Disclaimer: I don't own Bleach, its characters, etc.

Call Me Shuhei

By TYSON GRANGER

'Call me Shuhei.'

Ha, what a joke, me stealing a quote from a book. I hate reading books, always have. It is probably why I failed my entrance exam for the Shinigami Academy twice before I finally made it in. It had nothing to do with my ability, I know that much, but the fact that I could never bring myself to crack open a textbook and study made my early days a lot harder than they might have been otherwise. I don't regret it.

I have many regrets in my life, but my animosity towards literature is not amongst them. I could never regret something so trivial. A man I admire once told me that regret was useless, and that if one had time to regret that their time was better spent righting the wrongs that caused it. He made me believe it was that easy. I don't believe that anymore. Not since that man betrayed me, Captain Komamura, and the whole of the Court of Pure Souls with that bastard, Aizen.

At night the images of my regret flash across my lidded eyes and a cacophony of screams, and swords, and meaningful talks with my captain that meant nothing keeps me from the sleep I so desperately need. Days now are hellish. My nightmares are Hell. I think back to my days at the Shinigami Academy and the first time I ever felt regret and I wonder even now if I could have changed the outcome of that day. I know now that I had been set up…that we had all been set up…but somehow I think I could have saved more. I could have saved someone other than myself.

The dark of night provided us cover and allowed us to move freely about the living world, giving the freshman the perfect opportunity to hone their skills against our dummy hollows. It was a relatively safe outing, considering only students with talent were admitted into the academy in the first place and these dummies hardly had any power at all. The Barrier Team had already taken their positions to make sure the living would come nowhere near us, and to ensure that any real hollows that reared their ugly mugs would be stopped before they reached the freshmen.

The first-year students had been split into groups of three and were sent to their respective areas in order to face the dummies. It was their first chance at combat experience, and while many would excel and many would fail, it was all normal. The dummies could be taken out in an instant by one of the sixth-years in attendance should the need arise to protect the kids. The chance of that with three students working together, though, was miniscule at best. Nevertheless, it was my duty to ensure everything went according to plan.

It had been my first opportunity to lead a mission into the real world, and the thought excited me more than a little. I had received assignment to the 9th Division before graduation, and was the first to accomplish that feat in some time. I was proud, but not obnoxious. I wasn't so spoiled as to think I was something special. The desire to succeed still burned brightly within me, and this mission was to be the first of many successful ventures for me. That was the plan when I dismissed the freshman to their areas, and when they all began filing in from their respective locations I was confident that I had done just that.

I was wrong. At the time of evacuation I received no response from the Barrier Team that was watching our backs. Instinctively, I knew something was wrong. I should have reacted then. But how could I know what would happen? Suddenly, I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. The shout of another sixth-year and my own intuition caused me to snap my head around just in time to catch a glimpse of the swinging blade-arm of a Huge hollow.

For a moment, I thought I was going to die. The paralyzing fear of oblivion held me perfectly still as the blade drew closer…too close…and then not close enough…when it slammed into the body of the girl to my right. I wondered how on Earth such a beast had managed to get so close to our group without being sensed and if this was the reason that the signal from Barrier Team was dead. Her body hung limp on the end of its sickle-like appendage and the blood flowed freely from the fresh wound in her stomach. The sight made me want to vomit. The creature made me want to scream in terror. But only later would my mind register the facts of the matter.

She was dead. I failed to save her.

As it cast aside her ravaged body my senses returned. A rage filled me, or maybe just adrenaline, and my 'battle mode' switched into gear. The man to my left charged hastily, too fast for me to call out and stop him, and fell victim to the hollow's other deadly claw. There went another I couldn't save. Of the three sixth-years that had been sent in, this Huge hollow had taken out two in mere seconds, and I was the last thing between this monster and a buffet of potential spirit power. I could almost feel the maddening hunger it must have felt, sensing the feast at my back.

