A/N: Hello, readers. This is my first attempt at any sort of HitsuMatsu, and I hope I did it some justice. Concrit is always welcome.
Spoilers: up to anime episode 226 (the last main plot episode), and minor, rather insignificant spoilers up to manga chapter 368, The Fearless Child.
Pairings: HitsuMatsu friendship/hinted HitsuMatsu, HitsuHina friendship, MatsuMaru.
Rating: T for mild language and violence.
Disclaimers: Bleach and all its awesome is property of Tite Kubo. And death shall have no dominion belongs to Dylan Thomas.
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.
Ashes to Ashes
Feeling sluggish, he slowly tilts his head down, his eyes following the gleaming line of steel that is Shinsou, plunging through his shoulder and pinning him to the wall behind. Shining, crimson beads of blood are slowly rolling down the blade, dripping to the tiles below. His vision slides to where the sword disappears into his shoulder.
Hyourinmaru is still clutched in his hand, somehow, but he can't lift it anymore. He hears Ichimaru say something, the words unintelligible thanks to the ringing in his ears, but the flash of light erupting from his outstretched hands and the sudden stiffness in his body alerts him far too late to the binding spell being cast.
Shinsou withdraws with a tantalizing slowness. Ichimaru gives it a little twist just before the blade fully exits, and agony shoots through his shoulder – he bites his tongue so hard to keep from screaming that he tastes copper. The bakudo keeps him pinned against the wall, his feet dangling several inches above the ground. Ichimaru is strolling towards him, grinning, damn him, how can he still smile –
Ichimaru stops before him, his zanpakuto returning to its sealed state.
"Nothin' personal, lil taicho," he says, grinning slightly wider.
Toushiro gives an inarticulate snarl, struggling, but the bakudo holds fast. He tries for an incantationless kido, but before he can get it off Ichimaru casually stabs his zanpakuto through his hand.
"Strugglin' will jes make it worse for ya." He studies him thoughtfully. "Ya know, I got a lotta admiration for ya, Hitsu-kun. Ya always treated her with respect, and I wanna thank ya for that. But orders are orders, ne?"
Despair settles in his stomach, heavy and undeniable. He has failed. In the end he is too weak to win when it matters most.
Sorry, Hinamori, Matsumoto.
Light gleams off a raised blade.
"Shoot to kill, Shinsou."
Toushiro steps from the First Division compound, his face impassive as Matsumoto detaches herself from the shadow of the wall where she'd been waiting. She falls into step beside and just slightly behind him, a habit born of mutual respect garnered over the years. Her habit of waiting for him outside the taichos' meetings, however, is only recently acquired; he has not commented on it yet, and does not do so now. If it gives her some sense of ease to wait outside rather than at the office, then he'll give it to her gladly.
"Tomorrow," he grunts in response to her unspoken question. He suspects she already knows; another of her habits is reading him like an open book.
He senses her nod, but more acutely feels the stir in her reiatsu, nearly as familiar to him as his own. He is many things – blind and stupid is not one of them. He knows of her connection with Ichimaru, if not the details; the only time he's ever seen that blasted man stop smiling was when she was there, and that speaks volumes.
"We will meet Aizen above the fake Karakura Town," he says, hoping to keep her mind out of the dark corner she's been withdrawing to more and more lately.
"When do we leave?"
Her tone is even and serious, focused. Good, Matsumoto, he thinks. "Early. Be ready to go by sunrise."
She nods. She hasn't come in to the office before sunrise for as long as he's been the Tenth Division taicho, but he know she'll be ready. He doubts she'll even sleep tonight - he knows he won't.
They pass by the Fourth Division compound, and his eyes flicker to the gates unconsciously. Matsumoto, being Matsumoto, notices. She says nothing, as respectful of his privacy with Momo as he is of hers with Ichimaru, but she steps slightly closer to him, hand brushing against his arm in a silent and almost undetectable gesture of comfort. He feels a rush of gratitude for both her sympathy and her discretion, and not for the first time wonders how Ichimaru could have ever left such a person behind.
Fourth Division falls away behind them, and he turns his thoughts to tomorrow. Tomorrow they will fight Aizen, and he is determined the bastard will die on the end of Hyourinmaru, frozen and then smashed to bits. It is less than he deserves for what he's done to Momo - for what he's done to all of them.
Matsumoto's hand brushes his arm once more, and he realizes his fists are clenched at his sides. He forces himself to relax, and thinks that if he can manage it, he'll kill Ichimaru too.
His vision is full of grey, and for one moment Toushiro thinks he is dead.
