I can't believe I just did this. I just wrote the last chapter to Treading Icy Waters. I think I'm in shock. You people are all awesome, and I love you.
"When what we are is what we want to be, that's happiness."
Hitsugaya remained silent for some time despite the commanding prompt, distracted by the shifting of fabric somewhere behind him and to his right. He wouldn't look, couldn't really, but it was difficult to focus when that sort of reminder followed his every pause.
Yamamoto Genryuusai Shigekuni towered before him in the dimly lit conference room, the other captains lined up in their designated rows and only visible in his peripheral vision. He could feel them though, even if he couldn't see them. Nine expectant stares, nine accusing frowns, nine impatient egos. They were all waiting for him to finish his explanation, waiting for him to acknowledge the Genryuusai's command and continue spewing detail after detail of his own personal, private experience. He had known this would come; it was inevitable, and he'd been prepared from the beginning. Now that the time was here, however, he found himself unsure of how to proceed. He had known that justifying his actions in this way would give him the largest chance of a pardon, especially since Ichimaru and Aizen were involved, but after all he'd seen and heard, was justifying his actions to these people really what he wanted to do?
Matsumoto wasn't here. Kurosaki wasn't here. Urahara, Shihouin, Abarai, Kuchiki. Arisawa, Inoue, Kojima, Karin. No one who had experienced those trials first hand in Karakura was here. Why should he justify himself to these people?
He had never felt the lack of his haori more prominently than he did now. He recognized that it was just another way for them to isolate him from the people of authority who surrounded him, the former equals who surrounded him, but the understanding made no difference. It was an effective tactic, and it made him appropriately uncomfortable. An animal to be gawked at and questioned from afar.
"Then I woke up."
He met Yamamoto face to face, drilling his stare up into those hard and empty eyes. The following silence was tense, and even though the soutaichou didn't so much as blink, Hitsugaya could tell the man knew he was hiding something. That didn't stop him from hiding it.
"By then, Hyourinmaru could communicate with me. The ice broke away, and Unohana-taichou was able to heal my injuries. I awoke eleven hours later in the Fourth Division compound and am still undergoing therapy to retain the use of my fingers."
Undetailed though it was, he hoped that it would satisfy the Genryuusai. The actual details of that day were simply something he would prefer to keep to himself.
It was cold.
The kind of cold that came from stepping out of the bath and into the winter air. More than anything, it was a little ticklish, making him shiver from the unexpected flood to his five senses.
He knew with sharp clarity that he was awake - really, truly awake. He didn't know how long he'd been out, but he was finally certain that he was in no pocket dimension in another man's soul. The air was fresh and flowing, and he could feel a window square of sunlight beating on his shuttered eyelids. He smelled the lingering odor of a scented candle - almond? - and heard the shuffling of many feet in the distance. The familiar, wrinkled bedsheets beneath him told him he was in the Fourth Division.
He was back in Seireitei. When had that happened?
Trying to recall his last moments in the waking world proved difficult. They were a blurred and hazy mess of pain and incomprehension. Oh, wait. Matsumoto and Kurosaki. They had been there. They had definitely been there, which meant they couldn't be far now.
Slowly he opened his eyes, letting them adjust to the light. He blinked once or twice and breathed a small sigh of relief at recognizing the room. It really was one of the rooms in the Fourth Division compound.
"Ah, you're awake!"
What little of Hitsugaya's mind that had begun turning again abruptly stopped at the sound of that voice. He hadn't heard it in two weeks at least. Hastily, he propped himself up onto his elbows in order to get a better look at his surroundings. There were flowers and even a pile of sweets scattered about the room, but only one other person was with him.
The petite girl sitting beside his bed was skinny and pale, with bags under her eyes and her dark hair limp from grease. But what caught Hitsugaya's attention was her smile. She was looking down at him, hands in her lap and eyes closed, with the saddest smile he'd ever seen. He couldn't bring himself to do anything but stare, caught between the shock of Hinamori visiting him and her agonizing expression.
