The air in the 61st district of the North quarter is fresh. A Southerly wind carries the hint of the sea beyond the 80th district to the noses of the 61st's inhabitants. The town is small, but busy with all the residents engaged in their own daily tasks. Laundry lines are hung out with the women putting up or taking down sheets and other necessities. Around them, children laugh as they run in and out of the billowing white sheets. The men are mostly absent as they have gone off to fetch firewood, but a few still remain taking care of other tasks around the town. An older man sits atop one of the towns cozy, though somewhat rundown houses. He grabs a nail from between his teeth and places it over a wooden board he holds across the hole in the roof. With great concentration, he brings the hammer in his other hand back and swings down, burying the nail into the board. He strikes a few more times before inspecting the job and smiling to himself.
When he turns to inform the owner of the house, he pauses, realizing how quiet the town had gotten while he was busy concentrating. He scans the dusty road from where he sits and finds the reason. Coming up the dusty road from the South, two women dressed in black are walking. One of them is young, with short, unruly brown hair. She has a cheerful smile on and is chattering with her companion. The other woman, while probably not much older, holds herself with a sense of purpose well beyond her years. Her long black hair is held in a ponytail and her bright green eyes are serious and hard.
The residents of the town watch them quietly as they approach. Many of the women have ushered their children into their houses. Shinigami rarely brought good news to the towns of Rukongai. The commoners knew that the shinigami weren't villains, but their presence almost always brought disaster or loss of some kind. One older woman steps out onto the road and walks toward the pair of Shinigami. A long time ago, her only boy had been chosen by the shinigami to join them. At the time, the boy had been excited and she could not convince him to stay. He had died in the living world ten years ago, trying to slay a hollow.
"Have you come to take another one of our children again?"
The old woman grips the knotted top of her walking stick tightly in defiance. The two other women stop in front of her. They are used to this treatment, especially the one with serious eyes. The younger one shakes her head and pouts.
"No ma'am, we haven't."
"Hmph," the old woman snorts. "Then I guess you're going to tell us to leave town because there are hollows around then."
This had happened many times over the town's history. Shinigami would rush into the village and order everyone to leave immediately. Hours later, when they were allowed to return, the town would be in shambles. It would take months to rebuild all the houses that had been destroyed in the fight. Everyone knew it was better than the alternative, but over the years, some bitterness had built in the hearts of the town's residents.
"That's not it either," the serious looking woman says.
Something about the way she speaks catches the older woman's attention. She looks at the woman with green eyes and raises one wrinkled eyebrow. The old woman had been around for some time now, and over time, she had developed a bit of a sixth sense with people. The woman standing before her was aged beyond her years. Only two things could give a person eyes like that: a great tragedy, or a monumental purpose. The old woman guessed that in this case it was both.
"Would you like to come in for a moment?" The old woman says suddenly. The younger woman is caught unawares and stutters for a moment, but her serious partner nods and bows, thanking her. The three women walk toward a particularly run down looking house. Around them, the town begins to come to life again. If the elder had decided to let two shinigami into her house, there can't be too much trouble coming their way. The women return to their tasks and the children cautiously leave their houses and return to play.
Inside the house, the woman hobbles over to a small chair and sits down, looking intently at the two shinigami. "Sit down," she says.
"Thank you, ma'am," the younger woman says, looking around and finding another chair. The serious woman simply nods and pulls a chair from behind a small table. "Um," the younger woman begins hesitantly. "Well, thank you again for inviting us in, ma'am. My name is Michiko. I'm with the 4th division, 125th seat." She turns to her companion. "This is Ayano, 4th division, 73rd seat." She turns back to the woman with a look of pride. "We're here on her behalf."
The old woman nods. It was more or less how she thought it would be. She turns her gaze toward Ayano expectantly. When she speaks, her voice has softened considerably from the harshness she had displayed outside. "Well what is it, dearie?"
Ayano nods thankfully and closes her eyes. A small sigh escapes her lips. The old woman can sense that what she is about to say, she has said many, many times before. She looks so tired, with her eyes closed, sitting there in the house's dim light. When she opens her eyes again, the tiredness disappears, pushed aside. She is full of purpose, and speaks as such.
