Chapter XXXIII: And the Aftermath
There were voices swimming in her head, buzzing like a hive of busy bees. Perhaps the noise came from around her rather than within, she couldn't tell when it felt as though both of her ears were stuffed with cotton. As the seconds ticked on, she recognized the calmness of Captain Unohana's voice emerge from a pool of others. She opened her eyes to blurred colors and silhouettes in the white background that surrounded her. Her throat and mouth were dry, making her tongue feel incredibly stupid inside, and her lips chapped.
The murmur of voices seized. A flash of light blared into her left eye, then her right. Unohana checked if she was fully conscious, which she was, just a bit blind. The remaining voices rang familiarly and eventually, Unohana's voice disappeared completely, but the pitying looks of others stabbed into her tightly wrapped body. She tried imagining herself lying there in her plain linen robe, bruised, beaten, half-dead, with a brain so fuzzy she swore there was a sheep farm in there. Trying to remember the events preceding this proved difficult. They were sliced out of her memory, fluttered into non-existence through the black hole eating away at her memory.
She wanted to curse her selfishness for the trouble it caused, wanted to cry because she simply radiated pain in that bed, and kick a kitten because if the dreaded tests were run, they would prove her worst nightmare. A deteriorating mind was a scientist's worst foe. She could work with it because her smarts remained intact, but what happened when they were gone too and she lost her motor skills. What happened after she shriveled into a vegetable?
Unohana would submit for her immediate withdrawal from the Gotei 13 to begin treatment or wither away bored in her house for the remainder of her days. She'd rather die than let that happen.
That she knew as sleep gave a hard tug and she fell back into a state of complete bliss.
Tokiwa and Shuuhei stayed inside Akiye's room. She remained heavily sedated, coming in and out of consciousness. And the tests Kaito dreaded had been run. They came up as he said. Akiye was no longer fit to serve the Gotei 13 and Renji couldn't stop thinking about how they would tell her the news. She'd be angry, furious when she found out Unohana contacted Captain Kurotsuchi to tell him all about it and talk of Akiye's retirement spread between them.
Renji avoided it. Kaito ignored it. Tokiwa and Shuuhei agreed in their views. She needed a calm peaceful life to recover, which sounded more like finding a peaceful spring afternoon to die as a vegetable to Kaito. It was stupid.
Renji stepped out of the room with Kaito to get something to drink. They walked in complete silence, both showing signs of exhaustion as neither slept and completed all their division duties in a rush to return to the Relief Center.
Kaito stopped when they reached the doorway, eyes facing forward. "Naoto?"
Renji followed his eyes to find Naoto dressed in a battered shihakusho, holding a scarf to his bleeding neck. He sported a split lip and a couple fresh bruises.
"What happened?" asked Kaito instantly.
Naoto looked from Renji to Kaito and cursed, "Your fucking brother," before slipping past them for medical attention.
"Is he dead?" called Kaito.
Naoto narrowed his eyes. "I hope."
"You have a brother?" asked Renji, amused to be standing in the middle of one of the Kurogane family's secret conversations without anything being a secret.
Kaito stared at him perplexed, conflicted about telling him or not. He finally shrugged. "Well, you're Akiye's boyfriend, so I guess—"
"Oh my god!" cried Naoto, regaining that aura of happiness he was known for having. "You and Aki are together? So you worked it out? Don't make her cry, okay?"
"Kurogane-san," called Lieutenant Kotetsu, only having to take one glance at him and the bloodied scarf to assume he needed immediate attention. "I can patch you up over here."
"You have to tell me everything later!" Naoto waved goodbye and started after the silver haired lieutenant.
Kaito read Renji's confusion. "We should get those drinks."
Renji shook the thought out of his mind, perhaps he heard Naoto wrong. Maybe he didn't say brother because as far as he knew, Naoto alone was Kaito's older brother.
He nodded and followed the blond's lead out the doorway.