Without hesitation I called out to the freshman to run, sent out a quick SOS to Soul Society, and then steeled my resolve to attack. If I died it would make no difference so long as they were safe. But damned if I wouldn't go down swinging! I drew my zanpaktou and went on the offensive, putting all the skill and training I'd gained into the attack. I leaped, dodged, and slashed…but all for naught, it seemed, when the back of its claw crashed into me with enough force to thrust me into a nearby wall and crush the breath from my lungs.

I slumped to the ground, down but not out. My head throbbed and blood somehow made it into my eye from a wound on my head, but I had to buy more time…I had to buy the freshmen more time to escape! I stood and drew my zanpaktou for another assault when the creature split its blade into several blades, significantly decreasing my chances for survival. I scoffed, unfazed but resolved to my fate, and dived back in for another round, only to be knocked away by another backhanded attack. I could barely believe its speed!

I skidded across the blacktop walk and came to a stop several meters away from the creature's body. My hand burned from dragging it across the asphalt, but before I could pay it any further mind I realized suddenly that I was still within the creature's attacking range. Sweat turned cold and my eyes grew wide as the hollow's blades bore down on me. My unreleased zanpaktou was already nearing its limit and for all my courage the demon was way out of my league. I knew at that moment that if that attack struck, I was going to die. I should have died right there, fighting.

But I was saved. First by a trio of first-years who had disobeyed my orders and stayed behind, and then by Captain Aizen and Lieutenant Ichimaru who destroyed a horde of the monsters. The trio of first-years who had stopped the creature's blades survived as well…and that was it. When we arrived back in the Seireitei, Captain Aizen informed me that the freshmen I had ordered to flee had been cut off and consumed by the hollows as well, and that only the four of us had managed to outlast them. I wasn't sure whether to be thankful or sick.

When I went to sleep that night, I was decidedly the latter. I laid in the warm comfort of my own bed and I thought of all the people who had died on that mission, the people who would never again enjoy the same comforts that brought me solace now. The same people I was supposed to protect. I thought about their fate at the hands of those demons and it made me sick. I remember making my way halfway towards the door before I was hunched over myself, spilling the contents of my stomach into my hands and onto the hardwood floor beneath me. I was so disgusting…

The experience was one that I could never forget, and even now I regret not having done my duty to protect those who needed me. I regret having lived in their place and moving on, in spite of the fact that they weren't there to move on beside me. I was a ghost for years after the incident, upon my graduation and into my years of service in the ninth. Or maybe they are the ghosts and I am the haunted. The voices of the dead used to visit me each and every time I closed my eyes.

They called out to me, 'Help me, Shuhei!' And, 'Why did you let me die?' My nightmares were always the same. If I covered my ears I could hear them. If I closed my eyes I could see them. And always, in my heart, there was regret. Always, until I finally met him.

Kaname Tousen was a man of great repute when I met him, and an honorable man from the moment he first set his hand out before me. At first I had wondered if I could handle being a Lieutenant to a blind man, but his calm and righteous demeanor put me at an ease that I could never recall feeling. His senses, body and soul, were so honed that I never really noticed his disability after that meeting. He was more whole without his sight than most that saw. I was in awe of him, completely.

'You must let go of your regret, Shuhei Hisagi,' he told me the first time we truly sat down and had a conversation. As usual, his stone eyes were hidden behind his trademark goggles. 'Follow the path of least bloodshed from this day forward and you will know no regret.' His deep voice was one of understanding and honor. Somehow, his words reached me. I found made a vow from that moment forward to follow in his footsteps. To have the inner peace of Kaname Tousen…that became my dream, and to spread that peace was a dream we shared with one another proudly. But it was a fool's dream, and I was again the fool.

Kaname Tousen is a traitor, branded when he turned his back on the Soul Society to assist Sosuke Aizen in murdering Kuchiki Rukia, the Chamber of 46, and seriously wounding his own lieutenant, Hinamori Momo. I remember the words exchanged between he and Captain Komamura when the negacion of the Menos Grande lifted him to Hueco Mundo. The Captain of the 7th's voice was as my own, cracked with betrayal and a lack of understanding. How could a man so just do something so wrong? I wanted to know how the man who had become an idol to me...a friend, an older brother, even…stray so far from the path of justice. What I got was a response that I still don't understand.