"I'm looking for someone," she begins. "A young man, around my age. He would have arrived around a month back. Have you had any new additions to your town?"
So that was what it was. The old woman nods in understanding. It was a common story for people to get separated after death. Families were split up and randomly appeared in any one of Rukongai's 320 districts. In this young woman's case, it was probably her husband or boyfriend who she had been separated with. But it struck the woman as odd. If the man she was seeking had only appeared a month ago, and this woman was a seated officer, they couldn't have possibly died around the same time.
"I'm sorry," the old woman says. "There haven't been any new people in over four months. It's been very quiet for some time."
The old woman sees the intense tiredness return to Ayano's emerald eyes. Her posture shifts almost imperceptively, but the old woman catches that as well. Her shoulders sag in…disappointment? No. Something much stronger than that. Anguish, the old woman realizes. Ayano's whole body sinks ever so slightly where she sits in what the old woman is increasingly sure is an unbelievable sadness.
Michiko turns and gives a pained look to Ayano. Her hand begins to move from her knees, but stops. As with every time, there wasn't really anything to do or say when they got an answer like this. She swallows the words of comfort in her throat, knowing they will only make things worse. Instead, she turns her gaze down to her lap, remaining quiet and giving Ayano the time to recover that she always needs. It has been getting longer each time, and Michiko couldn't blame her.
"Excuse me," the old woman says hesitantly.
"Yes?" Michiko responds quickly, taking over for Ayano.
The old woman gives another look at Ayano before turning back to Michiko. She knows that the serious woman is in a lot of pain, but because of that, she simply can't leave it alone. The curiosity of the old has caught her in its grasp and she knows that she will not see these women again before she dies.
"This man," she says slowly. "How long have you been looking for him?"
Michiko casts a sidelong glance at Ayano, wondering if there was any way to talk about this without breaking her heart further. But Ayano does not react, simply sits there, silently.
"About a month," Michiko says.
The old woman sees Ayano sink even further into her chair. She looks from Ayano to Michiko and feels her own heart grow heavy. She can see it clearly in Michiko's eyes. There is no guarantee that this man is actually anywhere in Rukongai at all. Maybe a hollow had taken care of the man before anyone could send him here, or some other tragedy had occurred, but there was no way to be sure if the man in question had made it to soul society.
"Michiko," the old woman says softly. "May I have a moment alone with Ayano?"
Michiko falters, unsure what to say. She looks to Ayano, who smiles and nods. Michiko smiles back, but she knows that Ayano's is even more forced than her own. "Sure," she says, and gets up from her chair and walks outside.
Inside, a heavy silence begins to build. The dusty air is filled with unspoken emotions. The old woman looks at Ayano like a mother looks at a child. Her eyes are soft and compassionate and completely accepting. A part of her knows she can't really help the girl sitting in front of her, but the rest of her feels the urge to try nonetheless.
"Tell me about him."
Ayano looks at the old woman, surprised. 301 districts visited already, and not a single member of any of them had asked her about him besides a description of what he looks like. She had been taking every free moment available since that fateful day to scour every single one of the districts of Rukongai to find him. She had been to every other quarter, visiting every district individually and inquiring about him, but never finding him.
Her lower lip quivers slightly and a wetness comes to her eyes. She can feel a lump begin to form in her throat, but she swallows it and lightly bites down on the inside of her cheek. She breathes in deep through her nose and pushes back the oncoming tears. Her hands grip the cloth around her knees hard.
"I love him."
The old woman smiles a warm and painful smile. She can feel every ounce of meaning behind those words. And she can hear all of the unspoken words that don't accompany what's been said; 'It's been so long,' or 'I don't know if I'll ever see him again,' or 'I'm scared.'
"He was…the nicest man I've ever met," Ayano says.
A sad smile comes across her face. The old woman knows that smile. It's a smile that is seen on the wrinkled faces of the elderly. It's a smile for old friends and lovers who have disappeared into time, while you continued on. It's not a smile someone with so little wrinkles as she should smile.
