The Recovery of Salt
Based purely on material up to and including the Soul Society Arc; does not reference characterization after. Spoilers. Rangiku, Gin. For M.
There are three resolutions that Rangiku always makes at the beginning of spring. This will be the year she manages to finish her paperwork before her captain sweeps it away with a scowl to complete it himself. This will be the year that she gets Hinamori to come out on festival night with all the other party-goers; maybe she can convince the girl to dress in something cute and finally catch Aizen's eye.
This will be the year that she'll forget about Gin.
She fails miserably at all three within the first month, not even coming close to her best record of eight weeks. Hinamori's caught up in errands, saying something about how Byakuya's on the warpath again about some breach in conduct; his sister is out working somewhere so it's nothing Rukia's done, particularly if the rumors involving live fish and someone's smallclothes. A terrible prank, Hinamori says. Byakuya has vowed death by decapitation.
Renji passes them both in the hall as they're trying to figure out the culprit; he acknowledges their presence with a solemn nod, but quickly covers his mouth and turns away. Rangiku stares at his back as he saunters away, betting for all the world that he's concealing a laugh.
Hinamori's brow wrinkles. "Do you really want me to come with you, Rangiku? It's just, with so much work going on..."
"No, no." Flapping her hand against the girl's anxiety, Rangiku sighs. "I'll try someone else. But asking him might be more trouble than it's worth."
Rangiku's mouth feels like a worm under salt. "Every year I wonder if he'll be interested," she blurts suddenly, venting base frustration. Hinamori is safe to hear these things; Hinamori will not betray anyone's confidence. "Every time I think we're drifting apart as friends, and have nothing in common, he does something -- or says something, and I don't understand him anymore."
If it was anyone other than Hinamori, Rangiku knows that she'd catch a lecture -- something traditional, about moving on and letting go. But this is Hinamori. Wonderful, darling Momo Hinamori, who only smiles a little and inclines her head in sympathy, passing off another spring festival so that she can stay inside, and finish Aizen's papers.
Rangiku presents the question listlessly the next time she sees him, mostly to get it out of the way: the rejection can come quickly, she can pretend it doesn't matter, they can both resume their normal lives. "Will you be going to watch the sakura blossoms this year?"
He surprises her by saying yes.
He's gone before she can confirm anything else -- or even confirm that he understand what she was really asking -- but there's no mistaking the way his hand lingers on the door as he slides it closed behind him.
I'm going to spend the evening out with Gin, she whispers to herself, and tries to stop from blushing like a little teenage girl with her head in the clouds and oh, she can't afford to sit around and giggle, she's got work to do. No. They're simply two shinigami. Two normal, average shinigami who will be attending a normal, average event that everyone else would be too -- and Rangiku hugs her fists to her chest for one brilliantly triumphant moment, feeling as if she's won something very precious to treasure, one warm memory that will make up for any number of years spent cold.
When the night comes, he's not there.
The crowds are thick, spreading like black and white mushrooms across the lawns near the Kuchiki estate. Byakuya must loathe the ceremony, judging by the frosty expression of the 6th Division Captain whenever he sweeps along the walkways of his home.
Rangiku scans the assembled officers, and sits down on a corner of the 10th Division's blanket. Alone.
But the clusters of shinigami are laughing, and the sake is well-stocked. Rangiku passes the time by indulging heavily in both. The quarter of the lawns that Division 11 has taken up breaks out into a fist-fight -- inevitably -- and Yumichika is seen running across the grass wrapped in a checkered towel, protesting noisily.
Rangiku spills half a cup of sake across her hand and goes to sleep that night with the smell of alcohol wafting up from her pores.
The next day, Gin's already in her office by the time she wanders in.
"Sorry I couldn't make it yesterday," he begins. She turns her face away and ignores him as politely as possible, but mostly because she's not sure she can keep her poise regal and dignified, like she wants. He continues anyway. "Something came up."
"Oh?" The word comes out before she's even aware that she's intending to speak. "I hope it was good."
He grins at her, but doesn't elaborate. Instead, one of his hands ducks into a sleeve of his uniform and retrieves a slender box. He watches as she opens it.
One polished wooden lid, one layer of cotton gauze, and then the prize within is revealed: a slender, single hairpin that looks as if it has been carved out of ivory, with flakes of gold spiraling along its length. Her first thought is that they resemble autumn leaves, or yellowed ashes on the wind. A golden filigree twists around the larger point, and two delicate tiny flowers dangle from the endcap.