Apparently, this only served to make her nervous, and she looked down in embarrassment, waving her hands in front of her face. "I-If you don't want me here, I'll leave. I just- I wanted- I'm sorry," she mumbled a million miles a minute as she stood up and motored toward the exit.
"Hinamori," Hitsugaya ground out again.
He had never been adept at long speeches or charismatic profoundness, and right now, he couldn't even manage more than her name, but he refused to break off his penetrating stare, meeting her back with a sort of prideful pleading. She had always been the one he didn't need to explain things to. He hoped beyond hope that that hadn't changed because he knew for sure that she was still the one who didn't need to explain things to him.
She stopped just before she reached the door, turning to glance sheepishly at the boy two sizes too small for his bed. After another moment, her hesitance faded to be replaced with a quiet determination, and she bowed.
"Please, let me apologize."
"Hinamori, you don't have to-"
"I know!" she interrupted, her voice carrying a hint of desperation before she stumbled back into her half-whisper. "I-I know. I have nothing to apologize for. You already forgave me. I know. B-But I want to do it anyway. Please."
He could only nod, propping himself up against the bed frame. With a gulp, she straightened herself and took a deep, calming breath. Hitsugaya couldn't help but wonder how many times she'd practiced what she was about to say in her mind.
"Wh-When you left, I really made a mess of things. I got angry with a lot of people who didn't do anything wrong, and I hurt Matsumoto-san. I knew … that if it was you, Hitsugaya-kun, you would never leave me behind, and so I blamed everyone else for taking you away. It wasn't until I heard that Matsumoto-san was going to the living world to find you that … that I realized that if I really thought that was true, I wouldn't have been so upset about it." A treacherous tear formed at the corner of her eye. "After everything you've done for me, I still doubted you when it mattered most."
She looked up, no longer holding back that tear as her eyes took on a frantic glow.
"I wanted to go with Matsumoto-san to make it up to you. My request was denied though, b-because my fits had pushed back my recovery, and the Soutaichou said I wasn't fit to be returned to duty. I couldn't support you when you needed it because I was too selfish. I was too stupid to see the most obvious thing..."
A sniffle signaled her next pause as she took a moment to regain what composure she could. This was all well and good, seeing as Hitsugaya's mental processing was still about two sentences behind.
"But once I realized my mistake, I couldn't get upset again. I knew that would just make things worse, so... I've been trying really hard to heal as best as I can. I-I wanted to be fully recovered for when you came back, but I didn't quite make it. Unohana-taichou let me start walking outside yesterday though! And I've been doing paperwork for the Fifth and Tenth Divisions while I've been stuck inside! Because I really wanted to be of help somehow, and I thought...
"Ah, um... But the point is, I'm really sorry!"
Once more, she swung down for a hasty bow, her hair nearly touching the ground before she shot back up. She was certainly more lively than the last time he'd seen her, and now that sad smile she'd worn earlier, even though it was wrought with tears, was just a little happier.
"And I really, really missed you. Hitsugaya-taichou."
Finally, Hitsugaya's brain caught up with Hinamori's heartfelt speech. Just in time for his jaw to drop. Hinamori had just... But the shock was followed by guilt at his last words to her, and his eyes narrowed, jaw set.
"Hinamori, I didn't-"
"Yes, Shirou-chan?" she asked brightly.
For the second time in all of two seconds, his jaw hit the floor.
"Don't call me Shirou-chan!"
"Ah! Taichou! You're awake!" Any hope he'd had for some peace and quiet was dashed as Matsumoto gallivanted through the door, tea in hand, and bypassed Hinamori in order to splay out on top of him in a poor, suffocating excuse for a hug. "You're okay!"
"He won't be if you do that, Matsumoto-san!" Hinamori scolded as she tried to pry the over-excited fukutaichou off of her captain.
But even as he struggled desperately for air while simultaneously trying to make sure she didn't spill the tea, Hitsugaya Toushirou couldn't help but feel at home for the first time in weeks.
