Disclaimer: I do not own Bleach, or anything associated with it whatsoever. Alas, and woe.
Raucous laughter boomed it's way around the crowded bar room, ricocheting off the wooden walls, and not quite drowning out the clinking of ceramic cups or the noise of drunken singing. Numerous voices chattered away with an enthusiasm that spoke of borderline inebriation, and if the cheerful calls for another round and the approving outbursts that accompanied them were any indication, 'borderline' wouldn't satisfy many of the shinigami enjoying the lively happy hour.
Hitsugaya Toshiro stood outside the sounds of boisterous partying, leaning against the outer wall of the establishment with a scowl on his young face and his arms crossed in front of his chest. His trip to this section of the Seireitei had been for nothing it seemed.
According to the endless pile of documents and paperwork that appeared on his desk in the 10th Division headquarters every morning, Matsumoto's emergency trip to the world of the living to relieve an injured member of their squad and finish the small remainder of that squad member's time on patrol in that zone was already completed. By this time the busty women should have returned and checked in. His fun-loving fukutaichou, while alarmingly easy-going about certain things (the both of them, darn it), she took her duties and responsibilities as a shinigami with a deadly seriousness that meant he could count on her to properly document her return.
The youngest taichou in the Gotei 13 had considered for a moment the possibility she had been assaulted by a foe so fearsome she had been overwhelmed before she had time to send out a distress signal, but a quick investigation had disproved that theory. A quick trip to the guards at the gateway to the world of living confirmed her return passage, though the members of 1rst Division who had been on duty could only tell him Matsumoto appeared oddly withdrawn and forlorn upon her return despite her attempts to conceal the fact.
Hitsugaya had returned to the squad office to see if they had missed each other during their traveling back and forth, but Matsumoto was not there, nor was she at her home. The white-haired boy genius had made his way to his missing fukutaichou's favorite watering hole on the off chance she would be there, but his search for Matsumoto here had come to nothing. Usually, she was quite visible during the turbulent happy hour, but even after looking carefully, and trying to zero in on her distinctive hair there was no sign of her. His subsequent search for the vibrant color of her pink shawl had only lead to him witnessing Shunsui-taichou pitching over out of his chair, totally sloshed.
Hitsugaya shrugged his shoulders then sent a green-eyed glance down each side of the clean swept street. There were plenty of shinigami milling about conversing and laughing; enjoying the mild weather that characterized the climate of Seireitei, but none of them was his fukutaichou.
A familiar figure strolling by in a taichou's white coat caught his eye. One of the people passing by might be of aid anyway, the taichou considered, as a mop of silvery hair and fox-face grin came walking his way.
Hitsugaya moved away from the noisy activity of the building he had been leaning against, stepping over what seemed to be a totally sloshed, facedown unseated shinigami in the process, to approach the shady 5th Division captain in the street. Hitsugaya made a mental note to keep his voice neutral. Just because he didn't like the guy and the poisonous atmosphere that seemed to follow him didn't mean he had to automatically be rude.
He'd wait until Ichimaru earned it. That usually didn't take too long.
"Ichimaru-taichou," he began in clipped and formal tones.
The lanky Ichimaru stopped and looked down from his much greater height to look directly at the white-haired prodigy in away that gave Hitsugaya the impression he was being carefully scrutinized. He understood perfectly why Hinamori was unhappy whenever Ichimaru paid a visit to the 5th Division to speak with Aizen-taichou.
"Why, Hitsugaya-taichou, I hope you are well this fine evening," Gin said in a perfectly polite tone that made Hitsugaya want to throttle him.
"Ichimaru-taichou," Hitsugaya continued, ignoring the compulsory inquiry, "have you seen Matsumoto anytime tonight? She was to return from a patrol in the human world and she hasn't checked in yet. All that I know for certain is she returned successfully from the world of the living."
The expression on Gin's eerily smiling face didn't change, but Hitsugaya thought he detected a subtle change in the other captain's mood.
"I'm afraid I have no information for you, Hitsugaya-taichou," replied Gin. "I'm terribly sorry to not be of more service to you."
Hitsugaya's sharp green eyes flicked off to the side as he considered where else he might look for his missing right-hand woman. His fukutaichou was more than capable of handling trouble herself, but her uncharacteristic behavior caused him concern. Even if she returned from a battle she found devastating in some manner, she would still have made sure her division knew of her arrival in Soul Society.