The metal is hammered to resemble chrysanthemums.
"I was planning on bringing this with me last night," he claims, even as she's fighting to keep her fingers steady while she turns the elaborate jewelry over. "But... I couldn't figure out where I left it. Funny how that goes, isn't it?"
"It's very nice," she says, a little mechanically. Gifts are the kind of thing she shouldn't want, a weird pay-off apology -- but she's weak against the thought that maybe Gin really was out looking for something for her, maybe maybe maybe. And she doesn't really want to stay mad at him, so she forces out a murmured, "Thank you," and lets him take the hairpin back out of her sweating palms.
"Close your eyes," he orders suddenly, and she obeys.
He hums to himself as he leans forward, bending towards her rather than walk around to menace her from behind. His clothes smell like moth dust as they brush against her nose. The jeweled shaft of the pin feels cold against her scalp as he slides it into her hair; cold and tight, twisting the locks as Gin experiments with figuring out how to make the pin stay.
Finally he releases the ornament gingerly, giving it the faintest of pats once it stays in place. "Good," he announces, sounding a little proud, and she holds herself perfectly still until he after goes away.
She manages to put him out of her thoughts for the rest of the summer. Gin is forever an enigma, and Rangiku -- she is older than this. Older, more experienced, wiser. She is a grown woman. They should have more stable interactions, ones based strictly around the workplace, or at least as individuals. Rangiku isn't doing either of them any favors by swinging from professional to mopey child.
And Gin is -- Gin is Gin.
He surprises her near the end of summer when he stops by her office, every inch of his uniform neatly pressed and in order, fresh threads stiff on the fabric. "I was thinking, Matsumoto," he begins, amiably, "would you like to join my squad this afternoon? There's a pack of hollows -- nothing too bad, nothing bad at all -- but I thought if you wanted some fresh air?"
Startled, she hedges. It wouldn't look good if she accepted too quickly -- it would make her a pushover. She doesn't exist simply to jump at his beck and call; she doesn't want to look desperate. "I don't know," is her initial response. Pride spurs her on. "I mean, I do have work of my own to deal with, and..."
"All right," he replies simply, and walks away, leaving her frozen behind him.
The next time he swings by, she doesn't hesitate. "I know you're not really fond of tea, Matsumoto, for which I don't blame you in the slightest, but --"
"No, no." There's a preliminary meeting that she promised Hitsugaya she'd attend, and Kotetsu was supposed to be there, along with all the other lieutenants. "I'll come."
Her reward is a smile.
"You'll be there tonight, then," she emphasizes, just as he's starting to leave. "Remember?"
Gin gives a jaunty flap of his hand. "I promise."
When the hour rolls around, Rangiku half-expects that he'll have forgotten -- but he's there after all, five minutes early at the door. The polished veneer of his face is impenetrable. He brushes off all the jokes that she tries to make; even the more polite, neutral conversation that she digs up about work has no impact. He's not even pretending to smile past a minor curving of his lips. Once they're seated, he gives only brief orders to the waitress, who blanches and hurries back into the kitchens.
The cakes are sweet and flaky, and they sit like rocks in Rangiku's stomach. Her throat feels tight.
After they both have run out of tea to pretend to enjoy and the bill has been settled -- evenly split between them -- Gin takes off with a simple wave, not even looking back.
As she stands there in the road, the weight of sugar in her belly, Rangiku wonders if she should have gone to the preliminary meeting after all. It would have been more entertaining.
The primary meeting the next day is enacted with all the captains and their lieutenants, but the presence of over half of them is largely ceremonial. Rangiku doesn't have anything to add to the long list of Rukongai disturbances; no one in attendance is particularly interested, but formalities must be observed anyway.
She thinks about kissing Gin all throughout the afternoon, about the way his lips would taste: flat, slightly chapped, his tongue carefully lifeless in his mouth, just damp enough that she could not pretend he was dead. She thinks about the way she would press her mouth against him and find only the minimal response, just enough that she couldn't tell if he was interested, only that he might not be.
Rangiku he would say, or maybe Matsumoto, and reach up to push her gently away, as if she stank of liquor again and he was trying to keep her from losing any more dignity.
