I reiterate: you must never, ever, EVER ride a motorcycle without a helmet. My first memories of waking up are hazy and confused. A blur of black moving shapes, the sensation of being lifted and carried, the sight of blood smeared everywhere and the taste of dust in my mouth were the first things I awoke to. I didn't remember at first how I came to be in that condition, only that I was surprised to see my captain…for some reason. Gradually as lucidity returned, I recognised the backpacks of the 4th division shinigami tending to my wounds. But increasing alertness also brought with it incredible agony; and I couldn't speak or move. I looked at Komamura and he looked back at me before barking an order to one of the medics. I felt the prick of a needle and slipped back into comfortable oblivion.
The second time I awoke, I was in the 4th division's infirmary. A stringy-looking young medic was sitting beside me. I tried to speak to him, but could only groan. He leapt up and began trying to explain things.
"U-uh, 4th Division 7th Seat Yamada Hanatarou…please don't exert yourself, lieutenant…you've got multiple fractures and severe abrasions from the crash. Komamura-taichou killed all the hollows chasing you. You're safe now and…"
Hollows? A crash? What happened? Then the memories returned and I looked about in alarm. Before Hanatarou could continue, my captain's deep voice interrupted.
"Thank you Yamada-san, for looking after my lieutenant. I'd like to have a word with him in private. Why don't you go and tell his friends that he's woken up?"
"Hai, taichou." The medic bowed and scampered out of the room. Once the flip-flop of his sandals died away in the distance, my captain took his place. I could not bear to look at him directly. Despite knowing what I'd seen, he still risked bringing me back. He had to lie of course, about the cause of the accident. He regarded me gravely, before muttering under his breath, "I'm sorry." As if sensing my discomfort, he filled a glass with some water from a pitcher so that I could drink. And suddenly, I felt awful.
The man was dead. He'd gone to Soul Society. He didn't need his mortal body anymore. He was human, Komamura wasn't. Strictly speaking, it wasn't cannibalism. But then I panicked stupidly and crashed the Roadog – the only means for the lumbering Komamura to reach the lost spirits that needed him. I was an idiot.
"Taichou…please forgive me…"
"I wanted to say that I'd gotten his permission first. His clan places the bodies of the dead where animals will find and eat them, by the way."
"…is in better shape than you are. Headlights and side mirrors are easily replaced. Lieutenants are not."
Dumb lieutenants, I mentally corrected. "I won't tell," I said weakly.
"You did not need to see it. Thank you…" And that was all.
He was cut short by an urgent knock on the door. Ikkaku, Renji and Izuru were eager to check on me and he let them enter. Over the course of my long and painful recovery, Komamura would come in occasionally to enquire about my progress. I had several weeks to ponder the nature of my captain. He still took me out on trips afterward, but he spoke less to me, as if he didn't want to risk frightening me again. The assignments were the same, but he conducted the soul burials with quiet dignity and none of the savage passion that I had seen previously. He said little and wore his heavy mask constantly in Sereitei. It was as if the Komamura that I had known had hidden himself beneath a façade of polite etiquette and 'human' composure that was at the same time completely unnatural to behold. So that he could blend in. So that his division would accept him. So that he wouldn't scare the humans.
Sometimes I would get a brief glimpse of his eyes through the slit of his mask. They were brilliant, monstrous and golden still; but his gaze reminded me of a caged wolf in a human zoo; confined for the safety and comfort of the masses.
And that is when it dawned upon me. Listen closely, human…I hope you understand.
Humans are sheep. Not in the sense of being dumb, mindless creatures that blindly follow each other to the slaughter (though plenty of those types certainly exist), but in the sense that they are our charges and responsibility; the whole bloody flock of them. And just like the four-legged creatures that they care for, they are targeted by merciless and ravening predators – the hollows that we shinigami fight and kill and get killed by so that they can live their lives in ignorant, blissful peace. Yet this peace is all too often taken for granted and the herd all-too-often abandons and persecutes the individuals among them that appear different in some barely discernible way.
We search for the stray sheep, and bring them back. But unlike an actual, bleating lump of wool and mutton, humans have wills and believe in self-determination. The lost members of the flock will only trust a shepherd who can think like them and knows how it feels to be truly alone. Komamura takes this to an extreme. He revels in being a monster, the ultimate pariah, so that he would truly understand the suffering of even the most wretched outcasts. So that they would follow him home.
He doesn't even eat our humans. Hell, even human shepherds eat their sheep sometimes. Komamura's secret diet preference only includes the abandoned shells of the human-sheep who have moved on to the proverbial meadow-in-the-sky. It's like harvesting clumps of wool stuck to a pasture fence when compared to the Earth livestock industry. A monstrous path indeed. Yeah, effing right. General Yamamoto chose his captain well.
Once I let Komamura know that I understood, it seemed like a huge burden was lifted off his shoulders. He took off both the physical and metaphorical mask; and he…uh, we dined on a freshly-slain calf that was sacrificed to spirits as part of some human funeral ceremony. We ate it raw, marking our arms and faces with blood as we howled, shouted and rejoiced in both human diversity and the thrill of all things feral and fearful and wondrous still left in the world.