"He would do these things…these sweet things…that I never needed to ask for," Ayano continued to say. "Little things, every day. A hug, or a nice dinner, or he'd get a movie for the two of us to watch together, or take me out to this field and we'd watch the stars."
Ayano's eyes were distant. The old woman knew that from time to time, she had eyes like that as well. You didn't look at the present with those eyes, only the past. And this girl was remembering things from a whole lifetime ago. How could such a young girl be so very old?
"We were engaged." She chuckled to herself. "It took him long enough to get around to it. But he did it just right. We were just taking a walk, spending time together like always. It was spring time and the weather was amazing. It was in the afternoon and he just stops, takes the ring out of his pocket and…asked me."
A single tear falls from her eyes.
"He was always like that. Never made a production out of anything…he just…talked with his heart, and that was always enough for me. I said yes, of course. I cried. So did he, actually." She laughs.
The old woman sees Ayano grow somber when the laughter dies down. She wonders if she's coming back to the present again, but Ayano's green eyes are still glazed over, looking into the past.
"I was sick," she says softly. "Brain cancer. But I didn't know…there was no way to know. One day, I just started getting headaches, feeling dizzy, being clumsy. One day I had a seizure. He took me to the hospital."
"They found a tumor," she says, her voice distant. "I didn't leave that hospital until I died."
The silence in the room deepens. The old woman knows what it's like to battle illness. When she was alive, she had gone through a number of near misses with a variety of sicknesses. She looks at the girl carefully. There's something about her that says that wasn't really the end.
"What happened then?" the old woman asks, caught up in Ayano's memories.
"He could see ghosts," she says with a small, sad smile. "I didn't believe him at first, but like I said…he spoke from his heart, so eventually he convinced me. That was before I was in the hospital." Her smile loses some of its sadness as she continues to speak. "He visited me every day for hours at a time. But my condition only got worse over time. They determined that the tumor was inoperable…and fatal. I was in a lot of pain. One day he visits me and sits down next to me. He was crying. He told me that even if I died, he would be waiting for me; that he wasn't giving up, just that he was ready. He could see ghosts after all. It comforted me to hear him say it.
"They put me in a coma after that."
The old woman could hear a sort of calmness in her voice. She had been ready to die at that point. She believed in him so much that she was ready to die just to be with him again.
"I died in my sleep, and he was right…I turned into a ghost."
A deeper, more serene smile fell into place across her face.
"And he was waiting for me, just like he said he would be. It was such a beautiful day. He was standing there in front of the hospital. The cherry blossoms were blooming and falling all around him. He just smiled at me.
"But later that night…a hollow came."
The old woman could hear the pain in Ayano's voice when she voiced those words. She could only imagine the unfairness of it all, to have waited for death in order to see him again, only to have it taken away by those creatures.
"It was going to eat me, but the shinigami showed up. Back then, I didn't know anything about either of them. The shinigami were a little late though, the hollow had attacked him when he tried to defend me. He was dying. When the shinigami did get there, they saved me and performed the konso. At the time, I was so full of fear and anger. It felt like they were just leaving him to die, and taking me from him. I hated shinigami and hollows with my whole being.
"I ended up in the West 21st district. I wasn't happy about it either. I spent days screaming and crying. Nothing anyone could say or do could help. One day, when I had exhausted myself, I realized I was hungry. Around the same time, some shinigami were out a routine patrol. I attacked them, still angry about the whole situation. They arrested me and brought me into the Seireitei. I screamed and cried again for a few days. Finally, I asked them why they only brought me water, because I was hungry too."
The old woman nodded. If someone grew hungry in the afterlife, it meant they had some degree of spiritual power. That was how they had singled out her only son all those years ago.
"Eventually, I met Captain Unohana while she was taking care of another prisoner who was wounded. She saw me and talked to me, explaining the whole situation, and I realized the mistake I had made."
Her eyes change slightly.
"I owe the captain more than I could ever possibly repay." She shakes her head and continues. The glaze in her eyes is mostly gone now. She was returning to the present. "After a few years, I ended up in the Fourth division. I would frequent the living world, looking for him, in case he was still alive. But no matter how many times I visited, I couldn't find him."