The Captain Commander appeared far from pleased with the curt conclusion of Hitsugaya's story, but at the same time, he also seemed impatient to move on. Hitsugaya had an idea of why, and it didn't inspire any confidence.
"Very well," the elder finally acquiesced while Hitsugaya bowed his head in anticipation of the "but" to follow. "Though I have received reports that you, Hitsugaya Toushirou, have also discovered vital information concerning the traitor Aizen Sousuke, not only Ichimaru Gin."
The unspoken accusation of withholding information did not go unnoticed, but the young shinigami refused to show any weakness just yet.
"It only indirectly concerns Aizen," he began coolly, head still low and eyes closed in a strained attempt at calmness. That was the first thing he had to get out of the way - lower expectations immediately, dispel ridiculous rumors. "My ability to sense reiatsu was drastically altered following the initial attack. By the time a week had passed, I was almost unable to perceive it - my own or others' - and I was unable to control my own. When others attacked me, however, that changed.
"When their reiatsu penetrated my own, my reiatsu instinctively flared in order to provide protection. The combination of the two created a completely different feeling surrounding me." He snorted, cocking his head in grudgingly amused remembrance. "As someone else described to me, reiatsu is similar to smell. When you have only one scent surrounding you for a prolonged period, you eventually stop recognizing it. The moment another scent is introduced, however, your mind processes it again." The boy looked up. "During that moment of change, I used my attacker's spiritual pressure to indirectly control my own. The location of their reiatsu told me exactly how far mine extended. In that way, I was able to reign it in and condense it.
"Then I had only to release my hold and let it react instinctively."
Anyone who didn't know him better might have accused him of smirking as he spoke that final sentence, but he wasn't as smug as he was challenging. He dared anyone in the room to state exactly what he'd just related might mean.
It was Komamura who did it. "You mean to say the connection is only that you could possibly do the same to Aizen himself."
Hitsugaya straightened himself out as tall as he could manage. "If Aizen's reiatsu were to penetrate my own, I would be able to use my reiatsu in order to pinpoint Aizen's true location."
"Anyone with proper control could do this, isn't that so?" intoned Kuchiki, ever the skeptic.
"No. Only I could," Hitsugaya insisted to a chorus of expectant unbelievers. "Because I've already done it."
The hall erupted, at least five people trying to talk at once, and was instantly silenced by the slamming of Yamamoto's cane. Hitsugaya hadn't even had time to decipher what they were so up in arms about - the fact that he insisted he was the only one capable or the fact that he'd already accomplished it.
"Explain," the elder demanded.
"The dimension within Ichimaru's soul was itself an illusion that Aizen had created," Hitsugaya humored him, having to put effort into not allowing a superior tone escape his lips. Despite his bleak situation, he still garnered satisfaction from having even this small upper hand.
"How do you know this?"
"Ichimaru told me."
An unpleasant smell met Hitsugaya's nostrils, and he felt something poking against his barely parted lips. Everything hurt, from his fingers to his toes, and he felt far too heavy, as if gravity was pushing him toward the earth with twice its usual fervor. It was only after this conclusion that he realized he was lying on the ground. Something warm and sticky surrounded him. A painful attempt to open his eyes to the foggy world around him informed him that it was red.
As his brain slowly began to register complete thoughts, he was able to piece things together. Blood. He was lying in a pool of his own blood. His body hurt because there was a gaping hole right through the middle of it. That was a lot of blood, even for a shinigami. He vaguely wondered if it was enough to drown himself if he couldn't lift his head soon.
Oh yeah, speaking of his head, there was something in front of his face, wasn't there? His vision still refused to focus, but the incessant poking hadn't gone away. The distraction was making it even harder to collect his thoughts.
Forming sentences wasn't an option, so the disoriented shinigami offered a low growl instead. As universally understood as a kick to the groin, or at least easy enough to understand that the poking ceased, and whatever was in his personal space pulled away.