And she would ignore him, ignore it as she'd knock his hand aside and run her fingers over the flat muscles of his chest, the skin strangely hot as she found her way underneath the layers of his uniform -- and he'd be muttering Rangiku again, just her name this time, fierce against her mouth as she shoved her weight forward. His legs would hit the edge of the desk. Rangiku and there would be no warmth on his flat, flat lips, no warmth at all.
Rangiku stares at the papers on the table in front of her, mentally swearing up and down that when she wets her lips she can taste his spit lingering behind, a faintly sour residue in the corners of her mouth. She worries at her lips constantly over the course of the meeting, fretting at the skin, feeling restless and hungry and almost frantic with need.
She catches him looking.
The urge to force a resolution out of Gin passes eventually, which Rangiku supposes she should be grateful for. As terrible as it may be, she likes herself better around Gin. She likes feeling giddy, and happy, and optimistic enough that not even an afternoon spent in practice drills can sober her.
Her upswing in mood is recognized by Hitsugaya, who takes the whole thing in stride. "You're acting even more ditzy than normal, Matsumoto," he comments one afternoon as they're watching the shinigami train in the practice yard. "Is there anything I should be aware of?"
"Oh, so you've finally started to pay attention to women, are you?" she grins, leaning over to ruffle the air over his head in an implicit threat.
He gives her that look, the one of bored disgust, but doesn't continue the conversation from there.
The euphoria lasts until the next time she sees Gin during a meeting, and he's smiling at everything else in the room but her. By then, the season is fall, and she's more than prepared for winter.
It takes over fifty years of unsuccessful summers before Rangiku finally understands why people choose to reject things that they're in love with. She'd been on the receiving side more than once; she'd never understood before how someone could vow affection, and then turn away as if those words meant nothing.
You're too easy to fall for, they'd say and smile, turning away and leaving Rangiku alone in her pained confusion.
She'd never thought she'd join the crowd until she realizes how painful it is to see Gin -- like prodding at some invisible bruise that she's confident shouldn't hurt, but does anyway. And the worst part was how self-created the whole thing is, how she can start hating herself for how stupid she gets around Gin, how easily she brushes aside her own thoughts with the desire to fill herself with his instead.
It hurts to see things she doesn't want to hate.
Springtime saunters in again. Rangiku makes her resolutions as she slides the ivory hairpin between her fingers, listening to the faint tings of golden chrysanthemums fluttering against each other.
After a while, she takes the hairpin off her desk and opens the window to pitch it out.
Five minutes later, she's out in the street trying to find where it landed.
She never finds the hairpin, but it's just as well -- Gin never asks.
Life as Hitsugaya's lieutenant is not as bad as it could be. Her captain is icy in disposition and weapon both, but he understands her well enough, and they get along. Working for him gives Rangiku the luxury of official position in the Gotei without having to involve herself in complex authority, and she likes that too; it's a comfortable lifestyle, and she doesn't need much more.
The summer air is good in the Seireitei. Rangiku likes to keep the windows open so she can lean on the sills and watch the world go by.
It's during one afternoon spent ignoring the requisition slips piling up on her desk that Rangiku catches sight of a clot of 3rd Division shinigami. She jerks upright, shoving a thick lock of hair out of her eyes as she focuses on the blot of white and black wandering along the sidewalk.
Gin's in the lead. As Rangiku watches, he turns his head in Kira's direction, and laughs.
The noise is unexpectedly painful, even as she finds that she's smiling. Her eyes crinkle at the corners. For one piercing moment, Rangiku imagines that she would do anything to hear that sound again, as if the world has suddenly become a place solely for Gin To Laugh In.
At the thought, her stomach is suddenly a little queasy inside -- like it recognizes the depths of her patheticness and is rebelling against it. She compensates by having extra tea. The hot liquid blazes down her throat and makes her feel both hollow and full inside, and she hates the feeling of being hungry so much that she drags Hinamori out for lunch.
Leftovers in the Soul Society are not encouraged. Food is a hard enough matter to deal with when it's a vital luxury item; Rangiku has the remainder of her noodles packaged up when she can't finish.
Back in one of the archival rooms -- she can hear the chaos down the hall as Ikkaku is being called to task about his accounting figures. Her noodles have begun to dry out from not having enough broth. The edges curl up like aggressive tentacles. She pokes at them with her chopsticks between pages, trying to conjure up an appetite.
"Why the solemn look?"