'It is as I said, these eyes see only the path of least bloodshed,' he had said, before vanishing into the depths of Hueco Mundo. In his heart he believed those words. I know he believes it even now. For all the deceit, Tousen has still never lied to me, and even if I should hate him I don't. But I still don't understand. I still can't understand. Maybe I was never meant to, but I regret it just the same.

Days after his departure I sat in the 9th Division and I still wondered why he had gone. Why hadn't he spoken or at least explained things to me before he went? Maybe I wouldn't understand, but maybe I would. Didn't he at least owe it to me to let me decide that for myself?

He doesn't really owe me anything, I know, but damn, it was all so frustrating! My heart had been torn in two and there I was, buried under a mountain of paper and regret. When I finally went back to work, undertaking the duties of both a captain and a lieutenant, I could barely keep up with all the work that had suddenly been thrust upon me. I'm not ready; I know that…I need his guidance.

I remembered him once telling me about the person who had shown him his way. Long ago, this person had taught him virtue and that there was nothing wrong with fighting for peace. It was someone very close to him…someone who died, leaving Tousen behind to carry on without them. As my thoughts always seem to drift to my captain…ex-captain I always remind myself…I one day found myself wandering out towards that person's grave. It was the place he would always go in order to put things into perspective. I hoped, vainly, that it would work for me now.

It was no surprise that when I arrived at the grave site that I was not alone. There, standing by the headstone and looking out across the horizon, was Captain Komamura. He, too, had been struck by the betrayal of Kaname Tousen, possibly on a deeper level than even I understood. We spent most of that afternoon standing in silence, save for a promise between men to drag our mutual friend's ass back to the Court of Pure Souls and show him the error of his ways the moment we found him.

It was a slight comfort, knowing that I was not alone in my regret. But Komamura was a relative closed book when it came to sharing his own feelings and thoughts. As much as I would have liked to reach out to him, this was something he would face on his own. He is strong, however. I know he will recover eventually, and that Commander-General Yamamoto will be there if he does decide to talk about it. Those two have always had somewhat of a close relationship, ever since the old man 'saved' him.

I, on the other hand, have no one. I tried drinking with Kira and Matsumoto in order to wash away our problems, but the next morning all I felt was a headache and then…more regret. Kira will recover, I think. Matsumoto and her sake will help him with that. I often catch him passing through the Seireitei streets under cover of darkness on his way to visit her, and I think to myself that it would be wonderful to have someone to share things with like that. Not like that exactly, I mean, because that mode of coping is theirs alone. Everybody has their own way of dealing with the facts of the matter…everybody except me.

My confidant is currently somewhere between Heaven and Earth, along with my hopes and my dreams. All I have left is my duty and my regret. And their combined weight is so heavy…I'm not sure how long can I stand with that pressure on my shoulders. I was never built for this type of responsibility…I think Tousen knew that, so he made life easier on me by keeping my responsibilities as his lieutenant to a minimum. But now the veil has been lifted from my eyes, and the weight of this office is starting to get to me.

Sleep comes rarely…peace even more so. Tonight finds me restlessly awake at my desk, trying to file through another mound of forms, requests, and other documents that I will eventually have to finish. I'm running on my last legs, though. I never liked reading (as I told you before), and there are way too many pages for me get through in a single night. Hell, I don't know how people get through this many pages of paperwork in a week. It's all such a burden…

I sign my name to yet another transfer form…I can't count the number of them I have signed since taking over. It seems that without Kaname Tousen, the men of the 9th Division have lost faith, and are going elsewhere to serve someone they can trust. Maybe it's just the stigma of serving in the division of a traitor, or a reflection of their lack of faith in me. I wouldn't fault them either way. I just sign their forms and let them go. But tonight I'm at my whit's end. Endless hours of paperwork, training, and insomnia have wrecked my body to the point of exhaustion, and it's time I gave it some rest. I stand from my desk with a silent resignation that tonight I would be facing my nightmares once more. The comfort of my bed calls me…the horror of my dreams await.