"They shouldn't have run those tests," grumbled Kaito, stepping into a tiny shop.
Renji moved on ahead of him, eyeing the display of drinks. "How do you think she'll take it?" he said lowly.
Kaito barked out a laugh. "Bad. She might actually cry for real."
"And we can't do anything about it?"
"Well," started Kaito, piling his hands up with the same type of soda, "we can't, but she might."
Renji glanced in his direction. "What do you mean?"
He shrugged, taking his items to the counter, and threw a glance at him. "Get some of those gummies, they're Akiye's favorite."
Renji tossed a couple bags in Kaito's direction; he caught them sloppily and with a glare. Renji laughed. "Aren't you the one with his guard up the whole time?" he teased.
He took the rest of the snacks from the lieutenant's arms and set them on the counter where the rest of their things were being bagged by a mousy haired girl with a thin upper lip. "Who does that?"
"You've been proud of it for years," recalled Renji. Boasting would have been a better word to use.
Kaito shook his head, suppressing a grin as he paid for everything and started toward the doorway. They made their slow return to Fourth Division, dreading the same thing and probably asking themselves the same questions. What put Akiye in that hospital? Who attacked her? Even with their mind's buzzing with activity, they talked about other things, things that didn't have to remind them about what happened to Akiye. They weren't trying to ignore it, not attempting to forget, they only wanted that peace of mind that came when it hadn't happened.
"Can I ask you something?" started Kaito, voice brimming with curiosity.
"Did you like look at Akiye while playing tag and said, 'I'm gonna be your pimp daddy when—'"
"Why does everyone keep asking me that?" snapped Renji, face bright red. "Why would you ask that?"
"Well, you're twice our age and we used to play tag together."
"You used to cry in the corner while Akiye bullied me into chasing her," recounted Renji sourly. "Last time I checked, that's not tag."
"That's how Naoto taught us, who were we to know whether or not it was right or wrong?"
Renji sighed, going on ahead as he shook his head.
"What'd I say?"
"Hurry up, will you!"
Naoto stepped into Akiye's single room and was greeted by the strangely peaceful sight of Akiye's current boyfriend and her ex-suitor, standing on opposites sides of the room, but still present and amicable. Tokiwa sat in the chair beside the bed, keeping an eye on the EKG beeping with every shallow beat of Akiye's heart and Kaito sat at the foot of the bed, drinking soda. Naoto entered with a bandage wrapped around his neck, the cut turned out to be a tad more severe than he thought, but it certainly accounted for the wooziness he experienced on his way to Second Division to give Captain Soifon a progress report on the mission assigned to him.
Tokiwa sprinted out of her seat at the sight of bruises and the bandage. She placed both hands on his cheeks and gently turned his face away from her, taking in the unsightly bruises. "What is wrong with this family?" she whispered, emotional. "Everyone is just getting hurt."
"…It was just a fucking paper cut," grumbled Kaito, staring at the bandage wrapped around his index finger.
Renji snorted, earning a vicious glare from his subordinate.
Naoto bit the inside of his cheeks to avoid laughter, but felt it bubbling in his stomach. He patted Tokiwa's shoulders reassuringly. "I just returned from a mission, is all," he lied naturally. "Things got out of hand."
"Look at these awful bruises," she whispered, eyes glistening as she blinked to face him.
"Look at the size of this paper cut," started Kaito, astonished, "I could drown in my own blood."
"Pfft—" Renji smacked the blond's shoulder, feeling the painful stab of another one of Tokiwa's famous grimaces. "Shut up, Kai."
Naoto tugged Tokiwa's hands from his face, shaking with laughter. He waved her back to her seat, reaching the space between Renji and Kaito and rewarding them with a low snicker.