But the grey is shifting, pacing around him, and his shoulder still hurts, but there's no blade sticking through his gut.
He hears growling, and the grey shifts.
Matsumoto stands in front of him, sweat beading on her face – her robes are torn, and her right side is the bright red of raw, freshly healed skin, purple splotches still indicating that the bleeding inside has yet to be fully contained. Haineko is all around them, a protective circle of ash, and a few feet away, Ichimaru stands, his eyes locked on Matsumoto's.
It is only the second time Toushiro has seen the man stop smiling and open his eyes. The crimson there gleams with some emotion he cannot place.
He looks back at Matsumoto, and he has never seen anything so heartbreakingly beautiful in his life.
She stands tall and blazing, her reiatsu flaring a fierce orange around her, shifting her hair and making the tears on her cheeks look like liquid fire. The despair in his stomach vanishes, floating away with the ash that circles him.
Her voice is firm, all steel.
"With your permission, I would fight this opponent in your stead."
Something in him hurts, and it's not his shoulder. It takes him a moment to realize the new ache in his chest is pride. Pride in his fukutaicho, as a shinigami, and pride in Matsumoto Rangiku, as a woman and a friend.
His chest aches, and it's the best hurt he's ever felt.
"Good luck, Matsumoto-fukutaicho," he replies, his voice hoarse. For all his fears that she'll die, it does not even occur to him to deny her this. To do so would be an insult. "Keep your guard up."
She turns and looks at him, and she smiles.
She raises the empty hilt in her hands, facing Ichimaru, drawing Toushiro's attention back to him.
"Howdy, Ran-chan," he greets softly. "Been a while."
His smile has yet to return. His eyes are still open, still gleaming with that unidentifiable emotion –
Ichimaru's hand rises up idly to rub at his chest, and suddenly the emotion Toushiro has been trying to place is so obvious.
Pride. Ichimaru's proud as he looks at Matsumoto.
Pride in her as a shinigami, and pride in her as a woman.
Suddenly, to Toushiro's immense surprise, he finds he can no longer bring himself to hate this man.
He has missed his chance.
That idiotic, loud-mouthed brat of a girl has lost him his chance with Aizen. His chance to pay him back tenfold for all the pain he caused Momo. And now the leader of the hollow-shinigami has already engaged him.
"God damn it," he swears, his grip painfully tight on Hyourinmaru.
In his consciousness, he feels Momo's reiatsu, weak and pained. Beside it, the ash cat, so frighteningly faint. Stronger than it had been – his stomach churns as he remembers the abrupt absence of Matsumoto's reiatsu - but still faint. He could, if he strained himself, hear the cat yowling in pain.
His eyes shift from Aizen to the lavender-haired man next to him. The only one not yet engaged.
Across the distance, Ichimaru seems to sense his gaze, and turns his head.
He is smiling.
Something ugly twists inside Toushiro, and he steps, reappearing beside the traitor, Hyrounimaru already slashing forward.
Shinsou is drawn faster than he can see, and his strike is parried with a calmness that only serves to further enrage him.
"Now now, lil taicho. That's not very nice, ya know."
The drawl makes the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. This is not some opponent he can swing blindly at in a fit of rage. He forces himself to calm, shifting into a defensive stance, zanpakuto at the ready.
"You wanna kill me, doncha?" Ichimaru asks, grinning wider.
"How could you do this to her?" Toushiro asks. For all his genius, he just can't figure it out – not if Ichimaru cared for her the same way she did for him.
The grin falters a little bit, but stays in place. "Rangiku sure did get beat up a bit, didn' she," he mutters, sounding thoughtful. His smile fades a little bit more, and he stares at Toushiro, his zanpakuto held loosely at his side.
"What is she to ya, lil taicho?"
Toushiro blinks in surprise. He opens his mouth, but finds he has no idea how to answer.
Ichimaru shrugs dismissively. "'S'okay. Some things…just can't be put into words."
Shinsou starts to rise.
"I want ya to promise me somethin', lil taicho," Ichimaru continues. "I want ya to promise on yer soul that if I die here, you'll look after her for me."
Toushiro doesn't know if he's serious, but he nods nonetheless.
"…I promise." His eyes slide shut. "And you," he continues, "if I die, I want you to promise that you'll never hurt her again."
His eyes open to see Ichimaru still grinning, Shinsou leveled towards him.
"Hmm," he murmurs. "Perhaps you ain't so little after all, lil taicho."
The screech of metal against metal is deafening.