Only I don't quite make it to my bed. Somewhere between my quarters and my office I begin to stumble, legs unusually wobbly. There is a rail nearby and I know if I can reach it I will catch myself before I fall. My hand stretches out to catch it but it's falling away now…slowly, surely. My vision blurs and I vaguely recall the feeling of something hard slamming into the back of my head just before my world fades to black.

"Shuhei…" a soft voice echoed in my ear. It sounds as if it is passing through water, but the voice managed to somehow wake me from my unconscious state. What happened to me? I wondered, realizing with some discomfort that my body wasn't responding to me at the moment. My eyes were forced closed, my parched lips only slightly parted. The urge to lift my hand to touch them was overwhelming, but it was as if I were paralyzed completely. What on Earth could have happened to cause this?

"Shuhei…can you hear me?" the voice calls again, this time a little more clearly. I wanted to open my eyes to see them…my mouth to speak to them. Who was this person and how did I get here? My unasked questions were, quite obviously, unanswered, but the voice seemed determined nonetheless. It was a woman, I realized, the next time she spoke. "You gave me…you gave us a real scare, Lieutenant Hisagi. You're lucky Captain Komamura found you when he did."

'Captain Komamura? A scare?' I thought, trying to remember just what I was doing last. I remembered that I had been…thinking…and working hard at my desk before deciding to get some rest. I remembered being tired…and then…nothing? Had I passed out on my way to my quarters, then? There were so many unanswered questions, none of which I had the ability to voice. Just what the hell kind of magic was she using on me?

"The captain said…you've been working yourself too hard, Shuhei," she began softly, though I could hear her fine. I wondered if she was leaning down closely so that only I could hear, because otherwise I don't know how I could have heard her voice. It was honey-sweet, soft, and smooth. A little deep, but distinctly feminine…it was oh-so-familiar. And each word was laced with soothing compassion and a hint of…worry?

"It's been so hard for you, hasn't it?" she continued, while I could only listen. "With everything that's happened…Captain Tousen leaving, the 9th Division losing so many members…you've been taking so much on yourself. Something like this was bound to happen to you. I'm just glad that you're all right…" Her voice trailed off strangely, and for a moment I thought I heard something like a choked sob next to my ear. A moment later, a drop of something…a tear, maybe...fell onto my scarred cheek. Why did this nurse seem to care so much about what happened to me? Who was she? A minute passed in relative silence before she spoke again, and when she did, she seemed a bit more composed.

"You probably noticed that you can't move right now, and the reason is that I put a very high level binding spell on you. Your body was wrecked from all the stress you put it through, and I could tell from the bags under your eyes you hadn't been sleeping. Please…" her voice caught, but she continued admirably, "don't do this to yourself. Promise me you'll get some sleep before you leave here…and that you'll take better care of yourself from now on. Shuhei…there's been too much death already. Too much pain. If I… if we lost you now, it would be too much…just too much to bear. All right?"

Long, lithe fingers brushed against my cheek. Her touch was light, practiced…truly the hands of a healer. And she must have been close because I swore I could feel her body radiating warmth. I wanted more than anything just to open my eyes and see her…open my mouth and speak to her. Having her so near was more comfortable than I could have imagined being and the inclination to keep her there beside me…whoever she was…tugged at my heartstrings more tightly than I could have imagined.

I struggled with my eyes but the lids remained drawn. Faintly, I heard the sound of the chair creaking beside me and I realized all at once that she was leaving me. My body felt cold…my heart, alone. Light footsteps padded towards the door and an irrational panic struck me. Before I knew it I was desperately fighting against the binding spell, trying to speak…say anything at all…to keep her with me. To keep this healing angel from leaving me…

Suddenly an idea struck me, and I concentrated all my strength and power into my mouth and lips. It took every ounce of my spiritual power, but at last, I managed to form a single word. It was quiet, so much so that I wasn't sure she could hear me. And as soon as it slipped past my lips I was bound once more, exhausted from the effort.