Tokiwa grumbled to Hisagi in displeasure, saying it was not a time to joke around when Akiye's injuries cost her the career she worked for so long. Hisagi agreed because a part of him couldn't stand the joking atmosphere surrounding Akiye's bed, nor the familiarity that surrounded Renji and her brothers. The sight continued taunting him, telling him that he made the right choice in accepting Hibino's feelings because the relationship Renji already had with Akiye's siblings was something he might never accomplish, specifically with Kaito.
He manipulated them weeks ago into a conflict and now, he joked with Renji with complete ease. His movements, his actions, his mood swings—they were inscrutable; perhaps Renji had long before grown accustomed. He was practically a part of the family. The fact that he settled with Hibino hardly bothered him, even though he loved Akiye.
"Is that Akiye's zanpakutō?" asked Renji, pointing to the red-hilted blade next to Naoto's.
Naoto looked down. "Oh yeah," he said quaintly, drawing it from his sash and setting it at the foot of her bed. "I have it. She should have it near. I should return to my division."
Kaito leapt out of his seat. "Me too."
Tokiwa and Hisagi rose from their seats, his eyes darted to Akiye's slumbering face forlornly. She looked over her shoulder at him. "Are you going as well?"
"I have an early day tomorrow," he admitted. "I'll visit again."
Kaito's lips curved, Naoto already heard the words before they were spoken. He planned to challenge Hisagi, now that Akiye had chosen Abarai, there was no room for the other lieutenant. He opened his mouth to interrupt, but someone beat him to the punch.
"Save it, Kaito," said Renji sternly, his eyes swept over Akiye and then found Tokiwa, looking to her as the matriarch of the Kurogane family. "I can stay longer."
"I'll stay the night," offered Naoto. "I have something to talk to her about." He searched everyone's expressions; Tokiwa stared at him pleadingly asking him without saying it aloud. He sighed with a curt nod. "I'll break the news to her if I can."
A wave of relief swept through everyone because they knew none of them had the heart to ruin Akiye's life. It seemed like a unanimous agreement that the burden fall upon the oldest and wisest member of the Kurogane family, Naoto, who up until that morning Kaito thought unreliable and Tokiwa considered a girlfriend. If Naoto might have felt the slightest bit discouraged, he might have thrust the responsibility on Renji, her boyfriend, who might just get away with murder in her eyes. He saw the way she looked at him, floating on cloud nine, when he came back into her life. If he wanted to be a complete jackass, the task would fall on Hisagi because she would only be angry shortly and the full brunt of her fury would go to Hibino, the uninvolved party and most hated individual in her mind.
Everyone leaving slowly filed out of the room with Naoto grumbling behind them. "You could be a little more persistent in the matter."
"Oh, woe is me," started Kaito, sweeping back his hair. "I should tell her, she's less likely to turn me into a science experiment."
Tokiwa shook her head sadly. "I can't break her heart; I don't have it in me."
"Do you suppose she'll take it well?" asked Hisagi, concerned.
"Are we talking about the same Akiye?" said Kaito.
Everyone waved farewell to Renji who took a seat by the Akiye's bed. Naoto shut the door behind him quietly.
"She won't take it nicely, that's for sure," replied Naoto.
"She'll be devastated," said Tokiwa, holding her face. "How could this happen?"
Naoto and Kaito knew the reason, but feign ignorance and simply agreed, going their own ways upon leaving the Relief Center.
The sedatives wore off once night fell. Akiye's eyelids felt heavy as she willed them to open to a touch of warmth and the annoying monitor beeping away at the same rhythm of her heart. Darkness greeted her, shadowing the high ceiling of her healing room and the soft breathing of another reached her, slow and steady, sleeping soundly, dreamlessly. She turned her head to the shock of red hair and heavily tattooed arms, all blurry due to her lack of glasses.
The pain of her injuries lingered, every bruise ached and the wound across her chest reminded her of its presence in waves of excruciating pain. She bit back the urge to groan as she twisted over the firm mattress to face Renji, feeling something beneath her fingers, her glasses. She quickly slipped them over her face, blinking away the blurriness of her eyes.