"Not a problem," the short shinigami captain said. "Thank you for your time."
The preoccupied Hitsugaya turned aside and wove his way into the crowd of meandering shinigami making their way through the neatly paved streets of the Seireitei while behind him, Gin stood in place, the gears of his minds rapidly coming to a conclusion. A moment later, the space he had occupied was empty, vacated without so much as a swirl of disturbed dust.
Despite the amount of time they spent apart these days and, a fact known to few, his deliberate efforts to schedule events so that he could avoid Rangiku, some things remained the same.
The captain of the 3rd Division followed an old, familiar route with a stealthy speed worthy of the Assassination squad into the endless stretch of the Rokungai, and past the slums teeming with the less fortunate souls of dead to one of the few quiet spots beyond the outskirts of the area. The outer reaches of the Rokungai were so wildly different from the homes and businesses and way of life within the bleached white walls of the Seireitei one had to live in both worlds to truly understand the contrast.
The mud roads of the slums were lined with poorly constructed, overcrowded shacks and shoddy patchwork tents. Plumbing was a luxury rarely heard of and hardly seen and electricity was strictly found in the dreams of the foolishly optimistic. The people forced by circumstances to live in the shanty town were perpetually filthy, clothed in rags, often afflicted lice and other parasites, and only failed to starve to death because their low levels of reiatsu meant they didn't have to scavenge for food.
Beyond the last of the runoff of waste that trickled out of the muddy ruts that existed instead of sewage pipes, lay the beginning of woodlands typically left unbothered by the wandering souls.
A distant copse of hinoki trees stood at the top of a steep slope covered in stubbly grass, making a natural shelter. The fragrant, prickly trees were densely packed, but in the middle there was a gap in the foliage that revealed the star speckled night sky. Most people walked around the low mound of earth and the tiny patch of stubborn woodland that occupied it if they had reason to venture near it at all. Few people knew what lay hidden inside for those who cared to investigate. Gin silently wound his way through the dense branches and abundant grass growth to come to the hidden glade in the middle. There was hardly enough space among the shade of the tightly clustered branches for two adults to stand.
Rangiku could not have failed to notice his approach, despite his silent movements he hadn't bothered to mask his reiatsu, but she made no outward sign she was aware of him or to acknowledge him. Gin waited patiently for the quietly sitting woman to say something. There was no need for him to speak first; the more one spoke the more likely one was to give something away they would rather keep to themselves.
The strawberry blonde was seated on the blanket of grass in the middle of the small clearing. Her chin was resting on her knees and her arms were wrapped around them, hugging them in a clear attempt to comfort herself.
"Did Hitsugaya-taichou send you looking for me?" Her voice was soft and muffled by the fabric of her black hakama, and completely devoid of any hint of accusation.
"You have not reported back to your squad office, or so I heard," he responded noncommittally.
Rangiku's back and shoulders expanded with a deep breath as she drew in a sigh before picking her head up. Gin couldn't see her expression since he stood behind her, but he imagined it would have a professional soldier's stoicism.
"Gin," she said softly. "Have you ever wondered who you were when you were alive?"
Internally, Gin felt a small spark of surprise. A lifetime ago, when they were mud-caked, starving street kids, she asked him that same question. Repeatedly. He had danced around giving a straight answer, yielding only deflecting responses or dodging it all together, and eventually she had given up trying to get an answer from him.
He supposed this was part of the reason why they weren't as close as other surrogate family members that now served as shinigami, like Kuchiki Rukia and Arabai Renji. It was hard to feel like family when you kept secrets from each other.
"Why ask such a question now?"
Rangiku was still sitting on the ground, her breathing low and even. She still hadn't turned her strawberry blonde head to look at him. They remained together in silence among the greenery.
"I found out," she said simply.
Well, that was certainly unexpected. A very detached and analytical part of Gin's mind gleefully mulled over the statistical impossibility of a shinigami coming across evidence of their previous existence. The numerous changes that came with arriving in Soul Society, the time that elapsed between death and arrival, the loss of preexisting memory, the amount of time it took to become a shinigami for most at the academy, and the sheer size of the world of the living meant it was almost impossible for a shinigami to find anything related to their life when they were alive.
"Oh?" he said simply.
The line of Rangiku's shoulders was sorrowful, the deep pink shawl wrapped around them washed out by the moonlight.