"Stay…"

The footsteps stopped. I could have sworn I heard a gasp, and then a silence filled the air. She heard me? Light footfalls began once more, only this time in the direction of my bed. She had heard me! If I could have smiled, I was sure I would have been grinning like an idiot. The feather light touch of a few moments ago replaced itself on my cheek, and I reveled in the feel of her smooth, feminine fingers. A warm puff of air brushed against my cheek and once more I wished I could just open my eyes to see who was sitting there, next to me.

"All right," her silky voice began, no higher than a whisper. Unmistakable was the pure elation that permeated her soft voice. "I'll stay with you a little longer, Shuhei. I promise." Her words put me at ease, and I quit struggling against her binding spell. If she was with me, I could relax. My strength was failing, and consciousness was slipping away. The last things I remembered before falling asleep were the feeling of slender fingers twining with my own, and a soft, warm pressure against my parched lips.

Hours later my eyes strained open painfully beneath the unfiltered lights of what I assumed to be the infirmary. Someone really should tell Captain Unohana to put a cover on those things, lest all her patients go blind. I thought as much, at least, before my eyes finally adjusted enough to see. Focus came slowly, and for a second I wondered if they were doing it right at all. My eyes must have been deceiving me…because all I could see at first was blue.

"What the…?" my voice was raw from lack of use. It sounded hoarse, foreign. I could barely believe it was mine. I tried to lean my body forward and found there was a weight on my chest that was pinning me to the mattress. It was then that I noticed the warm fingers that were still laced with my hand. 'She's…still here?' The realization brought a weak smile to my face.

"Shu…hei…?" the tired sound had come from the other side of the small mound of blue, which had suddenly begun to stir. I couldn't help but think for a moment just how nice a shade of blue it was. I raised my free hand to my eyes and rubbed the sleep from them, at last bringing complete focus to the world around me. The blue…which I now recognized as hair…turned away and was replaced by the color of pale skin…and her eyes…

'I…Isane?!' the realization didn't shock me as much as it should have. I smiled a little in spite of myself, lifting our joined hands to my chest. "You're still here…"

"You're…you're awake," her voice was timid and her cheeks were tinged with red. It gave her complexion a flushed look that was all-too-endearing. The corner of her lips lifted upwards and her eyes began to water. She seemed so happy…I couldn't resist the urge to place my free hand on her cheek.

"Thank you, Isane…" I whispered as her free hand covered mine on her cheek. Our eyes locked and we were frozen. She had been through much…I'd experienced even more…but somehow we were both still here. 'We,' I thought, liking the sound of that word, 'Isane and I…together.' I didn't question how she and I had become a 'we' in my mind. You just don't question something like that…not when for the first time since your heart was broken you feel like you're not alone. Maybe she was feeling the same.

Isane broke the stare and laid her head on my bare chest where I could feel the damp rivulets of crystalline tears dripping onto the toned skin there. I wasn't sure whether they were tears of worry or relief. I hoped they were the latter. My hand moved from her cheek to cradle her against me. And we stayed there…holding one another in that lonesome hospital bed that didn't seem so lonely anymore…until the stern, motherly voice of Captain Unohana called down the hall for her lieutenant.

She stood from the bed and stepped away nervously, beautiful in all her modesty. I smiled when she blushed and waved goodbye, slipping out the door with the promise to return when her duties released her. Not that I minded…one of the enduring lessons Captain Tousen had taught me was to be patient no matter the circumstance. Still, as Isane disappeared from my sight, I couldn't help the tinge of regret that tugged at my heart.

'I should have kissed her goodbye,' I thought with a small uplifting at the corner of my lips. I lay back against the pillows with a dull thud and a sigh. 'No matter…I'm used to regret.' The uplifting turned into an all-out smirk; this feeling was even stronger than the regrets I had pondered in my office, before. Fortunately, this was a wrong that would be rectified as soon as possible. I closed my eyes and thanked Captain Tousen for all the lessons he had taught me before his defection. I couldn't change the past…but I would change the future for both of us.

Both of us…and maybe, Isane, too.

R/R