He squints in an attempt to better see through the swirling ash cloud that engulfs the entire building. Sparks are flashing as Ichimaru's blade bounces off Haineko's swirling form again and again. The fight is beautiful to watch; they swirl around each other like dancers, stepping and slashing with a grace that seems impossible. He has never seen Matsumoto fight so brilliantly, matching every blow of Ichimaru's with her own, her hand guiding Haineko with the precision and elegance of a painter.
He does not know how long he has been watching when Matsumoto falters.
She missteps, and for a moment the ash around her wavers. Fear clenches his gut, and he turns horrified eyes to Ichimaru, waiting for that cursed blade to shoot out and end her. Time slows, stops, stretching out infinitely, and he thinks he can hear himself screaming –
But the blow never comes, and time comes crashing back down. Matsumoto adjusts, and the ash swirls about her once more.
It is at that moment Toushiro understands that Ichimaru is one hell of an actor.
The scream on his lips dies, and he just watches. Their reiatsu rolls off of them in waves, coloured with too many emotions to possibly understand; they mix to create a frightening myriad of raw passion, and his throat feels strangely tight. Several minutes later – or hours, or days – there is a blinding flash of grey-white light, and crimson erupts from Ichimaru's chest.
As he falls to the floor, dead, he is still smiling.
The scene brightens abruptly as Haineko is sealed. Matsumoto sheathes her zanpakuto slowly, then sinks to her knees, completely still as she kneels next to Ichimaru's body.
Belatedly, Toushiro realizes he's on his own two feet again, Ichimaru's bakudo having faded with his death. He slowly picks his way through the rubble towards his fukutaicho, his feet feeling strangely heavy. As he reaches her, he stands, unsure. He doesn't know what to say, what to do. This has always been Matsumoto's strong point, and –
And it doesn't matter, he realizes. Doesn't matter how uncertain he feels because even though the room is bright and clear he feels ash swirling every which way and Matsumoto is lost, and he refuses to lose her, not after everything.
He steps behind her and slowly wraps his arms around her kneeling form, head resting on her shoulder.
He wonders if he is dreaming.
His chest feels like it's on fire, and it seems abnormally difficult to breathe. He sees blurred whiteness, tastes plastic, and hears voices.
"It's alright, Rangiku-san. He's starting to breathe on his own again – we can take out the tube now."
Footsteps, a blurred form blocking out the white, and then an extremely unpleasant sensation as something is drawn up out of his throat. He coughs, hacking, but he can breathe again.
"Is he awake? His eyes are open."
"Yes, but not truly conscious. He will probably fall into a natural sleep soon, and it's unlikely he'll remember any of this when he wakes up."
Something glows green, and his eyes slip shut as the fire in his chest eases. He feels drowsy, detached. The voices around him resume.
"That should be enough to tide him over for now."
"Arigato, Isane-san. If it's alright, I'll stay for a while."
"Rangiku…you need sleep – "
"I'll be fine." Abrupt tone, defiant –
A sigh. Footsteps, and a door closes.
He hears the swish of fabric, weight settling on a chair to his right. For what seems to be an eternity, there is silence. Then:
"Jeez, taicho. I don't know how you do it. The paperwork is killing me." A huff of breath, and the noise of someone shifting positions.
"You better hurry and wake up or I'm gonna die trying to get it all done."
He wants to scold her, tell her to get back to work if there's so much to be done, but he can't seem to make his voice work.
"First Gin goes and takes off, then you gotta be unconscious. Psh." Her tone is a strange mix of forced lightness overlaying something dark and consuming, and it frightens him.
A rustle of clothing, then for a time silence.
"I haven't been alone in so long, I'd almost forgotten what it feels like."
The words are whispered, but he hears them clear as day. He wants very much to tell her to stop being stupid and that she's not alone, but his voice still won't work.
"Please wake up, taicho."
She sounds broken.
"If you leave too…I…"
I'm not leaving, Matsumoto, he tries so hard to say, but he just can't, and the effort is making his head ache –
He feels like he is falling, and unconsciousness steals over him once more.
Duty is calling him.
He wishes he could ignore it, but he knows that he can't. There are still people in danger, fighting that madman, and he must be there to assist them. He doesn't know how long they've spent kneeling in the rubble, but something tells him time is up.
"Matsumoto?" he asks softly. At the sound of his voice, she seems to deflate, the stillness that had consumed her let out like a breath that's been held too long.
"Time to go?" she asks quietly.
"Hai," he replies, and she nods. He stands and backs up a pace, giving her some space.
"Sayonara, Gin," she whispers, almost inaudible, then stands and faces him. "Awaiting your orders, taicho."
Her voice is firm, her shoulders straight, and only her eyes give any indication of just how broken she is inside.