"Yer so mean. Not like Ran-chan at all. I don' think I'll ever understand what she sees in ya."
Hitsugaya ignored the voice and its owner, a task made all the easier to accomplish by the fact that he didn't really understand it. Instead, he glared at the horizon line straight ahead, trying to find something, anything on which to concentrate so that he could focus his vision.
Time and effort revealed to him a thin white panel. Moving outward from that spot, he realized the ornately decorated panel was one fourth of the frame surrounding a full-size mirror. This mirror was situated next to another, slightly different in shape and size but still for the most part the same. This mirror stood beside another and another and another as far as Hitsugaya's eyesight carried him without moving his head. Beneath him, beneath the gradually hardening rock of dark red, was another mirror. The floor itself was entirely reflective. Everything. Everything as far as the eye could see was nothing but white and mirrors.
And then there was Ichimaru Gin.
"If I had ta hazard a guess," the other man smirked, wagging a dried persimmon in his hand before proceeding to eat it, "I'd say it's 'cos ya remind her so much o' me."
Wait, no. Hitsugaya squinted through the color contrasts. Ichimaru wasn't a man. He didn't look any older than Hitsugaya himself, and the clothing he wore was that of Rukongai, not Seireitei.
His battered state must have left him glaringly transparent because Ichimaru picked up on his confusion instantly. "Surprised?" he taunted, crouching back down inches from Hitsugaya's prone form. "Well, ya did manage quite a bit o' work there. That was a sight, watchin' that illusion shatter. They're right when they say ya've got potential. Too bad it's just that, ne? Guess it's no wonder ya'd be out like a light."
"What-?" Hitsugaya just managed to croak.
Ichimaru cocked his head curiously. "Ya don' remember? Ya broke it, little taichou. Ya broke the whole damn world."
Like a jolt to his brain, suddenly it came back to him. The game and the nothingness. Everything shattering. Falling.
Well, apparently he'd landed.
"Ah, there ya go." A small chuckle. "I asked Aizen ta set that place up a long time ago, but I didn' need it anymore. Thanks fer helpin' me renovate."
Hitsugaya's breath hitched, just enough adrenaline surging through his malnourished veins for him to finally lift his head, his rasping voice sharp and guttural. "Aizen-"
"What? Ya thought that was me, my world? Yer not a very good judge o' character, are ya? There's only one man empty 'nough to make a world like that, only one man empty 'nough ta want everyone else ta feel the same."
Without warning, Ichimaru stood up and reached for Hitsugaya's midsection. The wounded shinigami yelped in surprise and pain, but he could do nothing as he was lifted unceremoniously onto his host's shoulders. He heaved, bending over from the sensation as his injuries twisted and turned and folded in on themselves.
"Aw, quit yer whinin'. Ya can' die here. Jus' take a look around. This is the real deal. Our old huntin' grounds were an illusion I asked Aizen ta set up decades ago."
"Hn? Ain't it obvious?" the other boy asked with a bright, warm smile. "I hate it here."
Lost. So lost. Endlessly lost. Pain, dizziness, and incomprehension ruled Hitsugaya's mind as he tried to process what the hell was going on, but it just wasn't working out. Refusing to lay his head down on Ichimaru's own, however, he forced himself straight through sheer willpower, taking another dazed look around the space.
Upon further inspection, it was clear this wasn't an open space. It was a room, a cube with six sides. A world walled in with only reflections for company.
"Didja know, little taichou, that there's a story in the livin' realm 'bout a little girl who went through the lookin' glass into another world? She had all sorts o' interestin' adventures. Humans really like ta look at their own reflections, don' they?
"I hate it. The only thing ya see when ya look in a mirror is what everybody else sees ya as. And ya should know better'n anyone, right?" Ichimaru offered a snide jab at Hitsugaya's knee. "Everybody else sees something completely different from the real thing."
Hitsugaya took a deep breath.