She remained perfectly still, allowing the ache to subside to be replaced by heat and a fluttering stomach that dizzied her. She tried to stop herself from smiling, but it was unavoidable. She never had whatever this was, the excitement of seeing one's boyfriend asleep at her bedside, exhausted from worrying. It was a good feeling to experience, a good feeling to have.
Akiye poked the top of his head. He did not stir.
"Renji," she croaked, patting his arm. "Renji."
Renji jerked out of slumber, startled. His back hit the chair and he found Akiye's amused stare.
"You're awake? How are you?"
"Alive," she said quickly, "obviously."
He grinned. "Obviously."
A laugh escaped him; a nervous ring clung to it, a spark of relief. "I found you bleeding to death in Naoto's room," he said, breathless.
"Poor Naoto." She tried to laugh, but winced in the process. The sharp pain silenced her instantly. He noticed and unconsciously placed a hand atop her lightly bandaged arm. "How stupid do I look? On a scale of one through ten?"
"You don't look stupid," he answered. "It just looks like it hurt."
"And it did," she replied sardonically.
They stared at one another in complete silence before he spoke once more.
"How did it happen?"
While trying to remember, Akiye only saw a film of consistent darkness and beyond that, the large monitor screen as it reflected in her eyes. She remembered looking over her shoulder in search of Kaito and found emptiness. She recalled the panic rising in the pit of her stomach, wiring in her brain until she was blinded by it and running became her only option. The rest was shrouded in a thick stretch of black.
Carefully, she lifted her index finger and pointed it to her head. "Blow to the noggin. Not much to remember."
"Are you sure?"
"Definitely." She closed her eyes, breathing deeply. "It's good to have some rest, at least until this heals."
A question brewed behind his eyes, one he was unable to ask. She wondered what it may be, but opted for silence.
A knock at the door disrupted their silence. The door slid open to reveal her eldest brother, standing before her a complete stranger with purplish bruises and a bandage wrapped around his neck. He rested a palm on Renji's shoulder. "I can take it from here."
Renji rose to his feet, squeezing her hand once before leaving the room.
Naoto waited until the door closed behind Renji to run a hand over her hair, pushing back the strands on her forehead, and placed a kiss there. He seated himself on the chair, taking his zanpakutō from his sash and slipping it underneath. He looked terribly grim.
"Did something happen?" she asked carefully.
"As your brother, I should have been entitled to know about Hotaka," he started, observing her eyes going wide. "I know what he did to you and understand why you saved me that day, why you were so willing to kill for a practical stranger."
Unconsciously, a veil of water blurred her vision. She knew that she wanted to stop him from talking, from ever mentioning that piece of the past. She wanted to tape his mouth shut, but also knew she couldn't do anything about it.
Naoto took her wounded hand firmly and she clenched it, biting down on her lip to prevent the warm tears from rolling down her face. All pent up emotion threatened to spill.
"You did something wonderful, Akiye," he continued, voice unfaltering, "and you have been so strong for everyone in this family, but you are just as wounded as we are. No one has killed the monsters that chase you in nightmares. Nobody has saved you from them, and you're still running."
The first droplet rolled off the bridge of her nose and straight into the mattress. She tasted blood as her teeth sunk into her lip, helpless. Her eyes were wide as she listened to every word, not missing a detail. Remembering the first memories thrust into oblivion the second she awakened her shikai's ability, only the ones depicting pain, the ones meant to crush her beneath their force, the ones that wanted to leave her a heap in the ground after Hotaka broke what little resolve she had to pieces. He robbed her of the childhood Naoto and Tokiwa wished to spare her, not knowing she lived and survived it.
But he knew. Naoto knew everything.
This was never supposed to happen. She sobbed, shaking, body throbbing with pain. This was the weakness no one had ever seen, the one Suisen begged her to remember because it would make her stronger. The one she knew pushed her closer to the brink of insanity. The reason Hotaka had power over her, the reason for every mistake she made in life, the reason she didn't know any better.