"I received an emergency call at the division headquarters from one of our unseated members on patrol in the human world," her voice was low and even as she spoke. "A group of hollows had descended on Brussels simultaneously and they were too much for him to handle alone. I left immediately and sent him back for treatment at the 4th Division headquarters when I saw he was wounded."
Gin listened avidly. No mention of anything remarkable yet to warrant such an emotional reaction.
"I dispatched the hollows. I continued on patrol looking for any more," she continued. "I stopped outside of an apartment where the spirit of a little girl was standing. She had just died of a heart condition, she told me. Her mother was in the building in mourning. The little girl wanted to say good-bye to her mother before she left but she didn't know how. So I went in with her."
Rangiku smiled sadly to herself. The little girl had been so cute. She was wane and pale, the dark circles under her eyes plainly visible. She still bore the marks in the crook of her arm where she spent her short life hooked up to IV's. She was also friendly and curious, and had actually asked Rangiku if she was an angel.
The small spirit blinked up at the strange woman owlishly, her eyes bright and watchful as she took in the tall woman's strawberry blonde hair, blue eyes, classically beautiful face, and picturesque figure under the shinigami uniform. The girl tilted her head curiously and shifted her weight on one barefoot, the motion causing the chain links attached to her sternum to jingle briefly.
Rangiku smiled kindly at her waiting for the girl to become comfortable enough to speak. She was certainly the first person the girl had seen since her recent passing who was able to see her in return. Rangiku supposed it must be lonely to stand against the building she had called home, completely surrounded by people on the busy street she had lived on, only to have them walk right past her- unseeing and unresponsive. Towering ornately carved buildings stood over them and an endless stream of passersby hurried past, unaware of one tiny spirit and shinigami.
The girl fidgeted a bit more before finally finding her voice.
"Are you an angel?" the girl asked.
Rangiku kept smiling at the girl's hopeful expression.
"I'm here to help you," she said a warmly. "I'm to make sure you get where you need to go."
"Oh, 'cause you look like an angel," the girl said. She tilted her head the other way. "But why are you dressed so funny? Aren't angels supposed to wear white?"
Rangiku closed her eyes and gave the girl a small shrug.
"Maybe, but I just wear this," she said, referring to the black of her robes. Rangiku opened her eyes and picked up a one end of her pink shawl. "The pink is okay, right?"
The girl picked up on the joke and giggled, revealing gaps in he teeth where her baby teeth had fallen out but her adult teeth hadn't come in.
"I'm Silke, Who're you?"
"Rangiku. Nice to meet you."
The girl nodded, then her happy smile faltered and she fidgeted again, looking at her bare feet. "Are we going now?"
Rangiku let her own smile fade to look at her sympathetically. "Is there something you want to do first?"
The little spirit looked up to her hopefully. "Can you come with me so I can so good-bye to my mom?"
"I went with her into the apartment. The girl started saying goodbye." Rangiku hesitated, composing herself as the memory of what she had seen. "Her mother and I… we looked exactly alike." The woman, despite the changes brought to her face by extended emotional agony, had similarities that were obvious. The blue-eyes, reddened by crying, were the same. The mother's hair, unkempt and disheveled, was a shade of strawberry blonde that matched her own shade exactly. The bone structure in the women's sorrowful face and the peaches and cream of her complexion overlaying it could have been exchanged with Rangiku's own features and she was sure no one would have noticed the difference.
Inwardly, Gin marveled. This revelation and the fact that Rangiku was facing away from him and would not see caused Gin to allow himself to raise his eyebrows a fraction of an inch. This was becoming most interesting. The female shinigami continued relaying her story.
"I looked around the room, and there were pictures on display in the home. The woman, her little girl, a grandmother, and then some old black and white photos of three infant girls placed side-by-side." Rangiku sniffled so quietly it was almost inaudible. Between the photos on the dusty mantle, the labels written on them, and the things the little girl was saying to her mother, Emeline, as part of her good-byes, Rangiku had pieced it together. She still vaguely felt the lightheadedness that had appeared in the darkened room when she began to understand what it all meant.
"She was one of triplets, the mother, my look-alike. All girls. The other two died in their infancy." Rangiku laid her head aside onto her shoulder, her wild mane of flaming hair sliding over to reveal her pale, vulnerable neck. "The photos had the girls names on them." She paused before voicing what she said next. " I know it's stupid, but, I'm sure I know which one had been me. I had a gut feeling." She inhaled, the weight of the realization pressing down even more now that she was about to confess it to another person. There, hidden behind old glass and framed in ornate silver, depicted in a blurry and faded black and white, was an infant girl who had died years ago with her name written beneath her in careful, loving script.
