stayed here after they left me. But I weren't never alone." The smile slips away. His mood turns sombre. "I always had Ran-chan."

Silver-head refuses to say anything more on the topic. The wounds are too raw, too recent.

In silence he lifts the tea to his lips once again.

------

"He's not coming back. Not this time."

"I know."

Izuru Kira sighed forlornly and stared into the bottom of his cup. The last drop of sake glistened like a freshly shed tear.

"But it still hurts."

-------

Three months after he found Silver-head in the wilderness, Gin is able to walk from the hut where he once lived to the outskirts of the nearest sector of Rukongai (he thinks it's the 75th), without need of breaks or assistance from Haku. His limp is noticeable, however, and he has to lean heavily on a bamboo cane to steady himself. Weeks of inaction have left his muscles feeble. By his own admission, Silver-head is as useless as 'a day old cub. Or Yumichika.'

Haku doesn't quite believe his brother, especially after he witnesses Gin taking down a group of armed bandits, using only the bamboo cane, with a quickness and a ruthless efficiency that leaves onlookers gaping like fish out of water.

But his senses are still dull, and Gin doesn't see the sixth. Haku leaps into the fray, an unfamiliar weapon in his right hand, something cold enough to make his fingers almost freeze around it. When he parries the clumsy slash he knows why. In his hand is a knife, a knife that is pure ice. Before his disbelieving eyes, the part of his brain that is just as calm and detached as Gin is in combat muttering that he has to disarm this guy, one half melts and snakes around the sword. The ribbon of water seeps into gashes and cracks in the pitted surface –

(he should've taken better care of it)

– and at a silently spoken command freezes again. The sword shatters.

Shards of metal form a strangely beautiful rain.

Silver-head's cane thuds dully into the base of his skull. The bandit topples…

"Stunned," Gin announces in a too-happy voice, "not killed, but they'll be botherin' you no more." No-one wants to argue with that fox-like grin, those eyes narrowed to slits that laugh in even the gravest of circumstances. They are wary, scared perhaps, of the smiling invalid who took down a gang renowned for their viciousness, without any outward sign of difficulty.

He soon establishes an unwanted reputation. After all, the Smiling Fox will keep them safe.

The crowd do not see Gin collapse the second he is out of sight.

-----

Kira felt someone grab his wrist as he made his way to the Third's compound one morning. "Izuru-san, I think you should see this," said Shuuhei. His face was without any trace of a smile.

"It's to do with Ichimaru."

Kira let himself be towed away. For a moment he thought of the paperwork waiting for him in patient piles, and hoped his third seat would make a start on it, but that distraction lasted barely five seconds.

He was somewhat apprehensive of what he might see.

------

"Nii-san?"

"Hmm?"

Smash. A flurry of glistening rainbows. Gin mutters something inaudible as he stares at the sheet of ice Haku created, perpetually narrowed eyes scanning the surface to see how much damage his strikes have caused. He seems disappointed by the shallow grooves – he is nowhere near full strength, but part of him puts that down to his long separation from Shinsou.

I really need to retrieve him.

"Were you a shinigami?" Haku asks while Gin strikes at the ice again.

This time it shatters. A hail of icy splinters dance to earth. Gin shoulders the wakizashi, stolen from a dead man's corpse, and leans heavily on his bamboo cane. These efforts drain him far too quickly.

"What makes ya say that, Haku-kun?"

The smile has faltered.

He knows he guessed right.

-------

"I thought you said…"

An interruption. "That's Shinsou."

A spluttering of disbelief. "Shinsou is a wakizashi, not a … a … whatever that zanpakuto is."

A sigh. "It's a sakabato, I think. A sword with the blade reversed. To kill with one, the wielder has to remember to turn the sword over…"

"Look, Kurosaki-kun, a zanpakuto doesn't just- just change! They may differ with each incarnation of the same soul, but not like this!"

"Actually, Kira-san, there have been," cough, "cases in the past…"

"…only two were confirmed, however the evidence remains. In addition to the version of a zanpakuto's development that you have already pointed out, some zanpakuto have been known to change their natures, should the shinigami they are bonded with undergo a similar change of heart."

"And both of those zanpakuto are in this very room."

"Ours."

"The first and only dual bladed zanpakuto Soul Society has seen."

"They changed when we realised that our original fighting style wouldn't work if we were separated-"

"-But a sakabato! That goes against Ichimaru's nature, doesn't it?"

"Not if he's decided he doesn't want to kill again."

------

Gin does not believe in blindly hoping. That is why the part of his brain still insisting that Rangiku is alive confuses him so much.

Haku thinks that since Silver-head never actually saw 'Ran-chan's' dead body, he cannot know that she is dead.

Gin finds this logic slightly comforting, but it isn't enough.

-------

Fed up of all the rumours and speculation that circulated Seireitei, particularly among the unseated shinigami, one anonymous author compiled the three most accepted theories and published them in Seireitei Communication. From here, somebody equally unknown decided to paste this list on the door of the Third's compound. It attracted daily attention and perhaps the only reason why so many knew of the list's existence was because of its newfound publicity.

Theory 1 – Ichimaru Gin died in the battle and all claims to the contrary are a vain attempt to rationalise the slim possibility of the traitor-turned-ally is, in fact alive.

Theory 2 – Ichimaru Gin has completed one of the shortest cycles between Soul Society and the Living side known to shinigami, hence Shinsou's alleged reaction.

Theory 3 – Ichimaru Gin is alive and within Soul Society.