"I need you to stop punishing yourself," he said, dropping his voice. "You are not your mother. You remember her, don't you? You never erased her from your memory, right?"
She tightened her grip around his hand, croaking, "Never."
Images of a pale-skinned woman with jet-black hair worn in a tangle of curls, decorated in beautiful trinkets with a powerful smile holding a child in her arms. Caressing her face, tickling her sides, eliciting laughs she no longer recognized, this woman—her mother—was that piece of the past she could never forget. She encouraged everything she did, accompanied her in her treks outside the red-light district to explore the spookiest of places. Then, she watched her die. Watched a cloud of darkness seep in through the walls and take her, a bandit slit her throat. The blood flowed from the open wound; guttural sounds reached her ears from her box underneath the floorboards.
It sounded like she wanted to call her name. Her blood dripped onto her face, slid down her cheeks like tears.
"What was her name again?" he whispered, leaning forward, misty eyed. The expression on his face said he already knew the answer to everything he finished asking, but he wanted her to say them because it meant acknowledging it.
She choked back sobs, shuddering violently, heart pounding in her ears. Everything forgotten came whizzing back into her mind, memories of what the misery and helplessness forced every drop of liquid from her eyes. Every moment she spent masquerading as Iko, every time she stared in the mirror, every second she renounced her body to a customer for her make believe sake of having money, screamed back at her—a complete lie, a call for help.
She was punishing herself for things that weren't her fault.
Naoto hesitated. "Don't hide things from me," he whispered. "I would do anything for you."
If she could hug him, she would, but she remained stricken with pain. She nodded, sniffling.
"I would die for you," he continued. "If you asked me, I will go back into Rukongai and hunt Hotaka down and kill him. You only have to say it."
She wanted to tell him not to, worried that he might fall prey to his skilled sword, but she swallowed hard. She nodded repeatedly. Her lungs constricted, her nose felt stuffy, her throat raw.
Naoto inched closer to the edge of his chair, wiping the tears with his thumb and kissing her forehead. He stared at her, hating himself for the words he was about to say. He waited in silence, waiting for her sobs to subside as the tears continued to spill from her eyes. He wanted to be interrupted, wished something would break somewhere, or that someone would tell him he had a mission pending—anything, just so he wouldn't have to break her heart all over again. But he said what needed to be said, what he confirmed through fighting Hotaka and the object that fed his rage that nearly killed him. Hotaka's elusive nature set him free, but he swore to hunt him down.
Akiye read his troubled expression. She forced the emotion down her throat. His face told her she needed to be strong once more, so she took large gulps of air. It stung in her lungs and rippled through the rest of her body, her body screaming in pain.
"What else is there?" she asked quietly, voice tearful and strained.
Naoto met her gaze, kept it. "You received a blow to the head, the wound should have normally caused damage," he said as professionally as he could. "It made perfect sense that you were tested for any damage and…"
She took another deep breath, turning her face away from him. "They found out."
"Yes," he said slowly. "I spoke to Captain Unohana before coming."
The thump in her chest slowed, dread mixed into her bloodstream, paralyzing her. She simply waited to hear what she already knew.
"You are no longer fit to serve the Gotei 13," he said painfully. "You are being forced to retire."
His last words echoed with finality.
That was that. It was over.
Akiye stared into the ceiling.
She remembered this emptiness. She felt it once before. It was painless but effective.
Dead to the world.
xl: I'm officially out of chapters. And I say this as if there were ten when it was only three.
I'll be going missing for a while as my laptop is going into repair and as fabulous as 3-year-guarantee is, the store always takes forever to return it. The last time I forked it over for repairs, it took well over two months before I had it returned. I also need a new AC Adapter, which sucks. Anyhow, ignore my complaints and thank you for reading.
Many thanks to the Guest reviewer for putting a smile on my face. :P
It's midnight, so it is Saturday.