I don't expect other shinigami to understand this at all. I don't think the wild-eyed Ikkaku Madarame, or even the eccentric Abarai Renji should ever find out. This is our secret, one that the soutaichou himself must never know. Inside Sereitei, we walk close to each other, our faces impassive; keeping a civilised and dignified countenance for the comfort of others around us. Once we are alone in the human world, my captain has at least one other monster who can accompany him wherever he chooses to roam. Free.
One last mystery remained. I finally gathered the courage to ask Komamura how he came to look the way he does. Souls arrive in Soul Society as the same species they were on Earth; and to my knowledge, dog-people are completely mythical.
How wrong I was. Komamura showed me the old human historical records of the Neuri, cynocephali and werewolves; the legends of ancient animal-headed deities and monsters. These legends were real. Once upon a time, there had been more like him living amongst the earthly flock. But they had never been numerous; and eventually died out in obscurity. Most became hollows and evil spirits, for very few shinigami were willing to come for them; and many still remain that way – a perverse transformation of lost sheep into hungry wolves. Those that came to Soul Society finally died again and were reborn as ordinary humans with no memory of their savage past. All except for one named Sajin Komamura.
My captain has one fear, and that is the total extinction of his species and its memory. Komamura holds on to the fervent hope that he will eventually discover another of his kind. He isn't a young shinigami anymore, though he still has at least a millennium ahead of him in Soul Society if he doesn't fall in battle first. Barring the lucky discovery of a compatible mate in Rukongai, he plans to discover and awaken the sleeping beasts that lie dormant in the souls of certain special humans; in the fervent hope that he will rediscover a member of his kind from ages past reborn within a human shell. Maybe, just maybe, before they die they will realise who they were; and arrive in Soul Society as monsters again. Until then, they walk a lonely path.
My captain believes that he will find these special humans among the outcasts of the world. This is the other reason he searches for their spirits. He says that many such people may even be half-aware of their true heritage, and become outcast as they try to live in accordance with it. The old woman we met in the jungle put on a deerskin for her final dance despite the tropical heat. Was there now a fair maiden in Rukongai, dancing on cloven hooves?
Returning to the present, we have arrived at the home of a city-dwelling human family. It's late at night, and I ask my captain if some old person has died in his sleep. Komamura replies that we would not be performing any soul burials here. There was something else he wanted to show me. He quietly takes me through the wall and into a room where a young woman lies sleeping in her bed. Around her room are various animal-themed toys and decorations. A poster of a werewolf that bears a striking resemblance to my captain hangs on her wall, and she clutches a plushie leopard to her chest. A shelf of books nearby contains fascinating tales of shapeshifters and dragons alongside back issues of National Geographic. On her computer desk, the statuette of a horse rears at a collection of seashells in a jar. But what distinguishes her room from that of the average animal lover is the presence of a particular hair ornament on her bedside table. It's a curved plastic band with fluffy, cloth cat ears on it; and when worn they make the user look like a humanoid cat. I can't resist trying them on, earning a silent groan from my captain; who rolls his eyes.
I replace the cat ears on the table and ask him if she is one of his kind; one of us. He says maybe; the only way to tell for certain is when she is dead. He plans to come for her when the day arrives. Until then, we can only hope that she awakens…if in fact that is what she is.
We return to the Roadog parked on the roof, and Komamura asks if I am ready to go. Then I suddenly get an idea. I pull open one of the saddlebags and retrieve an item that I had forgotten about months ago; the walking stick of the old deer-woman with the feline skull on it, and return to the girl's bedroom.
Shinigami like me have hundreds, if not thousands of years to learn the things that are truly important in life. Some of us never do. I walk to where you lie asleep, wondering if you have enough human years ahead of you to learn who you truly are. It doesn't matter even if you aren't what Komamura hopes you may be, as long as you keep the memory of the Beast alive. Remain true to yourself, whoever or whatever you are; even if it turns you into an outcast. And as a gift I place the staff with its feathered skull on your desk; so you can puzzle over the circumstances of its arrival when you wake up.
My captain has never been talkative, and when he comes for you it will be no exception. When he turns to you, will you follow him?
A/N: The Neuri and Cynocephali are races of people once believed to exist through the writings of Herodotus and early Christian records respectively. The former are a savage tribe thought to turn into wolves once a year, while the latter are dog-headed humans. Both are considered cannibalistic.
I would also like to thank dartigen, A.J Starhiker and cathrl of the Writers Anonymous forum for the help in describing a motorcycle crash.
This fic took a lot out of me to write...it is rather different I guess. The 7th division's characters haven't been well-fleshed out in canon, so I had to create something attractive yet plausible. I got inspired by the fact that in Soul Society, Komamura and Iba look so...normal...even with the captain's helmet off, that there just had to be something else going on. Let me know what you think!