"Let's go, Matsumoto," he says, and he swears to himself that once this is all over he'll do everything in his power to help her pick up the pieces. Together they navigate through the rubble until they reach the street outside, and their eyes turn upwards.
Despite himself, he gasps, and beside him Matsumoto does the same. He shunpos upwards, reappearing beside two of the masked shinigami from earlier, Matsumoto right on his heels.
As he takes in the sight before him, he finally understands what it is to fear.
The blue sky is died red and orange, smoke rising from below. In the middle of it all stands Yamamoto and Aizen, great, boiling waves of reiatsu bursting from the former. In Yamamoto's hand is a giant, two handed claymore, the blade made entirely of fire, flickering.
And above them both, Ryuujin Jakka soars.
Toushiro can't look directly at it – he can feel the heat searing his eyeballs, even from this distance. The great phoenix is screeching, and below it the asphalt is melting, bubbling. The raw power radiating from it makes it difficult to breathe.
He looks at Aizen. He is smiling slightly, his zanpakuto held loosely at his side. With a lurch, he sees that the blade is red with blood. He wonders who it belongs to, but before he can ask Yamamoto's voice booms.
"Ichimaru is dead, Aizen. You are doomed."
Aizen tilts his head back and laughs.
"You don't really believe that, do you? You don't actually think –"
Toushiro's heart lurches, and he turns horrified eyes downwards.
Momo is zooming towards Aizen and Yamamoto, and her face is shining with hope.
"Aizen-taicho! Ichimaru is dead now, Aizen-taicho! You can stop fighting!"
"Hinamori, stop!" he yells, and without thinking he flies towards her. "Stop it, Hinamori!"
She does not seem to hear him.
"You can come back now, Aizen-taicho!"
Aizen is staring at her, and for several moments his face is perfectly blank.
And if Toushiro had been afraid of Yamamoto, it was nothing compared to the terror that tightens around his chest now.
He does not know what Aizen's bankai's abilities are; all he knows is that one moment Yamamoto is standing, blazing with unfathomable power, and that the next there is hole in his chest, blood raining from the skies as the great phoenix of Ryuujin Jakka snuffs out like a candle flame.
Aizen never stops looking at Hinamori, who stands frozen, uncomprehending.
"You stupid girl," he says. "Whenever will you learn?"
Toushiro can't seem to move fast enough. Aizen is pointing his blade at Momo – it is shimmering strangely in the light, as if it's not even real – and he just can't move fast enough –
There is a sound like thunder. A wave of reiatsu slams into him, so powerful he feels several ribs crack. He stops, doubled over and gasping, but his eyes are locked on the scene before him.
Aizen's eyes are wide in shock as he looks down into the face of Hinamori. Her hands are wrapped around Tobiume's hilt, the blade pushed through his stomach. Hinamori is smiling, wide and happy, and tears are streaking down her face.
"I won't let you hurt anymore people, Aizen-taicho. I promised I'd save you. Even if it means saving you from yourself."
Aizen's shock gives way to a look of pure, unadulterated rage, and he lifts his blade up –
Toushiro smells plum trees and the sweet decay of death as Tobiume glows pink.
The world explodes.
He is falling, and everywhere is pain. He feels flames, hot and hungry, licking at his face, and then there is only darkness.
He opens his eyes to find himself sitting on a porch.
In his hand he is holding a piece of watermelon, juice from it running down and dripping on his white captain's haori.
"Be more careful, Shiro-chan!"
His head whips to the left.
Momo is sitting next to him, happily munching away at her own piece of watermelon. She wears the red and white of an academy student.
"Taichos are just totally amazing!" she exclaims, not showing any sign of having heard him. "When I become a shinigami, I'm definitely gonna join Aizen-taicho's Fifth squad!"
"Hinamori…" He blinks, and she is dressed in the black of a full-fledged shinigami. He can see her fukutaicho armband as she grabs for another piece of watermelon.
"I'm sorry for doubting you, Shiro-chan," she says quietly. "I'll make it up to you. I'm gonna save Aizen-taicho and make him apologize to everyone!" Her voice is suddenly fierce, her eyes narrowed in determination.
"No, Hinamori, listen to me – " he reaches towards her, but there is some invisible barrier between them, halting his hands.
"Don't worry about me," she smiles at him. "I know Aizen-taicho better than anyone. I know exactly how to save him."
"You can't save him, Hinamori, don't you get it, he's evil – "
"I know that now. And I don't care. Don't you see, Toushiro?" she looks at him questioningly, and to his horror she is suddenly translucent, fading away.