"Amandine. Amandine Lallemand. That was my name. I lived in Brussels and I had two sisters."
For the first time, Rangiku turned to face Gin, looking up over her shoulder at him with bright blue eyes framed by thick black lashes. He kept his face largely impassive, with just a hint of his usual grin present. If he appeared completely indifferent, she might stop talking. Her eyes were dry, but the emotion swirling in them was impossible to miss.
"I had a name, Gin. I had a family. I had a birthday. I had two sisters." She turned back around, once again facing the moonlit vegetation of the secluded glen as Gin let his normal expression slip back into place. "One of them was in Soul Society with me this whole time." She paused to swallow the emotions that realization forced to the surface. "I wasn't alone." All that time thought I was by myself; she was here in Soul Society… "Her name, she was Amélie. She's still here somewhere." Rangiku felt the beginning sting of tears forming. She quashed that immediately. "I've even sent my niece's daughter to the Rokungai now, but I have no idea where she is or what will happen to her." There was no way of knowing where Silke would be when she arrived in the Rokungai, or what name she would go by once she arrived anymore than Rangiku knew Amélie's new name now. For all of her ability and status as a shinigami, she couldn't even take care of those who needed her the most, who should be looking to her for help. The knowledge weighed heavily on her mind.
Rangiku lapsed into a mulling silence as Gin carefully filtered and sorted the information she had provided in his mind. How very curious this all was. She had presented him a wealth of information he may be able to find use for. At the same time, part of him he rarely heard from was whispering to him, telling him to say something to Rangiku. Part of him wanted to comfort her. It was vaguely disturbing to him that he should have such an impulse. It would be best to indulge the feeling to ensure that it vanished without resistance.
Rangiku was startled out of her stupor when she felt Gin settle down behind her, sitting with his thin back to hers so they could lean against each other. She was equally startled when he began to speak at length, and about himself, without prompting and weeks and of determined prying on her part. She was perfectly silent as he spoke.
"I was patrolling in the zone between Johannesburg and Pretoria when I came across a political ad posted on the roadway." His voice was polite and matter-of-fact. Rangiku listened to him with fascinated attention. "I thought the man in the ad bore a resemblance to myself, so I found where he lived." He could tell Rangiku was listening carefully to his story and he relished the feeling of control. "There was no sign I was ever there." Gin felt Rangiku hold her breath. Anticipating her honest reactions was surprisingly easy. "No photos, no sense of lingering loss in the home. It was like nothing was missing, I was never there to them." He paused a moment, genuinely considering his next words. His desire to say something meaningful was alien to him.
"We can't do anything about the past," he told her. He took her silence as confirmation. "All we can do is make a life with what we have now."
Rangiku's body warmth against his back shifted in a manner that told him she nodded in agreement. Excellent. He could consider them finished then.
"Perhaps we should endeavor to search for Hitsugaya-taichou now?" he suggested.
Rangiku made a sound of acknowledgment as she stood up from the lush grass. Although she may want to spend more time alone among the hinoki, responsibilities were calling to her. Teasing and tormenting Hitsugaya-taichou to entertain herself when there was nothing of import to keep them occupied was one thing, but to cause him real worry was both cruel and unprofessional. She needed to make a note of her return and send a note to the 4th Division to request an update of the condition of the injured squad member. She would have to find time to comfort herself later. To set Hitsugaya-taichou's mind at ease, it should probably involve sake.
Facing away from her as he too rose, Gin considered what he had told her. It was kinder to let her believe that was the truth than letting her know what actually happened.
Or was happening now.
He had been telling himself that a lot lately.
AN: I found myself wondering where the souls of the shinigami had come from after noting many of them looked as though they were not supposed to be Japanese, particularly Rangiku. She struck me as a depiction of a woman who was meant to be French, but that didn't quite fit. After doing some digging, I settled on a French-speaking Belgian.
I suppose my interpretation of Gin as South African came from my reading of Disgrace (which I do not own). No offense meant.
Speaking of literary influences, the idea for the names being written underneath the photos came from the novel Number the Stars (which I do not own). For this reason (although the novel is set in Denmark) and in honor of Corrie Ten Boom, I considered making Rangiku Dutch, but in the end I went with Belgian.
Review if you like it. Feel free to point out any errors.