Below this, in Ise Nanao's handwriting, fluttered a second piece of paper: no doubt through severe breaches of Soul Society regulations or heavy usage of Shunpo, which would cause severe injury to the shinigami. Even if this speculation is indeed correct, we will be unlikely to know for some time, as an injured fox is predisposed to 'going to ground'.

Matsumoto stared at the list – most specifically the third theory – with a faint stirring of hope. Behind her, Renji was struggling not to laugh at Nanao's comments until finally he could not resist the urge to add… well, something!

"Hey, Matsumoto, can you hold this for a second?"

Her gaze fell on him, curious. "Why?"

"Cause… y'know … c'mon, if Ise-san can get away with it then so can I!"

Somewhere during this exchange she had ended up holding his paperwork as well as her own. He pulled a thick black marker from inside his robes and snatched one of the documents (a bill for his former division's efforts in breaking out of the fourth), scrawling over it enthusiastically. He pinned the paper to the doorframe, gave it an admiring once-over, and re-capped his trusty marker. He waved it at her in explanation. "Ikkaku and me got these when we were on the Living side. They're good for graffiti – there's a few places around Karakura with our… 'tagusu', I think Ichigo called 'em. 'S where we kept vanishing off to."

His addition to the slowly increasing number of comments on the wall read:

Rule 49 of the Shinigami Code of Conduct indicates quite clearly that if a shinigami finds their life is in immediate and otherwise unavoidable danger, he or she is permitted to utilise shunpo to escape. This includes to the Living side, Hueco Mundo (if all other routes are blocked) and the outermost regions of Soul Society.

And who actually thinks through all the rules if you need to get away, fast? (Answers from the Eleventh will be immediately discounted.)

"Renji…?"

"The humans have a saying for this, Matsumoto. 'Let's get out of here before the shit hits the pan.' Or is it fan? Anyway, I doubt we should stick around."

-------

The wakizashi feels wrong. It's roughly the same length as Shinsou, so it shouldn't be too far off what he's used to, but Gin feels uncomfortable with it in his hand.

Three days later, he realises why. A sword is a tool for killing. But he is tired of killing, tired of the bloodstains that he still sees on his hangman's hands, tired of the crimson sunsets that mock his choices and decisions.

Yes, he got rid of Aizen in the end, but at what cost?

It's only the third time Haku has seen him without the smile.

--------

The sun felt a little warmer with the conviction that Gin was alive, the air clearer, her heart lighter. And she felt that she knew where he was now. She should have realised sooner. If he had survived, there was only one place he would go.

Hueco Mundo would be like a deathtrap waiting to spring.

The Living side was too difficult to reach by shunpo.

That left only the outskirts of Soul Society.

She remembered – as she always had, as she always would – those precious years when it had been just the two of them against the world. The place they had called home back then was the first sanctuary either had known. Gin would go there. She knew he would.

-

Kira ripped another sheet of paper from the wall. After the first few pages, and Renji's idiotic challenge, they had flooded in from all over Seireitei. Even the Eleventh. Especially the Eleventh.

(All seemed convinced that if you'd allowed yourself to get that far out of your depth, you should at least go down fighting.)

But First had shouted at Kuchiki-san for 'letting his fukutaicho run amok'; and Kuchiki-san had informed him, very coldly, that as acting head of the Third he should be responsible for maintaining their headquarters – not allowing it to descend into such as state in the first place, Kira supposed the Sixth's taicho meant.

-

Rangiku folded her uniform neatly and placed it on her undisturbed futon. In the centre of the black robes nestled her armband, below it, a folded piece of paper addressed to Hitsugaya. Haineko rested grumpily in a corner. Rangiku didn't have the heart to disturb her zanpakuto.

She wore a faded blue kimono with a pale yellow sash. The hilt of a tanto peeked from under the yellow; she felt uncomfortable with the thought of going unarmed. Her feet were bare. She wanted to blend in with Rukongai, not stand out like the proverbial sore thumb. Shoes were nothing short of a luxury for many. Rangiku remembered all too well the blistering dirt beneath her feet, a constant aggravation when walking for miles without cease. Where she was going, night was the best time to travel. She had learnt that lesson the hard way.

After a moment's deliberation she decided to leave the locket around her neck. To a would-be robber it was of little worth save sentimental, nor could it distinguish her as a Shinigami. The locket could stay.

Then, without so much as a backwards glance, she set off for the life she had left behind so long ago.

Once again, she followed.

-

Kira glanced at the outer wall with a sudden sense that something - anything - was about to happen.

Something momentous.

Something he had been waiting for while not even knowing it.

His footsteps were hurried and faltering on the stone. His body flickered with shunpo as he pushed himself to go faster, following the urge that resounded through every fibre of his being. His zanpakuto hummed lightly at his waist, a guardian.

Once again, he trusted.

-

Gin stares up at the night sky. It is quiet. The world is slumbering. So should he, but something about tonight makes him want to savour this silence for as long as it will last.

Haku murmurs in his sleep and curls in on himself. Absently Gin pulls the blanket over the child's shoulders. The gesture reminds him of Rangiku. It is the kind of action she made in the past, when he dozed fitfully in the darkness of their home. She hated to see him distressed, even when neither knew its cause. When it came to him, she was always so selfless.

When he was with her, none of his crimes mattered. Maybe that is why he loves her.

Gin misses her, but cannot leave to seek her out. He cannot make Rangiku a target again.

Once again, he regrets.

---------

The world turns, and nothing remains the same.


FINALLY!

This was supposed to be the end. I may leave it like this, I may do another little snippet, but it depends on what the readers want.

Meh. If I have any readers after this. My talents of procastination are astounding. I am worse than Matsumoto with paperwork.

Happy 2009, everyone - only thirty minutes late...