Her voice changes when she speaks again. This time it is full of anger at herself.
"Eventually I gave up."
The old woman can feel the heat of her anger toward herself when she speaks those words. The regret and frustration is palpable in the air. When Ayano speaks again, it is obvious that she is trying to put that memory from her mind.
"I figured he'd been killed by that hollow, maybe eaten. So I gave up on him. But I was wrong. About a month ago, there was an attack on the 4th division main hospital. Two extremely high level hollows showed up and destroyed the building, massacring my comrades. No one could harm them. But one of them wasn't attacking people, just standing there. He looked at me. His mask was strange, almost like two masks in one. He said he knew me, but I didn't believe him. I had given up, but I still harbored hatred toward all hollows.
"That's when he took his mask off."
Ayano's voice, which had been very calm, almost disinterested since she had quashed her inner anger, suddenly became very emotional. Tears came to her eyes and began to fall. When she spoke again, it was in a whisper.
"It was him, it was my Aki."
The old woman felt tears spring to her eyes as well. She let them fall freely, smiling warmly at the serious woman in front of her.
"He was alive…he was a hollow, but he was alive. He hadn't been eaten or destroyed or disappeared at all. I didn't know what to do, what to say." Her voice turns sour again. "But I didn't have much time. Another hollow appeared and took Captain Unohana hostage, almost killing me in the process. I passed out. Later they told me that Captain Unohana saved my life. When I came to, I was frantic, I wanted to find Aki. They said he was fighting the other hollow. I rushed to the place they were fighting. I've never run so fast in my life.
"But I was still too late. When I got there, Aki had won, but the other hollow had really hurt him. He was dying. I held him and cried. He told me he loved me, that he had been looking for me all this time, that he had been doing everything he could to become human again just to find me. And now he had, but he was dying. His last words were that he loved me…"
She grew quiet. Her eyes were focused now. She was back in the present. The old woman was silent, unable to speak. The girl sitting before her was older than even she had expected. The things she had seen, and been through were beyond expectation. Her eyes softened and another tear fell from them.
"I owe Captain Unohana my life," Ayano whispers. "If a Quincy kills a hollow, they disappear completely. If a hollow kills a hollow, they are gone forever." She reaches down and pulls her zanpakutō onto her lap. "But if a shinigami kills a hollow with their sword, the hollow is purified of its crimes and the soul is sent to soul society.
"While he was dying in my arms, disappearing right underneath me, the captain pushed me away from him and cut him."
The old woman, completely caught in Ayano's story, felt her heart flutter with hope.
"I don't know if she was in time," Ayano says softly. "He could already have been dead, killed by the other hollow. He might have disappeared entirely, and I'll never see him again. Those might be the last words he'll ever say to me."
She stands up and places her sword back in the sash around her waist. Her eyes are full of purpose again.
"Even if I search all of soul society and never find him, I'll move onto the next world, and then the one after that. The living world, Hueco Mundo, even Hell if I need to." She turns to the old woman again.
"Thank you for listening to me," she says with a smile. "Keep an eye out for my Aki, would you?"
"Of course, Ayano," the old woman says, choking back a sob.
Ayano nods and reaches for the door. There are many more places to search before the sun sets that day. Even if she didn't find him, she would be back the next moment she had the chance. She had given up on him once. Now, she swore, she would never give up ever again.
So that's the end. I hope you enjoyed it. I hope you don't feel jipped with the ending because I left it open like this. I rewrote this epilogue a few times to try and get it just how I wanted it. I'm very happy that I finished this story. I feel like I accomplished something good, and that it's a pretty good story if I do say so myself. But I don't want to toot my horn too much.
Thanks for everyone that reviewed while I was writing. You guys were so helpful. I really appreciate it. You kept me writing through the hard times.
And of course, thanks to bluefirevixon for always being there to help edit and give me her opinions. You're a beautiful and amazing individual. I hope you enjoyed the story, and that the editing didn't take away from the experience too much. Thank you so much again, you're incredible.