"Thanks ta ya, I can finally see my reflection again." His voice seemed to reverberate throughout the whole room. "An' now I can finally crush it."
He looked up to meet Hitsugaya eye to eye, the harshness never leaving his callous words. "It was a good game, ne? I made sure ta give ya just 'nough hope that ya didn' lose yer marbles. That's how a game should work. Ya gotta give both sides a fair chance.
"Ya think I managed it?"
Hitsugaya just wanted to vomit. By now he'd realized that what Ichimaru was saying was important, and he was hanging off of every word. It was arduous though, when every word made him violently ill.
"Memorize the feelin', little taichou. Ya broke a whole damn world. Don' forget how it felt. Ya'll break a lot o' things someday soon. S'what yer best at, after all."
Hitsugaya's grip tightened at the base of Ichimaru's neck.
"Though I do hafta wonder... What does someone like ya see when you look in the mirror?"
The instant the words were out of his mouth, the empty space before Hitsugaya's eyes was filled by a mirror. Three more at the sides and at his back. Overhead, underfoot. The entire room seemed to be moving in, working to suffocate him as he tried to struggle his way out of Ichimaru's hold. His captor was unaffected, but somehow Hitsugaya knew he was in danger. He had to get away, close his eyes, wake up.
All he saw was a mirror image of himself. Bruised, bleeding, pale, tired, scared.
The sound of cackling filled his head as his surroundings dissolved. The white was blinding.
But somehow, even as the light burned his eyes through his eyelids, the feeling was infinitely more acceptable than the one he'd felt for that single second he'd seen his own eyes before him.
"And when could he possibly have told you, if after you destroyed the illusion you awoke in the Fourth?"
Hitsugaya had been silent as the others had discussed the likelihood of any truth coming out of Ichimaru's mouth, quietly trying to remember every word Ichimaru had spoken. He'd done the same several times every day since he'd regained consciousness. He couldn't allow himself to forget. While the game had been ongoing, everything the man said had been in question, but in that room... In that room, surrounded by hundreds of their own eyes looking critically back at them, Hitsugaya was certain every word had been truth.
"In a dream."
The answer was calm, unrepentant, and so painfully insincere that the Captain Commander and everyone else in the room was aware he was purposely not telling the whole truth. But he wasn't lying either. He couldn't lie here, not in this sacred place. That didn't mean he had to tell everyone everything.
He said little else for the duration of the meeting. Most of their discussion wasn't even about him. He held his anxiety at arm's length, never letting it escape but never letting it take control either. After weeks of fighting for control, fighting for any semblance of power or chance, this was nothing in comparison.
At least, that was what he told himself.
In the end, his actions were deemed acceptable for his situation. Hitsugaya knew that only meant the war against Aizen was more important. He wasn't complaining.
The announcement itself was anti-climactic, leaving Hitsugaya to feel more tired than excited. He was only half paying attention as he wandered slowly out of the hall. Enough captains had passed him that he was confident he was the last, and only once he came to this conclusion did he halt his crawling pace and lift his hand to steady himself on the wall.
The room was not spinning, he told himself, and in a few seconds, he'd be able to walk normally again.
The boy all but leaped a foot into the air at the cheerful call, and Ukitake had to catch him by the shoulders before he could have a heart attack. Damn. Had he come back when Hitsugaya hadn't followed the others outside?
"Are you alright?"
When Hitsugaya offered an unconvincing nod, he sighed, letting go so that the youngest captain could once again steady himself.
"I wanted to congratulate you on your reinstatement. Would you join me for tea?"
The older man was patient as his smaller companion took a deep breath and then finally began walking again, keeping up appearances as best as he was able. It hurt Ukitake a little, to know Hitsugaya felt the need to pretend in front of him, but he knew better than to take it to heart. After everything that had happened, Hitsugaya was probably still on alert around everyone.
"I can't," Hitsugaya answered after a moment, looking up to meet Ukitake's gaze. "I've already made plans today."
"You have?" Ukitake blinked stupidly. Maybe his observation had been wrong.