She's startled; Gin always has a knack of sneaking up on her, and she's never been able to figure out how. The door didn't even creak open this time -- or if it did, she didn't hear it. "I've just been thinking," is her reply, coupled with a smooth inhalation, daring him to ask.
He doesn't inquire, which both disappoints her and makes her feel foolish for being disappointed.
When his shadow disappears from over her shoulder, and the door has confirmed his departure with a soft click, Rangiku finally unclenches her grip on her chopsticks and sets them down on the desk.
"I thought about being in love with you again," she confesses quietly to the dusty shelves and knows that she's lying -- that there is no again because there was no ending in the first place. She's never stopped.
When the attack comes, Rangiku barely has enough time to register who's betraying whom. Hinamori and Hitsugaya at odds. Tousen is an uncomfortable choice for intrigue, considering his emphasis on order. Aizen -- there's a surprise.
What really gets her is Gin.
Rangiku handles the recovery of the Seireitei by doing what she does best: resorting to the familiar.
In this case, it means drinking.
She chews her lip until it bleeds, and then she thinks to herself how funny this is, how a shinigami can be so easily hurt in a realm where fancier weapons are expected to cause collateral damage. Afterwards, she wonders what this means, when people fall into the same category as hollows and swords. The skin peels and chaps between her teeth until Hitsugaya blares an annoyed order to get herself looked at by the medics, and Rangiku laughs off the stinging.
She knows the real reason why the Soul Society differs from the living realm, all those technical terms of spirit and flesh and energy. Still, Rangiku can't shake the memory of how easy it was to feel her own immortality slipping away, unshelled into a fragile ghost every time she met Gin's eyes.
She doesn't know if it's a relief that she doesn't have to look at him anymore. She tells herself it is.
The sake burns her broken mouth on the way down.
Even though she's lucky enough to come out of the fighting with barely a scratch, Rangiku feels sick. There's a pressure constantly in her nose and cheeks and eyes, until Rangiku starts to think -- crazily -- that she's ready to burst into tears at the drop of a hat. Over lunch. Over report briefings. While tying her obi.
But she's not too good at crying anymore and she ends up wrinkling her nose and sniffing it a bit too much, itching around this presence of saline in her face that refuses to burst. Thinking about global disasters doesn't help; not even reviewing Aizen's slaughter in the Chamber of 46 impresses her with the weight of mortality, so that while other squads are mourning their fallen comrades, all Rangiku can think about is how unfair it is that Gin's gone. She can't yell an answer out of him if he's not around.
Her Captain is not so easily fooled, which is a fact that Rangiku has cursed many a time; Hitsugaya's mercy is reserved for Hinamori, which is why he doesn't spare her from his powers of interrogation. "Are you sick?"
The emphasis could have gone on any of those three words, but the last one stands out most. Because Rangiku has nothing better to say, she tosses her head and replies thickly, "Yes."
"If I didn't know you better, Matsumoto, I'd say something was bothering you."
"Yes. No," she contradicts herself immediately, fiddling with the hem of her scarf. "He's an idiot," she blurts out at last, fiercely, and -- just in case Hitsugaya gets any funny ideas -- she fumbles for a cover. "Kira. I'm worried about Kira."
Half of her expects that he'll contradict her, but he's more tactful than his physical body would imply, and Hitsugaya only drums his fingers thoughtfully. "I didn't realize that you and he were that close."
She scowls, still thinking about Gin. "We aren't. I mean," fumbling, "he never. He didn't. Nothing happened."
Hitsugaya stares at her with that too-young too-old look of his, the one that's almost feral in its intensity, and then he nods.
Rangiku wonders what Hinamori will do when she wakes up. If she will. Kira doesn't answer many questions about what Aizen's betrayal means to him, but he smiles a little too fast these days when someone compliments him on his ability to keep it all together, smiles a little too hard.
There are wounds on multiple levels left behind by this shattering of trust, and people treat the victims gingerly, as if they fear contagion of Hinamori's madness. The 9th Division. The 5th Division. Sajin Komamura. It's impossible to compare, to define -- who was hurt more, who was hurt the most. Who should still be hurting. It seems like no one understands what should and shouldn't be happening, so everyone tiptoes behind protocol, and Rangiku's glad for the diversion.