"No, Hinamori – Momo, wait – please –" Tears are sliding down his face as he slams himself into the barrier, but it doesn't budge.
"After I move into the dorm, I'll still come back on holidays and see you," she grins, and she is wearing the academy uniform once more. She is fainter than ever as she stands up and takes off at a run.
"Take care, Shiro-chan!" she calls.
Then she is gone, and he is alone.
Something inside him breaks. He sinks to his knees and sobs until he is too exhausted to stay awake.
"What happened out there?"
"I heard Hinamori-fukutaicho killed Aizen."
"No one knows. She died doing it though, and apparently she nearly took out half our forces with her."
"Unbelievable…I never knew she had the kind of power!"
"No one did. If it wasn't for the Soutaicho, a lot more people would be dead."
"Is it true he's dead? I can't believe it…"
"Yeah, it's true. According to Unohana-taicho, his zanpakuto has powers of rebirth – it could heal even the most grievous of wounds, but in order to save everyone else he had to give up his own life…"
"Wonder what's going to happen to Seireitei now."
"I don't know. But I'm sure we'll manage. We always have."
It is three weeks later.
The marker is plain and simple, her name etched clearly into the pillar of granite. Snow covers the top, and flakes whirl ever downwards around him, grey in the twilight.
He stares at it and sees smiles, sees hair drawn back in a bun. He has a vague, futile hope that if he stands here long enough in the snow and the cold that he'll eventually go numb, that he won't feel the sharp edges inside and that his thoughts will stop wondering too slow too weak why why why.
"There you are, taicho."
He jerks in surprise, turning on his heel.
"Matsumoto? What are you doing here?" He takes a hasty swipe at his eyes, hoping she won't notice the wetness on his face, and rearranges his expression into its customary frown. He needs to be strong for her – the last thing she needs right now is a sobbing taicho who can't even hold himself together.
"Thought you'd like some company," she replies as she steps carefully around other markers towards him. "It is your birthday, after all."
He scowls, feeling edgy as she steps closer. This is not a place he wants to be with her; it's too easy to hurt here, too hard to hide it.
"Don't you have paperwork to do?" he asks as she steps next to him, his voice harsher than he intends. "You better not – "
Her voice is edged, raw sounding. He blinks at her.
"Don't pretend." The look she is giving him is painful in its intensity. "Don't pretend like you're fine."
He stiffens, and turns his face away. "Baka, what are you talking about?"
"Don't, taicho." Her voice has a hard, no-nonsense tone to it that keeps him from interrupting. "Stop trying to put on this stupid act every time someone talks to you, like everything's alright and you're fine."
He turns and starts walking away. He can't let her see, can't give in –
"It's not weakness to let others help you!"
Toushiro stops in his tracks.
"I know what you're doing, taicho, but can't you see that no matter how much you try to be strong for others you'll only hurt them by closing yourself off?" He hears footsteps crunching in snow, then Matsumoto stands in front of him again, something fierce and determined on her face, and he sees Hinamori sitting on a porch.
He swallows, fighting back the burn in his eyes as he stares down at his feet.
"You're not weak, taicho," Matsumoto says softly. "No one thinks that you are."
"Then why couldn't I save her?" The question that has been plaguing him ever since he awoke comes spilling out before he can stop it. As if some floodgate had opened up, all his doubts, all his regrets come pouring forth. "Why couldn't I protect her? If I had been faster I could have stopped her, but I wasn't, I - I was too damn weak – why couldn't I save her, Matsumoto?"
The last words are shouted, and they seem to ring in the quiet of the glade. He feels suddenly drained, exhausted, and he sinks down into the snow. Only then does he realize that he's crying, but he can't seem to care enough anymore to wipe the tears away.
Matsumoto lets out a quiet sigh, and sits down next to him, heedless of the wet and the cold.
"She made a choice, taicho, and she stuck by it. She was happy in the end – you saw her, taicho, she was smiling, and I hadn't seen her smile like that since before…before all of it."
He knows. He remembers. But damn it all if it doesn't hurt.
"She gave me my birthday," he whispers into the cold air.
"Yeah." She sighs again. "He gave me mine too."
And sitting there, in the snow, there is a mutual understanding between them that never would have been possible before all of this; an understanding between one broken soul and another, of shared pain and regrets. A sudden urge rises up in him to tell her, somehow, that she isn't alone, that he won't leave her, but he isn't sure how to say it. On a whim, he grasps her hand, and hopes it gets the message across.
Some things…just can't be put into words.
Matsumoto winds her fingers through his, and around them the snow drifts downwards, grey in the twilight, and settles quietly, like ash.