Hitsugaya allowed his expression to morph into a pained scowl, but it was obvious this wasn't physical pain the moment he opened his mouth. "Matsumoto coerced me into a spa visit. Apparently it doesn't count toward our agreement unless I participate fully. When Hinamori found out about it..."
Ukitake stalled, the description so opposite of what he'd expected, so brilliantly typical, so blatantly ridiculous, that he couldn't keep himself from chuckling.
And then that chuckle became a laugh.
"Nothing. Nothing at all. Tomorrow then, once you've had time to relax?" the older man grinned.
"Were you listening?" Hitsugaya drawled. "Between Matsumoto and Hinamori, I won't have a moment of rest."
Another laugh. "You can relax today. You can rest tomorrow. Hm?" he conceded, offering Hitsugaya a pat on the shoulder as he finally passed him and stepped out into the open air. "Ah, by the way. Hitsugaya-kun."
Shading his eyes from the sun, Hitsugaya nodded his acknowledgment as Ukitake turned to face him.
"Trying to stand so straight is only going to make you dizzier."
Hitsugaya instantly flushed, and Ukitake smiled lightly.
"Ceremony is just that. Ceremony. You're among friends, even here. Try to remember that, Hitsugaya-kun. Weariness is not a weakness. It's understanding."
With one last smile and a wave, he left, and Hitsugaya was again alone. Just him and the First Division's decorated fountain.
As Ukitake's words ran themselves through his mind, a thought occurred to him, and he stepped up to the fountain, slowly bending over so that he could see his reflection in the water. It was different than it had been while within Ichimaru's inner world. Cleaner. Absently, he dropped a hand into the water and disrupted it with his fingers, watching as his reflection distorted.
Ichimaru Gin had used him to destroy an obstacle within his soul. The whole elaborate game was nothing more than a ploy. Now Ichimaru was free of some illusion of unknown origin, and the shinigami had yet another possible strategy to use against their enemy Aizen Sousuke.
Ichimaru Gin, Aizen Sousuke's partner, had leveled the playing field willingly. For what? More entertainment? To give them false hopes?
...Because he actually wanted to defeat Aizen?
Weariness was understanding? Ha. This was the furthest from understanding he could get.
Suddenly, his fingers stopped their trek through the water.
"Thanks ta ya, I can finally see my reflection again." His voice seemed to reverberate throughout the whole room. "An' now I can finally crush it."
As his own reflection slowly reformed in the pristine water, he stared in awe at his own eyes as they stared back at him, wide and shining and clear.
Maybe, just maybe, it was because Ichimaru Gin saw the same thing he did.
Maybe, just maybe, he wanted to win.
"He's over here! I know it!"
"What? How could you-?"
"It's the boobs, Hinamori. They always lead me straight to him. You'll understand when you're older."
"Rangiku, I don't think... Oh! Hitsugaya-kun, there you are!"
"What'd I tell you? One hundred per cent accurate!"
"It has nothing to do with that! You knew he'd be here because they just had a meeting!"
"Naysayers shall be punished!"
It took all of Hitsugaya's will power not to freeze the whole damn fountain. Instead, he slowly turned to face the familiar voices, finding their source just in time to witness Matsumoto hugging a whimpering Hinamori tightly to her bosom.
"Eh?" Matsumoto glanced at him surprised, and Hinamori was just able to escape. "Taichou? Are you okay?"
He snorted, shutting his eyes and lifting his head as high as he could manage before stomping off to their destination, the two girls at his heels. "I'm fine! Why would you waste your breath on a stupid question like that?"
"For a moment, you just looked..." Hinamori trailed off inquisitively. "Really happy."
He paused, not having expected the accusation. "Hn. Maybe a little."
"Taichou? Are you smiling? Oh, Taichou!" Matsumoto Rangiku gathered up her two younger companions and scrunched them together in a hug. "You're really growing up! Tonight you bathe as a man!"
Chapter Twenty-Six End