Her sinuses feel like she's underwater, or in the Senkaimon without a hellmoth to guide her. She returns to the Chamber of 46, yanking a mop away from a helpless shinigami sporting an armband of the 4th Division. She orders them out before they can do more than start to protest, telling them that she's got it handled for the rest of the day.
"If you're going to cry," she states aloud once she's alone, feeling all the more foolish when she hears her voice in the room, "then just do it."
Saying the words does nothing for her. Talking to yourself is reserved for the elderly, the crazed, the Kuchikis. All her confidence isn't helpful when she keeps remembering the dozens of how-are-you-doings that always seemed to arrive just when she'd finally managed to break the habit. The way that Gin would play with his chopsticks whenever she succeeded in coaxing him out for noodles, or the little lilt in his voice when he was honestly amused and trying not to hide it. The way he'd always rub his nose like a fox, twitching it as he moved a knuckle covertly across the tip, stopping whenever he caught someone watching.
That's what she remembers the most about him, and that's what she should forget.
"You used me," she tries to convince herself, scrubbing at the floor until her hands ache. "I was just a game."
But it was a good game, and the more she looks back, the more she realizes that she should have expected as much anyway. They'd both been toying with each other, back and forth. She'd never decided what she wanted from him in the end, because she always changed within five paces of his smile; she became someone other than herself, and that person couldn't understand him either.
"I hate you," she insists quietly, and sighs.
She goes out for drinks that night, by herself this time. The dinner crowds are thinner than normal, which is good because it earns her a seat near the bar, picking idly at fried dumplings. Gossip is weaker than usual as well. It's quiet.
As the hour winds down, the bar owner comes back cursing, pushing through the kitchen curtains, the smell of steamed fish on his body.
"Women!" he growls, waving his broad hands in the air like jerky flags. When Rangiku arches a skeptical eyebrow, he elaborates. "A girl. Not as pretty as you," he's quick to add, yanking off his hat and slapping it on the counter. His hair is short and sticks up in black spines when he runs his fingers through it. "One of the vegetable sellers near Rukongai. I see her every morning when I pick up food for here, eh? Once I even offered to watch her stall for her when she wasn't feeling too hot. But then she started acting strange afterwards, like it meant something." He snorts. "I don't know how to tell her, it was just something a friend would do. There was no meaning to it."
"Oh," she says.
The bar owner grumbles to himself while Rangiku keeps her hands laced very carefully around her cup, lips pressed together. Eventually, he notices her silence. "What's wrong, miss?"
Autumn hair tumbles when she shakes her head, a brief flurry of invisible leaves that rustle for only a moment. "Nothing. I think -- I've been stupid," she contradicts herself instantly, confessing softly to her cup. Her eyes burn, but they don't well up. "I think I've been very, very stupid."
The bar owner tries to be kind about it, which is the worst part; he attempts to pat her hand and offers to let her pay the tab later, and if there's anything she wants to talk about, well, women weren't that bad. Rangiku thanks him, settles the bill anyway, and goes straight home.
She doesn't cry that night -- but surprisingly, when she wakes up, she finds she no longer needs to.
"Good morning," she sings when she pushes through the door to the 10th Division's headquarters.
"Afternoon," Hitsugaya corrects her darkly. "You slept in again. Also, it seems that you missed an admirer."
One eyebrow raised, Rangiku navigates her way towards her desk. Her feet feel lighter than they have in months; she almost wants to bounce on her toes, it's that good of a day. Even the tea had tasted better than usual when she'd had her first wake-up cup.
Her energy comes to a halt once she notices the small, rectangular shape sitting innocently on top of her paperwork. Wrapped in a scrap of gauzy white cloth, it's about the size of a feather. Not a traditional gift, really. For one thing, there's no label to identify who it's from.
Hitsugaya gives a one-shouldered shrug, concentrating on the folder in his hands that has a stark Revised Medical Procedure written on the top, with a smaller note of, How Not To Be Like The 11th Division underneath. "It was left in front of the door. Since it's not mine," he stresses, nodding towards the fabric-clad object, "I naturally recognized it as yours. Don't worry. I had someone check it for traps already."
Her mind puts together the colors first as she peels open the wrapping, even while it refuses to acknowledge the whole. Yellow foil. Ivory stick. The small scratch on the side where she'd accidentally closed it in a drawer. Gold flowers dangling, paired together: chrysanthemums.
She presses the hairpin against her lips before she can stop herself, and thinks she can taste him there.